Monday, 16 April 2012

The Day of Muddy Floors and Exhilaration

This is photo of myself and the clan. I need to post to show myself where I was before I came back to Italy and started writing again. Most of those kids are taller than me now. They've had to put up with my moods, my dirty floors, my distracted cooking, my vast absences and crazy highs. Like today.

Today is UK release day. And in some massive way I've made it. Lived long enough to see a book of mine published and out there and hopefully loved by more than a dozen readers. Relief? Agitation? Review envy? It's all there. I am waiting for serenity to descend but instead I am thinking PRINT OUT YOUR PLANE TICKETS, MAKE SURE YOUR FAV JEANS AREN'T IN THE WASH, BE FLIPPANT ON TWITTER - oh and eat something.

The winners of last week's competition are Rosy and Ingrid so big congratulations and thank you to all for trying out my twisted questions! Rosy's answers were the only ones that were spot on and Ingrid's name was drawn out of a hat by DJ Omar. Thanks again! I'll send your copies out.

I'd love to offer prosecco all around and any of you who are in London might want to come to the book launch on Monday 23rd in north London's Big Green Bookshop. The more the merrier. In the mean time congrats to my good mate Averil on her VERY GOOD NEWS and thanks for loving the book. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter.


An old friend of mine named Jean fell through a tear in her marriage and landed on her feet. Jean met a solicitor from Milan on a singles trekking tour in Peru and packed her bags one autumn. She sold the house with its clutch of hydrangeas. Her adolescent children learnt Italian with ease. It was reported that at forty-four, Jean gave the Milanese man a chubby male love-child.

Jean wasn’t really a close friend of mine, though we had married the same year and our children were the same wretched ages. The parallel in our stories narrowed one quiet Sunday afternoon in the kitchen, when my husband Peter informed me he had fallen in love with a woman named Danielle and was moving to a flat in Shepherd’s Bush. His words exerted visceral, slow-release punches. I realised he had been naked in the arms of another woman. The first person I thought of was Jean in Milan, framed with dabs of gold from a painter’s brush and a corona of religious spurs. Jean in that moment became my patron saint.

In the aftermath I dropped a stone while waiting for my outrage to burst like rotten fruit on cement. It never happened. Rather, I was curious to know of Danielle’s hair colour and whether her neck had train tracks already faintly sketched; if she blew her nose in public and where she bought her shoes; whether her ovaries were better kernels than mine. I asked Peter. He gave me strained, sideways looks. He refused to include me in this new threesome and I quickly became the lone mare put out to pasture, the divorcée. I walked woodenly through the streets and couldn’t understand how the brand had come to be on my forehead, but now it was there.

Everything that I had taken as given in my life had been swept away.

Several weeks into the summer, I took a leaf from Jean’s book and joined a tour group. I didn’t fancy a long plane journey and my idea of a trek was an aisle-by-aisle supermarket excursion, so I folded away the Andes, Himalayas and Kilimanjaro brochures. I also wasn’t keen on declaring myself a single. That had a discarded, forty-something ring to it, and I was terrified of ashen widowers called Ted with yellow teeth. I might have known: my group in Rouen consisted of three young nuns from Tanzania, a haggard gay couple in toupees and crumpled lapels, and the inevitable New Zealander. The tour guide, Sylvie, was bonking the New Zealander by the second night.

I felt a deepening heaviness on returning to the house. Had Jean felt like this before she had unearthed the man who’d reset her life? Days later Peter came around in a hired truck to collect the last of his things. I watched him carry out his university papers from the attic and a deck-chair in the garden that a great-uncle had carted off a P & O liner. He took away the bosomy Henry Moore-style sculpture that had always stood in our living room, inherited from his bohemian aunt. The new lovers were ready to decorate, Peter said, and I figured that bosomy was the flavour of the day.

Later, his guard was down in the sunshine and he suggested I prepare a cup of tea in the garden, where we sat down with new, blinking formality.

‘You know, you’ve done wonders with this patch of ground.’ He looked around with detachment at the trellises we’d fixed together, as though he’d never seen them before. His lower lip had become more sensual and pronounced. ‘So how was the history trip to France? Did you meet anyone? We’re all keen for you to, you know, move ahead. I’ve spoken with the children. They want you to savour life. You have a right to it all, Marilyn, remember that.’

