Why can’t people just be sensible?

Jenny Diski

Peter Lessing died in his flat, of a heart attack, in the early hours of 13 October 2013, aged 66. His mother, Doris Lessing, died four weeks later, on 17 November 2013, aged 94, in the adjoining house. An interconnecting door had been cut into the shared wall and was always left open. This very nearly tells the story of their lives as mother and son, in the sense that we know our planet is part of our universe, but there remain gaping holes of incomprehension that no one is going to be able to fill no matter how much detail their story is told in.

Peter was Doris’s third child, the one who in 1949 she took with her, when he was two, to London from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) along with her first finished manuscript, The Grass Is Singing. The two packages are always mentioned together. The manuscript was in the suitcase she carried, they say. The child is always noted, but in these mini-biographies or profiles, left to tag along. Did Peter hold Doris’s hand, walking carefully, or follow behind her, or did he run on ahead, holding onto the rail, descending the metal steps from the airliner to the tarmac of his new country that everyone at home called ‘home’? He was only two, how much sense could he have made of anything? By the time we are two we have been taken to many places: a visit to Auntie, shopping at the grocery store, a trip to England on a plane. Perhaps the tone of voice with which the adult announces the visit is the main clue to the import of what is happening. In my mind’s eye, I have Peter tucked head first under Doris’s free arm, as if he were swimming down to land, but kept safe in his mother’s clutch. In the other hand she held the sort of small, shabby suitcase that pulp fiction illustrators give to people running away from their lives – to heroines with gumption, or plausibly handsome yet morally flawed young men. The suitcase holds the protagonists’ future. The man uses his free hand to get ready to light a cigarette, pulling a silver cigarette case from his pocket. The woman obviously doesn’t have a free hand. Her suitcase holds a few bits and pieces of clothing that are quite unsuitable for the new climate in which she will be living, but the manuscript of that first novel takes up most of the room. It will turn out to be the beginning of a career that ends not long after she wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the male version of the suitcase I’d guess at several shades of silk stocking samples, one of which will probably be used to strangle the life out of some lonely but restless woman, who at the moment hasn’t the slightest idea of the man descending the steps to try his luck in postwar London. There might even be an inset, a small cameo of her in a neat shirtwaister, looking through the kitchen window, out onto a neat garden, thinking of something far away while she does the washing up.

I mention these two puffs of fantasy to emphasise that I’m not attempting anything like a biography of Doris or Peter Lessing, still less my own autobiography: I’m writing a memoir, a form that in my mind plays hide and seek with the truth. It contains what I imagine and what I remember being told. Absolute veracity is not what I’m after. That man with the suitcase of stockings or murder weapons didn’t exist, as far as I know, and won’t be given another thought, although in a different format he might become a very Satan. Nor will I be chasing along internet corridors and byways, or settling in for an afternoon in the British Library in order to verify the date and the details of the flight. I have no idea how people disembarked from a plane. It’s very unlikely that Doris descended the steps into her new country (old ‘home’) in the way I have described. But there was an airplane, a woman of thirty, a small boy and a typed manuscript; and although in many cases when I write about Doris, I was present, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that I am offering a factual life of anyone, apart perhaps from myself – and there is nothing so unreliable or delicious as one’s rackety memories of oneself. Some of my recollections may be tainted by time or others’ slanted tellings or photographs, and my memories are no more and no less likely to be precisely accurate than yours or hers. I’m saying only that I was there, or was told first hand, and have remembered things thus and so, which might make what I recall a mite closer to the facts of the matter.

Doris Lessing left behind two ex-husbands, Frank Wisdom and Gottfried Lessing, and the two young children of her marriage to Frank. Men do this all the time – desert the family, shall we say, in one form or another – but we assume, partly because of sloppy, ill-considered thinking and partly with some element of truth, that the wrench is too great for any but the hardest-hearted woman. Even then, as with Ruth Ellis, the last woman executed in England, there is an evil, compelling genius – David Blakeley, murdered by her as her only escape – or, as with Myra Hindley, an evil, compelling ‘mad’ genius, Ian Brady, virtually taking over her soul by making her do the most unimaginable harm to innocent children. Women’s crimes or even misdemeanours go to the very spot where the meaning and value of ‘woman’ balances the murderous testosterone of masculinity and rescues the world from chaos.

