What is it about me that’s so scary?


There’s probably quite a range of things that can give you the heebie-jeebies and dent your confidence in your own sanity. As an example: if I started seeing little green men everywhere I went – the classic kind with boggly eyes and tinny, mechanical voices, my first thought would be –

Goodness! something has gone ‘ping’ in my head whilst I slept. Where is the nearest hospital? Perhaps I should just call an ambulance?

as opposed to

Gracious! Interplanetary voyagers have invaded whilst I slept. Are the police aware? Perhaps it would be prudent to hide in case they have weapons that reduce a human to a little heap of carbon dust or a puddle of water.

Well, it hasn’t got to that stage yet, but there is this something… this something about me that seems to startle or physically frighten some people.

And I don’t know what it is.

Earlier today I took one of the cats to the vets to get her claws clipped. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Judy the receptionist did not cower behind her desk and beg me to just take the contents of the till, and Rosie my cat, and be gone. I had a jolly little chat with yet another Polish locum who was all for charging me nothing at all to clip Rosie’s nails until Judy sotto voce corrected him.

So far so more or less normal, but then I got home. No sooner was I safely indoors and thinking about sandwiches than Charlie appeared in my back garden carrying an empty dog lead. This is not unusual for Charlie. He’s a bit simple, is constantly mislaying one pet or another and has no concept of trespass or privacy. There he was, nose pressed up against my patio doors, looking in.

So I went out. He took several steps back, quaking – sort of.

What’s up, Charlie? Though the empty dog-lead was a clue.

Together we searched my garden for his dog. He hung back, seeming unwilling to venture further into my garden with me. He’s happy enough to wander round it when he thinks I’m out – even in the middle of the night when he assumes I’ll be asleep.

She isn’t here, Charlie. Usually she just comes in, does a big poop on my lawn and leaves. I even had to buy one of those pooper-scoopers…

I am trying, in our oblique English way, to make a point about dog poop, but subtlety does not register with Charlie. You’d have to hit him over the head with a hammer –

Giant Poodle poop THWACK! in my back garden THWACK! not THWACK! at all THWACK! acceptable THWACK! THWACK!

And of course I wouldn’t do that. Live and let live; anything for a quiet life.

All the same, he is starting at me in horror and backing away, muttering. I give up and come indoors.

Gazing in the living-room mirror, I try to work out what it is, since this is not the first time I have had this reaction. Admittedly, it’s a bit gloomy in my living room since I have to keep the curtains closed, since the cats swung on the nets and ripped the rawlplug out of the wall… But surely I could see if I had sprouted a big hairy wart on the end of my nose? Do I have fangs, perhaps? All I can see is a tired, pale, oval of a face. Sure, it looks like no face I ever imagined I would be wearing, but we all grow old sooner or later. It’s familiar enough.

Am I making weird faces? Of course, now I am staring in the mirror I am not making faces, but maybe I only make faces when I’m not staring in the mirror. Someone once asked my mother if I had St Vitus’ Dance when I was an infant. I had no idea who St Vitus was or why he should be dancing or what that had to do with me, and I never found out. What I was left with was her displeasure. Her embarrassment, her irritation even, to be saddled with a child like me.

Do I twitch?

Do I grimace?

The other thing that used to happen to me was in supermarkets. I thought to begin with it was only when I was with Mum. She had this habit of grabbing at me in horror as if I was about to step on someone – or blaring (she was deaf) Watch out Linda there’s a lady behind you – when I’d been perfectly aware of the lady and was in no danger of crashing into her. And if anything she was the one who was not aware of her surroundings: I always seemed to be having to coax her out of the way of other shoppers.

I thought it was just me she did this to, but later discovered that my Canadian sister had also been irritated at being treated like some sort of ticking time bomb or monstrous impediment in public.

I thought it was Mum, not me. But then I was in the supermarket on my own one day, quietly shopping, aware of an elderly lady shopping some considerable distance away from me, when suddenly she gasped, stepped back and threw her hands up, as if convinced I was about to assault her. I wanted to yell at her What IS it with you? What exactly did I just do to elicit that reaction?

But of course I didn’t, since that would only have frightened her more. She’s probably have screamed for the manager.

Maybe I don’t want to know the answer, even with Halloween coming up.

What is it about me that’s so scary?

