I want to tell you about my Mother. She liked teapots and vintage dolls and the smell of sunflowers rotting in the bleeding light of the spring sun. She used film strips as bookmarks and if you look at the negatives closely, you can see the sloppy handiwork of the photographer. Blurry photos of dawn and sunset, somebody’s mother or girlfriend and what seems to be shapeless silhouettes of buildings I can’t remember ever visiting. Such wasteful art. Such uncoordinated hands. Funnily enough, she claimed to have OCD but she never attempted to fix her wonky eyeliner or her broken love life or the mess trapped in those negatives.
She’d paint pictures of the sunlight with green paint and any canvases of the sky had treacle’s of red instead of crystal blue. It was like she was confused about all the colours. As if she was colour-blind. But yet the complete opposite. Like the whole world was a kaleidoscope and she couldn’t stop staring.
My Mother died last week. It’s why I was at the airport last Monday, catching a plane in the daring dusky night of Amsterdam to London with its blizzards of rain and diminutive apartments home to pulchritudinous people. I was going to visit her at the hospital, but I was too late. When people request my love the most, I fail to give it.
She had what they call a “Malignant Brain Tumour” – cancer. We found out in late October, where I had spent 30 days in between the buzz of Arcade Fire concerts and dusty University halls. One morning, we woke up to a cold Autumn morning at a time where the leaves stained the English stone sidewalks, and cups of tea were her refuge and the house smelt of art galleries and malodorous paint mixed with water and icy air. Everything, it seemed, was fairly usual and ordinary – our daily lives were a book we had exhausted and read. We knew how it started and how it ended. But all good books come to an end and that day, the book of our family didn’t just come to an end. It was shattered. Burned. Obliterated from archives so we could never even remember how normalcy tasted like.
Human civilisation refuses to let anything be a matter of spontaneity – she spent days wondering how it had happened. She didn’t smoke, she didn’t drink (well she didn’t drink too much), and she was in ideal health. Sure, she’d had the occasional cigarette when she was 15 and on a holiday to Mallorca, she had sat out too long in the sun so that her body turned crimson and polished but they were not preludes to cancer. Her life became a paradox and she searched relentlessly for something to blame her bad luck on.
My Mother had been good to herself but in the end it was her own body that betrayed her. Like my Father – Professor Redemption Jones - had betrayed her several times. With his own Literature students. Frantic nights….flashing lights…classical music playing on old car radios…her crying in the middle of the night…and then sudden morning apologies. Either way, whatever he did, she treated the situation as if he was merely a child cheating on a exam and not the woman he claimed to love.
I see my Mother often in the luxury of a dream, but in the harsh daylight the house is empty and silent and there is no longer a smell of paint. No longer does the smell of glorious, terrific art wade through the wooden hallways. She is gone, Oliver. And I can never bring her back.
When they called me to tell me she had died, I was sat on an obsidian bench in the heart of Amsterdam. I saw the canals in front of me – the azure water and the men smoking on the extensive, silent boats. And whilst I watched, I waited for the tears to come but they never did. They drifted away like a love letter that was never delivered, perhaps never even sent; written by a homesick, careless solider to his fiancé declaring his upmost devotion to her and his thoughts. How her body was a broken church he wanted to revive and resuscitate and worship. Tears were a beautiful release as writing such a letter, and it had been lost. Misplaced. Disoriented.
It’s like all that sadness became imprisoned in me, using my ribcages as their cell bars and tugging at my organs. On the inside, the pain was unexplainable. On the outside, my face was as composed and unenthusiastic as an introvert’s at a party invite.
So that’s why I’m flummoxed as to why you took that seat next to me at the airport. When the electronic signs declared delays and my face fell in relief at the thought of not having to face my Brother or my Father and heartfelt, forgotten apologies and the sorrow I would have to face whilst eating casseroles made out of sympathy yet you still clambered down on that chair.
You and your battered suitcase and your matinee idol looks; the lanky height, the charismatic brown eyes like the amber hue of whiskey behind a pair of round glasses. The rosebud mouth that held a satin tongue. You were wearing an ebony shirt, and the way your arms wrapped themselves around your own body in an act of protection made me believe that you knew what it felt like to feel pain that was infinite beyond human comprehension in size and energy. So when I burst into tears, you knew what to say. What to do. What to ask. How bizarre it is that a stranger can deal with you better than your own Father can.
