Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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Eileen’s first visit to Pinner was much planned. Charlotte told her repeatedly not to worry, that her parents were easy-going, liberated, tolerant, progressive, broad-minded, relaxed and all the other things that were ideologically associated with the aspirational new norms of the previous decade. And, for Pinner, they were even quite politically left wing, having voted Liberal at least once. “Mummy can be a little tense. It depends…” was a phrase Charlotte left hanging as she and Eileen boarded the Metropolitan Line train at Baker Street. It was a Saturday in May, fine, dry and sunny, one of those London spring days when the city seems to buzz with its own homemade celebration of life.

Their intention was to stay overnight, that is, if things went smoothly. And, if things turned rocky, there was always a late train and the night bus.

Charlotte had already mentioned to her parents that she and Eileen were in a relationship, that wonderful generality which, in the right context, means something quite specific. After an initial pause at the other end of the phone call, her father had said, “I see” and then paused again. It was interesting that Charlotte had chosen to break the news to her father rather than her mother. There was a hint of a mouthpiece being covered for a moment and then the voice returning, bright and forthright. “Look, come up for an overnighter next Saturday. We would really like to meet Eileen.” Many years later, when I spoke to Charlotte, she recalled that day.

We’d set off early that morning. It was a Saturday, one of those days when one felt lucky to live in London. The place felt so alive, vibrant, but also relaxed and laid back at the same time. I don’t know if it was our state of mind, but I remember we were both very giggly. Both of us were nervous, I think, though we had no way of talking about it, since Eileen really knew nothing of my parents because she had yet to meet them. This would also be the first time we had gone public about our relationship. Of course, Linda and Alan and students at college knew, but they didn’t count. But to go as a couple to spend a night in my parents’ house was something different, potentially momentous. The relationship, itself, would be different once it was public property. We knew it was significant, but we could neither admit it nor discuss it. It was as if we were prepared to let things happen, to place the knowledge in some imagined public domain to see what the reaction might be. The world would make of it what it wished, and we would at worst passively receive the result. We dealt only with the details. What was my dad like? What was mummy like and how might she react? Is the house big enough for us not to feel watched? Eileen had been full of questions all week. I tried my best to answer them, but in reality, I could barely guess, because this territory was unknown. I knew my parents well enough to know I could not really be certain how they would react. There is often a distance between the theory of stated positions and the reality of reaction. Eileen kept asking the same things and by the Thursday of that week I was getting pissed off. “Wait and see” is what I remember saying over and over again. “It will be all right” usually followed. “Don’t worry” and other platitudes were also said, but in truth they were all euphemisms for “I don’t know.”

Anyway, we packed our bags on the Friday night, just a change of underwear, really, and a few things for sketching. We were doing an assignment that needed foliage, and we planned to do some work together in the garden. But our targets were minimal - it was only an overnight trip, after all. We’d be back in the flat by Sunday evening. We checked the weather and that looked perfect, so on the Saturday morning we decided to get away early and combine the trip with a visit to the West End. We took the W7, as usual, to Finsbury Park, but we changed at Euston to the Northern and got out at Tottenham Court Road. We had the idea of browsing the secondhand book shops along Charing Cross Road, which is just what we did. Normally, you don’t browse such places looking for something specific, but on that day we were. We had just seen Diane Arbus at the Hayward. We were going to look for books on American photography of a similar style. Secondhand was the only option, because glossies like photography books were especially expensive in those days.

The style appealed to Eileen, because it felt like it was a world which only existed during the moment that the shutter opened. Everything before and after would be different, and the moment the shot captured was a random event in time, unique and never to be repeated. She tended to dismiss anything that looked like it had been planned, posed or contrived. But these images felt like they had happened by chance. A moment before, or after, they would not have existed in the same form. They were transitory, ephemeral, exactly like what she was trying to do with her own work.

