How Not to Survive

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2

OK so a quick word about this Grandma issue. I am sad she’s died, it’s just that sometimes these things take a while to process. Despite the whole acting course I’ve never been like Teresa, able to turn on the tears at like, the merest glimpse of a baby and crying so hard she probably even thinks it’s for real herself. And the thing is, I’m also kind of glad about it too – and before you decide I’m this walking talking flint fest who deserves everything that’s coming to him and then some, what you need to understand about Grandma is that she had a death wish like a six year old wishes it could go to Disneyland. After Grandpa died she basically just stopped being bothered about life, and even booked herself into this old people’s home where she could go to like, wait it out until it was her time.

I rock up outside my old house at about one fifteen, which is pretty amazingly timing considering I had to get a bus from Bank because the tubes were shut. The curtains are all drawn but living room lights are on, and there’s Nina Simone playing, which has always been a pretty sure indicator Mum’s getting all up close and personal with a bottle of Pino.

I let myself in and head through into the living room. There’s no one in here but sure enough there’s a half empty bottle on the coffee table. Even more shockingly, there’s a lit cigarette wedged into an ashtray.

Jazzz! slurs this voice behind me, all mushy.

I turn to see Mum, swaying in the doorway sloshing the wine around in her glass and spilling everywhere, her eyes big and sleepy, and her hair all wild like she’s been attacked by hairdryer.

I’m like, Hey Mum.

Mum’s like, Oh Jaz, you came to see me! You’re such a good boy!

She’s launches into this speech about how wonderful I am, the ultimate tell tale sign of the inebriated. Mum’s one of those people get all emotional when they get drunk, which is nice in a way since it’s a side with her I don’t often get to see, but also depressing, since it’s like being told I love you by Jacob’s Creek. The good thing about when Mum gets pissed is that she calls me Jaz. She’s like, the only person in the world I prefer to have call me Jarold, which I fucking hate and am planning to change as soon as I can settle on a decent stage name.

I’m like, I heard about Grandma, in one of those gentle voices you always put on for the grieving, as if speaking in a normal voice might induce a fit of raving hysteria.

Useless old biddy! snaps Mum, Couldn’t she have dropped dead five years ago and done us all a favour?

I guess you could say Mum’s relationship with Grandma was pretty like, layered. On the surface of it all she hated each Grandma’s guts and whenever we went to visit her in the home she start bitching about her the second we got back in the car. But you could tell beneath all that she had this complicated bond with her, kind of like Eric Northman has with his vampire sire in True Blood (incidentally still number seven on my top ten most fuckable).

I’m like, Come on, why don’t we get you some coffee?

I make this like, wary move to put my arm around her, but Mum jerks away like I’ve got rabies.

Mum’s like, Sod off Jaz. My mother’s just died. I think I’m entitled to a drink just this once.

But of course I know and she knows it doesn’t work like that, and if you succumb it means you’re off the wagon yet again, which means you’re back to square one, which means you’re supposed to call your sponsor and like, give all your plants away and shit. I give her this meaningful stare to show her I’m like, totally unimpressed.

I’m like, You look like Dot Cotton.

Mum gives me the finger, another totally uncharacteristic thing for her, and makes her way past me to the couch. At this point I figure there’s not much else for it so I go to the kitchen and fetch a glass for myself. There’s another bottle here, this time empty, so I figure Mum must be well on the way to an alcohol induced state of black out. Sure enough, when I get back to the living room she’s thrown herself down on the sofa and is sobbing like it’s her calling.

Why did she have to be such a miserable bitch? she chokes out, Why did she have to go and die, Jaz? Why couldn’t she have been there for me even once?

I don’t say anything, since there’s nothing you can say to stuff like this, just sit there patting her like she’s a fucking dog. Eventually the sobs start to subside and she reaches out in this vague way for her glass. But I’ve put it out of the way and her hand like, flops to the ground like it’s lost all the will to live all of its own accord.

Hey Jaz, slurs Mum, Whatever happened to your face?

I’m like, I got fag bashed by this gang.

But Mum’s way too far gone to start getting outraged. Instead she just tuts like I told her I head-butted a lamppost and closes her eyes. A few seconds later she’s snoring. I pour myself a glass of the leftover vino and sit there looking at her. No one wants to watch their mother drink herself to sleep, and it’s pretty sad seeing her like this, especially when you know what she’s really like. But the funny thing is when she’s sleeping she looks a lot happier. Her whole face relaxes like it never does when she’s conscious, since she’s usually busy grimacing at judges and shooting other lawyers poker-faced looks. She seems almost like a child, all innocent and shit, and I can’t help feeling just a little bit fond of her.

