Lovely Bones

I imagined a heaven for my father, when he died. In my father’s heaven there would be cycling, lots of cycling. There would not be us, or even Mum. There would be narrow country lanes – the kind with hedges you can see over the top as you pedal past. There would be hills to freewheel down – great, twisty down-hills with splashy bits at the bottom like the one in Goodnight Mister Tom. The sort of hill you could cry out joyously “Yaaaaaaaay!” all the way down.

I imagined no cars in my father’s heaven – cars only got in the way of the cyclist. I imagined mostly sunshine because it is most pleasant to cycle in the sunshine, but the occasional downpour so that he got to to wear his yellow cape. He liked the yellow cape. He’d arrive home and drip all over the kitchen in it.

I imagined a heaven with no conscription, no draughty barracks in Lincolnshire with a single pot-bellied stove to keep out the winter chill. I imagined no such place as the India he had experienced, with its dead dogs and beggars. No being forced to drive trucks across it, the steering-wheel so hot it burned your hands. No such place as Burma, either. No malaria; no “top brass” to come by and insist that you stand by your bed and salute when burning up with fever.

Now, as Mum passes the age at which Dad died, I’ve moved on to a new project. I am starting to conjure a personal heaven for her. She hasn’t gone yet, of course, but when she does it will be all nice and ready for her to move into.

Mum’s heaven will be a garden, I think, with a lot of lawn to be mowed in precisely the right pattern and then raked. It will have no rose bushes but probably a peony bush to shed bright pink petals and a lot of those pretty, droopy things that seed themselves everywhere – aquilegias. There will be trees, mature trees, all different, and she will be fighting fit again so she can prune them with one of those long-handled whatsits.

I will be sure to include a massive, ancient chestnut tree, as without all those spikey green seed-cases getting stuck in the long grass and those sacks and sacks of dead leaves to rake up and take to the tip there would be nothing to grumble about. I am sure the tips in heaven will be much sweeter-smelling than the ones on earth, and the attendant angels will be more helpful when it comes to dragging stuff up all those steps to the skip labelled ‘Garden Waste’.

There will be no beds to make, no soot-filled grate to clean out, no potatoes to peel, but there will probably be a lot of ironing. Ironing was therapy.

There will be paperback books – those really thick ones that you get your money’s worth from – seagoing adventures and historical blockbusters, and always the complete set; never a stray hardback to pollute a line of paperbacks. And jigsaw puzzles, great stacks of them, giant and complex, and she will be able to do them with ease.

This morning Betty and I watched her playing with a ten-piece ‘Active Mind’ puzzle they had given her.  She picked up first one piece and then another. She tried to fit the biggest piece in the smallest space. She’d forgotten about the sky being blue, trains being shiny and red with brass bits and edge-pieces always being straight. She moved her plastic beaker of cranberry juice into the middle of the puzzle. Just another piece.

I thought of those two-thousand piece puzzles she used to do in winter. How methodical she was, huddled over the dining-room table evening after evening, sorting different patterns or colours into separate little pots; how patient, trying the same piece first here, then there…

It was Susie Salmon’s heaven in The Lovely Bones that set me off on this track. In this Alice Sebold novel a young girl, having been raped and murdered by a neighbour, finds herself in a place that contains everything she wants it to contain, even her old dog. Occasionally the edges of other people’s heavens will intersect with hers so that she has company for a while. The Being with the long white beard seems absent. Must read that novel again to check the details.

If you could design a personal heaven for yourself, or someone close to you, what would it be like?

‘Av yer seen the ginger cat?

Charlie: my nemesis.

I can see him now. I mean actually, not as a figment. He’s out on his driveway with that old heap of a silver car. Both are engulfed in a sea of parcels. The Hermes lorry has just been.

You’d think Charlie and I would be the best of friends. I suppose in a way we are since he’s the other Cat Person in this road. He’s the only other one that rescues cats rather than trying to chase them away with a pitchfork and/or murder them. We have this much in common – eccentric, misfits, shabby, shy and surrounded by rescued animals.

And then there’s Felix. Felix is one of the loves of my life, cat-wise – I can’t say the love, cat-wise, as there was once another.

