Red Sky In The Morning

If you have never been to Britain, maybe this is your image of a British winter. All powdery snow and happy, cold-pawed doggies, a heavy hat of snow on car bonnets, lych-gates and wall … what do they call those little brick-built tower-things at the ends of low garden walls? No doubt there is a technical term.

It’s all very Christmas-cardy. Any minute now, one feels, a carriage and horses will appear, complete with overcoated coachman. Any minute now, Santa’s sleigh. Any minute now a fat robin will flutter down and arrange himself, scenically, in the foreground on a red post-box. And surely, all over Britain, there must be villages exactly like this. Surely it can’t all be wishful thinking.

When I was at school, as part of English lessons, they used to occasionally attempt to teach us creative writing, only it was disguised as Composition. (Editing was disguised as Précis, and proved much more useful in later years than Composition.) It was before the Seventies and they weren’t into all that stuff like inspiration-producing heaps of photos or magazine cuttings, inspirational tracks of music, mysterious works of art. In those days the teacher turned her back and chalked up on the board something like “The Life History of a Penny”, “Ten Minutes To Wait” or “Seen Through A Window”. Prompts, in other words. The internet is heaving with them now.

The truth is, that if you can write you can write, with or without prompts. Indeed, you will write whether or not you want to, feel like it or are ever likely to be read by anyone. And if you can’t write, this sad fact will not be changed by any number of creative writing prompts. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, trawl for prompts.

Anyway, “Seen From My Window”.

Seen From My Window this morning is an untidy rectangle of lawn, thick with frost. At the far end of it, in the half-light, a fat blackbird and one of the Ratties are picking up yesterday’s overspill from the bird-feeder. The dawn sky is a strange mixture – streaks of almost-summer pale blue overlaid with streaks of pink and orange cloud. Bad sign. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning. (And in case you’re unfamiliar, Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight.)

Behind that is, as far as I have been able to discover in the last seven years, anyway, the only beautiful house in the village. I am thankful, that I am the one who gets to gaze at her from her kitchen window in moments of abstraction. She’s kind of Tudor, with a multitude of weirdly sloping tiled roofs, and those black beams. I say kind of Tudor because she’s not. Probably 1920s or 30s.

However, she’s been here on this bramble-infested hillside for so much longer than any of the excrescences that surround her. She must have been on her own, once. Her new owner has managed to ruin the garden by chopping down a couple of trees, bulldozing most of the rest and installing a portable building-site toilet in one corner, but hasn’t yet thought to paint her white bits dayglo pink or jazz her up with a Roman portico. No doubt he will.

My green bin’s lips are sealed against me. I went out there in the almost-dark to collect the stray-cat dishes and put new out, and put the overnight black bag of waste into my green bin. Had I been keen and energetic I should have done like Canadian Sister with her post-box at the end of the Infinite Driveway – returned with special spray, chisel and whatever to do battle with frozen binny. But what I did was dump the black bag on top of it. Why struggle, when the sun will (eventually) be coming out?

Later, hopefully wearing slightly more than damp bedroom slippers, a worn-thin droopy nightie and a man’s velvetesque dressing-gown, I will have to brave the garage (assuming it will let me in) to fetch more cat food and the shopping bags. Sainsbury’s are delivering this morning, whoopee. A tiny moment of excitement.

Instead of a handbag…

The Rusty Post Box

Well, I have voted. I am registered for a postal vote and they arrive about two weeks before the election. I could actually walk the dull, fifteen minute walk to the village hall to cast my vote among my fellow villagers but it’s just – so depressing. So, I climbed the dull, two minute climb up the hill to the Rusty Post Box to post my vote – I always return it the same day, before any cat can widdle or vomit on it, or decide to shred it for the pure catty amusement of it.

It was several years before I dared risk inserting anything into the mouth of the Rusty Post Box, assuming the Post Office had abandoned it to its fate, forever to moulder beside the overflowing, never emptied litter bin, steadily encroached upon by vicious triffid brambles from a nearby garden… I have never seen a place like this for Things Falling Apart. It’s almost artistic.

