Dorothy Parker said it first
Birthdays, eh? Pinnacles of delight until we’re twenty-one. After that, they’re just annual records, shoved into a concertina file of years.
Stop being cynical. And subjective. Fair point, I suppose. Few of us can deny the fairytale glee of having our own special celebration day. I can. Could. Did. Given the birthday I faced. The ogre rose menacingly from the calendar, eyeballed me across three short months and grabbed me by the – throat? Ego? Libido? Apologies. I’m an artist; I mix metaphors as well as paint.
My introspection was stimulated by a brilliant writer who, facing the same trauma said:
“… there was something, something pretty terrible… Not just plain terrible. This was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it…”. That remarkable, terribly clever woman spoke to me directly across time and an ocean – to me, that knot of self-doubt skulking behind a shed in Aborigine Road, Guildford.
Twilight, early May. As her words dimmed on the page, I sipped whisky from a tea cup and sneaked a risky cigarette. The last cigarette – maybe. The hall light wasn’t on, so Jess couldn’t be home yet. I’ll give it five minutes. Five minutes of solitude to mourn my looks and feel guilty for all the wasted time and opportunities. Five minutes to contemplate making a list of ‘things to do’ before the Terrible Birthday. And to know I wouldn’t make it – or do them.
Her voice stabbed the dusk.
– I knew you’d be down here!
Back indoors my accuser perched on a chair arm. I slumped on the sofa opposite and confessed.
– It’s a fair cop. Let me have it, I deserve it.
– This is serious, Mum.
– I mean – what kind of an example is it?
– A bad one?
– You said you’d give up before your birthday.
– I will, JJ. There’s still three months to go.
I pulled rank and turned the spotlight on her AS level revision. History, it seemed, was no longer a candidate for A levels, nor even a topic for discussion.
– But I thought you liked – ?
Jess rose impatiently from the chair arm.
– OK, there’s obviously no point in trying to talk to you at the moment, not with your hormones all over the place. Why don’t you finish your whisky? You’re obviously dying to. Think I’ll join you –
– Obviously you think you have me at a moral disadvantage. But emphatically no.
She stalked to the door and made a passable stab at a withering look.
– Mum, you are so unreasonable at the moment! I’ll be glad when your menopause is over!
Game to Jess. She left a grisly silence in the room as the word bore down on me.
I waited for the bedroom door to slam, then topped up my drink. The real crisis, of course, was reaching fifty. How do I deal with this appalling slice of life? Problem you never had to face, Dad. Bless you. I raised my cup to his painting over the mantelpiece,
‘Blue Period 1’, J Harkin, 1951.
– Here’s tae us, wha’s like us. Damn few an’ they’re a’ deid!
Well, most of them.
My book had disappeared but I couldn’t be bothered looking for it. Dorothy wouldn’t have minded. She knew what I was going through.
That night, I was roughly seventeen hundred miles north west of the island and unaware of its role in my next phase. Would I have felt differently if I’d known?
Terrible times on the way
We made it to the end of AS levels.
June. The imminent weight of great age fell away simply because it was Saturday and sunny. Veering toward the gamin, I plopped a loose denim dress over a tight white T-shirt, scrunched my hair up and finished with wooden bead earrings and red clogs. Jess, sober in jeans and jogging top, was appalled.
– You can’t go out like that, Mum! You look like a bloody art teacher.
– I am – was – a bloody art teacher.
I drove her up to Heathrow, despite protestation. But with exams behind and freedom ahead, she abandoned her sulk by the end of the road, enthusing over her solo flight to Scotland. Which liberated me, too.
Imitating art, the M25 truly was ‘The Road to Hell’. It was touch and go whether Jess would make check-in time but we bowled up with ten minutes to spare. It meant heading straight for the drop-off zone instead of short-term parking and ruled out hanky waving in Departures. Knowing the reception it would get, I resisted any maternal instructions and advice.
– Have a great time, darling! Give Maggie lots of love and hugs. And Jack and Tatty.
