Rachel and Joe

“Dad, you forgot your pills last night. You have to try to remember to take them twice a day.” Rachel emptied three small pills from the Tuesday compartment in the dispenser and transferred them to the following Monday, the first empty box in the sequence.
“What’s the point of all that time in the hospital, and the expense, if you don’t keep up with the prescriptions?” She picked up her father’s empty whiskey tumbler, which lay on its side on the carpet beside his fireside armchair. “Did you go to bed last night?”
Joe slouched in the chair, a rug pulled over his legs. His brown wool cardigan was buttoned incorrectly so that one side pulled down and the other up. His slippers and the bottoms of his trousers were muddied, from walking in the garden without putting shoes on, and his grey hair was unkempt. He looked at Rachel through bleary eyes, whose whites were now a jaundiced yellow. He looked hung over but she knew he was being overwhelmed by the pain in his back, since he’d forgotten to take his codeine last night.
“No, love. I fell asleep by the fire. I just can’t seem to drag myself upstairs these days.” He stared into the burned out fire as Rachel tucked the blanket more tightly around his legs.
“That’s the drink, and you shouldn’t be drinking on this medication. You know that. Would you like Richard to organize a bed in the study for you?” Joe didn’t answer. He didn’t like Richard and wouldn’t accept his help.

Rachel was only thirty but had the gait and dress sense of a much older woman, something of a throwback, in her herringbone tweed skirt and pastel blue cashmere cardigan. She had bustled through the front door soon after 7am, dropping her shopping bag and handbag in the hall, and bent to pick up the post on the doormat, sifting through the circulars and personal correspondence to see if Joe had received any bills. Since he’d deteriorated, she and Richard had taken over paying his bills, after wresting control of his day-to-day banking from him.
Today, as always, she’d spent time the kitchen, cleaning the surfaces and cooking Joe’s bacon and egg, though he rarely ate anything for breakfast nowadays. Now she moved around him, wiping the dining table with a damp dishcloth and shifting chairs into alignment. Nothing had been used since yesterday, but Rachel needed to feel she was making a difference. She moved efficiently, cleaning up his dirty ashtray, opening the curtains and a window, and checking he was still coping, before she went in to work herself.
Each morning, Rachel tried to be in and out of Joe’s house in fifteen minutes. She rarely entered his bedroom, which she found hard to do, but it was a choice between paying a cleaner out of his pension, or doing it herself. She begrudged spending money on Joe, even if it was his money for now, and anyway, she knew it would be hard to retain anyone for long, given Joe’s living conditions. Really, he should be in a home or a hospital or hospice, but he was a stubborn old sod. She decided to leave the bedroom for the weekend.
“I have to take Emily to dance classes after school, so I’ll look in on my way home, about five thirty. Richard’s going to stay in tonight so I can take you to Hampstead for your reading.” Rachel stood looking in the mirror as she put on her coat and headscarf, reminding Joe of her mother.
“We’ll be leaving at six, so can you get yourself ready by the time I get here, OK?”
This had begun to create friction, as Joe might agree to prepare for an outing, only to fall asleep or become distracted, so that he was not at all ready when Rachel returned at the agreed time, and in a rush to leave.
“For God’s sake make an effort, dad, when you’re shaving. Last week at that college dinner, it was pretty embarrassing seeing you with bits of bloody toilet paper stuck to your chin.” She hated criticizing him. It seemed like bullying, now that he was so frail, and she felt it was somehow out of place, when she’d spent her whole life in fear of him. But since he’d become sick, she had effectively become the parent and he the child.
Really, Joe had it coming. He was always a bully himself, and she got precious little attention from him when she was growing up. What little time he did spend at home was given to her older sister, Emily, not her. When Emily died, Joe was just not there for Rachel or her mother. Now that he needed her and she felt nothing for him except a vague contempt, it was easy to push a little harder. She wanted to make him realize that he owed everyone, even if he was past the point when he could give any of them what he’d failed to give all his life.
Rachel’s life had swerved in Joe’s direction once he was diagnosed with myeloma. The family had assumed that she would look after him, despite her anger, and though her mother, Ellen, was in greater need of her company. Chloe, Rachel’s younger sister, was living overseas, and Joe’s second wife, Maria, didn’t involve herself. If Rachel could have shared the responsibility for Joe, or passed it on, she would have done so.
Ellen was at least independent though, and she loved her grandchildren. If it wasn’t for Ellen baby-sitting for her most weeks, it would be twice as hard for Rachel to spend so much time cleaning up after Joe. But Ellen wouldn’t want to hear that – she’d have lain down on the motorway rather than help Joe. Rachel understood the source of her mother’s anger, which seemed as strong now as it had been ten years ago, even though Ellen wouldn’t discuss Joe with the children.
“Leave it, Rachel darling. There’s just no point going back over old ground.” Ellen had barely spoken to Joe since the divorce, even when Rachel told her of his cancer. To Ellen, his behaviour after Emily’s death was unforgivable.
It had been six months since his diagnosis, and Rachel had found herself drawn into his illness, first as occasional chauffeur to hospital visits, or to pick up his weekly shopping, and later, when he couldn’t keep house for himself, as his daily skivvy. It was in her nature to be a carer. Since her early teens, Ellen had leant on her, and then she’d married Richard, who was pretty dependent in his way. Perhaps she’d chosen him for his self-pity. He certainly didn’t give her the protective support she craved. Like Joe, Richard was only really interested in himself, but unlike Joe, he hadn’t the charisma to make that attractive on any level. Richard’s best feature was his dedication to the children. Needless to say, Joe disparaged Richard to his face and behind his back, and Rachel often wondered how much longer she’d have to put up with the depressing dynamic between these two men. She knew that Joe’s death wouldn’t make everything right in her marriage, and she knew she couldn’t pretend that the current daily tension was just between her father and husband.
Emily had been gone over ten years, though her name lived on in Rachel’s daughter. Naming her child Emily had been discussed with Ellen, but Joe had not known until he attended her christening, and he had turned white when he saw her name in the order of service. Rachel chose the name in memory of her beloved older sister, who had fallen, or jumped, from Lambeth Bridge, while high on cocaine, and drowned.
Emily had been three years older than Rachel, and always more confident, and very daring even as a small child. Rachel had looked up to her throughout their childhood. She was a great performer in social situations, while Rachel had hidden in her shadow. Emily was the more beautiful, alluring even, while Rachel had only begun to lose weight and develop her looks when Emily died at 20. During their teens, Emily’s popularity and Rachel’s shyness were opposing forces.
“Oh come on Rach, let’s go to the rowing club disco on Saturday. Freddy’s going to be there and I know he wants to get serious.” Emily would be grinning into the dressing table mirror, while stroking her eyelashes with her mother’s mascara. At fourteen, she didn’t seem to care that Rachel, then only eleven, would be too young to get in to the disco, or that Ellen wouldn’t let her leave the house.
“Freddy’s brother is fourteen, so he’d be ideal for you, and he could bring you home, in case I’m occupied.” She cared about Rachel’s well-being to a point, but Emily had only one objective in life, and that was to push the boundaries for herself.
“You go. I’ll be fine.” Rachel would say. And that was usually what happened.
Emily died when Rachel was studying for her A levels, and Rachel’s life just seemed to fall apart. She took to staying in her room, staring at the walls, only venturing out to buy chocolate and biscuits. She slept most of the day, dropped out of school and had to repeat her final year. Despite everything, she managed to pull through the exams, and got accepted to do psychology at Oxford Brookes.
During her gap year, Rachel became pregnant, by a boyfriend she didn’t love, and the baby was due just before she was to start her college course.
Ellen, who was herself drifting hopelessly through her grief, offered to take care of the baby in Bayswater during term-time and Rachel could come home at weekends from Oxford, until things worked themselves out.

