Last night the knife slipped when I was making dinner. When I uncurled my right hand from the middle finger of my left, ready to see the fresh red of my blood, there was nothing. Looking closer at a finger that throbbed numbly but wasn’t bleeding, I saw that I had sliced right through my fingernail. A thin line of red appeared: a backslash on the nail bed. I called B to come and finish chopping the onion.
This morning I’ve come out to the coffee shop to be looked after by the beautiful young people. Girls with glossy long hair and impossibly thin waists. Boys with plaid shirts and black skinny jeans. They bring my coffee to me and I sit and watch them work and read Kate Zambreno. The place is full of newborns. I feel like I’ve been crying all night — though in reality the tears are constantly at the back of my eyes, prickling, threatening to fall.
“What has been omitted?” asks Zambreno. “What has been scratched out? Days, lives, wives.” She is writing about the wives of modernism. She is writing about herself. She is, perhaps, writing about us all. What part are we omitting? What days, what lives, are we not living?
There was a morning this week when I woke at 4.30. A child with bad dreams to resettle. But then, not so long until it was time to get up & the birds already singing & somehow I couldn’t sleep again. A day spent in a hallucinatory daze.
I hate Joan Didion’s line, Life changes in the instant. I hate it because it’s true. I hate it because I know it and I don’t want it to be so.
That evening, Wednesday, B went out for drinks with friends. I was ready for bed by 9.30. Then, a strange ringing, which at first I thought was coming from within the house. Louder in the hallway & I realised it was the alarm in the empty house next door. “Alarm going off next door,” I texted B. “Do they switch off after a while?” “Don’t know,” he replied. “Maybe call the police station and ask them what to do if it doesn’t stop soon?” The police station closed a few months ago. I’m tired. The head of our bed is against the wall adjoining the empty house. Still, I go to sleep to the sound of the ringing.
Earlier that night, too sleepy to read, I sat on the floor eating supper & watching a YouTube recording of Kate Zambreno & Jenny Offill reading from their work. The new sofa behind me was still wet from a child peeing on it. The readings were good, but I liked the conversation afterwards even more. They talked about writing as walking and about Robert Walser’s book The Walk.
B came home a little after midnight. I tried to stay asleep because to wake might be to never sleep again. I could hear him outside talking to someone. The alarm got louder for a while before returning to its normal volume. Then he was creaking about in the corner of our bedroom. I thought he was standing on a chair, that he would topple & fall — dream images for real sounds. Later, around 5, I saw one of the drawers from our dresser on the bathroom floor. He had been rummaging around looking for the earplugs.
Yesterday, walking home from town with Pops, we ducked into the Oxfam bookshop. A virtually new copy of Walser’s The Walk was on the shelves. Of course. After I’d read the hypnotic ‘Kleist in Thun’ I noticed that three stories had been ticked in the contents, soft pencil marks to the margin. And a comment next to the heading ‘Two Strange Stories’: “Only 2?!” This is a small town. For all I know, I might know or recognise my mysterious correspondent. I take it they didn’t like the book.
“And the bells. How they peal out, leap with peals and waves of sound. How it glitters and glows with blue and bell tones over the whole Sunday sunbathed little town.”‘Kleist in Thun’ by Robert Walser
On Thursday morning — alarm still ringing — we were both quietly annoyed with one another. B saying that he couldn’t believe it when he walked home & could hear that I hadn’t done anything about the alarm. Me, irritated by the entitlement with which he put in the earplugs, his confidence that he could deafen himself to the cries of our children and I would be there to go to them. For yes, I had considered the earplugs, but also considered the possibility that someone might need me in the night.
B had called the non-emergency police line. They can’t, it turns out, do anything about alarms. He had called the supervisor of the company renovating the house who gave him the code to the key-box. He went inside the house but there was no obvious way to muffle or stop the alarm & so he too had come to bed.
A couple of painters came on-site at around 8, looking confused & amazed that the noise had been going all night. By 8.30 they’d stopped it, though I could hear it as loudly as ever. “I had to just rip it off the wall in the end,” the older one told me. “We didn’t even know there was an alarm.”
