life-writing talk, with reference to trust: a family story, august 2018

Self-explanatory?

This talk is about life, fiction and some of the varied forms of life-writing: memoir; real-time (blogging); and poetry. It is a personal story that explores broader writing questions, including relative truth – neither the self nor the past stand still, it seems – the value of life-writing and our ethical responsibilities to others... and to ourselves. The talk include readings of prose and poetry.

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While working on the life-writing book that I am in the process of finishing, I found the following work especially thought-provoking and helpful: Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran, published by Plume Books, 2016.

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TUESDAY, 6 SEPTEMBER

furniture, the past, forgiveness …

Later this month I shall travel to a warehouse in which the furniture and personal possessions I grew up with are stored. I was away in Shropshire when these things were put there. I was working on a farm, doing my year's practical before agricultural college. I have not seen the furniture and possessions since I left for Shropshire. That was nearly thirty-four years ago.

At the warehouse I will identify the few items that were in my childhood bedroom. These will be saved, the rest will be sold.

During my recent holiday I have thought about the past and about what the trip to the warehouse will be like. I cannot imagine what it will be like.

A family's whole culture obliterated - by what? By a strange way of thinking about a painting of the Godolphin Arabian that robbed time of its meaning and caused incredible mental distress. What happened went against, it seems to me, all the usual norms of good sense, humanity and compassion.

I have thought of the essay I wrote for my cousin in 1998, in which I tried to outline my concerns about what was happening and what it had been like to live with the pain for so many years. The essay resulted from insights I gained into what was happening after I wrote a simple letter to a lawyer on another subject. The past suddenly started to fall into place. As I said to someone recently, I felt like a cult member emerging from years of isolation. I saw the past very differently. The essay was therapy, a cry for help and, it has to be stressed, an act of love. As I have said during talks about the origins of my second novel, which is partly about writing therapy, you do not spend so much time trying to get at the truth of a situation if you do not care about the people involved. I still love the people at the centre of this tragedy. They should have been protected against themselves.

I have thought over the past weeks of those who were there to protect my interests - amiable but hapless men, who I am sure never meant things to turn out this way.

I have thought about forgiveness. I approach this from the standpoint of a religious humanist, not as I was once, a Christian. Forgiveness is, I believe, something that will come with the passing of the seasons, as death is followed by rebirth, the cycle that defines the world in which we live. Forgiveness is not something that can be forced. ...

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I wrote this post on my blog justthoughtsnstuff.com in September 2011.

Eighteen months previously I had been phoned first by a man who had been helping my parents and secondly by their landlord. From what they said, my parents were in financial trouble. This wasn't a surprise. My wife and I tried to assist Mum and Dad, making helpful suggestions, including them arranging a small bank loan to pay off immediate debts, while their friend, a business associate, sold some of their assets - consisting of paintings and antiques - to put them on a sounder footing for the future. The mention of banks was like holding a crucifix up to a vampire.

Six months later, my parents' friend phoned to say that they had confided in him that they were about to be declared bankrupt because they owed one of the high-street banks and other creditors just under a million pounds.

Because my parents had ignored a formal notice earlier in the year, believing that the bank was in cahoots with corrupt art dealers, the bankruptcy could not be challenged in the courts.

My parents duly submitted valuations of their assets to the trustee in bankruptcy - their personal estimates, not official ones - totalling eleven million pounds. This sum being around the value of the assets that my father had started out with at today's values. Dad came from the junior branch of a wealthy aristocratic family. After four years it took to wind up my parents' Byzantine financial affairs, the bankruptcy process raised only a proportion of the debt and all the creditors lost money.

I said just now that my parents' financial problems were no surprise.

In 1996, I had discovered that they had defrauded me of capital that I had inherited sixteen years before. Part of the fraud had been concealing the fact of the inheritance.

It was at this point that I began to make sense of the hell that we had been trapped in as a family for two decades.

