We're perched in a coffee shop in central London waiting for the photographer, who has just phoned to say he is five minutes away. "Don't you think we ought to buy something?" Wendy Perriam asks, glancing nervously towards the staff at the counter. "They might not like us taking up their seats and not buying anything." It is a line that one of her characters could so easily have spoken. For the past quarter of a century, Perriam has been humorously chronicling the lives and inhibitions of those who habitually feel anxious, disappointed, sidelined or embittered. After 15 novels, including Cuckoo, Born of a Woman and Bird Inside, the woman who used to describe herself as "Surbiton's only living writer" (it finally got too much even for her and she has now decamped to a flat in central London) has turned her attention to short stories and is this month publishing her sixth collection, The Queen's Margarine.
It is peopled by classic Perriam types – single women pushing 40 in various states of desperation, wives aching to be free of emotionally absent husbands, and good- looking men who are not quite what they seem. Most of her heroines are paralysed by self-doubt, while many are prey to pent-up but profoundly unglamorous sexual frustration (Perriam won the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award for her 2002 novel Tread Softly).
There is, however, a new and darker current running through this collection. Death, mourning and corrosive grief haunt its pages – as indeed they haunt 69-year-old Perriam. The Queen's Margarine is dedicated to her only child, Pauline, who died last September from tongue cancer at 43. "Her surgeon said he had never known anyone get it so young," she says. "She'd never smoked, hardly drank. She had a 12-hour operation to remake her tongue after the surgery, with skin from her wrist." Perriam holds out her own wrist across the table in the coffee shop where we have returned (and made purchases) after the photographs. "When he said the operation had worked, I just hugged him. He said that if Pauline remained clear for a year, there was a good chance the cancer wouldn't come back. On the 12-month anniversary, I went out to Seattle [her daughter had settled in the US] and we rejoiced. A week later, it returned to her lungs, then her liver, her bones and her blood. So I sat at her bedside unable to do anything. The natural inclination of a mother is to make it better, but I couldn't even tuck her in because there were so many tubes."
As death approached, she helped her daughter write letters to her two young sons, aged seven and 10, to be read when they were older, and prepare boxes for them to remember her by. "She wrote them but we did it together. 'Tell them how they were born,' I remember urging her. Her first husband had died and the boys' stepfather wasn't there at their birth. We talked about what to put in the boxes – her hairbrushes, her bracelets..."
Her voice trails off and her eyes fill with tears. Perriam's face is striking, enviably strong-boned, olive-skinned, framed with dark hair and completed by a wide mouth that can break into a flashbulb smile, but not now, as we sit in silence. "Writing is the best kind of therapy," she begins afresh, composing herself. "At its simplest, it is just so distracting. And it gives me a sense of order, a way of constructing a shape. That's what I tell my students in the writing classes I teach. And it gives me the control to create a happy ending, even though I know it is only make-believe."
The stories in the collection were written while Pauline was undergoing chemotherapy. Several describe the struggle to come to terms with death: the 40-year-old only child spending Christmas alone for the first time, her only company a picture of her parents, both of whom have died in the past year; or a beloved daughter clearing out her dead father's home and leafing through the family albums where he labels her a "prickly pear". Now, Perriam reports, she has started a new novel, her first in almost a decade. "It's a black comedy, but that's all I can say about it."
Comedy has always been a part of her writing – sometimes accompanying joyous flashes of optimism when characters break out and break free. In The Queen's Margarine, for example, "High Speed 2" tells of a woman usually crippled by feeling inadequate who casts caution to the wind and runs away on Eurostar with an older lover. "If there is a theme that unites my novels and short stories," Perriam says, "it is that tension between the dutiful, the strict, the hard-working side and the hedonistic, crazy, impetuous side. I think that is in all of us. That particular story, though, was based on something that happened to me years ago." She laughs. "Only I didn't go with him. It was pure wish-fulfilment."
The overall note in her fiction, however, is of individuals failing to escape their shackles, whether it be through fear, fate, or act of God. Perriam is one of a number of writers of her generation who have reflected damningly on the long-term effects of being sent (in her case by her ex-seminarian father) to repressive Catholic convent boarding schools in the 1950s and early 1960s. "I have always felt as if I was born to be a wild child, but then the Church did too good a job on me. I was crushed into being the person they told me I had to be – obedient, docile and quiet."
The strain proved too great and she had a crisis of faith when reading English at Oxford in her early twenties. Turning her back on the Church precipitated a suicide attempt, and she has never been quite able to liberate herself from the legacy of her upbringing. In both her life and her fiction, she still sees fate as eventually catching up and taking its revenge. So when, soon after leaving the Church, she was diagnosed with a severe and potentially life-shortening kidney ailment, and was told that the treatment she had received would probably prevent her having children, she saw it as the God she didn't believe in punishing her. Illogical, of course, but then a traditional Catholic education never placed a premium on logic.
Having lost the daughter she never believed she would be able to bear, is that sense of being punished still with her? She pauses for a long time before answering, but her dark, deep-set eyes seem to give it away. "I was told repeatedly as a child that my faith was the most precious thing I had, and I was the sort of child to take those words very seriously indeed. So I had given that precious thing away. I was the worst of sinners, but I still so wanted to believe, even though I couldn't. It has robbed me of my peace of mind. After I had left the Church, and when I was at Oxford, I would still hang around at the Catholic chaplaincy. To this day, I still see myself as the child with her nose pressed up against the sweet-shop window."
She pulls a silly face and tries to make a joke of it, but she knows as well as I do that it isn't funny. "There are comforts," she consoles me – and herself. "I find great comfort in my grandsons who now live with their stepfather, who is a wonderful man. I see them as often as I can. They are coming over to spend the summer with my husband and me. And I take comfort from the fact that I had Pauline for 43 years when I had been told I could never be a mother."
Perriam's candour in talking so nakedly about her pain makes me want to put the pen down and place an arm around her shoulder, but there is also a resilience about her. In writing about the fate of a cast of lonely characters so often overlooked in mainstream fiction, she has found a voice and a niche, a kind of Anita Brookner crossed with Bernice Rubens with a dash of Fay Weldon's wickedness thrown in. "A lot of my life, I have felt out of my depth," Perriam says with another dazzling smile. For her as an individual, it is the cross that she carries; but as a writer, it is a rich seam she is continuing to mine.
The Queen's Margarine, by Wendy Perriam (Robert Hale £18.99)
'Since the death, he had barely slept; missed the warmth of his wife's body curled next to his. It was years since they'd made love – in fact, 22 years, four months and two weeks. He had kept a daily tally, although not knowing at the time that Christmas Day, 1986, would be the very last occasion... He hadn't liked to force the issue, when she was physically so delicate, and so willing and co-operative in every other way'