I lost my voice for a few days recently. I found it frustrating, not being able to express myself freely, not being heard, resorting to writing notes to be understood. Growing up in a large family, I learned to talk loudly, but that some things must not be spoken about at all, either inside or outside the home. There were elephants all over the house, not just in one room, but they must be ignored, drowned out by noise.
My mother could not bear the thoughts in her head, so she masked them with radio and television, all day long. The radio in the kitchen always seemed slightly off station and too loud, the companion to cooking and cleaning. The television was on from lunchtime onwards – Pebble Mill at One, Crown Court, Good Afternoon with Mavis Nicholson. I watched them, too, when I came home for lunch, watched them with Mum, or on my own if she was out. The radio was on again when Mum prepared the dinner, then back to the screen: Crossroads, Emmerdale Farm, Coronation Street, right through to end of programmes, in the days before twenty-four hour TV. Mum would fall asleep to whatever she was watching, but if one of her children dared to switch channel, she would suddenly wake. ‘I was watching, that,’ she’d say. ‘Turn it back,’ as she was in charge of our viewing, declaring any programme she didn’t like: ‘Rubbish,’ or ‘Pure rubbish.’
I, too, used to have noise wherever I was, radios throughout the house switched on whenever I entered the room, even if for a few minutes. Perhaps I wanted to drown out my thoughts, too. Having grown up with doing homework in the corner of a room where television was blaring, people talking or arguing, I had to get used to it. There was no private space, no study space, in a small house with seven people living in it. No silence. I was reminded of this when I was sent a photo of the doorstep of my late brother’s house, after someone kindly laid flowers on my behalf on the anniversary of his death. The steps and the two low walls that flank it have been painted black, but the once-glossy red of the bricks was showing through; the colour of those steps when I lived in that house from the age of four to when I left home, a week after my nineteenth birthday.
I took my O-Levels in the hot summer of 1976, and spent many hours revising on those front steps, early in the day. Dad would get up early for work, and put the radio on as he made his sandwiches and drank his tea. The radio was loud, but it didn’t wake anyone but me. I would lie in bed until I heard Uncle Bill’s van pull up outside and the front door close as Dad left. Then up with my books to sit on the front doorstep in the relative cool of the morning, the house quiet, making notes on notes, condensing my learning into one paragraph that would trigger an entire essay in the exams. It was the only time I spent in silence while I lived in that house.
This month marks sixty years since my family of birth moved into that house, and it is just over a year since the last McCarthy to live in it left this world. The house has been silent for a year, just the ghosts of all of us humans that lived in it pass through; the spirits of the dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, white mice, hamsters and goldfish, too. Scenes and memories pass through my head unbidden. The last time I visited, it was all too much to bear. I said I would not go again, and handed back the keys; the only time I had ever held keys to that house. There was no need when I was young, when there was always someone home, when the back door was left unlocked. I now find I want to visit again, to sit on those steps, to remember some of the good times as well as the bad, to bring things to a close, but my requests are met with silence, as if I have no place, having left, having broken silence on some things that others would rather remain unspoken.
I can no longer cope with noise all the time. I cannot read and listen to the radio, I cannot write while the television is on, I cannot concentrate when there are voices around me. Silence is my friend these days, even though it lets the thoughts in that I would rather not entertain.
My ten year old granddaughter tells us her news from the back seat of the car. She’s seen something new, and it’s the best thing she’s ever seen. Doctor Who, the first episode of the first series, she tells us. William Hartnell, I think, wondering what she makes of television from 1963; but no, she means Christopher Eccleston, the ninth Doctor. It reminds of when she discovered Beatbugs, an animated series on Netflix, featuring music by the Fab Four. ‘Grandma, I’ve found out about a band called The Beatles,’ she said. ‘I think you’d like them.’
Yarnbombing of Medway Art Box by Unravel and Unwind
Sixty years of Doctor Who hardly seems possible, spanning several generations – and regenerations – and sparking many memories. I was four years old when the first Doctor arrived on our screens, the black and white sets liable to slip on the ‘vertical hold’, or to go fuzzy. I don’t really remember the William Hartnell era, but have a strong memory of Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor, and his companions, Jamie and Zoe. Not of any episodes, but of a children’s Christmas party. I couldn’t place how old I was when I went, but as the granddaughter once said, ‘If you’ve got a Google you can look it up,’ so I discovered that I would have been around my granddaughter’s age, perhaps a little younger.
