In Gratitude

Jenny Diski

After a few months, my father finally agreed with Doris that I could go back to school. I apologised to her for my grasping, embarrassing father. Doris laughed and said he was easy to handle. I had my doubts about settling back into the life of a schoolgirl but I was ready to go to the local comprehensive after a full year of being out, since it seemed important to Doris. Also, I had to have a future – that was the whole point – and the only one that seemed thinkable in my new surroundings was to go to university, which meant taking my A-levels, which meant taking my O-levels. Doris too was adamant that I needed to take the O-levels I’d missed while expelled, and then the A-levels that would result in my fulfilling my potential. I had been saved to amount to something. I wasn’t so sure I was up to it, but I tried to play along.

Doris said the local comprehensive wouldn’t work, I was already ‘older than the average thirty-year-old’, and I needed somewhere that was more than a ‘certification factory’. Her idea was that I should go to Dartington, another co-ed ‘progressive’ boarding school like St Christopher’s. I apologised again for the money it would cost and which my father clearly wasn’t prepared to pay. Doris, who didn’t seem concerned about money until she was much older, said not to worry about that, she was OK at the moment, and that I might one day help someone else in some way. Her reasoning wasn’t just liberal, it also tried to deal with the gratitude question I was finding it hard to come to terms with. Her suggestion felt like a proper distribution of good fortune that took need and capacity rather than time as its fulcrum. It helped me more or less, by then situated in the dead centre of some new version of the rake’s progress. In Tony Richardson’s movie Tom Jones, which came out in 1963, there were waifs galore, dependent on and resenting the goodwill of strangers. But what could I be resentful about? Being resentful was the wickedest thing I could imagine, though it sometimes felt like a get-out clause for my guilt at being the recipient of charity, just a cobblestone’s throw away from the paved pillows underneath the arches. Doris’s almost arbitrary intervention in the life of someone who was already proving to be more troublesome than she had expected could also be spun into a useful truth if I could tease out the strands of gratitude and ingratitude and the reasons for them. The gratitude/ingratitude problem was always on my mind – it never really went away.

Dartington replied with a definite ‘no’ to Doris’s long letter introducing me and explaining my situation, while keenly expressing their admiration for Doris’s writings. They were sorry but I was too old and too long out of school to fit into their system and would be disruptive. (Later, when I was in the North Wing of St Pancras, I was sent to an experimental clinic for the young and depressed, but the clinic sent me back with a letter explaining that I was too disturbed and depressed for them to take me on. So my consultant put me on sleep therapy and every time I woke up, a nurse popped another barbiturate into my mouth, which I liked very much until my blood pressure dropped so low they had to stop. But that caused so much displeasure or panic in me that I tried to get out of St Pancras in my nightdress to find some more. The consultant sectioned me as a punishment, as I saw it, for them poisoning me, and several nurses held me down while a large syringe of largactyl was injected into me and I had hideous dreams and nightmares for several days.) Doris received several more letters like that one, and it was clear that no boarding school would take me, no matter how liberal-minded. Meanwhile, I continued to learn typing and shorthand and to work at the office of a friend of Doris’s who published newsletters about how to make the most out of the unprecedented boom in property prices.

The does she/doesn’t she like me question (otherwise known as the emotional blackmail drama) was enough to keep me docile. Besides, where would I go if I definitively blew it? Stuck as we were, I knew well enough from my side of the front door that even in the oddest of situations there is a normal, no matter how odd to others, which life reverted to if you sat and waited, and though sitting and waiting has always been the least of my talents, it was the only thing to do, the question having been answered for me. The real events that disrupt the everyday, even sometimes cataclysmically, so that it seems that nothing can ever be the same again, erode, weather, change the underlying landscape, but no matter how transparent the platform you stand on, showing nothing but the void below, it hadn’t yet actually broken and thrown me to the depths. There was a frost in the air. I learned never to ask Doris any question that could be deemed emotional. We continued with the business in hand: the upgrading of my over-emotional tendencies, proving myself a good bet in the making something of myself.

