At the age of 64 my mother has written her first novel – a bloody tale of female revenge running to some sixty thousand words. And despite having had the first three chapters rejected by every major publishing house in London - despite being told by at least four literary agents that her story has little or no worth - I believe that Dead Husbands, completed despite these setbacks, constitutes a major literary work.
The reason for my optimism is this: single-handedly she has created a new sub-genre, a genre which transcends the idea of a literary text as we have come to understand it. The narrative exists within and outside of itself, merging the unreal with the real, demolishing that invisible wall between reader and text. The novel’s tentacles reach beyond the page – impinge upon the everyday. It’s difficult for me (a lecturer in Comparative History at a minor English university) to try and classify my mother’s achievement – difficult, even, to comprehend what she’s accomplished. But, if forced, Voodoo Fiction is the only label that I’d feel comfortable applying. Instead of dolls my mother has created characters. Instead of pins she has used her own brutal imagination. With her first piece of creative writing she has created Literature to Die For.
’It’s the story of a 64 year old woman who’s been trampled on by three men’ she tells me, ’a woman who gives up a promising career as an actress for love…..a woman who is tormented at the hands of three men – three men who do nothing but lie and cheat on her every day for thirty years.’
It’s past midnight and we’re sitting in the eight berth caravan she calls her home. The rain is beating down and there have been bursts of thunder. On the far side of the caravan park the north wind shreiks through the trees. My mother, wrapped in a burgundy shawl, her face illuminated by a single reading lamp - the caravan’s only source of light - takes a long pull on her cigarette and erupts into her storyline once again.
’Even though she’s shattered and close to despair after the collapse of her first marriage, she tries to love again - not once but twice - and again is repayed with lies and deceit…..again is left high and dry by the people she cares for…..’
’Wait. Slow down’ I say. ’You’re losing me, mom,’ even though I know full well where her story is leading, even though I know there’s a deadly sub-text still waiting to be played out.
Since contacting me yesterday, when she was informed that her second husband had been murdered – viciously stabbed to death in a city subway - my mother has been tearing herself to shreds: ecstatic, like all artists, at producing a finished work, but at the same time terrified and confused by the mysterious power of the text she’s created. And with good reason. The circumstances of the murder – the stabbing, the subway, the peripheral tag of being somebody’s second husband - presicely imitate the circumstances of a murder described in her novel.
’Whatever I meant to achieve when I started writing, murder wasn’t my aim’ she says. ’Whatever force was guiding my hand, it wasn’t malice…...it wasn’t hatred. It’s as if my written words have transformed themselves into sacred encriptions of divine retribution.’
I pour her more gin and light a cigarette. The original copy of Dead Husbands, printed on crisp sheets of A4, lies on the caravan’s fold-down table. Instinctively I want to pick it up and start reading but check myself and back away, as if frightened that the pages might leap up off the table and devour me if I get too close. Instead, when I’m confident that my mother has regained herself, I say: ’Tell me about the story. Tell me what happens next.’
’The lead character's second husband is a smooth talking son of a bitch who fleeces her of money. Her third husband is no better - a two-faced yachtsman who abandons her for a girl old enough to be his daughter. That’s the final straw – that’s when my character decides on her revenge. She hunts them down, one after the other. The sailor she kills right there on his boat. The smooth talker she stabs to death in a city subway…..’
’And her first husband ?’
Another crack of lightning. For the first time I see uncertainty in my mother’s face.
’Mom - I have to know. What happens to the first husband ?’
The answer she gives cuts through me. ’He crashes his plane’ she says. ’She cuts some wires in the engine and the plane comes down in a field.’
’When did you finish ? When did you finish writing that scene ?’
’Yesterday’ she says. ’That scene is the end of the book. I wrote it late last night.’
I look at my watch: it’s close to 1 am. I realise I’ve got barely six hours to save the life of my father.
I call him but without success. All I’m able to do is leave a voice message: ’Dad. This is important. Cancel all appointments and don’t do a thing until you’ve spoken with me first. Trips, meetings – cancel everything. I’m on my way. I’m coming to see you now.’
I’ve decided to drive through the night to my father’s house – a four hundred mile trip. And, despite the fact that my parents haven’t set eyes on one another for a good fifteen years, I tell my mom that I expect her to come along for the ride.
Like many writers my mother has drawn on aspects of her past as the basis for her novel. When I arrived at the caravan the fold-down table had been covered with family photographs – photographs charting every stage of my mother’s adult life, documenting her three marriages, her two sons, her four grandchildren, and the London mews house she sold back in the early nineties to fund her retirement by the sea. Like the main character in Dead Husbands all three of her marriages ended in failure. And in another bizzare occurrance, mirroring presicely another scene in her novel, a week ago the body of my mother’s second husband was discovered mutilated on his yacht. It’s as if the act of writing down her innermost desires – the fictionalisation of those desires – has been enough to transform the unreal into the real. Incomprehensible, I know. But the simple knowledge of those two murders is enough for me to start believeing the unbelievable, enough for me to drive four hundred miles in order to try and save my father’s life. Because to do otherwise - to simply dismiss the idea - is inflammable. It leads to an altogether more frightening possibility: that my mother is a murderer twice-over…..that the slender grey-haired woman aged 64, who rarely ventures further than the supermarket and the local library, casually hunted down two of her former husbands, eviscerating one and stabbing to death the other.
