Risk and consequence

Got the blood test results yesterday. Would you believe it’s four years since the last ones? Time flies when you’re having chronic degradation of your biological functions, doesn’t it? The best news was that I’m still not a diabetic, and that for a male in his late fifties, my PSA is normal, so no finger up the bum – not for medical reasons at least.
Cholesterol 8.3. Yes, that’s up on four years ago. So few scores increase these days, one thinks it’s something of an achievement – would that blood tests included IQ results – but then again, perhaps not.
So, what the hell is 8.3? Yes, Yes, it obviously combines good scores and bad scores – like getting 93% for your three point turn in the driving test, only to fail by running over a small child on a pedestrian crossing. It means that the doctor advises I go on statins.
What their records don’t show is that I was on them some years ago because I knew my cholesterol number was high and rather than get a prescription, which at the time would have cost me €45 per month to buy, I stopped into a pharmacy off the Ramblas in sunny Barcelona while weekending on rich creamy food and lots of drink, and bought a month’s supply for €2.50. Having a slightly older brother-in-law who also self-prescribes helps – like having an older brother who smokes I guess. Anyway, having bought a month’s worth, I decided to buy a couple of years’ worth and started self-medicating. After about two years of noticing precisely nothing from taking them, and failing to have another blood test, I went to India, and in a fit of holistic meaningfulness (something which India engenders), gave them up. A few months later, having blood tests for some other reason, I was told my Cholesterol had risen to about 7 from about 6. Who’s counting?
Back on the statins, and another year later, stopped again – I’m quoted as admitting to feeling under pressure to give them up because one side-effect reported in some medical journal is that they’re supposed to dampen your ardour, not so as to make you soft in your old age, but just to take away the urge. Did I notice this side effect? No, I can’t say I did, in retrospect, and even if there was statistically a shift in activity levels over a four year period, I’d have put it down to the chronic degradation of biological functions (again). But let’s not post-rationalise something so fundamental to one’s well-being as sex. If I was less driven, then I would risk a coronary to keep my mojo.
Two years later and 8.3 raises the question: what are the cons of statins, and do they outweigh the pros? The pro is singular, as far as I’m concerned. It is a reduction from 8.3 to something less – who knows what is appropriate, for an old git with so many other issues in his life, most of them from the neck up. Let’s say we get the number from 8 to 6 with the help of statins. Let’s say we don’t suffer from the myriad of other side-effects which include, incidentally, diabetes caused by raised blood sugar, muscle pain, diarrhoea and stomach problems, loss of memory and not to mention the pain in the bum caused by buying and taking a drug permanently …
Change your diet, I hear the multitudes cry. Get rid of all those cholesterol-inducing foods. Well, yes, I do have to admit to a passion for full fat cheese, bacon and other processed meats, and I will bite that bullet, if I must, but then I also love avocado, spinach, nuts, oats and dark chocolate – yes, chocolate actually reduces cholesterol.
But the issue is numbers. After all, like all probabilities, they’re only possibilities, risks. A score of 8.3 raises the level of risk of coronary. WebMD says:
190 mg/dL and above represents a high risk for heart disease and is a strong indicator that the individual can benefit from intensive treatment, including life style changes, diet, and statin therapy for reducing that risk.
For LDL levels that are equal to or less than 189 mg/dL, the guidelines recommend strategies for lowering LDL by 30% to 50% depending on what other risk factors you have that can affect the health of your heart and blood vessels.
Risk management. That’s the question. How do you look at risk as you move from the thrills and spills benefits of a life driven by the need for risk to the fears which go with risking the precious 8889 days left? Maybe it’s time to stop wondering about these things and accept that a healthy person is one who enjoys life and risks enough to be stimulated and stimulating, that so much else matters more than biological degradation… But interestingly, health is the number one worry for most people once they’re past the mid-point.
Fuck it. Back onto the statins!

Doctor (2015)

I’ve got an early appointment but
there’s already a woman in the waiting room;
Small, solid and pale, tired looking.
She reminds me of the queen,
the world on her shoulders,
looking straight ahead,
absorbing her suffering.
She’s counting under her breath.

I think my heart is going to misbehave, you know:
pain in the chest,
down the left arm,
palpitations.
Classic: cut down when I’ve finally begun to get there.

We’re both looking for our fifty euro reassurance.
She thinks it’s mild for the time of year.
She smiles like a mother.
I’m thinking of Freud standing naked at the easel,
eighty, sinewy, staring intensely, wielding his brush,
ready for the fight.

He tells me it’s probably my back:
tension, too much coffee, wine, cheese.
But we’re not getting any younger.
I stopped taking the statin,
it took away my sex drive.
He’s older than me – he takes it,
but its OK to stop, he says,
half the world is on it,
but you seem healthy, for your age.

As I’m leaving, I see her
climbing into an ambulance.

