Poem: Once in a while

I talk to you in the kitchen, no? Wouldn’t you laugh if you knew?

Except of course that you wouldn’t because you didn’t; not ever,

no matter how sunny and bright I tried to be.

These long nights I turn off the TV to read and listen;

various cats come slouching along the wall,

sinking deep into the clefts between the cushions, sleeping instantly.

Peace breaking out between us as it rarely ever did

when both of us were real, and really here.

 

You never did read, did you? Your eyes would glaze over

at any page lacking diagrams or photos, or a bunch of formulae.

Nonetheless, your hypothetical self sits next to me on this fourth-or-fifth-hand sofa

and when I get to a track you might have relished I pass you the other earphone;

we listen in together, I and the shade of the man-you-might-now-be.

Once in a while you appear to forget that I’m here – I being a ghost to you –

and mumble along to the music, absently. And your singing voice is as soft and

loud, and as slightly-off-key as it always used to be. I loved your voice.

 

Every so often I go to your funeral, as in reality it is not very likely

that I will be asked to do. Over there – that’s me in fusty black under grey, imagined

sky, trying not to make it too obvious that I’m freezing –

at the brutalist crematorium that swallowed up my Dad.

I rarely cry except a tear or two, hypothetically. Because all said and done

this isn’t really real. And I wonder how the Real Thing would have gone

if you’d happened to go before me, and if we had still been We,

not You and I.

 

Featured Image: Funeral Procession: Clementine Hunter (1886-1998)

A Lilith of what you fancy (does you good)

Succumb‘ is not a fruitful prompt for someone my age. I mean, it’s not likely to be ‘the insistent advances of handsome millionaire actor George Clooney’, is it? More like viral pneumonia, or rheumatoid arthritis. All I could think of was Succubus.

When I was at school we ‘did’ Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. I wanted to like Chaucer, really I did, but it was difficult with the textbook we were given. There was Chaucer and his Olde English (well, technically Middle English) on one side of the page and a translation on the opposite side. All well and good, but we were ‘doing’ the Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Wife of Bath was – as I guessed but could not discover how, from the translation – a somewhat saucy baggage. I remember learning that she had a gap between her two front teeth and that in the middle ages a gap-toothed lady was regarded as very saucy. I am not a medieval man, so I have no idea why this should be. Maybe it was the symbolism.

It doesn’t seem to work the other way round…

thomas

The trouble was, every time Nanny Translator got to a saucy bit she substituted an ellipsis (…). I would have entirely forgotten the word swynke by nowand probably Chaucer and the Wife of Bath too – as in

As help me God, I laughe when I thynke / How piteously a-night I made him swynke

had it not been for the fact that swynke was represented on the translation page by those tantalising three dots and the teacher flatly refused to even hint what it might mean. Our teenage imaginations went into overdrive. What could swynke-ing be, for goodness sake? And how was she making him do it?

Actually it just means work very hard, though by a-night we know she isn’t referring to heaving heavy sacks of coal or peeling potatoes.

However… (ellipsis) why was I going on about Chaucer? Oh yes, it was via Chaucer that I learned of the existence, in medieval legend, of a demon known as the succubus. There are incubi and succubi. Incubi are male demons that prey on women, and succubi are female demons that prey on men. Particularly monks. They appear in dreams and tempt their victims to do all sorts of sinful and salacious stuff.

Succcubus and succumb are related, loosely. From the Latin and then the French succomber – sub (under) + cumbere (to lie down). To succumb is to yield to a superior force or strength, or to be overpowered by a desire. It is also to be brought to an end (as in death) by destructive or disruptive forces. Since the evil succubus would exhaust or even kill her dreaming victim by feeding on his dream ‘energy’ you can see the connection, and if you google ‘succubus’ and click on Images you will get all sorts of lurid artistic re-imaginings of what she might have looked like.

