ERISED STRA EHRU OYT UBE CAFRU OYT ON WOHSI

What would you see in Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised? What is the thing you so much desire to see that you might actually starve to death in front of a mirror of desire, gazing at it? What is your heart’s desire?

By the way, I am indebted for this tiny fragment of inspiration to Erised Moon, the éminence grise behind an excellent blog called Dwelling in Erised. I rather doubt that it’s an original idea, and won’t have been used a hundred, or even a million times before but wotthehell wotthehell as Mehitabel sings, I’ll give it a go.

You tend to become wary of dreams as you get older. Suspicious, reluctant, having been carried away, then let down by them many times before. First you get to know that most of them won’t come true. Then you get to realise there’s either no time or no realistic way for them to come true. A romantic weekend in Venice with Daniel Craig is out of the question: any un-magical mirror will tell me that. In fact, would always have told me that. Kate Bottley, the lady vicar who appears with her husband on Gogglebox, once remarked that she knew there must be a benevolent God because He’d created Daniel Craig. Daniel Craig, to me, falls into the same category as the Northern Lights, Ming vases and the Mona Lisa – unique, admirable, a thing of beauty, and to be appreciated at a distance only.

But then that’s the point of the Mirror of Erised, isn’t it? It gives you permission to dream without restraint.

So, what would I see? Different things on different days.

I might see Sophie, my cat, who had to be put to sleep after a long, long life. I might see her young, and purring, curled up in a corner of the garden, basking in warm summer sun.

I might see that forest retreat I used to dream about when I was younger, where I would write, or rather type on an old-fashioned, black, sit-up-and-beg typewriter (since one’s dreams can only be furnished with the technology of the time) and where there would be no one at all but me – just me, the trees, and the rain on the roof. And a black and white cat. In fact, Sophie.

Expanding that dream a little – after all there is rheumatism to consider, in a damply forested retreat – I might see a long, sandy beach, a hammock and a stack of really interesting paperbacks. Somewhere in the background there would be a nice little cabin with a straw roof, and a perhaps word processor rather than a sit-up-and-beg black typewriter – you needed hands of steel for those big old keys, they were so hard to hit. And of course there would be cats. Sandy sort of cats, more than one, possibly ginger.

I suppose I might see a different looking me – less of a giantess – fragile, lissom, blonde and impossibly, high-cheekbonedly beautiful. You see, it does matter what you look like. Beauty may only be skin deep, but it’s both a head start and something to fall back on. It’s like the secretarial or accountancy qualification children who want to be actors and actresses are always urged by their parents to get. In times of dearth and famine it’s a weapon and a resource at your disposal. With looks like that, even Daniel Craig might have been a possibility.

I wonder why I would not want to see my grandparents, or their garden, my playground and retreat when I was a child. Or the man I loved and lost. Years, I spent fantasising that one day, just one day, just briefly I might be permitted a fleeting glimpse of him – in a crowded city street, perhaps. And then I did see him, in a queue at the Halifax building society during my lunch-hour. I was thirteen years older than the last time he’d seen me and, frankly, I looked a mess. Because it was such a lousy, wet day I was wearing those zip-up grandma ankle bootees from the old-lady catalogue; not the sort of bootees you’d want to be seen clumping around in by any desirable man, let alone him. And I think he saw me, but then again, maybe he didn’t. And I think maybe we saw each other and arrived at some instant, unspoken decision to look in different directions. Because some things can only ever work in the past; symbols, archetypes, memories, characters in some long-forgotten play, therein lies their power. Invisibility and impossibility – that’s what makes them sweet.

A game of bagatelle

I seem to have written a lot about my maternal grandparents. They lived in the same street as us, further down, on the opposite side. I would walk past their house on my way to school. I would seek sanctuary there when things got too bad at home – Nan got all the sessions of hysterical sobbing Mum never saw. I would spend nearly every Sunday with them – so obviously they loom large.

I would guess my parents thought of my Sundays with Nan and Grandad as a welcome break, allowing them to focus on my two younger sisters. To me, it was a lifeline. Nan and Grandad gave me safety, space, solitude, old-fashioned books to read, peas to shell, mint sauce to make, brass to polish, a fat old labrador to pet, splendid Sunday Dinners and a fund of family stories and happy memories that I continue to draw on and console myself with. Those Sundays made the difference between survival and drowning, I have always felt.

There’s a TV ad at the moment for Workplace Pensions. It’s the Government trying to drum up a bit of interest in something worthy but really dull. In this advert, Workplace Pensions has become a giant, multi-coloured parrot-like creature with bulging eyes and a pleasant, puzzled expression. He pads through the park on his giant feathery feet, occasionally pausing to sit on a park bench next to someone, who ignores him, or to wave hesitantly at a group of Nannies with pushchairs, who also ignore him. No one notices. And that was how I felt as a child – the cuckoo in the nest. Nan and Grandad saw me as I was, in all my hugeness, with my puzzled expression and my multi-coloured feathers, and did not waste words, energy, slaps or sarcasm trying to convert me into a sparrow.

However, everyone has two sets of grandparents – and what a bonus that is.

My father’s parents lived three towns distant in the broad ribbon of suburbia we all belonged to, so we visited them less often. My mother was always tense during these visits, and that made us all on edge. My mother was the supplier of moods for the whole family. It was a bungalow in a quiet street. You walked in and down the hallway and the floor seemed to bounce underneath you. I was always half afraid it would collapse. Everything jingled oddly, all the way along to the kitchen at the end. Inside the front door, Grampa’s hat stand with its disused umbrellas, the grey belted mackintosh, the soft black hat. One day he went out to post a letter but died of a heart attack in the street. Sometimes I wonder, who was the letter to? Did he manage to post it before he died or was it still in his mackintosh pocket when they found him? That’s the advantage and the disadvantage of a brain wired like this. You lust after details, crave the whole story. Wood, of no consequence – look at the trees – no, look at the twigs, look at the leaves – no, just look at the patterns the sky makes, between the leaves…

The musical walk down the hallway seemed very long indeed. On either side, glimpses of double beds with shiny, eau-de-nil quilts and candlewick bedspreads; dressing tables laden with antiquated bedroom clutter – powder-puffs with ribbons on the back, for holding them; heavy hairbrushes and combs to match; little sea green pots with lids on, for face-cream maybe. It was all rather alien, like landing in Edwardian times. The closer you got to the kitchen the more all-pervasive the smell of Wrights Coal Tar soap became, and in the kitchen was a gas stove (the most likely source of the jingling) and over it a wooden contraption for airing clothes, which could be lowered and raised.

And so we would sit, in winter, in their living room, with the threadbare plush curtains drawn. Grandma abhorred windy weather – a trait I have inherited – and would always attempt to shut it out. “Devilish wind, devilish wind”. And because of Mum’s being so ill at ease we all, even Dad, seemed to be perched on the edge of our armchairs. The adults had tea, with a teapot and proper cups on a wooden tray with a cloth. We had warm, over-watery lemon barley-water in clear plastic beakers. The adults conversed and we knew we must be silent. I would let my eyes wander to the letter rack stuffed with mysterious bills and letters, the blue china plates on the wall with their scenes of canals and windmills, the Chinese scroll with the letters written downwards and dragons loosely coiled in the margins; the roll-top desk with the paperback books beneath, a string-holder with a trail of white string from a hole in its top, the sheets of postage stamps, letter-knives, sealing-wax, glue bottles with glue-scabbed orange rubber tops, and a bottle of blue-black ink. Blue-black. The right colour for ink, I always thought.

Grampa sometimes tried to help me with sums, since my parents told everyone who would listen how dreadful I was at arithmetic, but he was stymied by the residual terror from my father attempting the same thing, losing patience almost immediately and triggering yet another screaming, smacking and door-slamming session. Tears, tears, tears. All this unfortunately transferred itself to my mild, helpful Grampa. He kept talking about something called ‘minus’ when the sum seemed to have the sign for ‘take away’ in it. I was precise and intransigent about words. There was one ‘right’ word for each thing. Words meant what the dictionary said they meant, not what somebody casually decided they meant. As a child I took them at face value; as an adult I trained myself not to.

Occasionally we were allowed to go into the front parlour, though never without an adult hovering behind us, on tenterhooks. In here was a gramophone with a trumpet for sound to come out of, and a brass arm with a tiny needle in it to swing across and lower very gently onto the record. It had a handle you inserted in the side and wound, and this made the record go round. And there was a bagatelle board.

As a child I assumed there was a gramophone and bagatelle board in every front parlour throughout the land. The only reason neither we nor Nan and Grandad had got them was that we didn’t have front parlours. We would take one of the silver ball-bearings from the wooden slot at the side, place it against the end of the spring, pull back the silver piston and let it go. The ball would shoot out onto the board and bang around, sometimes getting caught in one or other of the semi-circles of rusty pins, sometimes going free. But it always ended up back in the slot, rolling down the side of the machine, joining the queue of other silver balls waiting to be fired again. I suppose that’s where pinball came from.

I’ve been thinking these last few days about the way we retrace our tracks throughout our lives, walking up and down the same roads, decade after decade, visiting familiar corners of familiar cities, sitting on the same park bench or at the same café table, year on year, in different circumstances, scarcely aware of all the times before. For instance, I grew up on that one street where my parents and maternal grandparents both lived. As a teenager I courted on the corner of that same street, while my mother sat sourly knitting in the kitchen. As an adult I returned to my parents’ house in the same street for visits. As a child I sat in that living room and watched the boy next door build a snowman for me. Now I sat with my new husband, restless, wondering how long before we could escape. My sisters and I sat on the floor opening our Christmas presents in that room, surrounded by discarded wrapping-paper. Now it’s full of cane conservatory furniture that’s uncomfortable to sit on and my mother sits alone in one corner, where Dad’s armchair used to be, unable to read, trying to follow television programmes she can neither hear nor concentrate on.

I imagine it in time-lapse – the parquet floor suddenly covered with swirly-patterned ‘70s carpet, then once again exposed; chairs and sofas coming and going, people scurrying in and out like ants, new curtains, net curtains, the TV flashing on and off like morse code. I think of those housewives in the Fifties and Sixties, being tracked around their kitchen for time and motion studies, light bulbs or some similar contraption attached to their wrists – back and forth in an endless cats’ cradle between stove, sink and refrigerator. And sometimes I think, what if you tracked a person like that throughout their entire life, recording this same drive superimposed on that one, this visit on that visit, this scenario on that scenario – what would that light pattern look like? This may be possible soon, I suppose, since we all now carry mobile phones. I believe they already track crowd build-up in potential riot situations that way.

And – straining the metaphor considerably, but for the last time, I promise – it seems to me that we humans are not unlike those silver bagatelle balls. We are shot out into the world by some invisible force, pinging and crashing around in a severely confined space, knowing of no other space, unable to control our trajectory; and sooner or later most of us will be snared by those little rusty nails. The rest remain free – but only for so long as it takes for their momentum to run out. Then they find themselves back in the slot again and rolling back down to the start.

The Hunger

ESSINGFORD LANE, an unremarkable, snaking, interminable byway connecting one sprawling outskirt of Elmford to another, marked the point at which the ugliness of the town began to blend with the shabbiness of the surrounding countryside. Tonight cars were edging down the lane; their occupants, those who were looking, caught glimpses of high banks alternating with sullen fields, and here and there a forgettable cluster of houses outlined against a starry sky. Most were not looking, and did not even notice that the lane had crossed a motorway. Their minds were on the pleasures to come.

A sharp turn into a concealed entrance, the unlit drive showing white in their headlights. Although in reality it was only a few hundred yards long this stretch of gravel always seemed to go on for ever, cutting a diagonal line through undulating lawn on either side. The lawn and the dark unevenness of it could somehow be sensed even in darkness, although in reality it was only a few hundred yards. At the end of the driveway they felt nervous, or maybe just eager, as humans have always been, to exchange cold and the dark for warmth and comfort.

They half parked, half abandoned their cars around the prefabricated wooden building known as Elmford Sports & Social Club, heading for that row of bright rectangles and the first few strains of music.

The curtains had not yet been drawn. The DJ’s light machine was revolving in readiness although no one was actually dancing yet. One boy and one girl sat behind a table just inside the door, the boy with a cash box to give change for £10 notes, the girl with a machine to swipe people’s membership cards as they were offered.

They might be planning on spending all night doing pseudo-Latin dances, but there was something reassuringly English about the draughtiness, the twirly pattern of coloured lights measling everyone’s faces, the black plastic cards, the cash box, the routine and the predictability of everything.

As always, men hovered around the bar hugging their drinks, chatting; and as always women clattered over to the tables in their silver heels, keeping their jackets on, for it was February, which ties with November for Nastiest Month of the Year, and the room had not yet warmed up. Later, when the dancing became intense, they would be glad they had worn those thin summer skirts and sleeveless t-shirts, but for the moment, with the night damp still hanging in the air and condensation trickling down the window panes, forming little pools on the windowsills, they shivered.

OUTSIDE, THAT which was always there drew nearer. It began to coalesce, creating a shape from the darkness of which it was a particular element. It registered everything, the flashes of red, indigo and yellow, the loud insistent music, the occasional burst of laughter, but these things meant no more to it than thunder or lightning, screaming, or stars. Its primitive senses were exclusively attuned to human flesh, and it could smell that now. Neither pleasure nor anticipation arose in That which was always there, merely a consciousness of hunger and the knowledge that it would soon be satisfied.

ANNA SMITH sat at a little table near the stage where, in a minute, two of the Crew, one male and one female, would demonstrate tonight’s three beginner moves, in a manner that somehow succeeded in combining extreme vivacity with the utmost boredom. Anna was thirty-seven and only too painfully aware that she was not good looking. She had let her figure slip. It was so hard to keep oneself together; when looking after an invalid there was a tendency to eat for comfort. Her clothes, though clean and pressed, were years out of date. They were wrong, somehow. She sensed this but didn’t quite know how to make them right.

But that was the thing with Ceroc. Whatever your age or appearance there were members of the opposite, and unfortunately sometimes members of the same, sex to dance with and the illusion, if only for an hour or two, that one was having some sort of fun. And she was having fun, of a sort. She was enjoying the music and the lights. At Ceroc she could pretend that she was seventeen again; and on top of that she had taken a bit of a shine to one of the Taxi Dancers, whose name was Kevin.

She knew his name because it was obligatory to introduce yourself to each of your partners in turn as you moved down the line. Taxis were part of the crew, all of whom black t-shirts with Ceroc slogans on the back. They were very, very, as her pupils would have put it, cool. Their function was to dance with lonely ladies like her and be charming about it, basically to make sure that they had a good time and would return to cough up another £7.50 next week.

‘This Time Seven Ladies Down.’

‘This Time Four Ladies Down.’

‘Men, stay where you are. No, not that way, ladies!’

Every time you stopped you had to say, ‘Hello, my name is Anna’. Anna usually added, ‘And I’m new’ in case the stranger expected her to be any good at anything. Deep down, Anna realised that Kevin had almost certainly not taken a shine to her. Why would he? And it wasn’t as if he was handsome, more rugged, battered even, but he danced so well. He managed to jive, whirl and twist her around the floor as if she was light and graceful, which she knew she was not. It sounded silly but he made her feel sort of French, as if she was slim, and wearing a short flounced skirt and higher heels, maybe dangling a Gitane from languid fingers.

