Twenty Years

Paul Fleckney

© Copyright 2018 by Paul Fleckney

Photo of a bee on an apple blossom.

There's so much life in a cemetery in spring. The one I use, West Norwood, is one of those old Victorian ones where nature is in charge. There is a caretaker, who discreetly rides the pathways, tending to the excesses, always just out of sight. But he's not the boss around here. Not in late April. Up in the branches, squirrels scoot from one tree to the next, clutching some fresh prize. Down in the deep green grass, bluebells have broken out in enthusiastic patches. In among the bluebells are some tiny white flowers that look like snowdrops, but aren't. Mum would know what they are. Mind you, so would Dad. I could call him and ask, but not right now. All about there are chiffchaffs chiff-chaffing, and great tits playing their squeaky see-saw. Retune your frequency upwards, and you might make out a goldcrest, psewing high up on a conifer. Think of these birds as the percussion section. They provide the fitful pulse that is both there, and not there. Over the top, the blackbirds do their solos, all artful and mellifluous in their dinner suits. Somewhere inbetween are the robins, who come right down to the most visible branches, willing themselves to be seen and heard, yet unable to shake their tone of regret. Something's always got to the robins, some far-off trauma they're trying to tell us about. This unconducted symphony is wrecked only by the parakeets, who arrive half way through with a flash of green and a punky screech.

Then there's the blossom. So much blossom. Loose clouds of it, carried on the cool breeze as I make my way up the sweep to my usual spot. It makes me feel like I'm on a one-man parade for some forgotten war. A few petals normally make it home with me, hitching a ride in my hair or on my jeans. Nature – the renewal of it, the sheer bloody-mindedness of it – is everywhere. It's that time of year, though. At home recently, a family of blue tits moved into the bird box. They belt out a tiny cacophony of squeals, while one of the parents – looking comically scruffy and tired – shuttles between nest and feeder.

April 29 is the date that chose us. Twenty years ago today, Mum died. And so, every year on this day, I go to a quiet place and take some time to remember her. Sometimes I go home to the crematorium in Kent where the funeral took place. There she is marked by a plaque, a rose, and an A4 pad of soil where she was once sprinkled like pepper. (At some point between 1997 and now, Dad started referring to this crematorium as “the crem”. As in, “We'll go over to the crem after lunch. I got some nice pâté in.”) But mostly I just go to the nearest place of mourning. Thanks to my peripatetic existence in London over the past 15 years, I've become acquainted with many of the capital's cemeteries – we exchange flowers at least. For the foreseeable future, though, Norwood will be my regular haunt, and this is where I've come this year.

Something happens whenever I walk into a cemetery on this date, and today is no different. I got here on the bus OK, I bought some tulips from the florists OK – it’s felt like no other day, really. In fact, my mourner's secret is that I rarely even think about Mum. The loss of her seeps out in my every reaction, interaction and relationship I have, but I and my days roll by without giving her much thought. As it happens, things have been a little different recently. I've had what's known as a “difficult” six months, so thoughts of Mum, her death, and the seemingly never-ending fallout, have been closer to the surface than usual. But even so, So I'm always surprised by the glumness that grips me as soon as I pass through the towering, wrought-iron beauties that herald a good-quality cemetery. I'm surprised by the fact of it, and the power of it – all that dormant emotion, still knocking around. It's an abrupt reminder that I live my life with one thumb in the dyke, and it makes me wonder how many people you walk past each day who are doing the same.

As I come to the first graves, very quickly I want not to be seen. It's selfish, but I want this place to myself. Today, fortunately, the cemetery is barely bothered by the living. The only people I can see are a young couple sitting on a bench ahead of me. There doesn't appear to be an awful lot of mourning going on between them, but that doesn't mean there isn't. As I pass them, I look to the floor, trying not to be a disturbance, just in case. I'm heading for my preferred spot, which is at the top of the cemetery, by the crematorium. Every route is the scenic route here. Every path a curve, every road a sweep. This seems significant to me. Isn't it euphemistic to make the path leading up to a crematorium a winding one, full of long curves and blind corners? Isn't that a kind of denial? It reminds me of “passed away”, or “'fell asleep”, those weak words which have made it on to so many of the headstones here. The word “died” is clearly too much for some; too straight a road to the awful truth. Inserting a few turns in the road could also have been an act of courtesy, performed by a sympathetic architect who's probably in here somewhere. I coul understand such a decision. Twenty years ago, child-locked into a hearse, I made that journey myself from welcoming gate to smoking chimney. I needed those curves. By comparison, the direct road seems tactless.

