A Christmas that’s blue?My bravehearts, you have YOU.

I wonder if you’re looking forward to Christmas? I am, now – but this process has taken a long time. In brief, I lost my mother just before Christmas and my dad eighteen months before that; in the five years prior to that, I had also lost all the relatives who were most significant to me then and the beloved godmother who loved me in a way – I truly believe – which my mother never did. I loved my mother dearly, my father, too, but if you’ve read my first book, you will see that a lot of very dark and complex things went on and were either not known about or were not…seen…by my extended family. I’ve the scars from all that and there will always be scenarios when I feel tender about might have beens, as loss bubbles up. And Christmas has a habit of swatting you back to your earliest pathology. Do you find that, too? I don’t fancy being frightened kid any more.

Now, in my dad’s family, there was conflict and dissension; there was untreated and severe mental illness which I had some measure of as a child and which terrified me; there were suicides and what I now know to be eating disorders which killed at least one of them. I do not see any of my remaining relatives now – and my father had six siblings so I know I must have cousins living not far away; it is a strange and unreal situation. I do not think about it so much until another relative or well-meaning friend brings it up, usually some time around Christmas. I shiver.

‘You ought to try and get in touch with your father’s family.’

But you see, when I think of it all, of my father’s family, I feel so sad. I can salvage a memory of the most beautiful tree you ever saw at Christmas; it was in my grandparents’ house and it had tiny musical instruments you could actually play; I can bring to mind a pretty little brass saxophone now. But all this is gone. Why? Because when I buried my mother, some of my father’s clan came and, as I turned from the grave, two younger aunts and a cousin tapped on the arm before leaving abruptly. They said, ‘We will not be seeing you again.’ So there’s me, barely an adult, having just lost both parents and there we are. No, I never saw them again because all communication stopped. I know that people say blood’s thicker than water, but I disagree. Blood is thick, alright – but sometimes family links are meaningless.

There, I said it.

If a group of people makes it clear that you have no place in their life and that they do not and never loved you, why would you pursue them? Yes, this hurts; it hurts particularly at Christmas, but this is really where your self care and command of yourself need to kick in. Build more family. You may have a partner, children (I am married, have three boys and help to take care of others’ children); you may not. You are not in any way lesser because you do not. I’m not having that, oh no no no. If you possibly can, try to think that family is a flexible construct. You can build it of your friends. Once you truly accept that, there’s a feeling of liberation.

If you feel lonely, unloved, come and see me. Because I know, I just know, I am going to love you. And I’ve got the pies and mulled wine. And sugared almonds.

christmas2

I mentioned before about my parents. Well, there were many good things and I don’t want to be ungrateful for those. I loved my mother, in particular, with a passion. But my experience, broadly, was of one brutal and sneering parent (my mum) and of another (my dad) who failed to protect me from her. It was made clear, again and again, that I was an unwanted child. That I was the bringer of harm. I was weird kid and eldritch child and any manner of things. I remember wonderful routines and beautiful decorations at Christmas; I also remember being frightened and lonely. I have had years of managing mental health problems, from the OCD that ruled much of my activity in childhood and early teens, to depression, generalised anxiety, the nightmares which are the bringer of insomnia (I always have the same nightmares, more or less) and the dissociative episodes which are managed but not cured. Were I to hunt for a root for all that, I should test my pulse and say…yes: there it is in the ghost of Christmas past when I was given a present unsmilingly and told I did not deserve it. And it was such a beautiful present. It might have been lying beside me as I was kicked in my side or had my hair pulled. As part of all this was a much older sibling who, to me, was angel and devil. He disappeared from my life altogether and then re-emerged. My mother, like my dad, came from a big family but, with a couple of exceptions, when he re-emerged with a new wife, they killed the fatted calf. Because there should not and cannot be – I don’t want to overload you with detail here – a link (meaningless anyway) between my sibling and my young family, recent extended family events at Christmas have involved him and her and not me, not the kids everyone should, I would say, be focused on or more protective of. The loyalty and the love that I hope I have shown my entire life are valued – and I cannot say that I am without family members who value me and who have been understanding and loving – but it is easier to go along with the person who may leave again and go along with it for the sake of my dead mother. So, I have had to entirely reshape my family dynamic and, this year, for the first time in years, we are spending it all at home, the five of us, the cats. the ladybird colony upstairs, the hens clucking away outside. The home I always thought I could not build or have.

