Gifts

I’ve just given my favorite drawing away. It hasn’t arrived at its destination yet. I pondered over that drawing for quite some time. Some artworks have a particular resonance with the artist and this one is special. I’m not in the habit of giving my artwork away so this was no light decision.

Only for this year I had decided to break my own rule to give a drawing as a Christmas present to those loved ones I knew would want one. However, this is different, this is not a Christmas present.

This year I had a holiday with friends. I won’t go into the details of how it came about, however the holiday was an act of extraordinary kindness by someone.

I really want to show appreciation for this generous act, want it to be personal and to mean something.  Although I have many drawings to choose from, I felt the drawing should be of something from nature rather than my more fantastical or abstract drawings.

I feel a very close connection to this drawing. The drawing is of a slightly dried curled up Autumn leaf.  The drawing was done during a period of raw grief, the time and the concentration while drawing it was a salve to that grief.

I guess I am saying that the drawing is highly valued by me, it is the best gift I can give. I valued the gift of the holiday in these difficult times. I hope the drawing gives a little of the joy I had at being on holiday with friends.

The photo here is of another drawing, not the one given as a gift. It is from Nature: Dry Sea Kale from Dungeness – Ink on Dewent paper 15.5x21cm

Energy Charge at Borough Hill

Yesterday, Remembrance Sunday 2021, a friend and I went out for a traditional Sunday roast at a Pub in a village near to Daventry. Afterwards purely on a whim we drove up to Borough Hill in Daventry.

Borough Hill is recognized as one of the largest Hill Forts in the country. The Hill is a site that has been lived and worked on for over 5,000 years. The views from Borough Hill are long, even on a dull day. Yesterday was a mixed day with sunshine and clouds vying for dominance. In sunlight, the depth of the autumn colours of the bracken and trees were intense. When clouds dominated it seemed to underline the ancient brooding atmospheric feel to this place. It is an odd feeling, a connection that tethers a human to the land they walk on.

Speaking of tethers, Borough hill has plenty of evidence of its more recent history. It was the first Long Wave National radio broadcasting station in the UK and eventually morphed into the BBC World Service.  A radio mast still stands.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/yePKeckrRcKZY8ufs-NYiw

I’ve written before about The Birth of Radar paintings I made years ago in response to a monument about the Birth of Radar not far from my home and studio. The monument is some distance from Daventry’s Borough Hill but the event took place where it did because of the Radio masts. History can be full of relatively obscure places that have or had great significance, the first trial of Radar is definitely in an obscure location.

Other masts are gone from Borough Hill. The large concrete bases the masts stood on remain, as do the tether points for the impressive tethers that kept the towers upright. Abandoned engineering can be sad or majestic, endlessly fascinating and these squarely placed remaining blocks are no exception.

Certain geological places seem to have strange atmospheres, places that always seem to have attracted humans as special places. For me, among them are Dungeness, Goonhilly, Sizewell, and Borough Hill. What makes these places feel so different is open to conjecture, but I love the charge I seem to get when I visit any of them. Yesterday, Borough Hill gave me quite an energy charge.

Mast – Borough Hill, Daventry
Mast blocks – Borough Hill, Daventry
bomber Crew Memorial Bench, Borough Hill Daventry
Bench Plaque – Borough Hill, Daventry
Trees – Borough Hill, Daventry
Long views – Borough Hill, Daventry
Autumn Trees – Borough Hill, Daventry
Borough Hill, Daventry
View and cows – Borough Hill, Daventry
Borough Hill, Daventry
Bracken – Borough Hill, Daventry
Bracken and Tree – Borough Hill, Daventry
Borough Hill, Daventry
Borough Hill, Daventry
Mast tether, Borough Hill, Daventry
Birth of Radar #2 mixed media on panel 110x110cm

Birth of Radar #2 mixed media on panel 110x110cm

Birth of Radar Plaque, Northampton Road 52.1962, -1.0501

Back to the painting in progress

Many years ago I heard someone say, may you live in interesting times. After the last few years, I think I understand exactly what that means.

Covid has given all of us, ‘Interesting’ times. It has been heart-breaking for so many, and at least a shock to the rest of us. We have all learnt that things can change dramatically in a very short time.

Covid has also shown us how very fragile the human race is. While we, as a species, have so often chosen to ignore the damage we do to this beautiful, yet so vulnerable planet, Covid shows us how vulnerable we humans are. We seem unable to equate the two together. There are lessons to be learned about care; care for our planet, and care for each other. It’s astonishing just how arrogant we humans have been and sadly, still are.

