Listening to Debussy’s Nocturnes, background music filled with the movement of clouds and sea sirens calling and a festival of aerial light, while I write about a derelict house filled with clocks, a crumbling staircase, moonlight coming in through unshuttered windows. In the kitchen downstairs an elderly woman is reading through old letters, burning them one by one as she finishes reading. They are not her letters to burn, they are love letters written to her sister who lies sleeping in a loft bedroom.
Sibling jealousy, such a rich theme.
When I was about 13 years old and in high school, new to formal schooling after years of living out on a forest reserve where education was erratic correspondence schooling and School on the Air, I won an international writing competition and had to go up on the hall stage and stand next to the headmistress while she told everyone I had done the school proud. I cringed and looked down at my laced-up shoes as she spoke, hating the feeling of being stared at.
When I did look into the sea of faces below me, I saw only my younger sister looking at me in utter misery and hostility. If I was to be the writer in the family, she could not go on writing. She was inconsolable and despondent afterwards, tore up her diaries and poems. That day I felt I had robbed her of her future. Of course, all this was irrational and typical of the thwarted relations and rivalry between siblings, a pattern between us of stifled competition and envy, merged identities, a contrived mirroring in which one would remain the reflection and only able to mimic the other. I assured my sister she could do whatever she liked, she could write her books and I would write mine. And yet my sister never wrote again, and a twinge of that old irrational guilt stirred in me on reading Colm Toibin’s how I killed my mother in the Guardian this weekend:
It mattered to her that she could have, or might have, been a writer, and perhaps it mattered to me more than I fully understood. She watched my books appear with considerable interest, and wrote me an oddly formal letter about the style of each one, but she was, I knew, also uneasy about my novels. She found them too slow and sad and oddly personal. She was careful not to say too much about this, except once when she felt that I had described her and things which had happened to her too obviously and too openly. That time she said that she might indeed soon write her own book. She made a book sound like a weapon. Perhaps a book is a weapon; perhaps an unwritten book is an even more powerful weapon than one which has been published. It has a way of filling the air with its menace or its promise, the sweet art of what might have been.
Families, families. How we help and hinder and harm one another. Who gets to have the last word on that deep toxic or lifegiving compost that was our family life in childhood?
The housemate will be working in a hospice for the disadvantaged over Easter, away most of the time, and I wish we did not have to work through weekends and religious holidays. It can’t be helped. Many people out here hold down two or three jobs well into their 70s and 80s since retirement and pensions out here are scant options and not because people are feckless, or fail to plan ahead or save. Governments and banks are going bankrupt, money and national debt has been mismanaged, there is not enough work available to generate wealth. Each time I see images of Greece, the bewildered faces showing the terror of savings gone, the increasingly harsh austerity measures, the despair and outrage, I quail at the future. On we go all the same, doing what we can.
And on a lighter note, this gave me such pleasure, a mountain hiker who kept Moleskine journals as he walked the Pacific Crest Trail and came home with 850 pages of journalled memories. Years ago I hiked around East Africa, Zambia and Botswana and didn’t write anything down because I was afraid it might be confiscated by border authorities or at road blocks set up by Zambian soldiers. I should have taken the risk. These journals are a wonderful resource and aide-memoire.