Writer and Author

Category: Family

How the Light Gets In

Rural cooking pot repaired with Kintsugi technique, Georgia, 19th century. As good a metaphor as any. Image by Gugger on WikiCommons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/Kintsugi.jpg

March has been a mad month for me. It has been for us all. Today though I’m not talking about the universal truths of lockdown; I’m not chronicling this extraordinary pause to life as we know it; today I’m talking personally. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been falling back on lists and well-remembered things. I’ve been trying to put things in perspective, as much as you ever can when global uncertainty and fear hits. But today I needed to mark it’s passing. Before I moved to Ireland I had never heard of a month’s mind, a Catholic ritual to gather the mourners one month after a bereavement. Technically, a month ago I was bereaved. Alongside the eternities that have filled this month, the collective baking and new-found virtual lives, I have trying to settle that loss in my head. To “lay the fetch”. To still the ghosts.

I am the woman I am because of many experiences, many people, but there is one who shaped me in ways I wasn’t meant to be shaped, who left me fundamentally changed. I’ve written about this on here before but I’ve always been circumscribed by the risk of defamation. I’ve never had a doubt I could argue the truth if I had to but I just didn’t want to know he was capable of that level of vindictiveness. I already knew he was, I just never needed the extra proof. All that is no longer a consideration. The dead can’t sue. A fraudulent reputation died with him 31 days ago in a hospice in the west of Ireland. I will never mourn the man, but I mourn the chaos he caused, the relationships he broke, the time he stole, the home and security he stole.

He is the reason I have been oscillating wildly between preternatural calmness and fight or flight reflexes straight out of a zombie apocalypse for most of the last month. Lockdown has added a surreal edge to it all as it feels like everyone has gatecrashed my own private hell. That sounds more dramatic than it actually is though. I’m so used to my reality that it’s normal, even sometimes welcomed. Most of the time it’s not a thing, I move through the world just like everyone else. Then the fucker dies and it all bubbles up and everyone around me is in meltdown too. I’ve been jumping to the end of the world for many years now, it’s a very Covid-19 thing to realise that my private beauty spot is suddenly full of camper vans.

I can list the ways I am changed because of him. As a child, before he was on the scene, I was a quiet, bookish child but born of actor parents so always ready to perform – but I didn’t have this anger burning in my heart. It’s a cold fire but fierce and it never goes out. We’ve come to an accommodation over the years though, my anger and I – I don’t trouble it and it doesn’t trouble me. Sometimes though I let it peep out and it keeps me as warm as it’s cold flames can. I came from a close if messy, family who were always there to help. Now I keep things to myself or I overshare (exhibit one you are currently reading). It’s true what they say, and I don’t, in this case, know who they are (but will use an unattributable quote anyway) that those who have been abused can spot one another. It’s as if we transmit on a slightly different wavelength. To people without this experience, this fracture and refracture, we can crackle with uncomfortable loudness. But to those emitting the same frequency, there’s an ease, a recognition, a mountain of stuff that never has to be explained. On the day of his funeral, I ended up watching series two of the ITV series Unforgotten on Netflix. The plot centres on the damage abuse does. It’s one of the best portrayals of it I’ve seen. An oddly serendipitous Netflix suggestion. So I watched and recognised the ways that I had been changed knowing that he was being eulogised in another country, that he had never changed, always been hail fellow well met.

A lot goes on behind the doors of seemingly happy families, as this lockdown is, unfortunately, going to demonstrate for some oblivious communities. I know a lot of people will be dealing with a pandemic on top of whatever other stuff they are dealing with so all I do is share something that was bursting to come out anyway. Because this stuff never fully goes away. It’s just there. Always. A pandemic really stirs things up and for me, it was just the tin lid on a terrible month. If you are reading this and feeling a jolt of recognition I found this post useful for naming what I was feeling.

Despite what I’ve written here I did not mourn the man. I didn’t even think much of him. I disentangled myself from him many years ago. I know the truth of it. I saw the rages, received the threats, seen the mask slip more times than I could count. I have a letter that he wrote my mother many years ago, the draft of a love letter with an asterisked reminder to show genuine remorse that my father, his rival, had died. I keep it because to me it is truth, a documentary truth I trust. If I was writing a fully referenced account of him, his life, his truth, I would piece together the evidence and I would point out the gaps in knowledge, the gaps in the evidence. I do not have evidence of what he did to me but then I don’t need it. I lived it and survived it. The fact that I do not have photographs or a detailed diary of his or mine or the GPS coordinates of the point around the Northern Ireland border where he tried to throw me out of a moving car, none of this matters any more. There is only one truth left and it is mine. So today I am writing in memory of what happened, the damage caused, the cracks that still intrude into my daily life at times like these.