Have you ever thrown a book away?

This was a question posed in a Radio 4 broadcast yesterday. I must say – yes, and no. I recently managed a mass throw-out and taking-to-charity shops. However, a good two thirds of my book collection remained, mouldering in the garage. I only managed it by not stopping to look at what I was throwing into the bags-for-life. However, then I chickened out, and now I have a house full of the remaining books, comfortably warm and dry, but with weird gaps. One or two books missing from a run of the same author, books, like missing teeth. All that random throwing out… So of course I am having to replace them.

It made me think of The Life Of King George V. This is the worse book ever but I find myself unable to throw it out. It came in a job lot with the £2 Odhams’ Encyclopaedia, which I did want. I suspect the owner was glad to get rid of it. It is the ghastliest, grubbiest, dullest, most foxed, most sycophantically fulsome old book I have ever had the misfortune to come across, full of full page brown, smelly old pictures of Royalty in all their medals and jewels, looking unforgiving. To give you just a taste:

The next year saw the King “do his bit” in another way. He gave £100,000 out of his private fortune to the Exchequer to be used for the prosecution of war. It was a notable gesture of self-sacrifice in the common cause, and the extent to which this generous gift crippled the King’s resources was shown by the difficulties of the Royal Household after the war.

So it goes through his life, year by year, one praiseworthy Kingly deed after another. But can I throw it out? No. I find myself hovering with the filthy, dusty old thing over the waste bin. Can I let go of it? It’s managed to survive this long with nobody reading it, nobody caring about it… etc.

Instead of a handbag

Another marathon conversation with Canadian Sister last night. She worries about things, and because she always had a husband to make decisions for her she struggles to make even the smallest them now.

I have to take all of my course artwork in to the University in a suitcase later today (they’re many hours behind us in Edmonton) My tutor won’t give me a grade if I don’t, but the suitcase with all the paintings in it is so heavy I don’t know how I’m going to manage it on the train. All those steps to drag it up…

Is there a lift – sorry, elevator – at the station?

Well, I haven’t seen one.

Wouldn’t somebody be likely to help you up the steps with the case? I mean, in this country if a woman is struggling up a flight of steps with a child in a pushchair, someone will always grab the bottom of the pushchair and help her with it.

I don’t think they do that sort of thing in Canada. They’re more likely to yell at me for blocking the staircase. It’s quite narrow, you see.

But I thought Canadians were all so courteous. I mean, they’re famous for it! What about that beautiful Mountie chap from Down South? Aren’t all Canadians like him?

Someone did help me with a case once, at the airport, on my way over to England. In fact he grabbed the whole huge travel trunk and ran off with it up the stairs. I thought he had stolen it, like, instead of my handbag or something. I was in a terrible panic, but he was there waiting for me at the top of the stairs.

What about a taxi?

Oh yes, they do have taxis at the station… But what if the taxi-driver should be a rapist?

Poor Rosie

Rosie, I am afraid, is becoming incontinent. Well, she is incontinent. You probably don’t want to know this but – I’ve started so I’ll finish. Every time I sit down I have to check the end of sofa Rosie and I share – luckily a third-hand and leather(ish) sofa – for little puddles and dribbles of poo. Every time she sits on my lap I forget to grab a cushion or put something between me and her. Consequently I am washing a pair of jeans every day, in fact sometimes twice a day. Just can’t bring myself to open the door to the postman adorned in driblets of poo. Mind you, I could be wearing an orange wig and full clown make-up and it wouldn’t register with the postman.

Poor Rosie, she has been my light and salvation for eighteen years and I’m not getting rid of her now she has become a little inconvenient. If only they had the same sort of thing for cats as they have for my Mum and her fellow inmates. Maybe they do, but I wouldn’t have her suffer the indignity.

