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Authors: Candia McWilliam

What to Look for in Winter

BOOK: What to Look for in Winter
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What to Look for in Winter:
A Memoir in Blindness
Candia McWilliam

Dedication

TO

OLLY

CLEM

&

MINOO

Epigraphs

The art of losing isn't hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident

the art of losing's not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

Be as thou wast wont to be;

See as thou wast wont to see;

Oberon to Titania
A Midsummer Night's Dream
by William Shakespeare

Femme qui boit du vin

Fille qui parle latin

Soleil levé trop matin

Dieu sait quelle sera leur triste fin

French Proverb

Contents

Part One:
Spectacles

Part Two:
See/Saw

Chapter 1:
The Seen in the Thaw

Chapter 2:
Saw/See

Chapter 3:
Milk Money

Chapter 4:
The Shaman in the Basement

Chapter 5:
Mine Eyes Dazzle

Chapter 6:
Goosey, Goosey Gander

Chapter 7:
Snowdropped In

Chapter 8:
Eyes Half-cut

Chapter 9:
Two Instances of Spring

Chapter 10:
Silver Wadding and the Smell of Remorse

Chapter 11:
Pollen and Soot and the Family in the Cupboard

O
ne of the last things my mother gave me was a paper umbrella; it must have been from Japan. Its wooden spars were webbed with an oily paper that smelled of pine resin and fish. When you put the umbrella up, the paper separated from itself with a faint disgustingness of sound, unidentifiable as yet to a child of eight, that would later reveal itself to be that of flesh separating from flesh or the frozen surface of a lake beginning to shiver apart.

My paper umbrella was of little use in Edinburgh, a city with some call for the kind of umbrella that keeps off not the glare of the sun but the fall of the rain. Nonetheless, I loved it. My mother was a woman with too many superstitions, a trait I have inherited, so she didn't like the umbrella to be put up inside the house. I didn't want to upset her, so I would stand just outside the house, on the stone step, under my orange paper umbrella, whirling it and looking up through its oily sections, listening to the seagulls mewing over our street.

My mother shook silver in her pocket under the new moon, avoided looking at that moon through glass, said she wouldn't have hawthorn or peacock feathers in the house, and telephoned on our party line regularly to St Anthony of Padua when she lost things. Or she tried to keep to these strictures. In fact, she seldom had silver in her pocket, the moon went where it wanted to go, and she found herself surprisingly often arranging the hawthorn in vases or making fancy-dress outfits for me with glittering many-eyed peacock feathers she had stolen from the Zoo. St Anthony I cannot speak for. So, she knew what to avoid, but did not quite do it.

Hers was a compressed life, folded back down into itself only shortly after it had apparently emerged into some kind of light. Nonetheless in its shade other lives have grown up, my own and those of my three
children. I have the instinct too that she had many friends, though I do not know this, and that people who met her remembered having done so. But that might be wishful thinking of the sort we scatter on the young dead.

Tomorrow this book of mine, which is greatly hers, goes to the printer. It is an account of many kinds of light denied. It is also the account of how certain forms of shade are rich if you are fortunate enough to stay sufficiently long to read them. I have already lived for eighteen years longer than my mother did.

Wanting to surprise her when I was about five, I tried to make purple ice cubes, using violet ink. We had only recently become a family with a refrigerator. Before that, we had had a meat-safe, a sort of individualised Iron Maiden. I took the burning cold ice tray, with its square eyebaths for the water, held in tight form by a metal grid, like the letters in my printing set. Each one I filled with the dense swarming ink and water mixture, black until you spilled it, when it flowered kingly purple. I was acutely conscious that I must be quick as I dosed the small moulds. No shoogling. It occasioned the sort of rapt guilt that making sentences can to a child taught only of the primacy of fact; I was lucky not to be born such a child, though later events were to change that. The private nature of what I was doing was blissful as was the idea that my actions were exactly aimed to delight someone I loved. I closed the ice compartment upon my inky tray of socketed dark water.

I returned to my drawing at the kitchen table and waited for my mother. The tact required from her must have been great. Purple hands covered her small new fridge. She went about her kitchen tasks until such time as it would have been natural to open it, perhaps to get some milk, or some anchovy paste, of which, and smoked cod roe, she was fond (I often wonder whether she and I are really part-time seals). Inside, the shelves and contents of her newly acquired zone of hygiene and modernity were drenched imperially with violet ink.

She took in what I had intended, rather than what I had achieved. She told me that it might be fun–next time–to use food colouring not ink, so that no one would be poisoned. And we could put in some grapes too, or flowers.