Today, I've chosen to walk up the main sweep – where the processions go, I imagine. Normally I take the dappled route, where solitude comes easy among the hanging branches. But this year I'm really shaking things up. This way is more exposed than I'd like, but it does present me with a new set of headstones to take in. Reading them is a tragic and life-affirming exercise, one that punctures the selfishness of your own sadness. So many lives lived. No details, just the bare bones. Names you recognise and names you don't. Grey, du Pratt, Rabbits. The missed and the forgotten. Schmidt, Marley, McCall. The old and the curtailed. Sobers, Jamali, Gunn. Some are children – babies even. To the jobbing stone mason, those tiny granite capsules must be the quickest but grimmest work of all.

And then there are the inscriptions. A young man called Michael has his “BA Hons” displayed proudly like a certificate on a mantelpiece. An elderly woman (a “spinster”), called Eliza, gets “God loveth a cheerful giver”. George Coles “died suddenly on his voyage to Bordeaux”, a fate I thought was reserved for uncles of Bertie Wooster. Ann Abbott is one of those who came from “Brixton, Surrey” – sometimes the deaths are cartological. The pattern that emerges is one of emotion being flattened into platitude. According to this census, we’re all going to be “sadly missed” and “remembered every day”, or some variation thereof. Repetition can kill meaning if you let it, but in this instance we must take these over-familiar words as remarkable vows, made with utmost sincerity. It would be uncivil to assume otherwise.

There’s another problem with the repetition. It softens you up for the suckerpunch – the headstones that jab you in the kidneys, make you stop and force you to re-read. Their words cut through the platitudes like an alarm, and preserve all-too-perfectly the pain of the author. Says on: “Such a tiny life that left so great a grief”. Another, for an adult, goes: “We saw you suffer, heard you sigh/All we could do was just stand by/When the time came, we suffered too/You never deserved what you went through”. They bring to mind some poor soul, caught on the hop by the telephone call; their moment of shock captured forever by the mason's chisel; their reservoirs of love not even getting a look-in. This type of memorial is more about mourner than mournee. If that mourner is you, I imagine it to be a painful sight on your first few visits. Then, as the years go by and the visits accumulate, it becomes a marker for your progress, the words becoming like an old photo: you, but not you anymore. Everything has its use.

I drift up the hill, past a run of crosses: fancy Celtic ones, plain Anglican ones. There are grubby angels, some bowing their head, some with wings that will never taste flight. Most of them are missing a limb. There are new marble graves, gleaming like televisions, so incongruously modern. There are old, blank graves, felled by subsidence, their flower days long gone. Sarcophagi lord it, needles point to heaven – a relic from the time when the Victorians idolised the Egyptians (something I learned at Highgate cemetery). Occasionally you get photographs of the dead, a soft-focus catalogue of unfashionable hairdos. One mourner has donated a toy motorbike, its driver gripping the bars but going nowhere. Another has planted a privet hedge around the entire plot, their loved-one now cast as an unsociable loner, the cemetery's own Boo Radley. One grave has propped up against it a can of Stella Artois. At first I write it off as litter, but then, there's something about how precisely it's positioned, how central it is ...

This year, for the first time, I noticed some grasping attempts at permanence – at a cemetery of all places, the ultimate monument to impermanence. Some hopeful souls have adorned their patch with trinkets: plastic windmills that blow in the breeze, shiny baubles that stick up like antennae, balloons trying to escape their moorings. If you’re lucky you get to see a discombobulated bee, bumbling around some fake flowers, then buzzing off empty-legged. The elements, not to be outwitted, have fought back, bending and rusting and toppling these man-made items with chilling ease. You really can't win around here. But that's no reason not to celebrate a life with a bauble instead of a flower. Every swirling windmill and every faded balloon is a minor, interim victory; they are the best we can do. They are life itself.

