Time and Motion

I’ve noticed more and more as time goes by – the past materialising and dematerialising. On every street corner, in shops long unvisited and parks half-forgotten, driving late at night or in the brightest sunlight – ghosts are starting to appear.

It’s a function of growing older. The world – or at least our world – is not that big, and we pass and repass over the same territory. There used to be a time-and-motion study for housewives, I remember. The housewife had some kind of light bulb attached and her movements – from fridge to cooker, from cooker to sink etcetera – were recorded as a trail of light. I believe that’s how cooker-sink-fridge came to be known as the kitchen work triangle. In idle moments wondered what the entire track my life would look like if I had had a lightbulb attached. What a job that would be to untangle!

Today I drove past a street corner in the same town I chugged through very slowly on the train yesterday. It’s a grimy, unremarkable corner opposite a kind of mini traffic island, and looking out onto a sea of moving cars is small, shabby taxi-cab office. It was a small, shabby taxi-cab office in 1971 too, and outside it I suddenly see me and Clive, leaning against the even-then flaking paintwork, kissing. We were at college together and rambled down through the back streets every afternoon , I to wait for a bus (outside the taxi office) and he to catch a train to the seaside. He was the only handsome man I ever went out with – dark, dapper, beautiful – and I knew, of course, that he was not for me. Indeed, he was engaged to a girl called Jean back home at the seaside, but that didn’t seem to bother either of us.

We snogged, desultorily, every evening until my bus arrived. I don’t think he even found me particularly attractive but we were together, temporarily, we were friends and I was willing, so he felt he might as well. Young people did that sort of thing in those days. Probably still do.

But it isn’t just Clive. I walk along the street I grew up on. Now I am looking down at my feet, watching out for the dropped kerbs with which it is now infested, though not quite as careful as my Mum, who was convinced she was going to fall over at any minute. But at the same time the child ‘me’ is running along the street. I pass her sometimes, sat on the edge of the pavement, her feet in the road. It has recently rained (so her dress will be getting wet, but she won’t notice) and she is watching twigs careering down the gutter towards the drain.

In two days time I will drive down the lane we lived in when we were married. I will no doubt be surprised at how much the house has changed since either of us was in it. I will remember the cat buried under the blue hydrangea. Unless they’ve dug them up – the bush, the cat, or both. I will remember how you cried for that little cat – the only time I ever saw you cry about anything. I will remember trying to take your arm, another day, and how you shook me off after a few paces, embarrassed even to be touched. I will remember hurrying down that lane to meet my lover, and how my heart was beating and the blood rushing in my ears.

As I get older I sometimes get inklings of the pattern behind things. That sounds so pretentious – and I really don’t like the word inklings – and it’s only for split seconds; nothing ever sticks. I don’t think any of us are ever allowed to discover the meaning of life – but as we progress we get these little glimpses, so that we know there might be a meaning. Sometimes it has seemed to me like a carpet we are weaving, with a pattern we can’t see because we are too close. But at the end – of each individual life, maybe, we get to see the overall pattern.

But recently – since I have been blogging (in earnest) in fact – I have begun to think that it’s more intricate and complicated even than that. It’s like the past and the present are not separated as we imagine, but linked one to the other at many points – linked and interlinked. And maybe I mean that the past – all the pasts – and the present – all the presents – exist in one plane. It is only made to seem that ‘the past is another country’. So, a life is more like a blog long worked on, and richly, richly supplied with links – links between past and present and here and there, and her and me, but also links with other people’s pasts and presents, their heres and theres.

And then I wonder, if I’m a character in the blog that is my life – who – or what version of me – is doing the blogging? What giant hands are hammering out each fresh instalment of my life at 80 wpm?

Nurse on a Train!!!

Really, public transport and me don’t mix. I’m constitutionally unequipped for being confined at close quarters with a mélange of members of the human race.

So, after my disastrous schedule of house viewings on the other side of the county with an estate agent called Gavin, I was forced to make my own way home. We had finished earlier, due to every one of the slightly-possible houses being already sold/withdrawn from the market before we even got to them, leaving only a depressing rump of properties no one in the entire world would want buy. This meant that my file full of printed-out Trainline train times was useless. I was going to have to wing it. Except that I didn’t have wings.

Ebbsfleet International, I thought. Sounds scary. Do I really want to make my way home via somewhere I have never heard of before, probably somewhere near London where it is well known there are suicide bombers, and explosives in every waste-bin? Platform 6. Do I want to be scurrying about (Headless Chicken again) a railway station big enough to have six platforms? And I’d have to go on that special fast train. I’ve never been on the special fast train before. And indeed, six might only be the middle of the sequence, or a third of the way through. There could be eighteen platforms. Ooooh no, I can’t be doing with eighteen platforms.

So I caught a train to Canterbury. Then I had to get across Canterbury because Canterbury, infuriatingly, has two separate railway stations. It’s teeming city at the best of times, but this was school chuck-out hour. I headless-chickened out and grabbed a taxi. Then I had to wait for another train, out of the other Canterbury. I was crammed behind a party in black suits, arty scarves and Terry Pratchett hats, loudly chortling about maths conundrums on their mobile phones and showing one another pictures of their latest “ventures into Iceland”. Delegates, I thought – returning home from some conference at the University of Kent. Intellectuals. Pah! None of them noticed the lumpy old biddy in the too-large, too long brown coat clutching an overstuffed rucksack that they had hemmed in beside the chocolate machine.

On the train (at last!) while the Iceland-visiting brigade were high-volume exclaiming that it had been many years since they had alighted upon one of these (trains) my too-long coat got caught up uncomfortably under my left leg but I didn’t dare stand up in case people might notice me, and my left leg began to get pins and needles, prior to complete numbness, so I sat like that, clutching my overstuffed rucksack and tried not to look at the people opposite me. So far so bad, but outside Faversham we stopped, and there we stayed, deafened by a series of British Rail announcements. Firstly, we were waiting for a platform to become available in Faversham station. Then, apparently there had been “people found running about on the line at Herne Bay” and this was causing some delays. Then it appeared that the drivers we needed to take us on past Faversham, were having to come from Herne Bay, and of course… people running about, etc. “So that’s why,” announced the announcer “we’re in a bit of a pickle at the moment”.

“Hah – in a bit of a pickle,” someone mimicked. “In a bit of a pickle.. makes a change from Cows on the Line or the Wrong Sort of Leaves!”

An estate agent phoned me on my mobile phone. I’m afraid of my mobile phone, but it was ringing in the pocket of my brown coat. I tried to ignore it for a while but people began to give my pocket meaningful looks. “Could you hang on a minute?” I said, “Only I’m on a stuck on train outside Faversham and there are all these  announcements..”

“Yes, I can hear them,” he said. “Every word.”

“It seems,” said the announcer, “that someone has actually been hit by a train in Herne Bay…” Hit? Oh no, that’s far worse than Running About. “But on the plus side,” said our announcer, who seemed to have upped the volume by another notch, “your driver has just arrived. He just needs to put his own train in the sidings, and then he will be with us. Might be another ten minutes.”

To cap it all the student nurse in the seat opposite started talking to me. I knew she was a student nurse because that was all I had been able to understand of her endless telephone conversations. She had a weird, young-person way of talking – entire sentences elided into a single word. “So you’ve been house hunting too?” she said.

Maybe it’s a project, I thought. Maybe I’m the Old Person she needs to Engage in so many hours Conversation with in order to qualify for her NVQ or whatever student nurses study for. Why else would she talk to me? Nobody under seventy talks to me, ever. Though I’m a big hit with the over seventies, hence the old lady singing at me and demanding chocolate fingers in the mental hospital. Did I tell you, by the way, that there was an old man on his back in the Recreation Room, when I was visiting my mother on Sunday? Yes, like a beetle, upended. He was wearing pyjamas and had his legs and slipper-clad feet in the air, and was busy dismantling the chairs from underneath. By the end of my visit he had dismantled almost a whole row and there was a neat pile of square plastic seats on the floor beside him. Fascinating!

She was really pretty, this student, except that she had funny eyes – sort of downward- sloping and goggly. It was difficult to look away from her once transfixed. “I just found a place to rent,” she said. “It’s a student house, but it looks like a cottage on the outside. Really nice!”

“Oh,” I said, never having been to university and trying to recall how student accommodation worked. “So you spent the first year on campus and now you are moving out to…?”