So, a short life, but one in which she took time to pay close attention to the ideas of others. She had little, but was much.

This book is the merely paper umbrella that I have been able slowly to erect against the usual human weathers and one surprising cloud–my blindness–over several years. Sometimes as I have variously spoken it or tapped it out, I have felt as though an umbrella of skin held between bones were forcing itself through my person. Why umbrella? Again I have returned to that paper umbrella; shade is the most one can ask, shade from which to see with some kind of truth, neither hectic with sunlight nor sodden to blackness.

The world of addiction and recovery from it is full of necessarily approximate language. Plenty of aesthetically snooty addicts hang offshore from sobriety, unwilling to accept the slogans on offer. I know several. I have been one. It's too easy, though, to go clever against the pat sayings that offer you some handhold as you fall: ‘I came'; ‘I came to'; ‘I came to see'; ‘Let go and let God'. You have to open up to the possibility that your private pain is not to be held furled and weapon-like, but to be opened out as you fall, parachute not ferrule, so that it may protect another, a collective shelter from a fearful rain.

While we are on weather, observant readers may notice that I have made at least one compass error of grave consequence. That I can think of these errors in any way that might be useful is due to those I love who are here described and to what I have read. The work of Sybille Bedford is seldom far away. My then husband and I had supper with her once. She was formidable and cross. He reminded me of that long gone evening in the winter of this year, 2010, when he had first read this book. He said that it was hard to convey how much I had once had–he was not speaking materially–and how much I did not now have; it is indeed like a cautionary tale or a minatory
melodrama. I know that this will not be lost on certain schools of comment. I recall a friend telling me of how she had seen someone look at a photograph of me surrounded by dolls in a magazine and say, ‘Look at
her
; her life's so perfect even her wretched children
look like dolls
.'

PART ONE:
SPECTACLES

W
hy don't you write your memoirs?' I've been asked, or, worse, ‘Why don't you write your life story? No one would believe it.'

Well, that's why.

My friend Allan Massie wrote to me in 1996 that I was, as a novelist, ‘insufficiently prolific'. But for one thin book of stories, I am exactly as unprolific now as I was then.

My last novel was published in 1994, my last book of short stories in 1996. It's not that I'm not writing, or it wasn't, but rather that I had taken a wrong turning and got stuck. I saw this baulk reflected back to me in every face I met. It got so bad that I could not bear the glare.

That unbearable glare has in the last years taken on an entirely new meaning for me.

Friends who knew me better than the ones who simply asked about a memoir, said, ‘You really must write something about Scotland; it's changed so much since when you were a child.'

 

In the new millennium, I attended a rehabilitation clinic for alcoholism. When the press discovered this, for a whole day I couldn't walk through my native city without being stopped for I was that day's page three and four girl; double spread, as it were, ‘my alcoholic hell by Scots writer'. I had my youngest child Minoo with me. His reaction was phlegmatic: ‘People who believe that angle believe that angle,' he said. I telephoned the other children. One was in a pub in Caithness; I worried that he would be hurt. ‘Nonsense,' he said, ‘I'm up here with a few of the boys carrying on your tradition. Seriously, Mummy, it's fine.' My daughter had left a long soothing message on every telephone
in Scotland that might pertain to me about the nature of truth and corruption and how dreadful it must be–and she's right–for really famous people.

Nonetheless all three children lived the painful truth of having an alcoholic mother. When it came to be known by certain publishers that this was the case, just one feeler came out to me. Would I write a misery memoir: ‘Middle-class, middle-aged woman at War Hotel spills all', sort of thing? ‘War Hotel' is the term used to describe rehab when you want to big it up.

My reply to this was the worst possible and constituted the last drink I've had to this day. It lasted a fortnight, I think. One drink being too many and a thousand not enough.

In the rehabilitation centre, which was set in a house about whose architecture and inhabitants, The Souls, I had once, long ago, written a review, several of the counsellors, themselves mostly ‘in recovery', asked me if I would write about the experience. I was surprised because confidentiality is one of the tenets of all twelve-step programmes of recovery from addiction. They said, ‘No, yours would be different; it could help people.'

To one of my temperament, to be of use to others is an irresistible spur. Even my last child was an attempt to please my mother-in-law who had said bitterly, ‘I expect I'll get a book a year instead of a grandchild.'

Still, I wrote no memoir, but I was thinking it. Towards what end I did not know, but I'm glimpsing now.