Kevin was lovely even if, as she suspected, with a name like Kevin he was likely to be a gas fitter or AA man in everyday life. His hands were warm and, subtly, he managed to convey the feeling that he at least didn’t dislike her, without any off-putting tinge of desperation. And she liked the feeling of being looked after; being led by a man, even though she knew she probably shouldn’t, what with Women’s Lib and everything.

She survived the Beginners class, though hot and out of breath. More Crew came and dragged the concertina doors across, dividing the hall into two unequal portions. The Intermediates were about to ‘get down with it’ in the main section, whilst those beginners who felt they needed Extra Tuition straggled to the smaller section of the bar. Better still, Kevin was on Extra Tuition tonight. What was going on inside his head, she wondered. Probably nothing except the music, as one perspiring woman after another threw herself into his arms, repeated the three move sequence – this week YoYo, Manspin and Armjive – and ricocheted off.

What did he think of her? She had so little experience with men. It was only recently, since her mother died, that she had begun to think of finding love and romance. Surely it must happen sometimes in real life too? Of course, one wouldn’t expect it to be exactly like it was in the Woman’s Realms mother had devoured one after another and which Anna had read in her turn, when they were slightly crumpled, adorned with butter-spots and the crossword had mostly, and wrongly, been done. No knight on a white charger heading her way, she suspected. But an ordinary man, a kind and gentle sort of chap, was that too much to hope for?

KEVIN HAD noticed the woman looking at him. Ann or Anya or something, it wasn’t easy to catch their names above the music. She obviously fancied the pants off him, but that was nothing new. Put on a black Crew tee-shirt and they all seemed to fall at your feet, especially the pathetic, middle aged ones. Rock on, that’s what he thought, as long as they were the right side of forty; and this one might be worth a try. She had that atmosphere about her, lonely, naïve, but up for it, yes, definitely up for it. He might give her a bit of a whirl. Let’s face it, there wasn’t much else about tonight.

He pondered the best approach. Ann or Anya seemed an old-fashioned sort. Clicking through his pick-up lines, he selected ‘Can I help you on with your coat, my dear?’ as opposed to ‘Buy you a drink, sweetheart?’ Not a complete dog, this Ann or Anya. Faint suggestion of a moustache, perhaps, and a bit on the porky side, but he was not averse to a spare tyre or two; felt you’d got your money’s worth, your pound of flesh without, of course, actually having to pay any money. That was the beauty of Ceroc, the infallible magic of the black t-shirt. Yes, Ann or Anya would do a turn for tonight; in fact, he might almost be looking forward to it.

OUTSIDE, IN the darkness, That which was always there had sensed the communal increase in body heat. Soon, very soon, its hunger would be assuaged.

ANNA HAD stationed herself by the open french doors to cool off, surrounded by piles of coats, handbags and water-bottles, abandoned on the floor and tables, and heaped on chairs. Outside she could make out the ghostly outlines of benches, the cumbersome, awkward to get into kind you found in woodland picnic spots, and some rusty, industrial-sized tin cans for people to stub out their cigarettes in. She had noticed Kevin’s scrutiny of her and felt her heart beating faster. Maybe he did see something in her after all. He was brooding, maybe, biding his time. Heroes tended to do a lot of that, didn’t they? He might even come over and speak to her before she left. Her face, already hot, became a little hotter in anticipation.

Unconsciously she took one small step back, crossing the boundary between the lighted room and the darkness beyond. Cool silence, and then Something Else, engulfed her. She gave one, small gasp.

Kevin had temporarily turned his back on Ann or Anya. There was no great rush; the woman was nicely on the hook and wouldn’t be off home just yet, time to get another beer down him. And yet when, some minutes later, he glanced across, just checking, he found that she had vanished. The french doors stood open as before, but Ann or Anya wasn’t stationed in them. However, her handbag, a brown patent one with an overlarge gilt buckle, remained on the chair next to where she had been.

Ah well, he thought, women of that age are wedded to their handbags. She’ll be back for it sooner or later.

A pelican of the wilderness

(actually written in pencil yesterday evening while my computer was away in the Magic Workshop)

I knew this was going to happen: bound to, really, since my computer is one of my three best friends. Correction, only friends. Pathetic. Just pathetic!

When it gets dark outside and it isn’t a full moon (everything looks better under a full moon); when the cats are fed and all asleep and therefore I might not exist; when the hedgehog and I have surprised one another at the feeding station yet again (we never seem to learn); when the Evening News is over and there’s an hour and a half to go to Stargate: Atlantis; when I need to look up a word or can’t remember the name of a song or the next line of a poem; when I’ve listened to that Jennifer Warnes CD for the third time in a row; when I start thinking about Mum and what away-with-the-fairies disaster she could be involving herself in right now, and I wouldn’t know; when I begin to avoid looking in the mirror in case I see some other woman there; when I feel tempted to fetch yet another bowl of Frosted Wheats from the kitchen even though I know they give me indigestion; when I …

I’ve run out of whens. But whenever any of these ‘whens’ occur, usually I would hobble upstairs, do that little shimmy thing with Mr Mousie to bring the computer back to life and immerse myself in blogging, Amazon-surfing or clicking through those strings of weird photos of People Who Could Not Possibly Exist, Child Stars Who Grew Up Ugly or Worst Plastic Surgery Disasters Ever, that you know are going to be rubbish and will probably send the Internet Security thingy into a fit of little red Xs but somehow cannot resist. But tonight…

Tonight, I am thwarted. Famous Blue Raincoat remains in the CD player and I just can’t seem to get up off the sofa and remove it. She’s got to that creepy one about Joan of Arc again;

  • Well then fire, make your body cold
  • I’m gonna give you mine to hold
  • And saying this she climbed inside
  • To be his one, to be his only bride

If only I could unglue myself this obsessive-compulsive Jennifer-Warnes-playing thing I could put in something less suicide-inducing like Mary Black or James Taylor. An hour or so of tuneless carolling along to James Taylor would change everything; he’s the best possible medicine for attacks of weltschmerz or existential angst. How could you be downhearted whilst singing I fix broken hearts, baby, I’m your handyman or Goodnight you moonlight ladies, rockabye Sweet Baby James to a roomful of sleeping cats?

How loud that central heating sounds. Did the radiators always rattle like something out of A Christmas Carol? Maybe I could wake a cat or two.

Twenty-nine hours. Only twenty-nine hours to wait. What am I going to do?

There’s plenty I could be doing. There’s a green plastic trayful of blog-post ideas, a stack of green and yellow refill pads for writing on and a Shaun The Sheep mug full of perfectly sharpened pencils. There’s that copy of Peter Pan that arrived in the post today, finally. I could be reading that. There’s that strange Christian blockbuster novel I downloaded onto my Kindle on a whim and have hardly started. What is this slight obsession with Christianity at the moment? Just a phase, probably. Or second childhood.

There are Christmas presents I could start wrapping but it’s hard to get in the mood since we’re not even over Halloween yet. If I wanted to I could hoover the living room with my extremely loud, old-fashioned hoover to welcome home my neighbours who – I see from the black hearse parked outside their house – have just returned from their six month sojourn in the South of France either building their dream villa or staying in a friend’s caravan, depending which other neighbours you choose to believe. Oh here we go – word association again:

  • Je suis un rock star
  • Je avais un residence
  • Je habiter la
  • A la south de France
  •  
  • Voulez vous
  • Partir with me?
  • And come and rester la
  • With me in France?
  • Bill Wyman – (Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star

I do love Franglais, particularly really determinedly, arrogantly bad Franglais. I believe the French detest it.

My sister just telephoned from Canada. It seems she is suffering a similar sense of dislocation, for different reasons. Her kitchen cabinets have all been ripped out and the fitting of the new ones has been delayed for a day. All she can do is microwave and boil water. All her bits and pieces in cardboard boxes. I keep wandering into my office, seeing screen, keyboard, mouse, printer, router, all in their usual places and wondering vaguely why they won’t still work. Could that dull-looking black box-thing really have been the heart of it all. Cables and plug-in thingies trail onto the carpet like severed arteries.

Most of my life I have been typing. Typing and thinking have become one and the same thing to me. Now the pencil looks strange in my hand and my own handwriting – though surprisingly attractive – seems to belong to someone I used to know.

After a few pages your own hand starts to yell at you. Writing hurts!

I could go out. At least in theory. At least tomorrow, when it gets light. Except where? I could try living some sort of real life for a little while, but what would a real, live person do?

Maybe they would decide to attend the Halloween Extravaganza at the one and only pub this Friday. Someone pushed one of those glossy advertising fliers through my letterbox this afternoon, or rather into my letterbox where it got stuck and concertinaed by those twin brush-things. What are the twin brush-things on letterboxes for, does anybody know? Maybe just to frighten postmen.

I could go if I was prepared to dress up as a witch (little make-up required) or a pumpkin-lady in plus-size orange tights and a cardboard pumpkin body; and if I was prepared to go unescorted into a public house; and if I was happy to abandon the twelve cats to the onslaughts of door-rattling, menacing little trick-or-treat-persons. Were I to do so I might enjoy, according to the flier:

  • Apple Bobbing (check)
  • Mummy Wrap (children permitted to encase female parent in yards of toilet paper, just this once?)
  • Zombie Dancing (would they be importing a bona fide Zombie Dancing troupe to give a demonstration, or would they be selecting Michael Jackson on the jukebox and expecting all present to dance along to Thriller, making those fearsome faces?)
  • Jelly Bobbing (like Apple Bobbing but substituting jelly for water? Isn’t this overkill? I mean, first you get your hair wet then you get a faceful of strawberry jelly)
  • Disco (check)
  • Balloon Games (oh no. I remember balloon games from my youth. Undignified)
  • Beer Pong (Beer Pong? Beer Pong? Like Ping Pong perhaps only with pint mugs flying back and forth?)

Reality makes so very little sense.

Twenty eight hours…

I have become like an owl of the waste places. I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.

Psalm 102:6

OH DEAR, WHAT CAN THE MATTER BE?

My amigo Mr Computer Problems?! is coming to collect the computer tomorrow and it may be on its holidays in his workshop for a couple of days. When it comes back it should have the new Windows 10 thingummyjig safely downloaded (ie not by me) and I will then have to teach myself to use it. Windows 10 in Easy Steps is to hand, saying it is in Plain English, Easy To Follow, Fully Illustrated and In Full Colour. All hopeful and reassuring-sounding. The trouble is I know what I’m like: the minute I get the thing plugged in I’ll start clicking on stuff at random and end up taking three months to stagger through it by trial and error.

I do have a smart phone, in a box. All the stuff I need is in the box, it’s just that I haven’t got round to… From reading the blogs of others I gather it is possible to send a post from a smart phone, but first I would have to master the smart phone, and by that time the computer will probably be back.

So if you spot a gap in the blogging this week – I’m still here – just getting cross and drinking mug after mug of instant coffee in my attempts to get back. And it won’t stop me writing. I’ve laid in a good stock of paper and pencils and I shall scribble. When my computer returns, and assuming I can at least locate the ‘Word’ icon, I shall type. Then, when Windows 10 and I are the best of buddies, more or less, I shall post.

Fingers crossed.

Have also ordered additional cat litter, and an extra Tesco delivery. Otherwise, heaven forefend, I may have to get in the car, drive the twenty miles to civilisation and visit one of those shops.

Fascinated

HE WAS staring at her, and furthermore he was famous.

The man she had spotted in the Private Bar was none other than Lenny Miscovich, one time lead guitarist of Yellowsnake and more recently co-presenter of Rock of Ages, a cutting-edge TV series charting the history of blues and rock. Lenny Miscovich was so cool, even now at, what would he be, about five years older than her so forty five or six? There was something ever so slightly dangerous about him still; the way his dark, slicked back hair was a little too long; the way that denim jacket was draped around his shoulders, as if at any second he might throw it off and stride out of here; that preoccupied smile playing around his lips, as if there was some secret only he and a very few other people knew.

Here was Sal Gifford, in the public bar of the down-at-heel Greenacre Hotel, Old Mereford, appearing to be listening to some joke that her husband was in the process of telling to a group of his mates, whilst stealing furtive glances at the subject of her most passionate teenage fantasies.

And there was Lenny Miscovich, large as life, in the small private bar, with only two rather scratched mahogany counters, one grumpy landlord, one barmaid, a shelf of newly-washed beer glasses and a row of optics between them.

And one husband, of course.

‘At the end of the day, football means not having to go to Sainsbury’s on a Saturday!’ Mike Gifford reached the punch line of his joke to uproarious, beer-fuelled laughter.

‘Good one, eh, Sal?’ Mike turned to her, still laughing.

‘Good one,’ she assured him. It had never struck her before how all-alike Mike and his mates were; same chain-store polo shirts; same slightly crumpled jeans; same bald spot; same suspicion of a beer belly.

‘Mike, isn’t that the rock-star, er, Lenny something?’ She asked. He followed her gaze through to the Private Bar.

‘Now that you mention it,’ he said, ‘I did hear the barmaid saying something about that when I was up getting the last round. Used to be in Yellow-something, that rock group, about twenty years back, didn’t he? He and the film crew are staying here tonight. Barmaid reckons they’re down here to do some filming out at Bree Point, some programme about British eccentrics. There’s that weirdo hermit out at Bree, isn’t there? Lives in a railway carriage and plants umbrellas in the shingle.’

‘Did you notice the Rolls-Royce parked out front, on a trailer?’ somebody piped up. ‘Apparently he’s been driving around in that for the filming. Bit baggy around the eyes, isn’t he?’

‘Who, the Bree hermit ?’

‘Nah, Miscovich. Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle catching up with him, shouldn’t wonder.’

Mike was losing interest in this Miscovich. ‘Have you heard this one, you guys? What do you get if you cross a rabbit and a spider?’

Sal Gifford couldn’t help being aware of the fact that Lenny Miscovich was still gazing at her. Fascinated, he seemed to be. It was as if that secret smile of his was intended for her alone.

‘Well hello there, gorgeous,’ it seemed to be saying.

No, it couldn’t be saying that. Get a grip, woman. What could a man like Lenny Miscovich possibly want with somebody as ordinary as her?

‘A hairnet,’ said Mike. ‘Geddit, Sal – rabbit? spider? hare? net?’

The evening wore on. Mike and his mates continued to swop bad jokes and Sal sipped at her cider and pretended to laugh along with them. For the next half an hour she made a huge effort not to check whether Lenny Miscovich was still staring at her.

Finally the suspense was too much for her. Taking a deep, steadying breath she permitted herself a casual glance in the direction of the Private Bar, only to discover that Lenny and his entourage had vanished. They must have gone upstairs to their rooms, she supposed.

At least she could relax now. She settled back into the Greenacre’s second best sofa and pictured Lenny Miscovich pausing at the turn of the stairs, gazing down at her in order to fix in his memory the petite, voluptuous blonde in the Public Bar who had been so absorbed in her husband’s conversation all evening that she hadn’t even noticed a rock legend passing within a few feet of her.

‘If only,’ the Lenny of her imagination was sighing. ‘If only things could have been different.’