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Tempus Fugit

− Hi. Can I ask you something?
− I don’t see why not.
− How long do I have?
− You want an accurate answer or will I make it up to make you feel immortal?
− No, the truth of course.
− OK, 24 years, 123 days, 4 hours and 16 minutes. 8889 days or 213,000 hours, 12.8 million minutes. Accurate enough?
− Yes, thanks. 8889 days doesn’t sound that much. 24 years ago I was already 35, and it doesn’t seem that long ago.
− True, and don’t forget how time seems to gather pace as you age.
− Thanks a bunch! So that’ll make me just under 84 when I shuttle off, which bears out the theory about knowing when you will die.
− What’s that? Not that God-awful idea in Tuesdays with Morrie? The one where you note the first day you spent more time looking back than looking forward and double it? Pile of crap, you know. Do you want to know how it ends?
− No, I don’t think so, thanks.
− So, why did you ask how long?
− I was reading about climate change and the prediction that Ireland will be overwhelmed with floods and storms and baking hot summers within the next few years and I was wondering whether it would be in my lifetime.
− It will.
− OK, so what am I going to do with the 24 years and some? I’ve been wondering if it’s all downhill from now.
− Well, let’s see. You currently spend 16.7% of your time watching television. And that’s actually 24.6% of your waking time. Can you go downhill from that?
− Sure. Not all of that is a waste – though nearly all. I’m assuming there will still be TV in 24 years, and that it will still be full of reality shows and soaps and movie re-runs?
− Yes, and news will be available on premium-rate channels which you’ll be vetted for before you can subscribe. Except during elections, when it will predominate on the soaps channels. There’ll be the ‘live war’ channel, and a whole raft of live disasters channels, mostly featuring storms, hurricanes, floods and suchlike
− And will I spend 16.7% of my time watching TV in 20 years time?
− No, 25%, which will amount to one third of your waking life. You’ll actually be sat in front of the holographic 3D light box on your coffee table, as it will be then, for one in every three minutes of your conscious existence. The quality of the input will have gone down, and your lack of processing will have gone up, so you’ll effectively be vegetating.
− What else will I be doing that I don’t do now?
− Well, you currently sleep 31% of your time, and that’ll drop to 25%, as you’ll need less. Not to mention the time you currently spend on the toilet, 1.7% of your waking time, will treble. You currently read 4.2% of your time, and I’d be lying if I said you’ll become a literary leviathan by then. You’ll try to read for half the amount of time you do now – you just won’t have the attention span. You currently spend 6.3% of your time eating, which is taken up with one hot meal and two snacks a day, with conversation and pace to them. This will remain the same, though you will eat less and more slowly, and the conversation will be desultory, or non-existent, depending on whether you outlive your wife.
− I hadn’t thought of being alone. Will I be? Alone? Wouldn’t that have a big impact on my use of time?
− Yes, but you don’t get to know about anyone else, so let’s make the assumption you go before she does.
− OK, let’s. What about exercise? I must spend an average of an hour a day in the gym or walking the dog?
− You currently spend 4.2% of your time on that, and it will halve, as you become less able to walk, though you’ll still try, but it will take you ages to get anywhere, so it will take 2% of your time. The gym membership will lapse pretty soon.
− So I make pots – I spend 4.2% of my time in the pottery – not a lot, I know, but I guess that falls away.
− Yes, and the 8% you spend earning your living on the computer. That goes pretty soon too, though you’d have it continue, you pass your sell-by date. Pretty ignominious really, but let’s not dwell on how everything falls away. You’re depressed enough already.
− What else?
− You spend time maintaining your home, cleaning (though that hardly counts), washing, doing paperwork and emailing, shopping, driving and lots of little things. Sex takes 0.3% of your time now, and you can guess how much that’ll be in 20 year’ time.
− Thanks. Let’s not dwell on that slippery slope.
− You currently spend 4% of your time doing nothing. On a good day. In 20 years’ time that’s trebled, and while your down-time now is infused with thoughts and ideas, creative nuggets, angst and schemes, it will be infused with confusion and numbness, blank spots and desperate attempts to recall names.
− Fuck. So it is all down-hill from here on in? Does it have to be? Shouldn’t I have one last fling? Another joust at the windmills of life? Take on a big challenge? Bite off more than I can chew?
− You really do fancy yourself as Don Quixote, don’t you. I was thinking more of Sancho Panza…
− Or maybe Brando in On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”
− What I’ve told you is what will happen if nothing else changes. How it might be if the context stays the same and you don’t make anything happen. There are two options. Either you try and make changes, rather than strutting and fretting your last 213,000 hours upon the stage, or the world will change so fundamentally that whatever you think you’re going to do will be changed for you.
− And?
− And I’m not going to tell you how the world will change that will affect your life, but rest assured it will. I’m going to say that regardless of how the world is going to change – the climate, the migration of your species, the religious violence, the political violence, the economic injustice blaadie blaadie blaa – you’re going to have to make your own changes. Start with the hours in the day. Start with the minutes if you prefer, but make some changes, because the life force will not always be so strong. The opportunities for change will not be so great.
− OK, so. Any suggestions?
− That’s for another day, if you can spare some of that wasted time to think about it.

