In a past life, I used to squeeze the occasional walk with the dog in between shopping, washing, cleaning, cooking, holding down four part-time jobs and being shouted at. Dog-walking’s a pleasingly solitary occupation. A dog, a rubber ring and me, stomping round a muddy field together. It was the bliss at the start of yet another day’s madness. Of course there were always other dogs and their walkers. The Jack Russell, who savaged my son whilst his owner stood by and did nothing. The Westie whose walker carried him because she couldn’t bear the idea that he was no longer able to walk. There was the pedigree gun dog we had to avoid because his owner didn’t like him to mix with other dogs, and of course there was the gorgeous Golden Retriever whose walker hand sewed his own equally gorgeous dresses. If our paths accidentally crossed, we humans would perform the essential grumbling-about-the-weather ritual, while the dogs did the canine equivalent, then we’d go our separate ways.
Come January, all that used to change. On New Year’s Day there’d be ten or a dozen joggers sweating their way round the freezing field, churning up the mud with their brand new running shoes. Jess tried chasing one the first time she saw them. She soon got fed up with that. As time wore on, their numbers would diminish. Mid-month and the last two or three would still be doggedly pounding the turf. By the beginning of February, it was business as usual.
In recent years, the main use for New Year’s resolutions in my world has been to explain the use of ‘I’m going to … ‘ to students of English.
I’m going to lose three stone.
I’m going to go to the gym ten times a week.
I’m going to read everything Shakespeare ever wrote.
No, not ‘I will’, ‘I’m going to’.
‘I will lose three stone’ might be a statement of fact. ‘I’m going to climb Mount Everest’ has more to do with insane optimism. ‘I’m going to … ‘. Big on dreams, small on delivery. The first time I researched the topic, Wikipedia told me a mere 12% of us keep our resolutions. It seemed a rather generous estimate, but being Wikipedia it may or may not have been accurate. However, there is one thing any New Year’s Resolution’s guaranteed to deliver in bucketfuls.
Guilt. There are so many things I ought to be doing instead of writing. I’m a hundred miles or so from home right now, so the half-painted wall in the hallway, the apples turning into cider instead of chutney and the mirror that’s been behind the armchair for three years because I’m paranoid about electric drills are going to have to wait. Nothing I can do but tick them off the worry list, and that’s no end of a relief because there are any number of other things I ought to feel bad about. The phone calls I’ve put off. The emails I haven’t sent. The family and friends I haven’t seen because there wasn’t time on this flying visit. Then there’s the weight I’ve put on this year. The publicity I didn’t do for the business. The abandoned creative journal. Even the fact that my friend’s scuttling round making lunch on her own and refusing all offers of help. I can feel guilty about anything.
I came into the world less than ten years after the end of World War II. I’m told I was one of the very last people to have a ration book issued in my name, although my parents never actually used it. Wartime austerity was a thing back then, and guilt was the stock-in-trade of postwar parenting. Guilt, and what-will-the-neighbours-think.
What do you mean, you don’t like tripe? Think yourself lucky. We couldn’t get this during the War you know.
In the end, even Mum had to admit tripe was a failure. Dad struggled to eat it, and he’d have eaten his own legs if Mum had asked him to. It was simply vile. We never saw the stuff again. Other tactics for inducing guilt were far more effective. The Sunday School Scripture Exam, for example. My mother wanted me to come top, and nothing less would do. She’d drill me for weeks, convinced I was fluffing my memory verses on purpose, to spite her. No matter how much she yelled, Colin Rowlands beat me every time. I’d do the walk of shame to the front of the church to receive my certificate with could have done better ringing in my ears.
We moved into a wonderful, ramshackle Edwardian house with my grandmother when I was eleven. The inaccessible loft space of the three-bed semi I’d grown up with was replaced by a long room with sloping ceilings, which became my brothers’ bedroom. Once upon a time it must have been the servants’ quarters. I used to imagine maids in starchy pinnies running down the stairs at the pull of a bell-rope.
Tucked into the eaves by the bedroom door was a tiny, triangular attic. All the contents of the old loft were stuffed into this space. I’d read ‘A Little Princess’ far too many times. My head was full of mysteries and long-forgotten secrets. I yearned to stumble across evidence that I was an orphaned princess after all. One of my pastimes was browsing through the back-and-white photos in the sideboard drawer. I studied the family tree in my Baby Book, asking endless questions, until my mother dumped the silver polish in front of me and told me I could polish the best cutlery if I had nothing better to do. The loft had always been where all the really interesting stuff was kept of course. There were ancient toys that had belonged to my father, stamp albums with pictures of Queen Victoria and boxes and boxes of photographs. For the past eleven years I’d only been able to see it from the bottom of a ladder. Now all of a sudden it was there for the asking, but for one small problem. I was strictly forbidden to go into the attic.
