No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club
Don't harass her about parasailing or taking Italian language courses. Forget about suggesting she join a gym. Marie Sharp may be a little creaky in the bones as she heads towards the big 60, but she's fine with it. She would rather do without all the movingtoFloridabicyclingacrossMongoliaforthehellofit hoopla that her friends insist upon. She's already led an exciting life: she came of age in the 1960s, after all. Now, with a new grandchild on the horizon, all she wants to do is enjoy what she considers the most interesting stage of her life. No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club is an unexpected delight of a novel about letting go of youth and embracing your inner curmudgeon!
Oh dear me no. I wrote my first diary when I was ten. Riveting stuff. 'Got up. Went to school. Had maths – ugh! Came home. Did prep. Had supper. Went to bed.' I started another when I was a teenager, but that was when I had a crush on Archie, who was a year older than me and had no idea of my feelings. I still have about four exercise books covered with the words 'I love Archie', 'I LOVE Archie!', 'I LOVE ARCHIE!!!' on every page. On the cover of one of them is a huge crimson heart with 'ARCHIE' emblazoned on it.
I remember when David and I were married and had our son, Jack, we kept a joint diary, but that was just full of lies because we each knew the other one was going to read it. I had to keep a separate, secret diary, because I felt so miserable about the whole marriage. In our joint diary I wrote: 'Great day! We all went to the Round Pond with Jack and came back to tea with Hughie and James. Lots of jokes and a splendid tea!' In my private one I wrote: 'I just can't stand David and his horrible relations. I can't bear the way they all feel like a secret society I'm not part of. I want to be free! I want to dance! I want to have affairs!'
Of course, shortly after that, I did, and David and I broke up, but oddly we stayed friends. (Anyway, God knows what he was writing in his secret diary.) I also, even odder, stayed friends with his half-brother, James, and his partner, Hughie. AND I stayed friends with Archie, even though I never had an affair with him. When he married Philippa, I was at his wedding, and we've had lunch every so often over the years. It turned out that his firm in the City used Hughie as his solicitor – he works in something mysterious called 'futures' – so, as so often happens, all my friends made a complete circle.
I didn't have time to keep a diary when I was at art school, or doing teacher training, and it's only now I'm sixty – well, I will be in a few months – that I'm going to give it a go. I mean, properly give it a go. So...
It's like the time when I went to Dr Farmer recently with pains in my knees. 'A touch of osteoarthritis, Marie,' she said. 'Happens at our age.'
When I explained that it couldn't happen to me because I never take any exercise and therefore my knees ought, in theory, still to be in perfect nick, the knees of a ten-year-old, barely used, exceptionally low mileage, one careful lady owner, I could probably even dig out the original box and receipt, she explained it didn't work like that.
Rather a bore.
'Nothing,' I said.
I suppose the odd dinner party can spring a wonderful surprise. And Marion, being something of a wonder woman – like cheese, she's always on a board – has been known to produce interesting guests. But generally dinner parties are like the lottery. You rarely win. The problem is first of all there are never enough men, and, by now – middle-aged, I was going to say, but perhaps the phrase 'getting on' might be more accurate – the men who do attend are always spare for a very good reason: they are either completely hopeless or completely mad.
(I'm not sure that description doesn't apply to most men, actually, whether they're spare or not, which is really why I've ended up so committed to being single. Doesn't mean some men aren't funny, sexy, kind and fascinating, but you can be all that and hopeless and mad at the same time.)
The second problem with dinner parties is that, as you get older, you don't – well, I don't – actually want to meet anyone new. There are quite enough people I know whose friendship I would like to consolidate – and other people's favourite people are very rarely my favourite people, and vice versa. The only new people I do want to meet are young people. But all old people want to meet young people. We fall on them like vampires.
I remember myself, when about seventeen, being mobbed by men and women who, at fifty, seemed ancient. 'Do let me sit next to you!' they'd say, floppy lips working over tobacco-stained teeth set into receding gums. 'I do so love young people!' And I would cringe as they hovered close, sucking into my youth, slavering over my peachy, blooming skin, my sadly immature views, my everything.
'Do tell me why you like the messy look!'
'Why do you like young men with long hair?'
'Do explain the Beatles to me – I do find them fascinating.'
'Don't you find mini-skirts rather cold
Do tell me – what is this ''generation gap'' we hear so much about these days?'
Nowadays, I don't blame them, though I'd never be so overt in my own craving for the company of the young.
