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.

It’s frothy, man

I have sometimes been mildly offended by people (mostly people I have had to work with in offices) who have insisted on calling me a hippie or “not really with it” to explain what they see as my vague, addle-witted nature. This always makes me think of Neil (Nigel Planer) in UK sitcom The Young Ones, who would drift in off his mattress sometime in the afternoon, long-haired, fully dressed and bewildered, gaze at the mess in the kitchen sink and exclaim “Look at all that washing up!” – but wouldn’t usually do any of it.

As far as I am concerned, when I seem to be away with the fairies I’m concentrating on a more interesting and more valuable different set of things, and I rather dislike having my concentration broken. I also dislike the kind of person who smiles in an indulgent sort of way whilst describing some other person as “marching to the beat of a different drummer”. What makes them so damn sure their drummer is the right one? What makes them think we all have to march, for that matter, or need a drum-beat to march to?

I’m really snippy today. Can you tell?

What set it off – apart from the necessity to get up early and detour to the Civic Amenities Centre, or tip, to get rid of an entire wheelie-bin full of black sacks which the Civic Amenities Operatives will not include in their Kerbside Collection, in advance of my regular Sunday visit to my mother – what set it off was my Junior School reports. Mum had fished them out from somewhere, for all three of us, and instructed me to read them (even though I didn’t want to) while she made us a cuppa. As expected, my youngest sister’s were glowing – in fact even more depressingly glowing than I’d anticipated. I didn’t get round to reading my middle sister’s because I got side-tracked by mine – or rather two of mine. The rest seem to be missing. Story of my life – it’s as if someone’s edited my life – badly – taking out all the interesting, achieving, wonderful-type bits and shuffling the rest around so that they make no sense at all.

I would guess by the name of the teacher that I must have been about eight when – apart from giving me C minus in everything (apparently that was Satisfactory) they made comments like “The quality of her work varies wildly from week to week”, “She can produce good work when it is planned, but otherwise prefers to dream” and – most insulting of all – “Overall achievement this year – surprisingly, B – but this in no way reflects the actual quality of her work”. Surprisingly, B. I suppose those teachers are all dead by now. Somehow this makes it worse. No possibility of even an imaginary, retrospective revenge.

I never got to read those reports at the time. We were required to take them home unopened and hand them to Mummy or Daddy, which I duly did, and as far as I remember they never commented on them. But no wonder, then, that in later life they would appear surprised if I managed to do anything even half well.

‘You do at least seem to be able to get jobs. Maybe you have a knack for interviews…

‘Goodness, these rock buns are quite edible… ‘

‘You know this story’s really quite good…what a pity you couldn’t do it for a living.’ My mother, who now has difficulty with her words, recently put this a different way: ‘What a shame about your writing. You were Lost.’ That one made me sad.

Only last week I had to phone somebody on behalf of my mother. When I put the phone down she said ‘You’re quite good on the phone, aren’t you? ‘ I’ve lived all these years, spending twelve or more of them as a Legal Secretary and another four as a market research interviewer in a call-centre, for it to be genuinely surprising that I can cope with a telephone call to a stranger.

I suspect I was bored at Junior School, mostly. In between being stressed, frightened, overwhelmed and all the other stuff. I remember making a model igloo out of papier mâché, with an Eskimo (it was the right word then, I know it isn’t now) outside, because I was told to. Cotton wool for snow. Why? I remember learning a bit about the Romans who went around in togas and sandals and stuff, and made all the roads straight so that their armies could march efficiently on them. I remember spending lesson after lesson listening to bits of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé on the radio, with the music before me, and a man with a BBC accent talking a lot in between. There was a bit with a sleigh ride. Jingly bells and all.

