Saturday, 16 August 2014

Dealing with strong-willed parents

In the wake of what I now call the Cardiff fandango, I have been having a summer of hardline parenting, research into Manipulative and Strong-Willed Children, and experimentation.

Here's what happened and what I learnt:

1. Getting the kids to do chores I don't want to do, but need to get done (aka washing the car, weeding the path), and paying them for it, can be incredibly good fun.

Learning: if it costs a bob or two, don't sweat it. They did the work, they earnt it.

2. Always seize the opportunity to pick blackberries when out and about. A sure sign that the summer holidays are coming to an end, and absolutely free.

Learning: take a hat, you never know when you'll need extra storage.

3. Put up a tent in the garden, and let the children stay out overnight. The first night son was back in twenty minutes, afraid of foxes. But once daughter had made it, he screwed his courage to his sticking plaster, and stayed put, even in the rain.

Learning: sibling rivalry ensures progress.

4. Visit cats you have catsat. Introduce your children to friend who does not have children, via peace dove of their mutual love of the cats. Strategically whisk children away before they can inflict any damage on friend's possessions. Thusly delude friend into thinking that your children are well-behaved. Build bridge to further sightings of friend in park, while children knock unripe conkers off trees, and argue about who needs to push whom on the swing, in the background. Thank lucky stars it's not raining. Laugh at shared knowledge that cat is now so overweight (thanks to combined feeding) that he is, and I quote, "too fat for his harness". Go home feeling guilty about cat.

Learning: don't express your love through overfeeding cats.

5. Buy boring mince. Make burgers, fries and milkshakes and eat them in front of Pitch Perfect with children, while husband away in untimely fashion. Try not to explain the rude words to eight-year-old son, who is very keen to know what a 'dickhead' is.

Learning: Film Nights are fantastic for defusing the tension and reminding you that you once had a life.

6. Force your mother to babysit while you go out and do back to back dance classes. Return home in very good mood to find children at each other's throats and your mother under a heap of your ironing.  Reactivate no. 2.

Learning: Blackberries need a lot of sugar.

7. Have a mother who loves you enough to want to take you out for sushi.

Learning: I am blessed.

8. Go for a run with a much fitter friend, in the absolute pouring rain, then have a raucous coffee at local favourite cafe. Talk about the floodgates opening. Best conversation I've had in years. I was just explaining in a stage whisper how I felt about my husband's newly sprouted handlebar moustache, when the man at the next table turned around, sporting a beard and 'tache so bushy that he looked like a illustration of an Edward Lear poem. Strengthened by Iron Mother run in wet woods, I was utterly unrepentant. He looked like a throttled spider by the end of the conversation. Arrived home to find husband shaving off moustache. Feel the Karma.

Learning: don't hold back when you feel strongly about something.

9. Ask mother to sew on cloth name labels to daughter's school uniform, cloth name labels you bought when daughter was born, and which you have never used. Spend delightful afternoon repairing second-hand uniform skirts, squabbling over the scissors, and teaching daughter to sew. Everybody happy.

Learning: tempus fugit. But even though the cloth name label company has now gone out of business, it has brought pleasure to three generations.

10. Go out for drink with husband. Sit head in hands wondering how we are going to pay the school fees. Go home after one hour. Feel marginally better.

Learning: even if all you've got to talk about is how expensive life is going to be for the next decade, it's really nice to go out with your partner.

11. Get husband to look after children for the day while you go into town and interview people for Motherload, bump into old friend and have long coffee, then have more sushi with another old friend, and talk loudly about the decline of standards at Oxbridge, just to annoy the people either side of you.

Learning: being a dirty stopout is absolutely compulsory.

12. Take children into central London to see Horrible Histories. Accidentally arrive with too much time to spare and force children to walk to Trafalgar Square. Horrible Histories, meh, Trafalgar Square, brilliant:

The force is just to the right of him

The blue cock
Learning: I think it speaks for itself.

13. Have several days where you work, and do absolutely nothing to entertain the children. Well, ok, husband took them to the park, and son had a friend round.

Learning: it's crucial to your mental health to get the chance to do your own work in the summer holidays.

14. Insist that eleven-year-old takes bus home by herself. She will start secondary school in under 3 weeks, and will be travelling to and from school on her own. Resist all her attempts to get out of travelling on her own. Watch child succeed.

