Saturday, 27 September 2008
Bethan June Phelps
This is the house that years built, dropping soil
from the loose screes. Straddling the hill, the cottage sheds its tiles,
the books begin to corrugate with damp. Home
is the cleft where the earth runs, and a little old thin blood,
home's where the hurt is, white and familiar as a bone.
- Rowan Williams, 'Indoors'
'The Centipede was happy, quite,
until the Toad, in fun,
said: 'Pray, which leg comes after which?',
which put her mind in such a fix,
she lay distracted in a ditch,
considering how to run.'
- June Phelps
I spent most of my teens and early to mid twenties in deep cahoots with a remarkable, difficult woman forty years my senior. It is one of the friendships that has most marked my life, and without it I would be a rather different person. Of all the relationships I've had, this one taught me most about human nature. The lady in question was charismatic and humorous, but also exceptionally manipulative and mendacious; for all that, I'm certainly not innocent in the way things played out.
One of the most important lessons learned with June Phelps (not her real name) was about the terrible pressure human beings who love each other can mutually exert, the pressure of wanting the other person to conform to our idea of what they should be. A wise definition of original sin which I once read (it may be Simone Weil, or Kathleen Raine) is that by our mere existence, without acting and without willing it, we cannot help causing other living beings to suffer dreadfully. Simply by meeting, loving and being loved in return, this woman and I hurt each other badly.
June lived alone in a terraced cottage a hundred yards away from my parents' house in the small, nondescript East Kent village of Downstreet. I met her by accident when I was fourteen and she was in her late fifties. Her wild conversation and exhilarating range of reference were tremendously exciting, and I went over to visit her one afternoon. That was the first of many thousands of usually delightful hours spent with her. June would have been good on the stage, having an innate flair for drama which could be both charming and maddening. Highly intelligent and verbally quick, she had a particularly appealing kind of world-weary wit. ('No good deed goes unpunished', she was fond of saying.) Her speech was characterised by a very large number of circulating catchphrases, which seemed somehow stately and solid to me at first - the mannerism of someone who has worked life out - but eventually seemed hidebound and rickety.
Physically, she was a large, stooped woman who chain-smoked constantly, and she had the collagen-free, parchment-pale skin to prove it. Her hair was a mixture of grey and strawberry blonde, and unusually for a lady of mature years, she kept it long. She had blue, quizzical eyes behind glasses, and always wore a small pair of silver earrings. If I say that she looked rather like Peter O'Toole now does, it would be taken as a lack of chivalry on my part; but she did. She used to tell all listeners that in her youth, she had never 'suffered from the curse of beauty', but that she could do herself up with paint and powder to be 'jaw-droppingly, traffic-stoppingly magnificent.' She once showed me some photos of herself in this blessed estate, and, to be frank, to my eye I'm afraid she looked like Julia Davis playing Fanny Craddock.
The great narrative of June's life was that she was repeatedly the Innocent Victim of Malignant Fate. It didn't seem odd to me in my early teens that she didn't do anything: she sat at home smoking and being a raconteuse. It also didn't strike me how few people she saw: only very rarely, in ten years, did I ever come over the road to visit to find someone else there.
She was the daughter of Welsh parents; her father was a miner. (We had mines in Kent, believe it or not.) Her mother was the local school-teacher, and she still lived in her parents' old house, her childhood home. Her fiancé, an American GI, had been killed in the War; her second partner had been blown up in a tank in Beiruit. Her mother had died two or three years before I met her, having suffered badly from Alzheimer's; caring for her seriously demented parent whilst trying to earn enough to keep both of them had crucified June. After a terrible illness around the time of her mother's eventual death, which she used to hint had been carcinoma of the pancreas, June never worked again and was left partially disabled. She was left in near-poverty, dependent on the State, and suffered dreadfully with M.E./Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
The house, which she rented, was a sight to behold. The sixty-a-day meant that every wall and ceiling was a deep toffee colour, and she used to tell me that she smoked because her multiple allergies meant that she couldn't take any painkillers. Catfood was squashed into the carpets; on every surface an assortment of knick-knacks and sentimental impedimenta hung or stood, deep in dust. (As she used to say, 'Nature abhors a vacuum: - and so do I.') The top bedroom had a hole in the ceiling, and an entire wall was plastered with pictures of boss-eyed kittens cut out of magazines. Justine once found a bowl up there filled with the disarticulated limbs of dozens of dolls. But again, bizarrely, this seems not to have troubled me, and I have difficulty remembering how it appeared.
