On playing the victim

Rwanda. Radio Four has conducted me through a range of emotional challenges this morning. Woman’s Hour opened with domestic abuse and moved on to stillbirth, taking me on a whistle stop tour of 1973 to 2009, with an enforced stopover at 1992, in a matter of fifteen minutes. Now I’m listening to a programme about Rwandan artists and I’ve settled in 1994. I’m watching a bouncy castle expand slowly across a church lawn, whilst choosing a name for a knitted bear.

I sometimes feel I’ve lived more lives than I ever expected. Today’s memory trip had its roots in the longest and toughest of them. The bouncy castle itself came from a fundraising fete, organised by my children and their friends, after they’d watched news of the genocide in Rwanda. It’s no good doing it in August. Everyone’s on holiday, we were told. We raised £495, which was probably more than any previous fundraiser on the same premises. Now I’m listening to Rwandan artists talking about how you make sense of a bloodbath and move on, and wondering whether this once-united kingdom I live in might need to take a leaf from their book before much longer.

Another life, and I cower as Charlie towers, anger throbbing through that vein on his forehead. He’s stalking like a drill sergeant in front of an insubordinate parade, turning on his heel every time he reaches the limit of the room.
And stop playing the fucking victim. It’s always the same with you
It takes one to know one isn’t the wisest reply, but it escapes before I can stop it, and oddly it silences him. Charlie may be all kinds of control freak, but he knows when he’s beat and he doesn’t want a fight over his favourite security blanket. In a few weeks he’ll tell me he really is a victim, whereas I only think I am, but for today he pulls the plug.

Everyone loves a victim. And ain’t it so much nicer to be one than to take responsibility? Helplessness entitles me to sympathy, and to demand from others privileges I’d never dream of giving them. Politicians thrive this way too. Was ever a President so persecuted as Donald? How on earth is poor Nigel to survive on the pittance from the European Parliament? And look at those nasty MPs, thwarting Boris and Dominic as they battle to Get Brexit Done. It’s enough to bring tears to any eye. And it works. These men have money, prestige and privilege in spades, yet they cast themselves as victims-against-the-odds and their followers lap it up. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is neither a victim, nor ‘anti-establishment’. Eton educated, Balliol College, he’s the establishment on steroids. Born with silver cutlery in his orifice, he’s played wives and sired children with abandon that would’ve got him booed off the Jeremy Kyle Show. As a young journalist in Brussels, he fed Telegraph readers a diet of ‘alternative facts’ between 1989 and 1994 that set the foundations for Brexit. Nonetheless, he’s feted as a hapless victim, a hero pitted for ‘the people’ against overwhelming odds.

Another day, another demo. I swore I’d never do it again, after a million and more of us trudged through London in freezing February weather, only to be ignored by Tony Blair. Nonetheless, here I am, one of seven thousand or so tree-hugging soap dodgers of all ages, gathered in support of the Student Strike for Climate. It’s an idea whose time has come around forty years later than I’d hoped. Here we are on the brink of irreversible climate collapse, and it’s taken the initiative of an autistic teenager from Sweden to get the young people whose lives are going to be irreversibly damaged out on the streets.

With 97% of climate scientists agreeing that we need to change our lives radically, you’d think Greta Thunberg would be everyone’s hero, so at first I was baffled by the antagonism she seems to inspire. I get why Jeremy Clarkson calls her a ‘spoilt brat‘. After all, a man who’ll punch someone for getting his lunch order wrong isn’t likely to take kindly to being asked to clean up his act. Likewise, Donald Trump has mocked her and retweeted accusations that she is an actress. No surprise there. However, I’m more disturbed by reactions such as those of some older male intellectuals in France who think she’s not ‘sexy’ enough. She’s barely sixteen, for God’s sake.

The truth is, we only love a victim when they play the game our way, and Greta doesn’t do that. Donald, Boris and Nigel tell their followers they can have cake and eat it. Greta tells the United Nations
You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late
None of us wants is to be told the polar ice is melting, sea levels are rising, rainforests are burning, mountains are crumbling, the oceans are full of plastic, and it’s all because of us. That’s not playing nicely.

Thus recent weeks have seen a tide of criticism on social media that’s risen far faster than the sea. These young people and their climate marches. They’re monsters. Hypocrites of the first order. They wear shoes and clothes for heaven’s sake. They watch TV and use mobile phones, Xboxes and iPads. They travel in cars and go on family holidays abroad. Some of them even wear make-up. How dare they tell the rest of us what to do?

The truth is they’re simply not playing the game we’re used to. They won’t march to the populist drum that says we can have jam tomorrow, because they know there won’t be any jam. Yes, they can’t imagine a world without cars and mobile phones yet, and it’s going to take a while for them to grasp the extent of the battle they’ve taken on. But they’re young and strong, and their cause is just. My generation has plundered our Earth like no other. I’ve lived sixty-five years in luxury my ancestors never dreamed would exist, yet there are those of my peers willing to attack their own children and grandchildren for wanting no more than a planet fit to live on. It’s time for us to stop playing victim, accept responsibility, rise up and rebel in solidarity with our children’s children, who will be the real victims of the coming catastrophe.

