HelenHayward

life writing

spots and stripes

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‘My Mum Likes Spots and My Dad Likes Stripes’ is a story by Ned Sharratt that I used to read to my kids over and over. It’s a story about a couple so incompatible that they end up dividing the sitting room down the middle with a stripe of paint. On one side of the painted line is everything that belongs to Mum, all spotty; on the other side is everything that belongs to Dad, all striped. Mum wears spotty clothes, her earrings are spotty, her car is spotty, and when she cooks eggs they come out spotty. Dad’s clothes are striped, he cuts toast in stripes, and on the weekend he mows the grass in long stripes.

Each time I read this story to my kids we’d laugh at the craziness of this pair; never for a moment thinking that this story might one day apply to our family. Fifteen years on, my kids are forever pressing home that I like spots and their father likes stripes. From their point of view it’s self evident. How else can they explain their two totally different parents?

My husband and I, we pretend we don’t mind. We laugh at our kids’ joke. We don’t argue the point. If anything, we agree with it. But privately I wonder. Would I have ended up liking spots if I hadn’t married a man who likes stripes? Or could it be that this is what marriage does to couples, once kids play a part in the story? Because ‘My Mum Likes Spots and My Dad Likes Stripes’ is told from a little boy’s point of view; a little boy who, in telling it, seeks to understand how two such different people, his parents, could ever have gotten together. Two people who are so different that, in the little boy’s mind, they’ve made a mistake to think they’re a couple, because really they’re opposites.

Perhaps, even without two kids to point out our differences, Paul and I would have grown in different directions anyway. Perhaps the seeds of change were there right from the day we met. Here are some obvious differences which spring to mind. I like green tea and Kombucha, whereas Paul prefers coffee and wine. I have a thing for Scandinavian design whereas Paul hankers for eighteenth-century art and furniture. I crave dark chocolate whereas Paul loves milk chocolate. I like a clean home whereas Paul longs for a beautiful home. I am a homebody whereas Paul loves to travel. Paul doesn’t like it when I wear jeans all the time whereas I don’t like it when he wears a jacket all the time. I learned to drive a car young and taught both our kids to drive; Paul learned to drive late and avoids tight parking spaces. If I’m at home in the day I’ll cook lunch; Paul, who works from home, will grab cheese and biscuits. I take my work seriously but allow family life to take over; Paul is devoted to his work and refuses to let life take over. I like our garden loose and untamed whereas Paul would like it formal and structured, with no weeds between the bricks in the courtyard. The list goes on.

Neither Paul nor I would want to paint a line down the middle of our sitting room, however tempting this sometimes seems. Really we gave up winning each other over to our own way of seeing things long ago. Not for want of trying, but because it ended up reinforcing our differences. It backfired. I ended up liking spots all the more, while Paul clung to his stripes. When, for example, I encouraged Paul to eat more vegetables and drink less coffee, he avoided vegetables and doubled up on coffee. When he objected to my wearing jeans, I wore them every day. And so it went.

These days Paul and I live a private truce, the terms of which we’ve never spelled out yet understand intuitively. Also, now that our kids are technically adults, the pressure from them has lessened and, with it, the tension between Paul and me. Sometimes I’ve caught myself wondering if our kids have spent their teenage years on an undeclared and unwitting mission to drive Paul and me apart, through the force of what they perceive as our irreconcilable differences. As if, in order to break free of Paul and me, to become independent of us, they’ve needed to drive a wedge between us as parents; to paint a line down the middle of their home to separate the spots from the stripes.

Other times I wonder whether what our kids fear most is that the world of their parents, of Paul and me, will fall apart when they’re no longer around to point out our differences. Just as they can’t imagine how Paul and I could ever have lived together for seven years before they came along, they can’t imagine what their parent’s lives will be like when they’re not around to prop us up. Could their inability to imagine Paul and me, without them around to provide emotional glue, reflect their inability to imagine their own future without their parents in the middle of it?

 

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on worry

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 Last night I spent a fruitless hour pretending to read a book, rather than going straight to bed as I promised myself I would. Flicking through pages, I waited for my husband to finish his work and come upstairs. My husband knows that staying up late working, with a glass of wine and a cigarette, isn’t ideal working practice. He knows that it’s a problem and tells me not to worry. But since when did anyone stop worrying when they’re told not to?

 

At times I worry about my daughter, as she heads into final exams and shudders under the weight of her own expectations, along with the residues of a viral illness which sneak up on her when she wobbles. At a pinch I can add my son to my worry list; only he’s on a long voyage, and besides I prefer thinking to worrying about him. My old aunt, currently living alone without a phone after receiving nuisance calls, also sits high on my list.

 

When I think back to how my mother must have felt, at the age I am now, I realise that worry was her constant companion. My father had heart problems and my sisters and I gave her plenty to fret about in our teenage years. She played golf and went to the hairdresser, whereas I go to yoga and walk our dog; and all for the same reason, to gain a perspective on family life.

