THE UNEXPECTEDLY EXISTENTIAL LIFE OF MARGARET TOME

The existentialist philosophers Heidegger and Satre argue that we have been thrown into this universe unprepared and abandoned in a universe that imposes fundamental limitations on what we might become.

They call this notion facticity.

Margaret Tome lived a life that she considered almost entirely untouched by the musings of philosophers, existential or otherwise. She was vaguely aware of Satre in the way she might have been aware of a minor celebrity – knowing his name and that he was French and therefore simultaneously attractively exotic and suspiciously alien – but not really knowing anything that he’d done. She had no idea who Heidegger might be.

Nonetheless, had Margaret met the Frenchman and, had they had the opportunity to discuss the facticity, Jean-Paul would have been astonished by the vehemence with which this small, fierce, but rather worn-down looking Scot would have taken up his reasoning and expanding forcefully upon it.

Margaret was not, herself, much disposed to philosophical thought or analysing her own motivations – hobbies which she regarded as preserves of the wilfully lazy and the potentially perverse. But she was acutely aware of the way in which her parents well-intentioned mollycoddling of their only daughter combined with their early death in a car crash, had thrown Margaret entirely unprepared into a world that she now regarded with a bitter wariness.

The capriciousness of the world had caught Margaret by surprise and she knew that the experience had damaged her. She was determined, therefore, that her own daughter should not be caught unprepared.

When Margaret’s daughter fell and cut her knee and came running to her mother, the child Annabelle did not find herself wrapped up in the consoling arms offered by other mothers. Instead, little Annabelle would find herself subject to lectures on staying on her feet and the price of replacing stockings. The unlikely arrival of a puppy into Margaret’s household, a present for Annabelle, was explained by the fact that the little terrier had already contracted distemper and would be dead within weeks. Annabelle witnessed suffering and experienced loss and her mother hoped that it would make her immune to worst that the world would later bring.

To outsiders this seemed like unfeeling cruelty. More than once a passer-by had taken it upon themselves to upbraid Margaret publicly for behaviour they considered beyond the pale. But those strangers were wrong. Margaret’s every action was driven by her unquenchable love for her little girl. Every harsh response stung Margaret far more deeply than it did her daughter, who knew no better. Margaret frequently came close to buckling beneath the burden she carried. On many nights she cried herself to sleep, but never when she thought her daughter might hear.

But children are contrary and the more Margaret tried to harden her daughter’s heart to the world, the more the girl found refuge in the romantic and the gentle. And, as teenagers will, eventually Annabelle sought to create her own identity by forcefully rejecting the one created for her by her parent.  Aged 19 the girl came home and announced that not only was she in love with a penniless teacher who styled himself, of all things, a poet, but that she was carrying his baby. Margaret’s reaction mixed fury and terror. The baby would be got rid of. The teacher would be abandoned. If necessary they would move far, far away.

“I love him!” Annabelle roared and the tears in her eyes told Margaret that all her years of effort had been wasted.  Annabelle made two vows as she walked out of her mother’s door for the last time, carrying all she owned in two small bags. First she would marry Alexis, her poet, and they would be happy. Second, she swore that her mother’s mean spirit and cruelty would never be inflicted upon the child she was carrying.

So it was that Margaret could follow only at second-hand the progress of her daughter through life.

Annabelle married Alexis and their family of rosy-cheeked children seemed to grow larger and louder and happier with every summer. Her penniless poet became first a critical success and then adored by the public for his collections of love poetry. And with fame came financial rewards, not vast for poetry is rarely the path to riches, but sufficient to make life secure for his children and Annabelle, to whom he dedicated all his works.

Annabelle herself became a minor celebrity as a campaigner for charities. Her gentle voice of encouragement was welcomed by many good causes and her reputation for kindness extended beyond just her large circle of friends.

Annabelle and Alexis and their many children lived together in a large-gardened house on the edge of the city, not five miles from where Margaret lived. Margaret was never asked to visit and never sought an invitation.

From time-to-time she received letters from Annabelle, but she left them unopened. Once Alexis visited her, he pleaded for a reconciliation that would complete his wife’s happiness. Margaret turned her back on his overtures, leaving him to stare in incomprehension at a closed door.

And so it was, in her later years, that Margaret came instinctively to understand another teaching of the French philosopher Satre. She had taken herself, thrown into the world unprepared, and she had constructed this lonely, monstrous, freedom for herself. By rejecting the world, and all in it, she had assumed that she would find in herself all that she needed for happiness.

She had stared into the face of a world that had no god and no meaning and she had become its mirror. And in that mirror was nothing.  Everything that Margaret could have been, she had cast away. All the relationships that would have allowed her to define herself, on her own terms, had been rejected. In all the choices she had been given, Margaret had allowed fear to triumph. Far from overcoming the limitations the world had placed upon her, Margaret had become defined by them.

She was alone. She was nothing. And she was responsible.

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