Paradise & Elsewhere in the National Post, Stephen W. Beattie

Strange,  beguiling… sensuous, verdant… wicked.. surprising and perfectly executed: a great review of Kathy Page’s Paradise & Elsewhere from Stephen W. Beattie, special to the National Post.

http://arts.nationalpost.com/2014/05/09/shortcuts-circus-and-paradise-elsewhere/

Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page“I like to look,” says the narrator of one of Kathy Page’s strange, beguiling new stories. “In trains, buses, gardens, at films, even those in languages I don’t understand, on pavements and curbstones, in mirrors and water there’s much to see and I look. I look at faces, the folds around eyes, the sculpture of flesh that grows with time to reflect habits of thought and feeling, the many textures and colours of skin.” As this passage indicates, Page’s narrator is no mere voyeur; she is an active participant in the observations she indulges, a careful recorder of detail and nuance. The practice of looking “isn’t only a passive pleasure, a drinking in,” she assures us. “Looking can be hard.”

It is difficult not to read this as a gloss on what a writer does: A writer is an observer, a watcher, the one on the periphery collecting and cataloguing and compiling people, objects and events into structured and coherent units. The writer’s individual personality shows through in what she sees, without question, but also, and equally importantly, in how she sees.

Kathy Page and Claire Battershill see very differently, though their respective visions are not entirely devoid of commonalities. Page is a more oblique observer: Her fiction is sensuous and verdant, grafting lyrical prose onto stories and situations that appear almost as myths or legends. Battershill, by contrast, is more direct, her prose less adorned, her subjects less self-consciously idiosyncratic. There is strangeness in Battershill’s stories, although the stories themselves are less rococo, more grounded in a reliably familiar world.

“Sensation,” one of the early stories in Battershill’s debut collection, Circus (McClelland & Stewart, 207 pp; $22), has an identifiably uncanny aspect to it. On her 16th birthday, Annie’s father gives her a blue tent, which they set up in the family living room. The tent becomes a minor cause célèbre when word starts circulating throughout the neighbourhood that spending time inside its folds results in a kind of spiritual euphoria. What begins as a father-and-daughter bonding experience becomes a collective fascination (not to say delusion) on the part of the people who line up outside Annie’s house for a chance to spend a few minutes inside the tent.

Battershill wisely leaves the provenance of the tent’s spiritual nature unspecified; is there something inherently mystical in the tent itself, or do the figures from the neighbourhood succumb to the power of suggestion as a means of convincing themselves they have had a transcendent experience? This indirection is typical of Battershill’s best work here; the story “Brothers” — about a family who buys a property without realizing that they are also adopting two aging siblings, one blind and one deaf, who have worked the land as shepherds for most of their lives and have no intention of vacating — is similarly open-ended.

Despite a certain eccentric quality, “Brothers” is fairly straightforward in its approach, as is the opener, “A Gentle Luxury,” about a lonely man who gives himself a deadline of 31 days to find love on the Internet, and the closer, about a woman named Edna, who takes her husband to New York City for a blissful child-free vacation, only to return alone after the husband dies unexpectedly. “A Gentle Luxury” is arguably the most obvious story in the collection; it telegraphs its situation and never takes off in any unexpected direction. “Quite Everyday Looking” is better in this regard, fracturing its chronology and shuttling between the husband and wife touring the Big Apple and the new widow sitting in the airport waiting room, watching another family’s interactions while waiting for her plane home.

Like Page’s anonymous protagonist, Edna in “Quite Everyday Looking” is an observer, but her process of observation is freighted with melancholy. Page’s story, by contrast, is not melancholic, but wicked. After being subjected to a steady stream of her loud-mouthed sister’s bravado and narcissistic self-regard, the quietly observant narrator gets her revenge in a moment of reversal that is typical of the movement of many of the stories in Paradise & Elsewhere(Biblioasis, 160 pp; $18.95).

