You didn’t know. Didn’t know it was the last time you’d speak. You check the duration of that last call in your phone’s log, making your memory play as much of the call as your emotionally invested, disingenuous cerebral hard drive can bring back. Wishing that somehow you’d recorded it, for training purposes. That last text waited out its time on the Vodafone server and then expired, so that when her phone is turned back on a couple of weeks later you don’t get a delivery report. Now there’s a spare slot in the Vodafone Family group.
Permanent absence. When the occupier of a property enters a state of permanent absence from the world, it’s natural to think that their domestic space will turn to chaos at an accelerated rate. Not so. All the food that they’ll never eat is still in the cupboards, bearing the fingerprints of its final placing, and her reading glasses are still on top of the Radio Times, open on the page for the last evening she was alive. The partially eaten evening meal suggested that not much evening TV was consumed, although the TV appears not to have known that no-one was watching it. The roof does not immediately start to leak.
Mum checked out naturally but almost as if she’d pre-booked the manner of her leaving and somehow forgotten to tell anyone. “There was something I needed to tell you… No. Sorry. It’s gone. If I think of it I’ll text you.” A very quick cutting of the biophysical power source, with no pain and no physical struggle, as though instantly entering a profound sleep. Mum expressed over many years a fear of any form of dependency on other people and a hatred of hospitals. So that’s OK.
She chose to live in a caravan partly because caravans are often where people spend holidays, so they’re suffused with happy memories. That choice was made twenty-three years ago, and now her caravan is suffused with memories of our family holidays too and of visits by friends seeking to be away from reality and stare at the sea for while. Caithness is a place whose average temperature and weather patterns keep sun seekers at bay by a distance of at least a hundred miles, and that same weather means that formulaic commercialism has trouble taking root. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun. Sometimes as I sat on my favourite bench in her garden, staring across fields to the sea, the dry seeds of failed commercial enterprises settled in the froth of my beer.
Handwriting is such a personal thing. No two the same. Mum’s was idiosyncratic, influenced by being taught some copperplate as a child. Currently that’s what’s most upsetting to come across: the many lists and personal reminders she wrote to herself, her purse, address book, all containing recent examples of her handwriting. The hand is such a complex system of muscles, and to be aware that this particular hand no longer moves is very hard. An archaic sense of the word hand to mean handwriting expresses this well. The note in her diary, to remind herself of an appointment that she will never keep, is unmistakably her hand.
Darkness stays longer during a Caithness winter than during the winters of West Yorkshire. Mum once commented that the view of the sea from her living room window shows during the shortest days a sun that starts on the left and lifts into only a very shallow arc before sliding back into the sea after a few tired hours. In the winter she could often sleep for twelve hours. Her grandmother, who brought her up, remarked on occasion, ‘that child was born tired’. During the long weekend that my bother and I spent dealing with Mum’s affairs after her death, there happened also to be a prevailing East wind. It cuts through however many layers you have on in only a few seconds, rendering any exposed flesh numb within a similar time. We lit her fire a couple of times, and it did ameliorate the physical and emotional weight to an extent, as I sorted through documents I wasn’t meant to see, documents that palpably resist the touch of an intruder, but truth be told it was a gruelling few days. She hated waste, so we took food that could still be eaten. We also took what possessions we could gather that might be of personal significance to family members. But there are still coats hanging, there are still pairs of shoes placed where she last took them off and there is still clean bed linen on the sofa bed, waiting for the next visitor. All to deal with next time we make it up there.
This morning I thought back to school trips and the care that Mum always took to make sure I had a packed lunch that sustained me through the day. I used to feel inexplicably sad that she had apparently gone to such lengths, and felt I should do justice to her efforts. Childhood is more psychologically complex than the mass media would have you believe. That last time in the presence of her body in a wooden box, I just said thank you for everything, and I have never meant that commonplace phrase so profoundly. I know she wasn’t in there: Mum of all people would assert that the body is not the person. But I needed to say it, as I needed to kiss the coffin somewhere near where her face might be. She lived for us to be OK, as I live for my girls to be OK, and that continued into the last few days, with her seeking reassurance that my brother had sorted out his infected finger and that I had emerged undamaged from slipping on ice and cracking my head open on a stone step, spectacularly replicating a scene from Macbeth.
Is it all too difficult? Very likely it is not. I’m told that the intense pain subsides, and I believe that: I’ve seen it subside in other people. She would not want me in pain. She did not want lugubrious, mournful gatherings. She wanted fireworks. We’ll give her that in a few weeks’ time, so we will. In my mind I’m on Achastle shore and Mum has headed back up the cliff to finish getting the evening meal ready. She was solicitous in that way.
Just ringing to update you on a few things that have happened recently. Oh. OK then.