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Night At The Theatre

1

 

My son’s illness arrived abruptly one evening with every sign of stomach virus: vomiting, exhaustion, sweating, terrible bloating and pain. I said, Ring the café and tell them you’re not coming. I said, Stay in bed, don’t worry. I’ll bring you soup when you’re better.

 

He got better; he got worse. I had that feeling every mother knows: a sense that we hadn’t reach the bottom yet, that things would worsen, that my child was very ill.

 

I talked myself out of it. Why did I always assume the worst? What was the use to listening to all my think-positive podcasts if I couldn’t even weather my grown son’s ’flu when it arrived?

 

Then we noticed this virus was missing a few important features. Where was the fever, the diarrhoea? Why did we find him suddenly drenched in sweat? His pulse felt small and too deep inside his large wrists. I couldn’t keep up with its rhythm. His veins were disappearing; his skin yellowing. He was in wrenching pain, a violence within him that was mysterious and terrifying. No, he didn’t want food, nor water even. We urged him to drink, and then chased him to the toilet as he vomited again.

 

Rule out the appendix. Like American astronauts, the boy has no appendix. It disappeared in the middle of the night years ago, flying across four quadrants of his abdomen before being suctioned by the surgical staff of the same hospital where we finally arrived, weary from two days of our son’s violent illness, worried that he can barely walk now. We show the receptionist’s our doctor’s referral. We usher our son into the crowd of emergencies and tell him he’s going to be okay, not to worry, as he collapses into a chair and is sick between his knees.

 

2

 

You don’t need Becket. You don’t need Ionesco. Just spend the night in the annex off of your local hospital’s A&E and imagine you are in the theatre. You are in the theatre.

 

Your patience and tenacity are the price of your ticket. You pay first in the waiting room where you sit – that is, if you can find a seat. A&E queues feature a deceptiveness evidenced also in lines at Disneyland. You think your turn is coming, that finally you will gain entry through the big wooden doors that separate you from the doctors (the stars of this theatre), but you aren’t anywhere close. There is a whole other room that you hadn’t seen until now, as you angle yourself carefully in front of the receptionists’ thick glassed walls and assess just how long this may take.

 

There are ways around long waits: a head injury will do it, but also my son’s savvy manoeuvre: vomiting three litres of green bile in full view of dozens of horrified members of the public. Suddenly, the wooden doors open and he is ushered into a quieter corridor in which people with clipboards and stethoscopes busily attend those lined up in beds and chairs along the walls.

 

He is moved into an observation annex adjacent to where the paramedics park their ambulances, a room the size and shape of a Victorian factory workshop. The hours deepen into midnight and beyond. Spotlights from behind thick curtains light up one by one. From the dark recesses of the long room come voices. An old man with dementia calls from behind the blue curtains.

 

“Is there nobody to help me? Does nobody pay any attention?” He grows louder as the nurses pass him, bellowing at the top of his lungs, “HELP ME!”

 

When they don’t stop he tells them they weren’t worth saving, that the good men who went into Poland to save them should have left them to die.

 

“Does nobody here speak English?” he yells into the darkness. “Are you all a bunch of monkeys on vines?”

 

Across from him is young man he calls “soldier”.

 

“Soldiers like you,” says the old man, and then mutters more about the war, about Poland, about those who would be speaking German if not for the British. “You’re a good lad,” he tells the young man.

 

The young man doesn’t mind being called soldier. He must sense that the old man has no idea what is going on and he addresses him in a patient voice, trying not to contradict him lest the old man start yelling again. But the young man has had a seizure and is, himself, confused. I can see him under the spotlight, his buzzed hair revealing scars on his scalp, his teenage acne that has persisted into adulthood. He looks underfed and anxious, sitting unsteadily on the mattress with his big feet hanging off the edge. He asks the staff why his girlfriend hasn’t arrived. Where is his mother, too?

 

“Can someone tell my girlfriend, Jaz, where I am?” he says to any nurse who will listen. “I’m sure she is here. She is probably in A&E. Can someone go to A&E and ask for Jaz?”

 

He can’t call her because he has lost his phone and he can’t remember her number. He can’t remember when he last spoke to her either. After much persistence, a nurse goes to A&E and asks if a Jaz is waiting, then returns and tells the young man his girlfriend is not in A&E.

 

“Then can you call her?” he asks.

 

“What is her number?”