‘YOU CAN put them on now, Lenny,’ murmured his PA, Chanelle, when they reached the second floor landing.’

‘Thank God for that,’ he muttered, fishing a pair of black-rimmed geek-chic glasses out of his jacket pocket. ‘Are you sure it’s safe?’

‘Yeah,’ nobody’s likely to catch sight of you up here. Your public image remains intact.’

‘My eyes are killing me. Honestly, Chan, they’re standing out on stalks. It makes you feel quite queasy after a while, hovering around in the middle of a noisy fog, trying to look as if you can see everything that’s going on. When did you say my contacts would be getting here?’

‘Tomorrow morning, early. They’re sending them up from London by courier. Serves you right for leaving your little plastic box in the bathroom, for the third time.’

‘I know, I know. But you panicked me, leaning on the horn like that.’

‘Well you were very late, sweetheart.’

‘Rock legends are supposed to be late.’

‘For rock concerts, not TV programmes.’

‘I wasn’t doing that staring thing again tonight was I?’

‘As a matter of fact you were, my dear. A blonde woman in the Public Bar.’

‘Oh God. A blonde? At least it was a blonde. Did she notice?’

‘Yes, I’m afraid she did, though she was trying her best to appear not to have; self-conscious, you know, the way they are.’

Lenny pondered on this for a moment. It was such a pain having become short-sighted and even more of a pain having to pretend he wasn’t. How much longer was he going to be able to keep this up? Another year, two if he was lucky, before what was left of the stardust wore off and the work dried up altogether.

He’d suffered a major blow to his confidence recently when they’d informed him he was sacked from Rock of Ages. Well, not sacked exactly. TV producers never employed such a distasteful word. What they had actually said was, ‘The ratings have taken a dip this series, Lenny. We think an injection of fresh blood might be required, someone more congruent with the demographic.’

‘Younger?’

‘Um, possibly. And no doubt you’ll have a thousand other projects in the pipeline.’

But the only ‘other project’ his agent had been able to dredge up for him at short notice was this one, traipsing off to some out of the way corner of East Anglia to interview a nutcase in a railway carriage for an Aussie TV-special. It was going to be called either Barmy Brits or Potty Poms, he couldn’t recall which.

And having to pretend to drive a Rolls-Royce that was being towed along on the back of a trailer; waffling to camera whilst waggling, inexpertly, the steering wheel of a car he didn’t know how to drive, because he had never learned to drive. How humiliating was that?

The one I was staring at this time, was she a Babe?‘ he queried.

Chanelle glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, seeing the man he didn’t realise she saw, on the downhill leg of his career now, and staring obscurity in the face. She had loved Lenny Miscovich for years and no doubt would continue to love him however wrinkly and un-famous he became, and even though he was never likely to love her back. With an effort she brought to mind the chubby, plain little female on the shabby black sofa, clutching her half pint of cider.

Forty, forty-one?

‘Yeah, Lenny,’ she said, ‘she was a bit of a Babe.’

The Perfect Roar: a love story

IT ISN’T easy in the Jungle. Things get eaten, things get hurt. Rain falls, dislodging the tiny beetles from their homes in the river bank and washes them away. Sun shines and the drinking pools dry out. Nothing is safe from Time, that creeping predator. All the same, sometimes there is kindness. Sometimes even love.

At the centre of the Jungle was a great yellow mountain, rearing up out of the glossy green trees. The forest creatures were afraid of the mountain. They didn’t know why, exactly, except that the mountain always seemed to have been there, whilst their own lives were fleeting. And the mountain made a continuous, ominous creaking and groaning. ‘I may decide to fall down on top of you,’ it seemed to be saying. ‘Just because I haven’t, doesn’t mean I won’t.

Only one creature was not afraid of the mountain, and that was the lion. Maybe this was because he lived half way up the great yellow mountain, in a cave, and kind of felt he owned it. Or maybe it was because he roared so loud and so long that he scarcely heard the groaning.

The mouth of the lion’s cave was littered with bleached bones, also chewed skulls of various shapes and sizes. The lion never needed to go out hunting; indeed, he liked the cave so well he never left it at all. The forest creatures brought his food to him, live and sometimes kicking. They accomplished this by drawing lots amongst themselves as to who should be sacrificed each day. Mothers fed their offspring heartily, and hastened to beget more, knowing how many of their plump, furry darlings were likely to end up inside the lion.

For they reasoned that it was better to keep the lion in his cave by this means, for if he ever did take it into his head to come out he would surely start slaughtering at random, and with great enthusiasm, reaching up his long golden arms to tip the monkeys out of the trees; reaching down his long golden arms to pull the harmless rabbits from their burrows. He would delve into the river with his scimitar claws to disturb the goggle-eyed fish in their dreaming. He would snatch the many-coloured birds from the air to serve as mid-morning snacks.

All this time the lion had believed himself to be alone. Occasionally, drowsing in the midday heat, he reviewed such memories as he had, hoping to find one that contained a mother, a sister or a father. But supposing such kin had ever existed, why had they gone away and left him in the cave?

Occasionally he paused in his roaring and listened, imagining for a second that he heard an answering roar from some distant cave or forest, but it was only ever an echo. The lion, of course, was lonely, but he didn’t know it. It didn’t do to know that kind of thing.

In amongst the thick brown fur of the lion’s mane, all this time had lived a mouse. The lion, as we have seen, did not possess a good memory. If he had ever known the mouse was there he had forgotten, and the mouse took great pains to keep it that way. Safe and still she lay in his tangled coat, only climbing down in the hottest part of the day when he was sleeping. Then she would skip into the forest to look for berries and seeds.

She enjoyed these little excursions into the real world. Occasionally she even allowed herself to admit how stuffy and confining it could be to live in a lion, one’s eyes seeing nothing but coarse lion hair, one’s nostrils filled with the rank smell of lion. Over the years she had learned her Beloved’s roars by heart; she knew their complex patterns and their various meanings. She knew the angry roar, the threatening roar, the hungry roar. She even knew the sad roar he sometimes made at the end of his day, very quietly, to himself, believing that no one could hear. For yes, she had grown to love the lion and she knew it, though it doesn’t do to know that kind of thing.

And so the years passed by. The lion grew a little louder and a little lonelier; the mouse remained content to hide in Beloved’s fur and only occasionally to indulge in wistful daydreams of the big wide world and what her life might have been like had she chosen to live on the forest floor amongst the other creatures. Mostly, though, she was grateful to be a Lion’s Mouse, for she was a timid and reclusive creature, ill-suited to the seething life below.

But then the lion grew sick, which changed everything. First he lost his appetite. The Sacrifices that appeared at the mouth of the cave remained there for a while, trembling but uneaten, and eventually crept away. Then, apart from the occasional whimper, the lion fell silent, his vast golden head lolling on the dusty floor, his great golden paws limp and useless. For the first time he heard the sound of blood roaring in his ears and throbbing in his veins; heard too the terrible groaning of the mountain and began to be afraid, for he sensed he was going to die.

After a while the creatures on the forest floor began to remark amongst themselves upon the unfamiliar silence, and upon the Sacrifices that had begun to return, not even chewed or licked. They confirmed that the lion was no longer so fearsome, but rather a moth-eaten old thing really. For several days the creatures waited in case the roaring should start up again. When it didn’t, they called a council meeting around the water hole. The fishes awoke reluctantly and, between deep breaths of water, lifted their spiny heads out of the water. Foxes slunk in through the undergrowth and sat yellow-eyed, their terracotta tails disposed around their paws, contemplating rabbits. The rabbits endeavoured to become invisible. Elephants pushed a path through the trees disturbing, briefly, the birds that had come down in great rainbow-coloured clouds to perch amongst the branches. Monkeys pirouetted in from the canopy on ropes of liana, looping up again at intervals to report to others what they had heard.

The meeting took a very long time, for the languages of the animals, like the languages of men, are many and various, but unlike men the animals have never acquired the skill of taking turns to speak. Nevertheless, by the end of their long and loud conferrings they had formed a plan of action. Together, they would creep up the mountain, to the very mouth of the lion’s cave, and peer inside. If the lion merely slept they could creep away. Should he be dead, on the other hand, they could leave rejoicing, for they would no longer have the inconvenience of sacrificing themselves and their children to assuage his hunger. And should they discover him alive, but sick, they would fall upon him, with the courage of the multitude, and rid themselves of the old tyrant while they had the chance.

The mouse heard them approaching. Scattered amongst the mountain’s creakings and groanings she heard their miscellaneous chatterings and twitterings, she discerned the snapping of twigs underpaw. She heard the sly slithering of the snake and the crouched creeping of the fox, and the sideways shuffle of the monkeys, who were furtive and ill at ease when down from the canopy. She knew, too, what was in their heart, for such a knowing is the particular talent of mice.

Now the mouse had long ago understood that the lion’s roar was not so very loud. The cave magnified the roar, rolling it around from wall to wall, bouncing it off the roof until it emerged as a great wave of sound. If he had ever left his cave and tried roaring in the open the lion would have realised this for himself. Or perhaps he did realise it, a little. Now the mouse understood that she would have to save her beloved.

As the creatures approached she clambered out of the lion’s brown and tangled mane, hid herself behind one of his great golden ears and began to breathe deeply. She thought of Beloved’s most splendid and terrifying roar as she breathed in the searing air of a jungle noon. She breathed in and breathed in and breathed in until one by one her tiny ribs began to crack beneath her thin, grey fur.

And then she began to roar. She roared Beloved’s angriest, most terrifying roar, the one that contained ‘GET AWAY FROM ME!’ and ‘HOW DARE YOU APPROACH!’ and the sound came rolling and swelling and echoing out of that mountain cave, louder, more fearsome and more perfect than anything the lion himself had ever produced.

And the mouse breathed in again, and roared again, though now the blood ran from her mouth and burst from her ears and the roar-cracked ribs began to burst through her sides one by broken one and the roar became, although by then she didn’t know it, a scream of agony.

Upon hearing this, the creatures of the forest beat a hasty retreat to their homes in tree and in sky and in burrow, and it was many, many months before the boldest of them ventured up the mountain again. This was, of course, the fox, who discovered what was left of the lion stretched out inside the mouth of the cave, dead of old age, sickness and loneliness, although he had never known it. And concealed in the lion’s mane, although the fox was never to know it, was a long-dead mouse, whose tiny broken body concealed a large, and broken, heart.

Mint, Nettles, Damsons

Rose Browning skewered her church-going hat with her two amber hatpins. It was Harvest Festival and hot, for a hat, but you daren’t be seen in church without one – not if you hoped to avoid being quoted at by Mildred Weekes:

But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. One-Corinthians-eleven-five.

She just had to stick that last bit in, every single time, self-righteous old bat. Ought to have married – that’d have cooked her goose for her. She’d have been far too busy with sprout-peeling, floor-mopping and kiddies to go round quoting things at people. But then who in his right mind would have taken Mildred, with her shrewish ways and her superiority? Rose had gone to school with Mildred Weekes. Woeful, they’d called her behind her back. Woeful Weekes.

Rose glanced out of the back window. Peter was down the garden lifting the spuds for their Sunday lunch, and whatever else he spent all those hours down the garden doing. Talking to robins, like in The Secret Garden, perhaps; lost in his memories, or just enjoying being out in the autumn sunshine and under a blue sky. Although they’d celebrated their ruby wedding last Christmas Eve, Rose knew she had never understood Peter. It hadn’t stopped them being happy, more or less. He was a private man – thin, with sticky-out ears and a knobbly, misshapen nose. That had happened when he was a child. Some child jumped in on him when they were river-bathing; broke his nose in two places and it didn’t heal right. And then there were the other injuries, that he’d got in the Great War: the shrapnel peppering his right leg – shards of it still in there, she believed – and the ragged scar on his right side. These she had discovered on their wedding night. She had not thought to ask him about them – she had been too frightened to think, to be honest, considering the mysterious thing that was probably just about to happen – and he had said nothing. And other injuries, invisible ones, like the loss of their son Kenneth. He had not mentioned Kenneth from that day to this.

But he was happy enough in the garden. He never said so, but she knew by the way he chewed on his pipe and puffed smoke at the sky and hummed a bit under his breath. Down the garden or out in his carpentry Lodge – those were his happy places. And grand-daughter Sophie was with him today, being it was Sunday. Blue dress today. Purple hair ribbons. My little mouse, thought Rose, tears of pity and affection springing into her eyes. My little deaf mousie.

But this wouldn’t do. Mustn’t be late for church, especially on Harvest Festival.

Remember the Five Foolish Virgins, Mrs Browning…

Silly old bee.

*

Peter plunged the fork into the ground and lifted it, heavy with potatoes for their dinner. He shook some of the earth off and held it out to Sophie for inspection. She stretched out a pudgy, eight-year old’s hand to touch a woodlouse scuttling away between the fibrous white roots. Because of her deafness they never spoke, but rarely bothered with signs either. There didn’t seem to be much of a need. It was peaceful, being together in silence; both treasured it though neither could have put it into words.

When she had looked enough he turned and dropped the potatoes, earth and all, into a pail. He cut a short length of string and handed it to her, along with the garden scissors, pointing in the direction of an apple tree in a sea of mint. This was her job. Gathering mint for mint sauce. When they got back to the house he would chop it for her and drop it into a bowl; she would spoon in vinegar, caster sugar and a pinch of salt, and she would stir. Making the mint sauce was her job. So was shelling the peas. Grandad would peel the potatoes and Nanny Rose, when she came back, would look after the roast, the tray of Yorkshire Puddings, the cabbage and the gravy. Nanny Rose made great gravy. She poured some of the cabbage juice into it, and then back onto the hob for another stir and a thicken, like they’d taught her In Service.

She wandered around what remained of Grandad’s latest bonfire, and poked around in the ashes with a stick, looking for left-over stuff. You could never tell what you might find, looking down. Sophie had discovered all sorts of things people had dropped or left behind – bits of broken teacup in Nanny Rose’s flower beds; a stone with a fossil on it, like a little octopus – she had found that over the field – even once a tin hat, a sort of flat one, gone all rusty under a bush in the front garden. Nan said it was what the air-raid wardens used to wear. Not being able to hear, Sophie looked, and had a knack for finding things. This time it was a big, brassy medal, with an angel on it, and a fallen soldier. The medal had been hanging on some thick, rainbow-striped ribbon but it had got burnt in the fire and as she lifted it, what was left fell away. She brought it to Grandad for inspection. He inspected it for a long time, stroking away the soot and dirt with his thumb. She didn’t need to look at his face to know that he was crying.

*

It was Godfrey Snaith’s first service as vicar. Until a few days ago he had been plain Curate Snaith. Towards the end of his four year curacy he had of course applied for a parish of his own. He had assumed he would be assigned away, to some distant island or city centre upon his ordination, as was the usual practice, but Reverend StAubyn’s demise, though long and sadly expected by his colleagues and congregation, had taken place at an inconvenient time – just a week before Harvest Festival. Godfrey Snaith found himself thrust into the limelight, amongst those who had known him in a junior role, and in an invidious position. He had been appointed Reverend StAubyn’s successor, but since ordination ceremonies are complex and take time to organise and he was having to make his big entrance, as it were, without quite the full credentials. Geoffrey Snaith was not a confident man – somewhat timid, in fact. He was frightened of his new responsibilities. He was frightened of making a mess of the popular Harvest Festival service. Most of all he was frightened of Miss Mildred Weekes, who was out to get him.