When Doris’s obituaries were being updated, in the days after she died, I was phoned by a journalist who wanted me to speak for the case that Doris had not deserted the children when the marriage broke up: that Frank Wisdom and his sister (another archetype: the malign half-sister or stepmother or surrogate mother) had embargoed Doris from seeing them, and that somewhere in an archive there is a letter from Doris saying something of the sort. The journalist spoke as if he was wanting to set a horribly crooked record straight, to defend Doris from a calumny that would now surely follow her in death as it had in life. Was that slur against women, against Doris, the heartless, ‘unnatural woman’, what the journalist feared as the news of her death turned into a week or so of obituaries, certainly praising but never leaving out the two abandoned children a continent away? Would it now be set in concrete? As I recall, although the subject had been broached by interviewers, at lunches, dinners, in telephone calls, and Doris was asked about how she felt now about having left her two oldest children (ten and eight), no battle raged between the pro and anti-factions when it came to the matter of Doris ‘walking out’ on her children. Nothing like the fuss, say, about Martin Amis’s teeth. When it came up, her lips thinned and stiffened, she closed her eyes for a fraction of a second longer than was required for a mere blink, and a deep drawing in of the breath signalled the effort involved in having to experience the tedium of that question again. If you need help visualising it, imagine the present monarch’s face at having come, toe to excrement, upon a steaming pile of dogshit while taking one of her favourite walks. I don’t have favourite walks (or even like walking), but Doris did. Queen Mary’s Gardens was one of them. I imagine the queen having favourite walks, too. Doris always waved the question of Jean and John away and the subject was changed. How? I’m really not sure. I suspect it was partly that withering look she used to keep predators at bay, especially that trick of closing her eyes just a little longer than necessary, and also the simple fact that she never, with few exceptions, cared what people thought about her.

When my first novel was published in 1986, a journalist called to do an interview. I vaguely remembered him from a party at someone’s house and arranged to meet him at a nearby coffee shop. My first novel revolved around a couple engaged in S&M sex and the interviewer immediately asked me about the details of my sex life. I said I didn’t want to discuss it. He smiled, knowing about print-innocent sprats like me. It’s like this, he said, showing me the ropes: you discuss it with me, I write it up the way you want it, and it will keep the other journalists away. And, moreover, if I told my story to him, I wouldn’t have some of the slimier papers making things up. I would be in control of what people thought of me. He spoke meticulously, treading the line between bully and guardian angel. I was impressed with his technique, but very far from persuaded. I said I didn’t have anything of any interest to say. But, he said, now moving in with the big weapon, you can have a real influence on what people think of you. Again I doffed my cap at Doris, her withering looks and shrugs. ‘But,’ I said, ‘you don’t see; I don’t care what people think of me, even if there was anything to think.’ I checked myself up and down, a quick but thorough examination, and found nothing quaking or solid matter liquidising, not even the hint of a headache, not the slightest desire for drugs or other chemicals that would assuage the terror that I really didn’t have about anything. I’m sorry, Sid, I said, but I don’t give a toss what anyone who I don’t know thinks of me. I don’t even care what those who do know me think. Frankly, Sid – I took a deep breath to hold the moment – frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. Sid left his half-cold coffee and the unpaid bill. ‘You’ll be sorry. Everyone cares. In the end everyone cares.’ And off went Rhett or Scarlett (depending on how you’d like to allegorise), leaving me and my dirty washing in a rare state of tranquillity. It turned out that I really didn’t care. And I doubted that anyone who didn’t know me was likely to care what I might have been up to. I’d have to be much further up the tree of fame than I intended to climb to become interesting. A lesson I certainly learned in part from Doris.

