That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby

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The very last time I saw my mother was when she called me in to her Victorian writing room to tell me that she was getting remarried — and cutting me out of her will, in that order. I was unmoved by either announcement, as she’d been tinkering with her will for so long, it’d become the sole object of her creative expression & frustrations, and by that time the reading of it would be insufferable, longer than the Ring Cycle.

Every person she’d ever known in her life might’ve been included at one stage, but it was only a matter of time before whatever pittance she intended to bequeath them was reduced, retracted and dissolved if not altogether expunged. Otherwise it was amended to high hell with an untold number of clauses and conditions, so that finding your name somewhere amidst that impossible pile of papers would be like tracing your family tree all the way back through the Dark Ages to discover the first ancestor who ever slept with his sister and fucked it all up for the rest of you.

If nothing else, I looked forward to bequeathing the Last Will & Testimony itself to the University of Texas, so that some poor scholar might spend the rest of their isolation in that intellectual wilderness piecing together an authoritative version from the numerous partial drafts, corrected copies, cheap translations and bilingual editions she’d scattered across the face of the earth since time immemorial.

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But now in one foul swoop she’d done away with the lot of it — having, I suppose, finally had the last word with all of her enemies, and finding the majority had passed away years before her. There was apparently only one beneficiary left to deal with other than myself, and that was Johannes, who she’d promised to make the Director of her museum, which she was (conditionally) leaving as a gift to the People of Victoria. It would be called the Lady Diana Shitsville Collection (‘Diana’ and ‘Shitsville’ being the two names she’d decided to stick with, even though they were both fake: she was born Judy; she hadn’t been a Shitsville since my parents divorced).

The Diana Shitsville Collection, I might add, was the most bizarre collection of Georgian & Regency pottery, porcelain and other chinky crap, absolutely niche, and of no cultural value or even interest to anyone outside of a very rarefied circle of sycophants and cocksuckers, specifically Johannes and Tom, who revelled in drinking their Earl Grey out of Staffordshire bone china hand-painted with portraits of Lord Wellington & Lady Hamilton (from life, they say). Perhaps Mother also enjoyed drinking from the heads of people who were once close personal friends.

I will tell you now that one afternoon when I was about 14 years old, I was resting my innocent elbow along the mantel in the writing room when I knocked a tiny vase onto the floor whereupon it smashed in the grate and approximately 10,000 buckeroos disappeared, as they say, down the hole. Subsequently I developed a terrific ability to dispose of broken glass and pottery very quickly and without leaving a winking shard. By chance that same afternoon I also discovered the advantages of taking the brandy bottle into the Sarcophagus & sealing myself in, so it was splendidly dark & completely soundproof.

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I can’t give you anything but love, baby

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Then on Mother’s 108th birthday, which in ancient times was a feast day to honour Kali, Johannes left a message to say that Mother was going into hospital because of her leg & that it might have to be removed. Dutiful daughter, I exorcised my extreme aversion to the very thought of the woman and presented myself at her bedside, expecting to find her prostrate with grief & anxiety instead of drink on this unique occasion.

But to my amazement a kind of hysterical atmosphere reigned throughout the house, hilarity more appropriate to a wedding than to end-of-life preparations; in the lounge, there were people sawing and painting and draping things with freshly laundered chintz; in the sickroom, Johannes and Tom had each drawn up a glossy cherry-red chair and straddled them either side of her bed; they were all drinking Bollinger, and Tom exhorted me to help myself to a glass from the ice bucket on the bureau.

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She was extremely pleased, you see, at the thought of her new prosthetic; in younger days she’d had her legs insured (for the sum of $50 000 per leg), more as a publicity stunt than anything else. But when drawing up the policy, the four-eyed money men had had to make some very detailed observations about the condition of the pegs, their age and their intended use, which included taking exact measurements of both the right and left, from top of ham to tip of longest toe, and even made rubber moulds of the property so that they might in future be replicated in plaster, wax or bronze.

At this point in unending time Mother had lived long enough to see the science fiction become a reality; now she was going to have a brand new set of pins made up, using the best kind of silicon you could get, which felt almost like silky skin. The joints and movements would be programmable, and use advanced robotics, which the Japanese had refined in the manufacture of ultra-realistic, responsive sex dolls.

‘So, what happens then, do you get a text message to let you know someone’s touching your knee?’ I asked.