My memory starts on a dark evening, walking along a path along by a field with my family, then entering a large hall. The party was already in swing. The hall was dark and there was a magician on the stage. When the lights went up, we were invited to queue up to go into the grotto. There was no Father Christmas to give out presents. Instead, we entered the Tardis. There were real Daleks to walk past, then the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe. Yes, the real Doctor, Patrick Troughton, standing a little way back behind a rope. I was upset, as my brother John had flu and couldn’t come to the party, so I as Jamie (Frazer Hines) handed me a wrapped gift, I told him that John was ill, and asked if I could take a present for him, too. Jamie gave me a second wrapped parcel to take home. My gift was a Lady Penelope plasticine set, with moulds to make the Fab1 car, Parker and Lady P, from Thunderbirds. I don’t remember what John’s gift was, and when I asked him a couple of years ago, neither could he.
I couldn’t work out why we were invited to meet the Doctor; the only other Christmas parties I can remember were at my dad’s working men’s club. John told me that it was Alistair and Beryl that arranged it – near neighbours of our family when we lived in the prefab where I was born, and where seven of us lived when were finally allocated a council house. I knew that they had an adopted daughter, Penny, and that they fostered other children, and that they lived in their ‘own house’ on a road that ran at right angles to ours. What I didn’t know was that Alistair worked for the Post Office, and that these annual Christmas parties were for Post Office workers’ children, and that they could invite other families that were ‘in need’. I think my mum would have mortified if she’d known about the ‘in need’ bit, but we probably were. It was John that told me about Alistair arranging for us to go, and a couple of friends who enlightened me about the invitations extended to ‘in need’ children. It’s amazing about these revelations, so many decades on.
I have many other memories about Doctor Who – like the long, multi-coloured knitted scarf I wore in my teens, like Tom Baker’s (the fourth Doctor). It wrapped loosely round my neck three times, and still hung down to my knees. One time, three of us from school wrapped it round each of our necks and walked from school to work in Woolworth’s, the sole runners in a three-necked race. Then there was the wooden Tardis that my father-in-law made for my daughters, with a clear plastic tub poked through a hole in the top, and a torch inside to let the light shine through. Also, my sister-in-law writing a Doctor Who screenplay for her grandsons to perform and video one Christmas. They declared that it was ‘Certificate 30’, so we were all old enough to watch it.
I shall be watching the new series, as I have with recent ones, but I must admit to finding them harder to follow than I used to. So many special effects, so much running around … perhaps I preferred the sets of disused quarries, the slightly slower moving scripts.
Today marks a year since I last saw my big brother John. He died just over a month afterwards. I miss having him fill in the gaps, like telling me how we came to be invited to meet the Doctor. Perhaps he would have remembered Alistair and Beryl’s surname – I’d love the see if there’s anything I could find about them online. Perhaps I could find their daughter, Penny, ask if she remembers us, and what present she received from the Doctor at that party.
I was at the dentist a few weeks ago, the last painful procedure in a series of appointments that had begun 10 months previously. I heard the words ‘blade’ and ‘spanner’ pass between the dentist and the nurse, as once again they rummaged in my mouth, this time to fit the actual tooth into the implant that had been placed a few weeks before. I tried to imagine I was somewhere else, and the words of the song, ‘I wanna dance with somebody’ ran through my head, over and over.
The nurse stepped away, to the back of the room, and in her place was my brother John, just behind me and to the left. Now, this would have been unusual in itself; it was even more so, as John had died 7 months before.
Pete the Temp, Medway River Lit Festival
I used to be sceptical about such experiences, and I would once have explained them as tricks of the mind, but now I am not so sure. This wasn’t the first time that John had come to me since he died. The first was a few months before. I was in the kitchen at home, having cleared the dishes from the dinner table. I had just made a decision and taken action on a matter that had been troubling me for some time. Suddenly, there was John, behind my left shoulder, just at the edge of my vision. ‘Well done, Maria,’ he said. ‘You’ve done the right thing.’
