UNPICKING THE PAST – by Edward Squires

The death of my mother when I was nine turned me into an anxious malcontent. Not solely that, you understand, there were other traumatic experiences to follow, but that was the main event which was the lens through which my life has since been lived.

It was a day that May had borrowed from June. I’m walking myself home from cubs and crossing a road thick with cars and lorries. A VC10 is on final approach to London Airport. The sun still has height and warmth but is on its way to bed, and I remember a smell of roses which is drawing in early bees. A train from Osterley Station is clanking its way through a tunnel under the road, tapping out its tuneless rhythm towards Waterloo. I hear the gathering growl of its magnetos as it picks up speed.

I duck in between the parallel bars of a roadside barrier and allow gravity to pull me to the bottom of an embankment, my legs and arms wind-milling alongside my head and body. It had been a good day at cubs. I cross from the grass to the tarmacked cul-de-sac at the bottom of the slope to where my two storey maisonette stands. There are very few cars parked, an Austin A40, a Ford Consul, neither of them belonging to us. Our maisonette sits underneath a neighbour’s and alongside identical twins in a horseshoe around the cul-de-sac . I slip my hand through the front door letter box and hook the string behind it. I pull it, and out tinks a Yale key. As I go in the entrance hall, I can hear angry voices. My mum and dad regularly rowed but I had grown accustomed to it. I thought all families had blazing rows, but today is different. There’s something about the intensity. Fear starts as a pinprick in my brain before mushrooming over its surface and down my spine. I feel it collect like lead in my legs. I step into the entrance hall to see my mum and dad, purple faced, yelling at one another, neither of them listening and neither of them hearing. Fingers are being used as swords into each other’s chest. My dad makes a break for the kitchen, shouting and gesturing as he goes, pursued by my mum. There, the fight continues, and I’m worried something dreadful’s going to happen. They haven’t seen me until I’m ordered to my room and the door slams behind me. The row then moves to the living room next door. The argument continues and vibrates pictures on my wall;

I feel an urge to run into the room and shout “Stop!” But I can’t. How these crucial actions spin on a single moment that can swing our fortunes; If I’d only embraced it, I wonder if things might have turned out any different, or was the eventual outcome inevitable, maybe not today, but tomorrow? It’s still a source of regret that I didn’t act.

The raised voices from the living room next door stops abruptly. Silence replaces them and goes on until it becomes deafening. Then I hear someone rushing in and out of the living room past my door. I dredge up enough courage to open my door and look out. I get a growing sense of unease at the frenetic activity, and no-one is telling me what’s going on or what it means.

My father silently leads me by the hand to be with a neighbour where I’m allowed to stay up and watch TV and have tea and biscuits. Still no-one’s telling me anything. I sleep the night with them, and my father collects me in the morning. He takes me into our living room, sits me down and tells me my mother is now “with Jesus”. The magnitude of what he says hits me like a truck. I panic and push myself free from his arms and run to our living room picture window. I stand there looking out, looking for my mother, imagining her coming home from work down the grassy embankment, and it dawns that I shall never see her again, ever.

I’m not taken to her funeral, a neighbour takes me to the park instead. There is a growing sense that my life is on a path on which I have no control. I see my father crying for the first time which scares me, his chest heaving in and out, his head heavy and rolling in his hands making sounds with his voice I’ve never heard him make before. He’s broken and it’s as if I’m losing him too.

My mother’s death breaks my heart. What’s left is a chasm, a black hole. Together with the assassination of President Kennedy, and the death of my first girlfriend in a car crash, it dawns on me that bad things DO happen to good people. I become convinced that calamity has me in its sights and I’ll be next.

In the days, weeks, years to come, no-one helps me release this sense of loss, no-one thinks about asking me how I’m coping. It’s assumed that with time I’ll get over it. . What choice do we have but get on with it? No-one speaks about their own grief either. I saw my father burning photographs one day, and managed to rescue a few of my mother.

My life then follows a path which sees me uprooted from my home and school and sent to live in a new city in the north where I don’t belong. I have a new school and new friends who don’t talk the way I do or think or behave the way I do. They seem to be feral. They seem to talk a foreign language. It only serves to compound my stress and disembowelling fear. When all gets too much, I go to my room and break down in tears. Each Sunday night the prospect of more school again the next morning fills me with dread.

However, you can get used to anything and I survive, unscathed, and there’s much that shines bright about my new life up north after my mother’s death, like my uncle and aunt who foster me through those first few years with love, patience and humour. They introduce me to unconditional love, suet puddings, milky coffees, cakes, canasta, church on Sundays, beetle drives, magic tricks and a mongrel called Bimbo. They get me through until I’m old enough to move south again where I belong.

My father becomes a different man and he takes more of an interest in me. Before, I hardly saw him, he was always working. We even have a car now which takes us on picnics, and I discover hills, mountains, rivers and heather covered moorland. We drive home listening to “Sing Something Simple with the Mike Sam Singers” on the car radio. The violent rows are no more, my uncle and aunt actually don’t argue, and the memories of those early years fade, but the darkness of my mother’s death still walks with me stride for stride.

We can’t unpick the past, and we can’t change what forms us into who we are, but we can understand it and forgive those who didn’t know any better, and I do, but there are times when I would give anything to have my mother back.

© Edward Squires