 

We talk breezily about helping each other, of reaching out and being there for them. I’m sure there are families for whom helping each other is second nature, a simple step; however this hasn’t been my experience. For me it’s been closer to dental work, with my gentle probing being met with outright resistance or a clear rebuff. We can do so little for each other, it seems, particularly those closest to us.

 

Recently I confided to a friend that my secret definition of family life is of being run over very slowly by the people I love most. She laughed, as did I. It’s not a wildly flattering definition, yet it captures something of the dilemma I sometimes feel at the end of a long day, faced with supper to conjure, souls to buoy, and chores to complete.

 

I used to think that adult life was like a complicated board game, with rules gleaned as your piece travels round the board. Now that I’ve traveled round the board a few times, I can see my youthful naivety. It’s not that as adults we don’t know what we’re doing – my daughter’s recurring taunt in relation to the muddle that is world politics. As we move round the board, most of us do know what we’re doing. We may keep our hand to ourselves, yet we’re alive to its risks and consequences. It’s more that the pressure we feel under – and what adult doesn’t feel under pressure? – means that our control over our next move on the board is limited.

 

I worry about the people I love to the degree I can’t do anything for them. The more they defend against my help, indistinguishable to them from interference, the more I worry about them. Or I go to yoga and leave my worries behind in the studio.

 

Sometimes I think that it would be easier if I could fall back on sympathy, rather than the empathy that I feel for the people I love. It would be easier if I could tell them to pull themselves together – my mother’s familiar refrain – and leave it at that. Sometimes empathy feels like the worse of both worlds – sharing a loved one’s struggles without being able to offer a solution to lift them. Sitting up late while my husband burns the midnight oil – understanding why he might need to do this while also feeling paralysed by my own tiredness – isn’t an ideal end to an evening.

 

My daughter mocks me when I worry about her brother on the high seas. I’m with her; clearly it’s futile to fret about the path of hurricanes from a hemisphere away. I also realise that at some level my worry about others distracts me from thinking constructively about my own future – from wondering what on earth I’ll do when my family aren’t around for me to worry about. I used to laugh at the idea of worry beads. How could they possibly help? These days I’m on the lookout for a secular equivalent.

 

my inner parents

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Let me introduce my inner parents – who since my real parents died I’ve got to know better. My original inner parent, the one who took up residence first and some call conscience, is a bit of a scout master. He likes to be in control, thinks he knows what’s what, and hates it when I dither. He knows me better than anyone, yet not at all. He’s there to say ‘I told you so’ whenever I slip up, and pats me on the back when my work is done and I let go the reins.

 

My other inner parent, a more recent resident of my unconscious, has Zen-like qualities. She recognises the value of not pushing, appreciates that there are two sides to everything, often more, and promotes exercising control over being in control. She isn’t impressed by my achievements and likes it when I’m able to let life just happen. She never remarks on my failures and stands silently by when I have to make tricky decisions.

 

I want to be careful here. My Zen inner parent is not better than my scout inner parent. They both have important things to say. Mostly I listen to them both. At other times I’ll shut them out and experience their intermingled voices as stress.

 

Life, in the scout master’s opinion, is tough. Our time on this earth is finite. Life is not nasty, brutish and short, as Thomas Hobbes described it; but nor is it a bed of roses. Mostly I respect the scout master’s opinion; he helps me to obey rules and pay bills on time. Yet I don’t warm to him as I do to my Zen inner parent. There really is enough time, she soothes, if only my anxious ego can refrain from strangling the present with fears and regrets. Each day, she whispers, is a new mountain to be climbed. Any suffering I feel is self-imposed, she’ll point out gently. It stems from my unwillingness to accept the world and other people as they are, but rather wishing they were otherwise. I listen to her, nod, and continue on not quite as before.

 

When it comes to my family, my scout master days are over. Knowing what a turn off bossiness is, I don’t tell my kids what to do. I’m always on the look out for a carrot and long ago buried my stick. I listen to them as open-mindedly as I can, a sounding board for a future that will inevitably sideline me.

 

‘What will you do with your one wild and precious life?’ This question, from poet Mary Oliver, is one that I often ask myself as I look in wonder at my kids. One of them has already cut free, a sailing knife in his pocket; the other dallies with the same freedoms but isn’t quite ready to take them.

 

Over the last couple of years my job with my kids has changed utterly. It’s now a role, not a job. I would never tell them this; perhaps it’s not something that can be said aloud. My role these days is to help them to get to know their own inner parents; to soften the ire of their scout master, and to encourage in them a gentle attitude life. And then to get off their radar so that their own inner voices can guide them.

 

Soon enough I’ll get back to my own wild and precious life. Not quite to where I left it off, twenty years ago, but further along the same road. One will door close as another door opens. And when that door opens, I know where I want to be standing – and who I’ll be listening to when it does.

