Will Self: PsychoGeography #111

All about my mother
Click to follow

I once asked my mother what were the most significant changes she had noticed in London since she arrived in the late 1950s. She answered in a flash: "There was one restaurant in Hampstead, and when you wanted to go somewhere by car, whether it was the Tate Gallery or the US Embassy, you drove there, parked outside and walked in." I was mightily impressed by this answer; it demonstrated that my mother was on top of things, hanging 10 on the breaking wave of the zeitgeist.

Yet despite having upped sticks and, dragging her 11-year-old son with her, decamped to another country, Mother was not a doughty traveller. She journeyed, but always under duress. Even as a child I got the impression that while she could hardly bear to remain cooped up at home, getting outside faced her with another kind of torment. When I grew older the reason for this became clear. It transpired that she had suffered from agoraphobia. Not just agoraphobia - but claustrophobia too.

As well as these hobbling fears, which could leave her on the doorstep for hours havering over whether she should stay or go, she had one of flying as well. She was also visited by bizarre anxieties while holding a steering wheel. She once told me that the key safety measure to take when driving in the city was to look at the tyres of the parked cars on either side of the road. "You can't see the bodies of children about to cross, but you can see their feet." I have spent the past 20 years looking for these children's feet, and although I've yet to see any I feel certain that one day my mother's advice will pay off and I'll be able to slam on the brakes in time to prevent myself macerating some headstrong juvenile. As I bucket over the speed bumps - an innovation my mother didn't live to see - I often feel her presence. She made even the most prosaic car journey into something uncertain and exciting by reacting to any untoward stimuli - a pigeon's flight, a bus's whoosh - with a sharp intake of breath and an arm thrown across her passenger's torso.

But don't imagine that she was a nervous driver, she was both fast and decisive. When I was a child she was contemptuous of the huts-on-wheels that passed for British cars. Rattling along in whichever duff Bedford or Austin we were condemned to that year, she'd regale me with tales of the six-cylinder Buick she'd driven in the States, a beast of an auto which could take the steepest hill at 65mph in third. It wasn't until the last few years of her life that the car flesh on offer here came up to her standards, so she raced towards death with her foot jammed on the accelerator of a Ford XR3i.

After she was burnt at Golders Green Crematorium, I took possession of the car and Mother's ashes, which came in a bronze plastic container shaped like an enormous Nescafé jar. It was the final crisis of exile: what was to be done with them? Should Mother be scattered in her native or her adoptive country? As the daughter of a peripatetic man, whose own father had emigrated from Odessa to the USA, was there an argument for Mother, in death, completing the circular tour? I considered scattering her remains in the Black Sea.

Unable to muster a quorum of ash-scatterers - my siblings were far-flung - I found myself lumbered with Mother for some years. To begin with I kept her jar in the car. I felt like the character played by Warren Oates in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and would often catch myself discoursing with Mother in a slightly crazed fashion. In time, it occurred to me that my inability to - in the requisite psycho-jargon - "let go" of dead Mother, might be because of her live phobias. The prospect of being interred had, presumably, terrified her as much as being cast to the winds, which has why she had been unable to express a preference.

I put her in the basement for a couple more years. When the house was being sold, the idea of moving her - as if she were some middle-class urn burial - became too grotesque. My brothers and I eventually dusted Hampstead Heath with her grey powder and bony chunks. Her mulching spot is marked by a memorial slab commemorating her and a number of other Jewish people, most of whom probably also died of cancer. Such is the queer industry of souls.