This morning in the newspaper I saw a picture of Julia. She was standing on the threshold of her house in Highgate, where she receives her patients: a tall woman, wrapped in some kind of Indian shawl. There was a blur where her face should be, and yet I noted the confident set of her arms, and I could imagine her expression: professionally watchful, maternal, with that broad cold smile which I have known since I was eleven years old. In the foreground, a skeletal teenaged child tottered towards her, from a limousine parked at the kerb: Miss Linzi Simon, well-loved family entertainer and junior megastar, victim of the Slimmer’s Disease.
Julia’s therapies, the publicity they have received, have made us aware that people at any age may decide to starve. Ladies of eighty-five see out their lives on tea; infants a few hours old turn their head from the bottle and push away the breast. Just as the people of Africa cannot be kept alive by the bags of grain we send them, so our own practitioners of starvation cannot be sustained by bottles and tubes. They must decide on nourishment, they must choose. Unable to cure famine – uninterested, perhaps, for not everyone has large concerns – Julia treats the children of the rich, whose malaise is tractable. No doubt her patients go to her to avoid the grim behaviourists in the private hospitals, where they take away the children’s toothbrushes and hairbrushes and clothes, and give them back in return for so many calories ingested. In this way, having broken their spirits, they salvage their flesh.
I found myself, this morning, staring so hard at the page that the print seemed to blur; as if somewhere in the fabric of the paper, somewhere in its weave, I might find a thread which would lead me through my life, from where I was then to where I am today. ‘Psychotherapist Julia Lipcott’, said the caption. Ah, still Lipcott, I said to myself. Although, of course, she might have married. As a girl she wouldn’t change her underwear for a man, so I doubt if she’d change her name.
The story beneath the picture said that Miss Simon had been ill for two years. Gossip, really; it’s surprising what the Telegraph will print. The megastar’s gaze was open, dazed, fish-like; as if she were being grappled suddenly towards dry land.
It was the year after Chappaquiddick, the year Julia and I first went away from home. All spring I had dreamt about the disaster, and remembered the dreams when I woke: the lung tissue and water, the floating hair and the sucking cold. In London that summer the temperatures shot into the mid-eighties, but at home the weather was as usual: rain most days, misty dawns over our dirty canal and cool damp evenings on the lawns of country pubs where we went with our boyfriends: sex later in the clammy, dewy dark. In June there was an election, and the Tories got in. It wasn’t my fault; I wasn’t old enough to vote.
In July there was a dock strike, and temporary shortages of fresh food. The Minister of Agriculture appeared on the news and said, ‘What housewives should do this week is shop around, buy those things which are cheaper.’
When my mother heard this, she took off her slipper and threw it at the television set. It sailed over the top and landed at the back among the tangled flexes and cables. ‘What does he think folk generally do?’ she asked. ‘Go down to the market and say, “What’s dear today, give me two pounds, will you, and a slice of your best caviare on top? Oh, no, that’s not dear enough! Please keep the change.” ’
My father creaked out of his chair and went to pick her slipper up. He handed it back: ‘Prince Charming,’ he said, identifying himself.
My mother snorted, and forced her veiny foot back into the felt.
As soon as my exam results came through I started packing. I didn’t have many clothes, and those I did lacked the fashionable fringes and mosaic patterns. The papers said that purple would be the dominant shade of the autumn. I was old enough to remember when it had been fashionable last time: how jaundiced it made women look, and how embarrassing it was for them when the craze fizzled out and they had its relics crowding their wardrobes. The colour’s just a rag-trade manipulation, because apart from prelates nobody would naturally choose it. Women have been caught too often; that’s why we don’t have purple now. Except, of course, purple prose.
Quick, before I forget it . . . the dazzle of the lights on the white tiles, the dismal moans and clatters from the darkness, less like trains than the calls of departing ships; the voice of the announcer over the tannoy. I took out of my pocket a map, folded to the right square, and looked at it as I had done many times on the journey; my heart lurched a little, and small fires of apprehension ran behind my ribs, little flames leaping along the bones. I was a child, and I had been nowhere until now.
I picked up my suitcase, which was dragging my arm out of its socket, and began to lurch forward with it through the early evening; crisp leaves were falling already in the London squares.
When I arrived at the Hall of Residence, a woman – the warden herself – took me upstairs in a lift. She had a bunch of keys. ‘If you had left that’ (she meant my suitcase) ‘there’ (she said, with a mysterious, impatient gesture) ‘then the porter would have brought it up for you.’ As things were, she had to keep her finger on the OPEN button while I manoeuvred it out of the lift. I had to trail along behind her, dragging the suitcase like a deformed limb.
