Monday, 28 October 2013

'The Assimilated'

'What’s my name?': Changed Memories and Observations on Cultural Identity

…do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place..

…the assimilator…allows it to happen. This is achieved simply by doing nothing about being Jewish. Three or four generations, and the family ceases to count as Jews, unless bloodthirsty lunatics like the Nazis start up a grandfather hunt. Remaining Jewish in a free society takes work. If the work goes undone, Jewishness dims and dies. It is the exceptional assimilator who tries to speed the death by such devices as changing his name and obscuring or denying his background.

-Herman Wouk; This is my God.

Hiding, always hiding. I remember the words: don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish. Nobody told me why not. Just a child in nineteen-seventies small town England. DON’T TELL ANYONE YOU’RE JEWISH. Five short words, or seven.
Am I the generation of disobedience?
I told. I am a Jew. A Jewess. Yehudah. Yid.
‘Mouth almighty, you are.’ This was my father’s name for me. ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ He’d look at me and narrow his already narrow almond-shaped brown eyes.
‘Oh yeah?’ Defiant then as I am now.
If they did not want me to be a Jew, why did they tell me?
If I had known how much trouble telling would cause, then whom would I have obeyed?

I have been less than a week in big school. Although this is real big school, it still has that nauseating smell of stale disinfectant, spilt milk and accidental urine, like the kids’ school. I close my eyes, remembering half-tables, pushed into imperfect hexagons, where various small children sit in stiff grey-blue uniforms. Here, in this high-windowed room, generations of eleven-year-old girls have watched the same, whitewashed walls, paint so thick now that the bricks resemble cobblestones. Here, we sit at those same antique desks that they once used. On the front wall, above the teacher’s podium, is a photograph of the class of 1891, and I wonder how it would have felt to be there then. I imagine future girls- boys, even- eyeing a photograph of my class, one hundred years hence. No. Stop. I do not want to imagine such things.
In a long, horizontal groove disrupted momentarily by a white ceramic inkwell, lays the burgundy Parker fountain pen my parents bought me as a prize for passing the entrance exam.
Then: STAB!
-like static electricity in my back: I yelp, swivelling at breakneck speed, roaring at the girl behind me, who bleaches her hair and leaves her eyebrows dark.
‘You killed Jesus,’ she mouths.
She wields no sharp objects and holds her hands innocently upon her desk, but in my role as Sherlock Holmes, I deduce that the weapon in question was a school-issue compass.
I speculate as to why they cannot think of anything more original to hurt me with. Rage seethes within me.
‘Mary Godston! Report to my office at the end of class.’ This is Handwriting and Reading, the only class taken by the Headmistress. Another thing I have come to expect is that it will always be my fault and it will always be me waiting for the red light to turn green and the buzzer to sound in the big hall outside Miss Grimsby’s ‘Study’ What she studies in there is anyone’s guess, but I suspect it has little to do with justice or fairness. I had thought it would be different here. I wonder if teachers have visual difficulties, as they never seem to witness whole events. I wonder if it is because my family are not rich and are not paying any fees for me to attend the school.
Over time, I have become a pan of hot oil on constant simmer like the plug-in slo-cooker my father uses to cook cholent, which is the vilest food in the world, ever. It consists of pieces of lamb so soft that they resemble overwashed dishcloth fragments that have been bleached to rags. The meat festers in slices of potato and butter beans with the consistency of silt. I visualise this girl who has just practically stabbed me, drowning in a bath of cholent. I do not make a sound. I do not protest. I am past all the but misses and the it wasn’t mes. I will save her for another time. I have learnt over the years that ‘telling’ only gets me branded the troublemaker. I have found that my parents are unsupportive to say the least:
‘Just ignore them. They’re jealous. You’re more intelligent than them. JUST IGNORE THEM.’ This is the voice of my mother. ‘Walk away’.
‘Just tell them you’re not Jewish. JUST IGNORE THEM.’ This is the voice of my father. ‘Why did you have to go and tell them you’re bloody Jewish?’
But I am Jewish. Am I not a Jew? Anti-Semitism is a term I have to learn for myself.
‘Mary GODSTON!’ Just the sound of this name uttered in this way gives me the yucks.
‘Yes, Miss Grimsby.’ The woman is tall: cropped dark hair, dark, dark-circled eyes. Dog-tooth suit in black and white; tan tights. I want her to be ugly: she is not. Just stuck up, but not ugly.
‘Stop daydreaming!’

