Tears sprang to my eyes. I was in a crowded carriage reading The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy. She’s at St Pancras International Station about to catch an early morning train to Paris for a breakfast meeting with her publisher and is suddenly put in mind of a journey she took aged 9. It was the train to Waterloo from Southampton where she, her parents and brother docked en route from South Africa. They were making a new life for themselves. She recognises now, in middle age, that she had always remembered this journey as a happy one, laughing and chatting and looking out of the window at England. All this time later she realises that this is a lie. She had been terrified: where were their things, where would they live? She thinks now that she remembers also her mother’s anxiety.
The reason for my sudden rush of emotion I am not sure. But I think it is something to do with people telling me that my past life is worse than I have tended to think it was. I have always believed I led a pretty charmed life until recently and reject other interpretations. One of my sisters annoys me by referring to her ‘terrible, terrible childhood’, talking about dysfunction and trauma. It makes me mad because whenever she does this I think she exaggerates. I feel she ought not to compare herself to those who grew up with no parents or no food, who grew up in times of war, or whose parents were heroin addicts, and so on and so on. For some reason my mind always goes to one or other of two images: a child whose parents burn him with cigarettes (I think I am remembering the death of ‘Baby Peter’ in the news), or, again from a news story, when there were floods a few years ago somewhere in Africa, where those few who survived did so by clinging to treetops and I was haunted by the fact that a pregnant woman, alone up a tree, had actually given birth.
Anyway, recently when I saw this sister she referred again to our terrible childhood and said parenthetically ‘but you are still in denial’. And I wanted to but did not say ‘or you are wrong’.
My therapist seems to be very much taken with the fact that my mother (a German gentile) married a jew. And that annoys me, too, because it suggests that was a very brave or noble or controversial thing to do, and I reject that notion. I suppose what I am thinking is, it’s only a big deal if you think my mother was actually an antisemite when it is much more plausible that she was not, and that she didn’t give a shit whether he was jewish or not. Further, my therapist seems to think that this amongst other things would have made for a very tricky childhood for me. Which I think is rubbish.
And then I remember that I was absolutely gobsmacked when a friend who has known me over 50 years referred to the various traumas in my life, and listed (that I can remember now) my living in Iran during the revolution, and my father dying when I was 25. And I am thinking, those are not such big deals, compared to others.
Somehow this is reminding me that yesterday at work my boss several times said to me ‘well done’, and I must have started slightly each time, but otherwise ignored it. I think I thought that her well dones were undeserved, misplaced, inappropriate and patronising.