What she also found interesting was the subject matter. In some ways, she was displaying her small town, rather provincial attitudes. For her, many of the people photographed by Diane Arbus were on the scrapheap of life, discarded by the rest of society like so much junk. They were drug addicts, the disabled, down-and-outs, weirdos - her term. I can see now that she was being judgmental, even intolerant, but we didn’t think like that back then. In labelling people like this, we weren’t trying to exclude then, but in effect we were assuming they were somehow on the outside of what we called ‘in’. I suppose she was just trying to describe in general how these people had in some way been rejected by the rest of society, not really thrown away or discarded, but left to their own devices outside of the mainstream. For her, these were lives that could be reassembled into stories like she did with her found objects. We did find some books. I can’t remember what they were because, as things turned out, they would not form the most memorable aspect of the day. But I do remember some of the photos. More on that later…

We browsed the books for about an hour or so and then Eileen wanted to go to Dobell’s. She usually did when she went to the West End, which wasn’t often. She never bought anything, because at that time she didn’t even have a record player. But she used to ask to hear things in the shop. By then the guy running the place recognised her. We also used to see him sometimes at jazz gigs and he knew she was a fan of the free stuff. He would play anything she asked for - well, let’s say a couple of things each time she went there. Eileen used to flip through the records and read the sleeve notes, especially the Blue Note stuff. That Saturday she picked out Coltrane’s Meditations and Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz album. I remember it well, because we were just hanging around and listening, reading the occasional sleeve note when we noticed a black guy obviously taking an interest in us.

It was strange, one of those ridiculous but memorable moments when you know someone keeps looking at you. But when you try to look back, they turn away, as if embarrassed. We were halfway through the Coltrane. It was in the middle of the big McCoy Tyner solo. And then he spoke. It was the accent that surprised us initially, but then everything was immediately clear. “You were in the front row,” he said. There was no introduction, no “hello” or “excuse me.” And the accent was obviously South African, not West Indian, American or even English. It was Dudu Pukwana. We didn’t recognise him, because he was wearing a big woolly hat, pulled down over his forehead, even covering he eyebrows. “You were in the front row,” he repeated. “Last week, in Holland Park.”

And indeed, we had been, as usual. It had been a trio, McGregor on piano, Miller on bass and Pukwana on alto. ‘I didn’t recognise you without your sax,’ I remember saying, inanely. He was dressed differently, more like Bob Marley with that striped hat and a bomber jacket. ‘See you again,’ he said as he disappeared behind the counter and into the room at the back. The two of us, I remember, felt like we had just had a meeting with God. But then we realised something. He was obviously in the shop because he had an appointment, possibly with the owner about a recording session, we speculated. But he had arrived after us and had stayed out front obviously because he had recognised us. We suddenly felt like celebrities ourselves. I remember Eileen’s face when I said that. There was almost a delayed reaction, as if she had never once contemplated the idea that someone might have stopped and waited because they had recognised her. She followed the surprise with a smile, saying, “I could get used to the idea.” I recall those words precisely, because Eileen had always been so dismissive of any form of recognition, even to the extent of not wanting to sign any of her work. It was turning out to be a very special day.

We carried on walking south and took the Bakerloo from Trafalgar Square and changed to the Metropolitan at Baker Street. It is there, as we boarded the train, I can distinctly remember saying, “Mummy can be a little tense… It depends…”

“Depends on what?” asked Eileen. In the north, she had never heard anyone refer to a ‘mother’ as ‘mummy’ beyond the age of six, she told me.

“…depends on how much she has had to drink.” I paused, wondering whether I should say more. I did. “She can sometimes get a bit loud and then say things she doesn’t mean. If she does that, then please ignore her. Let my dad deal with things. He can smooth things over. He is very practised at it.”

We had talked about my mother during the week. Eileen did know that she drank considerable amounts of gin. My continual shortage of money was a result of my parents regularly running out of money at the end of the month. Eileen had asked me several times how it was that a middle-class girl like me had to squeeze money out of her dad to make up her grant. All I ever said was that they got through a lot of cash as a result of their lifestyle. And then there was the mortgage to pay, as well. Eileen, it always seemed to me, simply assumed that everyone in the south of England ought to be rich. We had talked about the bottle of gin a day habit, but I don’t think Eileen had ever thought about what such a habit might cost, which is strange given the habits we had developed at the time.

It’s a long way to Pinner on the Metropolitan, but it’s above ground most of the way. And we had the books we had bought, of course. I said we’d set off early that morning. It must have been really early because we had been to the West End, browsed bookshops, listened to Coltrane in Dobell’s and we still arrived at my parents’ house by one-thirty. I knew the moment we walked in that my words of preparation about my mother had been unnecessary. She had obviously decided to make an effort. She was making sandwiches in the kitchen and dad was watching Grandstand on the tele. They often watched the sport on Saturday afternoons because mummy did horse racing as well. She would often have a flutter. Butterflies do. She hadn’t had a drink.

