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The Ghosts in the Attic

1 Minute Read

Dear Paul,

So we are selling up and have to clear all your stuff from the attic. The boys brought it down from the attic to what used to be Kitty’s room. Kitty said, “Mum, it’s like tons of stuff, not all of it Paul’s, but literally, it’s tons.”

“Do you mean literally in the non- literal sense, as our friend used to tell us she was ‘literally bathing in sweat’ and it made us laugh and grossed us out at the same time? Or do you mean literally as in truly?’” It’s a fair question. We are a family of talkers and exaggerators. She tells me wait and see.

So I go to the house to open my daughter’s old room and the door is just blocked with wall to wall boxes, there is not even a little passageway like you see in those programmes about people with OCD. It’s like Charlie Chaplin opening the door to a wall of snow, after a snow storm. A sea of boxes, each one overstuffed with things from your living life, with your wife, and before your wife. The forecast calls for storms. I feel strangely seasick.

I try to pull out one of the middle boxes, like giant Jenga, and manage to not drop the ones on top, which plonk down on the bottom ones with a heavy thud. I remember when you lived on the top floor as the same block of flats where we lived, when I was pregnant with Kitty, and climbing all these stairs, puffed out with my heavy pregnancy, walking slowly and heavily like an elephant in platform shoes. I called though your letterbox, “Paul, let me in, I need to pee….” But you were asleep, or not there. You are not here now, not ever. And yet you are everywhere, in these fucking boxes, hundreds of em.

I manage to carve out a Michele sized passage way, opening some of the dusty boxes with bits poking through them. A tripod. A shitload of band flyers for your various bands. Boxfuls of faded Christmas tree decorations and Halloween stuff: your wife was a big fan of both. Big box of home bar equipment. You had beautiful cocktail glasses. Oh God those cocktails. No I mustn’t. Just for today I am not going to drink. I have to say this every day, to not drink. But those home bars. We did love them. First Eddie got a bar. Then we got one, which proved to be my undoing, our little oval lit up monster maker in the corner, soon to be my favourite toy, a drunk’s version of a Wendy House. You had a bar corner and a beautiful black and grey ice bucket. I don’t remember the bar, if you had one. If nothing was clean we’d drink out of Arsenal coffee mugs anyway. Your father said, at your funeral, that you didn’t believe in God, you believed in Arsenal. That got a laugh, the sad funereal forced laugh you do when you want to cry.

More stuff. A guitar stand which topples onto my left shoulder. Boxes and boxes of damp ruined red velvet.   A strobe light. A vintage effects pedal. Hundreds of unsold CD singles of your band. Bettie Page posters and magazines. A Velvet Underground fanzine I loaned you but you never returned, Now, you are really never returning, which puts the magazine thing in perspective. A box filled with the most awful clothes that are meant to be yours, including your strange Japanese 17 year old tourist with I Love Kitty everything ( not my Kitty, the other Kitty) Camden market style punk clothing. Irony or just plain bad dress sense? You kept me guessing. You and your big girly fun fur coats. The campest straight guy I knew.

I remember the job lots you used to buy from the BBC costume department, because you’ll never know when you need 30 size six dresses in a checked Dolly Parton style , for a Benny Hill episode with a big country Western dance scene at the end. “The whole lot for a tenner, you bragged at the time, in your miniscule flat, now filled with dresses no one could wear. I tried one on, and it fit beautifully. But I didn’t want 30 of them. That was 30 years ago, 87, I think. We stayed up all night on speed, playing the same Television album over and over, trying to decide if Tom Verlaine’s nasal vocals added or detracted from his guitar playing. We played Glory fifty times at least, just for the opening riff. That was the sort of stuff we’d do not even on speed. Just to make sure we weren’t missing anything.

I sniff everything, like a dog, anxious to find something, anything, that faintly smells of you, that strange mixture of sweat, vintage clothing and whatever it was you put in your hair to quiff it up, when you had enough hair to quiff up. But everything smells of dust and damp and shaved wood and rotting cardboard. Those pink and black hounds tooth trousers , price tag still on ( twenty quid) – something a born again Christian would wear, with a polo neck and polyester leisure jacket, in the early 60s, on the cover of a knitting pattern magazine, you wally.   I am looking for a trace of you, not just your stuff, a trace of the friendship that partially defined me for over 20 years, my best friend, and I think I was your best friend, ( you were so loved by so many, I must not be the only one to claim you for BF status) the one who stayed up with you watching a documentary about the Jonestown Massacre on Christmas day, when everyone had gone to sleep, stuffed and drunk, we watched them drink the Kool Aid and become bloated bodies in the forest. It seemed Christmasy to us.