This is it

First you have to recognize that what happened to you, either as a child or maybe later, affects the way you treat other people, particularly your own children. Then you have to accept that even though you believe you are not doing what was done to you, even working against it, you emanate it in yourself and how you are in the world. For most people, most of the time, these are positive things. We were brought up to know good from bad and to hold dear moral values which we demonstrate and inculcate in our children, and even those around us. We are attracted to people who espouse and demonstrate their beliefs are like our own.
But let’s face it, it isn’t so clean and nice as that
If you were brought up to believe that you were lazy or stupid, and you hated your parents for portraying you in that way, you might be very aware of not letting that affect the way you bring up your own children, or treat your loved ones, but equally, you probably spent your whole life over-working in order not to appear lazy, or being addended to knowledge in order not to seem stupid. Your children begin by seeing you as the perfect role model, (though it’s obviously all down hill from day one), but your diligence and intelligence become aspirations for them. And you do judge them in the way you were judged, even if you try not to.
In truth, most of the gnarled and warped traits which are subliminal, the ones you want not to present, have much more negative effects on those around you, and they may never be comfortable with the thing they think or feel you want them to be, even if you actually don’t want them to be that.
To be fair to your parents, and the generation that they represent, they themselves were not treated well, and in most cases, suffered privations and abuses which were considered perfectly acceptable. They were almost all slapped or worse, without any claim to being mis-treated. They were expected to be seen and not heard, to be made to do work at a young age, to be given less physical love than they needed and so many more negative things, and they passed on much of this without change, because it was ‘the norm’ for them.
What about if you were deserted or ignored and left to fend for yourself in growing up? Did you achieve despite the lack of support, and as a consequence, expect others to do the same, or did you suffer for the lack of support and do you over-protect others and try to compensate? How many people actually believe that their children have it too easy and that the protection of this generation will lead to less independence and less achievement? How many others believe that the pressures to achieve and succeed have never been so intense as they are now, and that the relative wealth of society means that a net of secure love and material security should be installed under the tightrope they are walking? I think that if you survived an upbringing that was not positive, you will have to resolve in yourself the conflict between wanting it to have been OK, and so accepting its hardships as ‘acceptable’, and wanting to recognize its inadequacy and to avoid such suffering in others.
You want everyone to fulfill their potential. You reinforce their behaviour that is goal-directed and you recognize their achievements, but do you set an impossibly high bar for them because you never felt good enough yourself? Do you even recognize achievements that are not among your own goals? Worse, do you subliminally re-iterate the messages you were given about not being good enough?

Feline blues and browns

I woke at six and felt a level of unattributable anxiety which forced the dim morning onto me. It might be the minor aches of middle age, or one of those new fantasies of death which creep into the day, or it might be the future’s vacuity rattling my cage. Whichever, there is no easy way to turn over and doze. The best is not to dwell in that space, but to turn on the tablet and read. Which I did for half an hour before the head cleared. Thanks Kevin Barry. It reminds me that you write your best work at this time of the morning in a dream-like state before speaking, reading, Facebooking or eating. Brave or slavish? Who cares if the art is there.
What happened to languor? And where did the urge to rise and meet the challenges of the day retreat to? These days, this February, it is harder than ever to see the hours ahead as full of promise. There’s a kiln full of glazing to do. They’re coming to replace the front door today too, unless they’re doing what seems fashionable again this year and not turning up. It’s a day for the gym and maybe a trip to the market, and yes, to drop into the opticians to see if they can help me because I’ve got a screw loose. There’s a host of possibilities, none of which shines on me, but it is time to get up and out and just face the day – never mind fucking seizing it.
The putrid smell hit me as soon as I opened the kitchen door. The cat was whining for his breakfast and yet the smell suggested he’d vomited on the floor somewhere. That wasn’t altogether a unique occurrence and since the fat animal has no control over his eating habits, a product of desertion as a kitten, he is apt to eat till he’s sick. It doesn’t mean that he’s off his food either, becoming more hungry as a result of evacuating his stomach. I fed him his biscuit and a third of a pouch of whiskers stinking tuna which at least masked the smell a little.
But this smell somehow transcended the smell one might expect from regurgitated food, which isn’t particularly odourous, and it was reminiscent of something more anal. And there it was, a huge pile of shit in the corner of the kitchen floor, over by the bread bin. OK, so he’s kept to the tiled area, rather than going behind the sofa, which wouldn’t be a first, but that was not going to wash as an apology.
Fifteen is supposed to be 105, if cat years are one seventh of human years. Fifteen, in my book, is long enough. The cat is going senile, becoming unpredictable, and while he spent his first fourteen years being put out every night to hunt or sleep in a warm spot somewhere, he’s started being allowed to stay indoors. It’s been an insidious thing, initially because the weather made opening the back door almost impossible, and then because it was deemed kind to him, respectful of his age.
Which brings us to the nub of this issue. Empathy. In my view, pets are chosen as a service to people, and empathy should be reserved for humankind. Note the definition presented by psychologytoday.com:

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors.