I haven’t named him yet. I haven’t forgotten to. I have always believed that it is the voice of the victim we should listen to instead of glorifying the killer or the abuser. I always tried to tell their stories when I was writing in the courts and I will give myself the same respect – but it is important to name him all the same, even to speak ill of the dead, the truth is important. Des Braiden was his name. He was an actor. You may know him from such luminary parts as the B&B owner in that Kerrygold butter ad, the judge in both the Ireland and Northern Ireland road safety ads. He was a monk who died in the first episode of Vikings (I never have been able to watch that show). He was a bit part actor but a tremendous spoofer. He was a legend in his own lunchtime. I will not link to his IMDB listing, I will not post his picture. But I write this post because the truth should out, he doesn’t deserve the reputation of a decent man, even in death. He was a bully and an abuser, as simple as that – and it wasn’t just me.

This has coloured my March and it was something that got louder in the silence of the lockdown so I’m sharing it. While it’s as personal a post as you could get, I hope it’s also a reminder that some of us carried a lot of extra baggage into this lockdown and things seem louder in the quiet of solitude and stress. I’ve named my demon but there are many who won’t be able to or don’t want to. That is totally fine. But be gentle with each other and be mindful of the cracks that everything has, repaired over and over again. Let’s hope April is slightly less eventful.

Mothers in a time of distance

Me and my mum, back in the days when we hadn’t heard of social distancing.

For weeks now businesses have been gearing up for the Mothers’ Day blitz. Well, there’s always some excuse to sell but Mothers’ Day sends them into overdrive. I’ve had exhortations to buy my dear old mum mugs, teatowel, perfume and speciality teas and those are just the ones that are relatively bespoke. I’m increasingly relieved when a company asks if I want to opt-out of the barrage of Mothers’ Day marketing. I always say yes. I know there are plenty who think these opt-outs are just another example of the delicacy of modern life but I’m always relieved when a marketing department actually realises that the day isn’t an uncomplicated love-fest for all of us.

I had a complicated relationship with my mum. When I was a kid she was wonderful. I was an only child and my dad had died when I was a baby so my childhood was solitary but happy. I know my mum found it hard – she was an actress and loved being the centre of attention, something that’s rather difficult to maintain on your own with a toddler. She never really recovered from my dad’s death. While as an adult I understand the decisions she made after that, there are some I will never quite forgive. I’ve written about my mum before here. Let’s just say she was a complicated woman and sometimes a hard mother to love.

I’m also not a mother myself. This is something that has loomed bigger in my life at some times than others. I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. While it’s not something I lose sleep over I would rather it wasn’t shoved in my face on a regular basis. It sometimes feels as if you aren’t quite counted as a woman if you’re not the custodian of small humans. Not all the time, but sometimes. Mothers’ Day is complicated and a little sad and a little bleak and usually I will go out of my way to avoid it.

This year, of course, Mothers’ Day is problematic for everyone. There will be guilt, far more than usual. People will be wondering if they should visit elderly relatives, younger mothers will be worried about their health and the health of their children. Family visits will be missed, Skype calls will be plentiful. It’s another thing that has changed in this strange new world of ours. In the last week we’ve begun to get used to change but today is a reminder of how many things will not happen this year because of the pandemic. The rhythm of our lives will be different this year. The next weeks and months will be filled with other things that have stopped, that are missed. If people don’t stop treating the general stoppage as some extended bank holiday we will find ourselves under much stricter constraints than today. That too will change quickly. That is the way we live now.

Today I have spent time planning new ways to socialise. I help to organise a games night for fellow PhDs at my university and this month we’re moving our gathering online. One thing has become apparent this week as the general sense of weirdness grew. Social media is suddenly feeling as helpful as it was almost a decade ago. These are times when social media comes into its own, where people can come together and reach out. We’ll see a lot more of that as the weeks draw on I hope. For the moment I’ve gone from knowing very little about online gaming to actually knowing how to get set up. For years I’ve promised to keep better touch with far-flung friends but never quite got round to it. Too easy to use the excuse of the pace of modern life. Let’s hope this is at least an opportunity to reset our relationship with each other, to perhaps finally step out from our bubbles, even in the face of global isolation, and reconnect with each other. This is the first global pandemic in such a connected world. It is in a sense, new territory.

So this is the fourth day of the revived blog. Goodness knows how long I’ll keep up these daily posts. At the moment it’s helping to get things straight in my mind as the world spins around me, although that could just be the vertigo. We’ll see as the days progress.

 

A Wound that Never Heals

Daddy-and-Lenin

My father, Colin Rieley, being only mildly disrespectful to Lenin.

On December 8th 1973 my dad was heading home from work. He was a teacher at a prep school that fed children into the elite public school system and well loved by his pupils. Every year he would supervise the school skiing trip to Switzerland as he had a gift for languages and could speak French, German and even passable Italian. My mum went with him one year and never forgot the welcome the local people gave him.

My dad was an inspiring teacher who specialised in English and drama. He was a writer himself and had met my mum when he was working as a stage director in rep companies during the school holidays. In his younger days he had acted himself, including a spell in the Brian Brookes Company in South Africa. He had been working on a novel and it had been accepted by a publisher.,,but he never finished it. He had to pay back his advance.