Before this, sometime between waking and breakfast, I had remembered that we have a secret key to the house. One our old neighbour had given to us in case she ever locked herself out or worse. Very faint, on the back of the fob, almost hidden by her daughter’s phone number, four digits: 1228.
Today it’s stormy. Black skies, heavy rain. Sports day number 2 & the school summer fair are both cancelled. But Popsy’s pre-school trip to the beach is still on. I drove home from drop-off thinking that I should never have let him go. His small body. The confidence of someone who would drive a minibus of eight precious three-year-olds down the motorway to the sea.
Crying during the news last night. A shoe, a dark high-heel that she had put on that morning, being examined by a forensic officer. I think carefully about why, in a week of such horrific news, this should be the one that undoes me. Geography and age and the age of her children. Politics. Gender (as Kerry says, “I can’t stop making everything about gender, because everything is about gender.”).
A woman who says what she thinks. A woman who says what she feels. A woman who is visible. A woman like that is dangerous, endangering herself, danger-ful rather than careful — even if her attacker is clearly mentally unwell. She stood out. She stood for something. She believed in something.
(I read the things that people had said on Twitter to her husband the day before she died. Berating them for ‘endangering’ their children by taking them on the Thames flotilla in support of the Remain campaign. Vitriolic, personal attacks declaring them ‘unfit’ parents. Things I wish I’d never read. Things that are about demonising a person just because you disagree with them on a political issue.)
It feels closer to home too because I worked for an MP for two years. I know how much harder and less glamorous the constituency office is; how much realer and more tangible the work done there often is. I know the hours that go into surgeries and the loyalty and love for their MP they inspire in the people they’ve helped. I’ve briefly lived in that world & despite all the security of Westminster, despite the public access to politicians in their constituencies, despite the hate mail and the hatred — in spite of it all, I would never have imagined this would happen. Not like this. (How much have things changed in the last twelve years? Perhaps more than I think.)
Here in the coffee shop, I read this by Olivia Laing. I don’t want to empathise more with people who are more immediately like me. But empathy is, in some part, a function of imagination. My mind can so easily go to children left motherless, a person around my own age left dead on the street. It needs help to fully inhabit narratives that are less familiar to me. Writing like this — cool yet searing, personal, political — is so useful in helping me see the threads that I might otherwise miss. She writes,
There is a particular feeling that comes with erasure: a kind of paralysis, a kind of shame. Don’t be silly: what you’re seeing is not about you, what you’re seeing is an attack on western freedoms – clubbing! – and not part and parcel of the everyday viciousness of homophobia, a climate of hate enacted in everything from casual comments on street corners and in school playgrounds to violence, to the systematic application of laws that erode LGBT rights, to the dozens of countries where being queer means prison or death.
Being seen. Being able to live without hatred directed at you for who you are or what you believe or what someone else believes you stand for. There truly is more that unites us than divides.
I have to talk to the children at breakfast. I know that if I don’t say anything they will hear in worship at school. The Moose, as always, is all process. How did he hurt her? What did he use? We talk about how rare something like this is. How terrible. How all we can do is think about what she believed in — being kind, remembering that people have more things in common than those that separate them — and try to enact that in our own lives.
Like when B [our old neighbour] died, says the Moose. Yes, I say. How do you think we’re doing with that? Well, he says, not that well; I mean, people are always helping us.
They won’t tell the younger ones about this, T interjects.
Pops and I were in school yesterday afternoon, listening to readers from the Moose’s class. We sat at a table in the library, one small child after another sitting on a chair between us. A reception class came in to change their library books, bustling and chatting and remarkably quick at choosing a book from the shelves and taking it to the teaching assistant to be scanned out. Her children are five and three. In the bath, I lie with my head submerged thinking of the impossibility of telling one of those reception children that this had happened to one of their parents.
There is nothing to say. I didn’t sleep. I cut my finger. I read a little. I posted pictures of my roses and my reading and the shadows that fell on my walls on Instagram because I wanted to be seen. Everything is one small thing after another, until it isn’t. Life cleaves into befores and afters. Or maybe there is everything to say, but the only way to try to say it is one small thing after another.