 

The young man says he doesn’t know, can’t remember, lost his phone. “Has anyone seen my phone?” he says. “Can you ask if someone has seen my phone?”

 

Hours later the paramedic who picked him up after the seizure wheels in another patient strapped onto a heavy gurney. The young man recognizes him, calling him over. “Have you seen my girlfriend?” he asks.

 

“Your girlfriend?” The paramedic is in a forest green uniform, his heavy belt stocked with medical equipment. He has black boots, thick arms, a dense moustache and a resonating voice that seems to fill the cavernous room in a way that all the people within it cannot. I love this voice; it has a workingman’s quality to it. It’s the voice of the guy who starts the car, fixes the pipe, stops the leak.

 

“Jaz,” says the young man. “My girlfriend, Jaz.”

 

“That the woman with you when we collected you? You told her not to come.”

 

“I never!”

 

“You specifically told her not to come to the hospital.”

 

“But she’d want to be here,” says the young man.

 

“You told her, Son. You told her not to.”

 

 

3

 

 

The old man begins bellowing again. He calls out that he is dying, that he wishes someone would come and give him a needle and end his life because that is how much pain he is enduring. “Not that you lot care!” he says.

 

He has a bacterial infection on his lower leg. I know this because I overheard the conversation he had with the doctor about it, a conversation the old man can no longer remember.

 

“That looks awfully sore,” the doctor had said.

 

“Yes, it’s bloody sore! That’s what I’m telling you!”

 

“We’ll clean it up for you—”

 

“I don’t want to get contaminated by these nurses! I might catch something from them!”

 

“—we’ll clean it up and get you some antibiotics.”

 

The doctor had moved along to the next bed and the next. The antibiotic was taken as a tablet and the cream ordered from the pharmacy. Now the old man can’t remember that he’s been seen at all. Perhaps he also can’t remember that he is too young to have fought in the war to which he is referring.

 

“Is nobody ever going to help me? HELP ME! Does anyone – anyone at all – speak English?”

 

The nurses try to tell him he’s seen the doctor but he won’t hear it. “Does nobody help anybody around here? Who is the General? And I mean the tip-top. I want to speak to the General!

 

4

 

Those who are very ill say nothing. My son exhibits a dangerous quiet while we hover around him making sure he is responsive to his name. We count out his pulse to the stopwatches on our phones, gaze at his chest as it rises and falls with each breath. His pulse is 127. His respiratory rate is just above 20. His hair stands with sweat. His skin beads with it. I am thinking sepsis and ask specifically about that. I am told no, it isn’t sepsis and not to worry about sepsis because they are very clued up about it.

 

“But you haven’t really seen him,” I say with as little accusation as I can muster. “And if you don’t get him an IV I think he will collapse.”

 

We get the IV. We wait for the doctor. We watch the drip and our son’s face and we listen as people from across the far ends of the room argue and explain and plead. We hear the nurse ask a woman to tell her what her name is, what her date of birth is.

 

“What’s the difference?” she says. Then, “Helen.”

 

On the other side of the thin curtain is a small, balding older man who looks perfectly harmless so it is a shock to hear him speak to his wife, who has dementia. He paces her bed, wrings his hands. He stares out at the doctors then back at his wife. She is doing something to annoy him.

 

I hear him say, “Don’t touch that! Don’t be so stupid!”

 

I hear him say, “Now look what you’ve done! That’s a needle, you know!”

 

She has removed the cannula in her hand. He hisses to her that she is a silly bitch.

 

“You fucking stop that, you silly bitch!” he says.

 

She answers as though he has just told her she’s baked a beautiful cake. “I know what I’m doing!” she says brightly.

 

“Yeah, you know what you’re doing!” He thinks nobody can hear him but his wife’s pillow is only a few feet from where I sit on a plastic hospital chair on the other side of the curtain. “Don’t listen to me when I tell you not to touch it! What do I know? Silly bitch!”

 

She tries to reassure him that nothing is amiss. “Nothing is wrong,” she says. Again, the bright voice.

 

“What do I know? Don’t listen to me.”

 

“I know what I’m doing!”

 

The husband emanates hatred and despair in equal measures. His wife, the one who once did bake cakes, who once really did know what she was doing, has been replaced by this new wife, who carefully strips the tape from her hand.

 

 

5

 

 

The old man with the leg is taken down a hallway. The soldier who is not a soldier spends the night where they first put him, near the arrivals by ambulance. He continues to fret over his girlfriend. We pass by him, curled anxiously on the gurney, looking buggy and confused, so thin he might have been admitted for any number of causes beyond his seizures.