Whatever the gift might be, it catches my eye and draws me to the grave. The next thing I look at are the key metrics: age at death, obviously, but also how long ago they died. The newest and oldest graves that are most tragic ones – the newest (up to two years) because I know how red raw those visits are, the oldest (30 years-plus) because to keep coming back, year after year, flowers or windmills in hand, is a display of heart-breaking devotion. The physical form may have been gone for half a century, the face may have faded from the mind's eye, but the feeling of someone's absence is as tangible as their presence. And that can linger, undiminished, for as long as it has a body to inhabit. Being a 20-yearer, I'm in that dip in the middle, between the new ones and the old ones. According to my own theory, I warrant the least sympathy from outsiders, until around 2030, when my stock rises again.

The grip of the family is strong in here. I wonder how many people tried to escape their family in life, only to be returned in death. Wife, son, dad, gran. This is what we are in the end, how we're described, even the famous and successful. There are, inevitably, old couples who have died in quick succession, buried together, lying stiff under their cold double bed. It would take a hard heart not to think that one death must have begot the other. That makes me think about Dad. He was, in that sense, lucky. He was young enough to realistically find love again. It's a relief that he did. I remember asking him one day – quite casually as we ducked into the car back at home in Kent – whether he might meet another woman. He clammed up. I'd been careless. It had only been a few years since Mum had died, and it was too early to ask. Thinking about that incident now, I realise that, oddly, being 17 when Mum died shielded me somewhat from grief's battering ram. Dad wasn't so lucky though, and my clumsy, out-of-the-blue question was something I instantly regretted. I doubt Dad has been on a date in his life – I don't think they were invented when he was young – and the idea of “getting out there” probably terrified him as much as the idea of being alone. I've read that when the female of an elderly couple dies, the male virtually follows her out the door. But when the man is the first to go, the woman soldiers on for years, his demise not so much a knockout blow as a starting pistol. Some of the dead here have an empty bay next door, reserved in anticipation of being “reunited” with their loved one. We must assume that the surviving person was consulted.

Before I arrive at my bench, I have to find someone to give my tulips. It's part of my little ritual. Tulips were one of Mum's favourites. This year I've gone with purple. My chosen grave has to be old and forgotten, not in active service (I don't want to send any relatives into a panic with my surprise, unnamed flowers). This year, Harry Albert Nunn is the lucky winner. Well done, Harry. He sounds like a good sort. Years ago on the anniversary of Mum's death, I used to buy a bunch of flowers and give it to a stranger on the street. The idea was to at least make something good of a bad thing. It was a manifestation of my belief that creating little virtuous circles is something anyone can do to make the world a better place: treat people with kindness and respect that they weren't expecting, and there's a chance they'll pass it on. If enough people do it every day then ... it has to be worth a try. Whenever I did my flower-giving act, I would get nervous beforehand: standing in the street, holding a bunch of flowers, eyeing up suitable candidates. I'd feel stupid immediately afterwards, too. Despite its wider purpose, I stopped doing it a while ago. I feel bad about that, but perhaps I was doing it for my own sake as much as anyone else's. Perhaps that need in me has gone now. I should probably start it again, though. There are people on Norwood High Street who look like they could use a virtuous circle.

I sit on my bench, which is under a tree and looks down a slope. I know that any minute I'm going to start talking (if anything, the run-up feels stranger than the actual talking). It's quite a novelty to think about Mum. The sad fact is that my memories of her are few. Over the years they've just ... fallen from the branches, little deaths in themselves. To my surprise, photos have come to the rescue. The ubiquity of photography is a standard lament about today's smartphone age, and I share some of those concerns, but boy do I wish I had more photos of Mum. It's been 20 years since I saw her with my own eyes, so I'm almost completely reliant on photos to jumpstart my shitty memory.

There's one picture in particular that I lean on. It's my favourite one of Mum. It's taken in our back garden at home, a very deliberate, posed, “come outside now, it's time for the photos!” kind of shot. It must have been taken in spring, because the apple tree is all flowered-up. Mum is inbetween my older brother and I. We are reluctant subjects, teenagers not playing ball. But Mum is beaming. Her arms are threaded through ours, pulling us into her. In that moment, she's so happy. She's short, diminished by illness, skin a little olive with jaundice. But there's no mistaking the look on her face: it's full of love, and pride.