He had always known, although he had attempted not to, that Miss Mildred Weekes was in love with the Reverend StAubyn. The Reverend StAubyn had known this too and, in some unspecific, incomprehensible, unimaginable, unforgiveable way, had been taking advantage of it. Now Mildred Weekes was grieving, but she could not let it show. In the past week swallowed grief had transformed Mildred Weekes from a self-righteous but mostly harmless middle-aged spinster into a vengeful termagant. Hell hath no fury like a woman whose hero has been replaced by a white-faced curate, thought Godfrey Snaith, poetically. Mildred was plotting something.

It started well enough. Children from the local school, rehearsed by one of their teachers, processed up the aisle in a wobbly crocodile bearing pumpkins, cabbages, corn-dollies and whatnot (Godfrey had grown up in Bermondsey and was a bit vague about that sort of stuff) whilst the congregation bellowed Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home. Always a favourite, that one. He took as his text, the obvious – Ecclesiastes 3

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted… etcetera.

Keep It Simple, Stupid, he reminded himself. Keep It simple, Snaithy. He seemed to be getting more nervous rather than less. Mildred Weekes was sitting in the front pew, looking straight at him. Nothing unusual about this. She always sat at the front and she always stared but this time – this time her face was twisted, twisted into a veritable grimace, part pain, part rage. part malice.

And what is in season, right now, Curate Snaith? she interrupted suddenly.

That’s it, he thought. Here she blows. She’s going to heckle. And Curate, not Reverend. Technically correct but, but… His mind had gone blank.

Umm, sorry?

You speak with assurance of the seasons, Curate Snaith. Pray tell us, which fruits and vegetables are in season at this moment in time? This is a country parish, Curate Snaith, and you have resided here for the past four years, have you not? (She was sounding more and more like Atticus Finch). Surely you must have learned that much, by now?

Umm…

Rose Browning was incensed. How dare Woeful Weekes interrupt both a church service and the new vicar? How dare she spoil things? I’m going to fix her once and for all, Rose thought.

Ca-harrots! She coughed, behind her hand.

Well, er, there are carrots… said Godfrey Snaith, wondering what was coming next.

Ach-elery!

Oh…and celery. Yes, celery.

Ah-ah-auliflower!

Rose had run out of coughs and sneezes and run out of patience.

Speak up, Reverend Snaith. I do believe I am becoming a little hard of hearing in my old age. I believe I heard Bramleys? Blueberries? Plums? Now Rose was well and truly up on her high horse. She walked up and stood between Woeful Weeks and this poor nervous almost-Vicar: Did I hear damsons, Miss Weekes? Do you think I heard damsons? Did you hear damsons? I believe I DID, Miss Weekes…

Altogether it was a very satisfactory occasion, and Rose Browning floated home towards her back kitchen and the making of Sunday Lunch for her beloved Sophie and her… good old Peter, veritably trailing those clouds of glory.

*

Peter polished the medal on his sleeve, and fetched the garden twine. He cut a long length of it this time, looped it around his grubby forefinger and handed the ends to Sophie. She had done this before and knew what to do. She held the ends of the string together and began to twist. After a while, the string doubled up of its own accord. She handed the two ends to Grandad and he threaded the cord through the slot where the ribbon had been, tying the two ends together. She bent her head and he lifted the cord over it, adjusting the medal so that the medal hung straight against her blue dress, angel-side outwards.

Then, and with dignity, they saluted.

In the kitchen at parties

I never did like parties. Parties don’t suit my miserable, self-conscious, unsociable personality – but sometimes you can’t get out of them. I’ve noticed they get less frequent and more dire in direct proportion to one’s age. I’ve also noticed that my very presence at a party seems to guarantee dismalness…dismality…dismalaciousness…

So, the last party I went to was New Year’s Eve 2014. It was at my new neighbour’s house. Her ex-husband was there and between them they had cooked, or maybe bought (difficult to tell once out of the cardboard box and displayed on a reindeer plate left over from Christmas) a mountain of vol-au-vents, little quichey things, sausages on sticks and whatever. She said come over at nine. That seemed quite a late start but at least it cut down the amount of hours I could possibly be expected to be there. As I stepped over the wonky little brick wall that divides her house from mine I rehearsed my escape story. My sister had mentioned phoning from Canada at midnight our time. I just had to be next to the phone in case she did. So difficult to get a line from places like Canada and the States on a public holiday. All the ex-pats calling home at once. Etc.

I left it till ten past nine. That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? And I figured it would be packed in there by that time and there would be less conspicuity involved. I tend to like to edge in sideways, find a seat and slither into it, and never leave that seat again unless forced to do so for a bathroom visit, throughout which I worry that ‘my’ seat won’t be there when I get back and I might have to stand.

So I knocked on the door and there was no one there, except neighbour and ex-husband in a rather startling red-walled living room; she had obviously been redecorating in the current local style – feature walls – visual indigestion. I loathe red. And there we sat. The ex-husband was conscientious about small talk. I did my best. None of us mentioned the fact that… well, that was the elephant in the room. All that food. No one to eat it. Then one other neighbour arrived with his girlfriend. He isn’t very keen on me, I think. He talked about long-distance lorry-driving a lot, and the correct way of loading a long-distance lorry, and the correct way of fastening a tarpaulin to a long-distance lorry. And eventually I remembered my sister’s imminent call, collected my coat from the knob on the end of the bannister, and went home. I felt this would be exactly the night for drinking half, if not three quarters of a bottle of Blue Nun all alone whilst watching TV till 2 in the morning and falling asleep on the sofa, but of course I had no Blue Nun so I microwaved myself some milk and put a teaspoon of honey in it.

The one before that was the Christmas before the Christmas before that. That was a lively one. Oh yes. I didn’t escape from that till one a.m. It was at another neighbour’s – the one down the end next the giant field that they seem to plough all year round, even in the middle of the night with floodlights on the tractor, when not spraying it with dung or pesticide.

The house is eccentric, being full of every sort of light imaginable. Everything lights up and moves all at once – pictures (waterfalls, etc) , fairy lights, a multitude of lava-lamps, the blue winking Christmas tree in the window, put there specially to annoy the neighbours over the road (‘Her and her Illegal Scotsman’) who were loathed and never invited; an enormous flat-screen TV with the volume up to 92 or thereabouts, which somebody kept flicking at with the remote control. I never knew a television could have so many channels and so many menus to find those channels on, or that you could watch five or six channels at once, whilst smoking packet after packet of cigarettes, dancing with children, drinking, telling jokes, and experimenting with a home karaoke kit. Forgive me, Delilah, I just couldn’t take any moooooore…

Once again, I found my chair – or rather half a small sofa – and stuck to it. The springs were wrecked and I suspected my bottom might actually be on the floor. It felt like it. People kept coming and sitting next to me, which was nice, if stressful. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about as I’m slightly deaf. Normally I don’t notice it but in any loud environment all I can hear is multi-directional loudness. I am reduced to lip-reading. Although I have become quite good at this over the years, it’s difficult when people are talking about tragic events that happened in the neighbourhood long before you arrived. At twelve-fifty a.m. mine host started to tell me for the second time that evening the tale of the old lady who had once lived next to the Illegal Scotsman.

Old lady, she was, and we didn’t realise she had died. It was them little dogs, you see. When her son found her a week later she was scratched to ribbons – scratched to ribbons, she was. It were them little dogs. He thought she’d been murdered.

Just what you want to hear when you have a vivid imagination and live alone with a multitude of cats. And for the second time in one evening. I couldn’t bear it. My head was spinning, my eyes were watering with all the smoke and I was full of chocolate mini-rolls and mince-pies. I made my polite excuses. No one else was leaving. It all went a bit silent. But we’re only just getting going…

At one o’clock in the morning! Had I been expected to stay the night?

And then there were all those other parties, stretching back into my depressing, lonely past like the white plastic poppers of a necklace I had as a child. I wore it to the Methodist Sunday School party, which was in fact not too bad. The poppers got pulled apart and scattered all over the floor by some idiot boy when we were playing spin-the-collection-plate (oh yes, we Methodists knew how to party) but there were sandwiches, and jelly with dobs of ersatz cream; there were balloons, and crackers with mottoes in them and adult-sized purple paper hats that ended up resting on our shoulders, and little dangly ‘skellingtons’. And best of all we didn’t have to wash up. The grown-ups crammed themselves into the kitchen – a corrugated iron shed attached to the Sunday School room – to do that.

And then there was the one when we were supposed to go in fancy dress. That was soon after I got married. We made our own costumes, thinking that was what you did. I went as a tree because I happened to have some brown cloth and some green cloth. I think I had an apple or two attached. I can’t remember what my husband went as. Everyone else had hired proper costumes and stared at us. It was in an expensive cottage, half way down a steep hill. The sort where everything gleams.

And there were the ones where we suddenly realised dancing had changed since we were single, and that imperceptibly we had become a couple, and dull. And the earlier one where I met my husband – and I would only drink orange juice, which was rather acidic – and somebody was smoking pot, which worried me and I wondered if I ought to inform someone – and I was wearing this long flowery dress which somehow seemed now too long, and not thick enough. And my future husband (I already knew) danced, and that was both embarrassing and endearing because he looked like a scarecrow come to life, all angles and elbows and self-conscious jiggling about. And afterwards we had to stay the night, but there was only the living room so we spent the night together on folding camp beds of different heights, him with his long, long curly hair and his grey gypsy eyes and the trousers his mother had lengthened for him with strips of appalling curtain material, I in my long flowery dress which didn’t look right, securely tucked around my ankles. Horizontally but chastely we conversed – I from aloft and he from below – and played the same three Leonard Cohen singles over and over – and I supposed we must have slept because eventually light came streaming in through the kitchen window, and it was a new day.

A SUDDEN LUST FOR NEW CLOTHES

Things that stop you writing. Pamela Frankau came up with these lists in the 1960s:

‘the devils outside’

…bright sunshine, cricket, the Times crossword, a luncheon date…

‘the devils inside’

…sheer listless reluctance; pain; worry; the flat morning mood; a sudden lust for new clothes; deep melancholy; wild happiness; bad news; good news…

I remember a sudden lust for new clothes striking a chord with me when I first read her book Pen To Paper, but then I was fifteen and clothes, at fifteen, are everything. That need to shop, right now – is that just a female thing? Something to do with our gleaning and gathering instincts. Lust is the right word for it. Luckily, the lust for new clothes tends to wear off as you get older.

Sheer listless reluctance Yes, that’s the biggie. You simply don’t want to write. You’ve written enough for several lifetimes and what have you got to show for it? A blog. Sheer listless reluctance is really a combination of writers’ block and laziness. They say the only way out of hell is through it: and the only way out of sheer listless reluctance is to write, write, write. It doesn’t matter what you write when you are in this frame of mind as long as you do. Start with a nonsense poem or a shopping list. If that doesn’t work type pangrams over and over again till you get so bored you find yourself writing something else

  • The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog
  • Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs
  • We promptly judged antique ivory buckles for the next prize
  • Cozy lummox gives smart squid who asks for job pen

Pangrams are called pangrams because they include every letter of the alphabet. When learning to touch-type that Quick Brown Fox becomes an old friend.

Freewrite. Just write what comes into your head, and don’t stop to think. You are constantly talking to yourself whether you realise it or not, or rather one part of your mind is talking to all the other parts. Just tap in on that and don’t stop till you run out of steam. Usually, by the time you do, you will have come up with several topics for writing, or you will have overcome the listless reluctance thing sufficiently to continue with your epic novel.

Pain It depends what sort of pain. If it’s migraine or raging toothache give up all thought of writing. Lie down in a darkened room or make a dental appointment. If it’s susceptible to painkillers, take painkillers and write till they wear off. You may actually discover that writing is a natural pain-killer.

Worry The best cure for worry is writing, if you’re a writer. It’s not writing per se it’s any creative activity – painting, singing, dancing, basket-weaving – simply because creative activities are absorbing. I remember reading in a book about Zen that to calm the mind, one technique would be to inspect each worry carefully, then imagine oneself placing it gently in a black sack and tying the neck of the sack, then putting the sack to one side. You tell yourself, I can worry about the contents of that sack at any time I choose, but just for now… just for now I will not. And it works, sometimes. Writing works always.

The flat morning mood – depression, really. And the difficulty of actually getting started on something. The thing with mornings is the long list of stuff you feel absolutely obliged to work your way through. Fascinating stuff like washing up, loading the tumble-dryer, making the beds, ironing, filling the bird-feeder up with peanuts, reading all your emails. Evening seems a long way off and it’s so difficult to get down to writing. Writing is hard. It’s wearing. It sucks the energy out of you if you’re doing it right, so you keep putting it off. You really don’t want to have the energy sucked out of you this early in the day. The thing is to get on with the writing – at least make a start – because until you do you’re not going to be happy and you’re not going to be able to relax. You’ll be doing all those other things – ironing, bird-feeder-filling, email-reading with today’s undone writing in the back of your mind. Guilt. Frustration. Not-writing is an unnatural state for writers.

Deep melancholy – I’m not sure I agree with her about this. Sadness is one of the best sources of material. Gobble it up. Use it. However, shocking things like bereavement are best not written about for a while, mostly because what you write is unlikely to be any good. Writing uses two parts of your mind in tandem – the creative, emotional bit and the crafty, editing bit. You can’t write good stuff with the crafty bit turned off. You need them both. You need to digest sad and horrible stuff for a while. Wordsworth described it as emotion recollected in tranquillity.

Wild happinesspossibly worse than deep melancholy for stopping you writing. Almost impossible to write anything decent when first in love. Just enjoy it.

Bad news, good news – we’re back to the black sack thing again. Take a little while to think about whatever the news is. Take a deep breath. Freewrite.

As for the devils outside – the cricket, the bright sunshine, the Times crossword, the dinner date (does anyone have dinner dates anymore?). Make a plan. If you want to go to a cricket match, go, but get up early to write, or stay up late afterwards. If you are a Times crossword fan schedule in an hour in the evening after you have written, or cut out all the Times crosswords and save them in a manila folder for the weekend, or for your holidays. Imagine, lying on a beach in Spain with a manila folder full of aged crosswords and a large, sand-filled dictionary…

Probably the worst thing of all for writing is other people. Other people are a real pain and unless you have a very intimate friendship with them you will not be able to write. Fifty years of marriage would do it. By that time you will scarcely notice each other’s presence in the room and will have chatted about absolutely everything any two human beings could ever need to chat about. Frankau actually lists the sorts of people to avoid when writing a novel. Evasive action should be taken, she says:

The company of the devitaliser. That friend who takes from life rather than enhancing it, the mental blood-sucker, the strong marauding personality. The early-morning chatterer on the telephone. The disorganised chaos-bringer. The one who wants a long, serious talk.

To be avoided also, she says:

…the swaddle of the Sunday newspapers, the opinions of agitated atheists, the gin-and-tonic before lunch, the reading of novels or book reviews. The correct literary diet alternates the Gospels with Whodunits.

