This piece, published in Carte Blanche, centres on a day out with two nonagenarians: one of the last excursions my parents and I took together. http://carte-blanche.org/the-perfect-day/
This piece, published in Carte Blanche, centres on a day out with two nonagenarians: one of the last excursions my parents and I took together. http://carte-blanche.org/the-perfect-day/
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 civilized. 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.
Copyright © 1994, 2004 Kathy Page
Winner of the Traveller Writing Award 1994
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.
Telegraph-Journal, New Brunswick, Saturday May 5th, 2012
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 the USA: Amazon.com
“…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
Buy In the Flesh:
In the UK: W H Smith
In the USA: Amazon.com
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 the UK: W H Smith
In the USA: Amazon.com
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 the USA: Amazon.com
Here’s the contents page: Continue reading In the Flesh
This article about emigration, gardening and family, was first published in Aqua Magazine, 2011 p28 on.
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.
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.
This section is still in progress. In the posts to follow you’ll find examples of memoir, creative non-fiction, humour, travel writing and so on, along with (eventually) information about scripts and my earlier novels, Back in the First Person, The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley & Island Paradise.
But why not start here with It can happen to anyone fed
a humourous essay about the need to go beyond A Room of One’s Own, as re-published by the BC Federation of Writers.
Here’s a humourous essay about the need for a dedicated workspace first published way-back-when in Finland, and recently republished in WordWorks. Shortly after the events described, I did graduate to an out of home office, and have not looked back since…
My office is on the top floor of the house. Windows look over gardens and treetops; there are books along one wall, a fireplace, and a photograph of the Earth seen from Apollo 10. Its one disadvantage is that it is in my home. This means that I have to discipline myself to disregard whatever is happening or might need doing downstairs in order to get up to it: although hard, this can be done. It also means that the carpenters, plumbers and other noisy tradespersons often needed to deal with an old and previously neglected house must be organised so as to be here when I am not trying to work. This, it seems, is impossible, and so here I sit on a Monday morning, ready to explode.
Ken and Michael, the decorators, who failed to come two weeks ago, when we were on holiday, and failed to come again last week, when I was researching media coverage of the moon landing in the British Library, arrived at 8 a.m. They will be working in the kitchen on the stairs and on both landings. I explained about writers and their offices, how very passionate they feel on the subject. I really shouldn’t worry, Michael said, rubbing the greying stubble on his chin. Really, he said, I wouldn’t know they were here! Meanwhile they were desperate for a cup of tea.
When I entered my office, there was a large, sheet-covered pile of kitchen cupboards in the middle of it. I squeezed past, sat resolutely at the desk. I told myself not to be fussy about the muffled thumps and curses from downstairs and attempted to think myself back into the part of my novel concerning the disappearance of the red-haired girl, Natalie, who was crossing a field at dawn last time I wrote about her… She has been up all night, watching the moon landing on television and is trying to find her way back to the campsite. Meanwhile –
Michael knocks. He wants me to come and take a look at the plaster work on the first landing. It’s shot, he says. What should he do about it? I, being a writer, don’t know. He phones his boss, then abandons the lower landing and sets about sandpapering the cupboard doors on my landing. This is not a bad sound, rhythmical, steady, though he does keep interrupting it to cough, or mutter to himself.
Half an hour passes, during which I manage a paragraph or so of Natalie’s thoughts as she crosses the field. I’m about to cut back to the campsite, when Ken shouts for me from the bottom of the stairs. I thread myself past ladders and trestles, descend cautiously to ground level. Whereas Michael is potato-round and softly spoken, Ken is thin and has an aggressive bark of a voice. Should the tiles go this way or that way around the window? This way? I guess. You’re a writer! he states, putting the tiles down, folding his arms across his chest, leaning against the wall. I think I know what’s coming next, and I’m right: he has had a very interesting life and he is sure it could be turned into a book. For example…
Forty minutes later, fully informed about Ken’s birth by caesarean section, the family’s various moves around the country and their brief emigration to Australia, his father’s collection of model airplanes, his own period of fantastic wealth in the nineteen-eighties, the band he plays in, his recent failed attempt to set up a computer business, his wife’s exercise regime, his father’s death and his children’s problems at school, I manage to extricate myself in order to answer the doorbell. It’s fast-talking, barrel-chested Gary, the Boss.
Since I last saw him three days ago, Gary has severed three of his fingertips during an attempt to adjust a lawnmower while the blade was still moving. These fingertips have been re-attached by microsurgery. One has a steel pin through the top, which, he informs me with relish, keeps catching on the indicator stick when he is driving. Sensation has returned to the fingers. He wiggles them. We examine them in detail. They are a kind of purplish black; the skin is flaking and the nails have fallen off, but, he assures me, they are doing very well. We proceed to the plaster work, examine that in much the same way and negotiate a price. I leave him and Michael arguing on the stairs and return to the office.
