Patchwork Time – for World Mental Health Day

I had a go at stitching my patchwork quilt the other night. It’s pretty old now. Dad gave it to me years ago.

I spread it on my bed every year, around the time Dad died, because that’s when it starts getting nippy. Early October.

I’ve been meaning to repair it for ages, not wanting it to fall apart, tricking myself it’s because I think everyone should have a cute patchwork quilt that lasts for their lifetime, when really it’s simply because he touched it and touching it makes me feel like a part of him is still here.

Quite without planning the other night I found myself reaching for the sewing tin to begin to sew up the jaggedy rips. It was only as I stopped stitching that I realised it was a funny night to be doing it; the day he was found dead. Two days after he’d done it. The 6th, 7th, 8th of October are always grim days. Picturing him hanging there. This year, I’d been quietly proud of myself all day that I hadn’t been a mess. That I even felt happy. Having a daughter has been fantastic medicine for many things.  My subconscious must have reached for the blanket then; a practical way of acknowledging this new phase of grief; a cosy handling of time. In control. Not too sad. I never thought I’d reach this stage.

Dad bought the blanket for the spare bed in 1999, when my sister and I went to stay with him in Wales. It was Christmas. We were sulky to change our usual Christmas tradition of staying in our cosy burrow at home with Mum, but more than that, we were shitting ourselves. After months of bearing the load herself, Mum had told us that Dad had six months to live. She didn’t know why, he wouldn’t tell her. He wanted us to go for Christmas so he could talk to us.

So we had a sort of Christmas. But he said nothing. And then we left, got a succession of trains home to Southend, our brains so confused I can’t remember what I felt anymore. Months passed. He never talked. It was like he had never told Mum he was dying in the first place. Out of necessity, I just carried on, trying to finish a degree I no longer gave the slightest shit about. Numb. One day he gave me the blanket like a gift. Over the years it has become just another lovely thing my Dad gave me, that I’m glad to have, but really, at its source, it is the backdrop of the time I waited to hear what I thought would be the worst news I’d ever hear, not knowing the worst news would come a few years later, in 2003, when he hanged himself. Another unexpected development.

Dad was an ill man. I had been kept from the troubling spots of his bi-polar character and phases my whole life, and then shit got real. That Christmas, when we waited for him to tell us he was dying. Perhaps he was going to lie and say he’d got a massive tumour or something. I don’t know. Perhaps he was planning on killing himself then; preparing us in the only way you can without saying “FYI: I AM GOING TO KILL MYSELF. NO, DON’T TRY TO STOP ME, I REALLY AM SET ON IT. SOZ.” Perhaps having some time with his children made him realise he couldn’t do it, then. It got delayed.

He was ill. Not consistently – very often he was joy and activity and fun and inspiration and kindness and support and sharp intelligence and love – but the illness waited for him, and he waited for it. Mourning him and puzzling over the act of his suicide has made me ill many times through the years. Grief feels like a mental illness because although it might be spun from the circumstances of losing someone rather than inner chemical workings, it is still a mental trap; a dark labyrinth that takes years to find your way out of, often feeling like you don’t have the strength to keep going. Then there’s the worrying you have ‘the same thing’ as you father. The fear of that legacy.

The blanket began as uncertainty and confusion, then it became epic darkness seeming to have no end, then it became merely sadness and fondness and nostalgia and memories, until it became comfort, warmth, a winter friend. Time and I have worked together on it, not always getting along.

And now my daughter is bunny-hopping over it, it’s changing again. It will be her Grandfather’s blanket, the one she’ll never know. She’ll grow up seeing my crude stitchwork, puckering the fabric like scars. My very imperfect attempt at fixing something. And one day maybe I’ll use it to tell her that things change, and how they change, and that they can keep changing. Maybe one day it will be with her when she feels ill, comfort and warmth, maybe it will be with her when she keeps going, a stitched together reparable thing, a winter friend.

