Friends have asked me throughout the lockdown, “Are you writing?”
My most recent answer has been, “I'm trying to write about why I’m not writing.”
But then I haven’t been writing that either. I’ve been not writing about why I’m not writing for a long time. Truth be told, I haven’t written anything for years, not really. Nothing that contains my invested heart. During lockdown, at times in deep isolation, when I have had time and space and no shortage of opportunity, I have continued not writing - not only about not writing, but about anything.
These days I experience the world (online, as we all do) as if I am standing in front of a thick, steel-and-glass portal – something huge and manually operated, steampunk in design – that separates me from the entire human race. When I open the portal, I am blasted by the outpourings of the whole of humanity, and it’s all I can do to stand in it, silently braced against the universal furore. When the portal is closed, I am unable to make myself heard through it.
How do I write, then, even if I need to? I don't. I become more and more silent. And that pattern is found in my earliest experiences of my own creativity, and so I am reaching out to that story, to begin to write about why I no longer write. Because I can no longer stand the strain of silencing myself - not when the need for connection and the reality of isolation feel more visceral every day.
It’s a story that starts with a story. When I was 13, I won a short story competition in a national newspaper. I won the schools’ section. It was a thrilling thing in my family, and in my head. When I say in my family, really, I mean for my mother, and therefore for me.
The story I wrote was called Claws. It was written not long after Jaws was released in cinemas, and the film's opening sequence is a clear influence. A young girl, Anya, is walking home from babysitting (something I did regularly for friends of my parents). Anya is terrified, walking home alone in the dark through the empty suburban streets. Within sight of her home she is attacked from behind without warning, by something she can’t see. It tears into her with sharp, savage claws, shredding her tights and ripping her flesh. The attack stops suddenly, and Anya runs home, distraught and bleeding.
Reaching the house, she stumbles from room to room, calling desperately for her mother. When she finally finds her, her mother can’t see or hear the girl, however much she screams. The story ends with a mist filling the house, as the claws return to finish her off. The last line describes Anya closing her eyes ‘to meet her fate’. She’s already dead. Her mother doesn’t hear her suffering, or see her terrible injuries. There is no hope.
My mother told us repeatedly that she always knew she’d have spectacular children. I learned very early I would have much to achieve to live up to being her daughter. I had gifts, I was intelligent and creative, and I applied myself to being spectacular. Winning the competition was the first real evidence I had from the world that I could achieve her goal, and thus ensure her love.
But she wasn’t the only parent in the picture. And she did nothing to protect us, her children, from the daily attacks from our father, who was determined to make us suffer for how he was suffering, in a life he didn’t want, a life of responsibility he hated.
Two years ago, shortly before she died, my mother said, 'It was the worst thing to happen to your father, having children.”
“Yes," I said. "It was.”
She said nothing, then or ever, about how my brothers and I were punished for that fact.
Rediscovering my story as an adult, I was amazed by the overtness of its symbolism. I was a child in agony, which my mother seemed unable to see or put a stop to. She was thrilled I had won the competition. She gave me a book of Somerset Maugham stories in which she wrote, ‘To mark the beginning of your career as a writer. I am more proud than you can know.’
I don’t blame her anymore, despite how this story may sound. She couldn’t see, wouldn’t see, how much suffering her children endured, because then she would have had to do something about it. And she had nowhere to go, no one to support her to do that. Her own story of sorrow and suffering with nobody to help meant she stopped up her ears thoroughly. Our silent cries could not be heard. Just like my mother’s. Just like Anya’s.
For me, winning that competition set me on a twisted path with my own creative gifts, gifts that brought me attention, but with no expectation of ever being heard.
I still have a photocopy of Claws, in storage now, where I can’t get hold of it. I’m grateful to have it.
I also have the photo that was taken when the reporter came to our house to interview me for an article about the prize winners. I’m wearing some of my mother’s clothes, and my pupils are wide with excitement.