Earlier in the year, I pledged a couple of things for the Authors for Grenfell fund-raising drive. Tomorrow I’ve got an author chat and what was once an afternoon tea with it has turned into hanging out at my house and then lunch and a signed copy of my first book, Killing Hapless Ally. Most recent comments on that, by the way, have included “brilliant but patchy”, “this book has changed my life”, “..if this is you how are you still sane?”, “you’d have made the shortlist if the everything was up to the standard of the best passages” and, “reminiscent of Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe.” Are you laughing with me?
Next weekend I’m off to Pembrokeshire (where lots of my family are, living and dead: read on) because I am picking someone up in St David’s and then I am going to take them on a tour of the settings in The Life of Almost. This novella is out with Patrician Press (nice boutique press; awesome and brave catalogue – possibly foolhardy because they’re so keen on me?), autumn, 2018. It’s a strange tale, starring a flotilla of my relations, and settings, secret places and houses known to me, in which the narrator (previously drowned, aha..) returns to bring happiness and ignite the imagination of someone who is sad and desperately tired of life. He does this by telling the extraordinary story of his life – of sea-boiling mermaid love; lonely dragons on the shore; the Virgin Mary in the corner of the room; murders, crimes, love found and enduring; love torturing and mending – or not, because you can also pick the ending. In it, you’d recognise threads of Great Expectations, a favourite book of mine (indulge me this), not to mention a love affair with the Mabinogion and old Welsh lyrics. I will tell you more as we get closer to publication, but for now, be here with me as you won’t be there at the weekend.
And importantly, I want to make a plug. You will know the appalling things endured by those who were residents at Grenfell Towers. Well, here’s another literary endeavour and it is brilliant. Already 120% funded. I’m so pleased. Have a look and buy it when it’s out.
So, settings in Almost. m making a selection. This is the walk down to Barafundle Bay, accessed, this way, over the headland from Stackpole Quay on the Stackpole Estate (National Trust now). Almost recalls happy times rolling on the beach and out at sea with his mermaid girls, who are so devoted to him – though, all his life, he has been in love with the sour Seren, out at Clandestine House on the Cleddau Estuary. Hmm. Almost is not binary in his sexuality or his gender identity. Oh no no no. I see him as questing and fluid. All things, in this book, take up boundaries and blur or break them.
Here. This is Walton West at Church, just above Broad Haven Beach. In the churchyard, so very close to my heart. sixteen relations are buried (and probably more that I’ve yet to clasp to me as my relatives). My grandmother is here and my nanny. Uncles, great uncles and cousins, aunts. Also, some plaques for those interred elsewhere. At least two of the dead are suicides and one, a mother and daughter in law of those who took their own lives, was a figure who has haunted me my whole life and I have fictionalised her as Muffled Myfanwy, both here and in my first book. That’s because she suffered so much, her voice was stifled. When she did speak (I suppose it was selective mutism as I never heard her speak beyond the home), well now it was like a whisper in the breeze. You had to lean in to let it touch your cheek and then you heard and you knew her a little better, perhaps. In The Life of Almost, this character is…by the very particular gifts held by Almost…released. Her throat is loosed; her voice howls into the bright sunlight and she feels safe enough to test love again.
If you want to go and visit, you’re looking, mostly, for a lot of Llewhellins. Now, don’t correct the spelling; this is how my family had it BUT there’s some variation even so – Llewelyn, too, as middle name and surname. I do have another churchyard – this time with my grandfather (Pop) and great grandparents, and this is out at Bethesda, nearer to Tenby. My grandparents’ marriage – they still had thirteen children, ten surviving (one died as a babe) ended acrimoniously and it was said he went and shacked up with a landlady from Tenby, who was a terrible tart and known for it.
I was raised, depending on your point of view, by maudlin, morbid people. And yet…when I think about my family, I find I don’t always differentiate between who’s alive and who’s not. I think that’s because their legends permeate into corners of my life. I am not afraid of darkness. Or graveyards at night. I speak plainly of death and leaving. I was orphaned, anyway, by the end of my teens and that was sad, but by God I’ve learned a few things. And this death in life way of embracing pied beauty, sour beauty, has stood me in good stead. It feels like a Welsh thing and it is thus integral to the book. You’ll wonder sometimes, as I’d ask you to do, who’s alive and who’s dead in The Life of Almost. Also, as in my first book, who’s there, and who a figment in your imagination.
Ah the Virgin Mary. Perfection, sister to Almost, behaves terribly. But in her quiet moments, she visits this place, at St Non’s, on St David’s Head, to see if Our Lady can set her straight. She also spends her days tongue lashing the whores and the ingrates of where they live, but she then, in a fit of piety which is true and real, rushes out to pray for their souls and for her own. And she prays again, to the Virgin, in her own home. At night, Our Lady is illuminated (by Wilko’s solar garden lights, if you’re asking) and below her is the healing well. Ah – also the song, Myfanwy. May her voice and soul flow free.
Now, when Almost begins to tell his tale, he’s out on an unspecified beach, which I’ve imagined directly below the Walton West churchyard I described above. Really, the nearest beaches to this headland would be Little Haven (where my grandmother was born) or Broad Haven, but in my mind’s eye, I saw a particular sea cave. It has been in my mind for as long as I knew what mind was. Pembrokeshire is rich in beautiful caves – I love those at Barafundle – but this was the first I saw and knew as a tiny child. It is on Newgale Beach and you can go right through it to different sections of this spectacular place. I had this in mind, more figuratively: the notion of channels and conduits between worlds, if you would only open your eyes. Or, I suppose, prove an adequate listener to Almost’s story.
And who have we next to the cave? There are some very fine mermaids in the book and you’ll just have to wait and see what they all get up to.
Now here is a beautiful place. These are the woods through which you can walk to Abermawr. Here, they are full of bluebells, though I love this walk in a winter storm, too. But the bluebells are significant because…as I said, I’ve given you two endings to the book. It’s a fantastical story, which also celebrates the tortured love between Seren and Almost. Why does she hate him yet love him? She breaks his heart again and again, this sour suffering beauty. In Great Expectations, Estella is the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham at Satis House. He loves her and eternally. But there were two endings to the book. The original, in which they are parted, and that which was eventually published, in which (though I still feel it bears a shadow of doubt, delicately done) Estella and Pip end up together. I’m not going to tell you why, in my book, Seren hates Almost, save to say it’s something to do with land and sea and freedom and Derian Llewhellin, the escaped convict (spot the Magwitch connection) that Almost helps in the first part of the story. But near the end of the book, this fine bluebell wood is the scene of…an event I struggled to write. Yep. You’ll judge for yourself, now te, whether it is erotic; if I judged it aright.