“Hello, darling”, she said, rushing up and embracing the two of us, one arm each, as we stood side by side just beyond the kitchen door, which had been opened to admit the new spring warmth. “Jerry, they’re here,” she called in the general direction of the hatch linking the kitchen and dining room and dad appeared just seconds later. He wasn’t usually that prompt.

“And you must be Eileen,” said mum. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

I know it’s a cliché, but that is precisely what she said. I remember it vividly because I continued, “I’d never mentioned her to you until last weekend and then all I said was I want to bring my flatmate next Saturday.”

“Nonsense, darling. We chatted the weekend you moved into the flat, when we came to help you move your things.”

“I hardly knew her then.”

“Well you told us she was from the north, from Yorkshire, had a thick accent and made sculptures from junk. Has anything changed? Is there anything else we should know?”

Eileen laughed out loud. “I hope there’s a bit more to me than that.” She did not refer to being called ‘thick’.

“Jerry, will you listen to that accent… Isn’t it just wonderful?”

“Well things have changed since then,” I said, deciding to go straight in at the deep end. “We’re not just sharing a flat now. We are girlfriend and girlfriend.”

I remember my dad’s face. My mother hardly reacted, but uncharacteristically she went quiet. My dad’s eyes, however, nearly popped out of his head. He looked at me, at Eileen, and back to me. “You mean…”

“If you are going to ask if we have sex together, then the answer is ‘yes’.” I remember Eileen started to look uncomfortable, as if she expected things to go wrong all along, but possibly not quite so quickly. But my dad was great. Looking back, I think he was surprised more than anything else, surprised at himself, because he suddenly found the idea something of a turn on. It was becoming quite a Saturday. We had been cast as celebrities twice already and we had yet to have lunch. I thought I had already told him over the phone, but he obviously had not understood. That’s always the problem with the word ‘relationship’.

“Splendid,” he said. “But don’t tell the neighbours…”

“I don’t know,” said my mum. I still have no idea what it was that she didn’t know, but I do remember that’s what she said. It might have been a way of dismissing my dad. It might just have been something to say because she couldn’t think of anything else. “Come inside the two of you. You can put your things in the hall until later. Let’s have a drink to celebrate.”

“Celebrate what?” I asked. Mummy and I did compete.

“Do we need an excuse? How about the delights of Sappho, darling? Fuck the bloody neighbours.”

To say that Eileen was rendered speechless would be an understatement.

Charlotte and I discussed this day at some length, because she had her own analysis of how Eileen had reacted. For Charlotte, Eileen had simply never before encountered this type of British establishment - the enlightened, liberal middle classes, even if there is a hint of an oxymoron here. Perhaps Eileen had thought that such people only existed in trendy films of the period or were made up by people who wrote for Play For Today. Charlotte then described her mother.

Her name was Luisa. She looked the same age as her daughter and behaved in exactly the same way. To say they were similar would be an understatement, which is perhaps why they so often clashed. They were almost twins. Luisa was a little thicker on the hips than her daughter and had a suggestion of lines at the corners of mouth and eye, but they shared almost the same stature, were about the same height, and had the same hair and eyes, though Luisa’s hair was shorter than her daughter’s and secured with a bandana, a knotted red handkerchief, around her forehead. It held the hair in and made her ears stick out, accentuating her apparent youth. Both mother and daughter wore long Indian gauze dresses, albeit different colours, the complicated patterns being predominantly blue for the daughter and grey for the mother. Both wore open, strappy sandals, clearly bought from the same shop on the same family holiday.

Jerry, on the other hand, seemed the model of convention. He looked at least ten years older than his wife, but in fact was the same age. He wore a collared cardigan in green wool and with a zip up the front, grey trousers and a pair of checked carpet slippers, faded brown, unlike the bold grey gingham of his shirt. All this was merely expected by Charlotte, but it was clearly surprising for Eileen. She had already been told that Jerry was a solicitor, just an ordinary one, conveyancing, wills and the like, and that Luisa used to be a teacher. But Charlotte said she remembered how dumbfounded Eileen had been rendered. Later, she told Charlotte she had literally never before encountered a middle-class household like this. Charlotte continued her story.