My room was to be on the third floor, known as C Floor. The woman led me along a wide corridor, parquet squeaking under her feet. She stopped by a door marked C3, rattled her bunch of keys and admitted us. Inside the door she consulted her list. ‘Mac, mac, mac,’ she said. ‘Miss McBain.’ There, pinned to her sheet before she flicked it over, I caught a glimpse of a photograph, the black-and-white photograph that the hall had requested. My mother had taken it in our backyard: I leant against red brick, like a person waiting for a firing squad. Perhaps my mother had never used a camera before. It had been a clear day, but in the photograph my features were wreathed in mist; my expression was shocked.
‘So,’ the woman said, ‘you were at day school in, let me see, Lancashire?’ That was true. I was listed somewhere, tabulated, in the heart of this great dark building. At a turn in the corridor I had smelt soup. Lights blossomed out in another building across the street.
The woman flicked over her lists again. ‘And there are two of your schoolmates coming along, is that correct, Miss Julianne Lipcott and – ’ She squinted at the paper, turning it slightly from the light as if that would remove some of the czs and the djs that rustled and shuffled in proximity, in a surname that I had known since I was four, and which was therefore no stranger to me than Smith or Jones – less, really. I pronounced it for her and said helpfully, ‘We call her Karina.’
‘Yes, I see. But which of you will share? We don’t have rooms for three girls.’
Dormitories, those would be. I tried to imagine us in a row in white beds, Carmel and Karina and Julianne: our hands folded in prayer.
‘Since you’re here first you’d better decide,’ the warden said. ‘Whoever is left will be found another partner.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘Perhaps you’d rather that be you? Perhaps you don’t want to share with either of them?’
I realized that a dubious, timid expression must have been growing on my face. ‘Miss Lipcott,’ I said quickly. ‘Miss Lipcott, please.’
How did I dare? It was not so much that I wanted Julianne’s company, or thought that she might want mine. She would be indifferent to it; if you’d asked her who she’d like for a room-mate, she’d have said, ‘Have you got any men?’ But what would she say if through my neglect or failure of nerve she found herself waking up every day in the same room as Karina?
The warden stepped over my suitcase, crossed the room and drew the curtains. They were grey curtains, with a darker grey stripe, matching the covers of the two single beds that stood foot to foot along one wall. She smiled at me, indicating the room, its wardrobe, washbasin, two desks, two chairs. ‘You’ll have first choice then, won’t you?’ She put into my hand a key; attached to it was a big wooden fob, with ‘C3’ written on it. ‘You’ll find it best to lock your door when you leave your room. Hand your key in at the front desk when you leave the building.’ She put her lists down on a desk, tapped them together and secured them with a snapping bulldog clip. ‘May I take this opportunity, Miss McBain, to wish you every success in your university career? If you have any problems, queries, do come to see me – at some mutually agreed hour, of course.’ The warden went out, closing the door quietly and leaving me to my life.
I rubbed my elbow. It felt disjointed, irretrievably strained. Should I be here? A vision came into my head of the home I had left, of the stuffy room, with the glowing electric coals, where I had performed the study, where I had formed the ambition, that had delivered me to this room. A horrible longing leapt up inside me: not the flames of apprehension, but something damper, a crawling flurry in my ribcage, like something leaping in a well. The suitcase lay across the doorway, at an angle and on its side. I stooped, crouching to apply a final effort to it, bracing my knees; as if they had been waiting for the aid of gravity, tears ran out of my eyes and made jagged patches on the sleeves of my new beige raincoat.
I straightened up and opened the wardrobe door. Six metal hangers clashed together on a rail. I took off my coat and hung it up. I felt that it had somehow been spoilt by my crying on it, as if salt water would take off the newness. I could not afford to spoil my clothes.
A clock struck, and as I had no watch – I travelled without such normal equipment – I counted the strokes. I sat down on the bed nearest the window. It would be mine, and so would the bigger of the two desks, the better lit. It was more natural to me, and perhaps easier, to take the worse desk and bed, but I knew that Julianne would despise me for any show of self-sacrifice.
So, I sat on the bed. My fingers stroked the rough striped cover. The sheets beneath were starched and crackling like paper: tucked strap-tight into the bed’s frame, as if to harness a lunatic. There seemed to be no traffic in the street below. A lightbulb burned in its plain paper shade. A silence gathered. Time seemed to have stopped. I sat, and looked at my feet. Certain lines of verse began to run through my head. ‘Then we let off paper crackers, each of which contained a motto / And she listened while I read them, till her mother told her not to.’ I could hear my breath going about its usual business, in and out. I was eighteen years old, plus one month. I wondered, would I ever get any older: or just go on sitting in this room. But after a time, the clock struck again. ‘And dark as winter was the flow / Of Iser, rolling rapidly.’ I got up, and began to put my clothes into the drawers, and my books on the shelves.
