‘Some peo­ple feel I aban­doned Char­lie, but leav­ing gave our lit­tle daugh­ter her child­hood’

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW - Match­stick Man by Ju­lia Kelly, Head of Zeus, £16.99

Bangor-born artist and direc­tor Char­lie Whisker now lives in a nurs­ing home as Alzheimer’s dis­ease tight­ens its grip on him. His part­ner Ju­lia Kelly has writ­ten a book about the de­cline of his health and their re­la­tion­ship, and she tells Sarah Caden it is her way of keep­ing his mem­ory fresh for their lit­tle girl

When Bangor-born artist Char­lie Whisker vis­its the house that his for­mer part­ner, Ju­lia Kelly, shares with their daugh­ter Ruby Mae (9), they of­ten go through boxes to­gether. They are big boxes that Ju­lia keeps in the shed, she ex­plains, packed with stuff that Char­lie col­lected over the decades. He col­lected ev­ery­thing, she says, and he loves to go through the con­tents of the boxes now, minutely ex­am­in­ing the items, though they do not nec­es­sar­ily con­jure the mem­o­ries that once were at­tached.

When they fin­ish a box and repack it, Ju­lia says, some­times Char­lie will start into it again, not re­mem­ber­ing that he has been through it al­ready.

Ju­lia smiles at this. It is try­ing, she ad­mits, but if it gives Char­lie some plea­sure on his vis­its out from the nurs­ing home where he now lives, then so be it. It’s a tricky thing, Alzheimer’s. Ju­lia, at Char­lie’s re­quest, has writ­ten a mem­oir, Match­stick Man, about their time to­gether and his de­cline as Alzheimer’s has be­come more pro­nounced.

Char­lie, a painter, a video direc­tor, a lover of words and mu­sic and books and na­ture, some­times rages against his early-on­set Alzheimer’s. And when he does, it is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for those around him, but when he rages, he is also most him­self.

When Char­lie is at peace, and eas­i­est to be around, is when the dis­ease is dom­i­nant. Peace can even be a sign of the dis­ease’s pro­gres­sion. When he is at peace, Ju­lia says, it is eas­ier but harder, be­cause then you feel how he is slip­ping away.

When he doesn’t want to un­pack the boxes any more, when they mean noth­ing to him — that will be more dread­ful than any re­peated, un­re­mem­bered un­pack­ing.

She wrote Match­stick Man to pre­serve Char­lie, but also to please him, a pat­tern in their re­la­tion­ship laid out from its very ori­gins, more than a decade ago, in the An­nagh­mak­er­rig artist’s re­treat in Co Mon­aghan.

“When I met Char­lie, I’d writ­ten vir­tu­ally noth­ing,” Ju­lia says. “I was a to­tal be­gin­ner, and he was well es­tab­lished. He’d been to LA and back; he was 20 years older than me. And he re­ally hugely helped me to start writ­ing. He was mas­sive; a men­tor.”

In Match­stick Man, Ju­lia skil­fully cap­tures her ini­tial al­most-ad­dic­tion to Char­lie. She was also im­pressed with how suc­cess­fully Char­lie had carved out a life for him­self as an artist. He had spent years in LA as a video pro­ducer for the likes of Bruce Spring­steen and Bob Dy­lan. He had been mar­ried to fash­ion de­signer Mariad Whisker, with whom he had two daugh­ters, In­dia and Domino. His paint­ings sold plen­ti­fully and prof­itably. Char­lie had lived, and lived on his own terms; un­con­ven­tional, ut­terly con­trary. He was his own man, and Ju­lia ad­mired and was drawn to that.

“When I met Char­lie, I was quite lost,” she ex­plains. “I was wear­ing glasses, I had short hair, I was quite in­se­cure. I was un­sure of where my life was go­ing. And within a year of meet­ing him, so much had changed for me. I was kind of like a project for him, though I only re­alised that in ret­ro­spect.

“I was like a blank can­vas for him. He said, ‘You’d look so lovely with long hair’, and he en­cour­aged me to have laser eye surgery. And he gave me my writ­ing ca­reer, he re­ally did.”

