At an unusual time of year, and in an impractical format, this card is to say thank you (again) for raising me. I realize it’s a recurring theme with me lately, especially since I think now you and I have had our last foreign holiday .And you’ve definitely tossed me affectionately into the back of the car for the final time.
It has not been easy raising a wooden object as if it was a human child. Not even a human-shaped wooden object.
In this card, which I cannot actually write, but I know you will somehow understand that I intended to be written, I want to acknowledge that.
As you recall, I arrived in the passenger seat of your brown, Scandinavian-manufactured car around the end of spring in the mid 1980s. As the traffic had slowed, you were taking a moment to gaze at something out of the window. It was probably a dirty sign, or an empty packet of Maltesers as it skittered along the gutter.
And when you turned back, there I was, a helpless lump of wood that you had to accept, in that moment, as your son.
As you continued driving, the very real knowledge came over you that you were a new mum. And it would not be the way you expected.
There were no booties or onesies or teddies. There were no balloons in the hospital ward or flowers on the kitchen table. No. It was just you and me, in the brown car at the intersection between Windy Arbour and Spring Lane.
Thank you for bearing the humiliation of enrolling me in the reception class at the local school. I remember the headmistress, who was very fond of the colour green. You entered her office carrying me under your arm. She asked you to sit on a tiny chair, obviously used by pupils who came to visit her in this office. For me, there was the carpet, which had a map of a town on it, with a wide road running past all the shops, and the hospital and the fire station and the police station.
As the headmistress looked from you on your little chair, to me, a nicely curved, abstract shape of dark wood on the rug, you explained how things were.
When the headmistress asked, you told her that you did not know what type of wood I was, and that you wouldn’t be making any effort to find out. What am I going to do? Get him tested? I will not get him tested, you said. He’s got human rights. He’s got free will and he needs an education. He won’t disrupt the lesson, and he won’t take up a desk, you said. You ended the whole thing with a tight nod and a flat smile, which I had seen you practise in the mirror because, in reality, you did not have conversations like this. In reality, the reality before you became the mother of some wood that appeared mysteriously in the passenger seat of your car, you never made statements. Only asked questions, and then made affirmations about the answers. Like this:
Wendy, where do these files belong? In the drawer in the chest in the bottom office. Oh right, lovely, see you in a minute then.
I remained on the rug throughout your chat with the headmistress, tracking the shape of the road, enjoying the way the sun came through the high iron-framed windows into the room.
Just as you promised, I was a quiet pupil, and I did not take up any room. Each month, or each half-term, you assured that same headmistress, in her grass-green pullover, with her coils of quite luscious black hair, that I had shown every sign of learning. I have the absolute conviction, you said, that he can read his own name, and understands the basics of addition and subtraction. And you thanked the school for their commitment to the education of all beings with human rights.
At home, it was all right. There wasn’t any money, but it was all right because it was just us. Even though you sometimes said, I wonder where your father is? Or, Why isn’t he here sorting this mess out?
We both knew exactly where he was. His phone number was written on the first page of the almost-empty address book that we kept next to the phone.
Mother, do you remember when the freezer broke in the middle of the night? Our own freezer, which the landlord had originally objected to, because he preferred to let the property with a freezer in it that he had got tested and had a warranty for.
But you insisted we kept that freezer because it had been your most valuable wedding gift, and you still clung, though you didn’t understand why, to the idea that my father had given you, which was that this freezer would never die. It was of such a superior brand it would go on and on, you remember him saying. If we have kids, we’ll be able to pass it down. And they can pass it to our grandkids.
But when you called him in the dead of night, he was confused. Baffled that you had held on to that old piece of junk all this time. I thought you’d have skipped that fucking thing by now, he said.
God, he said, laughing a dry little syllable of amusement.
You asked him to focus on the fact we needed his help.
Just tell the landlord, he said. And you tried to explain that no, it wasn’t the landlord’s responsibility. I need some practical help, please, you said to him.
