Woman About Town

In arcadia ego

Finite life and Infinite Jest

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

For the last 20 years, every summer has involved a week in Scarborough to visit my husband’s family. It’s a habit that has accrued its own traditions through repetition. A barbecue at a chalet on the North Bay. A trip to the chrome-plated ice cream parlour on South Bay where my (now adult) nephew will get a “mega” (a foot-long cone containing all the award-winning flavours, which he’s somehow never been defeated by).

Fish and chips, of course. A compulsory dip in the North Sea, regardless of how cold it is. (This year, pre-heatwave, it was a punishing 12 degrees in the water, just 14 on shore. I plunged in and then ran back to the safety of my cardigan.)
The British seaside has gained a few shabby chic pretentions, but it’s the old-school mix of “bracing” conditions and neon pleasure-seeking that I love best.

And so there’s also an afternoon in the arcades, pouring coins into gaudily seductive machines. This year my (almost-adult) daughter was fixated on winning an octopus plush toy from the grabber. She put in a pound. The claw flopped infuriatingly over the toy. She put in a pound. The claw embraced the toy, then turned queasily weak and let it drop. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Then, she saw a second machine: three pounds, no claw, guaranteed octopus. She took two, and with them a very cuddly lesson in the fact that the house always wins.

• • •

It was while I was at the beach hut barbecue that the defenestration of Boris
finally kicked off, burgers neglected as the news app notifications poured in. It
might not have been a very edifying period in politics, but at least it ended in the most entertaining fashion possible: with recriminations, bitterness and glorious self-owns (come in Nadhim Zahawi, your time is never).

Labour knows how to nurse a grievance. I’ve been told that the wounds of Miliband vs Miliband still linger in some corridors. Brother turning on brother led to colleagues turning on colleagues, causing traumas that reverberate more than a decade on — never mind the damage done by the Corbyn era.

Still, no one does messy bitch drama like the Tories. My head says give it to Rishi, but my heart says that a Penny premiership is the quickest route back to glorious public bloodletting.

Eery silence

After Scarborough, to London to house-sit for a friend. With the intention of getting some writing done, I come alone. But while the space and freedom is welcome, there’s an eeriness to being unneeded: since I became a mother at 20, there’s always been somebody depending on me.

Repeatedly, I’m jolted out of concentration (and sometimes sleep) by the feeling I should be doing something — fixing dinner, walking the dog, just being at the kitchen table in case someone wants a chat — and then left slightly flat by the realisation that there’s nothing to be done.

This, I suppose, is the next transition of motherhood: first you’re remoulded into parent mode by pregnancy and birth, and then you have to undo all those habits of care as your children grow into self-sufficiency. The former is raw, physical and marked by people sending you ready meals and nipple cream. The latter is quieter, slower, bittersweet.

This … is the moment you longed for

This, after all, is the moment you longed for every time you blearily performed a night feed or dealt with a school run tantrum. This is freedom — but freedom to be what? I feel slightly at a loss. For the first day, I keep fighting the urge to fall back into bed.

Parents are often given baby books to record their precious offspring’s important firsts: first smile, first word, first wobbly steps. But maybe they should also be given a “self” book to note down all the things they were before the cataclysm of a new life hit them: last frivolously misspent day, last totally impulsive journey, last time the only person you had to think about was you.

One thing I have been doing for myself recently is diligently going to the gym. My favoured routine is based on powerlifting (that’s the “big three” of squat, bench and deadlift), and under the care of my personal trainer I’ve become — well, not exactly an athlete, but I would say no slouch in the barbell stakes considering I didn’t start till middle age.

But workouts with big weights require gym visits, and gym visits require getting over my deep and ingrained horror of any athletic situation involving men. It was only listening to Caroline Criado-Perez’s Visible Women podcast about how boys dominate playgrounds that I put this together with my school experiences: in my lizard brain, anywhere boys do sport is a place where girls get shunted to the sidelines.

Which is why I’ve come to appreciate the profound decency of the gymbro. Despite my angst, I’ve found that those Bluto-looking muscle-strapped lunks grunting away in the squat rack are (almost) universally courteous, respectful and polite. The secret, perhaps, is that a lot of the purposefully hench dudes started life as the nerds the other boys never wanted to pass to.

A bulky bonus

Walking in London, I pass a house that has put out unwanted books for any takers. I recognise one immediately because I used to own it: the massive white doorstop of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 thousand-pager Infinite Jest. Foster Wallace, who died in 2008, has gained an unenviable reputation as “the kind of novel male writer men love to bore their girlfriends about”.

One viral tweet deemed mentioning Infinite Jest in a dating profile to be reasonable cause for an instant rejection.

I shed my copy in a fit of annoyance: its sheer bulk counted as literary manspreading. And yet, its strange haunted world — a world of drug addicts, Canadian terrorists and a film so entertaining that watching it is lethally engrossing — stayed with me.

I took the pavement bounty, noted its uncracked spine. It is the kind of book that can feel too intimidating to start, never mind finish. But perhaps for me it’s the way to fill my time as I approach maternal redundancy.

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