Another sketchbook from a visit to Oslo. I must’ve been alone. Had I gone over there to see my aunt? I made sketches in the Munch Museet and clearly had coffee in Coffee People. We’d always intended to go and see the Munch Museet together, Tante Aase and I, but by then she’d become too infirm to make the train journey. She knew his work inside out. She knew him. Well, vaguely, a school friend of hers lived next door to him and she’d see him in his garden when she visited her. She wasn’t sentimental about the work, she just owned it. I love seeing the paintings. They are part of me too, and Mum and Aase. Pared-down, they are intense in their succinctness.
‘Closed all day Wednesday from now on’ reads the sign in Andy Records on Great Darkgate Terrace. But when is now? I encouraged myself to walk a little further this morning. I want to get stronger. It is still slow going. And I am tired now. He woke gloomy. I’m nervous, he says. Of course you are darling. It is all so uncertain. Just put one foot in front of the other, I say, and it will be alright. Will it? What is alright? It has changed. We have changed. He is sleeping now.
There was a crying girl sitting on a door step just as I turned into South Road. I heard her before I saw her. I stopped in front of her. Are you alright? Such an inane thing to say, I thought to myself, even as I said it. Of course, she isn’t alright, she’s crying. I scanned her face and body quickly, no sign of violence, blood or injury. I asked her again if she was alright and if there was anything I could do. She looked almost irritated that I’d stopped and questioned her. Petulant even. I’m OK, she said, really. And I sensed her willing me to move on. I did so and she continued her wailing. Perhaps she was trying to attract a particular person’s attention.
We are both looking back, she and I. She on her looks, comparing photos from ten years ago with how she looks now. She does it via Facebook and her friends comment, telling her she is still beautiful. I am doing it through my sketchbooks, trying to find something authentic, a vestige of me that I can believe in. Did you mean for it to be in colour? he asks. Well, yes, cos I thought that was what you wanted. We are at cross-purposes. Would I mind if they alter it? Not at all, I am not precious about it. It pays my rent. I do my best that’s all.
All too often we let the small brave acts go unnoticed yet for some of us they are massive achievements. He came back from the eye test and got into the car driving it around the block. Such a brave thing. And he did it alone. I had no idea. So much has fallen away. But he is trying to find his courage. It is enough.
I want to look at drawings of when I’ve been travelling, to remember that freedom from care, from responsibility. The back goes because it can’t take anymore. It needs to rest, to take time, to go slow. I didn’t walk this morning. The Brute had done her work and I felt sore and tender this morning. There is a big red bruise from her hammering on my thigh. How can she do that with her bare hands? I feel jaggedy and unsteady and yet I must be the solid one. All I can do is take care of the details. That is all. The rest swirls about. No trip next week. He is too scared. Even if he gets the go ahead to drive, he has no courage. It is right that we don’t go. But how I longed to see them. It is all slipping away.
I’ve thought about walking into the sea while I’ve been out these last mornings. Not in a dramatic way, but just to lose myself, to shuffle off this onus. I wouldn’t undress just walk in letting my coat and boots fill up with water. I wouldn’t feel the cold that way, at least not initially. Even so, how do you do it? How do you give up that will to live? Can you just stop breathing at will? The harbour is a melancholy place in these dark mornings and it resonates with the suicides that have happened there. I know of two, and there must be more. No one would stop you. No one would see. We used to get them to talk it through. Are you suicidal? we had to ask. Even the sex callers got the same. It usually made them hang up. If someone said yes we would ask them if they had the means to do it and what that was. It became vague then. Often it was some pills or ‘I don’t know’. Few had it planned. And I think death, death of a good, still strong body does take some planning.
I needed to cry. It’s been too much these last few days. That dying of the hopes of fuller life. Bless him and it’s happening to him. His eye won’t get better, she told him. He’s had a mini stroke of the eye. Gone. The sight has gone. How does that make you feel? I ask. He is calm. His other eye is compensating, he can still read, still see. Tomorrow they will tell him if he can still drive. Our life will shrink externally if he can’t. I will adapt better than him, I think.
Did I ask for this? For this falling away of all that seems steady and sure? Possibly, deep down I needed this stopping for all that it alarms me and I keep trying to move. My body has gone rigid, I walk with my buttocks clenched and my teeth gritted. His eye has not cleared. The operation will have to happen. He is calm. As indeed am I. I just struggle with the not knowing. Reduce it down. Reduce expectations. Shall I cancel this, cancel that? Or continue in hope? Waiting for some speck, chink of light. We are getting through. I think of people under siege, and how it must be to be like this always, no certainty, a constant shifting of quicksand. He makes me laugh with his one good eye closed and his bad eye open wide like the bloke who used to host The Stars at Night. Drawings continue to comfort. Perhaps I should just spend the rest of my life working on my drawing. Hang the rest. We are car-less, he cannot drive one-eyed, obviously. So its a hobbly hour’s walk to the supermarket for me while he takes a taxi to the eye clinic. They will have to operate the doctor said. It’s vascular, I’m afraid, he told him. He knows him of course. A nice man it seems, I’ve seen them chatting in the Café Nero queue a couple of mornings. We didn’t want it but it seems we have to acquiesce. They do it every day, the doc said. Of course. Of course they do. But to cut him. Him. I am undone.
