by Sheena Billett
Lucy had hated her grandfather for many years, even though she’d never met him. From unspecific family conversations, she’d grown to understand that he’d been a controlling bully, although her grandmother would go no further than: ‘My husband was a difficult man, you know.’ Safe in the dementia-fuelled knowledge that no one in her audience had known him. Lucy hated that her grandmother had endured such an unhappy and humiliating life, even though her pride hadn’t allowed her to admit it.
She knew that her mother had been frightened of Lucy’s grandfather, and had escaped by getting married and moving away as soon as she had finished university. She knew this because her mother’s cousin, Aunt Sal, had told her so one day, in a surprisingly frank conversation.
When Lucy had tried to talk to her mother about her childhood, the conversation would be firmly shut down. ‘That’s all in the past and there’s no point in raking it all up now.’
But it wasn’t all in the past was it? The ripple effect of her grandfather’s behaviour was still affecting the family now. As she got older, Lucy came to realise that her mother’s incapacity to show affection, either physically or otherwise, stemmed from her own dysfunctional upbringing, and that, it, in turn, had made Lucy into a needy, attention-seeking young woman.
Following her suicide attempt, Lucy’s first appointment with Ellen, her counsellor, had not gone well.
‘Can you tell me a little bit about your journey to this point in your life?’
‘How are you feeling now?’
‘Well I’ve just tried to cut my wrists, so pretty shitty, actually!’
Ellen looked at Lucy over the top of her glasses for a few moments.
‘Have you seen anyone from your family since you’ve been in hospital?’
‘My mum came and just acted as if I’d had my appendix out, or something. I don’t even know where my dad is – he couldn’t cope with living with an iceberg!’
Lucy stood up. ‘Look, are we done here? I’ve got a life to sort out.’
It felt as if everything was falling to pieces in Lucy’s head. Pieces she didn’t know how to put back together. Ellen was right, what kind of life did she have?
Lucy had dropped out of art college, and was now working in her local branch of a national coffee chain – encouraging people to ‘Go on, treat yourself.’ She still sketched from time to time, but couldn’t seem to face the hassle of getting all her paints and equipment out to do anything more. And anyway, she lived in a shared house so there was no room to leave things out. Her latest relationship had shrivelled and gone the way of many others, as her girlfriend had run for the hills when Lucy’s possessive neediness had stifled any chance of happiness for either of them. She had one friend, Sophie; but Sophie had got her life together, had finished uni, got a fellow architect as a partner, and was living it up with other bright young things in Brixton. Lucy had been left behind, and their lives were on different paths, although Lucy’s life didn’t seem to have a path to anywhere; she was stranded in an endless car park.
The sessions with Ellen eventually resumed, and somewhere deep down, Lucy knew she was lucky to have them – other people had to wait months for just six sessions. It was one thing her mother had manged to do, albeit in a remote way, refusing to talk about it. As the sessions came round, Lucy found herself looking forward to the peaceful oasis that was Ellen’s room. She could just sit and be still, not having to be anywhere or do anything, and sometimes she and Ellen would spend almost the whole hour in companionable silence. The best thing was that there was a huge, full-length window which looked out onto a wonderful garden, and there was always something new to see as the weeks went by. Eventually, Lucy found herself saying:
‘I wish I could paint this, or even just draw it – look at the blossom on that apple tree, I keep thinking how I would paint it in watercolours, delicate and translucent against the blue sky.’ Had she really just said all that? Ellen would think she was pretentious and showing off, and Lucy cared about how Ellen saw her.
‘Well, why don’t you? Bring a sketch pad next time.’
That was the turning point. As the weeks went by, sketching turned into painting and Lucy and Ellen talked about anything and everything – although on reflection, Lucy realised that it was mostly her talking about anything and everything. She found that while she was painting, she stopped worrying about what to say, about what Ellen thought of her, and the floodgates opened.
Ellen never commented on her work, never even referred to it. Her go-to phrase seemed to be, ‘Tell me more about…’ nudging Lucy forwards on some kind of journey. Maybe she had left the car park, but she had no idea where she was headed.
By the time Lucy was painting the first frost of the year, she knew that she had reached a point where she was ready to think about what might be next in her life.
‘I really want to do something with my life, I want to help people deal with the crap in their past so that they don’t end up like me.’
‘Maybe you mean, so that they don’t go through what you’ve been through,’ said Ellen gently.
‘Maybe you could use your art to tell people something.’
‘Oh, it’s only dabbling, I don’t think anyone would gain anything from looking at those,’ Lucy gestured towards the bulging sketchbook.
When she got home, Lucy got her pictures out and looked at them – maybe they could tell a story, the story of her journey through a garden. One of her housemates, Ben, worked at one of those artists’ hubs sponsored by a mental health charity, maybe she could have a word with him.
Something visceral inside Lucy told her this was the way to go, even though she didn’t think she had a cat-in-hell’s chance of actually mounting an exhibition.
Ben had been surprisingly enthusiastic.
‘Wow, Lucy, what an amazing idea! Can I see some of your pictures?’
‘Sure, they’re only watercolours done on a sketchpad though.’
Ben looked through some examples that Lucy showed him, and called Janey, another house resident, to come and have a look.
‘Wow, you’re a dark horse, Lucy! My God, these are amazing!’