But June was, above all, a witch and a wisewoman. In my teens I had just read Rae Beth and Marian Green, and lo and behold, here was A Witch Alone, a Hedgewitch, the Solitary who after Thirteen Moons had Mastered Natural Magic. You know the drill: she was wise in the ways of root and stone, listened for the voices of the moon and stars, was sister to dragons and companion to owls, and so following. Attached to the front wall of June's house was a large besom; as you went through her hall there was a little altar on the right at the foot of the stairs. She usually dressed in black, but May would see her breaking into a suitcase of loud, 70s-style kaftans known as the 'summery-mummery'.
June wasn't a pagan witch; she was an odd type of Christian, who appeared mainly to worship St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. In fact, I think her 'Witchiness' was a concoction of deeply-held faith, loneliness, affectation, and Terry Pratchett. She could be wonderfully theatrical, and this meshed well with her penchant for giving herself occult airs. (Letters were often signed 'The Sibyl of Downstreet'.) She also had a magnificent voice, capable of numerous registers and accents, most amusing. Her alarming ability to become her voices was pressed home to me at a friend's wedding reception, where, upon meeting an elderly Irish gentleman at the bar, she suddenly came the headscarfed Sean Bhean Bhocht and switched into a pitch-perfect Irish accent. It was embarrassing, and left the elderly gentleman nonplussed. Truly, she had missed her calling.
A huge amount of the time I spent with June involved her garden. Originally a thorny, overgrown mess, I slowly transformed it over about five years into a really very pretty cottage garden. It would be normal for me to go over and work in her garden all morning and afternoon, until about three, when she used to get up. (Her sleep pattern was disturbed as a legacy of her illness, so that she would stay up till 5am then sleep in till three or four in the afternoon.) She used to be quite a sight upon waking: dressed in a voluminous, blue baby-doll nightie from which her frail, worryingly thin legs stuck out, her fingernails would occasionally be painted scarlet, and her hair sat skewiff on her head like a stuffed silver tabby.
Some of the happiest moments of my life, and, I suspect, hers, were spent in the garden. I filled it with foxgloves and bluebells, sweet dame's violet and golden hop. There were newts and a frog in the pond I dug. From somewhere, I found her an old iron washtub, which looked perfect as a weed-filled cauldron in the front garden. I particularly remember summer evenings when it would be light until nine, and June would stand, fag on the go as always, pegging out washing while I clipped the honeysuckle or watered the tubs and tin baths filled with morning glory and mimosa. The smell of the honeysuckle mixed with wet summer dust, cut grass and cigarette smoke.
She was always there with tea (bag stewing in the cup, glossy with the fat of gold-top milk), fags, and an offbeat perspective, whatever my divers alarums. For much of my teens, I worked in a New Age shop in Canterbury, and June was persuaded to teach a series of evening classes there on Witchcraft each autumn for about three years. (This all seems so weird now.) This was a massive undertaking, given her unbelievable capacity for inertia and melancholy stasis. Indeed, more than anyone else I have ever met, she was able to embody entropy. But once a week, she used to come into Canterbury, dressed in black and multiply beringed, to instruct a group of women (it usually was women) in 'The Craft'. I was never allowed to attend these, for reasons that will become apparent later. But I could hear her cackling from downstairs, and it's fair to say that she worked hard and produced lots of material. (She used to enjoy lubriciously anointing a candle with essential oil for a spell, explaining that 'the ladies will be familiar with the technique.') Sometimes, of course, her basic absence of knowledge was painfully apparent, and some people who attended those classes were turned off; others, however, were inspired with real and lasting affection. One of the people to come to those erratic classes was Justine, which is how she and I met. Before long, not only Justine but her whole immediate family were regular, and immensely kind, visitors to June Towers.
I need to stress here that there was genuine delight in each other's existence between June and me. It was all a bit Harold and Maude, but from the inside it felt more like Simon Callow's Love is Where it Falls, his memoir of the theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay. (A book which I contemplated giving her, but never did: to have drawn attention to the parallels would have been presumptuous.) In thousands of hours of conversation, and occasional arthritic adventures to London or Faversham, there were certainly dull moments, when I was self-obsessed and mournful, or she repetitive and reactionary. However, many, many times her Leo moon came to the fore, and she was able to pull off a magnificent performance, whether tottering around the (ghastly) Witchfest in Croydon, flirting with an elderly Odinist, or once destroying a wailing fire-alarm simply by smashing it from the ceiling with her walking stick. Over a decade, we exchanged hundreds of letters, which I have in a yellowing sheaf at home.
