The city museum is free, and that’s one thing. So far this morning they’ve spent no more than five minutes in any of the places they’ve visited, chased by the cold and the crowds. Sephy had forgotten how bleak it was in England at this time of year, so close to Christmas. Some of her sunny, New Zealand-made plans feel naive now.
‘Here, Dad,’ she says. ‘It’s warmer in here, isn’t it?’ She pats the hand resting on her arm and, when her palm opens over his knuckles, she can’t tell which of them is trembling. ‘It was a bit cold on the seafront today, but there’s always tomorrow.’
Or perhaps they should go inland. She has a list of places, a spreadsheet actually, one she composed and recomposed in the weeks of waiting between the shock of her brother’s phone call and the actuality of being here. Which is also, if she’s honest, a shock.
And yet she knows it takes time, remembers this from the two-and-a-half weeks in August with her family in tow. It takes time. Ridiculous to be so shaken by the failure of today’s visits: the steps up to the Square Tower which proved too steep, the breeze on the seafront which made Dad shiver and ask when they were going home, the closed ice-cream shack where he always bought her triple cones, even though they melted before she could finish them and dripped multicoloured splodges onto her clothes.
‘Old Portsmouth wasn’t as we remember it, Dad.’ This time she manages to bite off the was it? ‘Those glass-fronted shops in the old arches took us by surprise. We’d forgotten they’d built into them and obscured the stone. I guess because during our summer visits Ella and the boys always clamour for the Gunwharf Quays outlet shops or the funfair.’
In truth, her boys are teenaged now and too cool to clamour for anything, and Ella isn’t talking to her. But that’s the funny thing about memory, it doesn’t distinguish between yesterday and five years ago, and Dad is nodding; she can see him seeing them.
At least the monument of the two interlinked granite circles had still been there, in front of the arches. She and Dad had stood next to it and, just the way she’d planned, she’d said, ‘You used to lift me up there, and stand, hands outstretched, to catch me as I slithered along those curves.’ Her memory had measured the distance between the top of his head, and the cold grey stone; had reported its findings. Even if he could still reach his arms above his shoulders, he’d never be tall enough now to put her up there.
Mind you, a forty-four-year-old woman would look pretty odd slithering around up there.
Perhaps Brian would lock her up, too.
Sephy has Brian to thank for the idea of the city museum, but she’s not in the mood to thank her brother for anything. Not after this morning.
Images: rose tinted glass; Sephy on the outside, looking in, her body thrumming from the long plane journey; Dad looking out; a woman she’s never met, never wants to meet, tapping in a code to open the exit doors, steering Dad through and delivering him to Sephy like a parcel.
‘Here’s your daughter, all the way from New Zealand to see you.’
‘He knows who I am.’ The fury she daren’t spend on her brother finding a fissure.
‘Of course he does, dear.’ The woman impassive, Dad dismayed.
Bending to hug him. Trying not to notice that his scent of books, Pears soap and woollen jumpers had been scoured away.
‘I’ve got the car.’
The escape vehicle. I’ve come to spring you.
Dad looking backwards towards the doors as if she, Sephy, was dragging him away from the only safe place he knew.
She pushes open the white-framed door into the museum’s art exhibition and they come face to face with a painting of an old bloke with a high forehead and gold-circled glasses. The painting is dark: black background, brown coat and sleeves. Only the man’s face and hands are lighter, although even here there are shadows. Deliberate? The man looks troubled, dislocated, bewildered, lost – all the words she prefers not to think.
‘He doesn’t look very happy, does he?’ She’s done it again, another question. Funny how many of her sentences end in a request for a response.
‘Edward King: a life in art,’ her dad says.
She looks quickly at him, realises he’s reading from the information card; the top line, where the text is largest.
‘That’s right, Dad,’ she says. ‘He was an artist.’ She scans the information board, grateful for the easy words it provides, decides to ignore the information about St James Hospital.
‘You know, Dad, he was rather successful. He had exhibitions at Crystal Palace and The Royal Academy. Brian didn’t mention the paintings were by anyone famous.’
Actually, according to her brother, the main attraction of the museum (apart from being free) was that it had a disabled toilet.