‘Don’t be absurd,’ said Mother.

Anyway, she had wanted me there because this was a kind of wake for her right leg, which had been basically insensate these last 20 years, though I darkly suspected that was more due to lethargy than age. (At the back of my mind, I was glad not to have been around in the 70s when her paps went the way of all flesh, if this was the kind of reaction the surgery had provoked.)

In fact, she was so looking forward to getting a new leg of such youthful perfection, she was genuinely thinking about having the other one removed for the hell of it. Suddenly a hellish vision appeared before me: Mother, half monster, half metal, with a set of legs in every colour posed against the walls in every room of the house, with a dancer’s kick the swing and intensity of which was mathematically perfect & musically timed ; and there would be Johannes, up and down them causally with a feather duster, so that Mother’s phone would ping upstairs.

‘So what happens to the old leg?’ I wondered. ‘I mean, shall we give it a burial? Should I call Mr Italiano? What did you do with your tits? Are they in the family crypt as a placeholder? Or did you donate them to science? I bet the boys in the College of Surgeons had a field day after that.’

‘Oh Sunny, must you always be so utterly morbid?’ said Mother. ‘They’re buried with the dogs, of course.’

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You always hurt the one you love

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There was for instance the time Mother left an urgent message to say she was meeting with the director of a funeral home, and wouldn’t I come?

Directly I came, trying desperately to stifle any hopes the message had raised. As it happened the man had acquired a number of antiquities with which he wished to decorate the waiting room of his funeral parlour; he was now trying to sell them on to my mother, as she was a well-known collector; she’d called me because she wanted my opinion on a couple of them. (She has collected bits and pieces from all over the ancient world; there is perhaps nothing she enjoys more than to recline in her gloom contemplating the figures of defunct gods; they are, after all, her contemporaries).

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Mr Italiano’s business was a very high-class enterprise for people like my mother who didn’t mind splashing money about when they were alive, and/or their relatives who generally developed very damning guilt complexes after their deaths.

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He’d given every aspect of his services very serious consideration, and spent months contemplating the aesthetics of the operation, deciding at last on a banana leaf wallpaper and floral carpet design, parlour palms, and furniture of bevelled glass & brass, and then two tall agate urns (ancient Roman, that would pass as Art Deco) and for the mantel a figure of Osiris, the ancient Egyptian Lord of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead, from the 25th dynasty (that’s circa 760 BC). Osiris is the mummified god, his pose replicated in every Sarcophagus, green face gazing outward, arms folded & holding the hook and flail to either side, standing eternal on a kind of giant mono-foot. But Mr Italiano had failed to anticipate the effect Osiris would have on his clients.

‘It is difficult, you see, trying to strike the right note,’ he explained to Mother, with a very sorry look, which might have been professional. ‘One aspires to a serious and somber mood, without morbidity, and without depressing the family further… They don’t pay you to make them cry, but anything too bright or too pretty and you risk being accused of frivolity. But then, anything neutral, which might appeal to the non-denominational and unsentimental or atheist crowd — or anything without any reminder of death at all — then people tend to forget why they’re there and get stuck straight into the cucumber sandwiches.’

Osiris had become a sticking point between Mr Italiano and his wife, Walcheria, who thought it tacky and frightening in equal parts. And then his teenage daughter, Bella Italiano, slouching there beside him, in a black hoodie and purple velour skirt, hands in pockets, evidently a goth in order to disguise the way she felt about her weight, suggested her father might come off a little unfavourably if he meant to compare himself to Osiris. But she didn’t know what all the fuss was about; Osiris, she pointed out in an ‘everybody-already-knows-this, obviously’ voice, was a relatively benign god — as opposed to Set, who was the one who killed him, or Anubis, the god with the jackal head, who waited for you in the underworld with a set of scales to weigh your heart against a feather — which might rightly scare the mourners out of their skins.

‘Well, as you can understand…’ Mr Italiano spread his hands and prevailed upon my gracious mother to remedy a poor man’s interior-decorating mistakes and restore him to the favour of his beloved wife and his agnostic clients. Ostentatiously his daughter rolled her eyes.

Finally Mother agreed because the story of Osiris had a rather special place in her heart, and she got rather a bargain on the pieces, at least Mr Italiano made only a little profit, and when he and his daughter Bella had gone, Mother said to me, ‘The thing is that the green man and the two urns are going to cost rather a pretty penny, so I need you to co-sign the thing for the bank…. Johannes can’t do it.’