pie

And I feel so lucky. We will ring my husband’s family in the US. We try. Again, my husband has made the difficult decision not to see his birth father any more. He tried to make it work from his parents’ acrimonious divorce onwards; that was when he was a kid. He can no longer do it. He is loved, our boys are loved, but then again there are fractured relationships in that family because of two difficult divorces, remarriage and where the kids settle into all that. Or haven’t in all cases. Some families manage it well; it would be fair to say that this one has not. In this particular case, we make the best of it. Because it’s what you do. You take the love and joy where you can; when you get stronger, you realise you can move away from the things that hurt. When you are a child, it is not the same at all. There’s another reason why we are at home this Christmas. My husband wants to hunker down there and for his sons to feel the solidity of that home.

Again, a voice pipes up. ‘You should make contact with your dad. It’s Christmas.’ My husband is altogether more phlegmatic than I am. He just says, ‘Nope.’

And a few more pipe up on the subject of my brother. ‘You should try and make contact with your brother. For the boys’ sake. Don’t they deserve to know him?’ I cried a full hour after that, pulling off the M4 at Cardiff Gate. The notion that I had taken something from my children. (And also, The Glamour. What did I look like, banging the steering wheel in the rage that followed as I sat there?) All well meant, but no, they deserve better and no I shouldn’t make contact. Any interest is fleeting, I am scared of him and more now of what he could say than of what he could do and it is incumbent on me to protect my kids, while I can. Families go down rabbit holes to keep the peace. But I am peaceful. What happened there, in my past, my teens and early twenties, caused me immense pain and fractured every area of my life. Why would I put my kids in a place of risk? Why would I enforce on them a contract with a person who has taken no interest in them and in their wellbeing and shows none now. And a kindly relative whom I love (but still whose opinion I must disparage – this is okay, readers) says again and again, ‘You must do what your mother would have wanted’. There I, the gaslit child, ask a question and am met with bafflement.

I say, ‘Why?’

And a well meaning friend: ‘Christmas is for families…’ ‘Yes, but…’ ‘But they wouldn’t have to be alone with him…’ Think about this. It is predicated on fantasy from an otherwise kind and intelligent person. It is nonsense.

I say, ‘But why on earth would I even entertain that?’

What I said about family being a flexible construct. The other day, my friend J Hall wrote this piece: https://jlhallwriter.com/2018/12/14/a-safe-christmas/  J confronted her parents and the results were explosive. I will leave you to read this beautiful piece. But here is an example of what happened next.

Fast forward over a decade and there are no invitations to family Christmas dinner, no more phone calls after the Queen’s speech. The festivities in my wider kin continue without me. Sometimes I wonder if I am missed, or thought of for anything other than a brief, conscience-pricked moment. My family now is my partner.

At Christmas, for those of us that have lost, we feel the heartbeat of those losses. They pulse under our skin, they surge in our veins. When we stop the busy-busy, the undead of abusive Christmases past nip at our heels. They sink in their teeth and bite. Memories appear fully formed, here to bully and ravage.

Many families have been broken, and as adults our worst Christmas is always remembered, and held a little bit closer to us than it is the rest of the year.

She’s right, isn’t she? And brave. And I said to her just the other day that she can now add me to her family, if she would consent. And she said, ‘I do.’ As I write, I’ve had devastating news about a friend. She’s a friend who calls me ‘Sis’. Through the demanding illness of both herself and her husband, her family has not stepped up. We will be there on Christmas day – as the family that was made. And her boys need me. They tell me. Water is sometimes thicker than blood! Let’s go with that image: imagine a thick water, warm, enveloping, doting, loving and providing.  Like your best bath ever! Yes, that.