“Wait a minute, Mr Postman…”

Until sometime around the early ’80s I was very Little Britain, very provincial – I just assumed that everybody had a letterbox in their front door, plus a postman to trudge round every morning pushing letters through it. It wasn’t until my sister emigrated to Canada and started to tell these tales

Well, it seems that even in the middle of winter, when temperatures are 40 degrees below or whatever, if she wants her mail she has to don full arctic gear and big, slip-proof boots and trudge down the newly snow-ploughed driveway in order to spray something on her mailbox to melt the overnight ice that has welded it shut. She also needs a chisel or screwdriver in case the spray doesn’t work, and then a key

And it wasn’t until sometime in the 90s, when I went to work for a university college providing postgraduate distance-learning courses to students all over the globe, that I realised there could be such a thing as a dwelling that does not have a well-defined address. So we could be mailing giant parcels of course materials to “Beyond the village, turn left at the lake, third hut.” I used to wonder how they plugged their computers in, because surely a hut whose location could only be vaguely described would not have electricity. Students also had trouble with beads of sweat dropping onto the page, creeping damp, and ants. Paper-chomping ants.

You would think I would be grateful for my nice, civilised British letter-box and my nice, predictable British postman – or in fact, lady – but I have come to mostly dread what might tumble through it. I cannot properly concentrate until the witching hour – mid-day or thereabouts – has passed and I know I am safe from yet another bill or – OMG, the Bank Statement. That always arrives on the 13th. I spend the whole month dreading the 13th. I count down to the 13th. In various ways I aim to distract myself from the fact that the 13th is drawing ever closer.

Aside from bills there is the monthly Parish Council Newsletter to cast a pall. This is a single sheet of A4 paper folded into three. This month it is yellow. Even the folding-into-three depresses me. It reminds me of when I was a legal secretary and had to fold my boss’s signed post and put it in the envelope, with the address showing exactly in the centre of the glassine window. I was very good at this.

In fact I still am. I only have to look at an A4 sheet of paper and I can fold it exactly into three, with the edges exactly touching. I can even accomplish this feat with my eyes shut. Trouble is, it reminds me that a) I was no good at any other part of that job and b) it was the only thing I ever managed to do that impressed my mother. It seemed to be my life’s work to impress my parents in some way but all I ever manged was the paper-folding thing. And then only my mother.

The Parish Council Newsletter enrages me because it lectures me, in badly-written, ungrammatical prose, on things I have not done wrong:

Dog Fouling: Please be aware it is an instant fine for not picking up after your dogs. It is also unhygienic and nasty!” I don’t have a dog.

Parking: Complaints have been received,  (and why the comma?) that there is an issue with people parking in places that can be considered dangerous. It has also been reported that there has been parking on paths and green areas, you can be fined up to £500 for this offence.” But not me, guv. And where? What green areas? What paths? And complaints by whom? At least make it interesting.

Speeding Cars: Please note that the exit road from the village is a 30mph road, and many concerns have been received especially from parents walking children to and from school.” How is anything managing to drive at over 20mph, say, when the road is beset with giant speed-bumps so large even the bus has to slow right down to negotiate them? Is there a manic 40mph cyclist about?

Or else it tells me things I don’t care about even though I feel I probably ought to:

The Annual Seniors Christmas Lunch in the Village Hall. Forms available from the Post Office.”  Just went gluten-free. And went last year. That was an experience.

Christmas Lights Competition –  6 prizes of £25 each.” Why not use up the earth’s dwindling resources and pollute the starlit night sky with tawdry flashing lights? Why not spend £100 on lights and electricity in order to win £25?

Park Renovations – The Village park is in need of a new paint job, this has been sourced and the work should start shortly.” I’m confused. Are they painting the grass a more acceptable shade of green?

The stupid yellow creature just makes me feel slightly at odds with the rest of the human race – defective, somehow.

Into the Recycling you shall go, ee-aye ee-aye ee-aye oh
And if I catch you bending…

mother brown 2

Knees up, Mother Brown…

But enough of that, now.

Objets Perdus

Now, this is a bit of a strange one, and I have been putting off writing about it for days. Something to do with shame, I think – shame and sorrow. But what’s the best way for a writer to call up and exorcise her ghosts?

Write about them.

