Essay 27: The Edge of the Herd
I’m going to London next week. It’s been five years since I was there, which seems wrong, but is nevertheless true. Five years. I can’t stop saying it to myself. How can it be five years since I have seen so many of my pals? It makes me sick. My godson, when I left London, was two weeks old. He was a little baby with sweet fluffy ears. Now he is a proper kid, with habits and opinions and a small brother. Before he was born, his mum and me shared a peanut butter and honey sandwich on the grass at the women’s pond on Hampstead Heath, and read a Heat magazine, and I remember that like it was two days ago. Don’t tell me it’s been half a decade.
This is not a lament about the terrible passing of the years, though. Or not only that (it is bullshit though – the passage of time; it is a bad joke told by my enemy). This is more a question of probabilities. It just seems unlikely that this is all so definitively In The Past. Surely not, when I can effortlessly recall everything that happened. I can remember what I ate, even. I can’t remember what I ate yesterday. I remember what I felt like, and what I wore, and the expression I made when I looked in the mirror. It’s not right. Five years should have some respect. I remember what books I took out the library, and in what order. It’s oppressive. I remember the exact depth to which my heart sank, as well as what shoes I was wearing, as well as the bus I was on, when I realised a certain person was never going to love me back. Those eight months, in that city, are more vivid than they have any right to be.
It’s tiring, all this, especially for a person who believes that emotions are better left repressed. When I was about 15, my mum delivered one of her stunningly accurate character assessments. This is something she is known for, I think. If not, she should be. I have almost no insight into myself, and so it has been jolly useful over the years to have a mum who just comes out and tells me what I am like. I imagine that it must be gratifying for her, as well, to have a child who is just knocked the hell out by things she says. On my 30th birthday, she gave a speech at my party in which she mentioned that I did not like, as a rule, to be labelled or categorised. I could hardly say my own speech, I was so floored by the clarity of her judgment. She told me, when I was fifteen, that I bottled things up in an unhealthy way, and that I couldn’t do it forever. The first thing I thought when she said it was This woman is some kind of psychic. I think I might have actually stepped back and clutched my head, like in The Matrix. The second thing I thought was Why, though? Why can’t I just bottle things up forever. I quite like it. I like to repress things as if they never happened. This neatly takes care of almost every horrible thing I’ve ever done, every stupid thing I’ve ever said, every time I have felt my heart sink into my impractical shoes or rise up and spread out along my collarbones like a vine. It does not, however, take care of eight months when I was 25 years old. I still have all that. There is apparently no getting rid of it.
I’m fine with this. I was so miserable, mostly, and so tormented it actually altered my posture. You could see from the back of my neck that I was having a bad time. But I was also myself, just pure distilled Rosa Frances Lyster, to a degree not reached before or since. It was really something. In London, I had none of the weapons that usually protect us from ourselves: no job, no family, no partner. Just me, then.
There is a quite unforgettable scene in Planet Earth. You know the one I mean. Not the little bird wearing pants or having feathers that look like eyes and making a noise of a typewriter. Not the “Caves” one where the ground is blanketed with cockroaches, like heaving with cockroaches. It’s the bit with the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica. They are getting ready for winter, and how they do that is they all huddle together in a circle. The little weak ones go in the middle, and the stronger good ones go on the outside, for protection, and the really shit ones get slowly edged out over four months or so, in the snow and the wind. The edging out is not deliberate, I don’t think. It happens so, so slowly. It’s just that there is no space. It’s just that there’s only space for the sweet little ones, and the good tall strong ones. No one else. No other kind of penguin is suitable. It’s continuously dark, David Attenborough says, and temperatures drop to -70 degrees. Surely, he says, no greater ordeal is faced by any animal. Poor penguins.
I have watched Planet Earth a hundred times. Before I went to London, I sat through the penguin scene with no trouble. Poor penguins, I always thought. Poor old guys. This robust heartlessness deserted me shortly after I arrived. In London, I couldn’t watch the penguin scene without crying. Without sobbing, let us face it. It wasn’t that I felt sad for them, although I did. It was a problem of over-identification. I felt as if I actually was a penguin. One of the rubbish ones, obviously, getting edged out in tiny, tiny increments. Nothing personal, of course. No one was edging me out on purpose, but it was happening all the same.
Five years later, and I am not one of those penguins anymore. I’m fine. These things stay with you, though, and that is as it should be.