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Pink Pyjamas – a short story

For the last eleven years, eleven months and twenty-eight days I’ve washed my hair every morning. Today will be different. I wipe the tap. Two, three. Turn it on and watch the water swirl. A shred of potato peel dances like a dervish in the plughole. I pour the cold dregs from the kettle onto the plant and hold my hand in the flow from the tap. As the water limbers past two floors of overheated flats, its body-warmth ebbs. I fill the kettle before it’s completely cold, then the glass, and gulp it down. Ten, eleven, drain at twelve. Never the number after. The water’s icy now, like the scuds of snow flecking past the window. I switch the kettle on. I never get the routine quite right. The devil’s in the detail.

 
The sky’s bruised pink-purple. A naked birch shivers, black and exposed above the moss-grey rooftops. A white van pulls into the car park. It slides into the space alongside the anonymous silver car, not quite straight. I wash my hands. Marmalade? Eggs? I never was a breakfast person. I have to make myself. Porridge is good comfort food for a day like this. Half a cup of oats. The stream pours creamy into the pan. A cup of milk and half a cup of water. A twist of salt. It’s rubbish without salt. The men in the van are opening flasks and tupperware. The driver’s wearing a black hat. He bites into whatever’s in his hand and shakes out a newspaper. The silver car has tinted windows. The porridge erupts. I pull it off the heat and beat it into submission with a wooden spoon. A splash sizzles on the stove, the smoke curling away as it blackens. I can’t even get this right. I wipe up the charred remains and replace the pan. It simmers sullenly, waiting for me to turn my back. Revenge is sweet. I never had much of a sweet tooth.

 
I balance the tea on the bathroom sink. It’s in the pink cup today. I wash my hands. The face looking out of the mirror is old, and seems wearier than usual. It can’t be long now. My hair’s growing through. I stopped colouring it in August. It had been six months and I’d heard nothing. I called it ash blonde in another life, but the roots are nothing more nor less than white.

 
The men have got out of the van by the time I get back to the kitchen. Their toolboxes and reels of cable are stacked on the wall and they’re taking down ladders. They’ve come to fix something. The boiler perhaps, or the dodgy entry phone. The porridge is thick and steamy. It glurps into the bowl and waits for the butter and cream. I scrub the pan, gouging at the oatmeal skin with my nails. Porridge isn’t best served cold, but I can’t leave the pot dirty. The first time I left I washed the dishes. I dried them and stacked them in the cupboard, everything in its right place, then I wrapped Molly in a blanket and caught the bus across town. He pretended not to understand why I did the dishes. I’m still pretending not to understand why I went back. The butter melts. The van door bangs. I pour on the cream. It’s the top of the milk, and safe as childhood. The oats combat the cholesterol. Porridge is good and bad. Yin and Yang. A perfect balance. I stir slowly, leaving a rim of cream around the porridge. The Sudoku book’s ready on the table, but the pencil’s blunt. I twist the sharpener. Six, seven, never the next one. If I can only get it right, I won’t need to wash my hair. I can’t see the van from here, but I can hear their banter. Not the words, but the sound of voices. It feels reassuring.

 
Today is the twenty-ninth of February, and Molly’s birthday. I let myself think about it now. She didn’t have many birthdays, not proper ones, and the thought’s been there, like a butterfly at a locked window for weeks. I close my eyes and she’s here in front of me. Pink T-shirt, pink jeans, pink trainers and strawberry blonde hair. Her blue-green eyes reflect the eight candles on a pink cake. She pushes back a curl and leans on tiptoe to blow them out.
Make a wish, Molly
I know what she wishes for.
So pure
He breathes thickly behind me.
So pure
I can smell the alcohol oozing from every pore. He hasn’t been home for three days. He vanishes when the singing starts.
Happy birthday, dear Molly …

 

I barely noticed the porridge. It’s all wrong. I should have finished the sudoku first. I run hot water in the kitchen. Outside, a ladder clangs. The driver’s taken off his hat, and I suddenly don’t know who’s who any more. One of the men approaches the car and knocks on the driver’s window. I plunge my hands into the scalding water. It’s cleansing, but it’s not enough. I’m going to have to wash my hair.

 
One of the van men’s leaning on the roof of the car now, exchanging pleasantries as if it’s any other morning. His mate rattles the ladder against the wall. I can see now he’s no more than a lad. He has no idea what’s going on. I wash the porridge bowl. Round and back. Five times. Inside and out. My hands are red. The tips of my fingers whiten in the heat.
Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.
The car door opens. The barrel glints in the winter sun. I straighten and lean towards the window. He mustn’t miss me this time. The spoon splashes into the water and everything unravels backwards.

 
The courtroom’s cold, and I’m left alone. They drag him from the dock.
You can run, but you can’t hide. Slag
It shouldn’t have been that way. I was her mother and I should have protected her.
What kind of a mother are you?
They’ll have to prise her from me now. I failed her. I won’t let her go. There’s nothing anyone can do. The paramedic’s sobbing like a baby. I don’t know who called them, how long they’ve been here, or how they got here. The police are here. The ambulance arrives. How can one fragile life hold so much blood? There’s blood everywhere. Blood in my hair, so much blood. There’s blood on my clothes. She’s limp in my arms. He’s too blind drunk to stop. She launches herself at me.
No, Daddy
She sees the blade before I do. They’re a birthday present from my mother. She’s come down specially to show them off. Molly’s on the stairs in her new pink pyjamas. He erupts into the house.
This time I’m going to kill you. Bitch
The kitchen window implodes. Pain burns through every part of me. The purifying fire I’ve longed for, and everything falls away at last. I won’t need to wash my hair ever again.

