The Tempting of Aoife

Aoife observes that the Guide is bored, taking this group of people round the power station, and uncomfortable in her tight navy uniform. The Guide is a woman of a certain age, so flushing may be a problem; and it can’t help that the uniform was designed with lengthy, windswept winters in mind, but there’s a heat-wave going on outside. A primitive air-conditioning system is just recycling the hot air, distilling the stuffiness. There is a smell of metal and dust, and maybe something else. Would nuclear power have a smell of its own? The Guide has bristly, striped-greying hair like a badger and a sprinkling of tiny red dots on her upper lip, which would be needle-marks from a recent electrolysis session.

Aoife McKendrick notices details like this. Connections snap themselves together in her mind so rapidly and effortlessly that she long since gave up trying to trace them back to any logical source. She would have made a good Sherlock Holmes, she often thinks. What she does not think is that her thought processes are wild and unpredictable, like cables arcing out in a flooded tunnel. She does not think of herself as dangerous.

Aoife has never told anybody about Bub, partly because they would say she is mad, and she is not mad, or if she is mad it’s none of their business. Degenerates! And partly because it’s such a foolish name, the sort a child might attach to their invisible friend. She thinks she knows where Bub comes from – that faint, continual buzzing of wasps, or maybe flies – is another clue. But she doesn’t believe in Where Bub Comes From, and Bub is not a friend. Bub is not something that sits upon her shoulder and whispers in her ear: it’s more subtle than that.

Bub tells her that the human race is doomed, eventually, anyway, but that the process needs to be speeded up. In visions sometimes he shows her the whole world, and she sees how it is infested, gnarled and infected by these filthy apes with their overstuffed brains and their lack of moral perspective. She sees how they are polluting the seas and even the atmosphere around this planet, how their detritus will eventually spill out into the furthest reaches of space, how they and their waste products will be everywhere, soon. She sees the murders in back alleys, the addicts shooting up, the children raped and the animals slaughtered and mistreated. Bub shows her all, and it is true. Something must be done about it. Bub wants her to do it.

There have been rumours on social media, about a Red Button. The Red Button, here, in this power station. These stories started popping up on the net about a year ago; before that Aoife had not really thought of Britain as having a Red Button at all. But it made sense that any nuclear nation would have a Red Button, and that it would be hidden somewhere inside their own country, and what more sensible place to hide it than a nuclear power station? This one is particularly remote, in the middle of the Scottish Highlands surrounded by purple heather and rabbits, and the kind of game bird that turns a snowy white in winter. A beautiful place….

Until they built a power station in it!” The background buzzing is quite loud this time. It tends to get louder the angrier Bub was. He tends to get angry if he catches her thinking that things are beautiful, or that people are not so bad.

They have come up on a day trip from the University of Edinburgh, where Aoife has been working on her MSc in biochemistry. Of themselves, power stations are of little interest to her and of little relevance to her studies, but this one – this particular one might just possibly be the home of the Red Button. She had seen a small poster advertising the visit on one of many scruffy, overcrowded notice-boards at uni. It was partly covered over by newer posters, but the date was still visible, and hadn’t happened yet.

Time to further pursue our investigations,” says Bub. “An opportunity not to be missed, and one unlikely to arise again.” Bub can be wordy at times. He speaks like a civil servant, Aoife thinks, or a police officer giving a televised statement.

Aoife lingers towards the back of the group, looking from side to side rather than ahead, where the Guide leads them, perspiring whilst explaining about fuel rods, graphite powder, the purpose of the little blue badges they had been given to wear on their lapels, etcetera. Earlier they had been forced to watch a scratchy film in which protons and electrons were depicted as billiard balls of different colours and sizes, whizzing – but conveniently slowly – about one another. How many generations have passed since people stopped conceiving of atoms as slowly-whizzing, different coloured billiard balls, she wonders.

She’s looking out for a door left ajar, perhaps, or an unattended corridor that might take her closer to the rumoured Red Button. Even now she can scarcely imagine that there could be such a thing, and that if it really is here they can be so cavalier about it, when visitors are about.

The human ape, in its arrogance and conceit, has an amazing propensity for carelessness,” Bub reminds her, neither on her shoulder nor quite inside her head. Sometimes Aoife wonders whether Bub is male or female. It seems to be both, or neither; or either one, depending on its mood…

And then, to her left, she spots it. Down a narrow green-painted corridor a heavy door has been left open, and from it spills a faint, reddish light. It isn’t difficult to slip away from the group. There are cameras in the corridor ceiling, she notices, but they do not alter their position to follow her as she tiptoes towards the door. The floor is made of springy silver metal, with raised patterns.

