MICRO-ADVENTURES OF THE CANADIAN KIND

I mean, it’s accurate, and yet it’s not. Sounds like I’m going to tell you about my fantastic holiday in Canada, crossing the whole huge place on that whole-huge-place-crossing railway they’ve got, or skiing off into the great white wilderness with tennis-racket-type-things on my feet like they wore in old films, or maybe bumping into Paul Whatsisname that wonderful Mountie-detective-type chap who looked so especially wonderful in those red flannelette Mountie-issue pyjamas…

I wish.

In fact it’s about Canada coming to me for a week or so in the form of my sister (henceforth S) and brother-in-law (henceforth BIL). I thought rather than trying to write I would try making rough notes as the week went on. I can’t write when there are other people around.  I just feel I ought to be making them cups of tea, rescuing them from cats or explaining yet again how the shower works. Constantly. Other people, even Ss and BILs,  make me anxious.

They haven’t arrived as yet. It could be any time between now and 10 o’clock this evening. Annoying ex-husband of the lady next door (bald and pointy-headed, like an egg on legs) left his car parked outside my house overnight, in what I think of as my space, though technically it isn’t, and I have been worrying all day about where S and BIL are going to park their borrowed car, and whether I ought to confront egg-on-legs in a brave and feminist manner. But then on what basis? It isn’t, technically, my parking space, just the bit of road in front of my house that feels like mine. And anyway he’d smirk at me. Men always smirk when women confront them. Why not let BIL handle any confronting that may be necessary? Men are so much better at confronting one another, in fact they enjoy it.

But now he’s moved.

But perhaps he’ll come back before they get here.

I went over to see Mum this morning, after our little falling-out last week. I don’t usually hug her (nobody hugged me, much, so I don’t know how to hug people) but I suddenly felt I ought to, so I did. And then I thought I might cry, but I didn’t. I was trying to convey this message – that I couldn’t stay long because S and BIL were due soon, but I would be bringing S over to see her tomorrow, when we could have a longer chat. But she didn’t recognise S’s name, or indeed that I had a S to have a name. I went through all three of us, in date order, explaining that I was the oldest, S was the middle one, and  S2 was the youngest. Then she was distraught. Whatever was I thinking? she asked me. I can see her. I can see her now, in her body. It was just her name I lost. Whatever has happened to me?

And then I wanted to cry again, and she wanted to cry, so we did the British thing and had a cup of tasteless tea-bag tea instead, and a lot of chocolate biscuits. And the tea got cold as we tried to think of more things to say, and couldn’t. And then I put all the capital-letter notes I had written in order, and numbered them for her. And then I reminded her I would be bringing S over tomorrow. What day is it today? she asked.

Sunday.

And what day will it be tomorrow?

Monday.

You put your hands round me, didn’t you? she said.

And then I thought, however difficult it is, I must hug her every time.

Only Connect (1)

I look around my house and have to admit it – books and cats have taken over. ‘Nuff said about the cats: no one approves of them. But every now and then I come across a spare couple of feet – behind the armchair to cover the faded bit – maybe where the cat-dishes are now – maybe in front of that cupboard under the stairs? After all, who needs a cupboard? I’m thinking… bookcases.

There are books on my bed, books beside my bed, books in the bathroom, books attracting mildew and holding up shelves in the garage. When I go out, there are books in my bag – at least two, and big ones in case I get stuck in a motorway tailback for three hours. This has only happened to me on one occasion, and of course when it does you can’t relax to read because you never know when you’re going to have to start inching forwards again…

I wouldn’t dare go on holiday abroad because this would mean an aeroplane, which would mean book limitation; I could never carry enough books to tide me over for two weeks. Yet after a lifetime of reading I can estimate, probably to within the hour, how much ‘reading’ a book contains. I know I’m not going to get through ten books in one week, or even two weeks, but…supposing I don’t like the book I’ve got with me? Supposing I feel the need to read three books in tandem?

Which brings me to my mother again. Last time she visited my house, before the fairies came and stole away her logic, her concentration and her common sense, she looked around and said:

‘At your age, you’ll never have time to read all of these!’