The feeling of sustenance that this photo used to give me is something I've come to recognise as the gratifying side of grief. I've gradually figured out that, once you've hacked your way through the initial thicket of pain, love has life after death. That might sound like a schmaltzy song lyric, but it's true and it's important: love endures with a force that I could never have predicted. It gathers power from knowledge and memory, until it creates its own perpetual motion. I can't point to it, I can't touch it, it's not going to call my name up the stairs. But it's there, and it's as real and sustaining as food in the cupboard. Because of that, the way I proceed through life has changed now. Time used to stride on like a blinkered horse. But now I have this sense of the past and the future at my shoulder, like we're all roped together. The love I received in the past is something I'm keeping warm in the present, until I pass it on in the future. How lucky I am to be a part of that ancient flow. How sad I feel for those who are locked out of it, for whatever reason.

These photos are about all I have to go on when I try to remember Mum, so I'm grateful for them. What do we think about anyway, when we think about someone? Do you literally describe their face in your mind? Do you have memories of how they moved about the world: a little gif of them doing something inconsequential that's somehow seared on your brain? Do you have random snapshots of them in a particular place at a particular time? For me, with so much time having passed, it is the sense of my mum that I can recall. I don’t mean quotidian Wikipedia entries, like she used to moan about her headteacher and habitually click her fingernails. I mean I can still get a visceral, nebulous sense of her existence in my world. I can remember how she made me feel. And that can knock me sideways. It's not always a good thing. Mum didn't necessarily live the happiest life. She was frequently frustrated, angry. The family home was often a stressful place to be, and in that sense she was the tone-setter much more than my laid-back dad. There's a telling-off that I remember from when I was about 12. We were in the hallway at home, and Mum, for reasons I forget, berated me for not winning any swimming medals. I'm pretty sure that's not in any parenting manuals, and my guess is she regretted the outburst. And if that was the worst thing that happened to me as a child, then I'm pretty lucky. What I hate is that I remember this at all. I know it's not representative of her as a mum, and I know from friends and relations that parenting is messy and aberrations occur. But there's no part of me that wants access to this memory. Do we really not have more say in what we remember and what we don't? Or are these decisions constantly made “in play”, as we go through life: if something stings enough, the dye is cast? The journalist part of me says it would be inaccurate, a PR whitewash, to only have the happy memories. That part of me is probably right: I don't like the idea of scrubbing over the chaotic truth of life.

On my bench, I think about another photo. A recent discovery, of Mum playing my brother at table tennis while we were on holiday, probably somewhere in the UK. Somewhere that was too embarrassing to reveal on the playground (everyone else would go to Spain or Disneyland). My brother is on the left, braced mid-rally, and I'm leaning down pretending to be the net judge, pointlessly joining in. Mum is dressed quite formally as she always was – dress and heels for the game – and is in the process of playing a shot. What I like about this photo is that, somehow, it gives a sense of how she literally moved (these are the straws you clutch at when there are no moving pictures to be dug out). Mum was slyly athletic, and no other photo of her achieves the trick of conveying that. I'm thankful that Dad found it.

The table tennis photo perfectly illustrates the elusiveness of memory. It unlocked an old pathway I didn't even know still existed. As I sit on my bench, I wonder how many more memories – specific or sensory – are lurking in there like lost Aztec temples. One thing that would really hack through the undergrowth would be a sound recording of Mum's voice. God knows it would be upsetting to hear at first, but my sense of her would instantly go from mono to stereo to stellar. As it happens, I do sometimes get reminders of her voice, and often from my own. “Morning, noon and night” I got from her. There's an noise I sometimes do which she used to do in response to a good tennis shot, or, bizarrely, a particularly impressive horse. As soon as it comes out of my mouth it surprises me. Then I suddenly feel reconnected to her, in an oddly amusing way. Again, the straws you clutch at …

A robin hops across Harry Albert Nunn's grave. I'm getting frustrated with myself. I'm trying to think about Mum, but everyday reality keeps crashing in. A recent heartache. Not a seismic, life-defining split, but even so, one that has shaken me. I fell in love with someone I shouldn't have. An easy mistake to make. The column inches my brain has devoted to this, rather than Mum, over the past six months ... there's no contest. What kind of disparity is this? It's good to be in the present not the past, but then I know which is more important in the long run, and more worth my time thinking about. This is supposed to be my allocated time with Mum. Once a year is not much to ask. I want these other thoughts to go. Preferably for ever.