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Cheeseburgers and Ikea bags

It’s dark the way only an October night in England can be, and raining a baptism. I’m walking home from Mrs M’s, reflecting on the fragility of life. In truth, I’ve believed Mrs M to be immortal until now, but she’s 92 and so frail it’s taken two of us to get her into bed tonight.  My faith is beginning to waver.  I don’t yet know the day when I’ll hold her hand while she fights her last battle is less than eight weeks away, but there’s a sense of finality.

When I first ducked into the downpour, I hoped it might wash away the stench of mortality.  Now I’m wishing I’d accepted the offer of a taxi. I’m weary, soaked to the bone, and I’m the only living creature on the street.  Even the foxes are in their holes. There are no low-slung shadows sliding between the pools of light around the street lamps tonight.  The avenue stretches unbending before me into endless rain.  Then out of nowhere there’s a car behind me.  It’s moving too fast.  It hurtles along the avenue, flies over a speed hump and throws up a wall of water that hits me full in the small of the back. Howls of laughter trail in its wake as it accelerates away.

If there’s no peculiar corner of hell for people who do things like that, I’m up for the construction job.  They’ll be able to rot there for all eternity, with squelching shoes and knickers full of icy mud, while an infinite quantity of rain flushes out their rage and humiliation.  Come to think of it, they can share their cosy corner with the man who allowed someone I love to pay his rent during his teacher training, then walked out and left her the day the course ended.  But that’s another story.

In a life long gone, I open my eyes on a blur of grey and surgical green.  A voice is telling me something I already know.

She’s gone. There was nothing they could do.

They seem shocked by what’s happened to you.  I try to reassure them it’s just as I knew it would be.  I realised from the start you were too good to be true.  I drift through consciousness, my heart so broken there’s no point in recriminations or tears.  The scene changes and someone brings you to me.  Your mouth’s just a little bruised, and you’re wearing the wrong clothes.  Your head feels cool against my lips as I kiss you goodbye.  Later they’ll tell me there was peace in the room that night, and we’ll take that to have been the presence of God.  Perhaps it was no more than silent despair.  You mustn’t blame God someone says, a week or so after you’ve gone. So who else am I to blame, I ask. Who else was it turned your umbilical cord into a noose? And twenty years later, who else was I to blame for the pointless accident that took your cousin’s life on the road out of Belfast Airport?  

I’m not so magnanimous as my brother. It took him less than five years publicly to forgive the boy whose simple inexperience ended one life and indelibly stamped so many others with sorrow.  It’s almost fifteen before I’m able to forgive you for leaving me, or even to admit that’s what I need to do.  As I’m choking out the words at last, you grow in my mind’s eye from a beautiful, bruise-lipped baby into a lithe-limbed teenager with brown hair and a soft smile, and I know I’ve set you free.

The woman at the bus stop hasn’t set anyone free.  I’m tempted to duck through the Bearpit to the other stop when I see her on the bench, surrounded by bags, but I’m afraid I’ll miss the bus.  She’s on her feet before I’m half across the road.  Her eyes, marbled and grey-green as the sea, search my face for inappropriate responses.

I’ve called the police on the lot of them … I hope you know it wasn’t me …

I don’t know the story, but I can recite the script.  This lady lugs her pain daily in two supermarket carriers and a blue Ikea bag.  It’s tempting to laugh, but I’ve seen myself reflected in her unshed tears once too often, and I’ve tried lifting that Ikea bag.  She’s ten years older than me.  I can barely get it off the ground, yet she carries it with her everywhere she goes.  

I’m not sure what I’d do with pain as vast as that.  Maybe I’d stuff it into bags and drag it with me too, or perhaps I’d drown it, like the man in Old Market on Sunday morning.  I know nothing about him, save that he has an empty White Ace bottle for a pillow and a swarm of flies on his trousers.  I’m not even sure he’s alive.  My companion and I hesitate.  The flies hover.  The scene is cruel and compelling, and neither of us wants to pass by on the other side.  After what seems an age, the buzzing of the flies at his face penetrates his stupor and he twitches to shake them off.

It’s OK, I say, He moved.

Are you sure?

Yes.  Absolutely positive 

All the same, I can’t shake him off so easily.  Something about him puts me in mind of Charlie in the final three-bottles-of-vodka-and-a-sweat-stained-brown-T-shirt-he-wore-for-six-months days.  We’re halfway through our bacon sarnies when I realise I’ll have to go back, just to be sure he really is alive.  We’re still a yard or two off when a young man in glasses squats down by him and holds out a cheeseburger.  Charlie-not-Charlie takes and unwraps it on the urine-stained pavement without sitting up.  The young man draws level with us.  He seems bemused by my half-smile.  After all he has no way to know there’s a world in my head where his cheeseburger kick-started a miracle, just as there is in his.

Pain’s a companion nobody wants and everyone finds hard to let go.  An old friend and I used to argue endlessly about forgiveness.  No, she’d say, it’s too easy.  It’s just letting people off the hook.  Now I’m older and wiser, I have to agree, although it’s too late to tell her.  I’ve seen forgiveness sold like snake oil.  An airy wave of the hand, a no-it’s-all-right-really-it-is, and another item gets stuffed into the Ikea bag.  Out of sight but still in mind, and biding its time.

