I mean, they probably embellished it a bit, but you would, wouldn’t you?
Years selling pot round London. Real London, not just a yuppie movie set. Wideboy kiddie Ray nicking a Lambretta in Brighton off a mod who’d dropped too many pills, and riding it to London to swap for a thousand more. Cilla wearing a miniskirt the second they appeared – she showed me a picture and I got a stiffy even though she was my Nan and was sitting right by me.
She had a photo of 1965 teenage Ray in Ronnie Scotts too, seersucker threebuttonsuit, looking as cool as the saxophonist on stage beside him. Ray hanging out at folk clubs when folkies started getting high, writing about LSD for High Times. Cilla reading his name, remembering the boy next door who’d taught her to ride a bike, then forgetting him. Then the underground was everywhere.
And then it was all over. The Beatles split. Ray said he’d pretended not to care, but decided right then his London life would be over the second he finished his degree. He’d sell the flat he’d bought from selling pills, smoke and powders as soon as he found a job. Then he’d go. Not just any job though – he’d seen his dad waste away from working for shit money all his life. Ray still wanted to be someone then, he said. Still wanted the glamour, didn’t just want to go down the plughole like the mods, the rockers and the underground. Cilla said next thing Ted Heath got elected because of working-class fickleness and a bad football result. She wanted to quit England. She packed a suitcase ready to go to Dover and sail. At the front door her nerve went. So she went dancing, got high, woke fully-clothed with a half-dozen strangers fucking around her. She looked for somewhere to puke, found it, and looked up with Ray staring at her.
Then they were sober in the bright morning, talking like Beat poets about the years apart and the decades they were going to spend together. They walked into the kitchen, no more to say. Ray tapped out two lines on the back of a book, snorted one through a pound note, and wrote his address by the other. He threw on his jacket and ran to Uni to do his last final. Cilla licked the line from her finger. When it was gone, head beating with love and coke, she read.
The cities were dying.
Humanity was using up everything. Left and right were irrelevant, excuses for robbing humans of independence. The world-cities were machines and concrete nightmares. Work in the system was slow death, not because it robbed the worker of time, but because it made him a spoilt child. She looked around. Last night’s orgiasts stumbled through kitchen and out back door to factories and offices, cleaning public toilets, social work jobs and driving trucks of car parts and sedatives to Lichfield and Uttoxeter. Next week they would play at being free again.
No doubt, the book was right.
It had the answer too. A self-sufficient life, without money, far from the state’s tentacles. More than this though, she told me, it showed how to live that life. How to clear fields, grow crops, keep and kill livestock; how to prepare teas from roadside herbs, how to stack and dry and cure wood for burning and building, how to carry your baby in a knotted robe, how to treat common illnesses with common plants.
Six hours later she was still reading, on the steps of Ray’s flat. He picked up her case without surprise and unlocked the door. Their daughter was born thirty-nine weeks later, while Ray was out selling weed at a blues club off the Kings Road.
Cilla came home a week later, the baby in her arms, looked at the street as she walked in, and said, “we’re moving to Wales”. Ray looked up from the TV and said “yer havin a laugh, half of ’em can’t even speak English”. They fought about it until October 1973. Then Ray was on his way home from making a drop in Kensington and saw a TV on in a shop window. He walked in.
World oil prices were going up.
Ray joined a hundred dots that moment. One train of thought was this: Oil prices rise, smoke prices rise. Prices rise, sales fall. But everybody gets high, so they buy powder instead – powder gets you higher for less weight, so it takes less oil, so prices rise less per hit. But powder is industrial, not agricultural – peasants and sole traders lose out and warlords and corporations move in. Another went like this: cities breathe oil. When the oil’s gone the city suffocates. But in the country, when civilization collapses, nature still provides. Cilla had been right all along.
That last thought connected with the petty one Ray told me about the last time I saw him – “really, the other stuff didn’t matter. I just wanted her to stop giving me grief, about that bloody book”.
He walked out of the electrical shop, into an estate agency, then into a car showroom.
A month later Ray slammed on the brakes for a hitch-hiker north from Swindon. Cilla opened the passenger window, flashed her best smile, and asked “can you drive?”. The Irishman looked from Cilla to Ray, from the baby in the back to the empty tax-disc holder on the front window, breathed the smoke pouring out of the open window, and said “aye, for sure, but he better get in the back before I walk in front of your car.” Ray opened the door. The car started rolling backwards. Cilla pulled the handbrake up. Everybody laughed. That was my mum’s first memory: looking from the back seat at her mother, nails immaculate, shoulders slim and freckled, pulling on the handbrake, laughing and making it alright.
The Irishman shut off the engine as they reached the top of Fishguard. They freewheeled down to the Harbourside, shouting like kids on a funfair ride. On the car park gravel he switched on the engine, did a rallydriver turn that threw up a dustcloud around the car, and put out the last of his joint in the ashtray. “you get more of this, call me”, he said, taking a business card out of his breast pocket and passing it to the back seat.
So when times got rough over the next few years, Ray called Waterford, waited in the harbour car park for someone to get in the passenger seat, then spent a couple of days driving to London and back. Cilla got her stone cottage on a hillside and did all the things in the book.
Like I said, Cilla and Ray got lucky.
In the first few years they worked together on the farm most days. Willow, my mum, played happily around them, and joined in naturally with farmwork and building as she grew. She learnt, automatically, names of trees and flowers and how to milk cows and kill geese.
They home-schooled her, which meant sitting down after the day’s farmwork and housework was done and talking about whatever Willow wanted to know. Mostly that ended in stories about the sixties and how they’d got to Fishguard. But as the seventies rolled into the eighties Willow’s questions got tougher. And meaner. And, at least with Cilla, she got the knack of lazily twisting in a knife after getting the first wound in. In 1982, just as Ray had come in with shopping bags after a London run:
“Cilla, why aren’t we self-sufficient yet?”