Now, here’s a feature from yesterday. From the excellent Kerry Hudson, prefaced with this quotation:

‘Christmas without family might be painful, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than Christmas with them.’

https://www.the-pool.com/news-views/opinion/2018/51/christmas-no-family-friends-how-to-cope-kerry-hudson-lowborn

If you’ve been feeling fragile, may it comfort and support you; likewise, through it, I followed some threads on twitter from @MhairiMcF on how very silly it is for people to comment and pass judgement on whether or not Meghan Markle should see her father (in your face Piers Morgan). I felt for her; I’m no fan of anything royal, but I felt for her, making her way forward and expecting her first child. It is not casting aside or cruelty to decide not to see a relation – even a parent – you feel you cannot see. Because some relationships must, at some point, pass on without you. From here, I found wisdom from @ SaliHughes – commenting here on twitter that,

‘If you know better than the Meghan Markle haters, and understand from exp that estrangement from family members is complex, nuanced, difficult but sometimes very necessary, then you can apply to join my FB group. Search for NFE – Necessary Family Estrangement, in the groups tab.’

Practical and wise, that. I want to add, for anyone alone on Christmas day, because of family problems or any other reason – and I mean feeling alone, feeling lonely – then I can thoroughly recommend the hashtag #joinin on Christmas Day, as started by the comedienne Sarah Millican. Here: https://metro.co.uk/2017/12/25/sarah-millicans-joinin-campaign-help-lonely-christmas-7183846/ As Metro put it,

Whether you’re spending the day on your own, are feeling lonely, have suffered a loss or simply find the holidays hard, just click on the hashtag and chat to those feeling the same.

For the past two years, I’ve joined in. I’ve had big bubbles of cry come up – and this despite having the children here. Because I find it hard, still. A huge support and I hope others enjoyed talking to me as much as I did to them.

bauble

I think that’s enough of all this. The sky is azure here; the air is crisp. Hey you. Gird your loins, get some stollen in, dm me, whatever you need, my bravehearts. Go for a walk and listen to the winter song of the robin for a while. Take a holiday from the worries that beset you (and I mean global worries as well as about family and the dearth or paucity of it) and remember my adage: that family is a flexible construct. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

As you are and on your terms,

Love, Anna x

 

The Life of Almost. My new book’s out

Welcome to the world, The Life of Almost. Out 31st August with Patrician Press; launch this week at the wonderful Mr B’s Bookshop in Bath. If you would like to come, dm me on twitter @bookwormvaught or annavaughttuition@gmail.com! Or here: https://mrbsemporium.com/events/2018/05/anna-vaught/

The Life of Almost

So welcome to the world, my bard boy, my heart’s song. Novella, The Life of Almost, was published on Friday. News on forthcoming books follows soon; I’ve a lot happening!

The Life of Almost, by Anna Vaughtkha 

(How about you take a look at my first book, too; it’s an autobiographical. A very black comedy about mental illness.)

But back to Almost….

Published August 31st, 2018

Prices: £9.00 (print). The ISBN is 9781999703028 (print) for book ordering and library use and the kindle edition is now up on Amazon, too. If you do buy from Amazon, note that owing to demand outstripping supply – BOO AND YAY – you can still buy there from Amazon affiliated sites such as The Great British Bookshop. AND there’s any number of wonderful independent bookshops. If they don’t stock it, they can order. Here’s a lovely spot – where I’ll be having my launch this week.

https://mrbsemporium.com/shop/books/the-life-of-almost/

https://mrbsemporium.com/

This is a dark comedy set in Wales and a spectral reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Almost is a boy, brought up by his sister, Perfection. He is shrouded by bereavement and surrounded by the hauntings of his family’s undead. He plays in the sea caves, visits graves, amongst mermaids, longing mermen, morticians, houses that respire and a poltergeist moss that grabs your foot. A cast of family and friends drawn from sea caves, the embalming table, the graveyard and the dark Clandestine House, which respires heavily and in which time has stopped. And like Pip, he sings into the sea and likes to tell stories – the key theme of the book which is the story of his life, his struggles and triumphs. He is thwarted in love but understands – the night he meets a ragged convict, for the convict is a merman, come on land – that he has deep and commanding powers.

