Listen With Mother

It had sat in that same corner all my life – beside the window chair in the living room – my mother’s sewing box – and yet I had forgotten about it.

When I was a child she often gave me the sewing box to tidy, and I genuinely believed I was helping rather than – as seems more likely now – being kept amused. I remember sitting on the floor surrounded by cotton reels and cards of press-studs and hooks and eyes and being full of my own importance. I was helping. This goes back to the time before things went wrong, before Mum started lying on the sofa and crying for most of the morning instead of dusting. The time before Nan started coming along to help, and Mum started taking two aspirins every four hours for most of many days.

In those days we would listen to Listen With Mother together on the radio. She would sit me on her lap and I would start twiddling a lock of my hair in sheer anticipation. What would it be today? See-saw Marjorie Daw or the one about the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? We had to have teddy with us. The radio lady always asked us if we had our teddies with us, and whether we were sitting comfortably.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

But back to the sewing box. I think I took it all rather seriously. I not only sorted out the cotton reels but wound in every loose end and secured it in the little notch at the top. I not only tidied the button box but threaded the buttons into a long string using one of Mum’s darning needles – little buttons at one end, all the way up to giant coat-type buttons at the other. Duffle-coat toggles were a bit of a worry…

I had to go back there about a week ago – I think I wrote about it – to remove Ex’s paintings as the house is now being sold to pay Mum’s fees. I was dreading it, and it was pretty dreadful, in some ways. Arriving half an hour before the removal firm man, I sat on the doorstep for ten minutes unable to go inside on my own. When he arrives, I thought, I’ll usher him in first and he can confront the ghosties! But then the neighbours started making casual passes back and forth. I realised they didn’t know who I was and assumed some sort of Bag Lady. Maybe they were about to call the police and have me removed… so I plucked up my courage and went in.

I busied myself packing Nan’s blue half-a-tea-service, which I had promised Mum I would save, and which nobody else seemed to want. I remembered the tea service from Sundays with Nan and Grandad. When first Nan and then Grandad died the half-a-tea-service (presumably my uncle had the other half) moved along the road and took up residence on a Welsh dresser in Mum’s living room. I had brought newspapers with me, and carrier bags.

Take anything you like, my sister said. The house clearance man was coming to take the lot. Probably been and gone by now.

I found a little album with a few random photos in it, of Mum and Dad and me maybe fifteen years ago, exploring the local chalk-pit that had been turned into a tourist attraction (or that was the idea) by the addition of wooden walkways and stairs. I have no photos of Mum and Dad – indeed, no photos at all of any part of my life – somebody else seems to have had them all at each step of the way, so I put that in the bag. I found a grubby old “Knitting Patterns” album containing not knitting patterns but recipes – all Mum’s favourite recipes in her familiar handwriting, recipes torn out of women’s magazines and annotated. Little interjections, mostly with her favourite exclamation marks

Delicious!

I substitute sultanas for mixed fruit!

360F, middle shelf!!

I thought I might share a few of the recipes with you, in occasional future posts. A way of Mum living on and in a small way contributing to the future, if you see what I mean.

And then I spotted it – the sewing basket. It was very, very heavy but I brought that home too. It sat at my feet high up in the removal man’s van. You need to be a veritable mountaineer to get into one of those things, and I all but landed in a heap trying to climb down out of it at the other end.

And then there was the dilemma. That evening I sat with Mum’s sewing basket on my knees and shed the few tears I ought to have shed a year earlier, at the thought of Mum to all intents and purposes gone. Mum in that home. Mum not at home. The house I grew up in not my home now. Everything off with the house clearance man to be distributed, no doubt, among charity shops.

But what should I do with the basket? Part of me wanted to sit on the floor, take out a whole lifetime of bits and bobs, half-cards of bias binding, folds of orange ribbon, samples of hessian (whatever did she use that for?) and of course the button box which, when I was a child had seemed a huge and magical container and now seemed to have shrunk to a hexagonal toffee tin with pictures of rabbits and 1950s postmen on the front.

