quinta-feira, 29 de março de 2012

The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments by Vladimir Nabokov and intro by Dmitri Nabokov

The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments

by Vladimir Nabokov and intro by Dmitri Nabokov


By Dmitri Nabokov

As a tepid spring settled on lakeside Switzerland in 1977, I was called from abroad to my father's bedside in a Lausanne clinic. During recovery from what is considered a banal operation, he had appar­ently been infected with a hospital bacillus that severely lessened his resistance. Such obvious signals of deterioration as dramatically reduced sodium and potassium levels had been totally ignored. It was high time to intervene if he was to be kept alive.
Transfer to the Vaud Cantonal University Hospital was immedi­ately arranged, and a long and harrowing search for the noisome germ began.
My father had fallen on a hillside in Davos while pursuing his beloved pastime of entomology, and had gotten stuck in an awkward position on the steep slope as cabin-carloads of tourists responded with guffaws, misinterpreting as a holiday prank the cries for help and waves of a butterfly net. Officialdom can be ruthless; he was subsequently reprimanded by the hotel staff for stumbling back into the lobby, supported by two bellhops, with his shorts in disarray.
There may have been no connection, but this incident in 1975 seemed to set off a period of illness, which never quite receded until those dreadful days in Lausanne. There were several tentative forays to his former life at the hotel Palace in Montreux, the majestic recollection of which floats forth as I read, in some asinine electronic biography, that the success of Lolita 'did not go to Nabokov's head, and he continued to live in a shabby Swiss hotel.' (Italics mine.)
Nabokov did begin to lose his own physical majesty. His six-foot frame seemed to stoop a little, his steps on our lakeside promenades became short and insecure.
But he did not cease to write. He was working on a novel that he had begun in 1975-that same crucial year: an embryonic master­piece whose pockets of genius were beginning to pupate here and there on his ever-present index cards. He very seldom spoke about the details of what he was writing, but, perhaps because he felt that the opportunities of revealing them were numbered, he began to recount certain details to my mother and to me. Our after-dinner chats grew shorter and more fitful, and he would withdraw into his room as if in a hurry to complete his work.
Soon came the final ride to the Hospital Nestle. Father felt worse. The tests continued; a succession of doctors rubbed their chins as their bedside manner edged toward the graveside. Finally the draft from a window left open by a sneezing young nurse contributed to a terminal cold. My mother and I sat near him as, choking on the food I was urging him to consume, he succumbed, in three convulsive gasps, to congestive bronchitis.
Little was said about the exact causes of his malady. The death of the great man seemed to be veiled in embarrassed silence. Some years later, when, for biographical purposes, I wanted to pin things down, all access to the details of his death would remain obscure.
Only during the final stages of his life did I learn about certain confidential family matters. Among them were his express instruc­tions that the manuscript of The Original of Laura be destroyed if he were to die without completing it. Individuals of limited imagina­tion, intent on adding their suppositions to the maelstrom of hypotheses that has engulfed the unfinished work, have ridiculed the notion that a doomed artist might decide to destroy a work of his, whatever the reason, rather than allow it to outlive him.
An author may be seriously, even terminally ill and yet continue his desperate sprint against Fate to the last finish line, losing despite his intent to win. He may be thwarted by a chance occurrence or by the intervention of others, as was Nabokov many years earlier, on the way to the incinerator, when his wife snatched a draft of Lolita from his grasp.

My father's recollection and mine differed regarding the colour of the impressive object that I, a child of almost six, distinguished with disbelief amid the puzzle-like jumble of buildings in the seaside town of Saint-Nazaire. It was the immense funnel of the Champlain, which was waiting to transport us to New York. I recall its being light yellow, while Father, in the concluding lines of Speak, Memory, says that it was white.
I shall stick to my image, no matter what researchers ferret from historical records of the French Line's liveries of the period. I am equally sure of the colours I saw in my final onboard dream as we approached America: the varying shades of depressing gray that col­oured my dream vision of a shabby, low-lying New York, instead of the exciting skyscrapers that my parents had been promising. Upon disembarking, we also saw two differing visions of America: a small flask of Cognac vanished from our baggage during the customs inspection; on the other hand, when my father (or was it my mother? memory sometimes conflates the two) attempted to pay the cabbie who took us to our destination with the entire contents of his wallet-a hundred-dollar bill of a currency that was new to us-the honest driver immediately refused the bill with a comprehending smile.

In the years that had preceded our departure from Europe, I had learned little, in a specific sense, of what my father 'did.' Even the term 'writer' meant little to me. Only in the chance vignette that he might recount as a bedtime story might I retrospectively recognize the foretaste of a work that was in progress. The idea of a 'book' was embodied by the many tomes bound in red leather that I would admire on the top shelves of the studies of my parents' friends. To me, they were 'appetizing,' as we would say in Russian. But my first 'reading' was listening to my mother recite Father's Russian trans­lation of Alice in Wonderland.
We travelled to the sunny beaches of the Riviera, and thus finally embarked for New York. There, after my first day at the now-defunct Walt Whitman School, I announced to my mother that I had learned English. I really learned English much more gradually, and it became my favourite and most flexible means of expression. I shall, however, always take pride in having been the only child in the world to have studied elementary Russian, with textbooks and all, under Vladimir Nabokov.
My father was in the midst of a transition of his own. Having grown up as a 'perfectly normal trilingual child,' he nonetheless found it profoundly challenging to abandon his 'rich, untrammelled Russian' for a new language, not the domestic English he had shared with his Anglophone father, but an instrument as expres­sive, docile, and poetic as the mother tongue he had so thoroughly mastered. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, his first English ­language novel, cost him infinite doubt and suffering as he relin­quished his beloved Russian-the 'Softest of Tongues,' as he entitled an English poem that appeared later (in 1947) in the Atlantic Monthly. Meanwhile, during the transition to a new tongue and on the verge of our move to America, he had written his last significant freestanding prose work in Russian (in other words, neither a por­tion of a work in progress nor a Russian version of an existing one). This was Volshebnik (The Enchanter), in a sense a precursor of Lolita. He thought he had destroyed or lost this small manuscript and that its creative essence had been consumed by Lolita. He recalled hav­ing read it to group of friends one Paris night, blue-papered against the threat of Nazi bombs. When, eventually, it did turn up again, he examined it with his wife, and they decided, in 1959, that it would make artistic sense if it were 'done into English by the Nabokovs' and published.
That was not accomplished until a decade after his death, and the publication of Lolita itself preceded that of its forebear. Several American publishers, fearing the repercussions of the delicate sub­ject matter of Lolita, had abstained. Convinced that it would remain forever a victim of incomprehension, Nabokov had resolved to destroy the draft, and it was only the intervention of Vera Nabokov that, on two occasions, kept it from going up in smoke in our Ithaca incinerator.
Eventually, unaware of the publisher's dubious reputation, Nabokov consented to have an agent place it with Girodias's Olympia Press. And it was the eulogy of Graham Greene that propelled Lolita far beyond the trashy tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, inherited by Girodias from his father at Obelisk, and along with pornier Olympia stablemates, on its way to becoming what some have acclaimed as one of the best books ever written.

