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Vol. 42 No. 6 · 19 March 2020
Diary

‘Mummy est morte’

Christopher de Bellaigue

4567 words

De Bellaigue?’ The voice belonged to one of the senior boys in the house, someone who had never spoken to me before. I looked up from my desk, where I was surveying my untouched homework. It was the afternoon of Sunday, 10 February 1985. ‘Jaques wants to see you.’ He turned and walked away.

I had first seen Jaques’s private quarters on the day I entered Eton a few weeks earlier, a term later than most of the other members of the 1984 intake. Since then I had been admitted once a week to his sitting room for tutorials with the other boys in my year. But this occasion was different. Pushing the swing door I felt a thrill of alarm. Jaques was standing in the hall at the bottom of his stairs wearing the red leather slippers and grey cardigan that meant he was off duty. ‘Christopher,’ he greeted me in a kindly voice. ‘Hello, sir,’ I said, with a vague sense of relief that I wasn’t to be punished. He was holding the telephone receiver. ‘It’s your father on the telephone.’

‘Christopher?’ my father said. ‘I’ve got bad news.’ He said this in French, the language he used when talking to me. I knew exactly what he would say, he would say Bill Ladd’s dead. Bill Ladd was my grandmother’s husband, my step-grandfather. Bill Ladd had been ill for ages. I was looking at the floor, made up of narrow strips of wood in repeated V shapes. My father said: ‘Mummy est morte.’

I realise now that he wanted me to know that my mother was dead before he saw me. He wanted my absorption of the news to have begun by the time we came face to face. Those three words, ‘Mummy is dead,’ would constitute the only conversation he and I ever had about my mother’s death.

My thoughts after I handed the telephone back were dominated by the herringbone pattern on Jaques’s floor. After making some suitable expression of sorrow and allowing the palm of his hand to glance my shoulder, Jaques had fetched me a glass of water. What now? I could go back to my room or he could tell me his thoughts about death. He was a classicist. References from antiquity were available. Instead he said that I could probably do with some fresh air before my father arrived from London.

I opened Jaques’s door and started walking down Common Lane. My mind was now occupied by two thoughts. The first was that there had been a mix-up. For weeks Bill Ladd had been very weak. He was old, around eighty, whereas my mother was in her mid-fifties. It was his turn to die, not hers. The second thought, which grew in intensity as I walked past the various boarding houses, had to do with the inadvisability of crying. I had seen a few boys my age weep from unhappiness or homesickness, but the slight pity I had felt for them was tempered by something approaching contempt. The only time my mother had properly broken down in front of me, she had pulled herself together for long enough to phone a neighbour and arrange for me to stay the night with her. I had never seen a man cry. I had never seen my father cry.

At the far end of Common Lane was my friend Nash’s house. As I approached, he emerged from the boys’ entrance. He grinned. ‘Hi,’ he said.

‘My mother’s dead,’ I replied.

While Nash and I wandered around the fives courts he asked me how she had died. I said I didn’t know. Other than death in war or old age, the question of mortality was fairly opaque to me. But Nash’s line of thinking obliged me to recognise that my mother must have died of something. The way my father had said ‘Mummy is dead’ seemed to embed the cause of death in the phrase – as if she had died of death itself. That was a tricky idea to put across, so I contented myself with telling Nash that I would find out sooner or later. But Nash was a comparatively worldly boy and this did not satisfy him. ‘Do you think she committed suicide?’ he asked. I didn’t understand my mother’s illness, but it was obviously ridiculous to think she might die of that strange, unknowable thing. Manic depression was upsetting without actually being a killer. You died from cancer or a heart attack. You didn’t die from being unable to go out to the shops. I immediately saw the danger of giving even provisional credence to Nash’s theory. It was a fact that my mother loved me. That she would do nothing to hurt me was another fact. She had assured me of these things enough times, while holding me in her arms, while hugging and cuddling me and calling me those embarrassing names that I had forbidden her to use in public. If she was as proud of me as she always said she was, if she loved me as she insisted she did, then why would she want to leave me, hurt me? Why would she betray me?