Part of me wanted to leave it exactly as it was, so that the muddle inside should be Mum’s muddle, her memorial, a little bit of her practical, creative mind. In a way I wanted to keep her boxed, rather than bottled.

The dilemma continued for some time. Should I use the sewing box – as she would probably have wanted – or leave it undisturbed? After all, they were not really magic, the rusty tin of pins, the darning needles rusted into the tartan pincushion… I remember her teaching me to make a version of that pincushion for my Brownie sewing badge. They were just old things.

And then today I decided to design something to sew. Now, don’t laugh. There is a reason for it but I haven’t got time to go into it right now. I designed a Sad Cat Hat, taking the pattern from a sunhat I bought at a market stall on a recent visit to Canterbury, cutting out paper pattern pieces from the front cover of the Radio Times and pinning them onto an old pillow case for my “trial version” of this unlikely object. And then I thought, I no longer have any dressmaker’s shears and the kitchen scissors are too blunt. Maybe Mum has some?

In the bottom of Mum’s sewing box was a perfect pair of dressmaker’s scissors and – and this is the strange thing – left handed ones. Now, how does that happen? Mum was right handed. I’m left-handed.

And it seems to me that Mum – wherever she hides, inside that poor old grey head – was trying to get a message to me. Take the middle way. Use what you need but only when you need it, leave the muddle mostly, but not entirely, undisturbed.

My life is so complicated…

The old ginger cat just peed in my hairdryer. Oh joy.

I now have not one but two ancient, toothless cats, far gone into senility. One is over a hundred in human terms, the other, who knows? Combined, these two make my domestic life a nightmare.

One is deaf and, I suspect, very nearly blind. She wakes me up at all hour of the night with a chorus of bellowings and screechings. Nothing can console her, neither little tins of extra-special-and-very-expensive food nor consolatory pats-and-strokes nor witty conversation. She stands, gazing at where she senses I probably am and lets rip at full volume. If the new neighbours were not so noisy and party-prone themselves I would probably feel guilty about this.

The other is incontinent. By this I mean that he spends his entire day inventing ever more exotic places in which to pee voluminously, which are not a dirt box. He pees on boxes of cat-food, he pees against sacks of cat litter; he spray paperback books on the lower shelves of bookcases, he leaves deposits in dark corners, he waters the front doormat. Worst of all, now, he has taken to peeing in my bed.

A couple of weeks ago somewhere around midnight I entered the bedroom and observed (why am I talking like a policeman all of a sudden?) that the bed seemed eccentrically rearranged. Fearing the worst I pulled back the covers and there, behold, a spreading circle of wetness. It had gone through two duvets – the summer one, but also the winter one which, for want of anywhere else too keep it, I ‘store’ on the bed itself, underneath the bottom sheets. It had gone through the sheets. It had gone through the counterpane. It had gone through absolutely everything. And naturally this was on the side I would usually sleep on.

So of course I stripped it all off and washed it all. It was a damp and drizzly week, not a glimpse of the sun, and it took me a full five days to dry everything out. I had duvets draped over the stair rails and sheets hanging from coat-hangers in doorways; it was a chamber of horrors. In the meantime, night after night I slept on a naked mattress, awkwardly rolled in a child-size duvet. Every so often a cat playfully pounced up one or other of my naked feet, and savaged it.

And I had only just been telling GE today of my ingenious solution to this problem. Every morning I make the bed and immediately spread over it one of those heavy duty green ‘festival’ rain-capes – the sort that opens out and doubles as a groundsheet. This makes the bedroom smell rather rubbery, but since then the bed has not been peed on. He must have got the message, I thought.

But this evening I briefly but foolishly left my hairdryer on top of the green heavy duty festival rain-cape. When I picked it up, cat pee cascaded from it in veritable torrents onto the bedroom carpet. Where I had picked it up from, a golden pool of wee.

At least the bed’s still dry but I daren’t use that hairdryer. It wouldn’t be worth the risk of electrocution – or would it? No, it wouldn’t!