And there it is, a small room with nothing else inside it but a plinth upon which sits the Red Button; an enormous button, to fit a giant’s hand. Will she even have the strength to push it, she wonders. Will she have the courage? She is suddenly very nervous. Pressing it will result in her own destruction as well as everyone else’s. What will it feel like to die in such a violent way? She finds she cannot console herself with a paradise flowing with milk and honey and endlessly available virgins, or angels perched on clouds and playing harps… she can manufacture no belief in such things. What will Nothing At All feel like?

No more of me whispering in your ear,” says Bub. Bub knows her so very well. Silence, peace and quiet, a rest from Bub is an attractive prospect.

Aoife is momentarily afraid to cross the threshold in case the heavy metal door slams shut behind her. In films, that’s what always happens. Whether it is a heavy metal door, a secret panel or a concealed stone door in a cave on some distant planet, it always swings shut behind you. But she can read what is stencilled on the button, even from the doorway. It says: DO NOT PRESS.

It is those words that make it easy. For who can resist the urge to press any button that says DO NOT PRESS? It just has to be done, just as cliffs have to be jumped off and ledges on skyscraper buildings become unbearably confining, so that one must take flight…

Aoife strides towards the button. Shutting her eyes very tight, she presses it.

fruitfly

Thinking about it at her leisure – and she is to have a lot of leisure – she realises that any actual nuclear missile would take time to be despatched towards – the enemy, whoever they currently are – and many more minutes for it to reach its target. And then there would be an interlude of forty minutes or so before the enemy’s retaliation arrived. But at the time she was expecting a blast of shrapnel to rip through her, or at the very least to be deafened by klaxons or sirens. She was expecting lights to flash and all hell instantly let loose.

She isn’t expecting crude masculine laughter. Nor is she expecting, when she does manage to unglue her eyelids from one another, to see that an unremarkable rectangular wall-panel has transformed itself into a window, and that behind the glass are three uniformed security guards in high-backed black chairs, laughing and pointing at her.

Gotcha!

Bagged us another one, Harry. That’ll be three this month.

And then the door clangs shut.

fruitfly

Two year later Aoife McKendrick is discharged from the secure mental health facility in which she has been being treated for paranoid schizophrenia. The authorities soon realised that she is not connected with the worrying phenomenon of Killer Queens, as the newspapers have started to call them – a surge in the number of young white women, seemingly unknown to each other, who have come to the conclusion that the human race is too vile to survive and that they are the ones to do the exterminating.
They have decided that Aoife McKendrick falls into a more familiar and explicable category: she is merely insane. Common or garden madness was normal in comparison to this mysterious, cold, destructive instinct that had arisen in women all over the globe. Aoife could be started on anti-psychotics. A bright young woman, by all accounts. No reason she shouldn’t return to her studies once her illness had been got under control.

Aoife is happy too, for she is finally free of the buzzing, and the insistent voice of her tormentor and companion, Bub.

She grew up a plain girl, fat and rather spotty, but during her two years in the facility the excess blubber has dropped off, without her even trying. The food was dull and there wasn’t enough of it for the old Aoife, but it was wholesome. Her acne gradually subsided. Towards the end of her sentence she selected as one of her therapeutic activities a few afternoons of Cosmetic Therapy, tutored by a visiting beautician. By the time she steps out into late summer sunshine at the end of her two years she looks like a new woman. In her bag is a letter from the University of Edinburgh, welcoming her back to finish the MSc in biochemistry.

And it is a beautiful day. The flowers in parks and gardens are somewhat past their prime, but the bees are buzzing. Honey is being made. Her past need not be spoken of, they have said, as long as she keeps on taking the tablets. There will always be a need for promising scientific minds like hers.

Of course, dear Aoife,” says Bub, resuming their dialogue as if he only paused it a second ago, “the Red Button is merely a metaphor.

It will have occurred to you by now that there is more than one kind of button, and that it doesn’t have to be red.

It doesn’t even have to be a button.

Poor Sad Freda

A long time ago (1959) in the days when it was still permissible to advertise cigarettes on TV, there was a disastrous advertising campaign for Strand cigarettes. I can do no better than quote Wikipedia here:

This television advert depicted a dark, wet, deserted London street scene in which a raincoated character, played by Terence Brook, looking similar to Frank Sinatra, lit a cigarette and puffed reflectively. This was accompanied by an instrumental, “The Lonely Man Theme” by Cliff Adams, playing in the background, and a voice-over declared “You’re never alone with a Strand. The cigarette of the moment.”

