Me and Debbie McGee – or, Life and Death in West Ruislip

I know what you’re thinking. What does Debbie McGee, diminutive relict of the late pint-sized prestidigitator Paul Daniels, have to do with anything? And, more specifically, what does she have to do with me?

Just a few weeks ago, I’d have wondered the same thing. And then she turned up at the auction of my parents’ furniture with a camera crew in tow. Also with Chesney Hawkes – you know, the one and only – although I could care less about him. He has no pizzazz. This, strangely, is relevant. The pizzazz, I mean. I’ll come back to that later.

I must admit, I was in two minds about attending the auction. Watching people dismantle my parents’ home – my childhood home – had been a strange and wearying experience. Everything in it had its own memories, or its own place in the background of remembered familial dramas, consequential sometimes, mostly not.

And I suppose I should have spotted the warm tide of absurdity beginning to lap around my feet when I discovered that the man leading the removal team was the founder of the UK Don McLean fan club. I gather he has a large tattoo of Don’s face on his back, but sadly I cannot confirm that. (I can confirm that his ring tone is, of course, American Pie.)

Still, there were other things on my mind.

It had been over a year since my father died and I suppose this was a moment we had all known was coming. And, since everything in the house was still more or less as it had been when my mother died in 2009, we had all known it was coming a long time. All of us except my father, perhaps, who had refused to countenance moving until it was too late, and whose last months were a dementia-fuelled cycle of shock, horror and anxiety – repeat to fade – about his rapidly declining physical and mental health.

I don’t think I had realised quite how much Alzheimer’s takes from you, how punishing its sleight of hand. I still lie awake remembering his disbelief. Like Freud’s patient with his absurd dream, I still regularly dream that my father is still alive – ill, but alive – and then remember, inside the dream, that no, he died already, and wonder how I am going to break the news to him. The details vary; those elements are constant. Perhaps death is like the sun in that respect; it cannot be looked at directly.

And now the bed he is still -ridden in in my dreams has gone. My parents slept in separate beds – as far as I know, all their married lives – in the same two beds for sixty-odd years. My mother’s bed, which I remember creeping into when I was small and scared in the night, is gone too. It’s also the last place I saw her meaningfully alive, early in 2009 when I cooked a meal for her. I saw her again later, at the hospital, after the end, but she never stirred from unconsciousness.

She had cancer of the oesophagus – it had been diagnosed about eight months earlier. She was weak, but wanted to climb the stairs to bed unaided. My father let her. Let’s just say the choices they made are not those I would have encouraged had I been consulted. I was angry with my father for this for a long time, and for other things too. The tumour ruptured shortly afterwards. I don’t think she was conscious for long. To the last day, climbing those stairs I would think, these are the stairs that killed her.

But then, walking down them, I would think, these are the stairs I used to jump down when I was little, half-landing to half-landing, delighting in the discovery of energy and flight each time. This is where I remember sitting with my mother – heaven knows why there – and talking about Auden and Wallace Stevens. To one side is – was – a window seat where my sister and I used to watch the neighbourhood fireworks on November 5, waiting for our father to come home from work.

The multiverse is a fashionable idea, these days, but really, this world is multiple enough for the most of us. The simplest things in our lives exist in their own prodigious universes of meaning – the drunkenness of things being various, as MacNeice said – that it is more than most of us can cope with. We tamp meaning down, lest it explode in our faces.

Everything is gone. The chairs my mother reupholstered by hand – slaved over, she might have said. The hostess trolleys wheeled out at Christmas for chicken liver pate or smoked salmon, and bowls of nuts I don’t recall anyone eating. The bowls we ate breakfast cereal out of. The stores of unwritten birthday cards. The chair my dad sat in when I shaved his beard for him after a month in hospital towards the end. The razor. The shaving brush. The plastic bowl that held the hot water. The dry towels I wiped his face with.

Usually when you empty a home it is to move into another. This was, simply, an end. Nothing new will come of it. Not for us, at least; the house itself will begin another life with another family. For my family, it was – or seems to have been – the last thing that kept us together and involved with one another’s lives. The death of my father exposed a lot of tensions between us in different ways, and relationships are much more precarious than I – perhaps we – had previously realised.

I had never seen the house bare before; my parents bought it when I was two months old. All that was left after Don McLean had done his work were the books – mountainous, tumbling stacks of them in every room – waiting for me to take them to Oxfam, and my father’s papers, which I drove to the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University the day the house sale went through. (I leave things to the last minute, me.)

