Friday, February 22, 2013

Bio tex (a human stain)

Funny how something like this can unearth a memory.  It came up the other day when Son had a washing machine disaster with red trousers that coloured everything else pink.  I suggested he try and remedy the situation with Bio tex.  And then I remembered Donna.

She lived in one of the expensive houses at the bottom end of the mews that ran by the side of the flats where I lived as a child.  Her house had wrought iron bars across the windows on the ground floor and a door bell that went ding dong when you pressed it.  Her family was from the States, where they would rather have lived, but the father's work kept them in England.  They looked down on my family because we did not have money, or if we did then there were no visible indications of it.  My family looked down on Donna's because they had no culture, or none that my family recognised, and the fake antique coach light over the front door was a sign of this lack.

I can't remember how she and I met - probably in the mews where I sometimes played with my sister.  Donna was always nicely turned out in dresses or skirts, white ankle socks and penny loafers on her feet.  My sister and I were, by her mother's standards, scruffy and when not at school we usually wore trousers and scuffed shoes.  Donna's mother told her to remind me to wipe my feet on the mat when I came into the house.  She rarely addressed me directly, but I felt her eyes on me.  She was tall, straight and thin with long, shiny fingernails, always dressed as though for a special occasion.  Unlike my mother, she did not go out to work.  She eyed me from their gleaming kitchen or from the cream-covered sofa where she sat with a box of chocolates, reading a magazine or watching television.  Donna was nervous of her mother and exceptionally careful not to do or say anything that might displease her.  It was easy to do this, particularly with dirt or the possibility of it.  I was told never to sit on the cream sofa in case I made it dirty.  Donna was punished if she came home with a mark on her clothes.  When we went to the playground she wouldn't go near the sandpit.  She brushed the seat of the swing with the palm of her hand before sitting on it.

One hot day in my kitchen when we were having my favourite drink of raspberry cordial with soda water and ice, some of the cordial syrup spilt on the white kipper tie that lay on her chest, over the navy blue dress.  Donna had protruding front teeth that bit into her lower lip whenever she was nervous.  They bit hard as she looked at the stain.  She whispered, my mother will kill me.  I understood the situation well enough not to suggest that the tie could just be washed.  It was not just the fact of having marked something, though this in itself was bad - a sign of disrespect, lack of care and wilfulness.  The raspberry juice would leave a stain on the white that would not wash out.  My mother will kill me, repeated Donna.  I pictured her mother's face as she stood on the threshold between kitchen and shiny parquet-floored hall.  Even when she was not angry there was the sense that she was looking for a mark - some point to which she could direct the fury that simmered beneath the tight lips, the dark eyes that moved over one's face and body like searchlights looking for the fault.  Though she might not literally kill Donna,whatever punishment was delivered would be fearsome.

I rummaged under the kitchen sink where we kept detergents.  I remembered something that had once been used to make a cloth white again after wine was spilled on it.  On the cardboard box it said to soak in cold water but I boiled a kettle, filled a bowl with hot Bio tex solution and put the kipper tie in it.  Almost at once, the stain turned blue and then began to fade before our eyes.  As the material whitened the colour came back to Donna's face, and after ten minutes all evidence of stain had disappeared.  I fetched the iron and ironing board and pressed the tie until it was dry.  And we lived happily ever after and at some point went our separate ways - I to boarding school, she back to the States.

But the stain does, in a sense, endure.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

It's all about the ♥

I have got a Waitrose special Valentine's meal deal for two for twenty quid.  If you want to know what's on the menu (and why wouldn't you?) it is: a starter of smoked salmon and lemon pate, main course of Gressingham duck (red cabbage + mangetouts), dessert of chocolate and passionfruit assiette.  Plus a box of Belgian chocolates and a bottle of Rioja.  Candles, incense and music I got, plus partner. We have been together for over thirty years, and twenty eight years ago, having stated very clearly at the outset that he would never want to marry, he proposed to me.  Never mind that it took more than eight years for us to get round to doing it, and by then our two children were born and old enough to come to the wedding dressed in elephant suits.  The gesture counts. 