She’d said, ‘It’s all good,’ and seen Brian pull his Brit face, stiff, inaccessible. ‘I’ve a lot to do in these five weeks – a lot to undo,’ she’d added. A small buckle of fury, between the tectonic plates of her and him.
‘You’re not at the end of a phone now,’ he’d said. ‘If you mention institutionalisation one more time, I’ll throttle you.’ Big brother talk from deep in their past, unstilted and genuine. It had a curious, softening effect on her – as if there was still a Sephy, inside, who missed him.
‘I just don’t want to take Dad to some random art exhibition which will have no associations for him.’ She’d considered explaining about neurons and synapses, about how memories aren’t so much lost as disconnected, so that with the right stimulus they can be retrieved. She could use Dad’s favourite metaphor about pathways grassing over if they’re not walked on.
But Brian had never been interested in neuroscience. He’d left the two of them alone in Dad’s study when she visited each UK summer, had only ever knocked to say, ‘grub’. A single syllable which undersold the delicious quality of the food he laid out for them. Over the years, Sephy had tried to read the message in the food, but in the end just decided Brian preferred cooking to spending time with her.
Her dad moves closer to the painting of Edward King and peers in. His sharp nose – always a triangle jutting from his narrow, pensive face – is a fraction of a gap from the glass cover. Don’t Dad, she wants to say. But it would sound too sharp. There’s something in the way the two faces are mirrored together which unsettles her.
She slips her hand back under his arm. ‘There’s more to see.’
Once walking, Dad seems disinclined to stop, and at his slow pace they pass paintings of shattered buildings, a glass case displaying a torn and rusted bomb shell and a notice which he pauses to read: ‘Edward King: The Blitz paintings.’
She looks curiously at him. But words are the tools of short-term memory, and he’s reading without hearing, or so she thinks. It’s the paintings, these ochre-and-sky infused landscapes with their bomb-wrecked buildings, which might provide a sensory key.
Her Dad, younger than Ella is now, must have walked amongst those ruins whilst his optic nerve fed the images to his hippocampus, from where, gradually – like molten metal on a conveyor belt – they’d be swept out into the cerebrum by the new memories forming behind them.
Either Mum or Dad must have told her about Dad’s war-time experiences, because she has the memory of the tale, though not the teller, snuggled in her grey matter. She’s passed it on to Ella, who shares her love of history. ‘When your Grandad was young they evacuated him to Dorset because there were bombs.’ Surely it was Dad who told her? But he’s always been sparing with words, and her memory of his memory of being evacuated just goes: ‘I was homesick, so I came back.’
She’s wondered, sometimes, whether that early experience of relocation was what made Dad so unwilling to emigrate to New Zealand when Mum got restless. Or was their marriage already shattered? Her six-year-old’s memories are of Mum shouting, Dad retreating. ‘You’re always working. This is no life for us.’
They’ve reached a wall where, below paintings, there’s a line of string, pegged with faded cards. ‘Memories of the Blitz.’ Each card contains handwritten fragments of personal histories.
‘Look, Dad. It’s a memory line. I drew one in your study, with synapses as pegs, during my first visit after Mum and I went to New Zealand. You were trying to find out which part of the brain held memories. I drew you a picture to help.’
She’d known she’d find him in his study; had sought him out, a little nervous about whether she’d be welcome. ‘You had books everywhere – and coffee cups. And, of course, there was the model brain on the corner of your table which you took apart to show me how the bits fitted. You said, “We still don’t know where memories are stored.”’
‘So much we don’t know,’ Dad says, and he lifts his fingers and brushes her cheek. The anxiety in his eyes is suddenly explicable, acceptable. It had been there all those years ago.
‘Sephy,’ he says, and she hugs him.
‘But you found the answers. Each summer, you had something new to share. All those oddities of the way the brain works. “Not logical at all,” you said. “Not like a computer.” And you taught me tricks I could use for recall. That’s how I got straight-As. A different scent for each subject as I revised, lemon for History, orange for Malay, then sniffing my wrists in the exams and the memories pouring out.’
She holds a wrist out to him, and he sniffs.
‘I love you,’ she says.
‘Dad, I think that’s Guildhall Square.’ She draws him towards a canvas with a familiar white building, and sees the recognition she’d hoped for in Old Portsmouth. No words, but that’s okay. Even this summer he’d been shutting down words. She knew they were in there, understood the stubborn pride which stopped him from fumbling with incomplete sentences, incorrect words.
