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Short Story Ooh, Air Margrit

Ooh, Air Margrit by Rebecca Bryn Relationships short story

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‘We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Margaret…’ Dai Davies, lay-preacher at the cathedral, pillar of the community, stands beside the coffin in the crematoria chapel as if carved from the same Welsh oak: he rolls the Rs in Margaret and lilts in a melodic baritone about my mother, a woman he’s never met.

My mind rebels at the platitudes, for my relationship with her was ambiguous, difficult at times: there was never a closeness between us. I’m ashamed to say I felt relief when she died: relief tinged with familiar guilt. She died on her 87th birthday, and though I’d taken her present-hunting only days before, I hadn’t visited her on her special day.

The spectre of imminent mortality has drawn me to dredge through family history, recently, and I’d begun to understand Mum’s relationship with her own mother, Grandma’s relationship with her parents, and the impact they’d had on my relationship with Mum.

Northamptonshire born and bred, Grandma was a tailoress, nimble fingered whether sewing or knitting, and nimble tongued in the broad dialect peculiar to Kettering. If a garment needed taking in, it was ‘A bit over-fully.’ If she scrimped to make the most of a piece of cloth it was because, ‘I ets to goo accordin.’ And if she worked until the early hours to finish a suit, it was because the customer ‘Ets to ev it.’ Devotees of the Evening Telegraph cartoon Air Ada will know what I mean.

Anyway, Grandma was the oldest daughter and brought up ten siblings when her mother died young: her maternal grandmother having already been found dead in a stream at Yardley Hastings, her family home. Grandma’s father, Ebeneezer, Mum told me, was an alcoholic wife-beater who drank his wages on a Friday night unless Grandma met him at the works’ gate and begged enough cash to feed his family.

Ebeneezer was a coal-whipper, a labourer who worked in the goods yards unloading coal wagons onto carts, and after that a stoker at the gas works in the days when coal produced town gas: hard, filthy, sweaty jobs that drove the stoutest men to drink. Mum said he was a horrible man, but maybe life made him that way. Although I never knew him, he is my first certain memory. I’d crawled into the middle bedroom, where an old man lay in bed. I remember that I stood up, and we stared at each other, but no words were exchanged between us. According to his death certificate, he died when I was 22 months old. Whatever the reasons for my great-grandfather’s drinking and violence, Grandma never learned to show love or affection, or to spark the gift in her daughter.

I wonder how Ebeneezer got on with Grandad, his son-in-law. I adored my Grandad: he’d fought in the cavalry in the Great War and a sepia photo of him in uniform, on his horse, took pride of place in the front room in Regent Street. I have his army fork and the two purple-topped Cowrie shells he brought home. He’d gone to war a farm boy and came back from Palestine with a wanderlust that never left him. But he’d promised Grandma that, if he survived, they’d get married and he kept his promise, took a job in a shoe factory and moved in with Grandma and her father.

But he’d changed: the dream he’d come home to no longer existed. The love Grandma craved was never allowed to blossom, and instead withered into a mindset of mild disapproval and a sense of shame, of failure. I can’t remember one word or look of affection between them. Mum too would repel any public show of affection Dad made towards her.

How history repeats itself. How the shock-wave of emotional repression and guilt ripples outwards to touch generation after generation. Grandma suffered from depression most of her life, understandable, now I realise the disappointments with which she contended. It was a disorder that haunted my mother’s mind and I see clearly now how she fostered in me the same feeling of responsibility for her unhappiness that her mother had fostered in her. Photographs taken between the wars show stiff figures, with sombre expressions, and served only to revive bad childhood memories for Mum. Maybe the next generation, or the next will live untrammelled by the after-effects of war, the violence of a coal-whipper and the depression of a young woman robbed of her childhood.

Dai Davies raises his voice, bringing me back to the service. ‘Margaret had an interesting life. She joined the WAF in 1939 and was stationed at RAF Holt in Norfolk, a county for which she retained an abiding affection. She drove the blood lorries…’ Light from the stained-glass window paints the pale oak red, blue and green and kisses Dai’s right hand. He’s getting into his stride now, even though the crematorium service isn’t a religious one.

Dad’s war service consisted of working as an electrician at Stewarts and Lloyds, the steel works at Corby. He and Mum had met through their respective brothers, who were close friends. Mum told me that when she took Dad home to meet her parents, Grandma’s disapproving comment was, ‘Ooh, air Margrit, couldn’t yu ev done better en that?’ True, Dad was small and wiry, balding, with a hook nose, a scar the length of his forehead, and was blind in one eye due to an altercation between a wooden trolley and a two-ton truck at the age of eight… but, well, Grandma spoke as she found. She died just before my first son was born. She and Dad never really got on.

