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I don't know how I do it

Luke Rhinehart is dead. Long live The Dice Man

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One quiet night at the tail end of last year, my chef at the restaurant, my kids asleep, I open an email, its subject line, “On Luke’s Passing”.

“Dear Ms Alpine-Crabtree…”

My eyes run ahead, in search of the punch line. There’s a split-second moment when holding my breath seems to suspend the passing of time, allows me to hover between the not-knowing and the knowing. If, on facing death, it is true that our life flashes before our eyes, it stands to reason that, on facing the loss of someone we love, it is our relationship with that person that flashes before us.

“…Luke Rhinehart is dead”.

I’m in a hotel room in a mountain village in Cyprus, a used copy of The Dice Man clutched in my hands, oblivious to the fading light, my family assembling for dinner downstairs.

“He very much wanted us to tell you this as soon as possible so that you wouldn’t be annoyed that he wasn’t replying to your emails.”

Clutching to my breast – be still my beating heart! – a printout of an email given to me by the publisher of my first novel, in which Luke Rhinehart, author-of-Loaded-Magazine’s-Novel-of-the-Century Luke Rhinehart, has referred to me as “the brilliant young writer”.

“… His dying was neither sudden nor slow. As some of you know, he had been writing ‘Death Poems’ for at least a decade before his last one. Of course, at the same time as he was writing these he was also writing ‘Birth Poems’, so we saw nothing foreboding in his writing of death.”

Turning up on a General Election day to interview Luke, a blandly elegant hotel suite, too stoned to remember how each of my questions began by the time I reach its end.

“Luke didn’t fear death, although he confessed to being a bit nervous. Death to him was just another one of life’s unknowns, like traveling to a new land, starting a new book, trusting a new friend. Every human act was a step into the unknown, death simply one of the scarier ones. Luke liked to laugh at death, but then again he liked to laugh at everything. Since he always saw seriousness as mankind’s fatal flaw and humans seemed to take death most seriously, he felt confident that death wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.”

Wearing a borrowed ten-gallon hat while drinking whisky with Luke long into a London summer night, doors thrown open to the street, a girl-adventurer pirate in rapture to a pirate king, my chef, brand new in my life, a thing of wonder, talking recipes with Ann, Luke’s wife.

“… For a man who believed in chance and change Luke was discouragingly consistent. In fact, many of us who knew him were disappointed in his willingness to roll along on his familiar patterns. ‘It’s not rolling along in the same old patterns that is bad in itself,’ he said, ‘but rather if you’re enjoying the rolling. If you’re comfortable in the selves you’re rolling along with, then roll on. Most people aren’t.”

Lunching with Luke, Ann, Luke’s brother, at The Wallace Collection, a space as light and airy as a pink Ladurée macaroon, baring my soul over a plate of beef carpaccio.

“… We want you to know that Luke uttered no famous last words. He was determined to say nothing of significance since whatever it was he feared it would be given too much importance.”

Writing because of Luke.

“No single statement should ever have too much importance.”

Copy editing Luke’s writing.

“The whole secret of happy living, he sometimes said, is to avoid thinking anything has much importance.”

Telling Luke and Ann I’m a mother.

“With a bunch of us around him and Luke barely able to breathe, he pushed himself up into a sitting position and turned and looked fiercely at us with unaccustomed seriousness.”

We’ve had another baby.

“We could see that he was determined to say one last thing before he died. One or two of us leaned forward to catch his last words.”

Clicking on a link Luke has sent to a documentary on his dicing life, with the note, referring to his on-screen younger self: “How serious I took myself!! I act as if dicing were as important as the hula hoop.”

“’So long,’ he said.”

Tears run down my cheeks for the lost past. For all good things having to come to an end. For the invitation to visit Luke in upstate New York, never acted upon.

How old was Luke? 75? 80? What was it he’d written me recently? “We hope to see you and your family before we slip noisily into permanent darkness. Perhaps even this spring (seeing you, not slipping noisily).”

And now he is slipped. The Great and Powerful Oz. And so George Cockcroft, the man who writes under the pen name Luke Rhinehart, is slipped. The Man Behind the Curtain.

