Why didn’t you just do what you were told?

Jenny Diski

A few years ago, someone asked how it came about that I ended up living with Doris Lessing in my teens. I was in the middle of the story of the to-ing and fro-ing between my parents and was finally reaching the psychiatric hospital bit when the man said something extraordinary, something that had never occurred to me or to anyone else to whom I’d told the story.

‘Why didn’t you just do what you were told?’ he asked.

I was lost for words. Although he sounded baffled rather than challenging he was the sort of age a headmaster or my parents might have been when I was a teenage girl, and his question, and the tone of voice in which he asked it, might have come from their exasperation with me back then. The story so far had included quite a lot of me implicitly not doing as I was told, but there were also many times when no one told me what to do, and I had to make it up as I went along (nothing came with instructions). From the vantage point of children who did what they were told, in much the same way that soldiers followed orders, it was probably hard to imagine the outlawed wasteland where no one had any idea what they should do either before they did it or once they’d done it, or the badlands where a child might know as well or better than an adult what needed to be done. The question ‘Why didn’t you do what you were told?’ had the charm for me of Little Women or The Secret Garden, or the novels of Noel Streatfeild, where even when things went awry there was always a neat and tidy family solution to set the whatevertheyarecalleds back on their path of contentment. I was confounded by the question he put to what was left of the insolent child inside me. Doing what I was told simply didn’t have a place in my story of myself. It was perfectly clear that no one had any idea what to do, so they couldn’t very well tell me. And that to do as I was told would have been to listen to people who were completely out of their depth, without a clue what to do except wait until catastrophe knocked at the door: bailiffs inquiring after unpaid bills; mother taken to mental hospital; the headmaster telling my parents I’d been expelled, and each of them telling him it wouldn’t be convenient to have me back. No one very much did tell me what to do because they didn’t know what they themselves ought to do for the best. And none of these dramatic moments, not even the things my mother dreaded, such as the neighbours finding out, turned out to be the end of the world, not even the end of my world, but were just a passage of chaos through which my life proceeded. It was erratic but still it went on. It was however also true, as the question suggested, that I was in general contrary-minded and had been for as long as I could remember. I almost certainly would not have done what I was told to do. My parents’ track record in dealing with the world didn’t encourage confidence. It seemed there was always another way through the drama, either by making a move or keeping very still and waiting to see what happened next.

After I was expelled from St Christopher’s and on the loose in Letchworth for the weekend, I took the train to Banbury, to where my father and stepmother had moved from London just the week before. They hadn’t bothered to let me know until the school stamped me ‘return to sender’. I suppose they planned to tell me before school broke up, but my school holiday started unexpectedly early that summer. It also finished early, and even more unexpectedly, when on the Sunday evening a few hours after my arrival, my father told me that the next six years were going to be quite different from anything I’d assumed. Camden Council had given me a chance by sending me to a fee-paying progressive school, but instead of taking it, I’d chucked it away. He wouldn’t allow me to go back to school at all, to do my O and A levels and then proceed to university. Instead the following morning I was to start earning my living in a job just like everyone else. He had arranged one for me. ‘I’ve done some bad things in my time, my girl’ – that’s how he spoke: he believed it gave him a classiness that a boy born in Petticoat Lane could never hope for. He was also inclined to pronounce ‘off’ as orff and ‘cloth’ as clawth. ‘I’ve done some bad things in my time, my girl, you only have to ask your mother, but I was never expelled from school.’ During the recent war and after, my father had busied himself wheeling and dealing in the black market. He’d cooked at least one set of accounting books that had him in prison before I was old enough to remember, and somehow or other gone bankrupt more than once. Between the time when the black market came to an end and the moment he finally gave up his loftier aspirations and settled for Pam, the reliably adoring, tight-lipped, puritanical divorcee with a decent hairdressing business, whom I was told to call my stepmother (an inaccurate title since my mother refused to give my father a divorce), he made his living by lizarding around the bars of the fancier hotels to meet divorced or widowed women, and relieved them of various sums after charming the otherwise rational birds off their lonely trees. The daughter of a woman in Denmark had tracked him down and came banging on our door a few weeks after my father had left. She left much more quietly, having listened to my mother’s tale of woe, and gave me ten shillings to buy a geometry set for school. So I did wonder that getting expelled from school stood so high in his comparative catalogue of ‘bad things’ he and I had done.

