Never let me go
If you've ever struggled through Remains of the day and wondered what the fuss was all about, maybe you should give Never let me go a birl. For me, it stands as a humanist monument; like the best of science fiction, it is about us in a way that sometimes novels about us cannot achieve. I say science fiction but the dystopia it draws is no more than a setting for a coming of age novel that runs a little deeper than the young adult fiction I think Ishiguro wished to pastiche.
The blunt style hides a sureness of touch and adherence to tone that are masterful. The narrator's matter-of-fact delivery makes utterly credible the fragile yet tender romance that you feel could be blown away by the least breeze, yet is the most powerful story we can make out of our blighted, doomed lives.
Ultimately, it is a tale of a culture so inexorable that it cannot be escaped, that we are left with what we can build from the scraps we are left by people who think we are worth nothing. It is like a rolling tide that sweeps away even hope to leave us broken, clinging to scraps of memory, all of us with pieces pulled from us until there is not enough left to keep living, which in a typically deft piece of irony, the characters call "completing".
Sometimes when things are bad in my life, I turn inwards, as far as I can, until I feel like I am curled in a ball and nothing can hurt me so long as I don't uncurl.
Things shouldn't have been bad in my life. I had a woman I loved very much, a job I hated but paid the rent, kids who are happy and doing well at school. I live in a great home and although I was worried about upkeep and paying the bills, I felt like I could cope. We are having a new baby and I'm really excited about that.
We had a custody battle for A's kids and the ongoing pain of her reprobate teen's pretending she is a monster, but that seemed to be going our way.
We had a court process for a protection order and that didn't go well. A thought that just telling the truth would be enough so she didn't prepare well for it. She decided she didn't need a lawyer and she got monstered by a sharp operator.
She punished me for that. Every time he does something horrible, hits her teen, is nasty to the littlies, I am punished. Because she can't take it out on him, she takes it out on me. I don't mind so much. I try to help her with the anguish in my clumsy, useless way. And being useless doesn't feel good but I keep trying.
I had a death sentence at work, the knowledge that I would be sacked sooner or later. It got pressing and I started to have pain in my neck and shoulders and pounding in my ears from the high blood pressure because of the stress. At least I have a loving wife who would ease it some though, right? Well, she says take ibuprofen, see the doctor, make it anyone's problem but hers. But it is hers in part, if only because she doesn't like me any more and makes it obvious by being unpleasant to me whenever she has the opportunity. I am left hoping it's just because she's pregnant and maybe when the baby's a year or so and she's recovered, the old A will come back and as long as I've just weathered it as best I can, we'll be fine.
So I got sacked and now I am going to have to use my credit line to pay the rent on Wednesday because the promised payout will arrive some time or never, who knows? I am faced with the fear that I won't be able to support my kids and will not be able to let A be the stay at home mum she wants to be, and I will just be another monster who made promises to her but then let her down. I already feel like that. I feel like I am just being me and I have another woman who thought I was or could be made into something different, something perfect, while they should just be accepted as they are.
Weekends are the worst. She cannot handle the handovers but won't let me do them instead. She wants to say goodbye but for some reason doesn't grasp that that's what really upsets her and seriously, there are more people in her life than her girls. I should matter too. You can't expect me to agree that I don't. Why do women insist on believing that someone like me will agree with their conclusion that I'm not worth shit? Well, something more complicated than that. I already think I'm not worth shit. I want to be with someone who thinks I'm worth something. If they also think I'm not worth shit, why am I even with them? But sometimes I feel like just as they have fooled themselves into thinking I'm not me, I have fooled myself into thinking they will ever think I'm worth anything and it really is just me. I should stop trying and just accept being lonely.
She won't ask him to come here to make it easier or ask to meet somewhere that is less depressing than DFO. She turns up half an hour early and works herself into a state. Then she comes home and relieves all the stress by punishing me for causing it. I know I didn't cause it. That's just how it works.
So I push myself inwards, disappear into my computer game, and try not to talk about anything that's likely to cause a fight, which amounts to not talking about anything I'm fearful about or anything that will set her off.
I'm not excited enough about the baby. I don't remember every single appointment. I've never remembered appointments. When you're new and fresh, it's endearing that you're useless about things like that. When you're married, you're supposed to snap into being someone completely different. Every failing is magnified and you've given a woman licence to point them out to you.
But I am excited. I talk about the baby all the time. I go shopping for clothes. I read baby books. I talk about its name. I constantly try to gauge the other kids' feelings about it and manage them. I'm just not excited in the right way -- not concerned enough about A. Because it's all about her.