 

Now we are in a windowless annex room with four yellow walls and no call button waiting for our son to be properly admitted to a ward. Once again, we can hear the old man. His bed must be just down the hall. He is apologising to the nurses, telling them he is sorry his has been yelling so much, that he is in pain. He sounds bewildered, lost. He begins to cry and I feel sorry for him. But even when he’s nice, he’s nasty. To one of the nurses he says, “Be a good girl or I’ll cuddle you as punishment.”

 

Ten minutes later he is back to his old self, insisting they take him for a wee. “I am desperate! I am going to burst, not that you care!” he yells to no one in particular.

 

Minutes pass; no one arrives. “I need a wee! HELP! HELP!”

 

The nurses come, but not in a hurry. It turns out the old man is incontinent. He has no idea if he needs to pee or not. “Get me to the toilet!” he yells. The nurse explains that he has already peed into the pad they provided for him and nothing is left, which is why they haven’t taken him to the toilet.

 

“We’ll clean you up and get you a fresh pad,” says the nurse.

 

He tells them they are hurting him, that they are stupid and Polish and ought to have been left to the Germans. “We lost good men!” he growls, then apologizes again.

 

“Sorry,” he says. “It’s not you. Not you, exactly anyway.”

 

His voice carries down the dark hall, croaking out his complaints: that he is being neglected, injured, ignored, left to die. That everyone here is foreign. “Good men!” he says. “They were a brave lot.”

 

6

 

My son’s condition worsens and he lies in quiet agony. We will later learn that his problem is an obstructed bowel. We will eventually watch as he is taken through x-rays, then CT Scans, then as he endures a nasal-gastric tube that is inserted into his nose. We will watch as he lies unmoving for the x-ray, nods consent to the scan, swallows the tube in painful gulps.

 

We hear the footsteps of the night staff that scramble to cope with the numbers arriving. We hear cries and shouts from people who are angry nobody is bothering to help when they are in so much pain. A broken hand, an ear that has been split on the rugby pitch. Many have chronic conditions that have flared up overnight: breathing, blood sugar levels, lymphodoema. The yellers are often not in terrible condition, not physically, that is.

 

I walk down a dark corridor and am stopped by a woman with wild hair moving stiffly along in her walker. She wants to know how my son is doing. “I saw him in casualty when you came in. He looked very serious.”

 

“He’ll be fine,” I tell her. I don’t know that this is true, but why not say he will be fine, that his gut will one day function again? It can’t hurt to believe he will be okay, can it? And he will be okay, won’t he?

 

The old man has started again. But now his inane shouts feel almost comforting. They distract me from my growing fear. I understand that the old man has dementia, that his racial slurs and ugly words toward anyone female are the result of his tangled mind. I can’t help wondering if this was always who the old man really was, however. That the dementia has simple removed a veneer of politeness that once hid his deeper self.

 

This is my own prejudice evidencing itself against old people, sick people, feeble people. I admire the nurses who ignore him as he tells them they weren’t worth dying for in battle. Who persist with his body, which is falling slowly apart as his mind dips and wanders.

 

His leg is the least of his troubles – I knew that from the beginning. But here is what I did not know: he is a regular visitor here. He must be because I now hear one of the nurses call him by his name as though he is familiar to them. Is that you, Roger? I hear. How’re you doing, Roger? Their voices are Polish, Portuguese, Irish, Australian, English. And they all know Roger.

 

A doctor arrives, a young guy whose bicycle helmet attaches to his knapsack and whose glossy hair is combed just like my son’s hair. He says an x-ray suggests an intestinal blockage but they are not sure. They need more tests and, yes, he will be admitted.

 

All night Roger continues, and I almost welcome his song of complaint because it helps keep me from thinking more darkly about my son’s condition. The nurses indulge Roger, “Thank you,” they say as he tells them good men died to save their blasted country. Or “How could we look after you, then?” when he tells them to go back to wherever they came from.

 

My son says nothing. I say nothing. We wait in the yellow annex. I make sure the drip is working. My son closes his eyes against the harsh light above. The woman in the walker offers a little wave as she passes by once again. Roger starts bellowing just as the doctor comes to tell us that we need to go to the surgical assessment ward.

 

“Are you trying to kill me?” Roger screams. Then, “Are there any English here? Are there any English?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pet Sheep? Sure, what could possibly go wrong?