 

daphne

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Sooner rather than later my aunt won’t answer her phone when I call. As I stride along bush tracks with our dog, waiting for her to pick up, there will be silence. Though in her heart she’d like to be at home for ever, sitting in her comfy chair overlooking her garden, we both know that she’s beginning to look for the door.

 

My aunt has a magical ability to make me feel special. Everyone needs someone like this in their life. Someone who can communicate, in the tone of their voice, that they’d be willing to drop everything to be at your side. My aunt is nearly blind and shuffles with a Zimmer frame, which makes the idea of her dropping everything for me high risk. Nonetheless over the years I’ve found it immensely comforting to know that she’s there for me.

 

I’ve never dropped everything for my aunt, nor would she ask it of me. Our relationship is, especially since my mother died, maternal. It’s nonreciprocal and binding. Which is why I’m struggling to let her go. Selfishly perhaps, I’m afraid of there’ll being no-one there to catch me should I fall.

 

My aunt laughs about her age, about being past her use-by date. Yet she’s not too old for my love. Whenever I call, at however inconvenient a moment, she has time for me. Not every occasion – she fusses whenever more than one thing is happening – but reliably so.

 

A week ago I called my aunt and she didn’t pick up. When I alerted her son he got back to me to say that she was in hospital with an irregular heartbeat. On calling her in hospital, a few days later, her voice sounded woolly. Was she being medicated? Had there been something more than a heart murmur? The nurses who picked up her phone couldn’t, for confidentiality reasons, inform me.

 

Last Friday they moved my aunt to her own room, upstairs from the ward on which she’s struggled to sleep for the noise. The nurses, she tells me, ‘are teaching me how to walk again’, which I couldn’t help but take as code for her desire to escape from her hospital bed and return to her own.

 

My aunt has entered a liminal space between life and death. Too old to recover fully, yet not actually sick, she is frail and very nearly blind – and was not a little angry when the doctors decided to replace her pacemaker rather than let her leave this earth in her own good time.

 

On those days that I don’t speak to my aunt I school myself on letting her go. It is, I tell myself, selfish of me to will her to go on living, given that she’s reaching the end of her wick. Her friends have gone and she is the eldest relative at family celebrations. And yet, I return, she has so much to give. Like the tone of her voice which never seems to age.

 

My aunt knows that she’s the only aunt I have left. She knows that I’ll be exposed to the elements once she passes and I edge my way up the family tree. Like the veins on my hands which stand out as my mother’s once did on her hands, we both accept that this is the way of things.

 

There are however things that I can do to return her love. I can keep calling her on the phone and make sure that she knows how much her love has meant to me – in particular her unfailingly positive view of me which issues partly from my likeness to her favourite brother, my father. I can get out my drawing things and keep my creativity alive. Just as she once did with her sketch book, which accompanied her everywhere. I can stop my busy life long enough to notice the daphne pushing into flower in our garden, as winter turns and spring waits round the corner. And I can try to love others in the special way that she has loved me, in the hope this may help them as much as her love has helped me.

iceland

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I was talking to a friend, my jacket collar turned up against the cold, when my son put his head out of the cabin below. ‘Helen’, he said, (he’s stopped using the ‘M’ word) ‘when you’re at sea you’re at sea. You’re not chatting on land’. I laughed. He was right, damn it. I was prattling on as if we were doing the washing up after dinner. And not as if we were in the middle of the harbour, waiting for the wind to fill the sails.

 

On a boat Alex knows exactly what to do. When to reef the sails, when to tack, and when to turn the engine on and turn home. With this he assumes a friendly diplomacy with his sister that, too often, escapes him at home. On a boat he’s in control. Not the captain of his ship – there’s no way he can afford the kind of boat he longs for – but very much himself.

 

If the New York Times Wellness column is to be believed, my son’s prefrontal cortex will not be full developed until his mid-20s. Does this explain how he can head up to the snow line on his mountain bike without a jacket, and in the next breath exhort his sister to wear her fluorescent jacket on her bike to school? Is this why he taunts Emma for not doing what he calls ‘real subjects’ in her final year at school? She, he claims, hasn’t been forced to study history and languages, as his father and I forced him into. She, clearly, is having an altogether easier time of it. I smile softly at Emma as she finishes calculations for a Housing and Design project, one of her so-called easy subjects, before returning to cooking supper.

 

That night, after Alex has washed up, I suggest a drive. Grabbing the car keys we’re on the road in minutes, Jack Johnson on the stereo, heading for the hills that we spent so much time in when he was learning to drive two years ago. Though he drives more carefully than he did then, he still rides the accelerator as if pushing through the gears of his bike. Relaxing into my role as passenger I find out more in that hour on the road, about where he is, than a whole of week of mealtimes has revealed. Details of the voyage he has just returned from, concerns about his future, the exorbitant cost of things he would like but can’t afford, his school friends’ mixed feelings about university life, more angst about his future.

