Life In A Nutshell by Stewart MacInnes

EXTRACT FOR
Life In A Nutshell

(Stewart MacInnes)


Life In A Nutshell

Chapter 1

 

Fuilteach, Fuilteach, Ifreann Fuilteach! Amadán! Amadán! Amadán! I mean, Marie Benjamin, what's the matter with you? Show some courage, woman and for God's sake, just look at yourself. You stupid, useless, pathetic, ridiculous, waste of space. I don't want to hear any excuses, I'm not having it. I'm just not having it, you stupid cow. How many times have we been through all this? A lifetimes worth of “how many times” that's what. Idiot! Well, when you've finished berating yourself perhaps you'd like to take a deep breath and calm down. I'm calm now. Good, that's more like it. The fact is you need to stop shaking like a leaf and yes you’re nervous, petrified even, but tonight is what you’ve been waiting for a lifetime. So put all those negative thoughts out of your mind right now and be positive. It’s easier said than done there’s no two ways about it but, it's already been said, you’ve been through this a thousand times before. Besides, they’re probably just as nervous about this meeting after all this time so stop thinking they won’t like you. They're not going to walk out this hotel after only a few minutes. Let’s be sensible about this, they’re not going to do this after coming all the way from Australia. No, they won’t do that, will they? Of course they won’t so stop being a silly cow.

At least I’m not the only one here which I'd have hated and the bar’s not crowded either which I’d have hated just as much. So it’s all good then, isn’t it? Just sit quietly, by yourself, in the corner with the sparkling mineral water you’ve just bought and try not to draw attention to yourself. You can put those silly thoughts out of your mind people might be staring at you. Let’s face it, you’re no spring chicken anymore and folk don’t give a toss about the colour of your skin these days, especially here in London. Why should they? There’s so many of us now, you’re nothing out of the ordinary. So you can stop feeling self-conscious and realise you’re not being stared at. Have you got that? Yes, I think so. More positive, please. Right, yes, more positive. The World is my Oyster, nothing will stop me now. Better? Erm, we'll work on those thoughts.

Will they recognise me from the description I gave them? Oh what if they don’t? There you go again you silly woman, doubting yourself. First of all it doesn’t matter whether or not they recognise you, does it? You’re meeting them on table four, in the restaurant at 8pm, an hour and a half from now. It was silly to get here so early, this hotel is only fifteen minutes on the tube from home. I know I needn’t have got here so early but I didn't want to leave anything to chance. What if the tube broke down or if there were cancellations or if I accidentally got on the wrong one and ended up in Barnet or somewhere? You’re worrying about something that probably wouldn’t happen. Yes, but tonight is too important. Oh my God, what will we talk about? After all, I’m just a dull retired solicitor. What did I just say about being more positive? You've a lifetime of conversation to share and they're going to want to hear about your life as a solicitor. Yes, but when I tell people this they always want to hear about the juicy cases I was involved in. They’re disappointed when I say nothing exciting ever happened in my working life; no murderers, no drug dealers or even a bank robber to deal with. You could always exaggerate a little. No, I couldn’t do that, I don’t want to lie to them. Please yourself. I will. I will tell them despite a lifetime of heartache and despair, I spent my years as a solicitor helping others who had fallen on hard times. That's going to sound dull to them. No, it won't. Tell them about the heartache and despair. Should I? Of course you should. You could start by telling them about Mother. Oh I don't know? After all I disappointed Mother, she wanted so much more for me. Doesn't any mother want that for their daughter? We never spoke for years. These things happen. I'm an alcoholic, they're not going to be impressed with that. Nonsense. You haven't touched a drop in years. They should be well impressed. You deserve a lot of credit. Just as you deserve a lot of credit for all the good you did as a solicitor. I'm just going to make it clear I was never a highly paid solicitor, no big financial rewards and I now live on a modest pension. Yes, but you can also tell them about some of the people you have helped. Mr and Mrs Welland, for example. A hard working couple who were ripped off by those unscrupulous builders who built an extension for them which wasn't fit for purpose. A leaking roof, damp everywhere. Crumbling brickwork. You took those builders to court and won and you found the Wellands a reputable builder to rebuild their extension. I did, didn't I? You helped numerous people who were in arrears with their rents. You negotiated payment plans for them and in some cases you got their rents reduced and debts written off. You were an unsung hero but the point is in an hour and a half you're going to get the reward you've longed for. Besides, it's not all about you. You’ll want to hear all about them and their families and friends. You'll want to know everything, won't you?