Through Lock-Down I watched a genre of movie with end of the world scenarios, where we are warned not to do bad things, but no one listens until it’s too late, then along comes a hero/heroine and the day and world is saved.  

We have warning voices, but our arrogance seems to have no bounds. We carry on regardless thinking all will be OK in the end, something will be done eventually, just not now. We still believe in the notion of a superhero to save us. This is a notion we need to lose and lose quickly. There will not be a hero/heroine to give us a happy ever after ending to our story.

Around the world there are so many political reasons not to do something.  Mostly, it seems that greed is top of the list for a situation where nothing is done. It seems that the truly greedy, think rising water levels will not drown them along with those not motivated by greed.

Before I get any more nihilistic, I want to remember that when I started to write I was thinking of the paintings I paint. It would be too easy to become so cynical that I never touch paint or canvas again. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by the World’s problems I just want to sit in a dark room until all is over as in until such time as my own death occurs, but, and yes there is a but; I have the human trait of hope. Hope that the world wakes up very quickly. Hope that the appalling Government in my own country is replaced with one that isn’t mostly morally bankrupt. Hope that the voices of the brave and committed young activists are heard. Hope that my next painting will communicate on a level something my words never can. Hope I’ll go back to living in less ‘Interesting’ times.

In the meantime…. the mundane.  I’ve discovered that some castors do not do well in ultraviolet light. I’d been wondering why the movable walls in my studio were difficult to move, then I found disintegrated bits of castor on the floor. I have changed them for a different type of castor that does not disintegrate in ultraviolet light. Just a light touch sends the wall reeling across the studio. I might have to put the castor brakes on. I hope we can put the brakes on our destructive ways and care properly for our planet.

 Now, if I am not going to sit in a dark room waiting for my own demise, it’s time to get back to that painting in progress….

Castors disintegrate from Ultraviolet light
New castors.

When the woods said croeso.

I have a new laptop. Not only that but I have a version of word that allows me to dictate rather than my quite slow typing. I’m not using that function. I still want the slower pace of my typing.

As luck would have it, the sound on my old laptop died right at the beginning of the first lockdown. My half plan to start learning Welsh was blown out of the water but not before I’d learnt how to say ‘bore da’.

Having no sound certainly messed up zoom meetings, although I did manage with a once a week loan of a friend’s laptop for my hour’s zoom with old friends from art college. Other than that WhatsApp was my go to for video calling.

I saved up for the new laptop and waited until I could go to a store to get one. I felt I couldn’t cope with all the hassle of swopping over laptops on my own.

I’m not a shy retiring person but have found my occasional propensity to rush in where angels fear to tread has calmed down.

My best take away from the early part of the lockdown was a bluebell woods. I have never experienced such utter and beautiful deep quiet. Nothing mechanical in the sky, no cars going by, no people speaking, just the silence of a warm afternoon with the scent of a sea of bluebells carried on a gentle breeze. Sitting still and quiet on a log, nature ignored me and did what it does when not disturbed. I knew it was special and I knew I was unlikely ever to experience anything quite like it again. The world turns and it just can’t help being noisy when it does.

In the studio I’ve taken to sitting for a few moments to recall the experience of that deep quiet. In a way it could almost be a cliché, but it isn’t. I have been grateful for how those few hours in a wood did and does sustain me. I’m used to being solitary in the studio and embrace it. Yet that solitary time usually has a counter in going to places like the British Museum in London or the Pitts Rivers and Ashmolean in Oxford as well as other galleries. During lockdown those outlets where not available yet I was surprised at how much drifting back to that particular day in the woods sustained me through the sometimes feeling of isolation.

I created a body of work that I think of as my lockdown paintings but do not call them that.

What is odd for me now when lockdown is supposedly lifted is the deep quiet of that afternoon in the woods is coming back to me in an ever-stronger sense.  

New paintings in progress are on the studio walls. On occasion it’s hours before I apply the next bit of paint to the last one I applied because I’ve spent hours just looking at them.  There is a little voice in my brain that tries to tell me I’m wasting my time, it wheedles its way in with the pain and troubles of the world, it tries so hard to leave me feeling bereft and pointless but I know that little weasel and just refer it to the deep quiet of a remembered bluebell afternoon when nature said croeso (Welsh for welcome).

Light in the Studio

See the video below.

It’s December in 2020. It’s a year that so many will be glad to see the back of.  Life had already been massively disrupted before 2020 when my husband, Alberto became ill with Alzheimer’s, I cared for him and our lives changed beyond recognition. He died at home with just the two of us together in the early morning as I held his hand and sang to him. Now this year of Covid I realise what a privilege even that was when so many died without their loved ones by their side.

