I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put. I asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: “Soppy.”
The person to begin with is my maternal grandmother, Nellie Louisa Scoltock, née Machin. She was a teacher in Shropshire until she married my grandfather, Bert Scoltock. Not Bertram, not Albert, just Bert: so christened, so called, so cremated. He was a headmaster with a certain mechanical dash to him: a motorcycle-and-sidecar man, then owner of a Lanchester, then, in retirement, driver of a rather pompously sporty Triumph Roadster, with a three-person bench seat in front, and two bucket seats when the top was down. By the time I knew them, my grandparents had come south to be near their only child. Grandma went to the Women’s Institute; she pickled and bottled; she plucked and roasted the chickens and geese that Grandpa raised. She was petite, outwardly unopinionated, and had the thickened knuckles of old age; she needed soap to get her wedding ring off. Their wardrobe was full of home-knitted cardigans, Grandpa’s tending to feature more masculine cable stitch. They had regular appointments with the chiropodist, and were of that generation advised by dentists to have all their teeth out in one go. This was a normal rite of passage then: from being rickety-gnashered to fully porcelained in one leap, to all that buccal sliding and clacking, to social embarrassment and the foaming glass on the bedside table.
The change from teeth to dentures struck my brother and me as both grave and ribald. But my grandmother’s life had contained another enormous change, never alluded to in her presence. Nellie Louisa Machin, daughter of a labourer in a chemical works, had been brought up a Methodist, while the Scoltocks were Church of England. At some point in her young adulthood, my grandmother had suddenly lost her faith and, in the smooth narration of family lore, found a replacement: socialism. I have no idea how strong her religious faith had been, or what her family’s politics were; all I know is that she once stood for the local council as a socialist and was defeated. By the time I knew her, in the 1950s, she had progressed to being a communist. She must have been one of the few old-age pensioners in suburban Buckinghamshire who took the Daily Worker and – so my brother and I insisted to one another – fiddled the housekeeping to send donations to the newspaper’s Fighting Fund.
In the late 1950s, the Sino-Soviet schism took place, and communists worldwide were obliged to choose between Moscow and Peking. For most of the European faithful, this was not a difficult decision; nor was it for the Daily Worker, which received funding as well as directives from Moscow. My grandmother, who had never been abroad in her life, who lived in genteel bungalowdom, decided for undisclosed reasons to throw in her lot with the Chinese. I welcomed this mysterious decision with blunt self-interest, since her Worker was now supplemented by China Reconstructs, a heretical magazine posted direct from the distant continent. Grandma would save me the stamps from the biscuity envelopes. These tended to celebrate industrial achievement – bridges, hydroelectric dams, lorries rolling off production lines – or else show various breeds of dove in peaceful flight.
My brother did not compete for such offerings, because some years previously there had been a Stamp-Collecting Schism in our home. He had decided to specialise in the British empire. I, to assert my difference, announced that I would therefore specialise in a category which I named, with what seemed like logic to me, Rest of the World. It was defined solely in terms of what my brother didn’t collect. I can no longer remember if this move was aggressive, defensive, or merely pragmatic. All I know is that it led to some occasionally baffling exchanges in the school stamp club among philatelists only recently out of short trousers. “So, Barnesy, what do you collect?” “Rest of the World.”
My grandfather was a Brylcreem man, and the antimacassar on his Parker Knoll armchair – a high-backed number with wings for him to snooze against – was not merely decorative. His hair had whitened sooner than Grandma’s; he had a clipped, military moustache, a metal-stemmed pipe and a tobacco pouch that distended his cardigan pocket. He also wore a chunky hearing aid, another aspect of the adult world – or rather, the world on the farther side of adulthood – which my brother and I liked to mock. “Beg pardon?” we would shout satirically at one another, cupping hands to ears. Both of us used to look forward to the prized moment when our grandmother’s stomach would rumble loudly enough for Grandpa to be roused from his deafness into the enquiry, “Telephone, Ma?” An embarrassed grunt later, they would go back to their newspapers. Grandpa, in his male armchair, deaf aid occasionally whistling and pipe making a hubble-bubble noise as he sucked on it, would shake his head over the Daily Express, which described to him a world where truth and justice were constantly imperilled by the Communist Threat. In her softer, female armchair – in the red corner – Grandma would tut-tut away over the Daily Worker, which described to her a world where truth and justice, in their updated versions, were constantly imperilled by Capitalism and Imperialism.