The commercial… was popular with the public. However, sales of the brand were poor and it was soon taken off the market. The public associated smoking Strand cigarettes with being lonely and were put off from buying them. It was regarded as one of the most disastrous tobacco advertising campaigns of all time…

I do recall my parents laughing about Strand cigarettes and taking the mickey out of “You’re never alone…” People found it amusing, but they didn’t want to be that poor chap in the raincoat, wandering up and down a dark, wet city street – Billy No-Mates, Poor Sad Fred.

I am trying to resist getting hopping mad, because no one in any case will know that I am hopping mad, in which case what’s the point? That’s the trouble with Being Alone – no audience for one’s hopping madness.

It’s not my local hospitals per se, or any lack of medical expertise therein. It’s not the awful insufficiency of car parking spaces at one of them, meaning that patient-containing cars are queueing out in the street for what seems like hours before even getting past the gates, and then have to queue at the barrier ticket machine waiting for one single space to become vacant, and then having to circle a seemingly full car park, nerves a-jangle, desperately searching for that one space before anyone else leaves and the next car (also searching for that one single space) is allowed in, to beat you to it. No, it’s the insistence of NHS staff in believing that all persons will possess a Relative or a Friend who will be able to bring them in and collect them. These mythical Relatives and/or Friends will also come and Visit them during their stay, and should be instructed to bring in all those items – other than pyjamas and dressing gown – that said person is not permitted to bring in themselves because bedside storage space is strictly limited.

Particularly if you are old(ish), I find. They look at you and imagine you have (carelessly) left at home a host of helpful middle-aged Daughters and giant doting Sons. Any one of them can bring you in, or take you home, surely?

Failing that they see a host of conveniently-not-senile and able-to-drive Friends or their convenient Husbands, any one of which could bring you in, or take you home, surely?

Don’t you know anyone? They ask, humiliatingly. Come on, surely you can think of someone who wouldn’t mind just looking after nineteen cats for a couple of weeks? Any Neighbour would do that!

I am having this problem at the moment. I am having to undergo a Procedure which I am trying not to think about too much, under anaesthetic. A Procedure, not an Operation. No scalpels involved. But because of the anaesthetic, I cannot drive myself in, because I will not be permitted to drive myself home again afterwards. No, I will have to stay in overnight, while the cats remain unattended, fighting, wrecking the furniture and pooing-and-weeing with abandon, all over everything.

And then, in the morning, I still can’t get myself home to the cats because I am not allowed to use public transport for 48 hours, so even the gruelling four hour long downhill walk/train 1/train 2/infrequent bus/ long uphill walk marathon I had envisaged is not an option. And, even if I find some mysterious, car-owning Relative, Friend or Neighbour – that person has got to stay with me and the nineteen stinky cats overnight, when there isn’t actually a spare bed.

But you can get a Family Member, Friend or Neighbour to help you there…

The last time I was forced to ask my sister for help she didn’t answer the phone. I had a hugely-swollen septic hand and was being referred urgently to Accident and Emergency in Hospital 2. Ambulance? No, of course not. You’ll have to drive yourself there. Oh, but that would be a bit difficult, wouldn’t it, because of the septic hand…

You can’t tell me you haven’t you got any Family Member on that phone of yours? Go on, phone your sister now. So there I am, in a medical chair, having my hand bandaged and ringing my sister knowing full well she wouldn’t answer. They made me do it, and made me have to discover for myself, yet again, that I had Ceased to Exist as far as my next-of-kin was concerned. I could be in a road traffic accident. Yea, verily, brethren, I could be locked in a room with a salivating Alien-type monster or trapped in the central reservation of the M20 with giant lorries whooshing past me on either side – ça would ne fait rien as far as my sister was concerned. It was predictable, humiliating and embarrassing, but most of all, it hurt.

And this time, they have postponed the (don’t think about it, don’t think about it…) Procedure to give me more time to Make Arrangements. In other words, I will no doubt soon recall that I do indeed have Second Cousins, a Doting Offspring, or a cheery, helpful Neighbour who would just adore a two hour drive through scary rush-hour traffic in an unfamiliar traffic system, followed by an anguished circling of the car park looking for that single space… And then a three hour wait while the Procedure (don’t think about it, don’t think about it) is done and I wake up from the anaesthetic, and then another long drive back, and then – oh joy – spend the night upright on the sofa, in the house of a miserable, uncomfortable, grumpy old biddy who wants nothing more than to be left alone to recover quietly, in her own way, in the reassuring, comforting company of her nineteen stinky cats.

