So we are selling up and have to clear all your stuff from the attic. The boys brought it down from the attic to what used to be Kitty’s room. Kitty said, “Mum, it’s like tons of stuff, not all of it Paul’s, but literally, it’s tons.”
“Do you mean literally in the non- literal sense, as our friend used to tell us she was ‘literally bathing in sweat’ and it made us laugh and grossed us out at the same time? Or do you mean literally as in truly?’” It’s a fair question. We are a family of talkers and exaggerators. She tells me wait and see.
So I go to the house to open my daughter’s old room and the door is just blocked with wall to wall boxes, there is not even a little passageway like you see in those programmes about people with OCD. It’s like Charlie Chaplin opening the door to a wall of snow, after a snow storm. A sea of boxes, each one overstuffed with things from your living life, with your wife, and before your wife. The forecast calls for storms. I feel strangely seasick.
I try to pull out one of the middle boxes, like giant Jenga, and manage to not drop the ones on top, which plonk down on the bottom ones with a heavy thud. I remember when you lived on the top floor as the same block of flats where we lived, when I was pregnant with Kitty, and climbing all these stairs, puffed out with my heavy pregnancy, walking slowly and heavily like an elephant in platform shoes. I called though your letterbox, “Paul, let me in, I need to pee….” But you were asleep, or not there. You are not here now, not ever. And yet you are everywhere, in these fucking boxes, hundreds of em.
I manage to carve out a Michele sized passage way, opening some of the dusty boxes with bits poking through them. A tripod. A shitload of band flyers for your various bands. Boxfuls of faded Christmas tree decorations and Halloween stuff: your wife was a big fan of both. Big box of home bar equipment. You had beautiful cocktail glasses. Oh God those cocktails. No I mustn’t. Just for today I am not going to drink. I have to say this every day, to not drink. But those home bars. We did love them. First Eddie got a bar. Then we got one, which proved to be my undoing, our little oval lit up monster maker in the corner, soon to be my favourite toy, a drunk’s version of a Wendy House. You had a bar corner and a beautiful black and grey ice bucket. I don’t remember the bar, if you had one. If nothing was clean we’d drink out of Arsenal coffee mugs anyway. Your father said, at your funeral, that you didn’t believe in God, you believed in Arsenal. That got a laugh, the sad funereal forced laugh you do when you want to cry.
More stuff. A guitar stand which topples onto my left shoulder. Boxes and boxes of damp ruined red velvet. A strobe light. A vintage effects pedal. Hundreds of unsold CD singles of your band. Bettie Page posters and magazines. A Velvet Underground fanzine I loaned you but you never returned, Now, you are really never returning, which puts the magazine thing in perspective. A box filled with the most awful clothes that are meant to be yours, including your strange Japanese 17 year old tourist with I Love Kitty everything ( not my Kitty, the other Kitty) Camden market style punk clothing. Irony or just plain bad dress sense? You kept me guessing. You and your big girly fun fur coats. The campest straight guy I knew.
I remember the job lots you used to buy from the BBC costume department, because you’ll never know when you need 30 size six dresses in a checked Dolly Parton style , for a Benny Hill episode with a big country Western dance scene at the end. “The whole lot for a tenner, you bragged at the time, in your miniscule flat, now filled with dresses no one could wear. I tried one on, and it fit beautifully. But I didn’t want 30 of them. That was 30 years ago, 87, I think. We stayed up all night on speed, playing the same Television album over and over, trying to decide if Tom Verlaine’s nasal vocals added or detracted from his guitar playing. We played Glory fifty times at least, just for the opening riff. That was the sort of stuff we’d do not even on speed. Just to make sure we weren’t missing anything.
I sniff everything, like a dog, anxious to find something, anything, that faintly smells of you, that strange mixture of sweat, vintage clothing and whatever it was you put in your hair to quiff it up, when you had enough hair to quiff up. But everything smells of dust and damp and shaved wood and rotting cardboard. Those pink and black hounds tooth trousers , price tag still on ( twenty quid) – something a born again Christian would wear, with a polo neck and polyester leisure jacket, in the early 60s, on the cover of a knitting pattern magazine, you wally. I am looking for a trace of you, not just your stuff, a trace of the friendship that partially defined me for over 20 years, my best friend, and I think I was your best friend, ( you were so loved by so many, I must not be the only one to claim you for BF status) the one who stayed up with you watching a documentary about the Jonestown Massacre on Christmas day, when everyone had gone to sleep, stuffed and drunk, we watched them drink the Kool Aid and become bloated bodies in the forest. It seemed Christmasy to us.
The very thing that defined me and made me feel OK, you, your absence became the new thing that defined me. When you died in 2010, the only thing I knew how to do was be sadder than anyone else, I even had to out-sad your devastated wife and parents. I did this by becoming a raging alcoholic and pill head and walking out on my family, to live in a small room and drink, and think about you. Now, I am somewhat reconciled with the family I so selfishly left, not enough to live there, but enough to be nice and fair. And here I am, wading through boxes of the life you lived so outrageously, so passionately with your wife, with your music, with your strange obsessions with Jimmy Swaggart and other telly evangelists, your nerdiness about Mac computers, even your taped answerphone messages.