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The Zen Phosphorescence of General Knowing

I was thinking that being 37 is a funny age. But they’re all funny ages aren’t they? Because we’ve never lived them before, so they all feel a bit odd and clunky, like new shoes that need to be worn in. Just as you think you’ve got one era of your life straight you move onto a new one, a fresh new bundle of five years tightly bound with the twine of time so you can despatch them in convenient manageable batches as they pass. A stack of experience to be filed away in the sprawling room of retrospect. Early twenties is different to your late twenties, early thirties different to your late thirties, and presumably similarly onwards until your own unique allotment of age runs out and you shuffle off this mortal coil in your slippers, scratching your head and wondering why there’s so much stuff left on your to-do list.

I find myself sat squat in the middle of the latter half of my thirties, just a few crispy autumn months shy of 37 and a half. Aside from the occasional shrieking shock of existential age-versus-success related panic (“I HAVE GREY HAIRS BUT WILL NEVER HAVE A MORTGAGE”, and other witching hour joys), it’s alright. Thirties are pretty great, on the whole. Mostly when you remember to take it easy on yourself.

You even allow yourself the odd moment of feeling wise. Everyone starts looking terribly young and foolish, like they’re blindly wandering the lands of youthful misdemeanor and mild peril and you now get to comfort and dole out nuggets of wisdom from your pouch of experience feeling like you are terribly useful, like baby wipes to a spillage or Smints to a post-sick scenario. Those little blighters need you. You have lived. You have loved. You have mucked countless things up. You have got loads to bang on about until they get bored and lose the will to live.

The wisdom never lasts long. Because you realise you still haven’t got a clue. Your life is lacking in any real foundation, structure, meaning, direction, and purpose, than in fact a whole TED talk could be written on why everyone should do the exact opposite of what you’re doing because you’re an idiot. That you have made some terrible decisions and laughable turns, but that you’d be really good at taking stock and making significant changes if only some benevolent stranger would pay for you to go to Thailand for a 6 month lie-down, where a transformation would come upon you like a slow-growing tan. You’d probably get dreadlocks, and your arms would fill up with meaningful beads and potent charms on string, and your cranium would take on a sort of natural saint-like glow from all the zen phosphorescence of General Knowing shooting out of your follicles. It’d be great. You’d be great. You could be so goddamn great. If only things were somehow…different.

When you find yourself caught between what was, what is, and what could be, turning in small circles like a robot running out of batteries, you need to turn to other wisdom. To books, podcasts maybe, music. To history, to science, to philosophy. To people. People you see all the time, to people you don’t see enough. To whatever makes you feel connected and less lost.

I turn to people. I turn to older friends, to people a few stages on from me. I soak in their thoughts and their advice and their stories and their experience and their love. Their knowing and not knowing. Feeling like you aren’t much different to everyone else might not make the answers come and bonk you in the face like a neon sign of definitive acumen, and it gives you comfort and bravery to keep moving forwards.

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Spat On In A Bookshop

Bookshop. Morning.

The shopgirl wipes the spittle from her face as a man in a long black coat beflecks her with the bitty remains of his Full Monty breakfast.

“No. Sorry, sir. Still no date on the new Game of Thrones book.”

“Well, can’t you have a word?”

“With George R R Martin, the author?”

“Yes.”

“No, sir. We don’t do that. We try and leave the authors to it.”

Long pause.

“Are you sure?”

A shorter pause.

“Yes. George expressly told us to stop calling. It was putting him off.”

“Oh.”

Bookshop girl awkwardly sidles out sideways grinning like a cardboard cut-out, then scurries off into a safe corner of Crime.

This is my other life. My bookshop life. I’ve worked part-time on and off in the same bookshop for eight years. It feels like home and I love it dearly, but like all homes it can get on your wick sometimes.