At the beginning of that term, the one I didn’t get to the end of, I’d decided to operate on the bad side, join the midnight parties, hang out in town in a coffee bar of ill-repute (all the more dangerous with their glass cups and saucers containing frothy cappuccinos), and fall in love with a reporter for the local paper – a god to me. Now I had reached badness’s logical conclusion: my schooldays at an end and a lifetime of getting up and going to work every morning. I was surprised, even shocked at this outcome, but life had been lurching around and about, my parents and I dancing an inelegant quadrille in which I ended up do-si-do-ing with him, with her, in this institution or that, and godknowswhere next. I’d arrived at the final destination, the actual godknowswhere I’d been warned I’d end up if I carried on the way I did. In my case, it turned out to be Banbury, above a hairdressing salon with a stylist called Rolf who put his middle-aged clientele’s hair in firm rollers, and brushed it out and backcombed it into a warm fairy bun, and me off to work every morning in the High Street until I married or died, fitting feet into shoes in an supplicant position, kneeling, head bent, appropriate for one wishing to do penance. It wasn’t at all as I’d imagined it, the godknowswhere I’d ended up in, but it certainly didn’t hold out much promise of the bohemian writer’s life I’d been hoping for. I’d arrived at where I’d end up much sooner than I’d expected, having had a swipe at far less badness than I’d assumed would be the entry fee. I’d been to a few midnight parties in the woods on the outskirts of Letchworth, the garden city of no one’s dreams, drinking cheap cider and homemade spirits. I’d raided the chemistry lab and discovered that sniffing ether caused a most desirable oblivion. I’d been felt up by a few boys who probably didn’t know my name, and had to face an angry policewoman who’d been called out when I was found not to be in my bed in the dorm or anywhere else anyone looked during a half-term when most pupils had gone home. She wanted the name of the man who had ‘violated’ me; since I was underage she’d make sure he went to prison. I didn’t tell them that I’d been at the far corner of the school playing field with my beloved boyfriend, the reporter, fumbling but failing to achieve penetration even though he was on the trajectory of my dreams. Starting with reporting on a local paper, then national ones, and then leaving a salaried life behind to write the remarkable prose and poetry I hoped I could produce. But although I’d opted into the wild beatnik side, aped them, read all the required disenchanted books, talked the melancholy talk, wore big sweaters, black and white eye make-up, and tight jeans, I never felt very much that I was part of the group. I was never comfortable, though it strikes me now that such alienation was the very key to the desired house of mirthlessness. So, after my embarrassingly short career as a bad girl, I was where I was, in Banbury, where women were notable for riding cock-horses and having no clothes on (or perhaps that was some other fine lady), and very little suggested that a bohemian life might be there for the having. I had some hope of a café that was disapproved of by the grown-ups, but events overtook me. I hadn’t really understood how much my desired life depended on going to university. I sensed, at any rate, that a shoe shop in Banbury would not provide the soil in which a writer would blossom.

Doing as I was told, I began work as a trainee, paid £3 a week, £2 of which I was to give to Pam for my room and keep. Freeman, Hardy and Willis was a dreary, respectable high street shoe store at which I imagined only someone without any interest in what happened below their ankles would shop. Someone like my stepmother, whose plain, Protestant hard-working life made me shiver for fear at its lack of any perceivable pleasure. In Banbury I was at ground zero, the down escalator to the floor that lacked even a shard of light, the deepest dungeon with the blackest, thickest bars keeping in anyone with the slightest hope of something else, or even an insane fantasy that there existed floors above, through which one might glimpse a something more. I didn’t take to it. My glamorous Jewish father (foreign, exotic) kept Pam (English, dutiful) adoring and fearful at the possibility of his loss, while his feet were firmly in the slippers she brought for him to wear while reading the Telegraph. Living in sin with my father was the single mis-step Pam had taken in her blemish-free life. It seemed that being adored, and looked after, at this point in his life, was what my father wanted most, while all the desirable women, the well-heeled women, the beautiful strangers faded; none of them had lasted and I imagine that by fifty he just didn’t have the energy left for the chase and the subterfuge. He saw that less glamorous women might offer the reliable devotion he now needed. He settled for Pam and all the excitement that she wouldn’t bring him, the three square meals he could eat, the slippers she slipped on his feet every evening, as supplicant as I was in the shoe shop, and the incurious space and silence she offered while watching the television that allowed him hours of daydreaming about his lost opportunities and how easily they might have come off and brought him a life where daydreaming wasn’t necessary.

