Phew, have I been busy this month!
I mean, it’s not as if I did not expect to be busy this April, even a bit, erm, well, somewhat busier than usual. After all, I did register for #CampNaNoWriMo and set myself a target of 25,000 of the frequently elusive little buggers we trade in. I thought it would be a perfectly attainable goal while still attending to all my other usual daily grind, and still keep up with reading and reviewing — and, most important of all, sleeping.
In my bid to came to my decision more or less scientifically, I had looked at last November, earnestly, quizzically: it’s true that I had very little sleep, and that did next to nothing else, but I had managed to come up with over the required 50,000 words… So, can you follow my reasoning? Halve the goal, and the time you save will allow you to do half of the everything-else you would otherwise neglect… plus sleep, and if you sleep then work will be, will come easier, be it with words or not. It was a done deal, I had told myself.
And it is obviously dangerous when I try to make my minimally scientific, fact-based decisions. As dangerous as it is when I tell myself, matter-of-factly, with one of those of my rare bouts f finality, that anything would be a done deal. Run from me, people, run, run and hide in the desert. A ‘done deal’ apparently equals woman-on-a-mission. Or maybe it’s just the way Muse has of taking revenge. Because what Muse likes best is to take revenge: whenever I set high goals, and whenever I set low goals. Or, indeed, when I purposely set no goal at all. She’s like that, the little so-and-so.
Thus revenge she took. She hit me hard this time, and I could just not shake her. Ask Mr Cat-Herder and my GP about the unyielding solidity of my neck, shoulders and shoulder-blades, the painful inflammation and swelling on my knuckles. Ask Marmie Cat about his Love & Fuss and Lap Withdrawal Syndrome (quite acute, this time). Ask my pillows what I’ve been up to, sitting up against them, laptop balanced on my lap and Philips arm, Mr Cat-Herder gently snoring beside me, his arm hugging my thigh for lack of the rest of me. But this month I came up with roughly 100,000 words, of which I registered over 75,000. Than you Muse, for punishing the excesses of my irreverent and totally unintentional arrogance.
Of course, of those 100,000 words not all are good. In fact, I only registered 70-odd thousand because while casting my eyes over the manuscript as I set the compilation going on Scrivener, I found bits that quite literally set my tummy churning, and I promptly removed them there and then. I hate bad prose, especially if it is my own. It died an instant and irrevocable death, there and then. I’m sorry for all those poor words, but such is, erm — such are, however, the pitfalls of being prime matter and tools for wordsmiths.
Now I’ve got gaps. I’ve also spotted a couple of things that could fit in differently in the structure, and so before I fill in those gaps, or as I am filing them in, I shall be playing around with the different “scenes” a bit, just to see how things look. Sometimes it is good to have choices…
Writing is a permanent learning process. One of the things I learned from writing this manuscript, after struggling with the rewriting of my roman-à-clef since last November, is that my thing is indeed creative non-writing.
Whether this is so because it is what I’ve been writing for so long, or because it is actually a question of preference, as for instance preferring above all other ice creams that lush fig ice cream from the little square stall in Portimão where you could also buy homemade fresh full cream ice cream — I don’t know.
The other thing I learned is that I probably will not be able to write any decent fiction until I rake out of my past all that I’ve got to write about — and figure out how to write about those things. Before I can write anything else, it seems that I’ve got to sort out this memoir book, one way or another, editing all I’ve got written down, writing what’s still unsaid, untold. Only then do I apparently stand a chance to turn my words and thoughts to writing something else, to write about different things, in a different way.
But what I need to keep telling myself is that writing is a learning process. I’ve trained myself to write creative non-fiction; I am still training myself, always training myself. It’s an on-going process — I’d even call it a continuous learning process. I enjoy reading longform, creative non-fiction essays and articles. I enjoy picking them apart, see how their writers went about structuring them, what tricks from fiction writing they used, imagine how it could have been differently done, what other tricks I could use in their shoes.
As I’m training myself to write creative non-fiction, I know I can train myself to write other genres. I’ve got stories inside me. All I need to do is tell my imagination I no longer wish to keep it fettered and on a too short a leash. Tell my imagination that birds exist to fly.
In the meantime, I’m leaving you with an excerpt of one the texts I wrote during camp — actually, the very last text I wrote. It’s part of a chapter called Music.
During camp I used the Scrivener software, adapting the ‘fiction novel with parts’ template to my needs, using scenes as episodes or fragments thereof, and chapters as full memories/collections of related memories. It worked a treat, and this time I never even needed to design a timeline.