As we drive through the night, through the thunderous rain, (a pathetic fallacy which so aptly mirrors my own seething emotions), my mother sitting in the passenger seat clutching her gin bottle and her deadly manuscript, I think of the old playbills that were laid out among her photos – playbills for Billy Liar, A Taste of Honey, and There’s a Girl in my Soup, plays which constitute the extent of her career as an actress before she gave birth to Don, my elder brother, in 1962. Still ensnared in the social codes that existed in those years, it was after Don’s arrival that my mother willingly abandoned her dreams of a career on the stage and assumed instead another role – that of a bored suburban housewife, a part which propelled the arc of her life towards regret and abomination. But the foundations of her very existence were shaken overnight when my father, aged fifty, told her simply and plainly that he wanted to put an end to their marriage – not because he’d found another woman (something she’d long suspected) but because he’d found another man, one of a long line stretching back some ten years, concealed out of propriety in the same way that she had concealed the true depth of her frustrations.
In Dead Husbands the main character, a promising violinist, willingly gives up her prospectful career to marry a young lawyer who later abandons her after concealing a homosexual affair.
My mother, reeling from the hammer blow of her own husband’s secret, never recovered. It was after her second, hasty marriage, and the pitiful trust she put in her new husband to manage her financial affairs, that things started going badly wrong. Abandoned for a second time, her move from London to a long-since faded seaside town seemed an apt metaphor for her subsequent sense of worthlessness. Her third and most costly marriage – to a former army colonel who funded his yacht on the back of my mother’s retirement house – only seemed to prove what I’d believed all along: that every one of her self-inflicted failures was a desperate plea for help - the unconscious stigmata of her perceived failure made public. My mother had become a flagellant – little Miss Lear on the heath - rejected not by two brutal daughters but by three self-serving husbands.
Eventually, after learning the truth of her dire financial situation, Don and I managed to pay off her debts and put up the money for the caravan. That was five years ago. Now, apart from a small monthly cheque to help supplement her pension, Don and his wife have disowned her, leaving still more bitterness and contempt.
At 64, the disappointment of my mother’s life has become all-consuming. It is deviant, it is mysterious. And as we drive neither of us can believe the form it has assumed.
I have not read Dead Husbands. And of course I remain curious about the fate of other characters – especially the fate of any sons who might inhabit my mother’s fictional world.
As I wait for her visit to the back-toilet of an all-night petrol station to end, I turn the pages of the manuscript for the first time. I turn them quickly and without ceremony, reading a snippet here and a paragraph there, desperate now to get a taste of my mother’s insidious prose. On Page 20 I read an account by my mother’s alter ego – her fictional ’I’ - of an afternoon shopping with her daughter-in-law. ”The bitch was getting on my nerves. This was my shopping basket and every last thing I put in it she degraded as either too cheap, too unhealthy, or of the lowest availible quality…” Page 78: ’I felt a sickness in the pit of my stomach, a sickness which had been festering for twenty five years – a sickness which was the direct result of a lifetime of betrayal by people I had loved…..’ Page 225: ’I thrust the knife into his chest and felt warm blood spurt onto my face. He remained in his bed, unable to scream, his face contorted, his eyes bulging from their sockets. I twisted the knife again and again. And when I found his heart I tore it still throbbing from his body and pressed it into his gaping mouth.’
Through the noise of the motorway traffic, through the sound of the teeming rain, I can hear my mother’s laughter from across the deserted forecourt. High on gin, she’s flirting with the young assistant. I thump the car horn, recalling, as I do so, the peculiar circumstances of her third husband’s murder – discovered in the bunk of his yacht with his heart stuffed in his mouth.
’What’s the rush ?’ she says as she walks unsteadily to the car.
’There’s not much time…..’
’To save your father ? Who cares. Let him rot in hell. Let them all rot in hell!’ She shouts these things across the deserted forecourt. And as I rev the engine she takes a long, indelicate drink from her already half empty bottle of gin.
She soon falls asleep and so doesn’t hear the conversation I have with my father when at last he calls. ’Meet me at the city airport. I’m flying to Germany at 7 am’ is his only offer. Again I plead with him to delay travelling until I arrive. ’Take it or leave it’ he says and terminates the call.
A brief word now about my father: He made his first million as a building contractor in the mid 1980s. Then, after he met and fell in love with Vince, a blonde crooner some fifteen years his junior, he sold his share of the company and moved into showbiz, taking over Vince’s flagging career and turning him into a bankable act. Now my father is impresario to a stable of top-notch acts and flys his very own corporate jet. Remarkably his union with Vince has so far stayed the distance.
I arrive at the airport with minutes to spare. Vince and my father, wrapped against the cold in matching sheepskin coats, meet me on the tarmac.
My father hugs me – uncomfortably so. Vince, ever the showman, kisses me on both cheeks.
’You’ve got five minutes’ my father says. ’Shoot.’
I tell him everything – about the book, about the murders, about the scene in which a sabotaged private plane comes down in a ball of fire. He listens intently. And when I’m done he points with his cigar to an area beyond my shoulder and says: ’Is that who I think it is ? Sitting there in the car ?’
My mother, slumped in the front seat, remains sleeping.
’She just came along for the ride, dad’ I say. ’I think she’s concerned too.’
Vince laughs, pinches my cheek, and says: ’What a sweetie.’
’I appreciate you coming to see me’ my father says. ’We should get together more often. Now, though, I’m afraid we’re running late – too late to be concerned with your mother’s sick fantasies.’
Again I ask him to have the plane checked over but he won’t hear of it. Instead, after exchanging whispers with Vince, he turns and says: ’Why don’t you come with us ? After Germany we’re going to the south of France. It’ll be a chance to top up your tan.’
I gesture towards the slumped figure of my mother. My father shrugs: ’Maybe next time.’
As the plane taxis along the runway and soars into the morning sky I open the car door and start tearing up the pages of Dead Husbands in a desperate last attempt to write a new version – a version in which the beginning doesn’t necessarily presuppose the end.