The poems are the author’s own.

“An exhilarating, exuberantly poetic book with such a wonderful cast of characters, I couldn’t bear for it to end! Like a song, a myth, a fairy tale – by a spellbinding writer.” Heidi James

“In The Life of Almost Anna Vaught has conjured a dark wonder. She writes a distinctive, thrillingly precarious prose, making and breaking its own rules as it glides between voices and stories and worlds with giddy pleasure and incalculable cunning. This short, concentrated novel certainly delights in the fantastic, but it is always rooted in the glorious thicknesses of language and landscape, the ripenesses of a blackberry hedge, the trembling density of a jellyfish.” Anthony Trevelyan

See Storgy review here: https://storgy.com/2018/07/19/book-review-the-life-of-almost-by-anna-vaught/

The first chapter of the book was published by the New Welsh Reader in May 2018. Here is the online edition: https://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=2241

The Life of Almost, although not published until 31st August 2108, was nominated and voted for in The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize in July 2108. It received a great review from baldoukie:

“Poetic, comedic, a reworking of Great Expectations set in Pembrokeshire, this is a reading delight. A smorgasbord, satisfying at all levels. The child Almost, raised by sister Perfection, lives in an underworld of the dead, with their stories from the past, and with the living. Segueing between both, an interweaving of prose and poetry is the story of his life. The Llewhellin family (my favourite is Muffled Myfanwy Llewhellin), alive and dead, with Miss Davies and her adopted daughter Seren, with mermaids Nerys and Dilys, with the convict Derian Llewhellin, and many more.”

Here is the latest review from the inimitable Jackie Law:

https://neverimitate.wordpress.com/2018/09/03/book-review-the-life-of-almost/

The Life of Almost is a short novel and the second title published by Patrician Press. The first was Killing Hapless Ally, a novel about mental health.

AND IN A WEEK’S TIME, I will also hold a stock of copies, signed and dispatched in 24 hours. Get ’em quickly. £11.50 including postage.

https://patricianpress.com/book/the-life-of-almost/

Depending on dinner

Here is something I wrote for submission to a journal, and which was not subsequently accepted. It’s about horror; in the everyday: at mealtimes, in fact. If you’ve read my first book, Killing Hapless Ally, you will have seen that I was sometimes terrified by food as a child. Because of the spirit in which it was cooked and the hands which served it. Sometimes that food was plain terrifying – as in my paternal grandmother’s pickles in the pantry. She disliked most people, had very big hands and once burned all my father’s books; parents think kids don’t notice or overhear, but they do: I was scared of the big hands and the eyeball pickled eggs because I knew those hands were book burning tools. At home, the most beautiful cakes; but the hands that made them were brutal as well as pretty.

Don’t think I’m frightened of food. I’m not. I cook a great deal and for lots of people; I might eat out. But then sometimes up comes a thought – eros, thanatos, trifle, we’ll call it. And yes, it’s scary.

Have a look at this strange little piece and tell me what you think about its content.

cherry

Depending on Dinner

‘What an awful thing life is, isn’t it? It’s like soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface. You have to eat it nonetheless.’

Gustave Flaubert

Boy-child went out for dinner with Mother; a bonding exercise. Childhoods don’t come around every day, though gluttony does and he thought of that like a disease; like something his family couldn’t help. Shovelling it in; nibbling and tasting. He remembered his parents holding mangoes up to the light, comparing the (what was it?) Dussehri mango with the Sindhri. Are they ripe, just so. Oh darling, let me cut you off a sliver.

Ugh. She fed it to him, that amber worm.

Oh. Perfect.

