© Shane Gladstone
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I am laid flat in a chalk stream, my skin soft against the white stone. Crystal- clear water flows over and around me. Something brushes the tips of my fingers then disappears into the reeds. I am ageless, sexless, and careless. Without responsibility or recognition: safe in nature’s womb.
I am inside a dream.
Something, a clap of thunder perhaps, wakes me and I come round on my living room sofa. My world has been turned upside down, and the strain is taking its toll.
On the little nest of tables we bought decades earlier in Habitat sits a half- empty bottle of pinot, and I reach to fill my glass – already stained with fingerprints and the faint trace of the lipstick I feel too old to be wearing.
A memory of the day we bought the tables flashes. We were dressed for sunshine and the heavens opened. Laughing, we ducked into the nearest pub to share a bottle. His Oxford shirt stuck to his skin, revealing the contours of his chest. That was forever ago. The shirt – bobbled and faded with a thousand washes – still hangs in our wardrobe. But like the fabric, his body has yielded to the decay of time - his belly as white and solid as lard.
I take a cigarette from the packet on the table and light up. Lard. I remember my mother melting it in the frying pan. That smell: repugnant - like the end of the world. Cooking dead animal in dead animal.
Now it’s my flesh that’s slowly rotting – I chuckle to myself.
From my chair beside the patio doors I look out to the garden. It’s June, but it’s been raining all day – still is – and the waterlogged lawn is covered with fallen leaves, yet to be cleared from last autumn. Soggy and decomposed, the leaves have melded into homogenised, congealed mulch. They will be impossible to bag up. Besides, that’s one of his jobs.
Another clap of thunder rumbles; sheet lightning illuminates the sky. The dog looks expectantly at me from his basket. I frown and shake my head. He lets out a quiet whine before lying back down and resting his head on his paws. No walk tonight. My body is tired and heavy, my mind slow. I am sixty-six years old, but I feel much older: dilapidated and depreciating, like an abandoned farmhouse or a neglected family car. I tap the ash from the end of my cigarette and ponder. The country isn’t in any better shape either.
Newspapers and TV schedules are full of the endless stories of Brexit, and in recent weeks the nation has undeniably turned ugly: divided, tribal and full of hate. The language used by politicians, on both sides, has been terrible: Project Fear scaremongering, that awful Brexit bus, cheap populist language covering the front pages. It reminds me of my father’s stories of the months leading up to the war. And still it’s not quite over.
The TV flickers in the corner of the room – ready to deliver one final night of Brexit fatigue, until the inevitable fallout of whatever the outcome. The BBC One titles with the cyclists in red and yellow ponchos give way to the all-night coverage of the EU Referendum. The camera pans to David Dimbleby, sat magisterially behind a desk.
‘Good evening and welcome at the end of this momentous day,’ he booms – and I can’t help thinking: have you not had enough of the limelight? I remember him presenting the coverage of the result in 1975 – the last time we were asked this question.
He stares down the camera and continues: ‘We will have the answer to the question that has haunted British politics for so long: Do we want to be in or out of the EU?’
I take another slurp of my wine and consider his question. Do I want to be in or out of the EU? Frankly, I couldn’t care less. I’m for neither Remain nor Leave. The politicians on both sides have proven themselves opportunistic charlatans with not an honest word between them. I have little to no interest in anything they say – why should I turn out in this weather to validate their lies with my vote? And anyway, my body and mind are too tired to get excited about the politics of a world I no longer recognise as my own.
I think back to 1975 – over four decades earlier. Christ, it really was another world and I was another person: young, idealistic, fired up. I had a fine, inquiring mind, a great pair of tits, and incredible clothes. Really, I did. Now, I’m in the autumn of my life. The leaves have fallen from my branches – just like those in my garden – and I’m ready to be bagged up. As I chastise myself for indulging in melancholy metaphor, a memory hits me: him bagging leaves one October a few years earlier – before everything went wrong. He spent the whole afternoon raking neat little piles; methodically piling them into hessian sacks. With his battered old wax jacket and Lenin cap, he worked through the rain – leaning on the fence to roll a cigarette, coughing and spluttering before chucking it away in what looked like disgust.
I don’t care about politics, so what do I care about, you ask? Well, I spend lots of my time sitting here: looking out to my garden and reflecting – reflecting about my life. Relationships I should have had. Places I should have been. Conversations I should never have started. Women I should have slapped across the face. Men I should never have cried over. The children I should have had. My marriage, of course: littered with the mistakes of a lifetime – misunderstandings, money, other men and other women. But still, perfectly imperfect (in its own way).