Learning: tough it out.

15. Make daughter chop potatoes into fries. Soak chicken in buttermilk all day then shallow fry in breadcrumbs, and finish in the oven with the fries. Sit back and watch children scrape plates.

Learning: tough it out, but in the name of yumminess.

16. Melt two Snickers bars with some butter and milk. Pour over vanilla ice-cream and chopped bananas. Sit back and watch children scrape plates. See 5. above.

Learning: cook fast food at home and add a salad. Your children will eat. 

17. Buy books about manipulative and strong-willed children off 'tinternet. Read them in bed and feel rising anger at yourself and your sloppy parenting methods. Ask son to wash his hands after doing a wee. Do not give in when he whines, throws himself on the floor, shouts at you, hits you.

Learning: I'm not sure what to say. 

18. Go downstairs and have argument with husband about going on a Family Outing to the National Gallery. Husband's POV: it'll be a fibrous muesli-eating nightmare and isn't worth it. Personal POV: husband is lazy and this is why son is a pain in the backside. Husband's rhetorical strategy: tell wife she's dogmatic, bossy, and "strong-willed". Wife's strategy: agree with everything, and then point out that husband is completely irrational. Walk out and make coffee without resolving argument.

Learning: coffee is more important than the National Gallery.

19. Go upstairs and make son get up and survey the three mouldering apple cores you found behind the radiator last night. Tell him you're taking away his new Lego sticker book for the weekend, bought with his own money, unless he clears up and apologises. Sit back with husband and watch for ten minutes as son blows raspberries, refuses to do anything, screams, swears, hits. Up the withdrawal of the new book to a week. Watch as child scrapes apples into recycling.

Learning: coldly hold the line.

20. Use Talking Spoon to reiterate your view that an educational family trip to the National Gallery, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is better than sitting around, which we've already done for the last few days anyway. Plus if it doesn't work, you can go outside and look at the blue cock again. Be astonished as husband agrees with you, daughter agrees with you, and son doesn't put up much resistance. Be even more astonished when husband hangs up washing, and repairs shed window, a job you have been looking at for about six months.

Learning: say what you have to say and stick to it.

21. Feel faintly smug for two minutes, until the next behaviour crisis. Keep tight hold of parenting book on strong-willed children, with sweaty palms. 

Learning: dealing with strong wills starts at home. 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Chopping and changing

We came home from abortive trip to Cardiff yesterday, where I discovered son's new vocation as a hairdresser:
Fringe drama
Today we got up, and I promptly missed an early morning yoga class, because, despite all my good intentions (my plans to get up at 6am, my plans to re-read my manuscript, get close to my material, find points to integrate other voices), I feel keel-hauled every matins by the shenanigans of the day before. Luckily my husband was there to wake up son, before leaving for work and then a trip to watch cricket in Manchester for a couple of days, an event I have studiously failed to understand was on the horizon.

After yelling at the children to get dressed, put their stuff away, do their teeth, and stop making me say the SAME THINGS EVERY SINGLE DAY, as I am going completely bananas, I heard myself say to my son, "If you wash the car, I'll pay you £6."

Once this job had been handed out, my daughter wanted to earn some cash too, so I set her to work on de-mossing our garden path. Son needs the cash because he will need to pay for his next haircut, buy his sister the scrapbook he cut up (it's all about scissors at the moment, search me why), and buy my mum replacements for the thread he wound all round her guest room.

He's a little short on cash: the last time he had any money was after his school report, and that had to be spent on buying back the expensive, full bottle of shampoo he decided to empty into his bath.

Cleaning up our act
The sun was shining, we drove, in the car, to Halfords to buy a bucket, sponge and shampoo, to clean the car — an irony not lost on bright spark son.

Cleaning the car doesn't happen very often in this household. In fact moss grows not only on our garden path, but in the crevices of the car's window frames. Last time I saw moss on a car was on the wooden chassis of an ancient Morris Minor, beloved vehicle of my first boyfriend.

Out we all trooped, daughter to sit on a gardening pad and pick at the path with a fork, Kindle Fire blaring out the Grease soundtrack; son completely soaked after about two minutes, brandishing large yellow sponge, and occasionally touching the car with it, chatting to all the neighbours and making friends with the postman.