This would be the point at which I describe the three years I lived at Doris’s house as a schoolgirl from March or April 1963 until I left school and Doris’s house two weeks before taking my A-levels sometime in May 1966. That is, a period you might think of as the early 1960s, although the 1960s didn’t really announce themselves to us until 1967 (‘Good heavens, so this is the 1960s we will hear so much about’). And then rapidly, almost concurrently, the 1960s started to be dismantled and we were soon wondering how that terrible woman telling us that there was no such thing as society came to be in charge. Or think of it simply as a time when my skirts got shorter, I often went barefoot around London, or hung out at home, which at that earlier point was chez Doris, acclimatising myself to her friends, writers and poets and a handful of people from her past political life, most of them rare visitors except for Joan Rodker, in whose flat Doris had lived with Peter, her four-year-old son, while they organised demonstrations and international ‘peace’ meetings. If anyone asked later if she’d been a member of the Communist Party, Doris would give a deep sigh at having to tell it yet again, and explain she was never a party member. But from a 1956 article of hers in the Reasoner, an opposition paper within the party, it’s clear that Doris was a member then, although she left soon afterwards. Doris unwrapped events with, I think, genuine conviction. One day at a party her then publisher asked where Joan was, and hadn’t they been really good friends? Doris shrugged and said they had been useful to each other, but not really friends. There were several people there who knew how important Joan had been – looking after Peter and engaging with Doris’s politics – and it came as a shock to them.

Even my semi-literate mother read, or partly read, The Golden Notebook, and asked me once when she came to visit whether I thought it was right, all that sort of thing. I thought she meant the sex, and the tampon moment that acknowledged that 50 per cent of the world menstruated. But when I asked what she meant she said in a stage whisper, ‘All that communism,’ in much the same way she said she was concerned about my being sent to St Christopher’s. She read through the brochure, about responsibility and democracy, about giving children the right to have a say in the working of the school. She looked up at me and said: ‘Do you think this is the right place for you, it’s a bit peculiar.’ When I asked what she meant, she said: ‘They don’t eat meat. And they feed you something called muesli.’ Neither problem turned out to be a deal-breaker. I managed the vegetarianism and snuck in salami from the town when I was desperate for meat and managed to cope with the rather more than thrice denied socialist tendencies of my rescuer, even though I don’t doubt they left me deeply marked. Looking back at my mother’s spoken anxieties, I feel a dim affection. At our best moments we had the makings of quite a good comedy duo.

Doris was still demonstrating with the left on international politics and raging about international matters, but I arrived at the time when, having left the party in 1956, she was still in search of something else. She was adrift, as she hadn’t been before and wouldn’t be again for a long time. She had had two serious affairs, with Clancy Sigal, an American writer who wasn’t offering a stable masculine voice so much as searching at the edges of sanity with the likes of R.D. Laing. The other affair was with a psychiatrist from the Maudsley who, she said, had been the love of her life, but who was married and not prepared to leave his wife. She was 44 when I arrived at her house. There were a few one-night stands and weekends away with men she met, having instructed me who to phone if there was an emergency, but apart from inducting me into the secrets of good and bad sex during our kitchen table conversations, she seemed rather to have withdrawn or to be withdrawing from the idea of a settled relationship with a lover. Of course, I was there, and that, too, might have come into her invitation to live with her, either as a consequence or an excuse. The awkwardness of having me around as well as a strange man might not have been so accidental. No one ever stayed for breakfast, and when Peter was at home for the holidays an elaborate arrangement of a camp bed was erected last thing at night so that it could be said that the interloper had missed the last train and had to sleep in the bathroom. I helped set the stage. She explained that a son should not be a witness to his mother’s sex life. Six years later, at her fiftieth birthday party, she told me that she was not going to have sex any more. At her age it was demeaning to trail a younger man around, and there didn’t seem to be any available and interesting older men. In any case, her interest in that sort of thing was over. She was still looking but not really for lovers. I can’t say for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did stop having a sex life at that time, and only later, under very different circumstances, did she seem to wake up briefly to her sexuality. Once, in her late sixties, she began a sentence to me: ‘When I was … you know … a woman …’

In the early 1960s she was in search of people and books that would point her in the direction of a metaphysical education, an education for her soul rather than something satisfying her body. Around the time I turned up she was lacking a totalising commitment to materialism and an alternative to sex, which she began to speak of more in scorn than in terms of remembered pleasure. The big love affairs were firmly fixed in the past. The party had come unstuck after Hungary and Doris was left without an authoritative voice, Big Brother or Big Lover, to give her a sense of direction, a map that would direct her towards a dignified goal. Perhaps that’s part of the reason she chose to take up Peter’s suggestion and allow me into her house.