After a year of commuting at weekends to London to be with Emily, Rachel couldn’t bear being alone in Oxford without Emily any longer. She had been dreading talking to Ellen about taking Emily away from Bayswater.
“Emily loves her Gran, don’t you,” she said, “and it’s been wonderful knowing you’re looking after her so well while I’m away, but I can’t bear being there all week and her not with me.” Ellen sat stiffly in silence. She’d obviously been expecting this would come sooner or later. “Richard and I have worked out our lectures and we can manage her this year, and there’s a crèche on campus.”
“That’s fine, love, when you’re both settled in jobs and have an income, but it’s not an ideal environment to bring up a small child as students.”
“Mum, I know how much you love having Emily, and it’s great here, with the nursery and the garden, but she needs to be with her mother, now she’s learning to talk and walk. I don’t want to miss out on her growing up.”
Ellen smiled, resigned already to the change. “Emily will miss me and I don’t know how I’ll manage without her,” she said. Her whole body sagged and she looked suddenly much older. She stared out of the window.
“We’ll come home every couple of weeks to see you, and if you don’t mind the sofa, we’ll always have room for you in Oxford. It’ll be handy if you do come to stay, too.”
Emily spent the next two years in Oxford while Rachel and Richard both graduated and Richard found a job. Ellen came to stay as often as she could, but she was so depressed and had begun drinking heavily. It wasn’t good for Emily, and Rachel did whatever she could to put off the visits without being confrontational.

“Hi Richard, how’s the day going?” Rachel had the phone squashed between her ear and her shoulder as she opened the car door for Emily outside the dance studio. “Could you meet me at Joe’s at six on your way home? I want to move his bed down into the study, and I can’t do it on my own.”
Emily, like a sprite in her pink leotard and tutu, jumped into the back of the Volvo, still flouncing and swinging her arms after the class. She had an oval face and a shock of black hair, and every day, it gave Rachel a sharp pang, seeing her sister’s looks replicated in her own daughter. Emily hadn’t bothered to change out of her ballet slippers, which would need replacing before the end of the term at this rate.
“For God’s sake, Richard, not that again. I know he is, he’s my father isn’t he? He still needs looking after, whatever you think. And you’re doing it for me, not him.” Rachel was sick of defending her father to Richard and vice versa. It would be easier for her to keep them apart, but she sometimes needed Richard’s help, which meant walking the tightrope in an effort to keep the peace.
“OK, love. See you there. You know he’s got that bloody reading at Waterstones tonight, so you’ll have to take Emily home and I’ll take him, unless of course you’d prefer to… No, no, I thought not.”
She hung up, knowing full well that If Richard had to take Joe to his talk, she’d suffer for it. Richard would spend the night whinging about Joe’s bullying manner. Even though he was dying, he could still spit nails, and Richard didn’t deserve that. But just as she wanted to hurt Joe for all his carelessness over the years, so she wanted Richard to toughen up, and stop suffering for his placid weakness and lack of fight.

They got to Joe’s by 5.30, in just enough time to get him spruced up and ready to leave before Richard arrived to help move the bed. Rachel was hoping Joe would be dressed in his suit and just needing a once-over, so she would have time to cook Emily some fish fingers and chips at Joe’s before Richard took her home. Richard was apt to hit the wine and leave her in front of the TV till seven or eight, and not notice she hadn’t eaten. Richard worked in Human Resources, but dreamed of becoming a best-selling writer. He’d been trying to work on his novel in the evenings after work, and wasn’t getting anywhere as far as she could tell. At various points over the last two years, when he was sober enough after dinner, they’d talked about the plot, which she thought sounded two-dimensional. He was working through his father’s role in German politics, re-casting him as some sort of Nazi strategist, in a complicated plot-heavy thriller, despite his Jewish origins. As subtly as possible, Rachel had fed him her ideas, and he’d gone away happy for a while. Perhaps she should get co-author credits.
“Dad. Dad. Wake up! What the hell have you been doing all day? As if I need to ask.” Joe was sprawled in the armchair, and he stank of whisky and cigarettes. He had a damp patch on his shoulder where he had been drooling in his sleep.
“I’m completely bloody sick of your drinking. I’m sick of trying to make you comfortable and you not helping yourself one bit.”
She heaved at Joe’s arm to lift him out of the chair, though he wasn’t making any effort to lift himself. She gave up. Joe smelt as though he’d wet himself, and his half-closed eyes were sticky with mucous.
“Leave me alone. I’m not going to the fucking talk. I’ve got nothing to say. Get off me.” Joe didn’t slur his words, but his eyes were slow. “Hello Emm.” He added as Emily pranced into the room and tried to spin on one toe.
“Emily, take this into the kitchen and put the fish fingers under the grill. I’ll be in in a minute to start the cooker.” Rachel gave Emily the bag of food and waited while she left the room.
“How dare you. Who do you think you are swearing like that in front of my daughter, your own granddaughter?” Rachel was red in the face. “Do you think I want to waste my time coming here to look after you when you can’t be bothered? I hate you!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be out of your way soon enough. I didn’t ask for your help,” he said with a grimace. “I can manage. You’re always bloody interfering. You were always the same, even as a child.”
“You selfish old bastard. You never cared about mum or me, did you? All you cared about was your bloody career, and screwing around.” She’d tried to keep the lid on her feelings. She hated swearing, and Emily was bound to be listening.
“What did you do with my glass?’ Joe stood up and searched the table. Rachel stepped across him and took his half-empty whisky bottle.
“Hey! You give me that bottle back or you’ll feel my hand.” Joe made a grab for it, and she stepped back out of his reach as he swayed and fell back into the chair. His impotence disgusted her. If he’d tried to slap her, she’d have hit him without a thought.
The doorbell rang and Rachel turned to go and open it with a mixture of relief and trepidation. She began to cry as Richard looked from her red face to the whisky bottle and reached out to hold her steady. She brushed past him and turned before he could comfort her, and opening the door to the under-stairs cloakroom, she quickly emptied the remaining whisky into the toilet.
“Right Joe. Richard is here and we’re moving your bed down to the study. Then we’re going to take Emily home, and you can get a cab to your bloody reading, or not. Please yourself.” She went into the kitchen and began pushing the frozen fish fingers, which Emily had arranged neatly on the grill pan, back into the Birds Eye box, which she stuffed back into the carrier bag. Emily looked at her mother and said nothing.
“What’ve you been doing to her, you old fucker?” Richard stood over Joe, clenching his fists and showing a rare attempt at confronting Joe.
“Leave me alone, Nancy boy.” Joe didn’t bother to look up to see the effect of his insult, but he knew it had hit home, as Richard retreated to the doorway.
“Right, let’s get that bed moved and get out of here.” Rachel barged Richard into the hall, and towards the stairs. She had heard Joe’s comment but said nothing. She too knew it was only said to hurt, but she couldn’t defend Richard on this one.
That evening and the following day, Joe pervaded Rachel’s thoughts. She couldn’t come to terms with his coldness and lack of appreciation for all she’d been doing for him. Despite the years of his inconsiderate behaviour, and of his desertion when she needed him most, Rachel couldn’t face the possibility that Joe didn’t love her. It seemed possible that he was overwhelmed with guilt, and that he saw her as an extension of her mother, and someone he couldn’t avoid in the way he had Ellen. The only answer she could come up with was to leave him to decide whether he would engage, and not visit him every day. She knew he’d be on the phone when the food ran out, or he couldn’t get a replacement for the bottle she’d poured away.