Cut to headmistress’s office. Some time the previous year. An hour before the Eleven Plus. Legs shaking uncontrollably.
‘Wipe that smirk off your face.’
Miss Sergeant has tree trunk legs. Her feet swell from ugly brown flat-soled Ecco shoes like a plump baby’s foot forced into the cutesy first shoes found thrown from prams in righteous fits of remonstration. My mother says that she has gout, the disease of old men who drink too much port.
‘People like you may think you are better than the rest of us, but you’ll never pass the entrance exam. It’ll be the local comprehensive for you in September.’
In the cabbage and gravy infused dining room, I stare at the green and white streaked vinyl floor. The tables are arranged like bus seats. I sit behind Jane Johnson, who has braces and a lisp. Her hair is impossibly straight and seems white as it emerges from her pink scalp. I play ESP with the back of her head, willing her to scratch her head. Scritch scratch itch- scritch scratch twitch- scratch your itch- itch itch itch itch. She glances, then glares at me, turning back to her paper, an almost imperceptible tut emanating from her pouty mouth.
People like you
People like me…I meditate on this concept. Eleven years old, water-blue eyes, wavy dark hair hacked into a long at the back, short at the front affair, which renders me boyish, despite it being the latest fad. Larger-than average ears, but not sticky-out like Jan’s were before she disappeared from school for a fortnight, only to return with them modified and plastered on in a new, flatter position. Nose: definite ‘problem’ area. Listen to this: my cousin Sharon is ten years older than me. She’s my uncle Dave and Aunty Rosa’s daughter. Even though Dave looks like my father’s twin and Rosa could pass for my mother’s sister, Sharon doesn’t look like any of us. How do you work that one out? She has smaller ears; her nose is small and pointy and upturned. She bleaches her hair. No, it’s not what you think- she really is Uncle Dave’s daughter. But her face is plastic. My mother says that if she keeps on having plastic surgery, she’ll go the same way as Michael Jackson.
At home, bedroom door secured, I spend extravagant quantities of time in front of the mirror. I push my nose up into a pug, forcing my eyes to see past my hand which semi-obscures this object of exquisite and enthralling beauty. My top lip follows my nose on its journey up to Caucasia with the alarming effect of revealing a gummy, buck-toothed smile. I try again, this time adjusting the length of my ear with my free hand. If, as my classmates inform me, I truly do resemble the Wicked Witch of the West, Malificent the wicked fairy or witch from the Sleeping bloody Beauty, then the plastic surgeon is bleedin’ welcome to fit me a new face.
The invigilator calls us to ‘place’ our pens on the tables. My paper remains blank. I have failed my Eleven Plus. But I pass the entrance exam. I pass with the second highest grade and gain a free place at a prestigious single sex high school.

The same year, my father goes to work in Saudi Arabia.
The locals look him over.
‘Jew or Arab?’
My father looks at his feet, shrugs.
‘I’m English,’ he says. ‘I’m an engineer. I’ve come over to work. Look, this is my workmate, Martin.’
He nods at his friend as if his goyishness will save him by association. The man laughs wryly.
‘We are brothers, then. I make you an honorary Arab. We are all Semitic.’ My father closes his eyes and inhales deeply. He feels his skin prickle, chill, in the Middle Eastern heat. His eyes open and he sees azure sky, palm tree fronds.
‘Come, you want alcohol? Come, friend: we all of us have secrets here.’

I begin to spend every break time in the school library. This is not permitted. It is obligatory to step outside for a breath of fresh ostracisation and frostbite. Enough already. I head for the section marked Religious Studies, take the first book that I find, one of a half-shelf dedicated to the Holy Bible, scrape myself up to the heavy oak table and read.
Abram lay with Hagar. And so Ishmael was born. Through Sarah, Abram, now called Abraham, gave seed to Isaac.
Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac, lay with Leah. She bore Reuben, then Simeon, Levi and Judah.
Bil’hah, Rachel’s maidservant, bore Jacob Dan and Naph’ta-li.
Zil’pah, the maidservant of Leah, gave birth to Gad, then Ash’er.
Jacob again had relations with Leah: she bore Is’sa-char and Zeb’u-lun. A daughter, Di’nah, she bore to Jacob.
Rachel bore Joseph. Her final son, she named Ben-o’ni. Rachel died in childbirth: Jacob, now named Israel, changed his son’s name to Benjamin.
I wonder how it would feel to have four mothers and one father. I decide that I will never get married and even if I become a multi-trillion-zillionaire, I will never, never hire a maidservant.
I discover that it is not permitted to mix wool and linen fibres. At home, I ask my father what will happen if I weave wool with linen.
‘Look,’ he says, showing me the heel of my stiff, grey school regulation sock, which has been drying on the radiator. It is threadbare. ‘Unless you want to go fishing with your socks, get one hundred per cent fibre. That’s why we’re the best tailors in the world.’
I smile at this logic, and wonder why my father fries bacon and latkes on Saturday mornings.

