MRR COLUMN

Self-build: Grandmothers / Chroma and Efialtis Tour

We are leaving Zaragoza when I realise I’ve lost the necklace. A thin, slightly tarnished gold rope that belonged to my maternal grandmother is gone from my neck. It was the single exception to my rule about practical heirlooms. I say rule, but it is really more like one of those coincidences that becomes a story that becomes a truth we tell ourselves about ourselves until it just becomes a thing. To make who we are match who we think we are. To construct ourselves; self-build.

When my father’s mother died I was there to help clear out her home, a pebble-dashed end of terrace that I remember as being the epicentre of the small Welsh village where she lived. It was where my dad had grown up and where we had spent nearly every Sunday. The air in the house was still thick with the smell of camphor-scented mothballs and lavender when we entered. Mamgu was big into mothballs. The stink would somehow fill up your whole mouth, an effect I always felt had to be worse than whatever it was that moths might do to her fabrics. I remember the odd sensation of punching her scatter cushions down into black bin bags on that day. Mamgu’s house had been a hive of busy love and coffee cake, always. Her tales of village intrigue and motormouth chat was interrupted only for the hallowed silence she observed during a Welsh-language soap opera named Pobol y Cwm. Within the meagre means of her pension, she had amassed a panoply of sundry goods, stockpiled as though prepping for all possible futures. This, I know now, was a wartime mentality that had kept families fed and children alive. As she got older and more stubborn, when it was gently suggested that an object might be best donated away or recycled, she would remonstrate with the words ‘No! I’m saving it for best!’ The only exception to this joyful chaos rule was her pristine, unused ‘front room’, demarcated for formal occasions only. This was a strange hinterland place we certainly never sat in, chintz patterns and a china tea set perfectly laid out incase the vicar came to tea. Her husband died of stomach cancer in 1951. My dad was four then and neither he nor his two older siblings were invited to the funeral. To my knowledge, she never had another relationship. She would leave the farm and move to this village, running the local shop from the ground floor for a few decades afterwards. That shop, once full to the ceiling of glass jars of boiled sweets, source of my father’s puppy fat, would one day become this fancy, forever empty front room, saved ‘for best’ or indeed for any visiting clergy. Mamgu would live into her nineties, surviving cancer, several bouts of gangrene and an amputation. She named her prosthetic arm Jeremiah and cultivated a campy ventriloquists routine with him. She was supposed to wear Jeremiah often to get used to him and lessen the phantom limb pains. She could feel her now cut-off hand twitching to get things done. It was the only time I ever saw her cry and it was strictly from frustration. She often refused to wear the arm, prompting many our of weekly visits to begin with my Dad scolding her lightly as she welcomed us with a stump. ‘Ble mae Jeremiah?’ (‘Where’s Jeremiah?’) As the last scraps of newspapers from the mid sixties were removed from drawers, furniture sent to charitable organisations, I salvaged the following inventory of strange items: a set of plastic light blue beads I had found upstairs that she had never to my knowledge worn, a blue leatherette wallet that she’d bought but seemingly never used, and an unopened set of cloths designed for cleaning records. She hadn’t used a record player, at least not in my lifetime, there were no records in the house that I knew of, yet here they were, these multicoloured dusters folded flat and made to look like an LP sleeve. Perhaps I wanted to keep all these odd, memory-free objects in case she needed them in future, or maybe her steadfast, sometimes ridiculous stubbornness had leaked into me through the grief by way of connection: of course, these things had been saved for best. I also left with a very un-grandmotherly item, a promotional baseball cap for the Welsh beef industry, which I am wearing as I write this. It had shaded her from the weak sun everyday 7 while cultivating ingredients for unbeatably delicious preserves, so it was bleached pink by the sun. I left feeling ready to use these objects everyday. Other things I have inherited from her: work ethic, ridiculously wide hips, and the following maxim, which at the time seemed profoundly at odds with her history of lost love, but in hindsight seems totally informed by it: ‘When it comes to men, taste and try well before you buy.’ I was thirteen, and my cheeks burnt with rage over the sense of unjust exposure. I think I even threw myself onto the carpet. I realise now that this powerful one-armed fiend, award-winning courgette grower, whose prickly moustache seemed to make complete sense between rosy cheeks, was not actually mocking me. She saw me, could sense my desperate thirst for boys through my baggy, feigned disinterest. She just refused to indulge my fears. Thank you Mamgu. When I eventually blossomed – an expression I use loosely, but if you’d have me specify, picture those flimsy, slightly misshapen yellow flowers on the giant rhubarb I would wrench from your hillside garden – I certainly did take that advice. Self-build.