Unlike Battershill, who for the most part cleaves to recognizable characters and settings, Page presents her readers with frankly extravagant scenarios: an archaeological tour of an Earth that has become little more than a dried-out husk; the shores of a bay where a lighthouse keeper takes in a transformed sea creature he insists is his lost wife; a paradisaical oasis in the middle of a desert where the lives of the natives are disrupted by the arrival of a parched and desperate stranger. That story, “Of Paradise,” contains another moment of reversal, perfectly timed and executed, and so surprising it forces its reader to reconsider everything that has gone before. It also highlights one of Page’s repeated tropes: the insertion of an outsider or tourist into a foreign environment.

The use of an interloper is handy as a surrogate for the reader, a means of making the uncanny acceptable. Page recalls Angela Carter in these stories, employing fable and myth, along with Gothic elements and moments of horror, to jar her reader out of a settled complacency. The climax of the brief tale “Lambing” is among the most startling in recent memory; it is all the more horrific for the matter-of-fact mode in which Page presents it. Likewise the journalism professor’s dreadful wilderness discovery in “We, the Trees,” a story that involves a grotesque inversion of the “back to nature” ethos.

Throughout Paradise & Elsewhere, Page exhibits an impeccable control over the diverse voices and milieus she creates, something Battershill occasionally struggles with. The stories in Circus frequently go on too long, and the sparse linguistic style sometimes bleeds over into cliché. (The observation in “Two-Man Luge,” for example, that participants in competitive sports feel both the rush of victory and the anguish of defeat likely goes without saying.) A couple of Page’s stories (“Clients” and “My Fees”) seem, by contrast, a bit too wilfully obscure and underdeveloped. At their best, however, both authors provide ways of seeing the world and its inhabitants that feel fresh and exuberant. “I like to look,” says Page’s narrator. And, yes, so do we.

Shortcuts appears monthly.

The Pike’s Heart

In the late afternoon, our pale blue boat slipped away from the bleached wooden jetty. Pekka rowed; Markku picked in slow motion through the jumble of fishing gear. No one in the Ålands uses outboards unless they have to and the absence of human noise is one of the special virtues of the place. You can hear only the birds, the wind in the pine and birch trees, the oars as they dip into the water.

Tuija and I sat on the jetty and watched the boat slip into a narrow channel of deepish water marked by sticks planted in the fine soft mud below. It wove its way between several islands, some no bigger than the boat itself, others half a mile or so in length, and then entered the narrow corridor that passes through the middle of a reed bed. No doubt Pekka and Markku would be disturbing the oily and agile water rats, sending them skeltering to their muddy burrows in the reeds’ matted roots. The whispering reeds, which rise to six or seven feet, cast the water in rich green shadow and the boat’s blue deepened from eggshell to aquamarine. It became more difficult to see, and then, as the passage turned slightly to the left, disappeared from sight.

We walked back over the rocks, too hot now for bare feet. The wooden sauna hut cast a welcome strip of shadow.

“We just have to wait, now,” said Tuija contentedly. “If you go off, make plenty of noise because I saw snakes this morning.” She closed her eyes, signalling her desire to enjoy solitude; something every Finn understands. Finland is a relatively empty country, but having so much space seems only to create the appetite for yet more, especially in summer. Life in the almost antiseptically clean cities is highly civilised. The freezing, lightless winters necessitate hermetically draught-proofed buildings: layer on layer of concrete, glass, trapped air and insulation between each person and the world. But here, in summer, the horizon stretches away creating an almost limitless sense of space. The light is intense, very white, and the days are long. At midnight the sky is dusky: by three a.m. it is light again.

We have been on the island for over a fortnight now, spending the hours between breakfast and supper respectfully apart; one with the binoculars, another with a book, someone else in the boat.
Only the largest of the hundreds of Åland Islands have names; this one does not. Like many of the others it is owned by a fisherman. The only sign of modernity is the solar panels on our cabin roof. None of the nearby islands are inhabited by human beings, though plenty of birds set up home.

