“Words That Stung”

Yes, it’s come to this: in desperation I have printed off a list of Interesting Personal Essay Ideas. Sigh! And this was on there – the title, not the wasp, or wapsie as Canadian sister used to say when little, several millennia ago. I know why the current lack of inspiration: things have been happening in my life as usual, but for various reasons nothing I can actually write about here. This always stymies me, since my usual method is simply to ask myself What am I obsessing about/ ruminating over/ pondering/ remembering right this minute? And however unlikely the subject is, I sit down and ‘splurge’ about that.

I usually avoid internet lists of essay titles. They mostly seem to be aimed at schoolchildren and involve school, teenage crushes, dreams and plans for the future, lurve or parents – none of which I have, in any useful sense. Note of gloom creeping in here – buck up, do, you old misery!

Words That Stung – hmmm, we all have some of those, don’t we? And how not to turn a feeble attempt at an entertaining Monday Morning Post into All The Nasty Things People Have Ever Said To Me. Let’s just select a few, then over to you for your examples.

There was the time my mother told me I had to keep my face still when we were out shopping, because some lady had said What a pity your little girl has St Vitus Dance, or words to that effect. My mother explained that St Vitus’ Dance was when your face kept twitching, kind of grotesquely. I wonder who St Vitus was? Somebody who danced, obviously. Will have to look him up.

There was the time Canadian Sister and I entered a children’s writing competition in the local newspaper (Uncle Mac’s Corner). The title was something like Why My Mummy Is The Best In The World. I wrote it really, but sister provided some enthusiastic input. She was probably too young to write at that stage. I was so proud when it appeared in Uncle Mac’s Corner the next day, and expected Mummy to be pleased (chocolate cup cakes for a week, I imagined) but she wasn’t.

Instead she launched into a – to me, at seven or so – inexplicable and hysterical rant, to the effect that I sent that to the newspaper, secretly, for all to see and laugh at, and I could write all that but I could never tell her to her face. It was true that I had never told her to her face. It had never occurred to me because what kid goes up to their Mum and says all that sugary, embarrassing stuff? And anyway writing was my telling, my speaking, my confiding – was then and has remained so.

And then I had to walk to school, with my face all red and puffy, hiccupping, and get teased and stared at all day for the mess I was in. I maybe understood a bit better when I got older, but I never forgave her.

There was the time – no, I can’t tell you that one. Or…that one, either.

And then there was the time a supervisor told me the ‘bosses’ regarded me as some kind of slightly addled old hippy – nice, but vague – or words to that effect. I wasn’t actually nice, and I wasn’t actually vague, and if only I had been a hippy.

There was the time a visiting financial advisor remarked that of course the root of all my problems was a) insufficient income and b) all those cats. The sensible thing, he said, will be to dispose of all, or most of, these stray cats. I wondered whether he had children, and how many of them he would dispose of in times of financial stress, and which of them he would choose.

There was the time the doctor told me my bad back would get better if I lost some of the excess weight when actually I was just bundled up in an old winter raincoat with the belt bunched up funny round the waist (à la little Meghan’s posh white coat in her official engagement photo, but nobody said she could do with shedding a few pounds because it happened to be a chilly day and her belt was tied sort of funny!)

On similar lines, and talking of fat, these Stinging Words are not mine, but were related to me by a colleague. She said she had gone to the doctor one Winter’s day wearing a puffy anorak with her woolly gloves poked into the pocket, and he had asked her how far along her pregnancy was – when she wasn’t. Mind you, she was a bit chunky.

And one from my sister, when she and her husband were trying unsuccessfully for a baby, who kept receiving pamphlets in Air Mail letters from her mother-in-law, about female infertility. Her husband had been trying to intercept the post on his way out to work, to fish out any pamphlets before my sister saw them. But that’s not so much a Stinging Word as a Stinging Action or a Stinging Assumption.

Have any Stinging Words (not too painful to share at this distance in time) remained indelibly seared into your memory over the years?

