April 3, 2019
With Agnes Varda’s Black Panthers playing in the background, I started taking bin bags full of clothes out from under my bed, where I’d stored them while I had a subletter staying when I was in L.A for a few weeks. I should have unpacked the bags by now, and put the clothes back on their empty hangers, but I’ve been slow to get round to doing it. Untying the first one, I found it contained a pair of wooden clogs, unwearable because of the dull knock they make.
The opening music was making me feel more frantic. I felt crowded by all the bags, like they were someone else’s clutter that I’d been tasked with sorting through. Plus I liked the newly bare look of the room and, I didn’t want to start filling it up again. I ended up putting them all back under the bed. Out of sight, out of mind. I texted a friend saying, “I want to just sell all my things and start over!” She suggested we try a car boot sale.
For the past few months I’ve been doing copywriting for a fashion startup twice a week. Today, a Wednesday, was one of those days, so I took the bus in to work. I’ve found I like it more than I was expecting to; there’s a licence to use a certain persona and an anonymity that takes away the self-consciousness of other writing. I use jargon like “killing it” and “fire” a lot.
For lunch I met a friend who works nearby. It had been raining on and off all day but somehow wasn’t when we met, so we sat outside, in one of those bits of landscaped “public space” that don’t tend to get used, and split anchovies and a caesar salad that came as a kit of separate components, using the bag the salad came in as a plate.
This week my grandmother, mother, brother and uncle are here, visiting from Northern Ireland, and we’d arranged to have dinner that night, along with my twin sister and her boyfriend who also live in London. They are staying in Bloomsbury in a big grey, very carpeted hotel called “The Royal National Hotel.” On its website it describes itself as “unique and lively,” but to me the name makes it sound like the setting of an Agatha Christie novel. When I finished work I took another bus to meet them in their lobby before dinner.
Earlier my uncle had shared a photo to Facebook, of him and my grandmother standing in front of the fountain at Trafalgar Square. It got a lot of likes. It’s a good photo, with a clearer sky than the reality of the day, but I was thrown off by how small my grandmother is in it; to me she is such a big presence. Walking through the streets of Derry with her is like being with a mob boss, she greets every second or third person by name. Once we bumped into her friend and she actually described herself as “the big boss.” She is tough too, she takes no prisoners; when my mother and father divorced she cut my father out of every photo she had of him.
When I arrived I showed my grandmother the Facebook photo and told her that it had got a lot of attention, and that I loved her coat, but she was most interested in how I’d been able to see it. I explained Facebook as a kind of space where people put photos for their friends to see, sometimes with messages too. Her eyes are fading, so she asked me to read the comments out to her. One said, “Billy tell her she’s English now.” Not rightly, she replied. And another: “Your mother’s looking grand. Tell her I was asking for her.” I tell her William Barrett wrote it, “Willie Barrett! Tell him I was asking for him and all.” When we’d finished with the comments she said, “I’d say I’ll be signing autographs when I get home.” She also asked if her boyfriend would see the photo, I told her that it’s unlikely (he’s nearing 90 and not on Facebook) but not impossible.
She tends to dress to a theme. For tonight’s dinner she had paired a silver sequinned kind of tunic with a black sequined shawl. When I complimented it she told me she was saving a full leopard print outfit for the next evening. In pairs or threes we all walked the few streets to the restaurant, a nearby pizza place that I’d picked for its handiness. As we arrived, my grandmother gestured at a youngish man and said, “There’s a lot of fine looking fellas here.”
I’d forgotten how good my grandmother’s delivery is, she’s like Elaine Stritch or something. She is also a contrarian. This is her first time visiting England because, in her own words, she didn’t want to recognise the authority of the queen. But today she’d asked to go see Buckingham Palace and she’d had her photo taken beside one of the royal horses. I’m surprised to hear she hates the show Derry Girls, she finds the girls “too rude, so rude, your mammy would never have acted like that. The Americans love it, but sure, they love anything.”
We’d been sitting downstairs so I went up to find the bathroom. When I came out I found my uncle paying at the till. He said he wanted to cover the meal but without telling anyone. When we sat back down we told the table that because the waiter had heard there was a Derry woman here, he’d insisted on waiving the bill. On this my grandmother says, “It’s because of my beautiful blue eyes.”
The same waiter then arrived at the table with a tiramisu we didn’t order, as well as two glasses of limoncello, one for her and one for him. What timing! She wanted them to get a photo together, and when he left she turned to my uncle and said, “How would he do for a new stepdaddy?”
At the end of the evening, I took a taxi back East with my sister and her boyfriend. I had been drinking quickly, and was drunk enough that I hadn’t understood that it had been ordered to go to mine after theirs, so I tried to get out with them to get a new taxi by myself.
When I got home, I made myself drink water and put on Shoot Me, the documentary that follows Elaine Stritch as she prepares for her final one-woman show. At one point she says, “I can do this forever.” Then she pauses, and says, “That isn’t true.”