Monthly Archives: April 2016

Of fish and bicycles

Poor, hapless Amy. She’s the kind of woman no red-blooded man would want to end up with. Quite frankly, she’s let herself go. She’s messy, disorderly and loud. She likes a beer and a raucous sing-song once in a while. She’s always singing round the house. She never has meals on the table on time. She doesn’t iron shirts properly. In fact she’s not seen the bottom of the ironing pile in months. She seldom gets her hair done, and never puts on lipstick to greet her man after a hard day at the office. Worst of all, she sometimes spends the whole day in a dressing gown. Small wonder her long-suffering husband has embarked on a torrid affair with his glamorous secretary. Georgie’s everything Amy isn’t. Efficient, elegant and self-effacing. The perfect little woman. She’s half Amy’s age and she’s all over Jim like a rash.

Yes, it’s Saturday afternoon and I’m watching black-and-white kitchen sink dramas on the telly. How better to while away a tired hour or two when you’ve been blasted out of bed at five, ready to capture the dawn on camera? This particular film, Woman in a Dressing Gown, was made when I was three years old and the world was a quite different place. Everything seemed black-and-white back then, and I don’t simply mean the cinematography. I can predict the dramatic denouement before I’m half way down my first cup of tea. Two women fighting over the greatest prize life has to offer. A man. And not even a particularly good one. He lies, he cheats and when his son calls him out he resorts to physical violence. I’d get shot of him if I were you Amy. You’re better off without him.

Amy’s making an impassioned declaration of independence now, and I’m on the edge of the sofa cheering her on. Then Jim plays his trump card. What’s she going to do without him, he asks. What on earth will she live on?

I’ll get a job.

You can see the pity in their eyes, Jim and Georgie. Poor deluded Amy can’t even look after her own husband. She’s not going to last five minutes in the real world.

My mother-in-law was the world’s worst cook. She’d been a full-time housewife for the best part of thirty years when I met her, so you’d think she’d have got the hang, but in truth her heart was never in it. I loved my mother-in-law far better than her son if I’m honest. There were three things made Grandma smile. First was her grandchildren, the second her Tuesday afternoons at the local baby clinic, but the third was talking about her life before domestic drudgery. You see my self-deprecating mother-in-law, whose scattiness made her the butt of every family joke, had once held down a highly responsible job in the Education Department of London County Council. There she’d helped to organise the evacuation of thousands of children from wartime London by day, whilst standing fire watch on St Paul’s Cathedral by night. She’d seen a deal more active service than her husband, who’d spent his war on an artillery range on Salisbury Plain. Maybe Amy would shine too in a different environment.

For Amy and my mother-in-law marriage was a stark transaction. Grandma married late, and I think she had cause and perspective enough to regret it. Not that she once complained. One didn’t in those days. Amy was educated with marriage in mind. It’s hard to believe any parent would deliberately deprive their child of a good education, but the past was a different place. I’ve had more than one friend whose father decreed that the only skills she needed were cookery and shorthand typing. Shorthand? Where’s that going to get you these days? So there’s Amy, smack in the middle of telling Jim she doesn’t need him, when she comes up against the truth. In marrying him, she’s sold her life, her independence and all her dreams for a band of gold and a share in Jim’s wages. Without him, she’ll starve. Small wonder she and Georgie are squaring up to slog this one out. Sold a romantic ideal that was really no more than a precarious meal ticket, the lot of the average 1950s woman was not a happy one.

Of course, the lily-livered waster does exactly as I knew he would in the end. Georgie’s the loser, and no-one’s meant to feel sorry. She’s a woman who failed to understand her place. She got above her station and took what she wanted, although why the hell she wanted Jim is beyond me. She walks off the set, aloof and slightly sad. As befits a woman fallen from grace, she’s doomed to spend her declining years alone in the corner of a dusty office, with nothing but her shorthand notebook and a typewriter for company. As for me, I can’t help imagining how things might have been if Amy and Georgie had thrown Jim out on his ear and joined forces to launch Amy’s singing career. With her voice and Georgie’s organisational skills they couldn’t have gone wrong. Sadly, 1950s scriptwriters weren’t noted for thinking that far outside the box.

I don’t know its origin, but I first saw it scrawled on the wall of a toilet somewhere around 1976. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Some years later the saying was purloined by a purveyor of Irish stout, and I have to confess that I now own a chopping board with the words emblazoned across it. Be that as it may, I’ve never forgotten my first encounter. Need is not good for any relationship. You’re my world … sang Cilla Black. I was still in primary school then. Need feeds the romance industry. Need and possession. I’m your woman, and you are my man … I can’t live, if living is without you … But despite the promise of happy-ever-after, marriage has always been a harshly practical arrangement. All down the years women like Grandma and Amy have traded their lives for the promise, only to end up dependent upon that most unreliable of beasts: a man.