Travel guide subbing abandoned, Christmas card writing shelved (one fewer now to write), I press the heels of my hands to my eyes, rub two black mascara pirate patches onto my eyelids, think: “Christ. Christmas is almost upon us. I have to take the kids to a party tomorrow. Another the day after. There are presents to wrap. A journey the length of the United Kingdom to undertake with two pre-schoolers, two suitcases, a cat. The hours are few. I must write to Ann! Right now!”

And so I write an email of condolence. I write with “great bucketfuls of love. Love enough to fill all the lochs of Scotland.” I wish for her the support of family and friends, because even “formidable, beautiful, creative women such as you need propping up sometimes”.

Lying in bed, anxious, lonely, cold, I wish for my chef, not wanting to tell him the news over the phone, in a text. Being a child of the Atari 2600 age rather than the digital one, it has not occurred to me to check Google. To check Twitter. Now it does. I pick up my phone.

Find another email.

“Dear Ms. Alpine-Crabtree…”

WTF?

“We all wish Luke were still with us … Please don’t grieve over his passing since that is the last thing he would want. Kiss your babies, eat a full good dinner prepared by the Chef, and have at least three nice drinks. And expect to hear again from the departed rather soon.”

At the same time as I’m getting goose bumps, a kind of thudding rush of adrenaline through the veins – Luke is risen! The sheer fucking audacity of it! – my toes are curling into the sheet: “Haven’t you heard, they’ve taken the word ‘gullible’ out of the dictionary.”

And yet. Who among us wouldn’t want to attend his or her own funeral?

I wrote to Ann!

Another email arrives from Luke. George.

He explains that he’s done an interview with Steve Boggan, “a journalist writer who somehow got The Independent Saturday magazine to want to do an article on ‘The Day the Dice Man Killed Himself’”, based on his “Death Letter”, sent out to 25 people in August of last year, and to several others around, well, around the tail end of last year.

“At least it was a distraction from the kids,” he says.

Eighteen minutes past midnight, another email. “Help! Reassure me you’ve gotten my letter apologizing… …(asshole that I am).”

For several minutes I do not know how to reply, am rendered dumb by what research scientist Brené Brown would describe as my vulnerability. (Watch the TED talk.) Behold the power of my vulnerability!

“Be reassured.”

My chef gets home. I tell him I have a story, pour myself a triple Hendrick’s and tonic, start talking.

The next day, I stand in line in the rain, trail round a rugby field as the kids ride a fat grey pony, its black eyes shiny as glass, fake antlers bedecked in tinsel. Inside the clubhouse, I get talking to a tall woman in an outsize Fair Isle sweater who I know, in that way you just know, I’d like to be friends with, here, in this place where I’m still new, still friendless. In explaining why it is that I am wincing through an old-school hangover at the Teenie Weenies Christmas party, 9am on a misty Tuesday morning, I summarise the death hoax over a Coke Zero. It doesn’t come out sounding like I want it to. In the cold light of day, the bare bones of the telling reflect badly on Luke. Badly on me.

Back home, I receive another email from George. “Who, besides me, do you think could possibly have written that first sentence ‘It is our pleasure to inform you that Luke Rhinehart is dead’?

“Nobody but you… But that made it no less plausible… … the assumption was you’d written it yourself in preparation for the ‘event’.”

“… You’re right. I originally wrote that letter in 2010 for precisely that purpose.”

And then, the following day, one from Ann, this flurry of transatlantic correspondence a welcome distraction from the demands of the festive season (as are the texts pinging between Sarah – of the outsize Fair Isle sweater – and me). Ann, a writer herself, is warm, witty, charming as hell.

“Sorry about the ‘neath the earth business’. I did not know about it til after the fact… …I was ready to crown him! Have you read the story about ‘crying wolf, wolf’ to Milo yet?”

I smile, glance at the scrap of paper on which I’d earlier scribbled the words, “Dice Man who cried wolf”.

Christmas is almost upon us. I have to take the kids to a party. Another party. There are presents to wrap. A journey the length of the United Kingdom to undertake with two pre-schoolers, two suitcases, a cat. The hours are few. The hours are precious.

Soon, the spring flowers start to appear, a sprinkling of hundreds and thousands, purple, white, yellow. Luke Rhinehart, literary hero, mentor and friend, is not dead. And neither are a lot of other people.

How serious I took myself.”

Luke Rhinehart lives!

Kiss your babies. Eat a full good dinner. Have at least three nice drinks.

