My right honorable wife Theresa May

Everyone always talks about how Benazir introduced us. As if she were the catalyst that ignited a fire destined to burn in our bellies as soon as our eyes locked. But it wasn’t like that at all. Especially not for Theresa.

I remember watching her on the dancefloor that night and thinking she moved a bit like a pump. Expanding and contracting, carving out her own space. Graceless but full of conviction.

She conjured associations I found reassuring. Girls playing tennis with their socks pulled up to their knees. Hymns in church. But also, a schoolboy’s desire to be put in his place.

She was holding a glass of orange juice when Benazir pulled her towards me and said: “Theresa, do you know Philip?”

“No.” Not a hint of expectation in her voice. Neither impressed nor disappointed by the sight of me. I felt immediately at ease.

“I suppose I quite liked him,” was what she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs a few years ago. I had to laugh when I heard that. It was only marginally better than the truth: that I was neither especially desirable nor particularly objectionable.

But those traits stood to me. Theresa has always been a pragmatist. And I suppose she figured I was as good a catch as any other.

On our wedding day, I watched her tuck a blanket round her mother’s knees. She even insisted on pushing the chair from the church to the parish hall. She’d have made a good matron, if she wasn’t so clever.

Our early years together were shaped by her mother’s decline. At university, we would spend our Saturdays stuffing envelopes for the Conservative Association. In the evenings, we would drive down to her parents to deliver the beef casseroles she’d made the night before.

It seemed to me at the time that the prospect of her father being left alone was more painful to Theresa than her own grief.

But even in that regard, fate wasn’t kind to her. The more pragmatic she is, the more the universe conspires to smite her.

One evening, a year into our marriage, I came home from work and found the lights in the hallway off and the telephone hanging loose. Strange – Theresa was almost always home before me. Back then, the Bank of England wasn’t the tight ship it is now. I called her name but there was no reply.

I raced upstairs and found her on the bedroom floor, crouched in the fetal position.

I thought she’d been attacked. Violated. I looked stupidly at the bedroom window for signs of an attacker’s escape.

“Theresa?”

I squatted beside her. “Theresa, are you alright?” I took her hand. It was bone dry and cold.

“Theresa, what’s happened? Answer me.”

Her breathing was shallow. She didn’t move.

I wanted to shake her. But I managed to keep my voice gentle. “Theresa. What’s happened? You need to tell me what happened.”

“Daddy’s gone. Killed in a car crash.”

It came out matter-of-fact. Like she was reporting the death of a dog.

“What?”

But that was all she said that evening. It was only as I made one excruciating phone call after the other that I discovered the rest.

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Attribution: ukhomeoffice [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

She stayed on the bedroom floor and barely moved all night. In the early hours of the morning, she let me pick her up and bring her to bed. When I put her down, she drew me towards her and clung to me with a ferocity I had never before encountered.

There was no gradual decline like with her mother. No opportunity to pre-emptively fill the holes left by grief with stews and custard tarts. It was just a case that one day he was there, and the next he was not.

On Desert Island Discs they talked about how she has 100 cookbooks. She name-dropped Ottolenghi and dismissed Delia as too precise. The future prime minister, Theresa told the country, in no words at all, is more of a handful-of-this-and-a-handful-of-that kind of cook.

But really she cooked her grief away. For two whole years. First for her father as he watched his wife decline. Then for her mother as she waited, unaccompanied and in need of constant care, for her own early death. Afterwards, out of habit, for me.

“You just get on with things,” Theresa told Kirsty.

You get on with things and then you die. That has been my only guiding principle for the last two years as I watch our lives and country.

Last night I got a drink with my friend Richard. He asked me how I was doing. I told him I felt like I was living in a dystopia where nothing except doom was a certainty.

I could tell he wasn’t sure if I was joking or not.

“How is Theresa?” he asked.

“I think she might be dying.”

“What?”

“There’s no other way to describe it.”

“She’s been very courageous,” Richard said, carefully. “There aren’t many who would have kept going.”

Richard voted to remain, obviously. But he, like I, wished he’d never been given the choice. There is nothing in the world that unites us more than our shared hatred for David. The man who did this to my wife.

“Nothing feels real anymore.”

“It’s too much for a single person, isn’t it?” he said. “Those pricks have left her out to dry. It makes my blood boil.”

I said nothing.

“Do you talk about things?” Richard asked.

“Never.”

“Never?”

“When we’re together, I carry her to bed, then I switch off the light and we just lie there. The only thing I ever ask is if she’s had her insulin.”