And of course she was right; it just hadn’t occurred to me. And then the familiar rush of Mum-induced panic and depression. But I must. I can’t leave them. I must read them. What can I do to save time? If I give up work? If I give up TV? If I sleep only half the night? How did I get that old?

All mothers must take a fairy-course in Undermining Daughters. Or is it in their DNA? With a single, innocent remark she had convinced me that everything, not just reading but any interest and any project for ever after, was pointless, really, because we are going to die. Why do anything? Just watch TV and gobble Polo-mints, why don’t we? Give all but the basics for survival to the charity shop – it’ll save them time when they come to clear this place out. Find a good home for the cats. Take up smoking. Fill your pockets with stones and go and jump in the sea.

But seriously (that wasn’t serious?) I was thinking the other day about how Mum must see me now: this girl of 17 or thereabouts, mysteriously grown large, lumpy, pale, grey and harassed-looking; this creature who mouths a series of words with unreadable shapes to them; this half-forgotten relative whose careful notes, all in block capitals, refuse to form proper sentences; this Sunday visitor whose name sometimes goes AWOL; so bothersome, so repetitious, and such hard work to be with. And requiring cups of tea when she must know the kettle has disappeared, the fridge has drunk the milk and there are strange little faces in the bottom of the cups.

When was the last day? Before you Marched Out and this sad, bored, distressed little elfling Marched In? They say the fairies do that – substitute one of their Ancients for an earthling child, so that they may die in comfort.* If I’d known you were about to be posted I could have said goodbye, and maybe wished you good luck in your new billet.

Once more I am a child in the High Street in romper suit and blue leather reins, throwing the usual tantrum. Once more you drop the reins and walk away, thinking to scare me silent. And it works. You’re chatting away to Nan, or maybe laughing. You’re muffled. I can’t make out what the pair of you are saying. The sky goes black and comes down on my head. I stand stock still with these clouds and this black air pressing down on me, watching you walk away as a century ticks by. Then I turn and set off in the wrong direction, back the way we came, the blue leather reins trailing the pavement behind me. It doesn’t matter now which way I go. You won’t come back – why would you? Why would you come back for me?

I want to talk to my old Mum about my new Mum. I want to ask her what to do about all of this. All those years of more or less misunderstanding one another yet this is so much worse. Word salad it’s called – vague words, wrong words, words in the wrong order, words based on misapprehensions; the quarter sentences you seem to think you have finished; the stories that seem to go on for ever and you still haven’t got to the point, if there ever was one. Confabulation; tall tales; nonsense, vigorously defended. You know what you mean but I don’t. I know what I mean but you don’t.

Only connect.

* ‘A changeling is a wizened, deformed, insatiable and frequently old fairy that has been exchanged for an often-unbaptised human child.’

The Greenwood Encyclopaedia of Fairy Tales: A-F (Donald Haase)

Nineteen Eighty-Fourgate

Some time between October 1969 and June 1970 my mother threw away my copy of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, except that it didn’t happen to be my copy it happened to be my boyfriend’s and as a result I felt obliged to buy him a new copy out of my minuscule college grant.

He was a maths student, half English, half Austrian and several inches shorter. This meant I had to drop into the gutter if he decided to put his arm round my shoulders. He had thick, wavy, chestnut hair and grey, grey eyes flecked with green…and wore the same threadbare cardigan every day.

I used to darn the elbows of that cardigan. I was probably the only student at college whose Granny had taught her how to darn, just as he was probably the only one still wearing his school uniform trousers. Everyone else was a hippie, but we couldn’t afford those yellow bell-bottoms and tie-dye tops. In the refectory at lunch time we shared one plate of chips and two black coffees between us. It was romantic, but we were hungry. Neither of us were getting the ‘parental contribution’ element to our grant – he, I’m not sure why – I because my parents did not approve of my being there. I’d left school early, started work in a library and hated it. So I sent for a prospectus, filled in the college application form and rang the Local Authority to ask whether I could have a grant; I seem to have been quite resourceful in those days – I wonder where that went? I didn’t actually mention any of this to my parents until the day before I was due to start college. I thought they’d be all right with it. That was Enormous Row number one.