“No,” she said, I decided to go straight into rented. I just got this lovely scarf in Canterbury, do you see?” She pulled out a white chiffon scarf and draped it round her neck for me to admire. “And I got some flats.” (Flats?) “Because I haven’t got any flats at all you see, and these were so nice, with little black bows on the front.”

“Well,” I said, cautiously, “you can never have too many shoes?”

“Or scarves,” she said. “I love shopping, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, “you can never have too much shopping,” wondering how many years ago it was when I had the money to buy myself a scarf or a pair of shoes; wondering how long before that driver finished shunting his previous train into the siding and started driving this train onwards, through and beyond Faversham. Oh blessed relief. Beyond Faversham.

“Yes,” said the student nurse. “I’m just dying to get home for my Spag Bol.” Spag Bol, I was thinking, rifling through the rusty biscuit tin of my vocabulary – food. A species of food containing meat combined with … must be… spaghetti.

“Do you like shopping?” she asked. “I’m going to phone my Dad to collect me. I have to be careful because he’s on shift work and sometimes he comes home early and sometimes he comes home late so he’s not always there to collect me…”

Dear God In Heaven, I thought. From ghosties and ghoulies, long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night; from people running about on the track at Herne Bay and student nurses with verbal diarrhoea, Good Lord deliver us…

Headless Chicken Strikes Again

If I were asked to describe the personality trait I am most ashamed of and least likely to own up to – it would be a tendency to panic in all but life-threatening circumstances. I think most of us, faced with imminent, actual death, produce some hormone or other to keep us unnaturally calm. For example many years ago I drove into a ditch on my way to work; I was braking on a muddy road to avoid a low-flying blackbird. I remember I was playing a Mozart cassette at the time. Never been able to listen to Mozart since.

It is true what they say about everything slowing down. That graceful sail into the ditch seemed to last a lifetime. Some men came along and hauled me up the side of the ditch, still in my “work” high heels, clutching my handbag. The reaction set in only an hour or so later, when I got home and my ex-husband refused even to put the kettle on for a cup of tea while I phoned the insurance company on the basis that he was a bit busy right now.

But most of the time I panic, since I have a very, very low stress threshold. Looking back, potential has not been reached, vistas have been narrowed and my whole life skewed out of shape – all in a futile attempt to avoid making a fool of myself by having a panic-type meltdown or throwing a panic-fuelled wobbly in public. And whatever I do it’s going to happen anyway, at intervals, because that’s the cockeyed way my brain happens to be wired. Old Beaker in the picture – that’s the way I feel on a good day.

This morning it was blowing a gale – the tail end of Storm Katie. Looking out of my bedroom window I saw that all the fence panels on the left-hand side had blown down in the night and landed on my garden shed. Not to panic, I thought. They are not your fence panels, they are her fence panels. Do you need the garden shed just at the moment? No. Haven’t you just accepted an offer on this house? So what does it matter if next door’s fence panels have blown over?

I drifted into my office, coffee cup in hand, and switched on the computer. What had my stats been doing overnight? Had they suddenly shot up to 3 million? Coffee cup in hand I was gazing out of the window when something flew within inches of it – followed by a small explosion. Oh no, I thought, some Eagle or other Bird of Prey has been blown off course and dashed to death on my driveway. Why an Eagle? Who knows. I pulled back the net curtains. My car windscreen was smashed. A bit of next door’s roof had zoomed into it – and there it was on the passenger seat, something the size of a house brick surrounded by an ocean of glass.

And following swiftly on from that, the thought that tomorrow I had to be at a railway station on the other side of the county by 10:30 am to meet an estate agent to be driven round to eight or nine different houses dotted about the county. To get there on public transport would mean getting up around 5 to feed the cats, catching a bus outside the one-and-only-shop around 7, catching a train, then another train, then another train and possibly – depending on the timing – another train… And the journey back, from a different town, would involve a train, another train, another train, followed by a bus (if there were any at that time of night) from a town so rough I would never normally frequent it after dark… or possibly a taxi… which would be expensive…

And then panic set in. I rambled around trying to decide what to do next – should I get dressed, make breakfast, feed the cats, make the bed, clear up that big heap of sick one of the cats had just deposited at the top of the stairs, phone the agents, look up windscreen repairs on the internet, phone my insurers, start printing off bus and train timetables and the numbers of local taxi firms, wash my hair…?

In the end I stomped round the house in tears, railing at God, the Universe, Fate and so on for Never Getting It Right, and I staggered through all of the above tasks in no particular order, and somehow made a plan, and had to take two aspirins for the headache. This afternoon the brother of the absent neighbours came round (nasty bit of work). If that had been me, he said, I wouldn’t have gone through the insurance company. I’d have waited till Sunday when my brother came home and he’d have paid for the windscreen “cash in hand with a drink on top”. So once again it’s my fault?

Well, a) I didn’t know his beastly brother was home on Sunday, b) I needed my car to be usable tomorrow – though it won’t be – not next week, and c) I don’t speak to his beastly brother or his beastly brother’s wife for that matter and I’m certainly not going round cap in hand trying to negotiate unofficial deals with them over car windscreen repairs within hours of them returning from yet another holiday in the South of France – and having them deny, as they almost certainly will, that it could have been their ridge tile which plummeted into my car. I’ve locked the giant chunk of moss-covered tile inside it, so they can’t destroy the evidence. I’ve also, with difficulty in blustery conditions and with the help of Big Puppy’s mama – she of the Illegal Scotsman – duct-taped an extra-strong bin sack over the hole in the windscreen to keep the rain out.

If today has been this wearing, what’s tomorrow going to be like? With the bus, and then the train, and then the other train, and then the other train, and then nine house viewings in several different towns, and then a train… And what am I going to eat? Can woman survive a long day of public transport on chocolate and bottled water?

beaker

The Museum of Procrastination

I’m going through a bad patch at the moment. It’s all the uncertainty about the house. As soon as I find somewhere to buy and get an offer accepted I’ll be OK. However…

…there is plenty I could be getting on with, but which I am not getting on with. The latest story, for example. I know the title, I know the heroine’s name – name and cover-name, in fact; I know precisely which magazine I am aiming the story at and I have typed out a comprehensive outline of the plot. I even know the approximate number of words the story will contain because I have this useful little gift(ette): I am able ‘set’, say, 3,000 words in my head at the outset and the story will turn out 3,000 words long, give or take a hundred. Quite often it’s been 3,000 on the dot. It’s similar to ‘setting’ six o’clock in your head, going to sleep and waking up at six the next morning without troubling the alarm clock.

What I haven’t done is started writing it. This is because it is going to be hard, focussed work and I haven’t got much focus at the moment. This is because I’m lazy and am vaguely hoping some other old dear will write it, or that somehow or other it will turn out to have been written thanks to a crinkle in the fabric of time. All of which reminds me of an ad for a well-known bank in which is featured the Museum of Procrastination. This contains towering stacks of gym memberships that were used once only and spent the rest of their lives in wallets, unfinished novels, musical instruments that only ever played Frère Jacques and a giant green wastepaper basket full of screwed up paper – all the good ideas people have had and done nothing whatsoever about.

Outlines are something I don’t tend to do with blog posts nowadays. I start off with a spark, sit at the computer and meander about on the keys. Better stuff comes out that way – stuff I’d have censored or polished out of existence given half a chance. Better unpolished. Then I hunt around for a picture to match or mirror my thoughts, which often takes as long as, if not longer than, writing the post. But I don’t mind that, because it’s not writing. There’s something about writing… It’s like matter and antimatter. One feels frustratingly prevented from doing it when forced to concern oneself with stuff like washing up, ironing and food shopping, but one feels endlessly reluctant to start doing it as soon as there is time.

I would like to visit the Museum of Procrastination. It sounds a lot more interesting than the sort I got dragged round at intervals as a child, which mostly consisted of clay pipes, axe-heads, dinosaur bones and Roman coins. The problem I always find with museums is that things just sit there, looking dusty, just staring at you. And I always feel sorry for them because they are imprisoned in a future they could never have imagined – if axe-heads, clay pipes and Roman coins can be said to imagine. They should have died when they were supposed to. How weary they must feel, here, unmoving, in cabinets of glass; faded brown labels, curling at the edges, in front of them. What sort of life is it, when you were designed to be sucked by a sailor (no, that doesn’t sound right…) bring a woolly mammoth to its knees or pass from greasy palm to greasy palm in the purchase of silks and spices? That was the life of these objects and this… this is their interment; this is some hideous, static afterlife being visited by schoolchildren and looking at your own mournful reflection in the glass.