For as long as I can remember, every summer holiday, we pack everything (including two black cats named Siggy and Fred) into the back of our rusty white Ford Escort estate and head South down the M1. By the time we reach Golders Green, which is always the first stop, my bladder is in danger of exploding. My father always parks down a pristine crescent off the main road and brings us to a little kosher restaurant. When I am done in the toilet, he buys us falafel with humous and Israeli salad in circular pitta breads. I hear Yiddish and Hebrew spoken naturally. My father asks for extra zehug, which is a hot sauce, a permanent feature of our fridge at home. He has a hand-held blender which he uses to whiz up handfuls of small, pointy chillis with coriander, salt and enough raw garlic to keep vampires away from the entire town, never mind our kitchen.
When our bellies are full and I have consumed a full two cans of mitzli mango (mitzli means ‘juice’ in Hebrew, one of the few words I know apart from Shalom, and a couple of Hebrew songs), we take a walk ‘to stretch our legs’, as my father puts it, before we make the next annual visit to my father’s friend the luthier on Edgeware Road. Everywhere I look are Jewish people. I feel angry at my father, because he doesn’t wear a kippah. We go inside a shop which sells religious books and artefacts. My mother negotiates a price for a Hebrew course with eight cassettes and a book. The proprietor shows her a range of Mezuzahs from basic plastic to intricate gold. My eyes are wide and sparkly as I imagine how they will look on the doorposts of our house, but my father shakes his head.
‘Come on, let’s get going now. We have to be in Southend for teatime. Your Nan’s expecting us and I want time to see Sammy Berger’.
Sammy Berger is my father’s violin making friend, and he always calls him Sammy Berger, never just Sammy. My mother and I reluctantly leave the shop behind my father, who is always in a hurry, and I take my new possession out of its brown paper bag, parading with it down the street, hoping people will see it and not notice that my father is kippahless. I know that he is just making excuses not to buy the pretty brass menorah that I want. I know that he will make a stop in the local supermarket, where everything is kosher and most of the labels are in Hebrew as well as English.
We stock up on Mitzli mango, which is syrupy, sweet and moreish. I want to buy packets of chicken soup, which is my favourite junk food, but my mother says why do I want that when I cook the best chicken soup and the packet one is full of MSG, which she says gives her a headache. My father buys gefilte fish for the journey, which I detest, and ten bottles of Palwin no.10, the sweet, red kosher wine that he lets me taste on a rare Friday night. We carry our bags of shopping to the car and set off towards Edgware Road. From the window, as we drive, I see Hassidim: families and men in shtreimels and I remember, years before, another summer holiday.

I am sitting in my grandmother’s back room, the window open. It is summer and I smell saltfish air blowing in from the Thames Estuary. I love this smell, fresh as ozone as it mixes with the sweetness of the doughnuts she is frying and will later fill with the sticky red jam that she has boiled and boiled in a heavy old cooking pot. I am five years old. Later, when my mouth and hands are sticky with sugar, my father comes in and wipes my face clean, licking sugar from my fingertips so that I jump up and down in excitement. I know that soon he will be taking me to the beach. He asks me if I want to see the curlies. I do not know what he means by this, what curlies are supposed to be.
‘What you want to take her down there for, Dave, Benny?’
My grandmother always muddles the names of her sons. My father, Benjamin, is the younger of her two boys. Sometimes she calls him Rachael, which is my auntie’s name and my middle name. This makes me giggle, because I know that my daddy is not a girl and sometimes he will pretend to be cross and call her a silly bugger. Then she will flick him on the ear with her finger and tell him that he should bang our heads together for disrespecting his old mama.
‘I’m going to show you the curlies, aren’t I, bubbeleh?’ he says, tickling my belly as he balances me on his crouched lap. My grandmother shoots him a look.
‘What do you want to fill her head with all that rubbish for? Bloody old Jews.’ My father rolls his eyes like Harpo Marx and wiggles his ears. I don’t know how he does it and I don’t think I will ever be able to wiggle my ears like that. I spend what seems like hours practising in front of the kitchen mirror: no way. My grandmother shakes her head in defeat.
‘Give your Nan a kiss.’
My grandmother Elsie’s face feels soft like the velveteen leopard I carry everywhere with me. She smells of ancient powder, lipstick and the red concoction that she calls rouge. Sometimes, she takes me into her bedroom and I close the hinges of her heavy dressing mirror around my head, seeing myself replicated smaller and smaller until my face disappears. If I have been extra specially good, she sprays Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew onto my wrists. It looks and smells like Coca-Cola, which I am not allowed, because it will dissolve my teeth.
My father hums Shnirele Perele, a Hasidic song about the coming of the Messiah, Moshiach, under his breath and I feel my grandmother’s body stiffen.
My father and I walk along the beach. He is carrying my shoes and I am running in and out of the water, chasing the tide. In the distance, nearby the houses on the waterfront, I can see the silhouetted figures of children and adults. As we draw closer, my father nudges me.
‘Look. There they are. The curlies,’ he winks. I am more interested in the cockleshells and pebbles that I am filling my pockets with, and in the two golden retrievers fetching a tennis ball from the water. I love the way their fur clings to their lithe bodies, how the water sprays from them as they shake themselves.
‘Daddy, can I have a golden retriever dog?’ But he is not listening to me. He has that faraway look in his eyes and what my grandmother calls his ‘naughty boy smile’.
‘Look, bubbeleh, you see? Those curly locks they have, you see, they’re called peyes. They can’t trim the corners of their hair or beards.’
I watch these children playing on the beach in their long, black clothes, heads covered. They look so familiar to me, yet so distant.
I want to ask my father why my grandmother is so mean about Jewish people when we are Jewish too. I want to ask him why he has brought me to this place where he grew up. Why he wants me to look at these people in the same way as we look at the lions when we visit London Zoo, except that we wave to the lions and shout hello. The children look happy. I pull on my father’s hand, wanting to run to play with a little girl who looks about my age, but my father holds me back. He kneels down and speaks to me quietly.
‘Would you want to go to the beach and never be allowed to wear your swimming costume?’ I shake my head. ‘Don’t get involved in religion, Miriam.’
I know he is being serious, because he is calling me Miriam, not Miri. Although I don’t really know what religion is, I shake my head solemnly. I do not understand why I cannot go to play. I am still smiling at the girl, who smiles back with eyes that reflect my own.
‘Nanna Elsie’s brother was killed because he was a Jew. Don’t let people know you’re a Jew. It’s better never to get involved. You’ll understand when you get older.’
Even though I am just five years old, I can see that in some way, these people are related to me. I do not know why, but I envy them. Young I may be, but I still understand that a colossal part of who I am is being methodically and deliberately denied to me. I feel loss. I feel shame, a shame which will cling to me like the barnacles that I try to prise from the rocks after the tide has gone, but which refuses to let go.
We walk and walk, my father carrying me most of the way on his shoulders, until we find Rossi’s Italian ice cream kiosk. My father buys me a big cone of my favourite ice cream and as we stroll down Southend pier, he tells me about the days when he would visit his Grandmother Goldstein and Grandmother Isaacson as a child. He tells me about Mezuzahs and menorahs, lokshen and bagels. Real bagels, he says, not like those fluffy things they sell in the supermarkets. He tells me about the East End of London and the Blackshirts, the broken windows and the burning Jewish shops, the tailors, and how the doctors tore the womb from my Great-auntie Rachael when she was fifteen after she had a baby from a boy called Charlie. He tells me how they covered all the mirrors in the house and took all the cushions off the chairs for seven days until she wasn’t their daughter any more. I feel terrified that one day I will be dead and alive all at the same time and that I will never see my family again.

