'I'm old enough to speak the truth,' said my grandmother, her voice bouncing over the Atlantic waves, ridiculously girlish. 'Nothing stops me now, Sophia, not prudence, or kindness, or fear of the consequences. I am eighty-five. What I think I say. It is my privilege. If people don't like what they hear they can always dismiss it as dementia.'
My grandmother Felicity had seldom refrained from speaking the truth out of compassion for others, but I was too tired and guilty to argue, let alone murmur that actually she was only eighty-three, not eighty-five. Felicity spoke from her white clapboard house on a hillside outside Norwich, Connecticut, with its under-floor music system and giant well-stocked fridge, full of uneatable doughy products in bright ugly bags, Lite this and Lite that, and I listened to her reproaches in a cramped brick apartment in London's Soho. Her voice echoed through an expensive, languid, graceful, lonely, spacious, carpetless house: she kept the doors unlocked and the windows undraped, squares of dark looking out into even blacker night, where for all anyone knew axe murderers lurked. My voice in reply lacked echo: here in central London the rooms were small and cluttered and the windows were barred, and thick drapes kept out the worst of the late-night surge of noise as the gay pubs below emptied out and the gay clubs began to fill. I felt safer here than I ever did when visiting Felicity on her grassy hillside. A prostitute worked on the storey below mine, sopping up any sexual fury which might feel inclined to stray up the stairs, and a graphic designer worked above me, all fastidious control and expertise, which I liked to think seeped downwards to me.
Mine was a fashionable, expensive and desirable address for London. I could walk to work, which I valued, though it meant pushing my way through crowds both celebratory and perverse: the tight butts of the sexually motivated and the spreading butts of gawking tourists an equal nonsense. Was there no way of averaging them out, turning them all into everyday non-loitering citizens? But then you might as well be living in a suburb, and for my kind of person that meant the end.
I was tired because I had just got back from work, and it was late at night. I was guilty because it was two weeks since my grandmother's noisy friend and neighbour Joy — neighbour in the sense that their two great lonely houses were just about within hailing distance — had called me to shout down the line that Felicity, who lived alone, had had a stroke and was in hospital in Hartford. I had a deadline to meet. I am a film editor. There comes a certain point in a film production when the editor ceases to be dispensable: when you just can't afford to be ill, go insane, have a sick grandmother. Joy's call came at just such a moment. You have to be there in the editing suite and that's that. There are things in your head which are in nobody else's. Tomorrow was a feature film, a US/UK co-production with pretensions, a big budget, a big-time director (Harry Krassner), and a host of marketing people now hovering and arranging PR and previews, while I still struggled under pressure of time to make something erotic out of not-enough footage of teenage copulation which neither party had seemed to go to with much pleasure. I did not fly to my grandmother's side. I simply forgot her until I could afford to remember her. Now here she was again, her suppertime my bedtime, not that she ever acknowledged a difference in time zones if she could help it.
I gritted my teeth. Sometimes the ghost of my mad mother stands between myself and Felicity, damming up the flow of family feeling; a sepulchral figure, like one of those school-crossing ladies who step out unexpectedly into the road to let the children through, making the traffic squeal to an unwilling halt.
I had a recurring dream when I was small in which my mother did exactly that, only the sign in her hand read not 'Children crossing' but 'Your fault, Felicity'. Except I knew that if she ever turned the sign, the other side would have my name on it. It would read, 'You're to blame, Sophia'. I always managed to wake myself up before I had to face the terror of the other side. I could do that as a child — control my dreams. I think that's why I'm reckoned to be a good film editor: what is this job of mine but the controlling of other people's fantasies? I take sleeping pills, most nights: they stop my own dreams. I have enough of them by day to keep anyone sane.
As it happened Felicity had been let out of hospital within the day, having suffered nothing more than a slight speech impediment, which had by now cleared. But I wasn't to know that at the time.
'Sophia,' she was saying, 'I want to sell this house. The truth is I'm bored to hell. I keep waiting for something to happen but happenings seem to have run out. Is it my age?' Well, come the eighth decade I daresay 'happenings', by which most women mean love striking out of a clear sky, would indeed run out. Everything must come to an end. She said she was thinking of moving into assisted housing: some kind of old-persons' community. I said I was not sure this was a recipe for a lively life. She said just because people were old didn't mean they weren't still alive. She was going to hold her nose and jump: the house was already on the market, she was already selling bits and pieces in the local flea markets, there were some family things I might want to have, and if so I had better come over and claim them.
