- Published: 20 July 2021
- ISBN: 9781529102772
- Imprint: Ebury Press
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 288
- RRP: $24.00
More Than a Woman
Prologue: September 2010
I am in the spare room, which doubles as my office, and I have just finished my day’s work. Typing the last full stop with a flourish, I light a cigarette, and lean back in my chair. Today is the day I finished writing How To Be A Woman, and I am exhausted – but jubilant. Like a salmon that’s just spawned a super-chunky hardback through its mental vent.
I have tried to put every conceivable female wisdom into a single, 220-page volume – spanning the entirety of a straight, white, working-class woman’s experience in a mere 89,000 words. I have thoroughly chronicled the most difficult years of a woman’s life: thirteen to thirty. The painful years of constructing yourself. The messy, panicky, scared, brave years, where you have to invent, and then reinvent, yourself, over and over, until you finally find peace in the bones you’re in.
Those are the dark decades, I muse. Thank God that once a woman gets to thirty, she knows the worst bit is over! She is strong in herself, and ready to enjoy the next epoch. I am ready to enjoy the next epoch! This is the beginning of my true, real, great life – right now!
By way of celebration, I try to blow a smoke ring. I fail. Oh well – plenty of time to practise in the coming, empty weeks! Now I’ve achieved perfection! I’m going to have time for all kinds of amazing hobbies!
There is a small commotion behind me.
‘Oh my GOD – press “save”! You’re making me anxious. Why would you finish a document and not press “save”? Do you not remember how much work you’ve lost over the years?’
I turn around – and there, sitting on the bed, is what I would describe as an ‘elderly’ woman in a leopard-print coat, with messy hair, regarding me with a sigh. I stare.
‘Nanna?’ I say, eventually.
For it appears to be – my nan. But wearing Doc Marten boots. My Doc Marten boots. Why is my dead grandmother here, dressed like an ageing indie-kid? Is her ghost having a breakdown in Heaven? Whoever she is, she seems preternaturally peeved by my reaction.
‘“Nanna”? “Nanna”? You cheeky cow – it’s me. You. I’m you. From the future. “Nanna”? Jesus Christ, I’m only forty-fucking-four.’
I look again. Oh God – it is me. Me – but much more grey. Future Me is looking at me like she’s expecting me to freak out – but, obviously, I’m not going to give her the satisfaction. We’ve all seen all the Back to the Futures. We all know how this stuff works. I’m going to act cool.
‘Oh, yeah,’ I shrug. ‘You are me. From the future. Sweet. Fag?’
I offer her a cigarette, politely.
‘No,’ she says, primly. ‘I’ve given up. It’s so bad for you, and it really starts hurting once you get to thirty-eight. It’s a disgusting habit.’
I drag on my fag. She hesitates for a minute – and then reaches over for the packet.
‘I still have the odd one here or there, though. At parties. They don’t count.’
She lights it up. We both exhale together.
‘So,’ I say, looking at her. Yeah – it does look like me. Her hair’s shorter. She’s got two grey streaks in it. Her adult acne, I note, is still present – suggesting the new serum I bought only the other week is a fucking liar. And her nose – her nose seems bigger than my nose? How has that happened?
‘It keeps growing all your life,’ we say, in synchronisation. And then, still in synch: ‘Like granddad’s.’
We both sigh.
‘So, I presume you’re here because of some cataclysmic future event, which you’ve come to warn me of?’ I say, casually, pressing ‘save’, in case losing this document is the future cataclysmic event. If it is, this is the worst Terminator-inspired plot ever. It’s all backed up on my external hard drive, for a start.
‘No, not really,’ she says. ‘I’m here for a laugh.’
‘Well, things are a bit ... lively, in 2020, and I could do with a light-hearted giggle, so I’ve come to bask in a more ... innocent me.’
She reclines on the bed. There’s an odd cracking sound.
‘That’s my back,’ she says, still prone. ‘Well, my back and my pelvis. You won’t believe what happens to them as you get into your forties.’
‘What have you done to my back?!’ I ask. ‘I need that!’
‘Oh, the back’s nothing,’ she says, sitting back up again with a series of ‘Ooof!’ sounds. ‘Look at this.’
She points to her neck. There’s something hanging off it.
‘A wattle. Our wattle. Touch it.’
I tentatively wobble the stalactite of loose skin, like a turkey’s neck, with my finger. It keeps swaying for a good ten seconds after I finish. I wince. She tuts at me.