June was, however, an extremely dirigiste friend. She regarded her role, always, as the dispenser of advice, not to be suggested, but imposed. Often it was valuable, but equally often it was utter rubbish. (She would be bitterly jealous whenever I was in a relationship; once in a letter I sent her a snap of a cute Californian I was seeing, and she wrote on the back 'Pretty - but not for you.') This became very irritating: she was unable to adapt to the fact that I'd grown up and was an intelligent adult in my own right, and didn't need counsel in the way she provided it. I was very useful: I ran errands, did her garden, and eventually - along with friends - redecorated three quarters of that terrible house. Between us, we provided a colour telly, washing machine, VCR, and freezer. She'd been doing all her laundry by hand before this.
She would never ask for any of these things; it would always be expressed something like this - 'Oh. If only I had a colour television, I could watch all those wonderful gardening programmes - there's no point watching them when you can't see the colours.' For about a year, from say 2002-3, her house looked great. The hall, which had had black bags for carpeting, had crisp black and white lino tiles. June chose a marvellously tasteful shade called 'antique white' for the walls and ceiling, which looked very well. The dining room floor was stripped, sanded, and stained mahogany; a friend provided a fine Persian rug for nothing. For the walls she chose an apricot colour, with white woodwork. Everything was carefully cleaned. In the hearth, there was a defunct but handsome iron stove, on which sat a black pottery cauldron I'd made for her (originally for me) in GCSE Art. Above it there hung a wand, made for her by a local witch to whom I had introduced her. It had a crystal at the end and was made out of an old walking stick. Not my taste, but she treasured it. Briefly, things seemed to be coming together, and there were happy days when June's persistent tendency to pessimism and gloom lifted, and the house seemed light and airy, and the garden filled with flowers. In retrospect, those brief two years were the highpoint, never reattained.
Stories were always June's metier. But before we go all Jeanette Winterson and start talking about the liberating reality of fictions, let me say that the beginning of the end was the realisation that June - far from being a wisewoman witch of rich experience and wisdom - was in fact a fantasist of the first order. This became apparent only gradually. She spoke of a huge range of friends: Michael and Derek, a gay couple of her age who lived in French château with a menagerie of animals, for example; or Norma, who was a figure rather like June squared, her own wisewoman and elder 'Sister in the Craft', who would ring her every day to dispense advice and psychic comfort.
One day, it suddenly became apparent to Justine and me that none of these people actually existed. Lest you think us very naive indeed, June was adept at giving such long, blow-by-blow descriptions of these people, their houses, relations and lives - even their furniture - that one simply assumed their existence. After a bout of (self-induced) illness in 2003, it was impossible to conceal that none of these 'dear friends' rushed to her hospital bedside, nor did she ask for them to be contacted.
At this point, it all began to unravel. I went through everything June had said in the previous ten years, reweighing it sceptically. Most of it was possible; much was unlikely. The really horrible thing was the realisation that lots of her experiences fell into 'types' - Meeting the Famous Person, for example (Liz Taylor, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi); Being Recognised as a Witch in Public by a Sister in the Craft; the Peculiar Journey (being driven through Victoria Station on one of the luggage trolleys, being trapped with a High Court Judge drunk in a rowboat on the Thames); and so on. Elements of the plots of films she had just seen would appear as events in her past. Many of these tall tales were in rather poor taste: her regular rushes up to London to tend at the bedsides of dying AIDS patients at The Lighthouse, telling people that my friends from University rang her for advice every weekend, for example. What had seemed like endless variety and incident suddenly seemed very flat and rather tragic. Again it must be stressed that she wasn't demented: she always remained highly articulate and able to stay more or less on top of hundreds of details of an entire fictional life. It was all, she would say, with heavy irony, 'part of Life's rich pageant.'
The cruellest thing I did to her was the most unintentional, which was to take her confabulations for the truth, and introduce her to people with the burden of those expectations placed upon her. The classes must have been a huge strain, as she knew that she was no expert, and yet had to live up to her own hype as the magical wisewoman before a roomful of paying strangers. It was also less than helpful in the long run to have redecorated her house, as it confirmed her unconscious predisposition to believe that she could get anything she wanted by playing the plucky old lady laid low by the 'Fickle Finger of Fate'. Much of my time was spent talking her down from whichever high-point of hysteria she had worked herself up into.