They found her face down in the strawberry patch. She wasn’t wearing Jeremiah.

Mamgu did not, from memory, own much in the way of jewellery. That necklace, whose absence made my stomach turn, had been my mum’s mum’s, at least I remember it that way. Irene. Nanny. If I could make a thunderclap sound for you now I would. I don’t have such a strong memory of the circumstances of her death because I was at university when it happened. Her life as it related to mine was a clandestine whirlwind of psych wards, secrets, half-truths and my parents’ valiant attempts to manage her condition and maintain a relationship between her and a family who loved but were at turns terrified, pitying and angry at the chemical imbalance in her brain. It had bloomed like blood in water when I was too young to remember. Irene was an Irish flower of unbelievable beauty whose background had been shout through with unspeakable poverty with more brothers and sisters than I could possibly count or name, who’d watched her mutate into an English Rose in an era where such transformations were commonplace. My mother and aunt paint a jarring portrait of their youth, where, while they wanted for nothing as a part of the newly thriving suburban middle classes, were wounded by the lies and deceit of watching their mother barely bother to hide a decades-long affairs with a man from the golf club at which my grandfather was the chairman. He had worked his way up from South East London barrow boy to the top of an exports company. Like I said, these were the times. He died of a sudden heart attack on a golf course in Augusta, Georgia, where he had flown to watch the masters tournament. These are the stories we are told about our family that could be true or half fiction, illuminated by the need to weave ourselves a history, self-build, mould some context. I did not know her as a woman in her own right, the illness won out. I knew her as a see-saw, a vacillating threat level, a sometimes lovely, sometimes scary presence. My sisters and I knew that when she was ‘high’ there would be treats, too-fast journeys in her Mazda, extra cokes at dinner, a tenner slipped in here or there. When she was ‘low’, we battened down the hatches and hoped for it to pass. When she was sectioned, I knew her as a destination, as a cassette of songs I would listen to in the car park of the psychiatric unit while Mum visited her, and when I got older, as the tall, cold stairwell inside, draped with thick green anti-suicide ropes. When Nanny died, I grieved, of course, but felt the world around me exhaling long and loud. I remember that close family members convened in a specially rented house on the occasion of her funeral, and discussion of inheritance and jewellery was done in quiet snatches. There was clearly some UN-level negotiation happening, the delegates perhaps knew there was a limited window to orchestrate all this, made doubly hard by having to figure it out above and around grief, stymying gauche but real needs to salvage a piece of her, from before things had shattered. In a moment of holier-than-thou asceticism and perhaps with a wish to return to the simpler grief of Mamgu’s house, I asked only for her Kenwood brand food mixer with a heavy brushed metal bowl. We baked fairy cakes with it once in her bungalow near the sea. I parroted her diagnoses to my teachers as a young child, intending to impress them with my impeccable spelling of ‘manic depressive psychosis’. Like her illness, the mixer was both heavy and dependable. I carried it between shared houses for the next eleven years even though I can barely bake a cake. Other things I have inherited from her: expensive taste and a deep, abiding fear every time I feel my mood swing violently from one thing to the other. In the end, it was my mother who gave me the necklace. Nanny had worn a sovereign looped onto it, heavy with the face of a man (a king or prince I think) on it, which always struck me as odd as it looked like a gold coin. That had gone, but I still remember it nestling in the tiny, slightly luminous folds around her neck, the fleshy wattle of a truly grand old bird.

The necklace left my neck on day two of a four day tour of Spain we dubbed ‘Chromialtis.’ I play drums in Efialtis and am certain I will never tour with another man after this. I jest, kind of. There is no feeling quite like watching how fast a tour van becomes a coven. The three women of Chroma, unknown to my bandmates before this tour, are their sisters too now, and routinely exclaim songs and catchphrases in a choral unison. Chroma is a gang. We are initiated. The credo is one of infectious love, sincerity, and being fucking serious about having fun. Eternal piss-take as the way to show love is the British way, but as Alex and Eva are Greek and Cypriot respectively, and I’m a wet blanket who hates banter, here there is a natural way of out this strangely counterintuitive way to show friend-love, the bulk of what I have known for a long time, this distanced language where the truth of it is murky and out of reach. It feels refreshing, like a cool calm hug. Spending this time away from the forces of our lives that require a constant blanket of distancing pretence is a godsend. Death to irony.