Back to the TV – the idiot’s lantern, he used to call it. Iain Duncan Smith talks about the turnout on council estates being high, and I close my eyes for a few seconds. I truly don’t care. But I know someone who would. I think of his newspapers spread across the table, the pages covered in fag ash. The radio next to him - his fingers twiddling the dial until a voice cut through the crackling interference. He’d sit, his chin resting in the arc between his thumb and outstretched finger, listening intently: Alert, erudite, angry, witty and sometimes – often – cruelly cutting. If you can’t stand the heat.
Pumping blood echoes in my ears – and once again I am submerged, fast water rushing around me – the chalk riverbed firm beneath my spine. The sound of his voice, his lips – soft against my skin. Then nothing.
‘Your husband has dementia, Mrs Roberts...’
Minutes pass. They feel like hours.
I open my eyes. We are in a consultant’s room. Small and clinical; the stench of antiseptic, that hospital smell, fills my nostrils.
‘Are you okay? It’s a lot to take in.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I was... somewhere else. Resting my eyes. Do go on.’
He smiles, an awkward sort of smile: a mouth-closed type of smile. The smile of the person saying you didn’t quite get the job. He is young, and there is something in his boyish face that takes me back to another place, another time.
Outside, the corridor is busy: doctors rushing, patients shouting, machines bleeping. But inside, the room is quiet: the ticking of the clock and the clattering of the consultant’s keyboard the only punctuation to the silence. And, of course, his voice.
‘It’s vascular dementia,’ he says. ‘It’s caused by a reduced blood flow to the brain. This lack of blood causes damage to the brain cells,’ he softly taps his temple, ‘and eventually those brain cells die.’
‘Now, there’s no cure for vascular dementia. And we can’t bring back to life those brain cells that have already died.’
He is talking about devastating, life-changing things. Yet he despatches his words smoothly – their sharp edges rounded into spherical capsules shaped for easy digestion.
‘But we can,’ now he smiles properly, and it is a lovely smile, ‘do something to slow the pace at which this disease is attacking your husband’s remaining brain cells.’ He spins round on his chair and begins to type, that same clattering again.
‘We’re going to put him on some medication to deal with blood pressure and reduce his chances of developing a blood clot,’ he rips a prescription from his office printer and pushes it into my hand.
The doctor takes my hand and grips it firm and pulls me, pulls hard, and I rise from the water like a phoenix from the ashes – gasping hard for breath, as the brilliant sun dazzles my eyes. Opening my eyes, my new husband grips my hand. We are soaking wet, resting beside the river – miles from anyone or anywhere. It’s a blisteringly hot day in June 1975, weeks after Britain voted to stay in the European Economic Community in a referendum.
His long hair rests on his naked, brown shoulders and I ogle his lean torso. I’m wearing hot pants and huge sunglasses – the BIBA make up I bought in the closing down sale is melting and mingling with sweat, running in rivulets down my face. Our portable radio crackles with the sound of Hotel California, and as he pulls a bottle of wine from the water where it has been chilling, I realise I am happier than I have ever been.
We sit for a little while, until the comfortable silence between lovers or good friends becomes slightly uncomfortable. No one has spoken, but the mood has changed. He stands and walks along the riverbank – agitated about something.
‘How can you just sit there like nothing has happened?’
I am completely baffled by this comment and for a minute I am not sure what he is talking about.
‘What do you mean?’ I say – looking up at him, shielding my eyes from the sun.
‘You and your middle-class family – it’s all right for you. Doesn’t matter about the jobs we’re going to lose, the food shortages.’
I click that he is talking about the referendum – about Europe – and I realise that he has been deeply affected by something I have pretty much already forgotten.
‘Don’t go all loony lefty on me,’ I joke – echoing something my father said – and immediately realise I shouldn’t have said it.
You think I’m mad?’ he says. ‘Is that it? That’s clearly what your old man thinks – bloody Tory.’
‘Don’t speak about my dad like that,’ I shout – genuinely outraged that my sweet natured, beautiful young man is being so horrible.
I get up and walk towards him, try to throw my arms around him in reconciliation. From nowhere he turns and shoves me, harder than I think he intends to, and misjudging how close I am to the edge of the water.
I stumble backwards and my feet slip on the clay bank. Everything goes into slow motion and as I fall backwards, I see him lunge forward to grab me – but he is too late and I fall back first into the water – quickly sinking down to the chalk-bed. From beneath the surface of the clear water I can see him leaning over the bank, hands on his knees. He jumps in to the water, his hand grabs mine and pulls. We are soaking wet, resting beside the riverbank. It’s a blisteringly hot day in June 1975, weeks after Britain voted to stay in the European Economic Community.
Panicked, I reach for the soft, sun-kissed grass of the riverbed but find instead the luxuriant upholstery of the chair arms.