There were long silences. He insisted that you stay on the line while he looked up the rules and regulations concerning white goods in tenancy agreements. Meanwhile, you replaced the sodden towels one-handed, or with the phone cradled into your neck.
What are we going to eat? you whispered to yourself, as food melted between your splayed fingers. And how the fuck are we going to pay…
While Dad ummed and ah’d and looked for old letters he had regarding this exact situation, you cooked sausages in the oven. More than a dozen frozen sausages in a tray, with the intention of keeping them after they were cooked and eating sausage sandwiches at work, even though you knew Wendy would probably make you eat them away from her because of the smell or something.
Eventually Dad said he would call the landlord on your behalf if you couldn’t face doing it yourself, and you screamed.You shouted, Don’t call the landlord I have explained about the landlord it’s not his freezer. We told him not to worry! It’s a waste of time!
And then I could just hear him saying, No I’ll tell you what’s a waste of fucking time… but there was no more before you left the room.
I looked at the sausages through the little greasy window in the oven door.
You spoke to Dad on and o throughout that night, do you remember? And I tried not to look too much like I was in the way while you mopped up the liquid and chased around the peas.
Dad eventually said the inevitable conclusion was that you would have to buy a freezer in the morning or when you next could afford it. Get it on credit, he said. Just get something sorted and leave me out of it.
And he said he had done everything in his power to help. And he hung up and you were angry. And he hadn’t mentioned me once.
Thank you, though, Mother, because there were much happier times to come. For example, thank you for taking me on my date with Sarah. Thank you for sitting in her living room and placing me on the end of the sofa nearest to where Sarah was sitting. And thank you for explaining to Sarah, twelve, that I was really interested in her personality and I liked the way she laughed. Thank you for telling her that I really liked the Blur T-shirt she was wearing. And that I had my eye on a Suede one, which I had seen recently in a shop in Coventry.
Even though, as we left, you found it odd that anyone would allow a woman with a lump of wood to sit in their living room and say all this stuff. Who would tolerate it? you said. There must be something wrong with her family. And, of course,I partly agreed. Although I actually also really liked Sarah for sitting through it all, and smiling at me three times while you spoke. And I think you could have given her more credit for trying to make you a cup of tea, before you realized she had never made one before and decided to step in.
I had no answer for you when you asked where her parents had been at the time.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I have chosen this moment to send this card (which as you know I cannot actually send or write in a physical sense because I am entirely made from wood).
Well, as I’m sure you can understand, by now I have succumbed to certain feelings of desperation regarding the future. This is not the same as when, as an adolescent, I allowed myself to be carted away by your artist friend, who had intended to use me as the material from which to make a carving of a fabulous head. Did you know about that? Our artist friend? I thought he must have told you. Maybe not.
He was intending to carve this head using techniques connected to the Saxon craft of totem making. But he would also use the head as a way of expressing something, he did not know yet, about his own failures in the eyes of his very masculine brother. The choice of wood, he said, was very important because it represented the unswerving, unemotional force, and yet he would hack into it, he said, in an intentionally brutal way, and hopefully this would bring about a shape that felt wounded or ashamed. I was really looking forward to being mutilated in this way. I did not fear the pain of it. I was sure, in fact, that I was incapable of physical pain in that way, because of my 100 per cent wooden form.
I had already sustained a few chips and dents at this time. I am heavy, and an awkward size and shape. It was inevitable that I’d get dropped a few times, even by you.
I remember how much you wept when I first slipped out of your grasp. You were getting me out of the car seat, ready to deposit me at school. We were running late because there was a shoe you couldn’t find. Then I slipped out of your hand and cracked on to the road. I rolled a few times. You picked me up and, at a first glance, you couldn’t see anything amiss. I was fine. You left me in the usual place for one of the teachers to carry inside, or if it was Bad Back Bower, I went on to the cart.
I was fine, but I saw you rubbing your eyes under your glasses as you negotiated your way back into the ow of traffic. Already late for work. Crying about what Wendy was going to say, and how could you explain that part of the reason was because of a shoe and part of the reason was because you dropped your wooden child.
