‘Outside a bonfire burned and through the smoke I was sure I could make out the faces of my small son and friends. I was transported back to a time more than 25 years ago’
When I was about six years old, I made a startling discovery. I was drying myself after my bath and found that, if I were to put the towel behind me, hold the two sides in my hands and pull it from side to side, my back would get dry. This seemed to me to be such an amazing invention that I called to my father who came running up the stairs. ‘Look what I’ve discovered!’ I shouted. And I will never forget his kindly but world-weary look as he said: ‘Yes. I remembering discovering that myself when I was about the same age as you.’
All through my life, I realise, I’ve had revelations which have been revealed to others before me. The discovery that probably most other people were as frightened, insecure and self-loathing as me, was one. The very late revelation that, if you boil beef, it gets tough, and if you simmer it, it gets tender, was another. (I wish I’d realised this before giving hundreds of dinner parties, involving guests chewing their way through inedible lumps of stewing steak.)
Very late in life, I realised that it is absolutely impossible to persuade an alcoholic to give up drink or a drug addict to give up drugs; they themselves are the only people who can do it. And again, late in life, I found that the only thing that matters in a partner is kindness. And so on.
When my father died, I was struck like a thunderbolt by the revelation that, now I was an orphan, people died, and that I was next in line. A hundred other revelations crowded into my mind. I wrote a long piece in the Times expounding on my feelings and thought I had brought the shining truth to millions. Little did I know that everyone else who has experienced a close death has had these revelations before me. I still read articles now which are very similar to the one I wrote myself, written by other revelation-struck orphans who think they are the first to bring the truth to the masses.
Obviously being 73, I now realise I’m going to die. But, a couple of months ago, I had a really appalling revelation.
Some new neighbours held a party. They’d moved into a house I knew well from the old days. My son and I had been to bonfire parties there. I knew the house like the back of my hand.
As I rang the bell, I had an odd sense of déjà vu. My hostess welcomed me and begged me to look around the premises. She was dying to show off her new abode. I marvelled politely, even thought I could have walked round the house blindfolded; I knew it so well. Then we went to the basement where food was laid out on trestle tables – just as it used to be laid out in the old days when parties had been given in the Seventies. Outside, a bonfire burned and through the smoke I was sure I could make out the faces of my small son and his friends. I was transported to a time more than 25 years ago. But then the smoke cleared and I realised the children were new children.
In other words, the set was the same, but the entire cast was different.
And that’s when the revelation struck. It’s not death that is the Terrifying Thing. The Terrifying Thing is the fact that life will continue its relentless cycle, long after I’m gone. Other people will live in my house, and other people after that. They’ll all think they’ve redesigned the garden; they’ll all make discoveries – about the trees, the shops, the neighbours. New children will grow up and, when they’ve died, yet more children will grow up, all making their own discoveries, all, no doubt, finding out the old ‘how-to-towel-your-back-dry’ trick, decade after decade.
Sadly, I now realise, this most recent revelation is probably also one that must have been discovered by thousands and thousands of other people around my age. People who are now dead. And it will be discovered by thousands and thousands of people in the future.
What new revelations await? If you’ve got any, could you send them to me please? Just so I don’t get surprised by them in the few years I’ve got left.
Virginia will be appearing in her onewoman show ‘Growing Old Disgracefully’ at the Roseland Festival in St Mawes in Cornwall on 3rd May.