Should you, because you can?

I often start off thinking no, I couldn’t possibly write that…

Next thing I know, I’ve written it.

This post may be one of those.

Sometimes I have moments of enlightenment. It’s probably a myth, you know, that enlightenment happens all at once, a blinding flash in the dark, sunlight on the road to Damascus. It’s more a tantalising chink before the door creaks shut again, sometimes for millennia.

Last night it occurred to me, not for the first time, but every time I forget – that’s another way in which the door creaks shut – that I may not be here to write, or rather, that just because I can write doesn’t mean I should, or absolutely have to. Maybe I’m not meant to be doing it at all at this point.

I don’t mean this sort of writing – this blogging pastime – which to me is more like talking on the telephone or writing a longish letter to a friend.  I mean the sort that requires the participation of your entire being, that drains every drop from the glass, that scrapes the last baked-bean from the saucepan, that… well, you know.

It just reminded me. When I was younger I had a friend. He was more than a friend, in fact. And then less, but that’s another story.  My friend had a guru, except that, being a Christian he referred to him as something else – my Mentor, my Guide – can’t exactly remember now. This Guide was revered among Christians of a certain hue – those drawn to the paranormal, out-of-body and near-death-experiences. He wrote a whole lot of books; I read a few of them but found them a bit chewy. Perhaps I should have another go at them now.

We visited him together, just once. His house was quite a long way away, and so bare. I never saw a house so devoid of everything except its occupant. It was as if stuff no longer had any meaning for him. There was a piano, but it was locked. There was a big old table but no cloth, no books, nothing on it. Ladies brought him food – home-made cakes and such, my friend said, and he lived mostly on what people brought him. Food didn’t matter.

I can’t remember much more about that meeting, except that he looked at us both, very carefully, and for an uncomfortably long time, and told us we were old souls. I think I knew this already, as did my friend: I had known him since the earth was molten metal, since we were blades of grass side by side in some prehistoric meadow, since… but then people in love tend to reckon in geological time. How can there ever have been a time when we were not together? How can there ever come a time when we will be apart? And maybe they are right. Maybe we’re the deluded ones.

And I couldn’t help thinking, well, what else would you expect a guru to say? Just as you’d expect a fortune-teller to tell you that you would cross water and meet a tall, dark gentleman. A fortune-teller at a church fête once told me I’d have four children. That didn’t come to pass, in fact no children came to pass. But then she was the vicar’s wife in boot-polish and a fancy shawl. What would she know?

I asked about the locked piano. My friend told me that his Guide once played the piano. He had so loved to listen to a certain piece music that he could close his eyes and be transported by it onto another spiritual plane. But music had to be given up in order that he could become what he needed to become. It was the price he had had to pay. There is always a price to pay. It seemed very shabby to me then – all of it – the house with the empty table, the donated cakes, the locked piano, the absent gramophone, the being alone in the dark most of time, the occasional cup of tea, a visitor.

spider4.jpg

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I had a dream. I was on an upper level of a railway station, looking down at the scurrying figures in the concourse beneath. Between them and me was a plate-glass window so wide and so thick that there was no way they could ever hear me, even if I thumped on the glass. And they would never look up. They were fixed on their destinations, whereas I had no destination – or at least none that I knew of.

Writing was always a kind of thumping on the glass or – a later analogy – the weaving of an elaborate web. I couldn’t get into their world but maybe, just maybe, I could entice them into mine. With the benefit of hindsight and old (well, medium) age, I see this would never have worked. Had the spider’s web been encrusted with precious gems and its strands laced with the finest of nectars – had they crawled in in their little wingèd millions to worship me, the Great Writing Spider – it wouldn’t have worked. They would have been deceived, bewitched, enticed. They wouldn’t have come otherwise, wouldn’t have entered willingly. And that great windy nothingness at the centre of everything would still be there.

So what’s an old soul to do, apart from a bit of blogging now and again?

I think maybe nothing. I think just Be.

I think open a channel.

I think wait.