He had gone back to college. He needed further qualifications to teach. He was studying to teach special needs students.

That spring my mum and dad, my great aunt and me went on a cruise on a Russian ship. It was the cheapest option. There were pictures of Lenin all over the ship and everyone commented that my dad was a dead ringer. One night my mum and dad snuck down to the corridor to take the picture at the top of this post. This was the only version of the shot on the roll that wasn’t blurred from my mum’s laughter. Every night they sat at the Captain’s table. He enjoyed my dad’s company.

Exactly 42 years ago tonight, my dad stopped off to buy a bottle of wine. At home my mum was writing Christmas cards. It was to be their first Christmas at home as a family. I was upstairs asleep in my cot. My dad stepped off the pavement to cross the road and that’s when everything changed. That’s the moment that clever, funny, kind man went away. All that possibility stopped.

A coach driver wasn’t looking where he was going. He swung into the road just as my dad was crossing. It couldn’t end any other way.

My dad was 42 years old.

My mum always hated writing Christmas cards after that. She was writing them when the doorbell rang. She told me she knew as soon as she heard it there was something wrong. There were two policemen there, a man and a woman. There are always two for things like this. I know the details of that night by heart, even though I was a sleeping baby. I used to have a recurring dream that the doorbell rang and my dad was standing there. Until I learnt he never would. Even so I still dream it sometimes, he’s tanned as if he’s been away. I’m not angry he’s been gone so long just happy he’s back. My tears usually wake me up.

My mum was a poet as well as an actress. She wrote about that night. She didn’t show me the poem until I was grown. I’ll share it here now.

Accident

1.

That your dear head should let out all your life

Seemed blasphemy.

Could so much given to such good purpose

Be wasted in one foolish streaming night?

What timeless disbelief

Between first knowledge and your final leaving

Could all that life have given

Be appraised and mourned in such brief stunned hours?

2.

When at last they let me see you

Your abstracted stillness

Made me conscious of intrusion.

I feared the worst but could not think it.

I remembered conversations on the privacy of death

You believed it was already beyond mortal love:

That each man must make his own death,

With his particular God,

Suffering no distraction.

Unable to accept

I willed you back to us

But you continued in your great silence

I lay that night

With my palm outstretched, laid upwards;

Unable to believe

That your warm grasp was loosed forever.

poem by Tani Bentis (all rights reserved)

December 8th has had other associations for years but it will always be the day my father died. Every year my mum would ring me around this time, just wanting to talk about him. This pain never goes away. I don’t remember my father but I still feel his loss, even after all this time.

That’s what careless driving does. Whether you drink and drive or you just don’t take care please think. Please take care. Don’t do this to someone.

A Question of Identity

Colin-Rieley-Feb-15

My father, Colin Rieley with his bearer and his older sister in India in the 1930s

I’ve grown used to not fitting in. That’s not a plea for sympathy or a “poor me” just an expression of the status quo. I moved to the west of Ireland from London in my teens. Even though I’ve now lived most of my life in Ireland, even though I care very deeply about what goes on here, even though I have dear friends and family here, even though Ireland is my home, on some very basic level I will always be an outsider. Those formative years in London shaped me in a way I just can’t change. They shaped my sense of humour, my political leanings, my values – my reticence. A million little things that make me who I am.

Over the years, on days when that cultural gap felt a little too wide, I thought at lot about where I’d come from, where my family had come from. Having an Irish surname has always been a bit of a double edged sword. One the one hand it proves the fact that I have some Irish roots, on the other hand – it’s spelled wrong. I get corrected all the time on that. Everyone knows how you spell “Reilly”.

So a few years ago I decided to find out where the Rieley came from. Find out where those Irish roots actually were. How hard could it be?

Now, I had some experience of genealogy. My first job after leaving school was working for the Sligo Family Research Society and helping people find their relationship to Yeats. I knew there were one or two issues with the Irish records but I didn’t think I’d have to go back that far. As far as I knew I would have been able to play on the Irish soccer team – not because I can kick a ball of course, but because my grandfather was born here. I knew that my dad had been born in India – that’s him on the left in the picture at the top of this post – but I remembered a story my mum had told me about him applying for an Irish passport at some stage but being told the records had been lost in the Four Courts fire. I knew my grandfather had been born at the end of the 19th century so I didn’t think I’d have much difficulty finding him in Ireland.

The best laid plans…

I started to look for my grandfather and almost immediately hit a brick wall. Apart from one marriage record I couldn’t find him anywhere. I ordered a copy of certificate and found out his father’s name and the fact that he was a bank manager but apart from that, there was nothing. I decided to go back a step and try to find my father’s birth record so I turned to the records of the British India Office and the East India Company, as well as the records painstakingly transcribed by the group FIBIS, the Families in British India Society. With a crash the wall came tumbling down. I found my dad – and my grandfather – and my great grandfather. They were all born in India, and married in India and died in India until my grandfather took wife and children back to England. The more digging I did the more people I found, great sprawling branches of people – all of them born and bred in India. I was back to 1820 and had yet to find anyone who had been born in Europe. I was puzzled with what I found. How had I got it so wrong? Was I misremembering?