I’ve never had the sense that a great wrong had been done to Doris in the vicious world of literary dinner parties. I heard no gossip to speak of, but it is a little strange, actually, that no tabloid story emerged at any point. It might have been because I was too close to catch the whispers, indoors rather than out there, or that the whispers stopped when I came within hearing distance. I suppose I was seen as too close now to the subject not to be considered a danger. What surprises me, given that her life in her twenties through to her forties encompassed several of the touchiest aspects of some of the touchiest subjects in social discourse – motherhood, the parental division of labour, sex roles, gender identity, the family and its constitution, ambitious women, sexually active women and so on – is that no one much cared. Lots of good books, a Nobel, a lively though not notorious sex life. Not much there for an obituary, except to talk mostly about the writing. A situation which would have pleased Doris very much. And really no one cares much about books. Football, yes, tennis, yes, the corruption of the very rich, yes, a bit. But, novels, writing? That shrug. Doris who? ‘Oh, the Nobel Prize, was it? Oh, I thought it was for physics and that. Did she win the Booker?’

To me, the most interesting aspect of Doris arriving in London with her third child and a novel, while her two other children remained in Southern Rhodesia with their father, was that it required a move across the world. It was, as I see it, an instance of Doris putting as much space between herself and an unwelcome truth as she could. From the way she described Southern Rhodesia, I thought, as she did, that she couldn’t possibly stay if she was to do what she wanted to do. To any questions (not many, I’d got the message) about leaving the children, it was clear that living alone in London with three children under ten was all but impossible. I am a feminist and a mother. I applaud the escape to freedom of a woman living her own life at such a time and in such a place, and her determination to fulfil her passion, to experience the power of her need to write.

*

The backwoods town of Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia may have seen a little excitement during the war, with passing armies, and loud meetings of brothers and sisters of the left arguing their position on this and that, but once the war was over and the soldiers on R&R had gone back to their real homes, it became a desert for a young woman looking for her place in the world. I get the need to flee, but no matter how I try to put myself in her place, I am perplexed by her emotional ability actually to do it. I’m struck most of all by her finding a way to justify taking the one child and leaving the others. Perhaps it was simple common sense – a phrase she often used. She did tell me that she was sure Jean and John would be well looked after by the Wisdoms, but thought that Gottfried was too immersed in his politics to take much notice of Peter. (Gottfried died, an ambassador for East Germany, in an ambush in Uganda in 1979.) She showed both her immense personal bravery and her ruthlessness in support of her cause. She was perfectly right that her project – of being a known and admired writer beyond Salisbury – required that she leave the provinces of southern Africa. I suppose it would have been possible to write, a white woman living in Africa (as it was for Nadine Gordimer), nearer to her two first children, but it would have meant giving up a world of experience denied to her in postwar Salisbury (not having rid itself of apartheid), with its frozen middle-class attitudes to women – what they could do, and how they could do it. She wanted to be recognised as the writer she was, not as the scandalous woman who dared to write novels certain to be banned: surely what would have happened to any of the first few books she would write, The Grass Is Singing especially, in which a woman stranded on an island of boredom and ignorance does her worst to the gin-drinking English émigrés and takes a black servant for her lover. Real writers (as opposed to crowd-pleasers) are often uncomfortable if they aren’t writing on the edge and even crossing it, rather than policing their prose to keep away the censors – particularly that inner one.

Once she had left, she was put on the prohibited immigrants list and banned from re-entering Rhodesia, until independence in 1979. Then she did go back to Zimbabwe, though only occasionally, and saw John and Jean, by then in their thirties and forties. She spoke publicly of the tedium of motherhood: ‘No one can write with a child around,’ she once pronounced (‘pronounced’ is a word I try to avoid in introducing recorded speech, but here and with other quotes from Doris it is apt). ‘It’s no good. You just get cross.’ ‘I’m very proud of myself that I had the guts to do it,’ she told Barbara Ellen of the Observer in 2001, ‘I’ve always said that if I hadn’t left that life, if I hadn’t escaped from the intolerable boredom of colonial circles, I’d have cracked up, become an alcoholic. And I’m glad that I had the bloody common sense to see that.’

