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Authors: Vivienne Kelly

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BOOK: Cooee
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Well. How was I to know?

We limp along. Bec looks patronising; Dominic loses no chance to launch his poisonous little arrows into my quivering flesh. Kate gets pink and flustered. Steve sits silently and looks as if he wishes he were a million miles away. I'm sure I don't blame him: I do, too.

The hapless Gavin drinks slightly too much beer (Gavin is one of those men who assumes that at these occasions men require alcohol where women are permitted only non-spirituous beverages) and becomes hearty and talkative. Not that I can remember anything he says. At one stage Sophie whispers in Liam's ear and they leave the room together.

When they return, Kate, who has been watching for this, says anxiously: ‘Liam has a surprise for you, Gandie. Sophie's been coaching him. Now, Liam!'

Liam stands foolishly in the centre of the room and regards the carpet with fascination. After some minutes of this he is persuaded to say, in a half-whisper: ‘Gandie, Gandie. Sugar, sugar.'

I realise what it is. Sophie has taught him — well, tried to teach him — the little nonsense rhyme she and I made up, long ago, when she was around Liam's age.

Gandie, Gandie, sugar candy
Legs all twisted, bent and bandy
Make sure she's all fine and dandy
Put her to bed with Andy Pandy
Tuck her in with a swig of brandy.

We used to chortle it together with disproportionate pleasure. It was one of the lovely things about Sophie, from when she was very tiny: the huge joy she was able to derive and communicate. She adored this silly rhyme.

Liam cannot see the point of it, and looks around in patent anguish when he has twice failed to get through the first line correctly. I try to be helpful and prompt him gently: he starts to cry again.

When I leave, Kate says to me, worriedly: ‘I'm so sorry about Liam, Mum. He is very shy. It's just a phase.'

I'm tired, and my head has started to throb with that particular kind of vibration behind the eyes that so often presages a migraine. And I'm hurt by the whole thing anyway. I'm really hurt. I'm the child's grandmother: I'm there to be loved, aren't I?

So I probably snap at her more than I mean to. I say something about manners, I think, and four-year-olds not being too young to acquire such things. And then I'm surprised when, for once, she snaps back at me.

‘If only you showed him a little warmth, Mum. If only you gave him half the warmth you give Sophie.'

I'm rather pleased. For once, she has the gumption to bite back. I scowl at her, just to show she hasn't got me bluffed, and I leave. I blunder home to all the large silent confusions of my life. I'll ring her in a day or two, and make peace. Probably she'll ring first, I think.

I can't remember, now, who rang whom. We always do make peace, though.

But she's wrong. I'm not a cold person.

The business of the rhymes is interesting. Sophie was herself not much older than Liam when she made up that rhyme. With a little help, I admit: still, it was her impetus.

The children in our family have always done this: made up rhymes. Zoë and I used to hurl them at each other as abuse.
Dizzy Izzy, in a tizzy! Doughy Zoë, gone to Moe! Stinky Minky!
Mainly pretty meaningless, I suppose, but they were a game we played — in many different versions, in many different places — on and off right through our childhood. I'm not saying they were great poetry, or even minor poetry, but it can't have done our verbal skills any harm.

I still remember how stunned I was when Dominic, aged three (am I exaggerating?), cocked his head at me over his messy breakfast toast and chortled: ‘
Funny honey, gone all runny!
' It was as if he knew he was participating in an old family tradition. And there was no way he could have known about it.

I'd never done it with Kate: she was a stolid and unimaginative child and had no interest in wordplay. I rang Zoë to tell her about Dominic and his honey, and we dissolved together in a rare sisterly exhibition of tears and laughter.

I still, sometimes, find myself haunted by doggerel. The words slide sideways into my mind and shift themselves into pulse and cadence and won't go away.

I'm not a cold person.

Sophie's interests are expanding. The other day she said: ‘You used to be an architect, didn't, you, Gandie?'

‘Used to be?' I say, meaning to make a joke of it but perhaps letting it come out more sharply than it should. ‘What is this “used to be”? Are you putting your old Gandie on the scrapheap already?'

‘Well, but I mean you used to do it all the time, didn't you? Not just a couple of days a week.'

‘Yes, honey.'

‘Why?'

‘Why? A girl has to do something.'

‘Yes, but I mean why did you choose to do that? Why did you decide to be an architect?'

‘I thought I'd like it, I suppose.'

‘And did you?'

‘Yes. Very much.'

‘Then why? What did you like so much about it?'

She is persistent, Sophie, in this new phase of hers: I am learning this. She will not be shrugged off. I try to explain it to her. It's all ancient history: it's hard to bring it back. It had something to do with the constructing of new things, the excitement of generation, the buzz of creativity. Something, too (let's be honest), to do with sheer randomness, a friend's father, an architect himself, suggesting it to me only half seriously. I might never have thought of it for myself, but his suggestion somehow took root and prospered.

And the drawing, the discipline of it, the precision. I had always wanted to be an artist. I try to describe it to her, this urge to produce wonderful oil paintings, watercolours, even sculptures, to see things nobody else could see, to
show
that you could see things nobody else could see. I didn't have the talent. It always seemed to me that I had the first part of it: I could see. But I couldn't translate the seeing.

As an architect, however, I could learn to draw: I could do the technical side of things. I might not be able to paint glorious portraits or landscapes, but I could learn perspective, and precision. I could draw little, round shrubs, symmetrical obedient shapes, tiny detail penned in with meticulous care.

Even now, I don't use computers much for my sketches. I can do, of course, if I have to. But I choose not to, most of the time; I choose to draw. And I always try to do a watercolour for each project. I love doing the watercolours.