 

Grimdusk

Dusk, the dreaded dusk. Already affected by it, labourers staggered home from stone-picking in winter fields, their eyelids heavy despite the stinging cold; children, quarrelling over their toys, abandoned them, abandoned each other and sat dully by the fireside, fighting sleep to the last. Goodwives fought it, determined to finish the sweeping, or that bit of sewing, but it was useless. Dusk seeped into them, overcame them all. They dreaded it, for they knew what to expect: in the morning, blood on the snow. Another family – sometimes two families – vanished. Sometimes a finger, sometimes a tooth or a severed hand, but mostly – only blood.

Once more the Feeders.

Sleep crept up on Gimli too, and as always he noted it’s slow progress with meticulous care. It seemed to start from the feet and work up, he noted. Pins and needles, then a general lassitude. No matter how you fought it, as you jerked awake next morning you would have forgotten – where, how, the exact moment you lost consciousness. Gimli suspected the body might continue on until it reached it’s destination. There seemed always to be a gap in time. However tardy you were in returning, in that eerie gap, your body sleepwalked to the kin-hall.

Except tonight. He and Edil Wisewife had been experimenting with herbs from one of the far valleys. She had noted the effect of her herb concoction on larbils. Administering the drug to the creature as dusk fell, she slept, but in the morning examined its cage. The sand in the bottom was churned up. She had designed a clever exercise wheel to record the number of rotations it made as the little creature ran inside it. In the morning, the larbil was exhausted and wheel showed evidence of vigorous use.

Now it was Gimli’s turn. Swiftly, before it was too late, he drew the green glass vial from his pocket and drank the bitter liquid therein.

It worked. He hid in bushes on the outskirts of the village and watched sister moons Menem and Fley, rising in tandem, bright disks in the night sky. It was beautiful – and something he had never expected to witness. It worked! Now, at last, he would see what the Feeders looked like, what monsters they were.

He had hidden his father’s broadsword under the straw. It was within arm’s reach. If the worst came to the worst and they discovered his hiding place, he would fight them. The sword was heavy, but he knew that he could lift it. His arms itched and burned for a fight. Rage coursed in his veins as he thought of his countrymen – all the lost kin. The blood on the snow every morning. Hot rage churned in his guts. He felt… strange. He felt… he was frightened of how he felt. He seemed to be growing both in height and width, splitting and breaking, growing a bony carapace. Looking down at his hands, Gimli drew a shuddering breath as he saw them elongating, changing colour, growing an extra set of finger joints and long, scimitar claws…

Overnight the snows melted. Spring was in the air, but blood was smeared on wet grass, and daubed on the door of Gimli’s kin-hall. All five of them had been taken – the father, the mother, the little sister and the baby, and of course Gimli himself, a well-liked, intrepid boy. A wooden talisman – the one Gimli had carved for his sister – was discovered cast aside at the foot of the door, it’s ties broken and bloody with shreds of flesh attached. The ties were made of leather, and cut wide to resist loss or breakage. Creature or creatures must have ripped it from her neck.

“In a way, it’s a mercy,” said the goodwives as they clustered around the wash-trough. “If he’d been spared the boy would have been in torment. How could he have lived on alone?”

Had the snow remained they might would have seen footsteps leading away from the village, footsteps which changed as they ran – from long, clawed and bony to those of a young man, barefooted.

Had the snow remained they might have tracked those footsteps all the way to the sea, and to the cliff’s edge, and they might have looked over and seen, already bleaching clean in the cold light of Spring, a young man’s splintered bones.

grimdusk.jpg

The Lady Vanishes

I really don’t like people staring at me. I had a job in a pub once, as a barmaid. Eleven days I lasted. I was the world’s worst barmaid for several reasons, not just the staring.

For starters I panic when stressed: the sight of a party of seven would-be revellers shambling in, including women (so not all going to want beer) reduced me to a quivering wreck.

I can add up forwards but not backwards, hence giving change for a £20 note will always be a challenge. I’d be alright if there was time  to write it down…

I am lacking in proactivity, ie I either don’t see stuff that needs doing or can’t motivate myself to do it. That’s a problem when there are greasy meaty plates to be collected, tables to be wiped, glasses to be polished until they twinkle.

I don’t do social interaction. I never could do flirting (which at my age is probably a mercy for any potential flirtee); I can’t achieve banter (pron: nowadays, with obligatory glottal stop: ban-eeeer); I don’t tend to see jokes, especially bad ones; I can’t laugh on demand, especially at bad jokes I have heard many times before; I don’t like people.

But the worst thing about being a barmaid was  the staring. Men, in pubs, stare at the barmaid. Even if you are nothing-like-Angelina-Jolie they will inspect your bosoms (yes, they will) at length, minutely and continually. Their eyes will follow you from one end of the bar to the other. If you turn your back on them they will stare at your bottom. If you turn round again they will stare at the bosoms. If you speak to them they will glance briefly at your face, then return to staring at your bosoms. You are television. You are that solitary stripy fish in the fish-tank in the dentist’s waiting room – nobody particularly wants to stare at it but it’s the only moving thing  and there’s nothing else to do…

Women inspect men too, of course. Just not the bosoms.

Hence – by a majestic swoop of the imagination – why I did not want a For Sale sign. I have had For Sale signs before. The second that little van arrives and the man with the mallet emerges all the neighbours know. Furthermore, they feel obliged to speak to you, about your moving.

So, you’re moving house I see?

Not too keen on it round here, then?

Not been here long, really, have you?

‘Course, you only moved up here to be near your Old Mum, didn’t you? Now she’s, you know, tucked away somewhere, it’s inevitable you would be moving.

Going somewhere nice? Going far?

Ah, I ‘ve heard it’s nice round there. Never been, but my cousin did once.

This time I didn’t have a For Sale sign and I still sold the house. I had a couple of pretty horrendous Open Days and got an offer. And I thought I might have got away with it until yesterday when she-of-the-Illegal-Scotsman-and-the-Dog-known-as-Big-Puppy caught me collecting the Blue Bin from outside.

Moving, I gather?

Oh, you…?

Yeeees, saw you’d had people in. Visitors. Sorry to see you go and all that, but now your Mum’s safely tucked away… Not too keen on round here, then?

The trouble is, I can’t really complain since I am über-interested in my neighbours. They provide such good material, for this – for stories generally. I never pass a net curtain without checking for activity in the road outside; not that there is much. If there are no humans  I observe sparrows drinking from potholes and stray cats a-straying. The cats sense my presence, of course. Hopefully the humans don’t. If there are humans, well, bonanza!

I watch Charlie chatting to his ex-wife – who has gone very grey recently – over the wheelie bins or the garden fence. No flirting going on there, either, but something … a long friendship. Years between them.

I watch the post-lady belting from door to door , rat-tat-tatting when there’s  a parcel to be handed through. I watch  gloomy people with giant plastic satchels delivering free newspapers, and brisker, younger people with handfuls of fliers for the Indian Restaurant or Nail-Grooming Salons.  I watch the Illegal Scotsman loading up his white van with solar panel paraphernalia and hear him as he turns up some hard rock radio station really loud inside and bumps off up the unmade road, broadcasting Guns n’ Roses. I watch Big Puppy setting off for his constitutional and ancient Her Down The End tottering out, occasionally, to collect a bin. She has developed a habit of collecting other people’s bins too, and wheeling them  down the sides of the houses. It’s kind of her. Always the wrong bin. Always the discreet hunt, then, for the neighbour harbouring the bin with my house number.

green lady

“I’m such a clever toad”

Well, in yesterday’s post I found myself quoting HM The Queen who once said, it is said, that she should like to be a horse. Most of us would have said would, but presumably should is the proper word, since Her Majesty employed it. She was quite young at the time. I mean, you can’t imagine her standing up in the middle of a banquet in honour of foreign dignitaries, clattering on her glass with a knife and, as silence swiftly fell, announcing:

We should like to be a horse!

Though no doubt everyone would nod and smile approvingly.

Today, by coincidence, I came across this high school writing prompt:

The animal you would like to be.

That would have to be a cat, I suppose, since I live in a house bursting at the seams with them. Over the years they seem to have become more human and I more cat-like. Presumably eventually we will meet in the middle as a hybrid species: hats. I would of course prefer to be a well-fed, extremely spoilt domestic moggie than one of the multitude of thin, sad strays, out in all weathers, fending for themselves on city streets.