Unfortunately I’ve got long, long hair like some ancient hippie, mainly because I can’t afford to have it cut – I just wash it and dry it and snip a bit off the fringe at intervals. I don’t go out with it inappropriately flowing, though. It does get tied up a variety of buns, pony tails and plaits. But without the hairdryer…

Luckily… I have a spare hairdryer. Spare for everything, that’s me.

But now I suppose I ought to buy a spare for the spare, just in case.

My life is so complicated.

Bluebird ober de white cliff of Dober…

Life gets ever more bizarre, but in ever tinier and ever more domestic ways.

Today Godmother Elect and I went once again to visit Mum in the Home. We find her sitting in the day room with many others, classical music playing loud enough to drown out any vestige of thought. Catching sight of us she raises her arms and reaches out to us in what looks like terror or despair.

My legs don’t work, she says. I try, but they just won’t. (Later the carer tells us that Mum’s mobility is improving and that when she thinks no one is looking she can now shuffle herself unaided and, more importantly, un-hoisted from one chair to the next.)

I’m dead, she says. I’m dead. And though it’s a ghastly thing to hear, she’s telling us the truth. I wonder whether there really is some in-between place like Purgatory where the dead and the living walk side by side for a spell, and know not which they are.

Soon it’s time for lunch. They start wheeling the oldies into the dining room and since we have only just arrived we wheel ourselves in too.

A man on the other side of the room cries out joyfully –

Another lovely lady. Come in, come in, lovely lady and sit upon my knee!

He is referring to GE, not me. GE is even older than my mother.

His wife is at his side. It’s because you look a bit like me, she tells GE apologetically. Certainly they both have short white hair. All the same, I’m slightly miffed.

While they are dishing up we read the menu out to Mum. Plaice and chips! That sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Or ham, eggs and chips inserts one of the carers. Irrelevant, I think. Pedantic.

Mum seems terrified of the thought of chips whether with plaice or with ham and just then the man sharing ‘our’ table begins to wave his hands gently as if conducting an invisible orchestra. Someone has turned on the radio and some of the would-be diners start singing along.

One of the carers is a bit of a puzzle. We have never been able work out where she is from but she has an accent so thick it is not always possible to tell whether she is speaking English or her own language – sort of Mexican. But would someone travel all the way from Mexico to wear a brightly-coloured tee-shirt with Carer printed on it in nursery letters?

But she raises her voice and sings along to Vera Lynn and it is a sound so pure and perfectly pitched it brings tears to my eyes –

Dere be bluebird ober de white cliff of Dober… doo murrow jus’ you wade an see….

And it doesn’t matter if she even understands what she is singing, what a powerful resonance those words still have for this room full of the lost and bewildered.

She’s wasted here, GE observes.

But I think maybe not.

One Long Frog

‘First swallow your frog’ used to be one of my favourite mottoes. In other words, at the beginning of each day tackle that one task you want to do about as much as swallowing a live frog. However, it seems to me that the older you get the more frogs seem to string themselves together until some days seem to be One Long Frog.

Take the other day, for instance: mammogram; long wait to see a doctor about a persistent cough; chest x-ray. And I only had tooth x-rays the day before. Won’t I be radioactive? Or are mammograms some other sort of wave and/or particle? Long bus journey there. Long bus journey back.

And tomorrow? One Long Frog. Long bus journey to see my elderly lady. Well, I like seeing my elderly lady and she likes seeing me, but listening-and-prompting for an hour is surprisingly hard work – like job interviews – something I was good at. Good at the interview, rubbish at the job, usually.

After elderly lady? Remove scratchy ‘visitor’ dingly-dangly thing with awful photo from around neck. Speedwalk to bus stop. Catch next bus into town instead of home. No doubt will get the Smelly Person again. I never realised human beings were smelly until I started caching buses. In town, catch next train. Then another train. Then walk to Mum’s bungalow to meet a person called Peter from a removal firm. Person called Peter is going to pack up a whole bunch of Ex’s paintings and prints and drive them and me back home. Thank goodness. At least I haven’t got to brave the school bus, this time.