Being a Mum: good fortune, not an achievement

A ‘Mothergate’ row has unfolded after Andrea Leadsom suggested that being a mother would make her a better Prime Minister than Theresa May. This, according to the website Business Insider, is what Prime Ministerial candidate Andrea Leadsom said to The Times Journalist Rachel Sylvester:

RS: “Do you feel like a mum in politics?”

AL: “Yes. So…

RS: “Why and how?”

AL: “So really carefully because I am sure, I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.

“But genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

“She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children, who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next.

“So it really keeps you focused on ‘what are you really saying?’. Because what it means is you don’t want a downturn but ‘never mind, let’s look ahead to the ten years’, hence it will all be fine. My children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.”

Elsewhere in the interview Leadsom suggests that the process of raising children would naturally increase a woman’s capacity for empathy. Could this be true? No – The Times’ article demonstrates it is entirely possible to combine motherhood and insensitivity.

I may not know that much about politics but I do know about the pain of childlessness.

  • I know how it feels to fend off those nudge-nudge, wink-wink comments of colleagues as you approach your thirtieth birthday. Next year you might be pushing a pram, eh? Might we be hearing the patter of tiny feet? Knitting? Does that mean…?  When all the time you know it doesn’t mean… and can never mean… Devon aunt used to meet all references to the non-existence of offspring with a lofty “Our union has not been blessed.” I could never quite equal that.
  • I know how it feels to suddenly lose status in the family when your youngest sister produces the longed-for first grandchild. I know how it feels to become invisible whenever baby and fortunately fertile sister enter the room.
  • I know how it feels to see a toddler snatched up when it misguidedly starts toddling towards you – just in case your rampant/frustrated maternal instincts should compel you to snatch the precious bundle and make off with it to South America. This, despite the fact that other people’s babies are of no great interest to a childless woman: it isn’t other people’s babies she wants.
  • I know how it feels to be condescended to, pitied and sympathised with by almost all other women because nature singled you out for the duff set of family genes. Devon aunt knew it too. My Canadian sister knows it. And going back into our family tree an array of other inexplicably childless female relatives probably knew it too.


  • I know how it feels to be excluded from a whole range of possible female friendships because I lack the social currency – no child to deliver to the school gates, no stories of night-time feeds and Terrible Twos tantrums to swap.
  • I know how it feels to question my very worth – not just as a member of a society but as a biological entity. What else was I put here for, but to reproduce? If I can’t do this, why was I even born? I have become some kind of drone, a hanger-on. I am broken, I am incomplete. Why am I even walking around, causing problems, requiring air and food, taking up space? Even flowers and chimpanzees can do this simple thing and yet I cannot.

When this leadership contest first started my only (and admittedly faint) hope was that all this messy campaigning would result in a strong Prime Minister to take us forward through what are likely to be, as the ancient Chinese put it, ‘interesting times’. I wasn’t bothered whether they had been ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ Brexit, whether man or woman or even which man or which woman just as long as they were competent and had the ‘presence’ to transact with powerful heads of state in Europe and the rest of the world. Now I’m keeping fingers crossed for Teresa May, if only to preserve us from her rival.

Thought Number One:

You don’t need to be that magical and prestigious thing a ‘Mum’ or even a ‘Dad’ to be able to run a country. To invoke parenthood as a political weapon is to dishonour children and to insult, by implication, the whole electorate. A Prime Minister is not appointed to be ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ to a ‘family’ of infantile plebs. Even the least educated of us is capable of thinking things through and formulating an opinion. Or at any rate, any individual incapable of thinking for themselves should not be exercising their right to vote, and probably won’t be interested in voting anyway. A Prime Minister’s job is to lead the country and represent it with the help, advice, and concurrence of his or her cabinet of ministers, not to patronise and spoon-feed it.

Thought Number Two:

When Leadsom made the above comments about her childless rival, those who said  ‘It was just naïveté or inexperience – she couldn’t really have intended to be cruel to Teresa’ were overlooking the deadliest of all the weapons in the female armoury – bitchery. Women compete, and compete as fiercely as men, but on the whole not in the same way as men. Rather than throwing punches or shouting each other down, they bitch.