When I was a child I had a (very) few treasured objects, and one by one I lost them or gave them away. Something seems to compel me to ‘lose’ the things that mean the most to me – and not just objects, people. One by one, I have mislaid them all.

Setting aside the people, because nothing at all can be done about them. Those objects…

I had a copy of Aesop’s Fables. It was a beautiful book – they are ferociously expensive to buy second-hand now. You know, I thought, until this very moment, that I had given it away. I had been wracking my brains to think how I gave it away. Why would I have done that with my beloved Aesop? I read that book over and over. The fables, and the beautiful but slightly creepy illustrations, those glossy, full-page watercolours, seeped into my childhood consciousness.

But I gave it away. Or did I? I just turned sideways and there it was, sitting in the bookcase beside me. It has lost it’s cover, the boards have faded from scarlet to orange, but – still here. Inside I have written my full maiden name, in ink, in weird little-girl writing. Two pages on and an inscription reads With love to Rosie, on her 7th Birthday. From Grandma & Grandpa. Well, Rosie or, you know, whatever.

But other objects I really did lose. I once had a stone, with the impression of a prehistoric sea creature upon it, like a tiny octopus. I found it half-buried in the path between the allotments. It was as if it had been waiting for just me, that magical fossil, for billions and billions of years. If only I had kept it, if only I had not somehow lost it – what luck it might have brought me.

And I gave away my Odhams Encyclopaedia for children. I remember the struggle I had at the time. It was when my niece was born and I foolishly had this idea that the child should “inherit” something of value from her auntie. And I have regretted the loss of that book ever since.

And then there was my teddy bear. I temporarily forgot about him and instead of taking him with me when I got married I foolishly left him with Mum. In fact he was up in the attic, and I didn’t realise. Mum and my sister are alike in “getting rid”. She accidentally informed me one day, several years later, that she had given my bear to Oxfam. After all, she knew I wouldn’t want it.

I never stopped missing my bear. I mourned for him. Even now – especially now, when I am old – I want my teddy bear back. I realised today that that was what my teddy-bear buying jag had been all about. I now have a cupboard full of disreputable 1950s teddy-bears courtesy of E-bay. None of them are my bear, but I have rescued them. I couldn’t save it but I have saved them.

I know, it doesn’t make sense.

And now I have gone and saved “my” Encyclopedia. And in fact I have saved more than one of them because the other day eBay came up with a second, horribly battered copy for only £2 and I bid the £2 and won. To my surprise. The first one, which arrived a week ago, cost a massive £20 but is in excellent condition. Unlike me, its owner must have held it close, kept it. Presumably there will soon be a stack of second-hand Odhams Encyclopaedias on my coffee table, all ridiculously, pathetically rescued by some ancient woman, just in case one of them might turn out to have been her actual one.

When I was a child the page that fascinated me the most was the one with the anaconda. My mother used to take the mickey, saying that the encyclopaedia would fall open at the snakes page of its own accord. I do hope it was nothing sexual. I mean, I was very young and, lacking any kind of brother (though over-supplied with sisters) did not even suspect the existence of that appendage which, according to Dr Freud, snakes represent.

In my memory the anaconda took up the whole of the page and was vividly coloured, green and gold and glittery. Now I see that it is smaller, and in black and white, but I still like the way the artist has coiled and draped the various snakes around the branches, the way the pictures and the text bleed into one another.

How beautiful that anaconda was to me, and how utterly terrifying. In my mind’s eye I stood before him in the South American jungle, tiny-small in my cotton check school dress and pudding-basin haircut. Anaconda was looking at me out of that glittery, sardonic eye. He was weighing up whether to wrap me in his sinuous, gorgeous coils and crush me to smithereens. Because that is what anacondas do, being the largest of the boa constrictor family.

And I wished he would. And I wished he wouldn’t.

And this is him, my beloved, my childhood version of God: the anaconda, unchanged over the decades and decades since I first caught sight of him.

Why do we lose the things we love?

