I got caught up in a Facebook argument the other day (I know, so unlike me) on the topic of violence against women, and got comments from men along the lines of #NotAllMen and ‘I’m not violent so it’s nothing to do with me’. But it is up to all men to do something.
Listen to your partners, daughters, friends, mothers, sisters and take them seriously when they talk about what they have experienced. Ask them how they feel about what is going on. Find out how often they have been flashed at, touched, rubbed up against, shouted at, wolf-whistled at, followed, and how old they were when it first happened (early teens for me). Hear their stories about how they plan ahead getting back to their car, how they map out longer routes in their heads because they don’t feel safe on the shorter routes, how they don’t speak out because they feel afraid or intimidated, or how they walk in the middle of the road with their keys in their hands when they think someone might be following them.
Educate your sons and grandsons in what is and isn’t acceptable and why. Help them see that women are their equals. Give them the tools that will allow them to make a difference.
Call out your colleagues, friends or family members when they make sexist jokes, talk over women, put women down, cat call women, or keep chatting someone up when it’s clear she’s not interested.
Don’t say ‘oh, it’s PC gone mad’. Don’t say ‘you can’t do or say anything these days’. If what you say or do upsets women or makes them uncomfortable, just don’t say it or do it. And don’t say #NotAllMen. Or respond that men get harassed too. I know they do. And I do care – I can multitask on caring. I’m just talking about women at the moment.
Tim was a... I don't know what. He would have described himself as collector, but was he a hoarder? When he died, the house was full of books and magazines. Airfix kits. Projects he was going to do. Newspapers he was going to read. Vintage things with sentimental connections. The first pandemic lockdown hit me really hard. My work dried up and I was more alone that I had ever been, in a house that I had fallen out of love with and was full of things that weren't mine. I fell close to the lowest I think I have ever been. It felt like a full stop. One morning, I made the decision to start sorting things. To move rooms around. To reclaim. And I started with the bedroom, the room where Tim had died. I cleared things out. Moved things around. Filled bags for the charity shop and for the bin. Painted the walls and the ceiling. Moved out spare furniture. And then I started to move around the house. Boxed up kits and cars for sale. Sold a room full of magazines on eBay, which took three van trips to clear. Painted and sorted and cleared. Until the house became mine. And as the rooms cleared, my head cleared, and I took the time to grieve. To take the first faltering steps forwards. So. It wasn't a full stop after all. It was a semicolon. Because after all, a semicolon is used when an author could've ended a sentence, their sentence, but chose not to.
I've had enough. I've never been strong enough before, but meeting you has helped me so much. All those years when he said he was sorry, that I'd made him do it, that it was only to teach me. That I should be glad I have him, as I wouldn't be able to manage on my own. That I needed him to help me make decisions. These were all the same things that my father said to my mother. But this ends today. I'm leaving him, and coming to you. I know I'm not clever. I don't always know what is the right thing to do. You’ve helped me reach the decision. But I know that you will help me, look after me. You will tell me what I need to do. I will be safe with you. You won't have to be sorry. I won't make you do anything, and I know that there will be things you need to teach me. I will be glad to have you. Because I really can't manage on my own. You know, you look just like my father.
It was such a brilliant idea. A monologue a day. For 28 days. Only nine lines. What could be easier? A 9 am email, with an exciting new prompt. An idea that could become anything I want it to. New imaginary friends, new words and phrases, none of which existed before. But real life hit. Monologues had to be squeezed out between work, exercise, meetings, calls. Written in bed first thing. Pounded out at my desk in the evening with the deadline looming. Some felt like a joyful creative spark lighting up a day. Some were written in grief and pain. Some went well beyond the nine lines and have potential to become their own thing. Some were forced out, word by word, pleading with the line count to increase. It's been a tough ride, sometimes. Now it's just one day more. And I am going to miss it so much. So. What's next?
She still looks distant sometimes. They said that, as a child of war, it may never completely go away. The things that happened to her when she was tiny – that you might think she was too young to remember– still haunt her. My wife was a war correspondent and was in Kosovo when the baby was found. No-one knew who the child was. We fought to bring her home. We called her Leonita, which means brave, and as we didn't even know how old she was, we gave her the birthday of her country – 17 February. We have tried to keep her in touch with her culture, and have spent so many years trying to find her family, but nothing. Until, that is, in our last trip to the country, on her 21st birthday and just before the pandemic, we found someone who may have known her grand-parents. It's been hard under lockdown, but we are getting closer. Perhaps this might help her find what she seeks when she looks so distant.