Then I started to wonder what animal other people would associate me with, and a little cluster of unpleasant memories floated to the surface. In the main, of course, people are too polite to point out that you remind them of a slug or a gorilla, but I was once acquainted with a very rude old man called Norman who frequented the village pub and village “do’s” in general. Norman was a menace. His first – bellowed – question on catching sight of you would always be: Ow’s yer sex life, then? This was an unfamiliar social ritual to me – I couldn’t answer, and was fairly sure one was not supposed to answer, but yet an answer seemed to be required

Norman was a prime source of animal insults. He once informed me that I reminded him of a thoroughbred racehorse. This wasn’t too bad because he might have meant sleek, glossy, highly-strung, intelligent, classy…

But next time I met him it was at a dance in the next village. There we all were, for some long-forgotten reason, circling between walls plastered with posters for mother-and-baby sessions, boy scouts and so forth, when he asked me to dance. I didn’t want to dance with Norman, guessing (correctly) that he would be the sort to whisk me vigorously round corners and tread on my toes, but it seemed rude to refuse. We circled, and he peered beerily over my left shoulder and remarked to one of his ancient mates who happened to be close by:

It’s like dancing with a bloody great giraffe.

If I had to choose an animal totem – apart from cats – I think I would – or should – let’s just say might – plump for Toad from Wind in the Willows. I do kind of like zooming about the countryside in my motor car and certain – rigidly suppressed – aspects of my personality – impulsiveness, impracticality, illogicallity, a tendency to show off and over-dramatise – do rather remind me of the brownish/greenish occupant – apart from when the weasles invaded – of Toad Hall.

toad

 

I should like to be a horse

Queen Elizabeth II is more or less the same age as my Mum, but there the similarity ends. Oh no, they both have those old lady perms. Except that Mum’s has more or less grown out now. The ward where they section them doesn’t provide hairdressers, although you can import your own as long as it’s not at meal times (which take up most of the day) and as long as they have sixty days’ notice in writing, or whatever. It’s a very depressing place. If you weren’t depressed before you entered though those ultra-thick key-padded doors, you will be  pretty soon. Although there is the odd cheerful one. I suppose it’s when a jolly insouciance forms part of the illness. On Sunday I got a hug from a tiny hunched-up lady in a nightie, with a  surgical brace on one wrist. She asked me if I was from the circus. I wondered if perhaps I might be. She told me my Mum was confused. “I’m confused too,” she said, grinning up at me and opening her arms for another hug. I find it quite difficult to hug people, especially when they are half my height, but I did my best.

“What about her feet?” I ask. “She had a chiropodist… outside.”

“I’ll refer her for Podiatry,” says the nurse in the cherry red, hammering something invisible into the computer.”

“I believe there was a consent form for me to sign? It was going to be left behind the desk?”

“Form? Which form? Who exactly told you there was a form behind the desk?”

“Kate. Her name was Kate. She telephoned my sister.”

“Kate?”

“Have you checked her laundry basket for washing?” a nurse asks. I had no idea she had a laundry basket, or indeed where she was sleeping, or that washing was supposed to be dealt with by the next of kin of those who have been snatched from them against their wishes. Surely, if you take over someone’s life you take over their washing, too? Isn’t it your moral responsibility?

“Only in cases of incontinence,” the same nurse snaps.

“Our washing machine broke down this morning,” says another nurse. “Water all over the place.” That makes more sense. So why not just say that?

Mum says nothing. She slumps in an armchair and we try to talk to her. She asks if her house is still there, as if it might already have been demolished to make way for a row of cottage-style town houses with very little in the way of garden. She asks what she should do next. What do we want her to do? She doesn’t understand. Her eyes keep closing. She takes off her dust-smeared glasses and stares down into her lap. They’re all heathens in here. Heathens!

Anyway, the Queen apparently said, when asked as a child what she wanted to be when she grew up (a silly thing to ask the heir to the throne, I would have thought) that she should like to be a horse. And why not? I have often wanted to be a cat, a giraffe in the zoo, an aardvark, an octopus – almost anything that just gets fed and made a fuss of and isn’t expected to sort through a laundry basket of stale clothes on the Sunday before Easter in a tropically overheated hospital ward when she might have been home with her feet up on the coffee table watching The Andrew Marr Show.

Grouchy? Me?

 

And weave but nets to catch the wind

Two thoughts occurred to me simultaneously yesterday, about the internet. One thought is to be celebrated, two at the same time is a rare occurrence.

Firstly it occurred to me that this thing that we are feverishly blogging onto; this thing we confidently upload the 9,999th recipe for cheese-and-tomato-quiche onto or inform as to the 999 household uses for lemon juice; this thing we publish our ground-breaking scientific treatises onto; on which we proclaim our political and religious fervour; on which we write our life stories and record the least and most interesting details of daily lives – would be the major, if not the only historical ‘source’ in years to come.

I imagine them, our historians, a thousand years hence – maybe tiptoeing the scorched remains of some nuclear disaster; teeming half-blind in some low-lit underground city or maybe – just maybe – cavorting joyfully in some green paradise containing faithful genetic reproductions/fanciful re-imaginings of all the creatures our own generation is hunting to extinction, polluting or crowding out of existence.  Here a snow leopard. There a unicorn.

But how those future professors and  graduate students will enjoy studying us, and what an unprecedented amount of material they will have to work on! Not for them, fragments of a scroll found in a cave. Not for them the copperplate of workhouse records, faded to brown. Not for them the clue in the place name, crumbled walls beneath the soil, letters complete or redacted. They will have…this.

That is, if this still exists (second thought). Will there still be electricity a thousand years hence? Will people still know how to write code? Will the phrase “Error 502 Bad Gateway” mean any more to them than it does to me? Who knows what technologies we are capable of destroying, in our foolishness.

We have done it so many times before, that’s the trouble. In 48 BCE (troublesome E – what’s that for?) or thereabouts someone, possibly Julius Caesar, set fire to the Library of Alexandria, one of the largest and most wonderful libraries in the ancient world. In those days knowledge was stored on papyrus scrolls. They burn nicely. What arcane material might have been recorded on those scrolls? We will never know.

Books have been burnt for as long as there have been books, and idiots who think that freedom of thought and the paper it is written down on are one and the same thing:

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.”

And on a smaller scale – Jane Austen’s precious letters, redacted or destroyed by her well-meaning sister Cassandra. Interestingly, Jane herself may have helped Cassandra decide which passages to excise. In an age when letters would have been read aloud to the family, Jane would underline those passages which were for her sister’s eyes only, and Cassandra would skip over these when reading. There is even a mention of this system in Pride and Prejudice. What trust people must have had in one another.

austen

And yet information continues to be passed down, and presumably the way this happens is via human memory. Even if something is later destroyed, some or all of it will be in somebody’s head, and that person will tell others. Ideas, no matter how many times we burn or redact them, will move from person to person. As long as people can whisper to one another in corners an idea, once had, will never be destroyed. Or if it was destroyed someone, somewhere, eventually, would have it all over again. No matter many barrels of dynamite are employed in reducing it to rubble an ancient temple, once built, can never be destroyed. The reverence that built it survives: it has been, therefore it is. A poem, once written, exists, even if nobody ever, anywhere, reads it. It is part of the fabric of the universe.

 

 

 

When they get to the part where he’s breakin’ her heart…

Sorry, I’m distracted at the moment. House hunting. Practical stuff and writing don’t mix, for me.

So, tomorrow I’m going by train to a seaside town on the far side of the county, and then I’m going to walk across said seaside town to a part of it I’ve never visited before, to view a couple of houses. I am hoping against hope that one of them will turn out to be “the one” as I hate house-hunting with a passion. It is the most draining and solitary business, when all you want is to be feeding cats and writing – to be traipsing here, there and everywhere – to be trying to find places – to be waiting outside houses for estate agents – to be carted round house after house after house. Stone-cladding? Interesting… Oh, I see, quirky layout… I’ll mind the step then… ‘statement’ purple wallpaper with large red flowers? Colourful. When can I go home?

Except of course that it’s not home any more. It’s under offer and somebody – a rather nice man, actually – is keen to move in. Got to get the old skates on. No writing. No wafting about thinking beautiful thoughts. Phone calls, phone calls, phone calls. Houses, houses,  houses. More houses. All of them… nasty.