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For all the tea in China

Two halves of the same cat

Every autumn I start putting out food for the strays again. I always tell myself I won’t, because strays means bonding and bonding means coming indoors and coming indoors means staying for ever and a day. I remind myself that I cannot save every single stray cat in all the world. Nevertheless, that seems to be what I am programmed to do. I have no other purpose.

The first dishes usually go to waste, but on the second day of the putting out of the food, strays appear; sometimes one, occasionally four but most often two of them. And so it is this year. At first I thought there was only one, since all I could see of it was a large, black furry bottom poking out of the dog/cat kennel whilst the head inside busily slurped. But no, it’s two – I heard yowling round the side and caught them nose to nose, whisker to whisker, an all black one and a mostly black one with white bits on her face. A boy and a girl, I think, possibly brother and sister. They will have to organise themselves not to turn up at exactly the same time.

The lawn fails to get the message

The lawn mowing duo turned up on time today, weather-beaten and muscular in their matching green tee-shirts. I haven’t yet decided whether they are married or siblings. Heavy morning rain had ceased only seconds before. They must have a line to whoever or whatever turns the rain on and off. (The cats think this is me.)

The industrial, gas-powered machines were unloaded from the truck, one large green person took the front and one the back and it was done in a tenth of the time it would have taken me. I could just about still do it, but have reached the stage of breathlessness/ agonising boredom where I just don’t want to do it. A monthly visit from The Green People is my only luxury.

They will not be back now till March, when the grass officially starts growing again. The grass has now, since it is November, officially stopped growing. Unfortunately nobody has told the grass. After the Green People left last month it was so made up, so overjoyed to have been mown by professionals, that it put on a spurt of growth. I have a feeling another spurt will follow their November visit. So under a carpet of snow, that bright green grass will be growing and growing…

But then, I’m not the one who will be doing the first cut next spring. Yay!

I have decided I don’t like my lady vet

I used to like the vet, when he was an eastern European chap with an accent you could cut with a knife. I don’t think he was Russian – because would Russian vets be allowed to come over here? – just sounded for all the world like one of those meercats in the TV ads. But he has gone. I went in one day to discover he had gone, for good, to France. He has taken all his cats, and his dogs, so he can’t be coming back. Indeed, why would you come back, here? I wouldn’t come back here if I had a chance to go somewhere else: no, not for all the tea in China.

But the lady we have instead – well, she is a lady, for a start. And she’s not him. She has an accent but not the same accent. She’s large, she has a tattoo and a brusque manner and I can’t bring myself to trust her. She talks to me like some generic, probably senile, Old Person, some tiresome Member of the Public; whereas he – I felt, anyway – actually seemed to be talking to me. I got the feeling he saw me as unpredictable and scarily odd: everybody seems to react to me like that – so be grateful that I am blogging rather than turning up on your street corner or lurking by the swings in the park. But occasionally amusing. And he didn’t make the mistake of thinking I was daft.

Really, it must be genetic. Why is it still easier to trust a man even though, throughout my life at any rate, the men I have known (in any detail) have proven themselves crueller, more devious, more judgmental and less supportive than women? No wonder we remain unemancipated.

But still, I think I’ll bite the bullet and try out (gasp!) another surgery altogether.

I think bread may be causing my IBS

I ate an experimental sandwich at lunch time and yes, the agony has returned. I am writing to distract myself from it. Think I will go and make myself a hot water bottle and distract myself still further by watching a really dreadful Christmas movie and knitting yet another dishcloth.

Slow, Slow (Slow-Slow-Slow)

When I gave up my TV set, angry at the BBC for refusing to fund free licences for the over 75s from next year, I expected to be watching less TV. In fact, no TV. That was before I discovered Amazon Prime.

Now, I have been paying for Amazon Prime for years without understanding exactly what it was. It used to be just getting your parcels the next day, then the price went up – considerably. I was never entirely clear why this should be and several times cancelled my Amazon Prime subscription, only to go slinking back to it as soon as my parcels started taking ages to arrive.