Do you see any mention of cats there? Do we know any cats with shoes? And how do people feel what cats are feeling?

Here’s another one:
Anthropomorphism: The attributing of human characteristics and purposes to inanimate objects, animals, plants, or other natural phenomena, or to God.

In my book, we choose to own pets to make us happy or relaxed or to push us to get out more or whatever, and they fulfill that role well. Some even clock up a reputation for devotion which, in human terms, deserves a gentle, cared-for retirement. In fact, this cat was rescued in the first place, so the succour started on day one.
I certainly see that, in the case of a dog, anthropomorphic empathy makes some sense, given their loving devotion and unqualified commitment. But this cat has wrecked carpets, scratched eyeballs, and in recent memory, bitten through my finger, causing some vile infection. The fat old fucker who shat on the kitchen floor can’t have wanted to do that there. Cats are private about their shitting. In fact, I can’t say I’ve found many cat turds in the garden in the last fifteen years. But in this case, someone (and there are only two of us here) chose to empathise with the cat last night, when the rain was lashing the windows and the wind was lifting stones, and left him indoors. It has become a habit since the storms, since Cambodia, and he has had the run of the place every night, so long as he gets out during the evening for a crap, which last night he clearly didn’t, or if he did, he has mighty bowels to produce about half a kilo again during the night.

And here we are, trying to equate empathy with the cat’s useful life, his level of suffering through old age, when his habits, not to mention his aggressive neediness are repulsive. There’s a chorus of ‘aahhs’ from the cat lovers cries of ‘shame on you’ from those holier than I who don’t have to live with this animal.

Being home

I was just back from another world and floating into the fog, and when the air cleared, I was submerged in work. The work is mechanistic and impersonal, but needs attention. More attention than I have to spare. The other world still held me and re-entry was hard. Still, January could be far worse with nothing happening. Work flows in, time passes and finally the mornings are bright. It’s probably better that way. The days pass more quickly and there’s a sense of purpose, even when the purpose is meaningless – other than making a crust.
I read about impending doom with a world teetering on the brink of financial ruin. I read about the Irish economic bubble (deja vu). That would be the sort of bubble which forms in the mouth of a rotting corpse perhaps. Ah, no! Come on now! Sure, we only just pulled ourselves out of a six year recession by dint of diligent hard work and austerity. Doesn’t that word make you think of monks? I’ve stared in the faces of the Irish workers and seen few monastic features. We seem to be fine. We’re cloaked in local comforts, local worries. We examine ourselves for blemishes and they are there. We examine the world around us for warts, and sure, they’re there too – but it’s all within the comfortable space we occupy. We don’t want to see anything bigger.
And that other world is not what it seemed, all exotica and mystery. It’s dry and hard and hungry. It’s enveloped in subjugation. They aren’t insulated from the world. In fact, they’re more encroached by it than we are, in the monastery here. Get a grip and take the heat of the kitchen. Focus on what’s in front of you and not on what you left behind. Did the astronauts look at the world at a distance once they climbed out of the capsule? Nope. They got wet in the Pacific or wherever.

Coming home

You wake early. It’s getting light, but the light is like a twilight and there is no telling what the time is without digital help. The jet lag hasn’t worn off, despite the Melatonin spray, and the night’s been blowing through you. The wind has howled through cracks in the window frame and the driving rain has pelted your sleep. You dreamed of a fire in a mansion, of rescuing keepsakes and finding a safe place to sleep, and then trying to repair all those rooms. Perhaps your subconscious converted the storm to a fire for the dream.

It’s only four days since you were sitting by a pool after breakfast among the palm fronds and red hot pokers, listening to the geckos and unable to imagine cold. That euphoria hasn’t quite worn off yet. That feeling of peace which holds down the rising stresses still holds you.