But tomorrow’s town brings back memories. It was where I lived for the first four years after I married Mr Wrong. We moved straight into a rented flat. No honeymoon. The best man gave us a lift from the church and handed us his wedding gift (two giant bath towels) as we got out of the car. He was probably embarrassed to be with us at that point, and glad to be rid. Off home to his Mum.

And that evening we went for a walk. We walked through the town and held hands – something I don’t remember us ever doing again – and we stood at some sort of wrought iron fence at the end of a cobbled street and looked down over the harbour; out over  fishing boats to the sea. And I was filled with a sense of destiny and fulfilment – sounds weird now – but I felt safe. I was married. We were married. That was my future sorted.

When I think back, that was our only happy day – the very first one. The following twenty-two years –  not so good.

However, I have always kept a fondness for the town. It suited me even if he didn’t. I liked its faded splendour, its shabby grandeur, the fairy lights looped through the trees, the lift going down to the beach from the cliff top; ranks of monstrous Victorian hotels; the art shop where he bought his supplies and the little old man in the fawn raincoat who ran it; the middle-aged shops; the pottery galleries; the library with its wide, brass-railed staircase and unread books; the drunkards after dark; the sea air; the pebbly beach; baby seagulls on the rooftops, brown-speckled and carolling; the grimness of November there; the bombed-out church; the way you could sit on a bench in the town centre and watch the world go by.

So, it will be strange going back. A journey into the past. I will walk past our old third-floor flat and look up at the balcony where I tried and failed to grow tomatoes in a pot, at the fairy lights in the trees, and I will remember the music that swirled around us; our hippie past already lost to us, though we didn’t realise it at the time. Our youth was close at our heels in that seaside town. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll catch the echo of it.

The Defense

If you want to read a really interesting book, try The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov said it was about a man crushed by his own genius. I’d say it’s ab0ut the way a person can be subsumed and ultimately consumed by the very thing they are designed to do well, and  about the airy insubstantiality of what we think of as ‘mind’. For Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, the awkward and unattractive young chess-master, reality begins to fade as life morphs into an unceasing and unwinnable game of chess.

Years ago I worked at a nuclear power station. The dangerous items, fuel rods, were  arrayed vertically, making a rather beautiful honeycomb pattern inside a gigantic, thickly-walled pressure vessel. We visualise our minds as containers, and our skulls as the walls, and take it for granted that our that our weirdest fantasies and obsessions are safely contained within. Then a change happens – maybe only a slight change, something that upsets the delicately balanced interrelationship between “in here” and “out there”, and it becomes apparent that the walls are a largely an illusion; nothing is entirely or perpetually contained; we are dreaming our dreams as our dreams are dreaming us. The two worlds are one.

magnox

I have seen this happen with my mother – seen the contents of her subconscious becoming real to her – thoughts turning into voices – fears turning into conspirators lurking just behind the wall or just outside the window, standing in the night-time  garden, silent behind drawn curtains. I have seen her sinking into this world, increasingly distracted by it.

And as yet we know of no way to maintain our grip on reality. We just hope it’ll happen to someone else. However, it’s possible that chess – and  mental exertion generally – though the undoing of poor Luzhin, could be the saving of us. I been reading a New Scientist article on the subject by Lisa Melton. It’s something called cognitive reserve. People who are more intelligent, or who at any rate live more intellectually stimulating lives, appear protected from the mental decline that comes with age. Such people are vulnerable to all the usual diseases of decline – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, but notice the effects less and later, if at all. They also, apparently, recover more quickly from stroke, head injury, intoxication and poisoning with neurotoxins. What sort of experiment did they come up with to test that, I wonder?

So, there’s a bit of good news. Cognitive reserve isn’t something you are just lucky enough to be born with, it’s something you can build up. Even if you weren’t lucky enough to have a  stimulating job or a good education, you can challenge your mind in any number of ways. Just reading, is one way. Apparently that business of not being able to teach an old dog new tricks – largely untrue. That’s more to do with a loss of confidence. Continuing to take an interest, interact with friends and acquire new skills – plus not allowing yourself to turn into a couch potato – might be the best way of ‘keeping it together’ into old, old age!

 

Old man on a rusty bicycle

He must have lived in the village, but nobody knew where and nobody  much cared. I used to imagine him in one of those final, tumbledown cottages with fields beyond, at the point where nature takes over; where men sit out on their front steps in shirtsleeves to read the newspaper and their women sit on kitchen chairs and shell peas into chipped enamel bowls.

He was rarely seen. As dusk fell, just occasionally, you might spot him. He’d usually be wheeling the bike because he couldn’t get onto it for “stuff” insecurely lashed to either side and dangling from the handlebars. Anything people had left out  for him –  spades, lawnmowers, brooms – contraptions their owners had lost interest in or forgotten how to use.  Occasionally he would be riding – and then he would be wobbling. He was the slowest old-man-bicycle-rider I have ever seen. People were grateful to him insofar as they noticed him at all. And what he did with his gleanings? Maybe made fantastical sculptures out of them. More likely he sold them to the gypsies.

We have gypsies here too.  They may not be gypsies at all, of course, but whatever they are and wherever they come from, they collect scrap metal that people have left out for them. They have a pickup truck, a white one. They are polite. If they see you they’ll ask, “All right if I take this, darlin’?’ Otherwise they just fling it in the back of the pick-up and reverse.

This morning I put some stuff out for the neighbours. My brother-in-law, now slowly dying in Canada, was a generous man. Whenever he and my sister came over and stayed with me he would go out and buy a mountain of stuff – nearly always stuff I couldn’t use. Sometimes it was food – giant bags of rice, five years’ supply of spaghetti – but since he loved DIY superstores anyway, it would often be stuff for my little, ancient car. Engine oil. Car wax. Screen wash. Filters. Over the years the hefty plastic bottles have accumulated on the giant workbench left behind by the house’s previous owner (complete with monster  vice). They have remained unopened and gathering a film of garage-grime because I can’t use them. When I get my car serviced, the mechanics include all that. Sometimes I can’t even remember where the handle is to open the bonnet. It used to worry me. Which would peeve him more on his annual visit – the same Aladdin’s Cave of  car supplies, unopened, or the infeasible disappearance of the whole lot in twelve months?

Brother-in-law won’t be  coming to England again, I fear, and I’ll be moving house – exactly when I don’t know yet – but to a smaller place, probably lacking a garage or even a driveway. It’s possible the car will be the next casualty of my personal financial squeeze in any case. So today I put all the bottles outside the front wall, with a handwritten FREE sign . I don’t expect them to vanish today – unless I take the car out for  an unnecessary couple of hours leaving the coast clear for my thrifty, but invisible, neighbours. But most of them will have vanished by morning.

I was thinking about travelling light, and how people give me things, and how I tend to accumulate stuff and yet more stuff in spite of regular throwing-out sessions and trips to the tip. How insecure it makes me feel, to  give away anything that might conceivably come in useful. Poverty does that, and it’s a hard habit to break – you find yourself sticking the remaining sliver of soap to the new bar, upending the washing-up liquid bottle in a mug to drain the last few drops, hoarding supplies of ancient underwear in case you miraculous lose weight! But how heavy all this “stuff” is, and how it drags at me.

Ultimately, it must all go. Everything we own will one day end up in  a junk shop or somebody else’s living room – or mangled into new shapes. We own nothing, really. Nothing but our birthday suits.

And I was thinking about that story I wrote, Lafferty’s Last Swan. My little (well, littler than me) sister proof-read it for me some years ago, along with a lot of other stories. She’s not much into my writing, I think, but she specifically mentioned that one. She thought it had something. Reading it back, I think it has something too – a message for it’s author.

Excess baggage is a symptom of something we are missing on the inside – a fear that we won’t be accepted for what we are, as if our selves are not enough. We bring too much of our past experience, the clutter of our emotions. These things get in the way and keep us from getting close to others. Then we are left with the task of having to find someone else to carry it, whether it is our luggage or our loneliness.

Mary Morris

Rambling Rosie Strikes Again

I was chatting with my two old friends in the coffee shop today, about what makes a good teacher, and what makes a bad one. I’ve never been able to express even the simplest of opinions without launching into a rambling reminiscence – often two in quick succession. People’s eyes glaze over. My friends have perfected the kindly art of not looking glazed.

I was telling them about Sybil, who taught me – or rather utterly failed to teach me – History ‘O’ level. And I actually liked history. I remember bounding up to her in the playground afterwards. “I got a grade 9 in History, Syb… Miss”. Grade 9 was the lowest possible fail.