I remember being quite proficient at forward-rolls and bunny-hops, and being filmed doing them. We had a New Zealander for a form teacher and – though he spent most of every lesson typing, loudly, on a portable typewriter – he was a sports specialist and his PE lessons were something to write home about. So the Ministry of Education, or whatever it called itself in those days, sent a film crew to record our advanced forward-rolling. I remember being good at English (though still only ever getting a C minus) but never being able to get my hand up fast enough, or being noticed when I did. Unfortunately I sat next to Andrew Porter (not his real name) the only one who was better than me at English, who had lightning reflexes and a fiercely competitive nature. I remember being almost given the slipper (boys got the cane) for rolling down a hill instead of drawing a distant view of a cottage for Art.

I remember maths lessons with the Headmaster, and how the New Zealand form teacher deliberately sat on the desk in front of me, which probably wouldn’t be allowed nowadays, so that all I could see was his slacks-clad bottom and a bit of tweed jacket. He was shielding me on purpose, since the Headmaster seemed to have some sort of obsession with me as a duff pupil in maths. Once this old horror caught me in the corridor (no antipodean bum to shelter me on that occasion), lifted me by my blouse-collar into the wash-basin area outside the toilets, and enquired Nine Fives? I didn’t know what nine fives were. Nine fives are forty-five. Repeat after me. Nine fives are forty-five. Now, what are five nines? I didn’t know because, obviously, that was a completely different sum. I was not so much stupid as uninspired by maths and terrified of him. As a twenty-eight year old I taught myself from a textbook, entered myself for Maths ‘O’ Level and and got a grade B.

‘Overall achievement this year – surprisingly, B – but this in no way reflects the actual quality…’.

I stayed up late last night – at 2 a.m. the clocks were due to go back one hour from Daylight Saving to Whatever They Are In The Winter. I had already changed all the clocks at 7:30 pm just to get it over with, and was mentally adding one hour to coincide with the TV, which was of course still on Daylight Saving at this point. It threw me all out, somehow, so I ended up watching a programme about the British Psychedelia scene in the sixties and seventies. Now, although I was around in the sixties and seventies, I didn’t really notice all this going on. I mean, it all seemed a bit of a shambles, really. Just the way it was. It wasn’t till I watched this programme that I began to see it was all connected in one way or another. During the sixties and seventies I was very dull and well-behaved and didn’t take a single acid – tab, or whatever they were called – but I was interested in all these raddled old rock stars’ descriptions of their psychedelic meanderings. Why, I thought, that’s my normal. What I find difficult is the way things aren’t like that. I mean, you drive along a country road and things stay green, and nothing leaps out at you.

(Although something did leap out at me once – a soldier with a gun – hopefully not loaded – on a training exercise. I’m not sure which of us was the more surprised.)

And when I go out and come home again, I am always disconcerted to find that everything is exactly where I left it and furthermore that the cat-wizard hasn’t been round and removed all those empty Whiskas bowls and filled them with fresh food, cleaned out the dirt-boxes, refreshed their water dishes and, while he is at it, opened the mail, adjusted the central heating, done that bit of washing up… Every morning when I wake up I am puzzled for a moment. Am I really still here? But why is it all the same? I kind of expect the scenes to have changed overnight – someone to have put another slide in the projector or moved me on to another universe. Am I still here? Am I still her? What’s going on?

But I have digressed, in my vague and addle-witted way, from my intended subject. Indeed, I now see that I have not even touched upon my original subject, so you can have no idea what it was.

But that’s good – it’s all good, man, because what I thought was material for one, smallish post – if I’m lucky – actually seems to be streeeeetching itself into two posts. Streeetching itself into an infinity of posts… who knows? Maybe this blog is in fact one long post, and sooner or later its gestalt, its overall meaning and cosmic significance… will become clear. To you, to me; also to any little green aliens or Purple Spotted People-Eaters who may happen to be reading.

  •  I said Mr Purple People Eater, what’s your line?
  • He said eating purple people, and it sure is fine
  • But that’s not the reason that I came to land
  • I wanna get a job in a rock ‘n roll band…
  • Sheb Wooley, 1958
  • The whole is other than the sum of the parts
  • Kurt Koffka (Gestalt psychologist)

 

  • Cresta ad: It’s Frothy Man

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.’