You know how you suddenly realise an author has been cleverer than you realised – that pleasant little moment when the penny drops? J K Rowling is particularly good a this. For example, Sirius Black in Harry Potter, who tends to turn into a large black dog at intervals, has the name of the dog star, Sirius. And Diagon Alley is diagonally.

Well, I thought I had one of those with the character Lilith from Cheers and Frasier. Lilith is Frasier’s ex-wife, who simultaneously haunts, fascinates and drains him:

Six months ago I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating… So I ended the marriage once and for all, packed up my things, and moved back here to my home town of Seattle.

(1993 pilot episode of Frasier, “The Good Son”)

Ah, I thought. Lilith from Jewish mythology was in fact a succubus – a night-hag or night-monster. How clever they have been, those screenwriters, in choosing exactly the right name for Frasier’s scary, vampiric (but nonetheless amusing) ex-wife.

But then they went and let me down, those screenwriters. Researching further I discovered that Rob Sternin and Prudence Frasier had simply wanted a name that embodied sternness, like a Dickensian… headmistress in a high-necked blouse and tight bun. The Biblical badass didn’t factor in.

Well…well… bah! Why didn’t it? It jolly well should have.

I’m quite put out about it.

Humbug!

“A Room Full of Plesbians!”

Ex and I and a friend of his walked into a pub one night. It was not our usual pub but one of those twee, twinkling, village high street pubs – lots of brass, lots of shiny beer glasses on shiny glass shelves with wrought-iron edges – and an impressive array of spirits bottles hanging upside down in what I think they used to call “optics”. Nowadays optics seems to mean something else – the way a political move or action will look to the public – usually bad.

Anyway, it was a middle class pub full of middle class people making a lot of noise – that kind of hearty, communal chortling noise middle class people make in pubs – and as we looked around we realised from the brightly-coloured and slightly outré form of dress that we had in fact walked in on a group of amateur actors from the Little Theatre over the road, who were enjoying a post-performance snifter. They were all pretty full of themselves, and suddenly they were all turning round to look at us.

Now, Ex had many admirable qualities, including a deeply resonant, “dark brown” sort of voice. A very loud and carrying sort of voice. One of the qualities he didn’t have, unfortunately, was the kind of cringing self-consciousness that stops you from saying exactly what comes into your head.

The other unfortunate thing was that, being an almost entirely visual person, he might occasionally misinterpret something he read. I remember him requesting an Orange Gasping in a shop at the very top of a steep, cobbled hill in Clovelly when what he meant was an orange ice lolly. The tin advertising board outside had said something like: “Gasping? Come inside and buy one of our luscious orange ice lollies!”

clovelly

Clovelly, Devon, West of England

Or occasionally he might misremember a word.

“Oh look!” he boomed, as the three of us walked into that crowded bar that night: “Look at that man in the hat with the feather, and that woman in the long purple cloak! It’s a room full of PLESBIANS!”

Ham, Egg, Chips and Bingo

I haven’t eaten ham since 1981 or thereabouts, but I ate a bit today. After all, I am a vegetarian.

Only a small bit but… And I must say it was worth it for the chips. The chips were super. And there was no vegetarian option. I decided to continue being a vegetarian whenever possible but, on such outings, for the sake of getting on with people and not-being-a-pain-in-the-arse (which I have been, all my life) not to make a fuss.

Who should I apologise to?

I am still a bit weird, having been ill for a week. Double, simultaneous ill, in fact. Only yesterday did I begin to feel that I was moving at maybe ninety-five percent normal speed, which gave me the confidence to venture out of the house and wobble down the road to the bus stop, there to meet a lady called Jenny and someone else who was giving us a lift. My first meeting of the Over Fifties Club.

Apparently there is also an Over Sixties Club. This confused me as I couldn’t see anyone at the Over Fifties Club under seventy. Are they bitter rivals, I wondered? Like those two gangs in West Side Story? Does the Over Sixties poach members from the Over Fifties, or do the Over Fifties all also belong to the Over Sixties?