The very thing that defined me and made me feel OK, you, your absence became the new thing that defined me. When you died in 2010, the only thing I knew how to do was be sadder than anyone else, I even had to out-sad your devastated wife and parents. I did this by becoming a raging alcoholic and pill head and walking out on my family, to live in a small room and drink, and think about you. Now, I am somewhat reconciled with the family I so selfishly left, not enough to live there, but enough to be nice and fair. And here I am, wading through boxes of the life you lived so outrageously, so passionately with your wife, with your music, with your strange obsessions with Jimmy Swaggart and other telly evangelists, your nerdiness about Mac computers, even your taped answerphone messages.

You were a curator before everyone became one. I choke as I hear my own, younger voice on your answerphone tape, sounding all warped and watery, the cassettes not swimming well in the attic damp storm. “Hey Paul, it’s Kirschy, are you coming to the Mean Fiddler with me or not, or shall we just meet at the Killer after the gig?” The Killer was our local pub, on average a police incident or at least a glassing a couple of times a week. A girl drunkenly calling your phone, while dancing on a table at your own gig. “Paul, I’m dancing on the table, at your gig, and ringing you at home. How mad is that?” Then an interview tape, something for your work ( the day job- a journalist) with a guy saying the biggest spend of social security will be residential care of the elderly and things like “ medication reminder systems” -an alert to take your pills. You never got to be elderly. I never forget to take my medication.

I am making good progress. I have four piles. One for charity. One for the junk yard, one for me, one for your wife…your widow. I understand the need for tangible memorabilia, that by touching your stuff it will somehow magically bring you back to me, that that smokey glass and steel coffin going behind the curtain never happened, that I didn’t get trashed at your funeral and fall down in the disabled toilets, trying to hoist myself up by the emergency cord. But it’s all an illusion.

It’s just a bunch of stuff sitting in green recycling bags or boxes marked “Soothing lemon and ginger tea” Out of date technology that was new, once. Strange, global shaped Macs and tellys. Stuff that might not work again. When you died, I thought I would not function again. For two years I made myself redundant, a skeleton with a bellyful of vodka and pills, wanting the next best thing to being where you were, which was oblivion.

How dreadful it was to embrace the dead when I had living, loving children and a confused and sad husband who could not understand why I made this crazy choice. I guess at the time, it felt like the choice made me. You know where you are with the dead. The living are a constant unknown, for living people are always undergoing a process, changing. Meanwhile, your stuff gathers damp and dust in the attic. I keep opening things up, clearing things away

My daughter works from home, the clicking of her keyboards in the other room a strange comfort. There was a time, in my madness, I probably would not have been welcome to be in the house alone with her. Now we break for tea and biscuits. I do the washing up, just like a normal mum visiting her daughter. I have a fleeting thrill of feeling, well, normal. Looking out at the window at the still intact family next door, two kids, maybe three? The nervy but always on call for babysitting grandmother , going outside for fag breaks as the kids knock a football around. A kitchen extension in an already enormous house. I ask Kitty, “When did they build that?” And she tells me ages ago, when I still lived there, as some sort of mother and wife. I can’t remember that. I have a hazy memory of the family that lived there before this one. Of people in gigantic houses, their house, the house next door, building, always adding bits, floors, extensions, playrooms, guestrooms. Everybody wants more space. I just want, wanted, more time with you.

Me, I have all this stuff, Paul, your stuff, and no room for it. I finish the washing up and head back upstairs on a caffeine buzz, determined to get the job done.