‘That's one of yours, on the wall, isn't it?'

It is.

‘That was your house, wasn't it, Gandie? You built it, didn't you?'

‘I designed it, honey, and I lived in it.'

‘With Max?'

‘Yes, with Max.'

‘What was the house called? It had a funny name, didn't it?'

‘Rain. It was called Rain.'

‘Why did you call it that?'

‘I can't remember now.'

Sophie goes over and inspects the sketch. It's still there, framed, on the wall. God knows I never want to see Rain again as long as I live, but I can't bear to throw out my painting of it, when it had no history. It was so new, so fresh, it hadn't even been built, didn't exist except in my plans and my dreams and my mind's eye. It shimmered for me then.

‘It's pretty,' she says, thoughtfully, as if she isn't quite sure. ‘There's people in it, Gandie. Look, there's these two people, holding hands, looking at the house, over at the side. Are they you and Max?'

‘No,' I lie. ‘They're just two people. I always put people in my sketches. It makes it more fun.'

‘This one looks like you. Look, she's short and thin, and she's got dark curly hair.'

I baulk, but silently, at ‘short and thin': I had petite and lissom in mind.

‘It's a coincidence, honey.'

‘The man's tall. Was Max tall?'

‘I suppose so. But those aren't us; they're not Max and me.'

‘Who are they then?'

She doesn't believe me, of course. I'm not sure myself why I'm lying.

She examines the picture minutely, running her finger over it. It'll leave a mark on the glass, but I don't say anything. She's thinking.

‘You always have funny names for things, Gandie. A house called Rain. A dog called Borrow.'

‘Well, you know about Borrow.'

‘I know. You used to share him with Mum. You used to borrow him, and she'd borrow him back.'

The dog raises his grizzled old Labrador head and looks at us. He knows he's being discussed.

‘And it was Max who gave him to you? To you and Mum?'

Dear Christ, the child is relentless!

‘Yes, honey, it was Max.'

She thinks, and then flashes one of her blinding smiles at me. ‘
Gandie wears the cloak of Zorro, in a house called Rain with a dog named Borrow
.'

I smile. It's an effort, but I do smile. But she's not focusing on me: she's working on another little flash of creativity. It comes and she smiles again. ‘
Lives in a house, for nothing it lacks, with a dog called Borrow and a man called Max
.'

For the rest of the day, into the evening, into bed, the knocking rhythms pursue me, but they're not Sophie's rhymes. They're my rhymes. I don't know where they come from but I know they're mine. Doleful and thudding, like a muffled hammer, they hum in my head:
Lived and loved in pain and sorrow, in a house named Rain with a dog named Borrow. Lived and loved, pain and sorrow, house named Rain, dog named Borrow.

Perhaps I am going mad.

But madness takes its time, evidently, to sneak up on one. I know this from the past. There are the dark times, the times of spiralling down inside the vast slow cyclone, its walls black and unyielding, slipping, slipping all the time, knowing you're slipping, not able to do anything about it. I've got a bit of slipping still to do, I think, before I reach the stage of irretrievable lunacy.

The endless questioning about the past didn't stop there.

Kate swore to me that she wasn't encouraging it. ‘She's twelve,' Kate kept saying, placidly. ‘She's growing up. She's taking an interest in all these sorts of things. If you try to shut her up she'll just think you're keeping things from her, Mum.'

Well, aren't I?

The next assault concerns not my wedding but Kate's.

‘Well, honey,' I say. ‘You should ask your mum about that. She's got a whole album: you must have seen it.'

Sophie knows this, but it turns out that what she's after isn't the formal statement, the embossed frontispiece, the endorsed public announcement.

‘I like your photos of Mum's wedding better, Gandie. They're not so stiff and posed. Everyone looks happier in them.'

There's an irony. The photos in my album were taken by Max, who loved taking photos and had a gift for it. He was good at so many things. This was in pre-digital days, of course; and Max's camera (like everything else Max owned) was absolute top quality, state of the art. I can't remember what it was — German, I think. Leica? Whatever. All sorts of special lenses, but he never made a fuss of it: he would sneak up on you and take it before you realised, and then he'd grin at you, and maybe wink, and move on to his next victim.

The photographs Max took at Kate's wedding were terrific: I remember when they came back from the developers and I leant over his shoulder as he sorted through them. He was pleased with them; Kate and I were delighted. Sophie has good taste, as always. They have a quickness and vibrancy — and, sometimes, a wit — quite lacking in the official version, in which Kate and Gavin, both self-conscious and gauche anyway, look even more so as the professional carefully poses them, tries to make them appear happy, as they stare at their feet or glance wild-eyed at each other, as if to say:
My God, what have I done?
Which, to be fair, is not what either of them was thinking. At least, I don't believe so.

So we get out the album and flip through. At least, since Max took most of them, I am spared having to look at him — for the most part. There are a few of him. There's one I took, of him with his arm around Kate, who is looking up at him adoringly. There are a couple of him and me together, me in the fine silky little number I bought specially for the occasion, mother of the bride, floaty soft pink and dark sepia, high strappy heels; Max divinely handsome in his monkey suit. Most men these days have to go and hire a dinner suit for these occasions: Steve certainly did. Max owned his own, beautifully cut. I can't remember now who took these of us together, who grasped Max's camera and lined us both up through the delicate hairline sights. We look awfully happy.

Sophie lingers on them.

‘It's a pretty dress,' she says.

‘Yes.'

‘It looks soft as.'

‘It was.'

‘Have you still got it?'

BOOK: Cooee
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