The highways and motels of 1940s America are immortalized in this proto-road novel, and countless names and places live on in Nabokov's puns and anagrams. In 1961 the Nabokovs would take up residence at the Montreux Palace and there, on one of their first evenings, a well-meaning maid would empty forever a butterfly-­adorned gift wastebasket of its contents: a thick batch of D.S. road maps on which my father had meticulously marked the roads and towns that he and my mother had traversed. Chance comments of his were recorded there, as well as names of butterflies and their habitats. How sad, especially now when every such detail is being researched by scholars on several continents. How sad, too, that a first edition of Lolita, lovingly inscribed to me, was purloined from a New York cellar and, on its way to the digs of a Cornell graduate stu­dent, sold for two dollars.
The theme of book burning would pursue us. Invited to lecture at Harvard on Don Quixote, Nabokov, while recognizing certain merits of Cervantes, criticized the book as 'crude' and 'cruel.' The expres­sion 'torn apart,' applied years later to Nabokov's evaluation, was further garbled by half-literate journalists until one perceived the image of a caricature Nabokov holding up a blazing volume before his class, accompanied by all the appropriate de rigueur moralizing.

And so, at last, we come to Laura, and again to thoughts of fire. During the last months of his life in the Lausanne hospital, Nabokov was working feverishly on the book, impervious to hoaxes from the insensitive, quizzes from the well-meaning, conjectures from the curious in the outside world, and to his own suffering. Among those were incessant inflammations under and around his toenails. At times, he felt almost as if he would rather be rid of them altogether than undergo tentative pedicures from the nurses, and the compul­sion to correct them and seek relief by painfully digging at the dig­its himself. We shall recognize, in Laura, some echoes of these torments.
He looked at the sunny outdoors and softly exclaimed that a cer­tain butterfly was already on the wing. But there were to be no more rambles on the hillside meadows, net in hand, book working in his mind. The book worked on, but in the claustrophobic microcosm of a hospital room, and Nabokov began to fear that his inspiration and his concentration would not win the race against his failing health. He then had a very serious conversation with his wife, in which he impressed upon her that if Laura remained unfinished at his death, it was to be burned.
The lesser minds among the hordes of letter writers that were to descend upon me would affirm that if an artist wishes to destroy a work of his that he has deemed imperfect or incomplete, he should logically proceed to do so neatly and providently ahead of time. These sages forget, though, that Nabokov did not desire to burn The Original of Laura willy-nilly, but to live on for the last few card lengths needed to finish at least a complete draft. It was also theo­rized that Franz Kafka had deliberately charged Max Brod with the destruction of the reprinted Metamorphosis and other masterpieces published and unpublished, including The Castle and The Trial, knowing full well that Brod could never bring himself to carry out the task (a rather naive stratagem for a brave and lucid mind like Kafka's), and that Nabokov had exercised similar reasoning when he assigned Laura's annihilation to my mother, who was an impeccably courageous and trustworthy emissary. Her failure to perform was rooted in procrastination-procrastination due to age, weakness, and immeasurable love.
For my part, when the task passed to me, I did a great deal of thinking. I have said and written more than once that, to me, my parents, in a sense, had never died but lived on, looking over my shoulder in a kind of virtual limbo, available to offer a thought or counsel to assist me with a vital decision, whether a crucial mot juste or a more mundane concern. I did not need to borrow my 'ton bon' (thus deliberately garbled) from the titles of fashionable morons but had it from the source. If it pleases an adventurous commentator to liken the case to mystical phenomena, so be it. I decided at this junc­ture that, in putative retrospect, Nabokov would not have wanted me to become his Person from Porlock or allow little Juanita Dark-for that was the name of an early Lolita, destined for cremation-to burn like a latter-day Jeanne d'Arc.
On Father's ever shorter and less frequent visits home we tried bravely to keep up our chatty dinnertime conversation, but the oth­erworldly world of Laura would not be mentioned. By that time I and, I think, my mother knew, in every sense, how things would go.
Some time passed before I could bring myself to open Father's index-card box. I needed to traverse a stifling barrier of pain before touching the cards he had lovingly arranged and shuffled. After sev­eral tries, during a hospital stay of my own, I first read what, despite its incompleteness, was unprecedented in structure and style, writ­ten in a new 'softest of tongues' that English had become for Nabokov. I attacked the task of ordering and preparing, and then dictating, a preliminary transcript to my faithful secretary Cristiane Galliker. Laura lived on in a penumbra, emerging only occasionally for my perusal and the bits of editing I dared perform. Very gradually I became accustomed to this disturbing spectre that seemed to be living a simultaneous twin life of its own in the stillness of a strong­box and the meanders of my mind. I could no longer even think of burning Laura, and my urge was to let it peek for an occasional instant from its gloom. Hence my minimal mentions of the work, which I sensed my father would not disapprove, and which, together with a few approximate leaks and suppositions from others, led to the fragmentary notions of Laura now flaunted by a press ever eager for the tasty scoop. Nor, as I have said, do I think that my father or my father's shade would have opposed the release of Laura once Laura had survived the hum of time this long. A survival to which I may have contributed, motivated not by playfulness or calculation, but by an other-force I could not resist. Should I be damned or thanked?
But why, Mr. Nabokov, why did you really decide to publish Laura?
Well, I am a nice guy, and, having noticed that people the world over find themselves on a first-name basis with me as they empathize with 'Dmitri's dilemma,' I felt it would be kind to allevi­ate their sufferings.



Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

David Vann
My mother gave birth on Adak Island, a small hunk of rock and snow far out on the Aleutian chain, at the edge of the Bering Sea. My father was serving two years as a dentist in the Navy; he had wanted Alaska because he liked hunting and fishing, but he obviously had not known about Adak at the time of his request. Had my mother known, she would have scratched out the request herself. Given enough information, my mother has never made the wrong choice.
So it was that she refused to have her sweltering, jaundiced baby yanked out of Adak's underground naval hospital and thrown into the jet that sat waiting on the runway for more than six hours. Because my temperature was 105 degrees and still climbing, the doctors and my father recommended I be flown to the mainland, to a real hospital (no one on Adak survived even a mild heart attack while we were there — no one), but my mother refused. She was certain, with what my father always described as an animal, instinctive fear, that the moment I was borne aloft, I would perish. She placed me in an ordinary white bathtub filled with cold water, and there I survived. Flourished, even. My orange, blotchy skin gradually calmed to a healthy baby pink, my limbs unlocked, and I flailed my legs in the waters until she lifted me out and we both slept.
When my father had finished his sentence with the Navy, we moved to Ketchikan, an island in south-eastern Alaska, where he bought a dental practice and, three years later, a fishing boat. The boat was a new twenty-three-foot Uniflite fiberglass cabin cruiser. Still wearing his dental smock beneath his jacket, he launched the boat late on a Friday afternoon as we cheered from shore. He slipped it into its stall in the docks, and the next morning he stood on the edge of those docks looking down thirty feet through clear, icy Alaskan water to where the Snow Goose sat like a white mirage on the rounded gray stones. My father had named it the Snow Goose because he had been filled with dreams of its white hull flying over the waves, but he had forgotten to put in the drain plugs the afternoon of the launching. Unlike my mother, he had neither eyes nor ears for matters below the surface.
That summer, as we flew back over the waves from a day of fishing (my father had had the Snow Goose raised and cleaned, proof that persistence sometimes can make up for a lack of vision), I would be on the open but high-sided back deck with the day's catch of halibut, flopping into the air with them each time my father sailed over one wave and smashed into the next. The halibut themselves lay flat, like gray-green dogs on the white deck of the boat, their large brown eyes looking up at me hopefully until I whacked them with a hammer. My job was to keep them from flopping out of the boat. They had terrific strength in those wide, flat bodies, and with a good splat of their tails they could send themselves two or three feet into the air, their white undersides flashing. Between us a kind of understanding developed: if they didn't flop, I didn't smash their heads with the hammer. But sometimes, when the ride was especially wild and we were all thrown again and again into the air and their blood and slime were all over me, I gave out a few extra whacks, an inclination of which I am ashamed. And the other halibut, with their round brown eyes and long, judicious mouths, did see.
When we docked after those trips, my mother would check everything over, drain plugs included, while my father stood by. I played on my knees on the weathered boards of the dock, and once saw a terrifying creature crawl from a rusty tin can that had been knocked on its side. Repulsed by those barbarous legs, I howled and went over backward into the water. I was fished out soon enough, and thrown in a hot shower, but I didn't forget what I had seen. No one had told me about lizards — I honestly never had dreamed of reptiles — but on first sight I knew they were a step in the wrong direction.
Shortly after this, when I was nearing five years old, my father began to believe that he, too, had made steps in the wrong direction, and he set out in search of the kinds of experiences he felt he had been denied. My mother was only the second woman he had ever dated, but to this list he now added the dental hygienist who worked for him. The nights at our house were soon filled with a general keening of previously unimaginable variation and endurance.
I abandoned ship one night when my father was crying alone in the living room and my mother was breaking things in their bedroom. She didn't utter any human sounds, but I could chart her progress around their room by imagining the sources of wood snapping, glass shattering, and plaster crumbling. I slipped out into the soft, watery world of Alaskan rain-forest night, soundless except for the rain, and wandered in my pajamas down the other side of the street, peering in dark, low living room windows and listening at doors, until at one door I heard a humming sound that was unfamiliar to me.
I went around to the side of the house, opened the screen door, and pressed my ear to cold wood. The sound seemed lower now, almost a moan, barely audible.
The door was locked, but I lifted up the rubber corner of the welcome mat and, just as at our house, the key was there. So I went in.
I discovered that the buzzing sound was the air-pump filter on a fish tank. Something about wandering alone through someone else's house was awful, and I moved solemnly across the linoleum to take a seat high on a kitchen stool. I watched the orange-and-black-striped fish suck at pebbles and spit them out. The tank contained larger rocks, also: lava rocks with dark caves and crannies out of which peered many tiny round fish eyes, shiny as foil. Some had bright red-and-blue bodies, others had bright orange bodies.
I thought perhaps the fish were hungry. I went to the refrigerator and saw sweet pickles, opened the jar, and brought it back for the fish to see. I found slots on top of the tank, toward the back, and dropped the pickles in, one or two at first, then the whole jar, slice by slice, and finally poured the juice in, too, so that the tank water swelled up and ran in beads over the side.
I stared at the pickle slices floating brightly with the fish, some of them sinking and twirling. They bounced slowly over the bright pink and blue rocks below. The orange-striped fish had all flashed about the tank as I had been pouring, but they, too, now moved slowly. They leaned a little to one side as they swam, and several rested on the rocks. Others stretched their long, see-through cartilage mouths at the surface every few moments and sucked for air. Their side fins rippled as delicately as fine lace.
When the pickle slices had settled more, they rocked like sleeping fish just above the pink and blue gravel, and the real fish rocked silently beside them, as if in gentle groves of eelgrass and sunken lily pads. The image was beautiful, and in that moment of beauty I strained forward.
I pressed my hands and face close to the glass and gazed into the mute black core of one of those silvery eyes. I felt as if I, too, were floating, gently rocking, oddly out of place, and in that flicker of a moment I caught myself feeling the rocking and, perceiving myself perceiving, realized that I was I. This distracted me; then I forgot what had distracted me, lost interest in the fish, and, after slapping my feet across the linoleum of the kitchen floor, passed again into the soft, dark rain.
Three years later, after my mother and I had moved down to California, I was given a fish tank of my own and decided to become an ichthyologist. My parents had separated, of course, startled nearly as much by what I had done as by what they themselves had been doing all along. Any connection between my vandalism and their night-time exchanges was completely mysterious to them.
My first aquarium was only a clear plastic tray of the kind most often used to hold nuts and bolts. In it were two goldfish I had won at the county fair and some gravel my mother had bought at Sal's Fishworld on our way home.
I watched over those thin, pale goldfish, but the tray had no cover, and after our cat, Smokey, snagged them with his paw and ate them on our countertop as I watched, unable to move, my mother took me down to Sal's and bought a proper ten-gallon tank with a bubble filter, more gravel, a wide-leaved plastic plant, a piece of volcanic rock with a hole in it, a few goldfish, and even one of those orange-and-black-striped fish I knew from Ketchikan, which I now discovered were called clown loaches.
We watched those fish every evening, cleaned their tank every weekend, and also survived the occasional ich plague: a sudden, mysterious proliferation of white spots on fins and tails that threatened to kill them all.
We buried the first of the deceased in elaborate ceremonies, during which my mother would sit beside me on her knees in the dirt and I would wear an old white bedsheet. The fish themselves were always wrapped in many layers of toilet paper, placed in small boxes, and buried six inches under, where the cat wouldn't dig them up.
Soon we just flushed the fish down the toilet and replaced them, but even then they were all I thought about. I wrote reports on them at school in lieu of book reports. My elementary school teachers never seemed to catch on, but apparently believed I had read books titled The Clown Loach, The Silver Dollars, The Iridescent Shark, and The Plecostemus, or Bottom-Sucker. Everything in human life was to be found in that tank. Yellow-and-black angelfish floated delicately by, all glamour and glitz, while behind them trailed their waste in streamers. Suckers at the bottom of the tank ate this waste, spat it out in disgust, and roved on, still hungry. And within five minutes of placing two new silver dollars in the tank, I saw real brutality. These silver dollars were large, thin fish, nearly identical in shape and shine to the coins after which they had been named, and once out of their plastic bag from Sal's, they swam up on either side of my one lazy, boggle-eyed iridescent shark. This iridescent shark had been badly misnamed; he was in actuality no more than a long, thin goldfish with a shiny body and two large, bulbous eyes. The silver dollars were slick and merciless and knew how to work as a team. In one quick flash each went for an eye and sucked it out. They didn't even swallow, but let the round, billiard- ball eyes float dreamily down to the rocks, where they were ingested by the sucker fish.
My mother was swift in her retribution. The silver dollars were netted and flushed within minutes, and we spent that evening together watching the iridescent shark bump blindly into the sides of the tank, waiting for him to die.