Then, just like in that Chrissie Hynde song that always makes me well up, I found a picture of you…young, leather jacketed… and my heart leaps into my mouth and I gasp for air. I’m not sure why. I have loads of pictures of you, I just didn’t expect to find “you” here, although you are everywhere…. and I am willing myself not to cry, because I’ve been instructed not to by Mally. I don’t how things work in the land of the dead, if you have found each other, but Mally died a few years after you did. Not suddenly like you, but slowly, cancer ravaging his throat and eating him up inside. One day, months before the end, he drove me to work. I didn’t know how he could see anything, as his eyes were reduced to slits, his face so swollen from the useless steroids. He pulled over into a side street and said, “Look, when I die, don’t do that crazy shit you did when Paul died. It’s not allowed. Don’t fuck things up again, Kirschy, because I will come back to haunt you. Just don’t do it.”

And I didn’t. But still, here I am, kneeling in the middle of my old front room, sobbing over a picture of you, and then I clock Kitty in the doorway, hands on hips, in a motherly “What sort of mess do you call this?” sort of way. She says, in a long, exasperated exhale, “Why are you doing this, again? Why are you …doing this? Don’t do this…”

“I’m not doing it, I’m not doing anything,” I lie badly, eyes red-rimmed, a stray tear falling onto the photo.” I stand up quickly and put the picture on a pile. She’s rightfully on guard. I did some crazy shit when you died and she’s had enough. It’s taken ages to get her back on side, just about, so I just need to crack on tidying, and stop crying.

I miss you, but I understand for whatever reason, your number was up. I’m back in my flat now, crammed with a fair bit of your stuff. The strobe light turns my little corner of Hackney into a disco. I can listen to Cosmic Dancer, your funeral music, without crying now.

If you get this, let me know what it’s like , where you are.   Give me a sign. I’d ask you to look for my dad, for Rita, for Mally, for Lizzy, for Zak, for Josie, for Bowie, for God’s sake, he’s got to have some dead sightseeing address. but I know there are way more dead people than live ones so it’s probably pointless. Right now, just for today, I won’t drink, and I will stay in the land of the living.

Love you always,



Life in the Slow Lane.

1 Minute Read

About six years ago I joined one of those jokey, purposeless Facebook groups. We never meet up, we never do anything fun, we never did anything except bitch about how slow tourists walk. The group was called, “Get out of my way. I walk faster than you.” I think mainly geared at people going to Oxford Street, thinking it’s a good idea at the time, and emerging from the tube into an unmoving throng of people moving slowly, eating, texting, or pointing at planes.

I was the one totally not understanding why anyone under 80, with no bad health problems, would not do the left side of the escalator, the walking up the steps side. I was thinking, don’t you want to get out of the Hogarthian miasma of tube hell asap, don’t you want to join the huddled masses queuing for ill fitting bras at Primark, cos they are cheap? What I was noticing was that a lot of people on the left, walking side of the escalator were wearing fitfuckinbits. Trying to clock up their steps so they could feel scientifically fit at the end of a day. Wankers. The whole point of the left side is to get out of the tube faster, not to work your quads. The right side, the standers, OK if they had big suitcases, OK if they had mobility problems, OK if they had small children ( very OK, my son was horrifically injured as a child, going up the fast lane, where the moving steps swallowed one of his finger tips when he fell). Other than that, why?

But now, I see the world as a very slow walker, on crutches. I hate that I can’t get anywhere fast. The five minute sprint to Tesco Metro is now a 40 minute round trip ordeal, always ending in tears, addictive painkillers, and a bag of frozen peas (not to be eaten, but placed on gimpy foot) People are treating me as a proper old lady. Cars at zebra crossings actually stop as I hobble across the road, in the time it would take to say, move to North Dakota, raise five children and train as a rocket scientist. If I have carry a shopping basket, with the crutches, the surly, stoned guys on minimum, now security guards, will follow me around with the basket as I plunk in my embarrassing purchases – ice lollies, a trashy magazine featuring stories like “I thought I had tummy ache. Then I gave birth to sextuplets in the car park at Homebase, without ever realising I was pregnant” and frozen veg which will not be eaten but placed on swollen, post operative foot.

Is there any good news about being forced to slow down? Yes. You have to stop to rest every now and then cos walking on crutches is basically walking on your hands, full body weight transferred to your upper half, which in my case is fly weight. This means you get to overhear all the mobile phone conversations people have at bus stops. True sample: “I never. ( pause) No I never. She got proper trashed and wound up in the bus garage in Sarf London, and I was like, I didn’t abandon you mate, you puked on my Guess dress, I was like so outta there. I was like all sexy for my date and then he was like sorry love you smell of sick… I fuckin hate when that happens.”

