Matter Of Heritage
Maybe one day you will sit behind a desk
And spend your days a caged bird
On someone else’s time.
Maybe you will wear a suit and
Tie yourself to the ticking hands of
The rich man’s clock.
Maybe you will.
Plutus is a beguiling god.
But at least, in the small hours,
The ones just before dawn, when grown
Men forget themselves in sleep,
You may remember these days.
These days, when you ran free as a bird,
That jumps and hops and soars from
Perch to perch, all the time singing,
With no one calling it to account.
These days when time was simply
The turning of a globe around its star,
The coming and going of the light,
The beating of a heart rushing on
Towards life. Sweet halcyon days.
When twirling in the sun
Like dandelion clocks, we danced
Barefoot in the dew dipped grass.
Like this I build your inheritance
A castle full of dreams and a
Half glimpsed memory of freedom.
The kind of dream that wakes you
Sweating and breathless and longing
For more. It may not be enough
But it is all I have to offer.
May it serve you well, little bird.
The will was short and explicit. Handwritten, but witnessed by a neighbour who happened to be a solicitor. Nobody doubted its authenticity, especially as the truth finally began to come out. The house was mine; everything in it was mine; all her paintings were mine. Mum nodded when I told her, saying nothing, but the tremour in her hands told me something else.
She dropped me off by the end of the drive; the same place as before. I gasped when I saw the house and fell back eight years into my life. It still had peeling paintwork although it looked like some attempt had been made recently to clean it up a little. Her plants still filled every windowsill, so from the outside the impression was of a barely contained indoor jungle. The key sat warm in my hand. I walked up to the door and inserted it into the lock. I paused, gathered myself together, then turned it and swung open the door.
The first time I'd been to her house I'd been fifteen. I'd just discovered the truth, or at least part of it, and I demanded to be taken to her. It took me three days of sulking and not eating and hiding in my room before Mum agreed, shaking her head and muttering about how no good would come of it, I'd better mark her words, don't say I didn't tell you...
But she drove me there. The house was surprisingly close. I'd imagined she'd have gone far, but within an hour we were there. She didn't come in with me. She told me she'd be back in an hour, and drove off, with squealing tyres.
I walked up the drive to the door, my heartbeat loud in my ears. I noticed the plants, growing around every window, inside, like a reverse version of Sleeping Beauty. The house needed repainting; the garden was a mess and the paint on the door was cracked and peeling. As I raised my hand to knock the door swung open and there she was, just like in the pictures but older, so much older. And the lines around her eyes... my eyes. It was like looking into a future-mirror. It was terrifying. I almost ran but she made an effort with a smile and gestured me inside, impatiently, perhaps. I didn't miss the way she took a quick glance down the drive, as if watching for someone else, and the way her shoulders slumped a little when she saw I was alone.
I walked into a narrow hall as gloomy as it was long. Along each side hung what should have been colourful drapes, but the colour was diluted by the darkness. At the end of the hall was the kitchen. Plants and paintings were everywhere, on every surface and on every wall. It was a riot of forest and colour. The paintings were striking; abstract yet full of life. In each, suggestions of plants, animals, people. But no definite shapes or outlines. As if you were looking at a world through alien spectacles.
She saw me looking. "Do you paint?" she asked.
I nodded, and she smiled properly. "Good," she said. "Tea? Something stronger?" She lit a cigarette and looked out of the window, or the tiny bit of it you could see through all the leaves.
"Tea, please," I stammered.
"Don't be scared. Trust me, I'm the one here shitting myself," she said, drawing hard on the cigarette, her hands shaking.
There were so many things I wanted to ask her but none of them would come out. Why did you run? was the obvious one.
"I'm not gonna talk about why," she said, reading my mind. "I can't. I had my reasons; I knew you'd be okay. Mum was a good mum to me. Just didn't understand me at all. I knew she'd do a better job on you. She often told me she wanted to start again with me." She took a deep breath, as if saying that had cost her dearly. "Nobody understood me. Nobody. I'm much better off here, alone."
"They bought you this house," I said, and then cursed myself. Mum had said, don't ask her too much. She's not like you and me. Doesn't think like other people. Ask too much and she'll make you go. I wanted to say, But she did understand you, that's why she helped you. But I kept silent.
She looked at me then, properly, for the first time. At first her expression was hard, but then she smiled a little and her eyes crinkled up, just like mine do. "You're a younger version of me. How did she explain that?"
I didn't know what to say. Wasn't it obvious?