Charlie got Felix when Felix’s owner died. I got her other two cats, Rufus and Missy. I didn’t mind giving them a home – really – and no one else would have had them. Missy is fluffy, grumpy and spherical – God knows how she got to be that shape – and has an odd left eye – looks like the iris has broken and spilled out all over it. Rufus is ancient and bony. He’s a biter and has an odd right eye – all brown and permanently weeping. They hate each other.

I wanted Felix.

Felix isn’t fussed who he belongs to. He spends much of the day in my back garden, birdwatching / killing, but reports back to Charlie of an evening. When we all occasionally meet up in the middle of the road Felix tangles himself around our legs, chirping up at both of us in a diplomatic, non-committal fashion.

But Charlie always seems to set something off in me – some terrible primal Anxiety and Bewilderment. And he’s always either losing his own cats or worrying about strays. Yesterday lunchtime he buttonholed me returning from a trip to the tip with garden waste. My heart sank as the familiar, shambling figure approached. I wound down the car window. He leant in, slightly too far. Onion sandwiches.

‘Av yer seen the ginger cat recently?’

You need to be always a couple of steps ahead in a conversation with Charlie. He’s not the greatest supplier of information.

‘The ginger…?’

‘E’s got very thin?’

‘Oh, the ginger and white one. Tom, unneutered, quite grubby?’

‘Yus, the ginger one that’s got very thin. I ‘aven’t caught sight ‘im for quite a while. Used to see ‘im out and about, down the other end of the village, up the hill. ‘Aven’t seen ‘im. Reckon Something Dreadful’s ‘appened to ‘im.

‘E was a nice cat, too. I thought maybe you’d rescued ‘im?’

‘No, sorry.’  I seem to have rescued all the other stray cats on the Island, apart from the ginger one. Possibly they are now bussing stray cats in from off-island. In the dead of night the doors swish open and a stream of them alight, with their little suitcases, right outside my front door.

He shakes his head mournfully and shambles off over the road. I wonder how he keeps those few long strands of hair in place. I wonder how his trousers stay up and whether he ever washes.

But now he’s set me off.  Now I can’t stop thinking about the ginger cat. I put some food out. Poor thing’s probably decaying in a ditch somewhere or locked in someone’s garage, but now I’m glued to the patio door and the view down the back garden. Every time I pass that view I look out. Where is that Lost Ginger Cat? I am getting obsessed. I put more food out.

I put food out again that night. In the morning the dish is polished clean, but that’s not good. That’s what the hedgehog does. I put out more food for the sun to burn down on and bluebottles to lay their eggs in. I am still glued to the view down the back garden. Where could he be, the Poor Ginger Cat? And then that evening I catch sight of him en passant.  He looks thin, but no thinner than before. He sniffs at the various food dishes dotted around the lawn and ignores them all. He’s about important business. He is en passant and will not pause.

I must let Charlie know. He’ll be overjoyed.

Charlie is deaf and never comes out when you knock, so I wait until the Hermes lorry comes along knowing this alone will winkle my neighbour out of his house. I watch from behind the net curtains till the Hermes man has finished flinging a huge stack of loose parcels and canvas bags containing other parcels from the back of his lorry into the road. I watch as Charlie starts to drag stuff up onto his driveway. The canvas bags are almost as big as he is.

Timing it to perfection, as the Hermes lorry begins its long, beeping reverse I skip out. Guess what, Charlie. I spotted the ginger cat. Yes, at seven o’clock last night…

Ginger cat? Charlie does not look up. He is surveying the monstrous heap of parcels on his driveway and scratching his few remaining wisps of hair. He’s visualising his route, I guess. He’s Anxious and Bewildered, trying to work how long this lot is going to take him to get rid of, assuming he can get them sorted and stuffed into the car by mid-morning…

Ginger cat was yesterday.

Dooz Oofs Ay Poms De Tare Fritz

There’s pampering, of course. I’ve never quite known what this entails but it sounds terrifying. Something to do with buying – or trying – a lot of pampering products and sitting around in some girl’s bedroom, hundreds of you, all in towelling dressing-gowns, giggling and offering to paint one another’s toenails. Oh no!

Or I suppose you can go to a spa. Can you go to a spa, for pampering? For a treat? What does that involve? More towelling dressing-gowns. Those disposable slippers they give you in posh hotels, sitting about on loungers waiting for your turn to have heavy stones laid along your naked spine or for someone to cover you in mud and cucumber slices. Oh no no no!

What would your idea of a treat be?