New York’s latest storm has made its way across the Atlantic and arrived to rip the guttering from the back of the house. A bucket stands in the kitchen to catch drips from the RSJ, which is undoubtedly eroding quietly in its groove, and the dehumidifier’s gentle hum signals the start of another week of the front door saga. Oak is not good for exterior doors apparently – it absorbs water and swells – did that come into any conversations back in the heady days of 2006, when every joinery in the south of Ireland was on overtime? No I don’t think so.
And now we will have teak, painted teak. Only two weeks ago, you watched as wiry youths dressed in swimming trunks or loincloths punted bamboo rafts down a tributary to the Mekong, each raft laden with slabs of Teak from the rain forest of Ratanakiri. You bemoaned the pillaging of Cambodia’s last hardwood, and the exploitation of a crushed nation by its dominant neighbours, and here you are buying teak for your front door…

The light. It was the quality of that light in the intense shimmering heat and humidity which gave you the energy. When you drink six litres of water and it goes straight through your skin to soak your clothes, and the mosquitoes are whining, its impossible to think of winter. But when the wind blows and the rain falls and your clothes are only soaked from without, the rain and wind and cold is insidious. Ten weeks and not one dry day to remember. But that light and those days, and that moment-by-moment existence where unanswered questions hang in the still air. It temporarily changed things for you.

