Once a week Fahar and I play chess. Recently I arrived feeling sad and in the same coat and hat I had just worn at a friend’s funeral. Fahar and I always chat as we set out the pieces, so I had a moment to explain what had happened. After offering his condolences he commented how, in his view, the minute we die we become nothingness; the person we were once no longer exists. I suggested that his position might need some modification; if he went first he would still be in my mind and the image that I had would remain faithful to him. He smiled, looked at the board and made his opening move.
Soon I was questioning my assertion – was I really such a reliable guardian of images? By chance, over the last few weeks there were three instances where images have arisen of people once close and now dead, and twice they didn’t fit. Clearly, there was work to be done.
The first image was of Ian, the friend for whom I had worn the sober hat and coat. I try to avoid going to funerals but when he died I had to be there. We did not have a conventionally close friendship; I knew him more by his views, his work and by his being the husband of a close friend for some thirty years. Above all, whenever we met, we ‘clicked’ – friendships are sometimes like that.
For most of the funeral service I felt more numb than sad but at one moment all that changed as sadness dominated. Ian loved sailing and had his own dinghy. Midway through the service we sang Rod Stewart’s mystical ‘I am sailing’. When we got to the verse – “Can you hear me, can you hear me through the dark night far away? I am flying, forever flying, to be with you, who can say?” – my mind’s eye conjured up an image of Ian alone in his boat, frantically rowing away from us in the sky and buffeted by clouds. My throat tightened, singing became impossible and tears welled up. During the service other music, a recited poem, several eulogies and the sight of his wicker coffin only a few yards away were very moving, but it was the image that I had created of Ian rowing away that gripped me most, and still does.
The second image was of Roy and Martha, two close friends who died years ago. I was walking along the Thames towpath with one of our two grand-dogs – we have one grandson and two grand-dogs. At one point on the path there is a tall hedge in which a gap has been cut out near one end. Because the hedge had just been trimmed, the gap was particularly obvious, and this gap has a history.
Behind the hedge is the communal garden of the flats in which Roy and Martha lived as they got older. In order to see the Thames from the garden’s summer house, Roy arranged for a gap to be cut in the hedge and it is this gap that has been carefully maintained ever since.
As I looked through to the summer house that morning, there, seated on the other side were a smiling and waving Roy and Martha, as of old. No distortion – it was exactly them. The feeling was eerie and lovely, and gone when I looked back.
The third image was of my mother, an actor, who died over thirty years ago. Not long before her death she appeared in the film ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, which I saw recently for the third time. In the film she plays Mrs Poulteney; a drawn, humourless, religious, widowed bigot.
As a seasoned observer of her on stage and screen, I identify with her as the character she is playing rather than as my mother. After seeing the film this time this was reversed when I reinvented her in a nightmare. There was Mrs Poulteney, now my mother, lying on her bed close to death, crying, looking at me and asking why I hadn’t come to kiss her to say goodbye. This image, which had been my own creation, made me feel both sad and guilty. Here was an image prompted by a film and transmogrified by me. As a guardian of images, as with Ian’s image, my mind was inventive and unreliable.
Yes, I retain images of those who have died but they are not kept as securely as I had implied when speaking to Fahar. Indeed, when my mind’s eye gets to work, the images that arise, whatever the circumstances, are such as to suit my purpose rather than anything else. My original thought that, as keeper of the images of my friends I would remain faithful, was optimistic.
And by the way, Fahar won that game of chess – at the moment he is on a winning streak.
The illustration shows a photo of my mother Patience Collier as Mrs Poulteney in the 1981 film ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’.
For help writing this blog I would like to thank Sarah, Vanessa, Jeni, Rohan and Vivien