After I left school I had gone to agricultural college so that I could learn the latest management skills before working with my father on the family farm. Curiously, it was at this time that Mum and Dad sold the farm. They explained that they would soon be buying a new one.

Dad, forty-eight years old, never worked again, though he and Mum talked endlessly and persuasively about how wealthy they were and how they were going to buy a farm in Australia within the next few months - after, that is, they sold a painting they owned for, in the early years, a million pounds. A year would pass and nothing would happen. Then another year, then another. The only thing that did happen was the uncovering by Mum of art-world conspiracies against her and Dad, which involved friends and family as well as the dealers. These people were said to be trying to get the painting on the cheap so that it could be sold to Middle Eastern royalty for a fortune. The painting was of an Arab horse - the Godolphin Arabian - one of the founding sires of the UK racing industry in the seventeenth century.

The strangeness of my family's story was an increasingly puzzling and painful experience for me. If I asked if there was anything wrong I was told that everything was fine and that we were millionaires.

Yet our possessions were in store and Mum and Dad lived in a tiny rented cottage. Well, I learned much later that they weren't paying rent but promising to pay it as a lump sum - when they sold the painting. In the end they were evicted from the cottage (though I didn't know that at the time) and moved on to the next rent scam, and the next, and the next.

In a funny, sort of upper class socialist, way, I had a sneaking regard for Mum and Dad's lack of ostentation. As far as I understood it they had money in the bank and were living off interest, content to just tick over in their tiny rented cottage. Their modesty seemed admirable in what was rather an acquisitive and showy decade. I was also pleased that they appeared to be getting on better after the bitter and unceasing rows that had blighted my childhood. Throughout my teens Mum had taunted Dad that when I reached eighteen she was off. She always sounded as if she meant it. The clock ticked painfully. Mum tried to persuade me to leave Dad too but I refused to choose between them.

Meanwhile, I inherited some money from a great-aunt and won a place at Oxford to study English in my mid-twenties. Afterwards, by living very cheaply, I could buy time to write.

It was only when I left Oxford that things became darker. I made a decision to give up the opportunity of doing a doctorate because I wanted to farm with my dad in Australia. I would write while the picture was sold. As time passed I felt I needed to know what was going on and where I stood because I wanted to get on with my life. For a few years being caught up in the Never Never Land and my Mum’s endless mind games wore me down. The pace of the conspiracy theories gathered bewildering momentum, coming at my parents at astonishing frequency.

Gradually I began to find out the truth of what was really happening. The waste of money and time and love. The lies and the frauds. To survive I put more and more distance between myself and my parents and started a new life.

--

If you are a writer it is perhaps inevitable that emotional trauma will affect your work, consciously or unconsciously.

When I found out that my parents had withheld the knowledge of my inheritance from me, I had to rethink the past, the decisions I had made in good faith, and the people I loved, trusted and believed in. I had to rethink my very identity, it seemed to me. For a time, my mind went into overdrive and it was as if it would spin out of control. At the time I was working on my first novel The Lock and the impact of what I had discovered so preoccupied me that I completely lost the thread of what I was writing. I could not sustain the narrative in a meaningful and coherent way. It took six months before I could go back to it and write effectively. Though I could concentrate long enough to write book reviews. This regular work kept me going – emotionally as well as financially.

After I began to feel better, I planned and wrote a thirty thousand word account of what had happened to me and what I thought had gone wrong in Mum and Dad's lives. I wrote the piece for my trustees in the hope that it would not just help them to make sense of events but prompt them to try and help me and my parents sort things out.

Being a writer enabled me to tell the story and give it shape and structure. I have read narratives written by people who have gone through trauma and they are often difficult to follow - not surprisingly. I wanted very much to be as balanced and as fair as I could under the circumstances and knowledge of technique helped me to achieve these aims. I learnt a lot from the process of writing the narrative as well as producing something that I could share.