This is how a bitch operates. She says something vicious and undermining but phrases it in such a subtle and delicate way, or subsequently qualifies it in such a naïve and innocent way that the ‘bitched’ female cannot react without appearing neurotic and paranoid.

Alternatively she phrases the barb in such a way that she sounds for all the world as if she really cares about you. Her attack leaves you feeling confused and disorientated. Did she really say that? Could she really have meant what it felt as if she meant? Why am I so hurt when there is such an empathetic smile on her face? And why can’t anybody else see what she has just done?

My guess is that she absolutely did intend to be cruel, but only to her rival. It has been suggested that she was dog-whistling to a particular segment of the conservative electorate, i.e.:

employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup’. 

What she failed to anticipate was the ripple-out and trickle-down effect: huge offence unintentionally given to childless men and women; and to gay or lesbian couples who are less likely to have biological offspring and therefore, by her reckoning, also have no ‘tangible stake in the future of our country’; and to women who have been thus bitched far too many times before – which, when it comes down to it, is most women.

Thought Number Three:

It is a woman’s good fortune and her delight to be able conceive and give birth to children but it is not an achievement. Enduring the ghastly pain of childbirth does not of itself transform you into some kind of heroine. Having got yourself pregnant, what else were you going to do?

(Well, I’m going to put my tin hat on now and retire to a safe distance.)

THE BIRD OF LIGHT (Angels & Other Occurrences 1)

At the midway point in the ancient spiral staircase, looking down into the little courtyard with the fountain, Martina paused. She liked to keep an eye on her staff, but discreetly. What was he up to now? Zak appeared to be enraptured – staring into space. For goodness sake, she thought, how difficult can it be to go in with a plastic bucket and a little shovel and remove a year’s worth of coins from a fountain, skim off a few floating leaves? Not exactly rocket science, even at his age. At once she felt guilty. Fifty-eight wasn’t that old, and what she had just thought was ageist. Fierce, when necessary, Martina did at least try to be fair to her staff, and honest with herself.

The main gates should have opened five minutes ago. Gatehouse had radioed up – punters queueing nine deep outside. Pushchairs, kiddies and cameras all over the place. It was the end of September and the start of the castle’s Autumn Flower Festival. Sunny it might be, with that low, intense sun of autumn, but it was none too warm to be standing about outside. The castle looked fantastic at this time of year – red, orange and gold leaves carpeting the lawns and lakes outside; and in every room that was open to the public, one and sometimes several huge, dramatic displays of autumn flowers and foliage supplied by all the top groups in the county. People looked forward all year to this Festival; they wanted in – and in was where she needed them to be. The castle had lost money last season – combination of a dismal British summer and the failure of the static balloon as an attraction. Unfortunately, that had been her idea. Balloons went down a storm back home in the States but for some reason people here didn’t seem to want to pay £25 for a ticket, to be tethered at treetop height, not flying anywhere. It had been a blunder, and she was desperate to make up for it. No one, as the Foundation had obliquely pointed out, was indispensable.

They were waiting for Zak, just Zak. What on earth was he staring at, sat on the edge of the fountain, bucket and shovel in hand? Oh come on Zak, she thought, don’t make me come down there and tell you off. I don’t have time.

Zak was looking at the Bird of Light. There was always light in the central courtyard. It was a strange place for that. When the sun was shining it reflected randomly off the leaded glass panes of the surrounding windows. Sometimes the light dazzled him (his eyes were not too good, nowadays). Sometimes the windows looked blind, like they’d grown cataracts. Cataracts of light. It had been, for him, a place of worship, yet what he was worshipping he could not have said. But suddenly, today, there was the Bird.

He had turned his back, to begin on the coins and leaves, but somehow he knew it was there. He knew something was there. Just afraid to turn round. Terribly afraid. It was watching him. Even with his back turned he could see… unusual light. Light cascading off the walls, bouncing off the cobbles. Light shining on the fountain, light crashing into other light. He couldn’t explain it. It wasn’t natural.

