It being Midsummer’s Eve (that’s if you believe the 21st rather than the 24th June paradigm), I HAVE to load my plug of the month. The latest book by my lovely twin sister Julia Williams is a wonderful riff on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It features hypnotism, midsummer, love, outrageous behaviour and a riotous romp through standing stones and clifftops. It’s great fun and a brilliant summer read…You can download it on E-books now. Or if you’re old fashioned like me and prefer a hard copy it’s out at the beginning of July. So order your copy now!
Like many people across the country, our household was deeply affected by the announcement earlier this year that Iain Banks was a bit “poorly”. Chris and I rarely agree on books – Iain Banks was one of the few novelists we both enjoyed. So much so that when I just trawled our bookshelves this morning I found a Banks novel in every bookcase (sometimes the same copy twice). We were very saddened to hear about his cancer diagnosis, and even more to hear that he had died last weekend.
Last night we sat up very late to watch Kirsty Wark’s recent interview with Banks which I would urge every one of you to catch if you can, regardless of whether you liked his writing. He comes across as such a marvellous human being. As he reflects on his astonishing output (29 novels); the irony of writing a novel about a man dying of cancer, only to get the diagnosis himself 87,000 words in; & what it feels like to face death, you just can’t stop warming to the man. (Watch out for his enthusiastic fanboy gushing for his favourite authors, lovely). The interview is moving and funny and, despite the dark subject matter of many of his novels, he comes across as a kind, tolerant human being, a bloke you’d like to share a pint with. Such as shame we no longer can.
I first read Banks sometime after The Wasp Factory came out, it being one of those literary must-reads at the time. Back then I think I hated quite a lot of it: I enjoyed the black humour, the quality of the writing was peerless, but the ghoulishness of Frank’s actions, the violence, the nastiness was rather off-putting. I was glad I’d read it, but I put Banks aside for the next decade dismissing him rather as a writer that men would appreciate more than women. It was not until ten years later when on holiday with my family that I picked up another of his novels. Casting around for something to read, I thought I might as well try The Crow Road. From the moment the grandmother’s pacemaker explodes at the funeral, I was absolutely hooked, so much so that I couldn’t put it down. I even read in the back of the car all the way back from Bayeux, despite the inevitable car sickness. The Crow Road is a great mix of black humour, mystery, horror – a corking family saga with a heartbreaking father-son relationship at its centre.
But it was only when I met Chris, and discovered he was a massive fan, that I was truly converted. It is impossible to buy presents for my beloved. I will be forever grateful to Iain Banks that he usually had a book out in September, making at least one gift easy. I even got to meet the great man once. I happened to notice in the paper that he was doing a book signing near my office, so I trotted off to get a copy for Chris and for a friend whose ex also had a birthday. The signing did confirm one prejudice, I was the ONLY woman in the queue of young geeky men, but it also confirmed what lovely bloke he was. Apparently he hated book tours, but I’d have never guessed, he was chatty, funny, happy to sign two copies of A Song of Stone and to pose for a picture. Turns out when I got back Chris already had a copy, but now he had one that was signed and having met the author, I was very keen to read it. A Song of Stone is one of the darker novels, very very brutal, and bleak, but brilliant executed.
After that I dived into Banks old and new, particularly enjoying The Bridge, a fascinating exploration of a totalitarian state that exists on a bridge to nowhere (one of my favourites) and Complicity in which a serial killer takes out all evil people – corrupt politicians, arms dealers and the like in increasingly brutal fashion. I must confess some of his later novels The Business, Dead Air, The Steep Approach to Garbadale didn’t grab me quite as much, but I can’t say I’ve ever been disappointed by a Banks novel. And though I find the science fiction a bit dense – (I think I read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games before giving up) – I do recognise that the creation of the Culture is a towering achievement. We are grateful he managed to finish his last novel The Quarry, before he died. By all accounts it’s vintage Banks – we can’t wait to read it.
Banks was known for his love of whisky, even writing a travel book on the subject (of course we have a copy), so Ian Rankin’s twitter tribute was a perfect way to mark his death. Alas! We haven’t got any whisky in the house at the moment, but it hasn’t stopped us raising a glass or two to this wonderful writer, thanking him for the pleasure he has given us. He’s away the crow road far far too soon.