It takes some force of will, but I go back to the subject of my mum. The apple tree photo helps. The apple tree photo always helps. Suddenly, I'm crying. All I can think about it how much she loved us. My brother and I. She loved us so much. She gave us so much. I miss her so much. We were so lucky. I'm not so much crying as sobbing, shoulders and all. The things that often nudge me over the edge are the things that are impossible to remedy. Like the fact that I wish I could have known her not just as a parent, but as an adult. A peer. A friend. We could talk about music and politics and who I had my eye on. I could have taken her to comedy shows and shown her how to use iPlayer (I find it surreal that Mum never would have heard of the internet). There were a few pally enquiries – fleeting moments, one in a million really – about girls, and music I taught myself to play. I resisted them at the time of course, but my brain has unilaterally decided to hold on to them as accessible, close-to-the-surface memories. Clearly I want to know that there was a seed of a friendship that could exist beyond the prescribed dynamic. Alas she was, and always will be, just a parent to me – more a policeman or a teacher than a human being. I have never known what she was really like. I try to piece her together, based on my memories and other people's. Dad tries to help, but he's an unreliable narrator, only interested in the positive, PR slant. I think that's his own coping mechanism, and there's worth in it, just not to my investigations. I just wish I could have known her as an adult. But I can't.

Something else comes to mind. Another insoluble problem that doubles up as a source of pain. This one is new (funny how grief matures with you). It's this: I wish so much that I could repay Mum for all the love she gave my brother and me. I think I know why this one has flared up in recent weeks, and burst into flames now. Partly it is what it is on face value: I would simply like to reciprocate. But it’s also about Dad. He's creeping up to 80 now, so I'm increasingly aware of the time we spend together, that he's pretty healthy now but one day won't be. Dad and I really have become friends since I've become an adult. It's a bittersweet pleasure to build a silo of love and memories with him over the years, while knowing that Mum and I never got to do the same. There's also the woman I was seeing last year. Having made it my modus operandi in adulthood to not allow myself to fall in love (can't think why), I lifted the lid. Just enough to get a tantalising glimpse of how sweet it feels to share your life with someone else. To love and be loved again. Perhaps I was lucky that I had to snap the lid shut before things got more serious. But it still hurt. And it still does. Then there's my brother. Having seen his hard edges soften at him having a baby, seeing him unleash his great reserves of love on to his little girl. We're both full of it.

There's one more thing, actually, a great wrecking ball that's hit me on this bench before. It's an old nemesis, and I have no defences to it. I wish, more than anything else, that I'd talked to Mum more when I got home from school. When she was off sick long-term, lonely and unhappy. Just wanting to speak to her youngest son. I didn't have it in me. The fact that I was a teenager partly gets me off the hook. Emotional awareness and empathy aren't a 13-year-old boy's strongest suits. Especially not towards the generation above. We also didn't have that sort of relationship at that time. But then, all she wanted was some company. All I wanted was to play computer games. Had I known what Prozac was, the penny might have dropped. I might have got it, and gone upstairs to have Ribena and a cherry bakewell on her bed and tell her about my day. I wish hadn't left her room after the most cursory hellos, time and time again. But I did. I can't do anything about that now.

It's funny. I think I'm at peace with this stuff. Day to day, week to week, it really feels like I am. In fact I think it's made me a better person, in a roundabout way, valuing the right things in life. Then I do my annual ritual and it breaks my heart all over again. Does that mean I'm not at peace with it after all? I honestly have no idea. I don't want to be so emotionally cauterised that I can't feel sad for my mum. Also I know that I am vulnerable to depression. Not the bleak, paralysing kind of depression some poor souls have to suffer. At best it's a case of finding it hard to enjoy myself. At worst it feels like drowning. The signs were there when I was a child; a few house meetings were convened on the matter. On hindsight, I realise I got it from Mum.

Something it's taken me a long time to learn is that mental health problems are often irrational, and that's completely OK. To my mind, the rational variety of depression is in response to external factors, like illness or poverty or social exclusion. That could happen to anyone. The so-called “irrational” variety of depression is simply the fact that some people are prone to it, even if nothing is obviously wrong. They're just wired that way – call it a chemical imbalance in the brain. And of course, if you hit the jackpot, you get a combination of the irrational and rational depression.