Ella had never communicated with those baby half-words and mispronunciations which her brothers had used so easily. She’d sat there, fierce-eyed and silent, ignoring their worried attempts to coax her into mimicry. Then suddenly, one day, she’d opened up with a complete sentence.
Stubbornness runs in the Matterson genes.
But this summer, Sephy had gradually got through to Dad. There’d been that moment in his study, when he’d told her, awkward but intent, ‘My brain’s not what it was, you know.’ And she’d said, ‘I know, Dad’, and hadn’t asked – the way she’d wanted to – ‘Why did you never teach me about this, about how best to help you now? Surely you saw the signs, knew what was happening.’ Ten years, the books she’s read say, from the start of the damage to when it’s apparent to all. Ten years when he could have told her and hadn’t.
The paintings are good though. There’s recognition: Commercial Road, The Connaught Drill Hall, Central Hotel. They move slowly now, re-treading those grassed-over paths, and she’s feeling warmer, the heat from the room finally chasing away her chill.
His hand reaches out to the next canvas and she takes a risk. ‘Where’s that, Dad?’
Is it too direct? After all, there’s only half a street standing, the rest laid waste.
‘Lake Road,’ he says, ‘Pub on every corner – lucky to still be standing by the end of the street.’
This is an Alun Matterson she’s never known; infinitely younger than the scholarly man she’s grown up beside.
What did you drink? Who were your mates? What were you like as a lad? But questions are tricky, demanding things; she struggles to rephrase them.
The door squeals. A chunky man bursts through, trailed by two women. ‘Right.’ His voice is too loud. ‘This first room is all the Blitz stuff, then in the second you’ve got the St James pictures. The old lunatic asylum.’
‘Edward King was locked up?’ one of the women asks.
‘Twenty-five years. Died there.’
Dad’s worried. It’s the crowded café all over again.
‘It’s okay.’ Sephy puts her hand over his jumpy one, speaks to distract him, ‘St James, that’s where you gave your talk on “institutionalisation”, when I was thirteen. I remember echoey corridors, and a man with a huge set of keys, and a woman wailing on and on. Only I’m not sure all of that’s true. Perhaps there’s a bit of false memory going on. It’s possible my mind tweaked it, added a touch of Jane Eyre. You know, mad woman in an attic, that sort of thing.’
She snatches a breath, glances over her shoulder. Fortunately, the man is a top-speed tour guide. Already he’s jostling his two companions towards the gap which widens into the next room.
Sephy turns away before her gaze can register more than his bulky back. She wonders what visual prompts they have in there to equal a rusty bombshell: Straitjackets, ECT machines, a photo of a woman being dunked in a cold bath?
She’d been unnerved by the St James mental hospital. She’d wandered the corridors, imagining being trapped there: no stimulus, no touch, just walls; losing everything that made her Sephy.
‘But he wasn’t mad, was he?’ one of the women says. ‘Can’t have been. Not if they allowed him out on his own to paint. And not…’ her voice quietens, ‘if he can paint like that.’
‘Yes, well… There’s a rumour his daughter kept him there.’
Sephy grows quiet, listening. She’s thinking about Brian, and the things she cannot say to him.
But Dad’s standing in the centre of the room, adrift and worried. Slipping her hand onto the fierce angle of his elbow, she eases him towards the paintings on the far wall. There’s another spread of Portsmouth scenes, some buildings intact, others shattered. But it’s not the Blitz that’s agitated him, that’s long ago, the memories layered over with recollection and nostalgia. It’s the now which is dangerous, the voices next door. The primitive brain stem has detected a threat, one that she – his daughter – can neither translate nor defuse.
So perhaps the Blitz is the safety zone. ‘Look, Dad, here’s Penny Street.’
‘And the Cathedral.’
And the ruins of St Thomas Street.
He draws closer to this last; a corner of a large house has been smashed away, leaving brickwork hanging.
She risks a question. ‘Where’s this, Dad?’
But he’s no longer playing, thanks to the loud man. Instead, his arm is waving at the absence of building, and he’s got that look on his face, the one he gets when he’s searching for a word, when he’s struggling – like he did in the summer – to communicate something vital.