‘I’ve grown to kind of love it, to be honest,’ she says. ‘I wobble it on difficult days. It’s like an enjoyable stress-toy.’
Now I’m near her, I look at her more closely. Yes, she has a wattle, and seems endlessly programmed to complain – but she still looks pretty fresh and cheerful. Why?
‘Botox, mate,’ she says, reclining again. ‘Sorry – I’m just going to stay here for a bit. I am knackered.’
‘Botox! You have Botox! But – you can’t! It’s not feminist! I’ve just written a whole chapter on why it’s a betrayal of every value I have!’
I gesture to my laptop.
‘Yeah,’ she says, dragging on her fag. ‘That’s one of the reasons I’ve come back for a laugh. It’s really funny,’ she says, beginning to giggle. ‘It’s really funny how you think you’ve got everything figured out. You think – ’ and here, she becomes hysterical, ‘– you think you’ve done the hard bit, don’t you? You’re thirty-four, with two small kids and you think – HAAAAA! – that you know everything.’
By now, she’s coughing and wheezing. I can see why she’s tried to cut down on the fags – her lungs sound like bagpipes.
‘Well, I kind of think I do,’ I say, briskly. ‘Let me remind you – I have just gone through adolescence and my twenties, beset by bullshit on all sides, which I have nobly battled, and eventually triumphed over. Periods, pubic hair, masturbation, losing my virginity, battling an eating disorder, discovering feminism, living through an abusive relationship, shunning an expensive wedding, taking Ecstasy, having an incredibly painful first birth, and a perfect second one. I’ve had an abortion, I’ve been to a sex-club with Lady Gaga, discovered what true love is, confronted sexism, worked out my position on pornography, raised my children into strong capable people, and, finally, found some jeans that fit. Whistles Barrel Leg, £59. I’m thirty-four, and I know that all the statistics say that this – this is about to be the best period of my life. Not an actual period-period. No. An era. I’m about to enter the Era of Supremacy, because I am a grown-ass feminist woman who’s worked out all her shit, and is mere weeks away from my proper life beginning: one where I will be confident and elegant, like Gillian Anderson in everything, at the height of my attractiveness, with a capsule wardrobe, and probably going on walking holidays where I do emotional oil paintings of the best fells I’ve scaled.’
She stares at me.
‘I’ve done all the hard stuff,’ I reiterate. ‘I know how to be a woman. This is where it all gets good.’
There’s a pause – and then she comes over, and hugs me.
‘Mate,’ she says, with impossible tenderness. ‘Mate, mate, mate.’
‘What?’ I say, face muffled in her bosom. She’s wearing a cashmere jumper. Things can’t be that bad in the future! Cashmere is a luxury fabric! In the future, am I – am I a millionaire?’
‘No. £39.99, Uniqlo,’ she says, still crushing my face into her tits. ‘Look. It’s great you’re optimistic. I love that energy. Keep it coming! It’s just – it’s just that, “being a woman” isn’t enough for the next part of your life.’
‘What? What do you mean?’
‘Well, you’re just about to enter middle age, bab. Your previous problems were all problems with yourself. Young woman problems. But when you enter middle age, you’ll know you’re middle-aged, because all your problems are ... other people’s problems.’
‘I don’t get you.’
‘A sorted, middle-aged woman isn’t just a woman, any more. You have to become – more than “a woman”.’
She squats down in front of me and takes my hands in hers. She makes another ‘Oooof’ sound.
‘Just stretching my glutes,’ she explains. ‘Look, obviously I can’t be specific, because, like, time will explode, but your thirties, forties and fifties: that’s when you start dealing with real Big Woman Shit. That’s when all your friends start divorcing. It’s where you and your partner’s careers clash with each other. It’s where sex becomes almost impossible. It’s where your parents suddenly get old, and need caring for. It’s where, God help you, your kids become teenagers.’
‘But surely that’s the easy bit! I can’t wait! They can make their own breakfast! I’m going to be free!’
‘Haven’t you just written 20,000 words on how fucking awful your teenage years were?’
‘Imagine being your parents.’
My heart stops for a minute. Oh.
‘Mate, forget the AA, you’re just about to become the Fourth Emergency Service,’ she continues. ‘Your life’s about to become a callcentre for people who are exploding.’