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Morning glory

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My boy’s first words on waking this morning:

“Mummy, I did have a bad dream. I was scared of something big, in the ocean, but then you did stand in front of it and it licked you.”

Then, as I’m leaving – where’s my travelcardhairclipscarfearmuffskeys??? – my little girl, standing at the top of the stairs, blowing kisses, yells, “Mummy! Love you.” It’s the first time she’s said it.

I’m on the train, my hair filthy, twice spray-gunned with dry shampoo, my phone, which I forgot to charge, showing only 12% of juice, my outfit more soccer-mom-gone-bad than South Bank chic. Feeling like Wonder Woman.

“Please take my hand. I give it to you as a gesture of friendship and love, and of faith freely given. I give you my hand and welcome you into my dream.” – Wonder Woman #167

The day can only go downhill from here.

It’s almost enough to make me want to have more…

imgresFor years, her arms had ached with longing. It was a self-indulgence she didn’t often permit herself, but sometimes she would sit in a chair, her eyes closed, her arms crossed against her breast, and she would imagine holding a small baby there – its trusting warmth against her body, its tiny head smelling of milk and talcum powder, its skin softer than flower petals. She had watched other women with infants and eventually understood what she craved: the boundless permission – no, the absolute necessity – to hold and kiss and stroke this tiny person. Cradling a swaddled infant in their arms, mothers would distractedly touch their lips to their babies’ foreheads. Passing their toddlers in a hall, mothers would tousle their hair or even sweep them up in their arms and kiss them hard along their chins and necks until the children squealed with glee. Where else in life, Mabel wondered, could a woman love so openly and with such abandon?

Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child

Maybe it’s because it’s cold outside. Or because I’ve finally started working away from home, three mornings a week, on my writing, rediscovering a sense of self, the absence of which has been gnawing at me. The joy and wonder of losing myself in work that is not a mother’s work, of looking up occasionally from my spot on the sixth floor of the Royal Festival Hall, seeing the winter sun glittering on the Thames.

With perspective comes a new appreciation of my children. Of children in general. Catching sight of a baby in a buggy outside Waterloo Station, rosy-cheeked and wide-eyed, in a knitted Fair Isle hat with ear flaps, my heart swells, and there’s a pang, an awareness that my babies are no longer babies. I used to believe it wasn’t possible for me to love a child any more than I loved a kitten. And then I had my son. And my daughter.

Its prose as delicate as the first snowflakes of the year, its celebration of parenthood as powerful as the Alaskan wilderness in which it is set, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child found me at the perfect time. The words quoted above struck me in a way that was both visceral and profound. Re-reading them now makes me want to scoop my children in my arms, run my fingers through their hair, shower them in kisses.

Of course, it’s easy to feel this way when my kids are a 40-minute train ride away in our new home in Teddington, safe and sound with their father. And is it just me, or do we all love our kids just that little bit harder when we catch sight of them asleep, arms flung above their heads, the epitome of peace?

Still, that pang on glimpsing someone else’s rosy-cheeked baby is something I’ll have to get used to, as I watch my own two grow. Because truly, whether we’re talking about a kitten, a fledgling novel or our own flesh-and-blood offspring, what’s not to like about loving with abandon?

No.371 in a series of Posts I Meant to Write but Didn’t…

vintage-05…is this one. The other 370 exist only in my head. Sorry it’s been so long.

Won’t waste time on new year’s resolutions. There’s an invigoratingly long list of ‘em. Except to say that ‘start practising “little and often”‘ is on there.

Hello 2013. It’s great to meet you.

Bedtime with Blyton

Saturday night and my chef has rushed off to attend a function at the restaurant that I note he has just referred to on Twitter as ‘blinding’. I, meanwhile, have had a busy evening spent variously mopping up a river of little-boy pee, wiping my baby girl’s dripping nose, administering Calpol, running outside to watch other people’s fireworks over the garden fence (each bang reminding me of the party in Ladbroke Grove I am supposed to be at) and eating banana yoghurt while watching women in labour on ‘One Born Every Minute’ (a little voice in my head muttering, ‘yeah, my two c-sections were great and all, but what a huge shame I never got to try gas and air’).