Money. In the world as we know it, money buys freedom.  Yet the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. St Paul’s words, not mine. Well not his precise words obviously. He didn’t speak English, although I’ve known people who’d be surprised to hear that. For something that doesn’t exist, money causes a lot of trouble. Take Amy’s conundrum. She needs Jim because he brings home the bacon. He also brings home tea, milk and sugar, of which they’re getting though an awful lot right now. During one melodramatic climax, Jim sends Georgie to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. This is a British film after all. But seriously, can’t he even boil a kettle?  Amy drags her twenty years of shared experience with Jim into the fight. Now, if he’s prepared to deceive her to get what he wants, I don’t think all that matters much to him. He’ll do it again in a heartbeat, mark my words. The only thing keeping the two of them in the same room is Amy’s dependence on his pay cheque. And the demands of the script of course.

I’ve written before about money. It takes more faith to believe in the existence of money than in a god who sits on a cloud hurling thunderbolts all day. Nevertheless, like children at a pantomime we suspend disbelief and clap our hands because we can’t picture the world any other way. In a moneycentric universe people become commodities, and Jim’s a pretty valuable commodity to Amy right now. Sadly, she has far fewer bargaining chips than he does, and those she has aren’t in good shape. She’s a terrible housewife, and she’s let herself go physically, to boot. All-in-all, she’s dismally failed to uphold her side of the marriage deal. Seeing as the screenplay’s by a man, I’m surprised he hasn’t written her out already.

Charlie’s attitude to money was refreshingly straightforward. Money equalled booze, and he’d think nothing of clearing every penny in the house for another drink. You know where you stand with a man like that, even if it is in the shit. His predecessor was more complex. It took time to understand those Andy Capp impressions he used to do – lying all day with his dirty boots on the arm of the sofa. Now I get it. He didn’t want to share his money with me, or with his children. The solution was simple. Don’t bring home any money. The traditional marital deal collapsed spectacularly, but instead of insisting on a new one I tried to uphold both sides single-handedly. The burden broke me. This is not the place to talk about the shifting boundaries of relationships in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. That’s a post for another day. All I’ll say now is that a fish has far more use for a bicycle.

So, what of Amy? She’s got her man and they’re walking hand-in-hand to the rosy glow of renewed romance. I doubt it’ll last. Amy’s not going to fall in love with drudgery any time soon, and Jim’s highly likely to fall in love with the next pretty secretary. Money, need and fear of the unknown will hold them together for now, but they’re fragile threads. I’ll give it a year. Perhaps next time they’ll make the right choice. Then Jim’ll be on his bike.

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Sympathy for the devil

It had to happen sooner or later. After all, the truth will out. This week, along with most of the population of the UK, I’ve been outed as the waste of space I truly am. Yes, I confess I’m a low achiever. I’m not a millionaire, and apparently this means I hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own families and … know nothing about the outside world. To be honest, this came as a bit of a surprise to me. Not the part about not being a millionaire. Running a small enterprise in my line of work isn’t going to get me there any time soon. But up until yesterday I’d at least been able to believe that one of the reasons I wasn’t a millionaire was that I’d made a considered choice to put my family before my career. As this choice involved looking after three children and a man with a debilitating mental health condition on a shoestring budget for more than twenty years, while at the same time juggling a string of jobs in youth work, education and social care, I’d also fooled myself that I knew a fair bit about the real world. Good job Sir Alan Duncan was there to set me straight.

I really, truly wasn’t going to blog again this week. Yesterday’s post drove me to the edge of distraction. But while I was wrestling with a handful of the trivial matters that occupy the feeble minds of us low achievers – theology, domestic abuse and addiction in this case – brave Sir Alan was rushing to the defence of poor, beleaguered David Cameron, a man whose tragic fate it is to be caught in the wealth trap, according to Charles Moore, writing in the Daily Telegraph. Naturally, it’s well beyond the capacity of someone such as myself to empathise with a man like David as he struggles to look after his family in these trying times. I’m all eaten up with envy, and I hate anyone who has got a hint of wealth in them. As a writer and an English teacher I don’t much like that sentence either if I’m honest, but the words are not mine and I suppose my aversion merely serves to highlight my inability to enter into the spirit of achievement.

