In Sunshine and in Shadow

At 50 I have outlived Dad by seven years and I am three years off doing the same for you.  Death has been rather a theme for me through my life. My first memories are of Dad dying, and my early childhood was dominated by mourning. His slippers under the bed gathering dust and dog hairs.  Death seemed everywhere to me as a kid.

And I am funeralled to the gills. The mini pork pies, the dry sarnies and drier faces and then those left in tears throughout. The funeral split – the casual observer and the ones whose lives are wreckage. You used to talk about the “Irish funeral party pack”. A group of miscellaneous Irish relatives who could appear at any Catholic funeral anywhere in Liverpool. They would drink your whiskey, never buy a round in the pub, but regale people with tales of Paddy or Mick or Barry in return for more whiskey. By 8pm one has begun Danny Boy. As the pipes call, more voices join, and the rooms sways and sings till the last verse. Then in respect the room falls silent but for one voice and the tearless remember their own sorrows.

I didn’t attend your entire funeral. I couldn’t. When I made that decision I heard you in my head, the morning of Grandad’s funeral just a year before. You told me funerals were for the living, not the dead and I owed no one other than Grandad my mourning. I could mourn as and when and how I liked. It was ok.

I go to the Church. Christ Church Eccleston. I think its the 7th of December. The nave is absolutely packed. I sit at the back. I don’t want to be with her – my sister – and I want to be able to get out if I need to. I am wearing an emerald green dress and green paisley patterned tights. I will never wear any of them again though I’ll keep them for years. People are staring at me – the neighbours, old family friends. A smile from someone who taught with you. When they carry your coffin down the aisle, a boy I went to school with is one of the undertakers. He looks at me. Moves as though he is going to wave or smile or something but doesn’t.

The service is awful. The vicar presents you as some kind of pillar of the church because briefly in the early 70s you’d run art classes at the youth club. I’m angry at the family at the front, angry that no one has come and sat with me. Angry I didn’t sit with them. Angry that they keep looking at me. I am angry you are dead.

I don’t go to the crematorium. I don’t want to see you burned. Don’t want to hear Hey Jude as the conveyor belt takes you away. I go back to Shaw street. Dave takes me – again in his mini – another dash to the tiny terraced house. He wants to go to your wake so he leaves me there alone. I say its ok. Everyone wants to be at your wake. By all accounts it is quite the occasion. I stay at the house. I would say “I sit and cry”. But I don’t. I stand and scream. Holding the shelves in the chimney breast in the front room for support, I feel the chipped formica under my finger tips and I scream until I can’t anymore. Then I sit and cry.

Later that afternoon Doug Batley turns up with a bottle of Jamesons. We make a fire because its freezing cold and drink a toast to you. And then another. But there is no relief. I do not sing Danny Boy. There will be no sunshine. Ever. I don’t believe you are dead. It isn’t possible. You are so big, so primary, so central in my life. It isn’t possible that I am here and you are not. But I saw you die. I heard you die. In the remembering each morning is a pain so big I am stretched to encompass it like skin over a sprain. My whole self pulled tight with salty grief, and everything of me swollen within it.

From then the days have no character. They just are. I am sure people come to see me, with their concern and their news. Lives moving on. Mine has stopped.

I go back to work sometime before Christmas. The day before Christmas Eve I carry decorations from the office round to Johns house at Shaw Street so we can have a tree there. It is a cold December and I slip on the ice and fall. Me and the decorations spilling out on the corner of Corporation street.

We raid every house in the terrace for wood to burn. That is how we keep the fire going. The whole row is condemned – due to be demolished in February – so each day we go in and take skirting boards, doors, banisters and finally the stairs out to burn. Number 41, 39, and 37 get us through to January. I become pretty good with an axe.

Christmas comes and I go to our house on Christmas afternoon. She is wearing your clothes again.  She has done me a stocking. She has sent me cards from The Waking up Goblin and the dog, just as you would. I find it unbearable. Offensive. She is trying to be good to me I know, but I am frozen. I cannot talk to her. I feel like she is trying to be you. Maybe she is. That is her comfort. But to me it feels like some terrible fraud. The shape and look of you cooking, but not you. She is doing what she can do. But I hate her for it. I stay for an hour and leave.

I am not lonely. I am outside loneliness. Between Christmas and New Year there is a gig up at the Turks Head near Lowe House. The Tractors are playing – I think perhaps also The Casio Viletones. I’d said I wouldn’t go, but then I do because I can’t stand the silence. But when I get there, no one will look me in the eye. No one will sit with me. I have no context for this. I feel like they hate me, are bored by my mourning, wondering why I have not moved on.  I can see now that they simply didn’t know what to say. There is nothing less giving in the face of death than youth.

