We were very young. We knew nothing. But goodness, did I have a lovely frock and some pretty flowers!
Early one morning a few days back, Mr Litlove came into our room in a state of some concern.
‘Harvey hasn’t come in for his breakfast,’ he said.
I hadn’t entirely got my eyes open at this point and my brain certainly wasn’t yet in gear, but this was surprising news. As our cat has grown older, so he seems to have grown hungrier. He has two meals a day, breakfast and teatime, and he anticipates both by several hours. His strategy – and it is a good one – is to make an utter nuisance of himself until such time as food is put in his bowl. This is easily achieved; he particularly likes to jump onto the desk where I am working and start systematically nudging items off of it. The more fragile or essential, the better. He has perfected the moaning miaow until it is like fingernails scratching down a blackboard. If all else fails, he resorts to the relentless headbutt against my shins. Missing a meal is not something he does. Ever.
I started to think about this, and realised it was worse than we thought. ‘I don’t remember him coming back for seconds after his tea last night, either.’ I said. ‘I think he’s been out since early evening yesterday.’
You see, I suspect my cat has Alzheimer’s. Physically he’s pretty spry for 15. But an extension of the ASBO-like behaviour has recently been to keep returning to me and asking to be fed, after his bowl has been filled.
We talk about this a lot.
‘Harvey,’ I say, ‘I’ll bet if you just go and look in your bowl, you’ll find you haven’t finished what you were given.’
Moan, moan, moan, says my cat, roughly translated as: ‘You’ve got to come with me. My bowl is empty, stupid human. You never feed me, and I ask and ask and ask.’
So we go back to the bowl where – surprise! – half his meal still remains. And I return to my desk and wait for the whole performance to start over in another fifteen minutes. When the weather was hot in the summer, he often managed to leave enough time for flies to start laying their eggs on his leftovers, adding a veneer of disgust to ongoing tedium. Halving his portions did nothing for his permanent conviction we are starving him.
Basically, I spend way too much of my day going backwards and forwards to a cat bowl, and when I shut him out in the kitchen in total exasperation, he sits on the floor with his nose up against the crack of the door, oozing resentment, determined to be first in the queue when it opens again.
So the evidence in the case of the missing cat: no pestering after tea, and a complete no show for breakfast. If there’d been an accident, I felt sure we would have known about it. The likeliest scenario was that he had found one of those little old ladies that cats have in their fantasies, with endless patience and a free hand with the tin opener. Given that Harvey is very much Mr Litlove’s cat, and spends his evenings ignoring me and gazing at him in adoration, I wondered whether it was too unfeeling to allow just a teeny notion of kittens to enter my imagination, adorable, funny new kittens, sweet, charming, playful little kittens with big eyes and button noses and those entertainingly oversized feet. Once the fluff has settled, I promised myself…
Mr Litlove returned from rowing pondering Harvey’s fate.
‘Perhaps he got shut in somewhere,’ I said. At which point Mr Litlove said, ‘Oh.’ And then he dashed off outside. When he returned he was triumphant. He suddenly remembered that the previous evening he’d shut the door to his workshop (our ex-garage) without looking behind him. Harvey had emerged as soon as he opened it, mewing with more justification than usual about his lack of regular meals. Alas it unleashed a whole new level of paranoia in him, so that by the end of the evening, even Mr Litlove was suggesting he had played the hostage trump card quite enough.
Upshot: no kittens.
Yesterday Mr Litlove went to London for work. You may recall a few months back that I was somewhat annoyed with him when he went to London and neglected to mention the fact, leaving me thinking he was dead in a ditch somewhere because he was unusually late home. Well, yesterday I thought to myself I would not be caught out that way again. Oh no. Everyone makes mistakes but only idiots make them twice. I was determined not to be flummoxed no matter how late he stayed out. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to get an email from him about 6 o’clock, saying it had been a long day of meetings and he was tired and looking forward to coming home. He didn’t know quite what time that would be. No problem! I replied. I’ll make dinner and keep it tenderly warm for you like a good wife should. About three hours later, I received a text that read: ‘Need food. Going for a pizza. Will be late home.’
I thought: I do NOT believe it. He’s tricked me again. I salvaged what could be kept from dinner and stomped off to bed. When he finally got in and I asked ‘What kept you?’ thinking perhaps the meeting had gone on far longer than expected, he said, and I quote: ‘They were drinking.’ I see. They were drinking and they handcuffed you to a nearby bar stool and made you watch. I am forced to the conclusion that London makes Mr Litlove extra silly. I need a new strategy for when he next has to go there, one that involves me going out for an expensive meal with friends, I think.