“Well love, we do grow most of our own food now, but it takes a long time to prepare the land once it’s been let go”.
About a year later, Ray went out with a borrowed tractor. He pulled up the bluestone boulders from the top field, broke them, and fitted them into the drystone wall of the boar pen. It was brutal, but the top field was the last to clear. Ray worked by headlight. At dawn he finished up, crashed onto the kitchen couch and dropped triumphantly into sleep. He half-woke late in the evening to the sound of Willow drawing a controlled breath before speaking.
“Cilla, can I go to school?”
“If you really want to…”
Cilla paused, then;
“But they’ll never teach you as much as you can learn here on the …”
Willow had rehearsed this conversation:
“That’s fantastic mummy. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
She kissed Cilla on the cheek and dashed out the front door. Ray jumped off the couch and ran after her shouting. A minute later he walked back in and grabbed the carkeys and the ten pences they kept for the payphone down the road.
Cilla stared desperately at him, “you’re going to help her?” “Of course”, he replied. I’m not avin’ my little girl going to the phone box this late without giving her a lift.”
“But Ray, she could meet anybody at that school. Anybody.“, Cilla hissed. “After all we’ve done to keep her safe. Please, Ray.”
Willow was standing in the doorway again now. She retreated outside, ears sharp to every nuance, ready to run over the fields to the Evans’ farm when Ray gave in to the coming tears.
But he didn’t. “Let it go, Cilla. It’s too late. You’ll never win.” He walked out to the car, started the engine and opened the passenger door. Willow ran out of the shadow and jumped in as the car was already rolling. “Seatbelt”, said Ray deadpan after they bounced over the first pothole. A mile along the road that led round the bottom of the valley he pulled over and turned the lights off “… you’d best stay at the Evanses for a bit. Go to Har’ford tomorrow and get the forms. Then go buy two of everything on the list of things you need for school.” He pulled out his wallet and gave her the notes in it. “And a handbag you like. And some make-up and perfume and tapes and a walkman and extra headphones and a tennis racquet”. He reached into the glove compartment and pulled out another two notes. “And a poodle perm. You can start school the day after tomorrow.” Willow spoke, but Ray turned the engine over at deafening volume as she tried to back away from the revolution she’d started.
When they got there she opened the door and got out, and jumped as Ray beeped the horn. Mister Evans, in his slippers, walked over to the open door. “Come to give you a lift to the pub Dai” shouted Ray over the engine and the dogs. Two hours later Ray and Dai weaved back with a headmaster in the back and two bottles of whisky in the footwell.
Willow’s school marks started terrible, then rose rocketlike. When O-levels came round she was top of everything except Welsh, but she still passed that. She got her picture in the local paper, in front of a dozen mates jumping into the air in celebration. Ray called from London to ask where she was going next, and she said “London. To study fashion design. Can I stay with you?”
She met my dad there. When he went back to Marseille, she went with him. I was born there. Ray came to visit sometimes, even when he first started getting sick. But I never met Cilla until after he died. I had to go and sort out Ray’s affairs. Willow was too distraught, and my dad’s English is rubbish.
Cilla was scared of me, even after I said who I was. She didn’t seem to care that Ray was dead. She invited me in, showed me photos and made tea. And for a minute, talking about the sixties, she was thrilled to be reliving the memories. Or telling the stories, whatever. But then she looked at me, her grandson, like a ghost, and didn’t offer me a biscuit though there was a plateful on the table, and when I finished the tea she didn’t offer me a refill. I asked if Ray had left anything there that Willow should have. She didn’t speak, just reached under the sofa and brought out a cigar box.
I drove away before opening it. There was the dust of ancient tobacco and pot remnants, some photos of bearded young Ray on the farm, one of young Cilla with baby Willow in her arms, and a business card with a Waterford address and number. I got my mobile out. The number didn’t work. I binned the box, drove down to the harbour, and bought a ferry ticket.
The company name had changed, but the secretary told me to wait. Somebody would know him, for sure, she said, between calling around the company. For sure, she said again, it was only a small place. She kept me talking a long time, and offered me tea and a custard cream, and asked would I be staying long in Waterford, did I know it was the oldest city in Ireland, had I been to the museum yet? By the time the kettle boiled twice and she’d put milk in, a tall man in had walked in and was staring at me. He picked up the card.
“From the Gardai are ye?”
I shrugged, “I don’t know where that is,” I told him, “I’m from Marseille”. We went to the pub next door. He’d said he’d bought it with his golden handshake. It lost money, but he never had to pay for a taxi home. He walked behind the bar, pulled two pints, and led me out the back.
I told him Ray had died. “I know”, he said bitterly, “I was holding his hand because his daughter couldn’t face it. So who the fuck are you?”
So I told him. I thought he was going to choke with laughter and tears and stout.
“You! Priscilla’s grandson. Shit son…”.
He leaned into my face.
“I’m sorry to tell you this. But that woman’s evil. Racist scumbag. Stood him up at Ronnie Scott’s because she couldn’t walk into a roomful of darkies playing jazz. She ruined the day Willow first came home because there were little Indian boys playing cricket in the street outside. She dragged Ray to that dank miserable little farm because it was the only place she could escape from them. I drove them because I didn’t want Ray or Willow dying on the road. She banned me from coming near the house because she thought I’d bring that world with me. She stopped Willow going to school because she thought there’d be black boys there. She made the most gifted chemist of his generation work as a small-time driver for the money to keep her little world white, and made him pretend to his daughter that it was all about the swinging sixties and going back to the bloody land…..
......and now she’s got a handsome black grandson.”