Then of course she goes and spoils it by turning her head to the side and coughing out a small green puddle of puke.

The next morning the first thing I think about is calling Mum’s sponsor. He’s called Des and is the size of a small building with this full on catsuit of tats featuring flaming skulls and naked babes. There’s no way Mum would ever associate with someone like Des that under normal circumstances, but the great thing about alcoholism is how it really brings together all sectors of society. Unfortunately Des is also this terminal bore who’s always ad nauseating about his eleven years of sobriety, how God’s given him a second chance and that he’s been saved yawn yawn. It’s like, saved to inflict himself on the rest of us. Des is a pretty good anti-drinking advertisement mind you, since I can’t think of anything less cool that turning into a Born Again ex- hell’s angel.

I figure I don’t have it in me to speak to Des so instead I call Dad. That might seem like, a pretty strange thing to do considering that he and Mum divorced three years ago, but I know from experience that he’s the only one who can ever talk proper sense into her. All Des does is yap about how much richer life is without booze, which anyone who’s ever been properly drunk’ll tell you is total bollocks. Unfortunately Dad now lives in Kent with Barbie, the bimbo from limbo, who neither me nor Teresa can stand because every time we see her she orders everyone around and tries to like, convert us to macrobiotic diets and Pilates routines. Barbie isn’t actually called Barbie of course, she’s called Julia, but she looks like how Barbie might look if she was approaching old age. She’s the polar opposite to Mum, always happy-happy, like she’s got a permanent E dissolving up her arsehole.

It’s Barbie who answers the phone.

Hello Jaz! she goes, like I’m just the person she was hoping to hear from, even though I’m pretty sure she secretly hates me for once upon a time coming out of Mum, What’s up?

I’m like, Hi Julia, all cautious sounding because I don’t want to give away what I’m calling about. Mum’s the only thing that makes Barbie lose her OTT positivity, and whenever Dad mentions her she suddenly goes all quiet and passive aggressive and says stuff to him like Would you like a soft drink Laurie? in this deadly voice like she’s really asking if he’d like to be forcibly given an enema.

Barbie’s not missing a beat though. She knows I don’t call Dad unless something’s up. I hardly speak to him these days. Every now and then I get a drippy message from him going on about how much he’d like to see me and why don’t I visit him and Barbie so I can like, watch Barbie emasculate him like some kind of evil puppet master or something. But I never call back.

What can we do for you? Barbie goes, all sweet and friendly.

I’m like, Actually it’s Dad I’d like to speak to, if he’s there.

Barbie’s like, Oh OK, in this hurt voice, as if it’s bit a weird that I might actually want to speak to my own father rather than an evil aging doll. She lowers her voice to this confidential tone.

I hope you know I’m always here for you, Jaz, she goes, If there’s ever anything you need. I’d really like for you to think of me as someone you can trust.

I bite back the temptation to tell her I’m into hard drugs and need a thousand quid immediately to fuel my crack habit and say thanks and repeat that I need to talk to Dad. Barbie sniffs and says she’ll go get him.

Dad’s like, Jaz! all excited when he comes on the line, as if me calling is like Christmas come early, and I feel kind of bad explaining that it’s actually about Mum. He’s pretty sorry when I tell him Grandma’s a goner, since he always kind of liked her, no doubt because she used to say he’d hitched himself to a hump by marrying Mum.

I see, he goes when I tell him she’s drinking again, That’s bad. That’s very bad.

I wait for more but there’s just silence so I decide I’m going to have to spell it out for him.

I’m like, You need to come up and talk to her.

Dad’s like, I don’t know Jaz. I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

I’m like, She needs you.

In the background I can hear Barbie ordering him to tell her what the matter is over and over, and there’s no way she’s going to be happy about him diving up here, that’s for sure. But fortunately Dad’s like, the easiest person to guilt trip in the world, and after a bit of spiel about how Mum gave him her life and she never would have started drinking if it weren’t for him, garnished with a few sobs of my own while I say it’s all his fault I’m losing my mother, he agrees to come. I know everyone’s supposed to think their parents still love each other after they’ve divorced blah blah and to be honest like I could care less, but Mum and Dad really do. There’s just no way he could that prefer plastic has-been with her sugar pink tank tops and freaky doily obsession to Mum, even if Mum is a psycho lawyer alcoholic.