Only recently did I realise that all this time I could have been listening to music and watching movies free, gratis and for nothing. You do have to have the patience hunt for the good free stuff, though. A lot of the free stuff is bad – films so execrably bad you wonder how on earth they got the funding to make them; films with plot holes, logic holes, unsuitable-looking actors and actors who obviously aren’t actors at all but people netted at random from the local pub or garage forecourt.

I watched – forced myself to watch – recently a Christmas Movie so indescribably awful… Well, suffice it to say that the young heroine spent the whole movie strutting about the snow-clad Rocky Mountains (or similar – it’s a bit vague where they are) in a mini-skirt, surrounded by fake snow. The strutting about and the deafening clatter of her monstrous high heels continued throughout the movie. Everyone else was wearing either suits or Christmas jumpers.

At one point there was an inexplicable Soup Kitchen. It just sort of materialised, so that they could cook their Christmas Buns in it when the plumbing failed in their – Christmas Bakery Thingy. And the men in suits – well, the suits were all identical, all a size or two too small – and the men inside them all had lantern jaws and shoulders like Popeye, post spinach. Presumably the local gym had supplied the men, and a cheap-ish men’s outfitters had hired the suits out in bulk.

However, it’s worth the effort of wading through the turkeys to get to the good stuff. Last night I watched a film called He Won’t Get Far On Foot about an alcoholic, wheelchair-bound cartoonist. It was somewhat “gritty” and sad, but also funny. Joachim Phoenix. Heard of him but never seen him before.

And before that a French film: The House By the Sea. There’s something about French films, so very cool and triste and sophisticated. Everybody smoking more than is good for them, and occasionally committing suicide. Plenty of expressive shrugs.

There’s Mr Robot, of course. My absolute favourite and still going on. Every Monday a new episode appears, like magic, on my tablet. The only trouble is it’s so very noir it’s difficult to see what’s going on – I mean, the lighting is clever, and super-creepy, and the hero, Eliot, wears a black hoodie… They do all tend to mumble, which makes them ultra authentic and cool, but mumbling in an urban American accent can be a problem if you’re not American or urban – or cool, or young. Then I discovered subtitles. Yes, you can turn them on and off at will and they stand out so well against the pitch-blackness of all those sinister rooms.

And now, from the same director (Sam Esmail) there is Homecoming with Julia Roberts. Better lit but just as creepy. I don’t normally like Julia Roberts. She strikes me as one of that small bunch of actors who have a personal charisma so great that they will always be watchable, but at the same time are always playing themselves. Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, John Wayne… always themselves. Ultra-strong signal, narrow bandwidth. However, she is good in this. She’s excellent at suffering, I think. Silent suffering.

And I think I have finally discovered a phenomenon known as Slow TV. It’s not exactly a new thing – does anyone remember The Potter’s Wheel intermission? And the (very) lengthy shot of a photograph of a little girl with chalks, at a blackboard? The present-day version is a kind of televised vlog produced by an exhausted, unshaven chap of a certain age who buys a narrow boat and sails it around the waterways of England.

He seems to be on his own and filming everything with a mobile phone, although he is quite good at propping it up and leaving it at an angle so that you can see him tying the boat up prior to stopping for one of his many cups of tea. The first episode takes place almost entirely inside his camper van, where he sits, for days, surrounded by all his worldly goods, waiting for his purchase of his narrow boat to go through. It rains on the windscreen. He wonders if he is doing the right thing. He eats pork pies and pizzas discovered in village petrol stations. He drinks tea. Always that same mug.

And after that it is sailing – up one canal, down another, through a very long tunnel, then through an even longer tunnel. Tunnels are scary. You never know when you are going to meet another narrowboat coming the other way. But the England he passes through, at four miles per hour, is very green, very lush, very damp, very quiet and apparently completely devoid of people. Just – wonderful!

Haunted By Davids

Haunted by Davids

I observed fairly early on that the names of everyday boys and men, and those of the men in the romantic short stories in Nan’s old Woman’s Realms belonged to two different subsets of men’s names. Boys in my class, for instance, tended to be called John, James, Robert, William, Michael, David, Richard, Thomas, Charles or Gary. I remember one Andrew – but he was quite exotic – and one Paul – but of course he was Polish. What we didn’t have were any Dirks, Aidens, Bryces, Calebs, Dantes or Micahs.