The life she led was exactly how I imagined a writing life would be. She worked alone in her room and then she had a break, a social period. There were friends (some old friends, some fans, some writers from South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, and Americans and Canadians trying to get work in England after being blacklisted by the Un-American Activities Committee). She’d been accepted as a writer in London literary circles and shared a general forlorn hope in international socialism, but there was no group working with some kind of leader or teacher towards something that involved more than her own personal development. In all the time I knew her, apart from that brief period, she had some sort of regular lover, teacher or leader. Then, having found Watkins, a bookshop in Cecil Court that specialised in mysticism and occultism, she spoke to a woman who told her about Subud; she said that they were in hiatus awaiting the imminent arrival of a teacher from the East who was coming to teach a Westernised Islamic Sufism in a form modified to suit those who could learn how to learn, who could read beyond the words and sentences, and understand the intentions of Sufism. Doris went to her Subud group about once a week and waited patiently, telling those who were able to grasp it the truth behind what seemed to be slight tales and received wisdom. In the meantime she did yoga. She stood on her head for twenty minutes or so a day, and on Thursday evenings did an hour of ‘concentration’ by fixing her gaze on a mandala. I was invited to the concentration sessions, which weren’t to be called ‘meditation’ because that was what people much further along in ‘the Work’ did. She was only on the nursery slopes. I joined her on the sofa and sat staring at the mandala, letting thoughts come and go, trying to take no more notice of them than I would if a wind blew occasionally in my direction, and wished for some sign of progress, which was probably my undoing, because wishing and the Work were just about incompatible.

*

Instead of skulking about and hiding, I read like a hoover, sucked it all up. I also took myself off to the movies in the afternoon. The French Nouvelle Vague, the Italians, the Swedes. It was like a tour of the present time, with flickerings of the past. And in the meantime I practised typing and shorthand and worked at being useful in the office of Doris’s friend, but turned out to be more of a liability, a maker of cumbersome mistakes rather than the Girl Friday it had been hoped I might be. Even if my father had refused to let me go back to school, I was having an education that was chaotic and fun, and listening to some of the makers of the wonders chattering over supper while never discussing their art.

I’d also found a different sort of gang of my own, from among those who’d been tasked with keeping me safe at that Aldermaston march I finally went on at Easter 1963, especially from the peacenik Lotharios who saw my tender youth in need of attention. ‘Oh look at this sweet-natured virgin child,’ one of them cried, offering his hand to help me down from the back of his Land Rover at the end of a hard day’s marching to the not very urgent tune of peace and hope (‘We shall overcome/We shall overcome/We shall overcome/ Some day …’). To which I replied with a cruel sneer, ‘The fuck I am,’ and jumped out of the vehicle unassisted, which had the effect, surprising to me, of sealing some kind of hopeless adoration for me to this very day. They were mostly youngish to middle-aged, though even the youngest had a good ten years on me, offcuts of the New Left who originally met up at the Partisan Coffee House, but were in reality, rather than political activists or academic theorists, more the hefty drinkers, convivialists, half-forgotten artists and writers, or never to be known thinkers working their way looking forward but stepping backwards to oblivion. (It seems that elongated ‘Some day..ay..ay..ay.ay’ had the effect of putting off the battle for freedom and equality until they’d had a final drink, another hangover, one last fuck, or two.) I found these talkers and drinkers, ageing into a repetitive narrative and early death, very affecting. I wonder if I wasn’t a cruel observer of those sad, flat-footed men, rather than a child hanging on to every vital word they offered me.