I do so want them to recognise me, I can’t help feeling I haven’t described myself to them sufficiently. Oh for goodness sake it doesn’t matter. Anyway you're good at describing yourself and other people too. You were always having to describe yourself to clients if you were meeting them on neutral ground. Yes, I remember. I always told them I was black but if they asked, “how black?” I'd  say I wasn't black like a dark Irish stout but much paler than that. Hmm, a bizarre analogy comparing yourself to a glass of Guinness but I suppose they got what you meant. I’d then explain that my father was black but my mother was white. No need to explain this to them, is there? But I was proud to tell people this. I still am proud. And they'll be proud of you. Will they? I do hope so.

Have I got the date right? Of course you have. It’s Friday 16 October. Your watch says so and that digital clock on the wall confirms it. Yes, but what if they think our meeting is tomorrow? Why should they think that? Look it’s your birthday and you're seventy-six today. If you remember rightly when Peter said he and Sally were coming to London and touted October or November you piped up and said your birthday was on 16 October. That settled it for Peter. You’d meet on your birthday. So no, you haven’t got it wrong so sit back and relax.

I was so emotional the day Peter phoned out of the blue. I had been late getting home and it was 8pm when I finally managed to get a saucepan of soup onto boil. The phone rang and I remember thinking who that could be as nobody usually rings at this time of night. So anyway, I answered the phone.

“Hello,” he said. “Am I speaking to Marie Benjamin?”

“Yes,” I said being on my guard.

“Mother of Peter and Sally Brown. Their father, Frank?”

“Yes” I replied, a little worried.

“Hello Mum. It's me, Peter,” he said calmly as if this call was a regular occurrence. “We're coming to London,” said Peter as a matter of fact.

I nearly fainted, I couldn't believe it. Luckily I keep a chair by the phone and I instinctively sat on it. What a shock! What a delight. Tears of joy flooded down my face. A lifetime of hurt had bottled up inside you. Let’s face it, you were an emotional wreck and rightly so. Of course I was an emotional wreck. I’d not known them since they were young children and suddenly after nigh on fifty years I was talking to my son. I could hear my daughter Sally in the background crying joyful tears and she kept shouting “hello Mum” and at some point she came to the phone and by then we were both emotional wrecks.

Before this though Peter had told me six months ago their father died and their step mother decided to tell them the truth. They’d grown up believing I was dead. Frank didn’t think I knew about her but I did. Always dressed up to the nines, a bit tarty I seem to recall. Long black hair, bright red lipstick, thick paste of make-up on her face. Long legs and a short mini skirt to reveal more than she should. Are you sure not just being bitter because she was the other woman? No, I don’t blame her, it wasn’t her fault. If it hadn’t have been her it would've been someone else. The problems were between Frank and I.

Somehow Peter had managed to track me down when, despite all my efforts, I'd spent a lifetime trying to trace them. I felt so stupid at my failings when it seems Peter had managed it so relatively easily. You're being too hard on yourself again. Peter knows it isn't your fault you couldn't trace them. His father had done an excellent job in ensuring they were untraceable whereas you wasn’t hiding from anyone. Peter also reasoned as he held a senior position in the Australian Police Force and he had, as he put it, certain contacts.

After I'd put the phone down my heart was throbbing with excitement but my joy was tempered by the injustice of living most of my life without them. I was shaking all over. Too right you were shaking. Your body hadn’t shaken like that since the dark days when booze was your master. This shaking felt different to when I was on the booze. I was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing my children again but the heartbreak of missing out on most of their life was overwhelming. I sobbed uncontrollably in my kitchen as I remembered those early years I had with them. How Sally used to enjoy me brushing her hair and Peter in particular used to love it when I read him a story. My children and I had formed a bond, a bond so strong not even living on different sides of the World could break. I’d have continued crying all night had my attention not been drawn to the soup erupting like a volcano and spilling onto the hob. The realisation that my evening meal was going everywhere forced me into regaining some control of my emotions and I attended to the mess.