Abemawr Woods. Beyond them, always, the sea. Coedwigoedd Abermawr. y tu hwnt iddynt, bob amser, y môr.
Which brings me to Clandestine House, on the Cleddau. This is Cresswell Quay and is, in fact, the place where my grandmother lived. Cresswell House became Clandestine House and inhabited by the claw-handed spinster, Miss Davies. Ah yes, Elleri Davies. This is a mysterious, changing, respiring house. And, like Seren, Miss Davies is miserable but imaginative. But just like Myfanwy who is oppressed by sorrow, might there not be a way to satisfy the cravings of the land, to comfort the grieving house and to mend hearts?
I do miss you, grandmother.
I will write more in the coming months but, for now, especially for you, Lorna, whom I will meet in St David’s at the weekend, remember that there is no there, there. Trust in Almost, instead. More on which at the weekend. x
The walk to St David’s
This morning, The Guardian published this extraordinary letter. After I read it, I sat down and cried. It is beautifully written, for a start and, as was noted by literary folk on twitter, the account read like a short story. Also, I wish I could invite this person over for tea right now and give them a huge hug. This is a deeply painful and confusing set of circumstances and one, I would think, in which it would be hard to find clarity or any form of comfort or redress. I want to say to its writer, though, that reading it, while it upset me, made me feel less alone with my own peculiar circumstances.
I want to say thank you and that I am sorry for what has happened. And yes – do you know that you write beautifully?
By the time I was an adult, I’d lost both parents, all grandparents, my oldest friend and the only person in the world with whom I felt safe, my godmother. I had a sibling, much older than me. I loved him passionately, but was also scared of him and struggled to articulate why. Three years after my mother died, my sibling disappeared. Refused all communication with me and did not explain why. This carried on for many years and I experienced it as shame and bewilderment; in the end, it was easier to tell myself that I was an only child. I felt sick when I thought of it all; still do. I would hear, third hand or so, that my sibling wanted nothing to do with me because of what a terrible person I was, because of how badly I had treated our parents (I had done my best to nurse them, I hoped, abrupting my childhood, bisecting my adolescence or university career, where I felt separate and strange).
Later, I felt the story shift a little within the family. I suppose it was because it was easier for people to understand, or more palatable. There had been issues between us; an argument. Yes; that was what had happened. It’s the revisionist version of family history. I had tried, before, to raise with my extended family, the matter of events and their impact and, also, of the dark and distressing things which had happened within the family home. The things which led, in part – I am careful to qualify that – to multiple episodes of anxiety and depression. To this day, I still have nightmares about my experienced; some of these nightmares are about my sibling. And when I raised these things, emboldened by finally finding the right therapeutic support for me, I was told, “If ANY of this had happened, I would have known.” As I said, revisionist. But I did not revisit discussion because I didn’t want to cause upset. I could cope and it could have been worse, I reasoned.
When I was about to get married, I tried again to get contact with my sibling again: I wanted him at my wedding, I thought. Wanted him to know; thought he might want to. This time, I had a reply and it left me on the floor – it was all curses and how I was selfish and hadn’t given enough notice (three months, but maybe not enough: I’m not sure!) and no way would he be attending, you selfish little bitch this is typical of you. While I lay on the floor, I thought…well I thought that I would not survive it. I believed – and right here was further endorsement – that I was this terrible person. I had always been told I was, for as long as I could remember. I didn’t know otherwise and could not really understand why this really lovely man downstairs actually wanted to marry me. Still, the revisionism came into play: he’s upset because you didn’t ask him to give you away. That is the accepted version of events, which ignores a decade of refused contact prior to this. Perhaps I did the wrong thing and I cannot ever have been blameless, but it hurts to have a truth told which is not my life; which is a lie. When you’ve worked out it is a lie, mind you. It can be terribly hard to see clearly.
I had three children. Sent pictures. Nothing. Well, one little thing, once, out of the blue with the first child: “Thank you for your photograph. I will put it in an album. Regards.” Nothing subsequent; the first baby is now nearly sixteen. But I kept the note. I’m not really sure why.
And then. Three years ago. He was getting married and suddenly got in touch with all the extended family. With a couple of exceptions, everyone acted as if nothing had happened. His wife to be showered everyone with gifts and wrote to me – all about how much his nephews meant to him and he loved them from a distance; about how I was a special sister to both of them now and would “the boys” like to come and stay with their auntie and uncle? Again, the extended family saw it differently: why don’t you let them? Don’t the boys deserve to know him? Deserve to know their uncle? I really struggled with that, a recasting of a story – as if I had somehow witheld them. He’d never met them. Moreover, if you read the letter which follows below, you might have some notion of the inappropriateness of such a visit. An unsupervised visit. I have seen and felt things which I wish I could unsee and unfeel. Besides which, all the letters were from her.
My sibling rang me and said he would be calling at our house. This was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. He told me what I was to do and was explicit that the only reason for visiting was so his wife to be knew who I was. I rang an aunt and said that I did not want this, that it was not real, but was told not to behave badly and I had to do what my mother would have wanted. They stayed an hour. We lined the boys up for them. He barely spoke to me, talked about his work in a sort of boasting way – he is very wealthy from what I can gather – and they left. Thereafter, I had further “precious nephews” letters from my sister-in-law and “treats from auntie and uncle”. Tenners on a birthday. Then they dropped the “auntie and uncle”, then the treats; then the birthday cards. I think it took a year for them to get bored.
We had a raft of family bereavements. They were there, leading the funeral procession. He pushed past me, looked through me, refused to speak. There was one occasion, for a beloved relative, where she was the first person I saw. “Thank you for making the journey for our beloved…” she said. I could have said, “Whom you knew for little over a year and who dandled me and loved when I was a tiny child forty years ago…” but I didn’t. It felt like a fantasy; as if nothing made sense. In addition to being transparent – he was looking right through me – to my own sibling, I felt like my life was being stolen, my narrative rewritten. On hearing gushing compliments about the two of them, on this occasion and others, what I felt was anger and shame. I am still getting over it, but I have to accept that they have propelled themselves into the heart of a family, and that is that. There is nothing I can say.
Without the support of my husband, and the one little enclave within my extended family…well thank you. I talk to my friends, too, about bubbles that come up – at children’s parties; in the school holidays – family stuff. I can feel like a social leper. But sensible friends now know to jolt me out of this. It is what it is. Also, I have my husband and my boys in front of me. It serves me well to have someone remind me not to be ungrateful or self-indulgent. And I do believe that family is a flexible construct and can be built; that our friends and our community are part of it. And that’s me, the chubby toddler with a bucket. For years I could not look at pictures of myself for loathing. I’m getting better, because there I am.