We went shopping for clothes for me to wear for a job interview. A came with me to help choose. I tried a pair of trousers on and came out of the dressing room to parade for her, as you do. But she'd disappeared. She'd wandered off to buy herself maternity tights. What I needed didn't matter.
But I didn't need her to come with me in the first place. I don't need help to buy clothes. I am nearly 50 years old. I have been buying my own clothes without needing help for many, many years. When she asked to come, I realised it was her way of being supportive. I would have preferred her to say she was sorry I had lost my job and perhaps ask me how I felt about it but I accept that she has her ways and means.
I don't know what I'm trying to say. Just whining. If I get the job tomorrow, all will be fine. If it gets extended in July, I'll be able to get back on my metaphorical feet. I will stop feeling like I just want to hide in a corner so that no one can see me. I will be okay.
Trial and retribution
You don't really understand what women are talking about when they talk about male privilege until you hear a (male) judge bellow at a woman that it really is true that if your (male) ex doesn't give his permission to you to move, you have to hand him your kids, and it doesn't matter whether he's ever cared for them or whether he is capable of caring for them or what's actually best for the kids. All that matters is he forbade you.
And I know you might say, well, the woman can forbid the man, right? Yes but here's the thing. When the woman leaves, everyone expects she'll take the kids. Men don't say, oh, I should keep the kids and you should run free. Do they? Even today, we assume the kids will just stay with the mum.
And you know, I've read in many places how terrible them Muslims are, because they think a man's opinion is worth the opinion of two women. But I'm left thinking, at least they have the decency to make that their law. In Queensland, we treat everything the man says as true, and everything the woman says as suspect because she's crying and we all know if you're crying, you're lying.
The worst thing is, this privilege is not just built by men. You are not just passive victims of a patriarchy, ladies. You help build it. The woman who shares that man's bed goes to court and hears lies told on his behalf, and she knows they're lies because she abets him in them, and she stays with him. The children's grandmother will swear to the world he's a wonderful human being (and I'm quoting verbatim) to get what she wants when she knows who he is. She can have no illusions. She's seen him hurt a child, physically hurt it, and lies that she did not. Not that the child is confused about what happened. Not that it didn't amount to what the child thinks it did. That she was not there, did not see it.
It is hard for me to hear lies and say nothing. It has always been hard for me to lie. I mean, I have lied. I was talking to the kids last night about honesty and they pointed out I had lied to R about smoking. I said, yes but that was a white lie. It was nothing to her that I had the occasional ciggie and she shouldn't have made such a big deal out of it. If it had gotten serious, I would have given up (as I have now). So it wasn't a real issue. But other things are black lies. And then of course I got into how this is just a minefield and it is. But still, even if there are "good" lies, we know there are bad ones, and hearing people say what is wholly untrue is hard. I do not know how these women are able to do it -- not just to lie and broadcast lies but to hear others lie and say nothing, do nothing.
Ultimately, so much of human relations relies on honesty. It really does. There is so much to gain from lying though that the temptation overwhelms some of us some of the time. I realise that most of us are not like me. Most do not torture themselves over the lies they've told; most do not have the need to tell the truth and cling to it like a liferaft in a world that doesn't make any sense.
I don't know where I was going with this. Trying to distract myself so I don't have to think about two little girls crying when their life is destroyed. Trying not to think about the possibility that a man decides that it is absolutely right that a woman should be punished if a man decides she should not be happy. Trying not to think about another man relishing the sorrow that he sows in her life and theirs.
The past few months have been hard. My wife, whom I love dearly, has lived in a shitstorm for many months now. On the day of our wedding, her eldest child ran away from home to live with her abusive stepfather and that is just one part of a custody battle that has raged for the whole time we have been married. I have been powerless to help in any way except to be who I am (and I've learned some things about who I am). I've had to stand by while people have lied not just to get what they want but to hurt Ally. And I don't have any way to say, that's not true, that's not her, because no one cares what I think.
And that's very hard for me because of who I am.
When I was a child, my mother would say to me, you're not tactful and that rubs some people the wrong way. And I didn't know what she meant so she explained that I would say what I thought when I should just keep quiet, or should soften the message. The few people who read this blog know exactly what she meant. I have a compulsion towards honesty. I can't help myself. If I lie, I feel disjoint from the universe, ill at ease. I only regain my equilibrium when I can tell the truth. As I see it. I don't claim that my truth is particularly valuable or "right". It's just what I see.
I'm not stupid. I know that being honest has never done me much good. I've seen people lie to get what they want and they get it. I've lost jobs to people who lied about their experience; I've lost money to a girlfriend who lied about our relationship; I've been the fool many times.
