LIFE FORCES

One battled against cancer, the other old age. Here a novelist remembers two family lives and deaths, and asks what makes an ordinary existence so precious to us
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The year is 1995. The previous September, Margaret Forster had learnt that her sister-in-law Marion, then aged 55, was suffering from throat cancer. At first, radiotherapy affected her badly. But then she began to make progress, and her family was "daring to speculate that she had after all a long life in front of her". Meanwhile, Forster's 94-year- old father, Arthur, has finally been forced to give up an independent existence in his bungalow in Carlisle, and accept life in a nearby nursing- home.

IN MAY, Marion's partner Frances went to Australia for a desperately needed holiday. Marion wanted her to go. She urged her to go, saying it made her feel less like an invalid, more as if she was getting back to normal, which she showed every sign of doing. She had put on weight, regained some energy, and was even contemplating a return to work in a little while. So Frances went and Marion came to live with us - she wasn't quite strong enough to feel she wanted to be alone, and besides she knew Frances would worry less and be happier about going if she came to us.

I loved looking after her. I liked taking her breakfast in bed (though it was a meagre affair since she still had such difficulty swallowing), I liked laying trays and putting jugs of flowers on them and all that kind of fussing, and it amused Marion. Taking the tray in, I never asked her how she felt. It was a dangerous question, one I well knew she found impossible to answer. How she felt was full of contradictions. She felt fine, but awful; she felt lively, but listless; she felt cheerful, but afraid. But it made little difference how she felt because she knew feelings were not necessarily of any significance. She had no doubt that whatever was going to happen would happen without her being able to control her fate. Like my father, she knew only how to accept, and to go on to the best of her ability. They were two very different people, of very different ages, in very different situations, and yet they had exactly the same attitude as they faced the prospect of death: press on, keep trying, don't waste time wondering what is going to happen, and how, and when, because nobody can tell you. Don't moan, don't wince, don't beg for pity or sympathy, don't loll around weeping, and don't make others suffer because you are suffering.

But Marion did volunteer, at the end of her first week with us, that she felt quite hopeful that she was actually, and against all her own expectations, truly getting better. In fact, so much so that she decided to go on a little holiday of her own, to Carlisle, to stay with Jeff [her husband, from whom she was separated], and see her younger brother Johnny, and her good friends Dorothy and Dusty. She went by train (put on to it by me as though she were a six-year-old - I actually wanted to put her in charge of the guard) and enjoyed it. She and Jeff took drives to the coast and into the country, and she came back delighted with her own daring. Frances, returning from Australia, herself rested and refreshed, could scarcely credit the difference in her when she met her at the airport.

Leaving Marion when the time came for us to go to Loweswater for the summer was easy after all.

ONCE WE arrived there, a new summer pattern had to emerge. My father had no complaints about the nursing-home, but he liked to get out of it more than he had ever needed to get out of his own house. Then, our outings with him had been about pleasure, entertainment, diversion; now, they were about something much more important: preserving his identity. The expression on his face (a face usually devoid of expression) when we entered his room on each visit was strange. He was startled, disbelieving. Yet he always knew exactly when we were coming, to the very minute, because we pandered to his passion for precision by always writing down on his calendar the date and time of our next visit and by telling the staff for good measure. But, nevertheless, when he saw us he betrayed surprise and then massive relief. "You've come!" he'd say, and I'd say of course we'd come, we'd said we'd come. Then he'd struggle to his feet, suddenly excited and in a hurry - "Good. Let's get going then, sharpish."