 

In theory Alex accepts that he’d be miserable if he were locked into a sensible university course. In theory he doesn’t envy his schoolfriends’ long-term futures. In theory he agrees that he can’t have the kind of freedom he currently enjoys as a deck hand on tall ships, and also have long-term security. However he has just turned 20 and is full of contradictions. He hates cars, preferring to get around on a bike. Yet he loves to take the wheel on country roads as the car turns with him into each bend. And however much he’d like to know what he’ll be doing and earning in three years’ time, we both know that he wants adventure more. Iceland and Canada and the Gulf of Mexico beckon – and already he’s been to more continents than I’ve visited, or am likely to.

 

As we swing into the car park next to our darkened house we agree that we’ll turn off the Internet in half an hour’s time. However even after I’ve forced myself to pay a few bills and reply to emails his light is still on. ‘Can I turn off the Internet now?’ I call down to him. ‘Can I have ten more minutes?’ ‘Sure’, I say, wanting to sound reasonable while not actually feeling it.

 

‘What will you do when Emma eventually leaves home?’ Alex asks me the next night, walking the dog before dinner. ‘I know it’s hard for you to imagine’, I say, ‘but I was on my own for a long time before you and Emma came along.’ ‘But you’re so good at looking after people’, he says. ‘What will you do when Paul is off in Europe and you are on your own in the house?’ ‘I don’t really know yet’, I reply, halting. ‘I guess I’ll have more time to work. Of course it will be weird. It’s been ages since I’ve really been on my own. Although, even with travel Paul will be at home most of the time.’ A pause. ‘And I do realise’, I add, ‘that Emma must feel free to fly when she’s ready. It’s important that she doesn’t feel that she has to stay at home to hold my hand.’

 

‘Perhaps you’ll be able to travel too’, he suggests. ‘Oh, I don’t know’, I reply, ‘I’m not planning on going anywhere. I like being at home and anyway travel is expensive. Besides’, I say, starting to sound defensive, ‘I’ve still got the house and garden to look after. And there’s Pippi, of course’.

 

Pippi the dog pushes up the hill. I follow on behind as Alex strides ahead. We fall into silence as we near the top. That’s when it strikes me. Neither of us knows what the future will bring. Neither of us has a five-year plan. Neither of us knows how our lives will look after one door closes and another opens. But I don’t say any of this out loud, knowing that he’ll tease me if I do.

 

I break down in a Yoga class, crying in the low light of the final meditation – for me closer to thinking with my eyes shut. The Yoga teacher, a friend, sees my distress and puts pressure on my legs.

 

I throw myself into helping Alex pack, sewing name tags that I ferret out of the sewing basket on to his wool leggings and tops, and writing his initials on every tag I can find with a permanent marker. He washes his sea boots and leaves them out to dry. He empties whole drawers of clothes on to his bed, and pretends to sort through them. He picks up the bin bag into which I’ve thrown a few stray items, and retrieves worn out socks.

 

On the weekend he spends a couple of hours chopping wood, before opening the sitting room window wide as, together, we stack it behind the sofa. Most days he stays in his room, reading magazines, chatting with friends on facebook, and generally wasting time on-line. Cross with himself by mid afternoon, he’ll disappear up the mountain on his bike, even without forking out for new brake pads. Or he’ll join friends for a meal, look at other people’s boats on the harbour – or spend the morning doing a refresher course in First Aid.

 

After dinner one night we flick through old photos on the computer. ‘You know’, he says, ‘on my last voyage I had a lot of time to think’. ‘Oh yeh’, I say. ‘Yes, I had so much time that I started remembering bits of my childhood that I’d forgotten about. All the things that we used to do. I’m really glad that we did those things, they were good times.’ ‘Thank you’, I say, and we continue flicking through the photos, laughing here and there and causing Emma to thump on her bedroom floor to make us quiet.

 

Last Friday Alex’s fortnight at home was up. On Sunday he left Tasmania for Iceland, flying from one end of the world to the other, to wait for his ship to come in. ‘Climbed a mountain today’, he texted on Monday from the north of Iceland. ‘Glad you are up to climbing’, I texted back. ‘Good luck and’, I added, ‘eat blubber!’

 

 

 

 

surrender

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Once upon a time my children put me on a pedestal, looking up adoringly – or so I like to remember. Today my teenagers eye me off in the kitchen, shoulder to my shoulder, a whiff of unspoken pity. Their pity springs less from knowing that, touch wood, they’ll be on the planet longer than me, than from a long-lost memory that once I was the founder of their universe, the moon above, whereas these days I’m just their mother.

 

What child doesn’t daydream of what their mother might have been had family life not clipped her wings? An opera singer? A fashion designer? A doctor abroad? A climate activist? A start-up queen? I know I once did. After growing up on a sheep farm, my mother was going to work for the Wool Board, championing natural fibres against the onslaught of artificial ones. She wasn’t going to work for charities, play golf, have her hair done and be at home for my sisters and me after school – which for years is exactly what she did.

