Intimations of Mortality
I need to backfill slightly for those of you who have not read an earlier post this year but which kicks off the present one. I was born in India. By the time my family returned with me to the UK I spoke Urdu and English. By then I was aware that my elder sister had drowned and it took three or four years for my parents to conceive me. Four years after me they produced a girl, too. Until I was forty five or so I had the story of my sisterâ€™s death imprinted on my brain by my mother. She would say, â€œLittle Margaret would be fifteen nowâ€ or “Little Margaret would be twenty five nowâ€. In other words my dead sister was ageing as I was, a ghostly precursor to my life. She died, I knew â€“ I had been told many times – at the age of a toddler, two or three, found drowned in the water tank in the garden. She had apparently climbed over the little protective fence. There she was found, like Ophelia.
I returned one day with my dying father to find my sisterâ€™s grave. He was reluctant. Maybe the prostate cancer and the catheter made him feel unprepared. Anyway we went. We found the grave. It had been partially defaced with strange hieroglyphs. We interrogated the register in the little church. There was her name, Margaret Sanger. There was her age. Six years. Now, can you imagine? Six? But she was surely a toddler! Finally my father talked about that distant time.
Margaret was born with a fear of water. She hated being bathed and would scream. When she was eighteen months her screams brought adults into the garden to find her pointing. A toddler was drowning in the fountain but her prompt but precocious warning saved it. She wanted to learn to swim. When my father took her to the swimming baths she grew rigid as she approached and turned blue when he gently eased her into the water. He taught hundreds to swim in his later life. He became a swimming pool manager after the army. But not his own daughter. Not Little Margaret. The very strange thing about her death was this: the post mortem showed no water in her lungs. My father could not explain it except that she may have died from fear. Or, I told myself, she had been asphyxiated and thrown into the tank. Who knows?
The reason for repeating all this is that I must have had some kind of preternatural cognizance of what death meant from the very beginning. One cannot walk in the footprints of the dead all oneâ€™s life without some extra sense of itâ€™s presence. But, as you will have gathered, my mother never let it inhibit my freedom to roam, to play beside water, to take chances. She was not a character that could have fitted in the plot of that terrifying film for all parents, Donâ€™t Look Now.
The first deaths I can recall were those of the wrung-necked chickens. Then there were the annual cub wielding forays in the barns of the farm next door as the rats were smoked out. We always had a cat and so I have many images of the creature bringing presents of mice, voles and moles to the dining table. A boy, climbing the sand quarry at the top of Shadforth, fell and was suffocated. It did not stop us going there for Sand Martinsâ€™ eggs. I climbed another cliff and took a young Jackdaw for a pet, one day taking it to school on my shoulder. It did not fare well in the hen coop where I kept it and died. Fish died in jamjars or the ponds I made in the garden, lined with clay. Death was everywhere, as natural to me â€“ even if intimidating â€“ as the business of living. The mother of a school friend and teacher in our tiny school, died of cancer. And, to connect with the last post, an effect of death is the fading of colour; in the eyes, in the flashes of red on a fishâ€™s flank and even in the gleam of the coat of a kitten killed by the warning snap of our dog protecting his dinner bowl.
Iâ€™m not so frightened of the prospect of the last journey, that Arthurian float across the waters that divide, because death was there from the very beginning, sniping away. Being inconsiderate. I wonder whether life can be truly lived without an acceptance of itâ€™s constant presence?