I went back to my room and my father arrived. He put his hand on the top of my head and ruffled my hair, which was what he did when he wanted to show affection or concern. An overnight bag was procured. He took me to his brother’s, where I was to stay for a while. My uncle looked after the queen’s works of art and lived in an apartment in Windsor Castle. That first night, sitting on the end of my bed, my aunt first expressed ideas that would become familiar to me, that my mother was in a better place and at peace after a life that had become hard for her to bear. But these ideas left much room for interpretation, and over the next few days my perspective on events would come to resemble the view through a municipal telescope fixed on a promenade. Were those objects in the distance terns, or rubbish that had been emptied onto the surface of the sea? Was the headland swathed in fog or had the lens, already scored by the elements, been attacked by condensation? Was it even a headland, in fact, or was it the nose of a tanker? And then the ten pence ran out and there was just darkness.

I became a day boy, walking across the bridge every morning or being driven in by my aunt. This was obviously a temporary state of affairs. From my father’s words whenever I saw him or we spoke on the phone, and from Jaques’s little chats, I knew that there was every sympathy for my predicament but it was desirable that I resume the old routines as soon as possible. I put up no resistance because their system was mine too. My 13 years had taught me that to appease emotion was to encourage self-doubt, and that with sufficient will and application almost any obstacle could be overcome. I was more committed to these principles than my mother, who tried to stick to them only to come into open rebellion in the final years of her life. While the system advised stoicism and silence, she raged and railed, and where had that got her?

After a couple of weeks I went back and stayed back. Each day brought a small cascade of letters from the outside world. They agreed on several points: that my mother had been proud of me, that she had loved me very much, that she was now in a better place. Some of the letters anticipated that I would be brave. Others commended me for having been brave already.

I got back from lessons one afternoon to find my spare uniform back from the dry-cleaners and a letter from her still scrunched up in the inside pocket:

My Darling,

I miss you lots and LOTS but left you last night feeling happy about you.

Your room looked like you with all your clutter in place, surrounded as you were by all your own things – looked as though you had lived there for weeks. I think you felt a lot better, too?

I liked Mr Jaques – I liked the other new boys and their parents. I’ve been thinking of you and looking at my watch to see what you might be doing.

Very impressive and official as you ‘signed in’ like your relations and forebears before you!

And so on. I flattened the letter onto my desk thinking how odd it was that until a month ago I didn’t even keep my mother’s letters and now if someone came in and took this sheet from me I would kill him.

I hadn’t been very welcoming the last time she visited. That final visit, the Sunday before the Sunday, she had taken me out for tea before coming up to my room and admiring the collage of fashion models that was its main decorative feature, my bed which folded up against the wall, my carpet which had been worn to blotting paper. Then it was time for her to go. I lingered at my door, doing the necessary calculations. To accompany her down to the boys’ entrance and out to the car would be to acknowledge my association with this woman, this mother, perhaps in full view of the oldest boys in the house.

‘Aren’t you going to see me out?’ she said brightly.

‘No,’ I replied.

Being a son couldn’t be removed easily like a verruca, as I discovered from the frequency with which she came into my head during those early weeks. That some little triumph or wrinkle in events would need to be communicated to her, either by letter or the coin-operated phone on the ground floor of the house, became my standing joke, with me as comedian, audience and butt. Who else would send me a French dictionary to replace the one I had lost? Who else would trill satisfaction on hearing that I had been selected for the junior house team? Who else would be interested to know that I had been to the school doctor for my booster shot?

The unvarying result of these imaginative forays was my realisation that any possibility of speaking to her or writing her a letter or sharing anything more at all had been foreclosed for ever. It was a joke I played on myself with tedious frequency. Each time I summoned her and my brain laboured through the problem before concluding that my very premise was wrong, it was like opening a door with a bucket on it and being drenched by the same freezing water that drenched you yesterday and the day before that.