Like the other day, with The Sci-Fi Spittler: “I bet Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to put up with this shit”, I found myself thinking as I answered the same question for the thousandth time. “I bet Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to make excuses for lazy bestselling authors at tillpoint. I wish that George Reginald Ronnie Whatever would pull his bloody finger out.”

But Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to keep anti-bacterial wipes in her pockets in case of close-up face-flecking, because Caitlin Moran’s a proper writer and doesn’t have to sell books about dragons to elf-haired dribblers to keep her in cardigans. Because Caitlin Moran’s…well, good.

It’s hard to try and think of yourself as a proper writer when you work part-time in a bookshop. All those books, all those words. Not even one of them yours – not even one of the small rubbish ones that don’t sell. I mean, you could use all of those words if you wanted to, they belong to everyone – but the fact is you haven’t used them, not in that order, not to that end. You are not George R R Martin. No one’s coming in off the street literally (LITERALLY) every five minutes to be belligerent with a bespectacled Converse-wearing bookseller for your latest literary profferings.

Every now and then I allow myself to think I might be getting there. Getting to ‘be a proper writer’.

There are little props that help. Nice pencils and notebooks, naturally. Pockets stuffed full of half-written notes of ideas I jot down blindly inbetween book queries. Halfway through a line about some facet of human nature, when…

From nowhere a Benson & Hedges wheeze…

“‘Scuse. Has Jordan got a new fing. I might have seen it in Heat. Something about love in a car. It’s a book. Do you have those? I dunno. Anyway, where is it?”

“Katie Price doesn’t have another one lined up for a while, sorry. Maybe she’s between ghost writers. (Private bookseller chuckle.) No – no madam, don’t choke – she’s not dead. I meant… I’m sure she’ll write another one soon.”

Madam leaves looking like I have just asked her to recite Pi. I pick a scab and wonder what Zadie Smith’s up to.

There is the odd success to make you feel like you’re getting there; ‘Being a writer’. Getting funding to do your plays in Edinburgh. Getting close to the end of a book that’s driven you half-mad that you might try and find a literary agent for at some point, if only you can stop faffing and let it go. Getting asked to contribute to an exciting new magazine. Getting nominated for a columnist of the year award. But it’s easy to not let it feel real when you’re surrounded by the work of others, writers much better than yourself. (And much worse; most of Towie have slender tomes out and I’ve a feeling none of them will be making any shortlists soon – unless it’s an overlong guest list for Sugar Hut or wherever it is they go to totter about with their tits out. But that’s just the men. The women are secretly reading Naomi Wolf in the lavs.) You have to let yourself actually enjoy your successes inbetween feeling like you’re being terribly silly trying in the first place.

I’m lucky, though, in that I love my bookshop. And I love my bookshop friends. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by nice bookish people and thousands of books and all their endless inspiration and resources for a couple of days a week? Far more talented people than I are working less fun day jobs while also slogging at their less remunerative ambitions. Some of those day jobs are well paid. Some of them are not. None of these people would choose to keep their day jobs if their other careers took off. Most recently I’ve been speaking to musician friends – amazing wonderful songwriters – all working ridiculous hours to make it happen, to keep it all ticking over. Photographers and artists and writers and composers and designers and actors and illustrators too. None of them quite free to do what they feel in their souls that they should be doing with their time. We’re all doing five million things at once, feeling utterly stretched and schizophrenic, and almost none of us are without money worries. An artistic life is a gamble with few wins. There’s certainly strength to be found in talking to each other, if not much money forthcoming. Our riches come from other things, not least each others’ understanding.

I guess it’s what keeps everyone humble. And hungry. And productive.
And on occasion a teeny bit mischievous…

A customer walks in.

“When’s the…”

“New Game of Thrones book out? George just called actually. It’s not good news I’m afraid. There’s no easy way of saying this, but……..(deep intake of breath for effect) he got bored and is going to leave it there. Said something about having a great idea for a taut political thriller set in one office with a shortage of mythical creatures. I’m sorry. Er. Would you like to wipe your nose on this new Katie Price?”

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