 

I haven’t worked for charities. I’ve never played golf nor attended coffee mornings. However like my mother I’ve been around for my family. Not because I’m self-sacrificing. Ultimately I gave myself to my children, for as long as I have, because devoting myself to them – making them feel wanted, connected, solid – felt as good for me as it did for them. It gave me a lot back. I knew that loving my children unconditionally was to love them just the right amount, and that in surrendering to family life there’d be no sacrifice. I knew that I wasn’t giving anything up which wouldn’t be returned in kind.

 

Except that I didn’t always feel hopeful enough, secure enough, unanxious enough, to believe this. This was partly because my ambitions as a writer clashed with being there for my children. It meant squaring the circle, which for me was code for feeling stressed. Did I, I’d fret, love my children too much? Was I weakening their life force and robbing from my own? In doing my best for my children, in putting them first, was I failing to live up to the promise given me by my mother’s love?

 

Fed up of juggling work and family, and despite occasional fretting, eventually I surrendered to family life. There was no particular day on which I let go, succumbed. It just happened. Losing control in this way was scary. It went against everything my hard-won independence had taught me. Quite possibly I’d never have surrendered to family love if my daughter hadn’t upset the careful balance that I’d arrived at with my son. With just one child tugging at my trouser leg I could still focus on my work. With a child tugging at each leg I lost my balance. Their father was there for them too. However his work-life balance never went belly up. His surrender was never complete.

 

Even when we had chicken pox in the house I never stopped working. I always cared about ideas and writing. I always found time to sneak out of the house to write. And standing in line for the cash register at the supermarket, I certainly never thought that money didn’t matter.

 

In the end it wasn’t my work that carried me through, that made sense of the swirl that family life has been for me. Something else helped me stand firm. ‘The longer trees grow at first’, wrote Thoreau, ‘the stronger they are at the core. And’, he added, ‘I think the same is true of human beings’. With Thoreau at my side I felt hopeful that if I surrendered to family life my children would grow strong enough inside to one day let me go, at which point I’d be free.

 

Whatever fantasies my kids entertain about the woman I might have been had they not come along, I feel richer for spending a lot of time with them. And already it’s time for me to start letting them go. This is both a sad and glad thing. In letting them go, in letting them down nicely, with any luck they’ll be free to seek their own horizons. And while being a mother will always be central to me, I can now catch glimpses of my own horizon, which I trust I’ll be brave enough to surrender to.

doing publicity

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It wasn’t exactly a fib. I just didn’t respond to the sentence in my publicist’s email in which she asked whether I’d done live television before. Given that I’d already decided not to fly interstate for an eight-minute slot on breakfast television, I didn’t see the point of mentioning to her that I had a thing about cameras. Did she really need to know that I hadn’t felt the glare of television lights since I bent down to eat a donut dangling on a string on kids television, aged nine?

 

Radio I knew I could do. I’d done plenty of that for my last book. Television, I told myself, was just radio plus camera. Except, of course, that it isn’t.

 

I arrived at the television studio with time to spare. I’d already talked the questions through with the producer, who couldn’t have been nicer, the day before. I wouldn’t be able to go through makeup, he’d explained, since I was doing the segment remotely. However the lighting in the studio was kind, there would be someone in the studio with me, and all I had to do was look straight into the camera and respond to the questions coming through the earpiece.

 

Ella set me up with an earpiece, a glass of water, and a background shot of the harbour with Mountain Wellington behind. Then she went next door to test the sound levels. The studio was overwhelmingly black, not a little dusty, and for the next ten minutes, apart from news headlines crackling through my earpiece, all of them bad, I had just the round camera lens peering through black padding for company.

 

The buzzy earpiece didn’t seem to interest the producer in Melbourne, whose voice I didn’t recognise. He explained that the host who’d read my book had been called to the airport to cover a bomb threat on a flight. The new host hadn’t had a chance to see my book and I would be on air after the news bulletin in one minute’s time.

 

‘You’re definitely better on radio than on TV’, said my agent in a message on my phone that I listened to as I got my dog out of the car, fifteen minutes later. I called my agent back. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I knew I wasn’t doing well when they cut me off after three minutes, and not the eight I’d expected. I could barely hear the questions for the buzzy earpiece, I had no idea who I was talking to, and my tongue felt like sausage in my mouth’.

 

That evening, when I should have headed up to bed, I watched the television clip which the publisher had posted on social media. ‘But I look like a hostage asking for ransom money!’ I wailed to my daughter who was half way up the stairs. ’Just don’t watch it’, she said sternly, tripping downstairs and clapping the computer shut on my fingers.

 

The last time I published a book I didn’t do podcasts. This time round I’ve done three and have enjoyed the form. Being invited to talk for an hour from my kitchen, knowing that any coughs and ramblings would be edited out later, felt far freer than being closeted in an airless radio studio with my allotted minutes counting down in digital orange numbers a metre from my face.