And finally, my friend’s husband’s funeral was today. I noticed that most of us got through the speeches okay, but the music very nearly undid us. That’s music for you: a direct hit to the places you’ve just about kept protected. Someone’s favourite piece of music is so redolent of their spirit. I held it together by imagining what songs Mr Litlove would want and wondering how often they had requests for Kylie Minogue and Atomic Kitten. Probably more often than you’d think. Just in case you’re wondering, this is what I would like, please, thankyou.
‘Tell him to man up,’ said the taxi driver as we sat in the usual London traffic jam. ‘That’s what he needs to do: man up. Take me for instance. I’ve just divorced my wife of twenty-two years, but do you see me crying?’
We inched forward in the line of nose to tail cars and I tried to concentrate on what he was saying because it was clear he meant well. It was just hard to hear him over the beating of my heart, and hard to sit still when I really wanted to launch myself out of the cab and run away.
I had come to London because my son had told me he was feeling suicidal. This was the second time he had used the dreaded word. The first he had been embarrassed and tried to downplay his emotions, saying he realised it was just the sort of signpost that indicated the need to take action. But since then, a series of long conversations had taken place, each time his emotions had reached a pitch that he couldn’t handle. And each time, as his grief rose steadily to the surface while the initial shock receded, he had been more violent in his speech, more obviously devastated, more deeply upset.
I paid off the cabbie, who drove away with further reminders about ‘manning up’ and stood outside my son’s student accommodation block, consumed with anxiety about what I would find and what I would need to do. I felt wholly responsible, and knew at the same time it was the last thing my son would want. I knew it bothered him that he could not go through this alone; he would much rather be self-sufficient in his sorrow. But he couldn’t. And he turned to me because I have some sort of experience at dealing with this sort of thing; I wouldn’t tell him to man up, or scorn him, or chide him, or try and jolly him out of it. But nor would it be like the movies, with me producing some wonderfully wise maxim at the right moment that would turn him around. It would be ordinary and messy; he would fight me because it got rid of some of his anger, and be inconsolable as it got rid of some of his grief, and I would soak that excess up, because it’s effective and what else do you do?
I have come to the conclusion that emotion is a form of compacted energy, and that it can be passed from person to porous person. And when you have that sort of contagious, toxic energy inside you, it turns into anxiety and, in my case, evil hormomes.
That day seemed to be a turning point with my son, and afterwards his situation improved quite swiftly. He found for himself, and as if from nowhere, the courage to start making things better. For a while we were all happy to my exquisite relief. And then I seem to have made the fatal error of relaxing, as instantly I was down with a stubborn infection. It still returns as soon as I do anything notably energetic. Mostly I haven’t because I’ve been bone weary, and more anxious than normal. When I sit and meditate (which I should do more often), I can feel six months of tension leeching out of me with the density of the ectoplasm that swirled around a 19th century medium.
Then last week, a tragedy. One of my closest friend’s husband had an unexpected but massive heart attack. He never regained consciousness and died three days later. This is bad enough in itself, but my friend suffers from advanced multiple sclerosis. She needs a scooter to get around and can’t always use her hands. She is able to teach still at the university, but had relied on her husband for cooking and shopping and picking her up when she fell over. When her motorised scooter broke down on her way home a few weeks ago, she could ring him and he rescued her. They have a teenage daughter.
Now which of us would that taxi driver command to man up, I wonder? It would be me, right? If I can do something to help my friend, shouldn’t I do it? Well, I figured that my friend’s widowhood would last longer than this particular lapse in my health. There would be plenty of time down the line to support her, and my recent experience of grief is that it lasts a long time and grows more acute before it goes to sleep. Plus, something I could barely admit: when I saw my son that last time, I had confessed that I was growing to hate our conversations because I felt like his emotional punchbag. I’d kept my own feelings to myself up until that point, but I was running out of storage capacity inside. I felt intensely guilty afterwards, and afraid that I had ruined a necessary outlet for him. But it was also true; I forget myself in that sort of intense interaction, and the other person forgets me too. Despite the fog of concern and guilt, it seemed imperative now to remember myself.