As you can tell, I’m still not quite back to normal. One of my illnesses was a kind of super-cough/bronchitis or possibly asthma thing. This has meant being unable to breathe and lie down at the same time, which in turn has meant a week of nights alternating between a moggie-infested bed upstairs and a very uncomfortable sofa downstairs, propping myself up with various arrangements of pillow and cushions and trying to sleep sitting up. I have not had much sleep and last night I don’t remember getting any sleep.

So I was not in the best mental shape to be sitting in a vast, chilly seafront pub, looking out through the frosted glass patterns at distorted images of passing cars and learning to play Bingo.

My fellow Over Fifties did not at first believe that I had never played Bingo. They played Bingo regularly, all over the place, and had their own plastic bags full of special fat pens, which are not called pens but dabbers. I said I would pass on the Bingo-book-buying this time, but watch what someone else did.

So I sat next to Jenny as she explained Bingo to me, whilst I was wishing I had worn a tee shirt under my posh top. But I couldn’t hear her over the noise of the Bingo man experimenting with his sound system. However, there was to be no escape. She did one game then I found the dabber thing plonked next to me. I was going to have to “dab” alternate sheets in her books. Rats! Again she tried to explain to me the difference between a Line and a House, and what a Bit On The Side is (apart from the obvious) and what that last sheet is for.

After a few minutes of me hunting wildly around the sheet for the numbers as the man with the mike rattled them off, someone said “Does the lady realise the numbers are arranged in columns of ten?” I hadn’t, though it was in the process of dawning on me. Knowing that made things much easier.

Then they believed I had never played Bingo before.

And then I came home and discovered Amazon had delivered two 300l bags of cat litter to the Lady with the Illegal Scotsman in my absence, so I had to go and get the wheelbarrow. She took one look at me wheezing and coughing palely over the laden wheelbarrow and offered to push it for me, but I couldn’t let her because she is older than me.

Then, too stuffed with illicit ham, egg and chips (and cheesecake) to need to eat anything more, I made myself some coffee and sat through the entire, extremely long speech of the Catalan Prime Minister, hoping to discover that he had been brave and declared independence from those brutal Spaniards. He had. Yay! Or had he? No one afterwards seemed to know. Damp squib or what?

Then I sat and hand-sewed a patch on the leg of my jeans. You know those jeans with the arty kind of fraying? I always wanted some and eventually, at an unsuitable age, I got a pair. Unfortunately, after they had been through the washing-machine numerous times the elegant fraying began to turn into falling-apartness. And then my big toe started getting caught in the falling-apartness every time I put the jeans on, which tore it even worse. I am wondering whether those ripped-right-across the knee jeans are not so much ultra-cool as the result of endless big-toe-catching.

I was going to do it on the sewing machine. I had to remove the white thread bobbin and wind specially a denim blue bobbin. Bobbin-winding is not easy on my sewing machine. Bobbins have a tendency to go ape for no reason. Either the cotton frantically winds itself around the metal stem that holds the bobbin in place, or the bobbin sourly turns itself into a nasty thick bobbin at the top and nasty measly bobbin at the bottom. I have been know to throw bobbins across the room.

Shows you how little sleep I have had, then. I completed this rigmarole, went to put the jean leg under the sewing machine needle and realised I couldn’t – not without unpicking whole jean leg – because a jean leg is a tube.

A woman needs a bus like a fish needs a bicycle

I think Bertie-bus-stop must be in one of his low phases at the moment . I’ve noticed he swings between talking (a terrible lot) and staring out bitterly at the sea – or what would be the sea if the huge grassy bank of the sea wall wasn’t between us and it, since we’re below sea level. When the tide is up you can actually see boats and ships and stuff floating along on some invisible surface/horizon above your head. It’s weird.