Yesterday I was talking to one of my best friends, Penny, and told her that yet another friend of mine had died – Philippa, actually, the wife of Archie who I had a crush on when I was a teenager. (She's the fourth to pop off this year. I have actually attended no fewer than five funerals since January.) And she said that six of her friends had died in the last eighteen months.
'The awful thing is,' she said, 'that now we just have to make do with the people who are left!'
'Unless,' I said, 'we cultivate young people.'
'Which we don't!' she said.
Well, I have to say I do, though the admission feels as sinful and horrifically honest as getting up in an AA meeting and saying I'm an alcoholic. I mean, who is there going to be left when all around drop like leaves from trees in autumn? If I'm not one of the early droppers, I certainly don't want to be hanging around on a bare branch, flapping away all dry and brown and lonely. I want some nice young green shoots around me.
Marion and her husband, Tim, live in a poky little Edwardian house in West London, still decorated with the Laura Ashley wallpaper that had once looked so pretty in the sixties. They are one of a group of friends of mine who seem to live in rock pools – their sitting rooms could be scooped up, transported to the Geffrye Museum and displayed, along with beautifully preserved Elizabethan parlours and Georgian music rooms, as typical examples of mid-twentieth century style.
The moment I entered the room (awash with grey heads) I knew I was in trouble. You arrive at 8.15 and there is no way you can leave until after 11.00. Dinner parties can be mini-prison sentences, only you don't get out early for good behaviour.
Things weren't helped by the arrival of a guest who wore her bag across her mackintosh from left shoulder to right hip – presumably to make the chances of getting mugged less likely. To add to the general picture of insecurity, she had her glasses on strings, another sign of age and madness. If you can't ever find your glasses, say I, then wear them all the time. If you have to, push them up on to your head. But don't have them hanging down on beaded strings. It looks as infantile as a three-year-old wearing gloves that are attached by ribbons to his coat.
Because I used to teach art and so could, at a stretch, be regarded as someone in the helping professions, my hosts had, at dinner, thoughtfully, they imagined, put, on my left, a male psychotherapist with a beard. Have to say I'm not mad about psychotherapists. They always look unnaturally serene, never cross their legs, as if they've been Alexander-techniqued up to the eyebrows, which they probably have, and they always have sinisterly caring voices. I'm not actually crackers about beards either, come to that. It's a truth, I've found, that men with beards are never remotely sexy. I think they grow beards not to hide weak chins, but to hide their weak masculinity. Men with beards often seem to have rather large womanly bottoms.
This guy also had a lot of very white hair. There's something a bit fishy, I think, about a man clearly over sixty who has a lot of hair. He looked rather like an effeminate sheep.
As we chomped our way through chilli con carne – along with the house, Marion's cooking is also stuck in a seventies time-warp – the therapist referred occasionally to Freud. When he did, I heard myself saying, rather acidly I'm afraid, that Freud was the most frightful old nightmare, who had, during his many incarnations, once recommended the taking of cocaine to his patients. Indeed, for a while he had been a cocaine addict himself. Total fraud.
'Are you sure you're not making a ''Fraudien'' slip?' asked the therapist. Everyone laughed in the way English people do when given the chance to relieve the tiniest hint of either seriousness or unpleasantness in the conversation.
He chuckled in a knowing and patronizing way, therapist-style, and went back to his salad. I was very pleased when a bit of lettuce got trapped in his beard.
I'm afraid I was in rather a bad mood. I had arrived in a bad mood. And the feeling had been exacerbated long before the realization that my neighbour was a therapist by the fact that the hosts had placed in the middle of the table a huge centrepiece of giant yellow and red tropical flowers, flanked on either side by tall candles, making it impossible for anyone on one side of the table to see anyone on the other. The flowers were those weird kinds that look like penises and vaginas – only recently featuring on the floral scene and totally ghastly. I managed, with a great show of jollity and apology, to get the centrepiece moved. ('Oh, isn't it beautiful, but darling I want to see you when you talk!'), but felt that I could hardly make demands about the candles too, so all the guests had to dodge round them to speak. Every time I looked across the table I felt like a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs.
Yes, bad mood. The older I get, the more of a loose cannon I become at dinner parties. Nine times out of ten, I can shine and be good fun, but the tenth I start yelling about inappropriate things, like how great euthanasia or abortion is, or how wrong it is to give aid to Africa, and everyone gets frightfully hot under the collar and embarrassed. They say that this outspokenness is something to do with the synapses atrophying in the frontal lobes as you get older, but I think it's just the ludicrous confidence that comes with age. This time we got on to the subject, sparked off by Mrs Glasses-on-Strings revealing (as they so often do these days) that, being sixty, she had just received her Freedom Pass, and how wonderful it was travelling on public transport for nothing.