As it is, I think I have solved the problem by a series of complicated and expensive fudges and transport arrangements which they may or may not accept. It means an expensive taxi ride, followed by the two train journeys and the long walk which may get me there in time. Afterwards, it means an arrangement (not free, either) with a volunteer charity driver, male or female, a total stranger to me – to pick me up at the hospital and drive me home. And it means the lady over the road – with whom I have been forced to share medical details which by now the whole road will know about in glorious detail with a few added flourishes – being at any rate on the other end of the phone overnight if needed, and maybe popping in on her way back from walking the dog in the morning, to make sure I’m not dead. It would be so much easier to be dead.

This has cost me so much time in hospital appointments, so many phone calls, so many plans and revisions of plans, and working-out-of-strategies over pasta bake and chips in the Canteen/Restaurant in the bowels of the hospital, and castings-around-for-inspiration whilst staring at the fake Buddha and fake Chinese Lions in the weedy Zen Garden which – regrettably, as the notice says – is only for looking at through the double glazing and not for patients to actually sit out in – and sheer annoyance at the arrogant assumption that everyone lives no more than a couple of miles of whichever hospital they have been summoned to attend, and possesses a social circle they can call on at the drop of a hat for very large, inconvenient favours, in the middle of a heatwave.

Maybe they should send me out to negotiate Brexit with Brussels. I’ve done enough irritating and pointless negotiating this week to last me a lifetime, and I’m just in a mood for a scrap. Quake in your boots, Monsieur Barnier, I’m about to board the ferry!

Not Exactly Rubik’s Cube

For some reason today I resolved to make the perfect Dutchman’s Puzzle block.  Well, it is now 20 to 7 in the evening and I seem to have been making – and unmaking – versions of the Dutchman’s Puzzle all day. My sewing room (ie spare bedroom) floor is littered with discarded snippets, wispy ends of cotton and, somewhere or other – the back off one of my stud earrings. No doubt that has gone the way of all stud earring backs and now resides in one of the gaps between alternate universes.

It was meant to be a 12″ block but for some mathematical reason I cannot fathom has turned out to be 11″. So it won’t fit in with any other blocks and is an orphan, i.e. completely useless unless I decide to make another million of them just the same, and there’s a truly daunting prospect.

Nobody ever seems to show any curiosity as to why traditional blocks are called what they are. What, for instance, was the inspiration for Old Tippercanoe? Possibly someone in the Wild West had an ancient canoe that kept tipping them out, but for all that they were rather fond of it?

Dutchman’s Puzzle is an old block, dating back to around 1800, but why exactly was the Dutchman puzzled, or what is the puzzle the block contains? According to Ruby McKim who wrote One Hundred And One Patchwork Patterns somewhere around 1931, ‘The darker always points into the lighter and thus the Puzzle is solved into a 12-inch block’. Or in my case, 11-inch. But is that it? I mean, is that all there is to it? It’s like listening to someone tell a shaggy dog story and at the end having no idea what was meant to be funny.

Maybe he’s puzzled because something’s gone wrong with his sails (especially since I sewed them).

It didn’t turn out to be the perfect block. Apart from being an inch too small all round, even though I (thought I) did all the calculations, and the edges wafty and bedraggled-looking, the middles don’t match up

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and I accidentally included some of the holes from the selvedge. And now I wonder why exactly I spent all day – apart from mowing two lawns, cutting back the brambles, washing up several times, feeding the N-n-n-n-nineteen twice, taking delivery of a stack of slippery-shiny magazines which I’ve got to force through a minimum 188 eccentric letterboxes tomorrow, and driving over to the vets for three tins of disgusting-smelling invalid cat food for my invalid cat who, of course, flatly refuses to go anywhere near it –  in rapt concentration teaching myself to do something so utterly pointless.

I think it must be the dream. It’s a form of escape. So, as I cut and snip, and sew and unpick, arrange and rearrange, I am living another life. I am some lady in cotton bonnet in a log cabin in the middle of winter, and I am making the most of the daylight of some short winter day, thriftily using up scraps too small for anything else. And no doubt I have a husband who looks like that Grizzly Adams or that rather personable chap from Little House On The Prarie, who will shortly be returning home from a long day chopping firewood or what ever Grizzly Adamses do, and will greatly appreciate my homely cooking, my frugal patchwork and all my other other wifely attributes…

(Sigh!)

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PS: Invalid Mog has suddenly eaten whole tin of the disgusting invalid catfood, plus antibiotic tablet hastily thrown in, and drunk a whole bowlful of water, so maybe some sort of corner has been turned.