Once when I visited him when I was living at Doris’s he picked up a paperback on the table beside his chair and waved it at me. It was My Wicked, Wicked Ways, the autobiography of Errol Flynn. ‘There’s nothing he’s done that I haven’t done in my time,’ he told me. ‘I had all that. Had money, beautiful women. I could have been Errol Flynn …’ His words faded away as the reality of the patterned moquette he was sitting on reminded him of where he actually was and that patterned moquette was as good as he was going to get. On the other hand you could see that the heaven and hell of living in sin was as outlandish as Pam could imagine; leading a life that belonged on the left bank of the Seine tightened the muscles of her face and clamped her lips so fiercely that they quivered as if permanently on the verge of crying. But she had Jimmy and that was what mattered to her. Pam and I conducted mutual warfare from the moment we set eyes on each other.

I got on well with my fellow salesperson. She was ten years older than me, in her mid-twenties, and during the coffee breaks in the staffroom she told me about her life, the most remarkable aspect of it being that even after five years of marriage, her husband had never seen her naked. How was that possible? I gawped. ‘Well, you keep the light off when we … you know.’ And get dressed and undressed in the bathroom with the door locked. It was normal. Just as it was normal to be incapable of using words to describe the activity. ‘When we … you know’ was about as close as she got to ‘fuck’ or ‘sex’ or ‘intercourse’, and she was hopeless at describing the details of the general activity. This was annoying for me because I was so ignorant that I needed some specialised words to know what it was my friend was trying to explain, although I think now that there wasn’t anything particular in her relationship to describe. I could say nothing about what was normal, since no one apart from my parents had seen me naked in my life, and one of the things I fretted about in my future was the idea that if I was ever to have sex, which I realised was a requirement for a bohemian, how would I bear seeing someone seeing me without clothes? I had very little experience of sex, beyond fumbling in the long grass next to St Christopher’s playing field, and the rape that had taken place in a recording studio, the previous Easter holiday, with all my outer clothes on. But even I found it hard to imagine an existence that required so much worry and attention to avoidance behaviour. A life behind locked bathroom doors, hurried changes of clothes, deliberately turning off lights when desire, if that was the word, struck. Separate beds, she’d said, and a life of taking great care to avoid the eye of the beloved. Not very beloved, at least in the way she spoke of her marital relationship. They ‘did it’, got it ‘over with’, and then led what my fellow sales-friend considered to be a proper married life; ‘putting up with’ and ‘looking forward to’, the latter mostly in relation to modern furniture, which had to be saved for. They went out occasionally with other couples, to the films or bowling. The marriage seemed unexceptional apart from the not seeing each other naked, and knowing as little as I did about grown-up living, perhaps that was how everyone lived. Her husband also popped in and out of the bathroom, with his pyjamas or his work suit, depending on the time of day. ‘So you haven’t seen him naked, either?’ She screwed up the lower half of her face. ‘Eww, no, thank you!’

*

All I really knew about marriage was what I saw when my parents were together. They went around our very small flat in all stages of dress and undress, in and out of the bath, with no concern about being seen naked. At weekends, I’d get into their bed and my mother would get up to make breakfast. She slept in the nude but put on a dressing-gown on her way to the kitchen. When my father got up, he dressed in front of me at the foot of the bed. He turned his back to me, but bending down to get into his underpants and to fasten his sock suspenders, I was daily presented with a view of his balls and cock hanging, clamped beneath his buttocks, or sometimes, if he took a wider stance, swaying a little as he moved to button this, tie up that. I thought them unsightly, wrinkled and shrivelled, and his careless presentation of them to me was embarrassing, not because they were sexual parts, but because their ugliness was so at odds with his suave, polished exterior once he was ready to leave the flat. I didn’t want to know that he had them under his trousers and white shorts, even though I couldn’t see what else there was to be done with them other than hiding them from view. Odd that they were so present, but I’m unable to recall a single conversation between us about them and what they were for.