Common sense, again. There was usually comedy lurking in it somewhere. I remember Doris ringing while Roger and I were in the middle of a furious argument about the details of how the two of us would split up our treasures. House, child, hi-fi. It was clear from my voice that something was up, so I told her what she had unwittingly parachuted into. ‘Oh, for heavens sake,’ she said, ‘do give all that emotional nonsense a rest. Come round and have a cup of tea and we can talk sensibly about it.’ I put the phone down and before I’d finished my sentence telling Roger what Doris had said, we were both laughing helplessly in recognition of the simplicity with which Doris approached little matters like leaving a husband or wife and sorting out the children. Just stop being emotional. How? We were upset. Old friends. Best friends. Had a child. Had changed feelings towards each other. Was love in its degrees to be recognised? Oh, just stop it. Have a cup of tea. Use your common sense. What is all this nonsense about periods of adjustment, unequal feelings? Just be sensible. There is a Sufi story she was fond of that had the Charlie Chaplinesque figure of the Mullah Nasruddin in the middle of the night going round and round a lamppost on his knees. Asked what he was doing, he said he was looking for his keys. Where did you drop them? Oh, over there, the mullah says, indicating a spot a good distance away. So why are you looking for them here? There’s more light here, says the mullah. Neither Roger nor I found the mullah helpful in our real-life crisis, and he didn’t solve the problem when the drum we’d schlepped back from Morocco in our Morris 1000 had to be divvied up, but out he came anyway, along with the biscuits.

Oh, Doris would say to anyone in any kind of emotional trouble, why can’t people just be sensible? Once or twice I shouted back: because we’re people. The answer carried no weight at all. If we insisted on behaving like idiots what did we expect? The answer was clear: there was no hope of ever being right as Doris was right. Those furious footsteps as I walked from the bus to Kingscroft Road snapped to the rhythm of Doris’s certainty. Not just that she was right, but that to be right, like her, was simple; to have the emotional control she had was just a matter of pulling oneself together, of not being ‘ridiculous’. And it was true that the argument stopped for the time being, even if the details of the argument remained unresolved. Sometimes being sensible meant burying your head in the sand, or saying goodbye to old friends who didn’t agree with you. Or maybe ‘sensible’ is one of those words that mean different things to different people.

*

She often spoke of missing Africa, with a lyricism about the landscape, the skies, the veldt, the sunrise, the animals, the smell after rain. She never mentioned people, or only in groups, overheard singing and dancing. It wasn’t racism, but part of her picture of the place she loved and missed. It always sends a chill down my spine (as it did hers) to think of those deprived, deracinated people being given work looking after other people’s children in Salisbury, hundreds of miles away from their own families.

She insisted she was still a farm girl at heart, hunting small game, defying the nuns who taught her nothing useful, never taking much interest in style or fashion. I’m sure she would have brought Africa along with her if she could have, but nothing was going to keep her there if it wasn’t going to be the Africa she wanted. And it certainly wasn’t socially or politically. But she took Peter with her to London. Like a mascot? As if taking one child would make up for leaving two? I don’t know. When the subject was brought up it was always a matter of female freedom, by which she meant her freedom primarily, and how the life she was leading would have stifled the writer in her. She had been a tomboy who wanted to hang on to the privileges that boys and men had. In a way, she reminded me of Margaret Thatcher, who was hailed by many feminists as a blow struck for feminism and turned out to be nothing of the sort. Doris used her femininity where it was useful or enjoyable, but had no interest at all in the actual politics of feminism, or in changing the economic and social position of women except for the particular purpose of giving women the choice to leave their families. Or, in the case of the Africa she had known, giving women the choice to stay and look after their own families.