But even before writing this piece, family problems entered my fiction. The Lock was conceived before I knew for certain that my parents had lied to me. But its storyline about an Oxford don having an affair begins when his family realise that he is acting strangely towards them and they are all blaming themselves for this because they feel that they have not lived up to his high standards. When the affair is revealed the novel explores the feelings of betrayal experienced by his wife, daughters and family friends and how they cope with these as individuals. The Lock tapped into something of the strangeness of my family life when it was conceived and planned. After I uncovered the truth about my parents, it explored feelings that I myself was going through.

But it was also a story told from multiple points of view, including that of the husband, and this was central to the way I wanted readers to approach the novel. I did not want people to think of the story in terms of right or wrong but of complex feelings and thoroughly human perspectives. This philosophy informed the account I wrote for my trustees too. It reflected my determination as a child not to choose between my parents but to love them equally.

My second novel Invisible was published a month after I learned that my parents were bankrupt. One of its themes was writing as therapy. It also contained a storyline about obsession, economic abuse, a controlling and bullying parent and the effects of these on a grown-up child.

Yes, it was autobiographical fiction.

Since the bankruptcy there has been a seemingly endless sequence of revelations about my parents - frauds perpetrated on other people, court cases I had no knowledge of, a grim survivors club of people who my parents had hurt in Gloucestershire, which again I had no knowledge of. Paranoid conspiracy theories, family fallouts and business failings that went way further back than I suspected. The winding up of my parents' complex affairs took four years. There was a police investigation which concluded that there had been no conspiracies against my parents. Two parallel and bizarre court cases erupted out of nowhere. Everyone lost out. It was a miserable time.

Writing new fiction was not an option for many years but I hope it is now.

I have, however, written a life-writing book Trust: A family story (now in the final stages of rewriting and editing) and a blog, justthoughtsnstuff.com, which I began two months before the first person contacted me to say that my parents were in trouble in 2010.

Blog posts about what happened to my family have appeared on justthoughtsnstuff from time to time. I think of the blog as real-time autobiography. Some of these posts form the last part of Trust. Including some poems I wrote last year.

There are four parts to Trust: an attempt to make sense of my family's life written a few months after my dad died; an extract from the account I wrote after first finding out about the trust fraud in 1996; a more balanced and reflective piece about the context of Mum and Dad's curious behaviours and views; the extracts from the blog and the poems. The book contains pieces written in between 1998 and 2017 and because of this my hope is that it gives the reader a deep understanding of events but also an insight into how time changes perspective and ultimately how it heals.

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There are two questions about writing one’s story that I'd like to makes some comments on before concluding the essay part of this talk: does writing about traumatic events in one's own life act as therapy or does it make things worse?; and why must an author be true to relative truth?

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Writing as therapy

Here is a blog post on the subject.

From SATURDAY, 31 JANUARY 2015

… digital humanities, creative writing as therapy, melvyn bragg, remember me, trust: a family story



The creative writing as therapy discussions were very thought-provoking. The person I was talking to via email and [then] over coffee was studying for an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. I was very intrigued to learn of this course, having used creative writing therapy as a structuring device in Invisible. In the novel both narrators are writing out their experiences in order to come to terms with them – one on the advice of a doctor, the other in diary form.

During our exchanges, we touched on, amongst other things, a talk I had given about writing therapy when I was editing Invisible, Melvyn Bragg's autobiographical novel Remember Me, and my own experiences of life-writing as therapy.

Bragg's novel was the fourth in a series that began with The Soldier’s Return and concerned the period when he separated from his first wife and her suicide sometime later. For Bragg, the book wasn't a therapeutic exercise, as he explained in an interview in 2008 with Robert Brooks in the Sunday Times (pub 30th March 2008):

'...Bragg, who also presents Radio 4's In Our Time, said that he had not written the book as a cathartic exercise. "The idea of something like this being therapy is absolute rubbish," he said. "It just makes things worse.

'"It's stirred up stuff so that I've thought again and again: why didn't you just leave it alone? You were managing."

