Sadie (from "Ribbentrop's Chair")
As most married couples grow older and lust slips away, they learn to cling to each other like life rafts adrift on the ocean. Sadie and Marcus were different - theirs wasn’t a relationship, it was a syndrome, but despite their mutual antipathy they still shared a bedroom.
Who knows what nightmares raged through Marcus’s sleep every night? In the long hours of darkness he rotated slowly like a turkey on a spit, and over time his night sweats produced black blossoms that spread slowly across the walls.
The heavy onyx pen holder could be brought down on his head while he was sleeping and he would never know. He already had a big dent in his shiny hairless pate; evidence of God knows what fistfight in his youth.
Sadie and Marcus’s bedroom was the colour of the Somme after the battle. The walnut beds, mahogany desk with its dark green writing set and stained blotter, the 1.8 meter high stack of fading paperback murder mysteries and the heavy velvet curtains which were never opened, together created a dark den of seething frustration and a sense that the earth was trying to close over one’s head.
She dreamed about killing him in so many different ways. She liked to imagine the look of surprise on his face as he succumbed to the poison racing through his veins; or the point of the kitchen knife puncturing his lung with a bubbling wheeze; the starry night engulfing him as he smothered under the weight of a pressed pillow.
Highly intelligent and mathematically minded (she was entrusted when very young with her father’s book keeping), my Grandma Sadie was a gifted raconteuse and her milky-blue eyes would gaze into the distance as she recounted stories of pre-war France and the romantic Frenchman who had betrayed her trust.
Sadie resented Marcus, and one of the reasons was because she had a strong feeling - true, as it turned out – that he would outlive her.
It was fairly clear what she thought of him, sharpening her knives, looking daggers at the narcissist she should never have married. She cursed him in Yiddish. She haunted the public library and the second hand bookshops, amassing crime novels; adding to her arsenal of ingenious murder methods.
However I doubt that Marcus ever really considered what was going on in Sadie’s head as she hovered belligerently like a fly in the corner of his eye - on the periphery of his vast personal universe.
Mostly they muddled along, but every so often their relationship turned, like milk, and the sight of him made her sick. Every time you say hello I die a little.
"Grandma, why did you want to kill Grandpa?"
“For dragging me to Paris. I hated Paris.”
“You loved Paris."
"He made me cook for Coco Chanel - that imperious bitch. She hardly touched a thing. It
was excruciating. I’ve never felt so small.
“For squandering all our money during the war with profligate pleasure.
“For having the time of his life here in England while we were having just the opposite in France.
"For not having to hide for six years in a dark, damp crypt with of a rabble of terrified children.
“For remaining detached from the harsh reality of the world while I had my face rubbed in it.
“For sleeping with other women.
“But Grandma, Grandpa told Marcia he never succumbed to temptation during the war. He said ‘God gave me eyes to look – but I never touched’ “
(However he told Brian “If I wanted a woman, I bought a woman”. So although Sadie may have been right, Marcus felt that he was simply dealing with his bodily appetites in a perfunctory manner).
“For never having loved me.
"For playing the piano better than me.”
“You don’t have a piano” “I got rid of it”.
“Because I heard his jokes a thousand times and they weren’t funny the first time.
Because I saw myself reflected in his eyes”.
I imagine sex stopped after the war
Before the war Sadie, never pretty, was at least polished – as was expected of her. After the war her revenge was to decline into squalor while Marcus kept up appearances: forever the Flaneur of Piccadilly and St. Denis. My grandmother in her eighties had uncombed hair and rheumy eyes, and lived in a greasy apron. Her most lethal weapon was her self- neglect. With this she attacked her husband’s fastidiousness and taste for Saville Row suits. (In this respect she was echoing the behaviour of her mother Martha).
I have considered Sadie’s dereliction. I think the real reason it happened was because she felt unloved – she had no one to be pretty for any more.
Only when very old did her husband allow himself the luxury of scruffiness. One day Grandpa emerged from the bedroom wearing his striped pyjamas, velvet slippers, camel hair dressing gown and beige beret. He lived like that for the rest of his life and never got dressed again.
Sadie gave me two antique table cloths when I got married – both purchased when she married. One was pale blue silk brocade, the other hand-embroidered linen with a cross-stitch pattern. As she gave them to me she whispered “don’t tell Grandpa”. I still have them both and will pass them on to my daughter, whom I hope will pass them on to her daughter.
In our teens Jackie and I would regularly catch three buses to go and visit our grandparents – sometimes together and sometimes alone. And not just out of a sense of duty. For some perverse reason (nobody else understood this) I was drawn to my grandmother. I acquired a taste for her cynicism and vitriolic wit, although the conversation was always one-way.
Sadie became overweight, with the largest breasts I had ever seen. She was mildly diabetic but had a sweet tooth, so Jackie and I took her gifts of diabetic chocolate and jars of jam hunted down in various chemists (not great places for confectionary). She became obsessed with her health and treated us to a regularly updated gazette of her pathologies, from head to toe, on every visit. I found it all fascinating.
In her old age Sadie erected such a dark filter around herself that you had to climb over her in order to get a clearer picture of the world. I don’t even want to begin to imagine what it must be like to lose one’s child, and I suppose the death of her devoted but unappreciated son must have dealt her a colossal blow.
One day she said to me "I’m tired and I don’t want to be alive any more”, and within two weeks she wasn’t.
Although no doubt you would comprehend, I doubt whether you would appreciate my saying that it was these very plagues: the chilblains, the varicose veins, the piles, the backache from hauling your vast bosom around, the headaches caused by repressed marital resentment, together with all your other woes and - it has to be said - your stories of pre-war France, your divine culinary skills and the fact that you always smelled of chicken soup - which enrich my memory and carry me back to my childhood.
I visited Grandma’s grave a few years ago and was surprised and delighted when she leapt almost fully fleshed out of her grave and said hello to me and for a moment I could hear, touch, smell and love her again.