I didn’t get back to my old ways of working, painting still had to wait until the studio got somewhere near to being a workable space, besides I was in a fug, I seemed to function but inside wasn’t so good. Before the early warning signs of Covid began to filter through, I developed a cough that went on for ever, it led to Pneumonia. By the second anniversary of Alberto’s death I was getting slightly better but still unwell. I’m not sure to this day if I had Covid or not. Certainly I’ve had enough symptoms of what is referred to as Long-covid.

In the first lockdown I wrote three short stories. A competition got me going on that. I’m not a writer but it was good to do, it helped and it caused some considerable hilarity in the process.

Those sunny days of the first lockdown the world became quiet, I enjoyed that.

I started painting again, reminding myself that to get working you need to show up. So in an unfinished studio I showed up, even if I didn’t pick up a brush (that’s metaphorical as I often paint without brushes) I would spend some hours just being in there and looking then maybe a flurry of work that happened in ten minutes.

When I think about it that has often been the way I work. Contemplating what is already there for hours, then quick action that could be scary if it didn’t work out. For me it is the nature of making art.

So I am working. I have ups and downs. Other aspects of life are much like others, I miss family and friends, I miss going to the sea. I am worried about the health of loved ones who have to go to hospital.

I have three canvases I really want to finish before the end of the year. I’ll do it.

I love real darkness, the sort that wraps itself around you like a blanket. There is a time for that. For now I want to light the darkness so I’ve put LED lights in the studio for when I’m not in there at the end of the day. It’s amazing how mush those lights light the studio so well.

It will be the third Anniversary of Alberto’s death on 10th January. I wish he hadn’t been ill, I wish he hadn’t died. I am glad I was able to be with him when he did die. Who knew then that being able to be with a loved one would in itself be such a privilege. 

In my mind I dedicate the lights in the studio to Alberto and to all those who have died in this terrible pandemic, to those who could not be with their loved ones. May the light shine on you all.

Work in Progress

This is early stages of work in progress, one of 3. I just like to get something on a canvas I’m almost indifferent to it until this point, when it becomes a discussion/conversation we start a relationship and it becomes interesting to me. I don’t know where it will go but to date I’ve rarely been disappointed.

 

Broken Banks – A Story

I’m not sure if this is a story, perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn’t.

Whatever it is, I am the narrator. I’m old now. Maybe not as old as I will get, although I hope I have long  enough to do a few more things I want to do, but not long enough that I am not able to shower myself or go to the toilet alone. Perish the thought.

I view some of the following with hindsight. I am an expert ‘hindsightist’, it’s good to be an expert in something. I have no intention of telling you my name or that of my husband, it isn’t necessary.

My childhood was a lonely affair, not obvious to anyone looking in from outside but lonely nevertheless. There was trauma in it, but enough of that.

I married just after it was legally permissible to marry, to a man four years older than me who I loved. I stayed married to him for well over fifty years until he died. We were so young when we married and so many stories are contained in that marriage. Even so like my childhood this is not about our marriage.

I guess it is about our life with the Bank, or maybe not.

We each opened a bank account with a well-known National Bank. The building the Bank was housed in was old with a beautiful stained glass domed roof. It was still a fairly Victorian looking setup inside the Bank in those days. You chose a queue you hoped would move quickly, then spent what seemed like forever watching as the other queues moved faster than yours.

The simple but brilliant idea of everyone being in one queue before branching out to the first available Cashier when you got to the front of the queue hadn’t yet been thought of or if it had been thought of it hadn’t been implemented. I wish I had thought of that idea, we see it everywhere now, airports, railways, large stores, and I imagine most young people have no idea of the unfairness being in separate queues felt like, the frustration would get more intense as the time ticked away and you were meant to be someplace else. Although I suppose young people do have an idea because oddly supermarkets don’t seem to have got their heads around that idea, but I should not digress.

My husband didn’t like the idea of a joint bank accounts, we both had separate accounts, after we opened our first accounts with the Bank we chose to use through most of our married life. We were of a generation that stayed loyal to some of the institutions we used, we didn’t question enough or we were too cynical to think the alternatives were any different.

It was easy to open an account in those days, you didn’t need details like you do now, passports, utility letters and whatnot, sometimes I wonder if they are going to ask for an inside leg measurement.  Over the years when we sold and purchased another house, we had spent blood sweat and tears renovating, we didn’t have to explain why money went into our accounts or came out even more quickly.

