I was struck by how such a small woman, underneath such a large sun hat, could radiate such frosty disdain, on a summer’s day. She wore hiking trousers, chunky work boots and a plain shirt. Mostly she was in flimsy summer dresses, even in February, once saying, whilst ironing, “I get very hot these days”.
There really was no spare fat on her. For a woman barely five foot two, and brushing 64, she was remarkably fit. I watched her chop less than dry tree trunks, or smash pallets for the fire. She demolished the front garden wall and wheelbarrowed 8 loads round the back of the garden in an afternoon. In my head she was an early pioneer: a feminist who rewrote the rules, who lived ‘the personal is political’.
Later that day, by the burner she’d personally smelted, she sat gulping back her home-made elder flower brew (deadly stuff) giggling as she recounted setting up and running London’s first vegetarian co-op, and keeping a horse in the back. It was the early 70’s, garlic had just been invented. In the days when it genuinely was weird to be a vegetarian, even in London. She offered me a glass, and I realised that for months now she’d been totally sloshed after the first drink, if this was the size of her measures.
Things fell into place. Her comments about the Nazi’s “Having a fair point at the time” (she’d grown up in Belgium and her mother had seen the country fall apart as Nazis took over and Jews were rounded up) were the result of being drunk. “Jews were really tight with their money”…. I was Jewish, I had no idea how to counter this statement. Eventually I said “I’ve noticed the English are really stingy with their money. They’re the only ones I know who don’t help their kids, who don’t see each other much, who never really talk”. It felt weak to counter a slur with a slight. Not what Gandhi would have done.
She said,“Feminism was a waste of time: it wasn’t about gender, it was about just getting on with the job, and applying oneself”- this coming from the woman who raised three kids under five on her own in the Orkney’s after her alcoholic husband walked out.
The house on the South Coast reflected her history, her story, her self-reliance. It was a conventional suburban house with double glazing and too much plastic, that had been imaginatively extended at the back- it was a massive glass sun trap, in which an orange tree bloomed energetically. She had extraordinary luck with plants, and called herself a healer: more than anything I wanted to belive this was true- yet there were never any clients. Ok, I fib, there was one, in nine weeks.
The house was a little cramped, and ‘art’ was everywhere, although there were literally no photos of family, none whatsoever, which for a woman with two grandchildren and one more on the way struck me as odd. And none at all of the past: no hazy sun-filled days of kids being adored. No perched school photos of toothy grins and quickly brushed hair. No houses with kids tumbling out or ford estates with people uncomfortably lined up on parade. There was a lot of ‘stuff’ in the house, but as she was so keen to tell us, it was all bought “really cheaply!” in charity shops. An assemblage of someone else’s stories, someone else’s meanings. And we sort of danced uneasily around it all, pretending this wasn’t odd.
One day, after about a month living there, I threw a rather petulant hissy fit. I surprised myself at the words that came tumbling out “I don’t feel heard, I don’t feel seen! No-one asks me about me, about what I do, who I am, nothing. I feel invisibilized.”
Almost immediately I felt too vulnerable, rather childish. Silly. Despite spontaneously making up a word, voicing this insecurity didn’t make it better.
As lodgers there was no spare room for us except exactly the space we were given. In my case cramming the thousands of books, cd’s ‘treasures’ collected from around the world proved too much, and very soon I was leaking out of that room. Yet whilst the whole house reflected her contradictions, paradoxes and complexity (the most expensive chainsaw lying next to a delicate embroidered handkerchief. A Victorian child’s pram stuffed with scrawled index cards), my own rough edges had to be stuffed into an unmanageably small space.
She asked me to leave after only nine weeks of actually being there (although she’d insisted I started paying a month before I could actually move in). I could no longer live with the quivering dissonance of who she was. I tried hard to see ‘the positive’- her resilience, her strength, (physical and mental) instead I saw only someone who almost completely didn’t see other people. One day we were sitting in the garden. I watched her narrow her eyes and distend them, focusing on the middle distance. I was talking about living and working in East Africa where the constant demands for ‘presents’ and ‘gifts’ completely affected my ability to leave the house, and changed my relationship with gossip and feelng part of it and integrated. All my relationships were embodied and weighed down by the problems of always being richer, fatter, lighter, more able to leave. She sighed heavily, I thought in understanding of the complexity of poverty, of being an expat, of the colonial legacy. She was not a stupid woman.
“I’m just struggling to line up the fence with the clouds, I do that- make patterns in my head, visual ones.”
I knew then that for months she really had not been listening. Not to me, not to any of us in the house. What I had thought was cheerful bonhomie and ability to roll along easily was little more than sheer self-obsession.
I envied her. Being able to live without noticing others, without letting their moods, energies, currents throw her off course for an entire day. To not spend a day worrying about a friends’ broken collar bone, or another’s alcoholic violently abusive dad, a family member’s recurring drug problem, a neighbour’s tendency to people-please. An older aunt’s leukaemia and difficulty breathing. I envied her so much, and understood her flagrant embrace of opposites. She hardly knew she was doing it.