suffering

The old ones and their children weep for the gossamer mothers who have floated away. The children pray for their mothers to die. Such a kind and terrible wish. My sister and I allow it on the telephone. We cannot speak it looking one another in the eye. For awhile I reminded her what a wonderful mother, wife and teacher she had been. “Really?” she said, trying to find that person in the fog. Now those nouns are meaningless. So I can only tell her she is beautiful. Her beauty still matters to her most. For the first time, my sister and I are glad that this is so. As for developing into a writer—she owed that not to any decision to sit down each day and try to be one but to their stifling life. That, of all things, seemed to have nurtured her talent! Truly, without the terror and the claustrophobia of the achterhuis, as a chatterbox surrounded by friends and rollicking with laughter, free to come and go, free to clown around, free to pursue her every last expectation, would she ever have written sentences so deft and so witty? And this, I realized, is the excrutiating scrupulosity, the same maddening, meticulous attention to every last detail that makes you great, that keeps you going and got you through and now is dragging you down. Standing with E. I. Lonoff over the disobedient arm of his record player, I understood the celebrated phenomenon for the first time: a man, his destiny, and his work—all one. What a terrible triumph! It was boredom that had driven her to drugs and crime: and in her case, the crime had not been wholly in pursuit of the drugs, it had been embraced for its own sake. For thrills, for excitement, for a sense of being alive, for a momentary freedom from the tyranny of time. 'All my childhood,' Jilly had told Alix, 'I sat with my eyes on the clock, waiting for things to be over. Waiting for time to pass. Bored? I thought I'd die. I thought I'd die of boredom. And I mean die. I thought I'd just stop breathing, at the dinner table, in front of telly, in school prayers, in lessons. I used to play these games with myself — that I mustn't look at my watch or at the clock until I'd counted three hundred backwards, until my father had cleared his throat three times, until a cloud edged across the window pane, until the history teacher blew her nose — and then I'd look, and only a poxy five minutes would have passed. Five miserable minutes, out of a lifetime. And it just seemed so stupid — wrong, stupid — to spend the rest of my life waiting for time to pass. Glad when every day was over. Sorry when I woke up every morning. Relieved whenever a minute passed without my counting it out, second by second. What was wrong with me? I don't know. When I was high, time flew. And it was even better, breaking into the chemist's, breaking into corner shops. The excitement. Planning what to go for. Hiding in the dark. Listening out. Hearing one's heart beat. You know what I mean? She crosses to the sink, pours away her unwanted cup of instant coffee, washes the cup, washes a foil milk bottle top, puts her foot on the pedal bin, opens it, drops in the foil top, gazes absently for a moment at an empty egg box, an empty tomato tin, the scrapings of last night’s spaghetti, some apple peel, some kitchen roll, a browning lettuce leaf, a cigarette carton, a tonic bottle. She wishes they would not throw tonic bottles in the pedal bin: she likes to take them to the newly-provided Bottle Bank. She thinks of rescuing it, but does not. I don’t want to get too like Ma, she repeats to herself: but even as she rehearses these words, a strange, perverse, numbing respect for her mother seeps through her: how she has persisted, her mother, in being what she is, how stubbornly she has refused to divert herself with trivia, how bleakly and boldly she has stared over the years into the heart of nothingness. For it is trivial, it is all trivial, coffee mornings, eating, drinking, the National Theatre, shopping outings, reading books, embroidery, evening classes, country walks, wiping surfaces, emptying waste-paper baskets, Bond Street, Regent’s Park, saving bottles for the Bottle Bank, gardening, telephone calls, listening to the radio, Terry Wogan, going to the hairdresser, chatting to the window cleaner, giving small donations to Oxfam, throwing away silver foil, collecting silver foil, cleaning the bath. It is nothing, all of it. Sex and small children had provided a brief purpose, the energy they generated had made sense of the world for a while, had forged a pattern, a community: clinics, playgrounds, parks, nursery groups, mothers waiting at the school gate: and now: nothing. An idle flutter of garbage over an empty pavement. Coldness, nothingness, grips Shirley as she stands in her kitchen. She knows herself to be biologically dead. Her spirit shudders: she has seen a