The other day, as I was putting away some bits and pieces in our outhouse, I caught a scent and became two years old again. There are a few smells that take me back to a time before language – the real tree at Christmas, my sister’s nappies soaking in a bucket, the damp concrete of the tower block – and this, the smell of turpentine.
You were an artist, a really able one, as your watercolours remind me. When we lived in Düsseldorf in the mid-sixties, you were painting in oil. I have your painting in the kitchen, beside dad’s marquetry. Oil paintings take an age to dry, so the smell in our flat must have been around for a long time. I still have some of those oil paints, in a beautiful wooden case that dad made. And here is how it made me feel, fifty-four years later – though words cannot adequately convey such strong feelings.
Warmth, and light, and being loved, and loving someone so much that it seems now like staring into the sun. And safety, in our world, you and me.
On this day, a year ago, I was alone with you for the last time. The day was warm and the room was light. I had my arm around you and felt the heat of your body, the chill of your sweat. Your skin was so soft, your hair strangely crisp and brittle. You were still breathing, short, shallow gasps for life. I leaned into your ear and whispered to you.
There is no more you now. You are dead and I have no time for talk of an afterlife. So there is no confidence to break when I repeat what I said. I told you what you knew, that I loved you. And I reminded you that you gave me language, and I promised that I would complete the book that I’m writing and dedicate it to you.
I am not an artist, like you, nor a craftsman, like dad, however much I try. I have drawn, painted, moulded, carved and shouted in frustration at my inadequacy, just as you did, on many occasions. But I have words.
You made me and gave me language. It’s one of the reasons why I want to shout and laugh at the patriarchal origin stories in Abrahamic religions. In the beginning, before I could speak, you were.
For some reason, you were determined that I should read – and, before that, talk – at as early an age as possible. As well as my memories, I have a recording of you and dad trying to get me to respond to questions. I didn’t always meet your expectations. Beyond this, I have a powerful and not altogether pleasant recollection of a clattering plastic device, hand-held, grey, that showed me words then snatched them away, leaving me to say them to you. It left me with a precocious ability to read – the Telegraph at six and the reading age of a sixteen year-old at eight. It also left me with an anxiety to please, but I can live with that.
It was said of me at school that I could keep easy company with adults. I was even wheeled out at a reception for this reason, to talk to visitors. I owe this to you, as we talked incessantly, thick as thieves, about everything and in a very adult way, ab initio.
Your words moulded me. You would tell me, time and again, how like you I was, in looks and physical features (our longer second toes, our hips) in temperament and in intelligence. Bright, flighty, prone to fits of temper and with a tendency to laziness. I recognise these and have worked hard to capitalise on the good and mitigate the bad.
I could write on for ages and pages but won’t. I will attempt to depict three images that, though they are necessarily defined by and confined within language, are powerful enough to bring you to life when I read them.
You are in the travel agent, in your forties. You fought for this job when you came back to England and you have made a great success of it. I am so proud of you. I’m eighteen and have finished work at the nearby department store. We sit in the semi-darkness and talk, about the day, about customers, about where we want to go, what we want to do. We are honest and no one else is there.
I’m on the wall outside the boarding house. I am ten. There is no one else. All their parents and grandparents have picked them up. The road is empty, though I expect each approaching car to be you. I ache for you. There is anger somewhere in this. Why am I last? Where are you? And then you pull up, full of apologies on behalf of some road, some traffic problem and I’m with you and we are away.
I am 46. I am in a white room, on a white bed. The space is small but it is mine and I am, for the first time in years, me. At the end of the bed is a knitted cushion. You made it for me, when I told you that I was transgender, taking me in your stride and accepting me for all that I am. It’s June, ten years ago, and I am proud and we are talking – you in France and me in a room of my own. And I feel happy and loved.
Mum, so long as I name you and talk about you and write about you, so long as I live and so long as all those who carry a little part of you know what they’re carrying, you are still here.
Patricia Evelyn Wilson (née Unsworth)
27 January 1941 – 4 June 2019