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Red Dungarees
Alex Barr

When my daughter was little I dreamed ahead. I have a photograph of her seven years old in red dungarees which had a green crocodile head on the front. I imagined I would meet her one day in the future in her final year at some university. We would stroll around the campus together so absorbed in conversation – about art, poetry, philosophy, cookery, politics, it hardly mattered – that we’d barely notice the sunshine heightening the fine architecture and the glowing banks of flowers. Friends of hers would greet us with admiration, envy even, impressed by the maturity of our connection.


Late in life I realise I was treating that scene as the climax of a story. I was casting our lives in the form of a narrative. As if my daughter’s playing with toy animals, her teenage skirmishes with alcohol and boys, falling in and out with friends, stress over exams, causing parental anxiety, simply built towards the imagined meeting when everything would be resolved. The moment in dungarees captured by the camera was mere potential, as if she was a flower bud of no interest until it burst.


Where did it come from, this way of looking at things? I now see clearly how it drains the life out of precious moments. Was I really present when that photograph was taken? I’m still under the spell of seeing life-as-narrative. Waiting for my existence to be ‘resolved’ with a satisfying dénouement. A eureka moment when my failures, betrayals, anxieties, searches, patchwork education, scattered successes would suddenly make sense because it was to that closure they were all leading. Waiting in vain, because as T S Eliot writes, ‘There is no end, but addition.’

Maybe my thoughts about my daughter were influenced by Mallarmé’s poem ‘Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe’ with its famous first line:


Tel qu’en Lui-meme enfin l’éternité le change


‘Such as into Himself at last eternity changes him.’ Poe’s true self, according to Mallarmé, had only just been revealed. As if his whole earthly existence had been building towards that reckoning. As if his life, or any of our lives, was like a football match which only makes sense at the final whistle. I don’t mean I was waiting for that little girl to die – an event I assumed and hoped I would never see – but simply mature, ripen, as if she were a pear. Or a caterpillar. Or a tadpole.


When I studied architecture the course included philosophy. I heard that the tutor developed his philosophical ideas in discussions with Louis Gillane, an antique-shop owner. I paid a visit myself. In the fascinating gloom of a forest of intriguing artefacts, Louis asked me, ‘Do you believe in the reality of Now?’ I was tongue-tied. If only I could go back and tell him, ‘Yes – but too late. Back then I thought every experience, every obstacle overcome, was simply “standing me in good stead”, and that every phase of my life was ‘leading somewhere’, like the stops on the Underground.


Nowadays, driving to my home in Wales, I try to stop my thoughts thrusting ahead to get the journey over. I try to appreciate reality of the journey – a conifer plantation outlined against the sky, hedges geometrically trimmed or overgrown. I tell myself some people enjoy driving for its own sake and relish the design of their car, so I study details – the shine of the chrome trim round the satnav screen, the texture of black fabric on the dashboard, the neatness of the black plastic vent covers, each of these items the result of expert design and manufacture. It almost works.


When walking I can sometimes feel satisfaction in the number of steps I’ve done without thinking how many more there are to do. On hills I can look back at how high I’ve already climbed, rather than ahead at the exhausting effort still needed. I remember cycling in Belgium, which is mainly flat, but approaching the Dutch border near Maastricht is a hill that seems endless. I didn’t want to lose face with my Belgian companion but found the effort excruciating. Instead of anxiously scanning the long steep stretch ahead, I suddenly found myself watching the joints in the kerbstones. By counting them, I was able to keep going.



As for my ‘dream ahead’ for my daughter, what happened was nothing I could have imagined. She did go to university – in London – but I have few memories of her time there. In one we visit an eel-and-pie shop in Greenwich and the Cutty Sark. In another we’re at Whitechapel Tube station. I’m on the westbound platform heading to a play rehearsal in Turnham Green, she’s facing me eastbound en route to a project in Bow. We wave to one another across the tracks.


