What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness - Candia McWilliam (2012)


Chapter 8: Eyes Half-cut

A kind friend drove me south to Fram and Claudia’s house, where I was due to spend a week or so over Minoo’s birthday.

We all wanted the idea of spring, no, more than that, the reality of spring. I had frozen my life so capably for so long while they were living through normal, seasonal, you might reasonably say seasoned, time.

They extended another chance to me. If it were a children’s game, it might be thought of as another ‘life’. Those reprieves feel like new breath in the playground, a fair portion of offered hope.

Fram tried to coax me into liking, even loving, myself again. The very notion of self-loving brings me out in an allergic unthinking nettle rash–we Scots may be prickly but we’re also dead allergic, and often to ourselves. I have made a fair job of burning up what was ostensibly loveable and now I’m left with what remains. There’s not much to love, while there is all too much of me. It’s not a new story. The phlogiston has burned off–the mothering, any glamour, the cooking, the social fun, the jokes, the pretty ways in a house, the observantness–which were all but mothering, fair tosh anyhow–and we’re left with the calx, which feels as reduced as it sounds, a shrivelled residue. How can I love that?

The answer is further in. Love in yourself what you would love in anyone, anyone at all, certainly in a sick person no matter how repulsive their illness, just because they are human and still retain life, or the vestige of it.

So, treat yourself as you would an employee. That’s what shrinks say, because they know that I can’t imagine treating another person as I treat myself, which is with automatic torrents of abuse that Fram thinks come from having experienced their like too early on. He also says they are part of a longing to have someone silence them by saying nice things.

The row over ransomed milk was so bad that I thought that was that. I had seen how exasperated they were by my incapacity to be helped and just to accept that this was now; they were there; I was here; and that life is not fair.

Gestures are often insincere and lead almost always to regret. The two pounds for the milk was a gesture. Gestures may be staged for the notional watcher, who is the spirit of Punch and Judy, and, worse, of the Colosseum. Gestures may be lies, waiting for their big fat bluff to be called.

I will not forget the one time I slapped a young man for kissing me, in the dark after a dance here on Colonsay. The slap was pure gesture as the kiss was not. I was showing off to whoever was watching the film of my romantic life; that is no one at all. Or, at most, just me. Unforgivable. I apologised to this young man’s grave this week (he never grew old but lost his life to a knife in a city), but I did not say so to Katie. That would have been gestural. Whether or not it’s gestural to mention it here, I am attempting to discern as I write. Writing about private things can be gestural, and it can not be. The reader will have to decide.

I arrived at their house in Oxford from the North and, not meaning to but not knowing how else to be, set about being as tiresome as possible almost before I was through the door. I could see very little, and just wanted to hide. I went to Minoo’s room, which is my room when I am there, and although I couldn’t see, I scraped my bruised newly stitched eyes open so as to ingest anything new that might hurt about the room, packed as it is with memories of our marriage and of Minoo’s childhood, photographs of the other children, the cats, the poem written for our wedding by Peter Levi, framed, the sparmannia cuttings from our drawing room, the pink Roberts radio, Minoo’s soft tiger Siberia and his wife and son, Blanche and Albert, the various sketches of the house in Italy Fram’s mother made, Minoo’s clothes, many of which are clothes I bought for his father, my father’s furniture, my own, the painting of a Roman street vendor with buck teeth that once belonged to Henry James. So what? It is all Minoo’s life.

He is the wholeness that emerges and it is fitting that his life should be whole around him and his home also.

To fuss about things at all is symptom of nothing more than the awful ‘meum–tuum’ of bourgeois marriage. That is almost the whole truth. Occasionally, Fram gives me an offering he has come across from my past: my christening mug or my leaflet of Cardinal Newman’s Dream of Gerontius that I bought for six old pennies at McNaughtan’s second-hand bookshop in Leith Walk in Edinburgh before I went away to school in England. I carry it in my handbag. He can’t give me big things because where would they go now I’m a mobile mother? And do I actually want the things themselves? I want the continuity, the unbrokenness, the dream not woken from.

Which is like the burglar crying aloud for the uneased, unbroken window. Worse, like the roiling thug weeping over the grief and bodily harm he has inflicted. The things tell a more whole story under that happy roof than under any I might offer them.

After about one night and a bad morning when I even broke my own artificial taboo and went up on to the floor of the house where Fram and Claudia’s bedroom is and where you can see the crowns of trees and be among the church bells even higher, I decided to face the fact that I could either shut up and keep all this to myself or just move my suitcase to another pitch and get on with moaning, and I was running out of places to be. The reason I tell Fram and Claudia about the sadness’s shape is because they understand the metaphorical terms I, unconsciously but thoroughly, use, and that is more important to me than practically any other intimacy, the sense of swift mutual understanding. Even I could see that it was unjust to punish them for their pre-eminence among my loved ones.

So, there was a morning of me racing around trying ever more closely to define my understanding of the lostness which was of course like sewing hems with smoke. Then I settled down to their life, her taking him breakfast, and bringing it to me too, which seemed like far too much kindness, their trips to London for meetings, libraries, theatre, her book plans, her reviewing, her columns, her cousins and siblings and their babies, his going to college and returning exhausted and then working till three or four in the morning, her seeing friends, dealing with the animals, with family, the coming and going of Joanna the ironing lady who had been for ten years a steady soothant in the children’s lives under our roof, and whom somewhere along the way I loosed my bond with, like so much else that had been treasured and familiar.

Who would grudge anyone that? Anyone whom they love?

And I do not.

I have, however, and it’s quite an achievement, managed to empty my own life to the extent where I have made it a cell. Not St Jerome’s calm study, but a prison. I haven’t made a charming minimalist environment for the contemplation of the good, I have fixed up a metal cave. I think I did it with drink first and with a good disinfecting blast of high-pressure shame after that. Then I went blind.

It is easy to forget how to live. I did it. Getting back up is not easy. Getting back on, I am trying now, but the laps are faster and faster that the carousel is making, and those who are thrown off it or throw themselves or fall off it–why hadn’t I noticed this at the Dutch amusement park I so hated as a child, the Bedriegertjes?–never get back on if they are tentative. You have to leap and then be rock steady. You have to leap into the centre of the awful spinning thing to find any stillness; the edge will throw you off.