I don’t understand all this stuff about Jesus being crucifie

I glance at my companion over the rim of my teacup.  I’m not sure I understand as well as I used to think I did. The thought’s forming that a God prepared to take that kind of shit isn’t looking at forgiveness that’s accomplished by a wave of the hand.  Instead, it’s a painful road.  It’s a real and long-drawn-out process of letting go, and oddly this gives me hope.  If I’m right, then there’s still time for the bag ladies and the Charlie-not-Charlies, because it’s never too late. If I’m right, the day may come when I’ll be able forgive even those bastards in the car, then maybe I won’t have to construct my own private corner in hell after all.

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Honesty

The flower bed in the lee of the wall on the beach road has flourished in the year since it was replanted. Amongst the tangle of oxeye daisies and fading thrift, a glimpse of honesty takes me to a time when those papery seed heads grew alongside carrots and sweet peas in the garden of my childish dreams.
“Why is it called honesty?”
“Because you can see right through it,” my mother said, as we patted the earth over the seeds together.
You don’t see it so much these days, my companion and I agree as we cross the road with the dogs. The BBC website declares honesty to be ‘an old-fashioned dual purpose plant’, which seems a good description for a virtue nobody prizes any more. Indeed, in these days of instant gratification and winner-takes-all, it seems to serve no useful purpose at all. Why would it? You can persuade turkeys to vote for your kind of Christmas by painting a bus with three-hundred-and-fifty-million-pound untruths, or become leader of the free world by lying through your teeth. Why bother with honesty?
It’s tempting to become nostalgic for old-fashioned values, but that way lies Brexit, amongst other horrors. I grew up in what seems to have become a golden age for nostalgia – post-war Britain. I was brought up to value honesty above all else by parents whose mantra was ‘what will the neighbours think?’ It was a difficult dance, and for an over-dramatic child such as myself it sometimes brought unexpected consequences.

 

Despite fierce parental disapproval, I lived much of my childhood in a solitary fantasy world, acting out for myself the stories rooted in my fertile imagination. I wore a yellow scarf on my head in lieu of golden ringlets. I rode horses constructed from garden canes stuffed into my father’s old socks. I became the entire crew of Swallows and Amazons, using oars made from old broom handles, and I hid my pet rock in a pile of rubble to stop my parents taking it away after my brother dropped it on his toe. Well, how was I to know the pile was destined to form the base for the hard standing for Dad’s first car? I still remember the day I came home from school to find my imaginary companion had disappeared beneath several inches of rapidly-setting concrete. On another memorable afternoon, I flounced across the patio and buried my head in my arms against the wall of the coal shed. I think I was a distraught princess at the time.
“Whatever’s the matter with you now?”
I hadn’t seen my mother watching at the French window. A split second of pure panic ensued, as I pulled out of my dream world at warp speed. My play acting was so much frowned upon that I knew telling the truth would lead to Consequences. I was obliged to cast round for a hasty excuse, in the hope of minimising the inevitable.
“I’m hungry.”
We’d finished lunch not ten minutes previously. All hell broke loose. What will the neighbours say? Do you want them to think we’re not feeding you properly? I was dragged indoors and forced to eat a banana. All in all it was one of the odder outcomes of dishonesty I’ve experienced.
But don’t we all do it? The tweaked image. The white lie. Compromising a principle to avoid offence. Our myriad minuscule deceptions oil the wheels of social interaction, primarily by ensuring we don’t spend our entire lives at each other’s throats. One of my guilty pleasures is the film Liar, Liar. A hapless father has absolute truthfulness thrust upon him for twenty-hour hours. The social consequences of being unable to lie are excruciating, but any Hollywood morality tale has to have a happy ending, and I’m yet to be convinced things would work out so well in the real world.
Charlie lied as naturally as he breathed. I took that as a given, and always felt a frisson of surprise if anything he told me turned out to be true. He was a fully-formed fantasist, and after a while it became a game for me to catch him and string him along. The Africa fantasy was my favourite. He’d read about a major civil war in a book once, and tried to convince me he’d been a mercenary in the thick of it. His story was so full of holes. He didn’t even know when he’d been there, or which side he’d fought on. The other thing he didn’t know was that his predecessor had lied to me for more than thirty years, even though I knew he was lying, and he knew that I knew. I could spot mendacity at twenty paces. In fact I’d grown so adept at living with deception that it had become second nature – a poison that had permeated my psyche so deeply I’d long ceased to be able to trust, or even to expect honesty.
My first conscious encounter with gaslighting was when a friend confided that she thought her husband was changing the clocks in the house in order to confuse her. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, gaslighting is attempting to alter someone else’s perception of the world in order to manipulate them. My friend was suffering severe postnatal depression and I feared she was delusional, so it wasn’t until some years later that I realised she’d almost certainly been telling the truth.
In a dubious defence of gaslighters I realise everyone’s perception of reality is different. A few years ago a friend and I had taken refuge from a downpour. We were sitting together over a pot of tea and some rather good scones. I was watching a man struggle through the deluge with a broken umbrella when my friend asked whether I thought it might have stopped raining yet. It seemed pretty obvious to me that it hadn’t, but he couldn’t see what I was seeing, despite the fact we were less than two feet apart.
Of course, in that situation neither of us had any vested interest in controlling the other’s perceptions. Gaslighting, on the other hand, is an active attempt to manipulate another’s view for your own ends. Gaslighting is making a three-year-old believe she’s a big girl because you don’t want to deal with her emotional distress. Gaslighting is shutting down an argument you’re losing by telling someone her gender makes her point of view invalid. Gaslighting is changing the clocks to disorientate your already-distressed wife. Gaslighting is telling your partner you’re a trained killer. It’s what an old friend bought into when her husband told her it was normal for men to have affairs, and what a newer friend refused to swallow when her partner called her unreasonable for objecting to his ongoing relationship with his ex wife. Gaslighting is one hundred and one ways to get someone to believe they’re the irrational one, not you. It’s constructing the world to your own specifications, then forcing someone else to live in it. If you ever have to check in with a friend to make sure what you’re feeling is reasonable, chances are someone’s been gaslighting you.
I once knew a man who told me he was one hundred percent honest. What you see is what you get, he used to say. The ultimate in gaslighting. Somehow I always picture him thumping his chest as he said it, although I’m fairly sure it never happened. My ability to see right through him had nothing to do with his honesty though. Far from it. Instead, my time in his company taught me that the least transparent among us are often easiest to see through, because once you’ve caught the first lie, you’ll be ready for the next one … and the next … ad nauseam. And when you’ve once seen through the WYSYWYG lie, it’s going to be that much harder for anyone to gaslight you again, unless you choose to allow them to do so, of course. Truth is, there’s nobody has honesty one hundred percent nailed. My mother was mistaken about those seed heads, you can’t see right through them. They’re no more than translucent, and that’s only after the muddy residue of the flower’s been removed. Ah, have to love a good metaphor … The fact is honesty’s inconvenient, painful and doesn’t often get us what we think we want. My mind games with Charlie and his predecessor were no more honest than their outright lies, but all the same I can’t help longing for honesty, after so many years of deceit. Yes, I know I’m not even honest with myself some of the time, so there’s a good way to go, but I’m kind of looking forward to the journey. And how honest have I been here? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

