The Magical Art of List Making

Following on from yesterday’s review of Maggie Nelson, I thought I’d apply a similar list-making technique to give you an update of all that is happening in my life at the moment. A little self-indulgent, but you will be spared such things in the future, as I won’t have the time.

Jobless, homeless no more

  1. A year since coming back to the UK, cocksure and blind, so confident that I would easily find a new permanent job in HR. So scratch, scrabble and scrape in the post-referendum landscape, with my gentle, constructivist Learning & Development topic, when all companies are looking for is Immigration and Payroll Specialists.
  2. My heart was not in the job hunt, that’s true. Hip hip hurrah for my freelance life, being able to take my book deliveries directly from the postman, taking time off during the children’s holidays, working a few days per month and then having enough time to write. Hip flask to hand.
  3. I know you are all green with envy by this point.
  4. It was the perfect lifestyle, except for one thing. The bank. I couldn’t take the mortgage in my sole name with such an uncertain financial track record, with no idea when the next job would come in (and companies keep changing their minds or postponing or cancelling their training courses). So hip flask got thrown when the bailiffs come knocking at the door, or rather, my soon to be ex (STBX) threatening that I would have to sell the house and give him his share.
  5. Now watch him parade around in a rented house that is too big for him, with his all-new furniture and all-new giant TV and Amazon Alexa the Echo, even-tempered slave girl, and expensive holidays, while moaning that he cannot afford child maintenance. Cue many sleepless nights. But a few pills and Talking Therapy sessions later, I’ve learnt to meditate and relax my muscles and turn a blind eye to the unavoidable. Still we pirouette around the financial pot, each side claiming greater overall contributions or greater need.
  6. So I potter around on French property websites, remarking how easily I could get a maison de maitre property in Aquitaine for my share of the house sale minus mortgage, instead of reading the hundredth rejection email starting: ‘We value your application, however, on this occasion we will not be progressing you to the next stage. Other candidates more closely fitted our requirements. We would like to thank you for your interest and encourage you to sign up for job alerts to hear about future vacancies. Please fill in the survey below to tell us about your recruitment experience.’ 
  7. Feeling too old, too past it (I would be the grandmother intern if I were to move into publishing – and I certainly couldn’t survive on those starter salaries!), diminished, unwanted, in the wrong field, regretting all my past choices. The ones that seemed the perfect fit were the ones that hurt the most. Especially when they claimed to like you and your lateral skills, that they weren’t discriminating on the basis of age, praised your achievements and qualifications. You almost believed them… until you see the dewy faces and minimalist experience of the people they did pick for the job.
  8. If it’s that difficult for me, an able-bodied woman (White Other on census forms), with a few degrees from the UK as well as elsewhere, to find a job in publishing because of my age, can you imagine if I were POC or without a degree or disabled? Diversity in publishing indeed! Obviously, everyone above the age of 40 stops reading…
  9. So it was back to the corporate treadmill, one I’d refused to run on for many years, one that I’d stopped believing in, but teenagers are more expensive than cats. They eat all the time and grow an inch per month.
  10. Let no one tell you that you can follow your passion. My career and choices in life have been determined by geography, accident of birth, nationality, age, history, family situation etc. And many, many other people have had their choices far more severely curtailed!
  11. Then I calculate how many more years I have to stay in a UK which has become strangely frightening and all too recognisable (from living in countries where political incorrectness reigns). Seven more years until my children leave the house to go to the university, ten until the younger one finishes university – although I suspect they may want to study abroad.
  12. But avast, avast, stop preparing an escape route and stop hauling myself over the coals, for suddenly interviews materialised! Over the summer I was wanted for job interviews, even managed to convince some people that I didn’t mind being overqualified for the work I would be doing. (I really don’t, I just need to pay the bills and see my kids in real life rather than on Google Hangouts). Yes, all of them were short-term contracts or very, very part-time. All paying slightly less than the salary I had 18 years ago in full-time employment, back in the days when I had a small house and no children and a husband earning roughly the same as me.
  13. About equality of pay. Since then, STBX’s salary has increased slowly but surely ever year, while I have had peaks and troughs. In 2003 I was on 2.5 times his salary, but since I had my (our) first son in 2003 it has gone into free fall. Never mind the fact that most of it went on childcare.
  14. So I bide my time and try not to jump at the first desperate opportunity. The less promising ones offer me the job, while the certainties bail out. And I start to feel very foolish.
  15. I took the bait. A permanent position in London, an interesting job (in HR, rather than publishing) in the university sector. It is not perfect, but it will keep me and the children off the streets. My friends are delighted for me, but I’m not quite ready to pop the champagne open. It’s not a new career doing something I feel passionate about. It’s not living the dream at this late stage in life. It’s more of the same, without the flexibility I’d grown used to in the past 8 years.
  16. Still, reasons for celebrating! It means I can stop hearing my STBX scolding or pitying or alleging that I could earn much more than him if only I put my mind to it. No one ever asked you to give up your career to follow me around. You could have got an au pair. All right, if you were worried about me having an affair with the au pair, you should have got a male au pair. What do you mean, there weren’t any of them in Geneva? But Pablo’s family had one? Oh, because he was Spanish and couldn’t find employment in Spain? Oh, and he left after 4 months all of a sudden when he did get a job in Madrid? Never mind, it just proves my point, that there are some men au pairs around. I think you didn’t want to work. You just wanted to sit at home with the cat and write and I’ve had to support you while you have written three novels.’ It means I can now start the formal divorce proceedings and wash that man right out of my hair.
  17. Photo by Kevin Bauman.