Turn, Zak.

It was a soft voice, but he hadn’t turned.

I am here, Zak. I have something to say to you.

He kept trying to shovel up the coins. Delusions? After all these years? How long have I been sober? Will it never let me go?

It’s good news, Zak. Please turn.

It was the ‘please’ that did it. He turned. And saw the Bird. At least that’s what it looked like. What it might have been. Except it was so tall. Could birds be tall. White wings, but they gave off light. It must be…

It’s about Beth.

And now it was replaying in his mind, the night he met Beth. It was if the Bird itself was controlling his memories.

They had met in the Station Hotel. He’d been drunk, as usual. He was rehearsing his last order. Time for another one, Joe? He was rehearsing his walk across the room to the bar which, by this time of night, felt like being on a fairground ride. So many chairs. And the chairs seemed to tilt and move. So easy to trip and then… there wouldn’t be another one. Joe would tell him he’d had enough. Joe would call him a taxi and pay for it himself. Joe was a good bloke.

But this night, there was this girl. He didn’t remember her coming in but there she was, perched on a bar stool, chatting to Joe as if they were old friends. Yet she’d never been here before, he was sure of it. She had long hair. Fair. Real fair, not dyed, that almost-mouse colour. She had dropped her carpet-bag at her feet. It was battered, that bag. She had been places.

And there was that picture again, the one he had seen before. He had seen her in some African market, or somewhere like Zanzibar. She was ahead, then she turned and smiled. Such a beautiful smile, and for him. And at her wrist there were bangles of all colours. They glittered in the sun, and the sky behind her head was so very blue, like no sky he had ever seen before. The Bird brought this back to him.

And then something strange had happened. Her train pulled in and he watched her get up to leave and he was thinking, that’s it then, she’s going, but she didn’t go, or least not at once, no, she stopped and came over to him, and she stood in front of him, looking into his eyes, and she said, My name is Beth. Come with me.

And then she was gone, and he couldn’t believe it had happened. He must be imagining. And then… Zak was up and staggering full pelt towards the door, chairs scattering in all directions as the room rocked and swerved around him. He was running across the gravel, he was heading for the platform. The whistle blew, train doors were slamming. He had to make it to that train; he had to catch her…

He had something to say to her. Good news. Such wonderful news.

She was fifteen years younger than him, but after that she never left his side. They had travelled the world for a while, then did what others do. They found a house and married, and tried for children. But the children hadn’t come.

They’d had all the tests. He’d assumed it was him, being so much older, but it wasn’t. There was something wrong with her. She’d had operations, and tablets, and tests. Nothing worked. Beth hardly ever mentioned it nowadays, but he knew it still hurt. Yes, he had wanted children by her, but she… It was something different for women, a greater grief.

It’s about Beth. Good news.

When he emerged from the courtyard he was dumb. The Bird had punished him for his disbelief. How am I to know? Zak had asked. What proof can you give me? I am getting old and Beth – she’s getting on. Forty-one next birthday. How can this happen?

His name will be John, said the bird. His name will be John. He will touch no drink. He will give you both great joy. He will be filled with light – this light. He has come to prepare the way.

The way for what? Zak was trying to say. Only no sound come out.


Today of all days, thought Martina, as she followed Zak in the ambulance. She guessed it must have been a stroke – something in the brain department – yet he was walking OK – in fact there was a  spring in his step. But, she thought, people don’t just suddenly forget how to speak if they’ve got nothing wrong. Maybe something less scary, like laryngitis. But it wasn’t as if he’d had a sore throat, even – not that he’d mentioned. And the man seems so ridiculously, insanely happy. Positively joyous. What sort of lunatic would be happy on their way to hospital? Poor Zak, she thought, he’s got a wife and… now she thought about it she wasn’t sure. He had never mentioned a family. But definitely a wife.

Martina reached across and laid a hand on his arm, hoping to reassure. For all his faults, she had a soft spot for Zak. He was a sweet old guy. He smiled at her – the biggest and broadest of smiles. And there was this weird kind of shining-ness about him.