Opposite, a pair of swans have nested. The nest, about a foot high, is as neat as a wicker basket. The swan sits, statuesque, winding her head watchfully through the whole 360 degrees while her mate swims in shallows thick with tiny fish. Our fish, when it arrives two or three hours later is a three kilo pike, muddy green. It has a bony, tapered head and a huge, sulking jaw.

“Go on,” Pekka says to me, “open its mouth!” I’ve never seen a mouth so full of teeth. There are double rows around the edges of the jaw, and then six or seven other rows crossing the roof of the mouth in orderly lines. The teeth are triangular, pointed, hard as bone and sharp as needles. The pike, Pekka tells me, grows new teeth all through its life: as one gets worn down, so another sprouts beside it. Some of them move in their sockets, making it almost impossible for prey to escape.

As if performing a ceremony, we pass the pike from hand to hand and everyone examines it. It still has the sheen of life about it, a green gleam.

“Pike are monsters,” Tuija says, weighing it in her hand. They are the epitome of greediness, she explains. They can eat prey their own size in a single protracted gulp. They are solitary creatures and lurk like death itself in dark places, waiting… the really big ones, which live in the depths of inland lakes can drag you by the line out of your boat or take hold of your leg as you swim after sauna and pull you under. Which is believable: even in death this one looks dangerous. It seems fitting to eat them.

Pekka hesitates with the knife poised where the gullet meets the head. Then he slips the point in, opening the fish from head to tail. The innards tumble cleanly out, bar at the ends, where he has to saw and grapple. The teeth, which continue right into the throat, draw blood on his hands.

“Something else you must see.” Pekka picks through the glistening pile of marbled guts and roe. And there it is, a brilliant pure red blob, perhaps an inch and a half long: the pike’s heart, the engine that drives a killing machine. Pekka clears a space. The heart jerks to one side and then another, unconstrained by the organs normally packed around it.

“See?” Pekka says, “Even though we caught it hours ago!” And as we watch, the pike’s heart seems to twitch even harder, as if it was an entire creature trying to pull itself towards the edge of the hot stone, over it, and back into the sea. When it does fall still, Pekka touches it softly with the edge of his knife and it begins again. Markku rinses the fish and begins to fillet it. You have to admire his skill, but I do tend to admire the pike’s heart more. On and on it goes, despite being separated from its owner, excavated from the cool dark interior of the pike and laid in full midsummer sun on a dry hot stone.

The fish smoker is an old oil drum burnt clean. Pekka and I fill the bottom few inches with chips of alder, then set the fillets of pike on a rack, which we suspend above the wood chips. We seal the drum with a thick, well fitting lid. Smoking is indirect: we set the drum on stones above a small fire of birch logs. It will take about half an hour, or maybe an hour, depending on how much the breeze disturbs the fire. The others are carrying the table and chairs up to the highest point of the island, a flat plateau of pinkish rock which gives uninterrupted views all round. Beer and wine have been retrieved from the cool spot under the jetty. This is to be our last meal on the island and we have been preparing for it, very slowly, all day. Afterwards we will have our last sauna in the wooden hut by the sea, and in the morning we’ll climb into the pale blue boat and leave the place behind for another year.

So at last we sit on our rocky plateau and eat the pike with potatoes and dill. The once fearsome flesh breaks moistly into soft, greenish grey flakes, tasting, beneath the smoking, of pondwater. The sea is, as they say here, greased: flat and shining. On the pinkish grey rock, a succession of yellow and green stripes mark the progressively diminished water levels of recent years. The Gulf of Bothnia: frozen in winter, calm, warm and slightly salty in summer: and perfect for boiling potatoes. We have some salad, a dessert of yellow berries beaten into quark, coffee.

At ten o’clock the sun is still high and golden. Now and then the others lapse into Finnish: it’s a slow language with big flat vowels and a heavy stress right at the beginning of every word, like a heartbeat. And as I watch, a blackheaded gull swoops down over the jetty, seizes something from the stones and rises back into the air. The pike’s heart, I realise, is in the gull’s stomach now. I imagine it beating on, even there.