I felt the tug of duty and the goad of guilt and the weight of my ambivalence: all the emotions, in fact, commonly associated with dealing with family. She being my only relative, I felt the burden more acutely. I loved her. I just wanted her far away and somewhere else. And if I were to read my own behaviour finely, it was worse than this.
* * *
As I'd callously worked on after Joy's first phone call, resisting the notion that in the face of death all things to do with life should pause, I knew that if Felicity would only just die the issue of fault would be set to rest, forever unresolved. I could just be me, sprung out of nowhere, product of my generation, with the past irrelevant, family history forgotten, left to freely enjoy the numerous satisfactions of here and now, part of the New London Ciabatta Culture, as the great Harry Krassner was accustomed to describing it.
Myself, Sophia King, film editor, living day-by-day in some windowless room with bad air conditioning and the soothing hum of computerized technology, but free of the past. Easier by far to make sense of Harry Krassner's uneven footage than of real life, to let images on film provide beginnings, middles, ends and morals. Real life is all subtext, never with a decent explanation, no day of judgement to make things clear, God nothing more than a long-departed editor, too idle to make sense of the reels. Off to his grandmother's funeral mid-plot, no doubt.
Go into therapy, peel off the onion layers, turn the dreams into narrative, still the irritating haphazardness of everyday real life remains. Film seems more honest to me: actuality filtered through a camera. Felicity must not be allowed to interfere with my life, in death any more than she had in life. Bored she might be, but she had her comforts, money from dead husbands, a Utrillo on her wall, a neighbour called Joy, who shouted energetically down the telephone. I remembered how, when I was ten years old and Felicity was my only source of good cheer, she had cut herself off from me, left her daughter Angel, my mother, to die without her, fled back home to the States and not even come back for the funeral. I had forgotten how angry I was with her: how little I was prepared to forgive her. What had been her own emergency, her own internal editing, so desperately required that she abandoned us? Once, when I was small, ordinary simple family love had flowed from me to Felicity only to be fed back by her, through this act, as unspoken condemnation.
My mother had done even worse by the pair of us, of course, and returned love with hate, as insane people will to their nearest and dearest, be they parent or child, and there can be nothing worse in the world. But at least my mother Angel had the excuse of being mad. Felicity was reckoned sane.
'You didn't come over and visit me in hospital when for all you knew I might have been dying,' said Felicity now, at my sleeping time, suppertime for her. What did she care about my convenience? What was the point of reminding her of the past?
'You were only in hospital for a night,' I protested.
'It might have been my last night,' she said. 'I was fairly frightened, I can tell you.'
Oh, brutal! And I was so tired. I had only just returned from the cutting room when the phone call came. Harry Krassner would be in at ten the next morning, with the producer, for what I hoped against hope would be an acceptance of the fine cut. I was not sure which seemed the more fictional — Felicity's phone call or the hours I'd just lived through. My eyes were tired and itching. All I wanted to do was sleep. This voice out of the past: still with the actressy lilt, just a little croakier than last time she'd phoned, a few months back, might have been coming out of some late-night film on TV for all it was impinging upon my consciousness. Yet she and I were each other's only relative. My mother's death was decades back. We both had new skins. I had to pay attention. 'You'd have been back home even before I'd got to the hospital,' I pointed out. 'You weren't to know that,' she remarked, acutely. 'But then you never thought family was very important.'
'That isn't true,' I snivelled. 'It's you who chose to live somewhere else. This is home.'
This was ridiculous: it was like the first time you go to visit a therapist: all they have to do is say something sympathetic and look at you kindly: whereupon self-pity overwhelms you and you weep and weep and weep, believe you must really be in a mess and sign up for two years. I put my weakness down to exhaustion: some feeling that I wasn't me at all, just one of the cast of some bad late-night TV film, providing the formulaic reaction.
'It was that or go under myself,' she said, snivelling a little herself. 'All I ever got from family was reproaches.' (A splendid case of projection, but Felicity, like so many of her generation, was a pre-Freudian. Hopeless to start wrangling, let alone say she'd started it.) She pulled herself together magnificently. 'It was a moment of weakness in me to want you to be present while I died. If someone is not there while you live why should you want them there when you die? Just because they share a quarter of your genetic make-up. It isn't rational. Do you have any views as to what death actually is?'
