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Out Of The Box / The Faces

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I was sitting on a plane, flying from Milan to London. I had a migraine and was drinking gin with too much tonic. I was speed reading Herman Hesse, trying to take my mind off landing. While I contemplated a unified self of thousands, excited by the short lived possibilities, I absently played with my drink, tipping the transparent cup this way then that, letting the liquid travel the length of the plastic without spilling it. I thought about that thing, you know, is the cup half empty, or half full. Close mouthed I snorted, blew a laugh out of my nose. I’d have said, I`ve got a little bit left. When I got home George was dead. I stayed up drinking but then I don’t need an excuse. I played Beatles records all night. I don’t think they remind me of him, maybe it’s something to do with life goes on. “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da”. Maybe they remind me of him after all. He’d died unexpectedly and unannounced alone with the telly on (the telly was always on) in his council flat, in Jewel House, in Balham. At 87, he just stopped breathing, sometime between the helper at 9:15 and meals-on-wheels at 11:00. He’d eaten half of his sandwich but he hadn’t made a start on his tea.

When we were kids we’d have George over every Sunday. My younger sister, Lizzie,and me didn’t like him very much because he was dirty and smelly, like an old school fleabag you’d get pushed into in the dinner queue, with food down his faded blue-striped shirt and filth ground into his polyester blazer, but he was my Dad’s dad. While Dad went to pick him up we’d be warned, “Behave”, or worse we’d have to go along for the ride. Mum said George ate boiled fish heads for his supper, bought bags of them from the market. He’d come over for lunch. His scent of damp newspaper would cover the aroma of roasting potatoes. Lizzie`d get smacked at the table for laughing as gravy ran down his chin. If I asked him if he`d like a drink he’d always say, “Just a wee drop”. He never said, “Please” or “Thank you” to anybody and he treated my mum like a skivvy. He couldn’t remember our names. To George I was “Boy”. Sometimes, we’d take him to the coast, Hove or Brighton. He’d wear a brown Derby, its brim soaked with sweat. If he forgot the hat his baldhead would burn, be red, sore and scabbed. Packed into Dad’s blacktopped white Mini, he’d have to go in the front because we wouldn’t sit next to him. George would spend the day in a pub on his own while we braved the beach and the crazy golf.

The last time I saw George I was sixteen years old. He was sitting in a deck chair in our garden and he`d winked at me as he told me how he had deserted from the army. At his funeral I saw photos of George from both before and after the war and knew that something had happened to him during those four years of hiding from the M.P.s in a broom cupboard. Before, he had been dark, angular, a beautiful youth. Sharp creases in his shirt and suit, a flamboyant knot at his tie. After, he was unrecognizable, pale and flabby, with breasts. I stared at those photos, going from one to the other, and they could have been two different people. Only the eyes betrayed him but the glint had lost promise and turned mean.

I remember Jewel House. The cold concrete. The stairs were damp all year round and the flat always smelt like something was rotting in there, but it wasn’t the flat, it was the whole block. I’d sometimes eat my supper with them and Nanny Daisy would lay out the plates on a sheet of newsprint ‘cos it was cleaner than the kitchen table. Nanny Daisy was stick thin. She’d stand smoking in a mini skirt and a skimpy vest with a hippy flower on the front. She used to do the hatcheck in a nightclub, and had been in and out of prison a few times, which meant that my Dad had been in and out of care. I remember one Christmas Winston joined us, a big Jamaican guy, about twenty years my Nan`s junior. They were living there in Jewel House, the three of them then, Daisy & Winston, with George in the spare room. In front of sons and daughter, and grandchildren, Nanny Daisy had kissed Winston, put her tongue in his mouth. When George had asked, “Where’s mine?” She`d said, “You can fuck off”.

They remember Jewel House, the kids that grew up there, seven of them living in that three-bedroom council flat. Daisy, George, Daisy’s younger sister, Cathy, their eldest, Barbara, my Dad, and the twins, Geoffrey & Roger. They were moved there after they’d been bombed out and when it was new it was their palace. If you asked my Dad he`d go all misty-eyed.