    One year on, the house is slowly but surely falling apart after 5 years of tenants and a year of my shoddy housekeeping. I was often too overwhelmed and depressed this past year to repair things or keep the house spick and span. Besides, why invest more love and hope in a house I was no longer sure I’d be able to keep? So a professional one-off cleaning is called for before I start work. With the result that I’ve been frantically scrubbing the place in preparation for this. To save my tattered reputation. Some people never learn.

Commuterland and superwoman

London has its pros and cons. The plus side: bookshops, being able to go to cultural events [‘You spend HOW much on books and entertainment?’ my horrified financial advisor said], meeting friends for lunch or drinks. Downside: 2 – 2.5 hour commute each day if the trains aren’t delayed and an annual season ticket somewhere in the region of £3500 per year. Leaving just before the children set off for school and getting back at 7 p.m., just in time to shout at them about their homework over dinner. Having to organise all the orthodontist, haircut, doctor etc. appointments for them on a Saturday or else take a day off. At least they don’t have any clubs or other extra-curricular activities (but oh, the guilt associated with that!). So many other single mothers do precisely that – and it’s worth it to hear my children say: ‘Does that mean we get to keep the house? Then go for it, Mama! We’ll cope.’ They crave a bit of stability and they are so much more loving and helpful now that I am more relaxed and happy without their father around.

Plus, I have the feeling they will relish no ‘Have you done your homework yet?’ mutters in the background every half an hour.

But I must write – how will I write?

  1. If only I had the time to write, instead of travelling like a maniac around the globe! (2012-2013)
  2. Now I have the time, but oh… If only I had the peace of mind to write instead of falling apart/ raging and ranting/ worrying about things/ jobhunting (2014-2017)
  3. Now I have peace of mind but oh… I won’t have any time for writing or blogging or tweeting! (2017-2018)
  4. And so I worry and give up before I even start. Run away rather than fight the impossible fight. There was only one situation where I chose to stand my ground and cling on for dear life. The wrong situation. I chose badly. I stayed way past the expiry date, the food rotted and now I’ll never get the smell out of that fridge.
  5. Last Night of the Proms brought that home to me. That I worry about the things that might happen. But might not.
  6. I could not watch it, because I no longer find the tub-thumping patriotism and Union Jack waving hilarious and endearing. But then I heard that they’d been handing out EU flags and the audience were waving those as well. How many times have I been pleasantly surprised by people’s reactions when I’ve been expecting the worst? Am I letting fear and prejudice cheat  me out of opportunities?
  7. Is the fear of not having time for writing paralysing me? Am I using the guilt over my reduced time with the children to distract me from the hard work that needs to go into writing? Am I content to remain on amateurish turf forevermore, every now and again hitting a lucky shot?
  8. And so on ad nauseam. There is a time for writing, there is a time for ranting, there is a time for logistical acrobatics. Things will be imperfect at first – and may remain imperfect. There will be things I have to miss out on. Another year of not having something quite ready for submission. And yet… Sometimes the most impossible situations produce the best work. I refuse to feel guilty and I refuse to stop writing.
  9. Plus, I can read and write during my commute, right?
  10. If I make it through September, fold my pinnies, cool my forehead, don’t wait for gaps to be filled with leisure, no clemency left in any fibre. I will be a new woman, trying to do several new things at once, such as cycling to the station.
  11. Yet not attempt too strenuous a life of many amputated beginnings and bird flutter under the skin until the very least October. For no respite, no holidays will follow for the new hireling.
  12. Photo by Lennart Wennberg

    If November doesn’t bring morose companionship on wet flagstones, where would my certainties drain like ink still damp on poor-quality paper?