I’d love to know what you think about it.
early morning breakfast
We’re sitting having breakfast. Croissants – magnificent, buttery but flaky, puffed up, toasty, baked just right and with just the right balance of airiness and substance – with Seville Orange marmalade and black, fragrant Colombia coffee, a fresh cafetière that Philip has just brewed. The croissants are also fresh, he just burst back in from his trip to the local with two paper bags full of them. Life is good. We sit together and eat our favourite breakfast together and chat together. The television is on, as usual of a Saturday morning, loosely on the background, also with the morning’s freshest news.
And here we are, then, sevenish a.m. and sitting eating brekkie together and getting incensed about the apparently cretinous attitudes of Alfie’s father, the exploitation made of this child’s suffering for interests and ends totally alien to his needs, getting all muddled up with our mixed feelings, how dare the state, aliens to the family, people from outer space, anybody at all, how dare anybody at all presume they have the right to supersede a parent’s authority and decision over the life and treatment of their own child, their own blood and flesh, that piece of themselves torn and molded into a new life? How dare? How dare the lobbies, the pro-lifers, the Catholics, the church, the spurious “Alfie’s Army”? And how dare Italy? How dare the Vatican themselves? And how dare the parents? After all they’ve been through? After all they’ve seen their child going through? Don’t they see? Haven’t they been told the ins and outs of what is going on, the science of it, the medical facts and probable outcomes? Don’t they know what the future holds? Don’t they know? Don’t they believe? Don’t they understand the science? Don’t they understand science? And if we cry and suffer, in our love for animals, to see one suffering as much as Alfie’s suffering, and think that it is a mercy to let them go or to help them go and spare them any more suffering, why can’t we just extend that courtesy to our most loved human people?
— ‘Well, euthanasia is not yet legal…’
— ‘I know. And I’m not talking of euthanasia. Who would make such a decision, ever, especially about a little child…? I’m talking about applying the legal medical procedures available to us, once a medical scientific assessment of future, long-term life inviability has been made…’
— ‘Switching the machines off…’
— ‘Switching the machines off. Withdrawal of life support.”
— ‘Because in the end the only thing keeping him alive are all the machines he’s hooked up to.’
— ‘Exactly. And for how long will the child be there, hooked up to machines to keep him alive, to extend his life, suffering for nothing?
— ‘But we don’t know that it’s suffering.’
— ‘My point precisely. We don’t know if he’s suffering. Or how much he is suffering. We don’t know anything, except that his brain is being progressively destroyed, that he’s being kept alive and fed by machines, and there will be no reprieve, no miracle bringing him back to life. What happens when more of his brain systems fail? Hook him up to a dialysis machine? What about feeding him, when his digestive system collapses? Hook him to intravenous feeds…? For how long do they want to keep the child alive like that? It’s…’
And I falter. I was going to say grotesque, but I shrug away from the word. Maybe it is too much of a hyperbole, even for me, Hyperbole Girl. Inhumane, unconscionable, maybe those are more along the line of what’s applicable here. But what I cannot shrug from is that I feel the whole affair has been worse than grotesque. Treating our animal companions more compassionately than we treat human life feels just as grotesque. I’m thinking of Dad, yes, but I’m also thinking of myself when my end nears — because becoming a hospital-beached cyborg is the last thing I’d want.
— ‘I watched my dad dying, just like that… that’s what they did… what happened to him… and…’ — My voice becomes thin and small, shivering, strangled. My throat closes up. There’s heat behind my eyes, a light shower threatening up front. And there’s a vacuum growing in my chest, where air should be. How pathetic can I be? Still like this, after twenty-odd years? Or it it some sort of time-dislocated self-pity? I shut up. My father thing? It was grotesque. Overwhelming, demolishing, life-tainting. Haunting. Philip knows.
. . .
Thus we sit, eat, watch, debate. We share. Information, opinions, Saturday, the weekend, the moment, life. I argue with the telly. My voice raises. He laughs. Philip laughs, gently.
I’m always arguing with the telling, as if that would somehow go through somewhere and make a difference, change the world to a better thing, a better place. And he always laughs, gently, lovingly. I think he genuinely finds it endearing that I care so much about things that I actually argue with inanimate objects, that I need this little exercise in complete futility to settle myself at ease with the fact that there’s absolutely nothing little minions like me, us, can do about any of it, for the simple fact that democracy isn’t working, and Democracy, our Democracy, the real one, never really came, never really happened.
And the news change. New news that is old news. We still get incensed, though.