Once I'd finished washing the vehicle, he vacuumed the whole thing, sitting in the boot to do the awkward bits. I am minded to send him into the weaving mills — he's the right size. We washed the dashboard, polished the windows, and the dreadful old boat looks positively spiffing now.

The kids are quietly playing, one in the garden with a spider and a Scooby doo van, one in her room, endlessly drawing what she fondly imagines to be high fashion. I am sitting writing, cup of tea to hand, feeling on top of the world.

I even made a batch of flapjack while the car was being washed, thinking that low GI food would help us all along. Used all my husband's oats.

Sadly I burnt it. Still can't multitask.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Summer holiday blues

This was the year I was going to crack it. I was determined to enjoy the summer holidays and family time.

My daughter has just finished primary school, and this is her last summer before secondary. It feels like the right moment to push a little harder to get her to step gingerly out of the nest and start flapping her little wings. And it also feels like the right moment to get her to help clean the nest up, frankly. I put some activities in the diary, and sat back, thinking, "And they can amuse themselves around that skeleton structure". In those words, damn my hubris.

As I sit here this evening, catatonic, I look back at the diary, and realise we've done an awful lot, and that I am simply tired. In the last fortnight, we have been to Sussex, the Cotswolds, and Wales, our son has starred in Frozen, I've had reflexology, and started running, I've worked on a book my daughter and I are writing, picked pounds of summer fruit, gone to an urban beach, daughter has gone tree walking, we've been down a mine, and that's not counting the cooking, family time, monopoly, dancing, yoga, seeing old friends, meeting our new kittens.

At first this ridiculous over-doing of things went well, and there was I feeling utterly smug, thinking that the kids are finally old enough to be reasoned with, to help around the house. to put themselves to bed, and that I will, this summer, for the very first time, be able to complete a piece of writing, and combine this with time with the children. For the first time, it won't be 'mother does childcare' so much as simple family life. I was to get time to myself, without needing to cough up to put the children in some sports camp; I could model the writing life for them; they would amuse themselves — as they do quite a lot of the time at the weekend, these days. It seemed to be going in that direction, with a few "I'm bo-red"s along the way, but as nothing compared with the earlier summers of despair and depression I had endured. (Mine, I hasten to add, not the kids'.)

However, then I took the children to my mother's, in Cardiff, for three days. I can explain what happened next in various ways, but the basic problem is that I took my eye off the ball that is the kids' constant need for attention and stimulation, in order to spend time focusing on my mum.

So the kids promptly stayed up till gone 11pm and then slept in until 10am. They were rude, sullen, and argued back when I asked them to help clear up. In the swimming pool, they were told off for bombing, chucking things, shouting, by me, my mother and the life guard. My son, abetted by small cousin, raided my mum's sewing boxes up in the guest room, and made a kind of Mona Hatoum installation of thread, connecting toys, chairs, beds, lamps. If I'm honest I was quite impressed. But he and little cousin lied about it, and so the heavy hand of parenting had to come down. The next day it turned out they had thrown great handfuls of the thread out of the skylight onto the Acer beneath, where I found it, like fairy bunting trammelling up the twigs. When the cousins arrived, son rushed downstairs and tried to lift older girl cousin up, causing her to fall headlong against the hall radiator. Son and cousin chopped up a scrapbook they had found into paper aeroplanes, which they then flew out of the skylight into the gutters below, there to block rainwater and lead to overflow. Egged on by small cousin, my son cut his whole fringe off, right up at the hairline. That night, I found my son holding a large red wastepaper bin out of the skylight, trying to catch the rain, because he "wanted to see what it tasted like". Water was running back along the tilted window and dripping onto the books and carpet beneath.  I went nuts.

In the end I cut short the trip, and drove them back to London, in silence. When we got home, I insisted that son write a letter to his grandmother to thank her, and apologise for all the damage. It took two hours of steadfast insistence, with him screaming, swearing, breaking his own pen, screwing up paper, trying to run around. I do not know how I managed to control myself, but I did. I got to a point where I was able to observe his behaviour without being drawn into it. It helped me understand how the idea of possession might have seemed plausible. He resorted to an absolutely extraordinary array of toxic manipulations to get out of taking responsibility for his actions, and making amends. But I was determined. Gradually his resistance wore down, and he eventually wrote that letter, describing what he had enjoyed, and apologising for the Mona Hatoum, promising to buy more thread.