But still, I believe in it. I tell my children to be honest, even though I fear that it will be useless to them too. But I can't stop believing that it should
be worth something, that you should
win in life if you approach it honestly.
One thing I am proud of myself for is a time when I chose honesty at great cost to me. In the last few months of me and Mrs Zen's relationship, we had agreed to move together to England. It was what I wanted more than anything and I am still homesick, that has never gone away. I miss my home and my family so much. I feel sadness that I cannot close out or really come to terms with that I was away from home when my mum died, that I cannot be physically around for my sisters when they need me -- and particularly for S, who is suffering her own relationship hell. And when we were close to breaking up, people in my life said, just get her to England, then figure it out. But to do that would have meant an act of dishonesty that I couldn't indulge in. I would have to pretend to Mrs Zen that I believed in the future and then abandon her in a foreign country, to deal with things on her own, more or less, the way she had me.
I wouldn't do it and I still think I did the right thing, even though it hurt a lot to make that choice and I could easily have had what I wanted and who knows what the outcome would have been.
The other people in Ally's case have no such compunction. They do not care. They have lied, quite brazenly. I won't name names but it's enough to say everyone on the "other side" has told lies that I know personally, purely on what I know, to be lies. And not just things to put themselves in a good light, not like the one I could have told to get a good outcome. Lies that are harmful to the children, that have harmful outcomes that they are quite aware of and simply do not care about.
Ally has not lied. She has relied on the truth. She is terrified that she will lose because of it because she too knows that often in life honesty does not serve you. But like me, she cannot look her kids in the lie and tell them that they must be honest, decent people if she will not be that person herself. And she is.
Look. I've been hooked up with women I wasn't able to feel proud of. Women who I felt I had to excuse, to explain, even to myself, women I had to find ways to be able to love, whom to be able to love I had to rely on the principle that everyone deserves love in this world, rather than feeling that they were someone I just loved.
But Ally is not like that and that is why when I think about her it is with an effusion of love, overpowering love that is real to me, does not need analysing, is not a story I tell myself. She is worth it.
And I do feel proud of her. Win or lose, she has not let anger and hatred be her guides, although she's angry and -- I wish I didn't have to feel this but I do -- hateful towards more than one person involved. And she is right to. I would not lie to myself about that and I would not lie here. (I have never lied on my blog because I write it purely for myself and it would be pointless to lie to myself because I know what's what.) I'm not trying to convince anyone that Ally is a good person -- no one cares what I think -- because what matters to me is that I know it. I know it for sure. No lie that anyone tells means anything to me because I can judge that for myself and I do.
So it's been hard. I have watched this amazing woman -- a great mum, a fine friend, sometimes lacking the resources to deal with the shit life throws but courageous and forthright in trying to deal with it the right way, loving and generous, I could go on... -- get smashed to pieces by people I wouldn't scrape off my shoe if I stepped in them, people whose goal was to hurt her, to punish her, for not being what they wanted, and who have achieved that goal. And all I can do is sit and watch and hold her when she cannot keep it together, cannot be brave, which is very rarely because she can pretend to be tough, and tell you, tell anyone who will listen, that she is one of the best people you could ever wish to meet, that she is every inch the beautiful person I insist she is.
I am not anything special. I am not a particularly good or particularly strong man. I have weaknesses as we all do. But I am honest. I will be able when I die to look back on my life and know that was one virtue I really did have. And my honest report is that my wife is who I say she is and the people who have lied about her are not who they say they are.
My best year
Like all years this had its ups and downs. And it's a bit down at the moment. But I'll tell you what, I had the most amazing up this year and nothing can spoil it.
I met the woman of my dreams and I do have some pretty spicy dreams. In this particular one, I find a woman I didn't even believe existed-- well, wait, look no one reads beneath the fold even if they read the first bit, so I can say this.
I have never known anyone I could believe would fulfil me. I have never known anyone I could believe could help me find happiness -- not just the fleeting joy I have sometimes known but is all I've known -- but genuine lasting contentment. I have long had fancy ideas about love, about its value, about redemption, about there being people we can meet, naked and real, and not shy away. But I have never known anyone like that.
I have never known anyone who I want to have sex with -- I mean, I generically want it like most men, but I've never got much beyond yeah, okay, with any woman; I've never felt burning desire or anything that could even begin to be labelled passion.
I have never known anyone I could trust, that I didn't need to keep everything wound tight, that I could tell the truth to rather than say nothing for fear of making a constant liar of myself. I have never known anyone who can make me laugh easily and often.
Outside of my family, I have never known anyone I could not bear to lose.