I walk home alone, before the Tractors have even played. I get lost – taking the back route because I don’t want to be seen. About half way I’m grabbed by a man who gropes my arse and tries to kiss me. I’d thought he was ill in a doorway so paused, but he’s just another town drunk and he pounced. I push him off, but he follows me home shouting about my tits and telling me to “cheer up love”. I nearly walk back to the pub but if people didn’t like me sad they will like me less terrified and sad. I make it back breathless and crying, lock the door and sit alone again.

New Year comes and goes and all I can remember is reading Adrian Henri’s Talking After Christmas Blues – “there’ll be Autumn, Summer, Spring, and Winter all of them without you”. In January I have to move out of John’s house because its due to be pulled down. Also he has found a new girlfriend and the split with my sister – which was arrested by your death – becomes final. The only option for me is to move back to Barrowfield road – our family home. But that is full of Grace and Grace’s friends. I can’t, won’t go there.

I end up in a council flat allocated to my sister. With her blessing – because she wants me at our house as much as I want to be there – I sign for it and get the keys. I had asked if she couldn’t take it and let it to me, but she can’t. And no one has another answer. John and her both encourage me to move there. At least its somewhere to live.

It is. Its mine. I breathe out. I have some of our furniture. Grandad’s old moquette suite. My bed from my bedroom and a table. I have my stereo and my records. I live there for about 5 months without water or gas. I can’t get the utilities turned on because the flat isn’t in my name. I can’t cook or bathe there. I can’t wash anything. Electricity and heating are in with the flat and while I am working I keep the rent up. But when I lose my job in April, though  I can sign on from here, I can’t claim housing benefit. I have no way of paying the rent, the electricity goes off.

When I look back on it its clear that I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was doing. And why would I? I am by then just 19. A very young 19. I have no idea how to live in the real world. And I am paralysed still with grief.

Despite the vileness of the flat and the basic problems of living in what is essentially a squat, I try to bring myself round. Night after night I sit in the dark flat, playing my Leonard Cohen Greatest Hits album. Somewhere between the famous raincoat and Suzanne’s oranges I find a space for me. Cohen hears my grief and gives me context. Life is hard. Its bloody and bloody unfair. It hurts. But it is still life. A life in which you can be sad but you can still find something of your own, even if its is just words and music. Sat in Grandads armchair I began to see some possibilities. I begin to understand the sadness I have, will always have, can be lightened by my freedom to do as I choose.

I try to keep up with friends. They come and go. They care I’m sure, but I can’t feel it. I go to the usual gigs. Friday night in St Helens. Saturday night in Liverpool – the Casablanca, the Mardi, the Flying Picket. Surrounded by people I don’t know listening to fantastic music I feel alive. But at the end of it I have to return to St Helens. So I hang out. Get drunk. Have sex. Get pregnant and before I know it, have a miscarriage. Its both bizarre and nothing. I go to Barrowfield road for baths and one day something falls out of my body with a lot of blood. It lands on a copy of Cosmo. “Give him his best orgasm EVER!”

I don’t care. I know that everything is survivable and nothing really matters anymore. I take risks. I have parties – people I don’t know all over my flat. Its amazing how attractive grief makes me. Pale, skinny for once in my life, scarlet hair and dressed in black, I am become a goth magnet. Who knew goths could be so opportunistic?

In the end the council catch up with me. I come home one day to find an eviction notice pinned on the door. I go to their offices on Town Hall square and tell them what has happened and they tell me I have to leave the flat. They tell me it is fraud. In the circumstances they are very kind to me – though they offer me nowhere else to live but a hostel – the thought of which terrifies me. They give me extra time to get out. They tell me to go home. But there is no home.

This is where my luck finally comes in. My safety net. The teachers superannuation scheme pays out your tiny pension. Eight thousand pounds and some pennies. My only inheritance as it turns out as our house is lost to its joint owner – your ex husband, my stepfather. In 6 months he will begin proceedings for possession despite not having lived there for 4 years. The pension is split between my sister and me.

This is my chance. I know what I have to do. I empty the flat. Send Grandad’s suite to the tip. Pack up my records and my record player and leave. I get a house share in Liverpool. Down in the south by the river. Signing on at Park Street, I can cover the rent until I get a job. I am away from the sadness, away from the daily pain and fear. I am able to start something. My life.

It wasn’t plain sailing. But it was open water. I stayed in touch with very few people from St Helens. They had no relevance to my life now. When I did connect with them – at gigs in Liverpool mainly – we had nothing in common. The distance I’d seen in their eyes remained – and there was more still in mine. The past had nothing for me. There was only the future.

1 Comment

  1. Sara
    I can’t put into words how amazing I think your writing is. You write so eloquently about such obviously painful experiences, in such a way that you can feel and see what it might have been like for you. whatever you do don’t stop writing xx


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