Rocking like a pendulum
do, from foot to foot, Lorel was saying: "I'm perfectly normal now, daddy.
I used to fall over when I did this." She knows when she's being funny, is
the normal bit for an autistic girl of 18. After 14 years in psychiatric
care she now goes out to work within the hospital industry. She used to
break out of Fulbourn regularly, and I once met her in Hampstead High
Street walking towards London. She'd hitched all the way in cars and
lorries with no idea where I lived; our meeting was coincidental.
"Never do that again!" said Maggie. She could have been raped; they keep
her on the pill now.
Besides the rocking, which keeps your head going like a tennis umpire's,
Lorel has had various fixations. She was on shoes for a year, would whip
off anybody's shoes in the street or in a restaurant. On Worthing beach
she once hurled a child's shoe far out to see. "She's a bit touched," I
explained. She said: "That's not a very nice thing to tell people." There
was tonsils, when she was forever yanking stranger's mouths open. I've
avoided her for years. She just happened to be at
my sister's when I dropped Poodle in for
"I've bought a radio and a record player, but I haven't got any records.
Have you got any records? None of your old jazz. I can dance now..." Her
acquisitiveness is extremely normal; still, it's a chance to get rid of
my collection of oldies.
There's nothing more stagnating than favourite records. Bored, I'm now
playing my 33s at 45 and the 45s at 33.
Spring-cleaning starts in the
mind and April Fool's Day is good for a pinch and a punch-up of old
Elsa telephoned from Cambridge at one in the
morning. My sister's habits
are even odder than mine and this not one of them. "It's me," she said.
"I'm as tight as a tick. I'm fed up with this bloody little square.
Green-grocery. Neighbours. Everybody not liking Lorel or the dogs. Know
what I'm gonna do? Is that you, Jack? I'm going to paint one of your
four-letter words on every door in the square. You know which one?" I
quickly advised her to paint it on her own door as well or it would be a
give-away. I think this put cold water on the whole thing.
I was reminded of it by Peter Simple, old Righty of the Telegraph, a
writer I'm now trying to catch up on, who said in 1958: "Salisbury
Cathedral for lightness and grace, Lincoln for solemn ecstasy, Ely for
Maggie and I (so to speak) besides having sunny memories of Salisbury,
where she ate her first venison, also remember Ely where
we once, abandoned my sister in the black and pouring fen rain with 15
miles to walk home to Cambridge. These are the things that make up family
life. "In the end I loved Maggie," Elsa says now.
Strength of character commands respect in the happy-go-lucky. The person you
most want to listen to hardly
ever speaks. But they listen a lot and walk out a lot.
"What did I say?" Elsa asked, after Maggie had walked out into the stormy
night from the warmth of the Fish and Duck.
Headlamp beams end in long spikes of water, unicorns leap over hedges and
nightmares come true every time your woman vanishes without her coat.
"Lorel, Lorel, Lorel, Lorel," said Maggie, when I'd got her safely back
(not while your sister's there!). Well, there's a whisper of fear in every
woman's mind when her
man has fathered an abnormal child. Startling eruptions in familiar daily
"O my God! You looked just like Lorel when you said that!"
It's true , sometimes you look and feel and talk like your own kin; I
often feel like my brother. "Hello, Jack, got
my money yet?" I grunt at the
mirror. Anyway, blow Lorel, I got rid of the rocking chair that Marconi's
bought me as a leaving present. Any baby I gave Maggie would look like an
advert for porridge oats. "Hae y' any idea why ah keep want'n to write
poetry?" he would demand suspiciously.
Enough of the fantasy. To get things absolutely clear I'm just as
impatient as Maggie Boyd with friends and relatives who devote their one
and only life and freedom disproportionately to the afflicted,
particularly if it's on
"But I'm all she's got in the outside world," Elsa tells
me. Some families are no good at having
mentally handicapped loved
ones and that goes for us. Aunty Elsa has been a magnificent loser on
Lorel's behalf, cycling 14 miles twice a week, even through the snow.
Friends of Fulbourn, Cherry Knowle, Cell Barnes, Colney Hatch, Shenley,
you name it, can lose their own friends that way.