I usually air-dried after a bath. The flat was always warm with the communal central heating kept going in the basement by Bill, the boilerman, and often after a bath, in the living room, my parents would play a game of ‘He’, where ‘He’ was naked me, twisting out of their reach and running away from one, whose fingers tickled their way between my legs to my vulva, to the other, just a few feet across the room, gesturing at me, waiting impatiently to do the same thing. I bounced between them like a beachball, squealing as they ‘played’ with me, all of us laughing at the huge joke of me being tickled and being unable to escape the grasp of one or other of my parents. The game stopped, of course, when my father left, first when I was about six and then probably some time before he left a second time and permanently, when I was 11. My recollection of the game comes complete, straight out of the memory box. I see them. I see me. All of us laughing. Me shrieking. Being tickled is a kind of torture – it has its own page on Wikipedia. The laughter it causes teeters on the edge of frantic, with the apparent pleasure of the game and its acute discomfort as being tickled ascends towards agony. My running between them kept the game going. I didn’t run in the other direction, out of the room, as I might have done. By the time I was exhausted with laughing and running, I was dry, and my mother would wrap me up in the bath towel to signal the end of the game. We all understood that such excitement couldn’t go on too long, that I had to calm down and put my nightie on, ready for my bedtime story. One reason for keeping the game going by running between them was my being the centre of attention; another, stronger reason was that while the game continued and the laughter, mine and theirs, filled the air, the possibility of a happy family was sustained. Both my parents were engaged with each other, using me as a magnet between them. Surely that was a happy family. What we were like. The game was one of the very few occasions when all three of us were together, laughing, delighted; no one shouted, there was no crying or slamming the door, no one pulled open the kitchen drawer to find a knife, no one wailing at me about their ruined life, threatening to die. The adult me watches the three of us from a front-row seat, following the back and forth like a tennis game, listening to the high-pitched, breathless laughter. The adult me raises her eyebrows slightly, but makes no further comment.

So I listened to my new, experienced friend at Freeman, Hardy and Willis, who had never once been naked in front of her husband. One morning, sipping coffee, eating bourbon biscuits, she asked me about myself. I told her that my father had got me the job but that I had other plans for my life. At barely 15, I still had a notion of what I was going to do when I grew up. I was going to be a writer, I told her. She was impressed, almost as if I’d already achieved my goal just in the wanting of it. That must be very difficult, she said. I’d never thought of it being difficult to do, only that I wanted to do it, but couldn’t imagine myself actually doing it, making it real. I wanted a job on a local newspaper and then – well, I didn’t know how, but I really wanted to write.

My previous downfall had not been my last, as I’d thought; here was my next one. The manager had been passing the staffroom with its open door and me speaking of my life plans. He came in and said in stiff tones that he’d taken me on, young and inexperienced, in order to train me for a career in shoe-selling. I was sacked for wasting the opportunity he offered, one that other young people would give anything to have. Undeterred but rumbling thunderously, my father marched me to the High Street that afternoon and we went into the grocery shop, Cullens. I got the job as shelf-stacker.

I couldn’t find any like-minded or friendly people to chat to at break-time; they had their own group and I was too young. The boss didn’t allow dawdling and day-dreaming, two skills I did have under my belt. If he saw me idling (another of my talents) he’d call out and wave a pointing finger towards the shelves. Sometimes the shelves were full, but that was no excuse for wasting time, I should at least look as if I was working. My problem was right there. How I looked. It took only a couple of weeks before he summoned me to stand in front of him because he had something he wanted to say. I stood and waited while he gathered his authority. ‘I’m going to have to let you go. No, it’s not the work, or at any rate that’s not what I’m sacking you for. It’s your look.’ What? ‘Whenever I see you in the shop, you have a belligerent look on your face. I can’t have the customers seeing that.’ I pretended I didn’t know what he meant, but I did. It was the look I could feel from inside my face, peering through the eyes, as if it were a mask which on the outside raised a barrier of contempt, a visible defence against everything the world could do to me. I can’t do it now. It’s a look that vanishes with maturity, like that thing you did with your eyes when you were a child, focusing them so that everything looked minute and far away but at the same time near enough to touch. I know I did it with the muscles around my eyes, but now it’s gone. So too my belligerent look, which on the one hand kept me safe from all the real and imagined whacks (Melville’s ‘universal thump’?) coming my way, but on the other hand was so impenetrable that it made people furious and sometimes needing to hit out to break it down. That was the look that my boss called ‘belligerent’ and which made him want me out of his sight, and the look I gave my father when I told him I’d been sacked from my second job and shrugged in silence when he demanded to know what I’d done. He slapped my face. A bad thing, hitting children or even bolshy adolescents, but something I understood. An older friend, a million miles away from anything my father was, understanding, thoughtful, who gave me a place to sleep when I left the hospital for weekends, slapped me for ‘the look on my face’. I can’t bring myself to get self-righteous about it. I think it must have been terrible having someone look at them the way I did. Insolent, uncaring, challenging. And they’d snap. At the time, after telling my father I’d been sacked again, I really didn’t know what my belligerent face looked like. Sometimes I practised it in the mirror to see how it was to be facing it, but I could never get my face to feel right, to feel the way it felt when I did it naturally. It was perhaps like a spell, like a key fitting into a lock, it came to me, I did it, or it did it with me, and I was invincible, but stuck inside my expression.