As we spent these years in California leading steadily more circumscribed lives, my father ranged farther and farther up in Alaska, and everything he did seemed to lack sense. He had never enjoyed dentistry, and felt now that perhaps fishing was more what he wanted to do. In this I believe he was right, and he was certainly earnest, but he didn't think ahead very well. He sold his practice, ordered a beautiful, expensive, sixty-three-foot aluminum commercial fishing boat, to be completed before the halibut season, and persuaded my uncle to be the crew. They had fished together for sport all their lives, but neither of them had any experience on a commercial fishing boat, and they were to be the only two on board. My father's lone-explorer image of himself would have been undercut if he had worked first on another boat or had hired a captain.
He named this boat the Osprey. Whereas the Snow Goose had been a bird to fly its white wings over the waves on short one- and two-day sport-fishing jaunts, the Osprey was a more wide-ranging creature. With wingspans of up to six feet, ospreys are known to soar far out over the waters in vast arcs and circles, and they often soar alone.
The Osprey was not finished on time, so my father and my uncle entered the season a month and a half late. In their hurry they fouled up one of the halibut lines they had set, thus jamming for more than a week the huge hydraulic wheel that pulled the fish in, and of course they caught almost nothing. The loss of above $100,000 that year on fishing alone left my father undaunted, however, because he had already entered the last beautiful, desperate, far-ranging circlings of his life.
My uncle tells of one night on the bridge of the boat when my father, having lost for the seventeenth consecutive time at gin rummy, instead of looking glum and muttering an insincere congratulation, curved his back suddenly and spread wide his arms. Standing up on his captain's chair amid the blue-white glow of radar and sonar, he stretched out his chin, tilted what my uncle remembers to this day as a distinctly curved beak, and squawked out, 'Three degrees starboard!' My uncle adjusted the automatic pilot accordingly, and in the morning they set what was to be one of only three or four successful lines that trip.
This correlation between my father's predictions and actual success was rare. The hardware store he had also invested in that year collapsed, as did the price of gold, the IRS's patience with his tax dodges in South American countries (he was angry at having to pay Social Security, which, ironically enough, supported us after his death), and his relationship with his receptionist-turned-fiancée. In short, the year was not a good one. I spent all of four days with him, in mid-January.
Each night during that vacation, as I lay in a sleeping bag on the hotel-room floor at the foot of his bed, I heard his tossings and turnings until very late and sensed, with the assurance children sometimes have, that he would not be my father for much longer. His movements came in cycles that were closing in steadily around him. He kicked wildly at the sheets, groaning in frustration, anger, and despair, until they billowed and ruffled like an offshore wind, then sank face first, utterly resigned and collapsed, into his pillow to weep. Then he began the cycle again. I assumed all along that he thought I was no longer awake, since he had never to my knowledge let himself weep in front of anyone. But one night he spoke to me.
'I just don't know,' he said aloud. 'Roy, are you awake?'
'God, I just don't know.'
That was our last communication. I didn't know, either, and I wanted only to shrink farther down into my sleeping bag. He had a terrific pain in his head that painkillers couldn't reach, an airiness in his voice that was only becoming more hollow, and other mysteries of despair I didn't want to see or hear. I knew where he was headed, as we all did, but I didn't know why. And I didn't want to know.
My father ranged farther and farther that next year in the Osprey, changing gear for albacore off Mexico, then again for king crab in the Bering Sea. He began to sport-fish off the wide, high stern, and one day caught several large salmon, which he gutted on the spot. With the return to port and sale of the failed Osprey imminent (after two years of severe losses he could no longer even get a loan), with the IRS closing in, and with no further flights imagined, he took his .44 Magnum handgun from the cabin and walked back to stand alone on the bright silver stern under a heavy, gray-white sky and the cries of gulls, his boots slathered with the dark blood of freshly caught salmon. He may have paused for a moment to reflect, but I doubt it. His momentum was made up only of air, without the distraction of ground. He spattered himself amid the entrails of salmon, his remains picked at by gulls for several hours before my uncle came up from the engine room and found him.
My mother and I survived. Not having taken off to any heights, we had nowhere to fall. We drank clear bouillon soup with a few peas in it after my uncle called and told us the news, and in the evening, as the light in the sky faded to blue and then black, we sat in our living room, in the fluorescent glow of the fish tank, watching. The iridescent shark had learned to find his way around by now and bumped less frequently into the glass. The empty sockets, their rawness originally laced with thin tracks of blood, had been soothed and covered over by an opaque white film. The tiger-striped archer fish, who was half jaw, half tail, who swam always at a forty-five-degree angle to the surface of the water, and who could spit sizable water pellets, was skimming his strong lower lip along the surface, waiting, and at some point — I have no idea when, since time stands still after a death, with no sensation of passing — I rose to bring him the jar of flies. I let one into the air space between hood and water, covered the hole again with tape, and sat down beside my mother to watch this ritual of the familiar, a relic from what our lives had been, but I knew that I had lost interest. The archer fish tensed up, danced in a fluttering circle with his hooked lip at the surface the fulcrum, followed the mad flight of the fly with quiet deliberation, and spat his pellet of water with such celerity and yet so little movement that it seemed not to have happened at all, and yet there was the fly, mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic.