I thought we were there, and the rest of the afternoon and early evening went well. Then I put them to bed and it all began again. I don't know about you, but the summer months this year have seen the children's sleep patterns blown to pieces. They seem unable to go to sleep if it's light. I can remember the delight of reading after lights out, standing on my pillow up against the window, with the curtains over half of me. I've tried to be indulgent about it -- my daughter had no work to do post-SATs, and my son's only 8, so it hardly seemed a crime for them to stay up a little later if they were safely in bed. My father used to beat me for reading after lights out -- this seemed somewhat excessive to my child brain, and still does to my adult brain. But although I can picture my child self, avidly reading just one more chapter, my sad adult self just wants the kids to go the f**k to sleep, aware of storms the next day, or of being unable to wake them at a reasonable time, all our days knocked sideways, my copycat somnolence… we live in such interdependence that our circadian rhythms seem as locked together as loom bands.

So there was shouting from me, and from the children. There were apologies. There was renewed storming up and down the stairs. And now I sit here at 11pm, not quite certain that my son is yet asleep, in the ruins of my bid to calm and contain his wilful behaviour, typing "I cannot cope with my children" into Google, and reading the many, many accounts of despair, guilt and grief that may be found posted online.

Looks like this summer holiday is going to follow the pattern of all the others.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The only two parenting metaphors you will ever need

Race for life

This weekend, my daughter and I did the local 5k Race for Life (thank you, you can still donate!), to raise money for research into cancer. This is the third time we've done it, and it's become a bit of a tradition to see whether we can beat the previous year's time. Logically this should work, because as my daughter gets older, she gets taller and faster. We won't go into what happens to her mother. 

I didn't sleep well, and woke already tired and fretful. The rain had bucketed the night before, and the terrain was soggy, so I suggested that she and I head into the runners' group, so that we'd have a fresh start — we weren't going for a runner's time, we just didn't want to be slipping over in the churn. 

Within only a few moments, daughter was straggling and slowing to a walk. Not yet well breathed, I was hopping up and down and urging her forwards in what I hoped wasn't too obviously a stentorian manner. She seemed to have a stitch most of the way round the course, and as the metres dragged into kilometres, I was racing ahead, then standing still until she caught up, tapping my foot, and eventually unashamedly hands on hips. Well I say unashamedly, actually I felt rubbish. We were supposed to be running together, it was supposed to be our mother-daughter moment. But there I was with two winners' symbols instead of eyes, champing at the bit and leaving her behind in my testosterone-fuelled desire to kick butt. 

In the final kilometre, my eleven year old gave it one big push, and ran most of it, and we crossed the finish line at an uphill sprint, carried along by the cheering. 

As we looked up to see the time, we realised we'd beaten last year's time by over 3 minutes. We weren't going slowly at all. I was just being competitive. 

In the warm-down time that followed, finally satisfied, I apologised to her. She'd known it was happening, knows she has a mad mother, puts up with it resignedly, told me off quietly. Then we went for ice cream and pick and mix, and wandered through Hampstead, browsing in the bookshop, and fingering sale price T-shirts together. She swam into my focus, my beautiful, calm, determined daughter, so much better adjusted than I am. Doing it her own way. 

Three in a bed

That night, she had a the edges of a migraine, and I put her to bed in our room, hoping to distract her. Husband ended up in her bed, and I slept with her. In the middle of the night, a solid lump of boy interposed itself between daughter and me, with his habitual snuffle, and propensity to sleep sideways. Early in the morning, daughter was beside herself. Occupying fully half the bed, she screeched, "I've got no room! You're always getting in the way between Mummy and me! I can't sleep with your snoring! You always ruin everything, this is MY bed!" No amount of exhausted mumbling from me would stop her, and eventually she had to be ejected, to further screaming. 

Later that day we had to go and buy school uniform for secondary school. She and I made the symbolic trip to be sized up and kitted out, me reliving my childhood, she on the brink of the next big stage of her life. I spoke to her frankly about the excruciating jealousy I had suffered from as a child with a younger brother, always coming up behind me, always edging onto my terrain. I told her very quietly that learning about how jealousy blinds you is perhaps the most important thing I learnt as a child. Understanding and living with her own jealousy was the best way to stop suffering from it — and also to prevent its excesses in other people from harming her. She sat in silence, and listened. She nodded, and we bought hotdogs and candy floss, wandering again in contentment, side by side through the summer streets. What did she hear? What did she take in? I want her so desperately not to fall into the same traps that I did, and I know that I cannot prevent it. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

What made you want to have a baby?