All right, Dad says, I’ll be a couple of hours.

Sweet, I go, and hang up just as Barbie starts screeching at him demanding to know what he’s agreed to.

Mum’s woken up by the time I get back to her and it isn’t pretty let me tell you. If I thought she looked bad last night, this morning is like, from the crypt. Her face is all ashen and her crazy hair is even crazier, like it’s been out on the town without her. As soon as she sees me she starts bawling, and I have to endure a lengthy diatribe about how sorry she is and how she’ll never drink again and how it was only because of Grandma and Jesus Christ look what they did to my beautiful face. I’m like, Spare me. I crank her to her feet and then practically lock her in the bathroom.

While Mum’s purging herself I go outside and light a fag. It’s all a bit much to be honest, and on top of everything my nose has turned purple and I’m pretty sure it’s broken. I figure I should probably to go the police, or the doctor, or else skip those steps and book myself in for a septoplasty, but I’ve got to hang around to let Dad in, since if Mum answers the door and sees I called him there’s a good chance she’ll just slam it straight away.

I take out my mobile and see that amidst the like, myriad missed calls and voicemails from my own private obsessive I’ve got a text from Eli going Hey whre the hell r u? x I consider giving him a call just so I can have a good old vent but somehow I’m not in the mood, plus I’m running low on data. I have a last blast on my fag and then grind it out in this world-weary way, like I’m a single mum with six kids, no job and the rent due tonight, and text Eli back At me Mums. Bk later. C u x

As I press send there’s this puny meowing sound and I look down to see a half-emaciated Bilbo rubbing himself against my legs and looking up at me with these enormous eyes like he’s fantasising I’m a really big mound of cat food.

Since I’m out here, let’s have a quick FLASHBACK.


I’m like, eighteen and just about to sit my A levels, for which I’ve already been predicted three Es in my mocks. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and I’m sitting out here pretending to revise when really I’m trying like mad to get a tan while reading Attitude and perving on this topless shoot of the himbos from Hollyoaks. I’m just starting to get turned on and thinking to myself, Well hey there’s no one around, when the patio door slides open and Mum and Dad step out, back from their marriage counselling which they’ve been going to off and on for the last two years, a whole hour earlier than normal. Whenever they approach you together you know it’s not good, and I’m just preparing myself for some pant-wettingly exciting lecture on cleaning up after myself or something when I notice that Mum’s been crying and Dad’s looking rather red in the face as well. Straight away I know that something’s really up, and it doesn’t take a genius to know it’s probably going to be about them.

Jaz, goes Dad, We’ve got something to tell you –

We’re having a trial separation, cuts in Mum before he can finish.

There’s a long pause while they both give me these deeply expectant looks.

I’m like, OK it’s cool.

I’m trying to be all cheerful about it, but I might just as well have said I was going to kill myself and it’s all because of them, since they both interpret it as a sign of deep unhappiness.

Mum’s like, Oh Jaz, we tried! We really did! But your father says he needs time to himself and so we’ve agreed he’ll move out for a few weeks...

Dad’s like, Lois, we agreed not to talk details, it’s not fair on the kids.

But telling Mum to stay quiet is a bit like spraying petrol on a fireball.

Mum’s like, FAIR ON THE KIDS?! WHO’S NOT BEING FAIR ON THEM?! IT’S A BIT BLOODY LATE TO BE THINKING ABOUT THEM ANYWAY, ISN’T IT?!

Dad’s like, Lois please...

But then Mum starts crying like a maniac. Dad presses his lips together like he’s just wedged a lemon down his gullet and stares at the ground. It’s pretty beyond awkward. Finally I try a joke:

I’m like, Hey maybe you should try and get your money back off that counsellor since it seems like he did a pretty rubbish job?

This goes down like, the opposite of well, and they both head off back inside. After a few minutes I go in myself and find Mum’s opened a bottle of wine in the kitchen and is drinking it in big gulps. She tells me Dad’s upstairs packing some things and then starts wailing about how she doesn’t know how they’re going to break it to Teresa. I offer to do it for them, since it’s not often you get a gift horse like that, but she just ignores me and carries on drinking and wailing. And that’s when it first started, I reckon. The separation went on and on and me and Teresa kept expecting Dad to come back from the tiny little one bedroom matchbox he’d rented in Tooting, until finally we started to get used to the idea of him not living there and of coming home to find Mum totally wankered. I think we both still had a shred of hope for him moving back in, until the day that Dad announced he was seeing Barbie and Mum admitted she was an alchy. After that home didn’t really feel the same anymore. Cue like, violins.


