The Call Of The Wild: Author Susie Boyt On The Night That Could've Changed Her Life Forever

·8-min read
Photo credit: Lam Luong Dinh / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Lam Luong Dinh / EyeEm - Getty Images

I have always been cautious; sometimes recklessly so. When I was growing up in the Eighties, the adult world looked dangerous and compromising.

My mother was a single parent to five children with no family around and few resources. She was a hero to me – part pioneer, part meadow-flower – but I could tell she often found things hard.

I tried to soothe and cheer her, brushing her hair and singing her songs, my knees folding into her knees under the blankets at night. My father was a thin character at this point in my life, telephoning now and then to talk to my older siblings.

I was so aware of the costs of love when I was a child. I was amazed anyone would risk it. I spent quite a bit of time worrying I would fall for someone careless and that this would ruin my life.

That was what adulthood seemed to me then: choosing a particularly difficult set of circumstances designed to torment you, then flexing the full force of your courage and steadfast personality in order to survive. I saw a lot of addiction and depression around me.

Photo credit: Jena Ardell - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jena Ardell - Getty Images

This sent further signals that life as it stood was likely to be intolerable. Still, I learned fast. By 15, I knew how to shoehorn someone into rehab or a psychiatric ward. I knew how to handle myself in such places, what to say, what to think, what to feel. I was good in a crisis. I taught myself to be braced for all species of disaster, for if you spy ruin on the horizon and summon your concerted will, nine times out of 10 you can stare it down...

As I grew older, I recognised the costs of living life braced. I saw it might be in my power to turn away from difficult things. I positioned myself firmly in the comfort zone.

I adopted for myself the life of a marshmallow. I read almost exclusively novels set in ballet schools. I arranged ornaments on my bedroom shelf with the utmost regard for symmetry. I liked order and plenty, loitering after school in a local department store called Jones Brothers, searching for clues to a conventional life. Golf clubs! Matching luggage! Vinyl flooring! Days-of-the- week baby bibs!

When no one was looking, I put away a ton of cake. I took up dancing and amassed a strong leotard collection. My sisters at this time were modish London punks, sophisticated, with strings of admirers. The hobbies of my brothers frequently involved at least one of the emergency services. I was so quaint in my tap shoes it was almost macabre.

I tried to fill my life with things that were soft and beautiful. I built myself a kind of convalescence, a sanctuary of spirit-lifting recuperation that strengthened me. When I went off to university, I layered all my clothes in pale-blue tissue paper, as though for a beloved child. I had eight matching cups and saucers painted with pink roses. I was grandmotherly for 19 – I liked a hot cross bun for my lunch – but I knew what I was doing.

Photo credit: Nycretoucher - Getty Images
Photo credit: Nycretoucher - Getty Images

Gradually, as I grew stronger, all this cushioning made me claustrophobic. Had the darker sides of life been banished and outlawed? I detected a certain stodginess in my personality I didn’t love. Did I have to treat myself like an invalid forever? At college, I read novels all day long and half the night, trying to find out everything about the world without stepping into it. I was preparing myself.

Being a close and careful reader of books would make me better at reading life, I was certain. I loosened myself, bit by bit. I let myself off various hooks. I tasted a bit of freedom, started going out late and saying yes to everything. I liked the feel of it. It was almost Christmassy! I had a period of delayed adolescence. You wouldn’t call it wild, but it was wild for me.

Then one summer evening, when I was 25, I found myself at 3am with some louche and restless cult rock stars in the mews flat where I was staying. One minute, we were tumbling out of a club called Smashing in Regent Street, and the next we were in my tiny kitchen with the 1950s gingham Formica table and the curtains printed with vegetables.

I made bacon sandwiches – isn’t that what rock stars favour in the small hours? – and put on a Stevie Wonder record because I thought it would look like I was not trying too hard. It was boiling hot and I had a case of wine and vodka left over from my recent book launch – I assume that was why everyone had been keen to come back to mine. There were six or seven of us, my guests dazzling in their amazing clothing. I felt so proud. Life was opening up before me, finally. I had come so far from the library!

The scene before me throbbed with so much sharp glamour I almost envied myself. In the sitting room, the musicians held forth about religion and 20th-century alcoholic American poets – two of my favourite subjects – while I sat at their feet, fainting with interest. After a couple of hours, most of the drink had gone and someone suggested we go out onto the roof to greet the dawn.

Photo credit: Slobodan VasicFotostorm Studio - Getty Images
Photo credit: Slobodan VasicFotostorm Studio - Getty Images

We gathered our glasses and, one by one, we climbed the ancient wooden ladder that went up to the large expanse of pale grey lead above. We sprawled out on blankets and gazed at the backs of the nearby grand buildings.

Someone called out for a guitar. I went to fetch the one I still had from lessons at school. It was like a dream. At the ladder going down, I met the last of our party. I moved to one side to let her pass, but suddenly, her leg slipped and she grappled with the ladder to steady herself, falling sideways slightly and stumbling as her foot hit some rotten wood that framed a skylight in the garage underneath.

The glass shattered and she shot down through the smashed window and hung clinging with clawed fingers to the edge of the skylight, with a 23-foot drop below onto concrete and my brother-in-law’s sharp builder’s tools. She was calm, hanging there; she even smiled faintly, cartoonish in the half-light, her delicate blue-white hands streaked with blood. I screamed for help. One of the rock stars, reed thin and no weightlifter, appeared in his blue suit. His lank black hair flopped against his neck as he gripped her wrists and bent and flexed his forearms, but my friend was six foot one and, although she was of narrow build, I knew he had no chance of raising her.

I turned away, tears streaming. I could not bear to watch him fail. Might she even pull him down with her? But from somewhere, there came to him the strength to hold her fast for a while and then he took a series of deep, strenuous breaths and hauled the entire hanging, dripping, trembling 73-inch body of hers up to safety.

I ran into the kitchen, half-hysterical, sobbing and clutching myself. I closed the door against the others.

A platinum-blonde woman I hadn’t met before – a fashion designer in silver with scarlet lips – followed me in, taking command of things as she tried to calm me. ‘Open your mouth,’ she instructed. ‘Sit down.’ Dazed, I obeyed while she poured vodka in from the bottle. It did not feel good but she was being kind, I suppose. She patted my shoulder hard. I started shaking violently. Was she trying to anaesthetise my pain? She knows more about life than you, do what she says, was what I thought. But when she started unwrapping a folded square of paper, I just shook my head and said, ‘Please, no.’

The evening hovered before my eyes, shimmering, unstable, like some kind of stagey parable or heavy-handed cautionary tableau. I hated it suddenly. I kept shaking my head. It was the correct answer to a sum I should never have set myself. I felt splinters of past hurts stinging my skin. Even now, memories of that night occasionally throb at me, all sharp, sardonic glare: You’re not built for such excitements, I reprimand myself. You’re a person who needs to take care.

Six weeks later, I met my husband at my sister’s wedding. I caught the bouquet, turned round and there he was. We settled down fast. I built a life that’s very different to the one I was born to. I keep things soft and calm around me, in as far as I can. I don’t take many risks these days – I don’t have that kind of constitution – but I no longer banish the painful aspects of life. I keep them at arm’s length now; kindly, and still nearby, welcoming them into the novels I write, where I often examine how we bear the things we cannot bear.

Susie Boyt's latest book Loved and Missed by Susie Boyt is out now.

This article originally appeared in the December/January issue of ELLE UK

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