Sunday, June 5

Reformed From

The advice my dying nan gave me was for me to have fun, enjoy life, sleep with lots of women but to be safe. She would not be at the family gathering on account of the fact that she had died over a year ago, and since then I was fearful that the gatherings would occur less often. The matriarch was gone, gentle and elephant-skinned. Indeed the gatherings had lost a presence – subtle and inimitable, sitting softly in the corner – but they still happened. I made my way to my aunt’s sixtieth; the aunt who had looked after my nan in the final years; from daughter to mother, to mother to mother.
I caught the twelve-forty-eight out of Fenchurch St. on a day I could hardly purchase a cup of coffee. Soon enough a chorus of young people boarded until they filled the train, and coppers were pulling them out from between the doors. They were on their way to a music festival. The young women held bottles of rosé, with their legs out, all beautiful shapes and tenderly dimpled. The young men were well-mannered enough, too early in the day for fights, stinking of cheap perfume and holding foreign lager. I read a comic book and looked out of the window. They all alighted at my stop and, as I could not hail a cab, I decided to walk to my aunt’s, whereby I was stumbled upon by uncle and driven the rest of the way.
My cousin rode in the back. She pointed out a field she crossed to visit a boy she was dating in her younger days, and an occasion, on his watch, when she had fallen into some nettles. She shrieked at him until he cried.
He ended up joining the army after they broke up. She liked him because he looked like a Hollywood Actor.
I was in a strange mood. It was not my intention to be in a strange mood, because I loved the birthday’d aunt most dearly, but I could not help such things. In fact, she thought so fondly of me, that I was invited to her birthday party attended otherwise only by her brothers and sisters. Privileged, I was. I wondered what made me so special. I kissed her hello and she embraced me. I smiled the smile you save for people you have known your whole life, people who you could not imagine a world without, but for whom anything more than a smile might impose. She offered me a drink, although I had brought my own beer.
I was a trifle shaken up.
On my walk from the station, amongst all the frivolities and gayness of the festival folk, I heard a girl scream my name. To my side, in a small red car, was one of my cousins. She asked me what I was doing, and I told her. One of her friends said something to her and then took a photo of me—‘Don’t do that! He’s my cousin!’ I chuckled. She was on her way to the festival; she told me I couldn’t possibly walk to my aunt’s. I told her that I could. Then I looked at the driver’s seat; it was a woman I had not seen in years. I should say it was my uncle’s ex-wife. It was an aunt of mine. She was smiling at me. I smiled at her and said, very excited but unsure—‘O, hi, Denise!’
Since the divorce I had not seen her at all. After the divorce, she was dead. It was a swift cut, clean and not a drop of blood. ‘Can I still see your family?’ she had asked. ‘No,’ said my uncle. I was pageboy at their wedding. Until I was twenty-five, she was my aunt, and then she was dead, but still alive, yet elsewhere. I was reintroduced to her on a busy main road.
That had jarred me.
I went into the garden to think about things.
People turned up and said hello. Mostly I said hello to them; I was raised that I should say hello and kiss everyone. It would be that they were talking to someone when I gently went in, brushed their shoulder with the fingers on my left hand and said—‘Excuse me: All right, Jenny.’ ‘How’s it going, Chris?’
It is not possible to talk to all at my family gatherings, so many are there, but I endeavour to have a few good conversations with people (my favourites, perhaps, but those I am more comfortable with, those who understand my idiosyncrasies). I had just finished talking to an uncle about his trip around the United States, when I was getting another beer:
My cousin appeared in the doorway. She held out her arms to me and said my name—‘My favourite cousin!’ (‘I didn’t get such a greeting!’ said another.) She is so wonderful. She wrapped her arms around me. I dug my hug into the skin of her shoulders. We are quite different people but I love her a lot. It is okay to love people who are so very different from you.
