HelenHayward

life writing

Month: July, 2018

my bed

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It started with a tiff over the way I use the steps of the stairs as a clutter collector, coupled with my bad darn of a favourite rug that I unthinkingly allowed my daughter to use a Stanley knife on. Small, domestic, trivial things. Not something to lose sleep over, or so I told myself as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling. My husband seemed to think so too, as he drifted into sleep with a light snore.

 

Having been with my husband for a good number of years I know that small, trivial things are rarely slight. They’re just the things that make me toss and turn at night. Which is how I found myself on the sofa bed in the spare room the following morning, where I woke under a cotton blanket.

 

My husband is a writer with a UK company, writing to tight deadlines. Often this means working late before waking early, with a nap late morning. My husband works hard, too hard really, though I do my best not to say so. I myself have given up working late at night. Whenever I can I’ll head to bed with time to read, my little ritual. I love this reading time, this me-time, particularly with a teenager in the house. With middle-age has come lighter sleep. I no longer sleep the way I once fell off a log into a slumber that the alarm fetched me from each morning. Mostly I’ll wake early and go out for a walk or to yoga, and bookend my day in this way. So that whatever happens in between, it feels like my day.

 

After that first night on the sofa bed, I found myself finding reasons which sounded like excuses to repeat it. I had an early start. I had a sore throat. I was worried about a deadline. My husband’s snoring got to me. I was grieving loved ones, even though years had passed since their deaths.

 

Over the years my husband, a Europhile and Scot, has lengthened his overseas work trips. He’s learned Italian and made Italian friends. He enjoys working in the same time zone as his partner in London. Having lived together in London and started a family  there, I understand my husband’s need for these trips, and support him in them. However this isn’t apparent in the days leading up to his departure , when I invariably feel like an abandoned child no matter what my grown-up self thinks.

 

Last year, when my husband set out on his annual trip, I realised that I had a choice. I needn’t feel abandoned in our big bed. Instead I could sleep on the sofa bed next door, and feel cosy and warm there. I could go to bed as early as I liked and wake up with the birds. I could relish the space and flexibility of sleeping on my own. I could lie in my single bed and feel continuous with my younger self, despite being middle-aged. Why, I wondered, hadn’t I thought of this before? Why was sleeping on my own such a big deal that in twenty-five years of sleeping with my husband I had never entertained it as a possibility?

 

Following my husband’s return from his work trip last spring, I didn’t leave the sofa bed for the big bed next door. I already had a bed. The big bed with my husband in it became the bed that I visited before returning to sleep on my own. Why, I asked myself, had it taken me so long to recognise my desire for my own bed? Had I just assumed that loving someone was synonymous with sleeping in the same bed? Not waking up in the same bed as my husband, not doing things as others did them, wasn’t this a betrayal of love? Wasn’t this cheating? Was I really allowed, in the middle of family life, to sleep alone? Yet no matter what questions washed through my head, as I lay in my bed, there was no denying that what had at first been a compromise now felt like a sanctuary.

 

Perhaps if I hadn’t become a light sleeper, perhaps if I was less sensitive and thicker skinned, perhaps if my husband hadn’t worked late or snored. Then again if I’d been a heavy sleeper, thicker skinned and insensitive, if my husband had come to bed without my nagging him, I’d never have discovered how much I enjoy the physical and spiritual act of sleeping alone, independent of the facts which led to it. For this simple change has liberated me. I don’t have to be divorced or widowed, or even unhappily married, before I can sleep alone. I can sleep in my own bed with my husband in his own bed, or even in another country in his own bed, and stay married. I can go to bed and wake up when I choose, just as I choose so many other things, like the weight of my duvet and the shape of my day.

 

As a young woman I felt sorry for Virginia Woolf, who slept in a narrow single bed despite being married to Leonard Woolf. I knew that she’d had a troubled girlhood and had suffered psychiatric problems. Perhaps, I thought, sleeping in a single bed was the price she’d had to pay for losing trust in others. These days however I don’t think this. These days I find myself imagining Virginia Woolf dreaming up scenes for her wonderful books as she drifted in and out of sleep in her single bed.