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Now that we’re all here

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Joan Crawford and William Haines

I’d like to thank you all for coming, and now that we’re all here I will tell you about my mother. About once every five years I get a message on Voicemail: ‘Sunny, darling, your old mother would dearly love to see you.’ Actually the message isn’t from her at all, the voice belongs to Johannes, a very tall and strapping blond of Nordic descent who has been with Mother for many years, purportedly a health worker/ full-time carer, though recently Johannes’ role has grown so large he’s entered the slightly clouded territory of personal makeup-artist / interior designer and the curator of her private museum.

Johannes performs his duties with aplomb; the mornings begin with Johannes hefting Mother in her sleeping mask from her recline with one meaty paw, bathing and dressing her like a doll, then asking how she feels & what attitude she wishes to strike today, so he might paint her brows on accordingly.

About five years ago his boyfriend Tom also moved in & started working for Mother in the capacity of handyman, although there’s probably only one tool he keeps readily to hand. In any case I like them both very much; it’s always heartening to find the boys propped up round the kitchen bench bitching about her whenever I come in the back way; you can’t beat that kind of kitchen camaraderie which is formed in opposition to them upstairs.

For reasons that will become apparent I have been self-isolating from Mother for years. With the exception of Christmas & funerals, I might never see her at all, except that these invitations come so rarely they have the quality of a Royal Summons. And then a morbid curiosity propels me to respond. That’s because for all the strange and inexplicable things I’ve witnessed in my long life, for all of my brains, and as well as I know the old bird, I couldn’t possibly guess why she’d want to see me.

 

 

Put Your Dreams Away

[Originally posted on December 9, 2014]

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Now you can probably tell I had come to something of a pass. Even my essentially heartless, self-interested self could not go on trying to hector poor sweet Nancy into rolling home drunk to Archie Shitsville. Oh Nancy, you have been more like a mother to me than my own mother ever was, and as such you had every right to leave the man for dead, the same way she did.

‘Well Nancy,’ I said at last. ‘This has been really swell. Now the sun is coming up, and I have polished off the Jack, I suppose I must be off. I’ll leave you to get back to your Jane Fonda aerobics.’

‘Fuck Jane Fonda…’ said Nancy. ‘Last time I tried to do Jane Fonda drunk I slipped a disc and bust my hernia.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that, Nancy. I forget sometimes that you are extraordinarily old.’

‘Old enough to know better…’ she said, now looking regretfully towards her own empty glass. Suddenly the tears swelled in her eyes. ‘What would Betty Ford say if she could see me now?’

‘Fuck Betty Ford,’ said I. ‘You are old, and let’s just admit you haven’t much left to look forward to in life. I think we all ought to stop looking for some kind of nebulous happiness and realise that the trick is to not get any less drunk. Goodbye, Nancy.’

‘Goodbye, sweetheart,’ said Nancy.

Walking down the mountain from Casa Sinatra was much easier going that it had been fagging up. Sometimes I just stuck my boots in the shingles and let them roll me down.

The pink Cadillac was waiting just as I had left it outside the Tannhauser Gate, but the beefy security men had been replaced by two neckerchiefed stud ranch dudes called Jack and Algernon. Algernon said, ‘Boy howdy, that is sure a sweet set of wheels,’ and waved after me as I drove off.

I now saw the problem and its solution in the most prosaic terms: perfectly balanced and perfectly matched to each other, like an object and its own mirror image, thus: I could not stand to live with Archie another minute, and so I would not go back to Shitsville Ranch again as long as he was alive.

And so I steered the Caddy past the turn off to Shitsville Ranch on State Highway 71 and kept on straight for as long as I could keep my eyes open, just to see where I would end up.

[The End]

[Read previous: Nothing but blue skies from now on]

Nothing but blue skies from now on

[Originally posted on December 7, 2014]

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‘What was worst,’ said Nancy, ‘was the blue light from the TV monitor which kept me awake all night, while he tried to cuddle crinkling lolly wrappers and peanut shells between me and his stomach. He slept like the dead. A dead weight, I should say. No matter how I clung to the edge of the bed I was always sliding down into the chasm he made. I lay there wide-eyed and waiting til the morning when the birds started chirping and the monkeys started throwing rocks. Then there was this insistent grey light coming from the chink in the blinds. The room was grey and the bed was grey and the walls were grey and the ceiling was grey and the cupboards were grey and his wet bathrobe, hanging on the back of the door, was grey. The only spot of colour in the entire fucking room was his yellow shower cap, stretched out over a globe. I told myself we are all human, we all have our faults, ingrown toenails are not the measure of a man, and the room is no reflection of him. But when I opened my eyes that stupid shower cap was the first thing I saw. I didn’t know how long I could bare it. Come to think of it, maybe I will have a drink.’