They had only once tried to talk about Emily since her death. Rachel and Richard had brought their daughter Emily, then three, to see Joe on his sixtieth birthday. Chloe was over from Paris, but she had made the decision not to see him. Chloe had a much tougher approach to Joe than Rachel did, and would never forgive him for the past. She was a chip off the old block really, and she’d told Rachel over dinner with Ellen that Joe could burn in hell for all she cared, though Rachel thought she said this mostly for Ellen’s sake.
Joe hadn’t seen his granddaughter since the christening, and now, as she played happily at his feet, he tried in his way to interact with her.
“Does she remind you of me at that age, dad?” Rachel asked. She knew he had little recollection of her early years, when he’d been in Westminster or his constituency almost all the time, and as she now knew, living with his secretary.
“I remember you when you were about four, looking just like this one. You were in awe of Emily then. She could do no wrong in your eyes, and we had the devil’s own job trying to separate you,” he replied.
“Why would you want to do that, dad? Did you think Emily was bad for me or something?” Rachel’s irritation was quickly stirred.
“No, love. It’s just that she was far too willful. Your mother couldn’t handle her, even then, and we just wanted you to have space to grow up as your own person.” Joe looked at Rachel a little longer than usual, as though he were inspecting her after years of not noticing her. Rachel blushed.
“So when I was a teenager, and Emily was living away, becoming harder to… you know, to predict, was I my own person then? Do you remember, dad?” She saw Joe disappearing into a reverie in front of her, hardly listening, and no longer looking at her.
“When Emily fell into the river…” Joe’s voice thickened.
“When she jumped into the river, dad.” Rachel could feel her anger bubbling up.
“We don’t know that, love. We don’t know at all. With all those drugs and drink inside her.” Joe looked suddenly terrified by the notion of Emily’s suicide, almost as though he hadn’t considered it before. “I blame myself for not being around enough, you know. I might’ve helped her.”
“And do you blame yourself for not being around for me and mum when she died?” Rachel had wanted to say that one thing for so long, and yet it didn’t feel in any way satisfying now.
Joe bent down again to Emily without looking at Rachel. “I think I know someone who might like a chocolate biscuit,” he said, and he went to the kitchen to fetch the tin, cutting Rachel off in the process.

For three days Rachel held off visiting Joe after the incident with the whisky. He didn’t call her, and she actually had a few hours each day without thinking about him.
On the third day, she was sure he’d need more food, and she had begun to regret the fact that they’d left him completely to his own devices, when the phone rang. The moment she picked it up she knew.
“Hello. Is that Rachel? Hello dear. It’s Mrs. Warburton, your dad’s neighbour.”
“Hello Mrs. Warburton, is everything all right?” She tried to sound calm.
“I was worried, so I used my front door key to check on him.” Her voice was even more shaky than usual. “Rachel dear. I found him in the chair. He was stone cold, dear.” There was a long silence. “The ambulance is there now, if you could come.”