Don’t get me going on the subject of money laundering, such rules only seem to apply to the little people, the rich and powerful still seem to know how to hide money. The only money we ever laundered was the inadvertent bank note left in the pockets of our jeans when they were washed!

We were just ordinary people with a small income and a mortgage.

In those early years we would be greeted once we got to the Cashier, it would be polite and the transaction would be completed quickly enough.

We had ambition, my husband was a hard worker, me too. We did things to improve our lot, and we wanted a better life for our children as they came along. We found ourselves asking the bank for loans for the business’s we started. Scary when I look back, our ambition was matched by our hard work but perhaps not by our knowledge. However we learnt and learnt fast, but the point is the bank took a chance on us and never lost out because of it.

There were struggles, lots of them, but we overcame. Over the years we were recognized when we went into the Bank, staff would nod hello long before we got to the cashier. We knew the bank manager by name and he knew ours. We spent time in the Manager’s office telling him what we hoped to achieve next. We would also be ‘called’ into his office when things sometimes looked precarious, but he and the Bank stuck by us.

We survived the 1970’s three day week when political and industrial trouble meant there was only power for our restaurant to open for the three consecutive days.

In time the bank moved the Manager on to another branch, we were told they didn’t like to keep managers in one place for too long. He was replaced by another manager, we formed a trust relationship with him.

The bank had an overhaul, an update that made the most of its quite fine interior.

We had a new project and didn’t even have to go into the bank, a phone call to the manager secured the funds we needed.

The bank had a complete overhaul, a fundamental change. It was made swish like the warehouses in Docklands that became smart expensive apartments. My husband and I didn’t like it much, it deliberately took away the intimacy, the privacy and made the building more important than the people who used it.

The Manager retired and was not replaced. Trust left the bank with the last Manager. Very quickly only one or two of the longer serving staff, cashiers or ‘representatives’ recognized us when we went in. It made us feel as if we were quickly being erased, and made to feel invisible.

The bank had another refit, this time removing even more cashier points, they wanted people to use internet banking so made it more difficult to continue using the bank itself.

We got so that we hated the bank, hated the impersonal manner of it, hated that it seemed to make automatons of us all both staff and customers.

I am a widow.  I receive a phone call on the landline.  I usually do not answer unless I want to bait a cold caller, although even that isn’t fun anymore. It’s no good trying to bait a robo-call. Even so I’m near the phone when it rings so I answer warily. Someone asks for me by name. They identify as being from the bank.

‘How are you doing during lockdown, we just wanted to make sure our vulnerable customers are OK’

I think to myself ‘How do you identify me as being vulnerable?  Then I realise I’m in that classification willy-nilly because I am over 70. I am amazed, I reply ‘yes I’m fine thank you.’

So ridiculous, I’m not fine.

There is a virus killing thousands and to stay safe from catching it I am in a ‘Lockdown’ decreed by a Government that does not seem to have a clue. Or it does have a clue, it also seems to have an agenda that I suddenly realise is much the same as the banks, it wants to impersonalise people.

I listen as the bank employee tells me there is a dedicated bank phone number for the vulnerable, ‘would you like to take down the number?’

I resist saying what I want to say which is, ‘No I bloody well don’t want to take down the number’, and instead reply with a polite. ‘ No thank you’.

Then comes what I understand to be the real reason for the call, ‘As you may know we are now allowed to open to the public for business However we are limiting the number of people who may come into the bank at any time, for their safety and for the safety of the staff. Did you need to come into the bank?’  I resist the urge to say I mostly use a different bank and just reply ‘No I don’t’. I sense some relief from the caller and the conversation ends politely.

I do not feel animosity towards the pleasant person who made the call on the Bank’s behalf. I do however, find animosity is growing in me like a balloon being inflated. It is toward a bank that has and is part of a cultural institution that seeks to make people less than human. Profit before all.

Anger is an emotion I’m getting used to these days, I’m angry that there is so much to be angry about.

I could bury my head in the sand, that might help but I cannot, I will not.

I see.

I see what is happening, with Government pushing ahead with an agenda that only benefits those who’s view of life is that for some to ‘win’ someone must ‘lose’.

Someone must become invisible and I think of the Bank. How it came around to being such a dehumanized institution. I am not naïve enough to think the banks were anything other than money making institutions, so I wonder why I felt at some point there was at least some humanity in there.

I watch the Government’s daily briefings, but for only a few minutes. I can only take a certain amount of each new deceit and conceit.  Other news channels are searched through in my attempt to be ‘fair’.