When I wrote my first book, a semi autobiographical novel called Killing Hapless Ally, I drew, in the section that follows, on homework I had to do in therapeutic support. I had a crisis – breakdown if you like – five and a half years ago and received extended support CAT under the NHS with people who saved my life. My sibling reappeared just at the end of this support – so I was able to talk it over a little, but not enough, perhaps. In CAT – cognitive analytic (or analytical) therapy – I was asked to write some letters, and the one that follows was to my sibling, here in its original form, before being slightly edited for my book.
But to return to the letter in The Guardian today, just know, if you are its writer or feel upset in reading it or because something that makes you terribly sad has happened in your family, that your story belongs to you. No-one can steal your life. You were there and you can heal or, more realistically, learn to live alongside bereavement or loss of such a painful, contorted sort. Yes, you were there. Tell your own story, make your own revisions, if you like, for your own sake; for that of your future happiness – but also so that you do not admit impediment to the love you give to others.
So here’s the letter, as I gave it to the NHS and pretty much as it went into the book. I should explain that there are references to real people in the letter and yes: I really did have Albert Camus as my imaginary friend! Dixie Delicious (sorry darling) is my husband.
‘To my brother.
Here goes. When I was a child I idolised you. You were like a more fun version of a dad and I would sit on your lap and watch telly or just chat. You spoiled me with sweeties, long walks, playing badminton. I don’t remember having a sense of discomfort about my relationship with you as a child. You would joke with my friends and always come to help entertain my friends at birthday parties, but I do have a memory of being scared of something and I don’t know or cannot articulate of what exactly. It came from the corner of your yellow eye. I know that when I was about ten, something changed – or maybe it was always there but I didn’t see it until I became more, shall we say, sentient, my newly knowing state coinciding with the time you first went off me? I remember what I thought -or rather willed myself to think- were happy visits; day trips. But they were punctuated by anger, weren’t they? You said I was the apple of your eye and that I would always be your precious “little sis.” But there would be the sudden wild anger; exuberance then angry tears, and I didn’t understand. Were you so sad, too? One day, you made the peculiar statement I didn’t know whether to admire or run from. You stopped in the street and said, “I enjoy being a bit of a bastard and kicking people when they are down” and you were all swagger and brilliance. You said, ‘People are all shit. It is the nature of the beast. You can’t trust anyone and no-one will care for you’ and you smiled knowingly as you said it.
That night I discovered the huge porn collection under your bed and couldn’t take my eyes off what I saw. Above your bed was a huge photo of a naked woman, breasts on show, all shiny tabloid and emerging from the sea, her lips parted expectantly. I stayed in that room with you, sleeping at the end of the bed with the giant tits looking on and the porn humming under the bed, easily within reach. I clung to The Wind in the Willows, incongruous in your bedroom. Tits. Being a bastard is fun. Readers’ wives. It is the nature of the beast. No-one will care for you. All people are bastards. Bestial. It is the nature of the beast. None of this cares for you. Oh my precious, precious sister. Raaarrrrrr!
For some time in my teens you stayed away. When you visited I remember you on edge; aggressive; I was nervous around you; you used strange language around me and shaming memories erupt: you would lean closer to me and say, “How are your periods?” or “Have you got a fat fanny?” or ‘Look at your breasts. Your silly little breasts.’ That might have been funny from kin close in age, but when I was thirteen, you were twenty nine and you shuddered in disgust when you saw me and it mortified me and made me ashamed of my changing body all through my adolescence and I would look at myself and be sick and so it was really only my adventures with Albert Camus and jaunt with Denis the Lusty Blacksmith that made me consider the possibility that I wasn’t some kind of, I don’t know, physical outcast: dirty girl: my sex repelling all those around me: Albert and Denis thought I was hot, hot, hot. Of course, the boys in school thought I was persona non grata: eccentricity, oddity and trying too hard tend to have that effect on people. It had to be me, didn’t it? I would have shrivelled up without the hot blacksmith and my imaginary existentialist. Vive La France. And the nightmares I have had for years about you doing the most terrible things to me? I do not know whether they were true, but I know it took me twenty-five years to be able to name the sexual parts of the body because there laid fear and loathing. For me, it’s hard, because my waking and dreaming and my real and imagined encounters are historically a little blurred, but I definitely do not cry to dream again when I dream of you; instead, I wake and cry not to and I’m a lucky girl now because I reach for the hand of Dixie Delicious and what can you do to me now?
Once, Wales, home in our bisected lives, we went for a walk on the beach. Took a young cousin. He was a lippy sod, but very little and his cheek was funny. But to tell him off, you threw this fully clothed little boy into the freshwater stream running down from shingle to sea. Hard compacted sand. Kid too startled to cry. “That’s what you get” you said. How. Why.
I remember your drinking and crazy dancing and wild unexpected swearing and the sense that our parents gave me, expressed quite calmly and not in the white heat of anger, that they preferred you. Oh yeah: I got kind of used to being under sufferance and with a muddled sense that I was shit and you were shinola. I never felt cross; I just felt sad and dug my nails into the palms of my hands. It was things such as this, I think, that made a place for the self harming to start. I felt a kind of rage and frustration – and also, as I grew, disgust at my own body: emerging breasts and all. I recall being thirteen and accidentally bumping a drawer on the wall of a bedroom in your house: it made a mark. You were incandescent with rage: you and mum called me a selfish little bitch, I ran out into the street, somewhere, anywhere. In darkness I came back to stern silent looks. When we left you said, “Next time don’t bring her – that – with you.” I hadn’t meant to cause harm or damage. “You marked his wall. You marked it. It was you, you, you. And you are marked, too!” Mum and dad just told me again how selfish I was and, well, everyone knew that. I felt kind of desperate and just wanted to know if anyone thought differently: it sounds so pathetic! I said, “But his next door neighbours said I was lovely” and mum barked out a laugh and spat, “That’s because they don’t really know you.” I cried silently for two hundred miles home. Santa Maria threw a carton of orange juice, a ‘Club’ biscuit and a bag of crisps into the back seat at some point. Like a bone to the nasty little dog. They did not turn round.
I feel that there’s a kind of spitefulness in you as there was in my mother. And what, as a child I must have, inchoately, begun to think of as true and eternal simply wasn’t. What you said – about us always being together; about you and me having adventures together; taking on the world – well I thought it was possible. I thought that with your thoughts and words you could make a star dance or melt its heart; really your words were hollow – beating on a raggedy old drum. I just didn’t know it yet or I tried not to know it. And what you seemed to be was just a layer covering up resentments, wounds and imagined slights; misogyny, pornography, the self-denial of a functioning alcoholic; a repressed and angry son. Look at me: I have morphed into a cod psychologist: isn’t that just typical of bucket-baby Annie – ha ha ha? I can’t not be your sister, but if you’re Brother who May as Well be Dead, I hardly expect to look on you again -and I will survive: with my most excellent unshamed bazookas, much beloved of my husband. They’re a double D! I just had them measured up. And say I do see you, expert on pulling the wool, on subterfuge, on being the out in the cold injured one, turning up to caress a hearse or wear a mourning suit with gravitas, well I won’t see you. You don’t exist anymore in my head even while you continue to take from me and snarl at me. I wish you only happiness, no harm. So Brother who Might as Well have been Dead, Mummy/Santa Maria and Daddy Daddy, I’m through, oh I’m through.”