Sharpish it wasn't, though he tried hard. It was a slow and rather royal progress through the corridors. He had to use his stick all the time now, but refused to hold on with his other hand to the rails along the walls. Sometimes the staff had draped small items to dry over these rails and he took pleasure in stopping to unhook them, saying, "Dangerous." Any danger was only in his own head, but we didn't bother querying this judgement. Passing the bathroom, he liked to stop and point - "That's the bath. Grand bath. They dip me in, then I steep." He said this approvingly, wanting us to be impressed. Any inhibitions he'd tried to cling on to about young women seeing him naked had obviously long since gone, though he did remark, "They do everything for me, mind, everything, and them just young lasses, most of them, and not married either" - and then he shook his head, but more in apparent amazement than horror. He loved having proper baths again and would have been prepared to put up with any indignity to have them. In his own home, he'd stopped being able to get in and out of his own bath years ago. "See that pulley? See them ropes? See that cradle thing? In I go, over I swing, in I'm dipped, and then I steep. Champion."

We would pass the nurses' desk at exactly 2.30pm when shifts were being changed, and one of the going-off nurses would call out cheerfully, "Going out, Arthur?" He'd stop and glare and say, "What does it look like? Why have I got my hat and coat on, eh?" Used to him by now, the nurses would laugh and then one would say, "Going anywhere nice? Can I come?" My father would say no, she could not, that he'd had enough of whoever had asked and she should get herself home without wasting time chattering. He was always pleased with himself for this banter, and we'd proceed on our way again with him whistling.

Whistling would change to swearing when we reached the front door. "Damned doors, damned stupid; they want seeing to." They were double doors, one opening in, one opening out, and difficult to co-ordinate, entering or leaving. But once in our car he was all contentment, sinking into the comfortable front seat with a great sigh of pleasure.

All he wanted was to be out of the home and he didn't care where we went. So we did short journeys, of not more than 20 miles there and back. If we went further, he fell asleep on the way back or, far worse for him, lost control of his bladder. This appalled him and it was no use assuring him it didn't appal us. His dignity had to be preserved and every strategy employed to make sure he survived each outing safely. "Not too far," he'd say, "not for too long, or else." No need to say more.

We went to the Solway Marsh most often that glorious summer of 1995. The nursing-home was right on the boundary of west Carlisle and, leaving it, we had only a corner to turn before we were on the road to the marsh villages and out into the real countryside. Every inch of that road was precious to my father and familiar to me. Here, he'd taken me on the crossbar of his bike to pick brambles in the fields and hedges where he'd picked them with his own father; here, he'd marched with the Boys' Brigade on their summer outings; here, he'd seen a man rush out of the pub in 1914 shouting that war had been declared. Every mile of the way to Burgh-by- Sands and Port Carlisle and Bowness-on-Solway, the isolated and utterly tranquil villages strung out on the flat marsh road, was full of memories, all of them important to him.

We usually parked at Glasson Point, almost at Port Carlisle, where we often used to picnic and paddle. There were no picnics now. There was no point in having a picnic, he didn't want food or drink of any kind. He was still too full after his excellent breakfast. And he was reluctant ever to get out of the car - the struggle to do so exhausted him, so he preferred to stay in the car. He had his binoculars with him and scanned the horizon intently as though looking for enemy planes. What he looked at was the marsh itself, empty except for the odd bird, and then the sea, calm and grey here, and beyond it the Scottish hills with a vast expanse of sky over them. Peace and silence. It was a place highly conducive to reflection and contemplation, but whatever was going on in my father's mind remained there. He said nothing. I said nothing. Eventually we went home.

But home was not home, it was the nursing-home. Returning to it made me tense. Sometimes, my father would say, as we turned into the road where the home was, "Where are we going now?" He'd ask in a tone of genuine bewilderment, and when I said we were going home, to his nursing-home, he'd make a noise of irritation at his own forgetfulness. The moment passed. There were no sighs or moans. He knew his bungalow had been sold, his real home broken up, his boats burned. But he never made us feel dreadful for selling it, for doing this to him. There were no resentful remarks, no accusations, no recriminations. He accepted what had happened without reproach.