Jess sauntered into the terminal with no sense of urgency while I sat amidst transient Mercedes and BMWs immobilised by anxiety in the L reg. Polo. If she doesn’t shift her arse she’ll miss… My mobile rang.
– Mum, go! You’ll get a ticket.
– Have you found the right check-in desk?
Stupid question. Invites sarcasm. Which it brought. Inevitably. The leave-taking was ruined and the umbilical cord snapped back like coiled steel. Sod you, then. Awkward little cow. I slung my mobile at my bag and headed for Richmond.
Acute pain flagged the thirty-year time lapse since last wearing clogs. I leaned against the wall of the old house dabbing the raw bridges of my feet while I waited for a response from Sonya’s entry phone. Probably not up yet. Or has Brian stayed the night? Should I try again or – ? Sharp treble static cut across my dither –
– Shit – is that the time? Clair? Come in.
Buzz. Not up yet. Clogs in hand, I padded barefoot through the porch and up the wide, carpeted staircase. Her front door was ajar, somewhere a loo was flushing; Sonya’s day was just beginning. Will Jess have taken off, yet? Sonya appeared clad in a plum satin dressing gown, slightly askew. Her expensive copper hair was a dragon’s nest and her face was streaked with last night’s make-up. She lit two Dunhills and passed me one.
– Darling. You’re here.
– Thanks. Are you all right?
– Fine – for a retread of all the bits Cher’s had cut off and sucked out.
She took a long drag and shuffled out again.
– Scrape this gunk off my face. Help yourself to stuff.
I made coffee and took it to the sitting room. The last remnants of haze were lifting from the river making the Vale of Richmond look Turner-esque. Did she forget I was coming? Will Jess be over Gloucester? Or the Lake District? Sonya swept back in looking cool in khaki cotton trousers and top, head swathed in a towel.
– Had Jolyon back here last night for a bit of touchy feely. Kept the telly on for company. Then it felt a bit like dogging so I chucked him out. Couldn’t sleep for hours wondering if his red patches were herpes.
Jolyon was a mildly porcine PR client who’d lusted after her for years.
– Does this mean you and Brian – ?
– Certainly not. But I can’t spend every night alone with a Rampant Rabbit while he’s snuggled up to Madame Cellulite.
The last being Brian’s wife. Sonya took a sip and gurned at me.
– This coffee’s disgusting. Which jar did you use? Gravy granules?
– As if you’d possess such a thing.
– So-o-o-o, Jess got off to a flying start?
I related the flawed farewell then unburdened Jess’s recent AS level traumas, the imminence of her sleeping with new boyfriend Raz, of her hitting seventeen, nagging for driving lessons, an iPhone and a tattoo of the Buddha’s entrails. And her monumentally annoying fixation with my menopause. Sonya pounced on that.
– Oh god, the bloody ‘m’ word. Everyone’s obsessed with it! By the way, I’ll get her the iPhone – one of my retail accounts. Yep, menopause – menopausal, peri-menopausal, sub-peri-menopausal. I refuse to have a biological crisis just to provide material for Woman’s Hour. Drives me bloody tatah!
She paused for breath then flashed another bilious expression.
– Oh my god, Clack, what have you come as? A bloody drama teacher?
Clack – Sonya’s pet name for me since teacher training college.
Brian, Sonya’s boyfriend, was – possibly still is – financial director for a small film independent. She was joining him on a business trip to LA and, consequently, had urgent clothes shopping to do. She lent me a pair of men’s – Brian’s? – flip-flops and we set off. Flapping along next to her I felt like Goofy.
– Where are you working now, Clack? Not those solicitors, still?
– No. They found that email I sent you calling them a bunch of bloodsucking incompetents. I’m PA to a fourteen-year-old at a software company, now.
I looked at the price tag of a shirt and replaced it like a live grenade. The place was way beyond my extravagance limit.
– I know you hate teaching, but wouldn’t it pay more?