Sammy Berger has his workshop in a room up some wooden stairs, tucked in amongst the backs of Victorian terraces, down a backstreet and an alleyway. It is a wooden structure built on top of a brick-built outhouse. The alley is paved with blue bricks cast with diamond-shaped criss-cross grooves. Some are missing, and the spaces where they were are filled with tarmac. Metal dustbins stand at back gates. There is ivy growing up the bottom of the stairs, covering the banister; it reminds me of the trip we made the previous year to see Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery, the way the ivy twisted and curled around delicate wings and fingers, brushing the silent stone lips of angels.
The smell in Sammy Berger’s workshop is of resin and spruce and turpentine. It is lit by a dim, clear glass bulb, its yellow filament flickering ever so slightly. Along the workbench are chisels, planes, rasps and gauges. I am fascinated by the tiny thumb planes, too tiny even for the hands of babies. What a baby would be doing with a plane is anyone’s guess, but that’s what I call them: baby planes or, better, fairy planes. Sammy Berger is a slight man with wire-rimmed spectacles and bushy black eyebrows. His hair is combed back to cover the initial stages of baldness. It is wiry rather than curly, and has become less and less bushy over the years that my parents have known him. I don’t know how he met my father, how they know each other and I never ask. They just are. They talk about music and a woman called Mrs. Thatcher. Here in this room of half-varnished violins dangling from brown string and brass hooks, bodies of ‘cellos, hulks of double basses hunched in shadowy corners, it is as though I have never seen Sammy Berger without his white apron, a yellow and black striped pencil tucked behind his right ear.
I take a piece of maple with a curved edge from a box labelled SCRAPS. I check it against the ribs and mould of the viola Sammy Berger has clamped up on the bench beside him. He is constructing the back from a single piece of maple, its grain deep and contoured like a shimmering Ordinance Survey mountain range. He lets me slot my piece of wood into its larger counterpart, where it fits like a baby tucked snug on its mother’s hip. I love the shape of these instruments, their womanish curves: names like ribs, belly; neck. The necks and scrolls of double basses lean together like giant fern leaves, waiting to unfurl, scrolls of 1/16th size violins like newly formed foetuses. The ebony of fingerboards, hard, cold and perfectly smooth; pegs chiselled, filed, sharpened, sanded: kidney-shapes mounted with tiny boxwood spheres. I pick one up and roll it between thumb and forefinger, like I do with my pen in school. I lift it to my nose: it smells of bees’ wax and I have to resist the temptation to put it into my mouth and chew it. Instead, I run it over the tip of my nose and smell my breath mixing with the smell of the wood.
When Sammy Berger passes me a small gouge, I look to my father and he nods, checking me in a way that says: be careful. Sammy Berger lays it in my hands, placing my thumbs and fingers in the right position. The steel at the tip of the blade is thin as paper and sharp enough to cut soft stone. Seeing my hands shaking ever so slightly, he guides them, metal scraping maplewood into curly slivers.
‘The tools are your friends. Don’t be afraid of them,’ he says. His voice is softer than my father’s. ‘If you treat them kindly, hold them gently, yet firmly, they’ll do as you ask them. If you’re rough, if you’re not sure of their friendship, if you squeeze them too hard, your hand will slip. Look, your knuckles are white!’
I try to be calm. I have never been allowed to hold one of these tools before.
‘I want to make a face’, I tell him, pointing to a ‘cello, its scroll, the head of a woman with piles of curly hair and mother of pearl earrings.
‘Aah. Then you need this.’ He reaches for a rasp and begins to grate at the wood. ‘Ha!’
Already it is more head-like in shape. As I take each tool to scrape, file, plane and cut, my world becomes concentrated into one small space. I work with the grain, control it, own it, as cheeks, nose, pits for eyes form. I pass a licked finger over my work to see the depth of colour, to bring the grain to life. I will varnish it a red-brown, I think, as my dreams are abruptly disrupted by Sammy Berger, who has made tea for everyone in enamel-glazed tin cups. He sets down a very ringed wooden tray on which my cup rests. It is un-chipped white with a blue rim and handle.
‘I put plenty of milk, but it’s a touch hot. Don’t burn your tongue! Your momma will never forgive me’. Then he looks at what I’ve been doing. ‘Look, Benny, look! Your daughter is a natural!’
I keep the feeling that his words give me stored up inside myself. I wish I had a teacher like Sammy Berger. When I grow up, I decide, I will make figurines of maple and walnut and boxwood and I will sell them at Harrods. I never do varnish my carving. I slip her into the pocket of my navy blue zip-up jacket. I call her Zana and over the years she becomes smooth as glaze as I touch her secretly in times of stress or sadness or boredom or whatever abstraction.