My mother was ill from around 1980 until her death in 1985. After my parents’ marriage collapsed and my father moved out, my mother, my brother and I shared a contracting world, as more and more friends, relations and acquaintances cut themselves off from her – dropping her because she was impossible, deluded, an embarrassment, because she was irrationally preventing an orderly divorce. The more the others washed their hands of her, the more I clung. I didn’t enjoy living with her. I hated it. But no bribe or threat could have taken me away.

Many years later I was told that for a boy and his suicidal mother to live together might be against the law. What seems likely is that if those conditions were repeated today I would be taken away for my own good. But I’m not sure that being taken away would have helped me. My mother was as integral to me as my arm. Regardless of whether it worked well or badly, it was still my arm. And amputation, whether it happens through social services or a hose in a garage attached to an exhaust pipe, is still amputation.

In a place like Eton the imprint of a boy’s mother was of necessity small. I mistrusted those few items that brought her back into focus. If my eye lingered on the name tape sewn onto the hem of a sock I immediately saw her on the orange sofa at home, with her glasses at the end of her nose and her thumb jammed into her thimble. A mother wetting a navy blue thread, running it through the eye of the needle, yanking after the final stitch. Why don’t you tie a knot, I used to ask; it’ll come undone. No it won’t, she replied. That name tape will last longer than I will. The image of a name tape being sewn on was probably more important to me than it would have been to another boy, because as an expression of maternal competence it signified a pause in mental illness, a return to the realm of the normal. So, after her death, in circumstances of relative weakness – perhaps when I had been spoken to slightingly by an older boy – these name tapes retained the power to make me tremble. I would look away while putting on my socks.

To judge by my reports at the end of that term, I didn’t disgrace myself. ‘He had, of course, more to endure than any other new boy in my memory,’ Jaques wrote. ‘But he was keen to cope by himself, and there were many occasions when he joined in happily with the others. He will have a great deal to offer, and I am very pleased to have him in the House.’ Eton would be my accomplice in recovery: the rival elites of boys, sporting, academic, dramatic and so on, and the division of these elites into smaller elites, so that every atom in the place diffused a doctrine of competition – the school was the enemy of moping and speculation.

She was to be buried next to her parents in Canada. For reasons that were not entirely clear to me, they had emigrated there after the First World War, and my mother had spent her childhood in the Prairies. At first, I wasn’t going to attend the funeral. Then, for some reason, I was suddenly in the team. We flew to Canada: my father, my brother and myself, her body in the hold beneath us. I don’t remember the flights. I don’t remember who was in the church, whether there was sun or rain. Of the moment when her coffin was lowered into the earth I remember nothing.

My Aunt Diana lived in Canada. She sent me a letter after our return to England:

These are just a few lines to tell you how much I admired your courage for coming here and for the way you coped with the situation when you were here. It takes a great deal of courage to allow oneself to honestly face one’s feelings and to experience the terrible pain associated with the loss of one’s mother, regardless of one’s age. I hope that you will never allow yourself to feel that it is unmanly to cry.

I must have cried at the funeral for my aunt to write a letter like this. I must have cried a lot. But although she intended it as praise, I saw her letter as confirmation that I had failed to show the fortitude more reliable arbiters expected of me.

Before my mother was ill our lives had been full of friends and relations, laughter, invitations. Then our circle emptied and our sense of injustice grew. Where were all these people who had professed to love her? They were out in good numbers for the memorial service back in London. Here were all the people who had dropped her, who had cut her dead: I knew the language of social ostracism because I had spent years living it. I wept for fury, and as the service went on my tears grew harder and my heaving and rocking got wilder because I hated myself for crying in front of people who weren’t my allies, who were just pretending to be, who expected me to give up my mother because she was dead.