'Yet Bragg, who wrote at least seven draft versions before he felt satisfied, does not regret the book's publication: "I don't wish I hadn't written it. But it has sort of muddied up something I was keeping suppressed. I think it has made my life, and the lives of other people, a lot more difficult."...'

I reviewed Bragg's novel for the Times and had also reviewed two of the previous books in the series - one for the FT, the other for the Times. While I'd enjoyed the two earlier novels, I found Remember Me quite a difficult - and dark - read. It doesn't have the objectivity on Bragg's early life that the others had. In the previous ones he was able to turn real life into good, highly readable fiction, whereas in Remember Me one got the impression that the struggle to cope with the emotionally-charged and painful material was still raw and jagged (not surprisingly). It is nevertheless an intriguing work and a brave, honest one to have written.

During our exchanges about writing therapy last week, I was asked whether I had found writing the narratives that make up Trust: A family story to be therapeutic. I said I felt that the one I wrote in 2012, not long after my father's death, hadn't been therapeutic but that the one written last September had been:

'The editing [of the 2012 narrative] was painful because everything...was still so raw - and, yes, reading everything back and rewriting what I had written so that it worked as prose properly was pretty destabilising. Whereas, writing the last narrative was very easy to do - looking at it now, it requires very little editing and seems lucid and focused compared with the piece of three years ago. It was also very cathartic to write.'

Creative writing as therapy is a fascinating and complex area - one, I imagine, we're only just beginning to understand. One other question I was asked was whether my students found their creative writing work therapeutic. I don't know the answer to this because it isn't - generally - something we discuss. But the question of writing therapy in relation to creative writing courses would make an interesting study. …

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Relative truth

Dad's goddaughter spoke to him regularly in later years. He gave no indication that there was anything wrong financially and talked lovingly of the things that I was doing and achieving.

Mum could be very funny, sentimental and kind. She was a big personality who had a strong view about anything and everything. She was a fierce debater and when thwarted was determined to get her way. She would explode into rages, sometimes over trivial things and her tirades would last quite literally for hours. My father was often the person on the receiving end. The violence of her language and the no-holds barred things she said were incredibly distressing. In my late teens I tried to explain to her how much she hurt people. She just said that I shouldn't take any notice. She blew up and the next day felt fine and the things she said meant nothing. But for those on the receiving end the results could be devastating. During the bankruptcy a number of bankers are said to have used the defence of being afraid of Mrs Egerton when asked why they allowed my parents to run up debts without proper security.

When speaking recently to an old friend who had known Mum for three decades, we discussed what had happened to my parents. The friend said that while what Mum had done was wrong, you couldn't help admiring her strength and audacity. And the friend was right. There was something utterly compelling and charismatic about Mum sometimes. She would say the unsayable, ask the questions that everyone else was afraid - or too polite - to ask.

When, in the early 2000s, she attempted to discredit the provenance of a painting that was similar to her own, she made the national press, being described by the Telegraph as 'the formidable Mrs Egerton'.

While my experience of Mum has been overshadowed by her destructive side - falling out with the rest if the family, isolating her and Dad, terrorising Dad into submission, defrauding people and ultimately losing pretty much all she and Dad had - these were not the only sides to her. After the bankruptcy and particularly after Dad died, Mum calmed down significantly. In her last years we had some good chats about the past and when I was a boy. About the good times - yes, there had been some. We had some laughs and I think something of love returned.

So people are people - good and bad all rolled into one. Sometimes it's very hard to remember the good because it's blotted out by the bad. While one’s own experience of a person might be bad, others may have experienced nothing but good. As writers, writing about life, we have to reflect this complexity. Doing so doesn't excuse bad behaviour but it is true to the strangeness - and the magic - of this world and the people who live in it. As soon as someone says that person A was X, another will stand up and say they were Y - and both will probably be right.

Truth also changes according to time. Time heals. As we think about things, so we are likely to understand them more and in different ways. We might learn new facts, we ourselves find out new things about life and what it is to be human which reflect upon past certainties.