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The thwarted photographer – Leonard Cohen, Donald Trump and the dance of death

 

A December Saturday afternoon. The camera and I have been distracted by the festive lights on the way home, and we’re sheltering in the lee of a bank, trying to catch a shot or two of the Christmas market. The rain’s intensifying the colours of the trinkets on the stall opposite, and I’m watching a man steal sweets from behind the girl in charge, so I’m not taking much notice of the grey shapes next to me. I’ve near on perfected the art of invisibility over the years, and it’s a great strategy for photography, unless you happen to relish a good punch-up, or being asked to take endless snaps of tourists. Sadly, my cloak is rendered ineffective in the face of a fellow wannabe photographer.

 

Nice camera

 

The male half of the couple next to me has peeled away from his partner and wants to engage me in conversation. Scenarios like this go one of two ways. There’s the superior-photographer-who-wants-to-show-off-his-knowledge version, or there’s the wistful-camera-envy one. This turns out to be the latter. The woman wanders off toward the pick-n-mix stall while he’s telling me how he’d love to have a camera like mine but he can’t afford one, so he has to take photos with his mobile phone instead. I find myself hugging the camera close.

 

It’s not actually mine. It’s on loan from a friend

 

Who am I kidding? This camera is the extension of my soul. You’d have to prise it out of my cold, dead fingers. He nods toward the pick-n-mix.

 

There she goes, spending all my money again

 

His bitterness takes me for a split second to a place I have no desire to revisit. Quite why he imagines I’ll empathise with such a savage remark about his wife is beyond me. Maybe my fraudulent possession of the camera has temporarily liberated me from gender stereotypes. I take a couple of shots of the light reflecting on the bike locked to the bench in front of us.

 

My money’s all my own these days

 

I feel a sudden surge of pride in my hard-won independence. The woman returns with a bulging shopping bag, he makes a polite goodbye and the two of them melt into the shadows.

 

Last week was an odd one. There was Donald Trump, then there was Leonard Cohen. I’m not ashamed to say I shed tears over both, albeit for very different reasons. Cohen was a poet, a thinker and a spiritual man. His music’s so deep in me I can’t imagine a world without him. It’s part of the very dirt that nourished my roots, and to be writing about him in the past tense breaks my heart. Trump is none of those things. He breaks my heart for very different reasons. On Wednesday evening a friend posted on Facebook.

 

America is now in an abusive relationship. That’s how I keep picturing it.

 

Another friend works on a telephone helpline. Every abused woman she counselled on Wednesday mentioned Trump. I’d watched his body language during those debates with morbid fascination. The nods, the knowing looks. I’ve seen them all before. Even that sideways glance at Melania’s voting slip was a classic.

 

Trump has wooed and won America with wild claims and impossible promises, just as any abuser charms his victim. Relinquish control, and I’ll sort out all your mess. Leave your intelligence, integrity, personal autonomy – everything that makes you who you are – at the door. Trust me. I’ll fix you. Charlie actually said that to me once. And it’s so seductive. Isn’t there a frightened child in every one of us who wants somebody to wave a magic wand and make the bogeyman go away? Small wonder 53% of white American women voters were seduced. The trouble is, people like The Donald usually turn out to be far worse than the bogeyman.