You were a curator before everyone became one. I choke as I hear my own, younger voice on your answerphone tape, sounding all warped and watery, the cassettes not swimming well in the attic damp storm. “Hey Paul, it’s Kirschy, are you coming to the Mean Fiddler with me or not, or shall we just meet at the Killer after the gig?” The Killer was our local pub, on average a police incident or at least a glassing a couple of times a week. A girl drunkenly calling your phone, while dancing on a table at your own gig. “Paul, I’m dancing on the table, at your gig, and ringing you at home. How mad is that?” Then an interview tape, something for your work ( the day job- a journalist) with a guy saying the biggest spend of social security will be residential care of the elderly and things like “ medication reminder systems” -an alert to take your pills. You never got to be elderly. I never forget to take my medication.
I am making good progress. I have four piles. One for charity. One for the junk yard, one for me, one for your wife…your widow. I understand the need for tangible memorabilia, that by touching your stuff it will somehow magically bring you back to me, that that smokey glass and steel coffin going behind the curtain never happened, that I didn’t get trashed at your funeral and fall down in the disabled toilets, trying to hoist myself up by the emergency cord. But it’s all an illusion.
It’s just a bunch of stuff sitting in green recycling bags or boxes marked “Soothing lemon and ginger tea” Out of date technology that was new, once. Strange, global shaped Macs and tellys. Stuff that might not work again. When you died, I thought I would not function again. For two years I made myself redundant, a skeleton with a bellyful of vodka and pills, wanting the next best thing to being where you were, which was oblivion.
How dreadful it was to embrace the dead when I had living, loving children and a confused and sad husband who could not understand why I made this crazy choice. I guess at the time, it felt like the choice made me. You know where you are with the dead. The living are a constant unknown, for living people are always undergoing a process, changing. Meanwhile, your stuff gathers damp and dust in the attic. I keep opening things up, clearing things away
My daughter works from home, the clicking of her keyboards in the other room a strange comfort. There was a time, in my madness, I probably would not have been welcome to be in the house alone with her. Now we break for tea and biscuits. I do the washing up, just like a normal mum visiting her daughter. I have a fleeting thrill of feeling, well, normal. Looking out at the window at the still intact family next door, two kids, maybe three? The nervy but always on call for babysitting grandmother , going outside for fag breaks as the kids knock a football around. A kitchen extension in an already enormous house. I ask Kitty, “When did they build that?” And she tells me ages ago, when I still lived there, as some sort of mother and wife. I can’t remember that. I have a hazy memory of the family that lived there before this one. Of people in gigantic houses, their house, the house next door, building, always adding bits, floors, extensions, playrooms, guestrooms. Everybody wants more space. I just want, wanted, more time with you.
Me, I have all this stuff, Paul, your stuff, and no room for it. I finish the washing up and head back upstairs on a caffeine buzz, determined to get the job done.
Then, just like in that Chrissie Hynde song that always makes me well up, I found a picture of you…young, leather jacketed… and my heart leaps into my mouth and I gasp for air. I’m not sure why. I have loads of pictures of you, I just didn’t expect to find “you” here, although you are everywhere…. and I am willing myself not to cry, because I’ve been instructed not to by Mally. I don’t how things work in the land of the dead, if you have found each other, but Mally died a few years after you did. Not suddenly like you, but slowly, cancer ravaging his throat and eating him up inside. One day, months before the end, he drove me to work. I didn’t know how he could see anything, as his eyes were reduced to slits, his face so swollen from the useless steroids. He pulled over into a side street and said, “Look, when I die, don’t do that crazy shit you did when Paul died. It’s not allowed. Don’t fuck things up again, Kirschy, because I will come back to haunt you. Just don’t do it.”
And I didn’t. But still, here I am, kneeling in the middle of my old front room, sobbing over a picture of you, and then I clock Kitty in the doorway, hands on hips, in a motherly “What sort of mess do you call this?” sort of way. She says, in a long, exasperated exhale, “Why are you doing this, again? Why are you …doing this? Don’t do this…”
“I’m not doing it, I’m not doing anything,” I lie badly, eyes red-rimmed, a stray tear falling onto the photo.” I stand up quickly and put the picture on a pile. She’s rightfully on guard. I did some crazy shit when you died and she’s had enough. It’s taken ages to get her back on side, just about, so I just need to crack on tidying, and stop crying.
I miss you, but I understand for whatever reason, your number was up. I’m back in my flat now, crammed with a fair bit of your stuff. The strobe light turns my little corner of Hackney into a disco. I can listen to Cosmic Dancer, your funeral music, without crying now.
If you get this, let me know what it’s like , where you are. Give me a sign. I’d ask you to look for my dad, for Rita, for Mally, for Lizzy, for Zak, for Josie, for Bowie, for God’s sake, he’s got to have some dead sightseeing address. but I know there are way more dead people than live ones so it’s probably pointless. Right now, just for today, I won’t drink, and I will stay in the land of the living.
Love you always,