Larks and Sparks

Yesterday afternoon, just when I thought it was safe to assume that any future electrical emergencies would be happening to my successor, the power went off yet again. Snugly nestled in my handbag, my credit card was already beginning to emit quiet little bleats of distress. No, Mummy, Mummy, not more!  You haven’t even paid for the removers yet…

I ignored it, because I had to.  Can’t manage without electricity for weeks, maybe months. Somewhere around £130 per half an hour, weekend rates. Maybe it will only turn out to be one half an hour…

Two hours later the electrician arrived. From his accent I guessed he was Polish, or maybe Latvian. I didn’t really feel I could ask, in the current climate.

Sorry, he said. Satnav sent me down big holey road, great bumps…

Oh my God, I said, knowing which one he meant (Satnav always sends people down big holey road, which is certain death to any vehicle smaller than a tank) – you didn’t go down it?

No. Only little way, then back.

And of course, it wasn’t going to be one half an hour, it was going to be an hour and a half.

He worked fast, trying to save me money, talking to himself non-stop all the while. I was impressed that he was talking to himself in English rather than Polish or Latvian – maybe for my benefit, or maybe just for practice.

I plug this in here, I plug this in there, I eliminay this, eliminay that… We switch on the kettle, see if this works. Turn on wash machine… Now tumble dry… Now telly… 

I live mostly in silence. By this time we were surrounded by more noise than I felt I could bear…

Now toaster – see if it pop. Yes it pop.

Can I turn it off now?

No, not yet. Upstairs please.

For a moment I hesitated, thinking he might have some sort of ravishment in mind. However, the risk of his being overcome with lust for my ancient personage seemed vanishingly small; well worth taking to get the tumble drier, washing machine, television and pop-up toaster concerto turned off sooner rather than later.

Turn on iron, please. Show me plug sockets. In this room? In this room? Where is water cylinder please? By this time I was worn out.

Eventually he located the fault. As he unravelled from a hole behind the fridge and behind the panelling at the back of the kitchen cupboards more and more seedy, dreadful-looking wiring and an appallingly brown and perished-looking extension lead, the credit card in the handbag switched from quiet little bleats to high-pitched whimpering.

What is that? I asked.

I show. He unscrewed the cover the mottled brown plug, which had once belonged to the fridge. See this – big cable – very, very bad. See this – two wires from very big cable, wired into very small plug. Very bad. House burn down.

He told me a great deal, as he high-speed drilled things and twisted stuff, about the fire-damaged houses that were his speciality. He told me what melted PVC windows looked like, and how fire blew the glass out into strange, frosted patterns. Scary. But like the art, you know?

And the burnt wiring he said – cannot strip – he made imaginary cable-stripping motions with an invisible penknife – all – all – stick –

Fused?

Exact! All melt together.

Where he had dragged out the fridge and the washing machine, I now noticed, was a deep, disgusting layer of wood-pellet cat litter, swollen-up cat biscuits, drifts of fur, little bouncy balls, screwed up bits of paper and broken glass. Anything that could lurk under a fridge or a washing-machine had been lurking, for the last three years. And it was going to need cleaning up. By me. Chaos was now truly come again, but having seen what all that old brown wiring looked like, I realised he might well have saved my life, or my buyer’s.

He was a nice young man. He told me he had a family to keep. I suddenly felt really sad that he – along with other foreign workers who had settled here, worked hard, felt they belonged – might now feel unwanted – which I was pretty sure had never been anyone’s intention. Were they afraid that they would be loaded onto boats and aeroplanes and summarily thrown out?

At the end of it all, sweaty and covered in cobwebs and quite probably prehistoric cat-wee  (one of those ancient plugs had been suspiciously wet inside) he sat down to work out the charge, hampered by Rosie, who seemed to have taken a fancy to him – Hello, little Rosie-cat.

It was exactly as huge an amount of money as I had been envisaging. Credit card gave a sob of utter despair on being dragged out of the handbag – but somehow, in spite of everything, the electrician had cheered me up – a little.