I was at the pub last night with some fellow parents from school. We were chatting about this and that, and then suddenly the conversation kicked up a gear.

I was droning on about how rubbish mothers' lives are, as usual, when a friend of mine, who is a lawyer, interjected to say, 'Way before I had children, I was working in private practice. A partner sat me down and said, "You have the potential to go all the way, and make partner, as long as you focus completely on your work, and stop doing all this creative writing stuff".' My friend was writing a novel in her spare time, and had an agent. She went on, 'What I thought was, "Stuff that, I just don't want to sell my soul into lawyering if it means I can't do what I want". It made me realise that having a baby was actually a radical thing to do, when there was such a weight of assumption that all I would want to do was make partner.'

It felt as though a ray of light had burst into the pub. Another friend chipped in with a similar story: she had been sat down in Hong Kong, and told that she could go all the way, or some such phrase, if she just dumped the boyfriend. The boyfriend is now the father of her two children.

When I was being shown the range of Cambridge Colleges I could choose from, on becoming a lecturer there, the Bursar at one of them pointed out that there was a college creche. The woman from the French department, who was showing me round the college, interrupted him to say, "Oh, Ingrid won't have time to have a baby," and laughed. I made myself laugh too, but mentally put a big, black cross through that college. This woman already had two children. A man appointed at the same time as I was subsequently took up a Fellowship at this college. When he and his wife had twins a couple of years later, they duly used the college creche. The woman who'd shown me round? She eventually became the head of the French Department. When I had a baby, she forced me to resign.

Women are told all the time in their early careers that having a family is in conflict with their ambitions. They are warned that having babies will cost them promotion, cost them income, cost them status. They're also told that they will be unfulfilled if they don't have a baby. Men aren't told this.

Having a baby for me was an existential choice. I knew very well that procreating would put potentially intolerable pressure on me and on my career — everything I had ever witnessed in academic life had taught me that. I knew the odds were stacked against me if I reproduced. And I went ahead, I made the choice, with my partner, to go for pregnancy. I took the consequences.

Having a baby, and what was then done to me in terms of employment and career path, security and pension, forced me into a situation in which I have had to go on making existential choices, again and again, to keep renewing my personal freedom. This has at times felt relentless, unfair, frightening — but I have never stopped, and I am much happier than I was a decade ago. The idea that an employer should ever tell a woman that she should not have a baby, or threaten her employment prospects if she dares to do so, is such a disgusting one, that I want to take to the streets.

We think this kind of stuff is in the past, that Western women now exercise free choice as they make their way through education and into employment, give or take a bit of salary disparity. But behind closed doors, in meeting rooms, in asides and emails, women are still being bullied about their choices. As if only women have children. As if men don't. What are men? The angel Gabriel?

My answers have been to refuse to compromise myself into giving up what I love and what makes my life finally have meaning, even if it makes no economic sense, and even if I have no status in the eyes of society at large. Why the hell should I? I'd lay down my life for our children, but I'm not going to kill myself for a job. If society wants to capitalise on the education I was given, and the skills my experience has brought me, it's going to have to step up. Not the other way round.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Hearing voices

I've been having trouble with hearing voices for years now.

Don't worry, I'm not going nuts, or no more than usual.

The problem I have is a writing problem. How do you convey multiple voices in a narrative? How do you do polyphony convincingly? When you're in the school playground, on the bus, in a restaurant, in a cafe surrounded by mothers, when you're in a park, or waiting outside some activity or other, you are surrounded by conversation. People — especially women — chat about their lives constantly. While it's very difficult to define what the 'stuff of life' really is (once you've identified DNA, you realise you don't even know what consciousness is), we are indubitably brilliant at using language to continually construct, shape and reshape our reality, and that's what conversation is all about. So at least capturing conversation might help you convey 'reality'?

I've been trying to write Motherload for something like four years (I never like adding up the actual number of days that have passed, but I tell myself it's because I'm always managing motherload that I don't have the time to write Motherload). And the point I've got to is this: I can write endlessly about my own experience (somebody listen to me, please!). I've interviewed quite a large number of other people, men and women, and heard with enormous pleasure about how they manage their motherload.