I began keeping sheep as pets because I had almost four acres of very hilly pasture studded with trees and bushes. Even a tractor struggled to mow it and very few of the farmers thought it worth their while to try.

 

The previous owners of our property had tackled the pasture using a quad bike with a mower attachment, but they also kept big horses that could eat grass year round, while my native cob and her small pony friend were on restricted grazing more often than not. While the ponies’ patch of allowed grass was eaten down to stub, the rest of the field grew wild with coarse, stemmy grass, docks, nettles, buttercups and other weeds. By the edges of the stream that flows weakly along one side, bull rushes grew on the bank beneath a growing crop of blackberry bushes. Trees became choked by ivy and prolific, flowering vines. The ancient Perry tree dropped its fruit in autumn where it rotted, killing a circle of grass that was replaced in spring with fresh weeds.

 

Occasionally, I’d venture out with my favourite gardening tool—an Austrian scythe—and mow down bind weed and thistles and stinging nettles as high as my head. Or I’d get out a petrol-powered strimmer and knock back the thickening brambles. A circumference of mad growth widened around the trees and bushes with every season until a jungle of thorny vines crowded out all but the most intrepid gardener.

 

Along the borders, branches pushed against the fence lines, the woods threatening to push in. Come winter, the ponies nibbled on the long, browning grass that bent over new growth, but it wasn’t a satisfactory solution. The hillsides gathered a greater number of docks and thistles, growing impervious to my scythe. Herbicides could sicken the plants, making them droop yellow and brown where they stood, but they did nothing to decrease the numbers come spring, and something in me became unwilling to poison the land I’d volunteered to care for.

 

The farmers laughed at me when I suggested they could use my land for their lambs through the summer. Four acres turned out to be either four too few or four too many—it wasn’t worth their while to keep lambs on such grass and, by the way, what was the condition of my fencing?

 

I considered getting my own sheep I was told this was a terrible idea. Sheep would exhaust me by constantly pushing their way through fences, or jumping clean over them. I would race through woods with a feed bucket looking for them or, even worse, charge down the road by night hoping to persuade them to follow me before headlamps appeared and an accident occurred.

 

Anyway, the sheep would all die. I was assured that only farmers had the necessary knowledge to maintain a healthy flock. Farmers understood how to round them up and keep them in, how to dose, drench and, bathe and pour-on all the potions necessary to ward off such killers as liver fluke, foot rot, lice and scald. Only farmers could shear and crutch and dag in order to prevent the inevitable fly strike that killed in numbers in spring and autumn.

 

Even if I could figure out what they were talking about and stay on top of all the requisite managing, I was told that chances are the sheep would die. Sheep have a million inventive ways to die and they are reputed to regularly practice their death wish, dying by misadventure or fright or pneumonia. They would get bloat—a build-up of gas inside their gut that must be carefully reduced lest the sheep suffer an internal explosion. They would get worms that would require chemical treatment and strict pasture rotation to keep under control. They would contract any number of diseases, a few of which can affect humans. They would get fly strike, a condition in which flies laid eggs on their wool and the resulting maggots ate through the sheep’s flesh, emitting fatal toxins.

 

They weren’t only passive recipients of death, but active pursuers of it. My sheep would eat poisonous plants, actual garbage, get caught in fencing, become “cast”—that is unable to get up from the ground—until their organs failed and corvids plucked out their eyes. This could happen in a matter of hours, I was assured. I would come back from dinner party to find the remains of my sheep laid out in pieces on the ground. What the corvids left, the badgers would have.

 

They would die quickly and in agony, ill-suited for the natural surrounds that I had hoped they would manage.

 

Besides which, they made terrible pets. Pet owners did not know what to do with sheep and ended up with sick and dying animals in breach of every regulations set out of by the government with regard to farm animals. Sheep are food, not pets. Put lamb in your freezer, not your little pony paddock. Pet owners were too soft, misguided and inexperienced to even consider taking on sheep. You will be miserable, I heard over and over. You will regret it!

 

It was a bad idea, perhaps the very worst of ideas, to put them on my property.

 

And yet, I did.

 

The lamb in the photo at the beginning of this blog is the youngest of four that arrived a week ago. And below is a photo of me with some sheep from the first flock I bought, nine years ago. They came to as “shearlings” (year-old ewes) and we’ve been pals ever since. If you happen to want to keep sheep as pets, you’ll be delighted to know that this greenhorn managed somehow, though not without some trepidation. I’ll write a few blogs to give you an idea of what is required, and maybe persuade you to give it a try.