Story after story unravelled silently as I sat listening to her. My grandmother, who had known June for twenty-five years, revealed that her mother had in fact not had Alzheimer's (it was actually shingles). June's own 'pancreatic cancer' was unlikely, as the remission rate is less than 2%. The original spell in hospital c. 1990 seemed more likely to have been some kind of nervous breakdown, perhaps induced by heavy drinking and depression. As for the American GI fiancé, my grandmother pointed out that June had in fact been aged nine at the end of WWII. June had often mentioned her career spent 'defending people in court', and that had led me to assume that she had been a lawyer or a paralegal. It turned out that she had been a legal secretary in a firm of solicitors in Canterbury, but she lost her job because a sum of money mysteriously went missing, and she was lucky to avoid prosecution. Further, my mother (a retired doctor) visited June during her brief stay in hospital in 2002, and said it was absolutely clear from basic observation that most of her statements about her disabilities, allergies and frail health were poppycock, and largely the result of smoking sixty a day and eating badly. She tolerated certain drugs perfectly well which she had told people endlessly would kill her, so violently allergic was she. As a result of all this, I am deeply sceptical about M.E. as a supposed illness - I know that there is some medical evidence that it's a biological disease, and not just an all-too-easy pose struck by malingering hysterics; but June was, in fact, a malingering hysteric, and she certainly found her 'illness' highly convenient at times.
Gradually, this woman who had based her character on the ability to be restlessly inventive and infintely experienced lost the ability to create new material. Talking to her became like wandering though a lumber-room of masks, which we all knew to be fictive but which she presented as merely discarded. The jeweller, the cordon-bleu chef, the professional tailor, the drug-and-alcohol counsellor, the dancer, the director, the pilot (!), the WI chairwoman, the mistress, the wisewoman-witch and the cancer-survivor - all were revealed as hollow. As I grew up, June's faux-naive mannerisms became more and more painful, as I began to understand that she essentially had (according to the psychiatric jargon) Hysterical Personality Disorder. It was as though behind her speech one could always hear the rhythms of a nursery-rhyme, the neglected little girl craving attention through fantastic dramas and feigned illnesses. I couldn't bear to go and see her regulary for over a year, as I adjusted, often expressing extremes of resentment and anger to friends. I felt that I'd been manipulated, lied to and taken for granted, used for my hard-work and what my wages could buy. Eventually, in 2005, I sent her a letter saying that I couldn't see her again, but not spelling out the reasons why. Self-marooned, and having no choice but to stick with her lifelong confabulations, she would not have been able to understand.
It was, for all that, a love affair of epic proportions for both of us. I know I've written as though she is dead; she isn't. We have not spoken in three years (although last year I received a completely blank birthday card from her). My feelings have softened into something sadder and less angry. I must be one of any number of lost friends that June has littered around the place; certainly, hardly anyone in the village speaks to her. After the split had become generally known, one of my grandmother's friends said to me: 'We didn't want to force you to hear something you didn't want to. We knew you had to find out for yourself what she's like.' I know she will never forgive me, but I've forgiven her, and can look at her with more compassion now. Tragically, she would refer to unfortunate individuals as 'one of those people with whom you have to take a world of trouble: and then wonder why you bothered.' She never realised she was describing herself.
She was fond of saying that she wanted to get her French back up to scratch, just to go across the Channel, as, after all, she wasn't 'going to be reading Colette in the original.' And a quotation from Pierre Trahard on Colette (see photo above) will serve to sum up June's ultimately life-enhancing influence on me. She taught me that fictions and fantastic scenarios can often bring us closer to ourselves and who we might be than the simple truth; one of her favourite phrases was 'judge not', and Trahard's words, then, must serve as a sad, salutary envoi.
The day will come when people will 'psychoanalyse' Colette. May it not bring us truths with are too disappointing, along with over-pretentious mistakes! In the meantime, let us be content with the outside. It is full of sap and savour; it does not lie. Mistrustful sceptics will ask: Is this a true portrait? The answer will be: Ask Colette; and she may not know. In any case, it is in harmony with her work. Even if it offers us a half-legendary Colette, let us console ourselves; it is the Colette that will endure, and therefore it is the real one.