Complicit by Nicci French

Complicit by Nicci French

I turned around and checked the door of the flat. It was closed. That wasn't enough. What if somebody arrived sud­denly? What if they had a key? I pulled my sleeve over my hand so that I wouldn't touch it directly and, awkwardly through the cloth, grasped the bolt and slid it across as quietly as I could. The lights were all on, but the curtains still half open. I sidled round the wall until I reached the window, looking out to make sure nobody was standing in the dark street beneath before I closed them.
Starting at the door, I gazed around the room, dispassion­ately, like a camera, moving my attention from object to object. There was a framed photograph on the wall. I had never seen it properly before. Now I realized that it was a swarm of blurry orange butterflies. On the small table were a phone (what if it rang?) and a bowl with a small bunch of keys in it. Whose were they? His, probably. I needed to think about that. There was a comfy brown suede chair with the guitar case leaned against it. The guitar lay on the floor beside it, smashed through its centre, strings dangling in the splintered wood. I glanced away to the TV that I'd never seen switched on and to the big striped sofa where we had - No, don't. Don't remember. My scarf was draped across one arm where I had left it a couple of days earlier.
I picked it up and wrapped it around my neck, where the violet bruise throbbed like a nasty memory. There was a bookshelf. The books, some of which had been scattered onto the floor, were all Liza's, about art, design, a bit of travel. Liza was far from here, a thousand miles away. On some of the shelves were objects and curios, little sculptures and pieces of pottery. A miniature brass Buddha, a green bottle with a silver stopper. Liza used to bring them back from abroad. There was a low cupboard along the far wall and, on top of it, a mini-stereo with a wire rack barely half full of CDs. They were Liza's too - all except one. I walked across and, with care, using my fingers like tweezers, picked up the Hank Williams CD I had brought the previous week. I opened the case. It was empty. Covering my hand with my sleeve again, I pressed the button on the CD player and the tray opened. There it was. I pushed my little finger into the hole, removed it and returned it to the case. I put it on top of the stereo. I'd need to look for a plastic bag.
A pine table that Liza used for working stood against the right-hand wall. The mail that had arrived in the weeks she'd been away was no longer in a pile but spread out messily on the surface, and a few envelopes were on the carpet. On the table, there was also a silver laptop, its lid closed, the power cable coiled neatly on top, a funny little green plastic tortoise for keeping pens and a tin box full of paperclips and rubber bands. The chair that was usually beside it had fallen over. A vase lay next to it, its red tulips and water spilled out on the carpet, darkening it from the colour of pale barley to that of piss.
Next to that the body lay face down on the rug, arms splayed. It was the arms that showed he was dead, even more than the dark stain that had spread from under his head - really dark, more black than red. I thought of his open eyes staring down into the roughness of the rug, his wide mouth misshapen against the wool. I looked at the hands, stretched out, as if reaching for something.
Those hands. When I first felt them on my face, stroking the skin at the back of my neck, running through my hair, they were softer than I'd expected. Kinder. I felt almost as if he was a blind man learning about my body by touch. He ran his fingers down my naked spine and I felt that I was being played; unfamiliar bass sounds were released from me as he pressed the keys of my vertebrae, strung me out in a pleasure that was close to pain.
I couldn't help it. I knelt down beside him for a minute and put one finger into his slightly curled hand, still warm and soft to the touch, and let it rest there for a moment. In spite of everything, he had been mine for a while. He had looked at me as if I was the most beautiful woman in the world, the most precious to him, and I had comforted him. That's not so far from love.
I stood up again and moved around the room, checking things without being sure what I was checking for. I opened the table drawer, crouched and peered under the sofa, lifted the cushion on the armchair. My leather satchel, the scuffed brown one I had carried as a schoolgirl and used again now that I was back at school as a teacher: it should be here. I knew I had left it on the arm of the chair, its strap unbuckled.
I went into the kitchen, placing my feet carefully on the tiles, heel to toe, so that I wouldn't make any noise. There was the usual mess: unwashed mugs and plates, crumbs on the table, a slop of coffee on the hob, an opened packet of biscuits. I stood quite still. Something was wrong; something did not make sense. I opened each cupboard and looked inside. I pulled out each drawer, wincing as it scraped and squeaked, as the cutlery rattled. Where was my apron, the one I'd brought over when I'd cooked us a meal just a few days ago because for once I was wearing a dress that I would mind staining? Where was my favourite - my only - recipe book, with my name written inside the front cover? 'To Bonnie, with love from Mum.' For a moment I stood quite still, baffled, and with an ominous ache in my chest. The tap was dripping very slightly. Outside, I could hear small gusts of wind in the tree at the back and, in the distance, the cars rumbling along the main road, the shake of a lorry that I could feel in my feet.
I tiptoed into the bedroom. The curtains were closed and the bed was unmade. I could almost make out the shape of his body, our bodies, still there. Clothes were piled for washing in a heap to one side of the door. I couldn't see my shirt, the one he had ripped off and tossed aside, although I knew where it had been lying. I remembered the way he had looked at me then, a gaze that made me want to cover my nakedness. I couldn't see my old T-shirt and flannel shorts, the ones I wear at night if it's cool. I pulled open each of the chest's drawers. A few of Liza's clothes were there, the ones she hadn't wanted to take with her, and some of his, but none of mine, and no satchel either. I sat on the bed and closed my eyes for a few seconds, and in the darkness I thought I could feel him there beside me. Would I always live with this or would it fade and dwindle?
There was only one toothbrush in the bathroom. It was mine. His was gone. I took it. My deodorant was missing but his was there. My razor was missing but his was there. My small tub of body lotion was missing. I stared at myself in the small mirror above the basin. Dark eyes in a small white face. Dry lips. The bruise flowering on my neck, half hidden by the scarf.
I returned to the living room. He seemed more massive than before, deader somehow. How quickly does a body become cold? How quickly does red blood turn sticky? If I touched him again, would he feel hard, a corpse now, not a man? Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw his hand move, and I had to stare at it to convince myself that it was impossible.
I was standing on something and when I looked down I saw it was the wedding invitation. I stooped and picked it up, folded it in half and then half again, and pushed it with the toothbrush I was still holding into the pocket of my Jeans.