Pike

Copyright © 1992, 2004 Kathy Page

Winner of the Traveller Writing Award 1994

To Make Much of Time

TNQ  (The New Quarterly)  publishes stories and poems by wonderful contemporary such as Caroline Adderson, Patricia Young, Steven Heighton and Mark Anthony Jarman; it  was recently shortlisted for no less than five National Magazine Awards. The editors put each illustrated issue together in a beautifully produced book that does not fall apart when you open it, and chose an intriguing title that both connects  and enriches the contents. So  I’m delighted that my story, “To Make Much of Time” appears in the current issue, 123,  The Time of Your Life, along with an essay, “Going Backwards”, that touches on the tricky business of writing fiction inspired by one’s own relatives and family history.

The story is one of a story sequence in progress which centres on the emotional life of one Harry Miles, born in 1919, and at the same time looks at what poetry does, not in a literary sense, but in terms of its influence on the way we live and think about our lives.  Each  story connects in some way with a particular poem or poet.  The story in TNQ,  “To Make Much of  Time” refers to a poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1764), “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time”.  The poem begins: Gather ye rosebuds while you may…  and goes on to warn:

That age is best which is the first,

   When youth and blood are warmer;

But being spent, the worse, and worst

   Times still succeed the former.

Continue reading “To Make Much of Time”

Telegraph-Journal Review of In the Flesh

Telegraph-Journal, New Brunswick, Saturday May 5th, 2012

In the Flesh“In the Flesh, edited by Kathy Page and Lynne Van Luven,  Brindle and Glass, 240 pp

In this collection, 20 essayists explore complicated relationships with their bodies. Each writer focuses on a different part of the body and, in so doing, intimately reveals what’s inside and behind it.

The narratives are deeply personal. Sue Thomas rolls her gall- stones around in her hand as she thinks about her pancreas. Stephen Gauer explores organ donation through his own experience of donating a kidney to his granddaughter. In his meditation on skin, Taiaiake Alfred writes of his place in a racist hierarchy. Caroline Adderson considers the centrality of hair to our sense of ourselves, painfully illustrated by her visit to Auschwitz and its room of full of stolen hair.

This collection is not for the squeamish. Margaret Thompson’s reflection on the ear is clever and visceral with a description of someone with a beetle in his ear who “tried to flush the insect out with melted butter.” Trevor Cole’s Eyes is put together perfectly, every word where it should be, as when he describes his young allergic eyes: “The whites were a sickly yellow and bulging out grotesquely, surrounding the irises like rising bread dough.” Eww.

A story about the vagina is written by a man (André Alexis), while Merilyn Simonds writes of the penis, and this switch is an editorial choice that not all readers will agree with. This reader would have liked to read a woman’s perspective on her vagina, as in Lynne Van Luven’s funny and honest account of her conflicted relationship with her breasts.

In all, this collection is a thorough and provocative look at the body, broken down into its messy, beautiful and complicated parts.”

Rebecca Higgins for the Telegraph-Journal

Buy In the Flesh:

In Canada:  Munro’s Books     Amazon.ca

In the UK:  Amazon.co.uk  W H Smith

In the USA:  Amazon.com

In the Flesh on Air & Elsewhere

In the FleshLink to CBC North by Northwest  interview  about In the Flesh with Sheryl Mackay, Kathy Page, Lynne Van Luven and Juliann Gunn

“…powerful, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and, more often than not, deeply moving.”    Globe & Mail  review by Carrie Snyder

“The collection, published by Brindle & Glass, is anecdotal and educational, witty and at times heart-breaking. Its finely crafted writing serves to underline the strange truths of how we inhabit and make sense of our forms, which are created both by nature and culture….” Review in the Gulf Islands Driftwood

“A thorough and provocative look at the body, broken down into its messy, beautiful and complicated parts….” Review in the Telegrpah-Journal

“An amazing approach to memoir through the lens of the miracles of the body…” Story Circle review

Lynne Van Luven introduces the book on Youtube

 

Buy In the Flesh:

In Canada:  Munro’s Books     Amazon.ca

In the UK: W H Smith

In the USA:  Amazon.com

Bodies everywhere…

Language begins in and with the  body, and much work has gone into naming all of its many parts, and describing their function and malfunction.  But what  do we have to say or write about our physical selves, about the complicated way we experience of our bodies? Love them, hate them, can’t escape them…  Body and Soul, which focuses on narratives about illness and healing, came out  at the end of last year, and includes The Right Thing to Say, a short story of mine about genetic testing. You’ll find it here.