The next awful moment was the actual point of re-entry into the home, when we took him to his room and helped him off with his coat and went to get him a cup of tea. He was always so grateful, so full of thanks - "Thank you now, thank you very much, thanks for everything." And what did this "everything" amount to? Very little: a matter of a drive to a pleasant place for an hour or so.

All summer we made these outings, twice a week, in the set pattern he preferred. His calendar was enthusiastically filled in even if the handwriting was faint and wavering - "Good day. Run to Burgh" ... "Smashing day. Sun. At Bowness." He was in good spirits, doing well, sleeping well. Life was worth living, however reduced in quality. Moving into the home had not been all loss after all. At the age of 94, an unsociable man had discovered he could, if put into the right situation, be sociable. The staff spoke to him and he found it easy and even pleasant to speak back to them. He liked the company and appeared to thrive on it. His room had become a place the carers liked to linger in and the matron had begun to issue tactful reminders that there were others who would appreciate some attention. And my father hadn't just gained through having people to talk to - he'd gained better health too. So many minor problems had been sorted out and he felt the benefit. His diet was better, his feet more comfortable; his eyes were clearer and his mouth less sore. Careful hygiene alone had partially rehabilitated him. For his age, he was in remarkably good shape once more.

This had been recognised by the doctors who visited him. They asked him if he'd be part of a research project, explaining that it was rare to find a man of his age in such relatively good condition physically and excellent condition mentally. They wanted him to come to a special clinic once a month and be examined and asked questions and weighed. My father was rather impressed by this emphasis on his own importance and had graciously agreed to attend the clinic. But he only went twice and then said he was being made a monkey of and wouldn't go again. This heinous offence consisted of making him sit "with a lot of old folk in wheelchairs" and of asking him questions he considered "daft". He'd imagined he would be treated as someone special and he wasn't. So he announced he was putting a stop to "that palaver". If they tried to force him to continue to attend this clinic he would refuse point-blank. I was to be on stand-by to speak to the doctor in charge and tell him what's what. Rather to my father's disappointment, I was not called upon to do so. No attempt was made to persuade him.

He was in fine fettle by July. Clearly, he was still nowhere near popping off. Clearly, his life still had value and meaning for him.

I FORGET the exact date of the most distressing phone call I have ever received. It should be impossible to forget, but I have forgotten. All I can remember is that it was about a week before Marion's 56th birthday on 16 July.

The phone call was short and, of necessity, brutal. Frances could hardly speak, Marion did not want to try. The cancer was now terminal. There was no hope at all of curing it and very little of extending Marion's life beyond six months. Any treatment would be palliative, concentrating on relieving pain. The cruel surgery and the radiotherapy with its vicious after-effects had all been for nothing. Everyone was devastated. The telephone suddenly seemed an instrument of torture, used to induce suffering. This woeful news wasn't something that could be discussed or analysed - it just had to be absorbed. And then silence. Lots of phone calls consisting of one short sentence, then silence, until receivers were gently replaced.

We left for London at once, leaving everything just as it was, pausing only to ring my father's nursing-home to alert them to what had happened and then to ring him and repeat this. "So you won't be in tomorrow," he said. "No," I said, "not for a few days." "But you'll be back?" "Oh yes," I assured him - after all, we would have to come back to pack up, if we decided to return to London for good. He cheered up at once. We set off on a roasting hot day. The whole of England seemed to be burning as feverishly as I felt I was. The hills either side of the M6 were brown with drought, the grass verges grey with dust. It was like driving through a foreign country, and when we reached London this impression grew. The city we crawled into had gone mad, abandoning any staidness it had ever had, any of its famous English reserve. The streets were crammed with people in shorts and beachwear, people wearing hardly anything at all, torsos slick with sweat. The pavements were crowded with tables and chairs, every cafe and restaurant spilling out on to them, and over the lot flourished great gaudy umbrellas. We drove through it all, hot and sticky and exhausted, in no state to visit a dying person, but we couldn't bear to waste time going to our own house first to shower and change. We went directly to Marion's flat, in Crouch End, approaching it with eagerness but with dread. We were desperate to see her, but knew there would be nothing simple about it.