The Folks That Lived On The Hill


When the light started to fade and the wind began to really howl in preparation for the night of mayhem to come the tree in the garden of Aslam House, down the hill, was perpendicular. Before daylight had properly returned next morning it was leaning to the left. So far to the left it was obvious it hadn’t just casually decided – as, who knows, trees may do during the night or when they assume nobody’s watching them – to have a bit of a lean, maybe, just rest the old roots for a moment…

No, the tree was uprooted. All that was holding it up even this much was another much smaller tree. Furthermore, it was leaning over my garden shed and, I realised – for it was a very tall tree – my garage/workshop. Ah well, there was nothing to be done. I murmured a little ‘thank you’ to Whoever for the tree actually not being in my garden and therefore not about to cost me thousands of pounds I did not possess to have it cut down. And I murmured a little ‘fingers crossed’ that the person at Aslam House would possess the pounds to get something done about it before it crushed my garden shed and garage/workshop.

I made some porridge. Outside the rain still rained and the wind still howled, but less viciously. I wasn’t expecting to hear from the mysterious owner of Aslam House at all, far less see him that same day.

I’d always liked to look down at Aslam House. Partly because of the name, which reminded me of the lion (in fact we must capitalise it – Lion – since he is at least partly a  Christ-like figure) Aslan from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It gave Aslam House a magical air. Anything might be going on in a house like that, I told myself.

Aslam House is like nothing else round here, architecturally. It’s very much older, and bigger. Its roof dips and sways in an Elizabethan fashion. It’s made of higgledy-piggledy slates rather than row after row of greyish dry-ridge tiles. It has beams – real ones not fake ones. Its windows are tiny and heavily-curtained and go right up into the attic. Sometimes, at night, I see a light in one of the upper rooms; always the same room. No blue flickering, which usually means a TV set. It has a garden, a higgledy-piggledy garden that goes all round the house. The garden has untended roses and a broken down shed without a roof. I can see that now, because now the tall tree has gone.

It has a conservatory, a fair-sized one, with a lot of furniture in it and – I can see if I screw my eyes up – some sort of coffee table, and paintings on the wall. No one is ever in there. A whole conservatory to himself but he doesn’t use it. My, how I would make use of such a conservatory, if I had one. I’d spend the whole of winter in it, warm and toasty, savouring the sight of my snow-covered roses and snow-filled, roofless shed. The birds you could watch from down there, out among the roses; the peaceful thoughts you could have surrounded by all that comfy chintzy furniture.

It occurs to me that Aslam House must have here right at the very beginning – it and the tall trees that are dotted about the hillside, interrupting people’s boundaries. How quiet it must have been back then, for The Folks That Lived on the Hill. No 1980s excrescence of a housing estate; no miles of concrete and brick, everything more or less identical to everything else; nothing much of anything between them and the sea in one direction or the great field in the other.

Turning one way they would have been able to watch the plough going up and down the great field, the men and women coming along later to harvest the wheat and stack it in  old-fashioned V-shaped stooks rather than the great net-covered bails the combine harvester will spit out nowadays.  Turning the other way they might have watched the red-sailed barges coming in, or maybe bigger ships.

I didn’t expect to see him, but later he came round. I don’t know what I had expected – pointy ears, perhaps; hairy feet or a suspicion of a mane – but he seemed an ordinary middle-aged/oldish man. He didn’t look too happy, but then who would be happy with several thousand pounds worth of tree-surgery suddenly looming?

Could you give your husband a message for me? Could you warn him not to go in his workshop or shed just yet? That tree’s about to go over and he’d best not to be in there when it does.

No husband, I replied, rather too swiftly. He looked nonplussed. It was the wrong thing to have said; I should have just gone along with it.

I suppose I was put out, though I should have been used to it by then, by that assumption every male over a certain age seems to make that there will be a husband. Women just don’t inhabit houses – or anywhere – on their own, apparently. What would a woman want with a workshop? She obviously shouldn’t have bought a house with a workshop, not being a man and having no earthly use for a workshop. What foolishness!

And to be honest I was saddened all over again by my man-less state. What was I doing on my own? What was I doing with a workshop? How did I end up sitting out winter after winter of storms, rough seas and gale-force winds alone in an ugly house in the back of beyond? How come I woke up – alone – with some great uprooted tree leaning over most of my garden? Why wasn’t there some broad-shouldered, check-shirted, corduroy-trousered somebody to go striding down the hill with a chainsaw, offering his services to his neighbour? Why wasn’t there a husband to make stuff and fix stuff out in that workshop, to store his well-used garden tools and spider-infested wellingtons in the shelf in the garden shed?

Bad luck – about your tree, I said. He shrugged: I’m beyond caring, he said. My wife died last year.