vision, of waste matter, of meaningless after-life, of refuse, of decay. An egg box and a tin can in blue and white plastic pedal bin. So might one stand forever. She lifts her foot. The lid drops. It was by her own choice that she sat here. It was by her own choice that she had married Cliff, in a field of cow parsley on a May evening. She had obeyed her body, she had opened her legs, had pulled him into her and said, Now, come, now. What was, what could have been wrong about that? She had thought to free herself, through nature, through the violence of nature. But nature was cunning and had kept her trapped. What did it want her for? She had obeyed sex, she had trusted sex, she had loved sex, and it had betrayed her, had deceived her, had left her sitting here, a middle-aged housewife, mother of three, playing cards, with nothing before her but old age. Something to rationalize, to explain, why one would keep returning, like Freud’s grandson with his fort-da game, to the same miserable scenario. But time is what it comes down to. After you’ve spent a certain amount, invested so much of it in one place, your credit rating booms and you feel like breaking the chronological bank. You feel like staying in the place until it pays you back all the time you gave it—even if it never will. For six days and six nights Alsana did not know, was not sure. During this period she read extensively from the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and tried hard to believe his assurances (Night’s darkness is a bag that bursts with the gold of the dawn), but she was, at heart, a practical woman and found poetry no comfort. This is worse than the Matterhorn, were you ever on the Matterhorn, Miss Fitt, great honeymoon resort. Corinne had begun to cry silently, in that way that Marianne recalled for the first time in years: a mother’s crying, stifled, soundless, secret so as to not disturb. If you cried so others could hear you were crying to be head but a mother’s crying was just the opposite, crying not to be heard. Have you sensed the nothingness of my nature, that I am as empty as the carriages of the trains that pass, dusty, used, in the morning sun? A novelist must be that way, I think, and not complain of it, otherwise how shall the characters accommodate themselves in his mind? In the relentless morning sun Josie drove, exhausted and angry and tired of watching the bottle break across her face, but knowing she deserved it. What kind of person takes it from behind in a trailer park, with her children sleeping mere feet away? As a teen, during the worst years of Candyland, she'd been though a very long few years of aloneness, a brutal and wonderful and terrible time of luxuriating in her tortured mind, her suddenly heavy thighs, her growing nose, the rumors about her parents, the word Rosemont on everyone's tongues, always implicating her parents, her feeling of being horrified at being alone on weekend nights but not wanting to be among people, either. Oh, the pretty little woolly lamb, crying to suck its mother! What terrible thing has happened? The cruel fact remains that the twelve thirty has not yet arrived (Oh darling mother!) Speak for yourself. I am not alive nor anything approaching it. The back! The chain! The oil! The grease! The hub! The brakes! The gear! No! It is too much! It is suicide to be abroad. But what is it to be at home? A lingering dissolution. Oh I am just a hysterical old hag I know, destroyed with sorrow and pining and gentility and church-going and fat and rheumatism and childlessness. Poor woman. All alone in that ruinous old house. The story of my life does not exist. Does not exist. There’s never been any center to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one. Opinions vary as to whether the doorkeeper intends the announcement that he is going to shut the gate merely as an answer, or to emphasize his devotion to duty, or because he wants to arouse remorse and sorrow in the man at the last moment. This is a terrible moment, one of those times when Cotter realizes he has won a struggle he didn’t know was taking place. He has beat his father into surrender, into awful withdrawal. It’s the special skill of the adolescent to imagine the end of the world as an adjunct to his own discontent. He realized he’d forgotten to give his dad two glasses of water to take with the yellow and blue capsule despite the bold-faced reminder on the prescription bottle. These little failures ate away at his confidence even when he knew it was not his father’s fault for not managing his own intake or his mother’s for not being around when she was needed. There were constant little wars of whose fault is it and okay I’m sorry and I wish he’d die and get it over with, all taking place in Richard’s inner mind.
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