I had taken a few things: my mother’s Heals dressing table with its trifold mirror for my daughter; an old wooden trunk my father brought back from the East after the war, its surfaces decorated with appliqué boats and fishes and island temples that I remember exploring in wonder with my fingers when I was a child; a couple of glass-fronted bookcases; a few things more.

My sister took some things for herself, too. I think we would have taken it all, if we could have done. Letting go of it seemed disloyal, but what else was there to do?

An auction seemed a respectful choice – a way, perhaps, to assure a kind of longevity for all these things: furniture, gardening tools, glassware, lights, LPs, and on and on. And attending the auction seemed appropriate too. A final look at all these things, in the process of becoming something else, transitioning through inventory into a place in the lives of others.

But then there was the team from Celebrity Antiques Road Trip.

I don’t watch Celebrity Antiques Road Trip, to be honest, so I am not au fait with the personalities. But everyone knows Debbie McGee, don’t they? And you’d probably think, like me, that the opportunity for her kind of showbiz shtick would be somewhat limited at an auction room in West Ruislip. Dear old Chesney didn’t belt out any of his hit. So what could Debbie do?

What she could do, it turns out, was put an old red military jacket into the auction – that’s how the show works: celebs buy things in antique shops and try to make a profit from them at auction – and then leap up when the item comes under the hammer and model it for a bemused audience of octogenarians, septuagenarians, my partner and me. And for the camera, of course.

By ‘model’ I mean vamp and shimmy. Or, more precisely, and to my appalled amusement, vamp and shimmy in front of my family’s beloved and beautiful 1970s rosewood dining table, which was probably the most valued thing they had, only used for important occasions and looked after as if it were made of glass.

Debbie didn’t drape herself on it, which I rather feared she might. But there the moment was, nonetheless. My parents tended more to earnestness than frivolity. I’m not sure they would have seen the funny side of a middle-aged dancer shaking her stuff for the camera in front of something they took such pride in.

And I don’t know how they would have processed that strange distorting thing the glamour of even minor celebrity does to a room, as if it were a Tardis, intruding into reality at an indiscreet angle, always larger than itself somehow, and awkward, too, for everything around it.

I’m not sure how well I processed it myself. I think you just have to accept life’s lovely irregularity and disorder, and walk forward into its surprises. Life will keep flicking its cards at you, whether you like it or not. Sometimes, just sometimes, it’ll be the Ace of Hearts. Mostly, though, it’s life’s equivalent of some long-defunct loyalty scheme, or a gift card you failed to use before it expired.

The expert who caught my eye most was a forty-something man in a waistcoat and what I think was a white fedora. He seemed rather charming, in that slightly awkward way some men have when they are trying too hard. Energetic and excitable in front of the camera, he relaxed once shooting was over, sat back in his chair and rested both his hands contentedly on his crotch. It seemed an instinctive gesture of comfort and self-reassurance; young boys do it a lot. I wouldn’t, of course, call him a young boy, but we all retain things of childhood inside us. Perhaps that was one of his.

And maybe – just maybe – he had the right idea. Sometimes the adult world is simply too full of hurt.

Once the auctioneers’ expenses and percentages were taken into account, we were left with, well, why don’t you guess? I’d bet it’s lower than you thought. Or did you hit £47.44 on the head? It’s lower than I expected, and my expectations were rock bottom.

I can see the black humour in it, of course, although I know that whatever dark comedy there is also masks – intends to obscure – the sense of that sum as a reckoning on childhood, family, my parents’ tastes and judgement, on me for not simply giving everything to charity in the first place.

I know it isn’t true, that sense of a small reckoning in a big room. But there it is: £47.44 and a smattering of C-list showbiz glitter was what the day gave us.

The surprise is, how grateful I was for the glitter.

Note: If you liked this you might also like: The library of lost conversation; Re-mapping the world: grief and its aftermath; and Memory and identity: a personal history

4 thoughts on “Me and Debbie McGee – or, Life and Death in West Ruislip

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  1. How very tough on you…though funny in parts to read! It’s so sad not to be able to take some of the favoured objects one has inherited, whether because of needing the money or not having room in one’s own home. And I know that guilt well. It was not being able to take all the books that really got to me. Long before he died, my uncle offered me an enormous marble sideboard that had apparently belonged to Empress Eugenie! I assume he tried my cousins first. I could no more have accommodated it than fly to the proverbial. Shame really as the sale of it at a later date could have helped me immeasurably. Ah well!

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