I am sorry to hear that, I said. And I was.

Now if this had been one of those Mills & Boon stories this would have been the moment for the reader to start hearing the ringing of bells, if only faintly. Ah, lonely woman, lonely man; she with an undeserved workshop and feeling a mite shaken in the aftermath of the storm; he conveniently widowed, having rose-bushes and an unused conservatory. But life is not a Mills & Boon story. I felt sorry for him, for his current hopelessness, the tree and all, but he was pretty ugly. Also, he had a large drip on the end of his nose and was either unaware of it or making no effort to wipe it away. If there’s something I find it hard to see beyond it’s a drip on an unwiped nose.

He went on his way un-romanced, did the gloomy inhabitant of Aslam House. Within a few days a bunch of local hooligans arrived to make a noisy and inexpert job of butchering the tall tree. Now all the shade has vanished from my kitchen. The sun shines in so brightly now, I can no longer see the flames on the gas cooker and have to exist on yoghurt and sandwiches until night has fallen.

Who made honey long ago


I tend to wamble around the house these days, opening books at random. In search of what? Entertainment? Inspiration? It may be that, having still not learned that most difficult of all lessons, I am still hoping the Meaning of Life will jump out at me one of these days.

The older I get, the shorter my attention span. I am like Edmund Blunden’s honey bee, buzzing around the sunlit meadow of incipient old age, sipping at nectar here, nectar there…

Like the bee that now is blown

Honey-heavy on my hand,

From his toppling tansy-throne

In the green tempestuous land, –

I’m in clover now, nor know

Who made honey long ago.

That poem, Forefathers, was one of the first I ‘discovered’ having crossed the threshold. I should explain. At some point, whilst still at school, poetry ceased to be one of the dire somethings that teachers tormented me with – not quite as dire as algebra, perhaps, and nowhere near as dire as netball, but dire. Maybe it happened as they were reading me Poem in October or The Wild Swans at Coole – or even during an argument between a Jehovah’s Witness girl and our poetry master, over the lines I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids / Sprouting despondently at area gates…  (there was no such thing as the soul, she maintained, and got dragged off to the headmistress’s office by the left ear for maintaining it). Whenever it happened, at some point poetry morphed into one of the loves of my life.

Forefathers, the Edmund Blunden poem – I discovered it in a little book A New Anthology of Modern Verse 1920 – 1940. And it was modern. That particular edition was published in 1943. Below the junk shop owner’s pencilled 25p someone has written in faded blue-black ink, what looks like Tring (but can’t be) – with love, Xmas 1943. Even handwriting was different in those far off days. The cheap paper is by now the colour of cappuccino, together with sprinkles. Foxing, they call that – the mottled brown spots old books, like old people, develop in extreme old age.

How lovely it is, to have a book you can hold in your hands and turn the time-buckled pages of. Such a book has its texture (cheap cloth over board), its colour (a streaky red, faded almost to pink) and a smell (dust; dried-out and crumbling glue; possibly Players cigarettes, the sort people used to buy in packets of ten, with cards inside depicting famous footballers in strange, long shorts, and well-known Shakespearian characters). A book is a thing in and of itself, not just its contents stripped out and digitally stored.

Forefathers may not even be a good poem. I no longer bother to categorise poems as good or bad: I either like them or I don’t. Maybe it’s a sentimental poem – in fact it probably is. When a country is at war its people cling to that all-important myth of their homeland. Our myth is of Englishness and goes beyond hobbits in hobbit-holes, long-bearded, wand-wielding wizards and forests full of Ents. Probably everyone has their own myth of England.

My England seems to contain larks ascending from sunlit cornfields, cumulus clouds lumbering across endless green hills, little lakes hidden among (relatively) little mountains. I’m not ashamed – too old to be ashamed – maybe it also contains that ploughman, wending his weary way through the churchyard, with its drunken gravestones; a village blacksmith or two; country choirs; A E Coppard’s higgler traipsing round the villages selling ribbons, saucepans and patent medicines for a living; convivial harvest suppers and yes, maybe even a wooing or two, lit by the Huntsman’s Moon.

