Blood Precious

Chapter 1

I did not realise a suicide note – I believe that what it is called – was so hard to write, till I tried to do it..
I started for the fifteenth time, ‘Well, that was that…’ then once again tore up the paper. The waste paper basket was starting to overflow with my abandoned letters but, even for me, that start wouldn’t do under the circumstances. I didn’t have to have the letter composed till Tuesday morning, the day that no one came to see me, so I had time. I could not do it on any other day or I risked being found unconscious and resuscitated. Resuscitation is the bane of those trying to commit suicide.

Jack had died a year ago and I had been planning the suicide ever since.
On the morning of the day he died his mind had seemed to briefly operate again like the sun unexpectedly shining through clouds.
He was sitting by the fire as usual. He was always cold in those days, no matter what the season. We used to have a coal fire then, though this has now been replaced by an ultra safe electric one. He would sit for hours, staring at the glowing embers, not speaking, not moving. Sometimes saliva would dribble from his lips and I would wipe them with his handkerchief. He had stopped doing things like that for himself long before.
‘I shall be an ember,’ he said.
A pain of joy snatched at my heart because it was his old, clear, coherent voice.
. We had evolved a theory how after we were dead we might have a way of becoming united again. After death, we had decided, one’s essence glows like a hot coal that cooled over a period of time. If, we told each other, both he and I died while our coals were still smouldering, our hot essences would blend together and become fused for eternity. It had only been a fancy really, a way of thinking round the unthinkable but it had lodged in Jack’s muddled mind as a proven theory.
‘Yes,’ I said now. ‘Oh, yes.’ I felt that breathless excited feeling that I had had more than sixty years ago when I heard his dear voice for the first time..
His voice went tremulous again. ‘You…ember…Me,’ Now he was completely quavery.
I caught at the sleeve of his jersey, trying to wake him, to bring back, even for another moment, the Jack of my life, that clever marvellous person who once had known so many peculiar things and now knew almost nothing.
He never spoke again. Those were his last words. Hot embers. He and I melted together.
I began my letter again, ‘As you can see I have killed myself..’ Stupid. Of course they were going to see. I tore up that one too. Something simple maybe. ‘Farewell..’ No, no. Ridiculously archaic. ‘’Bye bye, daughters…’ ‘Tootleoo, kith and kin..’ ‘I set off on a mysterious journey..’ Perhaps a long essay was the right thing. The problem was that I had never written a letter like this before and, of course, considering its substance, never would again. I even considered abandoning my principles and employing slop and sentimentality, two things I abhor.
I had long ago abandoned hope of getting the letter right first time and was writing it in rough to copy tidily later, in spite of the risk of being discovered. My daughter, Verity, or even M’buta might see early drafts in my wastepaper basket, but I had no option but to take that chance.
M’buta is my daughter’s friend. Well. More than friend really and when, after Jack died I went to pieces Verity, said. ‘You need some one to look in on you when I’m working and M’buta is willing to come around regularly and give you a helping hand. She used to be a nurse so she’s good at looking after people.’
I had felt numb at the time. Only people who know the feeling of numb can understand this. I did not feel in the mood to do anything, not eat or wash or go to bed or anything. M’buta would appear, do all the things that were needed ..that she said were needed.. I didn’t mind if she came or not. A year later, she’s still around. I’ve allowed her to take too much control. I suppose, if I had the energy, or the time, I could take matters back into my own hands. But what’s the point now? I shall be dead by Wednesday. Why annoy Verity and offend M’buta, who in spite of everything is always kind to me?