In the Flesh: Twenty Writers Explore the Body,  co-edited by Kathy Page and Lynne van Luven, came out in April 2012  and is  available as a trade paperback and e-book.   I’m biased, of course, but this is a fascinating book and it was  a huge amount of fun to put together.   Each author’s essay focuses on one part of the body, and explores its function, its meanings, and the role it has played in that person’s life.   We think of writers as cerebral types, but here they confront the suff they are made from  with candour, insight and wit.

We are doing events for In the Flesh at the moment, and just  as happened when Lynne and I were compiling the book, everywhere I look there seems to be a reference of some kind to the body, or a new and startling  image of it.

Visual representation of the body may well have begun  with a hand print on a cave wall; thousands of years of sculpture and mark-making  and a hundred and  sixty years of photography  ensued. Now we have not only Antony Gormley, but the likes of Orlan and Damian Hirst,  who use the body and its products  to make their art…  Recently,  I stumbled across the work of Spencer Tunick, who, ironically given that his second name suggests an item of clothing, creates installations in which thousands of naked people take up similar positions or stances  in a land or city-scape, and are photographed. Participants tavel the world to be part of these works and speak of a sense of liberation and  a powerful feeling of being connected with others,  and also part of something much larger than themselves.  As for the spectacle viewed from outside, what to make of it? Why are all the people pink? Does Tunick mean us to think of  the gas chambers?   How is it to be him, dressed, directing everyone?

 

Buy In the Flesh:

In Canada:  Munro’s Books     Amazon.ca

In the UK: W H Smith

In the USA:  Amazon.com

 

In the Flesh

 In the Flesh: Twenty Writers Explore the Body.  The idea for a book of writing about the body first came to me over ten years ago, and I worked for a while on it with my friend Sue Thomas. It went through various metamorphoses, lay dormant for a while and then, in collaboration with another friend, Lynne Van Luven, it was distilled into its current form and taken up by Brindle & Glass.

Each writer was invited to choose (or, in some cases, gently steered towards!)  a particular body part and asked to write a candid personal essay exploring that part and their relationship with it. The assumption was that writers  had to possess (or have possessed) a particular part in order to write about it. However, we abandoned this rule in the case of two very significant parts, as you will see below.

The twenty essays that resulted from our invitations are fascinating and utterly distinctive in content and tone.  Witty, sad, quirky, passionate: each one reads beautifully alone; put together, they create a fascinating, multi-dimensional portrait of the human body and our experience of living within it.

 

Buy In the Flesh:

In Canada:  Munro’s Books     Amazon.ca

In the UK:   Amazon for paperback and Kindle   W H Smith

In the USA:  Amazon.com

Reviews & Comment

Here’s the contents page: Continue reading “In the Flesh”

How it Grows (memoir)

This article about emigration, gardening and family, was first published in Aqua Magazine, p28 on.   Click to  read it in the turning pages magazine format  with original illustrations. The text is below.

What I am planting, how it grows

In one of those windy, sunny days when  the light and sound levels are in constant flux, as if an exuberant  toddler  were  in charge of the effects, I crouch over my rows of carrot seedlings, thinning them to  a centimetre apart and knowing full well that I will have to do the job twice more before things are right. Every year I try and fail to sow them thinly enough. The seedlings are tiny, the first ferny carrot-leaves just appearing, their white stems fragile as hairs. I keep the plucked ones in my free hand to dispose of safely, since crushed foliage of any kind can attract the carrot fly.  It’s tedious, finicky work.  And at this time of day I should actually be working on my new novel, and I want to, I really,  really do – yet here I am squatting in the vegetable patch, an inane smile  spreading across my face.