Grandpa, by this time, had reduced his religious observance to watching Songs of Praise on television. He did woodwork and gardened; he grew his own tobacco and dried it in the garage loft, where he also stored dahlia tubers and old copies of the Daily Express bound with hairy string. He favoured my brother, taught him how to sharpen a chisel, and left him his chest of carpentry tools. I can’t remember him teaching (or leaving) me anything, though I was once allowed to watch while he killed a chicken in his garden shed. He took the bird under his arm, stroked it into calmness, then laid its neck on a green metal wringing machine screwed to the door jamb. As he brought the handle down, he gripped the bird’s body ever more tightly against its final convulsions.
My brother was allowed not just to watch, but also participate. Several times he got to pull the lever while Grandpa held the bird. But our memories of the slaughter in the shed diverge into incompatibility. For me, the machine merely wrung the chicken’s neck; for him, it was a junior guillotine. “I have a clear picture of a small basket underneath the blade. I have a (less clear) picture of the head dropping, some (not much) blood, Grandpa putting the headless bird on the ground, its running around for a few moments …” Is my memory sanitised, or his infected by films about the French revolution? In either case, Grandpa introduced my brother to death – and its messiness – better than he did me. “Do you remember how Grandpa killed the geese before Christmas?” (I do not.) “He used to chase the destined goose round its pen, flailing at it with a crowbar. When he finally got it, he would, for good measure, lay it on the ground, put the crowbar across its neck, and tug on its head.”
My brother remembers a ritual – never witnessed by me – which he called the Reading of the Diaries. Grandma and Grandpa each kept separate diaries, and of an evening would sometimes entertain themselves by reading out loud to one another what they had recorded on that very week several years previously. The entries were apparently of considerable banality but in frequent disagreement. Grandpa: “Friday. Worked in garden. Planted potatoes.” Grandma: “Nonsense. ‘Rained all day. Too wet to work in garden.'”
My brother also remembers that once, when he was very small, he went into Grandpa’s garden and pulled up all the onions. Grandpa beat him until he howled, then turned uncharacteristically white, confessed everything to our mother, and swore he would never again raise his hand to a child. Actually, my brother doesn’t remember any of this – neither the onions, nor the beating. He was just told the story repeatedly by our mother. And indeed, were he to remember it, he might well be wary. As a philosopher, he believes that memories are often false, “so much so that, on the Cartesian principle of the rotten apple, none is to be trusted unless it has some external support”. I am more trusting, or self-deluding, so shall continue as if all my memories are true.
Our mother was christened Kathleen Mabel. She hated the Mabel, and complained about it to Grandpa, whose explanation was that he “had once known a very nice girl called Mabel”. I have no idea about the progress or regress of her religious beliefs, though I own her prayer book, bound together with Hymns Ancient and Modern in soft brown suede, each volume signed in surprising green ink with her name and the date: “Dec: 25t.h 1932.” I admire her punctuation: two full stops and a colon, with the stop beneath the “th” placed exactly between the two letters. You don’t get punctuation like that nowadays.
In my childhood, the three unmentionable subjects were the traditional ones: religion, politics and sex. By the time my mother and I came to discuss these matters – the first two, that is, the third being permanently off the agenda – she was “true blue” in politics, as I would guess she always had been. As for religion, she told me firmly that she didn’t want “any of that mumbo-jumbo” at her funeral. So when the undertaker asked if I wanted the “religious symbols” removed from the crematorium wall, I told him I thought that this is what she would have wanted.
The past conditional, by the way, is a tense of which my brother is highly suspicious. Waiting for the funeral to start, we had, not an argument – this would have been against all family tradition – but an exchange which demonstrated that if I am a rationalist by my own standards, I am a fairly feeble one by his. When our mother was first incapacitated by a stroke, she happily agreed that her granddaughter C. should have the use of her car: the last of a long sequence of Renaults, the marque to which she had maintained a Francophiliac loyalty over four decades. Standing with my brother in the crematorium car park, I was looking out for the familiar French silhouette when my niece arrived at the wheel of her boyfriend R.’s car. I observed – mildly, I am sure – “I think Ma would have wanted C. to come in her car.” My brother, just as mildly, took logical exception to this. He pointed out that there are the wants of the dead, ie things which people now dead once wanted; and there are hypothetical wants, ie things which people would or might have wanted. “What Mother would have wanted” was a combination of the two: a hypothetical want of the dead, and therefore doubly questionable. “We can only do what we want,” he explained; to indulge the maternal hypothetical was as irrational as if he were now to pay attention to his own past desires. I proposed in reply that we should try to do what she would have wanted, a) because we have to do something, and that something (unless we simply left her body to rot in the back garden) involves choices; and b) because we hope that when we die, others will do what we in our turn would have wanted.