You've not been in a bar nigh on forty years. Being an alcoholic it's best to stay well away from such possible temptation. It’s been fourteen thousand, four hundred and ninety-five days since a drop has passed my lips so I think I made the right call. This is a special occasion though and I’m not going to let the demon drink spoil things for me. Nothing is going to spoil it for me. Good that’s the spirit, no pun intended. This sparkling mineral water isn’t very exciting but it was either that or orange juice which always plays havoc with my bladder, God knows why? The last thing I want is to be in and out of the ladies all night. I just know what would happen and no matter how hard I try I’d have to give in. It would be like King Kanut trying to stop the tide from coming in. Well, then, you’ve made the right choice of drink haven’t you?

I’m going to get bored sitting on my own in this bar. Well, you picked this place. You could have chosen somewhere else. It was convenient for the tube. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Anyway, what shall I do? Do what you usually do in situations like this. Remember what you used to do when you frequented these places? If it was somewhere you hadn't been before you used to have a look round the room and observed what you could see. Yes, I suppose I could do this. Off you go then, observe. Well, let's see, this bar has seen better days by the looks of it. Horrible red patterned carpet. It’s a traditional hotel mind and there’s a number of original features. Oak beams, lots of brass ornaments and an attractive fire place with an inviting log fire. I can feel the heat from here. Very welcoming, particularly as it’s pretty chilly outside for this time of year. There’s some interesting looking pictures on the wall including one of Oliver Cromwell, no less. According to the plaque in front of me this building certainly dates back to those times and by the looks of the décor he was probably the last person to apply a paint brush to it. Just imagine, the fearsome Oliver Cromwell taking time off from battle to decorate the hotel. That would be funny wouldn’t it? Assuming it was an Inn back then. You’re being silly now and stop that silly giggling. You'll draw attention to yourself. When you start giggling you often end up drawing attention to yourself and you don't like this so stop it. Clearly the notion of Oliver Cromwell doing some DIY is somewhat ridiculous. Well, I feel like being ridiculous and at any rate a lick of paint would do wonders for the room. It would make it a much more attractive property. You’re beginning to sound like an estate agent. Don’t, I'd enough dealings with those lot when I was a solicitor. Now come now, estate agents are in the main perfectly normal decent people. You can wipe that grin off your face. They are. There was nothing decent about that old cow, Miss Marshall. Christ, no wonder she was a Miss. She used to take great delight when some poor soul was evicted from their home. She’d go down the pub and celebrate. Wicked cow. Her aside they were normal hard working people just on different sides to you. Their clients were the landlords whereas you were representing the tenants. I had a duty to these tenants. So did they to the landlords. You’ve still not convinced me. Billy Meadows. He was all right wasn’t he? Yes, I’ll give you Billy Meadows.

So what shall I do now? You could assess those two sitting over there. What those two love birds making eyes at each other. Obviously they’re hopelessly in love, poor things. What you recon they do for a living? Oh I don’t know. What about her? Hmm... Probably sits at a desk all day using a computer. A lot of people do that. Try being more specific. She’s probably a receptionist in an estate agents! Oh stop that silly giggling again. Well, I’m not in the mood to try and sum up strangers. I know, I’ll go through what I’m going to tell Peter and Sally. You’ve been doing that every day, several times a day, each time it’s been a bit different. You need to make up your mind what you’re going to tell them and what you’re not. I need to tell them the truth, that’s what. I just need to be clear in my mind what I’m going to say. Oh well, go on then, nothing’s going to stop you. Where are you going to start this time? I think actually I should start with my parents, after all, they were here before me.

So my parents. Mother was born Eileen Rafferty in 1919 and Father, Isaac Benjamin two years earlier. I must confess I know little about my father, Mother never told me much. As for Father's parents, my grandparents, I know next to nothing. Mother said they were both dead when she met my father and other than telling me my grandfather was also Isaac and my grandmother was Martha, I got nothing else out of her. What I need is the makers of Who Do You Think You Are to invite me to trace my father's family tree. I could do with a treat like jetting off to Africa to find out more but that's not going to happen. Mother, I know much more about. She didn't have any sisters and only had the one brother, Michael. Unusual you might think for an Irish family, especially back then, but Mother said my grandmother had medical issues and having more children would've been a risk. Mother wouldn't elaborate on this.