I tried to avoid letting you see the chip later that day when you collected me. I hid it well, using various distraction methods I had cultivated over the years, but just as you were finally getting ready to sit down and eat a meal, I dropped my guard and you saw what had happened to me.
You lowered your fork from your mouth.
The one good thing about today, you said, had been waiting for my sausage and chips. My favourite comfort food. I have needed this all day.
Your favourite food was a battered sausage. Chips dipped in mayonnaise, which in those days hardly any English people were doing.
And now there’s this! And you examined the damage, looked horrified by it.
It was one of our bad nights.
The food, uneaten. The mayonnaise, congealing within an hour. Why hadn’t I allowed you to know about the chip, you wanted to know. Why were you being made to feel like this in your own home?
Tell me if you get hurt, you said. Tell me for God’s sake otherwise what is the fucking point in any of this!
I said nothing, because I was made of wood. And also, because, even if I had been able to speak, I would not have known how to say that the chip was only superficial and did not hurt, and that what was really painful was knowing that I would never be able to make life any better, and I would always be susceptible to chips and cracks. And there was really no way anyone could change that.
And so it was with this knowledge that superficial damage didn’t hurt me that, in a moment of adolescent foolishness, I contrived to allow myself to be in the pile of logs and other timber artefacts you had prepared for our artist friend, for him to use as material for his Saxon art project. Of course, he noticed straight away that it was your son he was about to hack into with all his available masculine rage, and he drove me back home.
After only a very brief moment, anyway, in which I saw him contemplate how much more powerful his work would be if he carved it from the wooden object that his friend obsessively called her child.
But, as I say, it was only the briefest of moments when he considered doing that. And then he drove me home, all the while saying how good it was to see me and how sorry he was for his mistake, and he invited me to play cricket that weekend with himself and his two daughters, who were, he thought, probably about the same age as me.
What I’m describing here is not that kind of desperation. I have accepted my form. I have come to love the contours that make up my ‘back’ — resonant of driftwood, but much richer in colour, much heavier and harder to the touch. I am proud of my grain. Is that a phrase? Perhaps it could be, just between the two of us.
The desperation I’m referring to in this card is actually more connected to the fact that I am haunted by visions of your death. I see you, frail. I see you, the dog has died long ago. I see the world we inhabit close in around you. I go for days sometimes, under a tea towel you have casually chucked on to me, and then reel with self-loathing as I see the inevitable shock and sadness on your face when you peel away the cloth and realize how many days it has been since you left me like this.
I see you reading through old school reports, which people had indulgently written for you, to humour you, you have always assumed, with news of the progress of your entirely wood-based child. For example:
We really feel as if he is grasping the finer details of the Tudor age.
His intended coursework is above average, if a little ambitious.
I see you leafing through these things and letting them slip from your fingers and drop to the floor, before you either fall asleep there on the chair or rouse yourself with a snort and go into the other room to look at spreadsheets.
Do you remember your retirement party? I remember your retirement party, and you weren’t sure whether to invite me. Of course, all your colleagues over the years had come to accept your child made of wood. Or rather, you always suspected, they had come to accept your insistence that I, a wooden object, was your natural son, and that I had human rights and free will.
But how would they feel to have me there, perched in a corner, with a rum and coke plonked in front of me by one of your many well-meaning bosses?
You bore the indignities of it, for example when we went on our first foreign holiday, and the man who worked in group sales asked how easy it had been to get a passport. And could he see it? And did I have a birth certificate?
Of course, it had never been necessary for me to have a passport. You could get me into the school system but convincing the actual state that I had been born and not, presumably, grown then carved, would have been impossible. Not to mention a waste of time.
So, as you told the group sales guy, you always just booked two seats. One for yourself and one for a certain precious item that you wanted to have with you for your trip.We mostly went by Eurotunnel because it was easier than the plane.