After their marriage, Mum and Dad moved in with Grandma, Granddad and Ebeneezer, and lived there until I was a year old. Four generations in a three-bedroom terrace with only an outside lavvy and one cold tap in the kitchen. Is it any wonder they bottled their feelings and there were few outward displays of affection? Is it any wonder Mum became a target for Grandma’s discontent?

Dad died 13 years ago, on Christmas Day, only eighteen months after he and Mum followed my husband and me from Northamptonshire to Pembrokeshire. I’d escaped… briefly… from the uneasy cords that bound me to my mother. What is it they say, a woman is a daughter first, a mother second, and a wife third. It was a constant juggling act with those three clubs, hands constantly slippery with guilt.

Dad had prostate cancer and knew he had only days to live. ‘I know your mother can be difficult,’ he said. ‘It hasn’t always been easy, but I love her. Look after her for me.’

‘I will, Dad. I promise.’ I did my best… Did I, really? I put her in a home when she lost her sight and demanded more time and love than I could give her. I could have gone to see her on her birthday.

‘Margaret loved her garden, and nature. She bred Swallowtail butterflies which she released on Wicken Fen in Norfolk…’

My eyes are drawn again to the coffin. Soon the curtain will draw across in front of it and Mum will be gone forever, like her butterflies. The children, although doubtless bored, are behaving themselves remarkably well. There’s some shuffling of feet and rustling of paper, asthmatic breathing and the odd cough, but otherwise Dai holds his audience wrapt.

Ken the Box, the undertaker recommended by the care home, sent Dai to speak to me after Mum’s death. He arranged the order of service at the crematorium, and for Mum’s ashes to be interred with Dad’s, in the windswept churchyard on the hill above Solva, overlooking the sea. He asked me about Mum’s life, what she was like, so he could say something about her at the funeral. We got chatting… Dai was a man with a twinkle in his eye and a wicked sense of humour. He laughed a deep belly-laugh as he related the tale of the man who’d insisted his parrot attended his funeral. Halfway through the service the parrot had piped up. ‘F*ck off. F*ck off.’

His irrepressible humour relaxed me: we got onto the subject of family history and I told him I was researching mine. Black sheep that Grandma had kept firmly hidden leapt imaginary hurdles to freedom. A great-great-great aunt had been the ‘bad girl’ of Warkton village and was deported to Australia. A great-great-great uncle and his two cousins had been convicted of killing a gamekeeper in Yardley Chase and found themselves on the convict ship HMS Tortoise, bound for Hobart, Tasmania, in 1841.

And then there was Aunt Ellen, I went on, Grandma’s younger sister, who’d run a tailor’s shop in Glasgow, lost her only son in the Second World War and lived in a tenement in the Gorbels. As children, we took bets on what colour her hair would be when she visited. I can definitely remember blue, orange, red, green and purple, and once a mixture. We kids loved her, but Grandma said she was a kleptomaniac and you couldn’t take her anywhere: she’d even come out of a restaurant with half the cutlery shoved up her sleeves.

Dai pauses for breath, head bowed respectfully, as Mark Knopfler plays guitar with wordless eloquence. I glance across at my older brother, who lost his partner not long ago, and my uncle, my father’s younger brother, who is in his 80s. My sons and their families are behind us, and behind them Mum’s brother’s children and their partners. Family, some I haven’t seen for years, have travelled from Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Kent, France and Germany to be here to honour Mum’s life.

I catch my cousin Libby’s eye and she smiles comfortingly. I last saw her at her wedding almost twenty years ago. It was a lovely service, held in a Catholic church in the woods somewhere near Trier. The English contingent was small compared to the groom’s side of the family, but we did our best to follow a ceremony that was entirely in German. We did sing one English hymn, somewhat feebly, and our minds eagerly latched onto the odd German word that sounded marginally English. It was all going fine until the priest said, ‘Jesus farted.’

At least, that’s what it sounded like to English ears. In front of me rows of shoulders heaved with suppressed mirth. I suspect those behind me heaved as well. Like the bride, I daren’t turn round to look: catching someone’s eye would have been disastrous. She, too, knew exactly what her family and friends were thinking.

Dai clears his throat and looks directly at me: I straighten my face as the wedding darkens into a funeral: white to black. The timbre of his voice commands our full attention. ‘Margaret came from a good family.’ His eyes move to the assembled mourners and he smiles benignly, embracing us all. ‘Of murderers, thieves and prostitutes.’

The silence behind me deepens until a vast pit opens and swallows all sound, all breath, all rustling paper, all shuffling feet. Time hangs suspended, and into that silence, as I will the floor to swallow me, my late grandmother voices her final disapproval, her final shame, though for once she targets the wrong sinner. ‘Ooh, air Margrit!’

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Short Story written by Rebecca Bryn

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‘We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Margaret…’ Dai Davies, lay-preacher at the cathedral, pillar of the community, stands beside the coffin in the crematoria chapel as if carved from the same Welsh...

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