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What was wrong with everything was peopleJenny Diski

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Vol. 37 No. 11 · 4 June 2015

What was wrong with everything was people

Jenny Diski

I jumped out​ of my bedroom window so I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone downstairs having breakfast. That’s what happened around the Easter weekend of 1966. It was the last straw. For Doris, for me, for Doris’s friends. A point of departure.

My friend X from St Christopher’s and I were still angry – three years after the event – that St Chris had chucked me out without concerning itself about what happened to me. ‘Well, you certainly fell on your feet,’ the headmaster had said in a voice that told the whole world that it showed life was unfair but that Quakers would at least have the moral upper hand, and porridge. One for the Devil, but another chance to find someone worth redeeming. While I waited outside the head’s office, his secretary finally lifted her eyes to show me what contempt she held me in and said: ‘He’s trying to work out what to do with you. Neither your mother nor your father wants you.’ I knew immediately that she loved him and hated me because I had caused his busy day to become busier. My eyes saw everything from the time I was 12 until I was about twenty. They were faceted mirrors that told me exactly what I needed to know to understand a situation. So I managed to be rather sorry for her and her hapless love for a man who hated his job, had wanted to be a lawyer but instead had to carry on the family business of running an idealistic school for rich kids and a few needy children. Poor sod. He had told me that he was responsible for me as long as I was in the school, so after a moment I told him that I wouldn’t have to be there if he’d let me spend the night with one of the day girls from Letchworth. I don’t doubt this was nonsense, but he got me placed in the house of one of the girls from town and with a ‘righty-o, see yar,’ I swung my rucksack on my back and made a beeline for the wilds of Letchworth, where a party was going on. I belonged only to myself that weekend, and if I wanted to say something vicious to the secretary about not being wanted, I settled for a long look from my diamond eyes.

My eyes were made of diamonds, not the glitzy sort that sparkled and shone, but the implacably black kind that knew the worth of concealed things (some called them ‘your coal-black eyes’). Those eyes radiated the truth of the matter to anyone who dared look at them. And the darkness drew in the world and showed me what the world could do and was doing. Those eyes picked out the lies, the faults, the vanity, the hypocrisy and put them in their mirrored compartments and twisted them like a kaleidoscope, not into shards of chaos pretending to make sense, but into the actual truth, all unknitted and unravelled into what the fuck was wrong with everything. And what was wrong with everything was people and their need to do all those things that made the world go round. The answer of course was that everyone told lies. All kinds, big, small, monumental, trivial, world-shattering, mind-shattering, hateful, loving lies. No one tells the truth – that is the privilege of 18-year-olds. No one knew it, but there was the reason for the belligerence on my face. It was the visual representation of the fact that they’d never get one over on me again.

With Doris were her friends, a couple dressed for a country cottage weekend out of Vogue. X and I watched and saw it all. Sometimes we lay on our beds and laughed. Sometimes they appalled us. We knew that we would become them, and that was one of the reasons for jumping out of windows.

I had spent a week there alone with my friend who, having slept with someone as an act of kindness, had got pregnant. We were both terrified of what would happen. We forgot what day the bin men came, and forgot to dig a hole for the rubbish and we’d spent most of the day of Doris’s arrival trying and failing to get a fire going for them when they got there sometime after ten at night. The fire persisted in going out. We gave up, cried and went to bed. We lived in London, we had no idea how to build and light a fire.

My window was a cottage window so it wasn’t high enough to be a suicide window. It was more a matter of getting from A to B without anyone seeing my eyes, and what I thought of their complaints, when X was pregnant and the whole of her life was going to change, because I supposed that anyone seeing them and understanding the picture in the kaleidoscope would be broken up or down. Anyway, that was it for the grown-ups. We drove back to London in silence until we’d dropped Doris’s friends and my friend home.

‘When you’ve finished taking your A-levels, you will have to leave Charrington Street. You have been impossible. I can’t have you in the house any more. You have been rude to my friends. You didn’t make the beds or a fire for when we arrived. You will have to find somewhere to live. I will give you an allowance, but you can’t live here any more.’

