The Way We Were

Usually I don’t mind my own thoughts. I don’t mind being alone with them. This is especially true when I am feeling ok, when I appear to dance through life while my legs scramble about beneath me, keeping me upright. It’s a struggle sometimes. Of course it is, and not just for me. But I can do it. There’s only one other real option, after all.

But when I am depressed – a state that is rarer these days, but which can gnaw at my insides, occasionally working its way up to my head where it does the most damage – it’s harder to be around my thoughts. They frighten me. They speak of despair and have, at times, shouted of something much worse: loss of hope. The feeling summed up in a few seemingly innocuous words: what’s the point?

The point here, now, is writing. Sometimes I don’t do it that well – it’s a bit mediocre, the correct words either don’t come or they struggle to find their way through the bricks in my brain. They are longed-for as a memory of something lost, but, like the lost person or object, they remain out of reach. Sometimes, though, either with ease or with that other e word, editing, the words appear shiny and right. They make things better.

I recently took a trip to St Ives with the purpose of making things better, calling up those words, taking them seriously, letting my thoughts have a freer reign, unencumbered by my work, as interesting as that is. Making my thoughts work for me.

I arrived with a friend into the tiny branch-line station, and into the late afternoon sunlight glinting off the sea. My B+B sat perched on The Terrace above us, and my room looked out onto the beach: sea, sand and cliffs to my right, and the harbour and bobbing boats to my left. Across the road, in a little seated area, was a Barbara Hepworth sculpture. Art, already.

The purpose was to write some new stories, based on feedback given by the publisher I had submitted a version of my short story collection to. And this writing was to take place around a loose programme of long walks, climbing up cliffs, looking over the waves to the nothingness beyond, the blue nothingness in this surprisingly sunny September week. And there was to be reading, as well as writing, and art walks, and spoken word events, and a production of Othello beamed live into the local cinema. I would be coated in the history and the present of art and creativity. Something might stick.

On my second day, I finished David Vann’s astonishing Legend of a Suicide, wherein the author fictionalises his father’s suicide. The final story brings us to the adult son as he goes back to the place of childhood, where he lived with his parents and sister, and finds that ‘to travel back can only estrange one from memory itself. And because memory is often all that a life or a self is built on, returning home can take away exactly that’.

A friend and I recently visited the house I grew up in, the house where the four members of my immediate family last lived together, the house the police officers visited with news that would smash that togetherness apart. On this overcast May afternoon, bits of broken motorbike and an old mattress muddied our view of my childhood. My friend tried to shield me from the worst of it, suggesting that I shouldn’t  glance into the dining room window, but confessed to me later, over drinks, that he had felt so sad for me seeing the house in that state; that he had wanted to bang on the door and say: ‘She lived here. Her family lived here.’ He wanted them to show respect for my memories and my loss, for memories and loss they didn’t even know about.

If I’m worried that travelling back will estrange me from my memories, then it’s clearly a risk I’ve been willing to take over the years: I’ve been home, I’ve been to my primary school, to those seaside towns where I whiled away childhood and adolescence, I’ve been to where my mother was born, all in a bid to find out or to remember.

So, because my own life is often based on memories of things lost, writing is, for me, a way of fixing them in place and time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of my short fiction is collected as The Museum of Childhood and Other Stories, wherein the real-life museum is a metaphor for the way our childhood experiences keep us frozen in time, in a glass case of our own making. It’s about those moments in childhood which make us who we are; the incidents – whether seemingly trivial or obviously life-changing – that shape us; how the experiences we have are visited upon others or stay with us to infect our whole lives. In my collection, characters recall specific events as they try to work out their present or future, soaked as it is in the silvery liquid of memory.

It’s all something I had to revisit for the new stories, as I began writing by the sea.

When I had finished with Vann, and regained my breath, I turned to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, in a beautifully illustrated version gifted to me by The Folio Society (more of that in another post, further down the line).

Both this and the Vann book confront loss, and they resonated with me as I drafted a new story about a day that one of my characters and her father spend together, against the background of a family holiday on the Kent coast. I used the St Ives coastline, the sea, the sand, the smell of the air, to remind me of my own childhood family holidays in Ramsgate. Like that visit to my childhood home, thinking about our holidays spoke to me of a memory of a whole, of a self, of another life.

My dad died when I was ten, and nearly everything I write – including this new story – is a way of absorbing this loss, of trying to make it work for me, with me, rather than overtake me; it’s a way of reliving the years when we were a family; a way of bringing back to life this man, and returning myself to a time, as the heroine of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ says, ‘when I was a little girl, before he kissed me and left me and died’.


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