While he’s making the Works of Art damp- and rodent-proof – for who knows how long they will now be languishing in my garage? – I have to pack up Nan’s blue tea set. That’s the only thing I’m ‘rescuing’ before the house is cleared – by someone called Gavin, or was it Steven? – and Mum’s lifetime possessions, and all my lifetime memories, get driven off and distributed around the local charity shops.

To be honest, I don’t know which is worse – seeing Ex’s painting again and being reminded of Ex – because the paintings are the person – or seeing Mum’s house half empty, and that garden – her life’s passion and obsession – merely mown. Just sort of kept under control until the new owners or, as seems more likely, the bulldozers move in.

I always promised myself I wouldn’t go back, after that last traumatic/humiliating day/night when Mum was marched off to hospital, sandwiched between two burly ambulance-men. ‘Worst part of my job, this is’ one of them told me. But there’s no avoiding it. I’ve had my orders.

However, I remind myself of what happened with Nan and Grandad’s bungalow, in the same street. After they died Mum insisted I went along there with her. I was young(ish) then and had never seen a cleared house before. Nothing of Nan and Grandad remained: empty rooms smelling of linseed oil where someone had been fixing the windows. That house meant so much to me and it had never, ever, occurred to me that one day its whole shabby-familiar insides, together with Nan and Grandad, could just be gone. I hated Mum for taking me along there. I hated her businesslike mood.

‘Don’t you miss Nan?’ I asked her.

‘Oh, I’ve shed a tear or two, when I’ve been on my own.’

Shed a tear or two. Is that what you say about your own mother? But I knew what she was doing: brushing it under the carpet, setting it aside, saving it for later when I wasn’t there. Self defence.

That night I dreamed myself back in that house. I was standing in the empty kitchen and Grandad hurried past. I tried to talk to him but he couldn’t seem to see me. It was as if I was the ghost. And outside a sea of daisies pushed their way up through the lawn in that clever, punning way that subconscious daisies have.

For a long time I couldn’t see anything else but that empty, linseed-smelling house. It overlaid every childhood memory. My past had been removed. But gradually, over the years, the house as I had known it returned. I realised I could revisit it at any stage in its history, and myself in any stage of mine. All its past incarnations were still there, and so were mine.

And so I hope that gradually, after tomorrow’s final visit to Mum’s house, the colours of the past and all those lost versions of me will start to surface again. Finality and emptiness will be just one version.

Bonphobia

I was going to call this post C’mon Baby, Light My Fire. It would probably have attracted more clicks but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t.

I was a Girl Guide, actually, for about a week. Having miraculously escaped being drummed out of the Brownies for landing in the middle of the Toadstool and crushing it to death I became a Girl Guide but my new blue uniform hadn’t even arrived before I left of my own accord having been instructed to light a fire in a puddle round the back of the Junior School.

I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. It wasn’t so much the fire, at that stage, it was the ridiculousness of it.

I have never before tried to light a bonfire, to be honest. All this time and I left it to men. It was one of those men-tasks. Ex was very keen on starting fires. He was a man of many talents and in spite of being an artist worked for quite a while as a miniature steam train driver. As they chugged along – he and the Guard, who shovelled in the coal – they frequently set accidental fires all along the track. He loved doing that.

Later on he used to hold Bonfire Night parties and invite all the neighbours, and he personally would have built that gigantic bonfire down the bottom of the garden, and the elaborate Guy Fawkes. He personally had set up and would rush round setting off every single firework. He personally would have cooked vast trays of sausages and he personally would be dishing them up, in between rockets. I did nothing. All I saw of him all evening was this demonic shadow, leaping about, running the whole show. Something of a control freak.

Yesterday I was forced to try to light my first bonfire. I mean, how hard can it be to set light to some stuff in a bin? Too hard for me, evidently.