The first months of my bereavement were a living nightmare. The world was in monochrome, muffled, fogged. Outside, everything continued as normal but inside my house, inside my head, time stopped in the early hours of that Saturday morning. So much needed to be done but so little mattered. Gradually the fog and numbness cleared, leaving an icy-cold, clear blue spike of pain, and tiredness so profound my bones ached. The intense overwhelmingness of the grief started to pull back, but could crash in like the waves at the beach that take your legs out from under you. Milestone dates passed, the run up to them bitter and hard but the days themselves often a sad and quiet relief. Three years ago; seems like yesterday and a decade. I have not moved on but I have moved forward. New studies, new partner, potentially a new career. Not a life I chose or planned but a life I'm moving towards living to the full.
Friday 23 February was a good night. A night when Tim and I went to the Star to meet an amazing bunch of friends. We laughed and drank and talked and argued. As we always did. Tim at the corner of the table with a packet of pork scratchings, a pint, and a Jameson's for sipping, people-watching. He dropped in little dry comments. Dredged up facts and film names from his phenomenal memory. Acted like the perfect gentle man and gentleman he was. And then leant back in his seat and stretched his fingers out, ready to sum up our meandering discussions, drop in a salient fact, or say something so acid it made Kenneth Williams look benign. And then the next morning his gentle mind and my wonderful life was ripped apart. A sound. A breath. And then silence. And the world continued. Radio 4 played. The Co-Op lorry delivered. The Parkrunners left without me. But we stopped still.
I always loved the lighthouse on the hill. When I was tiny, mum and I would stand at the bottom of the garden and wave at the lighthouse keepers in the lantern at the top. The flashes were how I learned to count. As teenager, I'd sit and watch the strobing light, dreaming of life off the island instead of studying. I almost forgot about the lighthouse when I went to the mainland for university and then work, but fell in love again on my rare visits home. After my parents died and life in the city palled, I put my London flat on the market and came back to decide what to do next. The lighthouse had fallen into darkness. I walked up to the headland and found the gate locked and an estate agent's sign drooping from the window. Four years and countless hours of work later, the lantern room is my office and I can see my childhood home down in the valley. I wave at the child in the garden, and she waves back.
Image: Old Point Loma Light Station, San Diego; Creator: Frank Schulenburg; Copyright: CC BY-SA 4.0
She carried in joy as soon as she opened the door. Her lips were the colour of springtime and her hair smelled of the sun. Her hand as it brushed across my scalp left a trail of sparkles and stars, and her kiss was fire and lightning. She brought me wine and chocolate, wrapped in bright, crackling paper and silken ribbons. Shiraz, loaded with blueberries and blackcurrants and soft, sweet black cherries, redolent with black pepper, vanilla, spices and oak. It left crimson trails down the glasses as we tipped them to drink. Glossy dark chocolate, gleaming, sweet, and bitter, snapped sharply between my fingers, and melted on my tongue. When she left, the light left with her and darkness settled quiet and still into the corners of the room, deep as cat's fur and velvet, shifting only slightly in the flickering of the fire and the candles.
She said she would call back tomorrow. I wasn't convinced. It was my 15th Zoom job interview in two months. Every interviewer said the same, and each time, I would get a polite email or text saying no, or just silence. By this one I'd stopped caring. I wore my favourite jumper. My cat knocked my coffee over. The sheet covering the bookshelves fell off, showing my Stephen King and Terry Pratchett books with a huge Lego model of my dog. I talked with blistering honesty, including why I'd left a good job in the middle of a global pandemic. By the end I figured I'd have been better staying in bed. And then the email came through. I opened it, expecting just thanks but no thanks, and quicker than usual because of the chaos. And instead – she was relieved not to meet another Zoom interview expert. She loved my cat. And she had a full set of signed Discworld first editions. I start on Monday.
Writing short fiction, monologues and plays