 

Although I had notes in front of me on giving interviews, mostly I would shut my eyes, listening out for what the interviewer was really asking – occasionally shocked by the intimacy of the question – all the while thinking ahead to a place I might take the conversation that might work for everyone who was listening. A bit like in a dance.

 

The interviews and launch are now behind me. Two moments stand out. One was looking over at the friend who helped launch my book, to see her holding a dog-eared copy, a pink highlighter running through various paragraphs. The other was when two women came up separately after the launch to tell me that they’d read my book in the bath – just as I’d fantasied a reader might.

 

This morning, after switching off the square red microphone button for the last time, I pulled the earphones off, put my earrings back on, wrapped a scarf round my neck, and headed back to the car where my dog was waiting impatiently for a walk. A voice message from my agent flashed on my phone. ‘You are definitely better on radio than on TV’, she said. ‘Well done.’ Leaving the phone in the car I headed across the park, clearheaded for the first time in a week.

 

 

 

Sunday afternoon

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‘Can we go sailing?’ his sister asks, her voice edging on petulance. It’s the fourth time she has asked since his return two weeks ago. He stares up at the dark sky and down at the wet courtyard. ‘Come on’, she says. ‘Okay’, he replies, ‘let’s go’. Within five minutes they are gone, with a quick dart back to collect a phone, disappearing in my car down to the boat that he has use of during his stay.

 

The dog yaps her surprise at being left in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I feel it too but don’t yap. Instead I sit on the carpet, stroke the dog’s tummy, and wonder how to spend the next few hours. In my heart I thank my son for taking his sister out sailing, even knowing that it was premised on his leaving the next day. Picking up a rake I lose myself raking leaves which rise up like lava as I squish them into the already full compost bin. Then without a thought I clip the lead to our dog and drive down to the harbour for a walk along the waterfront.

 

There is only one boat on the water, with two white sails. At what point, I wonder, did my son learn to handle such a big boat? From a distance it looks like every other boat that sails on the river. Except that this afternoon it’s the only boat beneath a slate grey sky. For a smug moment I feel proud of having kids who are out on the water when everyone else is sensibly indoors.

 

A text buzzes on my phone. My husband, in reply to my message, is glad to hear that our kids are out on the water together. A blast of wind skuds across the water, leaving ripples in its wake. As I walk along with our dog, keeping my distance from fellow dog owners in case my dog lunges, I wallow in my unneccessariness. I am watching my kids sailing from the shore for my sake, not theirs. I am thinking about them knowing full well they are not thinking about me.

 

Another blast of wind comes through – a blast not a gust – forcing me to turn up the collar of my jacket and wish I had gloves. The only boat on the harbour lists to the right. I force myself to look away and resume my train of thought. It’s no good. The boat lists further to one side. My heart tightens into a horrible parental knot. I don’t like what I see yet can do nothing, not even a speck on the shore. Clutching my phone I have the distinct thought that even if my son were in trouble it would be someone else he would call, not me.

 

I stare out at the water, yanking our dog back from sniffing a rubbish bin. Are they in trouble? Even as I worry I know I am overreacting. Giving a yank to the lead I train my eyes on the only boat on the harbour, giving up any pretence of thinking my own thoughts. A sail comes down. Thank God for that.

 

Ditching my plan to do some writing in a café I make my way to the sailing club, leaving the dog in my husband’s car. The sun is low and it’s freezing. Wind whips under my rain jacket. The boat makes large sweeping tacks as I enter the marina, the gate left conveniently open. ‘Is that someone you know?’ asks a kindly looking sailor pushing a wheelbarrow. ‘Yes’, I say, ‘it’s my kids’. ‘Oh’, he says, giving it a moment’s thought. ‘I’m sure they’ll be alright’. Even though I know he is reassuring me I feel certain in this moment that they will be.

 

I know that I have to do this letting go thing, to make myself redundant in the knowledge that they’ll be fine without me. That their lives will go on no matter the longing that pulses through me, filling my eyes with tears.

 

I make out two figures on the boat, my son steering and my daughter on deck. Standing at the end of the marina, my daughter sees me waving and waves back. I head back to the mooring to help with the ropes as they motor the boat in. ‘Very successful’, says my son, jumping on to the pontoon and taking the rope from my hands. ‘Well done, everyone.’ My daughter’s face is flushed red, with cold or excitement I can’t tell. Whichever it is it makes her more sure-footed than usual, as she clambers round the boat pulling ropes and packing sails.

 

Standing on the pontoon once more I feel redundant. ‘Right then’, I say, ‘I’m heading home to start the fire and then supper’. ‘Great, I’m starving’, replies my son, not looking up from what he’s doing. ‘See you later,’ says my daughter, concentrating on tying a knot. As I head back to our dog, who will be wondering why she’s been left in my husband’s car, I quietly thank the world for this Sunday afternoon.

