No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a Sixtieth Yearby Virginia Ironside
Read Virginia Ironside's posts on the Penguin Blog.
A screamingly funny and poignant story about embracing life beyond middle age
Marie Sharp is heading toward sixty and is just fine with it. She’s already had plenty of excitement in her life: sex and drugs in the freewheeling sixties, career and children, marriage and divorce. Now/b>/b>
Read Virginia Ironside's posts on the Penguin Blog.
A screamingly funny and poignant story about embracing life beyond middle age
Marie Sharp is heading toward sixty and is just fine with it. She’s already had plenty of excitement in her life: sex and drugs in the freewheeling sixties, career and children, marriage and divorce. Now she’s ready to settle into a quiet, blissfully boring routine. No Italian classes or gym memberships or bicycle trips across Europe, thank you very much! Marie just wants to put her feet up and “start doing old things.”
She’s even sworn off men! But as it turns out, life still has some surprises in store, the biggest of which is a new grandson on the way. What’s more, Archie, her old childhood crush, suddenly reenters her life, and her closest friend falls seriously ill. Armed with a biting sense of humor, Marie wrestles with a life that refuses to follow her plans—and may still offer more possibilities than she realizes.
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Read an Excerpt
OK. This is it. About fifty years too late, butbetter late than never. A diary. I know it's not January 1st, or even November1st, but there is no time like the present. Don't we always say to ourselves:'If only I'd written a diary when I was twenty? Or thirty? Or forty? But in mysixtieth year (or fifty-ninth, to be precise – or, oh God, maybe it ismy sixtiethyear – I remember some tedious man explaining to me recently how eventhough I'm fifty-nine, I'm actually in my sixtieth year, totallyincomprehensible, but I finally gave in), anyway, in whatever year it is, I,Marie Sharp, retired art teacher, divorced, one son, one cat and resolutelysingle after about one million failed relationships, am determined to give it afinal crack. A diary, that is. Not a relationship.
Oh dear me no.
I wrote my first diary when I was ten. Riveting stuff. 'Got up. Went to school.Had maths – ugh! Came home. Did prep. Had supper. Went to bed.' I startedanother when I was a teenager, but that was when I had a crush on Archie, whowas a year older than me and had no idea of my feelings. I still have aboutfour exercise books covered with the words 'I love Archie', 'I LOVE Archie!', 'ILOVE ARCHIE!!!' on every page. On the cover of one of them is a huge crimsonheart with 'ARCHIE' emblazoned on it.
I remember when David and I were married and had our son,Jack, we kept a joint diary, but that was just full of lies because we eachknew the other one was going to read it. I had to keep a separate, secretdiary, because I felt so miserable about the whole marriage. In our joint diaryI wrote: 'Great day! We all went to the Round Pond with Jack and came back totea with Hughie and James. Lots of jokes and a splendid tea!' In my private oneI wrote: 'I just can't stand David and his horrible relations. I can't bear theway they all feel like a secret society I'm not part of. I want to be free! Iwant to dance! I want to have affairs!'
Of course, shortly after that, I did, and David and I brokeup, but oddly we stayed friends. (Anyway, God knows what he was writing in hissecret diary.) I also, even odder, stayed friendswith his half-brother, James, and his partner, Hughie. AND I stayed friendswith Archie, even though I never had an affair with him. When he marriedPhilippa, I was at his wedding, and we've had lunch every so often over theyears. It turned out that his firm in the City used Hughie as his solicitor– he works in something mysterious called 'futures' – so, as sooften happens, all my friends made a complete circle.
I didn't have time to keep a diary when I was at art school, or doing teachertraining, and it's only now I'm sixty – well, I will be in a few months– that I'm going to give it a go. I mean, properly give it a go. So...
Woke with watery eyes. Very bad sign. I meanit's OK to get them on a cold and windy day, or when something terrible hashappened like flu and you think you've got ME and will never be able to so muchas walk to the shops again, let alone lift up a telephone to moan to a friendabout being unable to walk to the shops again. But to get watery eyes for noreason – ugh! I know a man of seventy whose eyes water so much he has adrip permanently on the end of his nose. It is, I fear, a sign of age.
It's like the time when I went to Dr Farmer recently with pains in my knees. 'Atouch of osteoarthritis, Marie,' she said. 'Happens at our age.'