We pretended to ignore the TV screen behind the bar. But there she was again, locked in the car. Angela Merkel waiting outside. The puddles on the ground glistening in anticipation. Ready for my wife’s next humiliation.

That was just over 24 hours ago.

Now my wife is sitting across from me on the couch. Even in the flesh, she no longer seems real.

We’re in a back room of Downing Street, waiting for Sky News to deliver the Conservative Party’s verdict on her leadership.

We both know she’s survived well before the vote is in.

An aide has made a pot of tea. The cups sit absurdly in their saucers.

Empty vessels one of us should fill. But neither of us makes a move.

Finally, the tally comes in.

200 to 117 in favor of our lives continuing to slip away from each other.

“She’s survived but that’s a whole lot of Tory MPs who want her out. And don’t forget Chris, she still needs to get that deal through parliament.”

“That’s right Sam … She’s certainly not out of the woods yet. Plenty more turmoil to come…”

Theresa’s eyes are closing. Her chin falls to her chest. Like a mouse spat out of a bored cat’s mouth.

I want to lean across the cushions and take her hand.

But there is something sacred in the chasm between us.

The space where words have been dispensed of. Where we both dared to hope that this might indeed, by some miracle, have been the end.

Please note: This is a fictional piece written from the imagined perspective of Theresa May’s husband and inspired by current political events. It is not intended as political commentary.

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November update

It’s been a busy few weeks! LSH and I had a wonderful belated honeymoon in Cuba, which I’ll definitely be writing about at some point. It’s such a beautiful, fascinating country and I can’t stop thinking about the people and places we encountered there.

I also began writing an economics column for Germany’s international broadcaster, DW. You can read the first two installments here and here.

And – most excitingly in a way – I was shortlisted for a writing prize! I didn’t win but I got to read my short story at the Irish embassy in Berlin. It was such a wonderful feeling afterwards when people in the audience spoke to me about my characters as if they were real people.

 

Looking for the truth? Go to the theatre.

Last night I went to a small Berlin theatre to see a one-woman play called Blonde Poison.

It’s about Stella Goldschlag, a German woman who collaborated with the Nazis to send hundreds, if not thousands of people to their deaths.

Using a poisonous cocktail of good looks and charm, she infiltrated hiding places and revealed them to the Gestapo.

Ferocious in her pursuit of victims, she was a dream come true for the Führer and his followers.

Blue-eyed and blonde, she epitomized the Aryan ideal.

Except for one thing.

She was Jewish.

Yes, you read that right.

Stella Goldschlag was a Jewish woman who embodied Nazi terror.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to write. Especially here in Germany, where the horrors inflicted on six million Jews are omnipresent – carved, literally, into the pavements and our consciousness.

The notion of a Jewish woman engineering the brutal deaths of her own people is something we might prefer not to think about.

Except, of course, that we must.

Because whether you consider her a monster, a victim of one, or something in between, Stella Goldschlag was a real person.

And real people do grotesque things. Most of the time, without considering themselves vile.

In the production I saw at the Brotfabrik, Stella Goldschlag is brilliantly portrayed by Dulcie Smart as an old woman waiting for a journalist to come and interview her.

As she paces nervously about the stage, counting down the minutes until she can put the coffee on, we witness an extraordinary pyschological range, which reveals not only the intelligence but also the empathy of the actress, who flits seamlessly from one state of heightened emotion to the next.

We see the girlish traces of vanity and vivaciousness and the suggestion of how they could have morphed into tools of treachery and deceit.

The flickers of innocence and pride as she recalls the way her father used to call her “Pünktchen” – and tell her she was destined to become a star.

We learn that Stella Goldschlag continued to betray Jews even after her parents were murdered at Auschwitz.

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Dulcie Smart as Stella Goldschlag Source: Brotfabrik

We watch in horror as her thoughts advance unrestrained.

She speaks of the mortification which must be experienced by those who get spinach stuck in their teeth. To tell them or not to? That is the question.

She is proud of her clean, white smile and examines it frequently in the mirror.

Her anti-Semitism is expressed in the disgust she has for the hooked noses and black hair of her fellow Jews.

Is she mad or bad or both, we wonder.

A victim or an engine of a totalitarian regime?

You will leave the theatre with an unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Embrace it.

It’s the sting of a painful truth.

Despite our enormous appetite for it, there is no such thing as a single story.

No one embodiment of monstrosity.

No defined point at which democracy erodes.

No real wisdom that can fit into 142 characters or less.

We may be closer to the truth in the theatre than on Twitter.