In the bed behind me are rows of  huge lettuces with crinkled deep red and green leaves protecting tender green hearts.  To my right, onions, to the left, two kinds of potatoes and three kinds of beans,  rhubarb, beets, peas; over by the house, flowerbeds: all of them thriving under current wet then sunny conditions.   There’s a greenhouse  full of tomato plants over by the rocky knoll, and of course,  in between all these areas of cultivation lie vast  tracts of weed and wildflower, and round about it, the encircling trees.  The whole place hums with growth. What is it with gardening? Why do I love my lettuces so much?   Because I do: I love the crinkled gleaming look of them when they are thriving (this variety, Yugoslav Butterhead is as gorgeous as any flower), and I love the almost–sweet, wild taste and the soft yet very definite texture  of a just-picked leaf. Naturally, it delights me to be able to  avoid the pesticides and the supermarket, to feed my family and friends with what I have grown.  And gardening is certainly easier, mentally speaking,  than writing books… There’s all that,  of course, and yet there is more, too.

To use a gardening metaphor, my family and I transplanted ourselves here from England about ten years ago. Language, climate,  and values were in may ways similar,  so we didn’t  go into transplant shock on arrival, but I have come to realise that while there may be romance and excitement  to a voluntary move such as ours, it is also a brutal thing. Even though emigration  is  softer, less absolute than it used to be before there were planes, phones, the internet and so on, leaving one’s country to make a home in another is  a rupture – one that deepens, rather than lessens over time. I miss not only my family –  especially, now, my father –  and not just certain loved or archetypical land and city-scapes,  but  also unexpected things such as newspapers and  radio programmes, accents, trains and train journeys, certain bushes and shrubs,  clothes that don’t shrink, and the relatively high quality of  supermarket-baked bread…  Emigration disconnects you from the physical  locations of your past, and also from the future that would have flowed from that past, had you not left, and so even though Canada, and in particular this convoluted, rocky island,  has been kind to me,  I  sometimes  yearn (impossibly) to return.

So, I  dispose of my carrot thinnings and  then return to the garden to  tug out the chickweed and dandelions that have started to grow  between the garlic plants. This forest soil, sandy and acidic is not what garlic wants.  It takes at least five years of adding compost and manure to  darken and develop real fertility. But the summer light and warmth are wonderful,  and if, as we do, you collect and store the winter’s abundant  rainwater,  it will take you right  through the dry  summer months.   The garlic is already tall and as  I reach between the stems, the sun warms my back and somewhere out of sight an eagle sings – a   strange fluting noise quite incongruous with the bird.

The eagle and its call are emblematic of   the West Coast, and I think one of the things I am doing here in the garden is joining myself, literally and symbolically, to a new  land. The hours I spend  out here working are also hours spent listening to the birds, the rustle of the deer  and the wind in the trees. I  observe the sky and the way the light shifts and changes, the weather, the quality of the air: I experience the same patch of land, many different ways.  I’m learning it and at the same time becoming part of it.

Yet the thing about gardening is that I have done it all my life, and so, despite this garden being so very definitely on the Pacific Rim, a new place for me, five thousand miles away from where I was born, tending  it reconnects me to my past.  When I am in the garden I am me, now,  working with raised beds and fish compost, dealing with tent caterpillars in my fruit trees,  sowing  peas called Cascadia and  beans called Gold Rush;  I am also a young woman with an allotment patch in London, the owner of a window box and then of a thin, shade-free  hundred foot slice in Norwich,  of a shady square, of a rubble-ridden rectangle in Tooting Bec  –  I’m all of those, but most  of all, but I’m  a child,  being shown by my father how to weed properly and how far apart to plant  the  peas.