Mum seems a bit better after her bath, even if she is looking scarily old these days without her make up. She sits in front of the mirror in her room like, swaddled in towels and stares at herself all red-eyed while I go through her wardrobe looking for something appropriate for a bereaved woman who like, pissed herself during the night to wear.

Oh God, Mum groans, putting her head in her hands, Jarold, I’ve messed up. I’ve messed up so badly. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You deserve a better mother than me.

I’m like, Just chill already.

I start telling her about Danny’s parents to cheer her up. Danny’s mum was this teenage hooker and his dad some john who didn’t pull out in time. He ended up in care when he was six after a neighbour found him on his own freezing to death in an abandoned caravan. He’s never seen his mother since and when he talks about her it usually finishes with the words, She’s probably burning in hell... I figure this story’ll make Mum feel much better about herself, but instead it only makes these tears slip silently down her cheeks.

I select this black dress that she used to wear to work, which has a low back and is also very figure hugging. It’s respectable but still sexy, and I reckon if I can just get her to throw on a bit of eyeliner and like, a couple of kilos of foundation before Dad gets here, she might stand a chance of looking half decent, even of competing with Barbie.

Just then the doorbell goes.

I’m like, Whoever could that be? all Brady Bunch about it.

Mum looks at me sharply. She’s pretty difficult to fool, and in her right state of mind can detect a lie the way a sniffer dog can tell you’ve got a balloon full of heroin up your arse. She’s like, Jaz, what have you done?

But I’m already on the stairs. I bound down to the door and fling it open to see Dad, standing there with his hands in his pockets and a frown like, splitting his forehead in two, looking like he’s constipated or something. Unfortunately beside him stands Barbie, dressed in this preppy lavender two piece, her skeletal hands clasped together with this smug smile on her collagen-enhanced lips, looking like a cross between a 1950s housewife and reanimated corpse.

I’m like, Oh. Hi.

Dad opens his mouth but Suburban Barbie cuts him off before he can get a word out.

Hello Jaz! she croons, Hasn’t it been a while!

She elbows Dad aside so she can air kiss me then recoils like I’ve whipped out a loaf of bread on her.

Uhhh – what happened to your face?

I’m like, Oh just a stupid accident, at the same time giving Dad this meaningful glare, since bringing Barbie along is a bit like strapping on a grenade belt for your Peace Corps convention. But I can’t very well bar the door now, so there’s nothing for it but to stand back while Barbie sails in, head held all high, no doubt thrilled to pieces by this opportunity to examine the enemy’s territory close up.

Behind her Dad like, whispers, She insisted on coming.

I’m like, Whatever.

He’s like, How’s your mum?

I’m like, Not good.

In the living room Barbie lets out this gasp at the sight of the empty wine bottle and glass, as if we’d just unearthed evidence of a satanic rite.

Oh you poor poor thing! she goes, gripping my arm with her long polished talons, It must be so hard on you...

Ignoring the pain I wrench my arm away.

I’m like, Listen Dad, Mum’s upstairs. I think she’d like to see you.

Dad gives Barbie this hopeful look.

Maybe I should go alone –

We’ll go together Laurie, says Big Boss Barbie.

I’m like, OK, but be prepared. She’s been vomiting all morning and it’s pretty grim, plus she’s got this contagious red skin thing going on so make sure you don’t get in too close.

All of a sudden Barbie’s backing off, going, Well maybe you should go alone after all Laurie, seeing as you are the one who was married to her, and she probably doesn’t want to see little old me after all!

Dad gives me a grateful look and hurries off out the room. I literally do not get what he sees in this woman. I mean, Mum used to order him around too, but at least you could tell she was doing it out of neurosis rather than pure love of sadism. One thing that’s pretty obvious that now Barbie’s got her claws into him she’s not planning on letting go, not even for death itself. Even so, I keep thinking that if he could just grow a backbone and tell her where to shove it, he and Mum might still stand a chance.

Being left along with Barbie is a bit like being left alone with an evil living mannequin. She gives me this big white-toothed smile so I can see every one of her fake plastic teeth and pats the sofa beside her. I decide not to tell her she’s chosen to sit right in the spot where Mum weed last night and squat down on the arm.

So, goes Everybody’s Best Friend, We’ve never get a chance to really speak, do we?