Nevertheless, they were the group I chose to be with in the evenings and at weekends, rather than my own generation, of whom there were plenty around. My older men were a disorderly group to hang out with, because finding them involved something of an Easter egg hunt. Actually they were rather more like slime mould, a species that has always enchanted me: myriads of minute individual organisms not exactly flora or fauna, nor quite fungal, that tend by some means, or some group consciousness they aren’t at all conscious of, to flow or creep together in the same direction, so that they appear to be a singular thing on an intentional march towards or away from somewhere they had or hadn’t been before. It would surprise us if we saw them with the naked eye as the individuals they really are, just as it would be a surprise to us to discover that our arms and legs were quite separate from the other bits of our bodies, yet through some unknown mechanism kept up with our torsos, or if you like vice versa.

This group of the hard-drinking left flowed and tottered the length of Dean Street, and could be found finding each other by wandering solitary or in pairs in and out of pubs and clubs in Soho. First stop was the Highlander: you popped your head round the door, and if no one to your taste was there, the French Pub was next, just down the road. In the afternoons, when the pubs were closed by law to protect the livers of the land, it was over to the Kismet Club in a sleazy basement to check who was sitting on its foam benches trying to put enough money together to bet on a horse and buy everyone a drink (I put 2/6d on a horse called Just Jenny and it won a whole afternoon’s drink for us). And when the pubs closed to give the ravaged inner organs of their customers a few hours’ rest, there was the Colony Club, also in Dean Street, with the proprietor and model for Francis Bacon, Muriel Belcher, sitting behind the bar calling her favourites ‘cunty’ and those she disliked ‘cunt’. I was too low on the scale to be called anything. On the slime mould principle, most of the people you wanted were usually to be found together in the same venue, talking loudly, smoking Disque Bleu and reckoning their chances with the women present, while the other places, often virtually empty, waited their turn. I was late to the party. Soho by then was not so much a resting place for poetic or painterly talent, but more of a merry-go-round of ageing drunks with and without a ruined talent, and just one or two with enough genius to know how to make their livers keep on working well enough for them until the end.

I should be describing the geriatric sex, the notable and scurrilous company, my often desultory couplings, my almost instant transformation from baby of the bin to baby of the pub, where my tough-girl edgy determination to find older, clever men who would teach me all they knew about politics, literature, art and sex usually ended up with me in bed insomniac, because the slightest sniff of alcohol meant a night-long vigil beside an old roué with little more to offer than the excitement of sleep apnoea, which required me to push or pull at the usually ample flesh to check if he was holding his breath such an inordinate time because of the breathing disorder, or because he was actually dead. None of them turned out to be dead. At least not when I was with them. As an experience, having a one-night stand with a man suffering from sleep apnoea was like playing Russian roulette, and given the physical condition of my aged braggadocios, as exciting as sex or conversation at the end of the hard drinking day with them could have got. It was certainly a doubling back to my status as the know-it-all bad kid looking to make it up to her own Humbert (who had been, I believed on my first reading, so dismally wasted by Lolita), if I could only find him.

In any case, no one meeting me then would have thought I needed protection. There was drink, and there were drugs and careless sex (as if that were possible for a 15-year-old), and long discussions about politics. At lunchtime on Sundays, the fairground moved to the Tally Ho in Kentish Town, a pub that had live jazz bands, making it difficult for anyone to have a clue what was being said about the state of England with the vile Henry Brooke and Enoch Powell in the cabinet. If a trip into town wasn’t to your hangover’s liking, there was the warm suburban welcome of the Magdala in South End Green in Hampstead’s lower depths, where Ruth Ellis had shot her lover (look, they’ve preserved the bullet holes in the brickwork outside) on Easter Sunday 1955, becoming the last woman to be hanged in England. And that’s how it was, all that, my rackety social life, the suppers round Doris’s table with her engaged, debating friends, the one-night stands with lovers and leavers, the demonstrations against nuclear arms and apartheid, playing against a painted backdrop of what people would later call ‘the 1960s’. Or just think short skirts, black and white eye make-up, pale lips and white boots with square toes and a cut-out rectangle in the front.