This week he has had a permanent half-a-beard. Not designer stubble, I think, but maybe the result of shaving every third day, or chopping off tufts of beard with the kitchen scissors. The day before yesterday he was on an upswing, telling me in microscopic detail about the method of propagation for wallflowers. He has a family of wallflowers in his conservatory, not that I’ve seen his conservatory. But today it’s low tide and he’s at a low ebb, and he glares out at what would be the sea, if he could see it.

It may be the psoriasis, of course. It seems to be running away with him at the moment. I am not laughing. English Sister gets psoriasis at intervals, when stressed. It seems to start in her hair and creep down onto her forehead, meaning her scalp feels as if it is tightening up and holding her in a vice-like grip. She had to give up swimming because of it. Bertie has it on his hands, which he has shown me, but also – I now see – on his face. He says it’s from using bleach and other chemicals to do cleaning. I am not sure whether he means household cleaning or whether he is a cleaner.

Last time he mentioned the psoriasis I suggested those purple neoprene gloves, but he said he didn’t like wearing rubber gloves because he couldn’t feel what he was doing when cleaning toilets. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to be able to do when cleaning a toilet is to feel what I am doing. I am very, very squeamish and get through all such tasks by trying to ‘move my mind’ elsewhere, to contemplate infinity, to replay the plot of whatever book I am reading or film I saw last. Most of the time (confession time) I just squirt loads of bleach and limescale-remover down there and wander away, until forced to remember and do something about it.

But people do what they do, and don’t do what they don’t do, and I suppose he’s plumped for the psoriasis. And so we both stare at what would be the sea, if we could see it. And the bus doesn’t come, and it doesn’t come and it doesn’t come. Two more people join us, and still no sign of the bus.

Bertie walks up the road a way, posting himself as lookout. He always does this. He has good eyesight and enjoys being ‘bus monitor’. I inspect the scruffy piece of tarmac outside our one and only Store in some detail. How does so much litter manage to miss the litter bin? Once upon a time it would have been used condoms. Nowadays it seems to be cigarette butts, olive green cigarette packets (it makes them less attractive) and lots of little empty plastic tubes. I suspect holidaymaking teenagers may have used these to inhale some recreational substance during the night.

I have Arthur with me, balanced on the damp brick wall, in the pet carrier. We have an appointment at the vets two settlements over, for his claws to be done. The latest pet-carrier is ideal for both the bus journey and the rough terrain round here, normally. You can heave it up onto your back and wear it like a rucksack or you can put it down and pull out a handle, and it has wheels – it turns into a trolley. The cats don’t seem to mind it.  You’d think they would.

But’s it’s been a struggle with Arthur because he’s so heavy. I have staggered the twenty minutes down to the bus stop bent forward under the combined, considerable weight of Arf and the carrier, feeling like Good King Wenceslas’s page in the song, or some venerable crone sent out to gather a bundle of wood in a fairy tale.

Arthur is patient. I can just see his little green eyes peering out of the mesh sides at me, all the rest blending in with the darkness. But he’s been out here for ages, and the bus is twenty minutes late. We’ll not get there in time now, and if we get there late we’ll miss the usual bus home, and that’ll mean an hour and a half or something like, waiting in the draughty bus shelter on the other side of the road. You can’t expect a cat to hold off on the wees-n’-poos indefinitely, especially an old boy like Arthur. And then… squelchy-cat! No getting on a bus for us, in that condition. Or a taxi, for that matter. What do we do then? Totter the six mile back? Squelch, stagger, squelch, stagger…

I give up and ring the vet to cancel the appointment, then bid farewell to Bertie and the two other people waiting, the mousy-looking woman with the shopping basket, and a vaguely familiar local wench – she with the raven hair, the leggings, the lots of eye make up and the computer game that makes goldfish noises.

Maybe the bus arrived, eventually, or maybe it didn’t. Most likely it was one of those days when the driver decided not to come down our road at all. Sometimes the prison ‘gets it’, sometimes we do, and sometimes the next village is arbitrarily bypassed and all the elderly and disabled folks left to wait for the next (hourly) bus, assuming that doesn’t bypass them too.