One advantage of being a solitary child is that a lot of what you do passes under your parents’ radar. My brothers were also strictly forbidden to dangle toys out of their bedroom window on bits of string. It didn’t stop my father having to fish trains and boats and planes out of the gutter below the window most evenings. They were noisy rebels. Meanwhile, I discovered the value of quiet defiance. I spent hours squished among the boxes in the semi-darkness of the attic. So long as I made no trouble, nobody would come looking, and if I put things back where I’d found them, no-one would be any the wiser. Seek and ye shall find. But it won’t necessarily be what you hope for.
I’m deep in the attic, curled between the boxes under the slope of the eaves. I’ve found a battered sepia photograph. In the dim light, I can see that everyone in it’s dressed to the nines in proper old-fashioned clothes. One little girl in a frilled white pinafore looks a lot like my grandmother. Nanna was one of ten children. Some didn’t survive the First World War. Half of them I’ve never met. I’m old enough to know there was a lot of falling out in my grandmother’s family, but not old enough to understand why. There are so many questions I want to ask to ask. I consider taking the photo downstairs and sneaking it into the sideboard drawer. Maybe I could ‘find’ it in a few days’ time. Somehow, I don’t think Mum would be fooled. I’ve already been in here too long. The butterflies are gathering in my stomach. She’ll notice I’m missing any minute, either that or one of the boys will come storming upstairs and blow my cover. I tuck the photograph away. In the bottom of the box is a pile of envelopes I’ve not seen before. Just one last peep … Inside the first envelope is a simple drawing. A smiling stick man in a sailing boat. There’s one word, in Dad’s handwriting. ‘Me’.
My father was the world’s worst worrier. He and Mum had been through tough times in the early stages of married life, and the rapid arrival of the three of us hadn’t made things any easier. Even with those hardships long gone, Dad loved to recount how he’d had to walk to work, carrying only the price of a cuppa from the tea trolley in his pocket so his colleagues wouldn’t guess how hard up he was. I think we children were supposed to learn frugality and the importance of keeping up appearances. What I actually learned was that my parents would have been better off if I’d never been born. Now I’d found the evidence. My father’s self portrait. His future as a happy yachtsman all blown to the wind because of me. To my eleven-year-old mind the logic was unassailable. I was the reason for my parents’ ill-concealed misery. I never told a soul, of course. You don’t go sharing secrets as guilty as that. Especially not if you were where you shouldn’t have been when you discovered them.
The guilt I acquired became my constant companion. My familiar. The excuse for fear and failure. The reason not to try. Doesn’t everyone need a friend like that? Could-have-done-better became the mantra of my school reports. Guilt whispered I had no right to succeed. The first boyfriend dumped me. Guilt told me he was too good for me anyway. I made resolutions. Guilt made sure I failed to keep them. Then it flourished in the manure.
I don’t drive. I failed my test twice and after the second attempt I decided there had to be better uses for all that money. As a result I do a lot of walking, mostly without a dog these days. I’m pondering my predicament on the walk from my brother’s house back to work one spring afternoon. Charlie and his predecessor are history now. My life should be my own, yet I’m still scared of everything bar my shadow. It doesn’t make sense. The bad times are behind me, why don’t I feel better? I’m admiring the daffodils in the hedge when the truth hits me. I’ve spent nigh on fifty years pretending to be like everyone else, when I believe deep down I’m not. In the past few months everything’s come apart at the seams. I’ve fled half way across the country to escape Charlie. My life’s a mess, and everyone knows it. Why am I still pretending to be normal? Don’t I have a choice here? Of course I do. I can keep up the good-girl-hard-done-by act, go on wearing the mask and spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder. Or I can forgive myself for mistakes and bad choices. I can stop living what-will-the-neighbours-think, let go all that bloody guilt that was never mine in the first place and start living as if I have nothing to hide. I can’t describe the relief. Call it resolution if you like, in every sense of the word.
And she lived happily ever after ….
Well, almost. The truth is, I still have a to-feel-guilty-about list, but these days it’s my own mistakes. Forgotten birthdays. Missed appointments. Messing around on Facebook when I’d be best cleaning the bathroom. Writing blog posts when I should be doing lesson plans. My choices. I’m no longer responsible for anyone else’s happiness. No more could-have-done-better, nor what-will-the-neighbours-think. The latter was never any of my business anyway. I resolved some time ago that New Year’s resolutions would no longer be a part of my life. There’s altogether too much scope for failure for my liking. This year I think I might break my resolution though. I’m going to give up all those remaining niggles of guilt once and for all. As resolutions go, this one’s pretty much foolproof I think. After all, if I do ever have the odd twinge, at least I won’t be able to feel guilty about it.