I still want to throw a shoe at the TV.

Then the images of a black man in America being killed by a policeman shocks me as well as the rest of the world. Police brutality is a catalyst for protests around the world. Racism overtakes the virus in the news.

I’m scared for all those who risk catching the virus in order to protest, yet I see how there is nothing other than what they do and my heart is with them.

I used to push a baby in a pram to the park when I was a young girl. The baby’s mother was a nurse. Mother and baby were black.  I recall the disgusting comments I heard directed at me and this lovely little boy in a pram. My anger started boiling then and hasn’t stopped since.

My husband was from another country in Europe and I recall punching a guy to the floor when he with a mob of drunken men behind him attempted an attack on my husband. My husband was well able to defend himself, but that day the red mist came down and I reacted. I should not be proud of that moment but I cannot lie, I am and in the same circumstance would probably do the same again.

I loathe bullying behaviour, I loathe racists and I hate hate, so I am always in the middle of a dilemma with the hate thing. I’m not in the habit of punching yet it was a time when fast action was needed.

This morning I thought about the Bank, about how I felt and how my husband felt as the Bank made those changes which made us feel less human and more a number, a commodity.

I thought of how our society has allowed all of us to become dehumanized. I remembered seeing the film called ‘A time to Kill’. The film was based on the novel by John Grisham. In the closing argument of a courtroom scene, the defendant’s lawyer describes the terrible things done to the ten year old daughter of the black man who is on trial for killing her attackers.  The lawyer takes the all-white Jury through all this and finally asks them, “now imagine she’s white.’

I am almost scared to think it about it or to speak up here in case I offend. Not offend the Bank, I care less about the Bank than it cares for me. I do care about my fellow humans, I cannot speak for them for I do not have their experiences, any more than they can speak for me for the same reason.

Yet I cannot do nothing, so I try to imagine how much more alienated both my husband and I would have felt if we had been black.  Would the Bank have taken the same chances they did with us if we had been black?

I cannot prove that it would have been different, yet I feel in my bones the answer to my own question.

It is a painful knowing but not as painful as it must feel for those who experience it.

Double standards exist and when the best of those double standards is already low something is badly wrong.

We have broken banks.

Linda Sgoluppi

The Bum Box – A Story

Alberto’s Box. This is a small wooden box. It is locked.

That’s how I began my Facebook status update in early March 2020.  I included a picture of a wooden box, then I went on:

The box was made by my late husband when he was a schoolboy. It was his private box where he would keep things he didn’t want to lose. I’ve seen inside it in the past, he would sometimes pull things out to show me. He also kept his passport in there until his memory started to go with the dementia he suffered with. The box hasn’t been opened for at least four years, if not longer, and has been near my bed since hub’s death over two years ago.

The box is the last thing for me to go through. I haven’t been ready to do it.

I thought I had the key but the key I thought belonged to the box will not turn and I am not sure it is the correct key. I don’t know if the key is just stiff, or if it’s just the wrong key. I don’t want to break the lock or the box so have to figure out a way to get it open.

In the early years of Alberto’s illness, it seemed bizarre that Facebook had become part of my personal support system. I shared some fairly intimate things as my life tumbled into its role as his Carer. Carer in those circumstances was something I felt unqualified for, didn’t want and was scared of. Hobson’s choice hardly covered the way I felt about it.

By Diagnosis-Day the Dementia journey with Alberto was already an odyssey in progress. Progress made horribly real as the Doctor presented the result of tests when the stark sound of its name assaulted our ears. I was never sure if Alberto understood the words that day, simple words that left unsaid the fact he would descend deep into an obliteration of self that is the main characteristic of the disease. Only one of us would be left behind.

FB was my tether, odd maybe but it helped me stay grounded. It tethered me to a new normal. It functioned as constraint, no plummet for me when the abyss yawned its occasional invitation to me. Who knew? Facebook as a safety harness, a substitute connection for the lifetime one I was losing daily to this cruellest of diseases.

After the March FB status update I set aside all thoughts of the box. Setting it aside wasn’t a challenge given I’d lived with both the idea and fact of it excluding me for so long. That was until, a few weeks later, when I discovered a bunch of keys at the top of a previously little used kitchen cupboard. There among the many keys on Alberto’s key ring lay the small key that would open the Box.

People often scan through updates on Facebook without noting details or if they do will quickly consign the detail to their personal ‘no need to keep’ filter. I do not assume people have read my posts and try to make each status update autonomous.  Therefore the second update about the box, in mid-April repeated and expanded on the first:

I met Alberto two weeks after my 13th birthday. We were married two weeks after my 16th birthday. Alberto was five years older than I but still so young.