It’s not very likely that I would have fared more freely and dangerously if I’d been living in the Bourne and Hollingsworth hostel (lights out at 11.30). But having moved in with Doris and taken the opportunities she offered me (the reading, the culture, the conversation), I felt like I was supposed to be doing this. Growing up, I would have called it. There was very little direction, as if Doris didn’t quite know what to do with this unrelated 15-year-old living in her house. And I hadn’t any idea what a 15-year-old was supposed to do in such circumstances. I only remember brisk notes on the scrubbed wood kitchen table, telling me what I had done wrong, usually in the language of psychoanalysis. Mostly these were about not doing the washing up, leaving my room looking like a tip, and banging the front door when I went out. But there I was equipped with my Dutch cap and spermicidal jelly. More often than not sitting at the table listening to Doris – back after a weekend of peace and quiet to write, and back with tales of rapture in the shrubbery – telling me about her sex life: who was the worst fuck in London, who had been madly in love with her but was too dull. And I needed to know since the subject had been brought up why and how someone became the worst fuck in London. The answer was that the best fuck was considerate and kind, not in a rush, and definitely not one who fell asleep on top of you immediately after they had come. There was talk of anatomy. But time was the main thing. Time and anatomical accuracy. It wasn’t only Doris: everyone talked about sex, in every possible detail. I sometimes thought I ought to be taking notes. The married bliss beneath the blankets recounted in full detail by one friend resolved my problem with my shoe-selling friend in Banbury, the singletons and their one-night adventures. The meaning of a certain look. The sex so overpowering that no words could be spoken, I’d know it when I saw it. I looked and sometimes I saw it, but being just 16 (by then) I didn’t have time to wait the livelong day for such a look. There was another look, more frequent, that led to the same result. The subheading of these kitchen conversations was always about being good or bad or indifferent in bed. I listened, and laughed along with Doris, but it was clear that I had to get cracking on practice.

But it wasn’t really OK. Coming home at 11 o’clock with a man in tow usually meant a letter on the kitchen table, usually about noise, or, more often a silence, a withdrawal of comradely conversations. A friend of Doris’s gave her advice. ‘You must lay down rules,’ she said. But it was the 1960s and Doris thought people of 16 should know the rules. And as long as no one actually spoke to me and told me what the problem was I was at a loss. I wasn’t having sex in dark alleyways, nearly always the cause of pregnancy in contemporary books and movies. I was being permissive, which was apparently some sort of feminist triumph. I said no when I didn’t want to, and sometimes that worked. And above all, I was learning how to be a good fuck, which was what seemed to matter most.

As for Doris, her son was in boarding school, and she had been landed with me in her house. It wasn’t what she’d planned. I think she thought Peter and I would come home for the school holidays, bring friends and a merry social life with troubled teenagers and lots of soup and wine, and then we’d all go back to school and give her another couple of months to write the next draft. But that wasn’t how it happened. At least not outside the cover of a book.

All that would make a good enough chapter, Doris and her waif negotiating the permissiveness of the 1960s, just as, though entirely differently, the ‘survivor’ and her obligatory waif negotiated the post-apocalyptic world of passing hordes in The Memoirs of a Survivor. That chapter, the one I’m not writing at the moment, would start with an image to hang on to – and I will, I daresay, how could I not, come back to it – of the front door (black?) of the house in Charrington Street with me and my mother, dressed in our best, on the outside knocking to be let in; and with the wonders of the imagination that not even CGI can surpass, Doris seen standing on the inside of the closed door, with a tiny grey kitten (later to graduate to her proper name of Grey Cat) in one hand, while with her free hand she reached up to open the door and let in a nihilistic teenage life-form. ‘She’s your cat,’ Doris said to me, offering it to me in her opened palm before we’d crossed the threshold. ‘A friend took it in but didn’t realise what hard work kittens are.’ I took the kitten, who was clearly no happier at being part of this awkward moment than we were. Nevertheless, even before crossing the threshold, we had a waif each to take responsibility for, Doris and I. There was nothing for my mother, of course: there are limits to how many waifs one can gather together and fairly distribute as objects to care for at any given time. This was my given time.