I was having to have the bonfire because I can no longer afford to drive my car. Seventeen cats means an awful lot of damp sawdust minus poo, sacks and sacks of it, and the Council only collects once a fortnight. Hitherto I had solved the problem by loading the car up with black sacks at intervals and driving ten miles or so to the tip where Council employees might or might not help me to drag the (leaking) sacks up the steep wooden stairs to the skip and heave them, somehow, over the top. Over the years as I have become weaker this has become more difficult.

I did ring the Council. I explained about the not driving and asked whether it would be possible for me to hire a second green bin, though really I couldn’t have afforded to.

No, she said.

Then would it be possible to class, say, paper bags full of sawdust as garden waste and hire one of those brown bins?

No, she said. Could you perhaps bury ten bin sacks full of damp sawdust in your garden every week?

Not really, I said.

I obtained all the stuff. The dustbin with the chimney, the red fireproof gloves, some little sachets called “fire starters”, a poker. I checked online when I was allowed to have fires and which weather conditions to avoid. The sawdust mountain was taking over the garage and I knew the day had came when I had to actually Set Light To Stuff. I hardly slept the night before. I don’t like to draw attention, you see. I don’t like to be seen. Setting Light To Stuff and causing a lot of smelly smoke was the equivalent, for me, of the casting off of the Seventh Veil.

As an afterthought I filled a large bucket of water to throw on it if it got out of hand.

I had no idea how to begin.

I realised I couldn’t just tip the sawdust in because there were air-holes in the bottom of the bin and it would just fall through. I thought I might have solved that problem by bagging the sawdust in paper bags. I put quite a lot of these in the bottom, and a bit of garden waste, and one or two of those little sachets of what looked like damp sugar, took a deep breath, lit a match and threw it in there.

Fifteen matches later, most of the bags had kind of singed through and blackened cat litter was trickling out of them. There had been a small amount of smoke but scarcely any flame, and what little flame there had been had died, repeatedly.

So, what did I do? Well, I did what I usually do in such crushing situations, of which there have been many in my life, I hid and trembled for a bit. Luckily in the corner behind the garage there happened to be plastic chair. No one could see me. Could they?

After a while I gathered myself together and went indoors, leaving the mess, temporarily. I went upstairs and turned on the computer and watched several YouTube videos on – How To Start A Fire, My New Garden Incinerator etc. Twenty minutes of watching some man throwing one log in after another and then putting the lid back on. I thought I would die of boredom but it was better than dealing with the mess.

I decided I had missed out several stages. I should have scrumpled up paper in the bottom, and on top of that I should have placed something called ‘kindling’ in a kind of horizontal lattice pattern on top. I searched for ‘kindling’ on Amazon and ordered some. Oh God, more expense. I should have set light to that and then introduced the cat litter once it was really hot. But how to introduce the cat litter, a mountain of which was currently bagged up in large brown paper bags guaranteed to kill any flame?

Then I found a video made by some bearded man with a pipe in a garage in America. It was about making fire-starters out of sawdust. He gnawed on this pipe as he melted down wax candles and mixed them with the sawdust in a bucket. Something about him was…soothing. Maybe it was the sound of the rain hammering on his workshop roof. I’m gonna work indoors today, he said, because of the rain. I wondered what manly, competent thing he usually did outdoors.

And then, he mumbled, around the pipe, you transfer the mixture still warm to these here muffin tins. Don’t use your wife’s (your wife?) best muffin tins because she will not be pleased. You press it down hard, like this and you put these here muffin tins in the fridge for twenty minutes or so to harden off and then you knock them out, like this, and…

So that’s what I’m going to try next, just as soon as the candles arrive.

You Can’t Exactly Stroke a Fish

Or can you? You just said it, but is it strictly true? Maybe someone, somewhere has stroked a fish. There may even be a profession of fish-stroker similar to horse-whisperer or chicken-sexer. My mind is heckling me.

To give the above some context, Godmother Elect and I are sitting once again in Mum’s nursing home room. Mum is watching TV, or so the Home would have us believe, just as they would have us believe she has been reading that ancient, water-stained copy of Woman’s Weekly on her little wheelie-table, or leafing through that disintegrating book of colour photos of lakes and castles . Window dressing!