On the way out he got a phone call. Pssst, where Stain? he asked me.

Staines? Not sure. Middlesex? Essex? Other side of London.

I get there in half an hour? It was eight o’clock by this time.

No, no. More like two.

Sorry mate – can’t do Stain from here.

A long time after he had gone I realised the iron was still blazing away upstairs, eating up my electricity. Then I opened the door of the washing machine and out fell a whole lot of water. Several cats were deluged, but at least the TV was working.

Better tune in, quick. Might have missed a disaster.

Indeed…

I have been pondering the safest answer to any possible remark, comment or question during the hyper-sensitive next six months in this Disunited Kingdom of ours. I have a few favourites. This one, from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In:

very interesting.jpgVerrrry interesting…

The only trouble, what with the fake German accent and all, is that you might be seen as taking the Michael. And you’d have to remember not to add the … but also shtupid .

I love Spock’s Fascinating! This is a good one because if you can only say it with a straight face no one can tell whether you are fascinated by what the other person has just said, fascinated that they should have been so shtupid  as to come out with it in the first place or fascinated by their weird human physiognomy.

You can’t really say Exactly or Absolutely because both imply an enthusiastic agreement with the speaker which you may be far from feeling. You might try the psychotherapist’s interrogative Uh-huh? But how long are you going to be able to fend them off with that?

I personally favour Teal’cs grave Indeed. Preferably with the head inclining slightly to the left. I think I might get away with Indeed.

One of the things that attracted my younger self to Ex was that he was strong. He always said exactly what he thought. Unlike me, he did not scrabble around desperately trying to fit in: he did not temporise, he did not simper and he did not squirm. He treated all alike – from the little autistic boy on the railway to the multi-millionaire client in his mansion by the Thames – all were addressed in exactly the same vague, lofty yet booming tone of voice. When he started speaking everyone else in the room stopped – not always instantly, but they stopped. I often felt Moses would have spoken thus, on coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. And he seemed to get away with it.

I remember we once went out to Canada to visit my sister, and almost immediately, whilst still exhausted from the journey, were inveigled into Trivial Pursuit evenings with dips and carrot croutons, crudités or whatever those little veggie stick things are. (Playing by American rules, we were at a loss most of the time, since most of the questions were about baseball stars and presidents we had never heard of.) We were overwhelmed with good-neighbourliness and extreme hospitality. We were asked how many children we had – oh dear – none? – and what church we belonged to – church? – and a whole lot of other stuff we didn’t have satisfactory answers for. We were confused, jet-lagged and culture-shocked.

I squirmed and simpered whilst praying to the God I had never been interrogated about before that I might please become invisible or fall through a trap-door – or that at least somebody could sneak me an easy-peasy instruction leaflet for this unfamiliar lifestyle/version of the English language. But Ex continued to be resolutely and monumentally Ex. Asked what he thought of Canadian houses, which in that part of Ontario at least seemed to be huge, luxurious and timber-built, he replied that they reminded him of Glorified Garden Sheds.

Ohhhhh no, I was thinking whilst trying not to catch the eye of anybody in particular… but the conversation went on, just as before, without so much as a sharp intake of breath or an infinitesimally awkward pause.

Ex was just Ex. Whether he bewildered or impressed people into not being offended I don’t know. No doubt right now he is uttering the most appallingly nuts-and-bolts tactless statements about the European Union, people who voted this way or that, foreigners, politicians…

And no doubt everyone is hanging on his every word. Fascinated. Indeed.

 

Featured Image: Teal’c from Stargate

No prophecy at all, just sadness

Yesterday I watched David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street, being calm and dignified in the face of overwhelming political defeat. This was something my generation grew up with and took as read – that an Englishman would be generous in victory and gracious in defeat. That was ‘only cricket’. I can’t say I’m a fan of Westminster, politicians, the establishment or the political élite but he managed that particularly sad situation just as you – or we, in earlier times – might have expected an Englishman to do.

So whatever happened to the rest of us?