When I explained that it couldn't happen to me because I never take any exercise andtherefore my knees ought, in theory, still to be in perfect nick, the knees ofa ten-year-old, barely used, exceptionally low mileage, one careful lady owner,I could probably even dig out the original box and receipt, she explained itdidn't work like that.
Rather a bore.
Have just come home, gasping with relief, from adinner party. I was hoodwinked into accepting the invitation because my oldfriend Marion rang using the well-worn trick: 'What are you doing on Thursday?'and instead of saying, cautiously: 'Why?', I fell into the trap.
'Nothing,' I said.
I suppose the odd dinner party can spring a wonderful surprise. And Marion, beingsomething of a wonder woman – like cheese, she's always on a board– has been known to produce interesting guests. But generally dinnerparties are like the lottery. You rarely win. The problem is first of all thereare never enough men, and, by now – middle-aged, I was going to say, butperhaps the phrase 'getting on' might be more accurate – the men who doattend are always spare for a very good reason: they are either completelyhopeless or completely mad.
(I'm not sure that description doesn't apply to most men, actually, whether they'respare or not, which is really why I've ended up so committed to being single.Doesn't mean some men aren't funny, sexy, kind and fascinating, but you can beall that and hopeless and mad at the same time.)
The second problem with dinner parties is that, as you get older, you don't –well, I don't – actually want to meet anyone new. There are quiteenough people I know whose friendship I would like to consolidate – andother people's favourite people are very rarely my favourite people, and viceversa. The only new people I do want to meet are young people. But all old people wantto meet young people. We fall on them like vampires.
I remember myself, when about seventeen, being mobbed by men and women who, atfifty, seemed ancient. 'Do let me sit next to you!' they'd say, floppy lipsworking over tobacco-stained teeth set into receding gums. 'I do so love youngpeople!' And I would cringe as they hovered close, sucking into my youth,slavering over my peachy, blooming skin, my sadly immature views, myeverything.
'Do tell me why you like the messy look!'
'Why do you like young men with long hair?'
'Do explain the Beatles to me – I do find them fascinating.'
'Don't you find mini-skirts rather cold
Do tell me – what is this ''generation gap'' we hear so much about these days?'
Nowadays, I don't blame them, though I'd never be so overt in my own craving for the company of the young.
Yesterday I was talking to one of my best friends, Penny, and told her that yet anotherfriend of mine had died – Philippa, actually, the wife of Archie who Ihad a crush on when I was a teenager. (She's the fourth to pop off this year. Ihave actually attended no fewer than five funerals since January.) And she saidthat six of her friends had died in the last eighteen months.
'The awful thing is,' she said, 'that now we just have to make do with the people who are left!'
'Unless,' I said, 'we cultivate young people.'
'Which we don't!' she said.
Well, I have to say I do, though the admission feels as sinful andhorrifically honest as getting up in an AA meeting and saying I'm an alcoholic.I mean, who is there going to be left when all around drop like leaves fromtrees in autumn? If I'm not one of the early droppers, I certainly don't wantto be hanging around on a bare branch, flapping away all dry and brown andlonely. I want some nice young green shoots around me.
Marion and her husband, Tim, live in a poky little Edwardian house in West London,still decorated with the Laura Ashley wallpaper that had once looked so prettyin the sixties. They are one of a group of friends of mine who seem to live inrock pools – their sitting rooms could be scooped up, transported to theGeffrye Museum and displayed, along with beautifully preserved Elizabethanparlours and Georgian music rooms, as typical examples of mid-twentieth centurystyle.
The moment I entered the room (awash with grey heads) I knew I was in trouble. Youarrive at 8.15 and there is no way you can leave until after 11.00. Dinnerparties can be mini-prison sentences, only you don't get out early for goodbehaviour.
Things weren't helped by the arrival of a guest who wore her bag across her mackintoshfrom left shoulder to right hip – presumably to make the chances ofgetting mugged less likely. To add to the general picture of insecurity, shehad her glasses on strings, another sign of age and madness. If you can't everfind your glasses, say I, then wear them all the time. If you have to, pushthem up on to your head. But don't have them hanging down on beaded strings. Itlooks as infantile as a three-year-old wearing gloves that are attached byribbons to his coat.