Then today a meeting was called for the friends of my friend, a strategy camp to consider what practical aid can be provided. I excused myself though said I would certainly hope to help in the months to come. Another couple wrote to say that they had cut short their stay in Spain (supposed to last to mid-September) and were flying back to help. It then transpired that the wife (who has some severe health issue herself) can’t stand or sit for more than ten minutes and could we please meet somewhere with a car park nearby and provision for her to lie down?
And there’s me staying home because I’m a bit tired. Let me tell you, being selfish is tougher than it sounds.
Last year I was sent a novel by an author called Leah Fleming and I didn’t really get on with it. So when I was offered her new novel, The Postcard, this year, I hesitated. But I decided I’d give her another go and when I was under the weather a few weeks back, it looked the sort of undemanding book that was fit for the occasion. And in fact it kept me good company over three days. This is another novel that would be classified ‘women’s fiction’, not least because it deals with the kind of situation that only happened to women – how to deal with single parenthood back in the 1930s and 40s when it was a disgrace to be an unwed mother and an impossible economic conundrum too. The result, as in this case, was often a great deal of heartache and distress for all concerned.
But my feeling is that this is also called ‘women’s fiction’ because it takes a broad and multi-generational view in order to find resolution, closure and contentment, in other words, a happy ending. I was very struck once by a survey I read about that sought to identify gender difference at the level of fantasy. A group of people were given the start of a story – two trapeze artists in a circus tent are performing a routine when they fail to catch hands and one starts to fall. Apparently there was a distinct difference in the story conclusions they received. The men mostly chose an apocalyptic ending – death, disaster, even the tent going up in flames. The women mostly managed some sort of imaginative contortion to ensure the dropped artist was saved. The book that contained the survey dated from the 80s or 90s, and it may be that cultural attitudes have changed since then and the gender gap is less pronounced, but it was an intriguing finding. I would definitely have saved the trapeze artist in my own imagination, but I don’t always want a happy ending to the novels I read. So it seems to me that the whole idea of ‘women’s’ fiction rests on a narrow cultural view of women that emphasises their nurturing, tender and romantic nature – a nature that is both idealised and scorned in society, but which is definitely catered to commercially.
Anyhoo, the story begins in 2002 in Australia, with Melissa Boyd’s father asking her on his death bed to discover the truth of his origins. All he owns is a box of decaying keepsakes that includes a postcard addressed to someone named Desmond and written by his mother, promising him she’ll be home soon. Then we travel back in time to the 1920s where young Callie is growing up at the glorious Dalradnor Lodge in Scotland. She has a secure and carefree existence, brought up by her nursemaid, the Belgian Marthe, and the housekeeper, Nan Ibell. Every so often her pretty Aunt Phoebe, a Gaiety Girl dancer in London, comes to visit and spoil her with treats. Callie’s happy existence is shattered when she discovers that Phoebe is not her aunt but her mother, and she is the result of a wartime liaison. Phoebe, awkward and guilty around her own child, bungles her confession and decides simply to lift the child out of her environment and into her care, a move that only deepens Callie’s resentment.
So Callie grows up feeling both kidnapped and abandoned, and it isn’t long before she takes the first opportunity that presents itself to escape Phoebe’s authority. Inevitably escape takes the form of a foolish marriage, and before long Callie finds herself struggling to make a life in the ex-pat community in Cairo. And, destined to repeat what we don’t understand, she ends up following unwittingly in the footsteps of Aunt Phoebe, falling pregnant and taking the baby back to Scotland to bring up alone. When war breaks out again, however, Callie is approached by the secret services because of her language skills and she somewhat recklessly decides she must fulfil her duty to her country. Her choice for adventure will quickly dissolve into a harrowing ordeal with desperate consequences.
I thought this story was particularly good on the consequences of abandonment. Callie is so tangled up in her emotions over her origins that she courts abandonment at the same time as she is full of bitterness towards her mother. It takes her a whole lifetime to sort out her issues, though they are compounded in awful ways by the atrocities she lives through in the war. The war section was the part that worked less well for me as Leah Fleming does too much telling, determined to cram her pages overfull with incident. When she allowed her characters to interact in ordinary situations there was a strong narrative drive at work that kept me turning the pages. This kind of book is all about what happens next, and for the most part, I felt that the storyline was cleverly plotted, especially in the patterns and repetitions that passed down the family line through the years.
This doesn’t pretend to be great literature – it’s a solid and satisfying comfort read if you like multigenerational sagas, which in the right mood I certainly do. And I was glad to try the author again with better success.