When did I start looking backwards instead of forwards? When did the detritus of life that has been and gone – best friends, back gardens, strict teachers, fudged kisses – become a museum I queue up for then wander through, touching the glass which protects the invaluable until a tight grip lands on my shoulder and pushes me onwards? When did the tremble of a milk float trundling down my street, as I chased it squealing in my grandma’s cheap costume jewelry and leg warmers, become a visceral ache?
Does this happen to all of us, at a certain age? Forty perhaps? When we realize our potential is fizzling out, that we have no chance of ever walking into a room again and being the most beautiful, exciting person in it? When we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a gift shop window and nod at the frump, the failure? When the breadcrumbs back to our childhood have been eaten and we don’t know how we got here? All we know now, deafened by regrets and mistakes, is there is no going back and starting again? This is it. That was more.
The past was tripping me up. At 41, I was crawling on scratched purple knees over vinyl fluff and Barbie stilettos, skipping beats and jumping from word to word on uneven footing. I needed my mother to sort me out. “Get out of your fucking head, Jessica” she’d have screamed at me. “Stop bloody moping.” And I’d have stood up and stripped off the memories, ripped and tatty, and pretended I was normal. Put on a show. Worn a mask. To pretend I could cope was of utmost importance. My mother had taught me that, not by example, but by embarrassment. I’d been an actress since I could remember. But my mother was dead. She hadn’t told me off since the last day of August in 1997, a day of grief and shock.
When the diagnosis had come through, four weeks before her death, I knew there was nothing for it but to move my wedding forward. A wedding without the mother of the bride would be too intrusive on the emotions of everyone, even those who didn’t know her. If we’d stuck to the October date dug into the expensively embossed invitations, I’d have had to have buried my mother first, leaving the 98 carefully arranged guests in the awkward position of not knowing when to bring her death up, if to bring her death up, or worse, making those common-sense-abandoning statements about her not really being dead. I saw a butterfly circle your head and come rest on my bible as you said “I do” and I just knew it was your mum. That kind of thing. Which any sane person knows is ridiculous.
Pauline, my mother, would not be a bible-thumping butterfly. Or a prowling black cat on a path leading up to the church. Nor a red robin, tweeting merrily from a depleted branch in the graveyard. Pauline, even before the colon cancer had ravaged her innards and turned her into a depressed tyrant, was not a person who felt at one with nature and she certainly didn’t have a spiritual side. She was a sour statue of lard and acid who loathed everything except her cigarettes. “Pass me smokes,” she barked repeatedly at me. “Hurry up, you useless lump.” Pauline preferred clogged, thick inner tubes and crudely painted fingernails tapping at hot ash to gardenias and sunbeams. She’d feel right at home in hell.
Pauline loathed fresh air and refused to entertain the idea of day trips to the coast or countryside, preferring to sit stationary, a crumpled packet of twenty resting next to her on the arm of her well-worn chair, as her beloved television spewed schadenfreude at her from 8 feet away. She claimed leaving the concrete blocks of the East End gave her asthma. My cheeks still burned with shame at the memory of her shouting at the lady next door when she offered me the chance of a respite from the grey asphalt. “I wondered if your daughter would like to accompany Caroline and me on a visit to the botanical gardens in Kew?” she’d asked, sweeping her heavily highlighted fringe across her forehead. It looked like an eagle’s wing, feathered and tawny, ready for flight. “There is an exhibition about 19th century agricultural trends that’s getting rave reviews.”
“If you like the smell of cow shit so much, stick your head up your arse,” my mother replied, “my Jessica isn’t going anywhere.” The nice neighbor tottered off, swaying with shock in her navy blue pumps, and never offered to take me out again. “She’s a sodding artist who thinks she can tart up the Roman Road with her pussy bow blouses,” my mother told my father as he prepared tea for the three of us while she blackened her lungs a bit more that evening, “I don’t trust her.” She wasn’t an artist, she was in advertising, but my mother misread the baggy cricket jumpers. I didn’t visit a farm until I was seventeen.
My childhood was a production line of refusals, robotically churned out from our red brick terraced home, the middle of three houses. Caroline’s posh mum lived on one side, she’d inherited the house from an unfamiliar aunt and decided Caroline should be exposed to “real people”. On the other side lived two elderly sisters who never married or had children. Our triumvirate of bay windows and tiled front paths sat resolute and proud despite being dwarfed by bold blocks of social housing on either side. We’d stayed when everyone else had fled, motorwayed out to the shiny new city of Milton Keynes, perfectly planned and full of slippery roundabouts, or had followed the District Line east to Essex and an Americanized suburbia where gardens were measured by the inch, fenced off from community spirit, and Cockney gave way to Estuary English, where there was the dream of a mock Tudor mansion with two cars in the driveway.
