Last night, as the hour moved beyond midnight and I became a year older, I found I couldn’t sleep, but lay awake and watched a gruesome parade of failure limp past my vision. How apologetic I have been about my ambitions, I thought. Is that because I never really believed in them? Have I been this spineless because the minute anyone criticised me, I knew I wouldn’t have the conviction to fight my corner? I’m a fraud, that’s what I am. A fantasist.
I slept in. Usually I’m up two hours earlier than anyone else and writing a thousand words. But I’d set my internal alarm clock to “Oh, what’s the bloody point?” and it knew better than to contradict me.
When I did come down, Mother said: “Oh, happy birthday, Ken, dear.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “You just called me Ken.”
“I’m always doing that,” she complained. “Getting you mixed up with the dog. It’s my condition, not me.”
“You’ve never called Ken by my name.”
John was beside her at the kitchen table, eating cereal and watching me nervously. Peony got a “job” the other day so that she could “support” him and was already up and out of the house. The job was part-time and we all expected her to pack it in before the weekend but it was still a little strange to see John unstuck from her side. I never thought I’d say this, but thank God for Charlton. He’s the boy’s favourite adult after Peony.
And that, in fact, was when Charlton arrived, dressed and grinning and slapping me on the back.
“Happy birthday, Sis,” he sang.
“Whatever,” I mumbled.
“I’ve got you the best present ever.”
I made myself some coffee.
Go away, go away all of you, I thought. I don’t want to be a year older. I don’t want to fail among you, in public. I want to fail alone and keep it to myself, wallow in it. Why should I still be looking at all your faces at this stage in my life?
“I’m moving out,” he announced. “How’s that for a thoughtful present?”
I turned and pointed the spoon at him.
“You’re moving out as a gift to me?”
“Well, no. I’m moving out and it happens to be your birthday. It occurred to me that my moving out would be better than any frippery I could buy. Am I right?”
Well, yes, of course he was right. I’d been trying to wriggle him out of the pack for months. Was it really going to be this easy? And why did I suddenly feel such a bitch about it?
“Well… you don’t have to.”
John was glaring at me and I saw in the child’s eyes profound resentment. As though this were all my fault. Surely he must see from his vantage point that I have no control over anything in my own house.
“What do you want to do with your day?” pronounced Charlton as though my day were in his gift.
“I want to go on a long country walk,” I said.
Ken Tray’s head arrived in my lap at the very whiff of the word “walk”.
“We’re in the middle of London, Ken dear,” said Mother (to me). “Where are you going to find countryside?”
I just want to get away from you!
But I didn’t say that. I said: “Well, I’ll walk round the cemetery then and count all the people I’ve outlived.”
As I left the kitchen, I heard her say: “Nobody tell her that outliving people doesn’t count as an achievement. She’s always cranky on her birthday.”
The cemetery was glorious, actually, and not just because at least I was alive. The air was fresh but heavy with Autumn damp, and the leaves were thick and matted beneath my boots. Ken Tray bounced along at a dainty pace and never once gave the impression that he might run away. (Not that I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt.) Though the day was dark and the clouds low, I felt free and unjudged and, as ever, comfortable in my own company. Who needs readers? Surely this is the best outcome for a person like me. Far from fearing obscurity, I should relish it. I can write and write and write and enjoy the purity of it. Charlton’s going, Peony’s working. This is surely the beginning of my new reclusive life.
And we trotted contentedly along a yew walk, Ken and I, admiring the deep gloss of the rain-coated foliage, when we walked smack into a party of young people, recessed in their hooded tops, swearing colourfully at the sight of me.
I wasn’t going to say sorry. They had walked into me.
A young man whose vast nose and tiny, angry eyes were the only features visible within his hood, tutted impatiently at my presence. There were about five of them. They weren’t going to move to let me go past and the last thing I was going to say was “excuse me”.
The young man said: “Look, it’s a f—ing dog, innit. Wooo, I’m scared.”
A girl laughed. I waited.
Someone pointed out: “It’s really thin, that dog.”
The girl laughed again. I didn’t think it was that funny.
The big-nosed boy leaned towards Ken and scowled with angry revulsion. He really looked very unpleasant.
Having inspected Ken for a good minute or so he looked back up at me and offered this pronouncement:
“Is that a greyhound, innit?”
There was a long moment when the birds were the only sound around us. Slowly I expelled some air and looked over the top of my glasses, directly into those tiny, vacant eyes. And wearily I told him:
“No, it’s a sausage dog.”
And I added: “Innit.”
Another long, bird-filled moment.
The young man frowned as he thought about what I’d said, then wheezed: “sausage dog!” and they all laughed and with that simply moved off, the crowd parting around me and repeating “nice one” amongst themselves as they shuffled away.
As I turned to watch them go, I saw my daughter stride cheerily up to me in her long sky-blue work coat that I wish I owned, or could fit into.
She grabbed me round the shoulders and pulled me into a hearty hug.
“Peony, what are you doing here?” I demanded.
“Just walking home. Got sacked. No, laid-off. Let’s say laid-off. Anyway, that’s not important. Mum, you were amazing. I can’t believe how coolly you handled that. I saw that gang poke a guy off his bike with a big stick last week. I wouldn’t mess with ‘em.”
Oh that poor cyclist. How awful.
We set off for home.
“That’s what I love about the characters in your books,” she observed. “They just say what they think. You’ve created this awesome world where there’s total verbal honesty.”
“Have I?” I stuttered. “I didn’t know you read my books.”
“Course I bloody read ‘em,” she guffawed. “We all do. Can’t write enough, I say.”
“Do you really say that?”
“Mum! Don’t be such an idiot. Of course we do.”
She shook her head and laughed.
“We?” I persisted.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’re always like this on your birthday.”
“I thought I might like to be a recluse,” I told her.
“Recluses live alone, don’t they?” she checked.
And for the second time within ten minutes, here was a young person laughing at what she perceived to be my perfect joke.
“Nice one,” she said. And then added: “Where’s Ken?”