I know that I am somewhat wired towards depression and isolation, but not enough to stop me from living a broadly normal life. But it's taken me a long time to figure all this out. I used to feel bad for feeling low if there wasn't an obvious reason for it. This is why, in my naive grief, there was a part of me that was almost pleased when Mum died. Not while we were in intensive care sat round the bed with all the wires and monitors, of course, but later on, and not even at a conscious level. It was small, but it was there. Suddenly, my life spent at the edge of glumness could be justified. I had my real-world reason for my chemical imbalance. I didn't realise that I didn't need a reason.

On hindsight I don’t think I did the classic five stages of grief. I got it down to a much more economical two: “shock” then “getting on with things”. I have Dad's postwar stoicism to thank for this, and my relative youth, which I think protected me in the immediate aftermath. In the few months after Mum died, I passed my driving test, did well in my A-levels, then went off to university a largely functional human being. I honestly don't remember when I did my grieving. I can only conclude that it's been on a kind of slow-release mechanism all this time, like those air fresheners you get in airport toilets – every now and then, the timer goes off and out puffs another little mist of grief. The most overt expression of my grieving was that for a long time I didn't want to ever play the “dead mum” card, didn't want to blame it if I ever did something that required explanation. It was a highly attractive mix of stubbornness, denial and machismo – I was fine, I could lose a parent and just shake it off, no bother.

I do still believe that I got away lightly compared to some people, totally by chance. But I have accepted that it's had a profound effect on my life, and that the hole can’t really be filled (although it can be worked-around). So now, and presumably ad infinitum, life is a semi-constant tug-of-war in terms of my mental health. I find forming and sustaining relationships, even close friendships, difficult. My anxiety and low self-esteem can be socially crippling. As a result I withdraw. I'm now what you might call too independent. I've learned to live without pesky people, but I still need them, badly. It's like I've been sent down a never-ending blind alley. When I'm fine and operating as a normal human being, it's a relief. I'm aware that the chemicals have aligned, and I'm OK, so I enjoy it while I can.

So why do I feel like losing my mum at 17 has made me a better person? Do I even believe that? Maybe I mean that I wouldn't change it, because the parallel life is such a distant and nebulous prospect, I can't even covet it. Maybe, for all the problems I still have, I have accepted my life and how I am, and that means accepting what happened. I can't reel off a list of delightful new-found character traits I've developed as a result of Mum dying early. You might think it's made me stronger and less scared of death, but oddly I think it's made me even more scared of death, which is a blow. Half my rationale for getting a cat was to address that.

Back on my bench, I think I'm ready to go. Funny how getting upset is so physically draining. My limbs feel floppy. I've been taken out of the moment anyway by a man behind me in the crematorium car park, who's trying to find something, or someone, called Robin. Something about his tone suggests it's a dog, but then Robin seems an oddly regular name for a dog, like Ian, or Tristan. Regardless, the man isn't tuned into the cemetery vibe. I take some deep breaths. Pollen in the air. I can feel how scarlet and blotchy my face is. I've always envied people who can cry and leave no facial evidence.

I'm done. I get up and take a deep breath. I turn round and see the man through the trees, alone. Again, he doesn't look exactly gripped with grief, but when I look closer, I can make out a wreath inside his 5p plastic bag. He's on the phone, clearly waiting for someone. He won't have spotted me from where he's standing and I leave him in his obliviousness.

I take the dappled route back to the real world, down the smaller paths, with just the wildlife for company. My body feels heavy, my muscles weak. When I reach the main road back to the iron gates, a young woman appears in front of me. She's alone too, sauntering in a relaxed manner and taking photos. Research, I assume. I pass her with a wide berth. Closer to the exit, the male of the young couple I saw on my way in is by himself on a bench, reading a book but still vigilant for the return of his girlfriend.

I go out the gates, to the noise and the stimulation and the indefatigable parade of life that is Norwood High Street on a Saturday morning. I cross the road and wait for my bus under the shelter, hiding my wretched face and bloodshot eyes. People are everywhere, moving, talking, doing their thing. Up my end of the red plastic bench, I feel shattered. But I also feel loved, and thankful.

I'm 38 years old and live in Brixton, south London. I'm a journalist at the Guardian newspaper.

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