This morning on TV it’s property porn. You know the kind of thing – New Homes In The Country,  Splendid Homes By The Sea, Coast or Country Which Will You Choose? Iceland or Azerbaijan Which Will It Be? I must admit I used to like them, a bit, but the novelty’s long since worn off. Mum doesn’t care what she watches. Her eyes follow the flickering screen. How thin she is now.

GE and I spend the statutory ten minutes trying to engage/include Mum in conversation. That’s a nice birthday card, Mum. Who’s that one from? It’s from the Home. Somebody in the office has run off a sheet of A4 paper on a colour printer and folded it into a four-leaf card-shape. They have scribbling her name into the box on the front in crayon. Infant-school writing. Everybody gets that same card. Sometimes Mum gets the birthday cards of such of the other residents as can still shuffle about. They tend to circulate around the corridors.

Godmother Elect and I then do what we always end up doing and relapse into adult conversation whilst keeping an eye on Mum and rescuing her teetering plastic mug of tea at intervals. Today I was telling GE about my Befriender visit yesterday to an old lady, and being taken out to admire the koi carp in the pond in her back garden. GE and I agree that koi carp are very beautiful creatures and compare notes as to the likely price of even a medium-sized koi at an aquatic centre. GE, a dog person through and through, said that fish were all right but she couldn’t really warm to them as pets. No, I said, you can’t exactly stroke a fish.

So, that’s the context. I still find it difficult to say meaningless stuff. Hence the heckling. The strictly logical side of my ‘wiring’ objects to it even now. But I do know it’s the proper thing to do…

(Sorry – distracted. Charlie-over-the-the road has been scanning the bar codes of his delivery round parcels, topless, as usual. He has been ignoring loud claps of thunder and the flashes of lightning following imminently upon them. The parcels are set out on his driveway, as usual, ready to go in his car. And now the rain comes, falling in sheets and torrents on everybody’s mail order goods, as the bangs and flashes continue. A torn plastic cagoule now covers Charlie’s almost-nakedness but nothing covers the parcels as he rushes about trying to rescue them. And there are hundreds. I do love a good disaster. But poor Charlie.)

…but I know it’s the proper thing to do. When I was a child people assumed, and I suppose I assumed too, that I was shy. In fact I was socially unequipped, which isn’t quite the same thing. Lacking any instinctive knowledge I became a keen observer of Homo Sapiens, and even more so of Homo NotVeryMuch Sapiens, like poor Charlie. I observed that they spoke a lot of rubbish most of the time but it didn’t seem to matter. After a while I worked it out – it doesn’t matter what you say when you are forced into the company of your fellow humans. It only matters that you say something.

Later still, at teacher training college, I learned that this kind of thing is known as phatic conversation. Phatic means words or actions whose purpose is to show the other person that you are friendly, not dangerous, that you like them, or might like them, that you want to be friends.

It’s also known as ‘stroking’, ie ‘That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing, Ivy. Where did you buy it?” or “I wish my kids were as well-behaved as your three!” or “That’s just fascinating. Do tell me more…” Apparently there is a kind of unspoken tariff for ‘strokes’ too. On the whole one earns one in return, but on occasion it can be more complicated. It depends how much you want the other person to like you, how much you have to gain from them – or even how frightened you are of them. You are exchanging nicenesses.

All this is – or was – foreign to me. For a long time I laboured under the misapprehension that if I were to say something stupid/meaningless/dull/trite I would be ruthlessly judged and found wanting. I must be interesting – the Oscar Wilde of small talk – or keep quiet.

So most of the time I said nothing. This is not the same thing as being shy. I did want to talk to people, just misunderstood how the thing was done. You don’t have to be perfect straight away. You start with the fish-stroking and lovely dress stuff and then, if and when you get to know people well, you can say stuff that means something and, if you’re lucky, they will say stuff that means something back.