I didn't see it coming, but in this spring of 2008, I've had to close down on my other addiction, far more serious than the drink, that was lifelong, beautiful, consolatory, solitary and terminal: reading.

For it appears that I am gone blind.

 

Blindness, and I gather that this is so for many who cannot see, is not a solid or unmodulated blackness such as one might imagine
comes over the head of a hawk when you put on its hood. In addition my blindness could be termed illegitimate, since it is not so that my eyes cannot see.

It is simply the case that my brain has chosen to close them. For twenty-two hours every day I am unable to open them.

That is the reason why I'm writing a book more full of ‘I's than I'm temperamentally moved, or perhaps even equipped, to. When you imagine a writer writing what do you see in your mind's eye? I'm not talking about those pictures of writers' studies in lifestyle sections. I'm talking about the thing itself, the solitary maker of what you read.

Unthink it now, perhaps, for I am not actually writing at all, but dictating, pacing a room sixteen of my paces long and fourteen wide and having my spoken words typed by a fine-featured young woman with the auspicious name of Liv Stones. I am marching blindly to and fro with my Diet Coke, carrying my pointless spectacles and trying to think aloud in sentences and paragraphs, I hope for your benefit, or, better, your pleasure.

Before I went blind, I would if forced to choose my most beloved author have said Henry James. He has been joined by Tolstoy and Proust. But he is still my great love and here it is irresistible to put in his tribute to Miss Theodora Bosanquet, his last, near-telepathic amanuensis.

James wrote to his brother William:

A new excellent amanuensis, a young boyish Miss Bosanquet, who is worth all the other (females) that I have had put together and who confirms to me in the perception afresh–after eight months without such an agent–that for certain, for most, kinds of diligence and production, the intervention of the agent is, to my perverse constitution, an intense aid and a true economy! There is no comparison.

I managed to read about the first twelve words of that aloud to Liv, by holding my eyelids open with my fingers, but it got too sore and if I waste sight this early in the day I will be bumping into things
like a bumblebee by elevenses. I fall over a lot and am covered with the sort of bruises that worry social workers. Last week I had a pretty black eye that I wanted to keep for longer; I came by it walking into the bough of a pollarded wisteria in Radnor Walk. Since the blindness really took hold, I have hardly worn eye make-up and I had forgotten what an enjoyable, if minute, recreation the painting of one's own eyes is. I feel like a Greek fishing boat without its painted eyes. Without my sparkle I can't seem to see my way. In India mothers put kohl on babies' eyes to ward off blindness. My black shiner was a beautiful mix of colours: navy, rose, ochre, olive, ultramarine. It returned one of my eyes to me in definition at least, for they feel as though they have fallen in and dried out like deserted eggs, or like painful stones behind crisped, gluey lids. It is to be hoped that together Liv and I may either lift, or bring life to, those stones.

Why call this chapter ‘Earpiece'? Because I have to accept that I cannot read through my eyes and must listen (I still can't call it reading) through my ears. I held out pridefully, typically, self-punishingly, until 10 July 2007, when a friend got me to listen to
On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan on her iPod. The iPod was on speakers because I still cannot bear to block another sense by putting things in my ears and stopping up two more holes in my head like Odysseus as he avoids the Sirens' song.

You can't hide in a talking book, and with my iPod problem I can't ‘read' in company. But that's lucky, in a way, as I am almost always alone.

I do not live with my husband. I left him more than ten years ago. We are legally separated but not divorced. It was a mistake. He said to me when I went blind, ‘Perhaps you have had to lose everything to return to yourself and your art', and it's a thought, though rather too grand for me, who have always put on a clean, ironed, white apron in order to sit down to write. It's the sort of thing you can say about dead people. I do feel dead sometimes. I feel like a fat ghost.

What's the difference between the old way of reading and this new listening? Partly that is what this book will be about. In practical
terms, there are the questions of the machines and the vital question of the reader, or actor, of the book. Machines first: I like tapes, even though they go wrong and are soon to become obsolete; CDs, with their wafery holographic smoothness, just don't say ‘words' to me. But I consume both in inordinate quantities. Part of whatever it is that has gone wrong in my brain involves broken sleep and where I would once have turned to a book I click on the merciful munching tape or set the CD spinning.

There is pleasure, and I really doubted that there would be, in relistening, just as there is delight in rereading. It is a very different pleasure, and one of which I might not have, in the purist old days, approved. I have always deprecated the habit of reading simply for plot, for the solving of the puzzle. It is the texture of the text, the touch of the writer's thinking upon my own thought, the intimacy of interinanimation that I loved and that had accompanied me all my conscious life.