‘What are you trying to tell me?’ She bites off the temptation to offer him words.
His arm speeds up, his mouth works.
‘Gone,’ he says at last, and his hand is pointing straight at where the building has sheared away leaving the infrastructure exposed.
‘Why aren’t you asleep?’ her husband, Chris, asks, a week later. It’s 4.30am UK time.
It’s good to hear his voice, to hear the accent she’s somehow never acquired.
‘How’s it going?’
‘Tough,’ she admits. ‘It’s not like the summer, when I could see the difference our visit made within a few days.’
‘And the care home?’
‘Has got rose-tinted windows.’
‘And when the door slides open to release Dad there’s a hiss as if the air itself is trying to escape.’
‘Eh? Sephy!’ He knows her too well. ‘You haven’t been inside?’
‘What’s the point if I’m getting him out?’
She holds her breath.
Four weeks ago in New Zealand, when her brother stopped speaking and the phone went dead, Chris had found her there on the landing just standing, shivering. And he’d held her through those first moments, until grief and fear turned to anger, turned to ‘I can do something.’
And when she’d told him she had to miss supporting Ella through her summer of rehearsals, had to miss even the concerts, he’d said, ‘It’s all good,’ even though they both knew that it wasn’t.
‘How’s that going?’ Chris asks. ‘The getting him out.’
‘I haven’t found the right person, yet.’
She’s interviewed five applicants for the job of live-in carer, none of them right.
‘Am I too choosey? It’s just, you know Dad – he won’t be comfortable with just anyone, not in his own house.’
‘You’re a good judge of character,’ Chris says. ‘If you don’t think they’re right, they’re not.’
But she knows she’s searching for someone who cares about Dad the way she does.
She’d asked Chris once, ‘Could we build a home for Dad in our garden?’ and he’d said, ‘Sure’. But Dad wouldn’t come, said, ‘Your brother needs me.’
‘Once I’ve found someone,’ she tells Chris, ‘they have to visit Dad in the home, and then, there’s Brian to persuade to support this; the undoing of his decision. And sometimes, I’m not even sure…’ She trails off.
‘Sephy.’ There’s concern in Chris’s voice.
But she’s hearing Brian’s words from that phone call, spoken in defence of his snap decision. ‘Dad’s not comfortable with people in the house. He doesn’t talk to them. They get bored. They never stay.’
What made Sephy so certain she could do better than Brian? What made her so certain the care home was why Dad had deteriorated?
She changes the subject, asks, ‘How are Ella’s rehearsals going? And the lifts I arranged for her?’
‘Still running smoothly.’
Yes, but does she talk to the other kids in the car, or just sit curled in one corner waiting until she can lift her instrument to her lips and show who she is?
Sephy remembers the first time Ella brought home that huge tuba from the orchestral club. ‘Almost as big as her,’ she’d said, laughing, to Chris. And, ‘Do you think they’d let her choose again?’ But Ella, being Ella, had refused to swap. She’d lugged it everywhere, surprising muscles bumping from those thin arms; cheeks bulging as she blew. And now, the reward for eighteen months of persistence, the youth concert. Ella, at nine, the youngest ever to play.
‘How is she?’ Sephy asks.
Which says it all.
‘Tell her I’m on the phone. That I want to talk to her. Don’t take no for an answer.’
‘I’ll try. Hold on.’
She waits, strains to hear her youngest child. But there’s only Chris’s steps, then his distant voice, persuasive, then forceful, then nothing.
Brian’s the sturdy one in the family: all that butter and cream he cooks with at the restaurant have shined his cheeks and softened his edges.
‘Edward King: a life in art,’ Dad says. He’s the link between the siblings; one hand on Brian’s arm, one on Sephy’s.
It’s Brian’s idea to spend his day off with her and Dad, here. He’d said, ‘You didn’t finish last time, only got as far as the first room.’ She’d refrained from saying, ‘Pedant,’ had responded with, ‘Great idea.’ Neither Brian’s motivation nor hers is clear.
Today the ochres, browns and pale oranges remind Sephy of the ten visits Brian made to New Zealand, one for each year between nine and eighteen.