For a few seconds I am completely lost, but slowly I get my bearings as I do a mental scan of the room: the wet garden, Dimbleby on the TV, my overflowing ashtray. It was a flashback. A nightmare. Sitting back and lighting another cigarette (who’s counting?) I allow my thoughts to stay with the past.
We never really talked about the incident at the riverbank. He was never violent towards me again, and, to this day, I know he didn’t intend to push me into the water. But something changed that day between us. I realised two things: one, I would always come second to politics, and two, he could be obsessive, paranoid and violent – what we would now call ‘mental health issues’ but which back in the 70s often went unrecognised and untreated. But still, I stayed.
I try to think back to the night of the ’75 referendum – through the fogs of time – to understand.
We watched the results at my parents’ house. Papa sat in his armchair in front of the huge TV – as tall as it was deep. On the garish sofa – which we would today call kitsch – the two of us squeezed alongside my mum. Dad said it was utter madness to want to come out – to leave Europe; what was then called the Common Market. That anyone who did was a Marxist. The more papa spoke, the more he fidgeted next to me.
I knew he wanted to leave Europe, that he was with Benn – he had told me often enough. ‘Big business is bankrolling this,’ he would say to me – angrily waving his arm at the television as we watched footage of Margaret Thatcher shouting ‘yes, yes, yes’ and urging everyone to ‘turn out and vote yes so question is over once and for all’.
As the night wore on, and the national picture emerged, he became increasingly sullen – with every green ‘yes’ flag added to the cardboard map in the BBC studio he sank deeper into the sofa, deeper into his silence. When the result was announced – that we had voted two to one to stay in Europe, my dad rejoiced and he stormed out.
Looking at the all-singing, all-dancing BBC studio of 2016, it is so different to that of 1975 – that night on the sofa at my mum and dad’s. I’ve got a picture of it in my mind – everything was brown and beige, the haircuts long and
ridiculous. Nearly half a century ago. Another time, another world. The seventies.
Glug, glug, glug. Another glass of wine. On the TV someone is reporting from what looks like a leisure centre. Lots of people are running around – hugging and cheering. The place is Sunderland. And it has apparently voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. Graphics flash on the screen: 61% of people have voted leave – much more than expected. A woman in a pink t-shirt is on someone’s shoulders, she looks engaged, alive.
He would have loved this.
Always the underdog, his every sinew was anti-establishment. I chastised him for being an idealist, a dreamer. He wanted to fight the corner of those who had nothing. They say a lot of the Leave vote this time around is to do with immigration, borderline racism. He would find such accusations abhorrent. For him it was always about social justice, providing for those who had less than he – when he wasn’t pushing people off riverbanks (sorry).
Back in ’75, he was definitely not alone in his outsider spirit.
We were part of that generation who had been too young for the Beatles, for the whole 60s thing of peace and love, and by the time we hit that age the whole sordid affair had curdled into the much uglier early-70s: recession, the three-day week, footage of striking miners on picket lines. He was always on the miners’ side, trying to stir up talk of a working class revolution.
I close my eyes. The water rushes past my head, over my face. I roll a smooth pebble of chalk between my fingers then press it down once again into the riverbed. Emerging from the water we are stood in the middle of a field. In front us we can see the Rolling Stones on a huge stage. God, do I feel alive. The weather is sweltering. It is August, 1976, and the UK is gripped by a heat wave. Weekends have been spent lounging in parks or sunbathing on beaches. My perfect body (and great tits) have the perfect tan. For 15 consecutive days, we have had temperatures above 32 degrees. Grass is burnt dry after weeks without rain. Water supplies turned off. Sweat drips from every pore. The politics of one year earlier are well in the past – apart from the too small ‘Europe or Bust’ t-shirt I ironically squeeze my curves into to annoy him.
But for him it’s still a big deal. We are sat on the grass, not far from the stage. Keith Richards is no further away than the width of a swimming pool. His white shirt is open to his waist. His Fender guitar slung low. Long, sweaty hair framing his face. When we first met in ‘71, he modelled himself on Keith. The look, definitely – but not just the look. That same outsider attitude, the rebel without a cause, doing as he damn well pleased. We went to wild parties, wore outlandish clothes, had incredible sex. It was exhilarating, intoxicating, thrilling.
I look over at him sat on the grass, smoking a joint – lost in his thoughts, so serious. That outsider spirit is still there, but he’s channelled it all into politics - into campaigning and crusading. The ‘75 referendum – for me mere distraction – was for him a turning point.