Ju­lia, the daugh­ter of the late for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral in the Repub­lic and Fine Gael TD John Kelly, was a re­bel­lious daugh­ter who was dev­as­tated not to make peace with her fa­ther be­fore his sud­den early death when she was 21.

You could read a need for a fa­ther fig­ure into Ju­lia’s at­trac­tion to Char­lie Whisker, two decades older, at a time in her life when she felt par­tic­u­larly lost. It might have been just what she needed and, for a time, it was a won­der­ful and pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ship which not only sup­ported her first, award-win­ning novel, With My Lazy Eye, but gave Ju­lia her much-wanted child, Ruby Mae.

“He was in­cred­i­bly good at open­ing me up,” Ju­lia says. “But what I didn’t re­alise then is that even­tu­ally you have to take flight and be in­de­pen­dent, don’t you?”

Ju­lia charts this tra­jec­tory in Match­stick Man, which, in some ways, is the story of the rise and fall of a re­la­tion­ship as well as the story of the course of Alzheimer’s. Cer­tainly, Ju­lia Kelly pulls no punches in how she charts what has hap­pened to Char­lie Whisker, his be­hav­iour and his al­ter­ation in the last decade. “It’s pos­si­ble he had Alzheimer’s through­out our re­la­tion­ship, to some de­gree, with­out me or him re­al­is­ing. Even now, it’s hard to sep­a­rate Char­lie and the ill­ness. Look­ing back, what was Char­lie and what was Char­lie fight­ing the first bits of Alzheimer’s?”

Ju­lia ex­plains how Char­lie’s own char­ac­ter prob­a­bly helped to mask the be­gin­nings of the Alzheimer’s for a while.

“He de­pended a lot on me from the start,” she says. “For the prac­ti­cal stuff. He couldn’t use an ATM. He didn’t do or­di­nary stuff like that. He was ec­cen­tric; very bright and artis­tic, but not prac­ti­cal. And I thought that was just him, but he be­came more de­pen­dent, more ec­cen­tric. Look­ing back, there were loads of signs.” In­creas­ingly, he wouldn’t have any­thing to do with Ju­lia’s friends or fam­ily and, over time, didn’t like her spend­ing time with them, ei­ther. Fur­ther, the ar­rival of Ruby Mae shifted the do­mes­tic dy­namic in their re­la­tion­ship, as all ba­bies do, but Char­lie found that hard to cope with.

“Ruby Mae, from the very be­gin­ning, wanted ev­ery­thing from me, and Char­lie felt very ex­cluded and hurt,” Ju­lia says. “He’d say, ‘She doesn’t like me’. I think he didn’t have the stamina for it, but, poor Char­lie, he was get­ting ill as well. And I didn’t know this. And I feel guilty about a lot of things.

“But, you know, we had run out of money; we had this house in Bray that we should never have bought, and as soon as we moved in,

the Tiger crashed, and Char­lie wasn’t paint­ing any more. He’d be sun­bathing, or gar­den­ing or do­ing the iron­ing, and I’d be go­ing mad say­ing, ‘Why aren’t you paint­ing?’ He seemed to be tak­ing it so easy, but un­be­knownst to me he was go­ing through hell.

“I re­mem­ber one time go­ing into his stu­dio and all these pho­tos of his life were laid out,” Ju­lia re­calls, “as if he was try­ing to make sense of it all. For a long time, it was a very pri­vate bat­tle; he didn’t talk to me about it at all. I think he felt that he was los­ing his mind, but he just didn’t tell me. I think he was re­ally, re­ally, re­ally scared.

“He was reg­u­larly burn­ing things in the oven and leav­ing his keys in the front door and hav­ing more and more rages. He would get very up­set with me and Ruby Mae. The turn­ing point was when he gave Ruby Mae a filthy tooth­brush cup to rinse out her mouth and I stopped him and he was rag­ing and cursed us both, and I thought at that point — no.”

My first thought wasthatthis would be very tough on Ruby Mae

The loss of her mother was a turn­ing point in Ju­lia Kelly’s re­la­tion­ship with Char­lie.