He woke unable to see properly out of one eye. It’s flashing, he said. It has happened before and they put him on blood thinning tablets. I’m scared, he said. I know. I know. I feel separate from it all. Nothing is solid anymore. The ground is shifting. I have to go to work. He has gone back to bed and we will walk up to the hospital together in a hour or so. I try to keep steady. But I feel numb. Is safety an illusion? Is everything really haphazard, a matter of chance? Is he going to die? Is it to be soon? Will life continue without him? He seems so frail, so lacking in resolve or fight. I return to my sketchbooks. This one is from over twelve years ago. I remember going to see the play. I went alone. We hadn’t left Cambridge by then, and I wanted some relief from his care. He was in a deep fog of anxiety and I was running the risk of drowning too. So I went to Manchester, stayed over night and watched a matinee performance of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables at The Royal Exchange. Were any of my old work colleagues there? I can’t remember now. How I love matinees. There are such a good source of faces to draw. Elderly women with their handbags and cups of tea and cake in the interval, men with papers, all that shuffling around, and in that particular theatre, the great humphing-up onto the chairs.
I walked this morning, the first time in two days. I have to keep my back ram-rod straight, buttocks clenched in, else it gives. Keep going, I whisper, egging myself on. And now I will have to take the hill. So be it. I want to be able to manage without him. To hold my life together, somehow. Keep steady, I tell him. Keep steady.
I find comfort in going through my old sketchbooks, though often, as with this one, I can remember where was but not what the words, or as in this case, the list refers to. Where did I read about Winifred Nicholson and her belief that ‘artists accepted the discomfort of poverty out of a desire to live differently’ for instance? It too is a comforting thought. Find your heroes a medium told me years and years ago, meaning find people who are like you, who live like you, it will comfort. I keep thinking of James Joyce with his second-hand coat, failing eyesight and other deprivations he went through for his writing. Ah, but he believed in his talent. Doesn’t that make all the difference? I keep finding little sparks of something – a residency, a writing residency. Just up your street, he says. Yeh, I reply, but they want people who are living in London. Let it go. You already have much ahead of you this year. Wait. It will come. Where is my belonging?
My research begins to take root invading my dreams. Mothers in seventeen-century France literally throwing away their babies. Motherhood is a social construct, claims the author, and only fed by a society that sees its worth. I long to fall into it, to let it swallow me up. There is so much to find there. I think this is important, and yet I want to run from it too and find something impersonal, ordered, regimented, straight-lined to do instead. But it hounds me. Over and over. It must be written. Be steady.
She has it easy, a friend had said of her. Maybe so but I like to be around her. I like the ease of her, the soft meringue-like aura around her. She does have troubles, has had, who hasn’t, but she chooses not to dwell, manages, holds it all together. There is such a peace to her. I hope we can meet. Speaking to her on the phone was nice. Can I own that I need more women like that in my life? I need the care. Truly.
I was shaking with the shock of it for over two hours. Alone, on the floor. Two women’s voices came through, hers and my sister’s. Comfortable women, with a strong sense of self, home-owners, beautiful, feminine – I yearned to have them near. I cannot make such things for myself. Never have done and can see it happening now. What do I have to offer them?
I wrote about streetlights in the forest. Was I still in Norway then? I remember the lights, such a comfort in the dark.
A letter in the post. You’ve won, it reads. And I have £25. That’s nice. That is a shining thing. Some days are….
I’d got him up, as I said, in my insistence on trying to ‘keep things normal’. And we’d done the shopping, though he kept veering towards the pavement. Everything felt surreal, as if all the threads were unravelling. And yet I still kept noticing the details. Like that chatty girl at Morrison’s who usually does the flowers calling out to a colleague and saying that she really must change her perfume. I’d joshed him in front of our friend on the till saying that, of course, he, being a man, had the cold symptoms much worse than I did. She’d laughed and nodded. Then we’d returned home, again as I said, and I’d worked and then, just as I was getting ready to go up to the Library to do my research I heard him calling me. Had he called before? Had I ignored it? And there he was lying on the floor.