 

My uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall

Canadian sister phones. I thought maybe once her husband had died she would stop phoning me, that I would be cast aside like some moth-eaten fur coat etc etc. This has not happened – just now she phones me at all odd times. Before she could only phone me when he was asleep. And then he would wake up. Always. I could hear the creaking of the bedroom door upstairs in their house, right across the Atlantic. Sometimes I heard it before she heard it. I could hear the change in her tone of voice. The worried note creeping in, the sudden summing up, the hasty goodbye.

She is all at sea without him, and yet, I note, she is surviving. She says she has just spent the two longest evenings of her life, alone in the house. ‘What do single people do in the evenings?’ she asks me. ‘Well, I say, hobbies tend to expand to fill the time available for doing them…’ I am aware that I am paraphrasing someone. ‘What did you do of an evening when he was still alive, and well?’

‘Mostly he was outside in his workshop. If he came inside I might knit while he watched TV.’

I resist saying that this seems to me as much like being alone as being alone. I remember when I was married, all those years ago. Being always alone, even when not.

‘You can call me any time,’ I say. ‘After all, nobody else does. I mean, it’s not like you’re interrupting a huge queue of my fans, all eagerly trying to contact me…’

‘Nobody?’

She sounds shocked. I would have lied, if necessary. I would have told her the above story so that she didn’t feel she was being in any way a nuisance phoning me at all hours, because at the moment I am one of her few fixed points in a radically shifting universe. I am good at making up tales on the spur of the moment. Sometimes I don’t realise they’re tales, till after.

And sometimes I don’t realise they’re true, till after.

So, today I have had a very stressful day. Stress exhausts me, so I tend only ever to schedule one stressful or unpleasant event per day, but today I thought, why not get them all over with at once, for once? So I set off, early, stopping off at the post office in the next village to post Canadian Sister a belated birthday present. Two books. The cost of the airmail is greater than the combined cost of the books. But that was OK, and I managed to get myself out of the tiny car park, with the parking spaces all at the wrong angles.

I went on to the Tip, in Town. I managed to get my car in and not have to sit drumming my fingers on the dash for three-quarters of an hour down the stinky alleyway that leads to it. I managed to heave out the six monstrously heavy black sacks full of used cat litter, pretending to be innocent household waste. I managed to lug four of them, one at a time, up the slippery metal steps to the skip and, with a muscle-wrenching effort, heave them over the rim of the skip. Then – that rare event – one of the men in high-vis yellow came to my rescue, and made off with my two remaining sacks – in the direction of the skip labelled Garden Waste.

‘Did yer want the bags back?’

‘Er, no…’

I knew I should have yelled after him, ‘Excuse me, my man, but I believe you may be under a misapprehension. That is in fact Non-Recyclable Household Waste’ (cat poo).

But I didn’t. I reversed, rather smartly, and exited.

And then I did a rather long and illogical detour to the petrol station, where an elderly idiot with a white moustache rather like the current transient US Secretary of State’s, nearly took my wing-mirror off in his selfish efforts not to let me get to the pump I needed, which was not the same pump he needed.

Ah, I thought, things are reverting to the usual dire pattern. I swore voluminously at him, but from inside my car so that he could see perfectly well that I was swearing voluminously, but we could both, upon exiting our cars, pretend it wasn’t aimed at him.

And then I drove over to visit my mother in the Home. This was number four (?) of Things I Don’t Want To Do Today But Am Going To Do Anyway. But Mum was asleep, with the curtains drawn. All the other residents were up. She looked dreadfully like a corpse so I tiptoed in and checked that she was still breathing. Then I went and found the Nurse – not in the Nurses Station (that was occupied by Someone Who Didn’t Even Work There) but in a cupboard. He said Mum was OK, but had been left to sleep in after one of her night-time rampages. I have never seen one of these rampages, and find them difficult to imagine, but apparently she shouts at other residents, and they shout back. She was never like this. Anything not to draw attention to herself, to stay in the background.

When I get home the Nurse will phone me again to say that after I left she wrestled another resident to the ground (where she happened to be lying) and was having a fight with them.

‘I wonder,’ I said, if it’s all the things they suppress during their lifetimes, when they are them, that suddenly start escaping when this happens?

The Nurse did not seem all that interested in my intellectual speculations.

After the Home I drove down to Ashford, thinking to stock up on black bin sacks in my favourite former supermarket, then drive home. Gridlocked.  When I finally inched my way there – instantly to be blocked in by a giant black-windowed vehicle that was going to make reversing out a nightmare – the woman behind the till tried to explain what was causing the gridlock. It’s the closure of the A2070 she said. I could not remember which of the many road around Ashford the A2070 was and hence, when trying to escape from Ashford some time later, got caught in two further lots of gridlock because I guessed wrong and headed straight for it rather than away from it.