Now I remember exactly how lovely it was to have a motor-car. I wonder – could I still balance on a bicycle?fish bike

The Tortoiseshell Cat: Patrick R Chalmers

The tortoiseshell cat

She sits on the mat

As gay as a sunflower she;

In orange and black you see her blink,

And her waistcoat’s white, and her nose is pink,

And her eyes are green of the sea.

But all is vanity, all the way;

Twilight’s coming, and close of day,

And every cat  in the twilight’s grey,

Every possible cat.

 

Matilda and friends

 

The tortoiseshell cat,

She is smooth and fat,

And we call her Josephine,

Because she weareth upon her back

This coat of colours, this raven black,

This red of the tangerine.

But all is vanity, all the way;

Twilight follows the brightest day,

And every cat in the twilight’s grey,

Every possible cat.

 

Patrick Reginald Chalmers (1872–1942) was an Irish writer, who worked as a banker. His first book was Green Days and Blue Days (1912), followed by A Peck of Malt (1915).

He wrote in a number of different areas, including field sports, deerstalking and horse racing, as well biographies of Kenneth Grahame and J. M. Barrie. He was a contributor to Punch magazine and The Field, and editor of the hunting diaries of Edward VIII (as Prince of Wales). He also wrote much poetry, with topics war, dogs and cats, and Irish life, as well as hunting and fishing.

A line from his poem “Roundabouts and Swings” has passed into common parlance, though the origin is often no longer remembered.

Wikipedia

Now that’s interesting, isn’t it? The same poet who wrote this pussycat poem also wrote a kind of novelty poem in which these two sets of ‘end’ lines appear:

But lookin’ at it broad, an’ while it ain’t no merchant king’s,
What’s lost upon the roundabouts we pulls up on the swings!”

For “up an’ down an’ round,” said ‘e, “goes all appointed things,
An’ losses on the roundabouts means profits on the swings!”

And that’s the origin of the common phrase “What you lose on the roundabouts you gain on the swings” or “It’s swings and roundabout”.

I’d give you the whole poem but it’s long, and in a kind of Irish-Victorian cockney dialect that becomes tedious after a while. I do prefer the cat poem, which is a little masterpiece of cat-poem-ery.

Featured Image cat is Matilda, because when she was a stray, not so long ago, she used to ‘waltz’ up from somewhere mysterious beyond the bottom of my the garden to be fed. Matilda/Tilly is young, and even naughtier than my other tortoiseshell. Difficult to even get a photo of her because she is always waltzing or haring about (haring: verb, British: running around as fast and as wildly as a hare).

Here are some black and white moggies, whilst I’m at it. I struggle to get photos from my tablet to the computer to this blog. Something always seems to go wrong, and in the most dramatic way.

Overnight, for instance, my tablet has accumulated around 500 album covers in it’s photo memory – all the stuff I’ve been listening to on Kindle and Spotify – at least six copies of each. I’ve just been laboriously deleting them all. So let’s make hay while the sun shines:

Left to right, top to bottom:

  1. The elusive Frizzle
  2. Hugo and Hector
  3. Pandy, Hugo and Hector
  4. Ditto
  5. George doing what George does best / least dangerously.

 

Pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules!

Now that’s set your teeth on edge, hasn’t it, proper French speakers?

I had a very unoriginal thought today.  I googled it and discovered that it was in fact even more unoriginal than I imagined. I was looking at my books, all 2,000 of them piled vertically now (for cat fur/ease of hoovering reasons) into a high stack of de-shelved book cases.  It suddenly struck me, if I had to take the complete works of a very limited number of authors to a desert island with me – say, ten – which authors would I choose?

Now this isn’t as easy as it seems. It would be no good taking to a desert island a book with a thrilling but memorable plot, for example. However good it was, what would be the point of reading it again?

