I have plenty of contemporary crime novels to hand that I am looking forward to reading, and yet these days I find myself more often turning to old friends. I’ve gone back to the novels of Ngaio Marsh and have just enjoyed Singing in the Shrouds, Scales of Justice, Clutch of Constables, Death and the Dancing Footman, and When in Rome. I have to say that she is not in my view the best of the GA writers. In Artists in Crime the middle stretch of the novel consists of interview after interview and she makes the mistake of having most of the characters be really repellent. Her attitudes towards homosexuality have not dated well. I was startled by that in Singing in the Shrouds. And she cannot hold a candle to Dame Agatha for plotting. Her strength lies in description and conjuring up atmosphere, and I think this owes something to her first career as a painter.
I’ve found myself thinking of when I first read her novels. It was the 1980s and I was a postgraduate student living in a bedsit in Birmingham. I can see it as I write this. There was a bed that unfolded from the wall, a small yellow galley kitchen, and a surprisingly cavernous bathroom. It was damp. I was tired of sharing student houses and wanted to live alone, but looking back, I can see that I was often lonely. I did have friends, but writing a Ph.D. thesis is a solitary occupation and it is easy to feel discouraged. Days could easily pass when I didn’t speak to anyone. Now that I think of it, I was far more isolated in those days before the internet and mobile phones than I am now in lockdown.
But then as now it was a comfort to escape into a familiar world with familiar characters and to know that at the end of the book all will be explained and order will be restored. I’ll be ready for more up-to-date reading soon, but just for now old friends are best.
Earlier this month the apple tree that we planted in memory of my husband, Peter, was in bloom. The warm days were followed by cold and windy weather that brought to my mind one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. The power of art to console remains undimmed in these difficult days. Indeed, we need it more than ever.
So here it is, Sonnet XVIII.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
There are a few blogs that I always read and one of them is ‘Fragments of a Writer’s Life’, which can be found at SueHepworth.com. I’ll declare an interest – she is a good friend – but she is also one of the funniest people writing today. Sue has put together a selection of her posts spanning a decade and here is one of them. I can’t read it without laughing.
He called my bluff
‘No sooner had I finished writing an article on my longings for an empty nest than my 18-year-old called my bluff. He cares nothing for the current trend of young adults living forever at home. A friend had phoned and asked if he’d like to share a house with her. His eyes lit up. My eyes lit up. It was hard to know who was the more excited.
He went to his room to pack but then returned to say that his duvet needed washing before he went. The laundrette has just closed down in our local town and now the nearest is 15 miles away, so I rang Sketchley, who quoted me £15.99 and two weeks to wash the duvet.
“£15.99 ?” said my husband, horrified. He’d just been checking our dwindling Isas and decided we should combine the boy’s leaving with an economy drive which would begin with the easy cuts of (1) cancelling Kerrang, and (2) shunning supermarkets, now we won’t need to buy junk food.
Then he had an idea: “I’ll wash the duvet. That will save money.”
“But it’s a double one,” I said. “It won’t fit in our machine.”
“I’ll do it by hand in the fun tub.” (A fun tub, dear reader, is a huge plastic tub – three feet high and three feet across – in which builders put rubble, and which my husband uses for his DIY.) But the fun tub was languishing in the shed stuffed with used plastic cartons, which would one day “come in useful,” so he decided to use the bath, which is more commodious and also has (of course) running hot water.
He swung the duvet into the bath and started to run the taps, but the duvet behaved like a giant sponge and soaked up every drop of water. He couldn’t swish it around to make a washing motion, and had to bend right over and pummel the thing. It was like wrestling with an alligator, with my husband looking less like Paul Hogan and more like an also-ran in a wet T shirt competition.
Even when rinsed and squeezed it was so heavy that my husband – a strapping chap who is as strong as a pair of Charlie Dimmocks – found it hard to pick up. He had to bundle it up and clutch it to his chest like one of the contestants in The Strongest Man in the World competition in that event where they stagger for a hundred metres carrying a boulder as big as a buffalo.
The plan was to go down the stairs with it, through the open front door, and outside to the washing line. But he slipped just two steps from the bottom, lurched forwards and squeezed the duvet between himself and the wall, depositing three gallons of water on the hall floor.
And to think I’d been harbouring a fear that life might be a tad dull when my son left home.
Eventually he got the duvet outside and edged it bit by bit over the washing line, which then swooped grasswards in a giant parabola, though miraculously the trees to which it was tied remained rooted. It only took three days to dry.
With the duvet sorted everything else was simple. My son has been moving his stuff in bits and bats, and last night after tea he took himself. We drove three miles through the fog and the dripping wetness of the October night and I left him at the bus stop for his ride into town and his new house.
The empty nest is a strange place. I cannot think of another life event which combines such wildly conflicting emotions. Unaccustomed feelings of lightness and liberation sweep in, only to be edged aside by drifts of haunting wistfulness at the thought of the baby of the family growing up and leaving.
I gave him the biggest hug of his life in the hall before we left, because there wouldn’t be room in the car for a proper one, while the duvet-washer ( aka his Dad) stood with his arms folded and said: “A whole new exciting stage of life.”
“Aren’t you going to say ‘Good luck with your new exciting stage of life’?” I asked.
“I was thinking about me,” said his Dad.’
You can buy Days Are Where We Live here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/DAYS-ARE-WHERE-WE-LIVE-ebook/dp/B086HPVPJB