Good for Nothing

She set herself out in a little boat, she sent herself out to the sea. And when she got back in her little boat, this is what she said to me.

This is what she said to me, in the gallery in front of the painting where it had all begun.

She said she was free, free of her duty to her family, free of trying so hard to be superhuman. She said she would try and love them with all the strength in her body. It was just that her strength ebbed and flowed.

She told me about her metaphysical journey while looking at the painting, munching a packet of crisps.

The unattainable goal of right living is to be good for nothing, no reward, no reason, no supernatural Brownie points to set you up in a nice sunny spot in heaven. Just be good for its own sake.

She said it was impossible, but you had to try. She said reading Iris Murdoch helped her to realise that she was a moral hero. She had always thought of herself as a moral saint. But doing good was never easy for her; she was always struggling with it, while others found it natural, easy, like water off a duck’s back. She was torn between doing good, aware of its utility, mindful of her duty, or judging those she was kind towards, did great works for.

I said that I thought people always needed a reward, some feedback to know that they had done the right thing, however altruistic they might feel.

She said I was a moral hero too.

She had three stories for me that culminated, in her mind, in the picture ahead of us, which in turn had stimulated and inspired her to address why she always had to be in control. She had come to hate her huge ego, in a place unspotted by science, trying to force everything in the world to go her way. Always worrying, always wanting to change things, never accepting the negatives in her life, always struggling with her duty to her family.

In the first tale, she had rung her father on his birthday. They had never been close, but she hoped that they were getting closer. Some families are like that, four people without a shared gene between them, who after an hour in the same room are itching to escape and watch their separate televisions. Her father was out, so she left a message. She spent the rest of the evening and the next day waiting for his call. Two days later she sent a text message to her brother on his new mobile phone to ask if all was OK. A recurring dream of hers is of visiting home to find the house decked out in white lilies and the living room full of strangers drinking asti spumante. On this occasion, apparently all was well; her brother had asked their father to ring her. On the third day, she called her brother again. He was irritated. He had passed the message on; their father had received her birthday wishes, what more could he do?

She had done the right thing; she had maintained contact on a birthday. She had done it because she loved her father and because it was obviously the right thing to do. So why, four days after the event, sulking in her shared house, while her girlfriends told her to chill and watch the video, why had she felt so bad, so alone, not particularly worried, but just alone, as if she had been born into a vacuum. Because, she said, holding up a golden crisp to the white gallery walls, she had wanted her reward.

On the fifth evening after his birthday, her father phoned her and they had a good chat. There had been no particular apology for the delay, and when she asked him if he had had a good birthday, her father said mixed, what with all the stress here. The situation is known to both of them; how he copes she never knows.

She said she had been selfish; she had not been good for nothing.

I sat quietly and thought about her struggle. Her family did not care for her, and possibly did not care for each other. She was castigating herself for failing to live up to a debatable philosophical rule about goodness, a rule that she had set in stone, a rule that had the saint with her foot on the hero’s breastplate.

Earlier in our sessions, it became clear that she gained pleasure, or reward, from very few sources. So to know that she had done the right thing by addressing the complex question of her family with no explicit regard for her feelings, just wanting to be in orbit around them, was to her very important. Because even if you know that you are good (and clever, with psychological insight and philosophical resignation) you still want to hear it, hear that you are good.

I suggested, as she crumpled the crisp packet into a ball and placed it in her coat pocket, that she did not like anyone to be negligent of her concern. She wanted them to know that she cared about them, and critically she needed to know that they appreciated her concern, otherwise she might question the whole point of her bothering.

She nodded and said that this was clear to her now.

I looked at her closely. Indeed, she knew this was true.

Then she told me her second tale, about her brother.

Her brother had been an artist on the brink of success until his girlfriend and financial support walked out the door. Determined to create a phoenix out of the ashes, he was using the experience to generate a series of art objects on the theme of hope out of disaster. He had painted the picture in front of us. It was a powerful image to some audiences, but mawkish or plain naïf to others, like that picture popular in poster shops of a whale’s tail breaking above the ocean. Her brother’s painting was nautical too, but in the style of Friedrich’s lonely landscapes. The small white card to the side of it said that it was Romantic irony on a grand scale. Some of the people treading softly past us on the wine red carpet may have sniggered as they approached our bench. They may have sniggered too at the tall man with the twitchy arm and the young woman in the duffel coat, possible his daughter, seemingly entranced by the vision ahead of them. On the other hand, other visitors to the gallery, like my analysand, may have said that they really liked it.

