Saturday, 22 November 2014

First Aid

'First Aid' by Janet Davey (who doesn't have her own website) is the third of my random library picks. It was a very intense little read about the peculiarities of family dynamics. Just like many family relationship the reader is left to assume rather a lot in this story, people's feelings and motivations are mostly unspoken, lack of communication leading to upset and misunderstanding. 

You might think Jo is a slightly strange mother who ignores the fact that her daughter jumps off the train, or you might think that she is just level headed and pragmatic, knowing that she can neither make her come back nor go after her (having two younger children to take care of). In fact she is a bit strange, living in some kind of personal nether world, and rather preferring it when the real one does not in invade her head space. Having had, what appears to be on the surface, an uncharacteristic and violent altercation with her 'partner' (some bloke who she lives with), she is escaping the situation by running back to her grandparents home. In a very short space of time we learn a great deal about her life: parents killed in a motorbike accident, raised by overprotective grandparents, married young and since divorced, but she says so little, spends so much time gazing wistfully out of the window, that I didn't feel like I got to know her much. The story hops back and forth between the grandparents home in London and Ella (the daughter) wandering around on the south coast, trying to get her head around the idiosyncrasies of adult behaviour. I liked her friend Vince; she lands on his doorstep with no preamble and he just accepts her presence and doesn't ask too many meaningless questions. And I liked Trevor, who owns the junk shop where Jo (and Ella sometimes) works, he is equally down to earth and straightforward. 

But what I really enjoyed was Dilys and Geoff's home, and the atmosphere that surrounds them. It is about the way, for elderly people, life stays the same. I'm not saying this is true of all old people, but for some, they develop ways of living, possessions, daily routines, and they become permanent, unchanging and unchangeable. And when you go to visit it acts as a reassurance (and this of course is sort of what Jo is seeking when she runs back there), a reassurance that life is safe and reliable. It makes the scary uncertain aspects of being a real grown up somehow easier to deal with. 
Three nice ones that demonstrate this:

"Walking away from the supermarket, Ella thought that her gran might be right about Saturday shoppers. Everyone in there - even the ones who weren't talking to themselves or communing with the pet food - seemed to her to have some major personality defect. The human equivalent of wonky trolley wheels. Dilys would only shop on weekday mornings in the company of like-minded people. That was her phrase. She wasn't snobbish, her gran. She believed she was at one with the decent people of Great Britain - who were probably more than half the population - and that they were recognisable by wearing macs in wet weather and not eating anything on the street other than a boiled sweet or an extra-strong mint. Some of them could be black. That wasn't a problem." (p.87)

"Although she hadn't been to chapel or church for decades, Dilys's Sundays were corseted. Jo couldn't list the precise constraints, but she could always feel them. In particular, there were a couple of hours on Sunday mornings to which different rules applied and which accounted for them, at that moment, sitting in the front room and not in the kitchen. Jo had been surprised to discover that Sundays need not be like this, that they didn't possess an essential property, like the redness of cochineal. Though, as she had grown up, she had come to see that other people's families built different tyrannies and that the British Sunday was often part of the trap." (p.139-40)

And when Peter (ex-husband) comes to pick them all up:
"He glanced round quickly, at eye level. He wouldn't have been able to describe the room ten minutes ago; he wasn't good at remembering the look of things. But Jo could see from his face that he knew that it was exactly as it used to be. He didn't want to re-learn it." (p.141)

My own grandparents all died when I was a child and my memories of them are vague, so the description of their house and life reminded me more of my ex-husband's grandparents house that we visited several times when the children were young. The nostalgia that it provoked was quite striking. At the end Jo and the children go home, and the crisis is over, wounds healed almost as if it never happened. Life goes on.

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