Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Voice.

It takes me a month to fill in the online form. "It's a sign," I tell anyone who will listen, "if I can't even fill in the form I'm not meant to do the M.A." But all the people who will listen tell me I can fill in the form, especially my parents. I manage the bit about uploading some writing, I even find someone to write me a reference, but when I get to the section entitled 'personal statement' I nearly have a nervous breakdown.

"Ha!" say my two older sons, "now you know how we felt when we applied." But I already know how they felt when they applied because I was there.

My dad sends me encouraging emails. In one he suggests I check out an open evening at Kingston University, so I drive all the way over to Kingston University on the hottest June evening for 40 years and sit talking to an academic while wearing an inappropriately heavy dress, drenched in sweat.

As she describes the M.A. to me in more detail, a voice in my head keeps interrupting. "You are not good enough," the voice says. "You are a failure. You are an idiot. You definitely cannot do an M.A." It is a voice that has dogged me and many other women I know for years. Possibly forever. It is a voice my husband has never heard, or any one of my sons, because it's a voice reserved for women who had children and then mislaid their career like it was a beloved old handbag at the back of the wardrobe. But then something she says gives me hope: "have you ever written anything?"

I go home and research the Creative Writing M.A. at Goldsmiths. I nearly went to Goldsmiths once before but on that occasion when I turned out of the station on my way to the university to attend the interview - a skinny little kid from York, who once briefly lived in the beautiful city of Vancouver - New Cross in south east London terrified me.

Somehow I manage to complete an online application to Goldsmiths and while on holiday in the States I receive an email inviting me for interview. You cannot go to an interview, the voice says. You will not know what to say at an interview. At an interview they will discover you are a fraud and an idiot. In any case, you cannot make that date for the interview, so, phew. I reply to say I can't make that date for the interview and immediately receive another email with another date for an interview. 

When I get back from the States and the second date arrives I walk up to Balham Station and from there catch a train to New Cross Gate. Upon leaving the station I turn left towards the university, exactly as I did 33 years ago, but this time something about the kebab shops and the graffiti and the inner-city smell of dog shit and exhaust fumes seems right, because now I live in Tooting.

I'm early. I search out where the interview is due to take place, passing students sprawled on steps in the summer sunshine, then retreat to a cafe where I find a table in the window, and there, with my feet beneath it and my elbows on it, spend a pleasant hour looking things up on my phone. I realise I must have met the woman who is to interview me at a Voice Box event at the South Bank in the early 90s.

I go to the interview and this time I'm not drenched in sweat; I'm wearing my favourite blue dress, and when we get to the bit about why I want to do the M.A. I say something about my sons and how the second one will soon be going to university and that I'd like to do something for myself and have to wipe away tears, again. She asks me about reading: what books have been important to me? and my mind goes blank. This is when she discovers I'm a fraud, I think.

"Oh, you know," I say, delving around in my memory and finding the usual stuff there by Jane Austin and the Brontes, but then I hit a seam. "Madam Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Ruth, The Dubliners, particularly The Dead, Atonement, Birdsong, Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, The L-Shaped Room, The Bell Jar, although when I reread that recently I couldn't believe how silly it was, novels by Margaret Forster and her biography of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and..." The voice in my head interrupts. You do realise, it says, that all these books are about being trapped in one way or another, so I say this out loud.

When I get home I find an email offering me a place. Wow, I think, so perhaps the voice will be quiet now.

Love E x


P.S. A week later I receive a reading list and the voice shouts - what the fuck have you done!

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Back in the UK.

North America.

"It's like a parallel universe where everyone is just a lot fatter," says Eldest. That's one of the things I jotted down during our trip to the United States and Canada. I tried to make notes as we went along so I could write a 'what we thought of it' blog but didn't get very far. Here's another, "I thought I'd love the food and hate the people," says Middle One, "but it's the other way around." I know what they mean.

There's a mother and child in the lift down the cliff face to see the sea lions on the Oregon coast who are so large I'm worried the cable might snap. And genial is the word for the 'folks' we encounter along the way, particularly the men. One said 'Howdy' to me in Walmart for absolutely no reason. A group gathered to offer assistance as I was putting fuel in our RV. "We only have small cars in my country," I said, and they fell about laughing like this was the funniest thing they ever heard. I could get used to this, I thought, trading on being foreign and having a cute accent.