Compassion becomes suspect when normality and happiness are comparative
(how do you make a happy lunatic happy?). Compassion of the most genuine
sort can be polluted by conceit (who's normal?) or the need to shine in a dim
"I'm trying to teach them drama therapy but they keep telling me to piss
off," said Therese.
If they finally take
me away and anyone comes to visit me on Sunday afternoons let it be to bring
me whisky or to have sexual
intercourse. Let's not have any strolling round the grounds exchanging
vacant smiles with blissfully vacant people. "Haven't you brought Beauty?
I wanted to see Beauty!" Lorel would say, after I'd driven sixty
miles and forgotten the dog. Piss off, daddy.
Lousy, selfish parent that I am, expecting affection from
everybody and doing nothing without reward, part of tonight's tetchiness
comes from Therese's trick of turning off-the-top kitchen chat into a
marathon treatise on social behaviour. I happen to have some
of Ellie's leek pie for bubble-and-squeak this
morning, some for topping a fish pie tonight.
"That's really excellent planning," says Therese, catching you halfway to
the door. Anyone who sees bubble-and-squeak as planning should be in
politics. She said: "I really believe in that, Throw nothing away. Store
everything in little pots. You can always adapt things later on if you put
your mind to it..."
She's an extremely pretty girl with lots of wiry red hair, a boy's figure
and a compulsion to make intelligent speeches which she's inclined to lose track of
halfway through. She's been in the flat about three years now and I'm
beginning to find out why the nightingales kept quiet that night I ran her
out to Ayot St Lawrence while Maggie slept. She would have cross-examined
them about their harmony structures.
Anything you borrow from Therese is decayed already. Even things like tea and sugar have a
pungency that reminds you of museums. She goes running shoeless on the heath and comes
back with elderly tramps. Wild Africans she meets on Tube trains telephone
at four in the morning.
"Who dat? Are you de same chap? What you doing there?"
On the plus side (besides lending
me money), Therese makes
plenty of noise at night, which is comforting. Typing, running on the
spot, tape-recording weird, progressive jungle sounds for school playlets.
Educationally, flat-sharing works. There's a new resident from Which?
magazine out in the garage penthouse and a rather lovely, romantic lavender and linen graduate, Katherine, has taken the front
double. Twenty-five people under one roof are inclined to compliment
each other; they know the arts, I remember Will Rogers.
Coincidentally three of them have given me Herman Hesse novels that I can't read, though I need new April writers
as I need new records, new blood, veins, roads.
"The roads of my life have always fascinated
me. (Horace talking) The way
the most familiar ones, sometimes separated by half a lifetime and God
knows how many dramas, you know discover, because of a diversion, run
within yards of each other..."
You are joined to the past by the road to Burwell Fen, to the present by
how much petrol you can afford, to the future by your birthday cards, full
of hopes. I got two cottages (one thatched), one windmill, one castle (Lorel),
two harbours full of small craft, amid the abstract, traditional and
"Do me a favour, petal. Open that envelope before I leave." To Ellie, off
to work for the first time since the car hit her in January, Maggie's
unopened letter from Brussels is like an unexploded bomb.
She wouldn't want to come home and find one from me in its place. Nor
would I subject her to such repeat performances.
Theda Bara or not, the girl from the north is a great stand-in and has kept the show going. She
made Maggie's usual
birthday cake for me and the icing ran all over the fridge, which made it
kind of special. Her tin whistle plays oddly old-fashioned "keep the home
fires burning" tunes, right through all kinds of everything.
Bringing up Jan's poodle, ten years old this September and well past
puberty, single-handed, you need somebody.
"Those were our vintage years," I told Maggie in a letter last week,
enclosing a final demand for £2.70 from Odhams Books. They took her from
22 to 27, me from 50 to 55. "Anything else must be worse..."
If Maggie came back this journal would end and it wouldn't be easy to say
goodbye to its protagonists. As Salinger's Holden Caulfield said at the
end of The Catcher in the Rye:
"About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old
Stradlater and Ackley, for instance, I even miss old Maurice. It's funny.
Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."
(The Guardian, Saturday 31 March 1973)