Before you know anything, do you know nothing? I don’t think that’s the way it happens. I imagine – as soon as you can think, in the womb of your mother, you know darkness, love, sounds in the forever distance. And, through your life, you learn more and more until your brain stops. But you never know nothingness.
I never really knew my mum. That was a pity because she hadn’t vanished. It was just that, somewhere along the way we got separated, in the same time and not far in miles. Usually, we only heard each other’s voices during occasional, bizarre phone calls.
- Hello, it’s me.
- Harvey? Is everything all right? (Followed by the sound of coughing.)
- Yes, everything is fine. How are you?
- Oh, I was watching a programme about, what do you call them? Octopuses! You’ll know about them. Of course you do. You read about everything. You’ve always been like that. Remember when…
And the conversation, if that’s the right term for a psychedelic octopus of words, always sprouting a new limb, ranged for a few minutes over – bits of my past I did not remember to bits of a now I couldn’t quite grasp.
I thought that those phone calls and my very occasional visits to Edinburgh were times which would always be repeated. Until they stopped. And my mum wasn’t there. Time became different: non-repeatable.
People often say – when someone dies, they leave a gap in your life. That’s right, but it also isn’t quite right. A gap is something you can explain. But when you feel that someone you thought would always be there has vanished, you can’t explain it: at least, not to yourself. It isn’t just a gap that’s left. There’s also a presence – of all the things you said, and all the things you never got around to saying.
I started to visit Edinburgh again to see my dad; and, I tried to go more often than before. On a few of those visits, with my wife Isobel, in the summer and as summer played with autumn, my dad showed us paintings he was making or framing. Most were abstracts: geometric shapes floating within small rectangular pools of grey-green-blue. Some were drawings: a tower in Florence; and Seven Arches Bridge, near Dundee. One was a drawing called: ‘Silent Tribute’. It was a drawing of a small Grand piano. No one there. Just the piano. All the drawings and paintings were for an exhibition, to be held in Dundee later in the year. It was a kind of remembrance celebration of my mum. Any money raised through sales and donations would go to a Dundee cancer charity: CANDU.
My sister Michelle was doing most of the organising for the exhibition. She also contributed her own paintings. They made use of darker and brighter colours than in my dad’s art: never garish, and somehow strong and subtle at the same time. Purples, blues, yellows; fabrics; a blown eggshell painted black; silver and gold threads; and a photograph printed in negative form: of my mum as a young girl, when she won a piano-playing competition.
My other sister Shirley contributed a poem for the exhibition; and there would be a poem by my mum, written in 1993, on display; and I wrote a poem too. All would be placed in simple frames amongst the paintings. Our three names under three poems: Molten Renaissance by Shirley Duke; Then and Now by Alice Chrytyn Bain Duke; What is faith? By Harvey Duke. Like three messages in bottles from three entirely different lives. Yet, of course, we were never entirely different.
The exhibition was held for 7 days in October 2019, in the visitor centre of the Dundee Botanic Gardens. It was an appropriate site because my mum had a passion for gardens and plants. Around the exhibtion, we could explore hundreds of flowers and trees, including exotic wonders in the large greenhouses. Nature had always fascinated my mum. It drew her to the poetry of Thomas Hardy, and she wrote about his works in her Phd submission in 1992, when she was 52 years old. My sister Michelle had built some of these connections with the natural world into the heart of the exhibition’s themes. In the special booklet, introducing the art and containing the three poems, Michelle wrote:
‘The title for the exhibition refers to the aftermath of personal loss as similar to the stage when a plant’s roots are recovering from the shock of having been disturbed or displaced as they struggle to regain their hold and equilibrium in an altered environment.’
In one piece of art, Michelle used paper made out of flowers which my mum had grown.
The week of the exhibition, I had time off work, so I went a few times to look at the paintings, speak to my family and visitors, think about my mum, and wander around taking photographs of flowers and trees and ponds. On some of the days the sun shone and everything glowed with the kind of autumn blends of reds, yellows and greens, which always seem to be the beginning of an ending and also the drum-roll to a vanishing act. Then, because it is Dundee, there were wet days, but the rain stopped long enough for me to wander around again, taking photographs of antique-silver drops of water on bright green leaves and on the off-white petals of an off-white rose. The strangest thing was I didn’t know all week if I was happy or sad.
On one night of that strangest of weeks, I attended a night class in ‘Life Writing’ at Dundee University. The class tutor set out a selection of books written from life and we read excerpts from passages projected on to a screen: Charles Darwin, Frank McCourt, Annie Dillard. And then we read and discussed pieces of homework done by class members. I read out my own contribution: it was about visiting a museum in Edinburgh with my dad, and it was a bit funny and a bit sad and I thought about it as I walked around the Botanic Gardens. I thought about the discussion in class about ‘finding a voice’ in writing: your own voice, one you feel comfortable writing in and maybe a voice that helps you to say what you see and think. And I deliberately touched huge leaves in the greenhouse and rough pine cones out in the garden, remembering how we were taught to think about our other senses, not just sight, when we wrote. And I breathed in the warm air amongst the fabulous tropical trees and the heat and the smell reminded me of the old public swimming pool; and it also reminded me of Broughty Ferry beach, and starfishes and jellyfish: shiny purple melted plates dotted around on the sands. And I remembered a time, under an enormous blue sky, when me and my mum walked and talked way way out to sandbanks. The tide was out and we didn’t notice how far we had gone, too busy talking and laughing. And then, the cooler air of the gardens brought me from one place to another place. I breathed in now, deeply. There was a hint of the River Tay in the taste of the air. My mum’s ashes were scattered on the waters of the same Tay at Broughty Ferry. It’s what she wanted.
Walking along the waterfront, after leaving the exhibition, it began to rain very heavily. All the paintings and flowers had been fresh in my mind but the rain washed them away. Then the rain got harder and wind blew colder against me. I walked towards the rail bridge, and the rain slowly eased and it grew brighter. For a while, I didn’t feel or notice anything apart from the rain – cold on my face. Then, a huge rainbow appeared in the sky above the bridge and, somehow, it was also somewhere in the past and I was also dreaming. Anyway, I smiled.