 

Photo by Jane Starnie

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Odd Ducks

Last month, I wrote about a cat in Ireland that adopted a nest of newly hatched ducklings and raised them with her newborn kittens. While normally she might have attacked the ducklings, the surge of oxytocin following her kittens’ births meant she adopted them into her family instead.

At least, we assume it was the oxytocin that temporarily blinded the cat to the fact she was mothering ducklings.

However, I revisited the question last night while reading Roger Fouts’ unmissable 1997 biography, Next of Kin, about Washoe, a chimp who was “cross-fostered” with a human family and developed the ability to communicate through American Sign Language. In addition to documenting Washoe’s extraordinary communicative abilities, Fouts incidentally describes a boyhood experiment with cross-fostering in which he placed eggs “under our old mother farm cat.”

When the eggs hatched, Fouts was astonished “to see the cat treated the little birds like they were kittens, cuddling them for warmth and licking their feathers.”

Fouts doesn’t describe the manner in which the ducklings nestled into the adoptive cat mother so I can’t say whether the story is exactly the same as the one in Ireland reported by Animal Planet. There is this one weird, possibly inexplicable fact about the ducklings adopted by the Irish mother cat: they were found latched onto the teats of the cat as though suckling.

The sucking reflex is common to all mammals, and not, as far as I know, part of a duckling’s developmental profile. Consider the facts: that mother ducks have no nipples, that ducklings have no lips. How could it ever be that ducklings would suckle like kittens?

Ducks are a precocious species. Unlike kittens, they are born with all sensory faculties intact and are expected to feed themselves immediately. Were they imitating the kittens?

I consulted Baldasarre’s book, Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America, and found this curious observation made by another naturalist back in the 1960’s: Their feeding was so vigorous that the noise of their bills sucking the water could be heard for a considerable distance (italics mine).

It turns out that dabbling ducks suck up muddy water at one end of the bill and squeeze it out at the other. Pink ducks do the same with plankton-rich water, the water squeezed fro their bills so yet retaining the plankton through laminae at one end. That may be more information than you’d like about ducks, but the point is that they can suck and that it is a trait they are born with.

Everything I read about pet behaviour as part of my course at COAPE explains why animals behave as they do, and how to understand more about them, if only to help those who can’t figure out how to get their dog to stop barking or their cat to stop peeing on their bed. Unusually, we are allowed–even encouraged–to talk about how animals feel, using the very same language with which we’d refer to a human.

I love science–but science both depends upon and recoils from conjecture. Remember Pavlov with his dogs? Pavlov hated psychological speculation of behaviour and wanted always to believe there was no subjective state of an animal that could be compared to humans. Perhaps that is why he was so keen on salivation, an unconditioned response that can only be elicited, but not learned.

What would he have said about the ducks sucking milk from a mother cat?

Perhaps it was an instinct, like sucking water. Would it be crazy to suggest they learned to attach to the teat through observation of the kittens?

Washoe, the chimp, learned how to sign through observation of humans around her. There were no discreet trials or structured learning–she wasn’t taught to imitate like a parrot but to learn like the emotionally sensitive being that she was. Her level of communication was amazing, human-like. What should we make of that? In my opinion, quite a bit.

It is worth mentioning that there was a similar, but much earlier experiment than the one conducted with Washoe. In the 1930’s two scientists, Winthrop and Luella Kellogg, reared a chimp named Gua like a child. They resisted any systematic teaching of Gua and treated it as they did their young son, Donald. The experiment was stopped abruptly, however. The chimp wasn’t learning verbal language and Donald, the Kellogg’s young son, began imitating the chimp with such precision–among other things, making food grunts at the dinner table–that his mother felt she had to abandon her efforts with Gua.

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Ducks & Hopelessness

Across the street is a neighbour whose daughter has grown from mindless swearing and hanging out in cars with her boyfriends to having her own children, who she treats carelessly, or worse.  Even so, unless this young woman is verbally abusing or slamming car doors in the face of one of her young children, I try to be friendly.

 

The neighbour keeps ducks, or used to. She’s had other pets, too. Dogs that never were walked, fish that swam briefly in cloudy water. Recently, the ducks were waddling down the road and she came out and gave them that I am exasperated with you ducks look that she has honed and perfected. The same look she used to give the barking dogs that never left their tiny garden.