Both were quite banal settings for John to make his presence felt – and it was a sense of his presence rather than a physical manifestation. I suppose I’d imagined that, if I were to have such an experience, it would come with celestial light and a choir of beautiful voices. Not in a dentist surgery or amongst the dirty dishes. Each time, I found the experience comforting. But, after that time at the dentist, I felt that he’d visited me for the last time.
I was asked recently about transcendent experiences. Spiritual, out of the ordinary, where I’d felt transported to a different state. I couldn’t think of a reply at the time. Brought up Catholic, I never truly felt spiritually raised in church, or within that faith. It was too bound by duty and rituals, by being told what to believe, by being sent to church long after I believed, until I finally refused to attend Sunday Mass. I did, though, experience a kind of transcendence singing with others in the children’s choir, and several times when I attended the sung Latin mass. There was the mystery of the words that I only understood in relation to the spoken English versions of the Credo and Agnus Dei, the musicality, the congregation singing along to the priest’s lead, acapella. It was the only service that I became lost in.
I think my transcendent experiences have all been around music. I was once taken by my choir mistress, Mrs Field, and her daughter Rosemary, to Brompton Oratory to hear the choir. I can’t recall what they sang, only remember that high roof resounding with seemingly heavenly voices, a beautiful feeling coming over me. And then going for lunch at The Golden Egg opposite the church. Mrs Field took me along to other musical events – piano recitals and the like – but they did little for me. My next experiences of transcendence were to be around rock music, being with others that were as into it as I was, losing myself in a kind of free-form dance. Now, I’d been into dancing for a long time before this, being a disco girl before I became a rock fan. I found ‘freaking out’ and shaking my long hair – head-banging – made me far happier.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, only that in writing this blog post I am reaching after something. Something outside of ordinary experience. Since John died, I feel more open to new things, trying to get out of fixed ways of being and fixed beliefs. Perhaps the rigidity of Catholic doctrine was replaced by other kinds of rigidity: I only read those kind of books, or listened to that kind of music. Also, a denial of the unexplained, of others’ beliefs and spiritual experiences. For heavens sake, I’ve even been open to the idea of God in recent months! Me, with my reputation.
I took very few things from John’s house after he died. Half a dozen books, which I have been reading, and a wallet of CDs, which he used to play in the car when he was a taxi driver. Some were of music I liked, bands that he introduced me to, like The Who. Others were from his rave years – dance music, which I just can’t get into. I was well into motherhood during John’s rave years; it was ‘The wheels on the bus’ and early nights for me. At the time, and as I tried to listen to John’s CDs after his death, I really couldn’t see the attraction.
A couple of months ago, I went to an event that was outside of my comfort zone. A poet/singer/musician known as Pete the Temp was performing, along with a harpist and synth player. As it began, I felt that this was not for me, that we would all be drawn into some kind of cult, taken off to a house in the country and made to wear robes, As the evening progressed, I got more and more into it, and had one of those transcendent experiences during what I can only describe as a rap in Latin with the sun setting over the river Medway outside the window. If a cult was involved, I was all in, robes and all. Perhaps this is what John felt, dancing at raves, a sense of losing himself, forgetting all his worries for a while.
I do think that John has visited for the last time, but that his music and his books are a legacy where I might discover more about him, and lay myself open to new experiences, new beliefs. Posting this, which I might once have kept to myself, is a part of the process.
I was 20,000 words into writing a memoir. It was a year since my mother had died, and the work was about my relationship with her; best described as difficult. Early in the process, I decided that I would only write about my relationships with the dead, with the living as incidental characters. The work was developing into a possible book about grief. Disenfranchised grief, to be precise; a phrase only recently learned from a writer friend, Victoria Field, when we met for coffee to talk about her published memoir, Baggage: a Book of Leavings, and my work-in-progress. It’s a complicated kind of grief, when you have been estranged from the deceased. You may feel, and others might feel, that you have no right to grieve. But the loss of a parent, no matter how difficult the relationship, is a big hit.
Another unresolved grief came up for me as I was writing. A close friend had died by taking her own life some 35 years before, the same week as my second daughter was born. I hadn’t grieved for Julie, the friend, at the time (the reason being closely tied to my mother, who had decided for me that I should not go to Julie’s funeral). I was pleased by the way in which the memoir was developing, and it was helping me through two complicated experiences of grief at the same time. But there was a snag, a fear. How would the living react to my work? Specifically my four siblings.