Last year, I published a list of what I had read during the year. I thought that, this year, I’d get it down in two instalments. As before, I should love to know what others are reading. So do comment or talk to me! I don’t have time to review all these, but when I am done with the current fit of writing, I will try to post a few reviews, with a focus, I hope, on the independent presses. Also, I will update this list as I’ll likely forget something!
I read as much as I can and I read quickly. In snatched hours, in the bath, on the train, little bits of time carved out. But mainly, I go to bed earlier than I would naturally do purely so that I can read. I want to be frank about this. It’s how, as a child and growing up, I coped with anxiety and trauma. I went to bed and built a world. I do believe that with books, you can rebuild your mind and, to this day, it’s what I do.
Because every day is a conscious attempt to stay well and to manage, as best I can, my mental health: it has broken several times. Okay, many times. But I am back. Then there’s the pleasure of it all and the way my imagination is hotly stimulated. The way that reading, for me, leads on to discussion and friendship. As, I’ve discovered, does writing. Why did I ever think otherwise? And by the way, if you are feeling low or really, properly battling, I am not an expert, but I can tell you which books have soothed me, including the very few non-fiction texts I have read about mental health – though I have to preface that with, proceed with caution because, as I said, I’m no expert, but I CAN share. x
In no particular order, my reading over the past six months…
Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Finally got round to it. Also, the second book of his Bleak House (a re-read). I also re-read A Christmas Carol because I was teaching it for GCSE. To support my older children I read Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner and Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree. Now, this I found this an excellent read and was delighted to find a friend had been reading it, too. Cue – memorable and moving discussion en route to the hustings in Swindon, two days before the general election. WHICH REMINDS ME: the same person has left Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (still haven’t read) and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Summer reads, then.
At top speed, for GCSE teaching I re-read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Woman in Black. Which led on to my re-reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in one bit, sitting on the floor, because it was next to The Woman in Black on my sitting room bookshelf. I discovered, through the new OCR English Language and Literature spec, the first poetry collection from Jacob Sam La Rose Breaking Silence (Bloodaxe), which led to some wonderful things. Some of his poems prompted me to revisit one of my favourite modern poets, Tony Harrison. There will have been assorted other reading in here too – going over GCSE (and IGCSE) literature and poetry anthologies and the like; reading for A levels in English Literature and English Language and Literature and the EPQ…but it was Jacob Sam La Rose who was my new discovery.
Edith Sitwell: Fanfare for Elizabeth
Ben Myers: The Gallows Pole and Beastings. Shout out for the independent presses – here, Bluemoose. These are wonderful books. Enormously atmospheric. He’s brilliant, I think, on landscape.
On the subject of indies, from And Other Stories (we have a couple of subscriptions at Bookworm Towers), I am currently reading The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar), which is stunning, and Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End, a series of sharp and funny stories which make me very jealous too: never have I managed to craft one as she does! I’ve just ordered Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye – that’s an Influx Press title. Oh, there are so many indpendent presses – but my favourites – that is, of the ones I’ve explored – The Linen Press, Patrician Press, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories, Influx, Comma Press and Bluemoose. I read from all over, but get some of my greatest pleasure from texts published by risk-taking independent presses. That’s not to say risks aren’t taken by bigger concerns. Why not read both?
Dipped into a favourite book on writing (and close reading), Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. This precipitated both editing and reading (I hope she knows how useful she is!) – in this case, going back to Chekhov’s short stories.
I am about to read Jess Butterworth’s Running on the Roof of the World, Jo Barnard’s Hush Little Baby and Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of my Youth. I love Chauduri’s books. Such restraint, so moving and unmistakeably his. I thought his last book, Odysseus Abroad gently broke a few rules (the rules you read about…) including ‘show don’t tell’ (bit bored with this): oh, he tells beautifully, and I felt the book was wonderfully episodic and that some of these epiosdes would have stood as short stories. More on which when I’ve got round to reading the latest one. Jo Barnard is a lovely lady. Very encouraging to others (including me) and a lean, spare writer at the literary end (what do I know? So kill me now if I have this market appraisal wrong!) of commercial fiction and cool in a hot and crowded market. That is a considerable achievement, in my view. I’d recommend her debut, Precocious. Unsettling and very well judged in tone. Jess is an old friend and I am very excited for her and cannot wait to see what she does in this, her debut, a MG set in India and Tibet, subjects close to her heart, as they are to mine.
For book groups I re-read A Tale of Two Cities, read PD James’s Innocent Blood – do you know, I had never read a P.D. James book – and Gilly McMillian’s What She Knew (which, by the way, is the same book as Burnt Paper Sky – hence the odd furious review by folks who bought the same book twice). Regarding the latter, generally speaking, I seem to fail with psychological thrillers. I read the Amazon reviews and those on Goodreads and generally feel like I haven’t read the same book, in that the ‘twists’ seem obvious to me – you know like in Of Mice and Men, when the foreshadowing smacks you round the face so hard – girl with the red dress/mouse/puppy/Candy’s old mutt/Curley’s wife…Lennie gets shot? Never saw that coming! It’s that kind of experience – and I don’t find them nail biting at all. I’ve been told that this sounds sneering, but it’s only my opinion and a statement of what works for me. Apologies if I’ve denigrated Of Mice and Men (quite like Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath, though…) but to me Steinbeck is a pygmy compared with giants like…Faulkner and Wolfe. Oh yes: I have an idea. Why not read – although you won’t sleep afterwards – Ali Land’s striking debut novel, Good Me Bad Me before or after Innocent Blood? Some of the same themes rise up. Criminality. The choices that children and young people make in extremis. (Ali was previously a children’s psychiatric nurse and that gave the book a certain heft for me.) What it might mean…not to feel, or to feel unusual things. I don’t want to give more away. Yes. Do that for a book group.
But back to Southern US literature and…
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which I will re-read in a little while (I want to write something about her), well, that is brilliant. Is all this meandering discussion awful, do you think?
Which brings to me to…
Of Time and the River and (currently reading) The Web and the Rock. Thomas Wolfe. In my view, a genius and we lost him so young.
Patrician Press launched its Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers and we had a lovely event at the Essex Book Festival; I read everything in it and that led me on to (two indies here) Refugee Tales from Comma Press.