There was a magnolia tree in the front of the house I grew up in, and Dahlias, plagued by earwigs,   grew to one side of the path that led to the front door.  Most of the garden was at the back, and it included both a  tree-house built  in a pussy-willow tree, and a swing  set close by a laburnum, the flowers and pods of which I was frequently reminded not to eat.   There was a peach tree on the south facing wall of the house, a  hazelnut, and several apple varieties.   A bed of azaleas and rhododendrons (which grow wild here) was treated annually to maintain the correct PH. Behind that  was a mysterious, key-shaped area surrounded in an ancient yew hedge that  had been  part of the grounds of the manor house on which the subdivision was built.

The vegetable garden ran down the  left side, from the kitchen to the  swing, and was my father’s domain:  the plants in  workmanlike rows, the soil  turned each spring. Before meals, my sisters and I would be sent out to pick. We were taught how to do that properly: how to  find the runner beans amongst the foliage, and take them before they got tough;  how to feel the pea pods and judge what was inside,  to turn potatoes without spoiling too many with the fork,  to rub the soil away from the tops of the carrots so as to make sure they were worth pulling,  and judge the ripeness of fruit. One of the best things was picking a  peach,  cupping it in your hand and  turning gently until it  came free.

My mother was in charge of storage: we wrapped lettuce or chard (which had to be picked or it would bolt) in damp newspaper  before we put it in the  salad drawer, and kept roots cool  in a  mini-cellar by the back door.  Apples and pears were wrapped in newspaper and stored in boxes in the garage. Convenience food was  increasingly available, but we had none of it.

My father commuted daily to his office job. My parents came from the inner city and grew up with untended, postage-stamp sized gardens, and none of our neighbours grew food. But it was what we did, and it’s what I do now. There’s no peach tree here, but I’ve shown my children (and my husband) many of the things I was taught.

The  wind  picks up. The  broad beans, which here we call fava, need staking – that’s what I’ll do next, and before I go in  I’ll pick rhubarb and some salad greens: lettuce, spinach, rocket – which here is called arugula.

My parents tended that first garden for over fifty years, their second, for less than ten. My  mother’s gone, my father no longer digs and hoes. But I call and  tell him week by week, what I am planting, how it grows.

It’s because of you, I tell him, that I’m on my knees in the dirt.

I think that’s as it should be, he says.

 

Vanished: a thousand words for my mum (memoir)

In the “bio” section of this site,  written way-back-when, I begin by suggesting that  that my desire to write springs from “my father’s love of books and my mother’s habit of exaggeration.”  It’s true that these were both huge influences.  I remember Dad, on his birthday, giving me Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and how my desperation to unlock the words it contained (combined with my big sister’s patience) drove me to learn how to read, well before school even began. Later on, I  used to go and meet my father when he reutrned  from work at the end of the day.  Looking downhill towards the railway station, I could see the other men, smartly buttoned up,  stride homewards, their briefcases clutched rigidly in one hand, their eyes looking forward to their destinations. Dad, his coat or jacket open, was always right at the back of the group, increasingly left behind as the main group surged up the hill.  He did not stride, but ambled towards me, the book he had been reading on the train still open in his right hand, still reading as he walked. It was almost a shame to greet him. On holidays, the pari of us haunted second hand bookstands, and shared the same books: thrillers, sea stories, classics. I remember sitting up way past my bedtime while Dad wrote out the titles of books he thought I’d enjoy.

I could say much more about my father here, but my mother died recently, and,  as is the way when someone is lost, I have been thinking  a great deal about her and how she shaped my life, and especially my writing life. What I described as her habit of exaggeration was a wonderful thing.  She never wrote (other than letters) but she had a writer’s instincts. She knew how to make a story better by knocking out the distractions and upping the ante, and she knew how to make you notice her words, which were rarely bland, but often suggested a story, a drama of some kind. If one of us was late for a meal, we had vanished, or absconded.  It never merely rained – there would be a tempest or a deluge.  These words came aloud in your mouth and in your mind.

