A Feeling for Ice

Jenny Diski remembers her childhood

I am not entirely content with the degree of whiteness in my life. My bedroom is white; white walls, icy mirrors, white sheets and pillowcases, white slatted blinds. It’s the best I could do. Some lack of courage – I wouldn’t want to be thought extreme – has prevented me from having a white bedstead and side tables. They are wood, and they annoy me a little. Opposite my bed, in the very small room, a wall of mirrored cupboards reflects the whiteness back at itself, making it twice the size it thought it was. In the morning, if I arrange myself carefully when I wake, I can open my eyes to nothing but whiteness.

If I trace it back, that wish for whiteout began with the idea of being an inmate in a psychiatric hospital. White hospital sheets seemed to hold out the promise of what I really wanted – a place of safety, a white oblivion. Oblivion, strictly speaking, was what I was after, but white hospital sheets were an approximation, I believed.

Actually, the reality of the hospital in London was rather different, though the sheets were white. The near-demented Sister Winniki (identical twin of Big Nurse) always ripped the crisp white sheets off me at too early an hour in the morning, in the name of mental health. ‘Up, up, up, Mees Seemonds. Ve must not lie in bed, it vill make us depressed.’ I was depressed and all I wanted was the right conditions for my depression, but we weren’t allowed to be depressed in the bin. I had to battle against Sister Winniki to achieve even a modicum of oblivion – but since the whole point of oblivion is that it is total or not at all, I couldn’t win.

When hospitalisation failed, I transferred my fantasy to the idea of a monk’s cell. But there wasn’t anywhere I could go with the fantasy, being both the wrong religion and the wrong sex, so I settled maturely – compromisingly – for making my almost blank bedroom and achieving at least my morning whiteout. It’s something, but not quite enough. Though I’m very good at getting what I want, the world is better at not letting me have more than a taste of it.

Finally, it came to me, effortlessly, as these things seem to come. Suddenly, there’s a moment when a thought in your head makes itself known as if it’s always been there, as if you’ve been thinking it for ever. Sometimes I think I don’t think at all, if thinking means some conscious process of the mind working out the nature and solution of a problem. I’m a little ashamed of this. I wish I thought properly, like proper people seem to think.

I reasoned with myself: throughout the history of the world very, very few people have been to Antarctica; there was no reason why I, just because I fancied it, should be among them. It wouldn’t be an outrage if I didn’t go to Antarctica, almost everybody didn’t. Nothing bad would happen if I reached the end of my life without having been there. But I was, nonetheless, outraged at the idea of not going. Irrationally but unmanageably outraged. This is very important to me, I replied to my reasoning self, but I was unable to explain why.

The Arctic would have been easier, but I had no desire to head North. I wanted white and ice as far as the eye could see, and I wanted it in the one place in the world which was uninhabited. I wanted my white bedroom extended beyond reason. I wanted a place where Sister Winniki couldn’t exist. That was Antarctica, and only Antarctica.

It turned out not to be so easy to go to Antarctica. There isn’t anywhere exactly to go. But like thoughts that pop into your head, classified advertisements make themselves known when you’ve got something on your mind. ‘Antarctica – the cruise of a lifetime,’ it said. I sent off for the brochure. In the meantime, I called the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge.

‘How can I get to Antarctica?’ I asked.

‘Are you a scientist?’

‘No, I’m a writer.’

It sounded feeble next to the echo of ‘scientist’. The woman at the BAS clearly agreed.

‘You can’t go if you’re not a scientist engaged in specific research.’ Was she a relative of Sister Winniki?

‘Why not?’

‘Because the British Antarctic Survey is set up to protect the environment for serious scientific purposes.’

‘What about serious writing purposes?’

She said she could arrange for me to interview people who have spent time on British Antarctic bases.

‘Have you thought about having a writer in residence?’ I wondered.

To say she put the phone down wouldn’t be quite true, but the conversation terminated.

I am not averse to disappointment. It has its own special pleasures. Disappointment is the hidden agenda within fantasy, a nugget for the aficionado who might trick up the bland negativity of the word by sliding alphabetically towards disjunction and disparity. If you could have what you dream about, if I could have Antarctica all white and solitary and boundless, there would finally be no excuse. Imagine, you are exactly where you want to be; and now what? Yes white, yes solitary, yes boundless, but will it, in its icy, empty, immense reality, do? In my head, it does fine: why seek out the final disappointment which the earlier, smaller disappointment only seeks to prevent? The point of desire is desire itself, the essential pleasure in expectation is expectation. The idea that reality is a completion of the wish is fallacious. It is only our dim literal-mindedness that makes us believe that we should try to achieve what we wish for. The disjunction between what I want and what I can have is my friend, my best friend in all likelihood, and I know it. Disappointment is a safety net to be relished in a secret, knowing way by the disappointed. Give thanks for the BAS and all the other preventers of fantasy come true.