The summer I didn’t go to Kew Gardens was the summer Lady Di married Prince Charles. By the time the big day finally arrived, my bedroom walls were covered in penciled outlines of glass slippers, sapphire rings, horse-drawn carriages and cheering crowds, an art exhibition of my excitement, a nation’s renewed joy. Exhausted, because I’d found it quite impossible to sleep the night before, I stood mesmerized inches from the television to catch the first sight of my future queen arriving at St. Paul’s.
“None of these people would give two hoots about a commoner like you,” my mother said, puffing smog and spluttering coughs in my direction as I waited and waited.
“Remember to listen,” my father said, placing a finger to his lips as Diana emerged from her carriage, her train unfolding and unfolding to a great length, as she led her tottering father to her prince. “Listen out for the bells. If you hear them, some of the magic from this fairytale will fly to you.” We lived exactly 3.7 miles, as the crow flies, north east of the cathedral, which wasn’t too far at all, “very doable, in fact” he said. I was eight years old and had never tried harder for anything in my life.
A few miles away, Diana fluffed her vows and turned a deep shade of red.
“Useless!” my mother shouted at the television.
“A breathe of fresh air,” my father countered. Diana had just turned twenty.
Then the chimes rang out, the whole of London cheered and bright July sunshine flooded in dusty strobes through the open sash window, onto my face, particles of skin and pollen and my mother’s coughed up smoke shining and swirling like fairy dust.
“Daddy!” I shouted.
“Princess Jess,” he laughed, “what superb listening! Very professional, very regal.” He picked up the Union Jack tea towel he’d bought at Walthamstow market and knotted it around my neck to make a makeshift cloak, then swiftly folded the front page of The Sun four times and placed it atop my head as a paper crown, pulling me into his bowling ball belly for a congratulatory hug. “Your life will be full of happiness and wonder, Your Royal Highness,” he bowed deeply.
My courtly, kind father was dead four months later. He decided that jumping off the roof of our house into the golden pile of leaves he’d spent the weekend raking was preferable to another moment of living. I don’t think I blamed him, even then. And I was certainly grateful he’d made the leap a few minutes after I’d left for school so I didn’t have to see the splat. The 16-year-old newspaper boy had found him. After he saw my father, Humpty Dumpty broken into pieces, he was plagued by nervous overreactions and flashbacks until he took his own life seven years later.
“It’s a shame dad didn’t have the chance to read the paper before he jumped,” I told my headmistress the next day at school, when I was called to her office to talk to a concerned visitor who was wearing an earnest expression, denim dungarees and parrot earrings the size of chandeliers. “He’d have been so happy Diana was pregnant. News of the baby could have saved him.” The headmistress and the woman from social services looked at me with four big, sad eyes. They’d heard my dad landed so awkwardly his glasses remained balanced on the tip of his nose but the back of his brain had fallen out, extinguishing the flame-colored leaves with deeper scarlet waves.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t hate my mother. When I was a child and it was just me, her and her pre-fucked up colon, after dad had gone, I hated her purely. I’d sneak into her bedroom for clues of her corruption, coating myself in her perfume, Opium, until I choked, then tying her cheap, viscose scarves tightly around my neck. I’d sit at her vanity and stare at my cleft chin direct from my father, my father’s small teeth, my father’s and my dark blue eyes and wondered if that meant all her traits were hidden inside me, waiting for a moment to leak out and take over. Her brusqueness, her lack of generosity, her fear of anything and anyone outside of our four walls. As a teen I would go through her drawers looking for evidence of her heart, for evidence that if I was like her that there was hope. Once I found a book. How to Make Love to the Same Person for the Rest of Your Life – And Still Love It. I gagged. My mother wasn’t a physical, warm, affectionate human. She was an ashtray. A demon. A puff of smoke. A bully. My mother was the reason I wet the bed until I was fifteen, wriggling away from the warmth to find a dry spot each night, walking through the school gates and catching a whiff of wee that made my heart race each morning. “Don’t tell me anything I don’t want to hear,” she said when I wanted to talk about being touched by a friend’s father. Her silence imprisoned me, not the way he’d pinched my nipples and told me to be grateful. My mother’s wall isolated me from happiness, not his thick, jabbing fingers. But since the cancer’s arrival, learned in a phone call and a bark in my ear, the hatred I felt towards her had been sullied with something else.
So the rushed wedding was a parting gift. It was my mother’s last chance to humiliate me. She’d always enjoyed humiliating me. A wedding, in a sudden steamy downpour, my white dress turning brown at the hem as I dragged it through decaying petals and clumps of another bride’s confetti. The low moans of my mother’s gruff relatives, ferociously wafting their orders of services, complaining the tiny Norman church was too stuffy for a summer wedding. Watered-down Pimm’s decorated with limp mint sprigs, lubricating my friends just enough for them to openly gawp at my mother’s outfit choice: a red sequined matador jacket with a matching silk pencil skirt, split up to the top of her thigh, American Tan tights wrinkling round her ankles.