I have no sisters, no brothers (as far as I know). I am what they call an only child. Although Maya Collins fights and bickers almost constantly with her brother Kalen, who is my friend too, and even if they both tease their baby sisters Sophie and Zoƫ, who are twins, I crave a sibling.
‘Sibling rivalry’, says my father when I ask him why, if they are brothers and sisters, they are always fighting. ‘When I was a kid, your uncle and I had to share a bed. I’d be at one end and Uncle Dave at the other. There was only one pillow and he was three years older that me, so he thought he had the right to it. He’d start kicking me, pulling the blankets off me, sticking his feet in my face, so I’d go for the pillow and we’d fight over that bloody pillow every night until the bloody thing burst open- feathers everywhere. Up my nose, in my mouth. All over the place, they were. And I just knew Dave was going to call your Nan and say I broke the thing.’
I laugh. We are looking at an old photo album with a dark red leather cover. It smells of Time Before Me and is so heavy I find it uncomfortable to carry. The pictures are monochrome. Grandmother Elsie is fat, with round cheeks and a long nose. Her curly hair looks stiffened into waves with an unknown substance. She wears a small hat at an angle, and tortoiseshell spectacles. She looks angry in her big double-breasted winter coat with its furry collar. I flick through the pages until I reach the first of what my father describes as ‘glorious technicolour’, but which is more like looking at life unfocused, through scratched orange-brown lenses. Grandmother Elsie still looks angry. Even in the photograph where she is holding tiny me in white blankets, she looks angry. And I see something else, something indeterminable in her expression. Is it fear?
‘So what happened?’ I enjoy listening to my father talking about his childhood, about his brother and sister and how they had to piss in a pot to avoid the outside toilet and its spiders, and how mornings were so cold they had to break the ice on the goldfish bowl. I don’t like the one about Uncle Dave frying the goldfish and eating them, and I never believe it anyway. Sometimes I can’t tell if my father is teasing me when he tells his stories.
‘Well, I tried putting my hands over his mouth; it didn’t work, I must have been about five or six maybe, him eight or nine, not exactly an even fight, eh?’ He laughs, enjoying the story almost as much as me. ‘Your Nan ended up storming into the room anyway, with all the noise. She got both of us by the ear, shouting and raving about her only good pillow, when we knew it was the worst one! We both had the belt for that.’
I don’t like the part about the belt either. My father carries on talking:
‘She had us collecting the feathers up and putting them into a potato sack while she stood there, checking every last tiny bit of down was gone from the bedroom. She cut the old pillowcase in half, put half the feathers in each and had us sew them up.’
‘So, you had one pillow each!’ I look at the lines around my father’s eyes, the lines that my mother calls crows’ feet and he calls laughter lines. If I ever have to have lines, I will never name them after a scavenging bird’s ugly foot.
‘We still fought about the pillows after that. Yeah, funny old thing, sibling rivalry…’

The house where we live is big and old and half falling down. It has a small garden with broken flagstones, pear trees and mud, not grass. It is midsummer and the school holidays. I have been trying to persuade my father to plant a lawn, but he has said no so many times that I am astounded when he arrives home from work with a brown paper bag fat like a packet of sugar, and tells me to open it. Inside are millions of tiny flat, brownish seeds and I know what they are because he has a fork for digging in his other hand.
‘You’ll have to help me with the mowing!’ he smiles, rubbing me on the head. I take my little trowel and help him soften the earth for planting. When we are done, he lets me throw handfuls of cool seeds over the earth. When the water from the rusty can, which we hold together, hits the ground, the smell of rain on hot days fills my nose and I realise that it doesn’t have to rain to make that smell. After that, I make the smell as often as I can by pouring glasses of water over flagstones in the midday sun. It smells of happy.
On muzzy summer evenings we go to the park compost heap with plastic carrier bags. My father climbs to the top of the heap, grass cuttings clinging to his yucky brown Farah trousers, and begins to throw me wallflowers in full bloom. The sweet scent of the flowers and grass is nothing like our stinky compost heap at home where potatoes sprout from onion skins, eggshells and overboiled lamb bones. I gently place each plant roots-down into the bag. The roots are swathed in dry, terracotta-brown compost, more like sawdust than real soil. When all the bags are full, he carries me home on his shoulders and I search his head for white hairs, pulling them each one out with a sense that so long as I pull out these hairs, which should not really be there, my father will never grow old; my Daddy will never die.
Maya Collins is in my year at school. Her birthday is the second of February, which is the day before mine. She is my best friend and ‘blood’ sister. We make a pact to be friends forever even after death in her attic bedroom. Her mother, whom she calls Bethany instead of Mum or Momma, is a nurse, and Maya has raided her workbag for the purpose of our initiation ceremony. There is a square iron bolt set into the black lock box on her bedroom door, just like the one on my room and she slides it across.
‘Really, Miri, you want to do this? Because we can never go back on our pact.’ I nod.
Maya has a really cool wardrobe that must be as old as the house with a big drawer in the bottom, and it is filled with amazing clothes, scarves shoes, fur coats. She lights two red candles, which are stuck in Portuguese wine bottles coated in wax drips, then two joss sticks. She places a huge chiffon scarf over my head like a veil and I do the same for her.
‘You know that anyone who breaks the blood pact will die a horrible, agonising, early death?’ I nod again, not really believing what she says, and I am sure she doesn’t either. Then she reaches into her pencil case, which is white nylon covered with plastic stick-on beads. Her name is written inside the seam in indelible green pen. She takes out her fountain pen, which is the same as mine. ‘We have to sign the pact on parchment paper and seal it with ceiling wax and barbers oil.’
Ceiling wax is sealing wax and barbers oil is Olbas Oil. The parchment paper is normal A4 which we have stained with tea and burned around the edges. Maya has written the pact in blood, she says, but I don’t believe this either. It says, in large, crooked letters:

Maya Lynette Collins and Miriam Rachel Goldstein
Blood Sisters in Life and Death.
This is our pact. Made on:
Sixteenth of July Nineteen eighty seven
Signed………………..…… ………………………

Maya’s bed is Victorian with brass posts and a patchwork quilt. We sit in its sagging centre as Maya rests on the Rupert annual and signs the paper in slanting cursive. She hands me the pen and I sign too, trying to make my signature as florid as Maya’s, but I still like hers better.
‘What’s your name?’
‘I mean, what’s your name really?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, in school, you’re Mary Godston. But that’s not your name, is it?’
‘So if you’re Miriam Goldstein, why are you Mary Godston?’
‘You’re weird.’
By now I am as red as the silk scarf that has been draped over the small dormer window. I don’t know why. I mean, I really don’t. I don’t want to be weird. I don’t want to be Mary Godston and I don’t even know if I want to be Miriam Goldstein. Sometimes I fantasise that I am Maya’s sister. Maya’s mum Bethany is Jamaican and she is just the best. She wears her hair in fine dreadlocks and sometimes she wraps them in big colourful scarves. When she’s all dressed up she looks like an African Queen, with big clip-on earrings and bangles and beads. That’s why Maya has so many cool clothes to dress up in. When I stay over at Maya’s, Bethany lets us stay up to watch films with her. She calls them movies. She lights joss sticks that come in cardboard packets with pictures of flowery many-limbed elephants and plaited, multicoloured strings, which we take off when the packets are empty, to make friendship bracelets. There are always loads of candles on the big Victorian mantelpiece; big fat multi-wicked ones and little globe-shaped ones coated with millefiori wax which glow from inside. I know how to make millefiori flowers in Fimo, but I wonder how they do it in wax; how they keep the wax warm enough to work it, so it’s soft but not liquid. My favourite candle though, is a glowing globe the size of a small melon, with an indigo sky filled with stars. There are palm trees and little buildings with windows which light up yellow when the flame is on. When we’re watching a film, I sometimes catch myself watching the candle instead of the film, the little black wax houses coming to life, my imagination taking me to hot, dusty alleyways where veiled women laugh and hang out clothes on lines which criss-cross from balconies and fruit vendors sit on elaborately woven carpets.
Tonight, Bethany has promised we can watch one of her favourite films.
‘Hello! The lights are on but no one’s home!’ I’m back in the attic on Maya’s bed and she’s holding a hypodermic syringe with a long, thick needle. Under her hands is the ‘pact’ document. Her eyes are wide and spooky and I feel goosepimply all over. ‘We gonna do this or what?’
‘What are you going to do?’ This is freaking me out. Maya laughs then shakes her head, which makes her curly red-black hair shimmer in the candlelight, even though it isn’t dark outside. The sunlight passing through the scarf makes her hair more red, the ends like pure pink gold.
‘Come on, then. Look.’ She takes me by my right wrist and turns my palm upwards. ‘Do you want me to go first? We just have to prick our thumbs then rub them together. See what I got from Bethany’s bag! It doesn’t hurt like if you prick yourself when you’re sewing. Trust me, my mom’s a nurse! Ha ha, you get it, trust me, I’m a doctor…’
‘You do it.’ I brace myself for a big pain, but when she does it, it is almost pleasurable and when we rub thumbs together, the blood feels a bit like oil and warm water.
‘Blood sisters.’
‘Blood sisters. Now do your thumbprint next to your signature’
The thumbprint looks more like a blotch but when it dries, I can see that Maya really did write in blood. I am surprised by its shiny quality. Maya pulls a baby wipe from a plastic pot and passes it to me. I wipe my thumb, noting the tiny dot where the needle pierced my skin. She tears a piece of medical tape off a roll and I wind it around my thumb. She takes off the veil and I follow. When Maya has folded the document, she holds the sealing wax stick to the candle flame. As it melts it bulges and soot sticks to it. Maya hands it to me and I smear a blob where the flap of paper covers the other, then, pulling it away, a string like pizza-cheese, of brittle, red wax, snaps. Maya presses her skull and crossbones ring into the wax. We take turns dripping Olbas Oil over the paper. I rub some on my nose. We are done.
I don’t feel much different, I don’t think. Do I? When Maya’s mom puts the film on, I have butterflies. Does Bethany know we are blood sisters? What if she finds out what Maya took from her bag? Worse, what if my parents find out? I find myself hiding my taped thumb. When it gets sweaty under the plastic tape, I excuse myself and get rid of it in the bathroom.
The film is The Color Purple. We giggle when Maya’s mom tells us the actress who plays Celie is called Whoopi Goldberg, like a whoopi cushion. At first, I think the film is going to be boring. It starts off in 1909. Another costume drama, I think to myself, but it doesn’t take long to hook me and when by the end I still want more. Whoopi Goldberg becomes my favourite actress and I ask Bethany if I can borrow her Alice Walker books. Reading is my sanctuary. I feel blessed that I am not illiterate.
It is the later learning that methadone, or Method One was synthesised by Hitler's chemists and the association with syringes that causes me to cast my mind over past memories and to fictionalise it in writing. We are all human and our experiences shape us sometimes into the antithesis of what we expected to become.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Fierce Midnights

