I was in bed with flu-type symptoms, an impressive temperature and a strange abstract underwater sensation. Next to me, things were piling up dreadfully: the urgent, the important, the urgent unimportant, the frankly ludicrous and the utterly pointless all seeming to make equal claims. Family and work were suffering from neglect but I was oddly kittenish of mood (although my chest and mouth were hoarse).
A lot of children’s films from yesteryear were being watched after school, supine. Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye was particularly soothing. We sang along: “I’m Hans Christian Andersen/ I’ve many a tale to tell/ And though I’m a cobbler [beat]/ I feel, I tell them rather well.”
I met a deadline I could no longer stave off but words failed me at every turn and I sent in an essay about libraries (I know) so incoherent that God only knows what crosses and indignant red exclamation marks will come back.
I ate a square of tarte tatin-flavoured chocolate and picked up a book I like called Finding a Leg to Stand On, hoping for clues. It was written by a poet called Connie Bensley, whom I recently heard giving a spirited reading in the basement of a jazzy bookshop in west London. She first started writing poetry when she signed up for a pottery class following a divorce, she told us, only the class was full, so she went to poetry instead, which was in a nearby room and undersubscribed. Well, pottery’s loss was poetry’s gain. Larkin’s heir, she sometimes seems to me: wry, understated in her handling of the theme of unfulfilment.
The book fell open at a poem called “Blu-tack”, in which the narrator decides to invite six friends to supper. And why not? New people can be introduced, one fellow will get a square meal so badly needed, another will be impressed by the Thai cooking, and X and Y will lend “a frisson of transgression”. Yet, two weeks later, when the appointed night arrives, the narrator finds herself “in hermit mode”. She needs to renege, she wishes to welch. She finds herself scribbling a note for the front door: “So sorry – domestic crisis – back tomorrow.” Only just as she locates the Blu-tack in the drawer, the doorbell rings. Disaster!
This poem had particular poignancy for me, for two days later it would be my birthday. I had friends due, and my temperature still hovering at the 102F mark. What to do? Carry on regardless? Cry off? Was there an in-between setting?
Getting out of things stylishly isn’t easy to master. Sometimes there are even victims. At university a good friend often used to excuse herself from events when she had a better offer by telling people I was having a crisis and needed her support. Then off she would gad with some fly-by-night Horace or Frederick, leaving her hostess to think she was rather a saint and I was terribly high maintenance. I would be met with sympathetic looks the next day in the library. “Brave sausage,” people would murmur as they passed me at the returns desk, patting me gently on the shoulder. “This, too, will pass.”
Could I leave some cakes and bottles of bubbly on the doorstep, a box of plastic flutes, a wind-up gramophone, a few balloons, a couple of kitchen chairs, some candles in jam jars and a string of fairy lights?
I could decorate the front door with panels of dark lace in the fashion of a Spanish widow. But what would my note say? “Domestic crisis” contains a certain amount of mystery, I’ll allow. It covers everything from finding asbestos in your loft extension to murdering your husband. Crisis, without the “domestic”, however, sounds a little more glamorous and possibly more artistic, as though the symphony you’ve been slaving over turned round and bit you on the bottom, or your Russian ancestors have asked for all the jewellery back, pronto.
Yet might these grander forms of crisis evoke less sympathy from cancelled guests than the sort in which the washing machine explodes and days later fragments of polka dot panty are still turning up in the butter? After further thought, I decided that if my temperature did not drop by midnight I would rig up a banner simply saying, “Forgive Me”, in a pulsating Hollywood regency font and hope for the best.
Would it spoil God’s vast eternal plan? It did seem unlikely.
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