Over the years I kept digging as more records found their way on line. I started to discover what jobs people had and time and again, when I did further research, I found that these were typical jobs for Anglo Indians. Could that be a reason why I had heard nothing about this Indian past? Why the Four Courts fire seemed so convenient? Had my family tried to “pass”?

I knew that to be considered Anglo Indian the Indian generally passed down through the maternal line. These were the children of Indian women who had children with European men. Could one of the women in the records have been Indian? The names really do not help.

My best bet is that she was the Sophia who married a Patrick Rieley in Madras (now Chennai) in May 1819. She had grown up in the Female Orphan Asylum. Patrick was a teacher in the Free School. The children who went to both the male and the female orphan asylums in those days were often the children of Indian mothers and fathers from Europe. The fathers’ would leave and the mothers would have no way to look after their children – so they would leave them at the orphanage, where the church tried to turn them into useful members of society. I can’t find Sophia’s birth record so I don’t know for certain, but along with everything else this is what fits. It explains a lot, looking at that sprawling tree. It explains why my grandfather’s brother Terence, who ran away to sea and went to America, would tell the Federal Census that he had been born in Ireland. It also explains perhaps, why he wrote on his draft registration for the First World War, that he was a citizen or a subject of India. It explains why they were such a close knit family, never moving far away from each other, intermarrying – because they were “that” community – neither one thing or the other – both.

My theory is that young Patrick Rieley left Cavan or wherever he was from, having grown up with talk of rebellion. He would have heard stories of 1798 and 1803. He would have perhaps had contact with some of the progressive education reformers around at the time. People like Maria Edgeworth, who thought that Ireland’s troubles could be eased if only the children were taught well and taught together. Perhaps young Patrick thought that he could do something good with that education, that he made his way to India. A generation before he arrived, a teacher at the free school had pioneered the method of peer education known as the Madras system. This system of pupil teachers revolutionised teaching in places with a shortage of teachers. Perhaps Patrick wanted to be part of that legacy.

Whatever reason Patrick went to India for – if indeed he was the one who went there – he started a fascinating history. It’s been exciting tracing all those different branches and there’s a lot more work to do. I’ve only found out the direct line. I still don’t know if any branches of the family stayed, if any are still there. I find it hard to understand why anyone would hide such a story – but of course there were, there are a lot of reasons why people choose to do the things they do. This was not and is not a particularly tolerant world.

When I was very small, even before we moved to Ireland, I was still used to looking different. Every now and then I would get asked where I was from, because my face didn’t fit the standard British model. Over the years, I’ve been told my colouring came from Spain, or the Celts, or the Baltic. Perhaps the reason for the dark hair and sallow skin actually goes back to Patrick Rieley. I never did find those Irish roots but I’ll keep digging. Maybe some very early records didn’t get burnt in the Four Courts fire. It’ll be fun looking anyway.

In Praise of Women

 

Photo property of Abigail Rieley all rights reserved

When I was a child I never doubted I could fly. I never saw any reason why I couldn’t rule the world one day. I could be a doctor, or a spaceman, or a time traveller. I could be a famous artist or an explorer or have my very own book shop. I never saw being a girl as a help or a hindrance, it was just the thing that occasionally meant I had to wear rather uncomfortable woollen tights. When I was a child I was surrounded by women, women who showed me a world that was waiting to be discovered, women who were the best role models I could ever ask for, women who made me the woman I am today.

After my dad died it was just me and my mum. Despite her own loss my mum was the heart of my childhood. It was she who taught me to love books and music  and who, when she discovered the contraband lipgloss and black eyeliner hidden in my schoolbag, sat me down with a drawer full of makeup with names like Biba and Miners and taught me how to apply it like a pro. My mum was the one who, when I was in the school production of Hiawatha she stayed up all night stitching together scraps of leather to make a costume on a budget. My mum taught me how to make an entrance. She taught me how to be strong in a crisis. She taught me how to create magic out of nothing. I knew she wasn’t happy when I was a child but I knew that she would always be there when I needed her.

My mum was strong but I don’t think she could have coped without the friends and family who surrounded us in those early years. I remember Alison, who’s lifting me up in the picture that accompanies this piece, who came to help after my father’s death and stayed for my early years. Alison was one of the first people I talked to about writing and was the person who told me, after I joined Mensa to vanquish an ex boyfriend’s taunts, that I didn’t have to prove myself in the face of other people’s insecurity.

There was Dee, my mum’s cousin, who was always her rock. Dee was a second mother. I remember having my tea at her house while a malevolent tortoiseshell cat eyed me from the top of a cupboard. Dee taught me not to be afraid. She taught me to face things head on and not to be afraid of speaking up. Her house was always full of life and noise, so different from our solitary quiet. She brought calm practicality into our sometimes chaotic existence and a normality that couldn’t be washed away by moments of panic.