– It’s all crowd control and no teaching. I thought about marrying for money, but billionaires are so bloody choosy.
– True. Bastards.
Sonya spoke with authority having met more than one.
– Don’t you dare go marrying old Gluefeatures –
Howard – and I’m not rising to it.
Sonya lined up a jade silk crossover top with a foxily slit, weasel slim skirt and set off on the hunt for shoes. Emerging back into George Street with a dizzying pair of heels, she had a pang of conscience.
– Come on, Clack, I’m spending for Britain! What d’you fancy? Something floaty? Less galumphing?
We huddled into a fitting room where I struggled into a dusky pink top and trousers and turned to the mirror, expecting the worst.
– Fabulous! I’ve never seen you in that colour before. You’ve got great arms, no bingo wings – well, none to speak of.
– The trousers are too tight.
– No, they’re not.
– I’m too old.
– Your head is, your bum isn’t. You’ll be billionaire bait – or at the very least, shaggable.
– But –
– Shut up and get your Play School gear back on. I’m starving and I’m dying for a fag and a pee.
At the bistro, the waiter responded to Sonya’s flirting as far as was polite and good business – and then some. She always got her man. With liquid green eyes, gin-sodden voice and spectacular breasts, her sex appeal was not just intact but remarkable, even to gay men and straight women. Much as I loved her, I wished her pheromones would hibernate occasionally. She winked, as the waiter slid away.
– A little bit of ‘what if?’ does you good. So, how is Gluefeatures? Why aren’t you two stuck together this weekend?
Gluefeatures was Howard’s old nickname that Sonya had treacherously shared with Jess.
– He’s visiting Stepmother Bunce in Dorset.
– No invite yet?
– Thankfully not.
We were back at the flat when Jess rang from Maggie’s. She’d left her lunch on the Oban train. It was raining. Mr Scrymgeour was just putting the car away and, yes, Maggie looked fine and sent her love. Demented yapping distracted her.
– Ohhh! Jack! Tatty! Hello-hello-I-love-you-too-got-to-go-’bye-Mum.
– but Jess… ?
There was no point in trying to call her back.
Sonya opened a bottle of Sancerre. Thirty years on, alcohol still played a key role in our friendship. In fact, only the loon pants and platform boots were gone.
– How’s Maggie?
– She’s fine – amazing, as ever. Seventy-eight last birthday.
– Bugger, I missed it! Give her my love – I’ll organise some flowers.
Prompted by the subject of age, Sonya lurched into the familiar list of woes concerning Brian; thirteen years her adulterous lover and still using wife, kids, business, even mother-in-law, as excuses not to move in. I couldn’t stomach yet another re-run and tried a lateral approach.
– I’d swap Howard for Brian any day.
You lie through your teeth, Clair Harkin, they’re rivals in repulsiveness. Sonya’s features melted in sympathy.
– Poor you. Sports car at his age! And the Rab C Nesbitt hair.
What about Brian’s beer gut, ear hair and personality by-pass? And your sports car? But Sonya was in heroic mode, her chic sitting room was an amphitheatre and she was the tragic heroine. Which left me the rôle of chorus – as usual. All womankind, she declaimed, well, women of a certain age, were undervalued because of the double standards that still governed society. Hardly original, Sonn, but I wouldn’t dare say so.
– How many female actors over fifty are still at the top? Playing leads? Judi Dench and – Judi Dench. Yeah, well, all the Dames, Maggie, Diana and Vanessa – Helen Mirren. But – but look at the flabby old middle-aged male newsreaders! Why do the woman have to be trim, cute and under forty? What’s wrong with being forty-five, fifty, fifty-five and talented? Creative? It threatens men of the same age, that’s why. Because they’re not in as good shape physically or mentally. Age is a state of mind, other people’s minds!
I hunched miserably on the carpet. Coming up fifty and what have I got to show for it – apart from Jess? Other women become brain surgeons, climb mountains, screw a celebrity – but me… I’m just a big fat mediocre vacuum. I put a cushion over my face and whined into the kapok.
