WHY I AM QUITTING FOR SIX MONTHS by JILL TWEEDIE
Two years ago I rented a cottage in Suffolk. Every Friday night, euphoric with a week's work completed, I would charge home, collect sleeping bag, boots, coats, hot water bottles, food, pillows, wireless, books, comics, clothes, sponge bags, oil stoves, buckets, spades, children and mate, pack them all into the car and set off on the two-hour drive down there.
Arriving, I would turn on the electricity, fill the hot water bottles, make the beds, settle the children, sweep away the week's cobwebs, jettison the odd mouse corpse, swab down the kitchen and throw myself, exhausted, on the bed. Saturday, I would belt off to market, buy the food, mow the lawn, cut off the dead roses, clip the hedge, fix the swing, dust off the deckchairs and flop down, exhausted.
Sunday, I would bury some garbage and burn the rest, put away the lawnmower and deckchairs, turn off the electricity, collect the sleeping bags, boots, coats, hot water bottles, food, pillows, wireless, books, comics, clothes, sponge bags, oil stoves, buckets, spades, children and mate and hurtle back to London. Monday, work would begin again so that, come Friday, we could once again afford to rush home, collect the sleeping bags, boots, coats ...
In the mad dash there and back we would flash like meteorites past this perfect little cottage all on its own among green fields, framed by two ancient walnut trees, set in a garden with beans in neat rows and bees tumbling in the sweet peas. In it lived a man who did odd carpentering jobs and his wife, who helped out in the village store. I don't know what they earned, between them, but it must certainly have been a lot less than the two of us. So how come, I used to ask myself over and over, that they led exactly the life that I wanted to lead, seven days a week, while we merely grabbed at one-and-a-half out of seven? Why was their whole life my occasional treat? Their every day my snatched and costly luxury?
I suppose everyone tied by a relentless umbilical cord to cities has wondered, at times, at their fate. Who are the invisible fortunate whose personal Edens we only glimpse from holidaying cars, from the coach tour roads? Those blessed enigmas who live in the covetable wilderness of Dartmoor or Bodmin, besides gurgling brooks or awesome waterfalls, in mossy valleys or high on mountains that crash down to the sea? People who live, year after year, where everyone goes on holiday, who call picture-card settings home sweet home? How did they get there, how did they find such Paradise, and what, oh what, do they do for a living so far from the brass and the muck.
Once, I made friends with a small-holder farmer on Gozo and sat with him in his glade of prickly pears, near his slab of an Arab cottage overlooking the Maltese sea. Grey stone, green cactus, oranges lighting the trees, a bleating goat, the beating sun, and down there five hundred feet below our feet the endless shining flatness of the sea. A man could sweat all his life away in the caverns of New York or London, amass a fortune and consider it well spent on such a place as this. My Gozen friend had ragged, empty pockets and worked all the hours God sends but he lived on millionaires row.
Indeed, life is arranged in a curious way for very many of us in this world. In gloomy moments, I think that many a man's fate is to work very hard at a job he does not like in order to pay for a life he does not like in a place he does not like in a house he does not like surrounded by possessions he does not like and, sometimes, people he does not like either. Somewhere, in a tiny nodule of his brain, he carries a clear cameo of what he would really like to do and where and in what fashion, but long before that picture is more than a passing reality, two weeks a year - boom boom - he is dead and what happened to those 60, 70 years? And they bury him in the place he did not like and call him a man who did his duty. R.I.P.
In the past few years I have worked harder than at any time before in my life, though no harder than many others. The work itself I have mightily enjoyed which is a great good fortune, but a deal of the other ingredients that make up life has gone by the board, swallowed up in an inexorable time-table, sacrificed on the altar of the Great God Work. 10.00 a.m. be there, 10 45 a.m. move on there, 11 00 meet whojits, 12 30 p.m. lunch with thingummy, 2 30 p.m. meeting here, 3 30 p.m. discuss that with whatsit, 4 30 p.m. write, 6 30 p.m. bath child, 7 30 p.m. attend this, 9 to 12 pm attend that. In between, phone calls - sorry love, love to love, can't love, busy love, bye love.
Without a doubt, children are the first sacrifice on that altar because the trouble (or virtue) of children is that they are unslottable - their needs will not be met by a quick entry in a diary, see child 6 00, love child 6 30 to 7 p.m. Goodness knows, it is not hard to give yourself a passing impression of closeness and good motherhood by bathing them and cutting their fingernails, feeding them vitamin tablets and watching them brushing the hair and teeth. See how clean they are, see how their hair shines, see their rosy cheeks.