As well as modeling this vital skill, my mother continually encouraged us (and in turn, our children) to imagine and pretend. Looking at the family photographs  and slides my mother kept is a powerful reminder of this apprenticeship in the extended kind of pretending that I undertake as a novelist.  I was encouraged to talk to statues, animals and imaginary beings of many kinds, and sometimes she would join in this too.  My friends and I dressed up, made houses in trees, on the coal bunker  and under the table, and for the duration of the story we took our meals in role. We were allowed to play out our fantasies until they finally bored us or turned into something new. I think Mum encouraged imagination because she enjoyed it herself. What would it be like to have musical genius in the family? To fly first class?  To live in a mansion?

Occasionally, her generosity backfired on her, for all this exercise to my imagination made me quite a good liar, too. I convinced her of the existence of a school play, for which she duly made my costume and  in which she believed until the day of the performance was upon us, and later,  as a teenager, I set off with a backpack saying  I was going to volunteer on an archaeological dig (and did, briefly, appear at the site), but spent the rest of the week in a tent with my boyfriend.

My mother  was my first reader, and always appreciative; her suggestions for improvements were often excellent. She was a good typist and keen to add a professional touch, and also prepared to push me into action when she saw the need.

When school sent around a flyer encouraging all pupils  to enter a national children’s writing competition sponsored by Barclay’s Bank, she was determined that I should try. The brief for the contest was to write a short story set in a bank.

“You should do this,” she told me. “Nothing to lose. Look at the money you could win!”  In principle, I was willing. The year before, there had been a story contest sponsored by  The Royal Missions to Seamen, for a science fiction story. I had enjoyed  writing  my brooding piece about Cody, an astronaut who  slipped out of the spacecraft and launched  himself into outer space (and certain death) in order to experience something I called  Freedom. J.G. Ballard had picked my story, and signed his book Vermillion Sands for me… Yet  science fiction was one thing and banks were quite another: set in a bank?

Had I been more politically aware, I might have come up with something to do with Apartheid, given that Barclays was, at the time, heavily criticised for trading in South Africa. As it was, the only potential I could see was in bank–robbery, which everyone would do.

“Have you started it yet?’” Mum asked a few days later; she had a fair bit of time on her hands with just the one rather self-sufficient child to look after.

“Banks are so boring,”  I told her – and  as the words slipped out,  a  story came to me: two  male bank employees,  one in London, one in a place I rather vaguely called Africa,  both bored,  bored, bored.  A memo comes around, offering the opportunity to exchange posts.  Both bored employees jump at the chance, only to discover, once they have made the break and taken over each other’s lives that they are bored, bored, bored, the food is dreadful and they miss their friends!  I got it down as quickly as I could, and handed the scrawled sheets to Mum.

‘They won’t like this,” she said, “I mean, suppose you were them!” All the same, she typed it out at 70 wpm and, to give the bank credit where it is due, some months later a congratulatory letter and a cheque arrived. Really, my career has never been so simple or so successful since…

Mum’s own work life as a secretary at the BBC had ended when she fell pregnant for the first time and was therefore automatically dismissed, as per normal in the 1940s.  She enjoyed all her girls’ careers, and took great pleasure in my book reviews, appearances at literary festivals and so on, especially if international travel and decent hotels were involved. Until the last decade of her life she was too busy to be a great reader of books, but she read each of mine, and congratulated me on it in detail, often surprising me by what she saw in it. My most recent book  came out only a few months before her death and after it, when I let myself into the suddenly empty house, the book was still on display on her hall table.

We tend to simplify and idealize the dead, and perhaps in doing so we do both them and ourselves a disservice. So I will say here that it was not all dressing up in a sunlit garden. My mother was a powerful woman, a vivid, magnetic personality, and also a fighter, not at all inclined to doubt. There were periods of difficulty and conflict in our relationship, though fortunately we eventually got to the point where we could joke about them. As a writer, I thank Mum for the difficult times, too.  An unintended gift, they taught me  some of the most important things I know: how complex and contradictory we all are,  how anger can be a kind of caring. How hard we cling to each other. How vital struggle is to any story, and how deeply we yearn for its resolution.

Now, she has vanished.