She said this as we were reaching the house. No letter on the kitchen table, typed and signed, no silence, no learning my lesson. Anyway I was nearly 19, why shouldn’t I leave? I’d been impossible from the start. Asking questions that shouldn’t have been asked, thinking they had an answer. I’d sulked: I don’t remember about what, but I’m sure I did. I brought men home. I fucked men in Doris’s house. I wasn’t doing enough work at school (my new school) and for a while I had a boyfriend whose main wish was that I wore a uniform and who met me for a little fellatio before the school bell rang. I skipped lessons I thought didn’t matter and sat in the coffee bar across from the school smoking and drinking coffee, reading or sometimes with a friend. I didn’t work hard enough to fulfil my potential. I wasn’t grateful to Doris for the opportunity she had given me. The woman who ran the coffee bar thought I was from the ballet school next door because I looked like a ballet dancer. I really didn’t fit in with the 15 and 16-year-olds. I didn’t fit in with anyone. Of course I had to leave. I was already bad. You behaved so badly, people kept, keep telling me. I look back and think: what if my daughter had behaved like that? Would that have ended in my telling her to leave? Who knows? The real point was that I wasn’t part of the family, the kind of family which, my best friend explained to me once, always forgave you for whatever it was you had done. Instead of that, all the sulks, the temperament, the burning coal-black eyes. Once when I was in the bin (psychiatric not coal) Doris went to see my doctor. She came down to my ward. ‘Doc Y says you’re really ill because you haven’t been able to take a family for granted. That you’ve been too good. But you weren’t ever frightened of telling me any of your troubles, were you?’ Doris waited for an answer. I began to laugh. I stopped laughing.

‘OK,’ I said in answer to Doris. It was time to go. What else was to be done? And for a week or two life at Charrington Street was straightforward enough. I found myself a bedsitter for after the end of A-levels and went to school, did revision. Everything was weirdly normal. I didn’t tell anyone what she had said about my having to leave. And then one evening there was a phone call. We were watching TV, which was in the kitchen now. Doris’s voice sounded low and doomed as she responded monosyllabically and then put the phone down. She said to turn off the TV. I turned off the TV. I remember an inward shaking with fear at nothing I could think of.

‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘Your father has died. Of a heart attack.’ She spoke with great clarity so that I knew which word was coming next. I had a head-reeling thing, when you feel dizzy but it’s the world going round at some speed rather than you going round the world.

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘I’m very sorry. Oh dear this is very bad.’

It was bad, because a year before Doris had had me sign a solicitor’s letter saying I wouldn’t be seeing him again. And he had to keep away from me. This was after he’d taken me out to lunch, and given me an envelope, not to be opened until after our meeting, with a note saying he was going to commit suicide and listing my inheritance. Including his car, which I think he still owed money on. I had a bad couple of days and then phoned my father’s house. He answered the call as if nothing had happened. This must surely have been emotional blackmail. I hadn’t spent three years at Doris’s for nothing. I became rather upset, another bad thing on our island of serenity, and then I signed the letter Doris put in front of me. ‘It’s the best thing to do. He can’t keep upsetting you like this. You’ve got your A-levels next year.’

I went out to the local pub when I got the news. I didn’t really know what a person should do when their father has died suddenly, and you’d refused to see him for a year. I had two whiskies. They didn’t make me feel much better. Another place I didn’t fit. When I went back to the house Doris came out of the kitchen to the hall and laid her hand on my shoulder. She patted it a little. Once when one of the cats had died she’d cried. She told me that her brother Harry had died too, but it was really the cat she was crying about. I tried to make the right words: different reactions, it was projection. There was too much to bear to remember. She dismissed me for banality. Which was right. She did mourn the cats more than her circle of people. So what? I’d learned that was possible too.

The patting on my shoulders with the front of her fingers couldn’t really be called a hug, but she tried, and I felt strangely as if I should comfort her, for the effort she’d had to make.

‘It’s OK,’ I said and went to bed.