The curtains were all closed tightly. Was this to keep out the sun, merely to shade the rooms? Ringing the doorbell felt like an act of violence. The waiting for it to be answered seemed endless and then, when Frances opened the door, not long enough. Foolishly, we whispered, asked how Marion was feeling. Frances shook her head, unable to speak. Everything was so quiet as we tiptoed up the stairs. Turning the bend, I saw that the sitting- room ahead was in virtual darkness, though it was mid-afternoon. Ahead, facing the open door, was a lovely doll's-house, with lights on in its windows. It glowed, and not just because it was lit up; it looked cheerful and welcoming. It was to be a present from Marion to her twin Annabel (who had always wanted a doll's-house as a child), for their joint birthday.

Marion was sitting in a wing armchair, her back to the doll's-house, facing the fireplace. She was absolutely still, her arms clutching rather than resting on the arms of the chair, her back ramrod straight. She looked as if she were in a trance and we hesitated to disturb her. It was awkward, trying to embrace her in an armchair, but we tried. She nodded, and said nothing as we made stumbling attempts at sympathy. She was far away, quite removed, yet rigid with self-control. There were no tears. Frances said Marion had been watching rugby on television. It was the summer of the Rugby Union World Cup and she had become engrossed in this competition, to everyone's surprise. Ever since the new lumps had appeared she had been watching the games. She hadn't the faintest understanding of the rules, but as far as she was concerned these were irrelevant - numb with fear, it was the action she liked, the running and kicking and throwing, taking her away from her own frozen condition, immobile in her chair. The players were playing for her.

It was the following day before I was on my own with her. I was making the inevitable soup in the kitchen. She sat at the table, quite expressionless. I might as well have been with my father so far as any real communication went. Everything I found myself saying was banal and Marion didn't seem to want to say anything at all. Nothing could have been more different from how we usually were together. In the 40 years we'd known each other talk had been the connection - talk, talk, talk, ranging over every conceivable topic of personal interest. It hadn't all been chitchat either, not all of it that slip-slop of gossip said to be so beloved of women. A lot of this torrent of talk had been serious. Sometimes the content had been crucial to some decision one of us had to make. We often looked back afterwards and knew such talks had been precious, that without them things would have been different.

Once, staying in Marion's house in Carlisle, I was sitting feeding my youngest child, a baby of only three months, in the early hours of the morning, when Marion came in, bringing me a hot drink. She sat by the fire and watched me, the room dark except for a dim lamp. She'd always wanted children, but they hadn't arrived and here she was, aged 33, watching me with my third. There was no bitterness about her childless state and certainly no resentment or jealousy. She loved my children without wanting them to be her own. But that day Marion talked as she'd never talked about her own feelings of some lack in her life. Maybe it was lack of children, she didn't know, but she felt appalled at how little she seemed to have in her life. She felt she was wasting it; that life was not giving her any kind of fulfilment, but was passing her by. She laughed as she went over her 17 years of work as a clerk, deriding the pointless tasks, so menial, that she carried out. She couldn't bear to think this was all she was ever going to do. I said she should leave Tyre Services and do something else, but she said it would only be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, exchanging places of work but not the work, because she hadn't the qualifications for a better job - "something else" was likely to be something the same for someone who'd left school at 16 without taking O-levels.

