A Funeral and Two Near-Misses

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.

 

Stay Up With Me

stay up with meI remember when short stories fell out of fashion. For a while there, from the mid-90s onwards, only the most established authors could risk a collection. But now, suddenly, they seem to be back, and I have just read two brilliant volumes in quick succession, with Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress still to come. I can remember that I agreed with the pervasive cultural judgement that a short story was less satisfying than a novel, and yet here I am, actively preferring the ones I’ve been reading to some of the full-length stories I’ve recently read. What’s going on?

Stay Up With Me, Tom Barbash’s debut collection was addictively compulsive. Just one more, I kept saying to myself, as shops closed, meals grew late and bedtime passed. Barbash has the gift of drawing the reader swiftly into his situations, where more often than not, some cherished certainty has just been rudely challenged. Divorced or widowed parents find new love, over-invested relationships fail, self-deception falls apart. It was always essential to know what happened next.

In the opening story, ‘The Break’, a mother is thrilled to have her college-age son home for the Christmas holidays, and then aghast when he begins a slightly clandestine relationship with a local waitress. She stalks him, insists the relationship end, loses it at one point and slaps the girlfriend and then, refusing to look her behaviour in the face, rustles up another girlfriend for him, a more appropriate one. There is so much packed into this with writerly slight of hand. How the mother can’t abide the thought of her son not wanting the things she wants for him, her unwitting projection of her own loneliness and neediness onto the waitress, her rather cunning manipulation of all concerned that runs dangerously close to showing her how badly she is acting out, and in the end, a hesitancy revealing both her hopes that her plans will come out as she wants and a fear that her son will see her behaviour for what it is. The perspective of the story inhabits the woman’s skin – we don’t know what she’ll do next, which creates the fascination, and yet we’re close enough to feel the contradictions in her behaviour, the way our best qualities and our most noble desires run so worryingly close to our worst choices and our most dangerous delusions.

In ‘January’, a teenaged boy is forced into a snowy expedition he does not want by his mother’s new and somewhat heavy-handed partner, a man determined to display his recklessness as a fun quality. The resultant disaster is just what the boy wants, and equally something he has to pay for in physical pain. In ‘Balloon Night’, Timkin decides to pretend his girlfriend hasn’t left him when their annual party takes place before the Macy’s parade. The resultant experience is one of joy that he can overcome disaster, and of constant fear that he may be found out. In one of my favourites, ‘Somebody’s Son’, a real estate con man who is something of a newbie and therefore not quite on board with his job, gets close to an elderly couple whose property he wants to buy for a song. He longs for them to get wind of the situation and keeps stealing small items from their house, displaying them openly in the hope they’ll wise up. But in the end, they shame him in unexpected ways with their impermeable goodness and kindness. The richness of the emotional experience is, in each of these cases and many more, extremely satisfying.

I loved the way that the stories reveal the strange onion-skinned nature of existence. The top layer of what Barbash’s characters think they’re doing, the image they cling to of themselves, is peeled away to show what they are actually doing, the emotions they are working so hard to conceal, and then a further layer remains – the unexpected outcome of their actions because the world always works in ways that are stubbornly mysterious to his characters, so intent are they on their fabled goals. One intriguing example of this is ‘Paris’ in which a journalist with a humanitarian taste for real suffering and disaster visits a poor town in upstate New York. The portrait he paints of it in his subsequent newspaper article as a town fraught with problems of poverty, alienation, addiction and anti-social behaviour is one he considers powerful and hard-hitting. When he’s called to a meeting in the town, he is amazed that the inhabitants are so upset by their representation. He meant it as a call to arms, a wake-up alarm to authorities and inhabitants alike – but was he right, or are the townspeople right to take offence?

I found most of these stories ended on an unresolved chord, a new situation on the point of opening up, for instance, or an unexpected twist that challenged all easy judgements. It was a clever kind of frustration. Though in some of the stories – the last one in particular, in which a young man who has recently lost his mother finds his father’s newfound womanizing hard to cope with – he shows how sometimes we need to go wrong, to suffer and ache and agonise – before we can go right. Ultimately, Barbash’s characters display the unexpected but oh so necessary elasticity of human emotions, the way we can hover near the brink and then snap back into a new version of ourselves. This was just another example of the emotional authenticity that kept me welded to this book until I’d finished it. One of those rare books that make me long to read it again.

 

And Now Something Completely Different

I am a lucky woman to have such good friends, real and virtual. One of the consequences of my last post was that I caught up with the man I like to call my academic son. He was my PhD student back in the day, and we had just the best time together. Anyway, he happened to mention that he’d recently read Attica Locke’s novel, The Cutting Season and loved it, having a taste for narratives with those Antebellum elements. Upon hearing which I said, ooh, I might just try to put you a list together of other novels you might enjoy, thinking amongst other things of Danielle’s fabulous Thursday Thirteen series.

Well, when I tried to come up with Antebellum stories, I did not do very well. Naturally I thought of:

gone with the wind1. Gone With The Wind, the classic by Margaret Mitchell.

And after some more thinking, I remembered – though have never read myself -

2. Kindred by Octavia Butler, which I believe has a line of plot about a slave girl in the deep South? I know Butler best as a sci-fi writer, and quite how that fits in, goodness only knows.

midnight in the garden3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, which is all voodoo and spirits and noirish murder elements, yes?

Finally, I remembered reading a few years ago

4. Palladio by Jonathan Dee, which was about a bunch of New York advertising executives on a mission to turn publicity into an art form. I’m pretty sure they end up basing themselves in an Antebellum mansion down south, which has interesting connotations. I remember it as a postmodern sort of novel with lots of metanarrative elements and I did enjoy it.

After that I drew a blank. I mean, I have heard of authors like Eudora Welty and Ellen Glasgow and Robert Penn Warren, aware they are deep South writers without knowing whether their novels contain that sort of plantation story.

So naturally, I turn to you wonderfully read people for further suggestions. Any good ideas I can pass on?

 

How Far Do You Go?

‘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.