FIRST OPINION: Are holidays meant to be deeply unsettling?
CAN you expect to be happier on holiday than in ordinary time? If so, why? Pull out from under me my support systems, my ton of sisters, the welcoming café a hundred yards away from my front door, my chair, my work — take away from me my home — and, guess what? I don’t exactly flourish. I know this is unforgivable, but what can I do?
Still, the sun was shining, everyone else seemed happy (which isn’t nothing), there was the sound of splash, fresh ice-cream, a few thousand miles of yellow noodles at every meal, and I began to see the point of it all. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I had hoped.
"Just let yourself switch off," I thought, but I couldn’t help seeing images of life-support machines. Forcing yourself to relax is very stressful.
I made my new year’s resolutions, which I always do in the summer for the autumn, but I set the bar so high the inevitable failures sneered at me sharply, snapping at my ankles, making me a fool. There are people who would kill for a holiday like this, I told myself off sharply. Could I please do an exchange with one of them?
I opened the computer guiltily and googled: "What are you meant to feel like on holiday?"
Perhaps my expectations are too high, I thought. Are holidays actually meant to be deeply unsettling, but no one ever says? At home you just get on with it, you don’t have to re-invent yourself and your world every single minute of the day. The results on the screen made me gasp with horror.
A site called "How to make your life feel like one long holiday 24/7" came up. It was like a horror film. I opened the link tentatively, viewing the words through squinty eyes: "Try and arrange your home so it feels as though it is in another country," it advised.
I shook my head wildly and snapped the laptop shut, as if it might bite.
I sat down and read in one sitting a wonderful biography of Fred and Adele Astaire — the best thing I have read this year. At the close was a picture of them, brother and sister in age, taking a stroll on a blustery-looking day in Ireland in the 1960s, their walking sticks caught in a sudden moment of madcap abandon and transformed, by showbiz magic, into vaudevillians’ canes.
Adele white-gloved and beaming, has a still-shapely leg jauntily raised; Fred, in a mackintosh, his face creased, his stick pointing skyward, lifts his foot, all a twinkle, as high as his other knee. Both are sporting penny loafers, and all around them is an atmosphere of sheer pleasure and sophistication and experience, an unusual combination. It was such a lovely image I burst into tears.
I read a charming and poetic novel set in an undertaker’s. I read a gripping short story about a mother and her daughter at the funeral of their hamster. I read a memoir by a man whose father had committed suicide. It wasn’t even tea time. I had a cup of tea and two squares of hazelnut chocolate, and felt my ordinary tide of worries floating away a little.
It wasn’t a million miles from the feeling you get when you take half a diazepam on Christmas night as a reward for good behaviour, only every other year. Where’s the harm? "Is this what it is meant to feel like?" I wondered. It was a kind of warm numb sensation — the sort of state we are supposed, all our lives, to fight.
Then I did something really stupid. I opened the computer and typed in the name of a character in my new novel to see, what, if anything, would emerge. What came up was a real woman with the same name, in the same profession, in the same town as my heroine!
It was almost impossible to believe. I even wondered if I had conjured myself into some sort of 1970s Tales of the Unexpected episode brought about by holiday-stress. I pictured the lapping flames of the credit sequence: the play within the play within the play, the hammy music, that sense of foreboding and possibly the appearance of seamed stockings. Instantly, I saw there was a problem. My heroine, though conscientious and inspired, did not fare well in her chosen sphere, to put it mildly, and the real-life woman of the same name was a super-professional-sounding consultant. Oh dear.
Flurries of emails, agents, editors, phone calls, lawyers… then hours of searching for a new name for a woman I invented eight years ago. Busy, busy, busy. At last! A crisis to brave. I was needed. Hurrah! What luck! Well, it was, and it wasn’t.
The Financial Times
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