In the course of Enormous Row number two, the cat-fight with my mother that followed the binning of boyfriend’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it emerged that she had accidentally happened upon the book in my bedroom and it had accidentally happened to fall open at the Room 101 scene where Winston Smith is tortured by the thing that terrifies him the most – rats. Mum was so appalled by the rat scene that she hurried the book to the dustbin, presumably between thumb and forefinger, and dropped it in. She may have assumed it was some sort of pulp fiction horror thing. It was dustbin day and by the time I got home the book was already gone.  If it had still been there I’m sure I would have flounced outside and executed a dramatic head-first dive into the bin to retrieve it, making it quite clear that if I got cholera, tetanus or whatever else a seventeen year old might catch from household waste it would be her fault.

The silly thing is that I hadn’t even got to the page with the rats and had no idea what could be so dreadful about it. Of course next day I went straight to the college library and borrowed one of the several copies on their shelves. I didn’t like the rat scene either – in fact, although I admired Orwell’s imagination and skillful prose I didn’t much care for the book – but I ploughed through it on principle, storing it in my college locker, well away from my mother.

As an aside – demonstrating the grave psychological damage such maternal censorship can inflict upon a sensitive teen – when recently I reorganised my books into approximate alphabetical order I discovered not one but two copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four, plus two copies of Animal Farm; yet I don’t recall reading Nineteen Eighty-Four since I was seventeen and I’m sure I never did read Animal Farm. Out of 2,000 or so paperback books these were the only two duplicates. I do believe that single thoughtless action of my mother’s warped me into a compulsive purchaser and hoarder of depressing, unreadable George Orwell novels. And I can’t even force myself to throw away the duplicate copies. Here they both sit on the desk beside me. Sneering.

But, to be fair, books can sometimes come to be more than collections of words on paper. Occasionally the physical object can take on a talismanic aspect and seem to be possessed of powerful magic. So rather than finishing with my mother as the villain of the piece I must make a confession.  Some years after Nineteen Eighty-Fourgate I too began to feel a kind of horror for a particular book, and I too threw a book away.

The book in question was a collection of short stories by Ian McEwan – First Love, Last Rites and  – this in a way is a huge compliment to Ian McEwan – he really creeped me out, as no doubt was his intention. I put the book down and couldn’t bring myself to pick it up again. There was something so distasteful and chilling about those stories. They are certainly pretty strong stuff as you can see from from this Wikipedia link, if you haven’t already read them:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Love,_Last_Rites

I put First Love, Last Rites back in the bookcase but it just kept staring at me! Every time I looked in that direction there is was – staring. Just the sight of it made me uneasy. In the end I ‘did a Mum’ and threw it out, no doubt between thumb and forefinger.

On the burning of books

Stories are invisible, portable, private, personal possessions.

Where did that come from? Now I remember – Jeanette Winterson and a story she tells about books in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2012) This is a true story. If you think your parents are dreadful you really need to read Why Be Happy, together with Winterson’s first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) based on the same set of experiences. It’s the story of a little girl adopted by completely the wrong woman, for Mrs Winterson is truly monstrous. If still in the mood for Monstrous Mummies after that, try Jerusalem The Golden by Margaret Drabble (1967).

Jeanette Winterson’s story is about books. As a girl she loves reading, but there are only six books in our house. Mrs Winterson, a religious fanatic, disapproves of and forbids all books because The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.

Loveless, beaten and hungry, frequently locked out by her adoptive mother and forced to sit on the doorstep, she survives by working her way through every single fiction book in Accrington Public Library, starting at A for Austen. She also begins to buy books and hide them in layers under her mattress. Gradually the mattress grows higher until one day Mrs Winterson catches sight of the edge of D H Lawrence’s Women in Love emerging from under it. In a rage, she throws all the books out of the window into the back yard, douses them in paraffin and sets them alight. But:

“I realised something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe. I began to memorise texts … I had lines inside me – a string of guiding lights. I had language. The books were gone, but … what they held was already inside me, and together we could get away. And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do … I can write my own.”

And speaking of memorising and burning of books, if you haven’t already, why not try the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953).