Why is it I can never find the one thing I want in this glory hole called home? This time it’s a knitting pattern. The evenings are drawing in, and my favourite gloves are looking moth-eaten. I’ll make a new pair, I thought. It won’t take long, I thought. So here I am, hours later, in the cupboard. There are patterns for baby clothes, cardigans, Christmas stockings, socks and 1980s jumpers. There are pages torn from well-thumbed copies of The People’s Friend in a past life. There’s a cross-stitch kit with no instructions, a relic of a lifetime even further passed, and an ancient recipe for vegetarian Christmas nut roast. No glove pattern. I’m leafing through the pile for the umpteenth time when something glittery catches my eye. It’s a Christmas card.
It’s been a week for ghosts, and this is the second time yours has visited. The first was when I opened that email on Thursday afternoon. Your face smiled out as if that Monday in July, almost four-and-a-half years ago, had never happened. The inquest was this week, and it seems your dad made the headlines in both Belfast and Luton. He told the driver whose inexperience brought your too-short life to its abrupt end to live his own life to the full, and I know you’d have said the same. Live life in colour. And I try, really I do. This Christmas card is full of ghosts, all made bearable by your innate understanding that something good would come from the situation. Even from the appalling mess that was Charlie. It’s here, in your handwriting …
If you hadn’t come, I don’t know how we would have coped. I know it wasn’t under good circumstances that you came but God has used it to make good …
I can see so clearly now, but back then I felt nothing but shame. Maybe that’s why I tucked the card away and forgot it.
In fact, your dad caused quite a stir by offering your killer the same grace that came so naturally to you. In a world full of recrimination, compassion sometimes sticks in people’s throats. This very week, a popular tabloid called for Gary Lineker to be sacked for daring to express concern for Syrian children, and it’s not so long since Lily Allen drew the bile of Twitter by weeping for a traumatised thirteen-year-old. The Jungle in Calais is being demolished as I type. Thousands of desperate dreams are dying, yet last night I watched a well-fed man spew hatred on TV over a handful of displaced orphans in Devon. What’s happening to the world? Whatever it is, I don’t think you’d have liked it, but you’d have been far more gracious about it than I.
Aside from Donald Trump, and any other psychopath whose peace is untrammelled by concern for consequences, we all of us live with fear. Bullies, governments, Republican nominees and international corporations play this to their advantage. Bullies offer relief from torment if we do things their way. Governments offer protection in return for unquestioning allegiance. Donald Trump fakes fellow feeling to persuade electors to give him their victim-vote. International corporations create problems we never had, so they can sell things we didn’t know we needed. Don’t fret, I’m not hinting at a web of conspiracy. I’m old enough and ugly enough to know it’s never that co-ordinated. This is simply what you get when you make market forces a god, self-interest a virtue and profit a principle. This is what happens when you dehumanise people to the point that they become mere ghosts in the capitalist machine.
I grew up on the northern fringe of London in the wake of World War II. You could see the shells of bombed-out buildings a bus ride away. I had a ration book, although my parents never used it. Many of my primary school friends were the children of refugees from the Nazi holocaust. We played hopscotch, French skipping and jacks in the playground. We collected gonks and trolls. We were obsessed with the Beatles. We wrote the same stories, hated the same school dinners and had the same dreams and aspirations. Some of my friends refused to eat pork, and celebrated unfamiliar religious holidays. Others had big televisions, ate cakes bought from shops instead of home-made ones, and were allowed to stay up much later than I was. I learned that families have different lifestyles, and that it’s no big deal. I think I’ll always be thankful for my mother’s calm explanation that a refugee is simply someone whose home has become too dangerous a place to live in. How could I, with such an intense passion for my own space, feel anything but empathy for someone deprived of their home?
Even then, there were the scaremongers. Plus ca change. After all, hadn’t it been Hitler’s scaremongering that brought about the holocaust in the first place? The cycle of history shows that when people feel themselves hard-done-by they’ll look for scapegoats. Thus it becomes the job of astute politicians to direct the anger where it can do least harm to those truly responsible for the mess. A billionaire fraudster proposes building a wall to keep powerless migrants out of the United States. A media mogul whips up hatred against a handful of teenage refugees. They’re hailed as saviours when all they’ve done is to deflect attention from their own culpability. Low wages maximise their profits. Poverty encourages migration. If you can’t feed your family, are you going to sit and watch them starve? Nobody walks away from everything they love without good reason.
I’m out walking with a friend and two cameras on an autumn morning. My camera and I wrestle over the focus for a photo. My friend and I wrangle over politics. Yes, a lot of people worry about immigration, I want to say, but migrants are our modern scapegoats, like Jews in Hitler’s Germany. They’ve become less than human to us. Mere statistics. Shadowy figures. And ghosts are easy to demonise in tabloid headlines, while the puppet master rakes in the cash. Our path meanders amongst trees and allotments, over bridges and through tunnels, past flowerbeds and graffiti. An English urban landscape, flushing briefly gold as the leaves tumble toward winter.
Around the next corner, and I’m face-to-face with a photo I can’t take. Two faded dolls, once loved and now forgotten, sit on a sill outside a house, and all the grief I’ve ever felt seems balled up in their dejection. Who can photograph a ghost? Later this evening my frenetic search will turn up a dog-eared copy of the pattern they were knitted from. The needles’ click, the pattern, the creating were sometimes all that kept me this side of the abyss the first, dark months. Thus, the love I longed to give my newborn daughter knitted up a crazy collection of dolls and toys instead. Now Sarah’s ghost is still the hardest one to see, but she’s there in the photograph my friend has taken. And I know just how much those dolls once were loved.