Now, for my own current book, Saving Lucia (or even Passerines – depending on who nabs it…), I’ve been re-reading Joyce, so I’ve had Finnegans Wake and Ulysses to hand. Also lesser known Joyce works – Pomes Penyeach. I’ve been reading up on Joyce, Beckett, Mussolini, the history of psychiatric care (I listed some of this stuff in last year’s post and also it’s in my bibliography at the end of Saving Lucia – one for the future, if you be interested); I read Annabel Abbs’s The Joyce Girl and continued to dip into Frances Stonnor Saunders’s exemplary account of Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini and Carol Loeb Shloss’s Lucia Joyce. To Dance in the Wake. I’ve been reading articles in The Lancet, articles on Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann and accounts of Bertha Pappenheim (there’s a need for a bigger study and, I would say, what exists needs to be translated from the German because she is fascinating!); I also looked (in German) at Bertha’s book of prayers – Gebete and found an English translation of her short stories, The Junk Shop and Other Stories and finally read Florence Nightingale’s posthumously published Cassandra – which Virginia Woolf said was more like screaming than writing. I concur. Also, religious texts, archive work (letters and documents) and miscellaneous articles.
And I think we are there!
Two other things on reading and writing. How good it was to see the Authors for Grenfell auction raise so much and I was pleased to be a tiny part of it. I’ve a tea party coming up – and also a tour of Pembrokeshire, visiting all the settings in my second book, The Life of Almost, which comes out in autumn, 2018 with Patrician Press. Also, in September, for the first time, I have a work experience student and I am so excited. I am still a newbie fiction writer (I put pen to paper in mid July 2014, although I’d been a freelance author before and writing is not my day job) and this kind of thing makes it feel…real. We are going to get a writing project off the ground; she’s going to submit work for publication. She may also help me with editing of and suggestions on two anthologies of which I am co-editor and editor, respectively. Said student (she’s in the upper sixth) is reading the manuscript of my third book – which led to her mum reading it too…which led into a date to discuss it. and, I hope, a super-clever new beta reader. Yay.
I’m sorted on my reading for the next few weeks, the manuscript of Saving Lucia goes out again on the 20th of July – and in the meantime I wait to hear if others are biting…it is a long process and probably a good education for me, seeing as I rush at everything like it’s my last day. (In my defence, it could be: I’ve had a lot of people die on me, some of them very suddenly: another story – some of which is in my first book Killing Hapless Ally, if you are not freaked out by very dark humour. If you are, don’t read the bits of The Life of Almost concerning a love story in a funeral parlour…)
Other booky things: my two Grenfell offers to fulfil in summer and autumn and archive work in St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital, Northampton.
And reading Horrible Histories in bed when stressed or sad. Oh forgot: I had norovirus so badly I was hospitalised. During that period I read Gren Jenner’s (he’s part of the Horrible Histories telly team) A Million Years in a Day. A jolly diverting read.
Quibbles and possible spelling errors spotted in some of the books, above (English teacher forevaaa):
prophesise (prophesy) as verb
disinterested (to mean uninterested) – feel free to argue
past (for passed)
Thursday’s…Friday’s…for simple plurals, not possession
it’s when you mean its (ugh!)
me/I/myself I won’t blather on about that because I sound like a twat. BUT in a top selling book for which I’ve shelled out, say, £12, it niggles to see a chapter starting (names changed) “Me and Andrew left France…”
I have been spelling fuchsia wrong my whole life. And cardamom. So I’m a fine one to talk. In my Killing Hapless Ally, Myfanwy twice appeared without the first y. My fault. And I swear as if my life depended on it.
I know there are a lot of people out there writing books and a lot of people submitting said books at the moment. I know or have met people who now have stunning commercial success, writers who are agented but yet to have their first book sold, those who work with the small presses and who are not agented, those who are what we might call a hybrid (I am thinking this is likely to be me) – by which I mean agented but also finding publication routes on their own, perhaps with a small press, those who are disconsolate because everything is a flat rejection or they have received no answer at all and those – including recent MA in Creative Writing students – who are, for various reasons, too scared to submit at all. That’s just for starters.
It might come quickly; it could take years. I do think the key thing is not to take rejection personally (while accepting that, maybe, you need to write a different book if nobody at all is biting); also, if you are floored by rejection and delay and disappointment, then this might not be for you. And that, OF COURSE, is fine. Because there is a life beyond writing.
Here’s where I am. I started writing a book, Killing Hapless Ally, a novel, which originally began life as a memoir, in July of 2014; by the 1st of May, 2015 it had a publisher and it was published in March 2016 by the small press, Patrician. I only sent this manuscript to five agents; two rejected it, three didn’t reply at all. I read an article about the press in ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I liked the sound of it, corresponded with its charismatic founder and there we go. I was, I should add, realistic about how visible the book would be, but I have relished the experience and, ever since, the bonds I have made with its readers. Is it a bestseller? Good God no, but it has been important to its readers and the engagement I have had with them has been life changing. With Patrician, to whom I now feel rather bonded, I also published a poem in Anthology of Refugees and Peacemakers (just back from an event at Essex Book Festival on that) and will be co-editor of next year’s anthology, My Europe and editor of its Tempest, which is a book, by various authors, on (Trump) America. And my poetry has been published by the brilliant indie Emma Press, too.
Way leads on to way.
Meanwhile, I spread my wings and wrote another book, a novella, The Life of Almost. I began sending this out before Christmas 2016. I’m a quick worker, apparently. Two agent rejections (one the day I sent it!), three small press rejections (but read on for that and for more on agents), waiting on two further presses and an agent so still out on submissions. BUT during this process, another agent had read a section from Killing Hapless Ally and admired my writing; said agent asked me to send what I was currently working on (as in, The Life of Almost) in partial then in full; told me they thought I was a brilliant writer but that this book was not, though they admired much about it, for them. To their taste, for example, it needed more pace. But I had also told them about my plans for the next book (I actually have four more books sketched out: is that crazy sounding?) and the agent asked me to send them the full manuscript for that as soon as it was ready because they absolutely loved its concept. This was my third text, Passerines.
Meanwhile, one of the other agents told me (having read three chapters of Almost) about how they loved my writing style. That there was much to like; it was innovative and compelling but in the end the book was not right for them. Keep sending! And of the three small presses who rejected me, one said that though they would not be taking this one, they were confident it would be placed and would I send them future work? The other told me there was some lovely writing and they were impressed, but that this text was simply too innovative for them and, on that basis, they would simply not be able to shift enough copies to make it financially viable. I do know that the small presses – whom I adore and champion, by the way – are often those who DO champion the innovative book, but clearly that is not always the case.