And you know, she might be right about that.

I would also add, from my own experience, physical tiredness. You do need to look after yourself, as best you can, and allow enough time for sleep. Dreams, and the thoughts you have in that half-asleep, half-awake state, are the best inspiration of all.

There’s also perfectionism. You can’t be perfect. Even if you are perfect, no one will notice. And if they do notice they’ll hate you for it. The thing with writing is to write gloriously badly in the first place, then look at what you’ve got and make it better. You will always be able to see how to make it better – it will come to you. And after that you will be able to see how to make it better still. It happens in layers, in stages. The thing is, no one is ever going to read the gloriously bad stuff you began with, because all that’s screwed up in little white balls on the study floor, or donated to Mr Dusty Bin on your computer, so you needn’t be inhibited by how bad it is.

Work – I have found throughout my life that paid work stops me writing. Any arrangement that means I have to be somewhere from nine to five and paying attention, and can’t go anywhere else, escape or daydream – and the writing goes out the window. But, money being necessary work too is necessary. And I have never solved this one. Work, the toad work:

  • Why should I let the toad work
  • Squat on my life?
  • Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
  • And drive the brute off?
  • Philip Larkin: Toads

Oak, Apple, Walnut

‘OH, VICAR, I’m so pleased to see you.’ The Reverend Snaith was taken aback by the fervent relief in Rose Browning’s voice. His parishioners tended to react to his unscheduled pastoral visits with a mixture of anxiety and suppressed irritation. Rose was actually dragging him in through the front door by the sleeve of his black winter coat, down the narrow hallway and into the living room where, beside a roaring fire, an elderly man was slumped in an armchair. His leg, propped on a stool with a cushion underneath, was encased from hip to foot in plaster. He was staring into space.

‘How are we today?’ the Vicar asked. The man continued to stare, showing no sign of replying, or even of having heard.

‘Come through to the kitchen, Vicar, I’ll put the kettle on,’ said Rose, and a few minutes later he was sitting on a hard kitchen chair beside a Formica-topped table with a mug of hot, weak tea in his hand.

Peter was an uncommunicative man at the best of times. He had never actually been to church but had volunteered (through Rose, of course) to make that beautiful new altar rail when it was needed. He had worked all his life as a carpenter – or was it joiner? The Reverend Snaith was a bit woolly on distinctions between trades. Joiner, maybe. He remembered Rose telling him once that during the last war, when Peter had been too old to fight, he’d worked in a factory making crates for aircraft parts.

‘I think we need marriage guidance,’ Rose whispered. Reverend Snaith’s heart sank. He himself had never been married, whereas Peter and Rose had been together nigh on fifty years. ‘He’s like a bear with a sore head since he broke his leg. Well, you saw the expression on his face.’ Reverend Snaith tried in vain to recall the expression – any expression – that Peter might have been wearing, but could recall none.

‘Maybe your husband’s still in some sort of pain,’ he whispered. He didn’t like this whispering game but there didn’t seem much choice as Peter was only a few yards away behind a thin partition wall.

‘It’s not that, it’s because he’s indoors!’ A tiny piece of information, and the situation suddenly became clear to Reverend Snaith. The couple had remained successful, if not exactly joyfully married for all these years, because they each had their own territory. On every one of his previous pastorals, he remembered now, Rose had been in the house and Peter had been either ‘down the garden’ or ‘out in the Lodge’. The Lodge in this case was the breeze-block equivalent of a big shed. Peter had built it himself, had even made the blocks. He had everything out there, saws of various sizes, and nails in old tobacco tins labelled in biro on sticking plaster, stacks of wood, a lathe and a lethal-looking home-made circular saw. He remembered watching Peter at work once, while he was making the altar rail. Those hands! Like tree-bark, they were, covered in half-healed cuts. Long, sensitive fingers, the nails black and broken and scabbed with glue.

He did his best to reassure Rose. More to be seen doing something than anything else, he fished around in his briefcase for one of those little booklets Relate were so keen to foist on him, though he doubted it would be of any use in this situation.

‘Goodbye for now, Mr Browning. Chin up, and all that!’

‘Do us a favour, Vicar, said Peter Browning with a heavy sigh and still without bothering to turn his head. ‘If you’re going out the back way, would you check the Lodge door is bolted? I’m likely to be stuck in this chair for a long time. Don’t want burglars getting in there.’

‘And that’s the most he’s said all day,’ said Rose Browning at the back door. ‘I don’t know what to do for him, honest I don’t. He’s got the TV and his newspaper, and every issue of Carpenter and Joiner for the past ten years – he’s never thrown a one of them out, keeps them in a drawer beside his chair. He could be doing the crossword or something. He’s a stubborn old man. I don’t know what he wants, and he just won’t say.’

The door to the Lodge was ajar. Worse, Reverend Snaith caught a glimpse of light from a naked light bulb through the dust-smeared window-glass. ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ breathed Reverend Snaith, ‘please don’t let me get hit over the head.’ Always, in Midsomer Murders, pushing a half-open door resulted in being felled by a blunt instrument and waking up in hospital with a headache, swathed in white bandages, surrounded by policemen.

But it was only a girl in a brown coat; a shortish, mousy sort of girl. She had her back to him and seemed engrossed in examining oddments of wood and sorting them into a wicker creel. He knocked, she did not turn. Then he remembered – the granddaughter, Sophie – profoundly deaf. She’d be about eighteen now; used to come to church with Rose, when she was a little tot. Not singing, of course, but smiling occasionally, as if she was listening to her own music, inside her head.

She turned. Taken by surprise she signed ‘Hello’ before reverting to speech for his benefit. ‘Zo-fi,’ she said, carefully. ‘Come visi’ Gran-da.’ She gestured to the basked of wood offcuts she had been collecting.

The Vicar knew even less about wood than about marriage guidance, but Sophie did. It felt as if she had spent most of her childhood in the Lodge, watching Granda working. He had never been much good at signing but he would show her a piece of wood, let her examine it, even taught her to sniff and memorise the perfume of it, and then write the name in sawdust for her. And she had signed each word back to him. Oak, apple, walnut. She picked up a packet of fine sandpaper and added it to the top of the basket, along with a mysterious brown package.

The Reverend Snaith was a curious man, and he dearly wanted to know what was in the package. Sensing this, the girl unwrapped it and showed it to him. It contained two things. The first was a roll of some canvas-like material. As she unrolled it he saw that it was full of tiny hand-carving tools; miniature chisels, knives and gouges, each in its individual pocket. He was fascinated. They even went up in size, from the smallest to the largest.

The other thing was a book. She opened it and flicked through the pages so that he could see. It was full of colour photographs, instructions and diagrams. A little wooden dog caught his eye – very simple, just an arc of wood, with a cube for a head and two pyramids for ears. Later on in the book things got more complicated. There was a bird sitting on a bough, a lion, even a chain carved out of a single piece of wood. He gazed at it for some time, trying to work out how it had been achieved.

Sophie grinned and picked up the basket. ‘Do’ worry ’bout lock,’ she said, pulling a spare key out of her pocket and showing it to him.

That evening the Reverend Snaith sat down in his study with a mug of cocoa and began to rough out his sermon for the following Sunday. His visit to the Brownings had given him the gist of an idea. ‘Some people pray,’ he scribbled, ‘some people write hymns, some people sing and others make things out of wood. We all worship in our own particular way.’ And, he thought, taking a sip of his cocoa, we all listen in our own particular way. Most of us listen to the things people say, but a few of us – like Sophie – listen to the things they don’t say.

All cats in the dark are grey

This of course is true, as far as human perception is concerned. It’s probably not that cats turn grey in the dark although of course they might; we are never going to know one way or the other. It’s like that old thing about the Tree in the Quad – the philosophical argument put forward by Bishop Berkeley:

  • There was a young man who said \God
  • Must think it exceedingly odd
  • If He finds that the tree
  • Continues to be,
  • When there’s no one about in the Quad.

This doctrine is known as Phenomenalism, and Phenominalists would claim that only such things as we perceive with our senses from one moment to the next can be said to exist. So, when we are not looking at the tree, the tree isn’t there. This is manifest nonsense, or at least impractical. Are trees scattering in all directions as we whisk ourselves away, only to re-plant themselves the minute we whisk ourselves back? Or might they be more sophisticated, materialising and de-materialising themselves in a nanosecond like leafy Tardis-is-is-es (Tardisii?)?

Ergo, if in the middle of the night my cat William jumps on the bed, miaows and appears to me to be grey, how do I nevertheless know that he’s a vivid shade of ginger? He may be in fact be grey only for as long as I’m looking at him. The minute I look away – back to ginger. If, like chameleons, cats can change colour at will, I imagine it amuses them greatly to do so. Excellent game!

Of course I could tell it was William with my eyes shut. He’s twice the size of all the other cats and weighs several tons more.

It’s just a saying, really. Attributed to Benjamin Franklin, it was rumoured to be his witty, if sexist and unpleasant way of explaining why it’s perfectly all right to take an older lady to bed. However, the saying goes back much further than that. In 1546 it appeared in John Heywood’s book of proverbs as When all candles be out, all cats be grey, which probably meant something less specific: that physical appearance is the least important thing about a person; it’s what’s inside that counts.

But why are all cats grey in the dark?

 This is the Science Bit and I’m no scientist so I’ll make it as pain-free as possible. It’s due to something called the Purkinje effect or Purkinje shift (after the Czech anatomist Jan Evangelista Purkyně). This is ‘the tendency for the peak luminance sensitivity of the eye to shift towards the blue end of the spectrum at low illuminance levels’. In other words a flower that appears bright red in full daylight fades to a darker, duller red at dusk and to black or grey at night. This goes back to those rods and cones inside our retinas (remember rods and cones from school biology? No, rods and cones, not rods, poles or perches…). The cones are very sensitive to colours and give us excellent vision in the daylight; the rods are very sensitive to light, but not to colours, and it is the rods we use to see whatever we can still see in the dark. This is why in moonlight, for instance, human beings become virtually colour-blind. It’s also why submarines are kept dimly lit, to preserve the night-vision of crew members, and why aeroplane cockpits use red lighting so that the pilots can both read the instruments and see outside the cockpit…

…and why cats appear grey. Which begs one further question:

If a cat in the dark is grey to me, what colour might I be to a cat?

Neither cats nor humans can see in pitch darkness. Cats can see considerably better than humans because they have eyes adapted to evening hunting expeditions. A cat has very large eyes in relation to the size of his head, and he can open his irises wide to let in as much light as possible. Cats’ eyes feature those rod and cone cells too but whereas in humans four out of five cells are rods, in cats it is twenty-five out of twenty-six. The net effect is that whilst cats have much better night-vision than us, they have poorer colour vision. So at night, as long as there’s a glimmer of light, a cat will see you much more clearly than you will see it – but you’ll probably appear almost as ‘grey’ to it as it appears to you.

http://www.businessinsider.com/pictures-of-how-cats-see-the-world-2013-10?IR=T

This link shows how artist Nickolay Lamm has illustrated cat-vision as opposed to human-vision.

But who cares, really, what colour anything is. Let’s celebrate cats-on-beds, purring fit to bust, dribbling copiously and using our toes for mouse-murdering practice. Lets be glad that on a grey winter’s day moggie will come crashing in through the cat-flap to join us by a hearthside blaze, huddle with us over the one remaining bar of the gas-fire or bask with us in wall-to-wall central heating. And there, together, we will sit with our glass of wine/cup of coffee/mug of Horlicks and our copy of Great Expectations/Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell/ Fifty Shades of Grey/Pregnant with the Rancher’s Baby or whatever, and for a brief spell of time all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well with the world.

  • My old cat stretches out his arm,
  • To say, ‘I and You’.
  • He thinks the future threatens harm;
  • I feel it too.
  • The flexing paw to reassure
  • Myself and creature
  • Asserts, in feline comfiture,
  • Our frail, shared nature.
  • Robert Gittings: Cat
  • (my favourite cat poem of all time)

CATS, DOGS AND PITCHFORKS

I’m too old to be out in this weather.

Today, it rained. It was raining cats and dogs at 9.30 when I set out to collect my 100 home-shopping catalogues and it was raining cats, dogs and pitchforks at 2.00 when I finally got home. Out of 100 catalogues I only got 60 back, plus one ruined one – like a paper lettuce – plus four minuscule orders. I don’t believe I’ve been so utterly exhausted and depressed or comprehensively drenched since the day I visited St Andrews in Scotland with my ex-husband in 1974. St Andrews: sheet after sheet of cold, horizontal, needle-like rain sweeping up its main street, then sweeping back down again, and the wind blowing in all directions at once. Why am even I doing this? I asked myself.

Twelve cats and only the State Pension, I answered.

Today, by chance, is also the anniversary of the Great Storm of 1987 or, as most people call it, The Hurricane. At its height the wind reached 134 mph. It hit France first, then the South of England, and nobody was really expecting it. A woman phoned the BBC that evening, worried about the rumours she had heard of a hurricane heading this way from France. Michael Fish, the BBC’s weather man at the time, more or less told her to Calm Down, Dear. Nothing to bother your pretty little head about. And then the Storm hit. Michael Fish has been forgiven, but since that day nobody believes anything he says about anything.

My husband woke me in the middle of the night (I’ll sleep through anything) and we peered out of the bedroom window at erratic blue flashes all along the coast. These were power cables going down. The noise was like nothing either of us had ever heard: breaking glass, smashing tiles, the rain and then the howling. It was like a giant genie had been let out of his lamp.

Britain’s weather is famed for its variety and unpredictability, and Britons for their never-ending, low-level moaning about it, also their inability to talk, either with strangers or each other, about anything else. Weather-talk is the universal conversational currency in a shy nation: without it, we would probably fall silent. But no one had seen anything like this. It was beyond conversation.

We were told that the last Great Storm had been more than two hundred years before – the Great Storm of 1703. According to Wikipedia, however, storms of this strength form over the North Atlantic every thirty or forty years. The thing is, they usually hit Scotland, and this is convenient because the Scots are hardy nation, and Scotland is half-empty. This time, however, the storm tracked low, over the south-east of England, the most densely populated area of all, and the damage it did was immense. Sevenoaks, a town in Kent named for its seven mighty oaks, lost six in one night. An estimated fifteen million trees were lost.

And here’s the thing – a Great Storm could actually happen again at any time. Afterwards we comforted ourselves that that at least that was that, over and done with, for the next two hundred years. By the time the next one struck we’d be safely dead and all those white-suited future-people living in gleaming space-pods, partial to Cadbury’s Smash powdered mashed-potato and waited upon by tinny-voiced robots, could have the pleasure of dealing with it. Unfortunately, probability doesn’t work like that. Another Great Storm could hit us tomorrow; it’s just that the likelihood of its doing so is low-ish – around 0.5%. Please don’t ask me how probability works.