The final elements of the new order soon fell into place. My father remarried. He and my stepmother bought a house. My room was on the top floor. My brother helped me paint it. My mother was never mentioned in this new home. Silence also prevailed at school. There, when other boys mentioned their own mothers it was in reference to someone who had just done something of note or had given them something they desired or didn’t want. Next to these living mothers my dead one was irrelevant. There was nothing to say about her other than that she was dead, and that would be a downer for everyone.

In the summer​ of 2018 my family was away for six weeks in Iran. I took two trunks from under the eaves at home. The larger contained material to do with my mother and her parents and ran from the late Victorian era until the 1970s. The smaller trunk contained my personal archive divided into two large cardboard boxes. The first box contained reports and exercise books, uniform lists, bills, notices to parents about the flu jab, and letters that I had written home from prep school. The unifying feature of this material was that she was present. The correspondence addressed her, she had ticked off or written ‘already got’ next to items of uniform, pencilled answers onto the school’s general knowledge quiz and scribbled down the address of a friend I would stay with after sports day. The question mark she placed opposite a spelling mistake I made in one of my letters managed to convey both amusement and frigid disapproval. The second box ran from her death to my late twenties, a mass of letters, postcards, cinema tickets, photographs, rejection letters, love letters, entry stubs, birthday cards and wedding invitations – none of them betraying the slightest hint that she had ever existed. I also found a few minutes of home video. I watched a boy and his mother both in shorts, she holding the mahogany-look cigarette holder I hated so much. The sequence ended with her sitting on a garden chair with her legs outstretched and me clambering up her legs. I was already a little large for this manoeuvre. From my perch I stared into her eyes, wanting something from her, some approval. She stared back.

I retrieved my memories obsessively.

I threw down the paisley tie she insisted I wear to Gideon’s party and experienced again the screaming row we had.

I shrank from her quiet fury after I broke my promise not to buy sweets. It’s not the sweets but the lying, she said evenly, and surely you have enough brains to realise that crossing your fingers behind your back isn’t an excuse?

She hadn’t thought much of my linguistic experimentations. I’m not overly impressed with your discovery of the word ‘mate’. Do you think it’s right for you to call the newsagent ‘mate’? That degree of familiarity and you’re not even eight? Are you a sailor? And ‘cheers’? When were you last in a pub? But she was smiling, because she liked it when I got ahead of myself.

I had a need to possess her that I didn’t feel in relation to anyone else. She was mine in the car on the way to my first school and on the way home again, and during supper, before my father got back from the office. Apart from when she was riding for the disabled and feeding Pushkin the cat and buying veg at the market and mending socks and buying the Evening Standard – apart from all this, she was mine.

Mrs Connor came out of the utility room. That’s the ironing done, she said. I’ll see you next week, please God. She kissed me on the top of my head. Oh I do miss that other one, though, she added. So do we all, Mrs C, my mother said, so do we all.

Now, be a darling and get my cigarette holder from my bedroom, will you? And would you please not rampage in the spare room which Mrs C has just done up because we have your godfather’s son Crispin staying tomorrow night?

I sat at the table looking at my supper. She had opened the kitchen door and was standing on the step smoking, while the radio played ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’. I could hear the traffic from the Edgware Road. She stood on the step looking out at the backs of the houses behind the wall at the end of the garden.

The winters were something out of this world, she said. When I couldn’t sleep, she said, I’d open the window and listen, determined to hear something, even if it was just the sound of the snowflakes as they landed on the earth. I’d concentrate so hard the silence became painful and then I’d realise I was freezing and shut the window again.

You don’t get silence like that in England. Always birdsong, a rustle or an exhaust.

She came inside, shutting the door. She took the stub out of her cigarette holder, threw it away, got a new cigarette out of the pack. After lighting it, she looked at my plate and said with annoyance: I do wish you wouldn’t be so fussy about a harmless white sauce.

Get on with the story please, I said.

You get on with your supper. You can have a choc ice when you’ve finished.

I love choc ices.