There was Branny, my mum’s best friend, who told me,when I needed to hear it, that my mum was human. Sitting up the night before my audition for the drama school I didn’t really want to go to we sipped tea laced with left over Christmas brandy and I laughed myself some perspective over stories of my mum’s less edifying exploits. Branny confirmed that my mum and I were very different people and much as I loved her I would never be her. Drama school was the dream she had attained. My dreams were somewhere else.

There was Anna my godmother. An actress and broadcaster, she would fly in from visiting  the flat she kept in Paris with fresh-baked croissants and lie in our garden soaking up the paler English rays of sun to top up her French tan. Anna was always impossibly glamorous but still ours. I grew up wanting to have a flat in Paris, to work for the BBC. I grew up wanting her independence and freedom.

When I was about eight my Gran came to live with us. Like her daughter, my grandmother could be an impossible woman but she had the trait that a great many women seem to have in my family – bloody mindedness. When my Gran broke her back in her 60s the doctors told her she would never walk again. She proved them wrong. She would never break any speed records but when she lived with us a year or two later, if the bus was late she would walk home. My Gran told me stories about her life. How she had run a record shop and a hair salon. How she had been offered a scholarship to the Slade school of Art on the recommendation of her art teacher Archibald Knox. My Gran still said her Us the old fashioned way with a hidden i and taught me phrases like “too, too bay window” and “all fur coat and no knickers” – goodness knows what kind of conversations we were having!

Then there was my aunt, my wonderful extraordinary aunt Jill. Jill has always been there for people. She’s been a teacher, a social worker, a missionary and a vicar. My earliest memories of Jill are of her warmth and her quick affection. I’ve always been a little in awe of her but Jill was particularly amazing when my mum died. She made family seem immediate again instead of distant.

These are just a handful of the women who shaped me into the  woman I am today. There are many, many more.  I count myself fortunate to have been surrounded most of my life by a multitude of wise, funny, generous, warm, wonderful women who have enriched my life and given it colour. In previous years I’ve marked International Women’s Day by writing about how much further there is to go. I’ve talked about violence against women, about the pitiful sentences for rapes, but this year I want to celebrate. I want to raise a glass to extraordinary women in my life, in yours, everywhere.

As I sit at my computer and type this post I’m looking into the faces of three more extraordinary women, subjects of my current book. I’ve been privileged to look into their lives, lived so long ago, and get to know their strength. I wouldn’t have found them, might not have listened, if I hadn’t been taught to look.  I stand here at this point in my life because of all the women who’ve known and shaped me. Thank you ladies! Here’s to you!

Seeing Through his Eyes

 

My dad's front of house picture from the Brian Brooke Company

My dad’s front of house picture from the Brian Brooke Company

The projector whirrs into action, throwing a shivering oblong onto the magnolia wall. At first all that’s visible is a few random pairs of feet, white walled tyres. tarmac with the sky below it. Eventually the picture settles down. I’m transfixed, staring, afraid to blink and miss a single frame. I’ve had this ribbon of tantalising history for weeks now but until this weekend I had no idea what was on it. It was among a random assortment of things that had belonged to my mother. There was nothing written on it to suggest what it could have been. All I had was the phrase “It’s from your father’s time.”

For weeks I’ve been looking at the round yellow Kodak case imagining it’s contents. There were no cine cameras in my childhood. My mum might have left a suitcase full of snapshots chronicling random moments of my childhood but there are no moving images. Growing up I had few pictures of my dad. They were too painful for my mum, I think. She carried a passport photo of him in her wallet and I had a miniature of him painted just before he left his Indian birthplace at seven to go to school in a cold, unfamiliar England. Neither of these pictures seemed to relate to the smiling young man with the movie star looks who stared out of the black frame propped against the wall in the dining room. I knew the picture as “Daddy with his hair on”. I knew it was him because his name was printed below it and underlined with a flourish, but this young man bore no relation to the balding, bespectacled teacher who held the baby me in photographs. That was the man whose hair oil had left a dark stain on the brown fabric of his chair, who had sat there every evening with a book in one hand and me sitting in the other. I knew he had met my mother in a theatre company, I knew that he used to act as well as stage manage, but these were abstract facts that didn’t fit with the man whose absence was a constant hole in my childhood.

When I was a child I used to dream that my father had come home. There would be a knock on the door one day and I would run to open it and there he would be looking tanned and relaxed. I knew it would never happen, I understood death, but it seemed extraordinary that the person whose presence I could still feel would have left life without leaving some living impression. My mum kept him alive for me so successfully I could never quite shake the feeling he was just beyond reach, just outside my touch. When I got that reel of film a part of me was triumphant. That child in me was crowing “See, I told you he wouldn’t have left us with nothing.”