'No,' I said. If I had I wasn't going to tell Felicity and certainly not while I was so tearful and tired.
'You wouldn't,' said my grandmother Felicity. 'You have been permanently depressed since Angel died. You won't allow yourself a minute's free time in case you catch yourself contemplating the nature of the universe. I don't blame you, it's fairly rotten.' The stroke must have had some effect on Felicity for since my mother Angel's death she had scarcely mentioned her name in my presence. My deranged mother died when she was thirty-five: my father hung around to do a desultory job of bringing me up, before dying himself when I was eighteen, of lung cancer. He didn't smoke, either, or only marihuana.
'The fact is,' said Felicity, who had deserted my mother and me at the time of our worst tribulations, and I could not forget it, 'I'm not fit to live on my own any more. I spilt a pint of boiling milk over my arm yesterday and it's hurting like hell.'
'What did you want boiling milk for?' I asked. This is the trouble with being a film editor. It's the little motivations, the little events, you have to make sense of before you can approach the bigger issues.
There was a silence from the other end. I thought longingly of bed. I had not made it that morning; that is to say I had not even shaken out the duvet and replaced it with some thought for the future. It's like that towards the end of a film gig. Afterwards, you can clean and tidy and housewife to your heart's content, put in marble bathrooms with the vast wages you've had no time or inclination to spend: in the meantime home's just somewhere you lay your head on a sweaty pillow until it's time to get up and go to work again.
* * *
'I hope you're not taking after your mother,' said Felicity. 'Off at a tangent, all the time.' That was, I supposed, one way of describing the effects of paranoid schizophrenia, or manic depression or whatever she was said to have.
'Look,' I said, 'don't try to frighten me.' The great thing about being brought up around the deranged is that you know you're sane. 'And you haven't answered my question.'
'I was heating the milk to put in my coffee,' said Felicity. 'Eighty-six I may be, standards I still have.'
She was growing older by the minute, as if she was wishing away her life. I couldn't bear it. I kept forgetting how angry I was with her, how badly she had behaved, how reasonable my resentment of her. I loved her. Before my mother died, after my father had disappeared, I'd come home one day to find her darning my school socks. No-one else had ever done that for me, and I was hopeless at it, and there was no money to buy new. I'd been going round with holes in my heels, visible above my shoes. I still have a problem bothering about ladders in tights. I just can't care.
'Oh, Grandma,' I found myself wailing, 'I'm so glad you're okay. I'm so sorry I didn't come over.'
'I'm not okay,' she said. 'I told you. I have a nasty burn on my forearm. The skin is bright red, wrinkled and puckered. I know it is normally wrinkled and puckered, and you have no idea how little I like my body these days, but it's not normally bright red and oozing. You just wait 'til you're my age. And you will be. We just take turns at being young.'
'Can't you call Joy?' I asked.
'She's too deaf to hear the phone,' said Felicity. 'She's hopeless. It has to be faced. I'm too old to live alone. I may even be too old for community living. Don't worry' — for my heart had turned cold with fear and self-interest and my tears were already drying on my cheeks, and she seemed to know it — 'I'm not suggesting we two live together. Just because we're both on our own doesn't mean that we're not both better off like that. It's just that I need help with some decisions here.'
I refrained from saying that I did not live on my own, but surrounded by tides of human noise which rose and fell at predictable times likes the surges of the sea; that I had good friends and an enviable career, and a social life between gigs; and it was the life I chose, much peopled by the visible and the invisible, the real and the fantastic, and extraordinarily busy. Felicity was sufficiently of her generation to see on your own as being without husband and children, which indeed, at thirty-two, I was. We know how to defend ourselves, we the survivors of the likes of Felicity and Angel, against the shocks and tribulations that accompany commitment to a man, or a child, or a cause.
'Can we talk about this tomorrow, please?' I said. 'Can't you call out a doctor to look at your arm?'
'He'd only think I was making a fuss,' she said, as if this went without saying, and I remembered that for all her years in America she was still English at heart. 'You really aren't being very helpful, Sophia.' She put the phone down. I called her back. There was no reply. She was sulking. I gave up, lay fully clothed on the bed and went to sleep, and in the morning thought that perhaps I had imagined the whole conversation. There was to be little time to think about it.
Excerpted from RHODE ISLAND BLUES © Copyright by Fay Weldon. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Grove Atlantic. All rights reserved.
Rhode Island Blues