In the last few weeks I have sometimes found myself doing a private, me-specific quiz. It goes as follows:
Q: How old am I?
a) in my thirties
b) in my late thirties
c) middle aged
d) in my prime
e) still relatively young by today’s standards
e) practically still a child
f) practically dead
The most technically accurate answer to the quiz is in fact g): just about to turn 40. Which is why age is suddenly on my mind. Forty is a weird age. Well, no, it’s not, it’s a very ordinary age, but then lots of ordinary things are also weird, like pregnancy, and Matt Smith’s face, and forty is one of those things for me.
Forty is weird because I don’t know what it means. People will say it doesn’t mean anything because age is just a number. But that feels like saying something is ‘just a word’. Words and numbers are important: they mean things and what they mean matters.
Forty might mean I’m halfway through my life. Or it might not. I might be four-fifths of the way through my life, for all I know. Or 0% of the way through, if I suddenly find that river that grants immortality and accidentally drink from it. (It would have to be accidental. I really don’t want to be immortal – in fact I’m almost phobic about it, if you can be phobic about something you never actually expect to encounter. But anyway.)
Forty is good because it means I’m a grown up. Right? People in the thirties might or might not be grown up but forty definitely is. Forty is sensible. It doesn’t stay up late on weekdays. (Check.) It eats broccoli. (Check.) It knows about grouting.
Fail. I do not know about grouting. Nor does my husband. We got my dad round to grout our shower the other week because we didn’t know how. Maybe in two weeks’s time I’ll wake up on the morning of my birthday knowing about grouting. Will that be my present from the universe?
The ridiculous thing is, a lot of my friends have already hit forty and several more are due to this year, so I already know perfectly well that one more birthday isn’t going to change anything about me, as it hasn’t changed anything about them. On the other hand, I also read a lot of fiction, and in fiction forty has a definite meaning. Especially in 19th century novels. It’s very definitely middle-aged. It’s settled, and it’s unromantic.
Mind you, according to one heroine, I passed the threshold for romance some time ago. “A woman of 27 can never hope to feel or inspire affection again.” I’m not that good at remembering exact lines from books, but I have that one memorised. When I first read it I was eleven, and the opinions of 17-year-old Marianne Dashwood (from Sense and Sensibility) seemed perfectly reasonable. At eleven, all adults seem like one mass of homogeneous grown-up; what did I know about the nuances of age? I didn’t understand Austen was joking until much later.
Speaking of fiction, I’ve been identifying one definite sign of adulthood – or perhaps just parenthood, but I keep conflating the two. I’m rereading Anne of Green Gables, and my perspective on it has unsettlingly changed. I can still admire and identify with free-spirited, dreamy, imaginative Anne, just as I did when I was her age. But like one of those old woman/young girl optical illusions, I’m also identifying, confusingly, with her guardian Marilla. Why can’t Anne be tidier? Why must she keep forgetting her chores and wandering off to commune with tree spirits? Anne, come back here right now and finish your sewing! Because the things is, I’m now the parent of a highly-strung, careless, imaginative child, and my sympathies have quite decidedly shifted. It’s a little dizzying.
Will going out feel different when I’m forty? But then it already does; that’s just parenthood again. At 25, the question of whether to stay out late revolved around a few basic considerations: having enough money, whether other people were going, whether I felt in the mood. There might be a hangover the next day, but it wasn’t a big price to pay. (I’ve never been much of a drinker, so it was never much of a hangover.) Now instead of a hangover I have guilt – the parental version of the morning after the night before.
I went to a gig the other week, in Shepherd’s Bush. It was good, but I was sleepy and the music was loud, so I left before the end in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get home before midnight. On the way back I was suffused with a familiar cold, heavy sinking of the spirits. Like a hangover starting before I was even home. A guiltover. I’d be home late, I’d be less useful in the morning, what was I thinking, how could I have abandoned everyone and let them down so badly?
I never used to feel guilt like this. It’s taken years to creep up on me and now I can’t get rid of it. Every time I go out. Am I allowed to be out at night? Why aren’t I at home with my children who need me in some unspecified way even though they’re asleep and don’t care? What long-term effect am I having on my household by going out sometimes after work instead of straight home where I belong? Now I write it out, it looks silly, but the voice in my head is very insistent. I think it’s the voice of generations of housewives who never had the option of going out and having fun. I want to sooth that voice, reassure it that I can have it all; well, perhaps not all, but at least a selection of it. Right?
(Age was on my mind anyway, that night. The gig was a performance of some David Bowie songs from his Ziggy Stardust days, by a band which included Woody Woodmansey, the original Spiders From Mars drummer. Which was very exciting for me, because the final Ziggy Stardust gig happened two years before I was born, and I never thought I’d get to see any of the band members play live. So I watched Woody Woodmansey on stage and thought about how the man on those drums was the same man who had been on the drums at the 1973 concert, and wondered how he felt about that. The people around me were in their 50s and 60s, because they’d been around the first time. Bowie himself (who wasn’t present) is in his late 60s. 39 felt too young, that night.)
Am I the same person I was at fifteen, or ten, or five?
The primary effect of accumulating more years is simply accumulation of everything. Hundreds and thousands of memories, experiences and half-completed opinions jumbled up inside me like the dresses and teeshirts in my overcrowded wardrobe. I need to declutter my head.
But if I become my own archaeologist, if I dig up and tidy away the fossilised layers of identity that I’ve built up inside me, I’ll be dismantling my own sense of self. I don’t want to lose the memory of my first kiss or going swimming for my sixteenth birthday any more than I want to throw away the single earring from the outfit I wore to my school leaving dance or the teeshirt my first boyfriend bought for me. The trouble is, I’m running out of space, in all kinds of ways. Space and time. Space and time and energy.
But not teeshirts. I’ve definitely got plenty of those.
The other week I was vaguely pretending to be someone who stays up late. It was actually 10.30pm on a Tuesday, but whatever. The rest of the household had gone to bed and I was drinking vodka and orange and listening to the new Leonard Cohen album. You take these moments where you can find them. Then my ten-year-old daughter popped downstairs to give me a late goodnight hug. “You smell like Granny,” she said affectionately, “all cottagey and lovely.”
I finished listening to the album, but it wasn’t quite the same.