No good taking anything too distinctive, either. Harry Potter, for instance. I loved reading Harry Potter, each new book as eagerly anticipated as if I had been thirteen and three quarters rather than middle-aged. But once you’ve read them the surprise is gone out of them – they were whizz-bangs when they landed on our bookshelves but now… they’ve fizzled.

Not really much point in taking thrillers or detective novels, for the same reason. You might not think you remember whodunit but as soon as you start to read, you will.

And humour probably wouldn’t travel well. Only so many times you can laugh at a conversation between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves whilst fishing in the sea with a piece of string and an improvised hook, or trying to persuade yourself that shredded palm leaves are edible. Jokes are best not repeated – to the same audience – yourself.

No, the books would have to be kind of meaty. The sort that, though they may be a bit of a struggle to get into, pay dividends on later reflection. Also books with plots so labyrinthine that it is impossible to remember them on re-reading.

But you’d also need an element of comfort reading. So some of your books would be there just because they reminded you of home in some way – winter afternoons by the fire and snow falling outside; long walks down country lanes kicking autumn leaves with your wellies – whatever.

I’m thinking that, as with Desert Island Discs, a few ‘master’ works should be taken for granted – found in a deserted cabin, chewed a bit by moths but still perfectly readable, say. I believe Desert Island Discs allows castaways to assume The Complete Works of Shakespeare and a copy of the Bible, and I would add the Complete Works of Dickens. (It’s my island, I can make Dickens be in the deserted cabin if I want to. Maybe I’ll put the skeleton of the previous inhabitant in there too…)

Of course, the books you take may also reflect the age you happen to be when cast away. If you are twenty, say, you will have longer to savour the books of your choice, but also longer to get heartily sick of them. If you are ninety-five you might want to be more rigorously selective still, or take rather more spiritually-inclined reading matter.

So this is my list, in no particular order Still a work in progress. As you will see at the end I still haven’t managed to whittle it down to ten. I did consider simply putting the total up to twenty, but that seemed like cheating.

  1. Isaac Asimov
  2. A S Byatt
  3. Neil Gaiman
  4. Annie Proulx
  5. Charlotte Brontë
  6. Rose Tremain
  7. Alice Munro
  8. George McKay Brown (non-fiction, comfort reading)
  9. Ellis Peters (comfort reading – how could you be on a desert island and not have Cadfael for company?)
  10. ….

And here’s where I’m stuck. I feel I should take at least one author that I always felt I should read but only ever got round to reading around the edges of – so I’m torn at the moment between George Eliot, Anthony Trollope and Aldous Huxley. Maybe Huxley would be a bit dated? Trollope would certainly be meaty but… as well as Dickens? And Eliot – is she perhaps one of those authors you feel you ought to read but Life’s Too Short for – like whoever perpetrated Moby Dick and War and Peace? Not to mention Ulysses. I carted that fat paperback of Ulysses around with me for years when I was a student: never managed to get beyond the first page.

I don’t know… I don’t know… And remember you have got to take all their works – pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules! as I like to imagine they would say in Brussels. So you can’t take Howard’s End and leave the posthumous Maurice behind, or take the whole of Neil Gaiman except American Gods which is just too long.

To digress slightly. Having just discovered (after how many years?) that I can watch more or less unlimited dramas and TV series on my Kindle Fire for absolutely-free merely by tapping on that dull little icon top right – who knew? – I launched into American Gods on video, thinking I might find it more digestible.

They were putting each other’s eyes out! Severed limbs were flying through the air! I don’t remember that, in the twenty percent of the book I did manage to get through. So I plumped for The Night Manager.

To digress again. I read a comment on the internet by a girl who felt it should correctly be deserted, not desert island, since how many islands do you find in the desert? Duh! An island with nothing on it but a lot of desert-type sand and perhaps a wobbly palm tree and a man in faded rags with several weeks-worth of stubble – not an island rising majestically from the sands of the Sahara.

Anyway, enough. What would be your ten desert island authors? Or just the first one on the list…