It was the school's fault. I sat there blaming the school. Marion had gone to the Margaret Sewell School, the second tier in Carlisle's tripartite secondary education system. Only the top percentage of girls who passed the 11-plus went to the High School; the next lot went to Margaret Sewell, which took pupils to O-levels but not beyond, and the remainder to Secondary Moderns. From the beginning, Marion was not in the stream destined to take O-levels. She took shorthand and typing, at which she was never much good. No teacher spotted her potential, nor did anyone seem to care about her home circumstances, or make allowances for them. They didn't act as if they even knew (though they did) about her father being bedridden with multiple sclerosis, and her mother, often ill herself, struggling to manage and relying heavily on her twin daughters. When Marion and Annabel arrived at school late, without their dinner money or PE kit, nobody ventured to wonder why; when Marion was difficult and cheeky, when she was found smoking, when she was inattentive in class, when she seemed to have no interest in lessons, reasons were never sought. Her mother wanted her, and all her children, to stay on at school and go on to higher education but, unsurprisingly, Marion could not wait to leave. She hated school. She was made to feel stupid and almost came to believe she was. And besides, her expectations were low. She believed that what a girl was destined to do was work for a few years then marry and have children. She had no ambition to make any other kind of life for herself.

But now, at 33, she yearned to do just that, to make something else of her life. I was glad, listening to her, of the baby in my arms - attending to her gave me time to be careful about what I said. After a long pause, I asked what, in an ideal world, forgetting things like qualifications, she would like to do. She groaned, said there was no point thinking about that, the world wasn't ideal, but I urged her to play the game, to indulge me. She shrugged and smiled and said she supposed some sort of social work, helping families in situations such as her own had been, but without mothers able to hold things together. That, to her, seemed a worthwhile job. I said she'd be brilliant at it and she laughed and said, "Fat chance!" I wished I knew exactly how anyone became a social worker, but I was at least sure the starting point would be O-levels. I hardly dared to suggest that Marion should leave work and somehow attempt to take a few O-levels. She'd been hopeless at school and she'd never done any kind of studying since. But I did suggest it and, though she said she didn't think she was capable, she didn't completely reject the idea.

A few months later, she startled everyone by leaving her job, with Jeff's backing, and enrolling at the local Technical College to do four O-levels. After a fairly agonising time learning to learn, she passed them and promptly went on to do A-levels, which she actually found easier. She was beginning to enjoy studying and was genuinely interested in the social-sciences. Success in A-levels encouraged her to apply to do a social science course at Ruskin College, Oxford, and to everyone's delight (and astonishment) she was accepted. Life, after so long, had opened up dramatically, in ways other than educational too. Marion had married at the age of 23. She loved and was attracted to Jeff, whom she married in good faith, never suspecting that her true sexual orientation was lesbian (though later she did realise there had been indications which she had failed to recognise). At Oxford, Marion was approached by a woman and surprised herself by having an affair with her. But she was still married to Jeff, and went on caring for him, if in a different way, and was deeply unhappy at the thought of breaking up her marriage and distressing not only Jeff but her mother and the rest of her family. So after Oxford, the affair over, she went back to Carlisle, started work as a social worker, and tried to pretend everything was fine (though she had, of course, told Jeff what had happened and lived with him now as a friend).

It was a miserable year. Her unhappiness grew and so did her frustration at all the pretence. She felt there was a cruel choice facing her: either she remained in Carlisle, playing the part of the good wife, stifling her newly realised sexual identity; or else she went to London, where she felt there was the best chance of giving expression to it, and in doing so hurt Jeff by exposing the reasons for her departure. Finally, she decided life was too short and too precious not at least to try for self-fulfilment. She applied for, and got, a job in Camden, and we found a flat for her in our street.

I fear I may have influenced her to make that decision - "fear" because by doing so I was causing such pain to Jeff. Without our finding a flat for her, and so close to us, I doubt (and so did she) whether Marion would ever have managed to make the break. It took enough courage as it was for her to plunge into London life at 40 without her having to find the extra nerve to be entirely on her own. She told only her sister and brothers the real reason for leaving and to everyone else, including her mother, said it was for career reasons. Since she had no intention of divorcing Jeff, and he had no intention of asking for a divorce, and since they remained so close, nobody questioned her explanation. People like my father may have remarked, "A likely story!" privately, but nobody said anything to her.