Now I have.
We have all done it: found ourselves asking the universe to give us a break. Just give me a week and I will be awesome after that. Just let me get through this thing that is stopping me from it and then I will be the superstar I promise myself I am.
After enough weeks though, it dawns on us that there is no superstar waiting to be revealed, that after this week, we will beg another week, and another, and we will never be anything but the pathetic losers we are begging the universe to forgive us for.
This is why I do not make new year's resolutions. Because I have made so many resolutions throughout the year that I can't even pretend I had any real intention to keep.
I sometimes think about how people -- women mostly because they are the people I have cared what they thought or did, the people I have expected something of, and yeah maybe that's part of the problem -- look at me and see what they want to see. And sometimes if I'm in a quiet place or I'm feeling honest enough, I think about how I am just the same. I look at myself and see someone who never makes a promise he can't keep. And that's true when I'm talking to you. I will not say I will do something I won't, no matter what the cost is. I won't lie to make someone happy.
My promise is golden. I am stupid enough to think that's a virtue when most people would rather have hollow promises because that's what everyone builds their lives on.
Except I will endlessly lie to myself, make promise after promise, and the worst of it is that I tell myself that's because I am the only person I can't care about, and the truth is, I'm the only person I do care about to give the gift of a worthless promise.
It's difficult to be a bystander as Ally tries to retrieve her daughter from an abusive man for several reasons.
The simplest is that I am powerless. I can't do anything to help bar be there for her. I read the lies he tells about himself and his children and I realise that although I know them to be lies there is no way for me to show that (for instance, that his new stepson is great mates with C and they spend time together listening to music in her room: the truth is that C is an aspie who doesn't like sharing her space, and the stepson intrudes in it; she shouts at him to get out but he won't -- I know this because I have heard C say so and the other girls say there was shouting between them every night -- but there's no proof, just his willingness to lie and when it comes to it, hers: it's distinctive about her that she overcommits to emotions and has to cast things in her life as black and white to be able to understand them: Daddy good, Mummy bad, there cannot be shades, so if reality does not match that simple frame, she will lie about things even when she knows the person she is lying to is aware they are not that way; or that he encountered the younger girls in a shopping centre and they were unhappy and unsettled, looking around the whole time, and he left them there because he didn't want to run into Alison and cause trouble: the truth is that they were at the shops with me and Ally, and had been happy and relaxed with us -- just moments before laughing at me as I tried not to weep in the brow-threading shop -- and were in my sight the whole time, he spent a few moments with them, looking around the whole time himself, furtive, and left when he saw me approach -- and what upset them was his presence, stirring them into an autistic meltdown, in which they spent an hour telling Ally how his new partner was horrible to them, didn't care about them, gave them smaller lunches than her own sons, how scared they were that he would kill their dogs -- but when you present this to an outsider, there are just two stories and if you do not know us, how can you tell which is true? When you do know us, it's simple: I very rarely lie and of course I have no real reason to invent a story about him, since the plain truth is he is what we say he is and we don't need to lie about that; he has a history of lying in sometimes ridiculous and transparent ways). I fear for C, a confused, angry child, who I have looked on as this man has poisoned her. I know this for a fact because I've seen messages he sent her, I've heard her repeat things he's said, I've helped Ally word emails in which she begged him to stop, to support her, to be a man. Some nights I can't sleep because I'm worried for her: I remember her email, in which one of the most shocking things she said was that he slammed car doors near her fingers to scare her. I see the one time he misjudges it and her fingers are broken. I see him driving recklessly, which he does, again to scare the children, and losing control. I see him picking her up and shaking her, which she confirmed to me herself he had but heartbreakingly said "he didn't mean it", and fear that one time it will be too hard of a shake and she will suffer a counter coup injury and lasting damage.