But even then, the sign of a good production is one that reminds us that in a functioning democracy, the absolute truth is allowed to elude us.

Did Brett Kavanaugh really brush his teeth?

There’s a gaping omission in Brett Kavanaugh’s June 1982 calendar.

To his credit, he had the courage to address it during his lengthy testimony.

Some have noticed that I didn’t have church on Sundays on my calendars. I also didn’t list brushing my teeth. And for me, going to church on Sundays was like brushing my teeth, automatic. It still is.

Hmm.

I really want to believe this is true.

But if Kavanaugh really has been brushing his teeth every Sunday, why is he only reporting it now?

And if his dental record truly is so stellar, how come no one can recall it?

I mean sure, other people have recently come forward with their own stories of weekly dental care. But such a last-minute onslaught of claims does not ring true.

I’m not questioning that Kavanaugh’s teeth may have been brushed by some person in some place at some time. But does that prove that he’s truly innocent of the charge of poor, or at least, irregular dental hygiene?

Let me be clear. I intend no ill will to Mr Kavanaugh or his family. In fact, the other night, as I was saying my prayers, a pious child I know said, “We should pray for that man.”

That’s a lot of wisdom from a 10-year-old, who went on to suggest that we should simply believe that Mr Kavanaugh brushed his teeth every Sunday. Because why would he lie about it?

And I have to admit that only a heart of stone could fail to be moved by the text message Kavanaugh’s friend, a self-described liberal and feminist, sent him the night before his testimony:

“Deep fresh, minty breaths. You’re a good man, a good man, a good man.”

After listening to the emotional testimonies from both sides, perhaps it’s best to follow the wisdom of Kavanaugh’s mother, herself a lawyer, who used to say:

“Use your common sense. What rings true? What rings false?”

Why would a man lie about brushing his teeth?

Why would he endure some of the hardest weeks of his life played out in front of the entire world?

Why would he open himself up to harassment and death threats?

Why would he allow himself to be called the most vile and hateful names imaginable?

To be rocked to the core by a wave of hatred sweeping across the country?

Maybe, just maybe, the only thing worth such torture is the truth.

But don’t take my word for it. Let Kavanaugh himself present the closing argument:

You may defeat me in the final vote, but you’ll never get me to spit. Never.

Kate Katharina WLTM …

Tree-loving, anxiety-riddled Irishwoman, GSOH, seeks literary fling with stranger on the Internet. Specifically, to read first 20,000 words of her novel and discuss if desired.

Ideal respondent is dispassionate enough to crush dreams if necessary but with no vested interest in doing so. Trolls (though the most loyal of all readers) need not apply.

Detailed feedback not required, and novel relationship may be terminated with no hard feelings. Long-term literary relationship not ruled out, as long as LSH approves.

And now in plain English:

Writing a novel is torturous! I’ve no idea if what I’ve done is any good at all. But you might! If you’re one of the lovely people who’ve been reading and commenting on my blog over the last few years and feel like you’d like to get your literary teeth into something rough and ready, please let me know! You can e-mail or tweet me. Send a pigeon if you will!

Also, if you enjoyed reading about Frau B, you might find it interesting. It’s not about her (I promise!) but it’s set in a nursing home. I can’t guarantee anything but I hope one or two bits might make you smile.

I don’t need any fancy literary criticism. I’d just like an honest answer to the questions: Did you like it? Hate it? Something in between? And: would you read on? If you can also say why, then we could be literary friends for life!

Also: the reason I’m looking for strangers is because friends are too nice. They say kind things because they know the truth might make you throw away your quill or close over your laptop forever in despair.

 

How building a kebab empire has changed my life

Some people spend their free time mastering new skills: Swahili; the piano; embroidery. You know the type.

I play a game on my phone called ‘Kebab World.’ It’s taught me more than any of the above ever could.

In Kebab World, you’re in charge of a fast food joint. And when I say fast, I mean it. Especially as you advance through the levels.

It’s a one-woman operation. You’re in charge of cooking the chicken, preparing the salad and maintaining the drinks machine. And of course, keeping the customer satisfied.

It can get pretty stressful! But it’s in times of adversity you learn the most. Having made it all the way to level 27, I’ve acquired a fair few life lessons along the way. Apply the following hard-won tips to your own life for a happier, healthier you:

You can’t please everyone! Sometimes, when my kebab joint gets really busy, the customers begin to sulk. Their expressions become dour, and – sometimes if you’re not quick enough – they walk out before you’ve finished preparing their order. Of course you don’t want that to happen! But if you’re doing your best, don’t sweat it. Focus on pleasing the customers who still have smiles on their faces. You’ll make your losses back in tips.

kebabs

Cut your losses! If you mess up an order, don’t hold onto it in case the next customer wants your messed-up meal. Assume no one will. Bin it and move on.