Her parting gift to me was a letter, which she forced into my hand the day after the wedding, the day she was moved into the brutalist hospice next to the derelict hospital where she’d been born 47 years beforehand. “Read it when I’m gone, I can’t be bothered to answer questions. I want to watch this,” she’d wheezed at me before returning her eyes to the tiny television on wheels. Diana was dead. A car crash in Paris. “I never liked her,” she said, as a nurse sidled a catheter into her urethra and the last ounces of piss and vinegar dripped out into a plastic bag. “But you wouldn’t wish this on those two boys. No child deserves this.” And they were her last words. No child deserves this.
The moaning stopped, Pauline was a corpse. I read her letter while the nurses disconnected the body from the lines and tubes and alarms, as flowers and cuddly toys started to pile up outside Kensington Palace. As tears were shed—not mine—Pauline’s black scrawl, her ashy scent staining the paper, crept into my chest.
You should know I never wanted you. It was all your dad’s idea and he promised he’d do everything. Then the coward went and fucking left me, leaving me to deal with you. So don’t think of me as a bad mother. I was nineteen when I had you, I was never supposed to be a mother. I was supposed to be a travel agent. I was supposed to be slim. Being your mum royally screwed me over. I pissed my knickers every time I laughed after I gave birth to you. You made me stop laughing.
I want to be cremated. There might be enough money to cover it in the NatWest account but probably not. I don’t know what cremations run these days.
I stood up as the body was wheeled away into a giant freezer in the basement by a determined man from Grenada, Pauline staring up at the ceiling, wrinkled slate eyes non-judgmental for once. She could never say goodbye without some biting remark, I half expected one now. Chubster. You deserve everything you get. Idiot. You’re the reason your fat father killed himself. Never again, I reminded myself. Never again. I was 28 years old and the abuse was over. I celebrated by walking out to the square of slick grass behind the hospice parking lot, taking my trainers and socks off and crunching my toes through the dewy blades into the soil beneath it, then heading home for my first guilt-free fuck with my new husband. “That was so good, Princess” he said, nuzzling into my neck for a few seconds before falling back into the new pillows we’d acquired via our wedding gift registry. There was no longer three of us in this marriage.
So why now does my head keep returning to the house built of ash, to the diving board roof and the landing mat of blood-soaked leaves, to the neighbor with the freedom fringe on one side, and the spinsters with their bags of hard boiled sweets on the other? Why when I close my eyes, do I reach up to feel for the paper crown atop my head? Why am I stuck on the day I found a book and sprayed too much perfume, stuck on the months I chased the milk float? Why, with a daughter growing in my belly, do I dream of the mother I hated and not the father who would have loved his grandchild? My daughter is born but the dreams continue.
“Will I always be living in the past, wandering around this museum, homesick” I murmur to the husband who is lying beside me, stoically, firm and present, for now, for the next five years, until our life together becomes an exhibition of its own, a showcase of used condoms, quickly paid phone bills, of new underwear and empty Chardonnay bottles. A shameful retrospective of my need for affection.
“Shush, princess,” he whispers. “You’ll wake the baby. Get some sleep. We have the future to look forward to now. You’re safe.”
Sarah Ivens Moffett is a Londoner who moved to the U.S. twelve years ago to launch a magazine in NYC. Now a writer, mother and PhD Candidate in Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville, her work has been published in Marie Claire, The Guardian, Glamour and The Telegraph. Her collection of essays, No Regrets, is published by Random House.
Sarah’s place of Inspiration
5 Questions with Sarah Ivens Moffett:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
The idea for Happy Ever After came to me when I read a new exhibition about Princess Diana’s clothing and style was opening this spring in her former home, Kensington Palace in London. It made me think about how we are all curating the museum of our own lives, every day, the things we’d want displayed and the things we’d want hidden in archives. It also made me revisit the impact Diana’s fairy tale story and grim ending had on young English girls growing up during her era. I was five years old when she married Prince Charles and twenty-two years old when she died, and I’m only starting to realize the influence she had on me and my motherland.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
I love literature that makes me think about our place in time, as individuals and as a society, so for that reason I adore Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Katherine Mansfield and Somerset Maugham.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
I go out into society to make notes and jot down ideas. I’ve just moved to Austin, Texas and found a lovely, peaceful place to read and write down ideas for stories called Mozart’s Coffee Roasters. I can grab fresh air, great views, good espresso and have a conversation with a duck all at the same time. When actually writing, I hunker down at home in complete silence at my tatty, old desk.
TD: Favorite word?
At the moment, discombobulated, probably because as the mother of two young children that is how I feel most of the time.
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
A highlighter pen and an hour to myself in the bath.