Watching the trees give way to shrub and rock and red earth, I sit and wonder if Mamgu or Nanny ever came to Spain and what they would have seen here. A generation or two too early for city breaks, but they were trailblazers in their own ways. Mamgu took tons of coach trips with the local Women’s Institute group. I think she even went to Palestine. I remember that Nanny did have a record player, an incredible brushed silver number that complemented her shag pile carpet. I know Mum would be disappointed in me for having lost the chain. Am I tempting fate by not insisting we turn around the retrieve it? Will others die because of my actions? I’m struck by the notion that the unknown punk whose home we stayed in while she was out of town may find it and wear it. That’s comforting. Passed on still within the family of woman. Pleased by the concept of leaving inherited goods for others to find, for a second I don’t even know if I want it back, then realise I am trying to reverse engineer my forgetfulness into something less prosaic, more like fate, and scold myself. I always do that.

I think about these women of my life as my legs lose feeling, and press my palm into the space below my neck, clammy from the rental car’s air con. I’m in the front seat, pushed so close to the dashboard because we are carrying six women and the bulk of a backline in an average sized family car. The rocky plains speed by and become mountains, suddenly Alpine, leading us north to the promised land: Euskadi.

Doing the ‘idiot check’ of the unknown punk’s flat before we left Zaragoza, Alex and I retrieve a pair of tiny leopard print knickers which, owing to how they’ve been strewn over a lampshade like a post-orgy decoration, must be someone from our party. We laugh about our deep fear of a ‘found your undies’ moment. This is firstly because there are parts of my butt with their own microclimates, meaning that it requires more of a tent-like structure, and secondly because there is more embarrassing Discharge than Grave New World, right ladies? We twirl them in the air and Amy and Rebe fall about laughing. Their unified hilarity is a code means we have inadvertently hit on a funny story. It turns out Laura is notorious leaving her smalls in people’s homes because she likes to clean her knickers in the shower. My first thought is that this is the type of carefree yet practical habit that could only be cultivated by Laura, whose poise, grace and revolutionary intent is has the feel of a small, lithe deer rounding on you with an AK-47. The second is that shower laundry is actually a pretty strong idea for keeping shit fragrant on tour. Laura regales us with rollercoaster tales of having to driving a van alone across Brazil with no money on a Belgrado tour, watching GBH as a twelve year old, and ever so patiently assists me with my terrible gear-changing skills. I am in love with her.

We find endless initials scratched deep into trees at service stations. There’s a covered bridge to walk across where we can see the dust roll along the motorway at such a speed that I half-expect the Mad Max convoy to zoom by under us. I steal ice from the buffet and rub it down the exposed limbs of our crew, who are all in black. I sneak a glance back as the assembled families stare at us walking away. The searing light projects graffiti tags across our legs as we march back down the perspex tunnel. We’re a bit magic. We stop at an abandoned barn where some industrious souls have painted the word SUPERPUTAS on every available surface. We pose in every combination. A Flock of Seagulls song repeats itself on every drive. I suddenly place it from the psychiatric unit car park cassette. It sounds both intensely familiar and totally new. ‘I ran, I ran so far away..’ ‘Amy commandeers an iPod at the Basque squat and the girls drunkenly pirouette to it in the dust. ‘I couldn’t get away…’

At the last gig of the tour, after the crammed car has successfully made it back from via Rioja to Catalunya without falling apart, we play our last gig in the garden of a social centre located under a highway, true Barcelona style. We know its the last Efialtis gig for an unspecified ‘long time.’ It’s another all-gal bill which gets more and more intense as the sun sets, Pesadilla smash through a taut set, also their last, and also due to relocation. Itinerant punks seeking new life, song as old as time. My friend and other bandmate Louis, also recent relocated, the man who taught me to play guitar, is stage left, beaming. We are coerced into an encore where we repeat a song we just played. I drum in my bra. Everyone is screaming. It’s ridiculous. Louis comes over as I pack away my cymbals, I expect our standard patter in the distanced language we are so fluent in, the one we pretty much invented. Instead he throws his arms around me and says ‘I was just stood next to that guy like “See her playing? That’s my best friend, look how amazing she is!”’ My next steps are to get on a plane, repack, wait one day, and then get on another plane with a one way ticket to the other side of the world. Self-build.

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