This is not the first time I’ve written here of the dearth of empathy that plagues the world of the rich in the twenty-first century. It’s a tough call to be wealthy, and money doesn’t always make people happy. Pity poor Ethan Couch, an American teenager whose ‘affluenza’ caught the sympathetic ear of a judge after he killed four people and delivered life-changing injuries to two others while driving erratically. A psychologist told the court he’d had such a privileged upbringing that he was unable to distinguish right from wrong. I’m assuming his family paid said psychologist handsomely. Then there was Elliott Rodger, whom I’ve written about before. He killed six people and injured fourteen more, just because he thought he had a right to have sex with anyone he chose. Poor little rich kid. Yet in the face of all this, it seems the wealthy actually believe they’re better human beings than the rest of us. Jacques Peretti wrote for the Independent after spending time interviewing the super-rich for a BBC television series, The Super Rich and Us. He argues that the fallacy of moral improvement that comes with money has been used to justify inequality. The rich sincerely believe it, and they want us to sincerely believe it too, and guess what? We do. If we don’t achieve the unachievable, we’ve failed. It’s a rigged game. And there you have it, my fellow low achievers. Sir Alan, David, all their cronies and partners in crime, they sincerely believe they’re better human beings than you and me. And who are we to argue?

I’ll confess now that envy, combined with my soul-searing hatred of anyone who has got a hint of wealth in them (and of that appalling phrase) may have led me to make mock of the existential angst of the super-rich. In truth there’s good evidence that wealth blinds its owners to their common humanity, and to the suffering of others. An article published in Psychology Today in 2012 cited research that suggests empathy is more highly developed in us low achievers. We’re better at understanding one another because it’s a skill we need to survive when we know nothing about the outside world. David Graeber, writing in the Guardian in 2014, argued that working class people care more about their families, friends and communities. In aggregate, at least, they’re just fundamentally nicer. One of the smartest moves of those who consider themselves our betters has been to chip away at working class solidarity – crushing trade unions and ripping the heart out of working communities. The crisis in Tata Steel in Port Talbot has revived vivid memories of the destruction of the South Wales coal industry for me. But I’m a low achiever, and a woman to boot. What would I know?

Sometimes I just have to fall back on the frivolous issues that occupy my low-achieving mind. After all, even poor David’s not averse to a bit of theology when it suits his purposes. His Easter message this year cited the Christian values he likes us to believe our nation is built upon – responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, pride in working for the common good, and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and to our communities. I’m not sure how much of that goes on in your average tax haven, but who am I to comment? What I am sure of is that the religion he freely quotes to his advantage began in response to the teaching of a man who said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. And yes, I know religion’s been manipulated by the wealthy down the years to keep simple-minded low achievers like myself under the thumb. David’s still doing it now. But you know what? I’d rather have empathy and solidarity than all the money that’s been salted away in offshore accounts in the history of the human race, and if that makes me a low achiever, so be it. I’m proud to be that way, because when it comes to the crunch, what can anyone give in exchange for their soul, their empathy or their connection to the human race?

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I’ve decided I’m god.

I look up from my book.  My teenage son’s on the sofa, eating corn flakes from a beer mug.

So you’re omniscient then?

What does that mean?

When I was sixteen I knew everything too. I’d rebelled a year or so earlier and told the Sunday School leader I couldn’t teach little ones about Someone-in-the-Sky now I no longer believed in His existence. I’d cried, even as I stood my ground. I loved those kids. There was Loretta, who flung her arms round me every time she saw me. Stephen, who begged to be swung upside down after class. Linda, who pulled faces and made me giggle. I’d never been a calming influence in the Sunday School room. Come to think of it, the other teachers were probably glad to see the back of me.

Back in the here-and-now, and a busy Friday in the Community Café. Phil’s face floats through the crowd as I’m delivering a jacket potato. His hair’s bright pink today, and I stop to compliment him. He seems to be sober as well, which is always a bonus.

Can I borrow a Bible, please?

Of course. There’s one in the church. Turn left out of this door.

I can’t go in there.

I’ve learned not to argue with responses like that.

Hold on a minute.

I want that bit about love. In Corinthians.

He clearly knows what he’s looking for. I find him a Bible and he heads for the garden. I’ve no idea whether we’ll see it again, but whatever happens it’ll be more use to him than it will be gathering dust in an empty building all week. Phil’s one of those people who vanish for months, then appear just as you’re thinking they’ve surely drunk themselves to death this time. He and the Charlies of this world are walking proof of the unpredictability of life, as if the weather on this sceptred isle weren’t sufficient evidence in itself.