Because I used to teach art and so could, at a stretch, be regarded as someone in thehelping professions, my hosts had, at dinner, thoughtfully, they imagined, put,on my left, a male psychotherapist with a beard. Have to say I'm not mad aboutpsychotherapists. They always look unnaturally serene, never cross their legs,as if they've been Alexander-techniqued up to the eyebrows, which they probablyhave, and they always have sinisterly caring voices. I'm not actually crackersabout beards either, come to that. It's a truth, I've found, that men withbeards are never remotely sexy. I think they grow beards not to hide weakchins, but to hide their weak masculinity. Men with beards often seem to haverather large womanly bottoms.
This guy also had a lot of very white hair. There's something a bit fishy, I think,about a man clearly over sixty who has a lot of hair. He looked rather like aneffeminate sheep.
As we chomped our way through chilli con carne – along with the house,Marion's cooking is also stuck in a seventies time-warp – the therapistreferred occasionally to Freud. When he did, I heard myself saying, ratheracidly I'm afraid, that Freud was the most frightful old nightmare, who had,during his many incarnations, once recommended the taking of cocaine to hispatients. Indeed, for a while he had been a cocaine addict himself. Totalfraud.
'Are you sure you're not making a ''Fraudien'' slip?' asked the therapist. Everyonelaughed in the way English people do when given the chance to relieve thetiniest hint of either seriousness or unpleasantness in the conversation.
He chuckled in a knowing and patronizing way, therapist-style, and went back tohis salad. I was very pleased when a bit of lettuce got trapped in his beard.
I'm afraid I was in rather a bad mood. I had arrived in a bad mood. And the feelinghad been exacerbated long before the realization that my neighbour was atherapist by the fact that the hosts had placed in the middle of the table ahuge centrepiece of giant yellow and red tropical flowers, flanked on eitherside by tall candles, making it impossible for anyone on one side of the tableto see anyone on the other. The flowers were those weird kinds that look likepenises and vaginas – only recently featuring on the floral scene andtotally ghastly. I managed, with a great show of jollity and apology, to getthe centrepiece moved. ('Oh, isn't it beautiful, but darling I want to see you when youtalk!'), but felt that I could hardly make demands about the candles too, soall the guests had to dodge round them to speak. Every time I looked across thetable I felt like a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs.
Yes, bad mood. The older I get, the more of a loose cannon I become at dinnerparties. Nine times out of ten, I can shine and be good fun, but the tenth Istart yelling about inappropriate things, like how great euthanasia or abortionis, or how wrong it is to give aid to Africa, and everyone gets frightfully hotunder the collar and embarrassed. They say that this outspokenness is somethingto do with the synapses atrophying in the frontal lobes as you get older, but Ithink it's just the ludicrous confidence that comes with age. This time we goton to the subject, sparked off by Mrs Glasses-on-Strings revealing (as they sooften do these days) that, being sixty, she had just received her Freedom Pass,and how wonderful it was travelling on public transport for nothing.
I said I would be sixty in a few months, and couldn't wait.
'Yes,' said Mrs Glasses-on-Strings, trying to ingratiate herself with me. 'You're onlyas old as you feel. Sixty years young!'
'Sixty going on twenty!' said the therapist.
'I really can't agree,' I said. 'If you're sixty, you're sixty. Sixty is old. I amjust longing to be old, and I don't want to be told I'm young, when I'm not.I'm fed up with being young. Boring. I was young in the sixties, and once,believe it or not, I slept with a Beatle. Been there, got the teeshirt, worn itto death and put it in a bag for Age Concern. When I was twenty, sixty was old,when I was thirty, forty and fifty, sixty was still old. I'm not going tochange the goalposts now.'
'I'm sixty,' said Marion, as she smilingly collected the plates. (It's an odd factthat most men never realize when empty dishes are being stacked up. Thetherapist, who no doubt in his work prided himself on his acute sensitivity toother people's feelings, sat with his plate firmly in front of him, unawarethat major operations were being carried out that required his cooperation.)'But I don't feel a day over thirty!'
'But, Marion, don't you realize that that tragic?' I said. 'To continue feelingthirty for the whole of your life! So boring! A nightmare! I'm longing to feelsixty! What's wrong with that?'
