Moving day. My ex-Live-in-Lover will come this afternoon to move his things out, eighteen months after moving in. First thing, I wave the daughter off to Ireland with her dad, for an Easter holiday of dosing sheep and castrating lambs on a friend’s farm. Apparently, they use elastic bands. Father and child might be having me on. What do I know, born and raised in the Tottenham Court Road?
I will have three whole weeks alone in my flat. It hasn’t happened since L-i-L moved in. I have a scratchy feeling of excitement in my head as I anticipate the next 21 days. Is this true? There must be sadness at the break-up; am I telling myself lies? No. The sadness is there, all right, but in a different compartment from the excitement. I put both on hold until the clearing out is done.
In the event, it’s a very jovial affair, with all the brittleness and pretence that joviality implies. So, eighteen months after the beginning of the Great Experiment, I do all I can to be amiable and assist. He says he’s pleased to see me smile at him. I smile away as we pack things into boxes, disconnect machines, fill black plastic bags with socks and underpants. We wind leads and flexes into managable coils, joking about missed sexual opportunities and how it’s too late to be inventive now. Like a fast cut between forward and reverse in an old silent comedy, with suits over one arm, and bits of stereo equipment in the other, we put things back into the car from which they emerged something very like a geological age ago.
Two cars were needed, in fact, since by now too much has accumulated to fit into his car alone. Still smiling, I volunteer to help. We drive in convoy to his office, cornering carefully because we don’t want anything to break, decant the worldly goods, and settle down in the pub next door for a well-earned gin and tonic or two. I express surprise, as I sip, at how much extra stuff there is after only eighteen months. ‘Imagine if it had been eighteen years’, he says ruefully.
Such a time-span is beyond my imagination; in much the same way, I cannot grasp the size of the universe. The brain is not equipped for the understanding of mythic quantities. Of space: such as the universe. Or time: such as more than eighteen months of living with someone. My brain goes into spasm. ‘They say the universe is set to implode in twenty million (or is it billion?) years,’ I reply.
There was only one moment of open disharmony in the whole event. It echoed the tension there had been all along. There was always an inequality of certainty about the project of us living together. He spoke easily about forever. I did not consider the week after next a safe bet. In recognition of our different styles I bought him an ironic bottle of wine when he moved in, chosen to be ready to drink in 1997, on my 50th birthday. It was partly a small gesture of risk, but mostly I expected to be doing exactly what I was doing with it today: popping it into one of the card-board boxes of his belongings, well before 1997. We stood in the doorway looking at the bottle in the box on the floor. He said he didn’t want it. I said it wasn’t mine, and neither did I. The stalemate was broken when I took the bottle by its neck from the box, and swung it (I like to think with some elegance) against the stone step by the drain in the front yard. A storm cloud accompanied the crash of breaking glass, and darkened the day with the threat of sudden, electric rage from each of us. It took a dangerous moment to pass over: but it did, and the milder breeziness returned. ‘Nice one’, he said. ‘Thank you,’ I smiled, with a warm inner glow of satisfaction at the unlaunching of us. No sense crying over spilt claret.
Altogether, a rather civil end to the affair. Refreshments over, I return home, nicely balanced by the gin between a proper sadness and the anticipation of the next three weeks entirely to myself. As I drive, I sing along to The Evs’ ‘All I have to do is dream’ on the radio. It feels as if the car has acquired power steering, so light and easy is the journey back.
Sunday. I wake to the sound of the kitten being sick on the carpet at the foot of my bed. I hadn’ t planned for this. It was to be a morning spent repossessing my space. Still, cats are often sick. I get on with my plan.
Taking back one’s space is something of a technical operation. It involves moving through the flat, doing what one does, but in a particularly alert frame of mind that follows the activities slightly up and to the left of one’s physical body. This watchfulness, this observation of the minutiae of your use of contained space, calls for concentration. Everything is deliberate: breathing, movement, the set of the head. After a little while something else occurs: the splitting-off of a protoplasmic self that insinuates itself into every part of the flat. Like smoke, it wisps into corners and under sofas, investigating places that are too awkward for the body to go, and which never get dusted. It’s almost like a dance, a floating self that breathes its way around the place while you only seem to brush your teeth and make a cup of tea. It’s a celebration of solitude that won’t be broken by people coming in from the outside world with their own stories and their own internal speed. Without that kind of solitude I get lost. It’s as if someone is vacuuming the air out of my lungs. Impossible to live with another person all the time and not begin to scream that they are stopping your breath. For some reason, the other person thinks you’re mad, when you’re really only being practical and trying to save your life. Then it’s time to collect empty cardboard boxes from the off-licence.
All of which is all very well, but the kitten keeps on being sick, and protoplasm won’t flow naturally under these conditions. Worry sets in. I have a special place devoted to worry that has an insatiable hunger to be filled. When it’s empty, it worries anyway about what it’s going to worry about. A sick kitten is ideal worry-material.
To the vet. It is every bit the medical emergency I’d been trying to tell myself it wasn’t. Darwin’s gut has turned inside out. Christ. An unhappy accident. Major abdominal surgery is needed. Now. I don’t ask the price. I think of the worst number I can and try very hard not to imagine how many stomachs could be filled by such a sum in far-off places (or nearer by). What am I going to say? Too expensive, kill it, please? Actually, yes. But I can’t. So I leave Darwin to the vet and his fate (he might die anyway). I feel wretched; he’s been in pain all day, while I’ve been wafting. What am I going to tell the daughter, whose kitten Darwin is?