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Kynance beach

I think I loved Emily as a child more than anyone else in my world. She had wanted my love and attention more as a teenager, but I’d moved on, and failed to notice her falling through the ice. I did hear about the parties and the drug taking from Ellen, but didn’t intervene. When she drowned, following a crazy stunt in high heels on the parapet of Lambeth Bridge, the coroner’s verdict was death by misadventure but I’m not sure.
When she was born, I had just been re-elected, and I was hoping to be appointed to the shadow cabinet. I took rooms in Westminster, and attended every late-night vote. I cared more about my career than anything else. Ellen had inherited her parents’ house in Bayswater when her father died, and we lived in the mansion with Emily. It was only a short cab-ride from the Commons, but I was engrossed in Westminster, and I’d lost interest in family life. It was Ellen who looked after the children, brought them up, dealt with their accidents and growing pains.
I was on my way to Penzance one summer, to stay with Ellen and the children for the weekend. They were at the house we rented every year in The Lizard for a month, and I was only making the trip on their third weekend away. Sitting in first class on the Penzance Express, I was staring at the melamine paneled wall, and I was thinking how alone I felt. I was surrounded by people who wanted parts of me, and whom I wanted some of the time, but I didn’t feel connected to any of them. Maria was fun and sexy and she really got what I was about in my work, but she wasn’t interested in my feelings. If I wanted to talk about how upset I was with how I’d been treated, or what someone had written about me, she’d just tell me to ‘get over it.’
Ellen, on the other hand had only ever been interested in the real me, as she put it. She wanted to get past the front man, and she hated it when I used my public speaking voice with her, either cajoling, or when we were arguing.
“Don’t you dare use that tone with me!” she would shout. “I’m not the bloody leader of the opposition.”
Ellen just wanted me to go out and earn a living and come home and love and care for her, like her father had done for her mother. She was interested in our home, and cooking, and being happy. I’d gone down that path with her at the start, but I couldn’t stick it for long. She stopped coming out to functions with me, and hated me inviting Party colleagues for dinner and talking shop all evening. On one level I didn’t blame her really. Westminster was littered with divorced politicians. But on another level, I felt she’d deserted me.
As the train rattled through the Dorset countryside, I stared out of the window and saw my life rushing by. The fields and cows and little cottages were like the flickering stills from a silent movie, and I could see myself through the window, just like that, a life of movie stills, flickering images in which I appeared, but which held no meaning or feeling.
There was a cartoon-style map of England on the wall in front of me, with the train route drawn on it and little symbols for tourist attractions, and umbrellas on yellow beaches. I imagined myself there in it, a cartoon character of a politician, with a cartoon happy family sitting on a golden Cornish beach under an umbrella, and a cartoon secretary in a low-cut blouse, hanging out of the window of the little drawing of the Houses of Parliament. It made me smile, though I wanted to cry.
I arrived into Penzance at ten and Ellen was there to bring me out to The Lizard, where the landlady, Mrs Treganon, had agreed to babysit the girls for an hour. It had been raining and the light from the streetlamps and neon shop signs reflected in still black puddles as we drove towards them, and the wipers scraped noisily on the dry windscreen. I had no urge to talk, but it’d been three weeks.
“How was the journey down? Did you get any sleep?” Ellen looked tired, but tanned.
“No, I had reading to catch up on. You’re looking well, love. Looks like you caught the sun. Sorry I couldn’t make it last weekend, but the PM wanted to talk about the budget.” I would have gone on, but looking across at Ellen, I knew she wouldn’t be remotely interested in his views on pensions.
“Can we stop for one on the way? Maybe The Oak?” I couldn’t face sitting in the kitchen at the house in silence, and maybe the pub would break the tension.
“OK, a quick one, but I said I’d only be an hour.”
While Ellen went to the bar, I found us a table in the corner of the lounge, and the hum of conversation dropped as people recognized me. I could see people whispering my name to one another.
“How was the house? Did Jacko clean the kitchen?” she asked when she sat down. Jacko was our housekeeper who’d also been the girls’ nanny when they were babies. Despite her chain-smoking, and her tendency to swear under her breath in front of Emily, who was very interested in learning swear words, Jacko was a gem. I wondered how much she would talk to Ellen, next time they met, about my comings and goings while Ellen was in Cornwall.
“Yes, it was fine when I left yesterday,” I lied. The house had been untouched all week, and Jacko would have been fully aware I wasn’t living there. “How have the girls been behaving?”
“Emily’s like a cat on a hot tin roof. She’s a law unto herself, and I can’t control her at all. You can see if she’ll listen to you, but chance’d be a fine thing. Rachel’s fine, but she just wants to copy Emily all the time, I’m not sure we can stop her becoming another wild thing.”
Ellen had been at the farmhouse for three weeks, alone with three young girls and no adult company.
“Chloe’s teething again, and she’s not sleeping. Frankly I’m exhausted, trying to do it all myself.” Ellen was talking quietly, as the couple at the next table was clearly listening. “I’m sorry. I’m sure you’ve had a tough week too, but I’m tired, and I just need a bit of time to myself. Can we go?” she said, draining her glass and standing up. We left quickly, and once we were back in the car, she started again.
“It’s fine for you, with your assistants and secretaries. You’ve got nobody to worry about except yourself, and I doubt you’ve cooked a single meal since we left.”
Ellen was talking, but I started thinking about last night with Maria. She was cooking Bolognese, in her dressing gown, and I was standing behind her with a glass of wine in one hand and the other between her legs. She’d pulled a strand of spaghetti from the pan and we’d eaten it together, one from each end, and kissed hungrily, and then we’d fucked on the sofa and ignored the pan as it boiled dry.
“Joe, did you hear me? I asked when you’ve got to be back by.”
“Not till Monday. I thought I might get the early train.”
We got to the farmhouse in a few minutes without speaking. We briefly considered having sex, but after Mrs Treganon had left and Chloe had settled, and I’d lammed into a bottle of red and by the time we got to bed, I was already falling asleep. Ellen wasn’t bothered, or perhaps she’d long since learned the signals.
Saturday was hot; somewhere in the high seventies. All I wanted to do was lie out on Kynance beach all day. Kynance was one of our favourites, with its white sand and breakers, and gentle waves and rock pools, ideal for the children. It was at the bottom of cliffs, about ten minutes’ walk from the car park, down a long flight of stone steps. Without children, this would be a lovely stroll, but with two small ones walking and another in the buggy, and carrying our lunch, the wind-breaker and towels, and the beach rug, it was an interminable sweaty battle. Needless to say, Emily would only carry the towels and her costume, and Rachel couldn’t manage more than her bucket and spade, so that left me with the buggy handles, and the beach rug across my shoulders, and Ellen carrying the windbreaker, lunch basket, and her handbag. Most of the way down, she had to walk backwards while holding onto the footrest of the buggy.
Eventually, we were settled between the cliff and the island, near one of the caves that were accessible only at low tide. Emily was intrigued by the caves, ever since Mrs Treganon had told the girls about the smugglers of Kynance bringing their bounty ashore and storing it in the caves, which supposedly led up to deserted farms in the hills. Emily was apt to disappear, exploring, and have to be fetched back every half hour, and she delighted in the retelling of these stories at night in the dark to Rachel, giving her nightmares.
Half-closing my eyes, as I lay across the beach rug with my head propped on a rolled up beach towel, I could see Emily, balancing barefoot on the top of the breaker, as though she was performing on the horizontal bar in a gymnastics competition. She was in love with Olga Korbut, along with every other seven-year-old girl she knew. She spent much of her time prancing about and flicking her wrists while pointing her toes, in that pose from the end of the Russian’s performance, or trying to master cartwheels and summersaults. Rachel was staring in awe from the beach below her. Emily’s wet hair clung to her long neck, and her lithe arms were outstretched to give her the balance of a trapeze artist’s pole.
Ellen lay beside me in her black and white striped one-piece costume with the frilly waistband, smoking Silk Cut. She had just turned forty, and after Chloe’s birth, she was very conscious of her stretch marks. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn a bikini. Now, stretched out in the sun, I was mesmerized by the crash of the surf on the shingle in the distance, and the cries of the gulls, and I was thinking of sex with Maria. The rhythm of the waves was sensuous, and everything seemed to combine to dissipate my stress.
“Look at me, Dad,” Emily shouted, standing on one leg on the top of the breaker, a stack of railway sleepers some five feet high. She seemed completely at ease, as the waves broke on the beach below her.
“Bet you can’t do this, Rach!”
Rachel stood watching, her mouth open in awe. Ellen, looked up from her novel, and shouted “Emily, get down from there at once!”
Just as I turned away to light my cigarette, Rachel screamed, and Emily toppled into the sea. I dropped the cigarette and my lighter, leapt up and covered the thirty yards at a sprint. As I got there, I could see her arms flailing in the water, and there, under the clear shallow wash of surf, was Emily’s face. Her eyes were open and her mouth too. She seemed to be screaming. Her black hair was swirling like kelp around her face. In that instant, I saw her death. I leapt through the rushing water, which only reached my knees, and half fell towards her, stretching out and catching her forearms as the water pulled her away from the shore. She came up, like a marionette lifted by its strings, and as she did so, water gushed from her mouth and she coughed and spluttered. Her long hair clung to her face, covering her eyes. I lifted her into my arms like a baby, though she was already tall, and her arms encircled my neck. She clung to me as I brushed sand from her face. I hugged her tightly and closed my eyes. When I did, I saw her under the water again, but now her mouth and eyes were closed and she was floating still. I opened my eyes in terror at the image.
“It’s OK. Don’t cry. You’re all right. Let me see if you hurt yourself,” and I checked her scratched hand. In the moment she’d begun to fall, I was there. It was real, super-real. The sounds and smells were more vivid, the waxy texture of her wet skin and its chill against my own were imprinted on me. All I wanted was to hold on to her, to hold on to that moment.
“It’s OK, Emm. You’re OK now,” I whispered, as I stood in the cold water and felt the sand pull around my ankles. “Daddy’s here.”
I wanted to carry her to the others on the rug, and hold on to them all. The sudden sense of my self in the moment was overwhelming and I wanted it more than anything I’d every wanted.
But as soon as we got over to the rug, Emily let go of me and fell into Ellen’s lap, who was ready to catch her in a beach towel. She sat on the open towel on Ellen’s knee to be dried, already smiling, while Rachel sat beside them and reached out to touch her.
“I thought you’d drownded,” she said. “Are you OK?”
“Did you see me, Rach? Did you see me dive off?”
“For God’s sake, Emily. You fell, and that’s because you’re forever doing stupid things just to show off.” Ellen sounded angry, which seemed unreasonably hard. “Joe, get off the rug. You’re dragging sand just where I brushed it to put the lunch.”
Within minutes, Emily was kicking Rachel with her sandy feet and sticking out her tongue, and the moment had passed.
I sat down and lit another Rothmans. I was smiling to myself, still held in the moment of saving Emily, and in her closeness, and Ellen started to shake her head. She said nothing, but I knew she was irritated by my pleasure. I looked at her and she smiled at me as she rubbed Emily with the towel, but it wasn’t a generous look, more a derogatory smirk. She pushed Emily off her lap and started unpacking the lunch, and Chloe woke and started to cry.
“Pass the bottle, Joe. And can you open this jar?”
“Give me a minute, can’t you.” I just wanted to sit and watch the girls play, but Ellen was bustling, moving on.
Later, once the girls had gone rock pooling, I couldn’t resist asking. “What was that face for earlier?”
“What face?”
“You know perfectly well what face. When I pulled Emily out of the sea. You’re always going on about me not engaging with the children, and when I do, you look like I’ve stolen something from you or something.”
“Oh for God’s sake. What do you want, a medal? Anyone would think you’d saved her life. It’s weeks since you bothered to spend time with us, and then when you finally do, you’d think you were a bloody knight in shining armour!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. She could’ve drowned, and you didn’t bat an eyelid. I came down to spend a weekend with my family and to enjoy the children, but you can’t resist sticking the knife in at every opportunity.”
“You only came because you ran out of excuses to stay away. You think you can waltz in and out of our lives when it suits you and spend all your time with that slut and leave me with all the shit…” Ellen was puce and staring at me, and people paddling in the sea had turned to watch. Chloe was crying, and Rachel had her hands over her ears, and her eyes tight shut. This was going nowhere, and I’d had enough. I got up and went for a walk up to the caves to calm down.
I was going to catch the early train on Monday, but by Sunday morning, I couldn’t stand it any longer, and I wanted to get back. I phoned Maria from the phone box in the village and then booked a cab to Penzance in time for the afternoon train back.
*
Our separation was incidental, almost. The flow of Ellen’s life had been permanently dammed by Emily’s death, while mine gushed on. Ellen had stood by me, publicly at least, over the years, but she knew that I wasn’t going to do the same for her now.
I can still feel Emily’s face buried in my shoulder. Her legs clinging to my torso like a baby chimp to its mother, as her warm tears ran onto my shoulder. I can still feel her cold wet arms round my neck, and smell the salt in her hair, as I carried her back to Ellen and the waiting towel. When I wake in the night, seeing her corpse on that slab, I try to feel her in my arms on Kynance beach, in the sun