I see my brother infrequently, and so am often startled by the way in which his mind works; but he is quite genuine in what he says. As I drove him back to London after the funeral, we had a – to me – even more peculiar exchange about my niece and her boyfriend. They had been together a long time, though during a period of estrangement C. had taken up with another man. My brother and his wife had instantly disliked this interloper, and my sister-in-law had apparently taken a mere 10 minutes to “sort him out”. I didn’t ask the manner of the sorting out. Instead, I asked, “But you approve of R.?”
“It’s irrelevant,” my brother replied, “whether or not I approve of R.” “No, it’s not. C. might want you to approve of him.” “On the contrary, she might want me not to approve of him.” “But either way, it’s not irrelevant to her whether or not you approve or disapprove.” He thought this over for a moment. “You’re right,” he said. You can perhaps tell from these exchanges that he is the elder brother.
My mother had expressed no views about the music she wanted at her funeral. I chose the first movement of Mozart’s piano sonata in E flat major K282 – one of those long, stately unwindings and rewindings, grave even when turning sprightly. It seemed to last about 15 minutes instead of the sleeve-noted 7, and I found myself wondering at times if this was another Mozartian repeat or the crematorium’s CD player skipping backwards. The previous year I had appeared on Desert Island Discs, where the Mozart I had chosen was the Requiem. Afterwards, my mother telephoned and picked up on the fact that I had described myself as an agnostic. She told me that this was how Dad used to describe himself – whereas she was an atheist. She made it sound as if being an agnostic was a wishy-washy liberal position, as opposed to the truth-and-market-forces reality of atheism. “What’s all this about death, by the way?” she continued. I explained that I didn’t like the idea of it. “You’re just like your father,” she replied. “Maybe it’s your age. When you get to my age you won’t mind so much. I’ve seen the best of life anyway. And think about the Middle Ages – then their life expectancy was really short. Nowadays we live 70, 80, 90 years … People only believe in religion because they’re afraid of death.” This was a typical statement from my mother: lucid, opinionated, explicitly impatient of opposing views. Her dominance of the family, and her certainties about the world, made things usefully clear in childhood, restrictive in adolescence, and grindingly repetitive in adulthood.
After her cremation, I retrieved my Mozart CD from the “organist” who, I found myself reflecting, must nowadays get his full fee for putting on and taking off a single CD track. My father had been despatched, five years earlier, at a different crematorium, by a working organist earning his money honestly from Bach. Was this “what he would have wanted”? I don’t think he would have objected; he was a gentle, liberal-minded man who wasn’t much interested in music. In this, as in most things, he deferred – though not without many a quietly ironical aside – to his wife. His clothes, the house they lived in, the car they drove: such deci-sions were hers. When I was an unforgiving adolescent, I judged him weak. Later, I thought him compliant. Later still, autonomous in his views but disinclined to argue for them.
The first time I went to church with my family – for a cousin’s wedding – I watched in amazement as Dad dropped to his knees in the pew, then covered his forehead and eyes with one hand. Where did that come from, I asked myself, before making some half-heartedly imitative gesture of piety, attended by furtive squinting through the fingers. It was one of those moments when your parents surprise you – not because you’ve learnt something new about them, but because you’ve discovered a further area of ignorance. Was my father merely being polite? Did he think that if he simply plonked himself down he would be taken for a Shelleyan atheist? I have no idea.
He died a modern death, in hospital, without his family, attended in his final minutes by a nurse, months – indeed, years – after medical science had prolonged his life to a point where the terms on which it was being offered were unimpressive. My mother had seen him a few days previously, but then suffered an attack of shingles. On that final visit, he had been very confused. She had asked him, characteristically, “Do you know who I am? Because the last time I was here, you didn’t know what I was.” My father had replied, just as characteristically, “I think you’re my wife.”
I drove my mother to the hospital, where we were given a black plastic bag and a creamy holdall. She sorted through both very quickly, knowing exactly what she wanted and what was to be left for – or at least with – the hospital. It was a shame, she said, that he never got to wear the big brown slippers with the easy Velcro fastenings that she’d bought him a few weeks earlier; unaccountably, to me, she took these home with her. She expressed a horror of being asked if she wanted to see Dad’s body. She told me that when Grandpa died, Grandma had been “useless” and had left her to do everything. Except that at the hospital, some wifely or atavistic need had kicked in, and Grandma had insisted on seeing her husband’s body. My mother tried to dissuade her, but she was unbudgeable. They were taken to some mortuary viewing space, and Grandpa’s corpse was displayed to them. Grandma turned to her daughter and said, “Doesn’t he look awful?”