Since that day on the riverbank, shoving me into the water, space has opened between us – physical and mental – like the almost unbridgeable gap ripped into the land by an earthquake. I know he is driven by whatever compelled him to push me – that irrational anger that rose from his belly and into his arms: a physical force. But I also know I will stay with him. Because that is what we do, and despite his ill treatment of me, his poorly brain and obsession with politics, I still love him and cannot be without him. I grip his hand as the Stones play Wild Horses and Keith’s guitar wails like a wounded colt.
I cup my hands in the stream and splash the cold water across my face. Looking up my reflection stares back from the bathroom mirror. I look old. Deep lines and creases reveal the parts of my face that moved lots when I laughed, smiled, talked. My eyes seem to be retreating back into my head – and shrinking – leaving deep, dark sockets. It’s time, perhaps, to stop wearing mascara as well as lipstick.
Walking back to my armchair, I realise I must have dozed off. The time is now 4.30am and Nigel Farage is on the TV. He looks euphoric, arms in the air and
that big, ridiculous grin. I fumble down the side of the chair for the remote and turn up the volume.
‘If the predictions are right,’ he booms, ‘this will be a victory for real people. A victory for ordinary people. A victory for decent people.’
I sit for a moment and contemplate what seems to be happening.
I look again at the TV as Dimbleby speaks. ‘Well, at 20 minutes to five, we can now say the decision taken in 1975 by the country to join the common market has been reversed by this referendum to leave the EU.’
I look across to the armchair. To his armchair. His Lenin cap is perched on the top of the chair. I think of my mum and dad’s living room in 1975 all those years ago, the argument on the riverbank, the slow-motion lunge he made to catch me. I remember the endless arguments and the amazing sex. I remember his bad days and his good days, my bad days and my good days. I remember him gathering leaves into neat piles while I watched from the window. I think of the wannabe Rolling Stone morphing into the serious intellectual – destined to lecture in sociology at a polytechnic. The wilderness years through Thatcher and Blair, then the way he was almost reborn with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour leader – and the way this new enthusiasm and sense of importance was cruelly stolen by the brain-rotting disease that is dementia – dulling his reactions, stealing his memories, stripping this once proud man of his dignity and self respect with his wife wiping his arse and getting him in and out of bed. Those eyes once so sparkly and alive on that sun-kissed riverbank – now dull, dead, gone. Bereft of passion. Bereft of life. That mind so sharp, now blunt as a butter knife.
I grab his arm and speak close to his face.
‘This is it. What you wanted – all those years ago – to take back control. And you are taking back control. Your worries about the European Empire, the unelected bureaucrats. It’s all gone.’
But it’s too late.
I look at his thin legs poking out of his brown cord trousers. His wrinkly hands resting on the chair arms. The lines on his still beautiful face. And I remember him as he was then. The lean, tanned torso, the Keith Richards hair. The political fire in his belly, the right-on causes. The wild, free spirit arguing with my father.
And I know it is now time for him to go back there. Because I know that he is dead. Has been dead for hours. This is how I found him. And I wonder how long we have been sitting here. Me drinking wine and smoking, the rain outside, Dimbleby on the TV. And him sitting so peaceful, so quiet, so still.
‘The British people have spoken and the answer is: we’re out,’ Dimbleby confirms with gusto – and I feel the tremors of the whole country shifting on its axis. The place we are going uncertain, very different from where I have been and all I have known.
And I decide that this world will not be a world for me – not without him. Tipping the bottle of tablets into my palm I swallow back a handful – washed down by wine – and then another handful.
I curl up on his knee, feel the cold flesh of his face against mine and I think again of the lard I so loathed as a child at my mother’s knee. But here, now, things have come full circle. And I encircle his hard body with my arms, run my fingers down the back of his neck and wait for something to happen.
The spiky Scottish girl is talking on the TV now. ‘People have decided to defy those conventions of Westminster, defy all those experts from businesses and economists and the like,’ the words spill out breathlessly. Graphs flash on the screen showing the pound tumbling and I start to slip away. This revolution of which he always dreamed is so close. But he has just missed it and to me, now like before, it would be nothing more than a distraction.
I’m feeling dreamy, woozy, unreal. Someone is talking on the TV, but I cannot focus on his face. ‘Shock to the financial markets,’ he says. ‘The pound has hit lows ... not seen since 1985.’
Five, five, five. Nineteen seventy-five. Take me back to nineteen seventy-five. When we were young and fearless, violent and angry. When we were sentient, sexual beings.
His face in the brilliant sun. His lean torso. He takes my hand. I see wild horses ... mouth the words ... as we step into the water. The chalk, soft but hard, beneath our bare feet. And together we lie, our long hair laying flat on the riverbed ... and I close my eyes, so tired, so drained, so peaceful, and we go.