Dead Babies and Seaside Towns
It began in a house in North London - one of those toppling, red brick terraced houses, stacked up tight against each other in the streets above Gospel Oak. We were staying with friends for the weekend and that morning we walked to a playground on the edge of Hampstead Heath. My husband, Stephen, pushed our son, two-year-old Thomas, on swings and stood beside metal-runged ladders, guiding wavering, wellington-booted feet.
It was warm for March and yet I sat on a bench shivering in two jumpers, a coat, scarves, boots and gloves. I was nearly three months pregnant with our second child. My stomach rolled and heaved, my lips were dry, my mouth tasted sour and even the wind on my face felt like an assault. I longed for time to sweep me on, past twelve weeks of pregnancy, as I knew that then the sand-paper-rawness and nagging sickness might end.
After we came back from the Heath, our friends Martin and Sarah cooked us a proper Sunday lunch – lamb, roast potatoes, buttery cabbage - which we ate amidst the half finished building work in their kitchen. I pushed down two plates despite the nausea. A taxi had been called to take us to the Eurostar at Waterloo station. From there we would travel back to our home in Brussels.
As we cleared the table, Martin and Sarah’s three children and Thomas were scurrying through the house, their feet clattering, their voice shrieking, determined to fall over the tins of paint left by the builders, smash their heads against the piles of floorboards stacked in the hall, or fall down the uncarpeted stairs. I went to help Stephen with the pushchair and the bags, then hurried to the loo - and that’s when I found the warning stain of blood.
I mentioned it to Sarah. Neither of us knew what to do. Sarah said she’d bled once with one of her three and went to find a sanitary towel. Bizarrely it was wrapped in orange plastic and, as Sarah is an artist who often works with bright colours, the idea entered my mind that she had made it. Stephen was uncertain whether we should get into the taxi or not but we set off for Waterloo. As the taxi stop-started through Kentish town and lurched through Camden, I thought - so this is it then, I’m going to lose this baby after eleven weeks of pregnancy. But my mind did not accept that possibility. And it turned out that I didn’t need to worry because, by the time we were on the train, the bleeding had stopped.
Later - much later - when I thought back to that Hampstead house, what I remembered was the shrieks of the children as they scurried on the stairs and the sun light shining in through the Georgian fan light above the front door, making a pattern of blue, yellow and red lozenges on the tiled floor. Also the orange plastic package of that sanitary towel, which I still have, upstairs in the bathroom cupboard.
Although I’m a writer by profession, I have always felt sure that I would never write a memoir. I do not trust them, never have. Me-me-me, moi-moi-moi. But now our legal team - one law firm in America, two law firms in England and a barrister - have been in touch to say that I need to write a twenty page statement explaining everything that happened. They need this in preparation for our hearing in the High Court.
And so I go to my study and pull out the cardboard box which contains the last five and a half years of my life. A ragged pile of diaries, photos, e-mails, blog entries, sentences scrawled in note-books. But how can I organise it? My mind is fuzzy, my neck and shoulders are sore and even opening the box makes my throat close up. I really have no idea how the jigsaw of days and months fit together. It isn’t just the years which have gone but the person who occupied them as well.
Keep hold of the facts. There must be some. I am now forty-five but I used to be younger. I lived in Brussels for sixteen years but now I live in a ghostly stone house called Mount Vernon which stands on the edge of Rodborough Common, perched above the town of Stroud in Gloucestershire. I write novels and plays and also teach creative writing. I frequently forget that the over-examined life isn’t worth living. My husband, Stephen, accuses me of having no post-Brontë culture references. As we don’t have a television, our views are supplied by The Guardian and Radio 4 and consequently we are both meticulously well informed and appallingly out of touch.
I like baths, beds, bookcases, swimming in the sea, sample paint pots, night trains, wool jumpers, Stone’s ginger wine, fishnet tights, Tommy Cooper, builders’ tea and fish and chips. I am in love with R S Thomas, a poet who is cantankerous, dead and Welsh. And even more in love with seaside towns. So throughout this book, unless told otherwise, you can assume that I’m either on my way to the sea or planning my next trip there.
A good friend tells me that if I were ever to write a memoir it would be called – The Spectre At The Feast. When I think of myself as a child, I’m holding a stick of dynamite. I know too much and one day I’m going to blow everything to bits. Even now I am endlessly poised to let the cat out of the bag, the skeleton out of the cupboard. I used to search for God, truth, wisdom. Now I only know that I know nothing. I hate the word appropriate. Also the words gusset, condiments and velour. In situations of stress, I become involved in unfortunate incidents involving cars or culinary equipment.
And after that? There are no other facts - only days. Days which begin with a sudden shock, as though I’m new from the womb. Here we are. Still alive. Miraculously, outrageously, still here. And the dear old sun performing that wonderfully clever trick again, sliding up over the horizon, as I bundle Thomas, nine years old now, yawning, with a bag full of football kit, into the car. And set off across Rodborough Common, through the frost-silent morning, with nothing holding the whole thing together except sinew and bone.
Why look at the contents of that box? Why try to put reassemble the fractured fragments into something new? So much better to focus on that vast orange ball of the dawn sun as it emerges from the mist, better to enjoy the silhouettes of trees on the horizon like intricate black lace. Sinew and bone. Nothing else. How strange to discover how much I enjoy my non-existent existence.
But now – in this endless period of waiting - the lawyer e-mails again demanding that twenty page document. So I pull out that box again. Breathe, remember to breathe. Wedding anniversaries? Might that be the way to sort things out? When Stephen and I got married, we decided that we would celebrate each anniversary by visiting places in alphabetical order. For example, the first year would be Antibes, the second Bali, the third the Canaries. And after that Dubai, Egypt, Fuertaventura and Ghana.
But I got pregnant with Thomas straight after our wedding and so our anniversaries became a tour of the Brussels suburbs - Anderlecht, Boitsfort, and then the Place du Chatelain, the square at the end of our road. Then D for death and after that - Eastbourne. I do remember Eastbourne, the comfort of the sea mist, tea from one of those metal service-station pots which don’t pour properly, and somewhere in the distance Beachey Head, with the pale green sea heaving in.
But after that the reception scrambles, the sound crackles and falters, the lines on the screen break up into fuzzing black and white zig-zags. It’s like when you play the piano and your left hand stretches down to a low note, a distant C, but it doesn’t make the sound that it should. Instead the thread of your melody breaks up in a discordant clanking. And then you notice that the lower section of the keyboard is upside down and back to front, the familiar pattern of black and white all jumbled up. Where there should be a C there is now an F or a G.
When you write a novel you work with chains of cause and effect, moments of resolution where meaning might briefly and brilliantly dazzle through. Will it be the same if I write a memoir? No. I wouldn’t dare now to hope for so much. I aim merely to establish the chronology. I want only to stretch my mind back through the past and find the notes of my keyboard where they should properly be. Recently I went back to that North London house and there is no stained glass fan light above the front door.