And it makes me glad to not be young anymore. To listen to this stuff instead of live it. And people are kinder when you walk slow, on crutches. They don’t do irritated faces. They do “Take your time, love” gestures, and I do. I hobble over to the corner shop and buy old lady things, like Bigga processed peas and Smash. Open a tin. Just add water. This is the extent of my cookery skills, on crutches. The drug dealers who piss and smoke crack on the stairs say “Mate, you should take the lift” which is about right. I listen to The Archers. It makes more sense on crutches. I don’t know why. I shuffle over to the balcony on nice days and watch people wilfully ignore their pit bulls shitting on our few patches of grass and I think, oh wow I have crutches, I can do that think of pointing and shaking my crutch and shouting “Oi, I see you. I see Jay Z there dumping his crap on our greenery. Pick up after your dog, you lazy sod.” Except I don’t as I am only temporarily crippled and will have to face them again in real life again, when they will kill me. Life in the slow lane is different. It’s like playing a role that may be your real future life. I would take time to smell the roses but there aren’t any around here. Instead, I stand on the balcony in my unwashed dressing gown and watch the blue tins of extra strong brew sparkle like diamonds in the grass. Then I shuffle back indoors, place some frozen veg on my feet, neck a couple of Co Codamol and wait for sleep.

The benefits of Having Friends Waay Younger than You Are

1 Minute Read

My young friend Chloe (23) was sobbing after watching a viral Youtube video about the elderly talking about loneliness. Some old biddy with all her chachkas and doilies and you know, those things that cover the arms of armchairs that no one ever sits on, cos she has no visitors, saying how some days she talks to nobody, and then the advert bit comes on, and it’s something like, make a difference! Ring an old person! Chat shite. They will love you for it. Not exactly, but that’s the gist. While you youngwhippesnappers are snappy chatting on the interweb, or eating raw fish, or going to discos, whatever it is young people do, old people are at home, rotting in front of their stuff, feeling dead sorry for themselves. Call em. Tell em about your sushi. It will make their day.

And Chloe said to me, “I really want to ring my nan, but she says never during Emmerdale.”

And I thought, I’ll have that. Never during Emmerdale. So I says to Chloe, you know, you must never ring me during Emmerdale, either.

Chloe goes, “But our Michele, you don’t have a telly.”

“Don’t care. We have to establish boundaries, Clo…”

Chloe is one of my Bright Young Friends in Jobs that have Nothing to Do With Their Degree And Are in Shitloads of Debt. I have many, because after coming out of a treatment centre for tranquilizer addiction in 2012, I found myself gravitating towards the sort of dumbass jobs I did at the beginning of my working life. Cleaning. Washing glasses, FOR A YEAR, at a big chicken and steak restaurant. Positioning myself as the strange granny type with a bit of a rock and roll past.

After a few conversations, after establishing that English was my first language (in most of the jobs I do, it’s not even essential) and actually, some time ago, I sorta made a living from this language, I started to get young people coming up to me, for love advice, to ask what music I listened to in the olden days ((New York Dolls, I would say, waiting for a glint of recognition. Always a pause, and then, “Wow”, the implication to me being, how can someone so very fucking old, as old as my mum, have liked something I’ve had my eye on in the vintage record shop?)

When I was at the chicken and steak place, the young, usually beautiful waiters and waitresses would come in and between gasps for breath or bitching about a difficult customer, would tell me something personal, something a little deep, or a little lovelorn, something to which I could be of some sort of matronly assistance.

And I loved it. I loved, for the first time in my long life, being mistaken for the wise and sensible one. You fake it long enough, you actually begin to feel it. I found myself telling all of them, “You are young, you are free, friggin Supergrass wrote a song about you, (Who are Supergrass, they say) this job will be nothing to you next year, when you are modelling for Topshop, or representing refugees in your law surgery, or filling out mid- sized venues with your indie band (I said mid-size to manage their expectations).”

And I really like, for years after being a sort a chaos queen, being scatty in my personal life at best, downright deranged at worst, I was finally at a peaceful, sensible place where kids the same age as my kids (who were not talking to me at the time: they are now) would ring me up, ask me out, hang out with me after work. I saw with sober eyes how very hard it is to be young these days, much more so now than when I was young and you could have a crap job, live in a bedsit, buy very cheap drugs and have a really good work/life/drug balance.