'Cheers.' I raised my glass of cold white wine and clinked it against theirs. 'Here's to the holidays.'
'Liza and I aren't on holiday, remember,' Danielle said. 'Only teachers get six whole weeks.'
'Only teachers deserve six whole weeks. Here's to the summer, then.'
I took a sip and leaned back luxuriously. It was evening but the air was still soft and warm. I needed the summer-the late mornings, the hot, light-filled days, the time away from classes of teenagers making tentative scrapes and whistles on their violins and recorders, the staff room where we were no longer allowed to smoke but drank too many cups of coffee instead, the evenings marking homework and trying to sort out my life, paper by paper, bill by troubling bill.
'What are you going to do with all the time you've got?'
'Sleep. See films. Eat chocolate. Get fit. Swim. Catch up with friends. Decorate my flat at last.'
Several months ago I had moved out of a two-bedroom flat I had loved into one of the smaller, darker, dingier one-bedroom flats that Camden Town had to offer, with thin walls, flaking window frames, a fridge that leaked and a radiator that spluttered and only got warm when it felt like it. My project was to do it up. I had romantic ideas of rescuing beautiful pieces of furniture from skips and wielding a brush to work miracles with whitewash, but first I had to scrape away layers of paint and paper, pull up the patterned carpet, and try to persuade overworked friends to take a look at the electrics and the suspicious brown stain spreading on the ceiling.
'So I'm at home this year,' I said. I turned to Danielle. 'I guess you're going away after the wedding.'
'Honeymoon in Italy,' she said, and gave a small, triumphant smile. I felt a stab of irritation. Danielle seemed to think that her approaching marriage meant that she had achieved a moral ascend­ancy over Liza and me. We had been at university together, part of the great student democracy of mess and heartbreak and growing up, but now she behaved as though she had pulled ahead of us in a race we hadn't even known we were in, and was looking down on us with a mixture of superiority and pity: Liza, the drunken hoarse-voiced partygoer, and me, the flat-chested school teacher with bleached hair and a string of unfortunate relationships behind me. She was even starting to look different. Her dirty-blonde hair had been expertly layered, styled and flounced; her fingernails were painted a pearly pink (all the better to show off the single diamond); she wore a light summer skirt and looked pretty and un­threatening, as if she were trying to tone down her sexuality in order to become the sweet, blushing bride. I was half expecting her to squeeze my hand and tell me not to worry, that my time would come.
'September the twelfth, isn't it?' Liza poured herself another very large glass of wine and took a deep slurp, smacking her lips with gusto. I gazed at her with affection: one of the buttons on her very tight shirt had come undone, and her mane of auburn hair fell in a muss over her flushed face. 'We'll have to think what wedding present to get you. Something unusual.'
'There's only one thing I want from both of you,' Danielle said, leaning forward so I could see tiny drops of perspiration above her upper lip. For a moment, I thought she must have a wedding list and that I would have to buy an electric kettle or half a silver teaspoon. 'I want you to play at the party.'
'What?' Liza and I spoke at the same time, an identical note of incredulity and dismay in our voices.
'I've been dying to ask you. Honestly, it would mean so much to me. And to Jed.'
'You mean, play music?' I said stupidly.
'I've never forgotten the evening when you played at that uni fund-raiser. Gorgeous. It made me cry. It was one of the happiest evenings of my life.'
'Not of mine,' I said, which was an understatement. 'Anyway, Danielle, we haven't played together for - well, probably not since that evening.'
'Definitely not since that evening,' said Liza, with a snort. She'd been the singer and even then, nearly a decade ago, her voice had been hoarse from smoking. I couldn't imagine what it would be like now - something like a rook with twigs in its mouth. 'I don't know where half of them have gone.'
'And don't want to know,' I added.
'Ray's in Australia.'
'You can get together again,' said Danielle. 'Just this once. It would be fun. Nostalgic.'
'I don't know about that.'
'For my sake?' she said winsomely. She didn't seem to understand that we had no intention of playing at her wedding. 'You only get married once.'
'It's impossible,' said Liza, happily. She waved her hands in the air exuberantly. 'I've got my sabbatical and you won't see me for dust. I'm away for four whole weeks in Thailand and Vietnam. I get back just a couple of days before your wedding. Even if we could persuade the others, which we couldn't, I wouldn't be around to rehearse. Neither would most of them. It's summer, after all.'
'Oh,' said Danielle. She looked as if she might weep, her cherished plans gone awry. Then she brightened again, propped her small chin on her hand and directed her words at me. 'But you're here, Bonnie. All summer. Doing your flat up.'
I don't know how it was that I said yes, when I really meant no no no no. On no account. I don't know how I allowed my lovely six weeks of pottering about between bouts of decorating to be invaded. But I was a fool, and I did.

I didn't know what to do next, and although I understood that every second might matter, that time was running out, I simply stood in the living room, not looking at where he lay face down in the puddle of his own blood. I tried to think, but there were spaces in my brain where thoughts should have been. At one point, I put my hand on the bolt ready to leave, to run into the road and breathe in the night air, but I stopped myself. I wiped the bolt clean with my sleeve, rubbing at the smudge, imagining the spirals of my fingerprints disappearing. I couldn't leave. I had things to do. Tasks. I swallowed hard. I breathed, in and out, as deeply as I could. It was difficult. My breath jammed in my windpipe so that for a moment I thought I would suffocate. I imagined my body falling, coming to rest beside his on the floor, my eyes staring into the tufts of carpet, my hand over his.
I got a plastic bag from the cupboard under the kitchen sink and put in my CD, the toothbrush and the wedding invitation. I started in the bedroom, where most of his things were. I had to do this right. I had only one chance. I found his passport in the drawer of the bedside table, as well as a packet of condoms, and I took both of these and dropped them into the bag. What else? I went into the bathroom and took his razor, his deodorant and his empty sponge bag. His jacket was hanging on the back of a chair in the living room. I felt in the pockets and found his wallet. I thumbed through it. There was a credit card, a debit card, a tatty paper driving licence, a twenty-pound note (that I'd lent him), a small photograph of a woman I didn't recognize, a passport-sized photograph of him. His glowing eyes, his sudden smile, his hands on my body. Even now, with his body dead on the floor, my skin tingled with the memory. I dropped the wallet into the plastic bag. What else? He owned so little. 'You,' I heard him say, as clear as if he was by my side. 'I possessed you, Bonnie.' And I felt clammy and cold all at once, goose-bumps on my skin and sweat on my forehead as if I was going to be sick. I pressed my fingers against my temples to stop the pounding.
As I stood there like that, I heard the phone, not the flat phone, not my mobile, which I had turned off anyway. So that was what I'd forgotten. His mobile. I knew where it would be and the muffled sound of the ringing tone con­firmed it. I waited until it stopped, then made myself go back to the body and squat beside it. With half-closed eyes I pushed my hand under it and felt for the rectangle shape. I wriggled my fingers down into the pocket and drew out the mobile. I didn't put it into the bag, though. I turned it off without looking at who had called him and slid it into my pocket.
I looked down at him. At it, huge on the floor. Now what? Because I knew that I couldn't do this alone.