Some more observations - gas is cheap, roads are in poor repair, campers are quiet and orderly, cheese is horrible and comes out of a can, a small coke is huge, in fact food portions are so large we order for four instead of for five and still there's too much, you can get bitter black coffee everywhere, tipping is obligatory, service in restaurants is fantastic except for in McDonalds in Banff, which isn't half so good as House of Nanking in San Francisco, and Yosemite on a July weekend is as crowded as Westfield on a Bank Holiday Monday.

There was a large group of teenagers on a small inflatable dinghy on the Merced river, all with enormous tits - the boys as well as the girls - drinking coke, listening to loud rap music, laughing and filming themselves on their iPhones as they blithely floated downstream. There's a handy metaphor for America right there, I thought.

Hot Water.

It's a dismal homecoming. We step off the plane to a message from the plumber. "Bad news, I'm afraid," it says, "my mother-in-law died so there isn't any hot water but it'll be sorted tonight." Great. Awful about the mother-in-law, obviously, but not what you want to hear after a eight hour overnight flight without sleep; although on the plus side it was Air Canada and I did get to watch When Harry Met Sally again.

At the house we hang around waiting for the hot water to come on. The plumber was meant to fit the new boiler in its new position in the three weeks we were away but didn't get it finished. To my untrained eye it looks like he hardly got it started. "Don't you need to move it from the middle of the cellar to back against that wall?" I ask. "And attach the flue?"

"Er," he says, shiftily.

"He told me it was his grandmother who died," says my mother when I ring her to say we're back. Kindly, she called him while we were away trying to hurry things along.

Six o'clock comes and goes, then the plumber disappears when we're not looking sending a text to say he's coming back later, and doesn't. 

In the ensuing week his visits to the house are infrequent and fleeting. This is because his grandmother died, again, Worcester Bosch has sent the wrong part, he has to get more copper piping, which takes him four hours and he returns without it, he has to pop out for dinner/lunch/a break and doesn't come back after any of them, he has to take his son to A&E because he split his lip and that trip to A&E takes him the whole of Thursday, and Friday, and still there's no hot water. I take to showering at a friend's house or the gym, forgetting to take a vital piece of kit with me on each occasion.

"He's the unluckiest plumber in south London," I say to my unwashed sons, standing several feet away from them. "And we haven't had the funeral yet, either of them."

On Saturday, when he eventually turns up at lunchtime, we make him leave his van keys on the kitchen table. "You're not going anywhere until the hot water is back," I say. 

Miraculously this works and at 10pm it comes on and I have my first hot bath in weeks.

Love E x


P.S. And that's not a metaphor, it's just a relief.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

2668 Memory Lane.

Nine hundred and fifty miles from San Francisco and I'm outside the house in Vancouver where I lived when I was a child. It's all coming back to me. The view of the bay and the mountains, the tree my brother and I used to climb from the deck down to the garden, the basement we played in for hours making brick towns on the floor, squashing the shiny black beetles that scurried about down there when they threatened to encroach on our game (in hindsight they were quite possibly cockroaches), the snails I used to gather in the garden and name and keep in jam jars on my bedroom window sill, the transistor radio my parents bought me for Christmas 1975 through which I first heard Abba's SOS and The Hustle by... who the hell was The Hustle by? No idea.

There was no plan, just a taxi to the address and then once disgorged onto the pavement I wasn't sure what to do next. "The house was blue," I tell my family as we approach from across the road, "but of course it might not be blue anymore." I peep round the hedge. It's not blue, it's grey, and it's even prettier than I remember.

I knock on the door on the off chance that someone is in and a nice lady opens it. "Excuse me," I say, "I used to live here in 1975/6 and..." I don't get to the end of my explanation before she invites us inside. No sooner have I crossed the threshold than I burst into tears. I had no idea that would happen. I didn't expect to cry but then I didn't expect to be invited inside. I don't know what I expected. I just wanted to see it again.

