It is September. It is a Monday. But it feels nothing like a Monday morning at all. My mother is driving us down a Dorset lane as narrow, winding and nostalgic as the neurological pathways hotwiring madly in our brains. It was over ten years ago now we both think and half say.
The early autumn sunshine turns the small village where my grandmother used to live into a film set. There is no noise except for the gentle trickling of the stream (it flows from a river called the Piddle, much to my childhood delight); there are three nonchalant ducks – really, there actually are – waddling down the lane. The hills undulate around us in soft green and yellow and nearly-brown hues like a Working Title wet dream. I feel almost cheated that it is all exactly the way I would choose to remember it.
The cottage where she used to live is covered in scaffolding: they are re-thatching the roof. Expertly, gosh, look at that, my mother says. We are separated by her arcane knowledge of thatching techniques, rural things, the England of the Past. We both peer through the gate and into the garden. We both draw away, sharply. We are together again, united in our regret at looking too closely. At stealing the chance to peer through the crack in the gate.
The November beforehand, I had started writing a novel. Or rather, someone very close to me was participating in an encouraging scheme on the internet (which started, I think, in Seattle, or San Francisco, or one of those places full of sunshine and organic food and hope about the utopian potential of the web) in which you write a novel in a month. And strangely, this ambitious time constraint acted like a kindly valve, releasing years of pent up pressure in my writing brain. Why not? It only had to be fifty thousand words. That’s less than two thousand a day! Let’s go!
Of course, the first thing I had to do was to set a password for the Word document which would contain this novel. I had recently had my laptop stolen and been plagued by visions of the faceless thief flicking through my photos, or reading the collected scraps of attempted writing that I had saved in a file (uninvitingly I had hoped) marked ‘STUFF’. The idea that this faceless thief should be more interested in my personal trivia than in my bank details or just wiping the lot and flogging it is vanity I know. But a feeling of exposure and violation had survived in me from this theft. Suddenly my parents’ infuriating habit of having a desktop login password (and obligatory saccharine icon – my father, I was surprised to note, had chosen a dog) didn’t seem so pedantically middle-aged. The thought of anyone reading my novel was – and I should perhaps have found the irony of this perturbing – unbearable. I needed a password. And I needed a good one. An idiosyncratic password, not one of the standard lot hanging around like a bag of dusty old tools – those various iterations of: the street number of my best friend’s childhood house; my first boyfriend’s landline (oh the romance of a landline!); and the disappointingly unimaginative name of my first pet. I remember clearly that I chose a new password. One appropriate for the enterprise. And then I chose another one. One not so burdened by expectation, one that was brand spanking new, and without the baggage of associations and personal history that I would in any case be wrestling my way through in the novel itself.
In an unprecedented example of endeavour and commitment, I made it to seventeen thousand words. And then things started making their usual interruptions. Still, it was the furthest I had ever got. The most consecutive words I had ever written. Perhaps the most triumphant battle in my endless, grinding war of attrition against terror and procrastination.
My mother and I turn away from the thatching, and walk down the road alongside the short length of the garden. At the bottom of it are some decrepit stables my mother and her siblings still own. And inside them, some furniture that I have been coveting for some time as a romantic and frugal alternative to IKEA. Over the past few days, my mother has sent me a series of complicated emails about padlock combinations saying things like “turn right and pull shackle, turn left one full turn (past 30), stop at 36, turn right and pull shackle at 11”. She says if she didn’t email me, she might forget to remember. Yesterday, she telephoned and emailed her brother to check that he hadn’t changed the locks. She is walking towards me now from the car, carrying some heavy-duty gardening gloves that she has brought specially for me. (Recently, I managed to be hospitalized for five days from an infected splinter.) We walk along the moss-encrusted cement by the stables. Mud seeps into the hole in my white plimsolls.
The padlock is not, after all, a combination lock. My mother’s obsession with security is validated. In a way that troubles me: should I listen more generously to her infuriating diatribes about internet fraud and ID cards? My uncle has, it seems, indeed changed the locks. We do not have a key.
We peer through broken windows, stab at rusty bolts, and feel hot and bothered. (I accuse her of wasting my time crossly, shamefully.) And then we walk to the churchyard where my mother lays a handpicked bunch of roses on her own mother’s grave. My grandmother grew exquisite roses in the garden of the cottage right behind us. My mother felt a lot of anger towards her mother. But she was always kind to her about her roses. Nil desperandum it says on the gravestone.