When I was a boy I had a trick deck of cards. If you flicked it in a certain way every card was the ace of spades. Flick it another way and it was a regular deck. So, the different ways we might view the past. Again, as writers, we have to be sensitive to the perspectives of time and be true to them.

...

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So, now for two readings from Trust: A family story: an excerpt from the section written originally in 2012 and a poem written last year after I visited my parents' grave in Yorkshire for the first time since my Mum's death.

The prose piece concerns the period 1991/92, when my parents were running out of money once again, having successfully defrauded the family trusts of large sums on two previous occasions. They were, I now realise, planning a third raid.

But if they were to get the rest of the trust money they would have had to keep me out of the way because unlike previous occasions it was clear to them that I wasn't simply going to sign the money over without asking questions of them and the trustees. To that end they seem to have been trying to undermine my confidence and to find some way of discrediting me.

In the end, a few months after the events described in this extract they made a desperate and largely unsuccessful attempt to persuade the trustees to give them money behind my back. The trustees began to ask questions themselves and my parents backed off.

The poem is a reflection on my parents' grave in Little Ouseburn churchyard in Yorkshire. Mum and Dad wished to be buried in a family plot next to a neo-classical family mausoleum. The mausoleum is pretty much the only remaining building on what was a vast country estate owned by my great-grandfather, complete with Downton Abbey style mansion, Kirby Hall. The estate had been sold after the death of my great-grandfather's only son during the First World War. The estate was bought by a company known as the Forty Thieves, which acquired many such country houses at that time, so that they could demolish them and sell the stone and fittings for reclamation.

Before the first piece, I'd like to read a snippet from the introduction to Trust: A family story that explains why I have written the book:

While the events that bedeviled my family were highly unusual I hope that they will strike a chord with a wider readership than family and friends alone. I hope that the book makes a small contribution to the understanding of human behaviour. If it helps others to cope with analogous situations and distress some good will have come out of my family’s suffering.

My situation was mitigated by the advantages I was lucky enough to have. A good education and inherited money that enabled me to distance myself from a mentally abusive relationship. Yet abusers can still reach you after you have moved away from them. Even after breaking off all relations with my parents, the damage caused by years of pain took a long time to heal.

My heart is with all those who cannot escape.

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Excerpt from Trust: A family story – some names have been changed

[One thing you need to know is that Jess in this piece was then my girlfriend. We were married in 1995.]

I remember in 1989 cycling across Port Meadow towards Oxford one evening and I thought about the properties Mum and Dad had owned - Dean and Chapter Farm, Charlton Down, Priory Farm - and it occurred to me that the values were different. Had Mum and Dad been forced to sell up every so often and buy a cheaper property, using the balance of the capital as if it were income until that ran out and they had to sell again? I remember being horrified by this way of thinking and quite consciously suppressing it. It seemed unthinkable. After all, Mum and Dad were so well off. They had made such a success of selling Priory Farm - as they never stopped telling people even ten years later.

Yet there were positive times in between the darker ones. And I was aware from friends and girlfriends that every family had its no-go areas, its tensions, its eccentricities. On balance things could seem pretty good. When Mum and Dad moved to the Lodge and then money from the trust was distributed, I felt happy. Mum and Dad owned a painting worth millions of pounds. I was young still, in love, living in a gorgeous area of Oxford and able to fund my writing while Mum and Dad sold their picture and assured the future of the family.

I had been writing a novel about a feud between two brothers set in Romania. It proved too ambitious so I gave up and started on something else.

What happened during 1991 and '92 happened by degrees - insidiously, like a lot of things that my parents did over the years.