I grew up in a small town, the only child of elderly parents. Our town, a cotton town, had fallen into decay by the time I was born; cheap textiles from the Far East were beginning to flood the markets and those mills that remained struggled on with antiquated machinery, which it was not worth the cost of replacing; the workers too were ageing, and by the time of my middle childhood were like a parody of themselves, a southerner’s idea of the north. Under the factory walls of plum-coloured brick, stained black from the smoke and daily rain, plodded thick-set men in bib and brace, with shorn hair and flat caps: and angry-looking women in checked head-scarves, with elastic stockings and shoes like boats. Beyond the mill chimneys, you could see the line of hills.
The streets of our town were lined with brick-built terraces, interrupted by corner shops which gave no credit: by public houses in which people would declare they never set foot: by sooty Nonconformist churches, whose attendance dwindled as the 196os drew on. There was a time when each of these churches had outside it a wooden board, and pinned to the board a discreet notice in fading type, announcing the times of services and Sunday schools and the names of visiting preachers. But a day came when these notices were replaced by posters, splashed in screaming colours: CHRISTIANITY HASN’T FAILED, IT‘S JUST NEVER BEEN TRIED. The town’s cinema shut down, and was turned into a supermarket of eccentric design; the Mechanics’ Institute closed its doors, had its windows smashed, decayed for eighteen months, and then reopened as a tyre salesroom.
My mother, made redundant from her job in the weaving shed, went out cleaning houses. A change took place in our own form of worship; the priest, now turned around to face the people, spoke a debased lingo that they could all understand. Opera manuum ejus veritas et judicium. The works of His hands are truth and judgement.
My father was a clerk; I knew this from quite early in life, because of my mother’s habit of saying, ‘Your father’s not just a clerk, you know.’ Each evening he completed a crossword puzzle. Sometimes my mother read her library books or looked at magazines, which she also called ‘books’, but more often she knitted or sewed, her head bowed under the standard lamp. Her work was exquisite: her tapestry, her drawn-thread work. Our pillowcases were embroidered, white on white, with rambling roses and trailing stems, with posies in plaited baskets, with ribbons in garlands and graceful knots. My father had a different cable-knit cardigan for every day of the week, should he choose to wear it. All my petticoats, cut out and sewn by her, had rows of lace at the hem and – also by the hem on the lefthand side – some motif representing innocence: a buttercup, for example, or a kitten.
I can see that my mother was, in herself, not exquisite. She had a firm jaw, and a loud carrying voice. Her hair was greying and wild and held back with springing kirby grips. When she frowned, a cloud passed over the street. When she raised her eyebrows – as she often did, amazed each hour by what God expected her to endure – a small town’s tram system sprang up on her forehead. She was quarrelsome, dogmatic and shrewd; her speech was alarmingly forthright, or else bewilderingly circumlocutory. Her eyes were large and alert, green like green glass, with no yellow or hazel in them; with none of the compromises people have when it comes to green eyes. When she laughed I seldom knew why, and when she cried I was no wiser. Her hands were large and knuckly and calloused, made to hold a rifle, not a needle.
My father and myself were fair, lean, quiet people, our features minimal and smooth; our eyes changed colour in different lights. I was a little Englishwoman, my mother said: cool. This struck a chill in me, a deepening chill; I wanted to believe I belonged to another country. My mother and father had both left Ireland in their mothers’ wombs, and their workaday north country accents were as flat as mine. My father looked entirely like an Englishman; he could have passed for an earl, or an earl’s flunkey. His narrow body bent itself in strange places, as if hinged and jointed differently from other people’s. His legs were long and seemed extendable, and his feet were narrow and restless; when he came into a room he seemed to hover and trail about it, like a harmless insect, daddy longlegs.
It was my parents’ habit, at intervals, to shut themselves in their bedroom; then my mother would mention, loudly and contentiously, the names of strange towns. Colchester was mentioned, so at another time was Stroud, and so was a place my mother pronounced lengthily as Kingston – upon – Hull. Later I realized that these were places to which we might have gone to live, if my father had taken up an offer of promotion. But for one reason or another he never did. When I was in my teens they would take me into rooms separately, and hiss between their teeth – false, in both cases – about who had wanted to go and who hadn’t, who had wrecked whose chances. It was beyond me to make any sense of this: to trap them in a room together and get them to have it out, spit out the truth of the situation. Perhaps I already suspected there was no truth to be had; their fictions were interwoven, depending one on the other.