Maths, the final frontier…

The next morning we walked out and took a look around. It was still kind of windy, but eerily quiet. The trees on St Martin’s Field were lying down, as if they’d decided to take a nap after a century or so of standing about. Their poor old roots were on display, naked and somehow obscene, and around each root-ball a great hole had opened up. I went to the village supermarket. It was dark inside (the power outage would last for several days). In the darkness, hitherto civilised village ladies were squabbling – in that wordless but utterly determined British way – over tins of soup. We didn’t know how long it was going on, all this… untowardness. Anything might run out, and in an emergency we stock up. This is an instinct born of two wars and year upon year of rationing. We dart for tins of soup in supermarkets. As with the New Year Sales, women elbow and kneecap each other silently, viciously and ever so politely out of the way. My soup. My four-pack of economy baked beans. Mine.

The girl at the till was in a state of shock, obviously still hoping it would somehow work, even without an electricity supply. She kept pressing buttons, randomly, harder and harder, but nothing kept happening. She started trying to add things up on paper bags with a pencil and a tiny calculator. The local Comprehensive was not big on mental arithmetic. The queue, stretching back into the darkness between the aisles, started trying to help, doing its own calculations and proffering them as polite, but increasingly tense, suggestions.

Nothing would ever be quite the same again. Hurricanes aren’t supposed to happen here. And yet one did.

Our faith had been shaken. Something had been lost.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCG3kJtQBKo

Lena Horne: Stormy Weather

Tabitha

Lured back to consciousness by the early-morning din of the birds, Tabitha knew before she opened her eyes that this was to be her last day on earth.

She had seen the approach of this man for many weeks, but today the feeling of him was very strong. Until recently the images surrounding him had been of pale, flat countryside, unfamiliar roads, a white skyline dotted with skeletal trees, but since yesterday she had been glimpsing the hills she had roamed around since childhood, faces known all too well, the sinuous curve of the river she had dwelt beside all her life. Tabitha had felt many different minds in her time on earth but none to match this, the final one, for power and vengefulness.

She shuddered. It was as if a block of ice was growing inside her. Damp autumn light streamed through the cracks in the wooden door; river mist crept underneath. Tabitha had lain on the same straw pallet for a week now, scarcely able to move. She gazed down at her own body with the curiously detached feeling that she had already left it, that it was her own corpse she was looking at. All this time the bones of her skeleton had existed, but she had managed not to think about them. Now here they were, clearly outlined, rising to the surface as flesh fell away. What would he make of this powerful witch, she wondered, when he pushed open that door? Coming upon this squalor, would he feel that he had won a great victory?

A saucer of milk lay beside her on the floor, the remains of a crust soaking in it. ‘Are you about, Puss?’ she whispered. How strange her voice sounded now, like the dry leaves drifting up against the cottage wall.

‘Here, puss-puss-puss.’

PUSS HAD always been about. When Tabitha tottered at her mother’s knee, Puss had been a kitten, a pair of glittery orange eyes set in a scrap of brindled fur; so Puss must be almost as old as herself. Eighteen? Maybe nearer twenty. Tabitha had never been sure of her own age either.

‘Ma, why did you call me Tabitha?’

‘I found your name in the Bible, my dear; the very book they employ to condemn the likes of us. Tabitha was a lady who was raised from the dead by St Peter. Some called her Dorcas.’

‘But which was her real name?’

‘Both. It is possible for people to have more than one name. Cats have at least three. There is the one you give to them and then there the one they never tell you, which they call each other by. And there is a third, and magical name, which they have but do not know they have.’

TABITHA HAD learned everything she knew from Ma: those summer days down by the river bank, the murmur of her voice, the gurgle of the water, dandelion seeds drifting about on the still air. In those days Ma was still teaching her the names of the plants; wolfsbane, mountain daisy, belladonna, windflower, St John’s Wort. Later Tabitha would learn how to mix them and grind them in the mortar, into cures. Ma would show her how to make medicine to ease a child’s cough, something for the dropsy, a poultice to speed the mending of a broken bone. And last of all, when Ma judged her old enough to shoulder the responsibility, something to ease the pain of birth, and something to speed the dying to their rest when they had suffered overlong.

Puss never appeared to be paying attention to their conversations, being more interested in the comings and goings of water voles and kingfishers at the river’s edge and the glimmer of fish in green water, but he was always there. He accompanied them on their long walks in search of rare herbs. Many a time the three of them were out together all day long, tracing the miles along the field margins, into coppices, high up on the chalk downs, but taking care never to come too close to the villages. That was one of the earliest things Ma had taught her. ‘People do fear us, my girl.’ Even now Tabitha could not understand why anybody should fear someone like Ma. It made her angry to think about it.

THE DOOR swung open, just wide enough to admit a thin, arthriticky creature. ‘Oh, there you are, my dearest,’ Tabitha whispered, stirring a blue-veined hand to stroke his knobbly old skull. ‘How went the hunting last night?’ The cat made no reply. ‘That bad? Not a solitary mouse? Never mind, there’s still the last of the bread and milk. See, I saved it for you.’

The cat sniffed at the saucer but declined to eat, choosing instead to settle himself on the pallet beside Tabitha, folding his tail around his paws and gazing at her with long, considering eyes. ‘You know, don’t you Puss?’ she whispered.

Suddenly, for the first time, she was terrified. Would death be painful? How would he do it? Would he have a sword like the noble men she had seen riding by, or would he use his hands like a peasant? What would the steel blade feel like entering her body, would it be possible not to panic, not to gasp for breath? Would she be compelled into an ungainly struggle with Death or would He be merciful and permit her to let go of her own accord?

She was so weak, now. ‘I cannot bear to be parted from you, Puss,’ she whispered. ‘Stay with me until he comes, for I need someone to talk to in my dying. But when you hear his footsteps on the river bank you must run, do you hear me? Run, because your life may depend on it.’

‘Such an evil man, Puss. He sends his agents before him into the villages to gather tittle-tattle, rumours of unexplained happenings. They enquire as to the names of women living alone, and when they have done with their asking, they talk. They tell people that healing women ride about the evening sky on besom brooms, congregating in the trees outside people’s windows, to chatter amongst themselves in devilish tongues. According to them, we are behind the sickening of cattle, the failure of wheat and the babe that dies in the cradle. Thereafter, every misfortune will be blamed on us. Such fools men and women be.’

‘Before he sent his agents the villagers would come to me for succour, just as they came to Ma until she died. Oh, they would look over their shoulders in case anyone saw them, picking their way down the river path, tiptoeing towards this little white cottage at the edge of the wood, but still they would come.’

‘I’ve brought young Thomas with his boil, Missus.’

‘My rheumatics is bad this year, Mistress Tabitha.’

‘There’s this wench. I need a spell, to make her look on me with favour.’

They’d bring whatever they could manage; a length of cloth, a bird for the pot, apples and pears, a basket of nuts from the common. It wasn’t much to live on but Tabitha and Puss had managed, and better than some.

Beyond the cottage, the sun rose in a pale sky, reached its pale zenith and started its pale descent. Rain threatened, the clouds grew dark, but still the Witchfinder did not come. Tabitha lay on her bed of straw, too weak now even to shiver.

At last Puss uncurled his tail from around his paws, stretched and yawned, then crawled onto his mistress’s chest. To Tabitha, less than half conscious now, it seemed the old cat weighed less than a feather, and the warmth and the closeness of him were a comfort.

THE MEN gathered at the Inn, bolstering their courage with ale and loud talk. Apprehensive as they were, they could not back down now: they had boasted and bragged too much.

They’d carry the wench back with them, kicking and screaming if need be. They had equipped themselves with a variety of stout ropes, and a sack to go over her head, for it was said that witches possessed a preternatural strength. Whatever sort of a fight she put up she must be carried back to the Inn, for the next day she was to be tried by the Witchfinder himself. He had announced that he would put her to the cauldron test, her right hand to be plunged into boiling oil and held for a long count of three. If her wounds healed within three days she would be set free. If not, she was a witch and would be hanged. If she refused the test she would still be hanged.

IN THE deep, dark black inside the cottage, Tabitha heard their heavy feet tramping along the path, and their muffled voices. She was very, very tired now. Finally, the cat bestirred himself and bumped his head against her chin in salutation.

‘Run, Puss!’ she mumbled. ‘Now is the time, now, I beg you! Find yourself a new mistress and, once in a while, remember Tabitha.’

But the old cat did not run. Instead he began to purr, quietly at first and then more loudly, so loudly at the last the sound seemed to fill the room. As Tabitha slid into the darkest darkness of all, the cat on her chest seemed to become heavier, and heavier, and heavier.

THE STENCH in the cottage was unbelievable. Rather than the spitting devil’s-spawn they had anticipated, the men found nothing but a bundle of soiled rags on a straw pallet, and what was left of the woman’s body, already cooling. There was not a stick of furniture.

‘Must have broken it up and used it for firewood before she became too weak to go out and find more’, someone said. There was no food, either, apart from a saucer of milk with half a crust of mouldy bread floating upon it.

Of course there was much grumbling amongst the men at having been cheated of their evening’s sport, but more than one breathed a secret sigh of relief, having feared that the witch might single them out for a spell, some foul enchantment to root them to the spot, render them blind or mad or trap them in the body of a toad. The newcomers had made special mention of toads.

But even as they turned their backs on the cottage, a shape was emerging from the darkness. It was that of a brindled cat, sleek and fit, scarcely out of kittenhood. With a last look round at the cottage through glittery orange eyes, the creature set off at a trot away from the village, down the river path and towards the wood, to find a new place for them both.

PROVEN SUSTAINABILITY

ORDINARY PEOPLE don’t take to me, I don’t know exactly why. Whatever it is, it’s not done on purpose. Honestly.

A man called Johnson came to St Asaph’s one day. He interviewed most of the residents, but it was me he chose to undergo the selection process. I thought, why not? What’s not to like about seven years in another solar system? No one to stare at me, no one to point, no one to laugh behind their hands, and best of all everything automated.

I like everything automated. I am a very orderly person.

‘I am tasked,’ said Mr Johnson, ‘with identifying potential candidates for this vital position. You would be surprised, Maurice, how few potential candidates there are. A Caretaker is a big investment. We can’t afford to waste our precious resources on an individual who thinks he can hack it, and then goes and does a raving loony on us after a month or three. Get my drift?’ At the time I thought I did. Now I am not so sure.

‘The work is very simple, Maurice,’ Mr Johnson said. ‘Stores arrive and are replenished by drone ships. It’s just a matter of unpacking it all, checking it against the Manifest, storing it, and then gradually using it up’. I liked the idea of having a Manifest, and checking things off against it. If you can have a list and check things off, you feel that you have achieved something.

‘Food hoppers to be refilled for the various livestock, hydroponics to check and keep in good order, the occasional button to press. Bit like Noah’s Ark, you know.’

I did not, in fact, know about Noah’s Ark, but Mr Johnson explained it to me. He told me Noah was a man who lived quite a long time ago. Noah and his three sons built their own huge spaceship in a workshop at the back of their house.’

‘It must have been a pretty big workshop, Mr Johnson.’

‘The biggest, Maurice! And then guess what they did? They filled it up with animals, two of every kind of animal, all except the Unicorn. That got left out because it turned up late when there were no stalls left in the spaceship. And then the eight of them, Noah and his three sons Shimm, Shomm and Jayfess, also Mrs Noah and the wives of Shimm, Shomm and Jayfess, who had to come along because somebody had to do the cooking, blasted off into space with all those different animals except the Unicorn to find a new planet for them all to live on. And when they finally landed on the new planet, guess what Noah did first?’

‘Checked the Manifest?’

‘He checked the Manifest, Maurice. And after that his three sons, guess what they had to do?’

‘Feed the animals and check the hydroponics every day.’

‘Exactly so, Maurice. You’re obviously a bright boy. I reckon an orderly person such as yourself, an individual of your logistical capabilities, would be able to do it with his hands tied behind his back.’

THE JOURNEY to Alph took seven years and thirteen days on one of their drone ships. This sounds like a long time but they sort of suspended me so I’m not any older. Well, I am older: five years, two months, eleven days and four hours older, to be exact. But that’s not any more old than I would have been if I’d stayed at St Asaph’s.

The drone ship docked automatically, woke me automatically and fed me automatically. I had a really nasty headache and a sort of queasy feeling to start with but those wore off soon enough and I started unloading the stores they sent with me. There was a very clear list of Initial Instructions, and a Manifest just like they promised.

I located my sleeping quarters, clearly marked on the Dome Plan, included with the Instructions and the Manifest, and slept my first natural sleep since my journey to Alph began. In the morning I discovered that the drone ship had left me.

JUST RECENTLY I have noticed two strange things. The first strange thing is the dust. There isn’t much else to see here on Alph, except for Marta. Marta is Alph’s twin, a silver disc about as far away as Earth’s moon is from Earth. The planet Eden has six moons, which rise in this order: first Krista, then Marta and Alph, then Shem, then Shan, then Menem.

Mr Johnson and his organisation have thought of everything. There is a chart etched into the clear wall of the Dome, right next to the observation window, in case you forget which moon is which; not that I am likely to forget because I have a very good memory and each moon is a different colour. Of course I can’t see what colour Alph is; for that I’d need to be standing on Marta or Eden, and I’m not.

The Dome, according to the Dome Plan, is constructed a bit like an orange. Each segment of the orange – except that it’s not in fact orange, but see-through – is kind of welded together, except it’s more complicated than that: fusion-something. Nothing is supposed to come through the welds, but I notice some dust is, now; it’s making little anthills all around the perimeter. Alpha dust has bigger grains than Earth dust. If you tilt your head to one side it tends to look blue, but if you put your head straight up again it looks more red. Funny stuff. I decided not to touch it because it could be poisonous. Dust does not feature in my Instructions.

The other thing I noticed is that the Dome is talking a lot more. There’s this little machine at the back of the hydroponics section. It’s like a black box with dials and rows of red lights on it. I don’t suppose I was intended to find it, since it is not in the Instructions, and I didn’t find it on purpose. But by the time you’ve lived inside a Dome for five years, two months, eleven days and four hours you tend to have found everything there is to find.

Every once in a while I’d notice the red lights flashing on and off in some kind of sequence, but not all that often. I like to work things out, and I worked out it must be having a conversation with somebody back on Earth, with Mr Johnson maybe. But the red lights are flashing on and off all the time now and the sequence has got kind of messed up. Also the box is starting to make a little bit of a humming noise, which it never did before.

When I was on the Caretaker Induction Course I remember them telling me that this was a Mark 5. Because mine isn’t the only Dome. There are others on other moons, ninety-six of them to be exact, most of which are even more advanced in design than my Dome. They go up to Mark 9, or at least, they did five years, two months, eleven days and four hours ago. I suppose they might be up to Mark 12 or even Mark 15 by now.

I remember asking them what the Domes were for, exactly. They explained that it was so that if, say, there was a giant comet coming towards the Earth, or their climate got completely messed up because of all the greenhouse gases, the human race would have a nice new home to go to; a Dome similar to the one I’m Caretaker of now, but much, much bigger; a refuge for the human race, an environment with Proven Sustainability.

‘What exactly does Proven Sustainability mean?’ I remember putting my hand up and asking.

I don’t think they ever told me the answer to that one.

Stop all the clocks

Last night I surprised the hedgehog – again. I’d got used to him, or possibly her, turning up at the cat-feeding hut at around nine o’clock, when dusk fell. I’d got into the ridiculous habit of assuming nightfall to be at nine o’clock. That was the way of the world. I can be a bit vague sometimes.  It’s not forgetfulness, it’s having an artistic nature.