Still, in the face of all that points away from it, we yearn for certainty. For permanence. Yesterday, today, for ever, Jesus is the same. If I had a fiver for every time I’ve sung those words I’d be a wealthy woman, and this morning I find myself singing them again.  Only this time they’ve been poached and ravaged by a writer of 1980s-style happy-clappy choruses. Oh, I hate it when they change things like that … The preacher today has a sharp suit and impossibly shiny shoes. He doesn’t look the kind of man who’d spend hours polishing, or sound that way from the impressive list of places he’s visited in the past few weeks. I wonder who cleans his shoes for him? His wife? His kids? Or does he just buy a new pair every time they get scuffed or scratched? He’s telling the god-hates-sin-and-Jesus-had-to-die-so-he-could-bear-the-sight-of-us tale. Followed up with god-loves-us-so-we’d-better-get-our-act-together-or-we’ll-end-up-in-hell. I’ve had this sold to me as ‘good news’ for most of my life. Somehow it still feels more like emotional blackmail.

The preacher says god doesn’t change, and here I find myself starting to agree with him. Yet my own concept of god these days is quite different from the Someone-in-the-Sky I rejected forty-seven years ago. I can’t help reflecting on the trouble I’d be in if I’d stuck with the vengeful monster who policed my childhood. He (and it’s always ‘He’ with a capital ‘H’ when it comes vengeful gods) took careful note of my bad thoughts, as well as all those nips of port from the bottle that was unaccountably hidden in the back of my teetotal parents’ larder. He sat up there in the sky, clutching a big stick and gleefully awaiting His opportunity to beat me. Of course, being omniscient He never missed a trick. I’d surely be beyond the reach of redemption these days if I hadn’t let go of Him.

I’m reminded of a sentence from the passage Phil wanted to read. Now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror. Being unchangeable is a dangerous thing in a poorly-grasped concept. My idea of god becomes THE GOD, and GOD doesn’t change, ergo it’s my job to set you straight if you think differently from me. That’s much the way it works, and it’s a shortish hop from there to Westboro Baptist Church. Shorter than you might realise if you’ve never been thrown out of a fundamentalist house church. It’s always seemed odd that we market god as infinite and beyond comprehension, while at the same time cramming her into neat packages of easily-grasped and immutable formulae, to be thrust down the throats of all comers.

Come to think of it, being unchangeable isn’t a great quality in anything or anyone less than infinitely perfect. A little over ten years ago, I left Charlie’s predecessor. After thirty-two years and a little over two months of deeply unhappy marriage I’d woken up and realised no matter what I did, nothing was going to change. I was looking another thirty years as bad as the last in the face. You don’t get that long for murder, a kind friend pointed out. I walked away with all the misplaced bravado of someone who has no idea what she’s getting herself into. I just needed a bit of time to rediscover myself. What was I thinking? For heaven’s sake, I’d done Buddhism when my children were small. I knew about impermanence, yet I’d wholly failed to grasp that the ‘self’ I was expecting to find might be a deal more elusive than I’d imagined. Happily, life saw me coming and took a sledgehammer to what little remained. I’ll always be thankful for that.

From the shiny-shod assurance of the preacher to an article about ancient Chinese philosophy on the Guardian website the penny’s begun to drop. I’m sixty-two years old. I have far less certainty now than I did at half the age. Things I once knew for sure have turned out to be mysteries more complex and wonderful than my wildest dreams. Who’d have thought a disaster could bring so much good? That a woman afraid of her own shadow could begin to be an extrovert? Or that she might discover new ways to relate to her well-worn body this late in life? That she’d start to blog about these things? Blog? What kind of a word is that? In the midst of all this, my long-clutched certainties have crumbled to a puff of dust, and I’ve never been so happy. Change and decay in all around I see. The words of another old hymn, untampered-with by the modernisers this time. They don’t write ’em like that these days, and more’s the pity. Such words are hard to stomach in a world set on certainties, but they’re the naked truth. Nothing is permanent. Nothing’s unchangeable but the infinite. So it’s up to us to learn to ride the waves.

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Tracing rainbows through the rain

Monday morning, and the weekend tourists have abandoned the beach to the gulls. The wind tugs at my hood. Even the brick-red Devon sand seems workaday grey. I hold a hand over the camera lens to keep it from the drizzle. The tide’s on its way out, and the gulls stand ankle-deep in the shallows preening as the sea rolls and snatches just short of their haven. I watch the waves rise and curl. Fall and spread their lace of foam. Retreat and fade. The pattern repeats yet nothing’s ever quite the same. The sea’s timeless and constantly changing. It was here before me. It will be here long after I’m gone.