The worst of it is that we asked him to talk this over and I feel that if he had been willing to talk to me, to listen for just an hour, I could have helped him. For all that I'm sorry for Ally and the kids, I cannot help being sorry for him too. I understand feeling stressed. I understand not coping. I understand how hard it is to not give in to being an arsehole, to cope with noisy kids who won't do what you want, to deal with the pain of a relationship ending, feeling you have failed, that you have "lost". When Mrs Zen found new love, I was not bitter and I wished her well but I think I can understand how painful that may have been for him. Not everyone is as able to let go as I am. I feel like what he has needed in his life is a clear voice that would tell him, you're doing wrong, this is the right path. And from reports, he is capable of it. People tell me he can be a decent guy, loving and warm, although every person I have met -- in person and online -- who knows him has also told me he can come over as an arsehole, a brusque, ignorant fool who upset them on one occasion or another -- on one account, a couple of weeks ago he went to a school disco where one of Ally's friends was present, and he came and stood right behind her, obviously to intimidate her; when she didn't acknowledge him, he went away for a while, then came back and stood even closer -- this is who he is at least sometimes -- a boor who imposes himself on others because he thinks he should matter
. When he takes his medication and can cope with his rage issues, he is able to deal with the children without losing his shit. But he hasn't taken his medication in months. He doesn't even feel he needs it. And people around him of course sense his weakness but instead of seeing that they should help him find strength, they think he is like a child, in need of coddling and cocooning. So he can never grow; he is condemned to be a tantruming child, stamping his foot because he can't control others' lives the way he wants. She left me, boo hoo. She dares to move home, boo hoo. The child won't listen, boo hoo.
I say that's the worst of it but there's worse for me. Seeing how C is reminds me of myself and something that I rarely think about because it is so painful. When I was a child, I loved my dad more than anything. When he was at sea, I would push pins into my map to show where he was and where he had been. I would scour the newspaper for mention of his ship in reports on the Cod War, although there rarely were any because no one really cared. I missed him and like Ally's kids I sometimes cried because I couldn't have him in my life.
But he too was an aspie who could not cope with stress and found kids hard to deal with: the noise, the confusion, the doing things wrong. And he would lose his shit with me. And sometimes I would see him be rough with my mum. One time I saw him hit her. One time I saw his hands round her neck. He was moody and difficult, dominated us, scared us. He had no idea whatsoever how to be a father.
(And I want to say, you wouldn't believe this if you knew Dad now, because now he has flourished to allow himself to be the gentle, caring man he also was, and although he is still the centre of his own universe and expects others to fit him rather than the other way round, it's expressed in much more benign ways. I have long ago forgiven him because I understand that he did what his nature compelled him to do and what he was capable of. You cannot despise a person for what they cannot do; only for what they can but won't. What happened to him was that long exposure to a person capable -- not just capable but powerfully able -- of love made him able to change. My mum loved him so much that eventually he had no real choice but to love her back. And I also want to say that the flipside of him was that he could be very kind, very generous. He would give up his time to take me show me things -- things that interested him, for sure, but things he wanted me to share his love for. He did what he was capable of to show me he loved me and I don't want you to think that he didn't love me because I knew he did, at least until I reached my teens, when he found me too difficult to love.)
They had a separation. In the home because no one had the money to live elsewhere. And there was talk -- by which I mean real talk, plans being made -- of them ending their marriage.
I wanted to go with him. I loved my dad so much, so much that I would choose him over my mum. My mum, who had sacrificed so much for me, who had created so much warmth and kindness in my life, who had dedicated her life to me, given up dreams for me, never let me feel unloved or unwanted even on her toughest days. I can only imagine how painful it was for her to hear me say I wanted to be with him more. It's only now when I see Alison in deep deep pain, shaking with sobs, unable to come to terms with how hurtful C is to her, when she has done nothing to deserve it -- and she has not; she is a good mum -- she has her limits as we all do and being who she is she sees only those limits, she refuses to see the warmth she shows her girls, the kindness, the thoughtfulness, the sheer effort she has poured into three sometimes difficult children, to understand them, to give them what they need, to cherish them -- that I understand how much you can hurt a person.
Sometimes, when I was grown, my mum would say to me how guilty she felt that she had smacked me a few times, how she had never been a good mum, how she wished she had been better. And of course I would say, you were a great mum, because she was. She truly was. She was an inspirational mother. Everything good about me I learned from her. Everything good about my sisters -- and they are both good women -- they learned from her.
And what I didn't say, what I wish I would have said but it's like a secret now, a whisper, a shard of ice that we pretend isn't there, and I will never be able to tell her and I wish so much I could, not that it would do anything because the hurt I caused was so long ago, buried, almost vanished, is that I am sorry. I am sorry for how much I hurt her by choosing him, by saying your love was for nothing because because because I don't even know. I do not have any insight into my young heart. I do not know why I wanted what I wanted.
I wish I could speak to C. I wish I could tell her, you do not know it now, you think it's impossible now, but you have no idea that the hurt you are doing your mum will visit you too. A day will come when shame will creep into your life and haunt you and you will not be able to ignore it. And all the pain you caused, you will feel it too. Because you will not always be cruel. A time will come -- I believe it comes for all of us -- when we are reminded that we are not islands remote from each other, we are not inured to one another's pain, we are not monsters. And she is not. She is a lost, confused, hurting child who one day will know that's who she was.