“My mother died swim­ming in the Gala­pa­gos, and about a year af­ter that I lost my baby at 17 weeks and I had to give birth to her, and that was all very tough. One of the big alarm bells was the day af­ter my mother died. Char­lie was com­ing to col­lect me and Ruby Mae and he couldn’t find my brother’s house,” Ju­lia says. “And my fam­ily were fu­ri­ous. Typ­i­cal Char­lie drama, and all about him while we’re suf­fer­ing.”

The ti­tle of the book, and the draw­ing of a lonely, spent match­stick on its cover, comes from a key ex­pe­ri­ence in Char­lie’s life. When he was a young man in Bangor, Co Down, he was walk­ing home one July 11 when he saw a teenage boy shot in the face. Char­lie went to the boy, only to dis­cover that he was the 16-year-old lit­tle brother of a friend. Char­lie held the boy for the 20 min­utes it took him to die. He tes­ti­fied against his killers and had to leave North­ern Ire­land, and he was haunted by that death.

Af­ter Ju­lia’s mother died and then their baby, Char­lie went into a de­pres­sion in which he con­fused the dead boy in Bangor with their child, a tiny lit­tle girl, small enough to hold in one hand. It was dread­ful and dis­tress­ing for ev­ery­one.

“It was all very messy,” Ju­lia says of the end of the re­la­tion­ship with Char­lie, though they have never left each other’s lives. “About a year be­fore he was di­ag­nosed, I said to him, ‘This isn’t work­ing, Char­lie’. I had this con­ver­sa­tion with him many times. And whether it was the Alzheimer’s or him not want­ing to ac­cept it, it just never sunk in and he got more and more de­pressed.” Essen­tially, Ju­lia stayed out of guilt and fear and loy­alty, par­tic­u­larly once Char­lie was di­ag­nosed. How­ever, liv­ing to­gether soon be­came im­pos­si­ble.

She still felt guilty and prob­a­bly still does. She knows and tells me she knows, that some peo­ple felt that she aban­doned Char­lie, but she also knows that they have not walked in her shoes. They sold the mill­stone house in Bray, which had once been full of “hope and dreams of fill­ing it with chil­dren”. Ju­lia moved in with her sis­ter, and Char­lie, for a time, lived in a house in Killiney. Ju­lia vis­ited ev­ery day and Char­lie’s daugh­ter Domino, then in her early 20s, came home from Cal­i­for­nia and threw her­self into his care.

Af­ter a time, it came to pass that Char­lie was no longer able to live in that si­t­u­a­tion, and Domino said that she wanted him to live with her. It was an ex­traor­di­nar­ily lov­ing and gen­er­ous ges­ture, Ju­lia says.

“My first thought was that this would be very tough on her,” Ju­lia says. “She was so young, but it was so big-hearted.”

I won­der did Ju­lia feel guilty about this move, though, did she feel that she should take Char­lie in with her?

“Yes, but I couldn’t,” she says. “If Ruby Mae was any­thing other than an­gelic, Char­lie couldn’t han­dle it. Domino gave Ruby Mae her child­hood. I felt re­leased, but in­cred­i­bly guilty. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.”

Char­lie lived with Domino for 18 months be­fore en­ter­ing a nurs­ing home. He cried on his first day there. It’s hard to see him there, says Ju­lia. He is in a locked ward and, like a lot of the other peo­ple there, Char­lie is al­ways up and dressed — still in his Con­verse boots, his leather jacket, his trilby, still look­ing like him­self — all set to leave at any minute.

Ju­lia vis­its six times a week and Domino is equally reg­u­lar. They call them­selves Char­lie’s An­gels. Ruby Mae goes in once a week. “And in many ways,” says Ju­lia, “I love him more deeply now than I ever did be­fore.”

STAY­ING STRONG: Julie Kelly and Char­lie Whisker with their daugh­ter Ruby Mae in 2010, be­low Char­lie and Ju­lia. Right: Bono, Char­lie Whisker, Pierce Bros­nan and The Edge at one of Char­lie’s ex­hi­bi­tions

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