Slipping on oozing germoline ointment squished underfoot, she lurches, feet arching over knees like a Viennese showhorse's dance towards the brown plywood fire escape door. Cold, the bar's metal pressed down in fingerless-gloved hands, fingers grasp suddenly sensing the change from the two-bar fire that glows in the corner splitting light in luminous waves.
'I don't like it here; have to get out, have to go', her voice shimmering off brick as winter stabs her skin with fractious tinkling shards, echoes from cement, where ferns dangle ominously. Prehistoric greens dance in waterfall motion, the bricks' orange suffused with violet tinges, shapes in five dimensions looming with each shuddering of iron underfoot. Down, reverberating in bases and trebles towards concrete of pebbles and fragmented glass slivers. Another world.
He doesn't follow, content, wrapped in vibrations of trance grazing woodchip walls, the lava lamp low as trails fascinate his fingers. The shoreline's low now, waste of oil from the steelworks washed with driftwood still backward towards furnace chimneys, flames licking the orange skyline over grey-brown sea.
'I don't like it. Where are you? I don't like it, I said...' and the drum drum drum of electronic beats suffuses with cicadas unseen but heard in the constant of their stolen midnight.
He follows seemingly languishing in her unrest, his smile to her a leer, grotesque shapes from the shadows of garages where gravel crunches beneath bootsoles, fingers clenching oversprayed hairspikes in nervous twists and pinches. She waits with the darkness of untime. Through arching greens of bushes, the horizon dinosaurs of poplar, swirling clouds catch colour lit in neon from below. Sounds like the birth of creation chirrup softly beneath squawks and rustling unknownness.
And they stand on the bridge over cars which trail reds and yellows like fast-motion New York in the movies, the wind blowing spray from the sea like mist, salting skin in sticky dust. She could walk now, walk over the flatness from here, remembering stories of past tragedies of chemical innocence.
Industrial structures of tall metal frames distant with flaming licks of light reflect in saline pollution, sand slipping as mattress foam as they step. Faces glowing round fires, guitars and songs sung as she sits now, an ethereal white-clad woman, dreadlocks curl moving like snakes' tails, now vines. In her eyes, her face returned in light, hollow, joined as one, lips brush soft warm damp as moss.
'Come on. Lena? Come on.'
But she doesn't want to leave, grasps flesh feels skin, cloth like silk on bony shoulders, breast brushing breast; backs shiver in sea-cold air. The fire soothes yet prickles. Senses envy, though he isn't her man. And his face distorts to mohicaned gargoyled mouth, twisted fingers in putty, water as liquid mercury.
'Stop it, be you. Be you again. BE YOU,' and he takes her hand, pulling her towards streets that bend uphill, lights rainbowed in sound, shells of figures brushing silhouttes of song. Smells suffuse in intoxicating greens, smoke curls in words towards home.

New: Art

Hey all, It's been a while and I've invested in a long-needed dongle aka stick. I've managed to download some photos of some of my paintings. I hope you like them although the photos taken from my phone don't do them justice. I aim to have them printed and available for the season of much alcoholism, so be prepared to have something more unusual to send this year... Much love to all who continue to support what I do.
Vee X