Joe and Mikey

In the winter of ’55 I became a chorister at Westminster Abbey, and boarder at the choir school. The school comprised only thirty six boys aged between eight and thirteen, whose rigid timetable included as much time at choir practice as in class. We were treated like army cadets, and discipline drove us. We were at an age then when war was on our minds. Most of our fathers had fought, and one boy had been born in ’46 after his father’s death in action. He always engendered sympathy when his mother came alone on exeat days to collect him for the three-hour excursion, while the rest of us were met by both parents. Sometimes I envied the drama of his father’s death.
Exeats were scheduled every third weekend, on a Saturday afternoon, and the boys looked forward to them with a passion. Three black marks on the board for bad behaviour between-times meant an hour less exeat, in detention, while our parents waited patiently outside in the car or strolled through the cloisters, and we lived in fear of losing that time with our families. The alternative was a beating by the headmaster, which was considered by the boys to be preferable to black marks. If we could have chosen, we’d all have chosen the corporal punishment over the emotional one, but the headmaster gave beatings for more severe misdemeanors like theft or bullying, while a black mark was given by the masters for talking in class, or running in the corridors. Beatings took place in the headmaster’s study, after classes or in the evenings, with a variety of sticks or a cricket bat.
Francis Talbot, the headmaster, was a tall and serious man with bushy eyebrows and thinning hair. He had been a captain in the army, and as a fluent French speaker, he’d apparently been involved in some very secret missions in North Africa in ‘44. He had served in the Eighth Army, in Algiers, and we boys made up more stories than could possibly be true about his wartime exploits, and enacted Monty’s battles against the Gerries, involving sand dunes and imaginary grenades whose pins were always pulled in the teeth. Despite his severe style, and his military ways, Talbot was considered a fair and reasonable man, and his beatings were always meted out in the name of justice.
One evening, I had been dozing, listening to whispering further along the row of beds in the dormitory. It was a Wednesday in February, and the bare room was cold, so I had my blankets pulled well up to my ears, and the hospital corners I’d made up that morning, among the best in the dorm, held the bedclothes tight against my legs.
The dormitory, one of four, comprised 9 narrow iron bedsteads on a plain wooden floor, interspersed with upright chairs. Each boy had to fold his clothes on the chair according to specific instructions, much in the way soldiers in barracks might, and each was inspected for neatness before ‘lights out’. The bathrooms for each dormitory included two baths and six washbasins in one room, so each boy was scheduled one bath a week, often shared with another child, and we queued for the toilet before the final bell of the day was rung by the duty master. It was an old hand-bell with a long wooden handle, carried from room to room by its clanger and shaken in each at 7.30pm to signal lights out. Using the toilets after that was forbidden, and wetting the bed, while not uncommon, was the subject of merciless teasing. I wasn’t known as a bed-wetter, and if I cried at night, with homesickness or a sense of rejection, it was something I did silently, under the pillow.
Mikey Johnson, in the next bed to me, was shifting noisily. He’d just returned from the bathroom, where he’d been to wash himself, and was crying quietly. Wednesday was Clinch’s duty night, which meant Mikey had just had a visit, as he did most Wednesdays.
Mr Clinch, the maths master, or Fiddler, as we nicknamed him, liked to come to the dorm at around 10 at night, once the matron had left for the evening, and when most of the boys were asleep. He was a large man in his forties, with lank hair and long fingernails. He wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and a striped tie, hanging loosely over his paunch. He had a habit of pursing his lips, as if to blow a kiss, and he liked to hold boys by a shoulder while talking to them. Sometimes, when he came into the dormitory after lights out, he would just stand in the shadows, listening to the boys’ breathing and then leave silently in his crepe soled shoes.
Tonight, like many other Wednesday nights when I had been awake, Clinch stood over Mikey’s bed in silence, then slipped one hand beneath the covers to explore Mikey’s genitals, while he masturbated with the other. Tonight he’d made Mikey hold his penis when he came, breathing quickly and hard. I lay silently, shuddering in fear, unsure what exactly was happening, but knowing how scared my friend was. He’d told me this wasn’t the worst that could happen. That took place in Clinch’s bedroom on the top floor, under the eves. Now Clinch left Mikey in the bathroom and slid noiselessly from the room, presumably to go back to his own bed.
*
For over a year, Mikey’s life had been plagued by Clinch, and sometimes by a couple of his friends, who were not working at the school, but who seemed friendly with most of the staff, helping out with school trips and sports events. Mikey had always been a quiet boy, and the rumour was that his father had committed suicide when Mikey was a baby. I liked him for his gentleness, and he was generous with his pocket money when it came to the weekly trip to the tuck shop. We shared a private language and spent the hour of free time after prep each evening together, either on the roof playground, or in the school cellars, hiding from Loats, the school caretaker. Loats cleaned the boys’ shoes, and often bought Mikey sweets in exchange for some sort of game he played with him in the boiler room that Mikey wouldn’t talk about. The boys who knew about Clinch and Loats often speculated about whether they were in it together, whether Loats learned from Clinch about Mikey or vice versa. I wondered why he got the attention of both men. It was as though they both sensed he was vulnerable and accessible – but then in all likelihood, they had talked about him.
Mikey was my best friend, and he was one of the choristers in the choir. The choirmaster was always giving him the most difficult solos, which we all coveted. He had made a name for his performance of the Allegri Misereri, with its top C, which was always the subject of stiff competition among the seniors, when he was only nine. He’d also been chosen to sing the unaccompanied opening of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ on our Christmas carols album that year. He was hoping to go on to Westminster School after his voice broke, where he could train to be a tenor, and later he might get into Kings Cambridge, which had the best choir in England. Everything depended on a scholarship, as his family wasn’t rich enough to pay the fees. Mikey was bright, but I was ahead of him in class, so I always helped him with his maths, and his status in the choir gave me a reflected kudos.
I had been to stay with Mikey in Essex during half-term once, when my parents were abroad, and I enjoyed time with his mother, who was lovely, but somehow fragile. She listened attentively, and unlike my own mother, she didn’t smell of cigarettes and whiskey. My parents were always rowing, and as the fourth child, I was left to my own devices a lot. Once, they’d forgotten to come to collect me on exeat day, and had to be phoned and reminded by Mr Talbot. I sat alone in the classroom waiting over an hour for them to drive into London, and cried in self-pity, till we went to the local Wimpy for the remaining time.
The first time Mikey confided in me about Clinch and his friends, he said he trusted me not to tell stories to the other boys, though I knew that others had witnessed the Wednesday night visits, and had said nothing. He’d told me some of the terrible things that Clinch’s friends had made him do, and though I felt powerless, I sometimes fantasised about calling the police. I had considered telling my mother about it, though she never listened to me about what went on at the school. My parents actively condoned the corporal punishment, so I was not sure they would see these activities as inappropriate. I couldn’t write home about it in my weekly letter, written on Sunday evening in ‘prep’, as all the letters were checked by the duty master, who was usually Clinch. Mikey and I often talked about running away from the school together and living in the forest, but the choir school was in the centre of London and neither of us had any idea of how to reach freedom.
Some days Mikey would be called to Clinch’s bedroom for an hour or more, and would return to the dorm in tears, unable to move in bed without moaning in pain. Other times, he’d be called out in class to stand beside the master’s desk so Clinch could run his hand up Mikey’s trouser leg in front of the whole class while they kept their heads down, pretending not to know what was being done.