The memory of my conversation with her, so long ago in the winter of 1973, which seemed to have started off such an unexpected chain of events, came back so strongly to me as I stood making soup in Marion's kitchen. Where was the talk now? The confidences? I wanted her to say something, anything, about what was in her head. I wanted to listen and respond. I wanted guidance from her. But maybe I should start the talking, confront the horror of this death sentence head on. I knew she despised those who were cowardly about facing up to tragedy. She'd always spoken with pitying contempt of those who shunned the dying. Someone in her office the year before had been diagnosed with Aids, and she'd scorned those afraid to touch him, making a point herself of a hug and kiss of sympathy. Perhaps, by docilely making soup, by not initiating talk myself, I was failing her. But how to begin?

I sat directly opposite her while she tried to sip the wretched soup. Too hot? Too thick? Queries about soup, and she was dying. It was ridiculous. It was up to me to take the lead and say something of what I wanted to say. But what was that? What did I so badly want to say that she didn't already know? That I was sorry she was dying? For heaven's sake. It didn't help at all to be told the obvious - sorry, indeed. That I was sad, upset, distraught, furious? All about my feelings, and who wanted to know those? They were obvious, and irrelevant. I went on sitting there, while she went on slowly, slowly spooning soup into herself. I found myself blurting out that I imagined thinking about Annabel would be causing her the greatest anguish - her twin, to whom she was utterly devoted and who had such need of her. She nodded. I waited. "I'll try a little more soup," she said.

Had she disapproved of my clumsy attempt to get beyond pleasantries? I couldn't tell. There was just no real reaction. She gave the same impression of concentrating, of holding herself together, that had struck me the moment I saw her. Being on my own with her had made no difference. There was to be no talk. Talk was too tiring, too draining. She had Frances to talk to and that was enough. She had no desire to communicate with anyone else. As her life closed in, there was no room there for others. It was best to acknowledge this, and not demand any but the most peripheral place in her world. And besides, she was going back into hospital, for chemotherapy, as soon as they had a bed. The hospice had advised her to agree to this on the grounds that it could reduce the pain and possibly extend her life, and its quality, a few more months.

So we went back to Loweswater until such time as Marion would be back home and we could be of some use in helping to look after her.

WE WERE there another month. Every day I phoned Frances, every day the report seemed worse. Marion reacted badly to the chemotherapy, which gave her dreadful diarrhoea among other side-effects, and she hated the ward she was in. She had never, she told me later, seen such suffering and it almost unhinged her mind. For Frances, and for Annabel and Jeff, who also visited, it was terrible to witness her misery and discomfort and also her rage. The calm front she had presented previously, that air of control, cracked and she could hardly endure the treatment. When the first course of drugs failed to have any effect, she refused point-blank to have a second and third even though she was told three courses were often necessary. She wanted to go home. She wanted to die at home. No life was precious enough to have to endure this.

So we made our preparations to return, which meant telling my father that instead of staying until the end of October we were going back to London at the beginning of September. It was like saying to him that Marion was more precious to me than he was - which was true, she was. But he expressed no resentment, made no more remarks about there being plenty of others to look after her, and he seemed affected at last, he seemed sad. "Pity," he said, but that was all. For our last outing, we took him not to the Solway Marsh or any of the other country places we'd been frequenting, but just round the city, round Carlisle. It was a slow trundling round the one-way system so that he could catch up on what was happening to the streets and buildings he'd lived among all his life. He liked to stop outside the house where he'd been born (Sheffield Street) and where he'd lived till he married (Richardson Street) and where my mother had been living when he courted her (Bowman Street). Round and round we went while he peered at these houses, criticising the paintwork, exclaiming over the windows. "Happy days," he said, and I saw him trying to squint at the driving mirror to see if he could catch my expression. I knew he wanted me to challenge him, to scoff at the idea of his life in Sheffield or Richardson Street being happy. I knew he wanted me to remind him of how his father beat him, how he'd left school at 13 and started work in Pratchitts (an engineering factory), how badly he'd been treated, how little he'd been paid ... I refrained. If he wanted to describe these as "happy days", it was fine by me - and in contrast to his plight now, stuck in a nursing-home and very frail, waiting to pop off, then of course his previous life counted as happy.