 

From Cinderella to Hollywood, and regardless of gender, we grow up believing in The One. That perfect soulmate with whom we’re destined to walk hand-in-hand into the sunset for ever. If we can only find them, everything will be happy-ever-after. Films and fairy tales alike end that way. They never show you the smelly socks, or the endless rows over who does the dishes. This pressure to perfection is sheer cruelty.

 

This person is supposed to make me happy. Why isn’t she or he giving me what I’m entitled to?

 

I ought to make this person happy, but he or she is always angry and miserable. What am I doing wrong?

 

It’s a dance of death.

 

My latest job has me cooking around five hundred meals a day in a drop-in near the city centre. I glance up from a half-chopped pile of onions to see Laura at the counter. I’ve known her a while, but I’ve never seen her here before. I drop my knife and run round the counter to hug her. She bursts into tears. She’s homeless, she tells me. Her so-called boyfriend has gone to prison for beating her up. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do without him, and now all his mates are saying she grassed him up.

 

I didn’t. Really I didn’t.

 

She wails, while the thoughts clamour in my head. Not least of them is, you’re better off without him, girl. But what do I know? In a world as dangerous and uncertain as the one Laura inhabits maybe you need a protector, a knight to fend off the bogeyman, even if he does rearrange your face from time to time.

 

So many of us believe it’s impossible to be happy alone, and of course it’s great having someone else around. Loneliness is a risk factor for both mental and physical ill health. But to carry the can for someone else’s happiness is too heavy a burden, and one nobody should have to bear. If you’re demanding that of someone, you’re abusing him or her. You’re using that person to meet your needs, just as Donald Trump is using America to satisfy his lust for power. You may never go so far as to rearrange his or her face, but you’re trying to rearrange their soul, and in the long run that’s far worse.

 

There’s a flipside of course. Melania wouldn’t be picking out metaphorical curtains for the White House if no-one had voted for her husband. What was that about turkeys and Christmas?  Somewhere around a quarter of the American voting public actually chose this relationship with a crazed, narcissistic psychopath. They gave him permission to walk all over them. Waking up on Wednesday morning was rather like the moment your best friend tells you she’s marrying that man who’s had her crying on your shoulder for months.

 

I’m the one person who really understands him.

 

No. You’re not. You wouldn’t be doing this if you did.

 

He just can’t live without me.

 

Yes he can. He got along just fine before he met you. Ask his twenty-seven ex partners, always assuming they’re still alive.

 

I’m the only real friend he’s got.

 

I rest my case. If he’s lived all these years without making any lasting friendships, don’t touch him with a barge pole.

 

Only you can’t say any of this, or she’ll drop you like a hot brick, and she’s going to need all the friends she can get when she finally decides to go cold turkey. Yes, a toxic relationship can be just as hard to let go as a Class A drug. Take it from one who’s tried.

 

But some of us get wise in the end. I turn my back on the gaudy baubles of the Christmas market. None of the photos I’ve taken are great, but I don’t know that yet, and when I find out it won’t be the end of the world. For me, the important thing is the freedom to exercise my passion, combined with the support and kindness of a friend who demands nothing in return, simply enjoying the snippets of time we spend together. The crowd flows around me. I imagine the thwarted photographer and the grey ghost, trudging the weary round of festive duty, each regretting the life they might have had, while silently accusing the other. From time to time, the glowering embers of resentment will spring to life in a shower of blame. I grew up in an environment much like that. They’ve long forgotten how to live their own lives.  Maybe it’s too late now. Perhaps they’re just too afraid to make their own mistakes, and to have nowhere else to pin the blame. This is not for me, I think, as I photograph reflections in the rain. Too many people die this way. I’m learning to be happy for myself at long last, and I’ve come way too far to think of going back. I join the queue huddling under the bus shelter, with the shadow of a song slow-dancing through my soul.

 

Maybe there’s a god above, but all I’ve ever learned from love

 

Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya …

 

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Ghosts

Why is it I can never find the one thing I want in this glory hole called home? This time it’s a knitting pattern. The evenings are drawing in, and my favourite gloves are looking moth-eaten. I’ll make a new pair, I thought. It won’t take long, I thought. So here I am, hours later, in the cupboard. There are patterns for baby clothes, cardigans, Christmas stockings, socks and 1980s jumpers. There are pages torn from well-thumbed copies of The People’s Friend in a past life. There’s a cross-stitch kit with no instructions, a relic of a lifetime even further passed, and an ancient recipe for vegetarian Christmas nut roast. No glove pattern. I’m leafing through the pile for the umpteenth time when something glittery catches my eye. It’s a Christmas card.

It’s been a week for ghosts, and this is the second time yours has visited. The first was when I opened that email on Thursday afternoon. Your face smiled out as if that Monday in July, almost four-and-a-half years ago, had never happened. The inquest was this week, and it seems your dad made the headlines in both Belfast and Luton. He told the driver whose inexperience brought your too-short life to its abrupt end to live his own life to the full, and I know you’d have said the same. Live life in colour. And I try, really I do. This Christmas card is full of ghosts, all made bearable by your innate understanding that something good would come from the situation. Even from the appalling mess that was Charlie. It’s here, in your handwriting …

If you hadn’t come, I don’t know how we would have coped. I know it wasn’t under good circumstances that you came but God has used it to make good …

I can see so clearly now, but back then I felt nothing but shame. Maybe that’s why I tucked the card away and forgot it.