I guessed, correctly, that a plain big lumpy girl like me was never going to snare herself a Micah. But I was haunted by Davids, for some reason. Everywhere I went, throughout my life there a David would “happen to be”. For some reason all Davids seemed to like me, whereas no other-named kind of man did.

I didn’t even like Davids, at least not in a marrying way. Davids sounded as if they ought to be round-shouldered and work in shoe shops, bringing out boxes of shoes to shoehorn onto your ungrateful feet; or perhaps behind the desk at the library, pathetically eager to help you locate obscure non-fictions in the card-index system or to point you in the direction of French dictionaries.

And so I married a man with another ordinary-ish man’s name. I didn’t particularly like it, but it was attached to him so I married it. Over the next twenty-two years or so I came to feel that I might have been better off with a David after all. Coincidentally, Devon Aunt chose to name all her rescue cats David. One stray, furry David after another, for thirty years or so.

Apple Peel and Cherry Pips

Halloween used to be a good time to find out the name of your future mate. At Halloween, it was said, a girl might see his face reflected dimly in a mirror – maybe standing behind you. I wonder if clothed or unclothed… Then there was the game with the apple core. You peeled an apple, being sure to keep the peel in a single piece, and tossed the peel over your shoulder, where it would – or might – form the initial of your husband to be.

Alternatively you could line up hazelnuts along a hot grate, giving each hazelnut the name of a prospective husband. Then you would recite:

If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die!

A variation – such of the nuts as cracked would be the fickle suitors.

Or you could place your shoes in the form of a letter ‘T’ (representing Thor’s hammer) and say

Hoping this night my true love to see, I place my shoes in the form of a “T”.

And then there were the cherry stones, which you placed around the rim of your plate as you ate them. My Nan actually taught me this one:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.

Nan preserved cherries in the summer from the cherry tree in the garden and we ate them in the winter, from thick glass jars arrayed on shelves around the top of the living room, just underneath the ceiling. But what I couldn’t understand was how one Sunday I was going to marry a Thief and the next a Rich Man, and so ad infinitum, all winter long. And if I didn’t like what appeared I could always eat another cherry.

Apparently there was also Silk, Satin, Muslin, Rags. That was what you would be married in. But Nan didn’t teach me that.

The Green Oil Lamp

I have only ever been to a fortune teller twice in my life. The second one asked me if I was married to a long-distance lorry driver, as she sensed my husband seemed to be absent a lot. I wanted to tell her that you didn’t need a long-distance lorry to seem to be absent a lot. A shed at the bottom of the garden would do just as well.

The first fortune teller had been the vicar’s wife, in a small but elaborate tent, masquerading as Gypsy Rose Something Or Other. I was quite young, and it was at a fête in the grounds of the local “big house”. I remember I had just failed to get the metal ring along yards of wiggly electrified loops, and was looking for something else to do. And thinking back – yes, I was dressed as Florence Nightingale in a longish skirt and a white apron, and clutching a green oil lamp.

I had been in for the fancy dress competition because Mum told me I must, and I hadn’t had any more success with that than the metal ring and the electrified snake. The green oil lamp occupied one entire small hand, and it was greasy and smelled of paraffin. I wanted to put it down somewhere and forget about it but I couldn’t, because Mum had told me I mustn’t.

The vicar’s wife looked at me despairingly from beneath her curtain-ring fringed headscarf. Then she waved her hands about and around her crystal ball. You will have four children and, um, an operation when you are forty, she pronounced, and snatched my penny or tuppence from the hand that wasn’t holding the oil lamp.

I waited for those four children with an odd superstitious confidence, considering I knew it was only the vicar’s wife; and I felt quite aggrieved when not only did the promised four offspring not arrive, but none did. And I do believe I rather dreaded that operation, which also did not happen – or at least not when it was supposed to.