I remember a row she had one lunchtime with an American lesbian couple, about a woman in similar social and financial circumstances to Doris’s before she left Frank Wisdom. The visitors were wondering why on earth the woman didn’t just up and leave. Doris had, after all. Eventually she exploded, talking to the women as if they were children who knew nothing about the world and its difficulties. She spoke as she gathered and clattered plates and made her way to the kitchen, where the last word was kept. Her voice, harsh, barely controlled, told you she had now lost patience with you and your ignorance. ‘You can’t just up and leave when you’ve got a house and two children and no money of your own. How stupid can you people get? Most people aren’t rich and privileged like you.’ Unhappy women were all over the place, stuck in suburbias all over the world; but they couldn’t just leave, with nowhere to go, no money, no support. The women were silenced. Doris took a moment in the kitchen preparing the pudding and rearranging her furious expression. When she returned to the living room no one mentioned the subject of women leaving their unsatisfactory men, or the fact that Doris’s argument, if that was what it was, was made without any reference to her own very real experience.

Outbursts of this kind (not all of them shouted) were generally known to those of us who were close to her as ‘being told off by Doris’. They were received in silence, no one took or was invited to take a different position. They silenced the company, who quickly started talking about something else. Asked what I thought about her novel Love, Again, I said I found it improbable, given that it was posing as a realistic novel, that the man and woman who had fallen in love in middle age refused to have sex with each other because each had a husband or wife they didn’t love but who needed them in some way. I wasn’t arguing that they should leave their spouses, but that their affair should have continued through the years unconsummated suggested an unnecessary sort of morality in a modern, grown-up, realist setting. Doris gave me one of her looks. The several other people in the room hushed their conversation. ‘Well, it’s a good thing, Jenny, that there are some people still left who, unlike you, take sex seriously.’ Again, Doris hoisted herself up from the carpet in mid-sentence, and went to fetch another plate of biscuits.

With increasing impatience over the years, Doris rejected the idea that The Golden Notebook was intended to be a work of feminism. It’s hard to see why, unless she wanted to make the point that writing of any kind is always a private, autobiographical affair even if it isn’t only that. By the end of her thinking life she got very angry at the suggestion that she was a feminist icon. In the 1990s and later, she was writing and talking about the damage that ‘radical’ feminism was doing to the spirit of men who were becoming wimps as a result. In that interview in 2001 with Barbara Ellen she is quoted as saying: ‘It’s become absolutely automatic. If it was some polemical crusade, it might be something, but it’s like young women have got ten minutes to spare, so they may as well spend it rubbishing men. It’s part of the culture now. There’s an unconscious bias in our society: girls are wonderful; boys are terrible. And to be a boy, or young man, growing up, having to listen to all this, it must be painful.’ And here, I suspect, was another reason Peter was as he was that had nothing to do with Doris’s parenting skills.

Many of her later books (for example, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five; The Making of the Representative of Planet Eight; The Cleft) are hymns to atavistic battles; they describe trysts between men and women experiencing uncommon ecstasies of love and necessary separations, all unsullied by picking children up from school, or paying the gas bill late. Women with flowing hair familiar from Middle Earth and suchlike fantasy fiction are followed by white horses whose manes they stroke and into whose ears they whisper. The Cleft is actually a prehistoric tale of the muscularity of women discovering their creative reproductive powers while the men break away to make discoveries and have adventures by sea and on foot.

*

Doris wrote to John and Jean, and they came to London to visit as children a few times. Jean came for a couple of months when she was in her late teens or early twenties, and I was living in Charrington Street. Like many other visitors who came from all over the world to sit at Doris’s feet and gather wisdom (in Jean’s case, a late-flowering mother/daughter relationship), she was given to me to take care of because Doris was in the middle of an especially difficult bit in the current book. ‘Take her shopping. Show her around. Let her meet your friends,’ were her instructions. But our worlds were so different, Jean’s and mine, and so unimaginable each to the other, that the visit could only cause pain, and I think perhaps was intended to. This was a thing about Doris, it was never clear whether she knew how painful or disastrous her actions or pronouncements could be. Was it just carelessness, a desperation to get back to her typewriter, or did she know perfectly well the anguish she would cause these former fans or relatives?

