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The writer’s life is riddled with disappointment, so we need to celebrate the successes when we can. When I’ve remembered – which I haven’t always – I’ve marked the publication-day anniversary for my books. For my second novel’s third birthday this month, I had in mind to write something on the theme She never intended to write a thriller, echoing the opening line of the blurb: He never intended to be a jailer, but the universe knew better. (As it did on this novel’s first anniversary – I don’t know what happened to the second – when I was so moved by the warrior women of Ireland coming home to vote for reproductive rights, I threw the plan away and wrote about the importance of normalising abortion in fiction.) This year, I’m wondering about the parallels between a fictional character who seeks to resolve a relationship crisis by keeping a woman captive in a cellar, and our current experiences of lockdown.
Exploring the echoes of the pandemic in my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, about a brother and sister separated for fifty years against the backdrop of the longstay psychiatric hospital closures, I found references to a deadly virus; self-isolation versus online connectivity; high hopes versus pointlessness; keeping busy, bathroom behaviour and (although not included in the post) gallows humour. Will I find as many parallels for Underneath?
Steve might be furious, but I’m fuming fit to explode! Now that the beacon of Tory ineptitude and neglect has transferred from hospitals to care homes, literally in some cases, with elderly patients discharged from hospital with suspected, but untested, covid19 and inadequate facilities or training for isolation, the fictional situation for Steve’s mother seems idyllic in comparison.
The contemporary care home catastrophe is exacerbated by fragmentation and privatisation of an essential service, all part of the politics of unkindness. Let’s return to the novel for some light relief! (Although not forgetting that the pandemic will impact similarly in residential mental health services.) Earlier in the novel, Steve has had the opposite experience when gaining access to the secure psychiatric unit where his girlfriend, Liesel, works as an art therapist (p85):
The mummy rabbit wouldn’t notice if one of the babies went to live somewhere different. As long as she had lots of lettuce, she wouldn’t mind. She might even be glad if the little black and white one got adopted. If it had a little boy to look after it, cuddle up to it at night.
Just a minute! Are rabbits caged in hutches really relevant to the contemporary lockdown? Is there a bigger animal – an elephant maybe – I’m avoiding? Clearly, the strongest parallel between Steve incarcerating someone in the cellar of his house relates to women and children locked up with their abusers although, once again, the novel treads more gently than real life. I’ll leave you to read it to find out how!
We can’t stay in touch with the unkindness too long or we risk going as crazy as Steve. But some of our usual strategies for taking care of ourselves are unavailable in lockdown. As an introvert accustomed to hours talking to no-one but my computer, it’s business as usual for me in many ways, but I do miss singing in a mixed-voice choir.
Of course, it’s impossible to completely replicate the real-world experience of singing for a live audience surrounded by others, backed up by, at best, an orchestra, or, at least, a piano. In fact, the first rehearsal I attended online left me quite bereft. With social distancing likely to be required for some time, large gatherings, like choirs, won’t be assembling for a while. Probably not until we have a vaccine, I’d been thinking. Then I read this article in the Guardian at the weekend on What if we never find a vaccine? and realised, as with going into lockdown, I’m not quite the entrenched pessimist I claim to be.
Accepting the challenge to write a 99-word story about 100 candles, I thought of book birthdays and choirs. I calculated that, if I don’t publish anything else after Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, next year, my four books will reach their collective centenary in 23 years’ time. What will I be doing then? Hopefully it won’t be too different to this time last year!
Embracing redundancy in her early fifties, Anne joined a retirement choir. Thirty years on, her musicality, crescendoing steeply initially, is in decline. But here the social notes beat as strongly as the vocals, as this introvert recognised way back in the 2020 lockdown for covid19.
When the pianist rattles into “Happy Birthday”, Anne belts out the soprano line. But that cake, coming towards her with ten times ten socially-distanced candles, is fifteen years premature.
Thanks to the breathing exercises, she quenches them in two puffs. Revealing, in fondant icing, her first four book covers, reaching their collective centenary today.