The brochure arrived and I reset my daydreams.

Some realities you cannot get away from. I learned that, repeatedly, from the age of two at Queen’s Ice Rink. An ice rink is a promise made purely for the pleasure of creating disappointment. If you want to skate without stopping you have to go round and round the bounded ice; you can’t go on and on, even though the surface permits a gathering of speed which can only be for the purpose of heading forwards without hindrance.

I’m not entirely ill at ease with boundaries. I was a city-bred child and boundaries are the nature of the city. Pavements stopped at kerbs and became roads, requiring a change of direction if I was on my tricycle, or a change of attention if I needed to cross to the next section of pavement. There were stopping places, turning points and breaks in the cityscape on any journey.

I lived on an island on an island. What I knew about the larger island was that if you went on in any direction there was sea at the edge of everywhere – the notion of a change of country without a watery division was astonishing to me. When I was very small we went to Belgium and drove to Holland one day. I couldn’t credit the unreality of it. It was the sea that said a country was a country, not an official checking passports at a border. And where were we, I wanted to know, when the car was half-way across the line dividing Belgium and Holland? ‘It depends,’my father riddled, ‘whether you’re sitting in the front or back seat.’ This was interesting, because I always sat in the front passenger seat next to my father when the three of us were in the car. My mother sat in the back. Always. Under the peculiar circumstances of the Belgium/Holland border, my father and I were a nation apart from my mother. I swivelled in my seat at the critical moment as we crossed into Belgium again that evening. ‘You’re still in Holland,’ I told my mother, but even as I spoke she arrived back in Belgium with us.

The island within the greater island was a block of flats on the Tottenham Court Road. Paramount Court. It is still there, I pass it in the car once or twice a week. I lived in Paramount Court with my mother, and, when he was there, my father, from the time I was born until I was just 11, which is to say 1947 until 1958 or thereabouts. Until I was seven we lived in a two-roomed flat on the third floor, facing the well at the back, then we moved upstairs to the fifth floor, to a three-roomed flat at the front, where I had a room of my own for the first time. Tottenham Court Road has changed. The traffic is one-way now and there’s much more of it; the cinema was pulled down years ago and the space remains unplugged, although it’s designated for the new hospital which will replace University College Hospital and the Middlesex. There were then, of course, no electronics shops, there being nothing in the way of electronics in the Fifties.

The corridors inside the flats, the back alleyways, the cinema, and the skirt of pavement around the island were my playground. It never crossed my mind that my domain was limited in any way. The bareness of the narrow, cream-coloured, empty corridors, the neutral carpet and the unadorned pavement was decorated and redesigned every day with whatever landscape I chose for it. It felt enormous, limitless, available for any purpose I wished to put it to, and filled with both familiarity and surprise. Even now I can’t imagine any suburban or country childhood that would have provided me with so much. I spent a lot of time wandering, playing on my own, but there were other children in the block with whom I played in the spaces of the flats. Helen, Jonathan, Susan, whose doors I knocked on, with whom I would have tea sometimes, who, occasionally, would have tea with me in my flat. So, I still dream about getting back to roam in the corridors, to climb the fire escape, to play the games and tell myself the stories I invented in my childspace.

Prince Monolulu, who has since become a pub, lived in Fitzrovia and was a regular passer-by. He was immensely tall and ebony black. He wore exotic flowing robes (exotic, that is, for those days) and always had brilliantly coloured cock feathers in his hair. He was a racetrack bookie and a professional character. When we met on my pavement, he’d yell out his catch phrase ‘I got a hoss. I got a hoss.’ And we’d fall into each other’s arms.

Inside the enclosing walls of Paramount Court I began life with parents who were cash rich. The profitable days of the black market were still making it possible for my father to bring plenty of money home, and the remains of the jewellery my mother had from her first husband were sold off to keep her feeling wealthy when the black market came to an end. For the first three years of my life, my mother’s desperate need to display wealth was taken care of. Of all things in her life, I was the best medium for her display – she went abroad for my woollen vests, dressed me in velvet-collared coats like the little Prince and Princess, and made sure I always wore white gloves and had immaculately ironed satin bows in my hair. When the money dried up, my mother struggled to maintain my appearance – the white gloves were the last thing to go.