Lizzie and me, we got to the church early and went for a sweet tea and toast in a workman’s café across the road. We’d have gone for the full English but neither of us had any appetite. The cafe reminded me of when I had that stint boiler-cleaning, when I was nineteen. I’d get picked up at 5 AM and the three of us, on the front seat of the van, perched up high, would look down on an empty West End. We’d reach the job, that more often than not was tearing out an old boiler rather than cleaning a new one, and we`d actually work hard, saying little, until 10. At 10 we would go for breakfast; eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, fried bread and banter would begin to stir. I still didn’t say much. If I did Jimmy the ex-con would start on me. Big fat “funny” cunt he was. Every one thought he was great, ignoring the fact that he’d been inside for stealing an old lady’s savings book. Even then I understood not to judge on evidence without circumstance, Jimmy had a family to provide for, by whatever means presented itself, but it did get a bit boring, him shouting at me every time I said anything. Paul was in charge. I`d lived on the same street as Paul. There had been a gang of around eight of us of a similar age running together. His younger brother, Wayne, would beat me up. Then Paul would beat Wayne up. We had the one contract, waterproofing and painting a huge water tank near Kings Cross. We kind of lived inside that tank for a month. Radio on, temporary lighting clamped to the side. We had to climb up and drop into the fucking thing. If some smart fellow were to remove the ladders you’d be stuck in there. Jimmy was always being clever, but he didn’t like it when it was done back to him. He`d freak right out. Bad memories perhaps. We’d be painting one end while electric heaters were on trying to dry the other for the next coat. Paul would wrap his arms around himself and grind at the air every time Cherelle’s “Saturday Love” came on the radio. “This is how I knocked out our Jason to this one.” We’d pack up at four and go and sell our scrap. It was the richest I’d ever been. I had my dole, then my wages, then the scrap money, which would be upwards of 40 quid each every day. After selling the scrap we’d go back to the yard, ditch the van, and then straight to the pub. The heat and the fumes we’d been breathing would make you thirsty and it would be at least three pints before you could wash out the thick chemical taste. The first pint would only loosen it so that the second pint really tasted like paint. I never got any good at pool, which kept Jimmy happy. That Tuesday morning, sharing breakfast with builders in last season`s designer garms distressed a la Jackson Pollock, and mortuary attendants in black suits and silver crucifix tiepins, the “glamour” of the calendars on the walls made me feel a little uncomfortable in the presence of my sister.

The service was at 11:30 but everyone was there by 11, waiting in the grey drizzle in early August. Me and Liz hadn’t met any of them since we were children, since mum left, since we’d each made our own escape from South London. Dad had warned us that Nanny Daisy was now a frail old lady, and it was true she’d shrunk but she was still sharp. She just wasn’t a dolly bird anymore. Daisy now lived with her cats in a block in Elephant & Castle. It had been fifteen years since she`d left George for the last time. Dad said it was a terrible place, The Elephant, but “On the other hand you couldn’t live with a horrible bastard like that”. Cathy turned up unexpectedly, sixty in a short, tight black dress and fuck-me-heels, with a peroxide bob and tits that’d take your eye out. She hadn’t seen me since the week of my birth. She’d never seen Lizzie. Dad whispered, “She’s been around the block, that one. She could tell some stories”. “Her old man’s in the building trade, a bit of a gangster. Him, your Uncle Geoff, and his mates used to think they were Al Capone. Trilby hats, full-length camel hair coats, dodgy motors”. Cathy had brought her son, Adam. She asked me, “What relation would Adam be to you?” I said, “Well, you’re my Great Aunt, maybe he’d be a cousin once removed”. Adam had studied Economics at university and wrote for the children’s section of The Guardian. He seemed a bit shocked by this new family and kept as quiet as possible, although Cathy kept trying to drag him into conversations. Barbara was there with her partner, David. She’d been the one with the brains. Barbara had worked hard at school, passed exams, become fluent in French. She’d married a French chap, moved to France, and had two sons. One of them, Peter was at the funeral with his sour-faced Trinidadian wife and his beautiful little girl. The other, Philip, was too busy opening his second restaurant in Pimlico. Barbara had divorced, come back to England, and got a job as a telephonist on the International exchange, where she’d met David, curly-haired and university-educated. Sometimes, when Mum was still at home, we`d visit Barbara & David, and post-dinner they`d take the piss out of Mum while they played Trivial Pursuit. Mum would cry on the drive back. David was holding an umbrella for George’s sisters, Dolly & Rose. One was blind, the other deaf. Together they recognised no one, not even Dad who regularly helped them with odd jobs. The twins, Roger and Geoff, were there but they weren’t speaking to each other. Mum had told me how, once, Dad had turned up for a date with two black eyes and when she’d asked him what had happened, he`d explained that his younger brothers had held him down and stolen his weekly pay-packet. As an adult, Roger had been forced to live with George because he couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. He always said he hated George and for the last five years had refused to speak to him, despite their impossibly close quarters. Sometimes, George would have to get the police to lock Roger up, to put him in the cells overnight. To let him calm down. The chipboard doors of Jewel House all bore holes from Roger`s fists and feet. The night before the funeral Roger`d had an argument with Dad. Dad said he was just looking for an excuse not to go. Roger was complaining that someone had nicked George’s telly, which was by rights his telly now and since Geoff had the only other key to the flat there was a good chance of a fight. Geoff had pulled up in his trademark, the vintage Rover, but he was wearing less gold and no camel hair coat. More than any of his siblings Geoff resembled George, always joking to himself, sort of jolly, but with hard eyes, like he knew more than you did. He worked the angles did Uncle Geoff. Geoff had two families. He’d spend the week with Elaine and the weekend with Christine. He was married to neither and between them he had six kids. He introduced me to Elaine and their two daughters, Becky, who worked with the elderly, and Sophie, who was about to take her `O` levels. Sophie had written a poem about George, about how much he’d be missed. Geoff said to me, “You know the old man was never one for family”. Christine and her boys were not there. Geoff told me that Little Geoff was living out in Docklands and was doing well for himself in “The Print”. He said Simon was a lovely boy but a bit slow. He`d tried to get him to follow Geoffrey but he’d failed the exams. Geoff said Simon was falling into bad company so he’d taken him on himself. I said, “We all fall in with bad company here. It’s just part of growing up”. He asked, “Do you see much of your Mum? I’d shrugged and said, “No. Not much”.