At that time she was already married, with a baby daughter. It’s a good thing I’m not a fan of weddings, because hers was low key, at a registry office. My wife and I were invited at the last moment. The only thing that lifted our spirits was an impromptu meal with her, her husband, and his parents – a respectable couple from our village suburb – at an Italian restaurant.


The next section is hard to write. As a teenager my daughter always confided in her mother and they felt like best friends. But when she met her future husband she shut her out because he found daughter-to-mother confidences threatening. After graduating she moved back from London to our hometown of Manchester and joined the police, but became pregnant and left before completing her training.


After the birth postnatal depression hit her. She tried to keep it from us. We found she had admitted herself to a psychiatric unit. We tried to do what we could, but not long after she was discharged her husband left her, unable to live with the constant gloom. She had a third child by another man. Pregnancy suited her and the hormones made her happy, but once more after the birth depression struck. She saw her life, and our part in it, as a series of bad experiences.


We lived two miles away but wanted to move to Wales where we could afford to buy land. She encouraged us to buy a twenty-acre smallholding with outhouses that could be converted to dwellings. She and several friends wanted to start a commune, a scheme we approved of, having often researched communes in the past. The plan fell through. She never came. One evening in our second year we came home to a phone message from her housemate in Manchester. What we most feared had come to pass. She had committed suicide, hanged herself. Those last words look like any others on the page. To me they smoulder.


Our daughter was slender, beautiful, clever, with a sense of humour, a streak of naughtiness, and friends who loved her. The pain of our loss seeped into the stones and timbers of our buildings and lay on our fields like reproachful mist. We wondered what we did wrong in her upbringing, how we should have safeguarded her, why we abandoned her by moving to Wales. We forgot she encouraged the move.


The hammer blow took my wife and I different ways. While she slept more, or lay awake tormented by thoughts, or sat staring into space, I became manic, creating a new doorway, moving light fittings, painting walls. Surprisingly there are things that soften what seems unbearable. Our daughter had a beautiful Buddhist funeral. We were unbelievably lucky to have it led by the abbot of a vihara in Birmingham, whose reminder ‘everything that arises passes away’ made a great impression on us.


Letters from friends helped much more than I expected. I’ve sent messages of condolence without realising how much they mean to those who receive them. My daughter’s death created such tension with our son-in-law we feared losing touch with our grandchildren. That tension was only resolved when we saw that our anger was misdirected. It was huge and blessed relief when our grandchildren started regular visits every school vacation.


Now, my second-eldest great-granddaughter is about to start a university course. I doubt whether I will ever stroll round the campus with her having deep discussions. A great-grandparent, one among eight, plays a minor role. As for my youngest great-granddaughter, by the time she graduates – if she does in the daunting climatic times ahead – I’ll be over a hundred. Or . . .


Only now I’m eighty-three do Louis Gillane’s words resonate. The Reality of Now is becoming part of my daily life, my spiritual practice (if that’s not too pretentious), my investigation of mental states. What a difference. How beautiful are the fish in the pond, the towering foxgloves in the garden, the people I greet on my walks, even the clothes abandoned on the bedroom floor. . .  all simply themselves.


It's not that I didn’t talk to my daughter in her red dungarees when she was seven. I did, every day. But there was always that sense of waiting for her to grow to see what she was really like. As if I was saving my best for later, because my conversations with her adult self would be deeper, more interesting, more intellectual, when in fact a child is more spontaneous, more unexpected, more amusing, less guarded, less self-conscious. I should have enjoyed those times with her so much more.



Alex Barr's recent non-fiction appears in Griffith Review and Stereo Stories in Australia, The Blue Nib in Ireland, Syncopation Literary Journal and Change Seven Magazine in the USA. and Sarasvati and Shooter Magazine in the UK with more forthcoming from Litro Magazine. His short fiction collections ‘My Life with Eva’ and ‘Take a Look at Me-e-e!’ are published by Parthian and Pont respectively. Social media:

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