Charlotte Rampling, in a still from Andrew Haigh's 45 Years.
Tonight was one of those nights when coming home feels like a battle. Summer 2015 in Manchester has been an ongoing series of roadworks, bridges being bulldozed and 12 meter sinkholes opening up main thoroughfares. New tram tracks are being laid down, layers of ancient bodies unearthed along the way, whilst a couple of streets away the real, alive bodies of the homeless are shunted again, further out of public view, the latest push by the council, their belongings even cruelly thrown onto waste trucks, another tick box task to dehumanisation. A summer is funny when everybody takes it in turns to go away, and the city isn’t quite itself, but this summer it feels like Manchester has started to eat itself out of restlessness. I wait at the bus stop and watch diverted buses passing against the orange sky, but none of them are mine and there are cars beeping and beeping and inching along. Nobody is getting to where to want to be very quickly. Every moment feels slow but there’s also an excitable buzz hanging over the city; Pride Weekend. Horns and Mardi Gras beads abandoned on pavements, rainbows on cheeks, crowds of people smoking and wobbling outside of bars. Shoppers weaving amongst it all, also trying to get home. A van containing drunk and equally excitable people pulls up beside the bus stop and somebody leans out and shouts “YEAH! PRIDE!” and the people at the bus stop laugh, and one man says “it’s funny when they shout and then they just have to sit there until the light turns green.” And true enough, we watch the man lolling in the back of the van and he watches us back. Our bus still doesn’t appear, and I walk towards the train station instead.
My head is in that foggy state of re-orientating after watching a film, and spending a couple of hours in another world. The world was a damp and lovely Norfolk, and the film was 45 Years. I fell fully into this world; the woman next to me was smoking an e-cigarette, the blue light occasionally falling into the corner of my eye line, and I didn’t even mind that much. I remained in my real world enough to notice that she was twitchy and birdlike, in her fifties with a woven braid at the front of her bobbed hair and an electric blue denim coat, nicely fitted, with badges from towns, cities and beach resorts around the world sewn onto the back. She had it laid over her like a blanket, and there was nothing annoying about her, even with the flash of her e-cig, because she was alone and I was alone and she and I were spending our respective evenings exactly as we liked. Each morning Charlotte Rampling wakes and walks Max, her Alsatian, through the fields which are foggy and verdant and British. The sky is that grey which is so bright you can’t tell if it’s close-by or deep and open, and sometimes you reach the afternoon without feeling like you’ve woken properly. Her mannerisms are slightly off-kilter and she walks like maybe she has recovered from a stroke, but maybe our bodies and joints just find new ways to sit as we grow older. Sometimes she shares silences with the man she’s been married to for 45 years, and much of their interactions feel comfortable and steeped in familiarity. Sometimes she misreads his mood, asks the wrong questions, and it’s a reminder that two people will always be separate, even if their identities slide higher on a scale of interdependent association as they age together. She plays the piano for the first time in a long time, reading Bach from a sheet of music. Then she puts the sheet away and improvises, and watching her hands I think of two times in the last two years I watched my Granny play the clavinova piano bought originally for me, and reclaimed when I lost interest. She taught herself to play beautifully, making it up as she went along (an approach replicated across many areas of her life) and the first time I listened, sitting at the end of her bed in her garden flat I was taken aback by this new skill; surprised and impressed and moved. Then she played again in her new house, in the attic she enjoyed for a short while as a studio. She had a Tchaikovsky figurine propped up on the surface of the clavinova which I didn’t recognise, so it was probably newly found in a charity shop. She played with her back to me, as I leaned on the banister and I cried a little bit because it was after her diagnosis and it felt so special to hear her play on one of my short visits back from Manchester. Quite mundane and just very sad. By the time she’d finished and turned around I’d stopped crying, because how boring it must be to be dying from cancer and have people crying on you all the time. She probably knew though. I watched Charlotte Rampling’s fingers move across the piano and had a cry in the cinema too. I thought about having sobbed quietly but uncontrollably a few months earlier in a screen whilst watching Love Is Strange, in a scene involving easels and unfinished paintings, which triggered the same feelings of Granny’s attic. I watched that film at the start of the year, so around 7 months ago. Some days pass uneventfully, but rarely is there a week that I don’t find some evocative association has crept up on me and I have to let myself go, right into it. Often I think about the whole compulsive sobbing thing, and feel a bit self-conscious to be experiencing such raw feelings over a grandparent when so many of my friends lost their years ago, and have even lost parents since. But sitting there in the cinema I thought about the line in Leslie Jameson’s The Empathy Exams which I had underlined on my lunch break today because it reminded me of my Mum, but which also felt comforting to me in that moment. “I would tell her she is going through something large and she shouldn’t be afraid to confess its size, shouldn’t be afraid she’s “making too big a deal of it.” She shouldn’t be afraid of not feeling enough because the feelings will keep coming- different ones- for years.” When somebody dies you lose them, but you lose that space in the family too, and so everybody has to move around accordingly and figure out how and where to stand without stepping on toes. They also have to figure out how much it matters if sometimes they do stand on toes, because, and I think I’m beginning to understand this, as you get older you want to feel more sure, and so compromise less. But you have to get the balance right of being very careful with the feelings of others, and very careful with your own. In the wake of a death the sensitivity surrounding this business is heightened and so this “something large” to be going through involves a small family quite consciously having to readjust and grow up even more, even if they are all grown-ups already. Because the grown-ups that were once right at the top aren’t there any more, and we’re having to learn to look down from new places. I watched as Charlotte Rampling sometimes says the wrong things, but is mostly always “true” to herself in order to be careful with her own feelings. I realise that any fantasy I had about a sense of sorted-ness coming with age was exactly that; a fantasy.
I finally get back to my house and it’s rather quiet, but I don’t mind too much because there’s a parcel waiting for me just inside the door that I wasn’t expecting. A house at night can be quiet, but an unexpected parcel at least stops it from feeling lonely. When you know that somebody has been thinking of you, the rest of the evening doesn’t feel quite so aimless. Like me, my aunt Mary acutely feels the gap of the ‘sensitive advisor’ role left by my Granny. Sometimes we both miss and need it very much and so we’re learning to go to each other for this comfort instead. The parcel was from her; inside, wrapped in beautifully illustrated paper (I know who we’re both channeling in our minds here) was Infragreen, a recently published collection of poems written by our cousin Kate. I feel thought of, and connected to Mary, and to Kate who represents the side of the family we feel a familial closeness for (and desire to be closer to) even though we see them rarely; most recently two funerals, a wedding and the novel lunch I shared in her garden when I visited London last summer. There’s something about poetry that elicits a school-ish feeling inside me, of somehow ‘not doing it right’, of reading poems self-consciously as if they are above my ability to understand. But I put my keys on the table and lie back on my sofa and plough through twenty in one go. She writes of green, wet gardens and rain, footprints on car brakes, and waking up in the early hours (mind racing but also dumbly half-awake) and the municipal journey of a tulip from a loved one, from Holland to wobbling over the edge of a vase at home. This doesn’t feel like a battle, and I turn each page feeling reassured by descriptions of nature which feel like the Norfolk scenes I was enveloped in a couple of hours ago. I read about foreheads and try to guess which family member they belong to, if any at all. I project memories of my trip last summer onto the words, imagining kitchens described as I remember hers. It seems right to be reading about the earth continuing to turn and school runs, and empty plastic milk bottles on counters and to have spent an evening alone feeling the presence and familiarity of a faraway loved one quite close, and not-so-faraway relations closer.