While he was still at school Alberto made a wooden box. He kept his passport and other stuff in it, I always thought of it as his treasure box. The box had a key and was locked.

In time we decided I would keep the passports together so his passport was no longer in the box. In fact I know that in the box were some nude photos of me but Alberto had agreed with me that they should be destroyed after I pointed out to him that if we both died in an accident our sons would be opening the box and that is not an image you want your sons to see! (Even if I did look rather good!). Other than that I did not know what was or is in the box.

I know there will be nothing in the box that he or I would be ashamed of, Alberto was a totally honourable man, so in a way I suspect there will be a few sentimental items and maybe even some fairly boring paperwork.

For more than four years for sure I know that the box has not been opened, I know this because Alberto had Alzheimer’s and neither he nor I knew where the key to the box had gone. We had moved house and that is a great time to lose track of where things might be.

We were married for 54 years. I was his carer for the last of those years. Alberto died two years ago in January 2018, by then finding the key to his box wasn’t something he thought about.

The box has remained locked. I’ve thought about getting a locksmith to try to open it but balked at that. I did not want someone else to open it. So I decided the box would remain locked until I found the key and if I didn’t find it then it would remain locked.

By chance this week, I found a bunch of keys belonging to Alberto and instantly recognised the small key that fits the box.

I haven’t opened the box.

I know I will at some time but not until I am ready.

There were replies to this post from close friends, Facebook friends and relatives, all were kind, some deep and some that made me laugh out loud.

Childhood friend:  ’….so that epistle was just teasing?’

And again ‘…Just a suspense thriller right?

FB friend: ‘…I need box closure! 🙂

The childhood friend from above: ‘…Me too.

A fellow artist I’d met at the 2004 Olympic Art Exhibition in Athens wrote: ‘…An archive most valuable and deeply personal signifies deep bonds of love between each other Furthermore the box seems to have been made in a woodwork class note dovetail joints:

My reply was: ‘…It was indeed made in a woodwork class at school. He got an A for it, I recall he was very proud of that A. Alberto was a ‘can do’ guy, there was nothing he wouldn’t put his hand to (with me along as goffer). We did things that now, when I look back, I’m surprised we managed not to kill ourselves, but it was fun and satisfying. In a way the only thing was that Alberto worked too much, was never happy unless he was doing something.

From one of my sons: ‘…:Not right now, but when I’m out of isolation, if you want someone there when you’re ready to open it up, then Mum, you know I’m always here / there, for you !! Xxxxxx

A niece:   ‘…I’m sorry the only thing I got out of that was nude photos, you cheeky devil xxx

My response to my niece: ‘…Behave! Just remember before we were parents, grandparents and great-grandparents we were people!

Back to childhood friend: ‘… You get us all excited and then decide not to open it? Cruelty to the max.’

My reply accompanied by three laughing emoji’s was:  ‘…I never said I would tell anyone what was inside!!!

From another childhood friend ‘…..Ha us Borough girls all have risqué photos we wouldn’t want our kids to see. Shows how much passion our relationships embraced. Now Miss Marple if that was me I would have had that opened a long time ago… but it’s your choice ….don’t keep us waiting too long girl xx’

This particular friend’s reference to ‘Borough’ was to the place where we were born, a central area of town that had its heart ripped out in the 1960’s. Until then the neighbourhood produced some strong and sometimes odd characters. One, a well-known comic-book writer. However, all that is a different story. I will not digress.

Alberto might have made the box with wheels on if he had known how mobile it would become. The Box roamed from room to room during our many house renovations. It was something to stand on for extra height, or served as the stool I would park myself on while waiting instructions to lift my end of this or that joist. For a stool it had barely the bum space of the narrowest of economy airline seats, but made up for that by being as tall as a barley stalk bent in a summer breeze in our favourite field. Just the right height to perch on it served the sitting function well enough. Alberto laughed the first time I called it the Bum Box while we searched for and found it under a pile of plaster boards. The Bum Box was made of pinewood, dovetailed joints held it together, the lid hinged and only open when unlocked. There is a small keyhole at the front.

By the time Alberto died the Box’s exterior was a little battered, pretty much like we were by life. As I plonked it onto my bed to take its Facebook photograph, I mused that it was 64 years old, I’m sure I heard the echo of the Beatles singing: ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?’ I’m not sure I will if and when I open it. A year and a bit into widowhood I considered giving it an overhaul, a sand and re-varnish would make it look like new. But no, each scuff, each scratch, and each dent is its history, as much a part of the Box as the dovetails Alberto made all those years ago.