Romantic love - the heightened kind that has the power to transform your world.  It isn't just about me and him.  It isn't just about you and whoever you are with, wish you were with, desire, yearn for, think about in secret, blast with curses and tears, celebrate in sweetness and flowers.  In every good friend I have had since childhood there has been an element of romantic love.  The freckled red-head who built dens in the bracken made something happen to my heart (I could feel it filling up) when she called me her best friend, and again when she later chose someone else instead of me.  The friend who moved schools to be with me, and whose trust I betrayed.  The ones who matter, and not just the friends and lovers.  The niece who stares at you as though seeing you for the first time and says she loves your face. The small sister with a fever who waits up late for you to come home from boarding school. The children.  On bonfire night, a few days after my daughter's birth, I felt every firework in the sky (seen from a hospital window) was incandescent with the fact of her existence.  When my newborn son first looked at me I understood afresh what it meant to know someone - the shock of recognition.  And what about the brief encounters, the connections that are good for nothing but the particular moment, which might be in a train, a conference hall or a post office queue?  Times when you catch a person whole, or they catch you, though nothing comes of it that you can name, but something is changed - the heart is stretched, made bigger.  Perhaps not romantic love, but almost. 
And the animals, can I mention them?  Not just my own cat who loves, in her fashion, and though it is to some extent about the food, it is more than this (I meet her at the point of need and she restores my soul); once you really love an animal, you learn how to love the others more, even if you are a lapsed vegetarian.  It's a hard world, and ultimately (as someone said to me the other day), we all forgive each other.  I don't yet believe this, but I want to.  Perhaps this is a step away from romantic love.  And so is Raymond Carver's 'Late Fragment', but I will put it here all the same.

                           And did you get what
                           you wanted from this life, even so?
                           I did.
                           And what did you want?
                           To call myself beloved, to feel myself
                           beloved on the earth.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Loungewear Monday

I spent the morning re-fashioning a poem for tomorrow's workshop.  Result: something better than the original but I can't be sure, I am still too close to it.  I would have liked to carry on with other writing but really, a morning's work is the most I could do and in order to do it I had to not get properly dressed but go straight to it after my morning coffee before the small egg-timer of energy substance ran out.

I am still in my brown yoga suit, which serves for sleepwear on cold nights and also as loungewear in the daytime when one is not going out or expecting to receive guests.  Loungewear is a delicious word, all the better for being a euphemism and, in the context of my life at any rate, completely ridiculous, especially as I do not have a lounge but a sitting room.  Leisurewear was also a contender but perhaps taking it a step too far and when I am doing Leisure I get properly dressed.  I find that I am missing my purple 'crushed-silk-effect' shellsuit trousers and can't remember why I eventually decided they had to go.  I could wear them anywhere - in bed, outdoors, with a sweatshirt or with cashmere jumper and pearls.  I have looked for something similar on eBay, without success.

There is a thin layer of snow on everyone's garden shed.  Winter is not loosening its grip yet.

Monday, February 4, 2013


In my first week as an Eng Lit student at university one of the lecturers eyed us balefully and said, you're here to read and if you don't want to read, fuck off.  Another one told us that most literature was really very boring - just in case we were expecting to enjoy ourselves.  So that was us put straight.  A bit rough, but it was the early eighties, we were mainly women, used to being told like it is by men of a certain age.  As time went on, I could to some extent see where they were coming from.  I had worked for a number of years and was there on a mature student's grant.  This and the fact of no fees to be paid seems almost unthinkable now.  With a little paid work in the summer, I was well able to live on the grant.  And I loved everything about being a student.  The younger ones would often arrive at tutorials smudge-eyed, smelling of last night's party, not having read the text of whatever it was.  I was much sought-after in the ten minutes or so before a class for the quick summary that would allow them to bluff their way through the session.  I was not bored by much, except for The Faerie Queene which sits on my bookshelves unread, the portrait of Gloriana on the front still measuring and finding me wanting.  I thought Tristram Shandy boring too but persevered as everyone (even the hardened party people) seemed to think it was cool.  Later, it would allow me to bluff my way through conversations about post-modernism.

Cut to when I began teaching creative writing classes.  I suppose I could have echoed what my erstwhile tutor said but my preferred way was to give a short reading list, the first item being Dorothea Brande's 'Becoming A Writer'.  I was pleased to see that it was placed at number two of Hilary Mantel's ten rules for writers (the first being to get an accountant).  Brande had the belief that although there were varying degrees of talent, everyone could write.  I believed this too and simply assumed that everyone who came to class - even the man who said he was there because his wife insisted he get himself an interest and the art class was full - was there because they wanted to write.  And everyone did.  We began almost immediately, writing in class and reading it back.  People found that if there was no space to worry or censor, they were more brilliant than they imagined they could be.  I would set a writing task for students to do at home, which they brought back to class the following week.  Mostly they always did.

Being a writer is perhaps subtly different from Becoming - though I think we are always doing that, wherever we are on the writing road.  Being a writer means you have reached that point where you know that this is what you are for, whatever else you have to do to earn money or to meet other commitments; this is what you have to come back to.  It may be that you stop doing it for long periods because of health, lack of time or writers' block (yes, even experienced and famous writers sometimes get it and some have recovered with Dorothea Brande), but the soul is uneasy until you get back to doing it.  And then the time comes when you might have to say to yourself: you're here to write and if you don't want to write, fuck off. 

Dorothea Brande puts it more delicately.  But she does say that if after a period of time you find that the resistance to writing is stronger than the impulse to do it - then it is better, dear reader, to find something else to do. 

One of my favourite Twitter hashtags:  #AmWriting.