Keeping a class of teenagers under control is a bit like conducting an orchestra, except that it's an orchestra made up of some kind of feral, man-eating beast. It's one of those animals that can smell your fear; it can see it in your eyes, sense it in the shortness of your breath, the acceleration of your heartbeat. And then it goes for you. But it doesn't kill you immediately. It's like a crocodile or a shark that grabs you and plays with you for a while. There were teachers who arrived with confidence and qualifications and thick skin, but just one thing would go wrong and you'd find them crying in the toilets. And when things got really out of control, there was only one thing to be done: send for Miss Hurst.
Miss Hurst was Sonia, who had become my best friend at the school and then perhaps my best friend out of the school as well. We hadn't known each other long, but we had got on from the moment we first met in the staff toilets on the first day of term. She wasn't naturally sociable or extrovert - some of the other teachers felt she held herself aloof - and her wholehearted friend­ship was like a gift she had conferred on me. She had long dark hair and she was larger than me, taller and more imposing, I guess, but her authority wasn't about her physical presence, so far as I could tell. I hadn't properly seen her in action because kids didn't mess around in my lessons. In fact, it wasn't really possible for them to do so: shouting and singing and dancing and moving were what you were meant to do in my classes. Her control didn't have much to do with discipline and nothing whatever to do with threats of punishment, although her contempt, which could be withering, felt a bit like a blow-torch to your ego. She was just so obviously capable. Her subject was chemistry, and obviously you'd trust her to put two chemicals together without blowing the school up but you also assumed she'd know how to fix a car or pull out a splinter or tie a bow-tie, and she knew how to manipulate that strangest of organisms, a roomful of hormonal teenagers. Just before the end of term, she had put in her application to be the new deputy head, and although she was young for the post, I felt certain she'd be successful: if Sonia was around, you felt safer.
So, she seemed a natural person to call on. She used to play the violin, rather badly, in the school orchestra, but she could sing. She had a good ear and the right husky sort of voice. She wasn't conventionally beautiful, but she was better than that She had presence: when she was in a room you wanted to look at her, and when she was in a group you wanted to please her. She held herself well, she was confident without being irritatingly arrogant, and if she could stand in front of a class, she could sing a few old country songs at a wedding.
I lured her to my flat under false pretences. I fed her on bagel chips and white wine and asked her advice about colour schemes and light fittings. She had strong opinions, of course, much stronger than any of mine. I inquired casually whether she was going away for the summer. She wasn't; she didn't have the money for it I took a breath.

'No,' she said. 'Absolutely not'
I filled her glass.
'You're tempted, aren't you?' I said.
The idea is completely ridiculous.'
'Can't you imagine yourself standing in front of the musicians, like Nina Simone or Patsy Cline?'
'What musicians?'
Yes, I thought. She's going to do it
'So far just me,' I said. 'I mean, actually confirmed.' I felt obliged to add, The first two people I asked turned me down flat.'
'Who else was in the group? Anyone I know?'
'Amos, of course. That's when we met'
'Amos?' Was I imagining it, or did Sonia flush? I looked away, not wanting to see, not wanting to acknowledge the suspicion that had been growing for several weeks now - that she was interested in him. Why did this make me feel so panicky? After all, they were both free, no betrayal would be involved, everyone had behaved honourably. I hated to think that I wanted to be separate from Amos yet still have him hanker after me. When she spoke next, her voice was determinedly casual. 'Is he taking part in this?'
I hesitated. 'I haven't asked him. Yet.'
'And it won't be awkward?'
'Why would it be? It was perfectly amicable, after all.'
Sonia smiled at me, the moment of awkwardness gone. 'Break­ ups are never amicable,' she said. 'They're catastrophes - or they're amicable for one person and not for the other. When it's amicable it's only because neither of them was committed in the first place.'
I took a sip, more than a sip, of wine and felt it sting my gums. There was a familiar ache in my chest when I thought about Amos - not pain, but the memory of pain, which has lodged itself in your bones and become part of who you are. 'Well,' I said lightly, 'we managed to remain friends, kind of, whatever that means about our relationship in the first place.' All those high hopes and buoyant plans for the future that hadn't exploded in some climactic break-up but had gradually withered and died, leaving behind a long-drawn­-out dejection, a disappointment in us, in myself. All those months when we both knew but couldn't admit that the journey we had set out on together was petering out and that one day soon our paths would separate. In some ways I would have preferred Sonia's catastrophe to the gradual rusting and corrosion we had experi­enced with a sense of helpless regret.
'Who actually ended it?'
'It wasn't like that.'
'Someone must have said the words.'
'Probably it was me. But only because he didn't have the courage.'
'Was he very upset?'
'I don't know. I was - but you know that. You saw some of it.'
'Yes,' said Sonia. 'Sad, drunk evenings.' We grinned at each other ruefully. It seemed a long time ago now; long enough for Sonia to be thinking of taking my place.
I gave a little shiver. 'You got me through. You and Sally.'
'And whisky.' Sonia always deflected sentimentality.
'And whisky, true. Whisky, beer, coffee, music. Speaking of which . . .'
'Will Amos want to play in a band with you?'
'I haven't asked. I don't know.'
Sonia looked at me intently, then gave a nod. 'You waited until the third glass of wine before asking me, didn't you?'
'The second, I think'
'The third, definitely,' Sonia said, taking a sip as if to confirm it. 'On the minus side, you've only heard me in the choir.'
'And that karaoke night last year.'
'Was that me?'
'One of the best versions of 'I Will Survive' I've ever heard.'
'On the plus side, I don't know any of the people who'll be in the audience. Does it matter if you make a fool of yourself in front of people who don't know you?'
'It's like a tree falling in the forest.'


Letters to Cathy by Cathy Cassidy

Letters to Cathy by Cathy Cassidy

Hello . . .
Welcome to my first non-­fiction book . . . which is really all about YOU! I think you're going to like it!
I was an agony aunt on a young teen mag for twelve years, and always wanted to write a problem-solving book to help girls get through those difficult growing-up years. I never did it, and finally 'retired' from the agony aunting as my books had really taken off . . .  .
The trouble is, I get WAY more letters and emails now than I ever did as an agony aunt, from kids who identify with characters or situations in the stories. Although I do my best to help - I even created a special help page on my website, in conjunction with the fabulous ChildLine - it's impossible to cover everything in one short email reply. A few readers suggested writing a book like this, and that seemed like the perfect answer . . . a growing-up guide for girls, Cathy-style!
As the letters and emails you've sent me over the last few years are obviously personal and confidential, for this book I have changed situations and details to protect your privacy. I've changed the names too, for obvious reasons: I flicked through my notebook and picked out some of the cool names 'donated' by readers at recent events, so if your name appears, thank you!!! (And sorry if I've 'given' you a tough problem to solve!)
To everyone who has shared their problems by letter or by email, thanks for trusting me, for being brave enough and smart enough to ask for help. Thanks for inspiring this book, whatever your worries - whether it's friends, family, boys, confidence, school or something else completely - I hope you will find some answers here!
Growing up is not a picnic . . . it can be tough, it can be testing, it can even turn your world upside down. I know, I was a teenager once too . . . and yes, I made just about every mistake in 'the book!!!
You know what, though? In spite of it all, life is good. Being a teen - or pre-teen - is pretty cool. You are on the edge of something truly amazing, creating a life for yourself from scratch. You're a work in progress!
I hope this book can make it a little easier for you. Read it, and think about the ideas you find inside. Learn from your mistakes, get inspired, start dreaming, make some changes. Anything is possible, everything is still to play for . . . and yes, dreams really can come true.
That's a promise!
Cathy xxx


Adrian Mole - The Prostrate Years by Sue Townsend

Adrian Mole - The Prostrate Years by Sue Townsend

Saturday 2nd June 2007
Black clouds over Mangold Parva. It has been raining since the beginning of time. When will it stop?