Avoiding grief

I remember very little of the two weeks when we waited for the autopsy results. I can’t remember making funeral arrangements, but I must have done so, or else Maria took care of it. There were reporters camped outside the front door, and my press secretary was always in the kitchen drinking coffee and answering the phone without asking.
I could cope with all the practicalities, but I couldn’t talk to the children – Chloe and Rachel were bawling all day, and Ellen wasn’t fit to do anything. People saw her lying on the sofa and they skirted round her like a museum exhibit in a glass case. Nobody knew what to say. There was nothing to say.
The day after Emily was buried, I was making and taking calls for work again in my study. There was a knock on the door and Ellen walked in.
“Ok, I’ll ring back in half an hour. I’ll be in later and we can talk then. I’ve got to go now. Yes, thanks. You too.” I put the phone down on Maria and watched Ellen’s pacing.
“Can’t you take a bloody moment to grieve your daughter’s death?” she said.
“I’m sorry, I’m just trying to get through . . .”
“How can you do that? I mean, how can you work?”
“I don’t know what else to do. You look exhausted. Will you let me call the doctor for you? Perhaps he’d give you something stronger to make you sleep.”
“I don’t need bloody sleeping pills! I need to stay awake and stop seeing her lying there. I need you to stop making bloody phone calls and I need us to get away from all this. We need to get Rachel and Chloe away from those vultures outside.” She was pacing back and forth in front of my desk and every time she passed it, she stopped and straightened my papers, into parallel piles. “They can’t take any more of this, and nor can I.”
“I can’t just drop everything and go.”
“You can when it suits you. Look, we can go down to Rottingdean. We all need to be together now. You can leave the work to your precious Maria.” “Really? Do you think we should shut ourselves away at the cottage now? Wouldn’t you prefer to keep busy?” On cue, the phone rang again.
“Oh for God’s sake!” Ellen turned and slammed the door.
She needed to share her grief and to have some reassurance that I loved her. But I felt completely cold towards her. She took the girls to Rottingdean that afternoon and I didn’t see them again until a week after they’d returned. I’d moved into Putney with Maria by then, and coming back to the house to collect some clothes, I bumped into Rachel on the stairs.
“Dad, you need to come home. Mum needs you, and Chloe. And me.”
“Hi Rach. I know . . . It’s going to be . . . I’ve just got a lot on right now . . . I’ll call you in a day or two when I can and we’ll go to Rules. You like Rules, don’t you. Give me a kiss.”