I didn’t look at the novel, or rather the first seventeen thousand words of it, for quite some time. As I said, things made their usual interruptions. But then, on a cold day this February, I thought I would have a look at it. Bits of it had started flashing back at me. And in my memory, my imagination, it was better than I had remembered. And it was February: work had shrivelled up; Christmas was over; it was still snowing. I would pick up the novel again, I thought. I was working in a bookshop on Saturdays and the owner, a literary agent, had expressed sympathy for – and moreover, interest in – the abandoned novel. It would be published! All my problems would, after all, be solved.
According to Microsoft, Apple, several genii at their flagship London stores, my friend Sam’s brother-in-law who works in IT, my friend Emily’s brother (the super computer geek of our adolescence) and several internet chat forums, it is not possible to recover a forgotten password on a Microsoft Word document.
It was so typically, ludicrously, gut-wrenchingly like the kind of thing that I would do.
Start a novel. Make quite decent progress into a novel. Forget the password.
It was clearly intentional. Either, it was a moment of extreme delusion: if I prevented myself from re-reading it, the novel would always remain as unimpeachable evidence of my creative talent. Perhaps it would be cracked open in by some highly evolved hackers of the future, only to reveal – posthumously and tragically – my untapped genius. (Don’t cut your ear off yet, one of my friends said sardonically when I posited this sad possibility.) Or, it was a moment of Freudian self-sabotage. I had for once, achieved something, and there was no way I was going to let myself profit from that. Either way, my psychotherapist, if I hadn’t sacked her, would have had a field day.
Passwords slip from the mind, but they are also, since we are already on Freud, slips of the mind. An ex-boyfriend once hacked into my Gmail account for a year. This in itself was shocking. He would login to his and my account on Gmail simultaneously (you used to be able to do this), and have both windows open on his computer screen at work. (He was doing a depressing day job, to subsidize I’m not sure what.) I only finally discovered this when someone from my own depressing day job asked why someone called ******* ***** had replied to their email. After an initial and weak attempt to feign wonder at the peculiar inner workings of Google, he admitted to what he had done. He had failed to realize that my work email wasn’t his work email, replied in all innocence, tried to make amends, and thoroughly botched things up. It wasn’t just the intense and nauseous feelings of violation and betrayal that shocked me. It was his clumsiness. He must, he said, have wanted to be caught.
I read a page of my mother’s diary when I was six, and in the short moments before I had the sense to clap the book shut, I learnt things I wish I could, but know I won’t ever forget. Sometimes it is not fun to peer into the cracks.
It is September again, but a bit later. A Saturday. And I am back in the west-country lanes, in a Europcar van. I had thought quite specifically about my rental needs and, after a frustrating and unrewarding bit of online procrastination comparing hire quotes, hired a medium-sized van. But at the Europcar depot in King’s Cross this morning, the troubled looking employee behind the long plastic desk said I had been given a free upgrade. I tried to argue that failing to provide the specific van I required and trying to fob it off as a free upgrade smacked of taking the piss, but the employee and his manager were unconvinced, and unconvinceable. So here I am in the tiny Dorset lanes again, in a comically oversized white van.
The weather today is no less failing. And the key, which my uncle has now found, slides the heavy padlock open with satisfying ease. Some mice – or rats maybe – have got to an armchair. But there is a huge wooden chest of drawers that has escaped the worst of the decay. I open its drawers and they slide out neatly, beautifully. I take each drawer out of the frame, one by one. As I take out the bottom drawer, a wad of pale blue tissue paper falls to the floor. My grandmother hoarded tissue paper, wrapping paper, glass jars, ice cream tubs, and tins obsessively in a scullery. (I have inherited the hoarding habit). Suddenly, I am struck, viscerally, by a memory of her. She is standing at the scullery door holding a pair of secateurs. She is alone, stalwart, and about to brave the onslaughts of loneliness with some gardening. I can hear the shuffle of her gardening shoes on the scullery lino, and then their scrape over the metal boot grate by the door. I hear the grate rattle slowly into balance. And then, just as suddenly, I realize that it is not a memory. It is a moment from the first seventeen thousand words of the novel.