My disbelief grows weary of suspending itself…

I’m onto a sticky wicket with suspenders, I know. American suspenders are as illustrated below:


British suspenders are things that hold up stockings, supposedly wicked, lacy and black (or red) but as I recall them from my uncomfortable schooldays, more often medical, pinkish and rubbery, and held together with sixpenny pieces when they broke. They always broke. The rubber perished. The little suspend-things cracked and disintegrated…

So what do Americans call suspenders-suspenders if what we call braces are there known as suspenders? But what holds up American stockings? If that’s suspenders too, how do they know what they are holding up? Is it just a matter of deduction from the context?

But this post is not about that.

When I was at school, struggling with the uncomfortable suspenders and the 60-denier sun-mist-stockings-with-seams – surely the ugliest stocking ever invented (not about that, remember!) it was explained to me that when we get completely lost in a book, or a film, or a story told by some grey-haired hippie-type lady whilst sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the library (pre-suspenders) was called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

I did not used to find this difficult, except in the case of plays. Plays have never done it for me. I’ve never been able to get past the reality of a lot of foreshortened real human beings prancing about on a stage and acting at one another. I can tell it’s acting. I can always tell it’s acting, even if it’s good acting, and it annoys me. People are pretending and I can see them doing it.

A posh lady I went to a play with once advised me that this was probably because I hadn’t grown up in a theatre-going household. She didn’t mean to be patronising, and she was right, partially – we didn’t go to plays, or the ballet or opera, come to that.

My parents were working class and, even if they could have afforded to go, would have been terrified to pass through the doors of a theatre. They wouldn’t have known what to wear or how to behave. They would have felt they stuck out like a sore thumb.

An all-encompassing self-consciousness is one of the things which go with being not-posh. Only when you are middle class can you raise your voice above a low murmur, not minding if others hear. Only when you are middle class can you walk about with your shoulders back and your snoot in the air, flinging your purple pashmina dramatically over your right shoulder, and not even know you are doing it. That’s confidence. Read Alan Bennett’s loving tales of his Mum and Dad if you don’t believe me. He knows. Alan Bennett is the greatest.

But I could get lost in a book. So could my mother, but my father appeared not to possess the suspension of disbelief gene. Maybe he lost it, as he lost so much, as a young conscript in the second world war. The war really did for him in a lot of ways, I think. He could never leave me alone when I was reading. He used to wave his hands in front of my face and think it was funny. ‘Look at her – she’s miles away. Away with the fairies.’ He never did understand why this was annoying.

Same with films, although mercifully my father wasn’t usually with me when I went to the pictures: I could be immersed in the story, living inside even the most far-fetched sci-fi blockbuster. I would be one or all of the characters, fleeing in terror from the scary monsters, falling in love, falling off a high building… The film’s ‘afterglow’ would stay with me for days afterwards, the story re-running itself in my head, scenes acting themselves out before my inner eye. And maybe it would still be the same, if I could afford to go.

Instead of fiction-reading, my father used to read out columns from newspapers – anything he found to be of interest. He was interested in politics and the financial markets, the way they worked, even though these things had little effect on his everyday life. We used to sit there bored, and the read-out paragraphs seemed to get longer and longer. When he grew ancient, however, propped up in a chair with a cushion behind his neck and the walker by his side, he lapsed into depression and scarcely spoke.  My mother used to gauge how happy, or not, he was by whether he read out any paragraphs. Eventually, he read out no paragraphs. He read nothing. He told my sister he had forgotten everything he had ever been or ever done. God save us.

As I have grown older I have become more interested in politics and found it more and more difficult – not to read – the words still make perfect sense – but to get lost in reading. My suspension of disbelief seems to have suspended operations. I am turning into my father, and this saddens me. Reading was all I had. I got through a tedious and difficult life mostly by daydreaming. I could lose myself in stories, and in plans I would never carry out, journeys I would never, practically, be able to make. Now, although I am still doing my best to get it back I feel – now here’s a simile for you, or maybe a metaphor – like a hunted rabbit, all exits sealed by the men with the dogs – or is it ferrets? – just an airless darkness and waiting for Whatever-it-is to be sent down after me.

Robert and Rabbit

He wrote the second half of the competition story out in the garden. When he stumbled across it on the website, it was the unfinished-ness of it that he couldn’t bear. He had never seen an unfinished story before. When you borrowed a book from the library it always has an ending, but this one seemed somehow screaming and bereft. He couldn’t bear it – it had to be mended, just as if he had gashed his hand and seen blood oozing from it he would have wrapped something round it, to plaster what was raw and suffering.

He printed it out and took it into the garden with his mug of tea, placing the tea carefully on the top of Rabbit’s hutch, unfastening the catch and opening the door, reaching in to stroke the silky ears. Responding to a familiar signal, Rabbit squeaked and lolloped out into the garden, disappearing by unhurried instalments into the uncut grass. Sitting on the kitchen chair, which he had dragged out through the patio door, taking advantage of the afternoon lull, when all that could be heard was the distant sound of children in the playground of the village school during their break, Robert began to read the short story so cruelly abandoned by Marius Hawkinge.

The story did not strike him as very good. It was about a young boy in the 1950s, train-spotting on the platform of a country station. He was waiting for a particular train although the story did not explain why. Quite a lot of not very interesting things happened in the story, which Robert found it difficult to concentrate on; a sparrow dropped onto the platform beside the boy and started pecking at crumbs; the stationmaster arrived and said a few words, warning the boy not to go too close to the edge of the platform; the signals changed, the signal arm clattered down, a bell rang, etcetera, etcetera.

Robert took in all these details, whilst finding them annoying. Some of them were actually wrong. Robert knew, because he read a lot of railway books, and his local library had the biggest collection of railway books in the country. The reference to green glass in the signal, for instance. Anybody who knew anything about railway signalling would know that lamp-glass was blue. It only appeared green when the lamplight was shining through it. And he’d got the signal arm going down, when it should have gone up.

Robert had never attempted to write a story before, but he knew from a lifetime of book-borrowing and his poor dead aunt’s passion for Agatha Christie novels that he would be expected to pick up this trail of irritating loose ends and give them some significance in the second half of the story – the bit that he would write. How, he wondered, could the famous playwright-person have given away his precious story, like leaving a baby on a doorstep. He supposed that the playwright must have been paid to supply it, but how could he? Leading on from that, Robert wondered if the playwright-person had actually attempted to finish the story himself. Surely he must have done, or how would he know it was finish-able?

Were there stories that couldn’t be finished, or could all stories be finished, no matter how unpromising their beginnings? Robert did not know, and presumed he would not know until he had tried. In the meantime a milk-scum had formed on the surface of his tea, and Rabbit had got under the wire into next door’s garden and was eating marigolds.

As he works, he becomes absorbed. He looks down at his hand, writing, sees the words taking shape at the end of the pencil, the pencil wearing down and needing to be sharpened, the crossings-out, the interjected thoughts, balloons and arrows scrawled on the blank page opposite – yet at no time does he have the sense that he is inventing anything. It is as if the story has been there all along: it just needed his brain, his arm, his fingers to bring it into the world. As he writes, the story tells him how it wants to end but, to the last word, he can’t be sure.

Looking up, he is astonished to see that the sun has gone down and a white flying-saucer of a moon is in the sky. He realises he is shivering, partly with excitement and partly because his back and shoulders are wet with dew. Rabbit has long since returned to his hutch of his own accord, and sits there now, chewing carrot-tops, his eyes focussed somewhere in the middle distance. As bats begin their dances in the gloaming, a ruminative happiness envelops them both.