I was writing a long and earnest blog post in response to the Booker judge who asserted that, ‘If you look at the trajectory of the average novel writer, there is a learning period, then a period of high achievement, then the talent runs out and in middle age they start slowly to decline.’
I collected all sorts of interesting statistics, noting that shortlists of first novel prizes seemed to be jammed with people approaching, if not in, middle age, linking this observation with that and constructing a nicely shaped critique which, although not original, would demonstrate that this linking of age with creativity was yet another means of silencing women, and would then conclude with something along the lines of, ‘I’m not going to take it.’ It was not going to say anything that hasn’t been said before, but I really wanted to write the piece and Because of Reasons, I was determined that I would.
And then it was my mother’s birthday.
Now, because this is my Year of Getting on with Things, I had decided, as long ago as January, that I was not going to make a big deal of my mother’s birthday this year. I would not open a bottle of wine in her honour, I would not go and spend money that I would later regret having spent, I would not say to the children, Do You Know What Day This Is? This year, I would simply get out of bed and follow the strategy for the Year of Getting on with Things. That strategy being to write a little every day and to do so with Purpose and Direction. It seemed a not bad way to get myself through the day.
Then the day began.
I should perhaps have had one less Nashi Collins the night before, and maybe it was simply because I woke up dehydrated, but as the morning unfolded, I could feel the blanket descending, the chasm in front of me opening and all manner of other metaphors for Getting Very Bloody Sad.
The problem is, it isn’t just my mother’s birthday. It is also the day which marks the last time I saw my father out of bed. We all went out for tea, Dad, my brother and me, and we raised a glass to my mother, and then the next day or the day after that, Dad’s liver and lungs and bowel finally said enough. He went into hospital, and although he went home, he never really got out of bed again.
So, it’s tough.
This year, at around ten o’clock on the day of my mother’s birthday, I had been in the house by myself for an hour or so, the mister and the lads having departed for their various social engagements (all involving bathers as most social engagements these days do), and I looked at the pieces of paper spread across the dining table, this one written in green, that one in purple, this one a mind map, that one an outline and I knew that this was not the day for writing the fabulous piece I had planned. My enthusiasm for the project had waned beyond the point of, ‘Who gives a fuck?’
I have a backup strategy in this my Year of Getting on with Things. If I am not writing, then I should be doing things with my hands. Baking, knitting, cross stitch, that kind of thing. This strategy is not without its flaws (an oven with a whacky thermostat, weather unconducive to knitting and so on), but it is going well enough that rather than being drawn to the lounge, I was, on the day of my mother’s birthday, drawn to the sewing machine.
I’ve had a dress on the go for a few weeks now. It’s a simple bodice, midriff, skirt and sleeves, but I’m not a natural seamstress, so I’ve been doing it in micro-incremements. Finding the scissors one day, the cotton the next, the pins that afternoon and so forth. Through such increments I had found myself at the place to begin the bodice pleats.
I use my mother’s sewing machine. It’s a Husqvarna, which, at the time she bought it, cost the same as a small car. It does everything but swear at the fabric for you and burst into tears.
I used to have my own sewing machine which my mother bought me for my twenty first. It was the basic, solid Bernina marked down to 299 at Harris Scarfe. (Or maybe 499, numbers fall out of my head, though 499 seems an awful lot in 1990 dollars, so maybe it was 199, anyway, you get the picture).
After we had paid for the sewing machine, we went to the Harris Scarfe cafeteria where my mother would have ordered Roast of the Day and washed it down with a cappuccino. I was vegetarian by then, so I suppose I had a plate of chips. This was the unromantic setting in which my mother handed me the second of my twenty first birthday presents. My grandmother’s wedding and engagement rings.
It was perhaps the only mother-daughter moment in our lives apart from the night of the mother-daughter Brownie Guides dinner where she, being the only mother who’d come straight from teachers’ Friday night drinks at the pub, sang, ‘I Love to Go a-wandering…’ at the top of her brandy-soaked voice. (Seriously, my kids have got no idea about how little parental embarrassment me and the mister cause them).
I wear those rings every day, both my own and my mother’s wedding ring having long since disappeared (Reasons), but my father gave my sewing machine away. He defended himself against my outrage, by saying, ‘But you can have Vivienne’s now.’ He seemed not to understand that a woman whose mother had made her wedding dress but never taught her to sew might find that a little difficult.
Anyway, and not quite moving on, it was my mother’s birthday, the last day on which I saw my father out of bed, and I was at my mother’s sewing machine, my own having been given away by my father, and I kept thinking, I really should be collecting those statistics. I should be working out why the shortlists for unpublished manuscripts for people over 35 are dominated by women, but the shortlists for first novels are dominated by men. (And first of all, I should be working out whether or not this first-glance statistic holds up to further scrutiny).
And then I thought, But I’m enjoying sewing this dress. It’s more interesting, trying to work out exactly what they mean when they say pin the upper midriff lining to the lower bodice, than it is scouring the internets for the birth dates of the novelists on the Costa First Book Award shortlists.
And it’s true that I was enjoying the sewing more, but nonetheless, I could not get that man’s words out of my head, ‘they start slowly to decline’.
I don’t know why, but whenever I thought those words, the image in my mind was of mother. Of the day that I walked into her bedroom and saw her sitting on the edge of her bed and she was crying. Such tears as must have taken untold energy.
To the best of my memory, it’s the only time I ever saw my mother cry.
And when I mixed that memory with the sound of the pins and the scissors and the sewing machine, it started to make me think those words, ‘they start slowly to decline’ don’t just silence us, they make us invisible too.
to be continued