So you see, there’s a lot of encouragement in that pile, just as there is a lot of rejection. The rejection is part of the experience and of the learning.
I have almost finished my third novel. So that’s three books – from the first word, I mean – in three years and this is not my day job. I run a a company, teach, have three young boys and I’m a volunteer and mental health advocate, too. I don’t have a great deal of time so I’ve got to want to do this.
Do you? Take your time and don’t give up.
I may not have hit a super stellar advance just yet and obviously I may never, but I am playing a long game. May those who find later books go back and read my first, for example. We are three years in and I have met so many fascinating people, read hundreds of books – I read a great deal anyway, but I am so much more alive to different presses and sources of reading; it has been such an adventure. I’ve made a film about mental health, presented at a literary festival, had a packed book launch at a wonderful bookshop, spoken to, had dinner with, corresponded with, interviewed and had my work read by – it is happening now – writers whom I admire. I’ve also published poetry and articles and guest blogged. To boot, I think I am a better teacher because I am a better reader and writer and what is more I am able to share my work with students. Right now, I am commissioning those in years 10-13 to write for the two anthologies I have mentioned and, through my company, I felt inspired to set up a year-long bursary so that I could help someone who had had – this is the icing on the cake for me – long term mental health problems (as I have had myself) to evolve and complete a creative writing project.
So that’s where I am now. In the peculiar position of having one book out on subs and another being waited for and…without giving too much away…being discussed. At the weekend I had an offer of publication for my second book, but I am taking my time.
And now I have to make the tea because the kids keep coming in and rooting through the cupboards. Not having the time forces me to write when and as I can and I mull at other times, which I also regard as working. If you wait for your perfect writing environment or space or time, it may never happen. So why not write something tonight and get started – even if it’s just a paragraph?
Do tell me about your experience and about how you are getting on.
Killing Hapless Ally: Patrician Press (2016)
The Life of Almost (TBA!) and Passerines (ditto)
‘We are all from an island or a foreign sun and every one of us uncertain; alone—
the human condition isolates us; our experience, our very world
blunted by language of a raggedy drum, our faith sharp and clear
or not so, as we cry out our unbelief, our refugee song,
Today, a beautiful and timely book will be published: Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers from Patrician Press. Donations from any profits go to http://www.helprefugees.org and I am proud and delighted to be in it. The publisher has given me permission to include my offering, below.
I feel so passionately about the texts in the book – particularly because of the events of the last few days with the Trump administration pursuing (chaotically, I might add) its aggressive path and watching the egregious sight of our own Prime Minister appeasing Trump.
What unites us is strong; what separates – or rather what we choose to allow to separate us – can embitter us and will degrade us – if that is the path we choose. Get on twitter: look at the protests, marches and campaigns going on; see what you can do. You may have seen the crowds at Dulles, JFK; watched the people turn out in Boston. Maybe you are going to be outside Downing Street tonight or at the Bristol event. Our family is Welsh-American; we are doing what we can, both sides of the Atlantic: it makes me cry to see how heartbroken my American mother in law is by what she sees. And yet: out we go here and out I know she will go, too. Don’t lose hope and let’s keep the momentum going.
Who is ‘Emigre’ below? Is he or she a refugee? Well, yes. But he or she is also you. You, Trump, May, Bannon…
I was far from home. I stood on the grey street corner.
I was far from home and stood at the mouth of the sea, ivory curls around my feet.
I was far from home. I stood outside the stores and restaurants at night;
sat in the hotel room, the train compartment, the gimcrack coffee shop;
watched the dark frontiers fade out as the yellow jack of the gas station made midday;
I traced the sad cars on the motorway and my eyes hurt from the strip light.
Memory seared and I drank sour coffee and ate a chocolate bar.
I was far from home; an outsider—tossed up as motes from some former life,
composed of Eros, intellect, memory and uncertain dust.
But I was you and I was me. Everyman; foreigner; flâneur; such longueur: étranger—
And did you care? Did you stare? But did you know?
We are all from an island or a foreign sun and every one of us uncertain; alone—
the human condition isolates us; our experience, our very world
blunted by language of a raggedy drum, our faith sharp and clear
or not so, as we cry out our unbelief, our refugee song,
but together. We beat our palms against the past, each a piece of the continent,
a part of the main: our love tremulous in our hands, like water that shall spill.
The book is a collection of poems and short stories from a wide range of writers. Robert McCrum described it as ‘A gripping, rare and brave collection of new work written in extremis, the classic source of truly original poetry and prose through the ages.’ It has a deeply moving afterword by the jazz musician, Ian Shaw, who volunteered for a year at the Jungle in Calais and two fine epigraphs; one by the poet George Szirtes, on seeing refugees camped in Keleti railway station in Budapest, and the other by The Bishop of Barking, on seeing the refugee children trapped in the Calais Jungle camp. (There is more on the plight of the children at this camp in Ian Shaw’s afterword; I struggled to read this but insisted I did: conscience dictates that we know.)
Do please comment and share. x
(So, you can order it here at Amazon, https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0993494560/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_api_2xRByb1ZJV3FV or go here, to the press site http://patricianpress.com/ or to bookshops where it is on sale; if it is not, you can, of course, order it from them, its ISBN is 978-099349-456-7.) The book is available in both paperback and kindle versions.
(Contains a swear word. There might be more than one.) This is something I wrote for a food something a while ago. I had rather forgotten about it. But I am taking a little time to clear up old pieces as I wait on my second novel (novella, really) and finish my third.
Elizabeth David. My favourite food writer ever. That’s her in the picture and here is something for her. If you have read my first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, you will have met some pretty scary food at Paternal Grandmother’s House at The Hill. Tripe, slapping and boiling; pickles in a dark store cupboard that frightened me with its eyeball pickled eggs. This was a house of morbid fascinations; of desolate proportions: they talked about terrible deaths over tea, I felt I knew so much more that I should about ways to die, horribly and publicly; on the wall there was a picture of Jesus and underneath that one of kittens: in the damp hallway outside, a terrifying dead great aunt with nasty rat teeth glared from a picture on the wall. But ah yes: the food. It was hearty, but I have not revisited it. Not quite. I feel compelled to gussy up its ingredients so it isn’t so redolent of…well, of horrible deaths. In came Elizabeth David with a blast of sunshine and a tray of tomatoes and sweet peppers. Obviously, this story and partial account of my formative years is not just about the food and not purely literal.
My grandfather taught all his cats – who were called mostly after Old Testament folk – to wipe their feet on the way in. It is true. I have no idea why he did this. My grandmother seemed to loathe everyone beyond The Hill (oh whoops – the book says it’s a work of fiction; well, some of it is, then…) and was good with a gun and at arm wrestling. She had big knuckles and terrifying elbows. I imagined that she killed people she didn’t like. She was full of curses and liked to frighten small kids by telling them that Jesus was looking at them with his beady eye. And not just from the wall.