Body

“Emily’s dead. She’s drowned.”
It was Maria, my PA, who told me. She pulled me out of the conference and just told me. I started to shake, and my knees buckled under me. I don’t know what happened next, but I thought I was having a heart attack.
I was away at the Party conference, and Ellen had called me several times and left messages, but I hadn’t called her back. I knew from the messages that it was about Emily, but I was up to my ears in meetings, and besides, I’d had it all before with Emily’s disappearing and her bingeing. And I just couldn’t deal with Ellen’s depression. When she was drinking, she could suck the life out of me, and I just wanted to focus on the conference. It wasn’t unusual for Emily to stay out overnight at a party or with friends. She’d always be home sooner or later for a shower and a change of clothes, so I ignored the calls.
Maria must’ve organised the car to be brought to the rear entrance at the hotel, and I was ushered through a passageway between overflowing food bins to the Jag, and bundled into the back and taken to Bayswater. When I opened the front door, Ellen was standing in the hall, waiting for me, but when I came up to her, and put out my arms to hold her, she turned away.
She told me how the police had come to the door. She’d recognized the policewoman from a previous visit when they’d brought Emily home after finding her asleep in a tube station. She’d apparently been stoned and incoherent. They could have prosecuted her for possession but because of my position, Joe Weiner, Minister of State, they hadn’t taken it further.
“I looked behind them to see if Emily was sitting in the squad car, but there was no-one in it. I asked them, ‘have you found her? Where is she?’ But I knew. I just knew.”
The room was silent. Ellen faced the empty fireplace and tidied the array of invitation cards on the mantelpiece. I poured myself a scotch.
“The policeman was saying something about the river police, and I hadn’t the first idea what he was talking about at the beginning. Emily told me she was going to a rock concert with some friends. Wembley she said. ‘What’s that got to do with the river?’ I asked him.”
We were taken to St Thomas’s, to the mortuary, to identify Emily’s body. We were led to a small empty room with a grey lino floor that curved up the walls at the edges, for sluicing, a drain in the centre, and white tiled walls. We stood over a trolley as the attendant lifted the sheet, which covered Emily’s body. She was naked, but he had the decency to show us only her head and shoulders. He looked like a serious lad, dressed in a lab coat.
“Is this your daughter?” he asked. I nodded, and he left the room.
Every time I close my eyes I can see her slack, heart-shaped, white face and the spread of her black hair across the bare grey metal of the trolley. I remember wondering why there was no pillow. She looked like she’d just washed up on a beach. I visualized her floating downstream in the Thames, like Millais’ Ophelia.
“We rowed the night before she left, you know,” Ellen said. “I told her she had to clean her act up, and the last thing she said before she walked out and slammed the door was ‘Leave me the fuck alone!’ Joe, those were her last words to me. And it’s your fault that I’ve got to carry that with me. It was always me having to handle her. Never you.”
Ellen’s face was grey. She had lines around her mouth, where she pursed her lips, and deep furrows between her eyebrows, and she had purple bags under her eyes from so much crying. I couldn’t bear to look at her.
“I didn’t call her because we’d had that row, and now she’s dead.”

Emily

October 26th
Today is my birthday, and it’s the first one I can remember when nobody wanted to organize anything for me. Mum bought me a card and stuck £100 in crisp new ones into it, same as last year. Dad didn’t write in her card (surprise, surprise) and he sure as hell didn’t bother to buy me one himself. Last year he took me to lunch at Rules but so far he hasn’t called – must’ve forgotten completely.
Rachel made an effort, with tickets for Swan Lake and a bottle of bubbly, and Chloe, bless her, spent all her pocket money on a Juicy C. purse, but it feels really hollow. What happened to the family? Why the F… can’t dad just come home once in a while and be here with us? Mum’s hit the bottle again, ‘cos there’s all that shit in the Mirror about him and his secretary. Sooo fed up.
Doesn’t help that Jason got me pissed last night and gave me one of his dive bombers. Woke up about 3am to be sick, and couldn’t remember getting into bed with whatshisname, but there I was. Nice though. And someone nicked my money. Or I spent it. Couldn’t afford a cab home and had to take Jason’s change to get the night bus. Yuk! Lucky mum was in a coma, so snuck in about 5.30am and just up and dressed now. Time to send a few texts and see what’s cooking tonight for the birthday girl.

February 14th
Four valentines from . . . whoever. Kiddy stuff. Who cares. I don’t give a flying F… Why should I? Dad pulled me into the study (!!!) after I got in this morning with a “What’re you on, Emily?” like I didn’t know my pupils were a bit saucerish. F… him! The bastard only ever speaks to me to tell me off for partying. What the F… is he doing with his mates all week? The papers hate him, and he thinks it’s none of our business? Mum’s gone into a downward spiral and Rachel is buried in her room all day studying. What am I meant to do? Told him I was fine and that he should pay more attention to his marriage. Got a clout for my trouble. Fuck you, dad!
How am I going to get that £500 for Jason’s mate? I can’t disappear, and god knows he’s had what he wants from me already, so I can’t pay him in kind. I don’t trust him. Maybe he’s working under cover or something. Jason seems cool with him but I’m not sure about Jason either. If his mate is a pig, and he’s into me for enough coke to party till Christmas that I’m supposed to have used, then I’m going to jail. Maybe Rachel would lend me her savings if I told her I needed it really badly.

May 25th
Fuck, Fuck, Fuck!!! Two weeks late. Sitting here with the test kit and can’t bring myself to use it. I know the answer anyway. Sick again this morning. Fuck. Who was it though? Jason’s always careful. I’m sure it wasn’t Leroy, even though I was way out of it. He told me nothing happened. What can I do? I’ll have to go to the doctor or pay for a clinic, and I can’t tell mum, and dad would go ballistic. Jason’s mate is going to kill me if I don’t get him the £800.
Phoned to ask dad for an advance on my allowance, but got Maria. Always Maria. And her trying to be all pals and smarming up to me and fucking my dad. Bastard. Does he care at all about us?

Ellen and Joe

Ellen had passed those first months after Emily’s death cocooned in the Bayswater mansion, listening to The Archers, chain-smoking Silk Cut and fighting the urge to submerge her days in Johnnie Walker. The post lay unopened, the cleaner continued to polish the silver, and the children somehow got themselves to school, fed themselves and did their homework around her.
She lay on the sofa in the lounge, listening to the slow ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall and felt completely empty. She was transported from a life where she never seemed to have enough time to herself to one where she was alone all the time, whether people were present or not. They skirted round her like a museum exhibit in a glass case. Nobody knew what to say. There was nothing to say. She was as dead as Emily.
Ellen had given up on Joe and changed the locks. She wasn’t going to shred his suits or deface the papers on his desk. She’d have done that many times before if she was the sort, and anyway, he didn’t seem to be interested in retrieving anything from Bayswater once he’d shifted into Maria’s place in Putney.