I’m furious. I didn’t want another cat. Although, perhaps I did. I allowed the daughter to persuade me that three cats aren’t any more trouble than two. Now, look. God is very strict.
In bed, I cry, which isn’t unpleasant, but it is unusual. Is it for Darwin, or Ex-L-i-L? Or is it just an interstitial sort of crying that lives between night and the following morning, between sleeping and waking? It feels like sadness, but not mine; or rather, not a personal sadness, but one of great immensity, and slightly up and to the left of me, where I lie saturating the pillow.
Monday. I call the vet first thing. Darwin has survived the operation and the night. It will be two days before he’s out of the wood, but his chances are better. I am hugely relieved, but livid at having to mind so much about a cat, or anything at all, come to that.
As luck would have it, today’s the day a man comes from Bristol to talk to me about depression. I giggle maniacally to myself when I remember. He’s making a documentary on the subject.
What about being alone? Where did that go? I consider phoning and telling him he can’t come. I spend twenty minutes inventing stories about why. An imaginary aunt has just died. I’ve had my first ever epileptic attack. I have to do an emergency reading in Aberdeen. What about a kitten whose gut has turned inside out? What about I’m too depressed to talk about depression? I give up. Anyway, if he’s coming from Bristol he won’t be home answering his phone.
He turns out to be a perfectly nice man and pleasantly acerbic with it. His only obvious fault is that he drives up in an Alfa. We drink coffee and talk. He thinks there’s a distinction between depression and melancholia – he’s right, there is. He thinks there’s a connection between melancholia and writing (or any of that creative stuff) – he’s right, there is. But I’m wary of making much of that, because a real bone-deep depression is as painful as cancer, and that’s a fact, too. I worry about romanticising it. On the other hand, last night’s howling was precisely what he is talking about. Melancholia is a curiously different condition from clinical depression, or, at least, a place you can get to if you go through the clinical depression and wait. And it isn’t negative. It’s more like being in the part of my head that I write from. So, we bat this about a bit, but I still hear myself hissing aggressively about not wanting to make depression or writing seem mystical or magical. They are, of course, in a way. But they’re also not. Long may confusion reign. Things are difficult; why shouldn’t they be? The nice man nods. It seems we aren’t having a disagreement.
Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. These are the days. Don’t speak to anyone (except the vet on Darwin’s progress: all is well). Leave the answering machine on. Don’t answer the doorbell (luckily, no one rings it). This is it, then. Me in my space. Me and my melancholy.
I do nothing. I get on with the new novel. Smoke. Drink coffee. Smoke. Write. Stare at ceiling. Smoke. Write. Lie on the sofa. Drink coffee. Write.
It is a kind of heaven. This is what I was made for. It is doing nothing. A fraud is being perpetrated: writing is not work, it’s doing nothing. It’s not a fraud: doing nothing is what I have to do to live. Or: doing writing is what I have to do to do nothing. Or: doing nothing is what I have to do to write. Or: writing is what I have to do to be my melancholy self. And be alone.
Moreover, I don’t have to think about food. No one here now finds eating an essential part of their life. In addition to smoking, drinking coffee and writing, I make regular trips to the fridge to gaze on its cosmic emptiness. I adore its lit-up vacancy. No L-i-L, no daughter, needing the fridge full of possible feasts. I haven’t been shopping for ten days now. There’s a bit of inedible cheese, and a jar of jalapeno chilies which I nibble at when I’m peckish. Every 36 hours or so I call in an emergency pizza. Another nice man on a bike brings it round. I do not die of starvation. I continue to drink coffee (sometimes tea), smoke, write and stare at the ceiling.
Pages pile up. I feel guilty. Someone else must have written them. Anyway, even if I did write them, it was too easy. They won’t be any good. Uh huh, there’s the worry centre activating again. Because Friday I have to go out.
Friday. A trip to the Zoo. I want to know about orangutans for the novel. Mr Carman, the head keeper of the primates, has agreed to talk to me. He’s wearing green wellies with khaki trousers tucked into them. He’s been at the Zoo for 26 years. Again, I feel a fraud. I’m planning to write about a talking orang called Jenny. He’ll think me frivolous. Cautiously, I tell him I’m just a fiction writer. I need some facts, but I make things up, too. Do I know, he asks without prompting, that the Malays believe orangs can talk, really, but they don’t because they think they’ll be made to work if the humans find out? I didn’t know. Thank you, God, and I love you, too.
We discuss the daily routine. Mick Carman reckons that orangs are closer to humans than gorillas or chimps; he doesn’t care what anyone says. I’m delighted to hear this, more grist for my fiction mill. But why? Because they’re lazy, sullen and devious, if I see what he means. Oh, yes, I do see. They’re by far the most difficult animal to keep in captivity because of this, and because they’re basically solitary animals, not social like the other apes. They each live in their own territory, defending it vigorously from all comers, except for sexual encounters. It’s every orang for himself or herself. Speaking of which, I tell Mick, I read a paper written by a Scandinavian woman anthropologist demanding that ‘orangutan’ (meaning ‘man of the forest’) be amended to whatever is the Malay for ‘person of the forest’.
Quite right. Quite right. We must defend the personhood of the solitary, female what-evershescalled-utan with all our might. For she is me and I am her, and soon I’m staring through reinforced glass at Suka (meaning The Delightful), who will be Jenny in the novel. She sits in her cage, solitary and morose, and as melancholic as you please, dropping handfuls of straw onto her head. And I wouldn’t mind betting that some protoplasmic wisp is nuzzling into the corners of her cage, aching for the curious eyes of the likes of me to piss off and leave her on her own.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.