As I recall, it was my mother who took me skating. Every day, long before I was old enough to start school. You could skate before you could walk, she would say when I was older. Feet don’t skate, but they experience skating. You sense the solidity of the ice through the blade in a way that is quite different from being on any other hard surface. Concrete doesn’t feel as ungiving and absolute as ice. And yet, to skate is magical, as you find yourself coasting free and frictionless. The clear distinction between yourself and the ice you are on strengthens the sensation of your own body, and of its capacity both for control and for letting appropriate things happen. And for all the impression of physical mastery, skating is still strange and dreamlike. Dreams of flying are the nearest you get to the feeling of being on the ice.

Every hour the skating stopped and a machine was pushed up and down the ice, like a lawn mower, to smooth it. Underneath was pure, untouched surface again, gleaming, milky-white, virgin, immaculate ice. For 15 minutes after this the rink was only for serious skating; people practising what they had learned during a lesson, and rehearsing dance routines to the music coming from loudspeakers. In the middle, figures were skated, and I would go on with a handful of others and practise making 2s, 3s, 4s, all the single digits, appear in the silky new ice. This was another kind of skating, not going anywhere, rather meditative, concentrating on the ice at your feet to assess the quality of the marks that were appearing under your blade. These figures were the building blocks of the kind of free and flashy skating I wanted to do, I was told. They would teach me balance and control on the ice. The figure 2 had me turning and leaning so that I could eventually skate in just the way I wanted, but I had to work at it to get the technique right. It was boring making 2 appear over and over again on the surface of the ice when I could have been flying free.

Now, I like the idea of that slow, concentrated, meticulous and pointless activity. Eyes down watching the blade and glancing behind to check on the quality of the mark you have made, seeing it not quite correct, not bulbous enough, or unevenly rounded, finding the tail too elongated, not sharply enough defined, and beginning again to make it better, eventually to make it right. It’s that I imagine myself doing now.

My mother didn’t find my endlessly practising figures on the ice pointless, she was willing to sit day after day in the chilly seat beside the barrier. The figures were for her, as for my skating teacher, a means to an end. They would make me the new Sonja Henie the skating champion turned skating movie star. I would be the youngest champion ice skater ever, and she would be the mother of the champion. My mother dreamed of making me into an ice princess, but something went wrong. After a while I refused to practise, and life, in any case, got in the way. What she got, to her bitter disappointment – though I think the irony might have been lost on her – was an ice maiden of another kind altogether.

I last saw my mother on 22 April 1966. I remember it because the last time I saw her was two days after my father died. The date in my memory is the date of his death.

When I was 14, I had been admitted, after an overdose, to the mental hospital in Hove, where I stayed for four and a half months, stuck, because the psychiatrist in charge wouldn’t let me live with either of my parents. My father was in Banbury, my mother in Hove. The mother of a school-friend had heard about me and offered me a home in her house in London, which I, the psychiatrist and both my parents gratefully accepted. When my father died I was still living in her house, aged 18, and two months away from taking my A levels.

Two days after my father died, my mother came through the front door and handed me an umbrella. A gift. For April showers and stormy weather. It wasn’t any ordinary umbrella, it was pale, powder-blue and shaped like a pagoda, its spire rising to a delicate point, and all around the base was a scalloped frill made of a matching powder-blue artificial, chiffon-like material. Look for the chiffon lining – blue skies, nothing but blue skies – on the sunny side of the street – every time it rains it rains pennies from heaven – come rain or come shine.

My mother sat down to lunch. She was almost feverishly elated. She was pleased he was dead. It served him right for being the bastard he was. And she wasn’t a hypocrite. She’d always said, hadn’t she always said – she had always said – that if she saw him lying dead in the gutter she’d kick him out of the way and walk by. And that’s what she would do if she saw him now lying in his coffin.

The woman I was living with was present and at this point, thinking I needed something more than a blue umbrella, reminded me about an A-level class I had to get to. I’d better hurry, she said, or I’d miss it. I hurried so much getting out of the house to the non-existent class that I forgot to take any money with me, so I wandered down to Camden High Street and sat in the library, prepared to give it a couple of hours before my mother ran out of steam and went on her way. The library had a large plate-glass window, and my mother, instead of turning left to the nearest tube and bus stop when she got to the High Street, inexplicably turned right and walked right past it. Not actually past. She was already screaming when she pushed through the doors. I sat in silence while she shrieked and wept, noisily enumerating my faults, not the least of which was being just like him: a liar, deceitful, treacherous, heartless. True, actually, in this context. Then she departed, her aria over, leaving the library in a silence it rarely achieved in the normal course of the day. I never saw her again.