I. Glenn fighting the Taliban in Helmand Province.
2. The bookshop only took £17.37 today.
3. Up three times last night to urinate.
4. The Middle East.
5. Do my parents have an up-to-date funeral plan? I can't afford to bury them.
6. My daughter, Gracie, showing alarming Stalinist traits. Is this normal behaviour for the under-fives?
7. It is two months and nineteen days since I last made love to my wife, Daisy.
I sometimes feel that she is less keen on me than she used to be. She hasn't taken the top off my boiled egg for ages. She has still not bought a pair of wellingtons despite living in Mangold Parva for three years. She is the only mother outside the school gate wearing five-inch heels. This shows her total lack of commitment to me, and to the English countryside. In the first month of our marriage we picked blackberries together and she had a stab at making preserves. Now, four years on, the scars from the boiling jam have almost completely healed, and she is buying raspberry Bonne Maman at £3.50! It is ridiculous when you can buy the Co-op's own brand at 87p.
Yesterday I found her crying over her old briefcase. When I asked her what was wrong, she sobbed, 'I miss Dean Street.'
'Who's Dean Street?' I asked.
She slammed the briefcase down and savagely kicked out at a bag of John Innes.
'Dean Street, the place, idiot,' she said in that calm sarcastic voice I have come to dread.
But at least she was speaking to me, although she is still avoiding eye contact. Last week, whilst searching for my nostril hair clippers in my wife's handbag, I came across a Paperchase A 5 -sized notebook with a cover depicting harmless-looking monsters. On opening the notebook I was startled to find, on the first page, a note addressed to me.


I read on.

Dear Diary
I intend to write in you every day and I will hold nothing back. I can tell no living person how I feel. Adrian would have a nervous breakdown, my parents and sisters would say we told you not to marry him, and my friends would say we told you so. But the truth is, diary, that I am utterly miserable. I hate living in yokel-land where the populace have never heard of the White Cube Gallery or macchiato coffee and think that Russell Brand is a type of electric kettle. Do I love my husband? Have I ever loved my husband? Can I live with my husband until one or both of us are dead?

I heard the back door slam and Daisy came in from the garden. I quickly replaced the diary in her handbag and for some reason shouted, 'Daisy, when is the Queen's official birthday?'
She came into the living room and said, 'Why do you want to know? You haven't written her one of your poems, have you?'
As she bent her head to light a cigarette, I couldn't help but notice that she now has three chins. I have also noticed recently that she has tampered with our 'speak your weight' bathroom scales, so they no longer speak.
I have stopped accompanying her to the shops to buy clothes since she had a temper tantrum in the changing room at Primark, when she got stuck in a size 14 shirt and had to be cut out of it by the manageress. All the way home she was saying, 'I can't understand it, I'm only a size 12.' Even my friend Nigel, who is blind but can see shapes, said recently, 'By Christ, Daisy's piling on the pounds. She came to see me the other day and I thought it was my garden shed on the move.'
When she went into the kitchen, I was tempted to grab her diary and read on, but I daren't risk it.
After dinner (tinned tuna salad, new potatoes, beetroot salsa, own strawberries, Elmlea cream) I was washing up when Daisy came in and took a packet of chocolate digestives from out of the cupboard. Later, after I'd cleaned the kitchen surfaces and pushed the wheelie bin and the recycling boxes to the end of the drive, I went into the living room to watch Channel Four news and couldn't help but notice that Daisy had eaten three-­quarters of the packet of biscuits. I should not have said anything. I should have kept my mouth firmly shut. The subsequent row was like the eruption of a volcano.
Gracie turned the volume up to full on her DVD of High School Musical 2 and demanded, 'Stop shouting or I'll call the police!'
My mother came round from next door to find out if Daisy had actually killed me. She brought the row to an end by shouting above Daisy and me, 'Daisy, you are in denial! You are obviously a size 16! Get over it! Evans, Principles and even Dawn French supply clothes for fat women.'
Daisy hurled herself into my mother's arms, and my mother indicated with an angry gesture of her head that I was to leave the room.
This morning Daisy did not stand at the door and watch me mount my bike as I left for work as usual, and when I reached the lane and turned to wave, 'She was not at the window. Physically I am at a low ebb. I rise from my bed at least three times during the night, more if I allow myself a glass of wine after Newsnight. Consequently I am exhausted, and the next morning I have to put up with my parents (with whom I share a party wall) complaining that the constant flushing of our cistern is keeping them awake.
As I was cycling into a headwind it took longer than usual to ride to the bookshop, and when I reached the environs of Leicester I was further delayed. It seemed that every major road had been dug up so that new sewage pipes could be laid. As a reluctant cesspit owner this prompted me to be almost consumed with jealous rage. Is it any wonder my wife is yearning for the metrop­olis? I have denied her one of life's basic necessities. I blame my father for our primitive sanitary conditions, the money we put aside for mains drainage when we built the Piggeries was frittered away on wheelchair ramps for him. Yet it was his own fault he had a stroke - the only exercise he took for years was wagging his index finger on the remote control. To add insult to injury, he still smokes thirty cigarettes a day and gorges himself on fried bread and chilli-flavoured pork scratchings.

I rue the day my parents bought two dilapidated pigsties and converted them into living units. I was grateful to have a pigsty roof over my head in the early days of my insolvency, but I have certainly paid the price.
Another worry is my failure as a father. Gracie came home from nursery school yesterday with a felt-tip draw­ing of 'My family'. Diary, I looked amongst the stick people for the representation of myself but failed to find me. I was deeply hurt by my absence. When I asked Gracie why she hadn't included me, pointing out that it was the tax extracted from my wages that supplied her school with the felt tips and paid her nursery teacher's salary, her brow furrowed. To avoid the usual escalation - sobs, screams, snot and recriminations - I diverted her by opening a packet of pink wafer biscuits.
When I asked my wife why she thought Gracie had left me out of the family drawing, Daisy said, 'She has obviously picked up on your emotional detachment.' When I protested, she got ridiculously overemotional and shouted, 'When you come home from work you sit and stare out of the window with your mouth open.'
I defended myself, saying, 'I never tire of the view, the trees in the distance, the light fading from the sky.'
Daisy said, 'It's not fucking Cornwall. The view from the front window is of a boggy field and a row of leylandii your father planted to 'protect his privacy'. Not that anybody comes near the place.'