That summer of 1986 was my last in single figures. I marked the days off in this diary – a Christmas present – with a sense of disbelief. My fingers instantly remember its heft. This was the first in an unbroken chain of journals. The slim pencil still here, hiding in the spine, this randomised leatherette grain, the impressive gold lettering and inside, yes!, the thrilling superstring of London’s tube map. 1986. I think of that year as the beginning of my consciousness. The birth of a continuing sensible thread connecting me through time in a traceable arc. I wrote faintly in this diary, barely brushing the pages. Using it – using it up – felt wrong.
I squat in their attic next to the suitcase of my old things. The roller skates I’ve been sent to collect temporarily forgotten. This, like all of my diaries, falls open in July. On July 19th I had recorded my earliest foggy memory, the echo of a conversation that had looped in my memory for four years. On this day in 1982, the day before my sixth birthday, my mother was alive:
Me: ‘Is that the Queen’s sister?’
Mother: ‘No, she is a shopkeeper’s daughter. She is also our Prime Minister.’
Me: ‘What about him? Is he the King?’
Mother: ‘No, we don’t have a King. That man was an actor. Now he is the President of the United States.’
Me: ‘They look like King and Queen of the world.’
Mother: ‘They are in a way.’
I close my eyes and flip the page. July 20th. A marker in time. I know it’s blank. I wanted to go to Hyde Park to see the horses. A single IRA nail had pierced her femoral artery. I was six. I didn’t know how to stem the bleeding. Thereafter, in all my diaries, always this – our last remembered conversation on July 19th, and always on the 20th nothing. Writing, not writing. The emptiness, that sacred space had became a totem.
My father became a widower in his thirties. Now, in his sixty-first year he is squarely handsome in a way which sadly skipped a generation. He met Jean a full three years after my mother’s death, time enough for childhood’s conservatism to impress on me its fusty dread. Jean meant change. She would stay sometimes in the summer of 1986. I took an instant dislike.
I’d been chicken dancing before that year, pre-consciousness, in a sense before time, when I was a mere potential, a chaotic collection. If you listen you’ll hear it – that bright, synthetic melody. Mimetic. It invades your brain like a storm. And with its own prescribed dance it was perfect for blocking out the future, for filling myself to the brim; a comfortable, predictable infusion. I did it in secret. The music was self replicating, archetypal, vaguely Austrian. It embedded itself in the temporal lobes. I didn’t need the things other obsessive compulsives required: no soaps with which to scrub, no light switches to flick, no extraneous props at all – though in time I added for the sake of authenticity a tea cosy hat with a glove cockscomb. I needed nothing but the memory of a song and dance. Chicken dancing kept the world at bay. It filled spaces, imposed order.
A memory rising. I flick pages. Yes, here: June 22nd 1986. We watched the disreputable football game between England and Argentina, you know the one. Jean joined us. My preparation was fastidious: my shirt was inside-out as befitting an international game, I wore the correct blue socks with the stripes down the sides, I sat in the appropriate chair. Yet still the gods were against us. In my diary I recorded this: England out of the World Cup. It is my fault. Not the players’ nor manager’s, not even the skilled if fraudulent Diego Maradona’s fault but mine. Bad blood had entered our home. That night, after midnight when the house slept I crept downstairs. The exorcism – I remember it now – was terrifying, exultant, transformational. I put on my chicken dance hat and started the mental music, the gloriously extended five-and-a-half minute club edit. When it stopped I did it again. It was a communion. A consuming flame. Into it I threw every fibre of my soul. It was fuelled by disappointments, by rage and uncertainty, by excoriating injustice. When I was done I collapsed panting on the floor, my cheek pressed into the carpet. For the first time I felt weightless, vacant. I sensed absolution. In the corner of the room I saw her then; Jean. She sat huddled in an armchair, her eyes wide with insomnia and shock. My intestines clenched.
She said: ‘I dance when I’m sad. Can we do it again, together?’
‘All right,’ I squeaked.
We danced until dawn, until we were empty. In the morning I asked my father if Jean could move in.
Downstairs, my children are with Jean, the Grandmother they love impossibly. She clears space for these her seedlings like she did for me, nourishes them, allows them to unfurl. I turn back and read again. This time I see something new, a promise, the possibility of reinvention. Thatcher, Reagan, my father, Jean, even the IRA and Maradona all reinvented themselves to become the kings and queens of their worlds. And now, jobless and unexpectedly alone I know she has sent me up here to learn this lesson afresh, the roller skates are a ruse. I flick the page again to July 20th. There. A small note in Jean’s hand on a page so holy I would allow only her to mark it. It says simply this: vessels must be empty before they can be filled.
I pull out the chicken dance hat from my suitcase and after twenty four years of absence, I find that the music, the movements, come naturally.