When my mother died, the undertaker from a nearby village asked if the family wanted to see the body. I said yes; my brother no. Actually, his reply – when I telephoned through the question – was, “Good God, no. I agree with Plato on that one.” I didn’t have the text he was referring to immediately in mind. “What did Plato say?” I asked. “That he didn’t believe in seeing dead bodies.” When I turned up alone at the undertaker’s – which was merely the rear extension to a local haulage business – the funeral director said apologetically, “I’m afraid she’s only in the back room at the moment.” I looked at him questioningly, and he elaborated: “She’s on a trolley.” I found myself replying, “Oh, she didn’t stand on ceremony”, though couldn’t claim to guess what she would, or wouldn’t, have wanted in the circumstances.
She lay in a small, clean room with a cross on the wall; she was indeed on a trolley, with the back of her head towards me as I went in, thus avoiding an instant face-to-face. She seemed, well, very dead: eyes closed, mouth slightly open, and more so on the left side than the right, which was just like her – she used to hang a cigarette from the right corner of her mouth and talk out of the opposite side until the ash grew precarious. I tried to imagine her awareness, such as it might have been, at the moment of extinction. This had occurred a couple of weeks after she was moved from hospital into a residential home. She was quite demented by this time, a dementia of alternating kinds: one in which she still believed herself in charge of things, constantly ticking off the nurses for imaginary mistakes; the other, acknowledging that she had lost control, in which she became a child again, with all her dead relatives still alive, and what her mother or grandmother had just said of pressing importance. Before her dementia, I frequently found myself switching off during her solipsistic monologues; suddenly, she had become painfully interesting. I kept wondering where all this stuff was coming from, and how the brain was manufacturing this counterfeit reality. Nor could I now feel any resentment that she only wanted to talk about herself.
I was told that two nurses had been with her at the moment of death, and were engaged in turning her over, when she had just “slipped away”. I like to imagine – because it would have been characteristic, and people should die as they have lived – that her last thought was addressed to herself and was something like, Oh, get on with it then. But this is sentimentalism – what she would have wanted (or rather, what I would have wanted for her) – and perhaps, if she was thinking anything, she was imagining herself a child again, being turned in a fretful fever by a pair of long-dead relatives.
At the undertaker’s, I touched her cheek several times, then kissed her at the hairline. Was she that cold because she’d been in the freezer, or because the dead are naturally so cold? And no, she didn’t look awful. There was nothing overpainted about her, and she would have been pleased to know that her hair was plausibly arranged (“Of course I never dye it,” she once boasted to my brother’s wife, “it’s all natural”). Wanting to see her dead came more, I admit, from writerly curiosity than filial feeling; but there was a bidding farewell to be done, for all my long exasperation with her. “Well done, Ma,” I told her quietly. She had, indeed, done the dying “better” than my father. He had endured a series of strokes, his decline stretching over years; she had gone from first attack to death altogether more efficiently and speedily. When I picked up her bag of clothes from the residential home (a phrase which used to make me wonder what an “unresidential home” might be), it felt heavier than I expected. First I discovered a full bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, and then, in a square cardboard box, an untouched birthday cake, shop-bought by village friends who had visited her on her final, 82nd birthday.
My father had died at the same age. I had always imagined that his would be the harder death, because I had loved him the more, whereas at best I could only be irritatedly fond of my mother. But it worked the other way round: what I had expected to be the lesser death proved more complicated, more hazardous. His death was just his death; her death was their death. And the subsequent house-clearing turned into an exhumation of what we had been as a family – not that we really were one after the first 13 or 14 years of my life. Now, for the first time, I went through my mother’s handbag. Apart from the usual stuff, it contained a cutting from the Guardian listing the 25 greatest postwar English batsmen (though she never read the Guardian); and a photo of our childhood dog Max, a golden retriever. This was inscribed on the back in an unfamiliar hand “Maxim: le chien”, and must have been taken, or at least annotated, in the early 1950s by P., one of my father’s French assistants.
P. was from Corsica, an easygoing fellow with what seemed to my parents the typically Gallic trait of blowing his month’s salary as soon as it arrived. He came to us for a few nights until he could find lodgings, and ended up staying the whole year. My brother went into the bathroom one morning and discovered this strange man in front of the shaving mirror. “If you go away,” the foam-clad face informed him, “I will tell you a story about Mr Beezy-Weezy.” My brother went away, and P. turned out to know a whole series of adventures that had befallen Mr Beezy-Weezy, none of which I can remember. He also had an artistic streak: he used to make railway stations out of cornflakes packets, and once gave my parents – perhaps in lieu of rent – two small landscapes he had painted. They hung on the wall throughout my child-hood, and struck me as unimaginably skilful; but then, anything remotely representational would have done so.
As for Max, he had either run away or – since we could not imagine him wishing to abandon us – been stolen, shortly after the photo was taken; and wherever he had gone, must have been dead himself for more than 40 years. Though my father would have liked one, my mother would never have another dog after that.