"Your friend repeats the name of the disease and the number of its variant, but you can’t take it in"by Kate Clanchy / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
The novelist and memoirist Kate Clanchy won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2009. The story below, “Animal, Vegetable,” is taken from her new collection The Not-Dead and the Saved. It imagines a rivalrous friendship between two mothers. Clanchy says: “Surely all mothers of young children must at some point stand by a wailing pram in a gutter and ask themselves if they really have to do this bit? When I was such a mother, with such a pram, I was also teaching myself to write short stories, and exploring the fun you can have with the second person, ‘you.’ This story, ‘Animal, Vegetable’ is the result: it isn’t based on anyone I know; all my children are well; and I certainly don’t have an answer to the question I pose at the end.”
In this story, you have a particular friend. You’ve known her a long time—since college, at least, but probably even earlier. Maybe you both smoked Consulates out the window of the sixth-form common room. Maybe you went to primary school together, shared a desk, a pot of poster paint, an obsession with French plaits.
The point is, she’s your high-achieving friend, the one whose exam results were always that bit better than yours, distinctions to your merits, A* to hard-won A. She’s that bit more glamorous than you, too: a size down in jeans, hair naturally curly or naturally straight, whichever was in fashion the year you turned 17. No spots, no fillings. And this may have been hard to take, over the years, but no one could say she isn’t loyal. When she got asked to the school dance, or prom, depending on your generation, and you didn’t, by the boy you fancied, she insisted he took both of you, for instance, and that was kind, however badly it all turned out. And it was also nice that she wanted you to be her bridesmaid, even if weddings aren’t your thing, and maroon is nobody’s colour.
Anyway, by the time you are both 35, partnered up and pregnant, she has this really good job. The job is very important to the question you will be asked at the end of the story, so please, apply your imagination to it strenuously. The job has an excellent salary and very long hours, but it should only be in banking if that’s the sort of job you admire and are in yourself, the sort that you really approve of. Otherwise, make her the head of an important charity, fighting for civil rights, relieving famine, something like that. Or, if you’re the arty sort, have her succeed in the area you most admire: make her a film-maker of rare and glorious distinction, or a theatre director, the nation’s finest, something on that level. And give her husband the just-same sort of job, but 10 years senior and even more demanding and well paid. He’s her first boss: a very much top-drawer type, driven, bit distant, very trim and elegant. Your partner is your college boyfriend and he usually has egg on his trousers. He also has round shoulders, and enthusiasms so boundless you sometimes worry they are random. As for your job, I’m afraid you’ve just lost it. Yes. Redundant when pregnant—that old story, but cleverly done. Don’t even think you could sue.
At least the redundancy means, though, that when your baby is three months old, there is no question of going back to work. Because, let’s be honest, they wouldn’t let you through the door. You’re at least three stone overweight, and still walking funny and wetting yourself after the emergency Caesarean. Your breasts are cushion size, and leak, especially the left one. You have forgotten what it is to sleep at night, and despite all the breast milk, your baby has eczema so bad you are deprived of all compensatory baby prettiness and silkiness and general admiration—old ladies stooping to look in your pram jump back, repulsed. Your house is a mess, your confidence at an all-time low.
Your friend comes round. She says the Pilates really helped her through her water birth, and definitely with getting back in shape since. She shows you her baby, slender, muscular and bright-eyed as a kitten, and the tiny creature meets your eyes and smiles. Andrea. Your friend is enlarging on her future plans. She has hired a nanny. She was dealing with work documents within a few hours of the birth, and now she is going back full-time. Andrea is 10 weeks old.
What about the breastfeeding? you squeak, for you are preoccupied with feeds and how you could possibly get the baby to have his main one in the day, not the night. I moved over to bottles, she says, coolly. She’s had her six weeks. You say nothing, but you eye up her neat blouse and find yourself chewing over this pronouncement, often, during the next few months, especially when you have the mastitis, and when you switch to the millet-only diet, the one you find does nothing for the eczema or your figure. At La Leche, you make a new friend, a solid, militant Finn called Ulli, and confide in her about your old pal with the nanny. It is horrible! says Ulli. The child will have no antibodies! She will not bond with her mother! She will grow up with a hole in her brain. Which is what you’d hoped she say.
But little Andrea has skin like a rose petal, and she is very well bonded with her nice, intelligent, well-paid, permanent nanny, who you see in the park frequently, who takes Andrea to music class and baby gym already. The nanny keeps you up with the milestones: Andrea smiles, crawls, walks, runs, hops and speaks earlier than your child, and better. At Andrea’s second birthday party—to which you are invited, for you are never forgotten—her mother says to you: You mustn’t think I don’t admire you for doing it all yourself: I really think that’s a wonderful choice. But I just couldn’t do the, you know, animal vegetable bit. The farming bit. For me I find that now Andrea is speaking, we can really form a relationship. I’m finding she’s such a great person.
You’re pregnant again, at this point, the shape of kohlrabi. You are still untidy and disorganised and poor and you are increasingly bad-tempered. The toddler is a fussy eater, and you are inclined to feed him baked beans and white bread, and then feel angry with yourself about it. It is impossible to say that Andrea is disadvantaged in any way by having her nanny feed her on fresh vegetable soup, dried apricots, and pomegranate juice. She is starting the violin. It is impossible to say what is good about your choice, this mucky, short-term, animal life which seems to have been going on forever, this round of viruses and exhaustion and E45 cream which the child will not even remember. You call Ulli, and she tells you that the first three years with a child are psychologically the most valuable, and throws in a sad story about neglected monkeys making bad mothers. You decide to solve the problem by not seeing your friend anymore, or, at any rate, not till you’ve got your figure back, which is the same thing.