The days, I will eat tripe, but only in a hot spiced Chinese dish, or with chorizo as a friend from Buenos Aires showed me how to do. Or in ‘E.D.’s’ recipe, below. it is actually rather lovely.
Anyway, my paternal grandmother was the inspiration for this story. Tripe, yes: but a fresh start. New day; new life; new love; new recipe.
They were as strange as all fuck, weren’t they – at The Hill?
A TALE OF TRIPE
Waking in the violet early morning, bathed in sweat and troubled by a night both eerie and vivid, Catherine searched her thoughts: ‘What must I have been dreaming about?’
It didn’t take long, of course: it was the tripe – that and the matriarchs who washed it, handled it with such vigour and presented it with an expectant, nasty gleam in their eyes. Such sweet, creative fiends: mother and grandmother. In Mother’s case, just dressing the tripe would have exhausted her for the day; sent her desperate to the fainting couch. In grandmother’s case, such dressing was simply a prompt to her killing another cow with the large-knuckled hands that terrified the grandchild so much.
Catherine winced: ‘Grandmother and her man hands; downy arms – all wicked with a rolling pin and guarding the old stove with a vicious possessiveness’, thus,
‘Let no man come near my domain: I will slaughter them – smother them under the blanket of the beautiful tripe.’
That was it. That was the most disquieting image in the nightmare: Grandmother like Moloch waiting for a sacrifice over the fire; Mother’s eyes dancing approval.
‘Yes yes yes! Feed it to her! Now, now, now!’
‘I’m so ashamed. I want a normal family and not to feel like this – waking, tripe-terrified.’
Mother and Grandmother were dead, but they found that no excuse. So they visited Catherine regularly, sleeves rolled up, ready to cook.
To rid herself of the present dreamscape, there was nothing for it: go downstairs and find a better image. Tea in a favourite mug was a good start, but Catherine found that her thoughts were leaping from vivid hue – the reddest of pickled cabbage – to dull, cloudy jars in which might have been preserved the innards of an unwanted relative. In grandmother’s pantry there was a hecatomb of conserves; the fruits of the season, incongruously presented in a chamber of horrors. There were pots of umber sludge, eyeball pickled eggs in heavily sedimented jars: damp flagstones underfoot; a smell of sour, crawling mould. There were aprons hanging up, the prettiness of their floral decoration gone to hell in this place of condiments, good housekeeping and no hope. This was a room revisited on other troubled nights for Catherine; she could not let its scents and shapes leave her head and the argot of this poky grey room whispered, ‘Grandmother knows – just as we all know – and she and Mother will come for you.’
Here was a place of extinction – of annihilation, the meaning of such things terrifying in a dream but still only faintly, inchoately understood.
‘This must be the worst combination: to know that someone is coming for you, but not to understand why, when or how. Or really what that has to do with pickles. Or tripe!’
Ah: the tripe – huge winding sheets of it. It smelled like death. When Catherine’s nights were not punctuated by morbid pickles, siren-calling her to embrace their victim in death, she had nightmares of being cosseted in its velvet crushing embrace. The silky surface was puckered and hollowed. Somewhere else and in some other time, it might have been pretty; like a creamy-white mosaic you would want to touch. But in the nights, and when grandmother or mother served it up as punishment so triumphantly, the tripe blinked at her and writhed in its nasty pool of white sauce, encircled by effulgent lumps of onion. On its surface – its face or was it its back? – were sucker pads like those on the arms of an octopus or some kind of strange sea plant that would caress and then swallow you whole, whispering of a lifetime of sin to you – just to compound the unpleasantness of this particular way to go.
Matriarchs hovering, the tripe came billowing clouds of vapour; it was cooked in a milky broth, all one at first, before you realised the unpleasantness of the discrete parts and sucky stomach-feet turned your (own) stomach. Between the two women, the silent challenge between mother and grandmother, it was a point of honour to make sure that the flour was never properly cooked off; thus, it lurked congealed in tiny mounds – but you didn’t see it in the unmapped viscosity of the sauce. Didn’t see the horrid little tumescence until you began to ingest it. Powder scattered in your mouth when the lump dissected. In a way, this was the worst horror:
‘And the dust in my mouth as I sat between Scylla and Charibdys. Oh, a fine supper.’
Catherine had always blamed herself for the meals – for why they fed her so. For the spiteful sheets of tripe, served up like victory in chintz.
‘My childhood looked so tidy from the outside; mother and grandmother were pillars of the community: first for cake in the village show; outstanding for a lemon curd; doyennes of the church flower rota. They prayed hard at the altar, shark eyes squeezed shut. I always thought it was me – it had to be me.’
‘Send her out to the pantry, in the semi darkness. Those eggs will frighten her a treat – make her more obedient. The mould on her hands! Ha!’
‘Mother – that’s the way to do it.’
‘But say these homes must have been full of spite, hurt and venom to make mother and grandmother cook like that? Say it was THEM and I didn’t deserve the tripe? Say it was wrong to shut me in there when I gagged on the tripe and onions and spat out the floury lumps without meaning to and they put me in the pantry like Jane Eyre in the Red Room?’
Catherine was not usually so bold: what was happening now that was different?
Something was coming from the bookshelf.
A small, dry but nonetheless beguiling voice: ‘Come here and open me up, Catherine.’
Now, Catherine was used to having a litter of imaginary friends. When your strange landlocked, emptied-out family surrounds you; when your nearest and dearest seem to close in on you with, “Bad, bad, bad – everyone knows about you” then don’t you need to tell someone? You can’t tell real people because no-one else seems to have a family as peculiar as yours.
‘And how would I ever explain cooking as a way of throttling or suffocating an unwanted child?’
In the bad dreams, Catherine tended to see her relatives, mother and grandmother predominant, amassed, like the preserves, in a hecatomb. They tumbled out curses at her at home; aligned in neat rows and pretty as pie when out in the cold world which welcomed their jam making, their manners and determined smiles. Who would believe Catherine about Mother and Grandmother? And how would she explain the chamber of soused horrors or the tripe? But here came a friend now; you might know her. To Catherine, she was ED; to the outside world, Elizabeth David.
ED wasn’t the warmest sort, but her books smelled of spice and sunshine; of lemons and emerald parsley. Catherine took French Provincial Cooking from her shelf; it was from this that ED had been speaking to her. Catherine adored ED and all her books; could tell you about the “pale rose pinks of the langoustines” which their author enjoyed, with a fresh and sparkling appetite, alongside a bottle of Muscadet by the Seine. ED relished good butter, radishes with their leaves left on as God had made them; saw the poetry and potency of a flat plate of Arles sausage and black olives.