So on Saturday I finally sat down to watch the film, more than half expecting to finally see him smiling back at me, found after all these years. Instead I was watching tourist snaps. Stretching away from the camera were rows and rows of rounded Deco windows. The camera panned away, past vivid bougainvillea to smiling black faces waving from a field and white ones waving from a beach. After only a couple of minutes the clicking came to a clacking stop as the film ran to it’s end. There were no familiar faces and after all that no sign of my father. But I knew that I had been seeing through his eyes as he excitedly recorded the sights and sounds lately come familiar, capturing them before they faded and he returned to cold, grey Southampton.

That movie star picture of my father that now hangs above my desk was once in the foyer of a theatre in Johannesburg.  In 1955, at the age of 24, my father travelled to South Africa to work for the famous theatre impresario Brian Brooke. I had known about this as a child, because of the photo. I knew it was a pretty big deal. As an adult I found other proof, corroborating evidence existing outside family legend. Searching Ancestry.co.uk for a family paper trial I chanced upon his arrival in Southampton in April 1956. The trip survives independently of our idiosyncratic archiving.

Among the clutter I inherited earlier this year, as well as the picture and the Kodak reel, was the passport he brought with him on that trip. It was the same passport he had since school. His picture is gawky, a child I’ve never seen before. I had always assumed that the trip was merely something he had done in an a cosmopolitan life. He had spent his first few years in India. From my vantage point in a London suburb I couldn’t imagine how you could top that, I assumed that after a start like that travel would be something simply taken in one’s stride, something to be enjoyed but not viewed with the wide eyes of a little suburbanite like me. But watching the film I begin to see something different. A young man intoxicated by his surroundings, who never wanted to forget the sights and sounds that he was seeing. This was a young man striking out on his own for the first time. These were his experiences, his memories, not those of his family or his schoolmates. This was a year he would never forget.

I don’t know what happened that year. I don’t know what parts he played, if he fell in love, raised hell. All I know is that the gaze he turned on South Africa was an affectionate one. I can forgive him never turning the camera on himself. He showed me something that he would never forget. That’s precious in it’s own way.

It’s All In A Scent

Smell is the most evocative of the senses. It can transport us through time, take us to another place, make us feel, touch something outside our current reality. When I smell rosemary on a hot summer’s day I’m five years old again stopping by a wall to rub the needle leaves together on the way up to visit the ruins of Bramber Castle in Sussex. The smell of yellowing paper and brittle glue you get when you open a paperback of a certain vintage takes me back to school holidays long ago, curled in a corduroy beanbag while the rain pattered off the windows. We know a lover by their scent, it can sometimes linger longer than the echo of their voice. Scent is important. It’s at the heart of who we are.

When I was a little girl I would caress the soft trail of Opium my mother would leave as she wafted into my room to kiss me goodnight before going out for the evening. It felt expensive, yet somehow untouchable, as if, when she smelt like that she wasn’t wholly my mother, but some expensive, elusive creature I couldn’t catch and couldn’t quite understand. I loved the confidence of the scent but preferred it the following morning when it clung in muffled form to the arms that lifted me and set me about my day. My mother was an actress. She wore perfume well, understood the impact that a signature scent could make, understood it was an important part of the costume with which we face the world.

When I was in my teens my mother introduced me to the grownup art of scent. It came before the more prosaic lessons in makeup (less is more and don’t stick yourself in the eye with the mascara) and felt like far more of a rite of passage. The first proper perfume she gave me, after the simple fluorescent pink synthetic strawberry liquids that we played with, that matched the smell of the stationary we used in school, was Ma Griffe by Carvan. The plain glass bottle, the first I had ever had that wasn’t pink, with it’s gold plastic cap and green and white striped box, was quintessential ‘80s minimalism but the scent was far older. Created in 1946, it’s still available today. At the time I loved the freshness of it, the light summeriness that still had some depth as the perfume wore on the warmth of my skin.

I wore Ma Griffe throughout my teens, right through until my early 20s. It was my going-out scent, but a far more innocent and simple incarnation than the exotic oriental musk of my mum’s Opium. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered Ma Griffe was what is known as a floral chypre. One of a group of scents defined by their mossy base notes and citrusy top notes. More specifically a classic chypre tends to have oakmoss in the base notes, that linger longest on the skin, and bergamot in the lightest, most ephemeral, quickly disappearing top notes. Ma Griffe, which translates as My Signature, has oakmoss in it’s base, along with cinnamon, sandalwood and musk, and, instead of bergamot, has lemony and green vegetal top notes, mixed with floral scents like lily of the valley, rose and jasmine.

Ma Griffe sparked a fascination with perfume that’s continued all my life. When in my 20s, I decided the time had come to find a more adult grown-up perfume, I spent months looking for a replacement. I tried to approach the decision the way I would any other, by weighing up the various options, looking at the pros and cons. I learnt about essential oils, about the ingredients of the different perfume families, who wore what. None of it helped. Our sense of smell isn’t one that responds well to logic, it taps directly into the oldest, reptilian part of our brains. It’s an emotional thing.