She mimes being the operator on a switchboard: ‘“Hello? Caller One? You’re my mum, you live 200 miles away, and you’ve fallen down some stairs? Oh my God, I’m so sorry! Hang on – I’m going to have to put you on hold; I’ve got another call coming through. Caller Two – how can I help you? You’re my best friend, and you’ve just seen your husband getting off with the babysitter in Costa? Get in a cab and come straight over here – I’m quickly going to talk to Caller Three. Caller Three – CALM DOWN! You’re my teenage daughter, and you’ve just realised you’re not beautiful, and your life is meaningless? OH GOD.”’
She mimes putting the phone down again.
‘You know your husband?’
My heart leaps.
‘IN THE FUTURE, IS IT MARK RUFFALO? OH MY GOD – I KNEW IT!!!’
She puts her hand up, to cancel my spiralling hope: ‘No. No – it’s still the same one.’
We look at each other.
‘Ah. Well, I suppose that’s ... good.’
‘You know how when you’re trying to get someone in customer services to e.g., mend your telly, and they keep fobbing you off with some arse called Simon or Dev, who just fucks it up even more? And your husband always says—’
‘He always says, “You need to keep asking to be transferred until you get put through to a middle-aged Scottish woman called Janet – because she’s always the one who goes, Ach, what a pickle. I’ll sort this out in two minutes.” And – she does!’
‘Yes. The Janet Theory.’
‘The Janet Theory.’
She points at me.
‘You’re Janet, now. You’re the Janet in everyone’s lives. If anything’s going to get sorted out, you’re the one who’s going to have to do it. No more messy nights out, or voyages of self-discovery. You are about to be required hold the fabric of society together. For no pay. That’s what being a middle-aged woman is.’
We fall into a silence. There’s a lot to digest.
‘So – no fell-walking holidays, or oil paintings, then?’ I ask, sadly.
I can’t deny it – it’s a bit of a downer. I’ve met my future self, and she’s Captain Buzzkill. I instinctively massage my neck, to relieve my stress. Ah, yes – I can see where that wattle will form. It’s already starting to yield. I can see how it will be a comfort, in the years to come.
‘Still,’ I say, brightening. ‘The good news is, you’re now doubtless about to give me some manner of enchanted amulet, or crucial spell – the one that got you through those hard times.’
For the first time, Future Me looks shifty.
‘Well – how did you get through those hard times?’
Future Me looks even more shifty. I feel the first stirrings of panic.
‘Hang on – you have got through this bad bit, haven’t you? You’ve come back to see me now because you succeeded in your quest, and everything’s okay again?’
Future Me stands up.
‘Well, I must be going – the time machine portal thingy is running out. Just remember, Caitlin – follow your heart!’
She disappears. Now I’m just furious. She knows that I know the answer is never to ‘Follow your heart.’ Your heart’s a fucking idiot – it just wants to sit on the sofa and watch Say Yes to the Dress. The true answer is always ‘Make a fucking brilliant plan, and then endure with it beyond all normal parameters of exhaustion, until you eventually triumph.’
Why is Me lying to me? What should I prepare for? I have so many questions!
There’s another commotion, and Future Me reappears.
‘Oh, thank God!’ I say. ‘You’re back! I knew me wouldn’t let me down! Quick! Tell me things! What stocks should I invest in? Should I do neck exercises? Did you even try to marry Mark Ruffalo? TELL ME WHAT I NEED TO PREPARE FOR!!!!!!’
Future Me looks at me, stricken.
‘I just came back for these,’ she said, taking my fags. ‘And – and – ’
I stare at her. Just one wisdom. Just one.
‘And ... drink as much as you can now – because once you get to forty, you can’t drink any more. All your enzymes give up, and the hangovers kill you.’
‘I CAN’T EVEN DRINK????’
‘Bye. And – good luck. I love you. You’re a good kid.’
She fist-bumps me, and disappears.
‘“More than a woman”?’ I say, disconsolately. ‘I have to become “more than a woman”? What – two women?’
I hear a voice, calling through the ether: ‘That would be useful. Because it gets so much fucking worse.’
I start wearing the family dog, a mini-sheltie, a little Lassie, in an unbleached cotton baby sling across the front of my body like a messenger bag, a few weeks shy of fall.
Johnny Casey launched into a fit of energetic coughing – a bit of bread down the wrong way.
According to the statistics, on this last day of the year a man of eighty-five has approximately an 80 per cent chance of reaching 31 December 2015.
INTRO Dearest Billy, I have a feeling that you’re going to find out about all this, so I thought you’d better hear how it all began, from your own mum.
MY NOVEL TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN was published in October of 2017, and after spending that month on tour for the book, I came home to Indianapolis and blazed a trail between my children’s tree house and the little room where my wife and I often work