We get incensed about the government minister who’s been digging herself deeper and deeper into the shit. Or rather, the cabinet minister who is just being buried deeper and deeper in the shit. She didn’t know immigration controls were subject to targets, Amber Rudd didn’t. Oh, she knew there were some targets, but the targets she knew about were strictly administrative and just for internal management. Oh, but she didn’t know about them being applied like this. Or like that. Or that they existed for this. Or for that. And then again. Yes, she knew about targets, but they were not to be used against long term foreign residents. And all over again. And then the civil service shrugging blame away from their pristine shoulders, oh, but we sent the minister a memo about it, so she knew about the existence of the targets. And I tell Philip what I think — that Amber Rudd is much more competent than the prime minister she seemingly made her life mission and sole ambition to shield from the shit that same PM throws straight into the fan. But that I am very very sorry, but the narrative the public are being supplied is that a minister allows the civil service to devise and implement crucially important policy behind her back and without hers or Parliamentary consent, that she is sent a memo she doesn’t read, and that she knows bugger all about what is going on in her ministry. She’s for the sack and public ignominy, for whichever reason: either because she is too damn spaced out and incompetent, or because she’s just too damn competent for Conservative comfort, and therefore is up for assassination and consequently the sack plus party, as well as public, ignominy and neutralisation. Yeah. Incompetent bigots shall rule this country, the future. They will, all right.
— ‘Yeah, so that Gavin Williamson can become prime minister…’
I laugh, uncomfortably, a little nervously. Every time I have to think about Williamson, I do. He frightens me. But I also laugh at this…association by contiguity…?
— ‘So that Gavin Williamson can become whatever he’s set on becoming. He’s certainly got the right attitude…’ — I agree, my head bobbing up and down, my hands wrapped around the residual warmth of my coffee mug, now almost empty. Just like my trust on the political system we have. But I carry on. — ‘Probably, so that the future can be in the hands of Williamson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the likes of them… A scary future.’
— ‘A scary future indeed…’
— ‘And one of the reasons why I don’t want to stay here any more, even if I’m allowed to… Why I don’t want to be here for our future, not any more, do you understand?’
Phil understands. More than that, he feels just the way I do. We want a red government. We think the country needs another period like the post-war reconstruction period, driven by a series of minimally stable Labour governments, because only a series of stable Labour governments can redeliver what will pull us out of this society-murdering collective shit we’re in now. Only one such government can redeliver a national health system, a national education system, regulation of this rampant capitalism. And we both know that, as things stand, as this country has become, we stand no chances in hell of that happening. Not until people’s connection to all this materialism is again severed, and solidarity sprouts again from the cracks in society’s floor.
— ‘And I tell you something else, about this Amber Rudd thing. If someone like me, with such and innate and visceral hatred of the Tory Party in general and what they represent, can see a modicum of talent and competence in Amber Rudd, so can her party — She’s up for assassination, that’s what, and that’s why the civil service are now jumping on the wagon too…’
Because of course all this is not about the Windrush generation, or any immigration injustices committed by the current powers that be. This is all about Brexit, nothing less, nothing more. Rudd discredited and gone is one less Remainer in the cabinet. And Philip knows this as well as I do.
. . .
The news wander from here to there on the T.V., the country, the midlands, the West Midlands, our poor and maligned Midlands, this dark and rough, ruddy place nobody wants to come to or remain in, save for those who are born here, who are, more often than not, stuck here for life, their immobility dictated by the lack of opportunities dictated by their roots as their accents attest to. The weather. Other news. The world, briefly. Everything and anything, any whatever. We’re no longer listening, the talking box is just there as background, maybe as unconscious reminder, as we dive into this, our own land, another moment of this “ourselves territory”, made of smiles and light touching of hands and cheeks and talk and silences and a myriad other Saturday early morning complicities and coffee and croissants with bittersweet orange marmalade, that there’s something else out there that surrounds us and which we belong to, for better or worse. And then Abba come on the news. And I don’t know whether to rejoice or commiserate. For the news, and for Abba coming on the news. I tell Philip that.
And thus I jump to the news of Abba in the very same instant he does, with the same apparent gusto as he does. Here we go. And we land somewhere else.
— ‘Everybody likes Abba, one way or another. Even the people who don’t like Abba like Abba!’ — I tell him. And I pour myself my second, prevaricating cup. I’ll make up for it on another occasion, I tell myself. During the week. Two coffee-free days, just to please my doctor. But this is life that needs to be lived as it should be. As it must be. We’re here. Now. Together.