Whenever, in the past thirty years, people asked, as they do in the regular way of introductory conversations, about my parents, I said my father died in 1966 and that I hadn’t seen or heard from my mother since the same date. Often, incongruously to my mind, they would ask me if she was still alive. ‘I don’t know,’ I’d reply.

‘But don’t you want to know?’

‘No.’

‘You must,’ some soul brother or sister of Sister Winniki would insist.

There seems to be no limit to the reach and power of popular psychology. Everyone now knows that mothers are an essential item of equipment in any psyche, and that though relations with mothers may be difficult or even dreadful, attachment to them is mandatory. They also know, as a corollary, that a denial of attachment is a failure to confront the reality of mother-attachment.

‘You must find it very disturbing.’

‘No, I find it delightful.’

However, I am not immune to the power of popular psychology, for all my doubts and irritations with it. I knew what I felt about my mother’s absence, but suspected that what I felt must be an avoidance of the real feelings everyone else supposed I naturally would have. Bad feelings, sad feelings, guilt feelings. Those kinds of feeling. From time to time, in the cause of self-knowledge, I would excavate, try to dig down below my contentment with the situation, but beyond the strong wish for the situation and therefore my contentment to continue, I could find no underlying seismic fault waiting to open up. Of course, psychoanalytic theory has a ready answer to this – how can I possibly know what I don’t know I know? There’s no argument against this one. Still, there were a few things I did know about myself which might equally have been concealed from me by me, and some of those things gave me pain and difficulty. Perhaps the continuing enigma of my absent mother shielded me from something worse, uncopable with. Indeed it did, it shielded me from her if she happened still to be alive. But if that was the case, then shouldn’t I have been grateful to my unconscious for the protection it provided? Surely, it is neurotic to seek pain, where ordinary unhappiness is available? I gave up searching for anguish and settled for naive tranquillity. What I didn’t know didn’t seem to hurt me.

For the most part, quantum theory has been of little practical use in my life. When shopping in Sainsbury’s, trying to get out of bed in the morning, or wondering what to wear, quantum theory is hardly any help. In one area, however, it has had a remarkable relevance. With all due acknowledgment to Erwin Schrödinger, let us do a thought experiment. Imagine a box, inside which is a flask of hydrocyanic acid, some radioactive material, a Geiger counter – and my mother. The apparatus is wired up so that if the radioactive material decays, the Geiger counter will be triggered and will set off a device to shatter the flask and thereby kill my mother. We set the experiment up, shut the lid of the box, and wait until there is a precise 50:50 chance that radioactive decay has occurred. What is the state of my mother before we open the lid to look?

Common sense says my mother is either alive or dead, but according to quantum theory, events such as the radioactive decay of an atom and therefore its consequences become real only when they are observed. The case is not decided until someone opens the lid and looks. The condition of the radioactive material in the closed box is known as a superposition of states, an inextricable mixture of the decayed and not-decayed possibilities. Once the box is open and we look inside it, one of the options becomes reality, the other disappears. But before we look, everything in the box, including my mother, exists in a superposition of states, so my mother is, in quantum theory terms, both dead and alive at the same time for as long as the box is closed.

Since I came across this thought experiment, it has been my view that whatever psychoanalytic theory might have to say about the matter of my mother, it would have to do battle with the Uncertainty Principle before it could fully win me over. The choice on offer is the assumption that for thirty years I repressed curiosity about my mother’s existence because thoughts of her were intolerable, or that, all unknown to me, I was contentedly, not to say harmoniously, living out a recognised phenomenon of the physical universe.

My daughter, Chloe, was halfway through her A-level course when she asked me one day how you find out if someone is dead. I was evasive: as far as I knew there was only one person whose life or death status was in doubt.

‘Find out if there’s a death certificate.’
Funny how easy and obvious it was.
‘I forbid you to do it.’
‘You can’t.’
‘I know.’

Cabin 532 of the Akademik Vavilov was quite as right as could be. Plain white walls, a desk, a bookshelf above it. The bed was a wooden-sided bunk built along the wall opposite the desk, with a pair of beige curtains running across it to close it off from the rest of the cabin. The bedding, to my delight, was all white. Opposite the door was a large rectangular window – porthole, if you must – which opened wide. Nothing else.

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