The service was bad, with everyone stumbling through “The Lord’s Prayer”. Cathy stood next to me. She said she’d forgotten her glasses but I was betting she couldn’t read. For the personal touch the vicar added that George had been an electrical fitter and that he liked a drink. Both my Granddads were boozers. Granddad Norman used to make his own bitter. He’d have it on the go constantly, making eight gallons at a time. His back parlour was always hot, kept at the optimum temperature for the brewing tubs that sat behind the easy chairs. Granddad George was always nicking everyone’s scotch. In the church only Becky and Sophie cried. There were no tears from George’s children and his casket was shouldered to the graveside by four anonymous attendants. His kids didn’t volunteer and there were no friends. I was surprised to see so many bouquets, and then I noticed that some of them spelt out “Mum” and realised that they were unwanted, moved on from the last internment. I’d never heard a good word said about George. I thought that every one had given up on him years ago. I thought I knew it all but when he was lowered into the ground and Daisy broke down, when she had to be held up, when she threw a rose into the hole and said, “Have a good sleep George mate. No more worries now”, I knew I didn’t know anything.

Standing at the edge I held my Dad and he almost crushed me, his voice wobbled when he said, “I’m OK” and I was welling up as I watched him handing out roses to the women, as I watched him tuck a twenty into the top pocket of the chef attendant. Cathy knelt and threw a lilac bunch after George and said something I couldn’t hear. Lizzie looked into the hole and I think it scared her. She didn’t say anything and then she said, “It doesn’t seem right that these total strangers, these cousins, I never knew existed care more about my Granddad than I do”. I took my turn. There was no point me saying goodbye, we hadn’t really said hello, but I thought, “George, there was love here. There were tears in the end”. Geoff threw a flower in when he thought no one was looking and then said loudly, “God bless him. He’d be going mad if he knew we were spending his money”. Roger rolled a cigarette and smoked under a tree not too far away.

At the wake there was a quick toast to George then the camera came out and they, George’s offspring all crammed onto the couch to have a picture taken with their mum. Geoff, all excited, opened another bottle of wine, courtesy of his dad, and they started telling stories, about the practical jokes they’d play on each other, like when the last person to use the bath would leave the window on the latch so that when the next person used it the rest of them could throw in cold water, talc, jam (once, they’d covered George with flour), or, how Cathy and Barbara would convince my Dad to walk blindfold to Vauxhall Bridge. “We’ll lead you. Trust us”, they’d say, and the girls would each take an arm and bump him into every lamppost on the way. “Spiteful bastards”, he laughed. I think my Dad had a big crush on his Auntie Cathy, and I think she knew it. I sat back with a drink and listened to all the voices at once, switching my ears from one story to another never catching a punch line. I felt warmed. I felt grateful. I felt accepted. I had been gone, absent, a long time but it felt like I belonged and, as an awkward child I’d never felt that way with these people, my family. Elaine was in the kitchen on her own. When I went for some refills and asked her to join us she said, “I’ve heard them all before”.

Lizzie was bored, so for something to do she made tea for Dolly & Rose. She nearly gave the diabetic, Dolly, two sugars and so had to re-make them one at a time. Geoff asked the sisters if they wanted anything more to eat or drink and when they said no, he said, “How about some drugs? Do you want any coke?” Rose said, “Do you have any coke?” Geoff laughed, “D’you hear that? Rose wants some Charlie”, and everyone laughed, though Barbara had to ask Daisy what Charlie was. Barbara told me, “You know, we didn’t get invited to either of my boys’ weddings, I must have done something wrong”. I couldn’t think of anything to say. David was boring everybody about rising house prices in Whistable and somebody gave him a beer called “Old Fart” but I don’t think that he got the joke. Barbara said, “It’s such a shame that we only ever meet on occasions like this”. She told me how she was looking into the family tree. It was Barbara who showed me those old photos of George. She talked about organising regular family-get-togethers. She said, “This was never much of a family but we can change that now”. Roger sat in a room on his own refusing to talk to anybody.

In the car home we were still, Lizzie and me, both heads tired and full of thought. To this silence I offered, “I don’t really care about the rest of it, but I don’t want my coffin carried by people I don’t know”.

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