Nothing too Terrible so far
… wine dark sea and a coastline the colour of myth… That familiar headland rises from fabled depths and, down every darkening slope, dwellings of ochre, cream, russet and pink tumble in jubilant –
– Hey – I just got a direct tweet from Raz –
… greeting. A last flourish from Helios as he dips below the western hills –
– He says Cancun is awesome –
… beckons me across the waters, their Stygian black silvered by sister Selene’s –
– His brother’s been grounded for barfing in the pool –
The happy little pastiche of Greek myth racketing round in my head collapsed. So much for fabled depths and tumbling dwellings. Jess, my bid for human perfection, was more interested in a 3 x 2 inch screen than in the blue rapture of the Aegean or the stunning panorama of Symi harbour.
The bovine surge to collect belongings started well before the ferry nudged the quayside. We joined the herd at the back of the boat, sweat settling in every crease. Our bags, of course, were under a mammoth turd of luggage; our carefully ironed holiday clothes would look like the scrapings of Jess’s bedroom floor. This was not a propitious start. Even so, shuffling to board the gangway, lungs clogged with body odour and ship’s diesel, I still felt the holiday excitement of a child. Of course, I had to think of Jess being parted from her boyfriend and suffering post AS level stress. I wasn’t the only one with something difficult to face. We could help each other through these two weeks.
As we stepped onto the stone quay, a green sort of fly’s eye on wheels slewed towards us and lurched to a halt, a chunky mermaid and ‘Symi Port Harbour Service’ stencilled on it. An ample Greek, white shirt straining, emerged from the tiny cab and landed solidly on sandalled feet. I nudged Jess matily.
– Blimey, it’s Captain Pugwash!
She reacted with one of those ‘you really should take your medication’ looks and continued clicking a response to Raz. To be fair, Pugwash was a generation before her time and didn’t wear a baseball cap or a Bugs Bunny tie. But I had tossed the ball lightly – it wouldn’t have hurt her that much to return it.
– Kalispera Mixailis!
Our travel rep, a sociable Scot, hailed Pugwash then turned to us, curving a corporate grin.
– Clair and Jess Harkin? Kalos eelthate stin Symi. Welcome to Symi.
At the airport, with all the world-weariness of her seventeen years, Jess had assessed and rejected the rep’s romantic potential in a split second. Peeping humbly through my burkha of desiccating hormones I decided there was no hope for me anyway and so no point in passing comment. He continued, jauntily unaware of our contrasting reactions.
– Aphrodite Apartments, it’s no distance – if you’d just follow the folks over there, Pickfords have arrived.
He nodded towards a mule being loaded with cases. Jess glanced up and her eyes bulged with indignation.
– You mean that donkey’s got to carry all those bags?
– It’s a mule – it’s used to it. See you on The Giorgios in the morning?
He winked at Jess and nodded at Pugwash.
– I’ll give Mixailis your regards, aye? Unless you’d like his mobile number?
But Jess barely heard, her thumbs skittering across the screen in a blur of interchanging text and icons. So much for animal rights. So much for her loving Greece at first sight. Equine pathos and Hellenic charm were no match for the iPhone and the WIND mobile network.
Metallic geranium and warm sage seduced me with every breath as we journeyed round the harbour. Jess carried on – texting, tweeting or emailing – as our beast of burden clopped up a cobbled slope.
– Come on, JJ, take a look around or you won’t know what you’re texting about.
She remained impervious. When we reached our accommodation, however, she focused a scowl on the mule driver as she snatched her bag. I called out apologetically as man and beast wound on up.
– Kalinichta – efharisto!
‘Parakolo!’ resonated back over the clacking hooves.
We hauled our grips up several uneven treads to a small terrace shaded by a large mulberry tree. A plaque over the door read ‘Aphrodite One’. The key was in the lock.