Now I work in a café where all the staff, most of em still young enough to be my kids, including my boss - are in recovery. They are drug and drink free, and very sorted. They have dreams they still have oodles of time to fulfil. I am now the one with no plan B, happy to flip eggs for the rest of my working life, but I can vicariously enjoy their hopes and visions and dreams. I love it that my expectations are extremely managed, and they are still in grit and determination mode. And every day I look forward to hearing about their lives, their loves, their dreams, their possibilities. But never during Emmerdale.

So Bad It’s Good

4 Minute Read

Finally, as all those rappers implored me years ago, I can throw my hands in the air like I just don’t care. But maybe not to rap music. The other day at one of my cleaning jobs, where my DAB radio is as vital as my bottle of kick ass lime scale remover, to make more tolerable the mundane and sometimes disgusting tasks I must perform to help richer people bath and excrete in a germ-free environment, I heard Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree. It is pure schlock, but it makes me tear up every time. I said to my client, young enough to be one of my kids: “I know it’s a corny song but wait for the payoff line. See he’s been in prison and he wants to know if his girl still wants him when he gets out, so he tells her to tie a ribbon round the tree, but she ties 100 ribbons. And the whole ‘damn bus is cheering’ cos they all know!” And here I dab my eyes with a J cloth. And the kid goes, “What’d did he go to prison for? Crimes against music?” and laughs at his own joke as he leaves a 20 on the table for me.
The kid is right. It is a terrible song, and yet I love it, not in an ironic way, not in a hey let's all wear lots of polyester and platforms and pretend we are in the 70s and play loads of cheesy music and like, make a pineapple cheese hedgehog centrepiece and recite lines from Abigail’s Party. I just love it because Tony Orlando and his beautiful girls, both, to my knowledge, called Dawn (how confusing!) had a TV show I used to watch as a kid in America. And I had this fantasy that they all lived together, and Tony would go, “Dawn,  get me a cup of coffee,” and both Dawns would run and fix him some coffee, and they would just be so happy, drinking coffee, by the pool, writing songs and dance routines for the telly show. I wanted to be a Dawn and join Tony’s harem. Three cups of coffee for Tony, and we’d all sleep together in one happy bed, singing our hit tunes.
For years this was my dirty secret, that I like some really naff songs (don’t get me started on Cher’s Half Breed, same era, also had a telly show with Sonny and her then daughter, now son, Chastity, perhaps now just called Chas) and  pretty much anything by Tom Jones. The other day in the caff where I also work, Tom’s ‘It’s Not Unusual’ came on the radio and I had to down frying pan and dance and crank up the volume. “Stop texting and emailing and facetiming people! Show some respect for Tom!” One camp looking guy high fived me, as if to say, “I’m gay and hipster, and you are insane and menopausal, but we can bond over Tom!”
Songs, good or bad, technically, are imbued with memory. We are constantly making memories, and if you are anything like me, most will have a soundtrack, as evocative as smell or taste. I can’t hear Kate Bush’s ‘Babooshka’ (which is critically safe to like) without thinking of my two kiddies as toddlers, donning sheets to imitate Kate’s interpretive dancing. I don’t much like the song itself, but I love how it triggers the image of my then little ones dancing along with Kate. The critics ( and I used to be one myself) tell us what is cool and what is not, what it is OK to like and what you should never admit to liking, even ironically, but how awful it is to be in the prison of embarrassment, pretending to like music you hate, pretending to hate music you like.
And not everything I love is critical crap. Age frees you up, to not have to hide the David Soul behind the Fela Kuti record. I don’t actually like David Soul, that was my ex husband’s guilty pleasure, but Fela, Fela turns me on something rotten. I’ve got about two hormones left, neither of which make me want sex, but Fela’s Lady is so imbued with my favourite sex memory that well….it’s a very long song. And for that reason, I’m sort of more embarrassed about my reaction to Fela ( cool) than I am to the giddy singalong the likes of Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves (naff) compels me to lead. But as Joey Ramone sang (and yes I loved The Ramones, every single song): “I don’t care!”.
Surprise Me

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