The boy had been repelled as he heard them snaffling and laughing like reptiles in the undergrowth for bugs. Or city foxes tearing at the bins and triumphant over a carcass.

Imperfect. Disgusting.

Now he read to her. Flaubert. Darling, listen. Large platters of cream, that trembled at the slightest jarring of the table. Oh yes, oh yes. Do you remember our wedding feast, my own Madame Bovary. He heard them making that reptile or city fox noise again, though it sounded this time as though they were on the floor.

So.

His parents were disgusting. They were good people. But they were disgusting. So were his grandparents. All gluttons, Shovelling it in. Salivating and all gross in their delight.

Now here he was, out with Mother on a gustatory bonding exercise. It was said to be a cosy little place. Novel, Thai Tapas they called it. Which meant small portions of Thai food. Novel. But  the boy was not excited to go in. He was scared, too. He’d not tried Thai food and thought tapas sounded Spanish and, he recalled now, all his experience of Spanish food was an omelette heavy with vegetables and a slice of manchego cheese that his turophile grandmother had made him try with olives. Now, the hybrid seemed mysterious, if not just a touch menacing. Menacing began to overtake mysterious and the boy quaked.

But still, brave boy, a glimmer of courage in there, too. Thank you Mother.

But what could there be to lose? Memories, now vaunting, were uncomfortable.

            At Grandmother’s house, as the affineur had swept forward bearing an old wooden board with little bits on it, he’d worried. That was because Grandmother expected him to try and he didn’t always want to; he didn’t want to disappoint her. The olives he’d liked; the cheese tasted of saddle and the hair of beasts in heat. He shuddered at this memory. Now how, he wondered, have they combined such things with Thai food? Thai food, Mother had explained, was sweet and sour and you couldn’t taste the anchovies in the fish sauce, but you did get whacked by a deep savoury flavour. And there was a smack of chillies. It was a flavour which could quickly become addictive. On, she went, as mothers do, about the aniseed taste of Thai basil and the lovely lemony smack you got too. And the boy’s anxiety began, surely and slowly, to increase. With it, a sense that he was becoming a man, or something, big and old too soon. His childhood slipping from him with smacks of rude taste.

Hot beasts in heat.

Crumbly white cheese.

Some sort of omelette.

Things lemony that whacked you and things that could be addictive

Aniseed. Wasn’t that like liquorice?

Another horrid memory. He felt ill, poor boy, but who to tell? His father had been cooking steak, waiting on his mother. He had a book open and read as he fried. The boy could smell the tang of black peppercorns and he knew the blood would be seeping soon onto the plates. Darling. Barthes on steak. Do you remember Mythologies from university? Rare steak is said to be saignant (when it calls the arterial flow from the animal’s throat. Oh yes, I remember. You read it over a steak dinner then. Steak tartare. My first time. I was a tartare virgin and you’d showed me the way. Oh. The clash of the pan had subsided. Yes my love. The germinating states of matter…a magic spell he says. The blood mash and the glair of eggs.

They were on the floor again. Thrashing. Beasts in heat.

He tried to think of bland foods. A boiled egg, Porridge and a banana. Plain toast.

Thai Tapas. The boy was trembling, but he was compelled to plod on.

Mash. Glair. Sweet. Sour. A sauce made of old fish but they’d disguised the fish because you could always taste fish and surely that was not trustworthy? It was a deception. What else was in there that added flavour, but which you couldn’t clearly identify? His other (slightly kinder) grandmother spoke sometimes about her love of offal, which disgusted him. Wobbly things; glands; greasy things. Hearts with the ends of tubes still visible; things you weed through. Stuff that boiled and fried and fugged up your kitchen with animal stench. Was it all chopped up, or milked and puréed and added to the Thai Tapas? Tripe like a wet blanket you could do nothing but die screaming in.

They tried squid.

Little prawn toasts.

Wriggling, once alive things.

I feel ill. There is something seriously wrong with me and no-one will come.

Things like ammonites. No more fossil collecting. Now that is disgusting too.