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‘But I like odd socks’, he says, exasperated, when I hand over five odd socks from the wash. ‘I like knowing that all I have to do is find another sock and I’ll be right’. He looks over and grins. I smile back, squatting on the floor as he goes about packing for another voyage. His small bedroom, the room furthest from the main house and dampest by far, heaves with stuff. Tshirts that I’ve washed and folded he grabs with his large hand and stuffs down the side of his rucksack. Picking his way over the strewn floor like a goat he makes his way to the desk by the window and loses himself reading a pamphlet about the fjords in Chile, his last but one voyage.

 

These days my son needs me less and less. Though he does like it when I leave him cheese and pesto sandwiches in the fridge, and serve supper on time. He may want little from me – I have no idea what to give him on his birthday – yet still he refuses to let go of anything. The squares of thick leather on his desk. The metres of furled ropes in his room. The stacks of boat magazines. The broken boat in the driveway. The ragged tshirts. The odd socks.

 

Friends come for dinner, keen to hear about his adventures at sea. Initially reluctant to join us at the table the moment he appears he slips into an easy affability that he has developed as a deck hand on board a ship with fifty others for stretches of up to fifty days at sea. As we eat he sketches his seagoing life – shifts of four-hours-on, four-hours-off, losing touch with world events, fish guts at the equator crossing, possible voyages to come. When the inevitable question arises – ‘How long will you stay at sea?’ – he answers with practised ease. ‘I’ll do it’, he replies, ‘until I get sick of it’.

 

The young man who claims to be not very good at traveling, who left home for Europe nearly a year ago, has already sailed to four continents, including two trips to Antarctica. Yet this same young man doesn’t know what to do with himself after five days at home, unsettled by the sudden lack of routine in his day and mates to help him make sense of it. He is, by his own admission, more at home on board the ship than in the home he spent his adolescence in.

 

For all his exotic sounding voyages the trip my son most enjoyed he expected to enjoy least. Complaining of what he called ‘the plague’, he set off with three science students on a small boat in Chile, hiking up whichever mountain took their fancy from the fjord below. This trip, this sense of possibility, and these splendid landscapes had more impact on him than all the icy splendour of the Antarctic, with its prolific wildlife, whales a dime a dozen, and fears of losing passengers into ravines in the ice.

 

My son’s hands are rough and calloused, toughened by scouring the ship’s galley below deck and greasing the ropes above it. Yet for all his responsibilities on the ship he still manages to lose his wallet every time he goes out, diving back into his bedroom for ‘just one more look’. To be fair he does jump up to do the washing up after meals in a way he never did before he left home. And unlike the mane of hair that he forfeited on his first equator crossing these days he hair keeps his hair short, cutting it with blunt kitchen scissors in the bathroom.

 

At first I assume he is wasting time in his room, watching Netflix as of old. But no, he is looking up boats for sale, or texting friends in Europe. Now that he is on the edge of twenty he is careful with his hard earned money, converted from Euros and taxed at source. He refuses to repair his mountain bike, choosing to stick to his road bike. Disdainful or despairing of shopping I can’t tell, he returns from his one foray into town with not one but two parking tickets, along with two pairs of shorts and a pair of trousers.

 

After nearly a year away, two and a half weeks at home pass slowly. His friends are all busy and much of the time he seems at a loose end. I try to coax him out of it, but to no avail. He loves me, I know this, yet he doesn’t want to do things with me. He’d rather go up the mountain behind our house on his bike than walk on the mountain with me. Besides he has a lot on his mind. He is waiting for a text from the ship to find out when, even if, they next want him; an uncertainty that he wears like a thick cloak. Instead, at his suggestion, we play Monopoly, a game which stretches over two nights and that his sister narrowly wins. We also play Risk, a game I play so cluelessly that both he and his sister despair of having to play against me.

 

Finally the text he has been hoping for comes, releasing him from his long wait. He will not be stuck at home, moored without a boat forever. He will sail on a smaller vessel to Greenland, and after that who knows? Two friends are marrying in Norway in July, and he might join them there for that.

 

Yesterday, it seems, he was carving ‘BOAT’ into the side of an apple with his pen knife, anything rather than study for his looming final school exams. Today he is floating the idea of attending a friend’s wedding in Europe and sailing round Greenland over the northern summer. In the meantime in a few days he sets sail across the Pacific in a small yacht with a friend’s father and a crew found on the Internet. Not bad for someone who claims to be not very good at travelling.

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I was in my late twenties by the time I got round to reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It was the kind of book – like Tolstoy’s War and Peace – that were it not for its doorstop thickness I might have read already. Somehow it had never been the right time: never rainy enough, never sick enough, never curious enough. Until one September I began post-graduate study and went into therapy in the same month. My therapist lived in North London and I lived in South London, involving a long Tube trip twice a week, and it was during this commute that I picked up The Second Sex.