Doris must have thought and discussed long and hard in preparing for this moment. Something new, a commitment, a link in the chain of caring for and finding a way to respond to something that was not one’s own, not owned, but a responsibility to attend to. Or just a mewing accident that had shown up due to unfortunate circumstances (I believe I recall that Grey Kitten belonged to Sylvia Plath’s children and couldn’t be coped with in the aftermath of her suicide) at just the right time. Though for many years after that, all things that ‘just showed up’ at a given time were deemed by Doris to have reason and purpose if only one saw it with the right kind of clarity. They, the needy challenges placed before her as an obligation, young neurotic people, testy octogenarians, animals, plants, all had a role to be attended to, were put across your track for a reason. None of them (except perhaps the cats) actually loved, or even liked. Grey Cat bore no resemblance to Hugo the doglike cat or catlike dog that in The Memoirs of a Survivor Emily brought with her already set up as her obligation. But cats don’t tell stories in the way that even the most respectful cat lover does. They do their own choosing as well as providing a simulacrum of loved and loving beings designated by the puppetmasters of time and place. Grey Cat was kind enough to sleep in my bed when she was very little, and after that, almost as a gesture, had her first litter in the bottom of my cupboard among my shoes and grubby knickers, but from then on she was always Doris’s cat. No one was in any doubt of that.

*

My particular difficulty is that I don’t like writing narrative, the getting on with the what happened next of a story that has a middle, an end and a beginning. You may have noticed. Sometimes the need to tell the story, to make sense of a narrative for the reader, feels like one of those devices for rolling up an emptying toothpaste tube, so all the paste will extrude and there’s no waste. I’m much more interested in that closed door keeping people outside and in, separating and including. Or better, an invisible, perfectly transparent door to privileged readers, but solid as a drawbridge to those on either side of it who hesitate, knock, arrange kittens on their hands, smooth down their hair, find a face with the right expression and then change it at the last minute, exhale, draw breath or hold it as the door opens (to them). I know I will have to come back to the larks and mess of the early 1960s, although, since I’ve written a whole book about how I spent them, you might do better to read that and then come back and see what happens when you add Doris, absent in that telling, as my grown-up in charge, to the equation. A kind of grow-your-own narrative. Just take some responsibility. But you are after truth. And truth, apparently, is all inside one person’s head, not shredded and scattered about, to be ordered in any way you see fit. Was Grey Cat really grey? Were that lover’s eyes so blue it was impossible to have him in my company for too long in case they clouded over and caused torrential floods?

No, what I really want to write about is a short walk I regularly made from a bus stop in Shoot-Up Hill in Brent, across the road and along a street called Kingscroft Road, to a house, the top flat of which Doris had bought when the Charrington Street house was compulsorarily purchased by the local council, and after the flat she had moved to in Maida Vale turned out not to be to her liking. According to Google Maps it is about a three-minute walk, which surprises me. I thought it was longer. I don’t remember what date she moved there, but during that time I was running the free school for intractably difficult children, studying at a teacher training college and then working full time as a teacher in Hackney. I lived in a small flat of my own in Camden under some joint ownership arrangement which is now nothing more than an infuriating dream scheme for young people trying to find somewhere cheap of their own in which to live. My three-minute walk happened over several years that took up most of the 1970s. I often made the trip at the end of the school day in Haggerston, or from my flat in Agar Grove, to see Doris, usually weekly, invited for tea or supper, or for lunch at weekends. Whichever place I started from, it seems that a bus (I always used buses rather than the Tube if I could) took roughly the same time. Between 39 and 47 minutes with a clear road. Even in the mid-1970s a clear road was hard to find on Shoot-Up Hill, which ran the dull length from Kilburn to Cricklewood, and upwards to northern places I still haven’t heard of, changing its name as it went along, perhaps just to keep bus passengers on their toes, in the hope that it might eventually transform into something along the lines of a garden paradise for those who stayed the course. It’s really the Edgware Road, and the nearest thing to magic is The Three Wishes pub some way after Brondesbury, where I got off.