Jean and I went wandering around the centre of what was thought of as London in full swing. We visited boutiques, where Jean tried on clothes she couldn’t imagine wearing at home, and bookshops whose books would not get through customs; she sat in an agony of shyness in the pub with old men and drunk poets. I recently had an email from someone who remembers Doris ‘trying to palm off’ a young woman ‘barely out of her teens’ on him at a party, and the excruciating embarrassment the girl showed at the whole incident. He wondered in his email whether it had been me. I don’t remember, but I’m fairly sure it was Jean, very far from being comfortable with casual meetings and beddings with strangers.

Wilfulness? The necessity of art? The pain that others have to tolerate so that art could be made? I don’t know. I know about feeling trapped and that sometimes you have to be somewhere else in order to do what you need to do, but I couldn’t imagine leaving my daughter permanently in order to fulfil my promise. Perhaps that’s just cowardice and Doris would say, I think, that I was lucky I didn’t have to. I was in the privileged position of having enough money to live on from teaching, and then when I had a breakdown and actually started to write my first novel she gave me an allowance. And I had a husband committed to our daughter and to sharing the childcare. I hadn’t grown up in the boondocks, where one wrong footfall caused an avalanche of disapproval. For all the misogyny that exists even now, as bad and perhaps worse than in my childhood, I never felt that I was held back by being a woman. But I knew that others were. In any case, she wasn’t alone; she had support from friends and comrades, and from Joan Rodker, whose flat at the top of her house Doris rented. And there was Peter, there was always and would always be Peter, the chosen one; Peter would be there for Doris and he would certainly be there for the Wisdom children who had been left behind. There is a cruelty there (is it possible that it was ‘just’ thoughtlessness?). There is self-justification that can make some sense to one’s own conscience. But it’s very hard to buy once you put Peter into the equation, and then on top of that add me, both of us at the high point of adolescence. I think I know something of the power of the necessity to write, and the importance of finding a place to do so. But however highly you value Doris’s wisdom in her books, what is happening here? I can’t speak of the two older children and the ways in which they managed to cope with their abandonment, but at Doris’s funeral, Jean (John having died of a heart attack) stood and spoke of being glad that Doris had left her and let her (Jean) have a life of her own.

*

It was something that Peter never had. Peter had no life of his own, ever. No life at all, except perhaps an exotic inner life. And I have doubts even about that. He and I didn’t like each other from the start, but even though we didn’t have a good relationship, we were engaged in each other’s lives for much of our own. He had the self-important but kindly thought of helping me out when he heard of my troubles. He was 16. There wasn’t much chance of his understanding how dangerous or painful this was for him to do. Peter’s existence was the saddest and emptiest I can imagine. His funeral gave those of us choosing its form a problem. What kind of eulogy could be written for a man who from 19 had never worked or had a proper job, no real relationships, sexual or otherwise, who had barely gone outside for the last half of his life, who lived alone with his mother, lay on his bed when he wasn’t watching television in the afternoon and evening and eventually became so gross, in the sense of fat and uncouth, that very few people could put up with it? How much he knew of how the world saw him is another mystery. It seemed that his life had effectively stopped at around 19, but then we found a drawing done by a friend of ours from school at around that age which showed a strikingly good-looking young man, smoking a cigarette with his head lolling back, as if waiting for us all to come and find him in his place in the world. But it was there, in the inviting drawing, full of confidence and promise, that Peter’s world came to a stop. His friends from St Christopher’s came and we remembered the fun we sometimes had at Charrington Street, sitting around the kitchen table, or gathered up in Peter’s room. While I listened on my Dansette to Bob Dylan’s first album in 1962 (with Doris, along with a million other parents or surrogate parents, bellowing from downstairs: ‘Turn that noise off. He can’t even sing!’), Peter was grabbed by the surreal, and the big, emotional choral anthems. We talked to people who knew and remembered those days, hard as it was.