Last night I watched a young, white woman drown out an elderly academic during what was supposed to be an interesting political discussion on the results of the Referendum. He was an old, white man, she shouted, and that was why he felt entitled to talk over her and steal her air time. I suppose technically she won since she got all this in before the interviewer could moderate her. Yes, she succeeded in being sexist, ageist, racist and cruel in a single sentence and stunned the elderly academic into silence. He had been trying to say that in a democracy we each have one vote. Where did this sense of entitlement come from? Did she think maybe that people under forty should have two votes, and those over forty none?

This morning I went out in the car for a while. When I came back my neighbour was out in the front garden. He and his wife are retired prison warders and since retiring they have been spending more and more time at the house they are building in France: they had returned just in time to vote.

They and I have history. When I first moved to this area I was told – by another neighbour – a horrible story about the male prison warder. It may or may not have been true, but at the time I believed it. There was so much ghastly detail attached; how could I not give it credence? I was told that he killed one of a neighbour’s cats with an air rifle, because he didn’t like cats and it came into his garden. I was told he got rid of the creature’s body in the Council’s green bin and then laughed about it, boasting of what he had done.

Anything to do with animal cruelty horrifies me. I can’t abide it. Until then my cats had roamed freely out of doors: that ended that night. At ten o’clock at night, with a torch, I rounded up my whole feline tribe and have never dared let them go outside since. If one of them does escape, as of course happens at intervals, I spend the many hours it takes to find them and persuade them to come back indoors in a torment of anxiety, imagining that at any moment they might get shot from a bedroom window.

And yet, over the years, though I wouldn’t say we’ve got to know each other any better, we have come to an unspoken agreement. I still don’t know if the cat-murder story is true, and probably never will know, but we talk to each other now, in passing. He asked if he could come into my garden to prune his roses from the other side of the fence. When, during a gale some time back, his roof sent a ridge tile crashing through my car windscreen, he and his wife knocked on the door, came in and paid me, unasked, for the inconvenience this had caused.

This morning we chatted about his impending move to France, and mine to the far side of the county. During the talk it became clear to me that we had voted in opposite directions in the Referendum. I carefully adjusted anything I might have said. He carefully avoided saying anything that might require me to confirm which way I had voted. We talked generally about immigration and about people’s motives for voting Leave or voting Remain in this neighbourhood. We talked about the endless legal delays and complications involved in moving house. I told him I was dreading mowing my lawn, which had grown so long recently the mower was unlikely cope with it. He laughed and said he had had to take the strimmer to his, having been away in France so long. We talked but we kept it general; we steered the conversation onto safer ground.

neighbours 3

That’s what British people do – or what they used to do. We avoid confrontation.  Along with the Japanese – another overcrowded island race – and, I gather, the indigenous peoples of Australia – we practice something called negative politeness.

There are things both parties to a conversation know, but avoid putting into words. We avoid asking the other person any question that might conceivably embarrass them – even if it wouldn’t, and they are in fact just dying to tell us what we are just dying to find out.

We proceed on the assumption that the speaker is imposing on the listener, and that this imposition should be prefaced by elaborate apologies. We go to great lengths to avoid putting the other person in an awkward position.

We tread delicately, gently alluding rather than baldly stating, mentioning the unlikely possibility of rather than directly asking for. Occasionally we become so veiled in our allusions that we give bewildered visitors the impression that we are talking in code, which of course we are, in a way.

As a nation we have many faults but we used at least to be kind – courteous to one another and to strangers, anxious above all not to give offence. What changed, I wonder, and when?

neighbours 2

prophecy

Ramon de Something, who gave lectures from an elephant

I have a confession. In considering ever more desperate ways to save my finances, it did occur to me recently that once I’ve moved I could make money by being one of those artist’s models, i.e. sitting around in the nude in some draughty art-school studio. Maybe, I told myself, just maybe, you’ve now got so old that you wouldn’t be self-conscious…. And apparently it’s quite good money.