My grandfather was born in 1898 and he was called Sean. He'd five brothers and a sister and they grew up to have large families. He spoke Irish and Mother learned from him who in turn taught me and I've never forgotten it. Throughout my life I've often practiced speaking the language as I find it comforting. However, there were some swear words and rude remarks Mother frequently used and I must confess I sometimes say some of these things when I'm in a bad mood. The thing with Mother was she could pick an argument with anyone if the mood took her. There were times when I thought her colourful language wasn't called for but whenever I confronted her she'd say it wasn't in English so it didn't count as swearing. If a man annoyed her she'd usually swear at him and she'd often be rude about his backside. Why I don't know. Quite often her comments about a man would be inaccurate but this didn't seem to matter to her. With regularity she would shout: “Atá tú a fuair fola saill mór asal. This was one of her more moderate outbursts; her language could be a lot worse and I find myself refraining from repeating these even in Irish. Fortunately the people she was verbally abusing usually had no idea what she was saying, ranting in Irish, they just thought she was a crazy mad woman. Occasionally though they'd be someone who spoke the language and I remember, in particular, one man who swore back at her in Irish. She responded by swearing at him and he swore back which went on for a few minutes when Mother suddenly burst out laughing. Fortunately the man saw the funny side too and they both ended up giggling and they parted in the best of terms.

My grandmother, born Mary Carthy in 1900, had four sisters who also had large families. So as a result, Mother had many cousins, far too many to keep track of. Mother also told me when she married my father they were subjected to racial abuse which they did their best to ignore. That was all she would say on the subject but what I do know is she caused a stir amongst her family when she married a Black African who'd been brought up in Britain. She first met Father in Church. Mother was a regular in the choir and one day Father turned up to join having heard through the grapevine the Church Priest was desperate for some more male members. A courtship flourished between Mother and Father from then on. Later, I did try and find out more about their early married life but the newspaper archives had little to say on the subject. The abuse, which surely happened, was swept under the carpet by the press and those in authority alike. Don’t get me wrong. Mother could be just as judgmental as the next person. Had Father not been a Catholic she'd never have married him. She wouldn’t have married anyone if they weren’t a Catholic.

“We're all the same regardless of our colour of skin,” Mother reasoned, “your father was after all a devout Catholic; but you sinned when you married a Protestant.”

She'd strange double standards did Mother but to be clear, her Catholic views were her own save her life-long friend, Bernadette Carmichael. I’ve known many Catholics in my life and generally their views are one of tolerance and a live and let live attitude. From what I remember of Bernadette she always struck me as rather strange. Why I thought of her this way is too difficult to define but suffice to say she'd many contradictory views. In some of my more heated arguments with Mother I'd accuse Bernadette of being a bad influence but she'd always defend Bernadette and dismissed anything I said about her. More likely, the truth is they were probably as bad as each other and between them they conjured up a whole list of prejudices. Mother and Bernadette, both aged only twenty, took the adventurous step by moving to London to train as hairdressers and they worked together in the same salon. There was a time when they did everything together and they even got married around the same time. Bernadette married an Irish business man who was Catholic of course and they moved back to Ireland soon after their marriage. Mother kept in touch with Bernadette and when she herself returned to Ireland they resumed their friendship. 

You’ll need show Peter and Sally what Mother and Father looked like. I’ve only black and white photos of them but I’ll say Mother had red curly hair and freckles on her face especially around her nose. She was tall and slim and held onto her Irish accent throughout her life. I don't recall her accent mellowing over the years but then again I may not have been conscious of any change. It’s funny, when I think of Mother I was always think of her as a young adult and not the old lady she became. We'd a volatile relationship Mother and I, always arguing. She’d principles and wouldn’t be swayed from them no matter how illogical they seemed to me; thank goodness I was nothing like her. Liar, you were very much like her in many ways that’s why you often argued. Yes, if I’m honest, I’m more like her than I care to admit.

Just like Father my hair is dark at least it was before the grey appeared in its place. I can’t remember exactly when that happened. In reality it must have been a gradual thing but as far as my memory goes I woke up one day with grey hair. I inherited Mother's curly locks and slim build and that hasn’t changed. No matter how ruthless the age of time has been to me my hair remains curly and I’ve kept a trim figure. When I was growing up some of the kids in the street used to call me Charcoal Locks. I never really minded though. They weren't racist, they were just kids. Not that I really understood what racism meant at that age. Had you been a blonde they'd have probably called you Goldie Locks. That’s probably right. Thinking about it, I think I prefer Charcoal Locks.

Father died when I was only a tot so sadly I can only vaguely remember him. Mother showed me photos and clearly he was handsome and a big man. In fact  Mother had kept lots of photos and some were of me, many of Mother and Father but I hadn’t a clue who some of the people were.