I was alarmed to feel Peter prodding about my soul with his poker. Peter bought foreign programmes for a huge television network. He had spent years sorting the sheep from the goats and dangling carrots before his audience. I was now seeing the invisible side of Peter I had never known. He was trying to sell me the new Marilyn reality show: Here’s Marilyn sobbing on the Channel crossing. And here she is crying into a très, très grand bag of French crisps.

He drove off in a fine mood and I shut the front gate under the Queen Caroline roses. I ate a greasy bar of chocolate I found in my daughter’s pocket and turned on a documentary about Mussolini with his harsh, captivating face and his thwarted escape to Switzerland. Mussolini and his lover were brought back to Milan and hung upside down like fowls.

Whatever Peter had said to the children about Danielle, it clearly hadn’t upset them. School recommenced and they came home bickering from the station, emptying the refrigerator as voraciously as ever, wandering distractedly and untouched to their rooms. For years our family life had provided book-ends for Peter’s long, heavy working week. And now he had removed himself from our lives for good. I waited for Vanessa to break down or for Eddy to come sniffling into my bed, but hugged myself under the covers alone.

In fact Peter had been quick to install a new schedule so that no one missed a beat. Every other weekend he drove the children down to Brighton where Danielle, whose name bobbed about like an apple in a bucket, had a place. On Sunday night they were dropped at the corner and burst shrill and clear-eyed into the house.
After a stretch of this I called Peter. ‘What do you mean, I’m dismantling you?’ he cried. ‘We’re all trying to give you some time to yourself. Some time to rebuild. You need some personal space around you, you know, now that you’re on your own,’ Peter said with ugly clarity. ‘Read up, spend some time online. Go into the city. Be open about it.’

But I didn’t feel like opening up any further, any more than I had already been split apart. On one of those first weekends alone I brought out our wedding album plus a couple of boxes of photographs. Seventeen years ago we looked like a pair of intercourse-driven sods. Peter’s career hadn’t taken off and I was swimming with nausea from our daughter’s tiny seed inside of me. Peter’s gestures – an arm beckoning me, a disarming clutch – were those of the man who used to say he wanted to die in my grasp. What had happened? I put aside the series of awkward, non-art house photographs he had taken of my stretching belly, which revealed the fright and embarrassment in my eyes. Then there was Vanessa, my shrieking cub, my downy pink alien in a home-knitted blanket. I combed through masses of baby photographs with their limpid physical cadences: the first smiles, the first steps on soft summer grass. Oddly, I came across an unfamiliar photo of my neighbour Jean Harper and I holding onto our toddlers down by the river, surrounded by ducks. It was an unexpected surprise. My patron saint was reaching out from her new life to speak to me. Try as I might, I could not recall who took the photograph or what we might have said to each other that afternoon. I never took my children to the river and I hated ducks.

After that I used Jean’s photograph as a bookmark. I went for a job interview at a local sports clinic and returned to work as a physiotherapist. Nearly four months down the line, it seemed I had turned the first corner in my new single life. Each day it gave me immense pleasure to use my hands to deliver relief to other people in pain. I came home exhausted, arms and shoulders aching. I worked with a young girl who had just had the pins removed from her broken leg and an elderly woman who told me my hands were like angels’ wings.

But only weeks into the job, one morning the street was buzzing with police cars and the clinic was sealed off. I watched my boss Mrs Giles being frogmarched into a vehicle, blood all over her tunic. Apparently Mrs Giles had displaced Mr Giles’ head with a hunting rifle after she found him canoodling with a nurse called Sheneen. I drove home stunned in my crepe soled shoes and blue uniform. The postman was zigzagging at the far end of the street. Some travel company had obviously anticipated my unemployed status and the letter-box was stuffed with a fresh batch of brochures for singles tours: The Missionary Trail in Coastal China, Cro-Magnon Man in the Swiss Alps, Rock Wallabies in Tasmania …

Peter commiserated briefly about my job loss and then suddenly, out of the blue, asked if I were ready to meet Danielle. So far, according to our family and few communal friends, it had been a seamless separation. I listened to my ex-husband’s new upbeat voice. He sounded as though he were headed to a restaurant in a lane with candles on wonky tables, and then a jazz concert afterwards. He sounded as though he had just had fantastic sex. I began to shake all over, thinking of quiet Mrs Giles raising the gun to her husband’s head. Then, bang! – and all the splattered mulch on the walls.

