I’ve lived a long time, though not nearly as long as my mother who this afternoon informed me (for the umpteenth time) and her doctor (for the first but probably not the last time) that she was nearly a hundred and had been through four World Wars. Also that her ancient cat had been eating the giant slugs that live and multiply under the house, and the slugs are growing inside her. Also that… oh, I could write several thousand words of Also that’s. None of it is true, of course.
All my life I seem to have attracted secrets and lies of one sort or another. I must be the human equivalent of the pots of marmalade-and-water people used to put out to drown wasps in the summertime – paper over the top held with an elastic band, and holes punched in it. Once in, the wasps swam around desperately for what seemed like hours, slowly, slowly drowning. It was considered a kind of picnic entertainment. I think the War must have coarsened people.
Me, I’m post-War, so I let wasps out. I let everything out – birds, ants, flies, butterflies, spiders; they all get shunted onto slips of paper, caught in wine glasses, cradled in paper tissues or gently encouraged towards the gap at the window’s edge. My mother (when she still remembered things) once reminded me of an incident from my youth. On one of our Sunday drive-abouts in the car, she, Dad and I had stopped at a roadside café, where there were picnic tables. My Dad bought us one of those polystyrene cups of coffee each and we were sitting at the tables with them.
‘A wasp landed in yours,’ she said, ‘and do you know what, you tipped the whole cup of coffee away into the grass just to save the wasp!’ And I’m thinking – you mean, you wouldn’t have? You’d have watched him drown to death in steaming hot liquid?
But where was I? Lost the plot again. Oh yes, secrets and lies. You sometimes end up thinking in a demented kind of way when you’ve spent an afternoon trying to decode the conversation someone who has it – and then it lingers!
Secrets, for example. Shall I tell you the saddest secret anybody ever told me? As a young teenager I would walk up the road every day to catch the train to school with one of my classmates. Another of my classmates came from a different direction and tended to walk up the road on the opposite side, not speaking to us. Both had what sounded to me like German surnames. This didn’t strike me as strange. Our particular small town was full of Polish people – perhaps soldiers who had fought with us then stayed, imported their families or married local girls. So I just assumed there had been a few German people stranded too.
Then one day these two girls had a fight – a verbal fight, but a violent one. They chased each other up the road, screaming abuse from one pavement to the other. I remember their high-pitched voices echoing off the shop windows, off the walls, it seemed.
Afterwards I asked the one I usually walked with, what was that all about? She was obviously shaken, still. She looked around her carefully and, when she could be absolutely sure no one could hear, whispered ‘I’m Jewish.’ I was mystified. It sounded like some sort of disease. When I got home I asked my parents what exactly Jewish was, and why someone should be so ashamed of being it.
Now for a lie.
When I was at infants school the yo-yo was all the rage. I had been given an orange and yellow one for Christmas and was very pleased with it. I liked the colour combination – like sweeties – I liked the magical way you could flick the string and the yo-yo went up and down (easily pleased) and most of all I liked the fact that I could walk around the playground looking pleasantly occupied – having fun in my solitary, weird-kid way – which meant teachers would be less likely to swoop on me and place me in the middle of terrifying rings of children engaged in some game or other. As soon as the teacher’s eye was off them, the rings of children would expel me, or I would wriggle out and run off. Then one lunch hour I got hauled by the collar to see the headmistress, who told me another girl had accused me of stealing her orange and yellow yo-yo. I think I made a big, terrible fuss. She’s not having my yo-yo. My Daddy bought it for me for a present, it’s mine and so ad infinitum. They had probably expected a stuttering, shame-faced admission and what they got was a major hissy fit. They let me go, but traumatised, scarred for life.
Oh yes, credulous teachers. Oh yes, evil-lying-little-girl whose orange and yellow yo-yo my yo-yo was not, I’ve got your numbers. It’s all written down in my little black book.