This restaurant. Very expensive for tiny things no bigger than the smallest paper bag of pocket money sweets you could imbibe for seventy pence, but costing six pounds and more, He felt he had to eat. The squid: texture of shoe. The prawn toast: where it hadn’t crackled in the frying, there was bread mush, looking like his baby sister’s fat toe skins after bath: mushy baby toes. He wanted to cry out. Boiled skin; flayed stuff. Jesus lashed. Mary crying. How? Why? And no-one will come.

Now he remembered the nightimes. Sometimes I am afraid to close my eyes at night for fear of falling. I shall fall and fall and not get up and it must be like dying or not dying and everyone thinking you had but you could not say. If I swallow, I can die. And I will fall. I’ve seen the pipes and the tubes of a human body and they are not well organised and choking could happen to anybody because nobody always knows what to do. A madness, a laughing illness could happen to you, however brave or clever or so well that you defeated a big illness. But he must not show his mother. And what if all this got back to Grandmother? She would be disappointed and trace it back to the wooden board when she had swept in, Maître Fromager, and make me tell her I did not like the manchego cheese.

He thought again of bloody steak, mango slivers, rolling parents. Laughing, oblivious, quoting.. And on and on. And when the pad thai came, again in tapas portions, he ate a mouthful and went rigid, aghast also at the thought he might expectorate six pounds eighty’s worth of noodles. Time was money and money was time, his dad said.

I need to go home.

Why? Don’t be ridiculous. Also people are looking.

I am going to choke.

You’ll be fine.

What if I die?

Of course you won’t die.

Why not? People definitely die of choking or it wouldn’t be on the telly.

Well…

So you can’t say it never happens.

Listen darling you must stop being so odd and understand that food is one of the great pleasures of life. A normal thing. What on earth has made you so uptight? You’re really not like anyone else in the family. I just don’t understand.

And he was also thinking, Take me back, I want to stay a child. Please let me. And, I hate you. You don’t see it, rolling on the floor and frying and slavering and your horrid mango slivers like a yellow corpse slip up to the light. I hate you. You don’t, you cannot understand me and you won’t try.

            More food came.

            And what is in here? In the Spanish-Thai muddle? All the things they might have mixed in or used to flavour it. Spanish omelette and heart and that nasty cheese that’s like beasts in heat and melting straw and rotting things and you said there were anchovies in it and things that tasted of lemon, but you didn’t say they were lemon. I can’t trust any of it.

And the boy ran.

Mother caught him, as mothers do. Admonishing, saying she simply could not see what the problem was. It wasn’t as though he was ill. Sighed and paid the bill, apologising to the manager. Over forty pounds for tiny things and indistinguishables and babies’ bath toes and bits of organ and weird cheese. And the memory of his grandmother looking disappointed in that way she had. He wasn’t like her friend’s grandson who would try anything and like it, too. Dear, dear. Boys today and I blame the mothers and if she had been my daughter I would have taught her how to raise a braver son.

And on and on. Crying into the storm all the journey home. Frightened to sleep for a death crevasse, all littered with manchego and nasty odoriferous hauntings, which opened beneath his feet with each falling to sleep jump. Rigid then until overcome, at four a.m. and too tired, too immutable with fright, to go to school the next day. And still scrambled egg arrived. This will make you strong. Like hell it will, viscous nasty thing made by the hands of beasts in heat.