And I really want to thank you for those holidays, which were a financial curse throughout the year both before and after each one but were worth it. Worth it for the people we met. The other tourists who you found it so easy to talk to. And who indulged us both by allowing me my own sunbed. And, in order to give you some well-earned privacy, the hotels that indulged us by allowing me to have my own room, with a view over the village. How I loved to watch those hot surfaces cooling in the dusk air, the sound of Mediterranean voices floating like music, and the smell of salt and loud fresh seafood.
I can still recall how it felt to be in that hotel room early one morning when the cleaner came in. I remember the way he sat at the little desk, set a timer on his watch — the exact allocation of time allowed for each room — and took off his shoes. He leant back in the chair and breathed out heavily. He did not look at me when he spoke.
I’ve heard about you, he said. You don’t deserve any of this. Do you? Are you really getting anything out of this? You are a lump of wood. You have a better life than I can give my family. Do you think that’s okay? Of course, you don’t have an opinion.You’re not a human being.
You said it, I said. Although, of course, he could not hear me.
He took off his socks and massaged his feet. Your mother is a good person, he said. She told me not to bother cleaning. She gave me a nice tip. I think she might be an angel, he said. All the time he was talking, he was massaging his feet, balling up little sausages of black lint which he discarded carefully into the waste-paper bin.
He complained about his socks. They make us wear these things. I can see why; this uniform isn’t going to look good without the right black socks. And I don’t pay for them — but they fall apart. I have this black fluffy shit all over my bed at home, when I get home late and don’t have time to rub it all off. I usually try and have a shower before I go to bed.
Then he stood up, quite abruptly, and walked across the room to where I was by the window. He undid his belt and pulled down his trousers and pants. Then he lay his thick white penis along my ‘back’, like he was placing a fish on a chopping board. I heard his camera snap on his phone.
He didn’t say anything else as he put everything back on and left my room.
I’m wood though, so really it didn’t bother me.
But anyway, as I said, all of this has come from a sense of desperation, in a way, a fear of watching you fade. Watching them come and install handrails so you can stay in your home (yet another unwanted concession from yet another despairing landlord who regrets housing us) with only limited outside assistance.
There’s no one who can come? the assessment officer asks. It says here, you have a son. Does he live far away?
You gesture to the area where I am nestled, forgotten for a few weeks beside a plate with dried pickle on it, amongst the other living-room ornaments. At first the assessment officer doesn’t understand, but you calmly explain, through the now constant fog of your age, that I am your son, but I am made entirely from wood. And am not even human shaped.
The assessment officer is very interested in our story and so she stays an extra hour to ask about us, completely oblivious to how tired it is making you to answer those questions.
You have very philosophical views, the assessment officer says. You have a very philosophical outlook. She says, I spend all day out and about, meeting people, and there aren’t a lot of times I want to hear more. People think they’re unique because of their circumstance, she says. But it’s the most normal thing in the world, needing help. It’s the most ordinary thing. And people think they are extraordinary because they are surrounded by love. But people will love anything, the assessment officer says.
A long time ago, you would have taken issue with that sentiment. But now you don’t. Now, you let her go on.
I cannot interject. I cannot suddenly rise up and say, I think my mother has had enough now. So, I think we should bring this to a close now.
But, you say, breakingly, abruptly, I am not surrounded by love. I do not want to be surrounded by anything. You say that what has kept you going all this time is waiting, just waiting, for wisps. Wisps are enough.
The assessment officer asks you to elaborate, even though your voice is very raw now. You say that in the beginning, in that first winter, you discovered that I had been left in the cold, near the back door in the kitchen, on a stone tile. I was visibly smaller, you say, because of the cold. You had immediately rushed me inside and put me a safe distance from the fire. You wrapped your arms around me. And in those few minutes, you felt the wood that I am made of swell back to my normal size, and very slightly beyond.
I felt him breathe.
You turn to me, beside the pickle-stained plate, and you say, I felt you breathe.
You tell me, and the assessment officer, that these things are enough. You can live a hundred years, you say, on just that fractional breath.