"Stop trying to recreate your childhood through us," one of my sons said a few days ago when I bemoaned something not being exactly the way I remembered it.

Is that what I'm doing? Maybe. Or maybe some places have a hold on us we can never shake off and this house is one of those places for me. No wonder, now I'm back here I understand its grip - it's beautiful, in a beautiful place, more beautiful even than I remember it, improved upon and extended with an additional storey on the back.

"Your parents probably had this room," the current owner says, showing us into the first room we come to on the right. "It's the den now."

"They did!" I say, and then I'm overwhelmed by tears. The whole thing is too incredible. To be transported back in an instant to another world, a world in which I am nine-years-old and living with my parents and my brother in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, 5000 miles from where I've spent my life since.

"I think you need a big hug," she says.

We walk on through the living room to the deck outside. Despite the smoke hanging over Vancouver from the forest fires burning in the east, you can still tell that on a clear day there's an incredible view, all the way to Vancouver Island. "Such a shame," says the owner, "that you can't see it today."

She takes us on into the dining room. Suddenly it's 1975 and my parents and brother and I are sitting round that table having Sunday lunch (we might have been living in Canada but we were still British) seagulls are flying down to the window, landing on the wooden platform the owners we rented the house from had erected for this purpose. Chairs scrape back as my brother and I rush to feed them with scraps from our plates.

After a comprehensive tour and swapping contact details with the lovely owner, we walk to my old elementary school using Google maps on my phone. "So," says one of my sons, peering in through a classroom window, "Canada, how many provinces?"

"No idea," I say. "They didn't teach us stuff like that. I was in a progressive classroom. I had to plan my own timetable so I wrote stories about witches and warlocks for nine months."

On the bus back to downtown Vancouver I hum The Hustle to Middle One.

"Van McCoy," he says.

Love E x


P.S. Ten provinces and three territories. I looked it up. 

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The tide is high.

I'm lying on a beach in Washington State near a place called Willipa Bay with my eldest son. As we drove here deeper into the wilderness across a vast bridge that spanned the inlet with the setting sun turning the water silver and the forest black against the sky, I thought it the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. Now the sun has gone and the moon is high and the waves are lapping gently against the shore, and it's even more beautiful.

He builds a fire on the sand, expertly using cardboard pieces and bits of barbecue briquette he brought with him to the beach. Once these catch he adds driftwood lying nearby, selects music from his phone, and lights the spliff he bought earlier.

Buying cannabis from one of the many legal cannabis stores we passed along the highway in Oregon was one of the things he wanted to do on this trip, so when the rest of us were hitting Safeway again - for yet more food supplies for the RV - he asked if I minded him nipping across the road to a store he saw as we were parking. "Of course not," I said. "You're 21, an adult, and it's legal here, it's your choice." Then I added, half in jest, "I might even join you."

When dinner was over and washed up and the others hit the hay or quietly crept off to a corner to read, he called my bluff. "Do you feel stressed?" he asked. 

"I do, quite," I said, because driving hundreds of miles in such a short space of time in a hot metal box with four men was taking its toll. So he suggested I go with him to the beach to smoke the single joint he had purchased in the cannabis store for six dollars; called Pineapple Express. I haven't smoked marijuana since I was a student and I didn't like it much then, but I reckoned it would be nice to tag along and maybe have a few puffs.

There's no one else on the beach. With the fire flickering and the music playing he lights the joint, takes a drag, then passes it to me. My first puff is a baby one and the second, by the third I inhale deeply and cough a lot. "You did it right that time," he says.

It has no effect at all. I will have to lie and pretend I'm stoned when I'm not, I think. Then I notice something. "Have you seen the waves?" I say, "they're almost up to our toes in no time. The tide is higher and it wasn't before."

"I don't think so, Ma," he laughs.

"No, really." I say, "look at the waves."

White waves are rolling towards us, whiter than they were before and fuller, much fuller, and a lot closer.

"Those waves are definitely coming right at us," I say, taking the joint from his hand and puffing away on it several more times. "In fact... they're quite sinister."

He laughs again.

I lie back on the sand and look up at the stars. They're so beautiful. The whole night is so beautiful -  the stars, the beach, the music, my son. It's all unbearably beautiful.