Mikey wasn’t the only boy who received this attention. Several of us had many times been ‘tickled’ by Clinch up the trouser leg in class while asking for his help with a maths problem. There were boys who thought this was some sort of fun, some sort of affection, even courting the experience. But I knew from Mikey how it could lead to more painful and awful punishments, and so I always held back, even when I wanted help with my work. Only the senior boys, in their long trousers, were left in peace, and they called Clinch a ‘shirt-lifter’, though I didn’t know why.
“Why don’t you talk to your mum about it?” I had asked Mikey. “Surely if she knew what Fiddler was doing, she’d come in to see Talbot and get him into loads of trouble.”
“I once told her a bit of stuff and she hit me and told me I was lying. She cried a lot, and I don’t think there’s any point, as she won’t do anything. She’s scared of coming into the school to talk to Talbot,” he said. “She’s worried he’d expel me and she’d have to have me at a day school, so she couldn’t work full time.”
*
On this particular Wednesday night, I took a chance and left my bed to sit beside Mikey in the dark silent dormitory, and ask if he was OK. Unfortunately, I couldn’t scramble back into my own bed before the Matron, returning to the surgery for something, saw me and dragged me by the ear down to the headmaster’s office. I can still remember the terror I felt as we walked the long corridor to the study door. While beatings were fairly regular for some boys, I had not been subjected to any nighttime punishment, which I’d heard was far worse than the daytime beatings, because pyjamas were less protective than trousers.
I can still feel the warmth on my legs from the small curve-backed bar fire by the headmaster’s desk that night, and even now, after sixty years, I have the urge to cough from the musty smell of books and the distinct smoke which pervaded his study, from pipe tobacco that Mr Talbot always kept in his jacket pocket in a leather pouch. The room was small and tidy, with its mullioned window overlooking Smith Street below. It was lined with shelves of cream spined paperback books in French, and wide grey ring-binders inscribed ‘School Accounts 1948’ to ‘School Accounts 1954’. On the shelves in front of the books were several small tribal ornaments, a primitively carved crocodile which must have been painted at some stage, a naked woman in ebony, her breasts pointed and her neck encircled by many rings, and a pale elephant in bone or ivory.
Across the room, behind the closed door, hung a large framed world map in many colours, identifying post-war political powers, and a green baize pin-board covered in timetables and notices. I could see the arrangement of thumbtacks there which someone had made; the shape of a question-mark, and the head’s mortar board hanging on the hook beside it, with the long black silk threads of its tassel hanging down. The image is as sharp as a new photograph, a super-real memory carrying more detail than I would have been able to describe five minutes after leaving that room. It’s a memory charged with emotions I haven’t felt since that night.
It was to be six strokes on the buttocks through the pyjama bottoms, while touching one’s toes, in silence. If you cried out, you had more strokes. If you didn’t thank the headmaster and apologise formally after the beating, that also resulted in more strokes. Six was the normal punishment for ‘talking after lights out’ in the dormitory.
“So, Weiner, what were you talking to Johnson about?”
I was surprised to have been asked anything before the beating. I didn’t expect to have any chance to explain myself.
“Nothing, sir. It’s just he was crying and I was checking he was OK, sir.”
I decided to say this much in the hope that the Head would understand I was only trying to be kind to Mikey.
“And what was he crying about?”
This question, which I saw coming, left me little choice. Either I’d have to lie, and perhaps be caught out because Mikey and I hadn’t worked out our story together, or to tell enough of the truth to help him, and myself, without spilling the whole story, which I just couldn’t bring myself to describe to the headmaster.
“Mikey…. Johnson, sir… well, Mr Clinch was… well sir, he was crying because he was upset by Mr Clinch, who was by his bed, sir.”
Was it enough? I couldn’t bring myself say more.
“What was Mr Clinch doing by his bed?”
And there it was, the perfect chance to tell the Head and be able to say later I’d had no choice.
“I don’t know sir. He was… well he was sort of undressed a bit, sir. He made Johnson…” “What did he make him do? Come on, out with it.”
“He, er, made him touch his thing, sir.”
And that was it. I couldn’t think of how else to say it, and somehow I just knew I had to say it. Talbot was silent. The cane lay untouched on the desk. He sat straight-backed at my side, his head slightly bowed. I thought then that I had done something right and in exchange, would be excused the beating.
Finally he spoke. “OK, Weiner, bend over.”
I was shocked to find out that the punishment was going ahead, despite my excuse for talking. I felt a huge injustice was happening, and I became angry, as I silently clutched my legs and heard the swish of the cane. I felt very little pain, and when I stood to say ‘thank you sir’ and ‘I’m sorry I talked after lights out’, Talbot could see my defiance.
“I know you consider that you should not be beaten for helping your friend, but you broke one of the rules, and if I didn’t punish you, others would feel free to break the rules. Nevertheless, you did the right thing in telling me what happened. Your honesty does you credit. I’ll trust you to keep this to yourself. Just you remember that there is no talking after lights out. If I hear you’ve been spreading gossip, you’ll be straight back here and it’ll be the worse for you.”
*
The next day, Mikey’s mother came to the school and after a long meeting in the headmaster’s office, with Matron present, Mikey was taken home for the weekend, even though it wasn’t an exeat weekend. He came back to the school on Monday, though he seemed withdrawn and dejected, and he didn’t talk to me. By the end of that week, he was gone, and I never saw him again.
I didn’t try to contact him, as I thought he must be angry with me for telling the Head, and I didn’t get the chance to ask him what had happened, before he left. We didn’t get to say goodbye, which felt wrong, but while I often thought of how our friendship had been important to me before that night, and what it had taken to break us apart, I made friends with other children soon after Mikey left the school. I thought of Mikey going to the local secondary modern and having to make new friends, which would be hard. I wondered if there would be teachers like Fiddler Clinch there who would recognize his vulnerability. I’d been teased a lot at home about my posh accent, and I wondered if he was being bullied and rejected out in Essex. I knew he wouldn’t be singing any more, and that he wouldn’t be trying to get a scholarship to Westminster School, or singing tenor at Kings College Cambridge. I might have saved him from Clinch and his friends, but in that moment, I had taken away his future, and I felt responsible for ruining his life, even though I knew nothing of his feelings.
Fiddler Clinch didn’t leave so quickly, and it was the end of that term before he was replaced. What had transpired between him and the Head, I could only speculate. The other boys gossiped about Mikey telling his mother and her telling the headmaster, as I held to my word and would tell nothing of what I knew, but Clinch went on to another prep school, presumably with good references, so we had no reason to assume he’d been fired. I spent the rest of that term avoiding Clinch whenever possible, as I was sure he would know it was me who had told Mr Talbot. Every time I was asked to bring my work to the front of the class in maths, I became more scared, and my marks went from the best to among the worst in the class. Fiddler didn’t engage with me at all, so I knew he knew it had been me, and he no longer visited the dormitory at night or touched any of the boys in class, and Loats disappeared, though I had said nothing about him. That made me think that Mikey had given a fuller account of what had been happening to him, during his meeting with Mr Talbot, and in a way, it helped me to get over my guilt about reporting him. Mr. Talbot took evening duties himself for a while, and he was very solicitous with me, as well as other boys who were upset by Mikey’s departure. Some of the time I felt empowered, and part of a privileged secret, and then I felt completely at sea with what happened as a result of my actions. Who was responsible for what had happened? Me or Clinch? Had Mikey wanted help? It was strange to feel so helpless once I had begun to open the floodgates, and to find it wasn’t about me. I’d have liked to have someone to share my secret with and ask whether I’d been right that night, but there was nobody.