*

I’ve lived long enough and done enough things to be certain that the first year of teaching and the first months of baby care are the most tiring things a person living a non-extreme-sporting life can do. I was always bone-tired; there was no baby until 1977, but the free school and my probation year at Haggerston had me hankering for my bed at home in Agar Grove rather than tea in Kilburn. But I don’t think that explains what I’m wanting to say. I’m just chipping it in there for those who prefer practical explanations. From a long but not unrestful journey on the bus I’d press the buzzer or bell or whatever it was to stop the bus and step down from the platform onto Shoot-Up Hill’s pavement. The very moment my foot made landfall, the anger began as if the pavement and the soles of my shoes had closed a vital circuit. Nothing fierce, just a familiar nudge, an awakening, a quickening, a sleepy stretch making ready.

A few yards along from the bus stop there was a zebra crossing. Maybe twenty or thirty steps. At each footfall the anger increased. Instead of swelling, it recoiled, contracted, showing its steely strength like a hooded cobra, coiled around itself while arching its head, pulling it back, sucking in all the energy it needed to make a lightning-fast strike. The slow build-up, followed by the equivalent of a hundred-yard dash, using stealth and speed to perfection to kill its prey, or protect itself from the accursed god in the garden of peace and quiet. A little like that, but not good enough. The foot on the pavement, the irritation as both feet felt solid ground. The moments before I jumped off the bus knowing it was going to happen, because it always happened, and things that always happen on cue can never be prevented by trying to stop them. And things you don’t want to think about in order to keep them away always do what they do because the knowing is no more under your control than an infant waking up hungry and crying out for milk. Let’s drop the cobra. Let’s call it a thing without will or the need to protect itself or to feed itself, or with any animosity towards its creator because it is a nothing. Buddhists would call it a ‘sensation’ to make it no more or less significant than an itch on your nose while you are trying to meditate. Being too hot or too cold, feeling hunger, feeling dull, all just sensations. Notice them, name them if you will, and let them go while you take the calm quiet road back to the present moment. I’ve found that can work for quite difficult things like pain. I’ve got a broken wrist at the moment. If I call it a sensation, go towards it, breathe into it, fragment it, breathe it out and away, I can manage to type with nothing more than a different sensation in my right wrist from the one in my left. But the walk from the bus stop to the zebra crossing never failed to be what it was. Never impressed by my playing mind games with it.

Rage. A rage that stank like garbage in a wheelie bin on a sweltering summer day. But it started slowly, like the serpent in the garden condemned to move on its belly, to have its head crushed by the human, and to strike the human’s heel. By the time I was at the crossing it had curled itself into the tightest of springs. As a rule it lived nice and quiet down in the viscera, somewhere dark red and moist that thanklessly produces or regulates some hormone or other to keep a body going in a nice homeostatic fashion. The heart beating like the grandfather clock in the kitchen, all the blood and guts, humble organs, keeping time. Controlled and controlling. This three-minute walk – probably a bit longer because I’m a slow walker and I would deliberately constrain my steps in the hope of getting the Spring Thing back under my control.

That walk, like any repeated event during which one’s mental pathways are etched into the body by the brain, was always the same. I don’t know when I first noticed it as a pairing of mind and body. The moment when you say to yourself, this always happens here. I always have this feeling at this point; it begins here and grows as I step towards Doris’s flat, cross at the crossing, walk along Kingscroft Road, see the grubby pebbledash of the house, walk to the door. Another door. One side and the other. But with an opening device that lets you in, if the inhabitant of the flat wants to see you. Only one side of the door occupied. Not so interesting, but as I walked into the empty corridor a rage so dangerous that I sometimes thought I might have a heart attack from the anger that shot up from its coiled self in Shoot-Up Hill, as it sprang powerful and metallic but always kept inside. Not really dangerous, honestly, an anger that afflicted only me. Another door. This time the right sort. Me on the outside, Doris inside. I knock, although she knows I’m there because she buzzed me in. Doris getting up, probably interrupting a sleeping cat on her lap – Grey Cat dead by now, replaced by another whose name I can’t remember. And the reader seeing both sides of the transparent door, two people, each hesitating and taking a deep breath, who really don’t want to see each other, but were designated by some higher force to stay in contact, to be a family, Doris’s obligation, one of her tribe.

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