I cut him off and threw away the phone. I cursed Sheneen and Danielle and wept into the couch.

Probably the person I have always relied upon most is my close friend Pamela who is a clairvoyant. Pamela and I grew up in identical council terraces, both of us possessing mothers with foreign accents that were often lightly mocked by shopkeepers. My mother was Hungarian with robust bones. Pamela’s mum was Irish with a mild pale face. The two women mistrusted each other’s food and ways and never got along.

But Pamela and I stayed friends for years. She hadn’t moved from our old neighbourhood, which had grown quite classy now, and had five children with three different fathers. One of her sons was a monk in Burma. One of the girls sang with a pop group that had hit the charts. Pamela had a massive tattoo all over her back from the early days, before Buddhist mantras and barbed wire biceps. She didn’t give a toss. Every two or three months she would come all the way to my house from the city in her pompous old Bentley, and we would moan to each other and have a laugh before getting blind drunk.

A few days after the clinic was shut down Pamela’s car appeared on the front lawn. I had known this was coming. Ever since Peter had walked out I had avoided lifting up the phone and dialling her, and had dodged her phone calls for weeks. I drew across the curtain and saw her lighting a fag on our garden path. I tiptoed to the door.

‘Why on earth didn’t you tell me?’ she said sharply. ‘He’s taken off, the bastard! You’re getting divorced.’

I realised that our intimacy and her creepy intuition had joined hands. She pushed past me into the house and I saw a little bump pushing through her sweater where I guessed she’d finally had her nipple pierced.

‘So he’s left you for some gorgeous young girl?’

My face began to dissolve into tears.

‘Not to worry,’ she muttered. ‘They won’t last.’

She went to her usual sofa and pulled down a Greek souvenir ashtray from the bookshelf. Pamela was the only person who smoked in my house. I looked at her fuming my way.

‘Why didn’t you want to tell me?’ she snapped. ‘Stop standing there and go and get some of that Chenin blanc he usually hides out the back.’

I brought out one of Peter’s bottles and uncorked it mechanically, then fumbled around for a pair of glasses. I slurped in some wine and began to weep.

‘There, there now.’ She came over and soothed me. ‘I know I needn’t have been so cross. But that’s what I’ve come to tell you about. You see, I’ve been having the oddest dreams about you … and Peter, God curse him. It’s been going on for weeks. People speaking foreign languages. You looking as though you’re more than half-drunk. Some perky-looking girl and an Asian guy in a coat.’ She broke off and smiled at my sobbing face. ‘Did you know I had my nipple pierced?’ She whipped up her jumper and pulled down her bra to show me. It looked like a fish-hook trapped under the skin. ‘Eric’s done one too so we’ll both be setting off the metal detectors.’

I blubbered into Peter’s Chenin blanc. Pamela rattled on about her spot on one of the breakfast television programmes that morning, where she had an on-and-off job ever since she forecast the flooding of New Orleans in a local newspaper. She told me about the make-up woman crying over her failed IVF, while she was certain the woman’s womb carried a tiny fertilised seed. And then she talked about the blond interviewer, very famous and rude, who’d had sex with three men the night before. Pamela sat back puffing, one nipple sticking up like a tin soldier under her old Vivienne Westwood jumper. ‘Look love, I know you’re blocking me out, you always have done. So we won’t go there then, how about that? But in the meantime what about a sandwich, or even some Hungarian leftovers. I have an appetite to murder!’

I turned on some Annie Lennox and brought out some cheese and salami and dark bread. Later, I opened the bottle of grappa Peter and I had bought on our trip to Venice last winter. A couple of times in the tasteful sponge-painted hotel room, we’d carefully made love. Then, on the cheap flight back, there’d been so much turbulence over the Alps that we had held hands. Peter’s moist fingers had fastened and unfastened over mine as the violent blue sky tossed us between air currents. I had savoured the way he clung to me.

But then I remembered the way he had trailed off into the terminal with his phone cupped to his cheek. That was when the grappa turned as sharp as knives.

I don’t know how Pamela drove home that evening, or what I prepared for the children for supper, or how I propelled them to school the next day. I know I was dragged to the computer that morning as though by a force, where I signed up on a dating site and within moments began to chat to a man named Brett. Brett was over from Hong Kong visiting his sister, (people speaking foreign languages?) and had nothing to do that day. I showered and dressed.