We arrived by our chosen circuitous route outside the Metal Box factory in James Street, where he'd worked more than 30 years. The building was blackened, the windows high up and dirty. But he'd once told me he'd always been glad to enter this grim-looking place of work. He'd been the first, every day, to clock on. Work, employment, was so precious to him. It defined his life, and his greatest dread was the prospect of losing it. I'd made a mistake, when I was growing up, to think his work was just something he was forced to do to earn his living and support his family. I'd thought it was like slave-labour. I was wrong. He may have had no academic qualifications but there was skill and satisfaction in what he did, which was to mend machines. I'd been in this factory only once and it had stunned me, this place of hellish noise where he spent his long days. Dirty work, and often dangerous - no wonder that when he arrived home on his bicycle he looked exhausted, his overalls smothered in oil and grease, his hands grimy and his face streaked with dirt. I'd always known I had a cheek to call anything that I did "work".

On the way back to the nursing-home we passed the end of the road leading to the street where he had last lived, but we didn't include it in our tour. He didn't want to go anywhere near the bungalow in which he'd spent almost 30 years (the longest time he'd lived in any house and from which, he'd always maintained, he would only leave feet first and in a box). He never mentioned his bungalow except to ask if it had been sold for a good price, and he was pleased that it had. After that, as far as he was concerned the place had disappeared from his mind.

"I'll be seeing you sometime, then," he said, when we made our difficult farewells, and in the next breath, "When's Pauline coming? When's Gordon coming? Put it on the calendar." I did this and said if he needed us he only had to lift the telephone and one of us would come. "I wouldn't do that," he said, scornfully. "I'll manage." Then there was the uncharacteristic but now-usual litany of appreciation for all we had supposedly done, echoing in our ears all the way down the corridor.

Then we were out of the home; we had left him again. Each time we couldn't help wondering if this might be the last time. When a man was nearly 95 and perfectly likely to "pop off" any minute, every farewell might turn out to be the final one. One man had "popped" the day before. My father had reported this with some relish. "Fell into his dinner," he told us. "Pity." We weren't sure if the pity was for the death or the ruined dinner. And the week before, another patient had attempted to do his own popping and had failed. My father loved the drama of it. The poor man had tried to cut his own throat - "Daft," my father said. "Fancy using picture glass! He'd have been better with a razor." He shook his head. "Any road, made a damned mess. Not nice for them young lasses to clean up." Quite. The staff had tried hard, naturally, to shield the other patients from this catastrophe, but they hadn't managed to hide it from my very alert father. "I knew what was going on," he said, nodding his head with satisfaction. "Pandemonium, it was, and I got to the door before they could shut it. Oh what a mess, what a carry-on. What the hell did he try it for? Beats me." I didn't dare suggest that this man had perhaps tried to take his own life because it didn't feel worth having any more - he was 90, I knew he had just lost his wife, and he had Parkinson's disease. "Anyway," my father finished, "he's learnt his lesson."

What was the lesson, Dad? That's what I'd like to have asked, but I would only have got a withering glare in reply. The lesson, I had to imagine, was that in my father's opinion it was not up to you to pre-empt fate. When your number was up, it was up - that sort of homespun philosophy. Attempts at suicide were an impertinence. My father might hate all religion and have no faith of any kind, but he clearly still believed in some immutable law of life which laid down a natural progression towards death that was not to be tampered with. Everything was somehow ordered, though not by any God. By whom, then? He had no idea, and wasted no time pondering.

So far, he hadn't shifted this point of view.

This is an extract from Margaret Forster's 'Precious Lives', published on 21 September (Chatto, pounds 16.99).

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