Shaking her head, dropping the spent match into an ashtray. Love isn’t the right word for choc ices. Love is the strongest word we have and it shouldn’t be overused. It’s for people or places. You can’t say, I love spaghetti, though you might say: I love Paris.

I love Paris.

Capitulation and smiles. Go on then. Go and get it from the freezer. The phone rang. Priscilla? Can I ring you back in a bit? I’m just giving Christopher his supper. She put the phone down and said matter-of-factly: there were no fridges then.

No fridges?

But we had a failsafe supply of ice. We’d have been able to keep your precious choc ice cold in the middle of summer. How do you think we managed that, clever clogs?

She disliked London. She disliked cooking. If there was one thing she had vowed not to do, it was to get stuck in the kitchen. Her dissatisfaction made her a storyteller, and the story she told, of a little girl growing up opposite a great river flowing through the Prairies, seemed incredible to a little boy growing up opposite a London canal.

When she was a child she had ridden bareback across fields that went on to infinity. She owned a three-legged mink that went down the neck of her shirt and came out at the end of her sleeve. In the winters, when the River Saskatchewan froze solid, Grandmama would hitch the cutter to her horse and the children would hitch their sleighs to the cutter and away they’d go, across the river.

She was crossing the Atlantic on the Empress of Britain on the day in September 1939 when the Athenia, a liner on the same route, was torpedoed by a U-boat. The names of Sylvia, Diana and Michael Rodney – my mother and two of her siblings –were mistakenly put on the Athenia’s passenger list and their parents thought they were dead until the Empress of Britain put into Halifax, Nova Scotia. My mother showed me the photo in the paper of the three Britishers after their ‘eventful’ passage, grinning from ear to ear. It was impossible – literally impossible – for me to conceive of anything more exciting.

Six weeks is easily long enough to go insane but somehow I intuited the rules of thumb. After each day in the material I would arrange an evening activity, something to take me away from the attic room and into another space, preferably creative, always human, involving contact and conversation. If I had nothing on I would bike over to the Albert Hall and stand among the Prommers. I took regular exercise, swimming most days, refrained from drinking by myself, the usual safeguards.

Gradually I exhausted my memories, pulled them up until there weren’t any more, grew indifferent to them, and as I did I had the strongest sense of having returned from somewhere less encumbered than when I had set out. Not only lighter, but also refreshed, having relived my mother vividly after more than thirty years. She had loved me. I was lucky. I had never thought of myself as lucky.

I came out of the pre-teen state into which I had contrived myself and was again an analytical middle-aged man. We passed each other on the way, my two selves, and eyed each other without affection.

Even allowing for the permitted dysfunctions of the aristocracy, my mother’s family was special. My grandmother’s father wasn’t her father. My grandfather’s father used his wife’s hands to stub out his cigarettes. My other great-grandfather got the butler down on his hands and knees and whipped him around the dining room. The castles and sporting lodges were the stage for unflagging sexual rapacity, children not exempt. It was little wonder my grandparents fled to Canada. But my mother was too good a storyteller. My aunt Diana corrected her blissful account. If not as wanton and corrupt as the world the Rodneys had left behind, the farm was just as unhappy and vastly more lonely. The means my grandmother used to deal with her son George’s death in North Africa in 1942: silence, denial and an opened vein.

No one actually told me my mother had committed suicide. That information was never volunteered. In order to find out how she died I put the limited data at my disposal through the sieve of my mind, and suicide came out, just as Nash had said it would. To be quite sure I ended up asking someone a year after her death. Perhaps two years. With his nod a block of my life slipped smoothly into a channel that had been planed and grooved for it. It is impossible for me to imagine life without that reality. I don’t know who found my mother, or I have forgotten. I don’t want to know. A neighbour. It must have been difficult. Perhaps she had a serene expression on her face. Perhaps she was already no longer a human being, just a casing.

I used to feel strangely drawn to the garage where it happened, would effect small diversions in order to go past it, would fantasise about taking possession of the house again and living in it. I don’t feel that way any more.

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