Bedtime, however, was blissful. My boy and I are working our way through The Adventures of the Wishing Chair by Enid Blyton, one chapter a night, for the second time in as many months. It’s funny how I can remember the gist of all of these books from my own childhood but that I’ve already forgotten what happens when Molly and Peter and Chinky the pixie meet the witch Kirri-Kirri, say, or the enchanter Clip-Clap, having only read these very adventures last month. (Or maybe not so funny. A thousand curses on you, ecstasy.) I know Enid Blyton isn’t exactly PC, but I’m careful to change every one of the literally hundreds of mentions of the word ‘queer’ to ‘strange’ and edit overtly misogynistic passages as I go along, so it’s not always the girls who have to help Mother clean the house or soothe her through another nervous breakdown while the boys get to climb trees and make all the important decisions. The staunchly Conservative world view is less easy to revise on the hoof, but, look, it doesn’t seem to have done me much harm, bleeding heart that I am.

Or am I? It was while reading tonight’s chapter, ‘The Silly Boy’ (Blyton’s original header, not a gender amend by me), that I had the opportunity to ponder a compelling old-school parenting technique. The chapter concerns a boy who was caught pulling a face when the wind changed. On discussing the problem of their friend’s ‘stuck’ face, Peter remarks that they really must help him: “His mother may think we made his face like that, and we’ll get into trouble. You don’t want us to be sent to bed for a week, do you?”

Sent to bed?

For a week?

I mean, Blyton wasn’t writing in the Dark Ages. The Adventures of the Wishing Chair was first published in the UK in 1937. Did any parent back then really send their child to bed for a week?

We mothers are missing a trick here. Intent on learning the art of baby whispering in our laboured efforts to produce contented little offspring, should we not stop to consider some of the disciplinary methods of yesteryear? I’m not talking about caning (although you can come back to me on that one when we hit the teenage years), but mightn’t sending one’s child to bed be the answer to our prayers? It wouldn’t even have to be for a week. A day would do. A day in which I would busy myself eating bon bons and working on my soon-to-be-critically-acclaimed novel. Which was, come to think of it, my general view of what motherhood would entail, pre-children.

Naughty step, time-out step, call it what you will, I, for one, am too much of a pussy to properly enforce two minutes on it. But I think I could quite happily send my kids to bed for a few hours when they’d been naughty. I’d even pop in and read stories every now and then.

Another unexpected benefit of these books, while I’m on the subject, is that my boy is now learning Roman numerals from the chapter headings, while I’m learning that my entire sentence construction style was unconsciously lifted lock, stock from Blyton’s during my formative years. Christ, it’s just as well I’m not at that party tonight. Can you imagine the scintillating conversations I’d be having?

Am off to reference the Magic Faraway Tree. Will find out what magic it was that pulled Mother out of one of her bad turns, report back.

All that glitters…

The house is sparkling. And not in a Good Housekeeping kind of way. The three year old has discovered glitter, his enthusiasm for the stuff such that he’d be snorting it if he knew how. That fleck of iridescent purple on my cheek? Glitter. The glint of green above my chef’s right eyebrow as he sets off for the 8am train? Ditto. Though wouldn’t it be nice if these teeny specks were instead clues to a thrilling and otherwise-totally-secret double life we led, oh, I don’t know, in a circus or a Marc Bolan tribute act. The cat had the misfortune to be standing downwind when I shook a picnic blanket out this morning and I’m now keeping my eyes peeled for the next hairball he chokes up. I can use it as a Christmas tree ornament.

As a result of all this, I have been experiencing a sense of the four of us existing in a giant snow globe that someone has just shaken, hard. (Have just re-read that sentence and wondering if it might help our cause when applying for CofE primaries.) After letting the estate agents who manage this place know that we are desperate keen to move out earlier than our stipulated six-month break clause date in November (oy vey, that 15 January cut-off date for school applications! Winter is almost upon us! Christmas!), we began cautiously preparing our boy for another move. Which then became less cautious when we heard that someone did indeed want to move in but only if they could do so in ten days’ time. Cue boxes and packing tape galore, several sleepless nights and much child neglect. Until the potential new tenant’s references didn’t check out and the deal was off, viewings back on, the three year old fighting tooth and nail with his little sister every time she messed up his insanely complicated ‘moving house’ Duplo-based role-play game. I know.

So, really, I should be thankful for the air of festivity that all this Mister Maker-style sparkle has lent to our temporary home. Even if, as my dear friend Robin so succinctly puts it, glitter is the herpes of the crafting world.