At six or thereabouts I snapped on the outside light to go and feed the birds – still not quite registering that it was dark – as I should have done because, hadn’t I just snapped on the light? – and the birds would all be asleep. And there was the hedgehog, or rather the hedgehog’s bottom, poking out of the cat-feeding place. Inside the cat-feeding place its snout was deep in a bowl of Whiskas. Luckily, hedgehog’s hearing is even worse than mine. I tiptoed into reverse and he/she didn’t notice me.

But it set me thinking. Are we not the only animal that regulates its daily routine with the help of a range of complex timekeeping devices? How do animals manage without them, and how would we manage if all the clocks were suddenly stopped – or abducted? I have in mind, you see, an unmanned alien spacecraft, one of those saucer-shaped items people are always saying they’ve seen. The spacecraft skims low over the earth, scanning for life-forms to beam up, dissect and study. But it makes a mistake. Because it is a metallic life-form, and all the life-forms in its entire galaxy are also metallic, it ignores biological entities and beams up instead – every single clock, watch or other timekeeping device. Suddenly, Earth is timepiece-free. If you are a writer, by the way, I give you this plot for free. I suspect it will only make a short story but you never know, you might manage to streeeeetch it into some sort of novella.

Having always more or less disregarded clocks and watches, we are now forced to consider – urgently, since the spaceship’s ‘sweep’ took only a few seconds – what we needed them for in the first place. Or did we actually need them?

Clocks of some sort have been around for a very, very, very long time – for as long as human beings found the need to measure periods of time shorter than days or lunar months. These, of course, could be observed from the sun – the coming of light in the morning and darkness at night – and the moon, going through its monthly waxing and waning cycle. So there were sundials and water-clocks and hour-glasses – those things with two bulbs separated by a narrow ‘neck’, and sand running from one to another. When the ‘sands of time’ ran out, an hour, near enough, had passed. If you needed another hour you just turned the hour-glass up the other way and the sand started flowing again. Excellent device, and aesthetically pleasing. A miniature version used to be used to time boiling eggs.

Clocks became more and more sophisticated and accurate. Human beings can’t resist improving things, and then improving them even more. It’s in our nature to tinker. These wonderful new clocks made navigation easier for ships’ captains. As time went by, people arrived on time for church with the help of a clock rather than a chiming bell. Then there were railways, and people caught their trains on time because they had clocks and watches; the trains ran on time for the same reason: the timetable had been invented. Factory workers in the newly-industrialised cities had once been summoned by a ‘knocker-up’ or ‘knocker-upper’ who scuttled past their windows, banging loudly on them. Now he was replaced by alarm clocks. People began to get anxious about time. They worried about missing their trains and being late for work. If they clocked in even a minute late at the factory door, that day they would be docked fifteen, or thirty minutes’ pay. Time controlled people. Time punished them.

So if all the clocks were stopped, or beamed up by aliens, maybe we would be happier? Chaos to start with, no doubt. People would shamble in to work whenever they felt like it – all people, not just important people. People would leave whenever they’d had enough. Or if it was a sunny afternoon and they felt like sitting in the park eating sandwiches. Hallelujah!

I think I might try it, you know. Not now, with winter approaching and even the daytime chilly and damp. As I look out of my window, now, the sky has gone that saucepan grey it mostly is in Britain, beyond September. It’s starting to rain and raindrops spatter against my window. And the wind’s in the telegraph wires, so there’s more, and worse, to come. In a minute I will draw my curtains, as the over-the-road neighbours already have. No, I shall wait for summer, for a long, inviting day when the sun is shining. I shall turn all the clocks to the wall. I shall turn off my mobile phone and resist the temptation to just check my emails or just post a quick little something on my blog. I shall leave the TV off; I shall switch off the microwave with its glowing green numbers. I shall make myself some sandwiches and a flask of tea. I shall take a book and drive out into the country. I shall not listen to my car radio because every hour it would inform me that another hour of my life had gone – somewhere. I shall listen to the birds. I shall know the time, well enough for my purposes, because the light will change, fractionally, continually. I still have that skill, from childhood. All of us have that skill – it’s just looking. I will watch the sun and know that when it is directly overhead it’s noon, as near as makes no difference. And I shall come home when I’m tired, not when my watch tells me to. Ah, it all sounds so Perfect Day. Someone on YouTube describes it as ‘beautifully depressing’

AND WHERE ARE THE CLOWNS? THERE OUGHT TO BE CLOWNS…

There’s this film out at the moment, called The Walk. It’s based on the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit and his walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in August 1974. I must admit I haven’t seen it, and probably couldn’t bring myself to see it, since heights frighten me. Twice in my life I have dreamed I was perched on the ledge of a building so high you could barely see the ground. I wasn’t dreaming, or so I believed – I was right there, agonising whether to keep still, shut my eyes and hope for rescue, or jump and get it over with. Thanatos, the death impulse, the dark side of the life impulse, Eros – is present within all of us but normally suppressed.

As far as I was concerned that dream contained enough terror for one lifetime. Heights have always ‘done my head in’ as they used to say. (I wonder what they say now?) I even managed to get stuck at the top of the children’s slide on Penenden Heath and had to be rescued by my father. He was not sympathetic but then I suppose if you’ve been through conscription, forced to drive a truck with a red-hot steering wheel back and forth across India, through rivers and swamps and whatnot, having only previously driven once or twice round the works car-park, a gibbering female child at the top of a little low slide would be exasperating.

That’s the thing with sitting on a high ledge, isn’t it? We’re terrified when it’s us – but when somebody else is in that position, there’s a fascination. We are good, kind people and we don’t want them to fall but – what if they did, what if they actually did? Thanatos wants out, and he’s greedy; and when someone may be about to die he attaches himself, leech-like, to that sight. What better and safer way to experience ‘death’ and the fear of death than to watch someone else fall off a high wire? Through them we get to experience that great, final adrenaline rush. Through them we experience the sublime.

The sublime is a difficult thing to define. The Romantic poets thought of the sublime as the heightened feeling you might experience in viewing the majesty of the Alps, or a great waterfall – a fascinating beauty, intermingled with horror.

The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from beauty was first brought into prominence in the 18th century in the writings of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, and John Dennis, in expressing an appreciation of the fearful and irregular forms of external nature, and Joseph Addison’s synthesis of concepts of the sublime in his The Spectator, and later the Pleasures of the Imagination. All three Englishmen had, within the span of several years, made the journey across the Alps and commented in their writings of the horrors and harmony of the experience, expressing a contrast of aesthetic qualities. Wikipedia

This is the attraction of vampire movies, especially for young girls: the pale, exotic, beautiful, tormented hero with the bloodlust and the deadly fangs. What’s not to long for?

But this Thanatos/Eros thing extends, downwards, from the Alps and the high-wire walker to (in my case) playground equipment and (in all our cases) the world of popular entertainment. We watch Amy Winehouse destroying herself with drugs and alcohol – everyone sees the accident waiting to happen, nobody intervenes. We listen to her singing her heart out, like the mythical thorn bird, self-impaled to produce its final, sweetest song. We watch talent show contestants walking on stage, we hear the silence fall, we long for them to be bad. How much more satisfying a conceited, self-deluded, aggressive or foolish contestant than any old sweet boy band, or a nervous nineteen year-old in ripped jeans with a pretty good voice. How much more entertaining.

In Roman times, as we all know, the crowds filled the stone amphitheatres to witness gladiators fight other gladiators or condemned criminals to the death. Animals, even. The Romans staged “hunts” in their auditoria. Thousands of wild animals would be slaughtered in one day.

During the inauguration of the Colosseum over 9,000 animals were killed. Wikipedia

Were the Ancient Romans a different species of human being to ourselves? How could they take such pleasure in the prospect of all that suffering? Or were they maybe more honest about their desires than the audience at The X-Factor, or watchers of Big Brother, waiting for one of the inhabitants of the House to crack under the strain? And how far we will go? Take Jade Goody, who behaved stupidly and unpleasantly towards a fellow housemate, Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, and subsequently, presumably in an attempt to repair her ruined reputation, became a Housemate on the Indian version of Big Brother. I didn’t see the programme here in the UK, but according to the newspaper reports she was called into the Diary Room to speak to her specialist in London over the phone. He then informed her, on live TV, she that she was dying of cervical cancer. Twenty-seven and nowhere to hide.

Mocking the afflicted, as they say. How often are we actually doing this, telling ourselves we’re just having fun? I suppose it depends how you define ‘afflicted’. Is it someone with a physical disability? Is it someone like Jade Goody, poorly-educated, to all appearances not very bright, and unconsciously racist? Is it Amy Winehouse, gifted but desperate and kind of ‘cracked’? Is it a deluded teenage factory worker seizing his one chance, maybe his only chance, of fame on the X-Factor? Or is it the odd, plain, middle-aged woman in the cheap gold dress and the wrong-colour tights?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5D5DgQi2oqA

Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent Audition: April 11, 2009

More questions than answers:

How can you not cringe at this classic television encounter? How can you not get to your feet and cheer for her? How can you not cry? Did they treat her well? If her voice had turned out to be all of a piece with her physical appearance on that day, would she have deserved the reaction she would most certainly have got – the sniggers from the audience, patronising comments from the panel? Would that treatment even have made a dent in her confident self-belief? She knew she had one of the best voices ever, but then all the contestants know they are the best ever, and most turn out to be deluded. Who could have denied her the recognition and the applause? She said she wanted to be as famous as musical star Elaine Paige and they laughed behind their hands. Of course – who wouldn’t? And then she sang, and blew Elaine Paige out of the water.

Given what we later witnessed in the way of erratic, inappropriate and stressed-out behaviour – would rejection have destroyed Susan Boyle? Or, without the careful management she later received, might success have destroyed her? Labelled “brain-damaged” as a child in her Scottish village, she has since been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Just listen to this with your eyes shut. Where is this coming from? How can someone who can barely express herself sensibly in words, nevertheless interpret these words and this music like this?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=Yb3XAP0c8WU

Susan Boyle: Wild Horses

A personal story to end on. Some Sundays I would go to Open Mic sessions a folk club in Rochester with my ex-husband. He had run a folk club himself, in Northampton, some years before we met. Although used to singing and playing in front of an audience, he never offered to perform on these occasions. We just used to watch. There was this one woman – oldish. She played the accordion dreadfully, missing notes all over the place, and sang even more dreadfully. People used to guffaw at her, literally; groans echoed round the room as she staggered up onto the stage. I asked my husband once, why she kept on doing it, and why the audience were so cruel. He shrugged: If you choose to put yourself up there, you take the consequences. There seemed no arguing with this. He had taken the same risk himself, many times. He had walked the walk. But I wonder now – about the damaged ego of the person who puts herself forward, and the damaged soul of the person who watches, and mocks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8L6KGuTr9TI

Judy Collins: Send In The Clowns

Sort of purple and hazy

You know those anxiety dreams where you just miss the bus, or the train? Story of my life.

I just missed out on a lot of things. I just missed out on the War. I just missed out on rock and roll, I just missed out on being a hippie and I just missed out on all that New Age mumbo-jumbo: all the stuff I would have been interested in, all the stuff I really needed to know. Just my luck.

The War – I was born a few years too late. I arrived, and was instantly labelled a Baby Boomer, and the minute they give you a label you cease to be anything else. Worldwide, around eighty million human beings may have been lost between 1939 and 1945 during ‘the deadliest military conflict in history’. This estimate includes not just soldiers but civilians, those who died from war-related disease and famine and the prisoners of war who died in captivity. Post-war, young marrieds everywhere did their patriotic duty, whether they were aware of it or not, labouring (literally) to restore the balance. The result was a tidal wave of babies, a lumpy, unmanageable and now increasingly unpopular ‘bulge’ in the population stats, destined to become the hippies of the sixties and seventies. Through no fault of their own they are now, or will shortly be, clogging up our monstrous, overspent, inefficient National Health Service and forcing the younger generation to work harder and harder in order to generate enough taxes to keep everything going.

Like most women in those days, Mum and Nan were Housewives, totally dependent on their men for money; their role – to stay home, clean, tidy and replenish the house, do the cooking, washing-up, laundry and shopping, raise any children and Keep Young & Beautiful. This was in order that their husbands, coming home from a hard day’s work, should not – as a result of a spreading waistline, the odd curler still a-dangle, unshapely eyebrows or a lack of careful make-up – be tempted to Stray. However, I don’t think all the women in those days minded it all that much, and I can understand why. As a stay-at-home Mum you can exercise your creativity through cooking, crafts and childcare, quite apart from being able to take up hobbies, raid the library or write novels, if so inclined.

I find the idea financial dependence on a man – or anyone – pretty nearly unbearable, but that’s just me. Bit of a Wild Thing. I’m not sure what a Wild Thing is, but it sounds good. I’d rather be as poor as a church mouse (as indeed I am) than hand to a man the power to decide, arbitrarily and without any significant knowledge of grocery shopping, how much housekeeping I ‘deserve’ at the end of each week; then have to scrimp and save out of that to buy myself headscarf or a second-hand book, or see a film.  As you can tell, feminism was the one thing I wasn’t too late for.

That being said, I envy the way women in those days had at least leisure to chat, listen to the radio and generally be themselves. Had I been able to stomach the ‘kept woman’ scenario – or been able to bear children, in which case I would have had no choice – I might have written more, and sooner, but I doubt if I would have written well. I would have missed out on the lifetime of learning, loss, muddle, fear, friends, struggle, chance encounters, odd jobs, strange bedfellows – some of them very strange – weird and appalling experiences, Getting By and Making Do Somehow – I now have to write about.

I got to hear quite a lot about the War, via the conversations that went on over my head while Mum and Nan were sitting in the kitchen, knitting. It was lucky for me that they lived at either end of the same street and would meet up several times a day. Grown-ups forget about children, if the children can manage to be forgettable enough. Once – I must have been throwing a tantrum – my mother called me a Prima Donna. I had to ask her what it meant, and was actually quite pleased when she explained. It was a step up from Diffident or Unaffectionate Child, Impossible Baby to Cuddle, etc. Being Diffident etc etc did have its advantages: I overheard a lot.

I heard about having to eat horsemeat, and what you could make from a blackout curtain or parachute silk. I heard about bombed buildings, and babies sleeping undisturbed in their cots, found amid the rubble. Under the kitchen table, hugging my little scabby knees to my chest, I heard about Nan’s experiences running a NAAFI canteen in Swindon in the War, and how they put the cabbage on to boil at ten in the morning and it was like seaweed by dinner time (and she had to throw the rice pudding out). I heard about Mum being evacuated to Wales to live in a cottage with Miners, and being forced to empty the chamber pots by the grand family in a country house near Canterbury, while my uncle was given the job of filling the coal-scuttle. I heard about painting your legs with gravy-browning when you didn’t have stockings, and drawing a line up the back to look like a seam. Maybe everyone is fascinated by the decade just before they were born. I went on to read as much about it as I could, and devoured all the Mass Observation books, made up of contemporary diary entries, or ‘reports’ sent in by ordinary people.