Ben arranged a meeting with the hub manager, a stern-looking woman called Betty.
‘Ben tells me you’ve got an idea for an exhibition. He seems very enthusiastic. Can you tell me more?’
‘Well, I just thought maybe I could show the pictures as a kind of mental-health journey or something. I did them during my counselling sessions – my counsellor had an amazing garden,’ she added.
‘Okay, well let’s have a look at them and see what we can do.’
As Betty looked through, Lucy babbled nervously: ‘I don’t have any money to frame them or anything, and I’m not looking to make any money… I just want to help people really.’
Eventually, Betty looked up and took a deep breath.
‘Oh my God, here goes… the big N. O.,’ said Lucy to herself, already stuffing her paintings back into their case.
‘Lucy, I love your idea, and these paintings… well… they’re unique. I think we should turn the whole hub into an exhibition of your work for two weeks over Easter. We’ll pay for any framing and other expenses. Your job is to select fifteen or twenty paintings, or sketches, that best illustrate your journey. Maybe you could write something to go with them. What do you think?’
Lucy stared at Betty. ‘Are you serious?’
‘Too right I’m serious, sweetie. So you’d better get cracking!’
Lucy debated with herself for several weeks whether to tell her mother and the rest of the family about the exhibition. Her mother would probably tell her that she was showing off. But suddenly, Lucy came to the knowledge that she didn’t care what her mother thought – that who she was wasn’t defined by what other people thought of her – even Ellen, so she invited everyone she could think of. Lucy liked that the exhibition was for a cause that was bigger than her.
Six weeks later, on the opening night, Lucy stood, hands clenched behind her back, waiting to see if anyone would turn up. The doors opened and a crowd flooded in. Lucy recognised all her house mates, Betty, and all the new friends she’d made at The Hub, even Ellen, and… her mother. As she was surrounded by well-wishers offering their congratulations, Lucy covertly kept an eye on her mother, who had been taking ages to study every picture on show. She had expected her to take a quick glance, say a cursory ‘Well done,’ and fade away into the night. But no, she was actually looking… no, studying, Lucy’s work.
Ellen came over and patted Lucy’s back. ‘You did it, Lucy!’
‘We did it,’ Lucy hugged her. Thank you for being on this journey with me and allowing me to experience your garden.’
‘Well, you know where I am if you need to visit again, anytime.’ Ellen hugged Lucy back.
Eventually Lucy plucked up the courage to stand beside her mother, and was shocked to see tears running down her cheeks.
‘Oh, Mum…’ She put her arm around her mother and held her close.
Helen turned and put a hand up to Lucy’s face, cupping her cheek.
‘I never knew how to talk to you, but it seems, you know how to talk to me. Lucy, these are beautiful, and I’m so sorry about the life I gave you.’
‘But you gave me a life, that’s the main thing,’ said Lucy, risking a joke.
Helen smiled and squeezed her hand.
‘And I’m sorry about the life you had, growing up,’ Lucy added.
‘I guess we’re all part of a chain – I’m sure your grandfather had someone in his life who made him unhappy and stunted his growth, but we’ll never know who, and it doesn’t matter now. The important thing is that we recognise what has happened and learn from it. It’s taken until now, and learning about your journey for me to realise that.’
‘And your grandfather wasn’t always a bad-tempered ogre; he loved his garden, and on good days I can remember seeing him drawing and sketching – even painting in his later years.’
More of the fragments of who she was came together in Lucy’s mind. ‘So, I get this from him?’ she said, gesturing at the pictures.
‘Yes, you do. And to be honest, I’ve been so busy trying to forget about him, that I’d forgotten about these fleeting good times, when he was happy, painting and drawing in the garden. Of course, he would never talk about it, and we never found any of his work. I think he just destroyed everything – it was maybe his private thing that he didn’t want to share.’
Lucy couldn’t quite get her head around this new ‘mother’, and honestly wondered if she was dreaming. But if she was, she certainly didn’t want to wake up. In this world, she had a real life and her own path.
She also had Carrie, another artist at The Hub, who was sending her positive vibes from behind the drinks table. Lucy could feel them without looking at her.
When Lucy’s grandmother died in blissful ignorance of the Covid epidemic raging outside, and inside, the nursing home, Lucy helped her mother sort through the remains of her grandmother’s small life. Over this heart-breaking task, Helen and Lucy got to know each other, and Lucy was astonished to learn that her mother had been seeing an elderly man called Brian for years, and that they had been on several cruises together.
‘Wow, I’m really going to have to keep an eye on you, Mum, gallivanting off with all and sundry.’
‘Brian is not “all and sundry”, I’ll have you know,’ Helen said archly.
Lucy laughed out of sheer pleasure that her mother was having a good life, and before she knew it, the unthinkable happened and they were giggling together like a couple of teenagers.
‘Honestly, Mum,’ gasped Lucy drying her tears.
As they were packing the last few books, Lucy noticed a folded piece of A4 nestling between two pages. She opened it out, and gasped in surprise. Here was her apple tree, painted just as she’d imagined it, the blossom delicate against a brilliant blue sky.
The book that followed on from the exhibition included Lucy’s grandfather’s painting next to her own version. She had them mounted, side by side, in a single frame, and wondered if her grandfather was happy at last.