Men enlisted to defend this poetic vision of an England that never was, which they perfectly understood never actually was – rather the everyday England of corned beef, chilblains, soggy fish-and-chips and queues for almost everything. This vision, I (hesitantly) suggest, is what politicians and city stockbrokers utterly failed to take into account, and are still overlooking whilst wittering endlessly on about how Brexit was Not Supposed to Happen: not a thuggish, Union Jack and knuckle-duster-wearing racism; not plebeian ignorance and the lack of a university education; not a sudden national obsession with border control; nothing at all like Donald Trump and his band of redneck followers; not the arrant selfishness of old folks who ought to just die and let young folks have what they imagine, at the moment, they want; not even the prospect of being able to make our own laws again – who, really, gives a stuff about laws? – but the heartfelt need for England. I saw a bit of film of an old man crying after the vote. I’ve got my country back, he said.

Incidentally, and on a lighter note, I learned quite a lot from that poem – the word ‘thew’ for instance – so useful for Scrabble.

These were men of pith and thew…

Pith and thew, don’t you just love the sound them, whatever they mean?


And I learned there was such a thing as a tansy-flower. It was to be many years before, thanks to Google Images, I actually saw a picture of a tansy and noted that its petals were of a very distinctive pale gingery yellow – which was exactly the hair-colour of the only lady I ever met by the name of Tansy. I suppose Tansy must have been born with a full head of hair, or at least a reasonable covering. Otherwise how could her parents have known to call her Tansy? I mean, if she’d been born bald, as most babies seem to be, she could have ended up as a Poppy, or a Violet, a Rose or even – perish the thought – a Prune-ella.

We live on the borders


We live on the borders, some of us,

Between the other world and this.

Further out than all of you,

Still we can only peer at distant hills,

Catching whispers in the wind sometimes,

Channelling darkness drifting through,

Weaving the two.

Strange stars appear in our skies.


We’d give our breath to breathe that other air,

And sanity to hear the singing truly.

For it is joy and madness both

To be so close

To all that’s dark and dreaming

And yet to have

No hope of homecoming.

When you approach the boundary between This and Other words bleach right out: they lose their relevancy. But words are a shield against the dark and dreaming, and for the moment we do need that shield.

I can only say that this concept of the border is what keeps me going. It’s not so much a reason to believe as a sense that I need to keep to my own internal faith. I keep the channel open so that the music – and the darkness – can drift through.

Such stuff as friends are made on


I probably wouldn’t notice – not straight away, anyway – if one of my followers decided to stop following me. This is partly because I find any kind of statistics difficult to pay attention to, but it’s also WordPress’s fault, or at least the fault of some electronic WordPress thingy. My stats today say I have exactly 200 followers but the widgety-thing (bottom right) says no, you have 212 followers. They haven’t agreed for some time. Both seem to fluctuate from day to day so presumably I am being followed and un-followed all the time. Is it the same people going away, changing their minds and coming back? Or are they going away for good but being compensated for by new arrivals?

After a while, of course, it would dawn on me I hadn’t heard from a regular follower a while, and I would miss them. No more feedback, no shared similar experiences, no comments. No little : )s  or ; )s. Even then I doubt that I’d check to see if they’d unfollowed me as opposed to being away on a lengthy, luxury cruise or locked up for some nefarious doing or other. What you don’t know doesn’t hurt you. Better that things stay vague, in a comforting electronic limbo.

Which leads me to my Thought For The Day. What exactly is a real friend? Is a real friend

(1)  a flesh and blood person you can share a pot of tea and a giggle with in Debenhams? Someone who will listen to you without judgment, though they’ve heard you wittering on about whatever it is so many times before? Somebody who mysteriously continues to like you however dislikeable you know yourself to be?

(2) a name-and-selfie you have never heard of, who has clicked some button on Facebook – is that a friend? or

(3) somebody you will never meet (thank goodness! I hear you all sighing), who may live  many thousands of miles away and in a culture so different from your own that you can barely imagine it; somebody whose real name, age, gender or circumstances you may never know, but you have shared at least some of your history with them and at least a few of your innermost thoughts, feelings and ideas. Is that a friend?

In my headI think – well, I would be thinking if I was in my head – a friend is another entity I have shared time and stories with. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot of time – maybe even a chance encounter would count as friendship, a joke about the lateness of the train, an intercepted glance and a half-smile across a crowded street would qualify. Friends, or followers, can be fleeting or longer-lasting.

It doesn’t even need to be human. It might be an animal, or even a book. It could be an encounter/series of encounters with anyone or anything as long as time and stories have been involved. On that basis I think I would go for (1) and (3) but scrub (2).

After all, we have in a sense ‘imagined’ every one and every thing we think we know. Every friend you ‘have’, whether now or then, here or now and whether constituted of flesh or electrons, is stored in your head as a kind of blueprint, a memory-pattern to be reconstituted as required by the firing of electrical pulses between neurons.

