From A Distance

Entry by: Mac

29th July 2016

I was born in early January and by the age of ten months I had learned to feel terror or exhilaration, depending on her mood. She left when I was ten months old to live with my uncle and his wife; it was temporary. Until she had the second baby and gave up on the idea that Ben would do his duty, which of course he couldn’t do because he was already married. She knew that, in any case; indeed, she’d known it for the four years that they’d been involved. She was eighteen when they met. He was evasive about his age but her best guess was thirty-one.

Although my due date was New Year’s Eve she always boasted that even before I was born I knew not to step out of line and all through childhood I didn’t dare cross her. So she had an enjoyable New Year’s Eve and then I replaced the hangover.

She came home – home was my grandparents’ house – with the new baby: a girl. Since then, and even now, every new baby I see reminds me of her. According to my grandmother, I would gaze into the basket, giggle and pat the baby’s hand. So sweet, so cute. Until the raised voice, cold and metallic, cut in: “Don’t hurt the baby!”. This was how I learned fear, even before I could talk. I had begun to master walking – and running. But I couldn’t run fast enough to escape the sudden explosion of violence.

My sister’s earliest memory was when she was four and I was five. I was holding her in my arms and whispering, “Don’t look … it will be over soon.” The source of our terror was her – she was banging her head against the wall, then biting herself, then rolling her eyes and growling. Then she would interrupt herself to rush towards us, her face inches away as she spat out the words: “Do you see what you’re doing to me? Do you see what you’re making me do? You’re driving me mad. You’re doing this to me.” My sister and I clung to each other in fear. My grandmother was out of the room.

I remember the day she dragged me through the streets to the orphanage, over a mile away from home. I screamed and sobbed and tried to dig my heels into the pavement but she strengthened her grip and pulled harder. As we approached the door, she ran through the litany of all I would forsake forever – never see my sister again, or my grandmother, or my grandfather; never have a proper home again. Be unloved and unwanted.

I choked and sobbed, “I’ll be good … I’ll be good. I promise. Please. Please. Let me go home. I want to go home. I won’t be bad anymore.” I was unable to stop myself urinating in my pants. As the wet patch became visible, she poured greater scorn on me: alongside being wicked, I was now a baby. Wetting myself. Ridiculous and contemptible. Pathetic. Years later, I would ask myself what could a four year old do that is so bad as to deserve that degree of humiliation and fear? The answer, of course, is nothing.

Even now, when someone tells me that a location is a mile away my first reaction is to recoil, thinking how far away that is. It is the distance between home and hell.

But let me tell you about the good. Well, it’s all subjective and there are those who might say “what good?” The good can only be captured by one of those awful modern day clichés: “She made me what I am today.” There are a few who might question just how good that is; I do not say that facetiously. It’s true.

I am educated – it’s because of her. I am quite knowledgeable about music, art, philosophy even – it’s because of her. I read people well – yes, because of her. But as well as being polite and superficially charming, I am distant, reserved and don’t relate readily to people; I find it difficult to cross that indefinable distance that we are only aware of when we start to get close to someone.

But wait. At what point do we take responsibility for ourselves? Own up to the traits, failings and foibles that we cultivated ourselves? We are not puppets of the past, controlled exclusively by our history. I know this – in my head. I still baulk at confrontation. I freeze in the face of unacceptable authoritarianism. I’m scared.

She took me to theatres, mostly variety and reviews but sometimes plays. It was enough to spark an interest that remained. Films. All kinds, including dramas that were considered unsuitable for such a young boy. I got to see an Oscar-winning drama about drug addiction when I was ten. Shakespeare too. I still love Shakespeare.

Library visits were a ritualised discipline until I had acquired the habit myself. Books were vetted for their suitability: they had to be demanding, difficult, pitched at the next age group up from mine. And I realised, many years later, that gradually the violence lessened after my tenth birthday.

By fifteen I was given adult status: my grandmother died. Both of us were devastated by the loss. My mother grieved for the rest of her life. I grieved for two hours – until I was given the lecture about being the person she would need to depend on now. She might fall apart without me to lean on. I believed her. It took a long time for me to discover that manipulation could be just as aggressive as violence. By then I had learned how to do it too.

After my grandmother died, I became my mother’s confidante. A seemingly casual comment, so loaded it change my life came just after breakfast one Saturday: “Have you ever wondered about your father?” I heard about the strange romance leading to my birth. And then to my sister’s.

I was shocked and intrigued to discover that she had continued to see him: Saturday afternoons every two months or so. But sometimes there would be a gap of months – the longest had been two years. This time had been twelve months, but she knew he’d be back. He’d get to hear somehow about my grandmother’s death and he would turn up to offer consolation, guidance.

I discovered after I met him that he was a man who believed in the value of his guidance. I can’t say that I wanted to meet him – I’m not sure now. But it was clear that she wanted me to, so I did. He lived sixty miles and my lifetime away.

“It will seem strange being a long distance dad,” he said, attempting to woo me with the charm that clearly had served him well in the past.
“Sixty miles isn’t that far,” I replied, “but sixteen years is.” I steadfastly refused to let him get close. If not exactly the enemy, he was in some way a veiled threat.

We had continued to live with my grandfather after my grandmother died. To avoid awakening his anger and disapproval she kept her clandestine rendezvous with Ben by deception. There would be a brief note in the post to announce his imminent arrival. I was engaged to distract my grandfather or to run and find Ben and redirect him to a safe, hidden place to park.

When I finally moved away – one hundred and forty miles away, to be exact – she had a heart attack within a week. I commuted every weekend for almost a year until I found a job back home. Years later, I discovered there was no heart attack. But, no matter, she got what she wanted. And I convinced myself I felt settled.

We continued our conversations - now twice a week - about films, books, politics, trivia, local gossip and family intrigues. Her brother had always been involved in deals and they always went wrong in some way; increasingly, she lived to provide a critical commentary on the lives of those around her. Her violent years were now forgotten.

Her heart, her brain tumour, her cancer and the nervous breakdown all arrived within a month of each other. All were triggered by my coming out as gay. Only the cancer proved to be real. The rest were part of the emotional blackmail she had used whenever she disapproved of something or wanted - insisted – that things be different.

I used to visit every month and after preliminary greetings she would sit in silence, provide peremptory answers to any questions I asked and demand money for herself or my sister. Afterwards, she would gloat to my sister: “I made the queer bastard suffer …he didn’t know where to look or what to do … no guts.” My sister endured a kind of perpetual servility through all those years, never knowing which new illness was real – apart from the cancer.

I sat by her bedside, with only short breaks, for nine days until she died. For eight of those she was unconscious. I talked to her, pleaded with her: “Tell me why you were the way you were. Tell me why so much intelligence becomes locked away inside a growing bitterness … waiting for a man who was never going to stay. Then waiting upon his memory for ten years, after he had died. Tell me why.” There was only silence.

We don’t just measure distance by location or geography. We measure it by time, by emotions, by the unsaid words and incomprehension that widens the gap between us. We gauge it through hindsight and memory – fading, falsified, biased, partially true.

Resignation plays its part; that’s when we have no other choice but to accept it. It’s just the way it is. No way back … a distance that can never be traversed or retraced.