During a moment of quietness I went over to her; she was sat on a chair, watching her children play with the others. The sun was fooling in the garden. A bouncy castle wobbled. Grass fragranced the air. There was music, faintly, and people talking all around.
‘How are you?’ I asked.
She answered as I had wished, understanding that it was a question of importance. She sat on the garden furniture, her dark skin shining bright & beautiful from underneath a white dress. One of the biggest characters I will ever meet.
‘Do you remember me, from when you were a kid?’ she asked me.
‘Yeah, I think so. My memory ain’t what it was, but I think I remember you.’
She reminisced some things with me, and I remembered them back to her—‘Ah, yes! Of course I remember that! You gave us all two-quid each to spend on the arcade, and then we went back to yours and ordered pizza!’ It seemed so petty, so trivial, so likely to get lost in the muddy water of youth, yet I remembered it solidly. ‘Course I remember that!’
I flattered her, unintentionally; so glad was she that I remembered how kindly she had treated me. I remembered much more but I did not wish to go on.
‘What you been up to?’
She told me. She had been busy with all her children – four – and was mostly occupied by them and their many activities. She was positive about everything. It was something very distant from me. She told me the usual things; things I would expect.
Then she said—‘And I gave a talk.’
‘O?’
‘Yeah, I gave a talk for women who are in rehab, dealing with addictions, stuff like that, and how God helped me get through it.’
‘Go on.’
She lowered her voice; this was something sacred—‘Well, I know you don’t believe in Him, or anything like that, but He’s really helped me.’ She almost sounded ashamed, but I did not want her to be; I had no problem with anything that promoted love. ‘I know what these women are going through and I was invited to give a talk, so I went for it.’
‘That’s brilliant.’
‘Yeah, it was! You don’t know this about me – not many people do – but I was a mess. I was addicted to alcohol and weed. I was using it as a means to escape problems that I had, until the Lord revealed himself to me. I was with the wrong crowd and I was messed up and God came to me and showed me the right path.’ She was an evangelical; believed in angels and so forth. God had changed her life. She met her husband through God. Everything good to her had happened through God.’ She paused to take her youngest son on her lap. She held the bottle of milk for him as he supped. As he drank he had his hand in her hair, stroking and playing. I watched his hand playing and stroking. His mother; never a finer being in his life; the source and the power; the beginning; the fountain of love. She fed him from the bottle and he played with her hair as his cheeks pulsed. He blinked.
‘I know you don’t believe in Him.’
I could hear her disappointment. When I had believed in Him, she hadn’t; when I turned away, she came. She was in love with a man called Jesus. I told her—‘When I was doing my confirmation, I asked one of our teachers—“How can I love some man I never met more than my own parents?” and he told me—“By loving your parents, you are loving God.” It made perfect sense to me.’
She nodded.
‘Afterwards a lot of the women came and thanked me. I really felt like I was making a difference, because I was talking from experience, and God showed me the way.’
(I remembered being on holiday, all of us, the whole family, in Spain. We were beside the pool and the sun was beating down, that Mediterranean sun, and I was in my jeans with my eyes closed, listening to music on my headphones. I took them out for a moment to hear her talking to my brother about stigmata. It was more than I could do to smile and put them back in, feeling the sun on my arms.)
‘I know you don’t believe in Him at all.’
I smiled, sipped my beer, started to roll a cigarette, as her child played with her hair most affectionately, warming my blood red.
‘Yeah, I don’t believe in the same things you do, but I remember this story my R.E. teacher told us. Maybe you know it. There’s this flood coming and this man gets on his roof—’*
She smiled—‘Yeah, I know it.’ I felt a kinship, her knowing the same story as I.
‘And he is waiting for God to help him?’
‘Yeah,’ she said, still smiling.
‘That story always stuck with me. Maybe that’s how I feel.’
Everything disappeared after that. Someone else came over, began talking about her child, the suckling babe. I made my excuses and went to get another beer.

*If anyone wants to know this story, I can give it in the comments.

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