– Look, JJ, no need for Neighbourhood Watch on Symi!
– Mmm. Cool.
Inside, it was – cool – wonderfully cool. I flipped the light switch, illuminating white walls, marble floor, simple furniture. We dropped everything, savouring the chill. Jess, though, was still gripped by iPhone fever. How to buck her out of it? By this time, I was hyper on nicotine withdrawal. The opportunities for a sneaky drag since leaving Guildford had been nil. I didn’t need a scene on the first night. Inspired by desperation, I started a hectic, clumsy strip, heading for the shower.
– Beat you to it!
Jess finally abandoned her newborn to struggle out of her jeans, shrieking.
– Not fair! I need the loo!
She laugh-howled, pushing past – and won. Or thought she did.
Half an hour later, dried and well sprayed with insect repellent, we sat on plastic chairs under the mulberry tree sipping overpriced whisky, late of Gatwick. Far opposite, a plantation of sapling white masts rose over rippling black water that flickered firefly reflections of taverna lights. Jess’s face, though, was uplit by her phone. I prodded her.
– No telling Maggie I’m weaning you on whisky.
As if Maggie would deny her – either of us – anything. Jess ‘h’mm-ed’ and took another sip. Her phone blooped an incoming text. We’d been travelling for over twelve hours so, despite the view and the sensual caress of warm air, bed was irresistible. iPhone at her fingertips, Jess sank swiftly into sleep, limbs spread-eagled carelessly under a single sheet. I lay staring at the vague pattern shed on the wall by the mulberry tree, restless with the heat. Or was it a hot flush? Or night sweats? Wondered if I dare have a sneaky cig outside. Rejected it. I got up at three to check that I’d plugged in the mosquito machine (I had), at three ten, to check that I’d locked the door (I had). Wondered if I dare have a sneaky cig outside. Rejected it. Twenty minutes later I finished my water and crept to the fridge to pour another. I timed the sips, hoping to bore myself to sleep. Rejected sneaky cig before I thought of it. When my tired brain eventually gave way, it toppled into a kaleidoscope of losing Jess, missing planes, failing exams and, as ever, beating my fist on a locked bedroom door, calling for my Daddy.
Daylight poked me awake. Jess had hardly moved. I watched the incredibly beautiful young problem I’d brought into the world and tried to stave off my habitual wave of guilt. As ever, fear seeped into the vacuum. Jess was growing up too fast. Blossoming too soon. Where was that tiny body with pale blue veins tracing delicate ribs? Abandoned to relentless adolescence, that was where. Heading fast into womanhood. There already, probably. Come on, definitely. For Jess, the transition had been easy. Not for her the revulsion I had felt at first menstruation. She announced it to the world – or so it seemed. Wearing a bra was an achievement for Jess, whereas I had squeezed my mother’s roll-on girdle over my chest to disguise my swelling breasts. And at seventeen, Jess had male friends, good male friends, as well as boyfriend Raz. To me at that age, young males were another species. Now, I felt protective anger as men turned their heads to watch my daughter. And maybe a touch of envy? ‘Indeed, you have the best in Jess…’ Maggie had written me. I welled up. Bloody menopause.
Maybe it wasn’t working yet. The Greek magic. But then I’d hardly given it a chance. Impatient with myself, I flung off the sheet, slapped barefoot across the marble floor and threw open the door – to a sudden punch of heat and a stunning transformation. The hill opposite glowed, the painted houses shone in bright relief. Far below it, people worked on boats, served customers, strolled along the quayside. And I glimpsed the little Pugwash car wheeling into a narrow street. Symi was awake. I squinted beyond the harbour to where parched rock plunged into cobalt water. Little by little, the blue fused with soft silver that dissolved distantly into the smoky lavender hills of Turkey. And it happened, I found myself fending off the dread of going home. Oh – the relief. It was working. Greece. Symi.
Thanks for reading this extract from Terrible With Raisins
To buy the Paperback, click on image (e-Book will be available this summer)