by Amelia May Kingston

Deirdre is a draggle-tailed slattern in the best Dickensian tradition. She is fat and unlovely with a fag permanently in the corner of her mouth round which she wheezes the few banal phrases and four-letter words she has learned from the telly. She eats with undiscerning relish, belches, farts, gets drunk, picks her nose and couples in a down-to-earth manner with any hard-up tramp who happens by. "Why not?" she demands, truculently defensive, "You only lives once."

Deirdre is rapidly becoming my best friend.

What a relief it is to be able to let down all my pretentious guards and go tramping with her in the forest, uncorsetted, unmade-up, uncoiffed, in all the wrinkled, apple-cheeked glory of my reluctantly podgy middle- age. With her, I can feel superior.

With her I can be a child again: squatting on my haunches in the grass to watch ants dismember a dead cricket; grubbing up pignuts to crunch grittily unwashed and wipe my mucky hands on my coat; paddling in muddy streams and nibbling mushrooms, hawthorn buds and sedge stems, or blackberries, crab apples and hazelnuts in their season.

When we reach her home, scratched, tired and happily exhausted, there is a rickety ladder to climb before we can throw ourselves down on a wide ledge covered with old carpet pieces, tatty cushions and threadbare blankets. The ledge is in front of a long, low window, curving around a room with a hole in the centre of the floor, railed and gated to prevent her falling down the ladder when less than sober.

She has never heard of Quentin Crisp, but obviously shares his theory that if you never do any housework, after the first six years things stop getting any worse.

From her eyrie, we look down on the forest, stretching like an undulating green sea to the distant cliffs, grey straits and golden sunset on the far horizon.

When I first met Deirdre, I was on an inward quest to find the saboteur who was preventing me from progressing with a number of tasks I thought I enjoyed, to achieve an end I thought I genuinely wanted.

As I walked through an imaginary wood in search of the hidden self who was blocking my progress, I had no idea who. or what I was going to meet. I knew it would be a simple, frightened thing, hidden in a dark place where it thought it was safe.

Golden mast rustled underfoot as I walked through airy glades, lit with the underwater quality of pale green birch boles and translucent, whispering leaves. In the centre of the great wood was a huge old tree, half- rotten, with a very large hole in the base. I stooped inside to investigate and was surprised to see a wooden staircase ending in a platform where a retractable ladder gave access to a trapdoor. I had found Deirdre in her lair.

She was not having a good day. She stank. She was not delighted to see me. "Wotcher doin' 'ere?" she demanded belligerently, dirt-grained hands on over-padded hips.

I was appalled to think that, as a good holistic therapist, I must accept this creature as a part of myself. At first sight, she was everything I despised and avoided. Obviously, I had done a first-class job of repressing her and suppressing all awareness of her existence. Equally obviously, she was hopping mad and had spared no effort to make herself felt.

So I wanted a degree, to work all day and study all night for years so that I could eventually stand in front of all those nobs with in a silly hat and gown with a rolled-up piece of paper in my hand? Well, she didn't.

So I wanted to be a boss? Well she knew her place.

So I wanted to be conspicuous, a leader, putting myself forward, stirring things up, making myself a target for envy and dissent? Well, she wasn't having anyone poking around in her life, knowing all about her, finding fault and putting her down at every turn. Mark her words. No good would come of it.

So I wanted to marry a toff, a gentle, intelligent, self- employed partner and companion? Well, she knew a trick worth two of those and in no time at all I was pregnant by an insensitive, black-haired, blue-eyed six- foot son of the soil. How did it happen? A moment of madness. Why? I haven't a clue. But in good working-class order we were married, and none of us were happy.

Not him; not his parents nor mine, and most of all, not me, nor Deirdre neither. But, of course, I didn't know about her then.

Isolating the undeveloped self, identifying it as an individual, but emphasising the distance between it and your every-day persona, is a safe strategy for learning to accept it as a basic part of your own identity. Rather like the beloved uncle who always shows himself up by getting drunk and maudlin at funerals, our vulnerable, unsophisticated alter-ego can be tolerated with resigned good humour.

As we become less threatened by outrageous behaviour, we can begin to discern the heart of gold, the primitive wisdom and the intuitive insight beneath the outward form. Eventually we can accept a valuable and integral part of ourselves. Instead of suppressing all awareness of it, with the result that it can surface unexpectedly and unseen to sabotage our best endeavours, we can include our primitive self in our plans, take its views into consideration and negotiate a mutually satisfying peace.

Deirdre is at once my cross and my salvation. Fear of her is the reason why I neither smoke nor drink. She is the reason why I overeat. She is the basis of my love of nature and my rich imagination. She is at the bottom of my reluctance to begin or finish any task. Fear of her is the driving force behind my will to learn and she is responsible for the beginning and end of a series of disastrous relationships.

We all have a Deirdre, or a Norman, a Cinderella, or a Peter Pan.

This morning I found myself unable to get on with this book. The usual so-near-yet-so-far syndrome had kicked in. Within sight of completion, yet another task had ceased to be pleasure and become sheer slog. The joy had gone. My brain had turned to custard. No-one would want to read it anyway. My sponsors would slate it as a load of pretentious drivel. The best thing would be to forget it and go back to bed. What made me think I could write anyway?

The penny dropped. Deirdre! So I stayed in bed and spent the next hour negotiating in her tree-house in the forest.

"I want to finish my book."

"I want a bacon and egg butty."

"We are on a diet, we are allergic to wheat and we have high blood pressure."

"I don't care, I want a bacon and egg butty."

"Low-salt bacon and a granary roll?"

"S'alright. Can I 'ave an Eccles cake?"

"Last treat before we really try to lose seven pounds before Christmas?"

"S'pose so. Can we go and see the unicorn?"  (One of our special treats is a shared meditation about a unicorn.)

"If you let me get on with the book this afternoon."

"Are you goin' to tell 'em all about me?"

"Of course not!."

"Ooh, 'ark at 'er, Toffy-nose, 'igh an' mighty. Too good to live! Well, you'd better, or I might get mad."

"Be reasonable, Deirdre..."

She laughs, coughs and turns dangerously purple. "You know me better'n that!"

I do, indeed.

So the bargain is that she will let me finish the book if I tell you who we really are, and when it is finished we will both go on a long-boat holiday on the Warwickshire canals, or something equally unsophisticated. She is a good holiday companion. I always enjoy myself when I take her along. We have had some marvellous times together.

Deirdre is nothing like Gill Edward's "Basic Self", Petal: a fairy in hob-nail boots. I can think of a number of friends for whom Petal would be an ideal symbol of their child-like, unsophisticated side. I would like to think I were more appealing, magical, whimsical and pretty at rock bottom. But you can't get more rock bottom than Deirdre. She is my alter ego, and I am stuck with her