Keep it quiet. Keep the house battened down. It’s hard to explain, this multi-layered suffering. If you took a food metaphor to deconstruct it—and you may know that planked or slated deconstructed food is all the rage just now—you could envision it like a trifle. On the bottom, there’s the sponge and that’s feeling guilty about being born and being a burden to your mother; the sherry soaked into the sponge is the shame drenched on you by (worst) grandmother because you’re not brave, not a trier, not pleasing or (alongside it) masculine enough like other grandsons. Then you’ve fruit. The fruit, first of all, depends on your poshness. Posh folk add kiwi fruit; the chavs, tinned strawberries—that’s what he’d heard them say about other people’s parents—no matter, though, the metaphor works either way: the pieces of fruit are the odds and ends of bad dreams and chunks of scorn and the lumber of certain failures, past and to come. The custard: cannot get out from the fruit: it’s viscous, like aortic blood in a bloody steak, or the gloop they drain out from the corpses before they flush; it’s death, being trapped. Ah, the cream, now what is that? It’s claustrophobia. You’re in a classroom, with the popular kids, and they’re pelting you on the back of your neck with the contents of their pencil cases and you don’t turn round. You’re told this won’t last forever, but you’re not sure because you were also reassured that choking wouldn’t happen and it did to that man on the telly and you know your mum was bullied in school and she still hates the school run with your primary age brother because of the cool girls she isn’t. So the cream. Gloop. Look, a swamp. It’s going to get you. Or is it quicksand, or the worst sort of snow or pus and infection and it’s seeping into you and you’re boy in bits but no-one knows. And there, in bed at night, or in the classroom being pelted on the back of the neck with fine-liners and protractors and somebody’s foul tooth-marked mouth-guard, that’s all there is.

Trifle kills. So do Thai Tapas. And Grandma, affineur, with her hateful tidbits. And when you fall to sleep, there’s the crevasse. And that’s what loss is. Going mad. Disease. Eventually disease will make you ill. And then there’s stuff you’re clawing at; can’t catch. Abhorrent  taste in your mouth all the while.

The boy sat sat rigid all night, for two nights: didn’t go to school. The doctor was called, but the boy wasn’t an emergency just yet. He gagged on egg and full fat carbonated and little tiny bites and even milky things that Mother was taught to get into him, somehow. And on the third day, overcome again by the tiredness, he slept and slept all day and half the night and when, at last he woke, he sipped with a straw and would never thereafter eat anything. Though he drank and gagged, but drank because he had to. No good toast, or pizza or roast or pasta things. Just fluid, with his straw, under control and bland, so no beasts on heat and that was that. And he wasn’t a child any more, though he looked like one.

His parents weren’t letting up on their own feasts.

Darling, look. Let’s make a salad. Do you remember Dido in The Aeneid? Yes, how could I forget? You were the one who read it to me, lulled me to sleep. She spoke about the lettuce and the long huge-bellied gourd. They were laughing as they crushed the foul garlic in the pestle and mortar, wrenching parsley from the ground and foul red onions. Laughing.

And on. And on. Slurp. Sip. What is wrong with him? Wrong until he was taller man-boy, then old man, being pumped and drained, too late to chew or bite; all gone. Anyway, childhood gone; all swallowed up by the fear-thing. The fear-thing you see out of the corner of your eye. That you try not to see. So you have a bun; a consoling cup of tea; a chat. And you hope it all, life—like this tale, really—is a metaphor for something greater, then discover it isn’t.

Yes, there were cups of tea, he could manage tea, but still he went toes up. Ill, mad, eyes not seeing and no-one came. He wasn’t dry for lack of fluid but his gums were violet and teeth pretty for lack of use; deep gorges around his lips for sucking life through straws.

At the wake, the glacé cherries winked from the top of the trifle, adorning the cream, custard, fruit and sherry-soaked sponge; a late addition for festivity’s sake. It wasn’t a kind wink. For cherries are little ruby fucker-devils; you could suffocate in a sponge; if the gin-poor had had more money, they’d have been expunged by sherry; custard and cream: get your foot wrong, and slurp, like a swamp and you’re under.

That poor boy.

Oh well, we tried, said his even older mother to his even older father. But he was nothing like us, was he? In the end, it was like a disease in our family, so I had to turn away, for my own preservation. Your own sweet preservation, darling. I must say—and I’m quoting Kierkegaard though obviously you’d know that—that it’s a shame how some men’s lusts are dull and sluggish, their passions sleepy. Oh I know, my love. That was him.

Now parcel up the rest of the food. You and I will have a midnight feast.