I spoke to several memoir writers I know about family reactions to their published work; the first being Victoria Field. I asked if anyone had objected to the memoir. She told me that a relative had said she didn’t want to read the book, as it might upset her. That was it really. The main figure in Baggage, Victoria’s ex-husband, had not raised any objections. She had disguised his identity, but not sought his permission. I wasn’t so sure about my own family’s reactions. I had included siblings in the work – as the middle of five children, I could hardly pretend I was an only child. Family dynamics played a part in the relationship I had with my mother. I had been sensitive, and had not used any names, but the terms ‘older brother’ or ‘younger sister’ were jarring.
I spoke to John O’Donoghue, the award-winning memoirist, author of Sectioned: A Life Interrupted. As an only child whose parents died when he was young, John had no experience of having to consider siblings as he wrote. He suggested writing to each of mine, telling them what I was working on, and asking their permission to use their names, or pseudonyms, if they preferred. He also said that I could offer to send them a section of my writing. My younger brother was fine with his name being used. ‘Anything that helps,’ he said. So far, so good. My sisters’ replies were identical. They did not wish to have their names used, or to be written about at all. They did not want to read anything I had written. One sister added that she found my writing ‘triggering’.
OK, not a dealbreaker, but a setback. Then John, my older brother, phoned me in a state. He told me that he hadn’t been able to leave the house, that he was suffering from anxiety since he heard from me, and that if I were to publish this work, he would have to move to another town, as he couldn’t face seeing anyone he knew. We had two long phone calls that day, and though I assured him that I had not let slip anyone else’s secrets, only my own, he was implacable. He did calm down to an extent, said that maybe I could publish it anonymously, once he better understood what I was about. We spoke a lot about grief, about Julie’s death as well as our mother’s. He shared that he, too, had lost a friend recently. However, seeing how distressed he was, I told him that I would discontinue work on the memoir. All was well between us once again.
The trouble was that I could not write for a year afterwards. John O’Donoghue advised that dark stories have a way of finding light, and that this would not be the last of it for me. But, he said, you can’t write with someone looking over your shoulder, and that’s how it felt every time I sat to write. What would John think? What would my other siblings think?
The second memoir I started was a year or so later. It was my story to tell, no-one else’s. I wrote with some fear, but not about what my siblings might think. The book-length work reached its first full draft within 3 months. It was about a police investigation after I reported a case of historical grooming and sexual assault – rape – by an older boyfriend I had when I was 15 and 16. The investigation was thorough on the part of the police, and the perpetrator was interviewed twice in connection with the offences. As I had predicted, they could go no further due to lack of evidence, but the man (whom I shall call Adam) was brought to account and faced with what he had done to me. It was a story that would help other women and girls, and the writing of it helped me process my experiences.
Only my younger brother knew that I was writing it; I didn’t tell my other siblings. I didn’t need their permission, nor did I need another reaction from John, my older brother. My suspicion was that he would be more concerned with what other people would think than I was. The book reached its third draft, after some feedback from John O’Donoghue, then I hit a snag. In my research, I found a photo on the internet of another man that had sexually assaulted me on a long train journey when I was 13. I couldn’t remember his name; only that he was in an Irish showband, and the name of the band. There was the face I had never forgotten; an obituary in connection with his musical career. Thank God the bastard was dead, but how many other young girls did he assault? I now knew the true meaning of being triggered.
That was 6 months ago. The work has been put aside, filed away, the various drafts in ring binders marked ‘Chalk Lane’ the working title of my memoir. Dark stories have a way of finding light… will I return to it, face my demons? Try for a publisher and get it out in the world? If I do, I will not fear the reactions of my siblings. John, my dear older brother, died a few months ago. I no longer need to worry about him. As for my other siblings, this is my story, and my choice to write it and let others read it. Like Victoria’s relative, they can choose not to read it.
Some other memoirs I would recommend: The Missing List, by Clare Best; First in the World Somewhere, by Penny Pepper; My Name is Why, by Lemn Sissay; To Throw Away Unopened, by Viv Albertine; Patricia Debney’s blog, which excerpts her as yet unpublished memoir, Learning to Survive; and my all time favourite, An Angel at my Table, by Janet Frame.