 

Usually I avoid telling friends that I sleep in my own bed. I feel sheepish about it, as if it’s something to be ashamed of, an admission of failure. Clearly for some it is, hence my sheepishness. Yet for me it feels closer to a kind of growing up, part of the messy process of finding out what I need to be me at this point in my life.

 

Sweet dreams.

 

 

 

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deliverance

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A dog is never just a dog. A dog is a world. Pippi was the gel that held my funny family together, making sense of the whole, especially the garden. She never came when she was called. We stopped taking her to the dog beach because she was the second fastest dog, after whippets, and grew so excited fetching sticks from the surf we couldn’t catch her. She was the dog we never should have got yet had to have, had to love. She was the Kelpie-Collie who was asked to leave puppy training school because she was reactive. The dog who could skateboard, who loved hide and seek indoors, who would check on whoever spent too long in their room. The dog with whom I could never entirely relax and yet never felt lonely in her company. Part babysitter, part surveillance system, part personal trainer.

 

Pippi’s emotional antenna was so acute that she ran into the kitchen as soon as she felt she was needed. She could pick an unstable person on the street 100 metres away, becoming agitated to the point of lunging as they approached. Asian people reading their phones in the dark got her ire, especially if the hood happened to be up. She didn’t like children either, especially, embarrassingly, Asian ones, after being teased when young. She was a dog from the Pound who we looked after and loved for over five years until a dog trainer Pippi knew as a puppy came to the door the day before yesterday and, instead of eating her treat in the living room, Pippi nipped her bottom in the hall, snarling.

 

On Tuesday night, when Pippi wheeled around to lunge at a small dog on the opposite pavement, I did my best to reign her back. But my arm got caught in her mouth and she bit down. A cold night, I was wearing a thick coat, yet I still have teeth marks on my arm.

 

My mother, who grew up on a farm, always said we were crazy to get a Kelpie-Collie cross from the Pound. Yet friends were adamant. Why would you go to a breeder when there were already so many dogs in need of a good home?

 

And she did have a good home. For over five years I cared for her as devotedly as I did the rest of my family, just as in her way she looked after me. Thanks to her I had three walks a day, one long, two short, with her bouncing at my side, brightening everything around her, the wallaby at the next corner, the cat in the driveway, the starry sky above.

 

Pippi won over my dog-shy husband, their shared love of soccer becoming a bond. Pippi’s technical prowess impressed my husband who would do twenty kicks into different corners of the garden before, without so much as a by your leave, returning to his work.

 

The constraints that went with having a reactive dog were slow and incremental. The need to prepare visitors about her in advance, doping her before big occasions which she spent shut in a bedroom, the muzzle at the vet. But we didn’t mind, loving her as we did.

 

Even though Pippi was on Prozac there was a small part of her, no more than five percent, that wasn’t touched by medication. She’d always been anxious but increasingly her anxiety turned on itself until she became the aggressor, the looker-for-trouble. What was that black shadow on the street? The rustle in a bush?

 

The day before yesterday the dog trainer sat down at our kitchen table – all our big conversations seem to happen at our kitchen table – and within fifteen minutes, like a scene from a film, we were talking about ending Pippi’s life. She wasn’t sick, she wasn’t crazy, but she had the potential to harm and she couldn’t be a happy dog to think every new person was a foe.

 

Throughout her life Pippi went to day care. For five hours a day three times a week she played ball games, messed around, and slept on couches, all with twenty other dogs. The same dogs which, on a leash on the street or in the park, she’d snarl at.

 

The best and worst part of all this was the grace of the vet who sat down on a chair, when I visited the practice the night before last, and instead of talking me out of my decision, as I’d hoped she would, immediately said that it was right to put Pippi down. The right thing that felt like the wrong thing, for the rest of that night and into the morning.

 

On ending our conversation at the kitchen table the dog trainer offered to take Pippi to her vet, to alleviate the suffering of my daughter and me. But I demurred. Pippi was, I felt, my responsibility. And I’m so glad I did. That we had one more night together – one more walk with head-torches under a starry sky on our favourite bush track – and the chance to take Pippi to the vet in my own car first thing yesterday morning, and to hold her head in my hands as she crumpled under the double dose of anaesthesia the vet expertly gave her.