In the end the replacement was found by an ex boyfriend, who decided I had a passing resemblance to Paloma Picasso and bought me her signature scent. Coincidentally, Paloma Picasso, the perfume, is actually another floral chypre. But Paloma is a little like the slightly slutty older sister of the more innocent Ma Griffe. It’s still got the musty root of oakmoss and the citrusy top note of bergamot but when it’s on your skin it’s all about the musk and the so called animalic edge of civet, not to mention the sinuous sensuality of ylang ylang, tuberose and amber. I had great fun wearing Paloma throughout my 20s and 30s. It’s got that brash 80s confidence to it that sashays into a room and expects to be the centre of attention. There was a makeup range that I experimented in but soon discovered that the perceived similarity to Ms Picasso herself did not even extend skin deep. Blue-red lips and black kohl tend to make my pale skin look anaemic and ever so slightly undead. Whatever fashion trends I might have dabbled in back then, Goth was never one of them!

I still love wearing Mon Perfum (as it’s properly known) but for various reasons over the past few months I’ve been feeling that the time has come once again to change the signature. Perhaps it was the death of my mother at the end of last year, perhaps the looming of a new decade, the swagger and grab-you-by-the-throat impact of Paloma just didn’t feel like me any more. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that I’m twelve years married this year and my hunting days feel like a lifetime away, maybe it’s because this is a time for retrospection and taking stock. When I was younger I would wear Mon Parfum like armour. When I was feeling insecure it would give me a boost as surely as a reassuring hand or a cloak of invisibility. It was a costume in itself and even now when I wear it I feel like I’m stepping back into an old dress. It might still fit but it’s not necessarily who I am now.

When I discovered, earlier this year, that Mon Perfum had been reformulated (an unfortunate fact of life for perfumes that coincides with changes in the availability of ingredients, not to mention public tastes) it was the final straw. The new perfume, changed when oakmoss was restricted as an ingredient, is a sad shadow of it’s former self. I’ve still enough to last me well into the future any time I want to try on that old dress again but I won’t be buying the style new.

So the hunt was on. The tendency for retrospection led me straight to the Yves St Laurent counter in Brown Thomas but Opium wasn’t the way to go. While I have no problem wearing my mum’s clothes or jewellery (she had far too good taste not to) wearing her perfume just seemed creepy in a rather Norman Bates kind of way. I can incorporate a coat or a skirt or a top into an outfit that suits my taste but a perfume is a different kind of statement. In the past I’ve worn a bit of my mum’s Opium when I was visiting home and hadn’t brought my own perfume just as she more than once borrowed some of my Paloma Picasso but we always knew that we were wearing the other’s scent. We had quite different personalities and perfumes reacted differently on our skins. In my mind I always linked this random fact to my mother’s attraction to the midges that would fly past me to feast on her. Whatever the reason, when it comes to signature scents, we were two very different women.

In the end I stuck with my faithful chypres. Even though the restricted oakmoss means that any chypre you buy today is not really the classic scent, I found myself drawn to one of the grand dames of the family. Created in 1919 Guerlian’s Mitsouko was named after a popular literary heroine and was a favourite of stars as varied as Jean Harlow and Charlie Chaplin. This is a proper old school chypre, not floral, not fruity or any other qualification. It came two years after the original scent that gave the family a name. Made by Coty, Chypre was an avant-garde masterpiece. Mitsouko built on this reputation, coming at the end of the first world war and heralding the flappers of the roaring twenties. What we have today might only be an evocation of the original but it’s a lovely scent nonetheless.

When I first smelt it I knew it was the one. It’s got a quieter confidence than Mon Parfum, it’s mustier and more complex than Ma Griffe. But most of all it was familiar. When I was in primary school we had to paint a glass bottle. I came home from school and asked my mum for something that would work for the project. She thought about it for a while and then rooted in one of the drawers of the Welsh dresser that lived against the wall of the breakfast room. She gave me an empty bottle made of heavy facetted glass with a metallic cap. The bottle was empty but the smell lingered. It was Mitsouko. I don’t remember my mum ever wearing the scent but she must have since the bottle was empty and she had kept it, for sentiment or to know it again I haven’t a clue. The modern scent is still recognisable and had that shock of recognition I had been looking for.

I know that I’ll be wearing Mitsouko for years to come. As time moves on I won’t need the crutch of the familiarity. By then it’ll just be part of the costume, part of who I am. It’ll fit as snugly as a favourite pair of shoes or the perfect all-purpose black dress. It’ll give me a flourish when I need one, an extra line of dialogue I don’t need to say. I’m looking forward to laying down all the new memories that it’ll trigger. It’s always exciting to be at the beginning of a new relationship.

Getting Back into the Swing

I haven’t posted here for several months – in fact I haven’t written anything anywhere much since November. There’s a reason for that. In mid-November I got word that my mother was terminally ill. By the end of the month she was dead.

