The kid that shame forgot

“Is Katherine playing?”

At weekends and during school holidays our back garden was often riotous with kids from the other houses in the street. I was happy enough to put my book down a while and play skipping games, elastics, or “knives, forks, spoons” (a kind of competitive gymnastics game: I still do a mean cartwheel!)… until the summer I saw The Land That Time Forgot. How could I focus on handstands when I desperately needed to think about dinosaurs? I made a makeshift (i.e. probably dangerous) swing in the lilac tree and spent hours going back and forth, planning my great dinosaur adventure.

In the film, the lost land was discovered by a submarine with a German crew. I figured there would be submarines in the naval base at Portland Harbour, half an hour away, so needn’t worry about that for the time being. The little school library had a series of books about various countries: I soon memorised the page of rudimentary vocab. in the back of the one about Germany.

In short, with only a dodgy action movie as my template, I put two and two together and came up with a number outside the decimal system altogether.

Yesterday morning, I listened to a new meditation on Spotify. I don’t think it matched its description, but it did bring something interesting to light. Two related things, actually; two instances where I was punished, by a teacher and by a stranger (including, both times, angry shouting and name-calling), when I didn’t understand what I had done wrong, or even that I had done something wrong. And, in the absence of understanding, I interpreted this as further evidence that I was (in all things) wrong. This resulted in an intense feeling of shame so I could never tell anyone else what had happened. I hid it, and alongside it I hid what I could of myself, so it wouldn’t happen again. (Of course, the pattern went on helplessly repeating…)

Sitting quietly after my meditation, I heard myself say, “there is nothing for you to be ashamed of there.” This marks a significant breakthrough.

More than forty years on, I still have a fondness for dinosaurs (I know, I know!); my German could probably, given sufficient effort, be polished back into something serviceable. I realise I am the last person who should ever go on a submarine (all the weird noises; too many people far too close together; the lack of natural light and air; the problematic food…). I still find a lot of human behaviour largely incomprehensible. I gather and compare the evidence before me. I look for the patterns that allow me to navigate these foreign waters. I get by, more or less. But a flash of the old shame rises through me, as I wonder just how often I misinterpret what I’m seeing and get it wrong, wrong, cluelessly wrong.

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Harry Ransome, verger of the Church of the Holy Rood, taps on Nan’s window. He’s encased in a wear-shiny three-piece, with a cake tin under his arm.

He folds upon himself, resisting the armchair’s insistence on comfort, knees fretting his elbows. I think of the trestle tables in the church hall.

It’s bread pudding: cool, dense and claggy as Dorset itself.
‘A little dry, I fear,’ his words stridulate, eyes beseeching/bellicose behind their bifocals. He might spring either way.

Does even an insect-man have feelings to hurt? God knows Nan’s one of the village’s blunter instruments, bless her.

‘It’s nice,’ I say. ‘Just right.’

I was stuck. The project I am working on was insisting that I slow down, that I stop grasping for the words but rather let them come in their own good time, and that I practise listening out for them, as I might listen for the returning swifts. I know this, of course, but still… So I did an exercise by Ali Smith in The Creative Writing Coursebook (Edited by Julia Bell and Paul Magrs. Macmillan 2001). The instructions were to write a story of 100 words in ten minutes and then to change the genders, but nothing else, and see how much the story shifts and why. May I introduce you, then, to Harriet, Harry’s identical twin sister:

Harriet Ransome, verger of the Church of the Holy Rood, taps on Grandad’s window. She’s encased in a worn twin-set, with a cake tin under her arm.

She folds upon herself, resisting the armchair’s insistence on comfort, knees fretting her elbows. I think of the trestle tables in the church hall.

It’s bread pudding: cool, dense and claggy as Dorset itself.
‘A little dry, I fear,’ her words stridulate, eyes beseeching/bellicose behind their bifocals. She might spring either way.

Does even an insect-woman have feelings to hurt? God knows Grandad’s one of the village’s blunter instruments, bless him.

‘It’s nice,’ I say. ‘Just right.’

Well! Harry appears to be an ascetic, grasshopperish man who has come to share some cake with his friend. Harry is a widower. He bakes. He’s an interesting specimen of inquiry, maybe slightly repellent but worthy of respect nonetheless. Crucially, his motivations are not up for discussion. His sister, meanwhile, would be pitiable if she were any more than a stock character of ridicule: a dessicated old spinster intent on snaring Grandad with cake and not even a good, rich indulgent cake, at that, but one made from stale bread, Harriet herself being stale bread in female form: past its best, unwanted, surplus to requirement. Why don’t we just rip her to pieces and chuck her in the pond for the ducks? Harry has my slightly uncomfortable regard: the best Harriet can hope for is my pity. She is more likely to earn my scorn.

Does even an insect-wo/man have feelings to hurt? In Harry’s case this is offered as a genuine enquiry. Do I imagine in Harriet’s that I detect a whiff of ‘she’s not a “proper” woman so it doesn’t matter if her feelings are hurt’? Assuming she has feelings. Assuming she has something more than lukewarm tea weakly thrumming in her veins. I fear the blunt instrument that is Grandad is merely the latest blow that’s been dealt her, that she’s been crushed by. ‘Bless him’ confirms we are on Grandad’s side. Harriet is certainly not his equal, as Harry is Nan’s. And ‘my’ comment, that the cake is just right – could that not in this context be interpreted as a patronising knee-pat?

Why do ‘I’ feel that I need to be conciliatory towards Harry, minding his feelings, whereas to say the exact same words to Harriet is to be condescending towards her, implicating me in the imbalance of power? And/or, more worryingly, reveals me to be more akin to her than her twin brother. Turn it about as I might, whichever angle I view this from it looks like the same thing: internalised misogyny. And that is not an easy thing to sit with as a woman in her mid-forties.

Harriet didn’t exist until ten minutes ago but in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s Harry was a real man, made of scant flesh and, to my child’s eyes, improbable length of limb. I was playing on the floor in my Nan’s living room when he tapped on the window. Nan was in the kitchen, slicing spuds to be made into the best chips in the world. He really did remark on the cake’s dryness and I really did want to reassure him that it was nice. I don’t recall what Nan said.

In a reverse-Proustian manoeuvre I made a tin of bread pudding a few days after writing this. It was just as I had remembered.