I said I would be sixty in a few months, and couldn't wait.
'Yes,' said Mrs Glasses-on-Strings, trying to ingratiate herself with me. 'You're only as old as you feel. Sixty years young!'
'Sixty going on twenty!' said the therapist.
'I really can't agree,' I said. 'If you're sixty, you're sixty. Sixty is old. I am just longing to be old, and I don't want to be told I'm young, when I'm not. I'm fed up with being young. Boring. I was young in the sixties, and once, believe it or not, I slept with a Beatle. Been there, got the teeshirt, worn it to death and put it in a bag for Age Concern. When I was twenty, sixty was old, when I was thirty, forty and fifty, sixty was still old. I'm not going to change the goalposts now.'
'I'm sixty,' said Marion, as she smilingly collected the plates. (It's an odd fact that most men never realize when empty dishes are being stacked up. The therapist, who no doubt in his work prided himself on his acute sensitivity to other people's feelings, sat with his plate firmly in front of him, unaware that major operations were being carried out that required his cooperation.) 'But I don't feel a day over thirty!'
'But, Marion, don't you realize that that tragic?' I said. 'To continue feeling thirty for the whole of your life! So boring! A nightmare! I'm longing to feel sixty! What's wrong with that?'
'The great thing about age,' said the therapist, whose wife had finally leaned over the table and taken his plate, 'is that it's never too late. You can do so many things. Take an Open University degree, go bunjee-jumping, learn a new language...'
'But it is too late!' I argued. 'That's what's so great about being old. You no longer have to think about going to university, or go bunjee-jumping! It's a huge release! I've been feeling guilty about not learning another language for most of my adult life. At last I find that now, being old, I don't have to! There aren't enough years left to speak it. It'd be pointless!'
'Well, I feel,' said the therapist, defiantly, 'that now I am sixty-five, anything is possible.'
'I find, approaching sixty,' I replied, 'that the great pleasure is that so many things are impossible. I think,' I added, cruelly, putting my hand on his arm and smiling a great deal to pretend I meant no harm, 'that you're in what you therapists call denial.'
This time I got the laugh, but it was cheap and I felt ashamed.
As I drove back I was sorry for the poor old therapist, finding himself sitting next to rancid old me. Felt really guilty and horrible and wished I hadn't been so acid. Like me, the poor man probably would have far preferred to have sat next to a lovely young person instead.
To make matters worse, I looked terrible. Last night before I went to the party I saw in the mirror a raging beauty, with incredible olive skin, high cheekbones, a sensitive mouth, utterly ravishing. But when I looked in the mirror this morning, I couldn't believe what stared back at me – I looked grotesque; Charles Laughton in a dressing gown. My face was like an uncooked doughnut. Piggy eyes, small, pursed, pale-lipped mouth, deep frown-marks, all puff. Revolting. What is it that happens in the night? Clearly Something – God knows what – Collects. Or perhaps it was the Rioja. Or perhaps, more likely, the therapist, quite understandably, had put a curse on me.
Jumped into the bath (perhaps 'jump' is not the word; 'clambered into' might be a better way of describing it, and yes, I do have a funny rubber mat with suckers underneath, lying on the bottom) and found that none of the rest of my body is puffy – just becoming wrinkly, like an Austrian blind. I can see, now, my grandmother's arms sticking out of my shoulders, my skin becoming fine and papery and shiny, like hers. As I loved her so much, I don't mind the sight. But cripes, I'm only fifty-nine. Soon I'll be sixty. And I mean soon. In the next three months. Will everything collapse even further, I wonder?
Even now, when I do my noble ten minutes of yoga a day, I see small folds of skin waiting to tumble down my thighs. They're particularly in evidence when I do a shoulder-stand with my legs in the air. They've got strange marks on them – thread veins, the odd hint of a varicose vein. My upper arms have wobbly bits hanging from them. The backs of my hands are speckled with brown spots. When did they appear? Only a few years ago, I think, when I could pretend to myself (talk about in denial!) that I was about thirty. Now, my entire body is shrieking at me that I am old. And what's so utterly strange is that I don't really mind a bit. It feels rather comfortable, friendly – and right.
OK, my skin's not young and springy with that wonderful peachy bloom and a fuzz of fine downy hair. But it's still good, like an expensive but worn old leather sofa from a gentleman's club in Pall Mall.