When I visited them, things often started off with a strange conversation. Once my father talked to me about the Mormons - it was around the time when the Mormons were sending mailshots to people. (I think that some of these campaigns focused on families whose contact details featured in Debrett's and Burke's Peerage; in any event, both Dad and I had received letters from the Mormons.) Dad said that Mum had met some Mormons once on a train and what clean cut nice people they were. He then asked what I thought about the Mormons. On another occasion, he said during a conversation about my writing that he would support anything I did except for drugs and ram-raiding. I was flabbergasted and thought he must be joking. Conversations with Mum tended to focus on drugs and alcohol. One time she said that Bruce, a doctor and close family friend, had told Dad that if a person took even one puff of cannabis they were hooked for life. I said I thought this was wrong and couldn't believe that Bruce would say such a thing. At that time people in public life were starting to admit that they had tried drugs when they were young and from my direct experience I knew that many friends had tried a puff or two out of curiosity but had never felt any inclination to continue taking drugs.


Throughout 1992 Mum and Dad became excitable and seemed preoccupied and worried. There was an atmosphere at home that made me very uncomfortable. Mum was more explicitly critical of me. She said I'd changed and was forgetful and slovenly (I wore a tweed jacket, smart shirt, tie and grey flannels in those days - all clean and tidy, as far as I was aware). She said that my housemaster at Stowe School had once told Dad terrible things about me. I was at a loss to say what these could be. She would only say that they were terrible but wouldn't go into details. Once or twice she suddenly turned on me without reason and said I would 'get nothing'. At Easter 1993, she rounded on me before I left for Oxford and said in front of Dad that she knew there was something and that the truth would come out. Adding that the truth always came out. I looked at Dad and he looked at me. We were both surprised, it seemed to me. Mum shook her head and we said goodbye.

In 1992 Mum started to harangue me with her extensive theories about conspiracies. She had never been so explicit before. She would go on about all the people involved and the complicated ways they related to each another. During these sessions she hated being interrupted and would tell me how important what she was doing was and that she was only doing it for me. How could I be so ungrateful to her? Sometimes, a brief interruption would make her screw up her face in apparent pain as she struggled to keep the string of connections going. There was a mixture of things, some of which could be plausible, others that seemed bizarre. There were so many people involved. Some sixty to seventy. Some people were friends or relatives. Mum was suspicious of our old family friends Charles and Jane. They wouldn't be involved directly, but people would be trying to get information out of them. It was vital that I never discussed family business with Charles and Jane. Charles was a trustee.

Mum's behaviour wore me down and made me unhappy. I was anxious about the future of the family and wary of her and Dad. I found it hard to understand why they were suspicious of me and Jess. I found Mum's threats about apparently disinheriting me frightening.

One of my biggest problems was not having anyone to confide in. I had to keep everything to myself. I'd promised Mum and Dad that I wouldn't discuss their business and I was determined to stick to that - for self-preservation as much as anything else (or so I thought). I didn't want to give Mum any excuse for making out that I had betrayed them and was part of a conspiracy. I also didn't want to talk to Jess because I didn't want her involved. I didn't want to give Mum the opportunity of trumping up charges against her, which Mum seemed close to doing in any case.

So I kept everything to myself. During this period and in the couple of years afterwards, I considered turning to Charles and Jane and saying I was afraid there was something wrong but didn't because I feared stirring up even more trouble for myself.

I also considered appealing to Dad, even going so far as to write him a letter setting out the things that I seemed to be accused of and defending myself against them. But in the end I didn't give him the letter. I thought, apart from anything else, it made me seem paranoid.


Mum and Dad could often be nice and kind once they had reassured themselves, as it were, that I wasn't a Mormon or whatever the particular fear was that I was put to the test over at the start of my visit. And it was often like that: I would arrive; Mum or Dad would test me; then they would be satisfied that I was OK and they would be nice. Mum would cook lovely meals and we would watch TV or chat and it would be as if everything was normal again.

Mum's harangues about her conspiracy theories mostly happened when Dad was out and when he came back she would behave more normally.

Yet over the eighteen months or so to August 1992, the cumulative effect of the tension in my parents' house got to me. I would return to my work and to Jess and my friends in Oxford and I would try to forget what was happening at home, hoping all the time that there would be a breakthrough with the sale of the painting and our lives would start going forward again.