Unfortunately this keeping-up-with-the-Jones aspect of parenthood means absolutely nothing at all to the child. If that child is worrying about something it will not be revealed to you by appointment. You cannot say to a seven year old, look, I have exactly quarter of an hour, so start now, baby, and keep talking. Getting to know and help a child requires the same oblique and time-consuming techniques as taming a wildish animal - you must simply be there, doing unimportant things in his presence, asking a question or two and then trailing off on another task, sitting around and listening and giving an impression at least, that you have all the time in the world at his disposal.
How many times does it happen that the child, in bed, clean pyjama'd, fed and watered, begins - as you prepare to take off - to bare his soul? No use saying not now love or, tell you what make it this time next Tuesday or what else is that child but a lodger in your house and you the busy landlady?
Relatives and friends, too, vanish in the hurly-burly of a busy life, rendered dumb by the speed of the tornado that whirls around you. Work is the great I Am and all else must take second place, in your eyes and, later, in theirs. Mother phones and says I suppose you wouldn't have time to come shopping with me tomorrow? "Shopping", you think, giving a mental snort. I should be so lucky. Why, I haven't seen the inside of a shop since April 5, 1969. Lovely for some, is all I can say. Briskly you answer, terribly sorry, you know I'd love to but ... well there's work. Another time perhaps. Another time. And you never recognise the sad fact that "shopping" is simply a euphenism, an acceptable way of saying "I want to see you, I"m lonely, I miss you, I'm getting old and frightened, there might not be another time."
A friend of mine phones up in the morning and says, Oh heavens, I feel so ill, could you come over, please come over? Panic. Guilt. But in half an hour I have to be at Victoria Station to catch a train, a plane, a man. Impossible to cancel, deadline tomorrow, got to earn a living, go like a shot if I could. So I mumble and excuse myself, suggesting she call in a neighbour, suggesting I go round that evening. I go that evening and she has had a miscarriage, all by herself. And I have written an article like I said I would, because I am a working girl and the demands of an empty newspaper page are, well, so much more demanding than a friend. Aren't they?
Another friend phones, another time. I'm feeling rather low, she says quite cheerfully, thought I'd have a party with my old mates. Can you come, do come? But there's a conference in Brighton that I'd have to cover - well, I'll try of course, you know I'd much rather. So I go to Brighton and next day I hear she has quietly killed herself, lying in her small bedsit among the party glasses. Oh, nothing to do with me naturally. I wasn't that important to her. But I might have been a last light straw she couldn't bear that day, that hour. I found time to go to her funeral, she'd have been glad to know. Nothing like getting one's priorities right.
So the Holy Protestant Ghost, the Working God slowly squeezes out all else but itself, extinguishing slowly but surely a little light here, a little word there, substituting efficiency for love, action for warmth, a voice on the telephone for a voice in the room, an expensive present for the right present, dried flowers for fresh. Books are not read for pleasure but gutted for use, ideas do not fall as the gentle rain from heaven but are caught and dissected like laboratory frogs. Knowledge may not be absorbed, merely wrenched out, wrapped up and thrown away when used.
And the excuses, the righteous defences. Well of course, if I'd known it was serious I would have dropped everything. If only he, she, they had said it was important. I mean I'd do anything for anyone if they said it was important, only I have got a living to earn. The trouble is, human beings are not computers. They do not issue small cards edged with red: This Is An Emergency. I Need You Now. Refusal Will Affect The Rest Of My Life. SOS. Mayday. Not Waving But Drowning. No. They stammer and stumble while you drum your fingers on the table: could you ... not important ... just wondered ... know you're busy ... never mind ... I'll manage. And they do, of course, until the day they don't.
So I'm taking six months off, starting today. I'm going to shop and have coffee and talk to my friends about nothing in particular and hang around with my son in case he feels like a chat and ring up people and say how are you doing and why not do it with me. Of course, I'll be writing a book too. Well, you have to have some work, otherwise the withdrawal symptoms might get too strong. But a book can be dropped at a moments notice, shifted about depending on who's around when. I'll be back in June and I'll terribly miss all the letters I never answer. Have a very merry Christmas, everybody and see you around. I'm the one over there, sitting on the park bench, watching the grass grow.
December 16th 1972