The older I get, I've decided, the more I am determined to look not so much like some deserted vandalized community hall in Hull, but more like a beautiful ruined abbey of the kind immortalized by Poussin – or the other painter who begins with P. Name escapes me ... Or is it C?
When I got out of the bath and reached for the towel I remembered the time, as a child, I excitedly told my father that I had discovered a brilliant new way of drying myself.
'How?' he had asked. I showed him. With the towel around my back, I took one corner in each hand. I then pulled on each end alternately.
'Isn't it a good method?' I said.
I always remember my father's indulgent smile. 'I remember when I discovered that, and I was around exactly your age,' he said.
It was the first moment in my life when I had the revelation – a revelation that I have again and again and again – that not only what I think is an original thought has been thought time and time again by people throughout the ages but, worse, that thoughts that I imagine are new to myself are often thoughts that I have had again and again throughout my life. The treadmillness and groundhog-dayery of it all is both depressing and, oddly, reassuring. It would be good, however, to have a brand-new thought just once in one's life. I remember only recently realizing that you could hold two feelings in yourself at the same time, that you could both like someone and dislike them in one go, that you could both want a cigarette and want to give up smoking.
As one who sees life rather in black and white – strong hates and loves – I have always tried to compromise by seeing everything in a kind of grey. The trick is not to do that at all, but to manage to hold the contrasts in oneself at exactly the same time. That results in a much more lively and invigorating approach. Very late in the day to discover that thought, but it has made relationships with people far, far easier. And, oddly, kinder.
I then got dressed. Not an easy business these days. I think I used to balance on one foot when I put on my tights. Now I sit on the bed and roll back like a hedgehog as I tug them on, legs waggling in the air.
''Allo,' she said. 'I am Michelle.'
That was about the sum total of her English. She says 'Sank you' a lot. She seemed very pleased with the room I offered her, despite the fact that it is painted a dark abattoir-red, is lined with my books, has space in the cupboard for only about three things to hang up and half the chest of drawers is made over to screwdrivers, pipe-wrenches, hammers, sandpaper, electric drills and old light fittings.
'Beeg,' she said.
I suppose it is rather 'beeg' compared to most of the frightful shoe boxes foreign girls are offered in London. I gave her the usual spiel, in rather bad French, about how we must live completely separate lives, we do not share anything except the bathroom and the kitchen, that she has only about two inches of space in the fridge, we do not use each other's milk, and that she is not allowed in the garden...
Every time I give this talk I feel such a creep, but it is honed from long experience of lodgers. Once, when Jack, my son, was two years old, I found him pottering around the house one morning in the company of a huge dog. And when I went in to find the owner, a gigantic tattooed slob who was snoring next to my lodger, I found three candles burning around the bed.
But later, as Michelle and I sat on the sofa in my sitting room, I had to really steel myself to say that we would never, ever share a meal, that although it was fine for her to ask me if she needed help with anything, I had my life and she had hers – because I could feel maternal feelings stealing through me like some kind of chemical.
Later she crept down the stairs and I could hear her standing outside the room where I potter about doing bits and pieces, terrified to disturb me. I stopped typing out a furious letter to the council about the amount of uncollected rubbish to be found in the street, and called out to her. She wanted to know where the shops were. She looked so utterly vulnerable that when she turned to go, I found myself grabbing my bag and saying: 'I've got to get some kitchen roll, anyway, so I'll come with you and show you where everything is.' I even added the word 'darling'.
This is another curious sign of ageing. I find myself addressing everyone as 'sweetie' or 'darling' – and, even odder, meaning it. It's something I would never have done when I was young, in the days when the only people who received a 'darling' were men, who I loved.
When you're young, after all, you really only have relationships with people your own age or older. Your role is mostly as an equal or as child. But the older you get, the more types of relationship are available. With people of eighty I still feel an innocent child. With people my own age I feel like an equal. And with young people, the bonus, I feel like a parent. I feel caring and kindly feelings that are lovely to experience when you've spent most of your life feeling cross-patchy and hard-done-by as I have.
'Excuse me?' she said. Poor girl. The sooner she can find a room of her own with jolly young people rather than a mad, middle-aged woman with a maternal instinct on the loose, the better for her. What am I saying? 'Middle-aged!' I might be middle-aged today but in three months I'll be sixty, and that means I will no longer be middle-aged. I'll be old. Well and truly old. Old! Old! Old! Excellent.