There’s a time for everything, and I’m in another time now. The room’s twilit and two faces look down at me. They’re telling me something I already know. I’m so sorry. The pain in their eyes is not even a pale shadow of the grief I’ve carried these past nine months. I want to tell them I knew all along, but I don’t think they can hear me. I stare at the ceiling and rack my brains for comfort. A lifetime of Bible-reading and I can’t remember a single word. Not one. It all becomes patchwork. I’m in the late afternoon sun now. They bring her to me and lay her in my arms. Her lips are faintly blue, otherwise she’s picture perfect. I’ve never held a newborn who didn’t nuzzle for my breast. Never seen a dead body before. Why have they dressed her in someone else’s clothes? Her forehead’s cool as I kiss her goodbye. My soul hurts. I ache to go with her. It’s then the words I’ve been searching for come back to me: He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of humankind, yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. People come. People go. They cry. They take my temperature and my blood pressure. They give me painkillers. Is what I’m feeling some kind of peace, or am I simply numb? Maybe I’ll never know.

The woman’s blonde, she’s angry and she’s in my face. Jools snarls across the counter in the Community Café. She’s not a happy bunny, and my back’s well and truly up by the time she’s done, so I’m none too thrilled just moments later when a customer comes to complain that she’s upset someone in the garden. Some people are born to trouble. I balance a tray of cups on the counter, smooth down my apron and step outside.

She’s at the end of the garden, and a few feet away a woman’s in tears, a puzzled-looking baby on her knee. To cut a long story very short, Jools has delivered a lecture on parenting and it didn’t go well. It seems a bit rich that a woman with no social graces should pass judgement on others, but I’m a peacemaker, it’s been a hectic shift and the last thing I need is a mouthful of invective. Jools stabs her cake with a fork and glares at me.

She was letting that baby eat dirt.

That’s her business, isn’t it?

I can’t just sit and watch.

The last time I saw that look was a year ago. The look in Jools’ eyes now, I mean. We’d reopened from the summer break and Jenny was at the counter. She’d been heavily pregnant when last I saw her. Now she wasn’t, and there was no sign of a baby.

Do you want to see the photos?

She pulled out her phone and showed me her newborn baby girl. She told me how beautiful she was, and how proud she was to be her mum. Then I met her eyes. If I live to be a hundred I’ll never forget what I saw. Of course, we both knew the truth. No social worker anywhere on earth would have let Jenny keep her baby.

When Sarah died, I met nothing but sympathy. People I barely knew crossed the street to tell me how sorry they were. At a school cake sale someone thrust a pot of Body Shop lotion into my hand. Two friends cleaned my house every Monday while I recovered from a messy caesarian. I don’t imagine any of that happened for Jools or Jenny. And now I can’t help but remember a mother in the same town who lost her baby a year or so before me. I remember the looks, the rumours and half-whispered hints. She’d ignored the doctor’s advice. It was her own fault. Maybe they murmured the same things behind my back too. Who knows?

Back from the sea to the warmth of breakfast in an old-fashioned seaside hotel. I’m talking to a friend, and she begins to tell me her story. I’ve known for some time that her children have disabilities. I hadn’t known till now that she adopted them. I see her grief for the children she never bore all these years on, and I know it’s the pain of every parent who’s ever lost a child, even if that child was never so much as conceived.

It rained heavens hard the afternoon of Sarah’s funeral. The undertaker was a friend and refused to take a penny for the tiny, white coffin they carried down the aisle of the chapel. I trace the rainbow through the rain, we sang. At her graveside the rain ran down our faces as if we didn’t have enough tears of our own. I stood alongside that gaping wound in the earth and read the committal myself. I recited the blessing I’d heard at every infant christening of my Methodist childhood.

“The Lord bless us and keep us,

the Lord make his face to shine upon us and be gracious to us.

The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon us and give us peace …

because no-one else will.”

It felt like the defiance I needed.

Home sweet home, and I’m trawling through my photos of the sea. I’ve taken so many, and barely a dozen worth keeping from the perspective of an artist. I decide to take out my pictures of Sarah. They’re pink-faded Polaroids. They have no artistic merit, yet I’d delete every photo I’ve ever taken from my laptop rather than lose one of them. I’ve cried so long over those photos, and here I am again. The sound of rain on the window brings me back into the room and I glance over my shoulder. Arched high and defiant over the streets and houses is the most glorious rainbow, and I know I’m going to tell the story at last.

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