“The last time I saw John was at my daughter Laura’s 40th celebration, a lunch out at the end of November. Seated at either end of a long table, I went to talk to John between courses. He told me a story from our childhood that I hadn’t heard before. It involved the fire brigade being called out on Christmas Day, the first year that we moved to the house in Ebbisham Road. I had no memory of it. ‘You would have been too young to remember,’ John said. As the oldest of us, John held many stories that only he knew, many that will remain untold. I am glad that I heard just one of them, the last time I saw my big brother John.”
John at his 21st party, 1976
The passage above is from ‘One of Five’, a tribute to my brother John, which I read at his funeral last week. A life is made up of stories. Some of them die with a person, untold. Others are told repeatedly, like the story of when our father brought Belfast home for Christmas dinner … a man who lived in a shack in the woods and who drank at Dad’s local. Our mum gave Belfast (and Dad) short shrift, and the poor man, who already had a Christmas dinner lined up at the White Horse, ended up with no dinner at all. John retold that story, too, the last time I saw him, as well as the new one I hadn’t heard before.
The celebrant leading the funeral asked John’s four siblings to contribute stories to allow her to compose a eulogy, ‘The Story of John’. We each added them to a shared document, filling in the gaps that one couldn’t remember, correcting details that another had misremembered. Or had they? Listening to ‘The Story of John’ at the funeral, something didn’t seem right to me. The celebrant said that John had left England to go travelling at the age of twenty, after completing an apprenticeship as a tool maker, This puzzled me, as I have a photo of John at his 21st birthday party, held in the garden of the house he still lived in with me and my family, in the hot summer of 1976. I also remembered that he was living at home when I left to study at Thames Poly. He was 23 then. He had, though, left for a while to live in a shared flat, taking my records with him. Much to my annoyance. We fell out over that, never having had a cross word between us before. The records were returned; peace was declared. As soon as I bought my own record player, with my first grant cheque, the records moved out of the home we had shared and moved into my room in the Halls of Residence.
How can I piece together John’s timeline, and get the details of his story straight?
At John’s wake, old stories were retold, new ones emerged. A tale from a cousin of how his brother helped John cover up a love bite by hitting him with a piece of scaffolding, turning the offending mark into a more acceptable injury. That was new to me. The same cousin and I shared the well known story of how John used to hide his Doc Martens under a hedge in a nearby alleyway, changing out of his ‘respectable’ shoes into them after leaving home, as our mother didn’t approve of his ‘bovver boots’. An old friend of John, who seemed to have hardly aged at all since I last saw him in the late ’70s, shared that he and John had worked together in Jersey. I knew that John had lived out there, but hadn’t been aware that Glenn had been there with him. Jersey is where he met Angela, the girl who was to become his fiancée, though they didn’t marry in the end. Angela was at the funeral, as was another of John’s exes. A third ex was to find me, through this website, in the days following the funeral, and between us we pieced together John’s timeline, the story of John.
I was indeed right: John had not gone travelling until his twenty-fourth year. I discovered that he left for Jersey after an unseasonal snowfall in England. He had been fed up for a while, and when it snowed at Easter, he left almost immediately, to join his friend Glenn. Google supplied the year: 1979. John was 23 then, going on 24.
John’s middle years were unhappily fuelled by alcohol. I saw little of him, with him being abroad for a few years – in Jersey, on kibbutz in Israel, in Holland, and for a year or two he lived with Angela in Australia. She tells me that they returned in 1984. By then, I was pregnant with my second child. Our lives had grown apart, and then I found it hard to be around him, when he was drinking so much. Sometimes, when I visited my childhood home, John was there, where he had returned to live after his travelling days were over. Other times, he was not. One time, I travelled to see him, knowing that he had been going through a bad patch. When I arrived, he had decided instead to go shopping for some new clothes. I felt let down, angry. Another time, he failed to turn up, having promised to take my children swimming so as to give me a break on Mothers’ Day. I ended up in the pool with my kids and my nephew, full of resentment.