His funeral included the Goons’ song, ‘Ying Tong Iddle I Po’, which he used to sing far too often; there was a reading about Eeyore being stuck in the river expressing his deep conviction that no one would rescue him; the Red Army Choir singing ‘Kalinka’ was another song Peter belted out and sang along with during the holidays; another A.A. Milne, this time, written for Winnie-the-Pooh, ‘The More It Snows (Tiddley Pom)’; and finally, Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, the music by Hubert Parry, and sung at the end of every school year at St Chris with unthinking gusto. The old days. People left smiling. I couldn’t have imagined it possible when we started to plan it. But there was nothing I knew of any evident pleasure or fun later than the early 1970s. After that he was more or less a prisoner, aiding and abetting his warden in a world that grew smaller and smaller. When you tried to describe it, people narrowed their eyes in disbelief, trying to imagine the life I was clearly exaggerating; no one could live such a non-eventful existence for decades, let alone someone with so many advantages. Peter’s life, to people who were not familiar with it, was a made-up tale; an impossibility. That’s not to say that things didn’t sometimes happen to Peter, at least in those youthful days when generosity, solemnity and thoughtlessness could go hand in hand.

One thing that happened was me. If there is only so much social energy to go round in any given group, you could say that I elbowed in, loud, loving argument and discussion, and took Peter’s portion. Being there was my good fortune, perhaps, but I also know how hard it was to extract oneself from Doris once she had decided you were ‘one of hers’. Peter wrote a letter that allowed a voluble teenage girl into his house, to live with his mother while he was away at boarding school. It might have been some kind of gift (conscious or unconscious) to his mother, or a way of telling her that he needed more or less from her, or better attention. Years later, a friend told me that in the past Peter had said to him that ‘the worst thing that could happen to me would be if Jenny became a successful novelist.’ It wasn’t my fault that I was, as papers and magazines have suggested, a cuckoo in Peter’s nest. I know that I was, even if I was not directly responsible. But that became one of the stories explaining Peter’s ‘oddness’. Journalists came up to me at parties, sometimes when Doris was there too, to check whether what Doris had just (or recently) told them was true, that Peter’s life was ruined and he was made sick by my going to live with them, and taking his space in the household. I had no way of denying it. It’s very possible that I helped sink Peter, by taking his place in ‘his’ house and by getting on with a regular sort of life. I was Peter’s shadow, as Doris and I suppose Peter saw it, who had taken his place in the light. So I just replied: ‘If she says so.’

Still, few people could believe that a person of 16 could have his life ruined that way, without there being something else that had been going on for much longer to cause what almost seemed a lifelong catatonia. I didn’t swallow Doris’s story. But I didn’t deny it, and I didn’t ask Doris why she was saying these things to journalists at parties. Healthy people don’t lie down in the middle of the road and allow a bus to roll over them – not unless something in them is acting out damage done long before. I was not a gift from Peter to his mother, but a curse. I could see that. Peter had perhaps despaired of Doris giving him what he needed, even if he didn’t know exactly what that was. I was a gesture, a question, a conversation he wasn’t able to start with Doris. Perhaps, without mentioning the children back in Africa, he had tried to rebalance the family. Or he was hoping to deflect something onto me. Or he was just having a kind moment and didn’t think hard enough about the possible consequences. I was a disaster for both of them. Doris, however, was 43 when she got Peter’s letter and wrote to me. Another generous act. A kindness almost beyond measure. And she added to it by telling me that there was no need to be grateful. Someone had helped her, I would help someone … But she was a grown woman, taking on damaged goods that Dr Watt had warned her about. I don’t know what, if any, precautions she took; essentially I think she thought she could manage without them. What was Doris thinking of? As the beneficiary of all this kindness, and as a person now in my late sixties, I believe Doris took a grave risk with three people’s lives, and I can’t really untangle the strands that might tell me why.

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