On with that letter. I sighed and began again, thinking that maybe I need give no explanation for my act. My reasons were fairly obvious, well, on the surface anyway. A poor, old, ill and bereaved woman who had lost the will to live. The truth was a little different, but the people around me were so lacking in imagination that there was no way I could have explained it to them. But it seemed a pity to go out in silence. This was my last chance of making any mark at all on the world. ‘Goodbye’ perhaps? Which meant, ‘God bide with you.’ No, no. I did not even believe in God. There is one thing I do believe in and that’s the truth. I refused to allow my final statement to be a lie. Also, even if it had not been for its religious context. I felt the word ‘goodbye’ had become devalued by time and overuse. ‘Fare well?’ Yes, I definitely wished that those I left behind to fare well. No matter what they thought of me – only quite recently Verity had called me an ungrateful old woman because I said I did not want her nosing around among my things. I did not want M’buta bossing me around either, I said. But I don’t want to cause hurt to anyone. I like M’buta in spite of her being intrusive. There are sides to her that are really nice. When I feel lonely, I look forward to her company. – I felt well intended towards Verity and M’buta. I mean, look at the way in which I plan to take care not to be a nuisance to them afterwards.
I want to look decent after I’m dead, but don’t want to put them to the trouble of doing my corpse up so I have determined to titivate before I die. I had already planned out carefully what I would be wearing and which jewels to put on.
An idea came to me. Should I just this once, as it was a special occasion, pop a little word of affection in. ‘Good bye, darlings,’ ? I even went so far as to put it down, but it looked quite quite wrong. Not me at all. I hastily scratched it out again. Fancy me being remembered by such a trite phrase.
‘She was really an old sweetie inside, not matter how much she might pretend otherwise,’ I could hear M’buta saying. And people laughing and telling tales of other old people who pretended to be nasty but in truth had hearts of sugar syrup. With a shudder, I scribbled through the sentimental words about ten more times so that they shouldn’t even be legible when raised to the light. I did not want them to know that the thought had even occurred to me.
‘I expect you will relieved to be free of me.’ Ah that was more like it. ‘And I will be at peace as well.’ How did I know I would be at peace? I cannot imagine there is much peace while you are being rotted under the ground or cooked in a crematorium, or whatever it was they planned to do with me. Which, of course would not be me, because the true part of me would be with Jack, the glowing clinker, blending with Jack’s red hot one.
I began to feel like my granddaughter, Naomi, when she toiled over writing a ‘thank you’ letter for her birthday present For a moment I contemplated inviting Naomi round now, to help me. But dropped the thought in a moment. You can’t ask a four year old to help her grandmother write a suicide note and anyway, because of the sweetie packets, I have not been able to have her round lately.
I began again. ‘Dearest family…’ This would include M’buta, who being my daughter’s partner, was in the role of my son in law.
I had chosen the paper for my letter with great care. It was hand-made, acid free, and very expensive. Because, after I was gone, this letter would be the only thing my family would have to remember me by, I did not want the paper I wrote it on going acid or brittle.
My door handle gave a turn. Verity. When she could not open it, she called, ‘Mother, have you locked it? What are you doing in there?’ her voice stern and suspicious, the voice I had used to her when she was little and was doing something naughty.
I tried staying still in the hope that she would think I was asleep, even did a few snoring sounds, but she kept rattling on the door handle ‘Mother, open up at once.’
. ‘Go away,’ I shouted, abandoning my pretence. ‘Leave me alone.’ I knew it was useless though and if I did not open up to her, her suspicions would be aroused. Later she would surreptitiously search the room. They did that these days, I’m sure they did. Sometimes, when I opened a drawer I would feel sure someone had been searching among my things. And now I had had so much trouble gathering up enough pills to do the job, I did not want to lose them. You might as well be a toddling child or a pet dog by the age of eighty, the way in which people take control of every aspect of your life, I thought as, reluctantly I put my pad back in its hiding place, behind the dressing table mirror and dropped a couple of disguising tissues on top of the paper in the basket. Sooner or later they would find everything, unless Tuesday came first. It’s because they found me out the first time, when I went with them to the seaside, that they are now watching me so closely. Since that first and failed attempt, I have been getting no privacy or peace.
So as to put them off the scent, lately I had been trying to appear jolly and though Verity kept asking me, ‘Are you all right, Mother? Is your mouth hurting? Why are you stretching it in that funny way?’ M’buta was quite taken in. She is really a very kind person and I should not complain about her. She even complimented me for looking so well and bearing up so wonderfully. But after a while I heard Verity tell her, in one of those silly whispers that people do when they want you to hear and pretend they don’t, ‘Don’t be taken in by Mother. It’s some new trick.’ In fact the only one who had seen through my play acting right from the start was my granddaughter, Naomi. She is only four and has special abilities. ‘Why are you crying in the middle, Grandma?’ she asked.