“I know,” she said, gloomily. “Hardly your finest achievement.” It was the only ‘O’ level I had failed.

The trouble with Sybil was threefold: she was elderly, she was nice and she was easily distracted. And my class – my class was J. This sounds bad but we were streamed J, K, L and M. If you were an M you ended up doing various forms of PE all day and making collages. If you were a J you were bright, but troublesome. My class was full of girls who had been transferred from other schools for one reason or another. Girls with anorexia. Girls with a trail of expulsions behind them. Girls with mascara smudged around their eyes. Girls with fiercely backcombed hair screwed into high bunches. Loud girls. Insolent girls.

They quickly cottoned on to the fact that Sybil could be diverted from teaching history every single lesson. One had only to ask her about the time she swam the Suez Canal. With a faraway look in her eyes, she would tell and re-tell that Suez Canal-swimming yarn as paper aeroplanes and elastic bands whizzed over our heads. The panda-eyed brigade particularly liked to jam their wooden rulers upright into closed desks and ping them. As more and more souls joined in the ruler-pinging concert, the room began to thrum in an eerie, Aboriginal way. But in Sybil’s head it was 1929 – a hot Egyptian afternoon and the cicadas whispering in the bushes. She was diving, lightly-clad into the dark, lapping waters, perhaps the merest trill of insouciant laughter escaping her young lips…

Next year the school needed to make up for/disguise the fact that almost an entire class of its brightest pupils had failed its history ‘O’ level. Sybil disappeared and I was allocated to a fiery Welsh teacher for a replacement subject – not History again but something called British Constitution O*. The star meant you were a year older than the norm when taking it, so it was pitched slightly higher. I was taking my ‘A’ levels at the same time. British Constitution meant stuff about politics, the Houses of Parliament, democracy, how women fought to get the vote and the difference between a Bill and an Act… that sort of stuff. Dry as dust, but I loved it. At least, I loved being well-taught by a passionate enthusiast.

Mrs Beynon was short and stocky with chalk on her hands, chalk streaks on her forehead and ragged holes in the armpits of her woolly jumpers. She strode back and forth, thinking on the hoof, talking, explaining, firing questions at us. She made us think hard, very hard indeed; and if we didn’t come up with an answer she just waited – cat-like – until we did. The silence would grow more and more uncomfortable. Eventually even the shy and apathetic were forced to join in. She expected quick-fire adult thinking of us and – unexpectedly – she got it. At the end of one of her lessons – I can remember it now – we would emerge surprised into the daylight, trembling, blinking, strung out, as if we had been fighting for our lives.

I passed that O level, and her teaching was to have a lifelong influence on me. I vote every time even when my vote, statistically, can make no difference whatsoever. Even now I stay glued to the news and politics programmes, trying to fathom, not just what politicians are saying but what they are not saying. I’m fascinated by the intricacies and obfuscations of the law and the machinations of politics – the ulterior motives, the hidden dramas, the lies, the fudges, the diplomatic sidlings up to and creepings away from; the ‘real’ of politik. Most of all I’m grateful that I live in an old and relatively stable country with a tradition of democracy, and do at least have a vote. Up to a point, at least, I’m allowed to think and speak for myself. I have the tools to think and speak with.

She gave me those.

 

Sorry to bother you, but…

So, which neighbour shall I tell you about?

Shall I tell you about the lady with the hooded anorak, the stout walking stick and the Illegal (and very rude) Scotsman? Shall I tell you about the teacher with the weak heart – the one who recently rescued a Polish lady-dog almost the same size as herself, which can be seen taking her walks at intervals, clinging breathlessly to its lead? Shall I tell you about the Man At The End, who’s on morphine for the pain – I’m not sure what pain – and stays up all night at his computer, unable to sleep? Shall I tell you about the fairy lights draped round his living room, and the moving pictures of waterfalls, the lava lamps, the thick fug of cigarettes? Shall I tell you about the elderly lady who, year after year, tottered back and forth along our unmade road to care for her badly disabled sister, who lived a few doors down? Her sister recently died. Inevitably, two of the three cats were donated to me: Charlie got the other one. Since then she has hardly been seen: it’s as if she lives a wholly interior life. Shall I tell you about the retired prison warders – a he and a she, as far as it’s possible to tell? No, I don’t think I shall. I will tell you about Charlie.

Charlie is younger than me, I think. Difficult to tell – he’s kind of saggy, and always wearing overalls. Charlie is the other cat-person in this little road. I try not to feel sorry for his cats, but it’s difficult. Inside his house it’s  just a blizzard of filth, and junk, and half-eaten food, and cat poo, and… sofas – an awful lot of sofas. He turned up at my door one day last summer with his usual Sorry to bother you, but… and asked if I would come over and hold one of his cats while he trimmed its claws. He couldn’t get anyone else to do it. In old pink shorts and a washed out tee-shirt I didn’t feel dressed for public appearances, but I went anyway.

I managed to clear a posterior-sized space on the greasy arm of one of the sofas and lowered myself onto it. The cat, dropped into my arms never having encountered me before, was terrified. Charlie went ahead with the claw-cutting using what looked like a pair of kitchen scissors rather than the proper gadget. I tried to imagine myself somewhere else. I tried to imagine that, like my younger sister, I had been born without a sense of smell. I tried to imagine that the terrified cat was not urinating warmly down the front of my shorts. And then urinating again, not quite so warmly. Squelching across the road, to throw all my clothes in the washing machine and myself in the shower, I was praying that none of the other neighbours happened to be looking out of their windows at this precise moment.

But usually the Sorry to bother you, but… means Big Fluffy has gone missing again. She always comes back – or always has done so far – but Charlie – who’s a bit simple –  worries just as much on each occasion. His forehead creased with worry, wringing his hands, he once again describes Big Fluffy in minute detail and reminds you she was a present from his ex-wife on his fortieth birthday. He doesn’t tell you that Big Fluffy is sticky-to-the-touch from the filth inside his house. Ex-wife moved in the man next door some years ago but still talks to Charlie over the fence.

Usually it’s after dark, when he realises Big Fluffy is missing, and everyone up and down the road becomes involved in paddling round their muddy gardens with torches, and peering into unlit garages hoping Big Fluffy will leap out and peaceful TV-watching can be resumed.

But when Big Fluffy turns up, as she always does after and hour or two, it never occurs to Charlie to tell anyone. So there you are, still squelching around the garden, barking your shins on the hedgehog hut or getting bashed by the bird-feeders, and Charlie is home, rejoicing, Big Fluffy perched stickily on his knee. Days later, everyone else is still imagining Big Fluffy howling in a ditch, her hind paw tangled in rusty wire; Big Fluffy kidnapped by gypsies, skinned by now and turned into fluffy slippers; Big Fluffy somehow surviving on condensation trickling down some spidery garage wall, her voice cracked from crying…

“When I get through the glass”

The ward’s on an upper floor, down a long, long corridor with a key pad on the door and a thing you have to announce yourself through, and then they come and get you, very slowly. They had cut and varnished Mum’s fingernails. “To stop me scratching anyone,” she confided. It was a horrible shade of pink – exactly the colour she wouldn’t have chosen in her fanatical manicuring days. She used to spend hours, I remember, with one of those little kits, filing, buffing, pushing back the cuticles, applying layer after layer of colour. She was very proud of having finally stopped biting her nails, around the age of 40.

Afterwards I wondered why they did that – was it, as they might have you believe, to make the sectioned person feel good about themselves? Or did the nail-varnish have  a more sinister purpose? (Paranoia must run in the family.) Supposing an enterprising female patient did manage to slip past the phalanx of gigantic male and female nurses on the internal reception desk , would she not be instantly recognisable, thanks to the puce nail-varnish? My mother has already tried all the doors, she informs me. None of them open. She is now considering the windows or “getting through the glass”. If she did somehow manage to get out, could she lose herself in the teeming corridors of this huge hospital? Or would the guards go around looking for a little old lady in grubby trainers and a grown-out perm, with unlikely puce-coloured nail-varnish? No woman would have selected that colour.

Supposing – just supposing – the puce nail-varnish contains something secret, like a liquid microchip or smart… nail-water? Better still, because then they just walk about with their mental ward nail-varnish detector set to “scan”. Sooner or later she sets it off and they home in on her from all directions. Nabbed you, you little blighter.