In fact, your dad caused quite a stir by offering your killer the same grace that came so naturally to you. In a world full of recrimination, compassion sometimes sticks in people’s throats. This very week, a popular tabloid called for Gary Lineker to be sacked for daring to express concern for Syrian children, and it’s not so long since Lily Allen drew the bile of Twitter by weeping for a traumatised thirteen-year-old. The Jungle in Calais is being demolished as I type. Thousands of desperate dreams are dying, yet last night I watched a well-fed man spew hatred on TV over a handful of displaced orphans in Devon. What’s happening to the world? Whatever it is, I don’t think you’d have liked it, but you’d have been far more gracious about it than I.

Aside from Donald Trump, and any other psychopath whose peace is untrammelled by concern for consequences, we all of us live with fear. Bullies, governments, Republican nominees and international corporations play this to their advantage. Bullies offer relief from torment if we do things their way. Governments offer protection in return for unquestioning allegiance. Donald Trump fakes fellow feeling to persuade electors to give him their victim-vote. International corporations create problems we never had, so they can sell things we didn’t know we needed. Don’t fret, I’m not hinting at a web of conspiracy. I’m old enough and ugly enough to know it’s never that co-ordinated. This is simply what you get when you make market forces a god, self-interest a virtue and profit a principle.  This is what happens when you dehumanise people to the point that they become mere ghosts in the capitalist machine.

I grew up on the northern fringe of London in the wake of World War II. You could see the shells of bombed-out buildings a bus ride away. I had a ration book, although my parents never used it. Many of my primary school friends were the children of refugees from the Nazi holocaust. We played hopscotch, French skipping and jacks in the playground. We collected gonks and trolls. We were obsessed with the Beatles. We wrote the same stories, hated the same school dinners and had the same dreams and aspirations. Some of my friends refused to eat pork, and celebrated unfamiliar religious holidays. Others had big televisions, ate cakes bought from shops instead of home-made ones, and were allowed to stay up much later than I was. I learned that families have different lifestyles, and that it’s no big deal. I think I’ll always be thankful for my mother’s calm explanation that a refugee is simply someone whose home has become too dangerous a place to live in. How could I, with such an intense passion for my own space, feel anything but empathy for someone deprived of their home?

Even then, there were the scaremongers. Plus ca change. After all, hadn’t it been Hitler’s scaremongering that brought about the holocaust in the first place? The cycle of history shows that when people feel themselves hard-done-by they’ll look for scapegoats. Thus it becomes the job of astute politicians to direct the anger where it can do least harm to those truly responsible for the mess. A billionaire fraudster proposes building a wall to keep powerless migrants out of the United States. A media mogul whips up hatred against a handful of teenage refugees. They’re hailed as saviours when all they’ve done is to deflect attention from their own culpability. Low wages maximise their profits. Poverty encourages migration. If you can’t feed your family, are you going to sit and watch them starve? Nobody walks away from everything they love without good reason.

I’m out walking with a friend and two cameras on an autumn morning. My camera and I wrestle over the focus for a photo. My friend and I wrangle over politics. Yes, a lot of people worry about immigration, I want to say, but migrants are our modern scapegoats, like Jews in Hitler’s Germany. They’ve become less than human to us. Mere statistics. Shadowy figures. And ghosts are easy to demonise in tabloid headlines, while the puppet master rakes in the cash.  Our path meanders amongst trees and allotments, over bridges and through tunnels, past flowerbeds and graffiti. An English urban landscape, flushing briefly gold as the leaves tumble toward winter.

Around the next corner, and I’m face-to-face with a photo I can’t take. Two faded dolls, once loved and now forgotten, sit on a sill outside a house, and all the grief I’ve ever felt seems balled up in their dejection. Who can photograph a ghost? Later this evening my frenetic search will turn up a dog-eared copy of the pattern they were knitted from. The needles’ click, the pattern, the creating were sometimes all that kept me this side of the abyss the first, dark months. Thus, the love I longed to give my newborn daughter knitted up a crazy collection of dolls and toys instead. Now Sarah’s ghost is still the hardest one to see, but she’s there in the photograph my friend has taken. And I know just how much those dolls once were loved.

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The shifting of the waves

A solitary magpie flaps on the fence of the caravan opposite as I close the gate and head for the cliff path. It’s the last day of the holiday, and the first of uninterrupted sunshine. Scots pines, seagulls and late afternoon shadows beckon. The camera and I are in for a treat. Down the steep, wooden steps and the beach is more or less deserted. It’s hard to believe it’s a sunny Sunday in July. Half a dozen would-be surfers stand waist-deep in the Mediterranean-blue water, chatting. A paraglider swoops and dives overhead. The gulls curve and cry above the beach huts, circling the sparse smoke of a couple of barbecues. Dogs chase and bark across the shingle. I take photos. Fading sea pinks. Bees on thistles. The changing curl of the waves’ breaking. The blue-and-gold vanishing point at the cliff’s end. This is my fifth summer here, and every one of them haunted by a sense that it might be the last. Maybe that’s why the compulsion to record every detail seems more visceral even than my love of photography.