‘You always insisted on visiting the sulphur pools when you came to see us,’ Sephy says. ‘It was the only thing you seemed interested in.’
He’d stare for hours at the mud bubbling up. Sephy decided it suited him, matched his sullenness, his refusal to be charmed by New Zealand, or Mum, or her.
‘Yeah, well. Sorry.’ He says, surprising her.
The tone is ungracious – and yet…
She’s struggling for a response when she notices she’s being steered, via Dad, towards the next room. The St James room. Her breath tightens.
Of course it wasn’t called a lunatic asylum when she visited it with Dad, wasn’t even called that when Edward King was committed to it, suffering – according to what she’s read on the internet – from depression and a tendency to express radical views about the Bible. Surely that wasn’t all that kept him here for those 25 years? She considers, once more, what the noisy man had said about the daughter. Could it be true?
The St James room doesn’t have any straitjackets on display, no wires leading to metal caps, no rusty bath tubs. She looks round in surprise at the paintings. They are beautiful: long rows of poplar trees, a bit Monet-like, and open fields and space and sky.
‘But this is…!’
‘Not what you expected,’ Brian says.
In one cabinet there’s both a photo and a pencil sketch of Edward King. He looks happier than in the troubled self-portrait.
‘You might be surprised by the care home as well.’
She pulls a face.
‘St James was pretty advanced,’ Brian says. ‘They used art and farm work as therapy. King was encouraged to paint.’
This is unlike Brian. Sephy’s the one who reads about things. Brian’s the one who stares at mud, and cooks with cream.
He notices her surprise. ‘There was a talk here, a few weeks ago. I went to it.’
Dad is pulling them towards a large landscape of cabbages in straight rows leading towards a distant rise. Brian unlinks his arm and passes Dad his walking stick. After a brief hesitation, Sephy unlinks too.
She watches him walk and lean, walk and lean, until he reaches the canvas. He seems more relaxed today. She realises that she is too, something about not being solely responsible. With Brian here she feels less need to keep talking, to fill silences.
She likes this room. The paintings are more serene, no damaged buildings and rubble. There’s a view through to the next room. Her attention is caught by a painting in the furthest corner of boats and water, all blues and greens.
The image reminds her of home, of Rotorua, of standing on the upstairs landing staring out across the lake, the phone pressing her ear, Brian saying, ‘A place came up suddenly. I had to make a snap decision or lose it.’
‘But you can’t.’ She’d quoted Nelson’s study, just the way Dad would have done, the seminal text on institutionalisation. ‘He’ll disappear.’ She’d walked across the landing, looked up the green slope of the garden to where they would have built Dad’s home, had thought about the nearby springs, blue water welling from the ground, and the way their whole family would have helped look after him, and she’d bitten back the words, He chose to stay because you needed him and you’ve put him in a home.
And yet, the noisy man had said…
‘Last time we were here I overheard a man saying that Edward King shouldn’t have been in St James at all, that his daughter kept him there. She knew the Superintendent, and there must have been a lot of money from the sale of his early paintings.’
Brian laughs. ‘And you think I’ve put Dad in the home because I want his house!’
‘I hadn’t agreed. We were still discussing what was best for him.’
‘The house was falling down. He was rattling around in it. I told you all this on the phone, but you didn’t want to listen.’
‘I wouldn’t have put him in a care home, not if he’d lived with me.’ She ought to stop there, but something in that view is bringing it all back. ‘When I offered him a home, Dad said he couldn’t leave you, that you needed him because you didn’t have kids, or a family. Just the restaurant and him.’
Brian’s face is sulphur-pool sullen. And Sephy ought to shut up, but she’s caught by that view, still reliving those emotions. ‘We could have made him happy. And now… it’s too late. Relocating him would be bewildering. And it’s not fair!’ She sounds like Ella. ‘Never has been. Just two weeks each summer. All I ever had of him.’
She’s not going to cry. But it hurts in her throat.
Brian grabs her arms, and his grip is bruisingly tight – just like it used to be. Not out of spite, just unaware of his strength. And, actually, the pain helps, allows her to climb back up into her adult self.
‘Yes, and what about me?’ Brian says. ‘What about Mum abandoning me!’
‘What?’ She’s stunned. ‘She didn’t! You chose to stay in England, refused to come with us.’