We store every thing, every one and every when and every where as electrical patterns. In my head I have at least my version of all the things, people and places I have ever encountered. In my head jumble around together my flesh-and-blood friends, my internet friends, friends long-dead and friends long fallen-out-with. They’re all the same stuff.

I can never visit my grandmother’s garden again but it’s here and, by the firing of neurons in a particular pattern or sequence, I can walk around it. I can see the hollyhocks and the London Pride, the yellow roses, the swing on the apple tree, the bird-bath with the poem all round it. I can recite the poem. I can see it. I can never see my father again, but he’s in here somewhere and if I want to I can hold a conversation with him. I can never meet Jane Eyre – after all she’s not ‘real’, merely a character I constructed with the help of Charlotte Brontë. I can never meet Charlotte Brontë either.

And yet here they both are.

Magpie Mind


I’ve always liked magpies – you know how you sometimes feel a particular colour is your colour; a particular object is your lucky object, a particular animal may be your totem? I’ve always felt magpies were my bird. I don’t mind them in ones, twos or threes, even though the sight of one is supposed to presage Sorrow, two Joy etc. I even named a house Magpie Corner once, because the garden and the trees around it always seemed be full of black and white birds.

However, let’s start off with butterflies and get back to the magpies.

My father was always telling my mother she had a butterfly mind. This was the sort of thing men said to women back in the fifties and sixties, when women were assumed to have butterfly minds – it was more or less a compliment. In those days it was also all right to refer to one’s wife as The Little Woman, and make amused comments about women drivers and the obvious dangers their clumsy handling of any machine bigger than a blender must pose to rightful, masculine, users of the road. Heaven forefend that you should be or even look clever, or be able to concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. I remember being told, repeatedly, that men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.

Fortunately the need for glasses did not arise until – more by accident than design, on his part or mine – I had bagged myself a husband, although I doubt if this particular husband would have noticed whether I was wearing glasses or not. He didn’t look at people – could paint in oils the perfect steam engine, traction-engine or Spitfire; the perfect landscape of stark winter trees, silent lakes, lowering storm-clouds – and yet could not draw a recognisable charcoal sketch of me or produce anything more than a blurred and distant human figure.

But I digress. In fact I digress (butterflies) then I digress again (sixties sexism) then again (spectacles) then again (ex-husbands). I’m always doing that. My father would say, of course, that I have a butterfly mind, inherited from my mother.

My father did have a point, though he might have resisted making it so frequently. My mother did flit from one ‘hobby’ to the next, from jigsaw puzzles to painting cherries on jam-jars, to weaving wicker baskets to mowing careful patterns in the lawn, to machine-knitting (hell on earth, that was, for all of us) to reading the whole of Dickens. And she didn’t listen much.

In latter years we used to meet in garden centres for lunch. I never managed to get more than half a sentence out without her eyes drifting away and focussing on something just over my shoulder – some cyclists passing by in the road, maybe – or wondering aloud why the service was so slow, or whether the man behind the counter was married to the lady behind the counter or just a distant cousin. In my own conversations I feel compelled to repeat everything, sometimes two or three times over. I can’t believe the other person will have been paying attention beyond the first few words. I can hear myself doing it, I wish I didn’t do it but I can’t seem to stop. It’s engrained.

I can’t really criticise, of course. Even a childhood blighted by a butterfly mind does not prevent you from having to make do with the exact same mind yourself. Nowadays I understand it a little more. I see what she, and I, and Ex all had in common. None of us can be blamed, although we were blamed, not to mention ridiculed. Other people blamed us, we blamed ourselves and we blamed each other.

Nowadays I tend to put a more positive spin on it. I call it Magpie Mind. All three of us were creative. Like magpies we collected bright, shiny impressions, odd bits of information other people missed. I collected words, the assonances and dissonances of words, the vapour trail left by words, their echoes. I collected sudden washes of sadness, subtle changes in the light, the patterns made by everything, the poetry that’s in the pity. What you get is a mind that makes odd connections between things, a mind that can spark at random and in any direction, bringing disparate ideas and pieces of information together and making something unexpected out of them.

Ex took it for granted that everyone ‘saw’ the world as he saw it. He once told me that anyone was capable of painting like he did – they just needed to be taught. He could remember the colour of a piece of fabric throughout a lengthy shopping expedition and then select an exactly matching reel of cotton in the sewing shop. He wasn’t even trying to remember.