My treats have tended to get smaller and more innocent as I’ve got poorer and older, but nonetheless treats for all that.

Sometimes I drive to that distant town and I treat myself to egg and chips and a pot of tea in the café opposite the Post Office. The egg is underdone; the chips are those long thin ones that are probably made of reconstituted potato dust rather than sliced potato. I don’t care: it’s hot food and somebody else has cooked it.

I am reminded of Grandad, who was in the first world war. He was over in France and the only bit of ‘French’ he had – or at least would admit to in front of his grandchildren – was ‘dooz oofs ay poms de tare Fritz sil voo plate’. Maybe it’s genetic, then – a racial or familial memory.

I sit facing the window. I watch people coming out of the Post Office and going in. I pour my tea, lovingly, from a cheap white china pot. I savour the fact that there are two cups of tea in this one teapot. I examine the strange tube of sugar they provide before shuffling it into my handbag (it’ll do for visitors). I read the little poem they print on the paper serviette. What a good idea, to have poems on serviettes. Sometimes it rains and the window steams up from all those damp coats coming in. Sometimes it doesn’t. The ladies behind the counter are friendly. You pay on your way out, not on your way in. Civilised, like.

Chocolates. Mum used to allow Dad one chocolate a day because she was watching their weight. Poor Dad. He was eighty-seven and could hardly move from his armchair. A trip to the loo was a major expedition involving the zimmer frame and a lot of shuffling. Surely he could have had three chocolates? At eighty-seven-and-losing-your-mind does it really matter if you put on a few pounds? For myself, I avoid chocolates, simply because I couldn’t eat just one. A whole box would be gone just like that.

There seems to be a theme to my treats. Could it be food?

Do you allow yourself any special treats?

Dreaming with your feet

Daisy was remembering a mutual friend, who died a while back. She wasn’t old enough to die but she did, anyway. I shall call her Amy. We were talking about dancing – that’s how it came up. Daisy said something to the effect that she herself had always been self-conscious about dancing and I said it was the same with me. Wanted to dance, just…

And Daisy said she remembered Amy dancing, and how she really got into the music at any social event, let it carry her away; dancing in a world of her own. Amy was kind of small and freckly and had a twisted back, and yet when she danced people looked only at her dancing, took pleasure in the sight of her, dreaming with her feet. Isn’t that the best memorial?

I stumbled across a list of 100 prompts, which I thought I might attempt. Not necessarily one a day for the next 100 days (heaven forefend!). Number 1 is Dance. It’ll be a bit random, since I’m in a random sort of mood tonight:

When I was a child I was sent to the Methodist. Every Sunday morning I would sit and not-listen to the sermon, which was usually accompanied by a lot of fist-thumping and proclamation. One preacher had a leather belt which didn’t seem to make any indentation in the waist of the long black robe he wore. He used to preach with his eyes tight shut. Strange, colourless eyelashes. I was fascinated by this. I could never decide whether he was blind. While I was not-listening I was watching dust particles dancing in the sunlight as it streamed through our broken stained-glass windows. Light of many colours, with dust. And it seemed to me that this was God, this dancing.

I was always drawn to water. I told myself it was because I was an Aquarius – then I read Aquarius was an air sign, in spite of the water-carrier, so that put paid to that theory. Even now I could sit by a country stream or city fountain for hours, watching the dance the water makes. I watched a girl swimming once, in a green river. The river weed flowed alongside her. They danced together.

In my breaks from twilight shift at the call centre I used to go and sit in my car. Anything was better than a kitchen full of swearing teenagers and out-of-date celebrity magazines. I would attempt to think of nothing at all for ten minutes, to get all those electronic voices out of my head. I would watch the trees dancing against the darkening sky, not quite silhouetted yet. One evening it occurred to me that this is the way trees express themselves, this is their art form, the making of patterns against the sky. It’s the spaces in between things as much as the things themselves, as my husband used to say.

I read a book by a Mills & Boon author once. She was saying how she found the title for one of her many best-selling romances – The Moon Dancers. She and her husband had been staying at the seaside. Late one evening they had gone for a walk along the promenade. As she leaned on the rail and looked out over the waves she saw the moon reflecting off them. For a moment she thought she saw a million tiny couples circling in a vast, watery ballroom. Inspiration’s a funny thing, isn’t it?