 

I watched the ducks lumbering down the road and the neighbour saw me watching and said, “Why do they keep getting out?”

 

I wished she asked me why her grandchildren are withdrawn or distracted or whiney or ill-behaved because I could have told her it was probably down to the humiliation and shame experienced regularly at the hands of her dingbat daughter, but instead it was about ducks. Why do they keep getting out?

 

I told her wings was the first clue. A place to swim was another.

 

She said, “What do I do?”

 

She is worried about being an incompetent duck owner. No, that isn’t it. She believes her efforts with the unmanageable ducks are heroic. Meanwhile, her grandchildren are shouted at publicly and, I imagine, experiencing worse behind closed doors. But I can’t discuss this with her. If I so much as give the violent daughter a glance she tells me to mind my own f*ing business.

 

So, I thought about how many difficulties I have faced, or watched in silence unable to change a thing, and gave the only answer that made any sense.

 

“Follow them,” I said.

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Why Not Go To Trial?

Earlier this year, I wrote an article for Redbook in the US. I don’t know if I am allowed to post the whole thing on my blog now, but this is the beginning, with a link to the site on which the article is published…. 

A few months after we were married, my husband told me he had a terrible secret. If I’d known this secret, he claimed, I might not have agreed to marry him.

We were in South Wales, settled into a bed and breakfast among the great peaks of the Brecon Beacons, the bed so narrow it barely contained us. I’d never loved anyone as fiercely as I loved my husband — whatever the secret, it could not alter this fact. 

He could barely bring himself to tell me; the shame was so deep he struggled with each syllable. I waited for the awful confession, until at last he explained that when he was a child, he was sexually abused by one of the teachers at his prep school. He’d been eleven years old when it began.

Did he really think such a fact could change anything between us? Why on earth was he ashamed when he’d only been a boy? We talked about it, not all night. And among the many things that were said that night was that it was a very odd coincidence, if it were a coincidence at all, that I had been sexually abused as child, too, though not so young as he. 

“And that doesn’t bother you?” he said.

“It bothered me at the time,” I said. “Not now.”

He asked me how I wore it so lightly. I didn’t know. We’d just had the first of many discussions about what would turn out to be the biggest ordeal of my husband’s life, but I didn’t know that then. I told him it was all a long time ago. 

“Does that matter?” he said. “Don’t you ever want to kill the guy?”

“No.”

“Don’t you want to see him in prison?”

“No.”

“Did you want this thing that happened?”

“No,” I said. “Go to sleep.”

A dozen years later, my husband, Alastair, was a complainant in a Crown Court case against his former prep school teacher and won his case against the man who abused him. He served a short sentence, that was all. A year later he was free….Continued here

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#WhyWritersMatter

 

In my house, next to the kitchen phone, among the important items we don’t want to lose—keys, phones, ID cards—is a photograph of a handsome young man wearing a blue t-shirt and smiling into the camera. Behind him is a canopy of summer trees and the English sky coloured its typical sheet-metal grey. I visit his photo as though it may need some of my attention.I notice the smile all over again, and remember  him all over again: as a newborn floppy in my arms, as a five-year-old with his stack of Lego, as a young adult laughing at a picnic table in our garden, surrounded by family on an ordinary spring day.

 

Since his funeral last Thursday I am visited by thoughts of the beautiful wicker casket covered in flowers in which he was carried, solemnly and with great care, through the ancient church with its vaulted ceiling and dark pew benches below pretty stained glass. If you ask me how I feel about the death of this most beloved boy, I can sum it up in a these words: He was twenty-four.

 

That is enough information for you to know just how great a robbery was his death. And that something rare and terrible has taken place after which recovery cannot be complete.

 

If you have no idea what I am talking about, if you’ve never felt a heavy loss of a dearly loved child (I must make clear that he was not my son, but my friends’ son), I envy you. If you’ve never stood in a place of shocked speechlessness and horror and the fear of the future, which seems to hold nothing good anymore, nothing to reach for, I envy you.

 

Not all of us have these experiences: to wish you could sign away your own life in place of another, to be willing to follow even the most ludicrous, irrational faith if it holds a piece of magic that will save your child. Not all of us have had reason to stay up nights researching, then typing out what you hope aren’t hysterical-sounded messages to experts in a field of medicine you now wish you’d studied just so you’d know more about your child’s condition. Thank God, these experiences are rare.

