My dead aunt’s watch carried on ticking for a few months after she died. I’d love to say there was something poignant about the moment it stopped, but I didn’t notice.
For a while, I kept the watch – a cheap, gold-coloured thing with an elasticated wrist-band – out on the dresser, wilfully fascinated by the fact that she was cold in the ground while it, the inconsequential thing, just carried on. Somewhere along the line, though, it got moved into a box with all my other keepsakes: a local newspaper cutting detailing the death of a school-friend who’d left school at 18 to train as an undertaker only to find himself on the wrong side of the business; a programme from my uncle’s funeral; and a collection of butterfly brooches from my grandmother – my aunt’s sister.
Every time I went to visit my grandmother, she would let me choose one butterfly brooch from her collection. Unquestioningly acquisitive as most children are, I never considered the never-ending stream of gifts from her jewellery box as anything other than the order of things. As far as I know, she never minded – not like when my brother scrawled “Kids Cash” on the cork stopper of the jar she kept her loose change in for us. Later, I learned that she had little love for anyone – only things – and I wonder now whether giving even those tiny things up meant more to her than anything, or whether it meant anything to her at all.
At the end of her life – and with her fourth, and wealthiest husband – my grandmother lived in a large house in an affluent area, slyly mispronounced in a bid to further elevate its status. The house where she lived with her husband, her brooches, her Kids Cash and her aspirations, was a study in material chic. The edges of the carpet and the underside of the sinks were thick with filth, as we realised when cancer put her in hospital one November, while the walls and dressers were heavy with some of Reader’s Digest’s finest Special Offers, ranging from sinister china dolls to a collection of decorative plates depicting barely disguised versions of Jack and Rose from Titanic, which she hung above the stairs.
9.4 miles and a whole world away, my aunt and her cheap gold-coloured watch lived in a one-room flat in the sheltered accommodation where she’d spent years as a warden. Where my grandmother had plates, my aunt had a framed version of that Crying Boy painting that people still seem to think is cursed.
In September 1985, a Yorkshire fireman claimed in The Sun that the Crying Boy paintings were the only things to survive some of the fiercest house-fires he’d seen – no fireman, he said, would have the painting in his home (and presumably not just for aesthetic reasons). After two months of growing hysteria, The Sun organised mass bonfires. They never got hold of my aunt’s copy, although I’d have liked to see them try.
Long in the body and legs like my grandmother, my aunt wore tailored slacks, long cardigans and tinted bi-focals. When she ventured out in the North Manchester rain for milk loaf and cartons of UHT, she’d cover her hair – which she had washed and set weekly at the hairdresser’s – with a plastic headscarf before hurrying back to her flat with the Crying Boy and a collection of over 100 decorative hand bells, which she kept in rows on the windowsill.
Asthmatic for life and convinced that fog – like the smog of her youth – would give you headaches, my aunt would sometimes come and stay with us for a week, lonely and nervous and house-bound in her hypochondria; a veritable study in passive aggression, tapping her brittle fist against her chest whenever we were in sight and huffing, “Here comes old squeeze-box!”. Decrying my mother’s medium curry powder and coconut milk concoctions as “fancy foreign muck”, she’d content herself with holding court on the sofa, ‘eating’ teacakes, half of which would be thrown in the kitchen bin, half tucked craftily in the waste paper basket in the lounge.
For her many faults, she had kindness, my aunt. Over-sweet white sandwiches, too thick with butter and cold cuts would be waiting for us when we visited her. A tiny white bible, with “Welcome to the world, little girl!” inscribed in scrolling blue was my first gift from a younger, happier her.
Two weeks after my grandmother died from the cancer that crumbled her bones, my aunt was taken to hospital with a chest infection. After a day in bed, during which she chastened her son – my uncle – for visiting her in his biker leathers – she died. I don’t know if her cheap gold watch was there or if she kept it for best, but what certainly was there, nestled at the bottom of her cavernous, violet-smelling handbag, was a bundle of papers containing her will and her funeral arrangements.
My dead aunt went to her funeral from home. Residents of the home shuffled out in their best to see her off and my mother cried. We wound our way to one of those huge urban Catholic churches, all tight red bricks and smoke stains from the traffic, where we sat and listened to a poem that no one knew she’d written, one about how she’d spend eternity making her little corner of Heaven into an English garden.
I don’t know what any of this means. I don’t know where the bells went, or the Crying Boy. I don’t know where my aunt went, other than into the ground. All I know is where her watch is: in a box, in a drawer, in the room next to the one where I sit and write. And all I know is that I haven’t forgotten her.