You see that’s the trouble. Road diversions are signposted by men, and usually men who have GPS in their cars. I am a woman, and I do not have GPS. I do not understand Diversion signs and I navigate the sensible way, by Landmarks, not Numbers. If they had put up a sign saying Motorway Junction Absolutely And Completely Closed, well then I wouldn’t have gone that way, would I? I’d have wended my way up the back roads to Smelly Farm Corner and turned right towards The Place Where There Is A Pub I Once Walked Along The Grass Verge To With The Boyfriend With The Pointy Nose. Of course I would have got stuck in another lot of gridlock, but a smaller and more ultimately hopeful lot.

And how are you? my sister asks, eventually. It’s early morning in Alberta. She hasn’t already had a whole day of Utter Ghastliness.

‘Oh… a bit tired, maybe?’

phone tap

Featured Image: London street art by Banksy

 

And then…

Well, this is where I was yesterday. You would have had the photos hot off the old mobile phone, were it not for some sort of misunderstanding between it and Windows 10. I am not on the same wavelength as Windows 10 at all, and my mobile phone and I have only a passing acquaintance.

We were at a place called Teapot Island, which is somewhere near Tonbridge – or possibly Tunbridge Wells. I believe it may be called Wateringbury, or possibly Yalding. At any rate, Wateringbury and Yalding are quite close to one another, and fairly close to either Tonbridge or Tunbridge Wells, where we were to spend all afternoon looking for a sparkly dinner dress for a friend, who has been invited to a terrifyingly superior Ladies Night Dinner. On Saturday. We found an evening handbag, in fact two evening handbags, in silver, and some silver shoes, but we didn’t find the silver sparkly hair ornament and we didn’t find The Dress.

Neither did we find The Dress again this morning, when we went down to Ashford. Sore footed and desperate, unable to reach a decision for her, and having exhausted the possibilities of dress shops so wonderful and expensive I had never bothered to set foot in heretofore, I wondered if, as we hobbled along, I should casually retell the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes… Perhaps no one would say anything if…

But then I thought, no. They actually would say something. In fact, quite a lot.

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So – Teapot Island. We went on the minibus, fourteen of us. Unfortunately it had been raining rather torrentially and Yalding – which I seem to recall is The Most Flooded Village in Kent – was at least partially flooded again. Our valiant Driver turned the minibus on a sixpence at every fresh flooded road onto the Island, eventually finding the one and only unsubmerged entrance. Puddles, as you see, and high water levels. Actually, it wasn’t cold, just damp.

And there were a lot of teapots there. More teapots than you could possibly imagine ever having existed in the entire world. Little café – we had some coffee. I had a blueberry muffin.

I wish I was interested in teapots, and I wish it hadn’t been quite so damp underfoot, but it was a welcome change of scene.

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I don’t think you actually use these teapots. I think you buy them from somewhere between £35 and £100, and put them on your mantelpiece and dust them, or in a display cabinet if you can’t face dusting them.

And then we went sparkly dress hunting, and had chips in a Witherspoons, or possibly a Weatherspoons, which used to be an opera house, and which still holds an opera, with a proper opera company and everything, once a year.

And then we hunted sparkly dresses some more – me, my friend, her friend and the Driver, who turned out to be an unexpected expert on ladies’ clothes shopping, bra sizes, colourways and whatever. And then the Driver bought us all an ice cream in a box from a small supermarket, and when we turned round he had vanished.

And then a poor woman came up to us whose poor dog had just been run over in Australia. She was here for a three month holiday, and had just had an anguished text from her daughter, who presumably had been looking after the dog. And so she sat, or actually collapsed down next to us and tried not to cry, and said she just wanted to sit quietly with some ladies for a couple of minutes. And I gave her an awkward kind of pat on the back, trying not to experience second-hand the full horror of learning that your dog has been run over on the other side of the world, and lent her my mobile phone so she could phone her husband, who was meant to have been picking her up at the station, but hadn’t.

Women’s lives are full of tragedy, and these tragedies are so hard to bear. Other women’s and one’s own, they bite with equal ferocity. And then she stood up, still trying not to look as if she was crying, and went off to meet her husband.

And we began exploring even charity shops in (in my opinion) the completely futile hope of finding lurking in some dark corner undiscovered an almost new, sparkly, not too long and not too darkly coloured dress in an unusual size suitable for wearing to a sit-down knife-and-fork dinner with swanky gifts for the ladies etc. And instead people tried to sell us old books and record players, dusty militaria and whatever they most wanted to get rid of.