I think of that bit in The Prelude by Wordsworth. The bit where he’s out skating on a frozen river, dancing on the ice with his friends. He stops, suddenly, and it seems to him that the world continues to dance around him.

                                                …and oftentimes,
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
 And all the shadowy banks on either side
 Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
 The rapid line of motion, then at once
  Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
  Stopped short; yet still the solitary cliffs
  Wheeled by me…


The lady vanishes

I did try to run away once. I ran away to the Recreation Ground and sat beneath some horse chestnut trees in the rain. From beneath these same chestnut trees, some years later, I was to remove a conker and grow it in a pot for my Brownies gardener’s badge. We measured it with a knitting needle. Basically, I think Mum grew it. I lost interest in things pretty quick.

Anyway, I sat under these horse chestnuts in the rain and a woman came and spoke to me, and then she went away again. And I wondered why Mum hadn’t come looking for me. She must be beside herself by now.

I waited a lot longer. She still didn’t come. It kept on raining. Eventually, being five or six or so, and having no idea what to do next, I went home. There didn’t seem to be much of a reaction one way or another. Didn’t bother to run away again.

Occasionally I have wondered – if I did run away – supposing I’d done something dreadful, or someone had accused me of doing something dreadful although in fact I hadn’t done the dreadful thing – where would I go? Of course, nowadays the disappearing act would have to involve twelve cats. I couldn’t run away and leave them.

I looked up a website – it seems to be full of these really serious men who practice something called prepping. I had been under the impression prepping was for nuclear apocalypse or similar, but these seem to be prepping for all manner of desperate scenarios, including having broken out of prison or having murdered someone, to avoid going into prison.

There’s all sorts of suggestions. I could dye my hair red and shave off my beard, or grow one if I didn’t have one. Both of those are no-no’s. I’m allergic to hair dye and the beard bit, well… testosterone deficit. I could bulk out my face with cotton-wool. Really, it doesn’t need bulking out any more.

(This reminds me of a sales event I perforce attended last Friday during which, as a species of bonding exercise, a man salesperson and a lady salesperson tried to outdo one another in the matter of stuffing their cheeks with marshmallows. The lady salesperson won, if you call looking grotesque and having to vomit soggy marshmallows into a bin sack in front of everyone afterwards winning. The man salesperson didn’t try very hard.)

I should – apparently – ask to stay the night with someone I used to be close to but have rather lost contact with, like an occasional sex partner, who would be unaware of any current… murders or whatever. Close to, Huh! Occasional sex partner, Huh!

One chap was quite specific. He would, he said, travel to Central Bosnia, where he has in-laws. He would go to a place called Gore Turbe, close to Travnik… This is all very well but, didn’t he just tell everyone where to look?

So maybe I ought to keep my secret destination to myself. In any case, it seems to me there’s an easy enough way to be invisible. Travel to a strange town, with your worldly goods in a shopping bag rather than a suitcase. Be over fifty and female. Sit around in a shopping mall or occupy the corner of a park bench. Shuffle anywhere crowded or even anywhere not – down a windswept street, on a station platform – and pause occasionally to shift that heavy bag onto the other shoulder. Sit by the window in a coffee shop, watching the rain and wearing a preoccupied look.

Don’t worry, no one will see you.


For Felix – with love and squalor

So I’m not moving. Yes, it’s all fallen through again. Story of my life.

Why has it all fallen through? The nail in the coffin I suppose was the central heating system packing up. A very nice man came and basically condemned the wiring that feeds the central heating boiler (don’t ask me, I’m only an electrician’s daughter…). Then the man who was buying my house sent a boiler man to do an inspection and then he wanted a large amount of discount to cover the unexpected rewire/new boiler. Understandably, but it made it not worth my while to move.

Anyway, I’m here, and facing my first winter without central heating or hot water. I say this now. I may be a tad less sanguine about it when the Gales of November Come Early or when Snowflakes Keep Falling On My Head (Oh no, that was Raindrops, wasn’t it? He was going round in circles on a bicycle and then he got shot.) At the moment, however, it’s fine. Hot outside. Quite a few kettles inside. Shower and washing machine still work. How are they still working? No idea. Expect they’re on a separate… whatsit.

For the winter I’ve got several of those big plug-in radiators. Luckily I moved them with me from house to house to house, storing them in sheds, garages and whatnot. Wipe away the cobwebs – good as new.

