Sunday, July 25, 2004


Into the poverty of a Saturday afternoon in Portsmouth. The train shudders to a stop. Uncle Richard is staring at the floor, waiting for me there on the platform. A cigarette lolls on his lip, dots of ash and smoke dropping off and drifting away. Up on the hill behind us, he lives with his wife, evil Auntie Anna who is dying.

"Not good, she's not good at all," he manages to say on the drive up. "But, pleased to see you though, that she will be," he stutters on. In goes a home-made mix-tape of soul classics. "Over the moon, over the moon." I ask him if Jeff or James have been down. "No." Got in contact? Richard shakes his head. And for the rest of the journey, he bites his lip shut so very tightly.

Flowers bloom, as organized as ever at the corners and the borders of the tidy lawn. Here orange, yellow marigolds, there blood red roses, and then the purple punk-heads of giant thistles. But the gloomy hallway is cluttered. Canisters of oxygen. Piles of out-of-date glossy TV magazines. A heap of supermarket bags, tied up, full with rubbish. "Had to let a few things slide," says Richard. As I edge passed it all and onto the lounge, the Darth Vader breathing noises grow louder. I stop myself from saying something stupid.

I go in. Odd that I can still remember Anna, glitter in her hair, dancing away in this room, Stevie Wonder singing from the stereo. Christmas day, fifteen years back, maybe twenty. All presents and crackers and feasting and music and fun. "Hello, Addy," she gasps, clasping a tube to her lips, a big white floppy cricket hat hanging over her scalp.

I'm sure she does not know that she was evil. That she does not think back to that one day when, out of the blue, bored of marriage to Tom, the boys getting more and more difficult, there at the end of her road, a man cruised up on a motorcycle. She does not think back to how, on a whim, she sauntered up to him, and asked Richard for a cigarette. Nor roaring out of town, a week later in the middle of the night, there on the back of his bike.

She knows that Jeff and James don't visit. But she does not know that my cousins - her sons - still call her wicked. Evil, for leaving them with Tom, Tom sipping his whiskey, Tom slumped silent on the sofa, night after night, year after year. Evil for not even leaving an address, a phone number. Nor does she know that she is a Grandmother, now. Or that we have all been told to keep such secrets.

She does know that she is cold. That it tires to breathe. That she wants a cigarette. Richard lights one for himself over on the sofa, having brought me a cup of tea. And for wisdom, she knows two things. "Life, youth - enjoy it while you can. Smoking, don't start." Amazing that she can conjure enough breath, just about, to say that to me. I can't think of how to reply, and turn to Richard, ask him how work at the Travel Agency is.

Perhaps James and Jeff see this dying from smoking as her punishment. That her flares of pleasure turned into a time-killing habit (mostly on breaks with other tellers), then blackened her lungs into ash. Perhaps. I've never asked. And why should I try and judge - try and reach back into that first home of hers, to the middle of a poor estate, with the 60s nearing their end, with rock and roll still like a new star, soaring across the night sky, burning away so very brightly; with her staying in each night with a quiet man, watching it all on TV, with noisy boys running about, with others elsewhere charting the path to the moon, with "All You Need Is Love" oozing from the radio, with her young and beautiful and unharmed, and with guys like Richard in black leather jackets turning up on street corners?