And eventually we tottered back to the bus, parked in a side road (Newton Road – “remember a man in a wig with an apple about to fall on his head”) where the Driver was reading his newspaper and people were arguing about seat-belts and the seats being so hard they made your bum go to sleep after less than half an hour.

And eventually we went home.

Sharing with my sister

She rings me more or les every other evening now, from her kitchen on the far side of Canada, where it is early morning. I have actually never seen her kitchen but I imagine it big and airy, but for some reason rather chilly, with chunky, cluttered work-surfaces and one of those giant American fridges stuffed with joints of meat; lots of brother-in-law’s half-finished DIY projects; things dismantled that will never put back together again.

Outside I visualise a neat, large lawn and other houses similar in design to hers, set at different angles, a kind of giant, Canadian-flavoured Lego construction. I imagine squirrels in trees, vague trees, and looping along the fence panels like the ones I saw when I visited her in Ontario that one time, a quarter of a century ago. Now she is in Alberta, where it is colder. Still kind of Canada but more so. In spring I imagine her garden as a fenced square, kind of big and kind of sterile and kind of green. I imagine a large shed, because I happen to know there is one. I can’t imagine flowers.

Does she think of it as a Yard, I wonder, or is she still English enough for it to be a Garden? I imagine an identical fenced square covered in thick snow in Winter, with the driveway laboriously dug out and snow blown off the road and into the gardens by the snow-blowers. We do not have snow-blowers over here, at least not that I’ve seen. What we have is blocked roads, until the ice chooses to melt of its own accord.

I cannot imagine her state, or her city. Sometimes I type the name of the city into the internet and hit ‘images’ but the images are not enough to reconstruct a city, with that unique, intangible atmosphere each city has; its back-alleys, its park benches, its ponds and trees and shops, its traffic intersections, its threatening corners. I cannot imagine it after dark; I cannot see the inhabitants scurrying along the sidewalks to work in the morning; I cannot hear the noise of its traffic or breathe the air. Photographs are just looking through somebody else’s eyes.

I cannot visualise my sister, most of the time. I haven’t seen her for so long. I look at my face in the mirror and see what has happened to it over the last three years. I try to imagine what will have happened to hers. Has she put on weight, or lost it? Is her hair still tied back, or has she cut it? All I can see is her face when she was four years old and I was seven, when we were having that photograph taken, uncomfortably perched on the back of Mum and Dad’s settee. A round, innocent face.  A big smile whereas I’m looking anxious. She still had her baby teeth; my front teeth were missing altogether. Eyes lighter than mine. Ridiculous ribbon bow on top, same as me. Those ribbons were a kind of dusky pink and cream, with a knurled pattern down the edge.

And now I hear her weeping in this distant kitchen I can’t properly imagine, morning after morning, evening after evening, and try to think of something helpful to say about being confined in a house with a furious, imminently dying husband, who refuses all assistance. She is appealing to me because I am her older sister and she has no one else, but really, if there was anyone else…

I have not experienced this myself. I find it difficult to visualise what she is seeing when she looks at him, though she tries to describe it to me. I cannot visualise worse than the way he looked before, but I can hear the shock and revulsion in her voice. She says it is like being trapped in a horror movie, all day and all night. I think of times I have lost sick or elderly cats, and had no choice but to be with them as they died. I find even this little collection of indelible images difficult to bear, and time makes them no easier. How is she going to cope with remembering this?

I cannot get over there, and apparently no one else can either. One of her neighbours has arranged for a boy to come in mow the lawns and sort out all the overgrown stuff. I picture him quietly working day after day, restoring some order, at least to the Outside. The sight of him seems to calm her too, and the brief expeditions to the bank to get money to pay him. Normal life is still happening, at least Outside.

This bit I can I understand. I remember after a very, very bad time in my life, which also felt like living in a nightmare, making an appointment and going to the hairdresser. I remember looking at my face in the mirror and seeing only some nightmare creature, but the hairdresser was a young girl and she chattered away, seeming to see nothing at all odd in the mirror. She was actually talking to me as if I was a normal person. It was like I really existed, after all. That sunny afternoon, the face in the mirror, the face behind, the quiet snip, snip of the scissors, little wedges of damp, snipped hair falling into my lap, somehow made all the difference.

And so I listen, and I say the same things I said the day before last, and two days before that, and two days before that. I say them over and over. I try to persuade her to get help, ask for carers to come in, doctors, nurses, anyone but she needs his permission. I tell her she needs to take over now, now has become the time. Eventually she is going to have to start thinking things out for herself and acting without permission. But they only had one model for being married, and now it isn’t working. And anyway what do I know about anything? Empty words, no substance behind them.