Countering that, there was the memory of my ex-husband, who went to two art schools in the sixties (maybe the fifties, even – he was so much older than me I kind of lost track of his timeline) laughingly recalling the hideous naked old men and ladies he and his fellow students had been provided with – though of course, the more hideous the better, in a way. The lumpy, ugly ones, he said, were more interesting. He told me one story of an elderly gentleman who often fell asleep, mid-pose. There was a notice up, something like:

SILENCE PLEASE, WHILE THE MODEL IS POSING

And of course, somebody altered the ‘p’ to a ‘d’. Anyway, irrelevant. Maybe…

But why I started this post, when I hadn’t planned to post at all today – let alone confess my bizarre naked ambitions, which will no doubt horrify Rose and Daisy – is to share with my readership a small triumph.

Today has not been a good day, generally. My days are rarely good nowadays. I awoke with the same little worm of pain on the right side of my head that I had been dozing fitfully with all night, in between rolls of thunder, flashes of lightning and torrential downpours. In the middle of the night also a great stack of packed cardboard boxes fell over at the far end of my bedroom, burst open on the carpet and all the books inside spilled out. That’s what comes of using cheap boxes, and boxes too big for the weight inside. I kicked them out of the way and tried to get back to sleep, but couldn’t. Outside, thunder and lightning; inside, a floor-full of battered old paperbacks, the accumulated heat of a thundery summer night and three or four hot, furiously scratching cats.

In the end, I got up, and in the process noticed that one of the tumbled books happened to be The Colour of Saying, an anthology of verse spoken by Dylan Thomas.

Which reminded me this poem I’ve been looking for. Since 1974. All I could remember was it was about a Spanish gentleman who collected broken chairs. I knew there was a lamppost in it, and it was something to do with Dylan Thomas.

I don’t give up, folks. To be more accurate, I can’t give up. Once I decide I must look for something, particularly a poem, I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life fretting about it. So I sat downstairs, too hot, with a headache, and a thunderstorm raging outside trying to resist the cats’ demands for breakfast at 3 in the morning. Idly leafing through this book – there it was – the missing poem.

It’s a strange poem but I thought I would copy it out since I happened to mention it in comments beneath a post called The poetry is in the pity and unintentionally corralled others in the search:

I think the appropriate reaction might be a ‘Woot!’

MYTHOLOGY by Lawrence Durrell

ALL my favourite characters have been

Out of all pattern and proportion:

Some living in villas by railways,

Some like Katsimbalis heard but seldom seen,

And others in banks whose sunless hands

Moved like great rats on ledgers.

 

Tibble, Gondril, Purvis, the Duke of Puke,

Shatterblossom and Dude Bowdler

Who swelled up in Jaffa and became a tree:

Hollis who had wives killed under him like horses

And that man of destiny,

Ramon de Something who gave lectures

From an elephant founded a society

To protect the inanimate from cruelty.

He gave asylum to aged chairs in his home,

Lampposts and crockery, everything that

Seemed to him suffering he took in

Without mockery.

 

The poetry was in the pity. No judgment

Disturbs people like these in their frames

O men of the Marmion class, sons of the free.

(Featured Image: blind monks examining an elephant)

Biting the bath plug

Still enjoying the voluminous (luckily, electronic) diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, alias Maggie Joy Blunt.

One woman shouldn’t be cheered by another’s problems, of course – but since we have quite a lot in common – single-wise, man-wise, too-many-cat-wise and compulsive-record-keeping-wise – discovering that she too has her bad days and disasters is a consolation. Oh, the violence lurking just beneath the surface in a tranquil country cottage!

Here are three entries from 1952:

Wed 16 April

The final straw was to see that my longed-for bath water was disappearing instead of mounting in the bath. The plug for some reason has gone on strike – it doesn’t seem to have perished but simply would not stay in the hole. This brought on such a paroxysm of rage that I bit a piece out of the rubber.