"How are you feeling now?" he asks, and for a moment I can't answer for the tears, which I wipe away quickly.

"Fine." I say, "I feel fine."

Later we walk back through trees to the RV and I stop dead in my tracks to look up at the sky. A buttery moon is silhouetted against spindly pines turning the whole wood into something like a scene from a Tim Burton movie.

"Oh my God, have you seen the moon!" I say. "And the trees, look at the trees! The moon is the mooniest moon there has ever been and the trees, the trees are so... treeish."

"You're high, Ma," he laughs.

When I get back to the RV, I lie on the bed in my clothes, not remembering that I was just lying on a beach and so getting sand everywhere and then when I get into bed properly later, unclothed, between scratchy sheets provided by the RV rental company, it's like being exfoliated by two pieces of sandpaper.

I can't sleep. I'm wide awake thinking about the fire and the music and the spliff and the walk through the wood with my boy and most of all the waves that were coming straight at us up the beach, closer and closer.  

Love E x


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Hitting the road.

I miss most of the spectacular scenery on the zigzag mountain road west from Yosemite back down to Napa Valley because I have my eyes closed. I can hear a pathetic whimpering sound: it's me. I have my foot on the floor trying to apply the brakes and I'm not even the one driving, which is a good thing, given that I have my eyes closed. When I do gingerly open them I concentrate on my knuckles, which are white because they're gripping the dashboard, and on the Beatles album I'm listening to through my headphones, which is also white. At least if I'm going to die While My Guitar Gently Weeps will be the last thing I hear.

"Mummy is freaking out," I hear a boy say. This is true, I think, and a perfectly rational reaction to taking Italian Job turns down a mountain with a sheer drop to certain death to our left, in an enormous metal box on wheels that has such a long braking distance it practically needs written notice in advance. Thank God they drive on the right side of the road here.

Actually, just after I booked this trip I thought I'd got the route the wrong way round for this very reason. Going to Canada we'll be on the inside lane on the scenic 101 and not next to the ocean, I thought, so maybe we should do the thing in reverse instead and end up in San Francisco rather than beginning there? When we went to pick up the RV I changed my mind back. "Oh my fucking God," I said. "It's huge."

You might say I should have known it would be huge since I booked it. At least on the inside lane all the way north we won't career off the road into the sea. I hope. Or off this winding road down from Yosemite. Why did we even go to Yosemite on a road trip to Canada? you may ask, like my boys did. The answer is that my mother suggested it. "And are you doing everything to please your mother?" my boys said.

"Isn't everyone?" I replied, "and mine is quite bossy."

"Ours is too," they said, except for one of them, who said, "No she's not, our mother is a hippy."

I like being called a hippy, even if it is a wildly inaccurate portrayal of my character. Perhaps he thinks I'm a hippy because I brought him to San Francisco and suggested we hit the road in an RV? The truth is that the RV terrifies me and so far I haven't driven it once, although it is true to say that I love the freedom it brings. It's a joy be able to go wherever you like with everything you need in the back, like we're a band of snails with the three baby snails actually pulling their weight for once because they're so happy. Attach the shore line, we say (that's the electricity cable), fill the water tank, check the propane, get the collapsible chairs from the trunk, and miraculously they do it all without complaint.

Of course we do make it down the mountain from Yosemite in one piece and then we camp in a State Park in Napa Valley near a place called Calistoga. We're in woods with a creek at the back. At night there's no other sound but frogs and cicadas and nothing to see but stars. It's like Little House on The Prairie on wheels. The boys complain about the heat in the RV at bedtime so I say leave the main door open to the elements and just use the insect screen and they're horrified. "But California is full of serial killers!" they say.

"Like who?" I say.

"Like that Zodiac killer, with the code," says one of them, "they cracked it, and it turned out he was saying he wanted to hunt the most dangerous animal of all... man."

"That's great," I say. "That's so going in my blog."

"I forgot about the blog," he says. "I take back what I said about you being a hippy."

Love E x


P.S. We're on the 101 heading north now. "I'm on the road I want to be on, going to the place I want to go, with the people I love the most," I say.

"Lame!" shouts one of the boys, smiling.