Last week’s Friday Flash told the story of a mother waiting for her daughter’s visit. Some of you wondered what was going on in with her daughter. Well here goes…
You never meant to leave her behind: all alone in her cottage in the country. You were always going to home one day. But when you finally escaped her, leaving behind the claustrophobic chintz curtains, the china ornaments, the constant smell of cup-cakes, freedom was just too delicious. The more you relished the ability to live by your own rules, the harder it was to return to hers.
You really did intend to come back that first year. Honest you did. When you saw that porcelain spaniel with the sad eyes and floppy ears in the gift shop, you knew it was the perfect gift. But then Dan invited you to spend Christmas skiing with his family in the chalet and you persuaded yourself you wouldn’t be missed. You wrapped the spaniel up, put it in the post, consoling yourself with the thought she’d have a better time with Uncle Jim, before boarding the flight to Switzerland.
It got harder after that. You’d used up all your annual leave on the holiday; and somehow, afterwards, you never could quite find the time to visit. You wouldn’t admit it, but the thought of a weekend of banal conversation, drinking tea from porcelain cups, eating the inevitable Victoria sponge, made you want to puke. So you made your excuses, knowing she didn’t believe them, that neither of you did. And knowing it didn’t matter: preserving the fiction you understood each other was more important than the truth.
And now there are no excuses left. The conference centre is only twenty minutes from her village. You could get away with it of course, if you don’t ring she’ll never know you were even there. But some vestige of conscience, some memory of skipping the path to the village shop, of baking cakes in her kitchen prompts you to pick up the phone.You’ll be in the neighbourhood, you say, could you pop in for a cup of tea? You try not to wince at the breathless excitement in her voice when she says yes. She’s always placed too much importance on your activities – it’s part of the problem.
It’s sod’s law that the conference runs over, that you’re in a mobile blackspot and can’t get a signal to let her know. You really do have to be in London for 8 for a social engagement that is too important to miss. But you can’t help feeling bad. You try to be casual on the phone, pretending that it doesn’t matter; that you’re the kind of daughter who visits regularly; that it’s easy to rearrange. You pretend that you believe her when she says she’s not made an effort, though you know deep down that making an effort is all that she ever does, all she has ever done for you.
It’s not your fault, you think as you drive away from the layby where you stopped to phone. It’s really not your fault, you convince yourself, trying not to think of her sitting in her kitchen with a sponge cake that she’ll eat by herself. The trouble is, she was always too much for you. She still is. How can she expect you to come backnow? No, it’s not your fault, you think, as you pass the road that leads to her door. You put your foot on the pedal and accelerate, getting away as fast as you can.
You won’t be back in a hurry.
“You look happy this morning,” Mrs Giles sounds surprised. I can’t say I blame her. I have been a bit morose of late. Winter never agrees with me and this one has been worse than most. It’s exceeded it’s sell by date by at least three months. In March I froze, in April I turned the heating up, by May I was still shivering. It’s not made me very sociable, I have to admit.But that’s all changed today. Today the sun is shining. Today I feel warm for the first time in months. Today my bones don’t ache, my knees aren’t sore. And today “My Ginny’s coming home.” I tell my neighbour, “She’ll be back in time for tea.”
“No wonder you’re looking so pleased with yourself,” she replies. “It’s been a while since she’s been back hasn’t it?”
She’s right, it has been a while – that useful catch-phrase which round here means anything from a month to a decade. Four years in Ginny’s case. Four years in which my only contact with my only child has been the odd postcard or phone call. She often tells me off for not having a computer: it would be so much easier to be in touch if I had email or Facebook, she says. I want to reply that if she’d only move closer, we wouldn’t need computers to keep in touch, but I never do. Instead I nod as if she could see me, and promise I’ll look at the catalogue she sent me in the post. We both know I won’t, but preserving the fiction we understand one another is important . It helps us avoid dealing with the questions I never want to ask: Why has she been away so long? Is she ever coming home?
Today at least, the second is answered. “She’ll be home by 4,” I say, “I’m going to make a Victoria Sponge.”