Predictable

It’s been raining for days, weeks. The air is saturated and nothing is drying. The front doormat is swollen where water has seeped through the door, or under it, and the wood has swollen so that the door doesn’t open without great force. Closing up the house is almost impossible as the door no longer slams. It was expensive, but we installed it during the Celtic tiger years and it was clearly sub-standard when made. It is oak, but might as well be pine.
I got up to find all four windows on the car were half-open, and had presumably been that way all night. It seems they must have opened because of an electrical short-out, or else someone came into the yard during the night and opened them for fun. It may be that the door fob made that happen. I seem to remember being told by the car servicing guy that if you press and hold the locking button (or if it is pressed accidentally in your pocket for any length of time, the windows all open. Why, I have no idea. Is that a safety thing, in case some small child is trapped in the car you can’t get to them? The result is four soaked car seats and presumably lots of damage to the upholstery. Nice.
I made some coasters yesterday afternoon and by rights they should be too dry to impress the client’s logo on, but this morning they were as soft as they were just after I’d made them. They won’t be dry enough to turn this afternoon, so perhaps it’s just as well that everything has slowed down. No more headlong rush through the process.
At ten I’ll be hosting a meeting of the Chamber of Tourism committee on the commercialization of the website. We’ve got three potential suppliers coming in to talk to us, but they will see this as a marginal call – hardly worth the trip, and the committee will see it as a gargantuan task of great importance to ensure we find the best performing supplier – the one who will go the extra mile for us. Once the recession ended, half the world still thought all suppliers should continue to be inordinately grateful for crumbs, while the other half woke up to the seller’s market and resigned themselves to chasing suppliers. I had phone calls from customers arguing about my prices and wanting discounts, long after I had any interest in discounting. Out of fifteen agencies approached for this contract with the Chamber, only three have made any effort to respond. I don’t have high hopes.
The meeting will be attended by one or two businessmen who understand what is wanted and one or two jobsworths or justice-seekers who feel it is incumbent on them to stop others being commercial at all. They see the Chamber as some sort of club like the Round Table or the Rotary Club or the Lions. There will be arguments about what is fair and right, what is worth the money and what is not, what is progress and what constitutes loss of power. The Chamber seems to be a small pond for fish, who see themselves as too big to swim in it, who only swim in it because they’re resting or retired or bored. I might ask why I’m involved. It might be because I want to help make it better, or because I truly believe it will benefit me, or perhaps I too am resting or retired, certainly bored.
After the meeting, there will be a requirement for a little shopping for items in the market which are not needed, but which have been requested because Christmas is coming and then back to the email which will be all about surveys which are not progressing. Christmas really does freeze up all pipes. The afternoon will wear on. There will be more rain. I will not seek out the news, though there might be disasters elsewhere to spectate. I will not venture out or look for alternative stimulation. The evening will draw in, along with its rigmaroles. Lighting the sitting room fire, watching a little rubbish on TV, eating some quickly thrown-together food as herself is going to the gym and ‘don’t worry about food for me’. Time will pass inexorably.
The questions, which might otherwise insert themselves into the day: What is your purpose? Why do you do what you do? Is this it? Will rest on their combined laurels and not be asked.

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.”

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