Emily was the eldest of their three girls, and she was the apple of Joe’s eye when she was small. Ellen hardly got a look in. Not that Joe was around much to appreciate Emily. When she was born, he’d just been re-elected, despite Labour’s drubbing, and was appointed to the shadow cabinet. He took rooms in Westminster, and attended every late-night vote, looking to prove a point or keep Michael happy or because he couldn’t stand home life.
Ellen had inherited her parents’ house when her father died. He’d been a banker when it was all about what you heard on the grapevine, and he’d cashed in on some great mergers to buy the stucco monstrosity. When he died, they all moved in with Ellen’s mother, with room to spare. It was only a short cab-ride from the Commons, but Joe was engrossed in power struggles, and already showing scant interest in family life. It was Ellen who looked after the children, brought them up, dealt with their accidents and growing pains.
She’d met Joe while canvassing for Labour in ‘79, and he’d been her constituency candidate. She’d just graduated with a first in PPE from Oxford, and she was enthralled with politics. She’d grown up in Essex, in a comfortable, conservative home, listening to her father’s city talk, and traipsing round after a mother who spent more time in the church than at home. Ellen was far from flirtatious, and had only dated boys her own age at college, so it was a huge surprise when Joe picked her out of a line-up in the constituency office a few weeks before the election. He was so worldly and sophisticated, and she knew he was almost thirty.
“It’s Ellen isn’t it? Ellen, can you come out with me today?” Jo smiled broadly at her, while several of his long-standing canvassers stood by with their mouths open. Joe was very popular with the women who helped in the office, and his reputation for flirting unashamedly helped to keep volunteer numbers up.
“Yes, no problem, Mr. Weiner,” Ellen blushed.
“Call me Joe, please.”
Joe was smooth, pleasant and amusing.
“How do you think I’m doing?” he said when they’d taken a break in a small café. “Do you think I should be defending our industrial relations record more, or is that a red rag to a bull?” Joe seemed genuinely to want to know what Ellen thought. He was staring into her eyes and she found it difficult to concentrate on the question.
“Can I be blunt?” Ellen found herself wanting to impress him with her forthright views.
“I don’t see how we can defend Labour’s recent performance on that front. Callaghan has been a bit of an embarrassment, and most of the older working people we’ve met want to see Harold Wilson back in the job, though God knows what they think he could do now. What about housing? That’s got to be a front-runner.” They finished their tea, and stood to leave. Ellen found herself up against to Joe by the table and he made no effort to avoid being so close. He put a hand on her upper arm, resting it there, without embarrassment.
“You make a lot of sense, Ellen. I like your politics. Maybe we can hammer out a more detailed list of priorities this evening, if you’ve time, after we finish up. I’d like to hear more.”
They barely talked shop over dinner, and Joe seemed happy enough just listening to her stories of college life. And it was that easy. After dinner, they went back to his hotel room, and for the remaining three weeks before the election, she stayed with him most nights. They worked hard together, and everyone in the office got used to them being an item. When Joe took the seat on the third count, there was uproar, and as he was being hoisted onto the shoulders of his constituency manager and some burley supports, he reached out to Ellen, leant down and told her he loved her.
*
When she first found out Joe had slept with someone else, Ellen was shocked, but he flatly denied it and seemed unmoved by her anger and tears. She had no-one to ask advice from, and within a few weeks, she had put the whole thing to the back of her mind. As it became a repetitive issue, she began to turn a blind eye, but each infidelity took a piece of their relationship away, until there was nothing left between them except the children and the trappings of their marriage. They were seen together at functions and on TV, and she grew used to not voicing her opinions.
When Emily died, she tried to find something in Joe to hold on to, but she felt exhausted and hadn’t the strength for him. She quickly came to realize that if he was grieving, it was something happening deep inside him, and he wasn’t going to turn to her to share it.
Within a few weeks, though, the bile began to rise, and Ellen felt strong enough to insist Joe stay in his rooms in Westminster. In fact he moved out to Maria’s flat in Putney, and failed to see the children once in next three months, even though the House broke for summer recess and he could easily have taken them to a film or a play or something. Ellen’s devastation at Emily’s death, as well as her desperate efforts to support Rachel and Chloe, had left her drained, but she was by then beginning to harden, building her own walls around her, which her upbringing and the last twenty years had taught her to do, and which allowed her slowly to learn how to function again. She took to walking the streets of West London in the cool evenings, renewed contact with her closest women friends and cut down on the drink and cigarettes. She no longer supported Joe when asked how he was coping, and only spoke to him when she needed money or documents signing. She refused to attend the functions he asked her to, leaving him to find himself someone else to do his bidding, someone who “didn’t know what purgatory it was to dress up and smile for the cameras while accompanying the dead.”
Rachel had accepted a place at Oxford Brookes, and was working in London. She’d moved in with her boyfriend of the time, so Ellen packed Chloe, and herself off to the cottage in Dorset, dropping in to her solicitor on the way out of London to set in motion the divorce. Chloe could attend the local sixth form college while the house was being sold, and if Ellen could buy her own place in London before the year was out, Chloe could re-join her school friends at Latimer, and Joe could foot the fees as part of the divorce settlement. For Ellen, while she had no feelings of happiness, this gave her a sense of hope and allowed her to begin to look forwards rather than feeling herself to be drowning and having nothing to hold on to.

Leaving Joe had been incidental, almost. The flow of her life permanently dammed, while his gushed on. Ellen had ‘stood by her husband’ over his affairs, and various government scandals during his rise to power, despite her knowing that he wouldn’t be there for her if she needed him.
But she’d have given all that back for a chance to feel close to him when the world was falling down around her. All she craved then was the reassurance that he loved her, and that his suffering and hers could be shared. Instead she met with his wall, his busyness, his team of assistants and entourage of manipulators. He closed his door, locked himself in and continued fucking his secretary. Ellen tried to compare her contribution to their marriage with his, in a meaningless equation that she knew could never add up.