Friday, 13 September 2013

Remebering Jimmy

I was born here, you know, between this river and them train tracks. See? The jagged metal posts they put there to stop people jumping in front of the trains or playing chicken on the line. All new. They weren’t there then. You could say British Rail learnt the hard way. Not that it’s British Rail any more. Not since Thatcher sold it off, along with everything else she didn’t own. ‘It could have been any one of us.’ I’ve heard it so many times. From friends, from half-cut wankers who drink here, waste their lives on this two-sided picnic bench on the side of the cut where it joins the brown flow of natural water near the top lock. And Janey smiles that slanted eyebrow sympathy, thinking thank fuck it wasn’t me. And she’s right. She’s right, hugging me like I’m on my way into court and the sentence is terminal. It could have been any one of us. We’re all capable. And I could have been. But prison’s not for me. Better to end it with a rope around my neck up on that tree out there, than do time. I don’t remember. I keep saying that and seeing the doubt in their eyes. For all my fifty-two years, I don’t remember anything but that last pint of Stella, watching the swans on the river. I love the river. Some folk complain about the mosquitoes, the smell of sewage in the summer. But for me, the curls and bubbles of that brown, soupy flow is like a warm cardigan that wraps around old bones: comforting and home. I was born here, three houses to the left, without a midwife, my father clutching me, still corded, as my mother crawled on all fours screaming for the afterbirth to come. And no doubt I’ll die here too. Too late in life for new starts, new places, new friends. Do you think I don’t notice the fear in their eyes when I walk into the pub? After what they’ve heard, I don’t blame them. They smile, they run off their hiya how are you huns with a different air. Or is that my imagination? I can’t call it a guilty conscience, because I really don’t remember: not a thing. Lydia came to see me last Wednesday. She was wearing the scarf I got her in the charity shop, the one with chenille roses woven over plain thread. Some of them were threadbare, but she loved it anyway, how the dark red of the roses contrasted with the nearly black. I remember joking with her how she looked like a Gypsy girl. We’ve got that Gypsy look in our family, the dark hair and light eyes, and it suited her. ‘I don’t believe you did it, Mum.’ That was the only thing she said on the matter. That was that. She made conversation about her work, about Darren’s new hi-fi system and how he’d hung speakers in the bathroom just for her to listen to her music in the bath. ‘They think it’s a girl’, she said, generations of broken promises in her tone, and put my hand on her belly, but the baby must have been asleep. We watched a film but I couldn’t keep up with the storyline. All I remember is a baby being hurled out of a window and the crowd cheering after a gaping, shocked pause. And as I went to pull out the sofabed for her, she stopped me, grabbing the black, tubular metal of its frame, and I felt so old. I’m chewing through my prescription at six days’ worth at a time; nearly a weeks’ worth today. DHC. Sounds like an eighties rap band and it’s a shame I can’t inject it. Too old for that now; too old for the vein hunting fuckery of it all. I’ll save that for the family history files. Last time I told the doctor I’d lost my pills on the way to Brighton on the train to visit Lydia, but I’m running out again and I don’t know what I’ll tell him this time. I suppose I should take one a day or even half, try to make them last. Or maybe I’ll take the lot next time I pick them up and hope I don’t wake up. Swallow whole with water. Do not chew. The bitter, waxy fillers stick to my teeth and I pick it out with my thumbnail, scraping it from underneath with my front teeth. I can’t sleep. Not even these tablets make me sleep any more. Not even with the sleepers on top. The night is a long, too-quiet space where each creak from the heating and warped wood makes me jump. I hear Lydia’s sleep-breathing as I descend the stairs. In the kitchen I pull the blind shut and leave the light off. Squatting against the units I roll a cigarette. The recurring nightmares have started again. I’m holding his hand through the window of a train as it leaves Marylebone and I can’t let go. As I run out of fast enough steps, the guard is blowing and blowing his whistle and shouting but his hand is locked tight and I’m dragged off the slope at the end of the platform and he’s laughing as I fall into my bed and jump awake. It’s sixteen years since Lydia saw him last. ‘It’s just a dream, Mum, you need your sleep. Please try and sleep; you look so tired’ But I’m afraid the wheels will catch me. I’m afraid of the sound of crunching bone under iron. It’s so real. His laugh, his face. The same laugh as he had that afternoon he rolled into the beer garden as if the years hadn’t passed at all. ‘Nora. I thought I’d find you here.’ And I flinched. Years of memories marked in his greyed stubble. How do I know if I did it when I don’t remember? He came up to me as if in a dream. Straight to my table as though he’d only popped into the pub for a piss and come right back to finish his crisps twenty years later. I’ve been smoking with Terry next door; smoking all day as if the bitter dog-on-heat piss taste will wash away my conscience of what is being said. Do they think I’m guilty? “Come on, Nora: I mean, I know I’m supposed to be his mate and that, but the way he treated me that day, accusing me of shagging you in his face. I thought he was gonna total me. There is no fuckin way you would do something like that. God’s honour, I’ve lived next door to you since we was kids and if there’s one thing I know about you is that you’re not fuckin capable. I mean, you might be capable of many things, eh, but not that. Not that.” Terry’s eyes light up red around their sea green irises and I can smell the saveloy he just shared with me mixing with the Stella on his breath. Tonight; tonight I will say my goodbyes. I will take the last train from the bridge they built too high to climb. The river gurgles its polluted grumbles as a rusty barge approaches the lock which merges the manmade with the endless flow to the sea. Jake raises his can of special brew to us all, his crumpled cigarette-end vaguely reddening his features as he gently moves the rudder. Can I leave this place? I would die in prison. There’s a gap in the galvanised fence where the kids get in. But I only need a ladder. And as the rush of wind from the train hits me full in the face, I’m standing in the kitchen doorway and Lydia’s eyes are boring into mine as she nods, the knife’s blade glinting in the only light from the gas cooker. As fat from the sausages I’d started cooking flare up in yellow flame, Jimmy’s silhouette crumples and doubles over. And I can smell the metallic sting of butcher’s shop dustbins as sticky, dark warmth rubs between my fingers and Jimmy takes his last, wheezing, gurgling, stunned breath.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Aha! Can I really write something from my phone? You never know. If so, this will be my worst post ever.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Coming soon: Art from Vee

It's been a while, but I'm still alive. I'm no longer homeless and I've been able to invest in some art materials, having lost everything I own (yes, everything) when I became homeless.
So I'll soon be posting some photos of my art, which will be available to buy.
Sending you all much love and inspiration,

Vee X