Just now, I accidentally freed a fly from a spider’s web on the outside of the office door. Maybe it’s a metaphor for something. Two-way guilt. Guilt at depriving the spider of a meal. Guilt at unleashing yet another fly on the world. How many unwanted flies will there be in the summer because of that accidental release? How many spiders may not now come into existence because the spider will be undernourished. There’s a flip-side as well, of course. The expanse of the empire of spiders will be slowed. More flowers will be pollinated by the flies that will now come into life. And this is where I am with my war guilt.
Yesterday, after I’d finished the radio, M and I walked into Norwich, spent time in a bookshop and bought books we wanted to read, browsed in some charity shops (and didn’t buy anything – she is very particular about what she wants; I keep searching high and low for suede pixie boots for myself and never find any, and am forever reluctant to buy new things). Then we went to the cinema (this sounds like a school essay), and sat outside before the showing in the last of the late afternoon sun. Whichever direction I’m facing, I always have the feeling, right now, that a war at my back will ambush me. We saw Death on the Nile, and if that wasn’t an example of how the goodness of humankind can be blind-sided by greed and evil, nothing is. And an illustration of how wealth can and does corrupt (on and off the screen, actually). Nice back story for Hercule Poirot, though, and a good watch, when the rest of the cinema-going population were watching The Batman on all the other screens up and down the country. I still haven’t asked O if he made good on his threat to walk out of that film because he was bored by it. By the time we got home, we had walked almost 7 miles, and felt like achy old people as we indulged in the luxury of a Chinese takeaway. Suitably weary this morning.
Back to the spider and the fly. I can’t work if there are any flying insects in my office, never have been able to. They distract and anger me. Call me intolerant. Call me unrealistic. Call me unable to cope with the wilderness. My perceived need for comfort makes me feel guilty, too. And sometimes I use my past as an excuse. A past in which I woke up to a shirt frozen solid over the back of a chair because the oil heater (that I had to manually refill from a tank in the cellar) had gone out and just wouldn’t relight. A past where I slept in coats under carpets, where I walked and walked round cities to keep warm because I had nowhere else I could be. A more recent past where fuel poverty was a reality for me and my family. And now I’m sitting in a warm, insect-free office, listening to one of my favourite women on the radio, and still feel guilty for it. I wonder why. There is realistically nothing concrete I could achieve by depriving myself of warmth to show solidarity, by strapping a gun to my back and entering any war anywhere in this world on the side of those I thought were the good people. What is the ultimate purpose of writers – to join causes and wars, or to observe and describe and polemicise, overtly or figuratively?
And, yet, when I see all the practicalities that are left undone around me because I’m writing, I ask myself if I should be writing at all.
AGGIE’S ART OF HAPPINESS – CHAPTER 29
Zav has to let go, or she will drag him along with her. She jumps down onto the track and starts walking to the end of the platform, her long strides taking her there in a moment.
‘For God’s sake,’ Zav shouts, races long the platform and jumps down next to her.
‘You don’t have to follow me.’
‘I do, actually.’
‘Such devotion to duty.’
Their footsteps are all around them as they walk into the barely-lit tunnel.
‘Justice, actually. Goodness,’ Zav says and stumbles.
‘Look where you’re going.’ Her hand is a vice around his arm as she steadies him.
‘Is there nothing you care about?’ he says.
‘Life.’ She lets go of him.
‘Isn’t that the same thing?’
She stops, briefly, moves on. The darkness of the tunnel takes her back again, into another room in that place, where she’s standing over the man she hurt, miraculously still alive, where she decides that she’ll never kill, never end someone’s life, where she sees her long fingers reaching out and stroking his hair in his unconsciousness, where she closes her eyes and makes a vow she’ll never share with anyone else. Don’t be so soft. The green eyes next to her, the old white head, critical, tutting, pulling her hand away from the injured body. If you don’t get them, they’ll get you. And the vow repeating in her head as she’s led back to the books and the warfare and the theory and the beautiful words that mean nothing if you become a killer like the rest of them, and the urge to escape but not seeing a way out, only a way back to that field of snow where they cut her belly open and ripped from her whatever she was growing in herself. She allows herself subservience and sits back at the desk, and picks up another half-read book she’ll be asked about, and reads more about the theory of war while her mind races to find some manner of manipulation of the world around her, the cloistered monastic patterns she took for comfort and which bring only despair. The dry sound of boot on rail brings her back. ‘Define goodness,’ she whispers. ‘Tell me what it really is, what it means. I might believe you then.’
‘Being on the right side,’ he says, puzzled.
‘Not much of a philosopher, are you?’ This time, she does stop, finds his eyes in the gloom. ‘They all said different things to define it, your philosophers, and all you can say is that it’s being on the right side. Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Spinoza, Descartes, Rousseau; they all thought they’d got it down to specifics, but they all meant something the others didn’t say. Pleasure and property and joy and things that fill the time between our birth and death. Is that the good you mean?’
‘I’m talking about practicalities,’ he says. ‘Good versus evil.’
‘Doesn’t evil bring us pleasure? That makes it good, according to Locke.’
‘You’re twisting words.’
‘You’re twisting reality.’ She kicks at the ground. ‘There are at least two sides to everything,’
‘So you are on Blackwood’s side.’
‘I don’t even know what side he’s on.’ She trudges on, slows down for Zav’s benefit. ‘We won’t know that until we find him.’
‘So now you are going to help us?’
‘Not the plural you,’ she says. ‘Just the singular you.’ She allows herself a small laugh. ‘Because there is just the singular you.’
‘I thought you weren’t interested.’
‘Stop it. No time for English jokes. They shot at you, those people, not at me. They nearly hit you. This is a triple or quadruple bluff. They’re not your people out there, in their uniforms. They’re Valentine’s.’