‘Because I thought she wouldn’t leave me. That you’d stay.’
He shakes her gently, and his head is lowered so she can’t see his face.
‘Grow up, Sephy,’ he says, at last. ‘Dad would never have gone to live in New Zealand.’ His tone is flat, unemotional. ‘He’s known here. There are people who remember him, who attended his lectures, who worked with him at the University. Some of the staff at the home have studied papers he’s written. They talk to him about it. And he has friends who visit. This is where his memories are. He knew what was happening. He chose to stay here.’
Brian glances over to where Dad is looking at a small painting of three trees, branches opening towards the sky.
‘I’ll go and fetch the car. Dad’ll be ready to go soon.’
She half holds out a hand to him. He sees it, and nods. An acknowledgement?
Then he’s gone.
‘Edward King: a life in art,’ Dad says.
He and Sephy are in the final room. It’s full of paintings of houseboats in a long ago, undeveloped Milton. There’s another memory line.
‘Look Dad, it’s people’s memories of Milton as it was when Edward King painted here.’ She scans through, selects. ‘Here’s someone who thinks they saw him.’ She reads it out. He’s listening, interested. She finds another card, ‘“My parents knew him. He asked my father to select two paintings. I still have them.”’
She thinks of Brian saying, ‘he has friends who visit.’
Dad said that one of the odd things about memory is that it prioritises what you’ve said, over the things other people say to you. Each time Sephy’s revisited the phone calls with Brian, it’s been her words she’s replayed, her fears, her convictions.
But now, there are other words. Brian’s. He’d talked about the memory boards they had in the care home foyer: pictures of each person when they were younger, pictures of family, wedding programmes, theatrical performances. He’d mentioned a sensory garden. Rosemary, for remembrance, she thinks.
But if I’m not in the UK to break Dad out – if I check out this care home and possibly, just possibly, concede that it might be okay – what am I here for?
And the answer comes from something Chris had said, when she’d told him she had to put Ella’s concert second.
‘You need to be a daughter.’
Could it be that simple?
And what about Ella?
Sephy’s always been surprised by the way Ella and Brian connect during the summer visits. They never say much, but her daughter can usually be found beside him, and Brian, who strides out competitively with Sephy, will always slow his pace for his small shadow.
Sephy thinks of Brian staring into mud pools, refusing to be charmed by New Zealand, and her, and Mum. You can’t miss what you don’t allow in. It’s the sort of logic her daughter excels at.
Well, too bad, Ella. I’m coming back in four weeks and you’re going to let me in, like it or not. Because Sephy understands now, that it’s her job to dig under Ella’s stubbornness, to prevent her from feeling abandoned.
But first, she has to spend time with Dad in winter.
They stand looking at the painted boats and sea. The bright look in Dad’s eyes is the one Sephy’s seen so often when he’s been explaining the intricacies of the brain. His two passions: neuroscience and the sea. She’s had the privilege to share them both.
The painting is dated 1949. So it’s one of the last ones Edward King painted. From the middle room it had reminded Sephy of Roturua, but up close it’s a typically Portsmouth shoreline and sea, the blue bright, crisp and clear. UK light.
‘All his memories are here.’ Brian’s voice.
Dad and Sephy walk together to the last corner of the exhibit. There’s an easel and smocks, and a large photograph of Edward King, at Milton, wrapped up in an old coat, with a board for a palette. He’s painting, and he’s content.
‘Edward King,’ Dad says, and Sephy waits for him to say, ‘a life in art.’ But instead he says, ‘on the path by the boats. Didn’t know it was him.’
He’s looking at the photo.
‘When you were a boy,’ Sephy says. ‘You met Edward King?’ Is this what he means?
‘Painting,’ he says, and moves closer to the picture. ‘Aren’t you cold?’
Sephy has a vivid image of a small boy and an old man. Could it be? She doesn’t know. It’s possible Brian brings Dad here on a regular basis, perhaps reads the memory cards to him, the way she has. So is this a false memory? Or not even that, just something random her Dad is thinking, which she is misinterpreting.
But she knows which way she’s going to remember this. Her Dad and Edward King, small boy and old man, staring towards each other across the divide of time and illness and memory.
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