Replies to my Facebook posts are kind, some are funny, and they make me laugh just as they would have made Alberto laugh. I live close to the churchyard where Alberto is buried and can see his grave from my kitchen window so I do not have to speak loudly for him to hear.

In my mind, and I suspect in the minds of the many others Alberto cooked for, Kitchen and Alberto paired together like Salt and Pepper or Peaches and Cream. Alberto cooked. His career was in catering management, but even with no formal chef training he was a great cook.

I cook but do not enjoy it that much, so now when I’m in the kitchen I’ll sometimes look across to where he lies in the earth and call across to him and ask: ‘Why aren’t you here doing the blasted cooking?’ I say to him, ‘I would love chicken stuffed with mozzarella, wrapped in prosciutto, topped with parmesan cheese; you know I can make it but, it just doesn’t come out the same as when you did it’.

Alberto cannot hear me, he died. He didn’t pass (that particular euphemism always makes me think of a car overtaking another.). He died, he died before dawn, life left him while I was holding his hand and singing an Italian lullaby to him, the lullaby Connie Francis sang in the film, Follow the Boys, we had both loved that film way back when.

Even though Alberto died I still relay news to him and in my head, hear his response. I tell him that there is a short story competition I’m thinking of entering, I add that the competition has different categories and is only for the over seventies. Wryly, I comment to him that it is probably a last chance saloon given there is no vaccine for a virus called Covid19. Oldies are dropping like flies and who knows, I might be in the next batch. I hear him chuckle just as wryly as I had, then he says go for it anyway. Many years ago Alberto encouraged me to apply for a prestigious award in my new career as a painter, I feel he is encouraging me in a similar way now, although this is not to be a new career. ‘So’, I ask, ‘are you ok with me writing about your Box?’

I ask him if he remembers the nude photos he’d taken of me and kept safely stored under lock and key in the box. I knew he had enjoyed looking at them, especially while I was away doing a Fine Art Master’s degree in Spain. Later when we got older, we talked about how we wouldn’t want our boys to come across those photos if we were to both die in a car accident, or something equally catastrophic, so we burnt them in a little ceremony that saw the end of some of our youthfulness.

We didn’t die in an accident. I heard him say you ‘were so beautiful and there were times I’d wished they were still in the box.’ Alberto always told me I was beautiful. I asked him, ‘What’s in the box now?’  He didn’t reply.

This all sounds somewhat romantic. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t.

It is a dilemma, the Box was, and is Alberto’s secret place, the one place he could keep his treasures, his secrets, if he had any. Do I have the moral right to open it? Does death negate the right to privacy? I think about Franz Kafka wanting his writing destroyed at his death, and think to myself as many others have, thank goodness that instruction was ignored. However I know that Alberto was not a Kafka, he was, like me, an ordinary person.

I knew about Alberto’s first love, he told me about her, he told me she had become pregnant by someone else but he loved her and still wanted to marry her. He told me all this before we married, he told me about his ups and downs, his history. He was brought to England as a young boy of eleven. He told me how he didn’t want to leave Italy but had no choice. With those exchanges over the years almost by osmosis, his history became mine and mine, his.

We were passionate, how could it have not been? Each with a strong character, forged through respective difficult childhoods that made us both tough and determined to make things better. As a team we were what the French would call, ‘Formidable’. It was impossible for those strong characters to have gone through so many years together without mountains to climb. We climbed our mountains, stood on peaks and enjoyed the views.

In between owning and running his own businesses Alberto was General Manager of a National catering company with its head Office in Oxford. He always wanted my company and I would often go with him. When he was in meetings I would go and visit the Ashmolean or Pitt Rivers Museums. Often on these Oxford bound sunny days I’d catch a gleam in Alberto’s eye and answer with one of my own. The car would be tucked in at the edge of a wood, we’d steal into dappled greenery and make passionate, almost illicit, love. If I wanted to I could plot meadow, mountain, hill or valley locations in the UK as well as in Alberto’s native Tuscany, in Italy, where nature and the sunshine brought out our physical passion. Each location was kindred to our mountain peaks. I do not want to.

In the early stages of Alberto’s illness when it was still safe to leave him alone for a few hours, I would find different locations in the countryside to sit and draw I would be out in the countryside for as long as it took to do a drawing and to attempt to pull together the wounds in each and every one of my cells that hurt with the fear of what was happening to Alberto. Later I painted a series of paintings based on those locations. The paintings were not my usual abstracts, they were landscapes with painted coordinates of their origins, location as part of the painted surface.