 

Reading Simone de Beauvoir’s book confirmed every misgiving I’d ever had about the pitfalls of domestic life. The timing of my reading, in the arc of my life, was impeccable. On the one hand I was entertaining the idea of having a baby. On the other I feared the snare that might drop on my head if I gave in to this wish. ‘Washing, ironing, sweeping out fluff from under wardrobes – all this halting of decay is also the denial of life; for time simultaneously creates and destroys, and only its negative aspect concerns the housekeeper’. It was hard enough keeping my life afloat even without a baby in the mix. What would it be like if I started a family and my ambitions were reduced to ferreting out fluff from under wardrobes?

 

Around this time I attended a friend’s wedding, thrown by her father and new stepmother. On arriving at the reception my friend’s stepmother opened the front door, greeted my partner and me, and immediately bent down to pick some confetti off the carpet. This was a tiny thing. Yet for me it captured why my slightly messy friend might be struggling to get on with her neat-loving stepmother.

 

At the time I felt critical of my friend’s stepmother, caring about confetti on the carpet when a marriage was happening around her. But the next day I realised that my criticism of my friend’s stepmother was really self criticism. Because I knew that, in terms of domestic affinities, I was closer to my friend’s stepmother than to my messy friend. I knew if ever I entered family life there was a high chance that I would join my friend’s stepmother and women like her in their preoccupation with Things That Don’t Matter. I knew that if I had a family of my own I may well spend my best energies, my most fertile years, in the business of eradicating mess, and so fail to create anything substantial to show for my time on this earth. I knew that if I joined the company of housekeepers, ‘who wage their furious war against dirt, blaming life itself for the rubbish all living growth entails’, there was a good chance that I would end up in the company of women who picked confetti off carpet at weddings.

 

*     *     *

 

It was a hot summer evening and my partner and I had met up with my mother and her friend in the French town of Uzes. My mother’s friend led gardening tours around Europe, and together they were doing a reconnaissance of gardens in the area. After catching up over drinks and dinner my partner and I went up to our room, where my partner fell into reading a novel. Too hot to sleep, I found my way on to the roof of the hotel, where the air was cooler and my thoughts could roam. Sipping a cup of tea I heard women’s voices on the adjoining roof. Only after a minute or two did I realise that my mother’s voice was one of them. It was another voice I heard – softer and more modulated – than the one I remembered from childhood. Then I heard the clink of a bottle in ice and, as I looked up, two plumes of cigarette smoke rose into the sky.

 

Sitting cross-legged on the rooftop, trying not to eavesdrop more than a few words, it struck me how happy my mother sounded. Now that she no longer had to care about a whole host of domestic things that had dictated much of her life as a mother, she sounded lighter, more playful. She sounded like someone else.

 

For thirty years my mother had put family and home first. However now that she had flown the nest and was experiencing life first hand she sounded quite different. Free of housekeeping, of shopping lists and baskets of wet washing and trips into town for new school shoes, she could speak her mind and let her voice sing.

 

Delving into myself I realised the magnitude of my mistake. For years I had claimed breezily that I didn’t want to turn into my mother, an assertion that was followed by a subsequent sweep of years during which I insisted that I didn’t want to have children. Sitting on the rooftop I realised that it wasn’t my mother any more than it was children that I didn’t want. It was the housekeeping that seemed to accompany family life that I was afraid of. It was Simone de Beauvoir’s maniacal dirt avenger who brandished her household schedule like a sword as if to ward off the meaningless of her existence.

 

I was shy of starting a family because I was afraid of taking on domestic responsibilities that would leave me stressed and harried, as my mother had often seemed when I was growing up. I was afraid that if I went on and had a baby with my partner that I’d end up caring about a host of domestic things which in my heart I didn’t give a damn about.

 

I already felt that I didn’t deal well with domestic stress. I often felt that I should be more on top of the day-to-day running of my life; that I should be doing something more important than whatever domestic task I happened to be doing; that I should be doing that task more quickly; that other people dealt with domesticity more easily than I did; that more of these tasks fell to me than to my partner simply because my resistance to doing them was slightly lower than his; and that the only thing worse than spending however many hours housekeeping each week was having to live in a dirty flat.

 

Sitting on that rooftop I had reason to worry. Even without a family to look after I cared about All The Wrong Things. I already did the washing up before going to bed after friends came round for dinner. I already scanned the household tips section of magazines. I already admired people with smoothly-running homes. I already knew that, in my mind, so-called trivial things had a way of becoming big powerful things.

 

As I sat into the night I wondered about my life to come. Would I, should my partner and I go on to have a child, pride myself in staying on top of housekeeping? Would I, like my messy friend’s stepmother, pick confetti off the carpet the second after shaking a guest’s hand? Would I, in identifying with a well-kept home, leave behind a misspent life?

 

Or was there another way? Was it possible to take on domestic responsibility for the well-being of loved ones without it leading to stress and strain? Might Simone de Beauvoir have been wrong? Might it be possible to run a lovely home without sacrificing my further ambitions? Looking around at the rooftops of Uzes, the house lights blinking off, it didn’t seem too much to ask.