 

Sitting on the same headland last night, that we circled with Pippi on Tuesday, watching the sun go down behind the mountain, a thought ran through my head which I thought not to say aloud to my daughter. In heartbreak there is deliverance. Thank you Pippi.

 

monk mode

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For the last two months I have been in monk mode. In monk mode I go about my normal life, oh that it were, doing my usual things – walking the dog, writing, yoga, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, talking with my daughter – with one difference. I pretend that I’m invisible. I’m not really invisible. I don’t actively avoid people. I just don’t seek them out and, when a social event comes up that it’s possible to duck, I duck it.

 

If an editor from the US, sadly not a publisher, hadn’t put me up to the changes I made to the manuscript I sent her two days ago, I wouldn’t have made them. Having written my last book in the first person, I was dead keen not to do it again. But the editor won. My agent however wasn’t convinced. ‘What’, she asked, sounding worried, ‘another memoir?’ ‘You mean’, said my daughter with characteristic tact, ‘you are writing about you again?’

 

Who else but me would write an intimate history of housekeeping? A subject which, far from sexy, has been on my mind for thirty years. Although housekeeping is a bigger topic than housework, I did include a scene in our kitchen which opens with my daughter calling me Cinderella, and closes with me banging my shin on the dishwasher and swearing loudly, to which my son, his hand on my shoulder, says to me, ‘you’re not being horrible because you’re horrible’.

 

The manuscript I’ve just pressed Send on is about something more personal and interior than housework. It goes back to before I had children, to even before I swore I’d never have children. It goes back to a feeling that I didn’t have words for at the time. It goes back to my not feeling sure that I was worth looking after. Perhaps this is a feeling that many of us experience fleetingly, while growing up, a feeling which, if we have it, we suppress in order to get on with life.

 

One of the best things about writing about domesticity has been the little things that people told me along the way that made me realise what a big thing looking after ourselves really is. The home-made card from an acquaintance who declined to be interviewed about domestic life on the grounds that, ‘I hate housework’. The friend who convinced me that cooking is a performance and that loud music, a glass of wine and doubling the quantities are essential. The woman who, despite moving home forty times, longs to put down roots and would love nothing more than a bed by the oven so she could bake at all hours. The minimalist architect who can’t sit down to work at home until he’s cleaned up the kitchen and put on a load of washing. The woman who does all her cooking in a Thermomix and washes up before meals. The woman who travels a lot and needs only her cushion, lamp and mug to feel at home. The vegan opera singer who chooses her accommodation on tour on the basis of whether it has an oven in which she can bake which in turn allows her to say to herself, at the end of each concert, ‘Now I’m going home’. The young woman whose father wears a tea-cosy as a hat and sings to himself as he goes about cooking in his cold kitchen. The woman who gave me the idea of going outside to pick flowers to put in a vase as a way of drawing a line after cleaning the house. The friend who enjoys nothing more than a good steam clean in her pyjamas on Saturday mornings. The woman who took a month to go through her house from top to bottom, while working full-time, to cleanse it of her kids’ childhood and to make space for life to come. The woman who pointed out that when a home isn’t looked after, when the spaces aren’t loved, the only option is for it to fall apart.

 

None of these stories made it into my manuscript, the editor having advised against them in an earlier draft. On the other hand if my mind hadn’t been full of these stories I’d never have completed the manuscript. And I’d have been a heap more lonely in monk mode.

 

During these last two weeks, when not swimming with my daughter at the local pool, or sitting on the beach while she surfs, I’ve been standing up working at our metre-high kitchen bench, looking up as the lamp in the corner takes on square shadows late afternoon, wishing that a fairy would cook dinner, and ignoring our dog as she stretched out in puppy pose, begging for her dinner and a walk.

 

Last week I cancelled dinner with friends twice. I didn’t say I was in monk mode, but they got that I was. Knowing I needed to press Send before my editor, 32 weeks pregnant, had her baby, it was as if I couldn’t care about anyone or anything else, over and above immediate family. On Friday evening, despite having a few more hours up my sleeve, and disregarding the three pages of notes I’d promised myself I’d slip into the manuscript, I pressed Send.