I met Andrew back in December 2010 at a party in Soho. We got talking. In February, on our first ‘is-it-a-date-I’m-not-sure-maybe-perhaps’ we discussed (amongst other things of course) death, funerals, ashes and illness. It was much more fun than it sounds, but will give you a hint as to our mutual melancholy, and also put into context what happened 3 months later.
May, and the event that I knew would hang over me that month: the second anniversary of my mum’s death. I’ve been giving her a bit of a long goodbye and I had mentioned to Andrew that I would be running away that day, possibly to the sea. ‘You don’t have to be alone on the 13th’ he said. ‘If you fancy company for a day trip, I can join you.’ And so he did. Foregoing his effete middle class sensibilities (his words) we went to Southend-on-Sea, where I spent many days as a child, and as a teenager doing A Levels at the college. It was surprisingly hot and sunny. We saw topless men with angry red shoulders, couples making out on the shingle and a jogger running away from us with his shorts slipping further down. I had to look away when he jogged back towards us again. Andrew assures me it wasn’t worth seeing.
There was the promise of a lunchtime stripper at a sea-front pub (we didn’t go in); the amusement arcades were empty but for the odd solo man and Andrew and I mocking the prizes that no one ever wins. We laughed a lot, we talked a lot, we ate fish, chips and mushy peas, we walked that off along the mile-long pier and followed it up with ice cream and several miles of strolling to Leigh-on -Sea where we drank our body weight and forgot to have dinner. It was, in Andrew’s words, ‘a beautiful day’. I had to agree.
A couple of weeks later he sent me something he’d written about our day together; said he wanted to remember it. A couple of months after that, it made its way onto his own blog, as the last of his summer death trilogy (ho ho ho). You can read it here.
I cried, obviously, once I’d read his, and it made me think about my own take on the events of that day. I was struck by how similar his memory was to mine – we had started talking more seriously; I did get a little anxious as I knew the time to scatter was approaching and this changed the atmosphere between us; I had just instinctively read the situation and knew I had to do it there and then.
After reading his work, I wrote my corresponding piece quickly: it poured out of me and remained hardly changed after several read-throughs. Here it is below:
He brought it up first, mentioning a friend of his – ‘another MS-er’. It was the first time he’d raised the subject in person and it was probably partly indicative of the way things were going on the pier – still relaxed, still comfortable as the talk turned serious, our non-stop chatter becoming infused with thoughts of why we were there in the first place. I asked questions, he gave answers, a little light relief before what was to come. The conversation took a slightly different turn and so did I.
‘This is really hanging over me now,’ I said. He took charge; not in a controlling way, but in a manner that made me feel looked after. He pointed out the changing tide, the sandbanks, the train that was about to leave from the beginning of the pier, the people approaching on foot. There was a shelter a little way back, with benches either side. It seemed like the right place. ‘Ok. I’m going to do this now.’ I walked back, determined. Andrew stayed, respectfully, where he was. There was a silver Thermos flask burning a hole through my bag and me. I took it out, walked to the edge and looked back at Andrew, who smiled encouragingly. I took the lid off the flask and gently tipped some of the contents out. The wind blew them back a little – my mum, the contents of her coffin and the coffin itself of course, the consistency of cat litter and fine ash, the latter settling on my lips and skin. I bent down, pushed my hand through the gap in the railings and emptied the rest of my mum into the sea, where she floated away, part carried by the breeze and part by the water. As I do often, I told her how much I missed her, how much I loved her, and I talked in my head of the times we had spent on this pier long ago, when I had two parents. Now I had none. I became conscious of the train edging closer and I stood and turned; Andrew, still that respectful distance away, met my cautious grin with a big smile.
Sitting back on the bench I heard the creak of the boardwalk planks as he approached. I can’t remember if we spoke at this time, but I do remember that he sat next to me, put his arm around my shoulders, and I leaned in to him. We sat in silence, the longest silence there’s ever been between us. It was the right thing to do. When I took my head away from his shoulder, he spoke, asking me: ‘Are you like her?’* And in those few words he gave me one of the best gifts of this glorious day – the chance to speak about my mum to someone who hadn’t heard it all before; the chance to think about how I am like her and how I am not. I couldn’t do either of us justice of course, in that short time, but I outlined us both in answer to this lovely question.
She would never have thought to do what I was there to do that day with Andrew, but she would have loved that I did it. And she would have loved that I didn’t cry. There was little room in her hard life for tears. And it is in this way that we are least alike.
*I sent Andrew my response a couple of days later and he replied that actually he’d said something else to break the silence: an offer of water to ‘wash your mum out of the flask’. We both laughed. Because she would have.