Invest in yourself! If – like me – you are naturally frugal, this may be the most important lesson you learn. As you make money in your kebab shop, you’re given the option of upgrading your operation. You can buy a new Ayran dispenser, or invest in an additional grill. You can even buy larger quantities of parsley to give your kebabs a healthy twist. Do it! As well as enabling you to work faster and more efficiently, the upgrades will keep your customers intrigued. Meaning more tips, and more money to invest in exciting things like additional serving space.

Rest and recharge! Sometimes, when I’m on the U Bahn home from work, I subject myself to a second shift at the Kebab joint. This is rarely a good idea. Without a clear head, it’s impossible to make smart business decisions and offer service with a smile. Double-jobbing is a no-no. Go to work well-rested and motivated, and before long, you too could find yourself in command of a kebab empire.

The festival that won my heart

There is something in the air in Listowel. For me, it was the smell of wild garlic and the way the leaves hanging over the River Feale caught the light.

The tiny town located in Ireland’s South-West has a population of under 5000. But it has produced John B Keane, Brendan Kennelly, Bryan MacMahon and a host of other women and men of literary as well as musical note. The writers’ festival was a glorious excuse for a reunion with two schoolfriends.

On the first morning, we took a walking tour. Our guide – a spirited and brilliant man of advanced age (the son, incidentally of the late Bryan MacMahon) – brought us to the Garden of Europe. The grounds, dating back to 1995, feature a monument to John B Keane, as well as Ireland’s only Holocaust memorial.

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Morning’s walk in Listowel

Gesturing to the impeccably-kept lawns behind him, the guide said: “This used to be a dump. A place you’d come to shoot rats.”

It didn’t matter if it was true or not. It was about the twinkle in his eye and the implication that the town had stayed humble.

The line between fact and fiction is appropriately slippery in Listowel, where the truth lies between the lines. Perhaps this is the reason that so many of the writers who came said it was their favorite literary festival, by far.

Or perhaps they like it so much because it is a place where they are allowed to exalt the ordinary. During a tea party hosted by none other than Colm Tóibín, he described a conversation he had recently overheard between an older person and a staff member in a Vodafone store.

“Now, I don’t want to send texts. But I want to receive them. Now, if I just turn it off, it can’t do anything, can it?  It won’t ring, will it?”  The utter terror of technology, Tóibín said. He wants to put it in a story.

For me, the days in Listowel were characterized not by terror but by awe. There was the surreal moment at a panel discussion when I recognized the shape of Margaret Drabble’s head in front of me. Later she turned around, and the man beside her (my former English teacher, who would be interviewing her later) introduced us. “I taught them very little,” he said, typically self-effacing. “Well you instilled a love of reading if they’re here,” she said, not missing a beat.

I sat beside the extraordinary artist Pauline Bewick during another event. She had a notebook open on her lap, full of striking, colorful sketches. Beside her was her daughter Poppy, herself an artist who, unlike her mother, works slowly and produces work that is startlingly life-like. They were a beautiful pair, gazelle-like, other-worldly and unassuming despite their huge success. I told Pauline about how our English teacher had inspired us to love literature. “You know that leaves me with a lump in my throat,” she said. “It really does.”

Another highlight was the poet Colette Bryce, who – to my shame – I’d never heard of. A Derry-born wordsmith, there was something about the gentle strength with which she read that lured me in. I bought her selected poems and was giddily excited when she looked up after signing it and said in a Northern lilt: “Thanks for coming, Kate.”

Edna O’Brien, of course packed the room out. I couldn’t even see her from where I was sitting. But I could hear her distinctive voice, and felt its warmth. “Enchantment is the novel’s most important quality,” she said. “It’s what matters most.” A literary titan whose work Ireland once banned, she would know.

On our last night, we went to see Forgotten, a one-man show written and sublimely performed by Pat Kinevane. It took place in St Johns, a church on the town’s main square converted into a theatre.

My friend, himself a playwright, was seeing it for the second time. It was an intense, exhausting, brilliant performance. When it was over and we filed out of the church, the sun had gone down and the last of the light stretched across the sky.

I noticed my friend had a certain glow about him; a kind of exaltation was written across his face. “This is what good theatre can do,” he said as we waited for the 11 o’clock bus back to Killarney. “It’s what Edna O’Brien was taking about,” he said. “A piece of art can enchant.”