One day I was in the kitchen with Mum and she got onto the subject of capital punishment. I told her calmly that I didn't agree with it, as she knew. She exploded. She shouted at me that I would let people get away with anything. She shouted at me that I would let Christopher Stephenson get away with hurting her and Dad. This was the man who had been trying to sell the painting on and off throughout the 80s. He was an arch conspirator. My first thought was, My God, she wants Christopher Stephenson hanged. My second that this woman was in charge of our destiny as a family.

I began sobbing hysterically. I could never have imagined that so many tears could fall in such thick streams. I could not stop crying. The water cascaded down my face without stopping. My father came into the kitchen from the dining room. My mother asked him what was going on. He shook his head and said he didn't know. I thought, Jesus, you don’t know. Our lives have been hijacked by this lunatic and you don't know why I'm upset.

Mum said I couldn't leave. I said I was leaving. I went upstairs to the bathroom and took deep breaths and washed my face with cold water. After some time I went downstairs and left.

As I drove out of the driveway into the lane and went up the hill to the main road it was as if a great weight had been lifted from me. As I neared Oxford, I felt stronger and calmer.

--

Little Ouseburn Churchyard, 10th May 2017

Past the bench, the Meysey-Thompson plot
Is defined by a tall dense line of cypresses.
A green room for my ancestors,
Partitioned from the rest of the village.
A place perhaps where they wait to go on.
Dad certainly never quite got to that point.
A life forever about to happen.

I look for my parents' grave and walk
Straight past it.
I turn and there is the carving for Mum,
In the centre of this side of the cross.
It is finer than the photos suggested -
The ones the stonemason sent before
He replaced the monument six months
After her funeral.
After the earth had settled.

Instinctively, I check the level by eye.
For now it looks perfect - Dad would be pleased -
And come to think of it, so would Mum.
It is unlike the other crosses:
Leaning tipsily,
Suggestive of the fun times they would
Have had at the hall - designed by Lord Burlington,
Pulled down by the reclamation firm,
Nicknamed the Forty Thieves.
A business thriving on the stately homes
That could not go on,
Broken by war.
Great-grandfather's heart broken
When Claude, his only son, was
Killed in action.

I think Dad thought that was when it all
Went wrong. An imaginative man,
My father.

Nettles are sprouting lustily on the
Grave side of the cross, near the head.
Without thinking, I find a cypress branch -
Fallen, dried but still strong.
Not yet brittle.
I beat the nettles away.
Some break cleanly,
Others are stubborn.
I hack and at last they flap into the air.

I wanted to tidy the grave,
To make it look loved.
I went out of my way to spare
A red dead nettle,
The only posy.

Though when I look harder,
There are speedwell flowers
Peeping through the grasses in the dip
Of the grave.
Even a stem of ground ivy.

Mum and Dad face the old
Mausoleum, not used since the Victorians.
The sun lights the different shades of
Buttermilk stone. The Doric columns,
The triglyphs, the dome of lead.

It was Dad who taught me about
The classical architectural orders;
Learned at Stowe, where I would follow.

I look at the haloed crosses,
Some rough cut like granite.
Mum and Dad's, smooth pale stone to look at,
Fine sandpaper to touch.
His side, a skull and crossbones -
Or Glory, 17/21 Lancers - 1930-2012.
Hers a wren above a crown and anchor -
WRNS - 1925-2015.

In the sycamore beside the building,
Not a wren but a fruity-voiced blackbird.
The tree and the holly beside it are in
Abundant flower.

To the west, clouds thicken.
There is the faint sound of traffic in the village.

I lay my hand on the cross.
'You stupid lot. You stupid lot.
I hope you're at peace.'

As I pass the bench, I notice a pair of glasses
Laid on it.
For a moment I think they must be
My Dad's.
They are owlish. They suggest his face.
But they cannot be his.

I walk on.

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