At least she’s clean now, and wearing something other than the Famous Blue Jumper. They won’t allow belts, so she has threaded a pink dressing-gown cord through the loops on her jeans to keep them up. “I don’t like the new tee shirts you bought me,” she remarks. “Too skimpy.” She is carrying round a hessian bag – the one we were secretly stuffing clothes into in her bedroom on Tuesday night just before the ambulance arrived. The one she walked in and discovered, and then realised, and then started talking very, very loud and very fast. Cajoling. Bargaining. I couldn’t help thinking that rogue computer, HAL, in 2001, being dismantled circuit by circuit by the man in the space suit called Dave – the beginning bit, before it got on to singing Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer dooooo….. One of the scariest, and saddest, movie scenes ever.

She has some of her clothes in the bag now. She is taking them out, holding them up to the light, folding them as if packing for her holidays, putting them back in. The white bear I brought her (Best Mum in pink letters – probably left over stock from Mother’s Day) is added to the “in and out” sequence rather than dropped on the floor or flung across the room, which probably means she likes it. She knows I’m one of her daughters but doesn’t recall my name.

“Do you know where you are, Mum?” I ask her. I write down the name of the hospital. She looks at me blankly, scanning my face rather than scrawled letters on a page torn from a notebook; reading me. Emotions – she’s not stopped picking up on those. Mum Radar – you could never get away with anything. “When I get through the glass,” she says, “when I get through the glass…”

“They all belong to some religion, you know, those nurses. Not the one in the red but the ones with the blue things hanging round their necks. I’ve been told they cut off your ears if you’re bad. They even kill people.”

Outside the plate glass windows you can see the hospital entrance and the yellow car-park barrier rising and falling as cars come through; narrow streets  of Edwardian terraces beyond. I thought she might have worked it out from this view, since this is where my father died, more or less. They moved him somewhere else for his last couple of days. We used to come and visit him here – Mum, my godmother and I. Now my godmother and I have come to visit Mum. “Is your car parked out there?” she asks, hopefully.

“I’d fit in the back seat…”

The Falling Upwards of Fish

The things you laugh at – if they happen to be the same, chances are things are going well between you. But if they don’t…

Things were not going well between me and my ex-husband around the time ‘comedy duo’ Reeves and Mortimer came on the scene. That would have been… in the eighties, sometime. Something about Reeves and Mortimer got my goat – the pair of them annoyed me and they were not funny. One evening, for the umpteenth time, my husband was watching the Reeves and Mortimer show on TV and going Ho Ho Ho – he had such a lovely voice, and a particularly deep and resonant Ho Ho Ho like Santa Claus – and I was thinking, what exactly can I be missing here? And it was then I understood we wouldn’t be sitting together in this house in front of this TV for very much longer. I wasn’t angry at him for enjoying himself. It was the loneliness of watching him splitting his sides in enjoyment of something – to me – so utterly unfunny – at two people I couldn’t see the point of.

A friend of mine had a similar moment. She was sitting in a cinema with her husband, his father and one of his brothers. They all had the same nose – unusually long and sharp. She was on the end of the line, and looking back down the line of seats she saw the three of them tapping their feet and twiddling their thumbs in unison – a family tic. And at that moment she thought, I simply can’t bear this.

Which leads me, by association, to Victor Borge (1909 – 2002) Danish piano player and wit, who once remarked that:

Santa Claus had the right idea. Visit everyone once a year.

Victor Borge was one of the very few comedians who could make me laugh out loud. Even as a child, I loved the one ongoing joke – that he was always about to play the piano but rarely actually did, although when he did he was brilliant.

I found a clip of him on YouTube. Watching him now I see subtleties I missed as a child, and also parallels between the way our two minds work: perhaps it’s that whimsical – or senile – streak. Now I’m that much older I appreciate his bewilderment, his digressions, his casual losing and re-finding of the plot; the way he finds hilarity in the mundane; his upside-down way of looking at things.

Why is upside-down-ness so rare, I wonder? And why is that so necessary?

I will leave you with one last upside down thought, this time from French novelist André Gide:

Fish die belly upward, and rise to the surface. It is their way of falling.

O Rose, thou art sick…

I’ve just wasted three quarters of an hour trying to decide what Philip Larkin meant when he said, famously: Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth. I mean, what does that even mean? Larkin himself didn’t seem to be deprived of much. For thirty years or so he had a good job, admittedly in a grim Northern town (Hull). But then he did choose to stay in the grim Northern town in spite of having a good enough degree (a First from Oxford in Language and Literature) to have taken him anywhere he wanted to go, and the library was part of the University of Hull. And he didn’t seem ill-fed. He had as much booze and as many fags as he wanted and no fewer than three mistresses, who attended at his death-bed in a complicated shift system. It’s not the traditional picture of a poet, starving in a freezing garret and eventually poisoning himself with… arsenic, or  whatever.

merman

Arthur Rackham: A Crowned Merman

Larkin was certainly quite glum and dissatisfied, but then that’s English. We don’t do jollity. And he seemed to thrive on it; his best poems came out of it – which is perhaps what he means. Wordsworth’s daffodils were an inner treasure-trove of inspiration, a dancing, golden image to recall in those moments when he was feeling a bit down or there wasn’t  a lot else worth thinking about. Golden… treasure… etc. And possibly Larkin, in his gloomy English way, was careful never to become at all happy in case the ability to write poetry deserted him – as indeed it did, later in life. Only then did he allow one of his long-term mistresses to move in with him. After all what did it matter, now that there was nothing for her to distract him from?

I can’t think of one happy poem (at least, not one that’s any good). Can you? But gloom is so fruitful:

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

William Blake: The Sick Rose


Call her once before you go.
Call once yet.
In a voice that she will know:
‘Margaret! Margaret!’
Children’s voices should be dear
(Call once more) to a mother’s ear;
Children’s voices, wild with pain.
Surely she will come again.
Call her once and come away.
This way, this way!
‘Mother dear, we cannot stay.’
The wild white horses foam and fret.
Margaret! Margaret!

Matthew Arnold: The Forsaken Merman

 Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin: This Be The Verse

A Trip on Shanks’ Pony

I felt rather like the little man in the picture by the time Shanks’ Pony had done with me.  I wonder whose mug it is? A fellow left-hander, obviously.

“I went on Shanks’ Pony”, as I am sure you all know, is another way of saying “I walked”. I used to think there was an actual man called Shanks, who had possibly lost his actual pony and was forced to make his way on foot, but in fact your ‘shank’ is the part of your leg between your knee and your ankle, and your shanks are – by association – your legs. There’s a bird called a redshank which has – would you believe it? – red legs. Here he is:

redshankAnd a knot called a Sheepshank, which I remember trying to learn, along with a fiendish thing called a Round Turn and Two Half Hitches:

sheepshank2

And you can see why – it looks a bit like a sheep’s leg with a hoof on the end:

knees

If you’re an animal-lover, by the way, I wouldn’t look up sheep’s legs on Google images – there’s some really sad pictures.

This knot, used for shortening a rope or taking up slack, and much beloved of the Girl Guides, nowadays seems to be frowned upon. It’s not safe because it will disintegrate under either too much or too little load and should be replaced by something safe and useful such as the Alpine Butterfly Loop. Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound:

alpine

I was going to talk about walking, but I seem to be talking about obscure knots instead. You see, I don’t walk much nowadays: probably rebelling against a family of obsessive yompers and super-fit long-distance racing cyclists. Also, without my car I feel a bit like that armoured bear in Northern Lights – when he has his armour taken away. (I loved that bear.)  So it really serves me right that I’ve got a bad hip.

But this morning I decided to catch a train and then walk about a mile and a half to the hospital where my mother is (hopefully temporarily) incarcerated. Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, I repeated to myself as I headed for the railway station, hoping my car would be all right without me for a few hours. Feel The Fear… What I usually do when I Feel The Fear is Do It Another Way or Don’t Do It At All. And in fact I was avoiding – substituting one fear for another. I’m scared of that nightmare of a hospital car park, which provides a minuscule number of spaces for a vast number of cars, and which whenever you visit is full of bad-tempered, sick, stressed people honking and hooting at one another and circling round, hoping against hope to get lucky and spot the space everyone else has missed. I can’t bear it – hence parking one stop down the line, taking the train in and walking, a whole mile with a hip that currently feels like a blunt metal spike has been hammered into it.