But when it comes to writing about them, about what they told me, I hit this hideous wall, every time.

It's the job of the writer to make some kind of sense of all that material. It's my job to shape it, to purvey it, to curate it, to archive it, to interpret it, select and filter it. The trouble is that I absolutely loathe that dimension of what writing is.

And the reason for my loathing is that I find it desperately manipulative. I am having to choose what to leave out, and that gives me too much power — I could lie about what others have told me, bend their reality to my own account of it. And I undoubtedly will.

I don't want that power — just as I am terrified by the power I have to shape my children's reality.

I want people to step forward as they are, fully and completely.

But here I'm up against my own fantasy.

Because of course none of us is complete or coherent. We are all fragments and chaos, our tired brains constantly chewing away on the data from our senses, busily employed in sense-making, all day, every day. We stop short at certain versions of ourselves, and bundle them into neat stereotypes, because otherwise we couldn't get up in the morning. But we are remaking ourselves every single day. It's only habit that clothes us in uniformity.

So in my snippet-excerpts from other people's reality, in those interviews I conducted using the same questionnaire, all I really ever got was a snapshot at a certain moment of how someone was feeling at that moment. I carefully squirrelled it all away, but it was never the reality I wanted it to be. Those archived interviews are themselves in perpetual motion. Whenever I open one up on the computer, the words immediately start dancing, the meaning scatters, time passes once again. Some of those interviews are now four years old. The people have changed, their children and they are four years older. It is all, always in flux.

Until today I have felt hugely held back by this. As a literary critic and a tutor, I am always telling people to go back to the text, that's the one fixed thing you have. But it's an illusion. Texts are not stable creatures, fixed for all time. They just look as though they are. You only have to read a play script, and think about how a director and actor interpret it, leaving out words, adding tone and expression and movement to those lines, making 3D what had seemed safely 2D, to realise that texts are anything but static.

So why am I feeling happier about my writing problem? Well, last night, I saw Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man at Temple Studios, and it has revolutionised the way I look at my material.

Punchdrunk is now famous for immersive theatre, for abolishing the fourth wall, and taking promenade theatre into hyperreality. The intricacy, attention to detail in set, choreography, acting craft, allusiveness, and mood are unparalleled. The Drowned Man is a piece set in a four-storey disused building, in which they have created an entire film set, with its own surroundings, so that you are never really sure where film set ends and non-set begins.

After an endless haunted-house tunnel, a neon-lit lift takes you up, and a sinister, sexual MC in a ball gown encourages you to separate from your companions, pushing batches of people out at each storey. From then on you make your own way through the world you enter. You are given a slip of paper at the entrance which alludes to a possible story — an already shaky couple get into trouble when one of them has an affair, and it leads to murder (it's based on Büchner's Woyzeck).

Once inside the building, you stumble in the pitch black from set to set — a Western town square with bars and a fountain, a rundown motel, a weatherbeaten cottage, a huge 1950s car, a malevolent night forest, set about with caravans, a head-doctor's surgery, a film set that seems to stage a locker room, a cocktail bar and a domestic interior, a horseshoe-shaped saloon bar, and a desert on the top floor — it is too much to take in, and you don't know what you are witnessing, as the actors move around you, and you move around the setting, momentarily caught up in whatever story fragment they are busy with.

At all times, the soundscape is lowering and terrifying, heavy and Lynchian. At moments you might see a scene repeated. At others you try to follow an actor from place to place, never sure which part of the story you are in, certainly never chronological. At what becomes the end, the audience, all masked, is gently urged to a large room, with a conventional enough stage all along one side. All the actors, some of whom you will not even have encountered before, are assembled, encouraging the audience to sit down, so that their eyeline is below the level of the stage. The action comes to a threatening, convulsive climax — and the audience goes crazy. The ending reassures us all that we have indeed seen a play.

I emerged desperate to piece together what I had seen, unsure whether I had got it right, seen everything I should have done, gone about the performance the right way. I was envious of the actors' bodies, their intense sexuality, their beauty, I'd wanted to be part of the show, sucked in even further. I couldn't make sense of it, felt angry and competitive.