Thursday, May Day

I found the perfect grey cardigan and put my live cigarette end right through the back of it the same night. It has been mended professionally, but the place still shows a little. I could have strangled myself.

housewife 2

Wed 2 July

My story about biting the bath plug has met with huge success. E.D. suggests that I keep the plug hung in a convenient place and bite chunks of it whenever overcome by rage. But I should not let myself be seen doing so, or I should be locked up.

housewife

 

(Rubber-gloved/green gingham lady: Jennifer Lopez in disguise, I do believe.)

The restaurant at the other end of the universe

I have discovered Fun late in life – very late, in fact. It’s not been a Fun sort of life, really. I was ill-equipped – born anxious, born solemn, born bewildered and with a sense of humour at forty-five degrees to everyone else’s. Yes folks – life has mostly been an uphill struggle!

If you type “fun” into Google Images you get all these pictures of groups of people leaping up and down, mostly in bikinis or speedos on a beach, or short frocks and afro haircuts under a glitter-ball in a disco – which of course are no longer referred to as discos – clubs, venues or whatever. What is it with all the leaping? I could never understand it. Never once been tempted to leap in the air and shout “Yay!” or alternatively “Woots!” which according to a blogging friend is now an acceptable alternative term of celebration.

Woots!…

Woots!…

Woots? No, I don’t think I can manage it, even now, having discovered Fun.

Recently, however, Fun has been creeping in – sinister, like red dust under an environmentally-controlled dome on the planet Mars – unwanted, like a pile of used paper tissues. You laugh, I used to work in a call centre with a guy who had a permanent cold and a permanent and ever-growing pile of germy paper hankies at the back of his booth.

Only in tiny amounts, mind you. Gotta be careful. Gotta start small. Who knows what a sudden inrush of Fun might do to someone like me, with a weakened immunity.

For instance I have Fun playing WordsWithFriends with Daisy and now, Mr Daisy. I have never won a single game against either of them, in spite of having a vocabulary the size of a planet. Unfortunately, they too seem to possess planet-sized vocabularies. They also possess what I do not – the ability to add up and multiply simultaneously and then retain the resulting number for more than two seconds. Those pesky little yellow tiles have numbers as well as letters. For the longest time, as my Canadian sister says, I ignored these, assuming they were merely decoration. They can also, it seems, visualise further than the next move, and keep all those possible moves in their heads. Strategy, I think it’s called. To me it’s a miracle.

A bearded and not particularly pleasant Welshman once taught me to play chess. I learned the rules, I memorised, I practised, even read books about chess. My husband asked me to teach him the rules. I did so, secretly thinking This may turn out to be the first time I am better than him at anything. My husband learned the rules and beat me within sixty seconds, first game. To be fair he is intelligent – one point short of Mensa, apparently. But it wasn’t intelligence that did it, it was something else: some utterly blank and neurone-deprived area in my brain.

However, I have what might possibly be called Fun playing WordsWithFriends. I no longer even look at the scores but enjoy the mental challenge. I look at the letters and usually a really nice word floats up to me. Then I find that although I have this really nice word, there are currently no letters on the board to attach it to, or not enough spaces to fit the word in, or that whoever designed WordsWithFriends has either never heard of the word or disapproves of it. It doesn’t matter – the puzzle is the fun.

Second small experience of this thing called Fun. I recently bought not one but three play-tunnels for my cats. They’re really for rabbits, these tunnels (they have helpful pictures of carrots on them, so the rabbits know) but the moggies love them. They are made of canvas and shaped something like that Isle of Man three-footed thing:

manx

The cats bomb up and down inside these tunnels, colliding with each other or chasing screwed-up pieces of paper or little jingly balls I throw in there. They also require me to jiggle the outside of the tunnel with a foot. Even when three x three-legged tunnels are joined together – it’s possible, there are toggles and loops; it makes the whole thing like something out of Colditz – a cat can zoom from one end to the other and painfully attach itself to one’s slippers/toes through the canvas – in microseconds: impossible to resist the Fun of tempting an in-tunnel moggie, though I do occasionally use the broom rather than my foot to save wear and tear on the toes. The cats know, this is the thing. Sometimes they even poke their heads out as if to say

Get on with it, woman. Make with the slippers.