I asked whether this was because of the family connection. Yes, she said, maybe that is something we share: hope.

Despite this one picture exhibited in a Hampstead gallery, her brother said that he required funds for materials so he could paint other pictures as they came to him, and money so that he could eat and keep warm. He had accepted a set of ten canvases from his father as a present (she had been at school the last time she had received a thoughtful gift) but had refused his money. She visited him in his so-called flat. Whose patronage he lived under was unclear to her. The new canvases were untouched. He had the flu; she bought him Beechams, and offered to cook dinner. He was manful and said he was eating fine and saving for some new shoes. He was pale and sweaty. She felt sorry for him and handed him fifty pounds, a bright flat note you could cut your finger on. When the bank teller had issued it to her, she took it as a sign that her actions were correct.

I asked her to explain what she meant by a sign.

She said it was just that, a simple sign, without origin or intent, a coincidence that only she could, or would, recognise.

I asked her if there was a reward connected to the sign.

She said none. All the sign had done was to encourage her to think that she had done the right thing.

I asked her what, or who, it was that had really given her the encouragement.

She said that she had.

The day after visiting her brother, she phoned him to say how much she had enjoyed seeing him again, and that they must stay in touch more often, and he could visit her in Camden any time. Her brother made an effort to quiet his friends in the noisy bar and step into an alcove that might resemble acoustically the walls of his sorry squat. She said she was glad to hear he was having a good time and that everyone needs a good blow-out once in a while. She kept the lightness in her voice until they finished their call.

Always in control, father must do this, brother must do that. Only then, when their actions are commensurate with my theory of how life shall proceed will I be happy. She said this standing up, standing to attention, buttoning up her coat so that her head disappeared into its collars. She saluted me and marched like a clockwork rule-led toy across the gallery floor. Then she stopped, relaxed, unbuttoned her brown duffel coat and said that she was a person not a textbook.

She has made terrific progress. My Tuesday afternoons will be much less therapeutic.

I asked her to tell me her third and final story.

She dropped her coat on the floor and sat down next to me. She wore a yellow summer dress with red poppies around the hem. Vitalised by the light of the picture, the warmth from the white candle with the yellow flame in the silver night stand in the brown rowing boat without oars on a green, tempestuous sea, she told me about the last time she had seen her mother.

It had been a week ago, three days before this meeting, our last.

She was clearing up in her parents’ kitchen. She had gone back home, as she did once or twice a year, to check that she had not missed their funerals.

She had washed up, soaked under the draining board, stacked the dishwasher, put the empty baked beans cans stuffed with wrappers and the empty milk and orange juice containers in the white plastic pedal-bin bag. She cleaned the cat’s food and water bowls and the litter tray: they were all clean enough anyway; they looked after the moggy better than each other. She reorganised the larder, dusted the shelves with her hand, and threw out six different breakfast cereals past their sell-by date. She wiped the jam off the lid of the strawberry jam jar with a damp paper towel, because sticky fingers always irritated her mother at breakfast. She wiped the crumbs off the work surfaces and scrubbed the butcher’s block hard with detergent and wire wool until the flecks of dried meat dissolved. She swept the floor and repositioned the chairs and kitchen table, the ridiculously small table that got smaller every time she went home – now it was the size of a dinner plate ‘ where they had learnt to despise every slipped, dribbling spoonful and each open, compacting mouth. She cleaned the top of the white plastic pedal swing-bin, and took the bulging bag outside to the kerb for collection the next morning.

Finished with her great labour, she made herself a cup of tea, took a biscuit from the Quality Street tin, and sat down at the table. She listened to the competing yak-yak of the two distant televisions, and wondered why she bothered.

When her depressing soap was over, her mother had entered the kitchen. She looked at her daughter with disgust, and asked why she had not been offered a cup of tea or a biscuit.

We laughed when her mother called her good for nothing. We laughed again when her daughter said no, in fact, she was not good for nothing: she was a moral hero who strove to be a moral saint, but that she would fail often in the fight because this battle was too big for her. She left the house with her tea slopping onto the clean and minuscule table.

When we had sat quietly for a few minutes, she said that she intended to orbit the familial home as the moon orbits the earth. She knew she would wax and wane in the strength of her love and light, but she would be present nonetheless. It was all anyone could do.

In the silence of the gallery, in front of her favourite picture, I confirmed she was free.

She leant over to me, kissed my cheek and said thank you. How she glowed.

© Mark Carew 2002

First published in The Richmond Review

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