BEING A SOMEWHAT WITHDRAWN and awkward child, I had always been rather scared of her. The trips to her dingy basement flat in Kentish Town were undertaken in our battered camper-van (my parents being the liberal sort who seem to strive to embarrass their materialistic children in every conceivable way). I would watch the rain through the window with a sense of uneasy excitement bubbling through my veins. Upon entering, the same curious scent would always inflame our nostrils; an earthy mixture of rotting cabbage and unidentifiable herbs. Piles of yellow books lined the base of the walls, upon which hung faded black-and-white pictures of mysterious people. She would totter about, a tiny wizened thing, cackling with my mother and offering us cups of repulsive tea and stale ginger nuts. She would bark commands at me in her incomprehensible Irish accent. I would stand, transfixed and confused. She would stare and stare until my mother interjected in a less alien manner. Realisation would shit on me like a tonne of bricks, and I would go and fetch her walking stick, glasses or paper, sweating with embarrassment. I think I thought her to be a witch.
Before she got too bad, we would go for walks around her small corner of North London. I recall watching the wind threaten to tear off her musky coat in a shower of golden horse-chestnut leaves near Marx’s tomb. On one occasion, we were about to leave her flat when my mother noticed that her tiny purple feet were fully exposed. She refused to tell us where her shoes were. I was delighted, viewing walks as a particularly pointless activity. Eventually, after stern instruction, I discovered them in the fridge (they were the only things in there). When we returned, her keys proved to be similarly elusive. We had to break in through the back window. My mother had once visited to check up on her and found several homeless men and a stray dog sharing the flat with her. She spent much of her time in the Gloucester Arms, and was well known as a character there. The council, or ‘gobshites’ as she called them, sent her frequent eviction letters, and my mother had to spend long periods of time haranguing bureaucrats over the phone.
Eventually, dementia did what the local authorities could not and she was relocated to an old people’s home in Cricklewood. We visited on one of those dull, overcast days when the rain can’t be bothered to fall. Bleach, clinical white lights and orderly linoleum invaded our senses. We went up in the lift, and found her lying down in a bed on castors in a room too boring to describe. Her already diminutive stature appeared to have been reduced even further. But she sat up when she saw us and her eyes had light and I believe that she almost knew who we were.
My mother tried to coax conversation out of her, but was not very successful. She garbled something about her time as a missionary during the Spanish Civil War, but was obscured by drool. This made me uncomfortable and, scrambling for an excuse to get away, I mentioned that we should go and check on the dog in the car. She became animated:
‘A dog! Why’s he not here?’
We explained that the home wouldn’t allow it, but she was having none of it. She insisted that the dog be brought up. Eventually I was told to go with my mother to the car park. While she smoked a fag and the dog pissed on an Audi, I wandered around the side of the building. I gazed across the main line from St. Pancras, watching goods trains hurtle towards the exotic delights of Milton Keynes, hellish retail parks, gasometer skeletons and weedy wasteland stretching out endlessly on the other side of the tracks. The sky still stubbornly refused to do anything interesting.
Getting the dog up to her room was a military operation which my ten-year-old mind relished. My mother anxiously attempted to control the excited animal on the leash. I peeked around corners, both my middle and index fingers clasped together, ready to take down any nurses on sight. We finally got him in and the old lady clapped her hands in delight. She called the dog towards her but he seemed unwilling. We had to drag him over, whereupon she proceeded to rub him with her papery hands, her parchment lips smiling and her eyes closed in rapture while the dog trembled nervously. I believe he thought her to be a witch.
The funeral was a very Catholic affair: lots of Latin, no smiling. Her immediate family, who had never visited her, sat at the front. We sat at the back. The priest praised her good deeds, her caring nature and her strong faith. She was sure to go to heaven, just like all the others he had to see that day. He made no mention of her having been a missionary during the Spanish Civil War. Outside the church, I overheard her brother, a pompous buffoon with an extremely red nose say,
‘I never really understood her. I don’t think anyone did. She was such a strange girl, running away like that when she had everything she could want back at home…’
I saw him discreetly draw on his hip flask, presumably for the sake of clarity.
I watched an old guy stumble along the other side of the road with a battered can of Special Brew clutched in his gnarled hand. I smiled while they all tutted around me. It was a glorious spring morning, and the horse-chestnut leaves sparkled emerald green all the way down the street.
Daniel studied English at the University of Sussex where he participated in a student poetry group, performing his own work and having it published in the group's magazine. He lives in London.
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