It wasn’t until I saw that look on someone else’s face and felt the power it had over me that I understood how anyone could possibly sack a person rather than laughing at them for having a belligerent expression. From the inside, it feels as if your face is expressing the unfairness and arbitrariness of the world. You think that the look you have on your face is telling the world how bitterly misunderstood you are. How wronged. What injustice rains down from the grown-up with all their power. Although I could only imagine it as I went head to head with authority figures, the look on my face had taken in the unfairness and injustice, rolled it up into small balls with spiky edges and shot them through my eyes, killing dead the wrongdoer or the wrongdoer’s representative.

I figured out that look when the alternative school for kids in trouble which I helped run in my early twenties, went on a trip to the countryside. One girl of 14 was wandering around looking blank hatred at anyone who came into her eyeshot. Everyone around was furious and getting more furious by the moment at the look of contempt they were receiving from her. One afternoon, someone had been shouting at her to say what was wrong because he’d had enough of her walking around like a harpie. It seemed as if others were ready to join in. I was pretty fed up with her, too, but on a hunch I went over and put my arms around her. In seconds she was sobbing and explaining what we all needed to hear about what was troubling her. It wasn’t world-shattering, just something about how she felt we weren’t including her in what was happening. I wondered whether that would have been the way in to me at my most silently belligerent moments. Maybe not a hug from the librarian, not quite the answer in the world of work, but in the matter of relationships it might be very handy. I must confess I put my arms around her with no emotion, I was still furious, and felt quite cold towards her; from my point of view the hugging was just something to stop her moody behaviour from ruining everyone’s day. A few years back, I’d have dismissed it as ‘phoney’. No real meaning or feeling, just appropriate actions for the situation. As mercenaries might behave, not morally on either side, simply doing what was needed to sort the situation out. Even the pretence of understanding and a touch with little feeling were enough to bring the girl back into the world of humans where she could talk and tell us what was happening. I saw that look in the reluctant girls I taught at an East End comprehensive school, and I saw it in my daughter and her friends. They could all slip on that superior air of belligerence they had at their disposal but not really under their control. It’s like that very dubious ‘multiple personality disorder’, in which different people ‘came out’ according to what was needed to protect the central self, who had no control or memory of it happening. It’s a doubtful diagnosis, but a useful metaphor for the withering look teenage girls can turn on. Try as I might, I can’t recall any males producing it. Is it a girl thing? Does it come with a bottle of oestrogen? Anyway, that look was what got me sacked again and slapped when I put it on to tell my father what had happened.

I turned on my heels and left the room after he slapped me. I went up to my bedroom and packed some things in a duffle bag, found a capsule of speed (brown, torpedo-shaped, squishy) which I popped into my mouth for courage and moved the wages I’d been given in lieu of notice (all three pounds of it, none for Pam) from the small brown envelope into my purse. Then I walked out, past the kitchen where my father and Pam sat with their backs to the door and out, away, off to try my luck in Hove with the other parent.

*

It was around this moment in the telling that my friend asked why I didn’t do what I was told. One answer might have been that I had another place to go, and that I didn’t have to stay with my father and take a turn at all the shops in High Street, Banbury before I arrived back at the godknowswhere which signalled where I’d end up. I had an alternative, a get-out-of-jail card: a ticket to Brighton to stay with my mother. But the bedsitting-room in which my mother and I lived for the next three days turned out to be more nearly the real where I’d end up, or at least the furthest I could imagine for myself.

I’ve already described the three days in the small room my mother rented before I swallowed her barbiturates.[*] The two of us shrieking, me saying I was going to go to London and find a place to live, her wailing: ‘Yes, yes go to London at your age, show me up, get yourself murdered and raped so they can all say it was my fault.’