I confess I haven't had even one jolt of this quality of delight since becoming a listener, though there have been many moments when I clumsily tried to stop the machine
there
–
just there
–and catch the words again, in order to make, as I'm afraid I would have done before, a note in the margin, or on a bit of paper. I find these notes now next to my bed where I do most of my listening, but of course I can't read them; it's like darning a black sock trying to read my writing now. The sort of reading that I used to love, reading several books simultaneously, is not now possible. I used to do it when I felt a novel brewing, that time when the unconscious is bulging, sticky and collecting with a view to its unknown quarry; in those conditions the strangest books forged relationships with one another and something new would be born. Books, even alone in a room, have that quality; they breathe; they can even, somehow, parthenogenetically, reproduce.

Somehow? I know perfectly well how in my case. I buy them. It's silly and I buy fewer than I did when I read or when I had some
idea that I could or would read them, but I buy them to have them handy by me, to have their breath in my air, their breathing mixing with my own. I miss them.

 

Just how hard this is to express came home to me only yesterday when, after Liv's first morning typing for me, a young friend of my daughter's visited. He had told me last week that he was going to spend the bank holiday weekend, among other, ice-creamier things, reading
Timon of Athens
in order to ready himself to read A.D. Nuttall's
Shakespeare the Thinker
on
Timon
. Never would I have thought that the intensest pleasure of my fifty-third year would be brought by being read aloud to from this generous, precise, thrilling book. It is the most intimate experience of my year so far and that intimacy was with the text and the ideas within the text and the modesty, breadth and quiddity of an, alas now posthumous, scholarly voice.

So far, in my experience, this hasn't happened with talking books, but they are marvellous things nonetheless. I have the addict's tooth-grinding shakes when I'm running out of talking books. I know that I can turn to Proust again, but I like to have a fresh stash hidden somewhere about the place. There are, for example, three box-fresh sets of CDs (Plutarch's
Lives
, Aristotle and
A Guide to Ancient Greek Philosophy
) hidden in this room, and every room in the flat has a similar hoard. It is exactly like keeping vodka in your steam iron. Any alcoholic, set the task of finding my hidden tapes and CDs, ‘just for emergencies', you understand, would be through with the hunt in five minutes, easy as finding a bottle in a gumboot.

The medical term used for my type of blindness is ‘functional'. The topsy-turvy logic of this is that I function hardly at all and can do very little for myself. I carry a fold-up-able white stick when I leave the house, which is seldom, and then mainly to visit doctors. You buy these white sticks from a website set up by the RNIB where
all sorts of gadgets may be found, including talking microwaves. I've been fighting off microwaves since first they began and people started saying things like, ‘You can reheat your nasty cold coffee.' I really don't want a chatty microwave, but of course I see the point.

It is a new world and I'd best take it as the adventure it is, generously, as though it were a gift. It is in a way a new way of seeing, not to see.

Here I must advert to, and then we can each forget, or absorb, the saturation of our language with metaphors to do with sight.

One of the unlooked-for benefits of this functional blindness was that I simply gave up cooking as too extreme a sport; sadly, the new lot of drugs they are trying on me have made of the new, thinner, me the old, fatter, me.

Functional blindness is not a pest merely for its possessors. The state and its bureaucracy don't much like it either, and in the past eighteen months I have spent much time with well-meaning personages assessing such grey areas as my ‘toileting ability'.

As things stand, I was advised by the state that I must apply for a Disability Living Allowance, since without this I cannot register as blind which I must do before I can be considered for a guide dog. This allowance has just skyrocketed 65 pence per week. But my short career as a benefits scrounger will, as far as I can see, be terminated at the next Budget, when, if New Labour are still in, I shall be reassessed and, putatively, retrained to do a job more suited to my capacity or rather, as they say, ‘ability', meaning the opposite.

Back to that word ‘functional'. Perhaps it is my Scottishness, but I can't see a way of writing this book without wanting it to be of some use. The privilege, as I understood it, of being a novelist was to touch the imagination of others with one's own and to establish a contact more real than many other forms of encounter. It was my task, I thought, to convey the truth of what it is to be alive, to feel, and to think, to catch both differentness and connection in narratives that shed light on the secret human heart. So, perhaps, this exercise that intimidates me,
on account of its going so deeply against my grain, may touch your synapses with my own as I give some account of what it has been to have lived, to have felt and to have thought within my head before and since it closed down its main route to, and means of, interpreting the world, my eyes.

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