  13. And if you can’t wait until December to see if my sleight of hand produces a second draft or better poems, why, I’ve wasted my breath and months…
  14. Some people never learn. Some people never know when to give up.
  15. But, as Mary Oliver said, the world has need of dreamers as well as shoemakers.
  16. Never believe anything a writer ever tells you.
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The Clock Strikes Twelve

I’m a novice to flash fiction, but have been fascinated with it for the past few months. I’m still not sure I understand the principles. Be gentle with my experiments.

I need to count each chime with my chin up, looking straight ahead, because if I look to the right… the monster might sneak in. The corner of the left of the eye down and under. My greatest fear: missing a chime. All twelve to surround, all twelve to protect.

Then I can wash my hands. Just like my mother taught me as a child, with plenty of suds, not forgetting to scrub between the fingers, above the wrist. You never know where I have been, where you have been. What toil and soil we may have seen. Rinse three times, not a sud to linger. I catch a glimpse of the back of your head in the mirror and I long to touch and unfurl that sweet tendril, the one still moist from earthly exertion. The one that keeps you from being an angel divine.

But then I would have to wash my hands again. Perhaps even wash my mouth out with soap. Oh, the synapses that fire too soon, extend so much further than you could ever want.

We sit down to eat. I dare not touch much, but I can examine each morsel passing your lips. How the red chard leaf ondulates with your tongue, how the beans fall from your fork, how you cut and spear artichoke hearts, not just mine. You lick your lips before and after you drink; your glass glistens with pearl droplets. I count each one, but then you trail your thumb down from rim to bottom. You leave marks too light for memory, too deep for forgetfulness.

Not Roses, Obviously

I shouldn’t have come here really. I had no intention of walking this far. Haven’t got a clue how I’m going to get back home before dark, either. But isn’t this picture-postcard cottage worth the long trek and so much more? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place as quaint and welcoming as this one. The faded red brick, the white paintwork, the upper windows twinkling in the sunset. The bottom two windows seem to be hugging the front door, while those climbing flowers embrace them all.

What do they call those flowers? Not roses, obviously. I do know those.  But I’ve never been very good with more complicated plant names. Aren’t they just the most gorgeous shade of lilac? And don’t they fill the whole earth with the scent of early summer and the promise of things to come?

I can’t wait.

I measure out three steps to one side of the gate, three to the other. Counting calms me down, gives me something to do. I remind myself to stand tall. I have to slow down, keep my distance, remember to breathe. I close my eyes and try to take in all the sounds, the warmth, the aroma of this perfect evening.

So what if I am not wanted here…

Dead Darling (Fragment of WIP)

Yes, I am being a bit lazy here. Too much corporate work, worries about administrative matters and physical exhaustion to write anything new. Instead, I am offering you a ‘reject’: something I prepared earlier, but which didn’t quite make the grade.

You know the expression: kill your darlings (when it comes to writing). Here are some bits and pieces which have been trimmed away from the WIP. Melinda is the main protagonist; Graham is her husband. Below are pictures of how I imagine them in my head.

Graham got home at around nine every evening. He didn’t want any supper; he was careful to keep his figure trim, aware of his beer belly getting ready to pounce.  So she would eat the remains of the children’s meal herself, while he set up his laptop on the dining table. Still some work to catch up on, a few emails to send, a call or two to make. It was all she could to do get a ‘Hmmm, really, I see…’ out of him when she told him about her day.

Sometimes they wouldn’t talk for days. She’d droop off well before ten and go to bed. She was fast asleep when he slipped in beside her. She always fell asleep before she could read 2-3 pages, no matter how exciting the novel might be. Meanwhile, he needed time to decompress, he said, so he watched some satellite TV. In English of course, so everything was an hour behind.

When she woke up at 4 a.m., as she often did, and started worrying about the forms, the To Do lists, her own inadequacies, he was always lying on his back, his arms up beside him with fists clenched, like a baby. A clear conscience, obviously. Sometimes a little snore or occupying more than his half of the bed. She would sigh and creep to the very edge. Or get up and go to the children’s rooms, listen to their soft, sweet breathing and tell herself it was all worth it for them.

In the morning, she struggled to come out of that brief tangle of sleep to which she had finally succumbed. The early start was always far too early, getting the children ready for school, while Graham slept on. And so, with no fuss or awkward rejection on either side, their sex life had dwindled to nothing. Melinda suspected it wasn’t just her who was secretly relieved.

