Soon it will be 40 years since Laura Allende – grandmother and South American ancestor – was buried in a north London cemetery overlooking the postindustrial haze of Luton. I will go back there, book into a cheap hotel and taxi uphill past the redbrick terraces and the stacks of the Vauxhall plant, away in the distance, to an unvisited grave.
William Brandon, a clerk from nearby Tring, left for Argentina in 1905, on the wave of fortune-seeking from Old to New World, one of millions funnelled like cattle through the squalor and tango tunes of Buenos Aires, spreading west on self-constructed railways, arriving at – nothing, void, desert, the blue endlessness of the Pacific. A frontier life: women, drink, gambling and, much later, marriage to an orphan, Laura Allende, 30 years his junior. Not before he had gone back, briefly, to fight pro patria in the Great War, returning to Chile with two flesh wounds and a gassing, to his vacant railway clerkship in Antofagasta. Do whatever you want, he said to his young, beautiful wife two children later. Fifteen years passed, of morning alcohol and emotional silence, in the background the wild life of a nitrate port in the Atacama Desert, as the colonial age gave way and new war came.
The clerk died of drink. His son, trapped by schooling in England, never came back. Two women, Laura Allende and her daughter my mother, drifted through the garden of southern Chile, thrown in on each other. A man came from Ireland after the war, an engineer, to work in the Atacama Desert. Father, older by two generations than Mother. Married, they took ship in 1949 to the grey depression of Ireland. Two years later, nothing left for her in South America, my Granny Allende followed them north as far as London. Still glamorous, a visitant from a world before I was born, she knocked on our Dublin door.
Unlove, brushed under the family carpet, comes as an unwelcome guest. She must have stood, a godmother, over my font in the Liberties, before ever I knew her. Then nothing, through the 1950s, only rumour. She was out there somewhere, studying beauty in London, taking in lodgers, a strange abiding presence from an antenatal life, as Ireland continued into the 1960s and again she reappeared, in middle age now but perfumed still, exotic, staying for no one knew how long. I heard powerful exchanges in Spanish, between mother and daughter. Father smoked nervously, left early for work. We sat in cinemas, she and I, as rough boys rained down spit and cartons from the stalls. By the railway station were cheap hotels she had stayed in, she told me, without telling us she was in Dublin. She was a woman alone. A voice from the world. I listened as a child listens, and then to the rising voices in the kitchen, the cryings, the final departures.
So there was an elsewhere, larger than Ireland. A Gulf Stream of energy, tragic knowledge. A life she had gone back into, Laura Allende, who had come from elsewhere. Without knowing it, she had become my first and only muse, the muse of the absent female, unloved, unloving, giving the lie to family, in touch with another life. I would pass through London as the years passed, take the train north to grey industrial Luton, knock on a door in a redbrick terrace. There would be nothing for a while, no answer. But she was in there, listening. I was the visitant now, fate reappearing. She came down the hall, from her cold solitary world, and pretended to welcome me, and there we would sit until darkness, chatting about nothing as she fumbled at a gas stove – and how is Mammycita, darling ? – until the time came for the train again, the departure.
I waited for the ambulance flash, sat with her, tiny, old and helpless, as a sweating doctor recommended the home. She sat there, an unwanted child again, as we signed the papers
In the world before birth, there had been a train too, a parting. Angry words on a platform in central Chile, dragging her daughter south as he, Brandon, her English clerk, took the train north to the desert, to drink and death. There had been men, but there were no more men now, only the chill of pure independence, the wind off the North Sea.
“No one understands me”, she said as we parted. “Only you understand me, morcito.”
These dangerous words I took to heart, in a life that followed, of wrong directions, tropics. Passing through London, travelling north to see her. When the last time came and no one answered, a neighbour told me she had been taken to hospital with hypothermia, and would be back later. I waited next door for the ambulance flash, sat with her, tiny, old and helpless, as a sweating doctor recommended the home. She sat there, an unwanted child again, as we signed the papers and drove away to a place on the Dunstable road, with an empty glowing vestibule and the sinister warmth of a director with whom she disappeared inside, to a first world of girlhood, fear, dependence.
At last it was over, the tiny cortege climbing the hill, Mother and I in the single car behind, the thin criss-cross of two bouquets on the coffin small as a girl’s, a sachet of perfume tossed after her into the earth-dark
Not at once but gradually over a lifetime she had become my muse – the muse of unlove, in silent rooms, blue deserts, the void of the small hours. I sent flowers, from time to time, into an emptiness. Once only, when I had lighted upon her, a blind creature among creatures reaching for a human hand in the visiting room, I took her walking, slowly, on the heights above Luton. Briefly, she lived again in the dream-world of the south. Then at last it was over, the tiny cortege climbing the hill, Mother and I in the single car behind, the thin criss-cross of two bouquets on the coffin small as a girl’s, a sachet of perfume tossed after her into the earth-dark. Her essence.
Forty years on, with my own work done, it is time to go back there now, the cheap hotel, the taxi uphill and myself an elderly man in the blown grass of an unused cemetery, by an unvisited grave, with the huge hollowed-out heart of England below in the distance. My work? A flower on a grave unvisited, to the muse of unlove, the orphan always there, at the family door.