— ‘As long as they stick to one of their songs of the old times…’
— ‘But that’s exactly my point, hon! Do you really want to hear any of their songs murdered by their ruined voices? Like Roger Daltrey a few weeks back? Or that Simple Minds bloke, what’s his name? Or Bonnie Tyler? Or any other of the good oldies that have made a recent come back and murdered their old songs…? Those songs we’ve been carrying with us…? No! As long as they write and compose new material, and leave the good old goldies well alone! They mean too much for at least one whole generation!’
Phil laughs again. And in the end he agrees.
We don’t want to have the memory of a song that we loved, that meant something to us when we were growing up, when we were young, erased by a pensioned need for increased royalties or for renewed ego massaging, and replaced by any, seemingly arbitrary, unwarranted, indelible screeching. Let go of our youth, our young adulthood. Stop pulling and scratching at it. It’s ours. Don’t violate it, don’t damage it for us.
We want our memories inviolable. Perennial and permanent, forever ours, immutably.
As if to make the point, or as if he had remembered something out of the blue, Philip stands up and clambers up to the part of our shelves where we have the stereo and all our music, and starts rummaging around my stash of old vinyl. They’re all up on the top shelves, where I had to move them in my last ditch and desperate bid to save them from certain death at the claws of my beautiful Black Babies. They, for some reason, loved any opportunity that would come their way to scratch at them, in beautifully extended, long poses, as if practicing Pilates. The Boys don’t seem to have any interest in them; wood is more their thing, stray little prats that they are — oh, so true, you can take the cat out of the stay, but you can never take the stray out of the cat! — and thus my beautiful, diligently and laboriously antique-stained pine shelves are the thing currently under attack. Them, and the hardwood window frames. Because, yeah, well, isn’t it? And the alternative is not something we would willingly contemplate. But back to Philip’s rummaging of my vinyl.
— What’re you looking for…?
I knew I didn’t have any Abba, them being sort-of one of my secret guilty pleasures and, therefore it being far too naff for me to be seen buying their records — apart of course from a generalised lack of ‘the readies’ with which to by all the music I fancied, guilty pleasures or not, which meant whatever money I could allocate to music buying would have to go to my absolute first choices… and not something to shake my booty at. Besides, there was hardly the space in my bedroom to swing half a dead cat, let alone set me off dancing, and the living room, were it big enough too, would still have been strictly out of bounds for such unwholesome and ridiculous displays of mine.
Suddenly my mind was somewhere else, again trawling through time, as I watched Philip go through the records on the very top shelf, one by one.
— ‘Aha! Here it is. I knew I’d had it. Here, take this. Let’s see if there’s anything else… I can’t remember exactly…’
No, neither can I. But here it is now. In my hand.
— ‘I didn’t know we had any Abba records. When did you buy this?’
— ‘When you were at your Mom’s. In a charity shop. Good find, wasn’t it…?”
I marvel at my guy. This vinyl thing is supposed to be one of my obsessions, which I seemingly have mostly neglected and due mostly to my usual suspect, I.e., this perennial lack of the wherewithal which seems to be another recurrent theme in my life. And, frankly, mostly because I haven’t been as mobile as I used to, and trawling through charity shops is now a pastime I’ve had to consign firmly into my past. Another of my guilty pleasures that’s gone.
So, what does this guy of mine do exactly when I abandon him to a life of singleness and chaos to go look after my Mom when she comes out of hospital…? He takes it up. He buys Abba, Elton John, Beatles, Billy Joel, George Michael, whatever he can find. I had noticed the top shelf a bit fuller when I came back home, and both shelves slightly disarranged, but I had put it down to Philip’s record listening while I had been away, which he had shared with me over our nightly hour-long conversations. After all, he’s not exactly the tidiest of men.
Philip steps down to floor level, his face in that wide open smile of his, so much of the little mischievous boy still shining through, despite the years and the barrage of knocks that’s been our life. I love it when he smiles like that. That’s what I wanted this early retirement thing for, be it voluntary or otherwise Brexit-prompted, so that we could hold hands and smile like that while we still have the legs and the gumption to live a little bit of life.
Next thing I see Philip is setting the record to play. I am still half inspecting the sleeve, half watching him from under my eyelashes, half wondering whether I should indulge another trip to the past, half trying to resist the pull from my memories whatever else I think of doing right there and then. And I smile, a cheeky, cat-who-got-the-cream-and-wants-more smile. I smile at him, and he smiles back and swiftly resumes his place next to me on the living room settee, and retrieves his half-abandoned croissant and mug of coffee from the tray on the coffee table. To me, this man’s still the most handsomest of blokes, even though he needs to lose that damn pot belly of his and have a haircut. But then, so do I. And still, we both count ourselves as the luckiest people on Earth for having found each other. Weird, that, or what?