John and I didn’t see one another for a few years; we reunited after John got sober. I think of John’s last twenty years as his third act. He was a different man without the booze: loving and kind, though plagued with lifelong anxiety, which he managed by working hard, keeping busy outside of work, and walking his beloved dog Rupert for hours and hours on Epsom Common. Although past retirement age, John continued working – to pay for Rupert’s vet bills, he said, but also because he wouldn’t have known what to do if he were to stop working. Rupert died last summer, John six months after him, taking some stories with him, untold.
I think I’ll be piecing together John’s stories for some years. I almost wish for a re-run of his wake, on an annual basis, so as to gather new stories. A life is made up of stories, and I don’t know half of John’s.
I was raised Catholic, as was my best friend Karan. I loved the rituals of a Catholic service, the ‘smells and bells’, and the sung Latin Mass. I knew the meaning of the words long before I learned Latin, translations from the English prayers that we chanted each Sunday and at primary school on a daily basis. The chanting meant that we didn’t appreciate the meaning of the prayers, and this was highlighted for me once, when I went to Mass in Ireland, and the service was garbled by the priest and congregation in double-quick time. It felt like everyone had done their duty, and could then get on with cooking the Sunday lunch or whatever.
In my teens, I started to skip church, choosing to spend an hour with my boyfriend instead. Until I was discovered passionately kissing my boyfriend goodbye at a bus stop. Caught by my father, he said nothing at the time, or at any other time. It was passed to my mother to deal with the embarrassing incident. ‘Snogging’ was the word she used, with a facial expression of disdain, so that I have associated the word with ‘a bad thing’ ever since. So back to church I went. When I reached 15 and had a different boyfriend, I was not allowed to see him on a Sunday unless I had gone to Mass and eaten a roast dinner at home first. Mass meant nothing to me by then, and hadn’t done for some years, and when I turned 16, I stopped going to church.
What I have held onto, though, is the ritual of lighting a candle, either in a church, a cathedral, or at home, and ‘praying’, in my own way, for friends and relatives who I feel need positive thoughts. I have other rituals, too, of my own making. Whether these help the person concerned or myself I don’t know. Perhaps they are something I perform for my own benefit. I do feel that rituals and ways of marking change are important.
My mother died two years ago. We had been estranged for many years, and I did not feel I wanted or needed to go to her funeral. To put it plainly, the thought of doing so filled me with great anxiety. I knew that I would only be going to put on a show, to please those who thought I should be there. Grief is hard for everyone, but it is a strange thing when you have been estranged. I discovered that there has been some research on ‘disenfranchised grief’, where it feels, or other people feel, that you have no right to be bereaved. This can happen when an ex-spouse dies, for example. I did feel alone in my grief, and different from my siblings who had remained in touch with our very difficult mother, and indeed cared for her in her later years. I decided to hold my own wake for Mum. A few friends attended, I read something I had written about my mum, others read poems and sang songs. There was food and drink. Although none of these people knew my mum (except my husband, who had met her briefly), it was tremendously supportive, and I did feel that I had made my own ritual to mark Mum’s death. I also lit a candle while her funeral service was happening, when I was at home.
Karan, my best friend from my childhood years, died this week. It had been expected for the past 10 months, but is nevertheless a huge blow. During her treatment for a brain tumour, I sent her a Dog of the Week every Saturday. Karan loved dogs, and it was a way of keeping things light, but letting her know that I was thinking of her. The rules I made were that each dog must be able to fit in an envelope and must be posted on a Saturday morning. Each week I searched for dogs in card and gift shops, or made my own – I made an origami dog, found a wooden key ring at a craft fair, and a small felt dog in a gift shop on Brownsea Island. In the cards I sent each week, I would make up a name for the dog and a little story about them, and repeat the same text every week at the bottom of the card: ‘Dog of the Week is brought to you, dear Karan, to cheer you on and cheer you up during treatment, by your old mate, Cookie.’ Cookie was a childhood nickname, which only Karan and my two brothers still used. Now there are only two people in this world that call me Cookie.
I sent the last Dog of the Week on a Friday rather than Saturday. Karan died 6 days before her 61st birthday, and I had already made a card with a patchwork dog on the cover. I decided to send it to her family, with a note. I shall miss the ritual of finding, making and naming dogs, of going to the postbox each Saturday to send them. I have been lighting candles at home for Karan all week. Soon, that ritual will end, too.