Ah well, you live, you watch, you learn.

Like a bird on a wire

When the song first came out I wept, picturing the bird (aka Leonard Cohen) trapped in a snare, a loop of wire pulled tight around its leg. In those days we didn’t know so much American. I learned later that what we would call a telegraph line Americans would call a wire, and so the bird was probably just perched on it, ready to fly away.

The lineman in Wichita Lineman, then, should have been obvious to a Brit but he wasn’t. He was something ultra-romantic, science fictional almost, a wandering, lonely creature performing some unimaginable task for The County (what was The County?) – not one of those blokes that climbs up poles to fix the electrics.

Of course, I wept at the bird in its imaginary snare, flapping and flapping its tiny wings in a desperate, futile to escape because the bird, aka Leonard Cohen, was also aka me.

I was always two people. One of me was lonely, wild and free. One of me had known even as a child making messy daisy-and-buttercup chains on her grandmother’s lawn, that one day she would take off. As time went on I read the colour supplements my father discarded from the weekend papers. I pored over the photos of remote temples and marketplaces and traveller accounts of exotic destinations.  I was that traveller. One day very, very soon that would be me on the road to Marrakech in my long hippie skirt and my cheesecloth blouse, a fraying backpack containing all that I had in the world; feet blistered, sandals dusty and worn.

The other me knew it couldn’t go, knew even as a child that it was tethered to a family in which it had no place, engaged in a lifelong struggle of trying but failing to earn that place. The other me knew it needed the mirror they formed, because without that mirror it would vanish. I was only what they showed me; away from them I had no substance: I was a ghost.

And so I enrolled in a teacher training college only a short ride away from home. I took my Mum to a film show there once; she wasn’t impressed. I plodded away at that course for three years, trying to be interested in tessellations, Cuisenaire rods and lesson-planning whilst my friend Anji – she of the wispy, piled up hairdo and the Indian father; she of the many-page letters in green ink and that great circular artistic script; she of the long white raincoat and cool sunglasses; she of the unmistakeably gay boyfriend she was always hoping wasn’t entirely absolutely gay and one day might be startled into kissing her  – Anji went to France with a girlfriend. They worked as waitresses for a while until her friend stole a tablecloth and they were dismissed. She slept under lorries with lorry drivers. It was all in the letters, until they stopped.

But I have found that at least some of those fantasy Me’s do appear, eventually. But it’s like they get watered down and de-romanticised. So, at one point I imagined myself a mysterious Englishwoman living out her final days in a cliff-top village in Brittany or Normandy or somewhere. And here I am, not exactly in France and not exactly mysterious but certainly alone and in a village with a cliff-top.

I imagined myself a hippie traveller, someone who never put down roots, someone who passed through places and had brief conversation with exotic, world-weary strangers. And there I was yesterday, catching buses after years of car-driving, alighting from one train, searching for the next and being talked to (or mostly at) by a series of eccentrics of my own and other generations.

At a bus stop a group of us tried to understand the murder of so many children by a terrorist scarcely older than they were.

On the bus I learned about sunflower seeds.

In a train a young man with learning difficulties spent a long time explaining to me that the train I was on was indeed the right train, and how to tell, in future, if it wasn’t (‘It won’t be at this platform’).

At a station I discovered the Station Master’s name was Estelle and she was the sole member of staff so she had to sweep the platform in the intervals between trains. Also that the station had no loo and the nearest one was Burger King over the road.

In another train I watched a sober old man trying to calm and distract a very drunk young man so that he wouldn’t bellow the F-word aloud in a railway carriage.

I sipped on warm bottled water and ate granola bars in instalments.

I sat behind a boy with a brutally shaven neck and the top of his head crisply waved and dyed bright orange.

I saw many exotic tattoos exposed in hot sunlight and realised how difficult it was to get twins in a buggy off a bus (you have to climb down backwards).

I sat on what might have been an artwork or merely a dysfunctional bench to wait for my friends outside Marks and Spencer.

Hejira, finally.