I named those landscape paintings ‘Call of Nature’ mainly for my own amusement as reference to where I had needed to pee. My humour was an element of physic self-defence that would keep crept in, plus I never could break the habit of having a cuppa before I went out. Often it amuses me to play with titles for paintings. I know I could paint a series with the locations of where Alberto and I made love under the sky, our mountain peaks. It would certainly be a large number of paintings. I won’t, though. In this case I don’t think I could come up with a good enough title for them. The call of nature paintings may have to stand as monument to our loving passions.

My countryside outings came to an abrupt stop after I got home one day to discover the smoke-alarm wailing. Alberto sitting in the sitting room commented that the alarm was faulty, which was a new one on me. I checked the kitchen and just managed to get the fire that was taking hold under control before it would have been necessary to call the fire brigade. Alberto had decided to repair a countertop edging, had lit the gas hob, put the new edging near the even heat to soften it then apparently distracted, forgotten about it. It caught fire and spread to other surfaces. I knew after that we would never again reach mountain summits, we wouldn’t even be able to try for the foothills.

The key to the box is on Alberto’s keyring, as mentioned in my Facebook update it had been at the top of a kitchen cupboard. It was in a plastic container right at the back of the shelf, unlikely to have been found if the shelf had not been pressed into service to stash packets of crisps brought as my guilty secret lockdown horde.  A crisp craving led to a desperate search of the shelf which produced one lonely packet of sea salt crisps and one set of lost keys.

Finding the keys reminded me of the enormous number of keys Alberto always managed to accumulate, He could have been called a Chatelaine but Alberto was a man in such a way that I could not attach a word that refers to a female keeper of keys, no wonder JK Rowling used ‘Keeper of the Keys’ for Hogwarts.

This small old fashioned key seems to have Siren qualities, I resist .Another day, perhaps, or maybe another day is a luxury in these strange times.

It is Sunday morning and the time has come. The key doesn’t seem to have released the lid, but it has turned so I give the Box a thump, push up on the lid, and it opens. I see a carbon copy book Alberto used to hand write letters in, he never did get his head around computers. I lift the carbon book out and see below letters I sent to him from Spain, there are other things in the Box but suddenly I just cannot face it. I shut the lid quickly. It is too painful to go through today, it may be too painful to go through tomorrow. I cannot read the letters, letters penned by me to Alberto.

Our relationship was passionate, at times it was also painful, I just cannot re-visit it now. I don’t remember what we were writing about in those letters, it might have been pedestrian, loving or just too painful. In the end love.is such that I cared for this man I’d spent a lifetime with through to the illness when black humour was the only thing that kept me sane. At the end I was alone with him, held his hand in the moment and beyond of his death. Perhaps the Box needs to stay locked.

Many years ago we would go to watch the wind ripple through a Barley field off the canal towpath at the edge of our village. Good years, the weather would be kind and the barley would sway and not bend, other years the wind would be stronger and some stalks would buckle. Alberto’s eyes light up to see the barley wave at us the last time we stood together at the edge of that field. His memories had been erased by the disease yet I tried to imagine there was still something that remained, the essence of a memory that resisted its death. I thought of the times when things were good, when we might have traced the outline of each other’s face with an ear of barley, tickled nose and chin and laughed. This time Alberto soon became agitated and wanted to go. Irritation hits me first, then deep sadness that I am the only one left as keeper of our memories. It wasn’t the wind or pollen that stung my eyes as we made our way home.

Sunday Night, I note the sky is crystal clear, grab a blanket and settle outside to watch the stars. The Lyrid meteor shower comes around in April each year. I tell Alberto I hope to see some meteors, maybe pretend they are falling stars to make wishes on. Less prosaically I add, ‘it’s a bit chilly out here’ and hear him answer me in that wry way he has, ‘Not as chilly as down here! I chuckle through my tears. Stars become brighter as artificial lights are extinguished.

I had been so fearful through Alberto’s illness, his death, fears for my family, my aloneness.  Now fear stalks me in a new form, its cause a worldwide pandemic I had not imagined. My thoughts shift to the mantra I’d borrowed, ‘This too, will pass’.  For a few seconds the abyss beckons, but morphs into the long slow sigh that escapes from deep in my chest.

Earth might have drawn in a surprised and deep breath of air as we humans were locked down, now she releases it in the soft disbelief of a bequest the scourge on humanity has given her. I think of Alberto’s box, the Bum Box, it stays locked.

Albertos box - Linda Sgoluppi