Two loving strangers meet in an unloving world; in the nucleus of busy places. All around them people are bored and excited, a cacophony of bizarre noise but yet the breach between them is filled with the sound of their own silence. A compelling, alluring love story bound to happen. And then I ruined it by taking one look at you and crying because inside of me was all this swarthy blackness-the black of death, the black of sadness, the black of quiet, the black I imagine we live in before we are born and after we die. And yet somehow, I still had it in me to be captivated by boys with pretty eyes.
So that’s why I’m writing to you. Because I can’t text you or call you to tell you this. When we met, I lied to you.
You asked mindless questions; “What’s up? Why are you crying? Is it because of the plane delay? I could try and find a crew member or someone that could try and arrange an earlier flight? Are you going to be late to something? A funeral? A wedding?” And the way you bustled and behaved; your hands flailing around in a concerned manner as you looked straight at me in an attempt to pick out what had me so flushed made me know I couldn’t tell you right then that my Mother had died. I had this abrupt illusion that I could just pretend for a little while that I was not some vast black hole that would not allow your light to enter. So I told you that my boyfriend had broken up with me, and that going back to London meant facing him. We met through a lie and so I’m sorry. Although from then on, it didn’t feel like corrupt deception.
We left the waiting area with its wilting, nostalgic smell of fast-food dinners and Vera Wang perfumes and descended into a café where the noise was less intense and the stressful, loud crowds had lessened to a few businessmen and couples. When we sat down at a corner away from them it was as if they were watching our every move with their mute eyes and speaking about us with their silent mouths. I should have felt exposed but I was feeling beautifully at peace with the war inside me, and all I could seem to think about was the way you slung your jacket around the back of the chair hastily. The way you ordered our coffees, the way the inside of your wrists glistened in the pools of neon light, the crisscross of decrepit scars further up your arm. They were drawn delicately as if you had been trying to draw a map so people could locate your pain. I wanted to say I’m sorry, but apologies do nothing.
We talked for a while about the meaningful things we often overlook in modern conversations: memories, London and its rushing night life, friends, problems with airports.
I thought that when they announced our plane, the meeting would be over. See, it started to hurt – the thought of leaving because right now, writing this, I can’t remember the sound of your accent or the symphony of your laughter, or how you even smelt when we parted with a small hug and I can’t even sadly remember whether you said your favourite trilogy of books were The Hunger Games or Twilight. I don’t remember how I managed to not just fall but tumble and crash for you, but after that meeting, all I can remember is how I felt when you left to find your seat on the plane.
Thank you for somehow finding me in the darkness of the plane as it immersed itself in jet-black clouds, and asking the person next to me to move so you could carry on talking to me. Your seismic presence was well appreciated. And when we grew silent, you told me you were slightly afraid and I quote;
“…because I am utterly and extremely short sighted and I am also utterly and extremely falling in love with you.”
It should have been sloppy and syrupy like something out of a fairytale but it wasn’t. In fairytales they didn’t have planes or two ultimately broken people who relished in jokes about people walking into a bar. I think if you had connected me to a heart monitor when you said that, my heart rate would have been like the skyline of beautiful cities. I encountered both loss and love in the space of a few days and it felt crazy.
Oliver, we all start off alone and somewhere along the way we get tangled in each others webs. That Amsterdam afternoon, the web between me and Mother got so very complicated and that Amsterdam night, we got knotted and twisted in each other’s webs.
I know you didn’t believe me about the fabricated story of me and a false boyfriend’s break-up, so here I am. Being truthful with you like I never was with my Mother.
Here is the truth: Love is not a fairytale. Love did nothing for my Mother who died next to a man who had lies running through his veins. Love did nothing for me when I mourned her in a foreign, European city that as anywhere but home. And if it’s not, than what is it?
It is a procedure in which we give pieces of ourselves away to people who we believe will revere them like parts of a broken glass mosaic that once shone in the pale moonlight and now lies on the floor; an unexplainable, perilous artwork that no-one will never love again. Our hearts race and our skin radiates heat and the interior of our mouths become dry and we think we'll feel this way forever.
It is a procedure I am willing to take.
You said you preferred traditional methods of communication; you yearned for letter writing to be popular again. So here it is. The truth about how we met written in 2000 handwritten words instead of 140 Twitter characters.
If I haven’t frightened you off, I will be seeing you on Thursday.