And then I remember that Ex has a gentle side as well as the more evident bombastic, endlessly-opinionated side. I remember he possessed a miraculous knack for reassurance, a matter-of-fact, earthy acceptance of How Things Are. And so I email him and ask if he will do me a favour, and eventually he does phone her, and it seems to have helped, at least a little. Now she has two people she can talk to, albeit miles apart from one another and thousands of miles across the sea. Now she has two listeners, and two voices on the end of the phone, one male and one female, and it looks as if she has asked for help, though it hasn’t yet arrived.

I hope that this will be over soon, and the sun will be permitted to shine in that unimaginable Canadian garden, and the squirrels can resume their dancing, and the birds can start their singing.

Below and above: Mary and Martha, sister cats.

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Rhubarb, Rhubarb

I was going to call this one Sunday Mumble, as a follow on from Saturday Ramble, Saturday Again or whatever the last potpourri of whatever-comes-out-of-my-head was, but found myself at a complete loss as to what image might illustrate Sunday. Or even Mumble, a lateral-thinking failure which might be blamed on sore feet, more of which henceforth, or heretofore.

And then I thought of actors who, in Shakespearian theatre anyway, are meant to mumble Rhubarb, Rhubarb amongst themselves to convince the audience that they are a crowd, chattering quietly about this and that.

But then I seemed to recall that different countries had different ways of doing Rhubarb, Rhubarb. And then I seemed to recall that in any case rhubarb may well be called rutabaga or something else in America. Except that I think rutabaga in America may in fact be beetroot here, ie:

beetroot

I’ve never taken to beetroot, I must say. We were always getting beetroot in salads when I was a kid. Stained everything pink, even the lettuce. Waste of space, beetroot. Never liked rhubarb, either.

Nan told me a little family story about rhubarb once. She said a distant uncle or other relative (I am guessing this must have been in the twenties or thirties) always professed to hate rhubarb. One day, he came to dinner and she only had rhubarb to make the crumble. So she made the crumble and told him it was apple, and he loved it. So much depends on your expectations, doesn’t it?

I have a horrible feeling I’m going to annoy a whole variety of people here, but… oh, here goes.

The Royal Wedding: I loved it and sat on the sofa enjoying every last delicious, sunny, gorgeous, glamorous televised moment of it, over and over again. The only bit that for me was a step too far was the American preacher. However, I seem to be in a majority of one over this. All the TV presenters have been saying Oh, wasn’t he wonderful? Stole the show, he did! So much… arm-waving! So… different! So wonderful for Multi-cultural Relations, Ethnic Diversity and whatnot. And he was wonderful, and entertaining, and engaging but…

I have nothing against ethnic diversity; any cultural event that might encourage us to live with our neighbours in peace and harmony can only be a good thing. I loved the gospel choir singing Stand By Me and the young man playing the cello, all mixed in with Thomas Tallis (my hero) and other stuff. However, I thought, in that context, that preacher was a step too far. And he went on too long.

I couldn’t help seeing the expressions on the faces of his audience as the camera panned around. I couldn’t help cringing at the suppressed smirks; the exasperated, beached-whale boredom of one heavily-pregnant lady Royal; the nervous glances; Camilla’s shell-shocked elderly bewilderment. I admit, at that moment I wanted to hide behind the sofa or cover my eyes with my hands and peek through my fingers. If I wasn’t trying to stop gnawing my nails and chewing my fingers (elastic band on the wrist, snapped twice, works a treat!) I do believe I would have gnawed and chewed them sheer away with mesmerised embarrassment at that moment.

I think actually the mismatch here was not so much between black culture and white culture as between American culture and British. I mean this most sincerely folks… that’s the trouble. It’s the level of Sincerity – whether fake or real, doesn’t matter; that fervently enthusiastic over-egging-of-the-pudding and – oh, how would you describe it – Schmaltz. It’s what makes Trump utterly unbearable to listen to for more than half a second, but he’s not the only one. I just think, there’s stuff that makes us cringe that for some reason doesn’t make Americans cringe. And that was what I saw on the faces of the congregation, that small, inexpressible, painful and sharp cultural difference.

I felt sorry for him. He was an excellent preacher, preaching in the wrong place. He was casting his pearls before swine, his seeds on stony ground. However, perhaps I needn’t feel too sorry for him as I believe he has been inundated with requests to appear at various venues. All’s well that ends well.

And now it’s down to earth. Back to obsessing about Brexit and Nothing Good Ever Happening. Ah well!

Sorry, forgot to explain the sore feet.