A few days later, just before I hit the road to my father’s funeral, dressed in white from head to toe, Doris said she thought I should be wearing a darker colour and not such a short skirt, but that I didn’t have to leave after my A-levels. I could stay until I went to university. I said thank you, but it was OK, I’d got a bedsitting room in South End Green and it was all fixed and I didn’t think it mattered very much whether my father was alive or dead. In any case, though I didn’t mention this to Doris, I’d told my headmistress two weeks before the exams that I was leaving school. When I thought about it, sitting on the playing field at King Alfred’s, the day school that had agreed to take me for the past three years, I’d never heard of anyone going to university after school who didn’t have anywhere to go in the holidays. Where would I live? It seemed an improbable thing and I certainly couldn’t be bothered with the stress of three weeks or so taking exams. So I left. I packed my bags, said an amicable goodbye to Doris, thanked her very much and headed off to an attic room in South End Green. (Eleven years later when I was breastfeeding my daughter, I mentioned it to Doris. I never had before. Do you remember when you told me to leave Charrington Street? Doris said it hadn’t happened. She had no memory of that. She laughed with that laugh her all-knowing narrators have in her books and said: ‘Oh well, if that’s the way you want to remember it.’ I’d seen her do that with people she’d written about in books, as well as people she’d dismissed from her life, but she’d never done it so directly to me.)

I imagined the relief of all concerned. I got a job in another shoe shop. I worked out that if I ate black pudding and boiled potatoes I’d be able to live on the generous allowance Doris was giving me (enough for black pudding, bus fares, silver spray to make my table silver). So I quit my second shoe shop and lay in bed reading Anna Karenina until the pubs opened and I went off to Dean Street to see what was going on. Nothing much. I spent all day and all night reading Anna Karenina and on Christmas Day, which I was invited to spend at Doris’s, she found me doubled up in pain on my mattress, and made an emergency appointment with my doctor at the Tavistock. I arrived an hour late for it and bumped into my doc just as he had given up on me and was leaving. He took me back to his consulting room and asked me if I wanted to kill myself. I said no, I didn’t have the energy. He picked up the phone, and evidently called Doris, his voice quaking with anger. How could she leave me alone in this state? What did she think she was doing? She was to get there immediately with a suitcase of my things and take me to St Pancras as an emergency admission. I told him that it wasn’t Doris’s fault. I just wanted to stay in bed. He said: ‘Soon you’ll feel as if you have enough energy to figure out how to kill yourself and do it.’ No one, he said, could look at me and allow me to walk the streets in such a state.

Doris arrived, rather angry. She was given a list of things I needed and he sent us off to get them. Then Doris was to take them and me to the North Wing, the half of the hospital in St Pancras Way that was for benighted waifs and strays (remember Briefing for a Descent into Hell?). Ted, who arrived at North Wing with nothing of his past life, became my friend and we plotted to find a flat and live together. They put me in a ward with several demented old people, who believed, among other things, that firemen were scrambling up the ladders to rape them. Who knows? The sheets were wonderfully clean and ironed and I skipped into them, got out Anna Karenina, which I was halfway through a second time (although I loathed every character, especially the good ones) and told myself that at last I’d found the place for me. Doris left as soon as the nurse had finished filling in the forms. I was the baby of the bin again.

Who was I​ to feel so angry? How ungrateful can a person be? Later I conceived the notion of teaching, and Doris supported that. I spent five years teaching interesting, disaffected kids. She kept in touch as if I was part of the family. Right at the end of The Memoirs of a Survivor, a novel as dystopian as any movie or novel now, She, the narrator, informs us that her clearing of an apartment between the walls of her house has revealed layer after layer of former inhabitants, and brought to light a ‘bright green lawn under thunderous and glaring clouds and on the lawn, a giant black egg of pockmarked iron, but polished and glassy around which, and reflected in the black shine, stood Emily, Hugo, Gerald, her officer father, her large laughing gallant mother, and little Denis, the four-year-old criminal clinging to Gerald’s hand.’ Another mysterious She appears and is so beautiful the iron egg breaks at her gaze, and after some hesitation She walks into it along with Emily and her dog, cat thing; finally Gerald, Emily’s radical boyfriend who saves stray children, is dragged into the egg world by the children hanging on to his clothes. ‘And they all followed quickly on after the others as the last wall dissolved.’