The point of Natalie’s journey through the field eludes me and I’m finding it quite hard to even remember the names of my own characters, so I put on some music to drown out the voices, abandon the computer and write the names of my characters on a big sheet of paper, with arrows indicating the important relationships. This seems to work. I feel I’m on the verge of having an idea for the climax of the scene after the one in the field, but then Gary pushes the door open without knocking.
Sorry, I forgot, he says. With all that extra work, I better warn you that we’ll have to go well into next week.
No, I tell him. Please. Gary likes please. As a favour, he says, he’ll see if he can get an extra hand. The moment Gary leaves the house, Michael knocks. He waits for me to come out and stand on the dim, sheet-shrouded landing where he tells me how he has been twenty years in the trade. He tells me about his unfair dismissal from the top decorating firm in the country. Things in the industry are going downhill. Bosses like Gary are just in it for the money and don’t listen when told of the problems involved in doing a job properly. So – he’ll be honest with me – Michael now never pushes himself on a job and does only what he’s paid for, no extras, no initiative. This has reduced the stress on him and revolutionised his life. He recently got married, and tells me about the fantastic honeymoon he and his wife enjoyed in Tenerife. There will be a bit of noise he says, while he knocks the plaster down …
There is not only noise, but also a vibration rising through the floor and the desk itself with each irregularly timed blow. The computer screen starts to flicker. I turn the machine off, gather up my pieces of paper, blunder coughing through the dust-filled staircase and out into the garden. Unfortunately Ken is now working on the back door. What do I think of Jeffrey Archer? Of Iain Banks? Could he borrow a large cooking pot to heat up his lunch? He has certain firm beliefs about healthy nutrition, the balance of proteins and vitamins, which he explains in depth and then, never one to be left out, Michael descends to the garden to eat his lunch too. He takes his vest off to catch the sun while he eats, revealing a huge, pasty white stomach. He enumerates, in intricate detail, his plans for the afternoon and the reasons for doing things in the order he has chosen. Unfortunately there will be a period of several hours during which I can’t go up or downstairs. It can’t be helped. I must choose, office or garden.
There are books in the office, so I go to the kitchen, fill my water jug, and manage to squeeze past Michael on his first landing camp with only a short explanation of the science involved in the setting of plaster.
I blow the dust from my desk, drink some water and for five minutes or so I feel it is possible that I might go better than just reading, and do something low key, such as edit a previous chapter. I fiddle with the dialogue in the scene where Barbara combs Natalie’s hair. I want this simple act to suggest all of the longing Barbara feels for the daughter she lost many years ago… I want her to realise – abruptly Michael stops singing to himself. I hear him yell down his mobile to Charlene,his wife. He comes up to tell me that she has passed her physiotherapy exams. Congratulations!
I drink more water and stare at the picture of the earth seen from Apollo 10…. A spaceship office would suit me fine, I’m thinking, when Michael knocks again, requiring me to come down and praise the completed plastering. He explains how he will vacuum the stairs and then undercoat the gloss paint on the banisters. When I come out of the bathroom, my way back up is blocked by the vacuuming. I go down instead.
The front door is open and Ken is sitting on the front step, talking to a very old man, a trim, upright type, bright-eyed, with a grizzled terrier panting on a lead. You must listen to this! Ken tells me. This is Bill, he’s one of only eight survivors of the battle of Arnheim! And indeed, Bill has a medal in his pocket to prove it and also a photograph of himself shaking the Queen’s hand in 1995. For my benefit, Bill tells the whole story again, including his escape from interrogation in the Sudetenland, his recapture, a second escape via Belgium, his eventual return to his family who had been told he was dead. He salutes us and departs. There’s something you could write about, Ken says, triumphant.
In the kitchen, I find a lumbering bald-headed man with red-rimmed eyes sitting at the table drinking inky black coffee from a flask: Derek. Gary sent him to help the other two, he says, offering his hand to shake. Soon begins the inevitable monologue: a riches-to-rags tale. I learn that not long ago Derek had two yachts, three classic cars, gold bath taps and a top model for his girlfriend! But now all that’s left is the six-bedroom house, snatched from the jaws of repossession. He plans to go into partnership with Gary and split it up into student bedsits. He sketches a plan of the conversion for me on his sandwich wrapper.
At this point, there’s a pause: pure, delicious silence. No vacuuming. No hammering. No barking voice. I take a step towards the door. Lurching to his feet, Derek closes the distance between us. He takes my hand in his, looks into my eyes and announces that he feels he must be honest. He wants me to know that this is his first day back at work after a two year stay in a psychiatric unit. He heard a voice in his head telling him to do things. But that’s all over now and it can happen to anyone, he says – and regarding this, I am sure he is correct, because forget the girl with the red hair, forget Barbara, the moon landing in 1969, forget whether to have a semi colon or a full stop, all that. There is a very loud voice in my head and it says: ‘A room of your own? Bollocks. You need an office that is separate from the house.’ I push past Derek and stumble up the stairs to write it down.