We met in Leicester Square and ventured into Starbucks, ordering twin cappuccinos. He too was divorced. His ex-wife worked in a merchant bank in Hong Kong. Tall and crisp-looking, he looked like a detective from an Asian crime film. His cropped greying hair was plugged thickly into the top of his forehead. I had never seen such determined hair growth except on dolls. Brett spoke at length about internet dating and how I shouldn’t take any type of risk, even chiding me for meeting him so readily. I felt glad of his protection. He told me how he had flown to Mexico to visit a woman he had chatted with every day for six months. I was disappointed, picturing tall Brett meeting a woman with Frida Kahlo allure.

Brett’s tone then fell to a more intimate register and I realised we had been talking for nearly two hours. I was famished. We moved on into Chinatown, where it seemed that many of the restaurants had emptied for the afternoon. Brett said he had some old Cantonese friends who would serve us all the same, so we began to wander down side-streets, a discreet cut-out of safety space running between our bodies. People still streamed everywhere so I sensed no alarm bells ringing, occasionally glancing at the handsome couple we made.

But then Brett’s hand came to rest on the small of my back. I guess I jarred. He quickly removed it and stepped backwards, hands raised.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, bowing his head. ‘But this is the restaurant. You see? To the left here. Of course, if you’d rather not go in … ‘

It was the type of dive one of Peter’s cronies might have sent us to, urging us to try the Peking Duck. A surge of nausea rose from yesterday’s grappa and I stood dehydrated, my will buzzing, unable to free fall towards the foreign man. The street had emptied. I felt a twang of fear. Up on the main street I saw an older woman behind a pushchair. In a shaft of afternoon light it looked like Jean. In fact at that moment I was certain it was Jean.

Brett’s lips opened hungrily and with a spicy taste over mine, his tongue plunging inside with a big randy wetness. I jerked away and ran towards the street screaming.

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  1. I still love that first line.
    Happy Release Day!

    1. Thanks so much Downith! Feeling dizzy and domestic. See you in Londra!

  2. Had to stop by and say congratulations! Hope it's been a wonderful day, Cat.

    Cannot wait to sink into that excerpt.

    1. Hi Deb, thanks for dropping by. It has been an odd and rewarding day, even the ex called up which was lovely! Tomorrow will shop for the monsters (they are quite self-sufficient) and do some wardrobe planning. London calling..

      Hope you enjoy the read!

  3. What a tantalizing excerpt! GREAT first line. Congratulations on your UK release!!

    1. Hello Sara,
      Thank you! I'm so glad you like it! So far reactions have been positive so I'm hoping some readers will take the plunge and hunt down a copy. There is a cheeky Australian character (hehmm) and an exquisite Latvian model, a virile Milanese agronomist and a Nigerian immigrant who sells Vietnamese socks!!

      Speriamo bene!

    2. The first line is ridiculously good. What I love about the book is how beautiful and literary the writing is. The whole story of Marilyn is elevated by Cat's gorgeous prose.

      Congratulations, Cat!!!

    3. Really? Averil you are so sweet.

      I bet you are still spinning. I am SO happy for you. And guess what? Today I'm meeting Downith in Londontown!!

  4. Teehee, I'm avoiding reading this excerpt because Mum showed me your book and I want to wait to read it properly :) I hope the launch is fantasticamical!! xo

    1. Enjoy the read Hannah! I'll be thinking of you when I am mumbling through my speech in London on Monday! Xxcat

  5. Fab excerpt - and Happy Release Date (sounds deliciously dubious when it's put like that!)

    1. Well, in a way it is a form of total liberation, meaning I am free of the pre-publication phase of this book. Which is never a small thing! I am also terrified to say I have another one coming out next year so there'll be more of this..

      Glad you liked the excerpt xcat

  6. LOVED Chapter 1 and very keen to read what happens next!! So excited to have won a copy and can't wait to read it all!!

    Best of luck tomorrow in London - enjoy every minute of it you certainly deserve it!!


    1. Thanks Ingrid!,
      Bit nervous and fairly wiped out by London flitting - I LOVE the big city. I'll send you off your copy when I am back in Italy. Thanks for the good wishes!
      ciao cat

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