In a rush, she went on. "I can't see you right now. I've not been your mother, she has. And look at you, polite, grown up, neat, clever, are you clever? She's done a good job. Gotta hand it to her. But I can't start something up. I agreed to this, because... because I thought I owed you that. But I'm not mother material. Can't hardly take care of myself. I've got darkness inside me. Depression, whatever you want to call it. Bloody darkness, like clouds that hide the world. I'm better off here. I don't sleep much, I paint all the time, I'm crap at cooking. I don't want my life to change, understand? We've met, then you'll go back to your life and I stay in mine." She sat down then, as if her words had exhausted her.
I remained standing and watched her whilst she got up and walked slowly over to the kettle. She filled it and switched it on. From behind, even, I could see our resemblance. Our hair, the same shade. Our shoulders, narrow and sloping. Her bum, big like mine, where Mum's was skinny, a no-bum. How much more I might have liked mine if there was another in the house. As it was I felt big and lumbery. She handed me a cup, the contents slopping over the sides with her shakes.
She reached into a cupboard and got a bottle of whisky. Mum had warned me she might drink and told me not to mind, so I didn't. I watched as she poured, making mental notes on how to fill a glass if you're my mother. For when I drank whisky, perhaps, when I was all grown up, like her. She knocked the drink back in one, smiled, and poured herself another.
"So. What do you paint?" she asked, as she took a sip.
The conversation lasted about fifteen minutes, and didn't go anywhere I wanted it to go. Nor had I any power to steer it there. She was in control, even as the whisky took effect by stopping her hands shaking and dripping into her words, slurring them. Making her thoughts wander a little. She jumped from subject to subject, all stuff that was meaningless to me.
After that she grew jittery and kept looking at the clock - which said entirely the wrong time - and stopped talking. I tried small talk, but it was no use. She'd docked, like an empty ship in a closed down harbour.
"I have to ask you to go," she said. "I'm sorry. I knew this wasn't going to work. But, you've been here, you've seen me. I need you to leave."
I didn't want to leave, there were so many things left open. My whole life. I had to go back and live my life again, this time sorting out the lies from the truth and start again. Look at the pictures on the wall of 'Janine, your older sister who ran away. Broke our hearts, she did' and know it was Janine my mother, who struggled with the inside of her head all her life, could not cope being a motehr and ran, or was helped to run. But she was walking to the door, and I had to follow her.
At the door she turned to face me, and reached up with a perfectly steady hand. She touched my cheek, lightly, and I saw in her eyes what might have been, before she realised what her eyes might be saying and closed them and shook her head.
"One day, one day I'll let you in. One day you'll know me," she muttered. "Goodbye Leigh."
I shook my head but she was firm and I knew it was over. I
leaned in to kiss her cheek and for a second we touched, an electric jolt as our cheeks brushed. I wanted to grab her and hug her and I don't know how I stopped myself. There will be another time, I thought.
But I was wrong.
The hallway was still dark. The drapes had gone, replaced by watercolours; huge colourful abstracts. I gazed at each one, and in one of them I thought I saw reflections of myself, amongst the swirls and whorls of colour. I squinted at the title. 'Self Portrait' it said.
I walked down to the kitchen. There was a large envelope on the table. Inside was a picture, not an abstract, of a woman in a forest; the trees large and dark and looming, the woman small and cowering. The picture said: fear, confusion, sorrow. I shuddered and put it back inside the envelope. There was no note.
I heard a noise from the hall and looked into the gloom. Mum stood in the doorway, poised as if to run. She saw me and nodded. I walked to her and took her hand, and gently pulled her inside. I heard her breathing next to me. Her breaths turned to sobs as she saw the picture I'd seen, the one where I saw me. She reached out a hand and touched the paper.
"You are so like her," she whispered. "And so utterly different."
I read an old miner’s diary
seeking meaning, a voice for
my untold family history,
it’s full of words I know well
made senseless by his usage.
Men and air downcast,
caged in the shaft,
Glimpses of him descending into dark,
emerging back into the night
dusted in black with strangled lungs.
He says they sliced off the hill-top
like a knife on a fingertip,
put the 'overburden' back,
to fill the valley,
to make the plateau
I look out on today.
It unsettles me
this recreating of landscape,
that some of what we think we see
might not be real.
Can I trust his voice?
It's a matter of heritage.
I thought language was a ladder
I could climb up to the past
but this has too many missing rungs.
Only the drag lines speak to me
I feel them pull through time,
we are still thieves in the dark
stealing forests from the earth.
A life of waste and spoil,
his sorry need and shame,
my heritage, upcast from the page,
his life a sequence of mean needs,
an explosion of 'firedamp'.
Overburden – waste material
Firedamp - poisonous vapours