What Granny is mostly using at the moment is her hands. She's typing - writing. She's heard other writers say this too, that there are times when you write rather than live; you can't do both. This week, since arriving home on Lanzarote, she has written a new chapter for Going Mental, got back into her Lanzarote book and drafted half a chapter for that, written a piece for the Guardian book blog - whether that will be accepted she won't know till next week -and revised a blog post, the one about her meeting with her friend Lucy over the respective deathbeds of her twin and Lucy's mother, as a piece for Guardian G2's 'First Person' slot; this will definitely be published, in mid-August most likely: - she will let you know about that.
Living? What's that? Word-spinning as if suffocates her senses, days go by without her experiencing anything fully, let alone feeling it. She admits one possible exception: she and Beloved have had an orgy of watching Six Feet Under - it gets better and better and last night they saw the last of Series One. But she's not sure that's exactly living, either; Beloved wouldn't think so, he calls all such things - watching films, listening to music, reading novels - 'entertainment' - up to and including reading life-changing books like Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina; a 'doing' man, Granny's Beloved. He is quite unlike Granny who prefers to spend her life not 'doing' mostly. Not doing, in his view at least, includes sitting at this machine all day, typing, typing, spinning words, painfully, out of her head, not knowing what time it is, what day it is, barely. Luckily the mostly dreary weather hasn't tempted her outside, into her hammock or wherever: it has changed now, turned stinking hot, but her office the coolest room in the house, she's still not much tempted to leave it. Her favourite place down on the shore, is, apart from being stifling, awash with local campers - the locals spurn the tourist beaches - and anyway, the tide has been out at the times she takes her dog there, all this week, so there are no birds or anything interesting to be seen, merely sandflies which bite her.
Her hands then, are busying away. And let's narrow down the attention to them, to her RIGHT THUMB, in particular, the one you're looking at: she seems to remember promising the story. As you can see, her right thumb is deformed. She wasn't born with it like that but it got so straight after. She and her twin sister were premature babies; according to her mother, no-one knew that there were two of them till right after Granny's sister was born, when the doctor said 'Oh my god there's another one,' and out came Granny less than half an hour later. (Granny's dad told a slightly different story, but as he was in London at the time and the story is less entertaining she prefers to stick with her mother's version, mythical or not; it is certainly true that the presence of twins wasn't noted till very near the last minute.)
What is also certainly true is that the twins, born three weeks early, were very small and very sickly. This was partly due to their being twins, partly to their being the second pregnancy of a rhesus-negative mother - noone then realised the full significance of that. Granny weighed 3 and a half pounds only, her sister 2 and a half. These weights, their size, would have been viable enough in a hospital with a proper premature baby unit, even then. But Granny's mother was, as usual in those days, giving birth at home, under the care of a local GP and a especially-employed maternity nurse. The doctor looked at the twins on his way out and said, dismissively, 'I don't expect to see these two alive when I come back this evening.' (Attitudes to life and death were much more rough and ready those days, which, given the mere semblance of life some people, old and young, are reassembled to at present, was not an entirely bad thing, in Granny's view.)
Just the same, the nurse who had seen worse in her time, was not having any of it. 'I'll see about that,' she said. She improvised an incubator, using a hot water bottle, swaddled the babies, laid them in. As you can tell by the fact Granny is here writing this, it worked. The only problem was, is, that as the one laid closest to the hot-water bottle - you can gauge her size by the fact that the bottle was as long if not longer than she was at the time - she did not emerge unscathed from her battle against death. The hot water bottle, her fellow-warrior, exacted its price. Its heat burned her thumb and her knee together, melting the bone of the thumb, misshaping it, while the skin of both knee and thumb remain red and mottled to this day, the front of the thumb prone to eczema, too, to splitting, painfully, in winter.
As an adolescent Granny was offered plastic surgery. She declined. Her thumb was weird alright; but so what? As a left-handed child, she had a problem telling left from right; except that she didn't, all she had to do was look at her thumbs. As an adult she regards it as interesting, part of her, an honourable battle scar, stigmata rather than stigma. It reminds her to be grateful for being alive, reminds her to kiss the memory of that maternity nurse, whom she's only ever seen in pictures, smiling broadly and wearing a vast, winged white nurses' cap and an equally vast white apron, cradling a minute, very wrinkled baby in either arm. She looked proud. She deserved to be. If Granny doesn't forget her, it's because she has the thumb you see above to thank for it.
Labels: family + life stories