07 Feb A Brief History of Me. Chapter Two. France.
My maternal grandparents met at school in Scotland and married. She was an atheist, he was not. Brenda went to Glasgow School of Art and became a teacher and Norman became an episcopalean minister like his father before him. In the 1950’s they adopted my eldest aunt Iona and shortly after moved to Transkei, South Africa as missionaries, In 1960 Brenda gave birth to Cairistiona (my mother) followed by Ishbel and finally, Gavin. In 1970 they returned to Scotland and eventually settled in Aberdeen. It was a huge culture shift for my mother, and she would never acclimatise to the Scottish weather, spending so much time indoors or wearing shoes. Her parents divorced in her teens and after graduating from art school, she moved to London with her sister Ishbel. By 1986, Mum had started to forge a path in interiors and Ishbel was an aspiring model.
The pressure of being a single mum and working long hours resulted in a collapsed lung and instructions not to work for six months. So she gathered up the two of us, her sister Ishbel and her cousin Zoe, and decided to take a trip through Europe by public transport. First stop was a medieval village full of artists in the mountains of Northern Italy. Mum had ideas of earning a living as a portrait artist, but most of the time was spent, in her words ‘dancing in the square under the moonlight with the locals’. We stayed there for a few months, in bliss (I remember painting my aunt’s Dr. Martens and being chased by a donkey at some point) before moving onto the Gers in France to stay with mum’s cousin Michael, in his caravan in a field. When I talk to mum about her time in the Gers, she always says how special it felt to be in a community that valued family, didn’t appear to judge her as a single mother and to be in a rural environment where we could live outdoors most of the time. After a while we moved onto Barcelona where Ishbel had contacts with a modelling agency and mum thought she could maybe find work as a childminder. The trip was unsuccessful; it felt too noisy and polluted, so they returned to France, the caravan in the field and swimming naked in the lake.
After the prescribed six months had passed, we returned to London where mum hoped to carry on working in interiors. We lasted three weeks. However much she wanted to pursue her career, she couldn’t shake the beauty of the life we had experienced in France. She missed the warmth, the community and being able to spend time with me instead of working every hour to pay the rent. During our time there, mum had had a fling with a Goose farmer named Bernard (yes, he unfortunately made foie gras) who also ran a table d’hote. Bernard had asked mum to stay and live with him and help run the farm, so after realising that London was no longer the place for us, she decided to do exactly that. She gave up the flat in London and we went to live with Bernard where mum would help with the geese, cooking and serving at the table d’hote.
Some of my clearest memories are from this time: seeing a table laid out with chocolate mousse filled champagne coupes (I have never tasted a mousse to equal it), being lifted up by one of the guests and seeing the swimming pool lights shining through the water, lying in bed with Bernard’s elderly mother who wore black crochet shawls and fed me crunchy Grattons (pork scratchings), waking up with conjunctivitis and not being able to see anything other than the 1950’s leopard print dressing gown mum had found me on portobello market. I went to nursery in the local village where I had my first kiss (very slobbery), discovered the joy of peeling a perfectly boiled egg and tasted my first Carambar.
Unfortunately Bernard and my mum were not a happy union: he was aggressive, emotionally manipulative and had a love of wearing mini skirts and make up that didn’t sit comfortably with his hyper maculine identity or the expectations of his community. So we moved on. To Peggy’s farm.
Peggy ran a goat farm that was also a retreat for addicts to recover while they worked on the land and with the animals. We were her ‘permanent’ residents who lived and worked with her while her guests came and went. Peggy was small, with two thin grey braids hanging over her shoulders. We had no glass in most of the windows, but I remember the beauty of the stone walls.
Mum knew we couldn’t stay at Peggy’s forever, so she started to make moves to find our own place: and she found it in an old ruined building that she could renovate and turn into a space for hosting creative workshops. She wrote a letter to her mother in Scotland and asked for a loan for the deposit. My grandmother Brenda replied saying that she would lend her the money on one condition: she bring her younger brother Gavin to live with us. Gavin was six years younger than her, tall, blonde and the kind of beautiful that could stop Gilbert and George in their tracks (he did, and posed for a few of their pieces).
Uncle Gavin was living in London and not long after having a psychotic break and being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he had tested HIV positive. He needed full time support and care that Brenda couldn’t offer as she was still working full time as an art teacher in Scotland. Mum accepted the condition, but after investigating the practicalities of rural life and distance from the nearest hospital, Brenda decided it wouldn’t be possible and the loan was retracted.
Just like that, the dream was over and it was time to return to London again.