Well, of course I was. Jack and I had been married for sixty one years. After he died, M’buta said, ‘At least you’ve got a daughter. And me. And a granddaughter. Some people don’t have any one. You are luckier than a lot of people.’ Well who bloody cares about a lot of people. And it’s not just M’buta who goes on like that. It’s everyone. When I went to the eye hospital to tell them that my sight had gone so blurry that I could hardly read any more, they said, ‘Your eyes are really good for your age.’ Same with my hearing. ‘There’s no way of improving your hearing any further, dear. For your age it’s very good.’ What they really mean, of course, is, that I’m lucky to be alive at all, let alone be able to hear or see. And how I wish they wouldn’t call me ‘dear.’ When M’buta first became my daughter’s lover and called me ‘Arrabella,’ I told her I had not given her permission to address me thus. After all she is a girl several years younger than my own daughter. She had had the grace to look embarrassed. ‘What would you like me to call you?’ she asked.
I like, in general to be addressed by my full name by everyone who is more than ten years younger than me, whether I know them well or not, apart of course for child or grandchild. But there was a problem with this as far as M’buta and names are concerned, for due to her relationship with my daughter, I could hardly expect her to call me ‘Lady Cunningham-Smythe’. Mother-in-law, or even Mother might have been OK if she had been a male but did not seem to be appropriate in M’buta’s case either.
For a while there seemed to be no solution to this problem and she told me that she was worried in case the house caught fire and she was unable to call me to alert me to the danger. Which is a situation that does not worry me at all, because I was planning to die anyway. But to M’buta, me being burnt to death is a bad thing.
Chrissy, the woman who has been doing for me for about twenty years, and is the sort that takes liberties when it suits her, calls me by my full name because she is a snob. Apart from that, though, she behaves in ways that I find unpleasantly familiar. After Jack died, because I could not stand her awful\ humming and prancing any more, I gave her the sack. I told her I no longer needed her. I said that as from Monday, she must not come. You would have thought she had not heard a word I said. She continued to turn up as usual and did her non-cleaning making-a nuisance-of-herself as merrily as ever.
‘I told you to leave,’ I shouted on Monday morning.
‘Oh, did you, Lady Cunningham-Smythe.?’ she said vaguely then continued dancing round with her useless duster whacking which always produces more dirt than it removes.
‘Depart, woman,’ I roared. Nothing would budge her.
‘ I couldn’t abandon you, Lady Cunningham Smythe. It’s not in my nature to abandon the sick and aged.’
‘She does a good job of cleaning, no matter what you say,’ said Verity. ‘M’buta thinks so too. And we both like to think there is someone keeping an eye on you when we aren’t around.’ They are all in cahoots. There’s nothing I can do with a gang like that.
I mean, look at the problems I had collecting the pills. It would have been perfectly simple if I had not been suspicious that they were prying. Paracetamol is only sold in little packets of ten tablets. You know – so that people will find it difficult to gather enough to commit suicide. Therefore you need to go to several chemist shops to gather enough to do the job. And with my mobility problem, of which all these experts also say, ‘You get around very well for your age, dear,’ this is not easy. For a while I tried saving up the sleeping pills the doctor had given me, but M’buta found them and threw them away saying, ‘My goodness, look what I’ve found, Ladyma.’ – that’s how we have solved the problem of names in case the house burns – ‘You might have taken an over dose by mistake. They might have killed you.’
‘I can’t see that that would have mattered very much,’ I retorted.
She looked at me with loving disapproval. ‘Imagine how sad Verity and Naomi would be, let alone myself. And Gump. How could you even think of abandoning your poor little dog.’
I love Gump. Once I whispered in his ear, when I was sure no one was listening, ‘I love you, Gump.’ I admit I felt instantly embarrassed. He may be only a dog, but who knows what dogs understand? But all the same I thought it would be a good thing if I was out of the way and someone younger and more agile looked after him.