Stop! In the name of love

It has been a week of separation anxiety. Of kids both screaming, half ripping my clothes off as I try to squeeze myself out of the nursery school door without them. (The nursery school they love.) Of me screaming inside, feeling like I’ve fallen off the face of the earth, pacing and planning how to climb back on again.

And of happy partings. Of  issuing threatening notices (thank you, Seltzer) to a publishing house that had reissued one of my books under a new title without permission, thus infringing copyright law, passed it to a new distributor (complete with skanky new cover) and made it available for sale without one shred of up-to-date contact information for me, so no possibility of me being paid any monies earned from sales of aforementioned book.

It matters not that the book was written under a pen name, its genre dubious (is the acronym ‘BDSM’ allowed on a mummyblog?) What is important, is that I, David, took on them, Goliath, and, well, got my own way.

And that’s what the kids have been screaming about. Getting their own way. Or not, as the case may be.

Tomorrow isn’t a nursery day. I plan to bake cakes with them. Or go to the park. Or let them watch Andy’s Wild Adventures on a loop. You know, just good, clean family fun. Because the irony is that if I give them something to really miss, rather than mummy staring at a screen and tearing her hair out over rapidly approaching deadlines, rental prices in catchment areas of good schools and the general, back-breaking monotony of trying to keep on top of basic home maintenance, chances are they’ll feel so secure, well-loved and content, they won’t cry the next time I go.

And if they do? I’ll simply order them to cease and desist. It’s got a certain ring to it, n’est-ce pas?

Jamón Jamón

Um, like, yeah, so about why I married a chef…

Knackered

So Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda wins the Olympic men’s marathon, running 26 miles in two hours, eight minutes. And is still a force to be reckoned with at 11pm when he steps up to the podium to claim his gold. While, on a quiet road somewhere in Godawful, my chef and I struggle to stay conscious till the end of the BBC’s coverage of the Olympic closing ceremony, having done nothing more challenging than travel to Hadleigh Farm, Leigh-on-Sea, sit in a field, eat barbecued chicken and watch the men’s mountain bike final, kids safely at home with their grandmother. Although we did do it in wellies, having taken the ‘wear sturdy footwear’ advice a little too literally. Everyone else was in shorts and flip-flops. You know, you hear the word ‘farm’; there’s a chance of showers… Final estimation is that we each lost five pounds in weight as a result of extreme overheating in the relentless 26-degree sunshine. And that’s taking into account the rotisserie lunch.

There’s just something about working till around midnight and getting up pre-7am every day for another day at the sharp end of a one-year-old and three-year-old that takes it out of me. And, despite the fact that I’ve never in my life felt as much in need of performance enhancement, were I to be subjected to a drugs test tomorrow, I’d come up clean. Not that I’m suggesting I’d fare much better trying to do this gig with a serious chemical habit to maintain. At least not in the long run…

Odds are I’ll fall asleep on my son’s bed tonight, after singing Little Donkey, a nightly bedtime ritual that’s been a part of our lives for a full 21 months now, the words having long since taken on a profound allegorical resonance:

Don’t give up now, little donkey, been a tiring night,
Don’t give up now, little donkey, Bethlehem’s in sight

That pram in the hall, that oft-lamented ‘enemy of good art’, is either going to inspire me to move mountains or send me to the knackers yard.

I think it’s time I upped my training regime.

What does a daddy do?

Last night I assembled this dolls’ house, a delightful gift from my sister-in-law. On reflection, it was one of my more constructive Saturday nights.

This morning, following a freak out when I thought the baby had lost the daddy doll, before finding him on the (real, not miniature) sofa watching the Olympics, I carefully placed the little man back into the kitchen, in front of the cooker, where I was sure he would make some magic. ‘The daddy is very important,’ I pointed out to my three-year-old boy. ‘What important things does the daddy do in the family?’ I have been very much enjoying asking him loaded questions like this of late.

‘Carries heavy things,’ he replied, in a shot.

‘Um, anything else?’ I nudged, thinking about the father’s day card we’d made not so long ago, all those beautiful reasons we’d come up with for why my boy adores his dad so. And also the fact that it had been I, the previous night, who had carried the not-so-light dolls’ house into the playroom…

‘Swings me round,’ he added, a note of finality in his voice.

Dizzy with love. On consideration, I would put it pretty high up on my list, too.

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