 

I don’t envy those who hold lucky tickets or are among the world’s super-rich, or Booker prize winners, I envy those whose children are healthy and well. I envy those who have not sat in the specialists’ offices or spent every penny on medical consults, or hoped and prayed and bargained and pleaded. I remember wishing so much that my own child was ordinary and that I could count myself among those gifted ignorant folks who do not endure diagnoses or burials. My own son, still alive, thriving despite predictions, his unusual brain in turns both a gift and a curse.

 

T.C. Boyle has the most beautiful story, Chicxulub that brings the reader as close to an experience of such loss as can be rendered imaginatively. It won’t help to steel you for the moment that it is your friend or husband or wife or parent or child. It can’t make pain lessen.  It’s just a story.  But it is so unflinchingly and unforgivably accurate, depicting what parents feel through the darkening hours of fear, and that final, dreadful verdict upon a child they’ve loved more than they thought would be possible before bringing her into the world. It is as close to being there as you can be without being there, if you know what I mean.

 

I listened to Lionel Shriver read Chicxulub for the New Yorker podcast. As Lionel did during her rehearsal of her reading, I welled up through the build-up of the narrative, and cried at the end, not for the fictional characters within its pages but for all those real life daughters and sons whose loss brings a kind of annihilation.

 

Writers matter to us all because the unearth aspects of our everyday lives that deserve our reflection and attention.  Words honour loss. Words honour the dead. Words don’t make it any easier, but at least give a structure to our feelings that offers the illusion of safety within the chaos of our emotions. Writing brings alive memory. Just blogging about this boy I loved–and who was so loved by his family–allows me to hold him in my mind once again.

 

Writers can scare you to death without even trying.  Chicxulub will unsettle you, will bring into an uncomfortable space. It will surprise you–everything about it speaks of the strange mixture of inevitability and surprise that makes up our lives. Everything about the story screams warning, warning warning….How does one set about writing a story like that?  I don’t know and I write all the time. It is just what happens, or can happen.

 

Be brave: read the story.

 

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The Authors Guild has joined the Writer’s Union of Canada in celebrating why writers matter this week. If you use #WhyWritersMatter in tweets it will help tell everyone how you feel about them.

 

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The New Yorker & Me

 

The New Yorker has always worried me. When I was younger and only aspired to be a fiction writer the New Yorker was perhaps too far a reach for me.  I had no reason to fear it, and yet there was something too highbrow, too glamorous about it, a national showcase of short fiction. I dared not touch it.

 

Except I did. When I lived in America I spent time with the stories in the New Yorker each week in what I hoped was a rigorous program of self-improvement as a writer. I often read other articles, too, loving them and fearing them at the same time, because of course the world of the New Yorker was not my world. Even when writers wrote about the kinds of places I worked—convenience stores and mall cafeterias—they were depicted in a manner that made such ordinariness seem exciting. A crappy employee locker room at Hot Shoppes with its blocky punch clock on the wall and yellow light above the bench seats where you changed into the uniform, would have been rendered in such a way that it had a lustre I had not experienced in my real life as a bus girl.  The day my sister’s toe was squashed and she had to go to bed for days, lying on he back with the giant toe outside the bed clothes, the toenail slowly blackening and coming away, would have been some beautiful portrait of rural Maryland.

 

But only in The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker.

 

The New Yorker cleaned up squalor, made it magically beautiful or at least very cool. Reading The New Yorker had a lingering effect on me. After time in the public library, its pages spread out on a laminate desk, my mind transformed everything around me to fit into its prettified frame, as though seeing everything in my regular life with New Yorker eyes. For a little while anyway.

 

Let me tell you: nothing is interesting about shift work or a car that will not—cannot—pass an annual inspection, or the humiliation of the worst haircut ever at the ten dollar shop—except when such dreaded inevitabilities of life show up in the New Yorker. There, they are art. As for getting a story into The New Yorker, I would have loved that, but I couldn’t understand how they chose their stories, why this instead of that.

 

Not every story was to my liking—too long, too boring, nothing at stake, who cares?—but I looked for what others might admire. Anyway, who was I to assess? I did not live a New Yorker life. I read the New Yorker—good God did I—until I moved to the UK in 1990 and The New Yorker cost too much and wasn’t stocked in local libraries. I still got hold of copies…I’d been poor long enough to be thrifty. But my reading of the stories became spotty, late. I lost sight of my rigorous program of self-improvement as a writer and had babies, writing at nap times and between loads of laundry.

