Mr Litlove sets off bright and early from our hilltop retreat for his workshop in the valley and texts me later to say that he didn’t have to touch the pedals of his bike until he was halfway there. I have brought my laptop with me and a half-finished essay on Henry Miller. As ever, after a few days away from work, I am longing to get back to it. I launch myself at Henry with an enthusiasm the poor man rarely received in life.
Here’s the thing about writing on Henry Miller: his book, Tropic of Cancer, has a dreadful reputation because it contains descriptions of women rightly described as offensive. But here’s the point: they are placed in the mouths of male characters who are lazy, feckless moral cowards, incapable of holding down a proper relationship. And I have to say that they are also funny. Yes, I have been a card-carrying feminist all my life, but I don’t find it a problem to laugh at their antics. All this gender policing seems to me to be a bit scary sometimes. It makes us precious, unable to laugh at ourselves, quick to offence. I think it’s the men who are the butt of the joke in Miller’s book; they’re the real idiots. So what’s it better to teach people to do: read the words, register disrespect, react outraged because disrespect is always wrong, or: read the words, take in the context, understand the deeper meaning of the story?
My immediate problem is how to make it clear that there is more to Henry Miller than the one-dimensional smutty writer label he gets stuck with, and more to Tropic of Cancer than a book that pokes fun at women (which I don’t actually think it does). How to do this without being preachy or defensive or anything else that will stop people from working out a subtle truth that is harder to deal with than a black and white easy certainty?
By four my head is dizzy with words and I tell myself I should go out and walk again. I walk through a little wooded dell and out onto a road that borders a harvested field, rolls of hay looking like curled pats of butter, and just beyond it, the start of the golf course. But walking on my own I feel ridiculously exposed. Silly. Aimless. I feel as if any moment one of the cars passing by will pull up alongside me, and the window will descend and a voice ask: ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ And I will have no other reply than: ‘I have no idea!’ To the consternation of a passing cyclist I do a u-turn in the road and head back, uphill all the way. By the time I reach the steep ascent into the hamlet I am thinking that on my hands and knees would actually be a perfectly appropriate way to proceed. When I collapse into the cool sanctuary of the sitting room, my shirt is stuck to my back and tendrils of hair to my neck, and I think: people do that for fun?
Mr Litlove is so keen that he is up and out in order to be there when the workshop doors open at 8am. He is working with a professional furniture maker, Chris, and two other apparently generic men named Steve and Dave. Oh, hello feminists! Rather than get mad at Henry, how about making something out of wood? There’s a male enclave that hasn’t been hit by equality yet. I finish the essay on Henry in about an hour and, as is my usual practice, spend the rest of the day rewriting that ending.
I had resigned myself to being stuck all week up the top of the hill, as we had come in Mr Litlove’s car which is much bigger than mine and I hardly ever drive it. However, when Mr Litlove returned yesterday, he threw such decisions into chaos.
‘I thought you might like to know there’s a bookshop in Ilkley,’ he told me.
‘A book shop?’
‘Yes, it’s called “Just Books”.’
I thought about this.
‘Maybe if you turned the car around so it’s pointing downhill, I could drive it.’
So at half four I find myself gingerly creeping down the road into the town. The heat is sizzling and when I park the car in a mercifully flat and empty car park flooded with hard, white sunshine, I feel like a steak on a griddle pan. ‘Just Books’ is easy to find. It’s only a remainder bookshop but the stock isn’t bad and the prices are cheap. I come away with four new books for £10. I also go to the chemist as I’ve forgotten to bring moisturising lotion and buy a cocoa butter based cream that will leave me smelling as sickly sweet as the inside of a tin of soft-centred chocolates.
Then I go and stand on the shady side of the street and wait. Of course he comes from a different angle to the one I’m expecting, my white knight atop his bicycle. Mr Litlove slews round in a wide arc and hops off at my feet. ‘I see you found the bookshop,’ he says, nodding at my carrier bag. It is still so odd, this being just the two of us again, without our son. I can’t figure out how old we are, because it’s possible we’re back in our early twenties and all that parenting was just a complicated dream.
We pack his bike into the back of the car and head up another perilous road to the top of the moor. We have come to find a well-known pub, The Cow and Calf, so named for the strangely shaped outcrops of rock that face it. It is blissfully cool up this high, but the rocks look like nothing more than large lumps of rock, and I am forced to conclude that the pub was named something quite different until a group of revellers staggered out at closing time one night and had an epiphany.
And Still More To Come!