'The great thing about age,' said the therapist, whose wife had finally leaned overthe table and taken his plate, 'is that it's never too late. You can do so manythings. Take an Open University degree, go bunjee-jumping, learn a new language...'
'But it is too late!' I argued. 'That's what's so great about being old. You nolonger have to think about going to university, or go bunjee-jumping! It's ahuge release! I've been feeling guilty about not learning another language formost of my adult life. At last I find that now, being old, I don't have to!There aren't enough years left to speak it. It'd be pointless!'
'Well, I feel,' said the therapist, defiantly, 'that now I am sixty-five, anything ispossible.'
'I find, approaching sixty,' I replied, 'that the great pleasure is that so manythings are impossible. I think,' I added, cruelly, putting my hand on hisarm and smiling a great deal to pretend I meant no harm, 'that you're in whatyou therapists call denial.'
This time I got the laugh, but it was cheap and I felt ashamed.
As I drove back I was sorry for the poor old therapist, finding himself sittingnext to rancid old me. Felt really guilty and horrible and wished I hadn't beenso acid. Like me, the poor man probably would have far preferred to have satnext to a lovely young person instead.
Woke feeling absolutely terrible, all the 1,001muscles in my face still trapped in a rictus of insincerity. Knew, even worse,that I would have to suffer this cramped feeling till the following morningwhen the poison of the ghastly evening had finally drained from my body.
To make matters worse, I looked terrible. Last night before I went to the party Isaw in the mirror a raging beauty, with incredible olive skin, high cheekbones,a sensitive mouth, utterly ravishing. But when I looked in the mirror thismorning, I couldn't believe what stared back at me – I looked grotesque;Charles Laughton in a dressing gown. My face was like an uncooked doughnut.Piggy eyes, small, pursed, pale-lipped mouth, deep frown-marks, all puff.Revolting. What is it that happens in the night? Clearly Something – Godknows what – Collects. Or perhaps it was the Rioja. Or perhaps, morelikely, the therapist, quite understandably, had put a curse on me.
Jumped into the bath (perhaps 'jump' is not the word; 'clambered into' might be abetter way of describing it, and yes, I do have a funny rubber mat with suckersunderneath, lying on the bottom) and found that none of the rest of my body ispuffy – just becoming wrinkly, like an Austrian blind. I can see, now, mygrandmother's arms sticking out of my shoulders, my skin becoming fine andpapery and shiny, like hers. As I loved her so much, I don't mind the sight.But cripes, I'm only fifty-nine. Soon I'll be sixty. And I mean soon. In thenext three months. Will everything collapse even further, I wonder?
Even now, when I do my noble ten minutes of yoga a day, I see small folds of skinwaiting to tumble down my thighs. They're particularly in evidence when I do ashoulder-stand with my legs in the air. They've got strange marks on them– thread veins, the odd hint of a varicose vein. My upper arms havewobbly bits hanging from them. The backs of my hands are speckled with brownspots. When did they appear? Only a few years ago, I think, when I couldpretend to myself (talk about in denial!) that I was about thirty. Now, myentire body is shrieking at me that I am old. And what's so utterly strange isthat I don't really mind a bit. It feels rather comfortable, friendly –and right.
OK, my skin's not young and springy with that wonderful peachy bloom and a fuzz offine downy hair. But it's still good, like an expensive but worn old leathersofa from a gentleman's club in Pall Mall.
The older I get, I've decided, the more I am determined to look not so much likesome deserted vandalized community hall in Hull, but more like a beautifulruined abbey of the kind immortalized by Poussin – or the other painterwho begins with P. Name escapes me ... Or is it C?
When I got out of the bath and reached for the towel I remembered the time, as achild, I excitedly told my father that I had discovered a brilliant new way ofdrying myself.
'How?' he had asked. I showed him. With the towel around my back, I took one corner ineach hand. I then pulled on each end alternately.
'Isn't it a good method?' I said.
I always remember my father's indulgent smile. 'I remember when I discoveredthat, and I was around exactly your age,' he said.
It was the first moment in my life when I had the revelation – a revelationthat I have again and again and again – that not only what I think is anoriginal thought has been thought time and time again by people throughout theages but, worse, that thoughts that I imagine are new to myself are oftenthoughts that I have had again and again throughout my life. The treadmillnessand groundhog-dayery of it all is both depressing and, oddly, reassuring. Itwould be good, however, to have a brand-new thought just once in one's life. Iremember only recently realizing that you could hold two feelings in yourselfat the same time, that you could both like someone and dislike them in one go,that you could both want a cigarette and want to give up smoking.