I’ve wandered through the past two months in a bit of a daze. When a parent dies suddenly it blows everything sky high. Every day for the past month and a half I’ve feeling around on the floor for the shattered pieces and trying to put everything back as it was. It’s not done yet, still the same bomb site, but at least now things are ordered enough to start to write them down.

As long as I can remember I’ve dealt with the world by turning it into words on a page. I’ve kept diaries, written stories, blogged about the way I see the world. When something hurts, even when something shatters, I’ll start thinking of ways to turn it into words. This happens with the good things two but I mainly write about pretty dark subjects so it’s the dark stuff that tends to get used first. The problem is that when it’s not dark, when it’s just red raw and seeping pain, then the words won’t come.  That’s the way it’s been. That’s finally the way it’s not any more.

My mother was a complicated woman.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved her deeply, but she could be a hard woman to live up to. She was an actress.  The kind of woman who could light up a room with her entrance. She was larger than life, funny, fiercely loyal and ever so slightly crazy. Talking to family over Christmas there were stories of late night dinners, dramatic flourishes and lots of laughter. Looking over old photos I see a vibrant woman, demonstrative and striking, commanding the centre of every photograph.

I remember her singing Summertime to me at bedtime, or reading me The Hobbit and having me in stitches doing Bilbo with a cold being invited to parties – “Thangk you very buch!”  I remember the dolls house she made me out of a cardboard box with the double bed in the master bedroom made out of a moulded piece of polystyrene packing with a lilac Kleenex valance. I remember her sticking up for me when I was being bullied at school.

If my mother had a defining fault it was probably that she loved too fiercely.  It was her love that made me the person I am today but I think in a way it also broke her.  When my dad died suddenly when I was a baby it hit her so deeply I don’t think she ever really recovered. Every year in mid December, around the anniversary of that dreadful day when she opened the door to two policemen, she would feel all the world’s sharp edges. Even though she had a second marriage, another chance at a love of her life, I don’t think the pain ever really went away.

In the days and months after that awful day. When life slowly got back to normal and the family home was emptier than it should have been, she did what she could to numb the pain. But over time the crutch fused and became an extra limb.

My mum was an actress of a certain generation. Gregarious socialising goes with the territory.  It’s much the same with journalism and writing too for that matter.  But alcohol can be a treacherous friend and will all too easily lead you into trouble.  If you start to trust it it will trip you up. And my poor mother fell.

I wouldn’t wish liver failure on anyone. It’s a brutal way to go. But that’s what happened to the beautiful, warm, daft, clever, woman I remember so well. The last time I saw her, just before the end, I could see that dear nutcase in her still luminous brown eyes. By that stage she was hearing Welsh in a Leitrim hospital ward, and seeing the mountains of her North Wales childhood out of the window but as she squeezed my hand she knew me and lamented the fact we didn’t share books the way we used to.

So that’s why I haven’t been writing much recently. But slowly it’s coming back. Life continues and the world keeps turning and there are stories still to be told.

 

Tani Bentis

My mother Tani Bentis

Tani Bentis RIP  1941 – 2011

Another Twelfth Night

Colin Rieley - image owned by Abigail Rieley all rights reserved

My father – Colin Rieley

Today is a day that means different things to different people.  For some it’s the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, or Little Christmas or Nollaig na mBan.  For me it’s the end of the holidays, the day to pack away the Christmas decorations for another year and knuckle back into the new year’s work full of good intentions.

But January 6th has always held another meaning for me.  It was my father’s birthday.  When I was a kid it always used to snow on January 6th and I used to think it was because my dad wanted me to celebrate his birthday.  Because you see my dad wasn’t around.  He died when I was still a baby, too young to remember him.

But every year it snowed.  And every year I remembered my dad.  I knew he had been a teacher, a writer and an actor at various points in his life.  I knew I wanted to grow into a daughter he would be proud of.

Around this time last year I heard from two of my dad’s former pupils.  Suddenly I heard stories of how he was outside the confines of our family.  How he was the kind of teacher who had encouraged and inspired his class, who had refused to cane them according to the school’s rules and who those he had taught had never forgotten.

I know he had started to write a book but had never finished it.  That story was the first lesson I ever had about deadlines. I know he was born in India and didn’t see snow until he was on a visit to England when he was six.  He wanted to know why there was sugar falling out of the sky.  I know he had a good sense of humour and told a good story.  But he will always be a patchwork of fragments from a dozen different sources.  I will never know him myself.

During the summer break this year I started to trace his family tree.  I started with a bare twig and ended up with a small bush.  I found characters, rogues and pillars of the community but my father remained elusive.  I found him on a ship to South Africa, or getting married to my mum. I found the record of my birth and the record of his death.  But once again it was only fragments.

So today, even though it isn’t snowing, I’m thinking of my dad.  I’ve learnt a lot about him this past year and I’m proud to be the daughter of the man I know he was, even if I will never have all the details.  I think he would have been proud of me too.  He would have approved of the job anyway.

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