He succumbs, he gives in. He always has. He isn’t a fighter. I couldn’t raise him. Try as I might. He wouldn’t help. Grab this, hold onto this. Nothing. It must’ve been an hour of trying. And then, out of frustration more than anything, and out of a desire to not see him on the floor, so degraded and helpless, I tried to yank him up. And I heard it go, I felt it wrench, something in my back. I cried out in both pain and fear. What had I done? Then the unravelling continued. I went to a neighbour for help. I had to knock on his 100-year-old mother’s door. She was up, he was not. She was in a dressing gown having a late breakfast listening to the radio. Deaf and not good with her sight, she peered to the left of me, her head on one side like a bird. I noticed a fly on their easy chair. Their living room-cum-kitchen-cum-dining-room smelt of fried food, unaired, trapped. He’s strong, she said of her son, he’ll help. I felt awkward waiting at her threshold so went back upstairs to wait for him. He was still on the floor, his face hard against the floorboards, unmoving. The neighbour couldn’t help. He just kept sliding. A dead weight. I called 999. They came, two big men in green. So kind. He was somnolent, his body leaning to one side. He’s got a temperature, one said. They tested his blood pressure, asked for paracetamol to give him and chatted away. One asked me about a picture in our hallway. What is it? he said. Then he said, Do you have a shop? They took him away and I went upstairs to lie on the floor, in pain and incapacitated, I wept and slept and texted and called cancelling the trip to see friends in Bath, spoke to my darling sister, longing to have her near. They sent him home in a taxi four hours later. We make shift together. He is asleep. And I am slowed. I will cope but I am slowed. Brought down and grey. I fell again last night, he said, when I woke him for breakfast. Why didn’t you call me? I said. What could you have done? he said. It took him an hour but he solved it. He got himself up. Love and anger. Compassion and frustration. I see him on the ground and know this is a harbinger. This is my future as it is his. And I am lost. Today I am lost.
If the big picture is too much to deal with concentrate on the details, the small things, for they are there, as they have always been, to delight us, to distract and comfort us. I wanted these to smell, that gorgeous almost too-sweet smell of lilywhites but they didn’t. What are the sweets that smell, and indeed taste, like small narcissi? Something to do with squirrels. They were red, came in a little plastic bag, and were like hard nipples. I loved anything small as a child. I would curl my hands around such things, making them mine. They’ve begun serialising The Miniaturist on the radio. I listen to it as I make breakfast – not sure about it yet but the image of that dolls house stays in my mind. I know a woman who spent years making tiny samplers for dolls houses, and I knew another woman, the mother of my sister’s friend who had a dolls house shop. How I longed for a dolls house. I never articulated such longing. I wonder why? Perhaps I knew it couldn’t be sated. The theme of the book makes me want to make small things again. There is something safe in the reduction of real life. The articulate re-making. I miss making. I miss having a reason to make.
He would say I was cruel. And perhaps I was. I need the structure. I need to have my working time. I know that I am rigid. I just want to rely, to know that he will be as steady as I endeavour to be. He cannot. We are made of different stuff. I remember his frustration with his mother when she was unwell, and the countless references, tongue-in-cheek style, to her ‘stoicism’. He is cut from the same cloth. I was raised differently. I recall a very particular day at sixth-form and knowing I was unwell and wanting her to notice and take care of me. But no, it was the no-nonsense mother that greeted me at breakfast and that sent me off on my bike, only to receive a call from me at the phone box down the road, doubled over in pain. She didn’t relent, or say sorry, just took me home and put me to bed. But there have been times when she was marvellous, kind, patient and tender. I mustn’t forget those. Ah, she is in me. I forced him out. We did our chore and now he is back in bed, and I have softened. It has been a grey time. And I so want to see our friends tomorrow, but I hold my breath.
It was surprisingly pleasant to be in the National Library yesterday, once I’d got over my new-girl nerves. The light, the peace, and those windows with their prospect of the sea. Marvellous. And I’m beginning to find some interesting data. Lovely. Data is the wrong word. Resonances is better. I am off again soon, though today I have to take on the hill. So be it. I shall find my strength, as always.
The third day in and I’m feeling a little more like myself. The cocooning is still present and my head is thick with it. And he has it now. His face was like a smacked arse when I went in to wake him. He softens though. Stoicism isn’t his forte. So be it. I walked this morning. I was glad to get out of bed, my dreams were hallucinatory and my heart raced. Best get up be out in the fresh air. It was sharp, the air, a frosty dampness that caught at my face. It was quiet, no one about. January stretches ahead. I catch my fear. It’s the size of it, the commitment of it. Can I do it? Can I do it alone? I can see the small details, the occasional chapter but the whole still alludes me. All I can do is put one foot in front of the other. I’m going to the National Library to do some research today. A beginning. I often think if I just do what others do, ape their behaviour it will come. Will it? Why am I so unbrave?