You were first told you were selfish when you were five years old. You had crept into the kitchen and eaten the last of the fairy cakes, the one that was meant for your sister when she got home from ballet. You scrunched up the waxy paper, not before tipping the last of the crumbs into your mouth, and hid it in the bottom of the bin, but as you turned around your mother was standing at the door.
You were also called greedy and lazy, and these labels took a little while to peel off, but left no lasting marks. ‘Selfish’ on the other hand was like one of those cartoon rain clouds, hovering stubbornly over your head, following you around even on days lit by sunshine.
As you grew to take up more space in the world, you decided to try being unselfish by being undemanding. Against all the impulses and wants of your body and mind, you tried not to make noise, or be noticed, once not speaking for an entire week. You wore all black and ate only crackers broken into tiny pieces. You tried to dissolve, into the background, into the air, but your very attempts at disappearing were called ‘attention seeking’ and you reeled from this, confused, as though from a slap.
Some part of you must have been strong, though, because you got out and got away, fueled by the idea that there was somewhere else, a place you could be better than you had been. If you moved, you could change.
‘There is no such thing as altruism.’ The staple debate of undergraduates around kitchen tables, late at night, up and down the country. ‘There are no selfless good deeds.’ At one of these tables you found the man who would become your husband, and while outside you agreed with what was being said, inside you nurtured the fervent wish that you, you would be different. You would try.
You tried charity. Giving money, belongings, time. Walking a mile in another man’s moccasins. You ladled soup for the homeless, bagged up clothes for refugees, ran miles in t-shirts emblazoned with the names of diseases that would never be cured, not in your lifetime. Sponsorship, bake sales, and driving old people to Sunday lunches in draughty village halls.
You tried having children. Lots of people said this was the cure. But it’s the ultimate act of narcissism, of course: create something in your own image, then worship it. Defend it to the death, your selfish gene, with your lioness heart.
You tried caring for your parents, eventually going back there, drawn by stories of weight loss and sight loss and memory loss, a litany of absent things that nonetheless weighed down your heart like so many stones.
You tried, after they died, to lose all self-absorption once and for all, by becoming utterly unconcerned with self-care. You took down all the mirrors. You stopped washing your hair. But of course this was its own form of selfishness, because the children you raised and worshipped had themselves grown up and your behaviour brought them to your door, which was after all the thing you most wanted.
There isn’t much time left now, and you’re tired and running out of ideas. Downstairs the two boys who grew into fine men are saying to their father that they will stay, just for tonight, one of them will have the pull-out bed, and the other says he’ll go out and get chips for everyone. And you smile, even though the spectre of all those less fortunate than you, the dispossessed and the sick and the starving, still hovers at the edge of your thoughts.
It might be time to draw the curtain on a life’s effort that opened out with the telltale dusting of icing sugar on your upper lip, and narrows to its end now with more comfort and attention than you could ever have hoped to deserve.
You close your eyes and think maybe you’ve figured out the cure. Here’s what you could do: you could forgive yourself. Maybe.