After two days of this, and seeing how hopeless my plan was, the small white pharmacy box with my mother’s Nembutal really did look like the only move I had. Couldn’t stay with my mother, didn’t want to be with my father and Pam. Somebody telling me what I had to do would have been welcomed, and then, realistically, dismissed by my mind, which by then was lost in a fog of choices, none of which fitted into the fairy tale or gothic horror we were acting out.

What I had going for me was teen rage, contempt impervious to offers of compromise; the power of the mask capable of turning ice to marshmallow, and all the time in the world, all the ability to sustain it without surrendering. In the cage-fight with my mother, which I knew would never end, just go from one ugly recrimination to another to another, a handful of Nembutal on the chest of drawers was the best weapon I could hope for.

After a stomach pump, and a few days in Brighton General, I arrived at the Lady Chichester Hospital, a refuge from both parents. A place as funny as it was sad, where I settled in with some relief to try and construct a future for myself. Four months in I’d applied for a job as a junior sales assistant at the department store of Bourne and Hollingsworth. It had everything I required: a room at their hostel, a job, London, Soho no distance where the Beat poets and writers hung out, pay that was not turned over to Pam and a pound returned to me. No mother, no father (no Pam). Independence: the parallel universe where it was possible to get to the part of the world you wanted, instead of getting sacked from a shoe shop for wanting it.

I was to start at the end of March, but in February I got the letter from Doris offering a home. I sat on the edge of my bed, alone in the four-bed ward, and read it. And again. An entirely new world was on offer, almost the same one that had got me sacked from Freeman, Hardy and Willis. But without the job at Bourne and Hollingsworth to hurdle over, I’d be already there, with the writers. And with just the single name: Doris (Lessing) she signed off.

You might think that after being offered such an opportunity, having experienced such unasked for kindness from Doris and her son, been taken in sight unseen, given the chance to make real dreams of writing and the company of writers, the belligerent look on the girl’s face would have vanished. It did. I took every opportunity to express my gratitude, promised Dr Watt, Doris and myself that I would repay the confidence shown in me and put an end to the sulky, angry girl who kicked against everything, especially herself. If my father allowed me to go back to school (the one point he’d set his face against, saying I’d have to show my quality and gratitude to Mrs Lessing for her kindness, by becoming the writer I said I wanted to be without the benefit of higher education – an act of jealousy that he said he wouldn’t budge on, while offering only his gratitude to Doris and the promise of a pound a week which he would put into a Premium Bond account until my 21st birthday), I’d work hard and come away from university with a good degree and excellent prospects. All that. And I’d put away my belligerent face, which now, surely, was no longer needed. A proper middle-class teenage girl of her time, finished in ways her time extolled. Serious, studious, making Doris proud of me. Of course I would do all that and more to express my thanks.

But I was that girl whose face was twisted into a snarl when the wind blew in my direction and fixed it that way. I left school with a small handful of O levels and no university education in prospect, made friends with the Covent Garden arty drug types, was living in a squat in Long Acre, and finally went into Ward 6 of the Maudsley Hospital. A friend of Doris’s who came to visit me there told me that she had washed her hands of me and expected that I would become a heroin addict, get pregnant and die an early death. I suppose there was a 50 per cent chance of each of those things happening to me. Or rather of doing those things to myself, compelled by my self-destructive nature, Doris would have said. The belligerent look barely had time to wash and brush up in readiness for hibernation when it rushed back to the face of its owner. You were very difficult, they tell me. You are very difficult, they say. It turned out that ‘doing what I was told’ was not so much following orders, it was some innate understanding of how the world was supposed to work and conforming to it, so as not to make trouble. By the time someone had to tell me what to do, it was already too late. ‘Difficult’ was how the lay population described what the psychiatrists called ‘disturbed’. When all was said and done, I would be a disappointment to Doris as I settled in to the house in Charrington Street. She had made an offer of herself and her home, more difficult a thing to do for her than for most people, but in a very fundamental way, I wasn’t really what she wanted. Imagine how frightening it must have been when, holding onto the new kitten, Doris stood behind the front door before opening it to me.

You can read the next instalment of Jenny Diski's memoir here (and the first one here).

[*] ‘What to call her?’ (LRB, 9 October 2014).