‘And the colour, ED: look at the colour of the things you ate and knew how to make! See the lovely creams and greys of shrimp; sunset-glow carrots. For you, even the dark things – the winkles and the cork stuck with pins; things that were muted or pebbly – those things became beautiful. Beautiful – flanking the colour; like a gentle relief. I want to eat like that and I’d like to live like that. Embracing the darkness, yet knowing of its loving, numinous companion.’
ED, not one for a hug, and not particularly fond of metaphor, said, ‘Well, do you have a sharp knife, a hot grill and a will of your own? I’m assuming you have a mandoline, some good bowls – and I will not share my kitchen with a garlic press: I must be firm about that.’
‘Of course not; I know your feelings on garlic presses. I’m not sure I have a mandoline, I do have plenty of bowls, but some of them are chipped.’ Catherine began to cry.
ED prodded her firmly in the back, coughed demonstratively and said, ‘Chipped is fine, as long as we have at least a few white-lined brown dishes.’
‘Why do we need these dishes – why must they be as you describe?’
Silence. A sigh. Then:
‘Fresh contrast. Now, it’s time you stopped thinking about tripe. We are going shopping.’
‘ED: I am dog tired.’
‘That is no excuse. Not when we are going to compose hors-d’oeuvres.’
Hurrying to dress, Catherine sighed disappointedly at the drawn face and sad clothes; shuddered at the lingering dreams. Still, ED at least knew about the tripe, so they wouldn’t be cooking that. They would grace a table with red tomatoes, yellow mayonnaise, sea salt and olive oil; a beautiful salad of grated carrot. And could it be celeriac that ED meant for the mandoline – all cut into the thinnest strips and highly seasoned with mustard, plenty of vinegar and a voluptuous thick mayonnaise?
Out they went, Catherine chatting silently to ED and now lighter of foot on their way to the wonderful market. But two shadowy figures watched her, curses dribbling from their lips with the last lappings of morning tea and vulgar gulps of toast with ochre marmalade. And inside Catherine’s house, gently, timorously now, was a faint smell of the sea, a distant grating of nutmeg and a fresh twist of black pepper.
‘Sacrilege. I smell no wash day smell! I hear no slap of tripe against the pot!’ cursed grey Grandmother and Mother.
Afloat, through thought, in Catherine’s house now was the peaceful aroma of potage bonne femme: of cream, chervil, softly cooked potatoes and leeks, bathed in sweet butter. The shadowy figures cursed more, spitting unkind crumbs.
‘Pain grillé aux anchois? Salade au chapon? Get the little bitch. Boil up the tripe, Mother. And bring out the ammunition from the pantry.’
Catherine and ED, silently communing over their purchases, bought a mandoline and the requisite dishes, great bunches of green things for the salade de saison, dimpled lemons, celery, celeriac, lumpy tomatoes – things that promised succour. And life.
But on returning to the house, dull wafts of tripe waited for her, as the shadowy figures took their joyful and vindictive hold of the kitchen. Garish red cabbage with a sweet, cloying smell sat with the cruel eggs on the worktop. Amuse-bouches of the sort you serve if you hate your guests; starters gussied up a little with hard bread, sea-foam milky tea and a cucumber cut into behemoth chunks. And the boiling tripe hissed milky sap.
‘No matter’ said ED, walking briskly right through the shadowy figures, rolling up her sleeves and assembling a work station next to the eyeball eggs.
The eggs leered as ED tasked Catherine with slicing the celeriac on the mandoline, concocting a highly seasoned dressing for its matchstick strips; Arles sausage was laid out on a large flat white plate, its fat coin slices overlapping; in the centre, a carefully built mound of black olives. Both glistened and invited. The tripe spat on, onions twisting and squirming round it, as ED and Catherine cut tomatoes and sprinkled them with gently snipped chervil – the dressing to be added “absolutely” said ED “only when the diner wants to eat.” Catherine could feel on her pulse the metallic, penny-tasting lure of a proper, fine misshapen tomato. They grated carrots almost, “Almost I said!” to a purée, seasoning them carefully; made a wobbling heap of mayonnaise with fresh eggs and olive oil from the first pressing. There was bread with a shiny, crackling crust, butter and some best quality anchovies.
‘It is no shame to leave them in their tins if they are high class brands’, barked ED. Catherine hurried to place back those she had already decanted.
The table of hors d’oeuvres, for a twelve o’ clock lunch, was almost set. Almost. ED revealed a surprise. Out from a white plastic bag, secreted in the depths of ED’s basket, came a single slithering sheet of tripe. ‘For you.’
Tears pricked Catherine’s eyes. ‘No, not you too – please not you Elizabeth. Don’t make me cook it!’
From the room and the world all around came the laughter; the delighted grey shapes of mother and grandmother.
‘Boil up the tripe, there’s a good girl! Choke choke choke on the nuggets of flour!’
So ED was one with them, then.
‘It had to be me, didn’t it? I deserved what I got: a lock up in the pantry; a stifling sheet of tripe and the unlovely curlicues of onions; gallons of white sauce and curses.’
The spectres grinned; the jarred eggs hummed, if ever a jarred egg could.
‘Now do be quiet. Our lunch à deux first, then I shall teach you something new. You will have to boil the tripe briefly, but then you will grill it to a sizzling crispness, with a coating of egg and breadcrumbs and serve it with a sauce tartare. A revelation, I think, It is called tablier de sapeur – or fireman’s apron.’
Lunch. The fierce, seductive rasp of the anchovy, crunch of good bread and the delicacy of finely cut celeriac, There were draughts of wine; ED passed knife and salad servers through the spectres of matriarchs: it was a celebration. Then lost sleep came and took her pupil. On waking, ED had gone, but Catherine obligingly boiled the slice of tripe, cutting it with a certain passion into a neater rectangle. She basted it with egg, coated it with crumbs and grilled it until it was golden and the edges had caught on the flame. She ate the robust little apron with the sauce tartare that ED must have made for her, left with an uncommonly sweet note nearby:
‘See off the spectres; try something new – tablier de sapeur: adieu; adieu.’
Hmmm. She almost liked the fireman’s apron.
‘It’s not my favourite thing, but then neither is it the stuff of nightmares, thrust back to the sound of laughter into the dark pantry. Ha! “Grill to a sizzling crispness” ED had said. A dynamic phrase; a confident one.’
Catherine threw wide the curtains, welcomed in the vestiges of the day and scattered the grey tripe boilers and pickle hoarders into pieces.
‘Try something new. Mother; Grandmother. Keep being dead now. Adieu; adieu!’
That night, Catherine dreamed only of the next chapters in her life: ‘Soups and Eggs, cheese dishes and hot hors-d’oeuvre.’