And then I just missed out on the original wave of American folk music, blues and rock and roll. I was just too late for Elvis – or rather he was still around but I saw no point in him. I probably wouldn’t even have realised I’d missed out, except that I married a man nine years my senior. Suddenly I was listening to his records, and to him singing and playing the guitar. This was my introduction to blues, folk and classical music. And even then I didn’t fully appreciate all that I’d missed, musically, still being contaminated with The Beatles, The Stones, The Dave Clark Five, Freddy and the Dreamers and all that sort of stuff. Ironically, long after husband and I were no longer an item I began to listen to that music again on my own account, and take an interest in classical music.

And then I just missed out on being a hippie. Oh, my mother thought I was a hippie, but that was because I never evinced much of an interest in wearing make-up (particularly eyebrow-pencil) a Playtex girdle or frilly blouses, or having my hair nicely permed. But I wasn’t – not really. I was certainly a bit on the shabby side because my tiny Tech College grant meant I had to buy my couture at Oxfam, but I was a few months – maybe even a year – too late. It had all happened, somehow, it had all jingled and jangled its way off into the rainbow-coloured sunset. And I was timid. I never experimented with LSD or smoked a reefer; I never danced in the sunshine at a festival or went to San Francisco wearing flowers in my hair. But doesn’t it look fun? Why wasn’t I there, Oh, why wasn’t I?

As it was, Free Love entirely passed me by. I went steady with a Maths student, half-Austrian and several inches shorter than me. He went off to teacher training college and so, abortively, did I – in another town. End of.

In the common-room some Hendrix look-alike practised what sounded like pretty good riffs all day, but how would I know? In the refectory I was stridden past (I’m groping dimly for the Past Perfect Progressive, or whatever that tense is, of strode past – help me out, someone…) by skinny, long-haired art students in eccentric hats, uncompromising tee shirts, big boots and scarecrow jackets. I was filled with admiration but for some reason I couldn’t actually be one of them, and was as invisible to them as I had been to Mum and Nan under the kitchen table.

And yet I think I am a natural hippie. For me it has never gone away, a way of thinking and being that I never got to manifest at the time. The ‘eighties went, and the ‘nineties, and I began at last to hear about and – thanks to Amazon – obtain copies of books on particle physics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, Zen, mysticism – anything that caught my eye – that were being written as I was being born and labelled a Baby Boomer; when I was a child at school; a teenager failing to play table tennis with the boys at Youth Club; a student and almost a hippie; an unhappy wife. One book led to another – sometimes I read several at once – and I started to see the connections between things – the way one academic discipline morphs into another, the way New Age becomes, imperceptibly, Science – the way it all adds up – the way people far apart in time and space can be approaching the same conclusion from different directions. I also became addicted to Amazon and second-hand paperbacks, which was ruinous to my finances. The postman/lady turned up every other day with yet another cardboard package, jiffy bag or brown-paper parcel – or sometimes a stack of them held together with elastic bands. I made notes, I made connections, I wondered, I thought about Stuff. Without realising it, I was knitting my own degree.

THE FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT (I GOTTA WEAR SHADES)

So, former husband was going round the house chanting to himself Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades, Future’s So Bright… which was at least an improvement on The Don Lindberg Aquatic Show, The Don Lindberg Aquatic Show or Member of Lloyds, Member of Lloyds… He used to get phrases stuck, which was annoying. I think The Future’s So Bright… featured in an Orange mobile phones advert at the time, and that was how it had got to him.

The Don Lindberg Aquatic Show was something we witnessed on The Leas in Folkestone in 1970-something. All I can remember is this man at the top of some sort of cherry-picker or giant crane arrangement, doing a lot of posing before diving with enormous ceremony into a plastic paddling pool, and somehow emerging from it without a broken neck. By the way, if you are the Donald A. B. Lindberg (born 1933), Director of the United States National Library of Medicine from 1984 till your retirement in 2015 and known for your work in medical computing… I know it wasn’t you.

Personally, I found it boring but my husband liked that sort of thing. I did catch a glimpse of the late Alan Freeman in unwise leather trousers. Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman was at that time a famous radio disc-jockey, known for catchphrases such as Greetings, pop pickers, Alright? Stay bright! and Not ‘arf! He had an orange-y face and seemed so very small, out of the radio. He was later to be the inspiration for comedian Harry Enfield’s Dave Nice in the Smashy and Nicey sketches, which I believe he quite enjoyed.

I can’t really criticise ex-husband for his occasional bouts of echolalia since I too get phrases stuck in my head and can’t somehow get them out, the only difference being that I don’t verbalise them all the time. I suppose we were both a bit on the obsessive-compulsive side, not to mention the Asperger’side, the unsociable side, the smart-arse side and the irritating side. There were really quite a lot of things we had in common. We might have noticed this if we’d had any patience with one another. But of course, we didn’t.

Which brings me to what one of my fellow bloggers refers to as a meme… so many new words, so many new words, so many new words… which everyone will no doubt know to be an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture:

A reporter asked the couple, “How did you manage to stay together for 65 years?”  The woman replied, “We were born in a time when if something was broken we would fix it, not throw it away.”

So – this meme thingy. I wonder how many years the old couple would have kept trying to fix the poor, broken old thing? We spent twenty-two years, on and off, trying to fix ours. And then, of course, unless you were rich, before the nineteen-sixties you didn’t really have the option of divorce: you either fixed your mistake or suffered for it – more often a combination of the two. But the sentiment is good, and fixing’s always worth a try.

Going back to The Leas. This is a long, wide strip of grass – lawn – stretching the length of the cliff above Folkestone to Sandgate, providing ‘a cliff top promenade with fine sea views’ according to one old leaflet:

http://www.visitkent.co.uk/discover-folkestone/folkestone-historical-walks—promenading-on-the-leas.pdf

Folkestone is a seaside town in Kent, on the south coast of England. Lots of interesting things have happened on The Leas over the years – air displays and such. It has a slidey lift down to the beach which has been there since 1885 and a Bandstand (1895). It was extremely popular with the Victorians, who came to Folkestone to breathe in the clean sea air. Spacious and Gracious used to be its advertising slogan. In the ’70s when I was there, some arty-farty clever-clogs re-labelled it Specious and Gruesome and everyone thought that was hilarious for a while. But it was OK. By the ’70s it had dimmed into just another British seaside town, sprawling, shabby, a bit rough round the edges, but it had baby seagulls on the rooftops and fairy-lights looping through the trees along Bouverie Road West. It possessed a shabby, nautical, slightly bohemian charm, I always thought.

There’s also a cavernous, in-cliff venue called the Leas Cliff Hall where people can go and see acts like Steelye Span (Yay! Steelye Span!) Psychic Sally and One Night of Elvis featuring Lee ‘Memphis’ King.

I can remember two things about The Leas, apart from Don Lindberg and his blasted aquatic show. One was going for a walk along The Leas with my mother, father, youngest sister and husband not long after we had married and moved to Folkestone. My sister, around fifteen at the time and still going through the ‘Kevin’ phase, was so fed-up with the whole visit and probably with me – even more probably with my new husband – that she collapsed flat on her back on the grass, in her winter coat, gazing up at the grey sky and scudding clouds and refusing to move. Someone took a photograph of her in this position, which is now lost – except to memory.

The second is not so much a memory as a story. I had a friend, once, who had been pursuing a certain gentleman for many years. He lived in her village. He was nice. I met him. They undertook the New Year bell-ringing duty together each year but no canoodling was ever reported to have taken place up in that icy midnight belfry. It was sad, gothic and romantic, but he never proposed.

So we all got older and older. In her forties she became interested in belly-dancing – she was always trying out one thing or another – and she and her belly-dancing group were out performing their routine one Sunday on The Leas when she spotted in the crowd – yes, none other than the object of her longings. I gather he had never seen so much of her on display until now, and of course for belly dancing you have to display so much – all those wobbly-waggly tummy bits one prefers to keep hidden under floppy tops and smock-like dresses. So there she was – wobbling, waggling and gyrating, unable to stop and run away without ruining the group’s routine and making herself even more conspicuous – and there he was – surprised, spectating – and it was embarrassing and mortifying and…

If it had been a Mills & Boon story he would have been smitten, stricken or similar and rushed forth from the crowd to drop on one knee and propose marriage, babies – although it may have been too late for that – a gold ring, a massive reception with Asti Spumante and those little throwaway cameras on the tables for the guests to take pictures, a five-star honeymoon at poolside hotel in Antigua…

But of course, he didn’t.

Ceci n’est pas une post on make-do-and-mend

Some time ago I published an e-book about how to live on virtually nothing.

I got several reviews for this particular book, and in fact they were all good. And in fact I didn’t write them myself. I thought I’d paste in a little section entitled How Not To Be A Superscrimper, only because one of my reviewers referred to it as à la glittery shoe-bows, which phrase pleased me greatly at the time but has stuck in my head ever since. I am hoping hereby to exorcise it:

HOW NOT TO BE A SUPERSCRIMPER

I loathe the TV programme Superscrimpers. What I hate about it is the patronising, insulting, uselessness of their suggestions. If you are really poor it will not help you to make personalised place settings out of newspapers for when your friends come round to dinner. Couldn’t you be doing something better with your time? If you are really poor you do not need to know how to make a facial scrub out of granular sugar and something else. You don’t need a facial scrub; also you could eat the sugar and probably the something-else too. You don’t need makeup, full stop. Don’t waste time and ruin saucepans trying to melt all your old lipsticks down and re-insert them into one tube.

It reminds me of being taught how to light a fire in a puddle in the Brownies. It also reminds me of the way non-vegetarians assume you require your food to be steak- or sausage-shaped even when it doesn’t contain a gram of actual meat. If you’re really poor you don’t need to make a brooch out of a button or change the look of your old shoes by sticking home-made glittery bows to them. The brooch will always look like a button in disguise and that shoe project is likely to cost you more in glue and glitter than it ever saves you. Furthermore, it will all go wrong and then you’ll have an old pair of shoes you can’t wear because they’ve got stuff smeared all over them, as opposed to an old pair of semi-worn out shoes that might have lasted you a bit longer. If you’re really poor people will know you’re poor. Don’t attempt to glitter and squirm your way back into the system that has just ejected you. Face up to the situation with dignity and humour and don’t go along with TV programmes, magazine articles or whatever that trivialise and exploit your situation for the entertainment of an audience that is almost certainly more fortunate than yourself.

Being poor really takes it out of you. Your time and energy are precious resources and in times to come you are really going to need to be energetic and resourceful. Simplify your life; rest as much as you can when you can, and focus on the basics.

The book was, naturally, based on grim personal experience. E-books were intended to be the remedy for all the grimness and the poverty, but they didn’t turn out that way. I have since given up writing e-books because nobody – or virtually nobody – downloaded mine. Well, a few adventurous souls did but my total royalties over a twelve month period might possibly have been enough to order a take-away pizza.

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I enjoy blogging much more – I don’t need to sell my writing, or me, or anything; I can just be myself and give it away! It’s freedom. It feels like feeding the pigeons in Leicester Square. Except you tend to get mobbed by those pigeons and covered in foul-smelling dollops of poop, but you know what I mean. When you’re writing for money (or in my case, the vain hope of money) you’re not being yourself; you’re scrabbling around all the time, consciously or unconsciously, for something that might sell. You’re also trying to sell to an invisible audience, an imaginary host of… what? Teenagers? Kindle-owners? Intellectuals? Readers of soppy romances? People on the train into the city first thing in the morning? What might they like? Are they anything like me? Am I anything like them? I don’t know.

I have mentioned before, I think, how at one particularly low financial and creative ebb I considered writing e-books on a variety of subjects in which I had no interest whatsoever, on the premise that if I hated the subject everyone else might love it (and buy it) since all the subjects I loved everyone else had so far not loved or bought.

One evening I sat down with a horde of cats and a cup of instant coffee and made a half-serious list. Can I find it? Pause for research… yes. I’m cut-and-pasting now from a previous post called At The First Clank Of A Chain:

  • Pimples No More – a Guide to Teenage Skincare – or possibly Acnephobia????
  • Outsmart Your Supermarket – how to stop them selling you stuff without you realising they’re doing it!!
  • De-cluttering Your Home – boot fairs versus charity shops; befriend your waste disposal operative!?!
  • How to Get Someone Else to do Your Gardening!!!

It was on this evening, with the coffee and the many cats, that I faced a fact I should have faced at the outset – it wasn’t going to work. Suddenly I knew I mustn’t use that breathless, fizzy, zippy, journalistic tone of voice any more; at least, I must try not to. What’s that bit from Jurassic Park? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should? Occasionally in my blog I still catch myself attempting to pep things up, lighting all those silly sparklers at once. But then I ask myself why I’m doing it. Isn’t “me” good enough? Really, I’m a miserable old so-and-so. Yes I am, really I am – a morbid, introspective, self-critical, sad old baggage, except for moments of wild and whimsical humour – usually in the company of my two old friends – or acerbic wit – mostly aimed at the moggies or the television. I have many conversations with cats and even more with my television.

When the sparklers come out and the circus make-up goes on, I ask myself questions like this:

What are you afraid to say now? What’s too difficult to put into words? What can’t you be bothered to try to explain, even to yourself? What’s too risky? What’s too embarrassing? What might possibly hurt? What’s so dull about you and your innermost thoughts that you feel no one could possibly be interested? Why are you needing camouflage? Someone once said you need to bleed onto the page a little. Who said that? Pause for research… in fact, it was Ernest Hemingway:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Or in another version:

Writing is really very easy. Tap a vein and bleed onto the page. Everything else is just technical.

Derrick Jensen. Who might Derrick Jensen be?

But you can over-bleed. I mean, who wants to read a potted Portnoy’s Complaint everytime they open their Reader? There I go again. Sparklers. ‘A potted Portnoy’s Complaint‘. Sounds snazzy but have I ever even read Portnoy’s Complaint? Pause… trying to remember… that’s the trouble when you’re old, brain continually buffereing… yes, I think I did, or at least I think I tried to and gave up. I didn’t like Portnoy. Nassssssty creature. Similarly, I cast aside Last Exit To Brooklyn, which until a couple of minutes ago I thought was another one by Philip Roth, but it’s not. I got as far as Tralala and the rape scene, and the bit with the broomhandle and… some things are just unbearable. Clever, but unbearable.

So, the thing is to alternate light with shade. Jolly one minute, frowny the next. Sometimes when writing this blog I find myself “talking” to one or other of my two friends (I only have the two) who tell me they read my blog, and I have no reason to doubt it. Sometimes I’m chatting away to myself – the more “thinky” ones are done like that: I create a duplicate me and talk to her. Sometimes, when something needs quite a bit of prior research, I do that, then read through all my notes and printed off internet bits, then start typing and see how much of it has sunk in and what order it’s going to come out in.

Fiction is different. It’s much, much harder work – twice as much time required and twice as much energy-input. For that I try not to think about the blog at all, or about time, or about anything else. Fiction is from somewhere else, another place. Instead of being me talking to you, it’s now them talking to me or there coming to here. When you’re engaged in a writing fiction you’re forming a kind of bridge. You don’t know what’s going to walk over you or sweep through you…

You know, this was going to be a post on Ingenuity or Make-Do-And-Mend…

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