No, I don’t know either, it was 1974. Pied pipers were everywhere, remaking a bad world. But I knew the cast of characters. Emily, me; Gerald, Roger, my boyfriend and free-school organiser with the children from the free school. The Survivors. Just a few. But what can you do with a benighted world? Only the ones who can see will see. It’s a shame but you can’t save everyone.

But actually, I didn’t go into the egg. I knew my Humpty Dumpty and Pied Piper too well. Their survivors seem to do nothing but play Ring a Ring of Roses with garlands of flowers on their heads the livelong day. I made my play for a different kind of egg, acid, methedrine, dope, mescaline and all that, and finally got the egg out of my hair.

Four months passed in North Wing. I fell in love with Mr Amnesiac, and the son of an Edwardian poet fell in love with me before he died of the case of whisky under his bed. We played poker, and according to Doris, who told the tale in her own way, I wore fine grey tights but no knickers (I have no memory of animosity towards knickers, but it doesn’t matter) and was sulky and annoying to the pitifully paid hard-working nurses who couldn’t afford half of the clothes I wore on their salary. But Mr Amnesiac regained his memory and fell back in love with his wife and liked his daughter, who was older than me, and reneged on our plan to live together. He went home, I stuck around and had a fantasy about a round room in which small people lived in the spaces between the walls. Eventually I left North Wing waiting for a bed to be available at the Maudsley. After nine months Dr Krampl Taylor considered me hopeless. ‘She has a borderline personality disorder,’ it said in my notes. Nothing will improve her, she will have a terrible life and lonely death. Well, words to that effect. I was young, attractive, wild, had my own thoughts which contradicted Dr Krampl Taylor, who also wrote in a paper that women should be in the home and kitchen, while men fought with giant mammoths to keep their feeble dependants alive at least for a while. ‘You have an addictive personality,’ he told me, and prescribed injections of methedrine twice a week while being challenged by the shrink so that abreaction occurred, and in the heat of the furnace of abreaction a new passive me would rise like a dragon out of the flame. The new woman. Made of fire and ice and everything nice. Fuck off, Dr KT, I said to myself, and broke into the drugs cupboard to steal more methedrine. Got on a bus, went to the Arts Lab in Long Acre, turned around in my chair in the café and asked the bloke behind me (who happened to be the speed king of London) where I might find some injectable speed.

There wasn’t much sleeping done for a few days, then there was a comedown as bad as the worst depression I’d ever had. I left my best friend behind in the Maudsley and found other friends. I found myself to be part of a group. I belonged where I sat with my back against the wall watching all the words fly past me like a royal parade. Sentenced to sentences. I sat back and relaxed. Well here I am at last. Comfy, with friends, not alone. Only I didn’t know anyone’s name, or who they were. But perhaps that didn’t matter either.

That was when Doris crossed me off her Christmas list. Or thereabouts. Wild, dangerous, a woman with an active uterus that might do anything, and drugs as well. Hopeless. A terrible letdown. An experiment gone wrong. And not because I jumped out of the window, but because I had refused to take the opportunity given to me that millions of people would have given anything for. And I apologise to those millions of people in whose way I stood. If I’d known better I’d have stood at the back of the choosing room and let matters take their own course. No point in being sorry now. But I can see how irritating it must be. Sorry, people in your millions. I fucked up again. Gratitude. Not enough. Fail. So stand me on the headmaster’s table at assembly to be shown up as the derelict I was while the head looked up my skirt (which he probably didn’t, but it felt as if he did) and told the school I was the wickedest pupil ever known for biting that poor child’s ankles when she had done nothing to deserve it. I am very ashamed of that. But I had my go-fuck-yourself face on so no one guessed that the most ashamed person in the room was me. Oh, but that was another time, another school. I was about six then and my friend, who was very small and I called Mouse, secretly took my hand, when the head said no one was to speak to me for two days, and squeezed it. My fuck-you face almost fell off, and I thought I might cry, but let it be recorded that I didn’t cry. Not in any visible way at all. Horrible girl.

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

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