Vanished: a thousand words for my mum (memoir)

by Kathy on January 8, 2011

In the “bio” section of this site,  written way-back-when, I begin by suggesting that  that my desire to write springs from “my father’s love of books and my mother’s habit of exaggeration.”  It’s true that these were both huge influences.  I remember Dad, on his birthday, giving me Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and how my desperation to unlock the words it contained (combined with my big sister’s patience) drove me to learn how to read, well before school even began. Later on, I  used to go and meet my father when he reutrned  from work at the end of the day.  Looking downhill towards the railway station, I could see the other men, smartly buttoned up,  stride homewards, their briefcases clutched rigidly in one hand, their eyes looking forward to their destinations. Dad, his coat or jacket open, was always right at the back of the group, increasingly left behind as the main group surged up the hill.  He did not stride, but ambled towards me, the book he had been reading on the train still open in his right hand, still reading as he walked. It was almost a shame to greet him. On holidays, the pari of us haunted second hand bookstands, and shared the same books: thrillers, sea stories, classics. I remember sitting up way past my bedtime while Dad wrote out the titles of books he thought I’d enjoy.

I could say much more about my father here, but my mother died recently, and,  as is the way when someone is lost, I have been thinking  a great deal about her and how she shaped my life, and especially my writing life. What I described as her habit of exaggeration was a wonderful thing.  She never wrote (other than letters) but she had a writer’s instincts. She knew how to make a story better by knocking out the distractions and upping the ante, and she knew how to make you notice her words, which were rarely bland, but often suggested a story, a drama of some kind. If one of us was late for a meal, we had vanished, or absconded.  It never merely rained – there would be a tempest or a deluge.  These words came aloud in your mouth and in your mind.

As well as modeling this vital skill, my mother continually encouraged us (and in turn, our children) to imagine and pretend. Looking at the family photographs  and slides my mother kept is a powerful reminder of this apprenticeship in the extended kind of pretending that I undertake as a novelist.  I was encouraged to talk to statues, animals and imaginary beings of many kinds, and sometimes she would join in this too.  My friends and I dressed up, made houses in trees, on the coal bunker  and under the table, and for the duration of the story we took our meals in role. We were allowed to play out our fantasies until they finally bored us or turned into something new. I think Mum encouraged imagination because she enjoyed it herself. What would it be like to have musical genius in the family? To fly first class?  To live in a mansion?

Occasionally, her generosity backfired on her, for all this exercise to my imagination made me quite a good liar, too. I convinced her of the existence of a school play, for which she duly made my costume and  in which she believed until the day of the performance was upon us, and later,  as a teenager, I set off with a backpack saying  I was going to volunteer on an archaeological dig (and did, briefly, appear at the site), but spent the rest of the week in a tent with my boyfriend.

My mother  was my first reader, and always appreciative; her suggestions for improvements were often excellent. She was a good typist and keen to add a professional touch, and also prepared to push me into action when she saw the need.

When school sent around a flyer encouraging all pupils  to enter a national children’s writing competition sponsored by Barclay’s Bank, she was determined that I should try. The brief for the contest was to write a short story set in a bank.

“You should do this,” she told me. “Nothing to lose. Look at the money you could win!”  In principle, I was willing. The year before, there had been a story contest sponsored by  The Royal Missions to Seamen, for a science fiction story. I had enjoyed  writing  my brooding piece about Cody, an astronaut who  slipped out of the spacecraft and launched  himself into outer space (and certain death) in order to experience something I called  Freedom. J.G. Ballard had picked my story, and signed his book Vermillion Sands for me… Yet  science fiction was one thing and banks were quite another: set in a bank?

Had I been more politically aware, I might have come up with something to do with Apartheid, given that Barclays was, at the time, heavily criticised for trading in South Africa. As it was, the only potential I could see was in bank–robbery, which everyone would do.

“Have you started it yet?’” Mum asked a few days later; she had a fair bit of time on her hands with just the one rather self-sufficient child to look after.

“Banks are so boring,”  I told her – and  as the words slipped out,  a  story came to me: two  male bank employees,  one in London, one in a place I rather vaguely called Africa,  both bored,  bored, bored.  A memo comes around, offering the opportunity to exchange posts.  Both bored employees jump at the chance, only to discover, once they have made the break and taken over each other’s lives that they are bored, bored, bored, the food is dreadful and they miss their friends!  I got it down as quickly as I could, and handed the scrawled sheets to Mum.

‘They won’t like this,” she said, “I mean, suppose you were them!” All the same, she typed it out at 70 wpm and, to give the bank credit where it is due, some months later a congratulatory letter and a cheque arrived. Really, my career has never been so simple or so successful since…

Mum’s own work life as a secretary at the BBC had ended when she fell pregnant for the first time and was therefore automatically dismissed, as per normal in the 1940s.  She enjoyed all her girls’ careers, and took great pleasure in my book reviews, appearances at literary festivals and so on, especially if international travel and decent hotels were involved. Until the last decade of her life she was too busy to be a great reader of books, but she read each of mine, and congratulated me on it in detail, often surprising me by what she saw in it. My most recent book  came out only a few months before her death and after it, when I let myself into the suddenly empty house, the book was still on display on her hall table.

We tend to simplify and idealize the dead, and perhaps in doing so we do both them and ourselves a disservice. So I will say here that it was not all dressing up in a sunlit garden. My mother was a powerful woman, a vivid, magnetic personality, and also a fighter, not at all inclined to doubt. There were periods of difficulty and conflict in our relationship, though fortunately we eventually got to the point where we could joke about them. As a writer, I thank Mum for the difficult times, too.  An unintended gift, they taught me  some of the most important things I know: how complex and contradictory we all are,  how anger can be a kind of caring. How hard we cling to each other. How vital struggle is to any story, and how deeply we yearn for its resolution.

Now, she has vanished.

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