As one who sees life rather in black and white – strong hates and loves– I have always tried to compromise by seeing everything in a kind ofgrey. The trick is not to do that at all, but to manage to hold the contrastsin oneself at exactly the same time. That results in a much more lively and invigoratingapproach. Very late in the day to discover that thought, but it has maderelationships with people far, far easier. And, oddly, kinder.
I then got dressed. Not an easy business these days. I think I used to balance onone foot when I put on my tights. Now I sit on the bed and roll back like ahedgehog as I tug them on, legs waggling in the air.
The new lodger arrived. Well, I say lodger.Michelle is the daughter of Parisian friends, and she wants a base in Londonfrom where she can look for somewhere congenial to live. She is utterlyadorable. She is young! She is blonde! She is only nineteen but, of course,being French she is more like a sixteen-year-old English girl. She clearly hasabsolutely no idea how pretty she is, though she dresses beautifully. I openedthe door to her on a bitter, grey, West London day. She stood, wearingthree-quarter-length black pedalo trousers and only a thin cotton top over abare tummy. On the ground were five enormous suitcases.
''Allo,' she said. 'I am Michelle.'
That was about the sum total of her English. She says 'Sank you' a lot. She seemedvery pleased with the room I offered her, despite the fact that it is painted adark abattoir-red, is lined with my books, has space in the cupboard for only aboutthree things to hang up and half the chest of drawers is made over toscrewdrivers, pipe-wrenches, hammers, sandpaper, electric drills and old lightfittings.
'Beeg,' she said.
I suppose it is rather 'beeg' compared to most of the frightful shoe boxesforeign girls are offered in London. I gave her the usual spiel, in rather badFrench, about how we must live completely separate lives, we do not shareanything except the bathroom and the kitchen, that she has only about twoinches of space in the fridge, we do not use each other's milk, and that she isnot allowed in the garden...
Every time I give this talk I feel such a creep, but it is honed from long experienceof lodgers. Once, when Jack, my son, was two years old, I found him potteringaround the house one morning in the company of a huge dog. And when I went into find the owner, a gigantic tattooed slob who was snoring next to my lodger,I found three candles burning around the bed.
But later, as Michelle and I sat on the sofa in my sitting room, I had to reallysteel myself to say that we would never, ever share a meal, that although itwas fine for her to ask me if she needed help with anything, I had my life andshe had hers – because I could feel maternal feelings stealing through melike some kind of chemical.
Later she crept down the stairs and I could hear her standing outside the room whereI potter about doing bits and pieces, terrified to disturb me. I stopped typingout a furious letter to the council about the amount of uncollected rubbish tobe found in the street, and called out to her. She wanted to know where theshops were. She looked so utterly vulnerable that when she turned to go, Ifound myself grabbing my bag and saying: 'I've got to get some kitchen roll,anyway, so I'll come with you and show you where everything is.' I even addedthe word 'darling'.
This is another curious sign of ageing. I find myself addressing everyone as'sweetie' or 'darling' – and, even odder, meaning it. It's something Iwould never have done when I was young, in the days when the only people whoreceived a 'darling' were men, who I loved.
When you're young, after all, you really only have relationships with people yourown age or older. Your role is mostly as an equal or as child. But the olderyou get, the more types of relationship are available. With people of eighty Istill feel an innocent child. With people my own age I feel like an equal. Andwith young people, the bonus, I feel like a parent. I feel caring and kindlyfeelings that are lovely to experience when you've spent most of your lifefeeling cross-patchy and hard-done-by as I have.
'Excuse me?' she said. Poor girl. The sooner she can find a room of her own with jollyyoung people rather than a mad, middle-aged woman with a maternal instinct onthe loose, the better for her. What am I saying? 'Middle-aged!' I might bemiddle-aged today but in three months I'll be sixty, and that means I will nolonger be middle-aged. I'll be old. Well and truly old. Old! Old! Old!Excellent.
Meet the Author
Virginia Ironside currently writes the “Dilemmas” weekly advice column for the Independent in London. This is the author's first U.S. publication.
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