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Happy Birthday, Mum

“Do they ever show you any affection, man? Like hug you or stuff?” Man. Stuff. Filler words he uses to pepper his speech, like parmesan to a flavourless carbonara.

“Fuck off man.” The words are definitely aggressive, but I’m totally passive. Passive aggressive, that is. I’m grinning a sick false smile. Open body language, closed fists. Without a doubt, he’s hit a nerve. Then again, he’s talking about my parents, hitting a nerve in such a context is like throwing darts at dead whale on the beach: it’s easy to draw blood. “Just shut up, bro.”

The sun is beating in through the windows, making my thick red carpet heat up and send dust streaming through my room. The tree outside my bedroom glimmers in the sunshine, like emeralds in wherever-the-fuck-you-find-emeralds river. I struggle to hold down tears, pacing away and blinking rapidly, hot feeling threatening to erupt from my eyes. I am an active volcano. Though it feels like seconds, the moment hangs like a Mexican stand off.

I cautiously glance over my shoulder, to find him totally indifferent and inattentive, wrapped up in some book on my bed. I’m relieved and happy to have him as a friend due to his obliviousness in noticing the changes of my emotional states.

It’s weird, my family. I can never tell whether I hate them or love them. And I don’t mean that in a nice way, I mean it in the most horrible way you can mean it. I couldn’t ever see my family accepting me for who I am. For one thing, my mother is a homophobe. The amount of times she makes ugly homophobic jokes that I grin and bear my teeth at, in the most basic appreciation of humour. One chimp signalling safety to another.

Or when she’s racist. Particularly about Somalis. She calls them “Somalians” and talks about them like they’re generally an inferior race, sponging off benefits and abusing women as an evolutionary imperative. I’m not a cultural imperialist, but I completely and absolutely know that any culture that deliberately and continually marginalises women needs some serious work. My mother also shares this view, but she’s extrapolated it to a point where the view of Somalis verges on utter racism. Racism is another view I despise, but I also empathise where it comes from; essentially it’s all just fear. I would expect and partially empathise with this view from anyone else, I can’t from my mother. I know she is too clever, too smart, too sharp to be deceived by the crime reports in the local paper.

This is from a woman who used to be a Lib Dem councillor, has a politics degree from Brunel and used to be and English teacher. Suffice to say, such views lack congruence with her history – except that of being a Catholic. The other day, she said that even though she wasn’t a Catholic anymore (even though that is technically impossible without being excommunicated, something I am striving all baptised Catholics to work towards) she is still a “Christian”. Christian, that most vague and undescriptive of religious beliefs. Ones subscribes to no particular church or indeed even to monotheism, but believes instead in cultural and social conservatism. Well, at least no one could argue that they are suffering from an excruciating god delusion.

It’s strange that some of my main interests are politics and literature, I don’t consciously believe I got either from her. The first thing I ever wanted to be was “an author”. Not a writer, but specifically an author. My dad used to tell me and my brother stories at night, like any parent. That seemed to be one of his duties in the family, back when me and my brother shared a room. I have no idea why we shared a room. Stories about whatever we wanted to hear about. Thomas the Tank Engine and Captain Scarlet. I remember the stories catching my imagination, and I used to dream about them. I will always remember my dad talking in his particular excited voice about the climaxes of the stories. He’d revert more back into Scots and gesture wildly. I think he loved it as much as we did.

Then as we got older, he pushed books my way. First it was fantasy and light spy novels. As I got a bit older, thrillers. I always loved the thrillers. So exciting, accomplishing their main task and being absolutely thrilling. He’d always read them too, no matter how childish and silly. I guess he enjoyed them too, and he had someone to enjoy them with. He’s always telling me about how he read this or that book or comic as a kid, and loved it. Never classics though, as long as I can remember he’s only read crime novels or bestsellers. Surprisingly though, he seems to have read such a huge chunk of classic and cult literature, I think he must have been really into it when he was younger.

“An author”. I remember deciding it one day on a car journey home from somewhere. Maybe from Glasgow, where my aunt lives. I always said that I would write a book and then buy a castle on Loch Lomond, and she could come and live with me. She always encouraged my reading, I think it must’ve been in the family.

Apparently my Papa used to borrow several books from the library a week too. I never saw him reading, but then again he died when I was pretty small. I sometimes find photos of him around the house. I sit at them, and just stare contentedly. He’s always smiling, laughing. Just like I remember him. Much like my dad, even though he’s constantly dour I’ll always remember him having a chuckle. There’s one of him, in a pub or a bar. He’s old, it looks like the 60s or 70s or 80s. Him and a few blokes are sitting there. Him with his big pipe, and them with their 50s glasses and suits before they became cool again in the noughties. And I can hear his laugh. His chuckle at things. His ashes were spread at Loch Lomond too. I don’t know if I went to the ash spreading, but I haven’t been there for at least a decade or so. It was probably before he died, even. I still remember it. The smooth pebble shores, and my brother skimming stones across it and me not being able to. I remember the Asian family having a barbecue just behind us. They didn’t ruin the tranquillity of the place, even if it was after Papa’s ashes were scattered there.

I’ve always processed death pretty well, even as a child. Apparently after Papa’s funeral, my Gran was really impressed with me afterwards. We’d been discussing it or something, and I’d blurted out with “it’s okay, Papa’s a ghost now.” My dad told me this recently in a fairly whimsical moment, I don’t even remember it. I’m an atheist now. Thinking about it makes my eyes water, the screen I’m typing this on becomes momentarily blurry. I wish he could’ve told me that before. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had tried so much harder to impress my grandparents. I think they would be proud of me though, if they were engaging in the cliché act of watching down on me, I like to think they’d be enlightened enough to be proud and happy for me as I become happy and good at something. I like to think they’d be proud of me wanting to be a writer, whatever disgusting shit I write.

The real thing is I have so much love for what I remember of my grandparents and what I say here about my mam and dad, but that’s not just life. My dad has been absent at best, aggressive and worst. My mum was always so warm and comforting. I can still think back on memories of her when I was younger and see us lying on white sheets, taste chocolate and smell perfume. As I got older, it was peace offerings with packets of crisps and those smiles that always follow a fight. Even older, I just remember her getting more and more paranoid and accusatory. Very few people can empathise about how it feels to be vehemently accused of conspiracy and hate by someone you love very much. I don’t say that as one of those writers or people who is attempting to be exclusive and obnoxious, but I meant it sincerely and kindly.

My mum reminded me that it’s about almost a decade to the day we moved here, up from where we used to live. We used to be much happier there. We all were. It was a dumb move, but that’s a different story really. Looking back on it, the move was really the start of my mother’s downward spiral. She’s only really getting better now. All my friends know my mother as crazy, which is true and therapeutic to hear, but it still stings a little, like saltwater in a cut. I don’t even know why I’m writing this shit, to fucking strangers at that. She’s lost so much of her personality, her warmth and intelligence. Whittled away by too much drinking and an early onset of senility. She’s 57 today, in fact. You catch occasional flashes of what she used to be, but it’s not the same.

Occasionally she’ll just come out with these thoughts that make you think she’s been listening and paying attention all these years… but then she’ll follow this by getting extremely angry and upset, over trivial or imagined matters. It sounds funny, but I can’t imagine the woman she was 25 years ago violent, screaming and paranoid over someone’s failure to put away a pair of shoes. I can’t imagine it 10 years ago.

Well, happy birthday, mum.

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