“How lovely. I hope you have a nice visit.”
I will, I know I will, as I head to the village shop where I purchase the necessary ingredients. It doesn’t seem so long ago that we used to take this path together. I used to love the feel of her tiny hand in mine, the way she bounced with excitement at the thought of an afternoon spent baking. In the old days we’d race back to the house anxious to get started, so we’d have the cake in time for tea. Just the two of us, the perfect pairing. Today, I move at a more sedate pace, enjoying the surprise of the sun on my back, the smell of mown grass signalling the possibility of summer.
In the kitchen, I unpack the shopping, take out a plastic bowl, put on the pinny she bought me one Mother’s Day years ago. Chief Cook and Bottlewasher it says, though the blue writing has faded over the years and after all this time without her, I no longer feel I own the title. Still, I won’t let myself think about that, as I cream the butter and sugar together. In a couple of hours, she’ll be here sipping tea, eating warm sponge cake, just like she used to when she was a child.
I’m humming as I break the eggs in a bowl, Tea for Two, and Two for Tea. We always used to love singing that song as we worked, and this was always her favourite part. The tapping of the egg on the side of the dish, the crack as it broke open, the yellow yoke plummeting into the centre of the bow. Finally the joy of pouring it over the butter and sugar, watching it liquefy into a gooey mess. I smile at the memory, stirring the flour in. Soon I have two tins ready for the oven.
Ginny would always beg me to lick the bowl afterwards. I can still see her sitting on the step, wooden spoon in hand, cake mix round her lips, grinning from ear to ear. I think about keeping the bowl out for old time’s sake, but it would make the kitchen messy. Besides, she’s probably too grand for such childhood nonsense now. I take the bowl, rinse it under the tap, tidy up the kitchen and put my feet up until the cakes are ready.
At a quarter to four I take the tins out of the oven. They have risen beautifully. I smear jam on the inside of each cake. The sponge has the perfect consistency, springy, crumbly, it will melt on the tongue. The perfect cake, for the perfect tea with the daughter who has been missing too long. I try not to get too carried away as I put the kettle on and warm the pot. But it’s difficult. It’s been so long since I’ve seen her. I can’t help wondering what she’ll be wearing, whether she’s changed her hairstyle, what we’ll talk about. The kettle bubbles away feeding my excitement. She’ll be here soon.
At four o’clock I listen out for sounds of the car approaching. But the road brings no-one, and all I can hear are the swallows chirping as they swoop overhead. I put the kettle on again. Warm the pot again. I want the tea to be ready as soon as she gets here.
At quarter past four. I touch the top of the cake. It is still warm. Though I suppose it won’t really matter if it’s cold when she comes. So long as she does come. The kettle has re-boiled four times now. I’d better not boil it again. It’s such a waste of electricity.
At half past, I step out onto the lane to see if I can catch sight of her. After I’ve watched a blue Citroen, a black Ford, and a red Micra go past without stopping, it strikes me that this is pointless: I don’t even know what car she drives. The sun has gone in, and I am beginning feeling cold. I return to the house. The cake is cold.
It is nearly five o’clock. I put the sponge in the fridge. Ginny hasn’t said she’d be staying for dinner, but she’s so late now, she’ll need feeding won’t she? I’ll cook something special and we can have the cake for pudding. I root through the freezer and come across two steaks. Lovely. I’d never have these normally.
Just as I am placing them on a plate, the phone rings.
“Ginny, where are you?”
“Look, I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to make it today after all. The conference ran over and I have to get back to town.”
“There was no signal at the venue, so I haven’t been able to call till now.”
“You didn’t put yourself out did you?”
“No of course not.”
“I’ll check my diary, find a better time.”
“I’ll look forward to it.” But she has hung up, driving off to her mysterious life in the city, that has no place for me.
I return to the kitchen. I look at the steaks. It’s not worth cooking them just for me. I put them back in the freezer. They can wait for that better time, when her diary is clearer and her conference won’t over-run. Tonight, as usual, I will prepare supper for one. Omelette, I think. It’s easy and I am tired after the days exertions. And perhaps, afterwards, if I can stomach it, I might help myself to a slice of cake.