This year it feels more urgent still. The pebbles slide from under my feet on the way down to the thin strip of sand. A hundred yards or so ahead two small children are testing the waves with their toes, squealing and laughing. The father with them seems barely more than a boy himself. He keeps firm hold of their hands, encouraging them whenever terror threatens to overwhelm delight. There are times I wish someone could still do that for me. I walk towards them, my feet leaving prints like a trail of scars in the wet sand. Tomorrow the marks will be gone, erased by the waves as if I’d never been here. I brought my broken heart to the beach four years ago. Barely twenty-four hours after your father and brothers carried you down the aisle of the chapel, I was here on different stones, watching the waves roll and curl, sucking on the shingle as they died. Everything had changed, yet somehow the sea remained the same.

The squeals have faded into the distance now. The sun’s strong and my shoulders are beginning to burn. I scramble up the slope of shifting pebbles toward the cliff. The rainbow of beach huts offers scant shade, but I find a cool spot and sit for a while. Back where I’ve just come from, a couple have settled on the stones, heads together in conversation. The small boy with them is staring out to sea, and the thought bubbles up that he’s looking at a future less constant than the shifting of the waves.

The postman was shovelling handfuls of mail into his sack as I steamed through the downpour to catch the afternoon collection. The postal vote, meticulously sealed an hour or so previously, was damp and dog-eared by the time I thrust it into his hand. I hoped and prayed the ink hadn’t run. That was it. I’d done all I could to avert disaster, and to secure a future for my children and my grandchildren. To be honest, I still believed in that moment that sanity would prevail. I had no idea that two weeks down the line I’d be listening from my narrow bed with horror as the results rolled in. A vote for isolationism, fear and xenophobia, for an imperial past over an inclusive future, for years of economic uncertainty and political instability. A vote where half the people had no idea what they were voting for, and even its proponents didn’t expect to win. I was already here by then – the sea at my doorstep and the forest all around – so it was hard to take in the change. Nevertheless, I could feel it in the wind on the beach the following morning. Later, a text from a friend called it a step back into the dark ages. Sorry it’s happened on your holiday, and no doubt spoilt your time away, she said. It took a day or so to see she’d hit the nail squarely on the head.

I glance at the time. Have I really sat here so long? The shrubs along the footpath home host a plethora of bees. Today at least three different types work head-buried in the purple flowers, side-by-side and spreading pollen for the next year’s crop. They flit and shift with no regard for boundaries or demarcation, or the fact I want to capture them on film. They’re not worried that there won’t be enough to go around. There’s plenty, and none of them takes more than they need. My lens is deep amongst the leaves when a family trails by, two squabbling children bringing up the rear. An impatient adult turns and snaps.

Can’t you two just grow up and sort it out?

I come back to the caravan to find a friend’s deleted me on Facebook. Apparently, even grown-ups can’t always sort it out.

Twenty-four hours on, and the train to Bristol’s crowded. I’m glad I’ve booked a seat. The lady opposite is near my mother’s age I guess, and half the table’s taken by her Daily Telegraph. I thank heaven for my iPad, get my head down and start to write. An hour into the journey, she pulls a pile of press cuttings from her bag and begins to scribble notes. I’m making up stories now. She’s a well-known writer, travelling incognito, an actress preparing for her next performance, or a member of the House of Lords perhaps. The story’s half written in my head when the woman beside me leans forward.

May I ask what it is you’re doing with all those cuttings? It looks fascinating.

She does it with that classic grace no-one could receive as unwarranted intrusion. Ten minutes down the line we’re deep in the most civilised discussion of the Brexit issue that’s ever going to happen. Our elderly companion has voted ‘leave’, but she and her son are at odds and she’s trying to muster an intelligent argument on her way to visit him. If the thought that she’s about ten days too late even crosses my mind, it’s gone before it’s fully formed, because this is the essence of all those British values upon which people love to pontificate. Tolerance, community spirit and individual liberty are happening right here, in a capsule in time, around this small table on a train out of Southampton. I don’t know it yet, but I’m going to wish I could have bottled this ready to hand out over the weeks and months ahead.

The political scrum of the past few weeks takes me back to my days in 1970s student politics. When it comes to rigid ideologies, it seems the grown-ups are no more capable of sorting it out than we kids were then. While I’ve been at my keyboard this morning, Andrea Leadsom has withdrawn from the Conservative Party leadership contest, and I’m left with a growing sense we’re in uncharted waters. An odd sense indeed, when I suspect what so many voted for was a retreat from the rapid pace of change. But change is inevitable. Nothing’s permanent. My favourite beach may have looked like the same place the other day, but not one stone of it had remained where it was last year.

The French have a saying that doesn’t translate succinctly into English, probably because we don’t value the intellectual exercise of philosophy so highly as they do – plus ca change, plus ca c’est la meme chose. Everything changes, yet everything stays the same doesn’t capture the essence, just as Cheddar doesn’t capture Camembert, fish and chips don’t capture paella and steak and kidney pudding doesn’t capture Hungarian goulash. We can’t even capture the correct spelling for that last. I love Cheddar cheese, fish and chips and steak and kidney pudding, but I want Camembert, Beaujolais, paella, gulyás and French philosophy too, and I don’t want to go back to a world where I need a visa or an import licence to get them. Some things simply work better in their original language and context, and when we try to shut them out, our lives become smaller and poorer. Instead of pulling up the drawbridge on Little England, isn’t it time to embrace difference? To respond with delight, rather than to recoil in terror? Isn’t life just a little too short for all this fear and hatred? Or am I just an utterly incorrigible hopeless idealist?

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