‘Grief is the price we pay for love,’ the Queen once wrote. This memoir is steeped in the pain of unpaid debt. ‘When you were nine, you had a pink coat that you loved so much you wore it all the time, even on the early morning flight to Tunisia,’ Gavanndra Hodge begins, talking to her younger sister Candy, who’s been dead for 30 years. ‘It was long and thickly padded and made you look like a flamboyant Michelin Man.’ Hours after that flight Candy is killed by a virus as inexplicable as the one currently causing hundreds of thousands deaths, and Hodge stares into her coffin, noting
“the strange softness that comes just before decay. I saw all the artifice, the makeup, the smile made by men in white laboratory coats pushing at the corners of your mouth, a child transfixed in a plastic moment, dead but not dead, hyper-real, rouge on your cheeks, pink lipstick on your lips…
You read with all the terror of being suddenly confronted by the same ‘crazy indulgence of loving people who die’.
Such a loss causes whole worlds to fall apart, but this one was never quite constructed. The daughter of a model, who drank because she didn’t like to be looked at, and a hairdresser, who took so many drugs a doctor compared his constitution to that of Keith Richards, Hodge describes her parents as being
“surprised to find themselves pregnant a second time, because they had been so wasted on booze and drugs that they couldn’t remember having had sex. I would have been nearly four years old when they conceived my sister. If they couldn’t remember having sex, who was looking after me?
Her sentences are plain and pitiless, beautiful when recalling all that’s foul:
“My memories of my father’s dealer days are not narrative, they are sensory: the toothache sweetness of Alpen and Butterscotch Angel Delight mixture that was the only food he, a junkie, could eat; the dusty smell of the incense.
She remembers the night a milk tooth fell out, and how she had to put off going to sleep and waking up with her reward because she needed to wait for her father’s high-society clients to leave the living room so that she could go around extinguishing the naked flames, fearing their carelessness (having watched a fire-safety video at school) would cause the flat to burn down. It takes so long, and she sleeps so little before school, that when the tooth’s not been replaced by a coin she concludes she didn’t leave the Tooth Fairy enough time to get to her:
“I must have been a little high myself, dopy with heroin smoke, my hazy memories not so different to the fragmentary recollections of the other people there, the ones who lost a whole decade, often a whole life, to drugs. But I know it happened. I know I sat in the living room with those people night after night, clearing up after them, managing their chaos in my small determined way.
What’s cruel is that both parents got clean not long before Candy died. In the aftermath, Mum found God — and got too fat for Dad, who slipped into a moral abyss of self-centredness and sex with teenagers. To survive her loss, Gavanndra pretends that Candy never existed, and only later, seeing her own children play, does she realise she has no memories at all of her sister alive.
By then she has been so successful in the cover up of her childhood, she’s graduated from Mary Beard’s classics class at Cambridge to become the deputy editor of Tatler. There she finds herself having to write about the same aristocrats who used to chase the dragon in her parents’ living room:
“I have worked so hard to separate my past from my present... so that I may exist, be a wife, a daughter, a parent, a friend; so that I may sleep at night and wake in the morning looking forward to the day; so that my children will never know what I knew. When they go to bed they do not worry about flames engulfing their home or people dying from a drug overdose.
At a time when so many families are losing loved ones, and are denied even the scant comfort funerals provide, there is no more poignant moment for this book to appear. It is a compelling argument for giving way to total agony — for ‘we live in the memories of those who love us’. Ultimately, the pain of this memoir lies not in the original loss but in the years denying it: ‘I had a sister, but I have lost her twice — once when she died and again when I forgot her.’