She pressed the button.

‘Yes, ma’am?’

‘Line ‘em up, Jeeves.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘Now Nancy,’ said I. ‘Perhaps you ought to call someone.’

‘I did. I called Jeeves.’

‘I meant perhaps Betty Ford.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Nancy. But she was not her usual chipper alcoholic self. She looked toward the window. We had been talking all night. The sun was coming up. It spread lines of bright aposematic pink and tangerine over the grey mountain and glinted in the cobalt eyes of the Frank Snr Memorial statue that watched from the road.

‘Thing is,’ said Nancy sadly, ‘I don’t dislike him. He was my first love in many ways. It just feels like I have wasted 40 years waiting for him to grow up. Sometimes I think I could take the toenails and the shower cap and the rancid robe and the hob-nailed-goblin gardening shoes and the spotty chest and the spreading girth, if only he would let himself grow up.’

Continued next post: Put Your Dreams Away

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Blue Days, all of them gone

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[Originally posted on November 18, 2014]

‘Come now, Nancy,’ said I. ‘As my mother used to say, “Whenever you feel like criticising any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” (Note: This is from The Great Gatsby. Actually, what my mother used to mutter to herself was, ‘I must forbear from going to town on that idiot.’ But I did not tell Nancy that. I rather hoped that if I worked to create the right mood, accentuating the positive, eliminating the negative, and latching on to the affirmative, some of her rosy beauty would filter into her memories, and she would begin to draw them up from deep wells within her — buckets of nostalgia sparkling like Rosé.)

‘You are a very grand lady of charm and refinement,’ I said. (Flattery) ‘–The daughter of Frank Sinatra. Hollywood royalty. Princess of Palm Springs.’ (Sycophancy.) ‘Archie is a country boy, father unknown; his education was limited to a few choice expressions he learned at his sweet mama’s knee. She was a whoremonger in Baptist Beeville.’

‘Sure, he was a self-made man,’ said Nancy. ‘I respect that. I really do. But he didn’t care to make himself past the age of sixteen.’ (Oh, no...) ‘After all, there was no reason for him to think that that surly, baby-faced, be-pimpled bumpkin charm couldn’t work forever. It made him a lot of money in the early days. Women often remarked on his boyishness. It can be very endearing when a big man is gentle; but really I think now he was probably just a little bit simple, and nobody knew. Hell,’ said Nancy, ‘the only time I ever came close to loving him was when his cheeks were all blown out like a baby’s when he was sucking on my tit. At that moment I beamed down at him beatifically and admired the dark wing of eyelashes resting on his plump cheek. About a second later–‘ said Nancy, drawing up her knees, ‘he was up again, and gazing into my eyes with a fixed look he had obviously learned from reading lad’s mags — make eye contact, hold it while you count three, that sort of thing — only he had such sunken eye sockets, and weird pale eyes, with the lustre of a boiled egg — it was at that moment of intense fixed gaze, supposed to be passionate, that I found him most truly repellant. I do believe my ovaries shrunk from him. Yet he never even noticed me recoil. Then afterwards he’d sit up in bed, bare ass nekkid, and watch Donald Duck reruns. Swinging his legs. Happy as a clam.’

‘But Nancy…’ I said. ‘Nancy…’

‘I often tasted Chicos at the back of his teeth. Chicos have a rancid aftertaste, like the charnel house,’ said Nancy conversationally. ‘I swallowed it for a while, until it was starting to make me sick, then I had a hard time thinking of ways to get him to clean his teeth.’

‘Now, Nancy,’ I said. ‘Your memories are obviously warped by a certain amount of bitterness. You mustn’t give any credence to them. You wouldn’t have stayed with him as long as you did if you recoiled from him that much.’

‘I made it a practise to have six glasses of red lined up on the bureau,’ said Nancy. ‘Every night before bed.’

Continued next post: Nothing but blue skies from now on…

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