To say we all got on like a house on fire would be both understatement and cliché. Mummy stayed off the booze until after the evening meal. I am not going to count the wine we had just after the introductions. In our household, we were not in the habit of calling wine booze, anyway. She spent most of the afternoon either cooking or popping in and out of the lounge to check on the gee-gees, and then we ate. She was simply too tired to have more than a couple of drinks and went to bed before eleven complete with a smile on her face. I never realised at the time, but our revelation that we were in a relationship had given her one up on dad, some ammunition to defend herself against his constant accusations that my lack of academic achievement was all down to her. Now she had a rod to beat him, believing that he had made me too much of daddy’s girl to make proper relationships with men. After that, things would get more complicated by the year, but on that day, everything seemed easier than either Eileen or I had expected. Dad stayed up for a while, but then he left the two of us alone, wishing us a good night’s sleep as he went upstairs. To this day, I believe I can hear a knowing wink embedded in those words. I really do think he was more than a little turned on at the thought of having two girls in bed together in the next room. The dishwasher was clanking its way through its drying routine and we stayed until it finished so I could switch it off before we went up. I can recall the gist of what we said.

“That really went quite well.”

“I told you there would be no problem.”

“I doubt my parents would react like that.”

“How would they react?”

“I don’t know…” she said. She clearly did but was either unwilling to say or unwilling to admit to herself what she thought. She certainly wasn’t telling me. Hindsight is always crystal clear. At the time I thought no more of it and a few minutes later the machine had clicked to the end of its cycle, I had switched everything off and we were in bed.

We woke very early that Sunday morning and went for a little walk round the lake in the park. It’s pretty well-to-do around there and Eileen, I distinctly remember, kept remarking at the size of all the houses, about how rich everyone was and at how smart and clean everything seemed to be. I remember because I could see nothing of the sort. It was all normal, as far as I was concerned. She also described them as ‘separated’, another word I distinctly remember. It has stayed with me over the years because that’s what my parents did a decade later, when they had already reached the kind of age when you would think they should no longer care. I suppose my dad had had enough. Eileen never again visited their house.

But on that bright spring morning, early enough for there still to be a dew, because the overnight sky had stayed clear, we did a circular tour of the area and it felt like one of the best days of my life. We were together now, properly together. And it was I who noticed a plastic bag on top of a skip of builder’s rubble. Most of the things in it were bits of wood, bucket loads of broken plaster and cement and a few tile shards. But on top I could see something colourful sticking out of a Safeway bag with knotted handles. I pulled at it and a coiled red wire appeared. We retrieved the bag from the pile, undid the handles and looked inside. There was a couple of old toys in there, a red plastic telephone and a green headset - just a toy - but complete with headphones and a microphone. The telephone was about half size, but the dial still went round, and the handset was still attached via the coiled wire. They had been thrown away, but the toys were intact, undamaged and really quite pretty. Someone had clearly grown out of them.

Eileen, of course, could not pass this one by, and immediately decided she was going to do something with this find. When we got back, she spent half an hour or so at the kitchen table arranging and rearranging the telephone and headset. I got my dad’s trilby off the hall stand and we put the headset on that. The hat had a band with a little feather on one side. It looked really stupid and we had a good laugh. My dad even tried it on. He had just been out walking the dog and found us in fits of laughter in the kitchen. He really did seem to want to engage with us. For a joke, he stuck the headset on the dog, which we all though was utterly hilarious. Wally was a gentle, placid Dulux dog who didn’t seem to mind one bit. In fact, he seemed to enjoy this new toy and just stood there wagging his tail and apparently giving his little barks into the microphone. We were paralytic with laughter.

Now remember we had just been at a photography exhibition and had even just been to buy some books. It was the flavour of the moment. I asked my dad if his camera was loaded and he said it was. I rushed into the front room to get it. He always kept it in the same cupboard. By the time I got back, Eileen had put the red telephone on the floor and the dog was inspecting it, still wearing the headset. Then the phone rang. It was absolutely classic. We couldn’t have planned it. My mother came into the kitchen and picked up the receiver, the dog started eating the red handset and I took a few quick shots. They had dad, looking serious, mum in the background on the kitchen phone, Eileen next to the dog laughing her head off and Wally wearing a green headset with a red telephone in his mouth.

My dad had the film developed and sent me the shots. They were hilarious. Eileen looked wonderful, laughing, relaxed and very beautiful. She looked so completely happy in that picture. Immediately she saw it, she burst into laughter again, just like the whole episode was repeating itself, there and then. She also decided she had to use the picture in her work. She mounted it and put the words ‘He’s on the other line…’ as a caption. I now can’t imagine why we found it so funny. I remember she showed it to her mother at the end of term. She thought it was the best photo of Eileen she had ever seen. She kept it.

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