 

This is not a complaint. My happiest times ever were reading to my infant children, singing to them, rocking them. Along with some other wonderful and famous writers, Richard Ford contributed a list of his advice for writers to become successful. His number two was “not have children”. I got news for Mr. Ford, whose work I greatly admire and who has been in the New Yorker many times, you’d trade your Pulitzer for a child in a heartbeat if you ever knew what you’d missed.

But they are very messy, children. Nothing like The New Yorker.

 

So imagine how spoiled I feel now that The New Yorker has podcasts available for free. It’s too much for me. Every day is Christmas. I can hear Andrew O’Hagan read Edna O’Brien, or Allan Gurganus read Grace Paley. The reading of the stories matters immensely. In fact, I rather prefer listening to Kevin Barry than the story he read, which was Brian Friel’s “The Saucer of Larks.” I don’t know whether up and coming writers know what a gift we have in being able to access great work for free (once you’ve bought the computer, that is) but if the combination of podcasts, public domain writing, youtube readings, and poetry just everywhere all over the net doesn’t make for a renaissance in literature, I don’t know what does.  I love literary festivals but just switching on the internet can bring you a festival in a morning.

Though I am still somewhat cowed by The New Yorker.

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And How To Deal With Good Reviews…

 

Nothing makes an author feel better than getting good, early reviews of her book. While we cannot know how many readers will be won by such reviews, I am delighted with these beautiful quotes from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, not to mention the star!

 

 

“A nuanced portrayal of a mother and daughter at once linked and divided by a ferociously exploitative man….Treating June’s perspective as richly as Bobbie’s, the novel brings memorable depth to issues often oversimplified; Leimbach’s scenes are convincing, whether they portray harrowing abuse or subtle moments of healing.”—Publishers Weekly

 

“Leimbach is known for tackling tough subjects in an unflinching manner, and this novel is no exception. Bobbie’s story is often difficult to read, but the descriptions of abuse don’t come across as gratuitous or overdone. The alternating chapters, told from June’s perspective, show how insidious predators can be—her denial of the truth continues even when she is directly confronted with the facts. Readers who enjoy issue-driven women’s fiction—and who can handle the dark subject matter—will be moved by Bobbie’s story.”—Booklist, STARRED review

 

 

The full review from Publishers Weekly can be read here on their website. Meanwhile, I am waiting for the publication of Booklist, which has given AGE OF CONSENT a starred review. Today, it feels good to be an author. Tomorrow, of course, may feel different. And this is the life of a writer–everyone tells you what they think long after there is anything you can do about it. And would you do something about it? Mostly, you would not.

 

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On The Pleasure of (Not) Writing

I know writers aren’t supposed to admit this, but sometimes I don’t want to write too much. It’s good to have some silence, maybe let someone else do the writing for awhile.

 

In a couple of weeks time, I’m having dinner with a remarkable writer named Richard Mason. He’s also one of the co-founders of Orson & Co, a company that is in possession of the finest e-book reading technology in the world.

 

He’s confounding in the breadth of his abilities. Not only is he in an entrepreneur but he also runs two different charities in addition to writing novels. With the money he earned with his first novel,  Mason found the educational charity,  The Kay Mason Charity, whose patron is Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

 

I read The Drowning People yesterday. I can’t remember that last time I sat down and read an entire novel end to end. The  experience of exclusive reading with no long interruptions gives me is different to one in which I have several books on the go and am dipping in and out.  The Drowning People is a lovely book, very English. It recalls in its prose a whole history of other novels I’ve loved, including Rebecca.

 

What a pleasure, not only to read a good book almost in a single gulp, but to feel no need to get to writing my own–at least for a day. It’s the weekend, after all.

 

 

 

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Do you ever wonder if established writers, even those teaching at universities, go to writing workshops themselves? The answer: whenever we get the chance!
I am delighted to be taking part in a poetry workshop this Sunday with the internationally acclaimed poet, Hilda Sheehan, as part of the Wantage Poetry Workshop.

 

Once in awhile, it is a relief to give “story” a rest, and just look at what comprises a phrase. It is important for any writer to occasionally look closely at language, experiment with the compression of language, pay attention to the rhythms and connections.

 

Anyway, a few of my friends will be there, and while I am mostly hermetic and self-contained here in what could be called Little Library On The Prairie, it is nice to get out one in awhile…