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Lady Arrabella Cunningham Smythe.

Snobbish, aloof and eighty years old, she wishes she were dead. Then she could join her late husband as they had planned so meticulously before he died. But a band of well meaning friends and relations are determined to thwart her wishes. When her beloved four year old granddaughter, Naomi, – who has magical powers – is kidnapped her will to live must return if she is to outwit a mass murderer – and learn how to use her mobile phone. Do you want to know more?
Lady Arrabella can’t even boil an egg but yesterday I invented a new recipe for cooking them. The two hens are laying two eggs a day, so it is vital I think up new ways of cooking them (the eggs not the hens). You need yoghurt. If you haven’t made my recipe (Dahi) just buy some. Mustard oil, thoroughly heated then cooled is lovely for this dish, but if you don’t like it, or can’t get it, use double virgin olive oil, a teaspoonful per egg. Take one or two hadboiled eggs per person, and mash them up into a yoghurt, a couple of table spoons per egg. Add oil, choppedBP cover corriander leaves, fresh ground black pepper, salt and a little chopped green chilli. Eat it warm with rice, cold with salad, or as a filling for a sandwich.


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There! That was Christmas and New Year. How lovely it all was. But now I am trying to be mindful. And the trees without their leaves became suddenly thrilling. Can you imagine a person being regretful that in a few months there will be leaves. But if you are mindful you will enjoy the leaves just as much as the glorious twigs.After practicing a bit of mindfulness the winter park became nearly as wonderful as the pristine Greek sea.


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Writers In Oxford

It was  Writers in Oxford’s 20th anniversary last week. William Horwood,  author of the Duncton Wood series, wrote to all the Society of Author’s members whose postcode was OX. I think there were three hundred of them. Three hundred published authors living Oxford. And it was only after William set up our society that we authors, for the first time, could meet each other, talk shop and complain about the rotten way our publishers treated us and how mean our royalty advances were. You can imagine the shudder of horror that ran through the offices of the publishers. We authors were no longer alone.

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Miracles and Ganesh

Do you remember, a few years ago, a story going round the world that statues of Ganesh were drinking milk? I even saw a really convincing news item in which a marble statue sucked up a whole cup of milk.

A Hindu priest explained the phenomina.’He is saying ‘I am here.’

Ganesh is the remover of obstacles.

My daughter and her Sussex husband were with us for the weekend at the time of the Ganesh miracle. Pointing to a little teracotta statue of Ganesh that I had on the mantlepiece, Juthika said, ‘Do you think your statue would drink milk?’ Ha ha we laughed. But you know, just for a joke let’s try. We waited till my husband, Ranjit, was out. He’d put a stop to this ridiculous nonsense. We drew the curtains. What would the neighbours think if they saw us trying to give milk to a clay statue. We put some milk in a saucer and held it under Ganesh’s trunk. We stood there for ages, waiting, feeling extremely silly. ‘The miracle time must be over,’ said David at last as we poured the milk into the sink.  To this day the statue smells a bit cheesy and there’s a white stain under his chin.

Juthy and David’s eldest daughter is named after a fierce Indian Goddess. The July before last Chandi celebrated her birthday party in our house. The party glowed and popped with the luminous baloons I had brought.  A week later I saw a tiny light glowing in a dark corner. It was the led light of one of the popped balloons. I stuck it on the head of the teracotta Ganesh.

I know it’s not really a miracle. I know there is something very wonderful about led lights. But all the same, you can’t help wondering. If you go in our dining room in the dark you can still see the little blue glow of Ganesh’s light. It is still burning seventeen months later.

‘This is God saying ‘I am here,’ the Hindu priest had said.

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Reading Groups and Pumpkin Soup

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of Writers in Oxford. I’ve got to write a bit of background for WIO, so will put it on this blog tomorrow. But just to say, what bliss it is being able to talk to fellow writers. I meant to find out if others have, like me, had negative experiences with their families when their books were published, but there was so much else to talk about that the subject did not come up.

On the day that my first novel, Cobwebwalking, was published I waited, wild with joyous anticipation for the congratulatory phone calls from my family. We are descended from the family of Henry Fielding, and every generation since had thrown up a handful of authors. My mother, a best-selling novelist at the end of the second world war, was the first to ring. ‘I have gone right through the ms and found twenty-six spelling and grammar errors,’  she said. I waited for something else. After a silence she said, ‘I just thought you ought to know.’ The second call was from a furious cousin accusing me of stealing her father. My uncle was called ‘Basil’, the same name as my protagonist’s father. And incidentally, my own father is called Basil too. The third accused me of using my cousin’s suffering to make me rich and famous.  As I mentioned in my last post, Morgan in  Cobwebwalking is based on the situation of my cousin, Harriet.