But after a night's sleep, the narrative has fallen into place. All the ellipsis and fragmentation — your brain organises it into coherence for you. The brain is always busy housekeeping. The note at the start really helped, but it's not just that, it's the way we absolutely strive for order — I think what Punchdrunk do emulates the way the eye and our senses take in information from the flux and chaos of lived experience. Punchdrunk represents reality in utterly fragmented ways, then adds in a fragmented, uncontrolled audience, and the brain uncontrollably sets about looking for patterns, organising them according to previous experience, sorting, prioritising, and finally delivers its outcome, like a cat brings in a dead mouse for its owner's pleasure.

What also amazed me (paradoxically, given all the ellipsis) was the directness of the contact between actor and audience. There was so little dialogue, and words were used like dance steps, but the actors were so expressive with such little movements of their faces, and fleeting changes conveyed the 'story' of lust and betrayal as effectively as the structure of individual scenes themselves.

The intimacy was infinitely seductive — that sense of heightened reality, where anything might happen, where you had to be on your guard, you might injure yourself, fall over something, and yet you were also being held safely in a space, looked after in some way, and allowed to look at something deeply private. The connection to the passions — the jealousy, the sexual desire, the hatred, the murderous impulses, the sorrow, the fear, horror, fury, it was so immediate — all of that blew me away.

It felt like a liberation — so much of the day, that's exactly how I experience life, all these wavering passions washing about, in chaos, no organising principle, free radicals of toxic emotion without a home — you see it in people's expressions, in how they address each other, how they move, and I am so often overwhelmed by it, that sense of our inner lives flushing through us uncontrollably.

I thought The Drowned Man was a fantastic catharsis, that for once I was allowed to observe, it was expected of me. Whereas earlier this week, I went to an award party at the RSA, and felt completely desperate at being an observer -- I could see all the ambition, competition, egotism, crisscrossing the faces of the people there, felt repelled by it, knew that I was supposed to dive in and network, but of course it was taboo to talk about what had brought us all there.

That catharsis is what theatre should be about. That's why live theatre is important. And that's how I should be writing (even if I'm rubbish at it). Forget willed coherence, just rely on association to pull in the stories that people have told me, trust that this intuition will operate an organising principle of its own. For someone who saw all this reading Proust, I'm remarkably slow to try it out myself.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Death of the Tooth Fairy

When my little girl was very much littler, she began a correspondence with the tooth fairy.

Each time a tooth came out, the tooth fairy wrote back, no matter how busy or tired she was. It was quite a chore, remembering the world I'd constructed. Often it felt like a total pain in the neck, and I moaned about it, and about the Motherload that went with it — what was I trying to prove? That I was a Perfect Mother? I was an idiot, trapped in my own sentimentality. Rage rage, write write.

One day the tooth fairy even sent a photo of her shadow.

The little girl was utterly enchanted, and the correspondence grew apace.

This week, my daughter's last baby tooth, a molar, came out. We were staying with friends, and she said in dismay, "I'll have to write to the tooth fairy and say goodbye!" I felt secretly pleased — that was one chore out of the way then. Phew!

That night she wrapped the tooth in tissue paper, and slipped it under her pillow with her note.

Later, I went into her room to retrieve note and tooth. It woke her up. My hand was under the pillow, and I thought I'd grab what I'd come for anyway, and hope she was too groggy to realise. I'd done this before, all pleased with myself for the sweet deception.

I composed a long note, telling the little girl how special she had been to me, and how I would miss her and her letters. I found myself feeling sad — my husband read the letter in silence, and stared off into middle space.

Then I tiptoed into my daughter's bedroom with it.

She was awake. She said, "Mummy, I know why you're here." My stomach clenched tight. She switched the light on. "I felt your hand under the pillow." "Did you wait for me?" "Yes, I wanted to know."

We looked at each other for long seconds. Her childhood passed into me. My knowledge passed into her.

We went to tell Daddy. All three of us sat silent on the bed. "But I know Father Christmas is real," she said. We nodded, miserable.

I took her back to bed, and found tears forming in my eyes. In a moment, an entire phase of her life had ended, irrevocably. She will never again believe in the tooth fairy. She understands that she cannot go back. She understands that her mother has made up stories. She understands that she must get older. In the same breath, her knowledge is my mortality. A phase of my life has also ended. She is both more and less separate from me. She knows more of what I know. And she has secrets from me, she thinks things that I cannot fathom. She knows now that if I can perpetrate deception on her, she can do the same to me.

I, who had longed to be let off the hook of writing those endless late night letters about Fairyland, I went back to my bedroom and cried.