He told me once that when I looked in a puddle I should analyse the colours that were actually there, the blues and the greens, the pinks and purples, even. He said people assumed puddles were grey because that was the colour they thought of them as. Most people didn’t bother to look properly. After that I tried to look properly but it didn’t help. Puddles still appeared mostly grey.

Mum collected crafts, and colours, and fleeting, subconscious impressions. She put all her creativity and long days of work into her garden. She told me once not to worry about plants in a border ‘clashing’ because in nature everything was designed to go with everything else. And sometimes, even though she has not been listening to a word I say, she seems to know what I’m feeling. Visiting her at the Home on Sunday, she spoke in gibberish for half an hour or so, fighting with no-words and wrong-words before sinking back and closing her eyes, exhausted. I was realising that we would never, now, have that long-awaited ‘proper conversation’.

And just as I was realising it she reached up and touched my cheek. You girls, she said. You girls.

On Another’s Sorrow

Life behind the fence

Sometimes you witness something so sad, and yet so ordinary. You want to describe it and yet it defies description. Maybe you shouldn’t even try; and yet it won’t go away until you do.

Today I went shopping. At least, I had been into town ‘on business’ – how important that sounds – and dropped off at the supermarket on the way back for a sandwich and half an hour’s sit/unwind/read in the car before setting off for home.

Often, in car parks, you witness or overhear little dramas. People take it for granted that the parked cars all around them are empty, as mostly they are. In supermarket car-parks people come and go fairly rapidly, and supermarkets tend to bring the worst out in adults as well as children. I remember them having the same effect on me, in the days when I still had somebody to be unpleasant to.

Anyway, I was sitting there, ploughing through yet another chapter of my book on Mindfulness. Obviously not being all that Mindful because the shouting kept distracting me. Several cars down a woman with straight grey hair was berating a young-ish man in a wheelchair. I watched them through my open window, and through three or four other sets of closed windows, so it wasn’t terribly clear. None if it was terribly clear.

She had the rear passenger door open and kept bobbing in and out of the car. Every time she bobbed out again, she shouted at him some more as he sat there in his chair.

Don’t try to help. See what you’ve done now, you’ve spilled it! Look at this mess!

But he didn’t look. He couldn’t have done, really, his chair was parked too far back. He just sat there not looking at her with his head bowed.

She seemed to be taking ages over everything in a kind of petulance, dragging it out as if to prolong the agony of the punishment for whatever it was he had done.

None of your business I told myself sternly, returning my attention to my book. But she was still shouting.

When I looked again he was in the passenger seat, still staring straight ahead. No sign of the wheelchair. She was round the other side, still bobbing into the car and bobbing out again, and shouting. Then she was round the back of the car with the hatchback up, and shouting. She really is making a meal of this, I thought. It was a hot morning but the windows of their car were rolled up.

The keys – just give me the keys! She shouted. And then I do believe she locked him in. I heard that little electronic noise central locking makes.

Then she went off somewhere, pushing their empty trolley, very slowly and leaning on it, kind-of one-armed and oddly. I wondered if she was his mother. I began to wonder if there wasn’t actually something more wrong with her than there was with him. I wondered if she had been drinking and whether she was going to be safe to drive. The sensible thing would be to set off for home right now, before she could come back and decide to jam a bad-tempered foot on her accelerator and broadside my car on the way out. But I didn’t.

I expected her to park the empty trolley and return, but instead she was gone for ages, presumably back into the supermarket to buy a replacement for whatever had been spilled or broken. I looked through the line of car windows again and saw that the young man was crying. Or at least, it looked as if he was.

I don’t often bother to pray but I found myself praying, momentarily, or at least asking on his behalf. It was for some sort of blanket to go around him; some sort of shield against that woman’s loud bitterness; some comfort against the odds.

I remembered when my marriage to Ex was failing – all those half-silent, half-aloud arguments we had in public places – in pubs, in supermarkets, in the street. When it gets past a certain point you are so inward-looking, so consumed by the struggle it’s as if you’re invisible. I remember having this pointed out to me once. A man in a pub – a man I liked and whose good opinion I would have wanted – turned to me abruptly and said ‘You two – don’t force us all to take part in your disputes. Save them for behind closed doors.’

We should have done, but I don’t know whether we did. Good advice is sometimes impossible to take.

I just hope he got that blanket, the man in the wheelchair. I hope he got that shield.

(On Another’s Sorrow: Songs of Innocence: William Blake)