Other things too began to slip. The lazy Sundays in bed, with the children piling in with them. Graham was too tired now, needed to sleep longer, so she would be forever shushing them when they got too excited in their games of make-believe or else take them downstairs and plonk them in front of the TV. Their weekly ritual of ‘lunch at Daddy’s office’ also disappeared, because Daddy had more and more meetings on a Wednesday, the only day when they didn’t have school and had sufficient time to go to the centre of Geneva. After a while, it was no longer much of a day out for them anyway, the food was always bland and they had seen all of the museums that were suitable for children.

Even the family days out that had been the highlight of their week tailed off to nothing. Graham said he was too exhausted from his constant travels. He just wanted to stay at home and relax at the weekend, and she could understand that, she really could.

In the end, Melinda reflected, very little communication is required to keep a household running smoothly. Appointments were made and kept, bills paid with few delays, children picked up and dropped off with the right equipment in the right place at the right time. Food was prepared and ingurgitated, or not. The house was cleaned with the help of a Brazilian woman who came for two hours every week, spoke neither English nor French, and ignored Melinda’s sign language instructions, cleaning whatever she most felt like, rather than what needed doing. Melinda had to pick her up from the bus stop at the Val Thoiry shopping centre, but at least she didn’t demand the exorbitant rates of more professional, car-driving, trilingual cleaners who paid their taxes.

So it went on. Melinda clung to each thread of a routine, grateful that it gave her a reason to get up in the morning. Often, after dropping the children off, she would return to the house with a sinking heart, knowing that Graham would still be around. With shower and breakfast to negotiate, and perhaps an email or two to check, he was never very chatty in the morning.
When he finally left the house, after issuing her with a pile of instructions on what he needed done that day or later that week, she could breathe a huge sigh of relief and make herself a cup of coffee. But it was downhill from there.

No matter how sunny the day, no matter how magnificent the view of Mont Blanc and its Alpine sisters, Melinda felt a dull despondency settling on her. She might crawl back into bed, sobbing for no reason, and find herself at school pick-up time with not much to show at all for her day. At other times she would be lickety-split quick about cooking, wiping kitchen surfaces, doing the laundry in the morning, only to collapse in the afternoon and find herself staring into nothingness, repeating: ‘I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take it anymore!’

But she had to.Melinda

Graham

Flee the Fire

So no, if you scratch me, I will not bleed. If you stab my heart, your knife will splinter on sheer flint. The calamine-soaked bandages sticking to the pus of my burn wounds neither hurt nor soothe me. I’ve been burning since the night I forgot to check on Freddie. Hell is the only place for me and I dare not leave it any time soon.

The forest fires in Canada may no longer be in the news, but they are still raging (although some rain is making the firefighters’ work slightly easier). That will be a post for another day, about the shortlasting visbility of news stories…

Humpty Dumpty Redux

A dodgy or non-existent internet connection, a lot of admin problems and numerous children’s events coming up… so not the most conducive time for subtle analysis of books I’ve recently read. Or even not so subtle. Instead, here is a quick workshop exercise we did recently with the lovely Isabel Huggan: retelling the story of Humpty Dumpty from a different perspective.

 

No time to enjoy one’s oats around here. The siren shrieks again. And again my rider rushes into the stall without so much as a ‘by your leave’ or ‘pardon’. Bridle twitching, he advances cautiously: he knows nothing puts me in a bad mood as much as an unfinished lunch. But I am a well-brought up thoroughbred. He fills me in on the details as he tightens the girth of the saddle around my tummy, still half-empty.

‘It’s that fool Humpty again. He’s been climbing in places where he’s got no business going. With the usual disastrous consequences.’

I neigh sympathetically as we get ready to gallop to the site of the shameful event, but I feel weak with hunger. There’s no one else to send, though, not since they cut right down on the King’s human and equine resources department. Will that egg never learn?

Flash Fiction: Understatement

A fun little Sunday read for you. I’m thinking of starting a once-a-month Lazy Sunday read series with flash fiction. Just for the sake of writing something different.

A great crime writer had once shared tips for the perfect murder at a conference.  All Camille had done was tweak a few details. There were no coastal walks in her area, so she had to improvise with glaciers. He was too vain to use hardcore winter gear, not vain enough to never go out on winter walks. She had carefully drained the batteries of both his mobile phones.  He never checked. No hardship disabling the avalanche tracker on his ski-jacket – he had never given her sufficient credit for a scientific mind.

It was not science she detested, only his relentless droning about it.

‘With his height and weight, you were very lucky not to get pulled in after him, Madame.’ The Salvamont rescue team told her.

Luck had nothing to do with it, but Camille nodded, gulping the hot, sweet liquid gratefully.

‘He always told me I was hopeless at knots… little did I think…’

Glacier crevice, from camping.de
Glacier crevice, from camping.de