Book groups are never as bad as this, but sometimes nearly. At one each member arrived with a lists of the errors, factual and grammatical, they had found in the book. One even asked ‘Don’t you have spell check on your computer?’ ‘Cobwebwalking’ was published in 1989.

It was Halloween. I had scraped out a pumpkin and put a candle in the shell  I came home really upset and cheered myself up by turning the scraped out pumpkin flesh into soup. I love cooking. It always cheers me up.

I refused all invitations to reading groups after that till my first six books, including ‘Cobwebwalking’, were reissued, last month, by Bloomsbury Reader.

And have now met a reading group who, over glasses of chilled white wine and delicious little eats, asked constructive and intelligent questions about ‘The Wedding of Jayanthi Mandel.’  Thank you. I really enjoyed my evening with you, though I had to admit at one stage that because the book was written so long ago, I had forgotten some of the finer details.

If there is an author out there reading this, does this happen to you? I can remember books written by other people, but the ones that I wrote myself fade easily from my mind.

You can made pumpkin soup in about ten minutes flat not counting the baking part. It’s not Halloween any more, but you can freeze the scraped-out flesh till you want to use it. Otherwise, cut the pumpkin into half, or if it won’t fit in the oven, quarter, and bake in a moderate oven till soft. Scoop out the flesh, put it in a blender with a couple of stock cubes, a green chilli, few scoops of home-made yoghurt (see my blog about ‘Dahi’.) a couple of table spoons of double cream, some chopped coriander leaves, a good grind of black pepper and nutmeg and a splash of olive oil. Blend till it’s a puree. Taste it and add salt if necessary. Dilute with water till it’s soup consistency,  heat and serve with rye bread (see my blog recipe for Sour Dough Rye Bread). Spoon more cream before serving so that it floats on the surface and add a sprinkle of chopped coriander leaves.

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Cobwebwalking and Harriet

Harriet is my first cousin. When I was a teenager and she a toddler I became her mother’s au pair for a while. They lived in London. I would take Harriet in her pram to Kensington Gardens, then hold her hand while we fed the ducks. I got into a little bit of trouble later. Harriet was not really supposed to get out of the pram.

Years later, when Harriet was about twenty she came to stay with me and Ranjit in our tea estate bungalow in Assam.  A bit of road gave way as we drove back from a dinner party and the car slipped over onto its side, leaving Ranjit at the bottom, Harriet in the middle and me on top. I managed to get out and pull Harriet after me. Ranjit joined us and, in the pitch pitch dark, we began to walk along a road where we knew for sure were wild bears. They, apparently, are the only wild animal that attacks even when not threatened. Harriet’s joints bend backwards, so Ranjit and I held her hands on either side. Every rock, every bush looked like a bear. Ranjit and me trembled with terror, while Harriet said that she was utterly thrilled with this exciting experience.  During her stay a war between China and India became a strong possibility and because we were near the border a UK representative came offering Harriet an emergency flight out of the country. ‘Only if my cousins are rescued too,’ said Harriet. We were residents so that was impossible. Harriet refused to go. Instead, she told the man, ‘I would like to be taken to the border to rescue children.” Harriet is four feet high, but all the same is a person of such courage and determination that she probably could have done it.

Now Harriet is about sixty and is in hospital having endured her fourth major operation in a year. She has had her spine enlarged to give space for a compressed spinal nerve, she has had both her knees reconstructed, her leg broke spontaneously a day or two after she was discharged from her last operation and back in hospital she broke her leg again. She has to take massive amounts of painkillers, and cannot get through a night without them.

She is Britain’s leading restorer of china. She can take a heap of tiny china fragments and restore the piece so that you would never know it had been broken. She is good with horses and even trained ponies for Prince Phillip. She used to drive in trap races and win. Her six foot boyfriend took her to look after the horses when he toured the Himalayas.

When she leaves hospital she will return to her home, a converted hayloft out in the countryside. She says she will be fine because she has lots of friends who are always coming round to see her.

Morgan, the protagonist in Cobwebwalking, the first novel of mine to be published, was based on Harriet. Morgan thought she was a magic person till she found out the truth about herself. I think that Harriet is still a magic person, although she knows the truth.

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