Birthdays

When I was nine or ten, my birthday included a few cards, though I’m not sure if they arrived on the day or were collated for a few days before being handed over by the headmaster. I assume, though can’t recall whether one’s friends made a fuss – I expect in true prep school fashion they sang rude songs and gave me the bumps, which were more a form of bullying than a shared celebration.
The parental gift must have arrived in the same post, though I just don’t remember receiving them each year. We didn’t have any personal communication with parents on the day – no pre-arranged phone call from the head’s office or telegram with wishes. I seem to think that some boys’ parents arrived uninvited to the school at about 6pm to catch their sons outside the front door, as we returned from evensong, to deliver presents and kisses, but then that might be my own self-pity working on my memory. Mine certainly never appeared.
There was no exeat anyway, no visiting rights for the family, if they had remembered. Besides, I was fourth of five children in a loveless marriage full of arguments and recriminations. The main reason I was at boarding school was so that they could row in peace without worrying about our feelings. “Pas devant les enfants” was de rigeur – as though we were ignorant of its meaning after we’d been crammed with French lessons at boarding school. So why would they want to visit the school to celebrate something which was no longer within the path of their myopic vision, their clouded eyesight, swirling fog and looming forests in which only the monsters of each other were prowling. Out of sight, out of mind. Fuck. How could they put me away at 8, post me off to disappear into a melting pot of standardization and stereotypy. The loss of self, the loss of any sense of celebration happened then.
We weren’t branded with numbers, whatever about the Cash’s name tapes in every garment, but we could have been. And come to think of it, we were numbered in the choir. Seniority and the slow progression towards being one of the top 4, a ‘corner boy’ in the choir stalls. I would have been number 2 by rights in the end – simply because I was one of four who started together in 1965 and was numbered 34 out of the 36 in the school. Each year moving up by a few places until the last year, when my singing wasn’t up to scratch and I was demoted two places – or was I messing about in church? Anyway, that meant I would only ever be number 4. It was ignominious. Reinforcing the ‘not quite good enough’ message which had started years earlier.
For our birthdays, we were allowed to choose four boys to join us on the small ‘top table’ set into the window bay, the one with the Edwardian stain glass windows, on a raised step in the dining hall. The choosing, as one might expect of 9 or 10 year olds, was a big issue and formed or broke friendships. I can’t remember anyone I invited except my best friend Mikey, of course. Mikey with whom I climbed on the school roof, Mikey with whom I ran away from the school and had to be dragged back, to be beaten. Poor Mikey was already being abused by Fiddler. His problems went far back to having lost his father at a young age.
The five of us then would be served jelly as well as the food other boys on the long refectory tables received for tea. I don’t think there were any other special treatments. We might have been served our food rather than queuing like the other boys at the serving table, but I remember crawling out under the top table to go and get my plate of sausages and fried eggs and chips. Calorie controlled diets for children hadn’t surfaced at that time, but I don’t think there were many obese children in the school, just the odd fatty who was teased like Billy Bunter and learned to use his weight to bully in turn. Did I get a birthday cake? Carried from the kitchens by the plump and rosy cheeked cook with her flour-dusted apron? Not as far as I can recall. I think the 36 boys sang happy birthday, as they did almost every week for one birthday or another, before they ran from the room to maximize the free time they enjoyed before bed.

Maybe that wasn’t the peak of the birthdays enjoyability graph. Pretty pathetic if it was. Maybe the peak was at 17, hoping for a date, or at 19, hoping for a chance to sleep with whoever was on the wish list, or 25, when work and play had become confused and marriage awaited. It was probably at 28, the year when we met and we’d been apart for some weeks since Greece, and met for a weekend in my flat in Stockwell and poured out our feelings in bed and all day and maybe found out that we should be together for a long time. Birthdays are guaranteed to disappoint because there is no intrinsic significance in having lived for a multiple of 365 days. Nothing to mark but another day. My eldest sent her “thanks for the birthday wishes and the present, dad” message this morning on her 33rd birthday – already older than I was my peak at maybe 28 – and described a day at the office with a list of the frustrations and negative forces she had to face today and will again tomorrow. The creeping negativity sounded all too familiar. The genetic code for lousy birthdays and downbeat attitudes. The undying realism.

On Loss

I wonder whether we have to go through bereavement for each lost habit of our youth. That poses the question: what constitutes a habit, or behaviour, or need, or want which is worth grieving for? And what should we do to prepare for that process. I think this might be one of the fundamental issues of middle age.
Grief is a multifaceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something that has died, to which a bond or affection was formed. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions. While the terms are often used interchangeably, bereavement refers to the state of loss, and grief is the reaction to loss.

Between the prime of life and the crag end, we lose things and some of them have an emotional bond for us. We become bereaved, and sometimes we just can’t get over it. Classically, our pet loves – the football game, the motorbike ride, the tight jeans or the leather jacket – all become things of our past, to be envied and re-visited with varying levels of success. We might dress up like over-aged hippies or like the Fonz in Happy Days. We might buy that Harley we always fancied but couldn’t afford when younger, or we might simply behave like someone twenty years younger than we are, in a vain attempt to recapture our youth or someone else’s.

For me, one of the biggest losses of the last few years is my visibility to young and attractive women. The words are both relative, but it is clear that once one becomes middle-aged, or past one’s prime, or perhaps past one’s functional age for child giving or bearing, one becomes less visible. It suddenly becomes clear that one is transparent, out of the firing line, no longer under consideration.
That isn’t to say that flirting stops, or that attraction doesn’t exist, but the immediate, impersonal electric shock of ‘fancying and being fancied’ goes. Well, the second half does anyway. Younger people are still objects of attraction, though the sexual possibility of the attraction seems to fade, and older people might seem to younger people to carry intrigue or complexity, or maturity or material power, but we don’t carry the same physical energy.

So what else are we going to lose after we’re fifty, or sixty or older? Here’s some. Why not score them out of 10 on how important they are to your sense of wellbeing and therefore how much you should grieve their loss or fear their gain?

Smooth skin, soft curves. Strangely, middle age shows a lot in the face and sometimes in particular parts of the body, which become rounder and softer, while generally, our bodies don’t deteriorate as fast where they’re covered up as they do where they’re exposed. As a sun lover, I’ve got leathery skin and more wrinkles than if I’d hidden in the shade. For a lot of us, despite the exercise and some caution with the diet, we get the middle aged spread, and it’s harder to hold in the stomach muscles. Exercising becomes harder and less beneficial, as the muscle doesn’t develop so easily, and yet perhaps regular exercise is all that saves us from falling apart. For others, it’s all about the increasing amounts of spare skin, loose flesh, under-padded, without tone. It appears under the upper arm, or hanging under the arse, in bags under the eyes, or as double eyelids, above the knees, down the thigh. For those who don’t put on weight, we might become more boney and angular, our skin more leathery or like tissue paper.

Fertility – this isn’t all negative. The menopause is a double-edged sword worthy of its own chapter. For men, unless you’ve had the chop already, you’re still fertile into old age. I’m not sure how much that matters to younger women when they’re choosing whether to become involved with men over 50, but perhaps it’s there in the back of their minds.

Hair loss is common to both men and women, except in the ears and up the nose, which is more noticeable among men than women. Does hair loss in men affect their attractiveness to women? Does it undermine their sense of self-esteem? Clearly among young men it can be a big issue, and the transplant businesses are thriving. But the degree to which it is a negative force in mens’ lives after they reach 50 is questionable. Certainly it is an issue for some women, who spend inordinate amounts of money and time in trying to bulk up what they have.