Oh, it was a long way for an unfit person with a metal-spiked hip. And it was uphill – luckily not so steeply uphill that I was forced to huff and puff and take embarrassing rests on people’s little low garden walls – but enough to make it hard going, especially against a cold March wind. Nevertheless, the sun was shining, and there was some sort of park on the way, with people playing games in it, and I thought – maybe this outside world, this fresh air thing, isn’t so bad after all.

So then I got lost in this vast, horrible hospital, lost in their giant metallic lift, lost on their prison stairway and emerged from a different entrance. That’s the thing with cars, isn’t it? You park in the car park (eventually) and follow everyone else in through the front – but I had arrived at the back, where people in high-vis jackets stood around chatting, and lorries were delivering into No Admittance zones. I didn’t feel up to circumnavigating the hospital grounds in search of my original road. I could see from the map that there were other ways back to the station, and maybe in this direction…

I shall just have to think on my feet, I thought. Luckily I didn’t have to. I fell in with a chap with a roll up cigarette and an East London accent. He was returning from a hospital appointment and walking right across town, past the train station. So we marched together. He told me he used to run a pub up in London, but it was long, long hours. There was plenty of money around but none of it was his – it all had to go in buying more beer. He told me about his own Mum, who had gone through all the stages my Mum is currently going through. Mine turned on all four electric rings but couldn’t decide which one to put a saucepan on, so just left the rings blazing. His turned up the gas on the gas cooker but didn’t light it, and went and sat in the front room, smoking. “Never heard language like it!” he said. “She blamed me, of course. Broke my heart it did, but you’ve got to keep them safe. Got to do it, haven’t you?” Suddenly I began to feel a whole lot better – demented parents were commonplace. We shared the woes of our generation.

At the station Mr Roll-Up Cigarette waved me a cheery goodbye and belted off up the road. My hurty hip seemed have been numbed into submission, if only temporarily, by the effort of keeping up with his fierce walking pace. Sitting on the train watching green fields flying past I was thinking – that’s what’s outside my car – other people. Maybe I should try it again sometime.

The Wisdom of Crocodiles

Another quote from my third replacement 2016 diary. What a godsend that the cats peed/vomited on the other two.

It is the wisdom of crocodiles, that shed tears when they would devour.

Sir Francis Bacon, 1561-1626. British philosopher, statesman and essayist.

Do they? Actually shed tears? I must find out. Back in a tick.

Apparently so, but not – as Sir Francis Bacon would have you believe, from false remorse as to the fate of the creature whose bones they are crunching. Their tears are much like our own, and at times moisture does collect in the corner of an eye and run down a crocodile’s face, at mealtime or otherwise. Often this goes unnoticed because crocodiles mostly feed in the water rather than on land. As with our own tears, the primary function is to lubricate the eye.

However, the expression has stuck and tends to be applied to politicians and business executives who put the boot in behind close doors or engage in ‘briefing against’ to journalists, then inform everyone how very, very sorry they are to learn of their colleague’s inexplicable demise/dismissal/fall from grace.

I have to say, though, that women are particularly good at it. Give me a man any day. No, maybe I should rephrase that…

I used to work on the second floor of a ramshackle solicitor’s offices in town. We were all women, and boredom used to overtake us at intervals, so we would get distracted by stuff going on outside the window, down in the street. As it happened, we were right in the town centre, by the Post Office. We got to see it all – enviably unemployed people sitting around with a-bun-in-a-paper-bag at 11:00 in the morning; tiny, breakable infants mountaineering into the upper branches of sickly town trees whilst their mothers gossiped heedless below; old people falling over, being surrounded by concerned crowds and being picked up again …

One day we saw a fight, or an incipient fight. Two young men were prancing around one another, fists raised, but not in the traditional way – one of them at least was making ‘karate-chop’ hands. He was shouting but it was difficult to hear what he was saying. Probably something about being a Black Belt, and the other chap not wanting to tangle with him if he knew what was good for him. You could make up any number of scripts. Young men square up to one another in much the same way the world over, I suspect.

And of course we laughed. People look foolish and ridiculous when they’re angry. How many of us are James Bond heroes, capable of expressing deadly, icy rage with a straight face, and barely a tremble of an eyebrow to indicate the strength of feeling they are controlling – admirably. We are apes, basically, and when we are angry we behave like angry apes. We chatter and circle, we leap and threaten, we make karate-chop motions we probably wouldn’t know how to carry through.

But at least with men you know where you are. Women are so much scarier. A woman doesn’t have the desire (usually) or the physical strength (usually) to marmalize you with a folded fist or kung-fu fighting. But she’ll marmalize you all the same. Women use the ‘dark’ skill-set – gossip, bitchery, manipulation, social networks and sweet, sweet bullying – their language skills, generally. And crocodile tears  – the sort that won’t leave her with a pile of soggy paper hankies and a face like W C Fields for three days, i.e.:

fields

– no, no – the elegant sort that won’t smudge one’s mascara and will require only a sideways wipe from an impossibly long, manicured finger-nail to remove. Women, at the top of their game, are impossible to read, impossible to predict and have no concept whatsoever of honour. After a bit of argy-bargy in a pub car-park after a few beers, a man might forgive his mate. A man might forget, when the beers have worn off, but a woman never will. It is not for nothing that Congreve tells us:

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.

 

Which?

I just wanted to ask – is there any chance all of you ‘normal’ human beings could give multi-cat householders a break? I am really fed up with reading newspaper articles and seeing guru-type psychologists on TV explaining that any woman (we always seem to be women) with more than three cats – especially if she is stupid enough to be childless and living on her own – is a pet-hoarder. I am so sick of hearing earnest discussions as to how many of the little furry encumbrances should be removed, forcibly, from their owners and how the owners might then be ‘educated’ or worse still ‘supported’ into not adding further pets to their collections. How dare they?

I watched another one of these experts yesterday. Anyone with more cats than she has (two, currently, but her absolute limit is four) is by definition an obsessive and their poor, flea-ridden, un-neutered, stressed, overcrowded, verminous pets are to be pitied. If I were to tell her that all of my thirteen cats were neutered, healthy, flea-less, chilled out and if anything slightly overfed, would she believe me? If I were to tell her that at least nine of those thirteen cats would be dead by now, if it wasn’t for me and my neurotic need to express my thwarted child-rearing urges by welcoming into my home an embarrassing number of non-humans, would that make any difference? Probably not.

Whilst accepting that some obsessives will hoard pets, just as some obsessives will hoard piles of old newspapers and houses full of the most appalling junk, to the extent that they have to climb over mountains of valueless crap to get from one room to the next, not everyone who has a lot of one particular thing is an obsessive, and not every multi-pet householder is a lost soul in need of therapy, conditioning, re-education or support. It just all begins to remind me of Soviet Psikhushka of the 1940s to 60s – mental hospitals where perfectly sane people were confined and medicated for failing to embrace what ‘everyone knew’ to be the correct political views.

Yesterday afternoon I was telephoned by a financial advisor chappie whose company is likely to be involved in my  house move. He wanted a breakdown of my income and outgoings which, in spite of the request being somewhat unexpected and involving a lot of puffing up and down the stairs, phone clamped to my ear, I supplied him with. Oh dear, he said, your outgoings currently exceed your income, in spite of all your budgeting, by… quite a bit.

I know, I said. (Strangely enough, I can use a calculator too – and wasn’t I the one who had just supplied him with all the figures?) That’s one of the reasons I’m moving.

But, he said – I’d be failing in my financial duty if I didn’t advise you this for your own good – you have to get rid of at least ten of those cats. You are feeding those animals whilst living on Toast and Marmite. This can’t be right. You are putting their welfare ahead of your own! Furthermore, you must not buy any more cats.

I never bought a cat in my life.

He noticed the silence.

I mean, he said, maybe faintly aware that he may just have shot himself in the foot, you don’t have to kill them or anything. Just find them nice new homes.

I couldn’t afford to hang up on him. I wiped my eyes and tried to stop thinking which ten. Which ten must I give up? Which ten of my thirteen Reasons for Living could I pick out as being less precious to me than the others, pack into pet-carriers and hand over to the RSPCA? After he was gone, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, or (pathetically, since it was all in my imagination) crying.

Which ten?

This morning I had to drive four of the monstrous Thirteen to my friend Stan the Polish vet, to get their cat flu injections up-to-date prior to moving/cattery day. I told him about the phone call.

You should work here, he said. You’d end up with more than thirteen.

And if he had thirteen children, he said, through the little plastic syringe clasped between his teeth – which ones would he give away?

 

fierce little kitty