But you underestimate her, her kindness, perceptiveness, loyalty. When you have the second baby, she comes round with gifts, she arranges several days out with Andrea and the nanny for your peeling, bespectacled, and now extremely jealous and angry toddler. She says she is quite sure that all children bite. She says she wishes she had another child, but that, genuinely, she does not have the time and the resources, and this sounds to you like a true and regretful and also admirably self-knowing statement. She holds your baby with real tenderness, and, when he is six weeks old, she sets you up with a little bit of freelance work you can do from home.
Which definitely helps. Whatever Ulli says. A bit of contact with the adult world, emails marked important (!) arriving for you. You even stagger into the office and make a small presentation, squeezed into a three-year-old jacket, and feel lifted by it. It’s all easier, anyway, the second time around. The baby has a lovely nature. Or maybe it’s just not having eczema. Or just that you’re not so crap at the whole thing, anymore. You start the toddler at nursery three days a week, take on another small job, don’t see Ulli so much, and when you hear that Andrea is starting prep school, that she can play the flute, when you receive letters actually written in her four-year-old hand, you manage genuinely to be pleased. You say to Ulli: I really think that as feminists we need to respect each other’s choices; and tune out when Ulli starts on about the class aspect of life in England, and how the longer she lives here, the less she can stand it.
In fact, by the time you hit your fortieth year, your friendship is so happy, and so calm, centred, and even a bit thinner are you, that when your old friend scores a huge triumph in her job, makes headline news, and starts to work in Paris, you are thrilled, and defend her to your partner who is having a weirdly conservative moment. Her work is a true inspiration. It shows how women can work better after childbirth, and besides, your friend is at home with Andrea every weekend. They have carefully defended quality time, and sometimes you are asked to join them. When your birthday rolls round, you have no problem with inviting the whole set, Mother, Father, Daughter, and Nanny, to your actually rather laborious get-together in a Youth Hostel in the Brecon Beacons.
They’re frightfully nice about it. They drive all sorts of places, and the nanny looks after 10 children so you can go to the pub. Andrea and her mother are great together, even though the kid has a cold or something—easier, honestly, than you and your still-itchy, still-mulish, still not specially bright older son. And, over the third pint in the Welsh pub you think: OK, let her have it. The job, the kids, the money; cheers, my friend. And you toast her, over your smeary glass.
You don’t say anything of course, but your friend must sense your change of heart, because it is to you that she turns just a few weeks later, your messy kitchen in which she suddenly appears, incongruous in her silk shirt and suit.
This is the story. In the last few months, Andrea has been getting clumsy. The nanny noticed it, and the teachers. She’s been dropping things—balls, toys—she’s been finding it harder and harder to hold a pen, she has had problems getting dressed. When she walks, she stomps, on her heels. Recently, her speech, always so clear, has seemed slurred, especially when she’s tired. In school, she puts her head on the desk, says she has forgotten words she has been able to read for years, sleeps. Both your friend and her partner have loads of health insurance, and so the nanny has taken the child on a round of medical appointments. And now they have a diagnosis and this is it:
Andrea has an incurable, degenerative, genetic disease of the nervous system: something like Huntington’s but much more unusual. An ataxia. A rare variant. Your friend repeats the name of the disease and the number of its variant several times, but you can’t take it in. You’re thinking: my child stomps. And: is it catching? You need to stop that, and drag your mind back to Andrea. What is happening is: her brain cells are dying and not renewing themselves. This is the prognosis: rapid. Andrea will be in a wheelchair in three months, quadriplegic in a year, unable to swallow in eighteen months, and unable to breathe (dead) within two years.
Now you are thinking: If Andrea has it, my kids can’t get it. Stalking horse, scapegoat, sacrificial kid. Then you think about Andrea: clever little Andrea cross-legged on the floor, reading a book, and you imagine the words swimming in front of her eyes, the wobble in the legs, the hands, and you want to throw up. You sit down at your kitchen table and take your friend’s hands. She is still talking about the diagnosis. What happens is: the cerebral cortex dies first. Andrea will lose her speech and her higher intellectual functioning before she loses the rest of it. Probably in the next three months. So, by the time she is reduced to animal level, being spoon-fed in a cradle, she won’t know it. That must be a mercy. When she’s back in nappies, she won’t know who is changing them. Animal, vegetable. Farming. A body. The nanny has said she will stay on.
You pour your friend a whisky, and one for yourself. It’s three in the afternoon. Your hands are shaking. And here comes the question. It’s about the job. Your friend has three months’ compassionate leave, but after that, she needs to be back in Paris, because after that the project will die. (Remember, it is a great project. You admire it on every possible ethical and artistic level. And she is the only woman for the job.) Should she give up her work? She’s really asking. For the first time in your long history, she doesn’t seem to have worked out the answer in advance. So, what do you think?
Yes, that’s the instinctive response, but think about it a bit more. Engage your brain, the way she always does, the way you don’t. Why do you think that? Why her? Why now? Who benefits?
Now, open your mouth and tell her. Tell her why.