I’m like, Not really, meaning Thank Fuck.

Barbie’s like, You know Jaz, you remind me so much of Paul.

Paul is Barbie’s son, who I’ve met once, which was quite enough. He’s a year older than me and this like, super-achieving ex-Etonian ex-Cambridge type who supposedly has like, the IQ of a cyborg or something. When we met he was like, So what do you do? after about an hour of listing all his awards. As soon as I said I was at drama school he made this noise in the back of his throat like he was having difficulty not shitting himself with laughter.

I’m like, Thanks.

Barbie gives me another man-eating grimace that’s presumably meant to be endearing.

I know your mother and I have our differences, she goes, But I don’t see why that should stop us from getting along. And I was ever so sorry to hear about your granny. Was she very old?

I’m like, Ancient.

Barbie lets out this demented giggle like I’m just so adorable she could eat me, which certainly isn’t something I’d put past her on a desert island with no other ready food source. We sit in awkward silence for a while, Barbie repeatedly smoothing down her lavender skirt while I fidget. I’m itching for another cigarette, or even better a spliff, but there’s no way I can spark up in front of Barbie.

So how’s the acting? goes Barbie after a while.

I’m like, Fine thanks.

She’s like, I used to be an actress once you know.

I’m like, Really?

Oh yes. Musicals were my thing.

I’m expecting her to reel of a list of village hall productions, but Barbie stuns me when she mentions some big theatres where she performed, including The Gielgud, The Arcola and Cafe de Paris. I can’t tell if she’s being truthful or if it’s just some fantasy life her brain’s cooked up after one too many chemical peels.

Only chorus stuff mind, goes Barbie, I was never leading lady material.

She giggles again, but there’s something slightly bitter about it this time, and suddenly it’s like I’m getting my first ever insight into how somebody actually turns into a fifty five year old impossibly-proportioned doll wannabe. For a second I can so easily picture Barbie wielding a knife and screaming Die bitch die! as she goes after all the actresses who got the parts she auditioned for.

I’m like, Sick, trying to sound sincere, and Barbie gives me another Jaws-like smile as if I’d just told her she’s now like, my idol.

I’ll show you some photographs some time – she goes, but before she can make any other threats there’s this great moaning from upstairs, like The Creature has got out of the attic or something. Barbie jumps up.

She’s like, Maybe we should go check on them –

I’m like, Oh dear I do hope Mum’s not having another vomiting fit – perhaps it’d be best if I went up alone, which makes Barbie sit right back down again pronto.

Upstairs I can hear Mum’s sobbing echoing down the walls. It’s become a pretty ordinary sound around here. I go to her room and push the door open and like, gawp at what I see. Mum’s like, huddled up on the bed and amazingly Dad’s got both arms around her and is rocking her back and forth like she’s a retard. It’s going to be OK sweetheart, he’s whispering over and over. But what’s like, properly mandible-expanding about it is that he’s got his forehead pressed against hers and his eyes closed, kind of like he’s all lost in memory or something. It’s obviously one of those Deeply Important Moments, the kind you remember on anniversaries and deathbeds. I turn around, thinking to tip toe right back out again, only to find myself up close with Barbie, who’s come up behind me all silent like an assassin. This is quite frightening enough, since I can like, practically see the needle marks where she gets her botox injected. But what’s really scary is the look on her face. It’s like, seriously not happy.

LAURIE! screams Barbie, in my face.

Dad looks up, all guilty like he’s been caught in the middle of a threesome. Barbie marches forward into Mum’s room, totally invading her personal space, and grabs Dad’s arm. Even though she’s about the size and shape of a stick she still manages to yank him up to his feet and then drag him towards the door. She turns just before they reach me and looks back at Mum and lets out this animal snarl.

Barbie’s like, God, your own mother just died and you’re making a play for someone else’s man. Don’t you have any sense of decency?

Mum looks up, and even though she’s obviously really upset and hung over I’m proud of her for still having the presence of mind to say, Fuck off out of my house you robot bimbo.

The Bride of Chuckie like, barrels me aside, the whole pretence of wanting to be my friend totally forgotten, still manacling Dad who gives me this shake of his head and whispers, Bye Jaz, all helpless like he’s been led off to jail. At that point I’m really mad with him for being such a pushover, and I just turn my head and go over to Mum like he’s dead to me or something. A few seconds later there’s the sound of Warrior Barbie slamming the front door.

Well, goes Mum, sounding weak and spent, Maybe it’s time to give Des a call.

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