It means getting used to Being Here again, rather than Being There. It means appreciating what you’ve got instead of yearning for something else.

I was looking out at my garden yesterday evening – at the overgrown grass, the twisty path I foolishly thought it would be a good idea to rip up and grass over; roses, passionflower, honeysuckle and giant, vicious brambles running riot up the side of the garage, attached to a rusting bedframe. It’s way over my head now. Even at my height and standing on a chair I can’t reach them with the secateurs. All I can do is keep an eye out for brambles forced down by heavy rain and rush out there and snip them before they have a chance to recover. And yet, there’s a certain pleasure in that. In the brambles. In the snipping. In the unruliness of it all.

I noticed the neighbours’ orange bush had blossomed. They spend most of their time in France now and often miss the blossoming of the bush. It’s a moving sight, somehow – a fire of petals. I feel like Moses, witnessing something profound.

I watched the sparrows feeding on chunks of bread, not knowing, as I did, that Felix was lurking in the undergrowth. I love Felix. We have a bond. He’s not my cat, I cannot possess him; there’s no way he could be mine unless his owner should die of the Plague or meet with an unfortunate accident. (I try very hard not to think about this in case wishing makes it so.) But Felix is a beauty. Black and white, long and lean, he has the look of the wizard about him. And now, since I’m not moving, I can commune with him whenever he chooses to come into my garden. Leaving Felix would have been the hardest thing.

Even in winter, muffled up in layers of charity shop jumpers, woolly hats and the fingerless mittens I’m about to start knitting; even when there’s a gale blowing and those brambles are bent almost to the ground by the force of the wind but it’s too cold to go out and cut them; even when the sky is the colour of saucepans and great clouds race across it; even then I will know there are sparrows about, and Felix; even then I will know that the blossom is coming again.



You take the blue pill, the story ends…

How do you make decisions? I make them with the greatest of difficulty. I spent twenty-two years analysing and obsessing over the thorniest of them all and in the end didn’t so much decide as implode in slow motion. But enough about that; my past is strewn with bad decisions, utterly random decisions and the consequences of failure to decide at all.

Ridiculously, I’m good at counselling other people. I listen to them and I get inspired; I see, clearly, what they do not seem to see and when I share my thoughts with them they go Oh, yes… Well, sometimes. Unfortunately it doesn’t work on me. I’m not in the least inspired by my own problems, only beaten down, bleached, leached and generally debilitated.

And deciding gets no whit easier as you get older. That thing about the coming of wisdom with grey hair, twinging knees and shortening telomeres? Sadly, no. What does happen is that you start to recognise your life’s recurring motifs. Having waded through the same disastrous, treacle-like scenarios again and again, eventually the penny drops – oh, that again!

By this time you’re weary. You don’t the same amount of energy to spare for havering and wavering so you look for ways to short-circuit the decision-making process and avoid at least some of the agony.

I’ve made a million For and Against lists. Have you done that? At the end of the process the For list is always, by some miracle, exactly the same length as the Against list – and you still have no idea what to do.

Historically people would decide by means of the casting of lots – by the fall of the dice, the toss of a coin, the drawing of straws. In Roman times a priest would augur to discover the will of the gods, by studying the flight of birds, the types of birds, the noises they made as they flew, whether they flew singly or alone. Augury was complicated. And of course, you have to believe that there are gods, who will unfailingly know best.

I’ve even tried that thing with the Bible, where you let the Book fall open where it will and plump for a random verse. But – as with horoscopes – you can make a random verse mean anything you want it to mean. Perhaps that’s the thing, though – your interpretation will reveal what you wanted it to mean.

The best way I’ve found is to talk on the phone to my Canadian sister; or rather I wait for her to ring because she always does ring, when I’ve got a problem. It’s something to do with that vast, chilly Atlantic Ocean stretching between us. Salt water, sunken ships and a host of little fishes, the conductors of our dilemmas.

So, we rabbit on, going round in circles as ancient sisters do. I have a bit of a rant about the problem. She tells me about her desperately sick husband and I can hear she’s either crying or trying not to cry. I cast around for anything to say that might be of comfort. She tells me her problems and I tell her mine, and at the end of an hour-long call she suddenly says: Supposing I tell you the choice has been made and it’s X rather than Y – are you disappointed or relieved?

Somewhat depressed but – relieved?

So you know, don’t you? she says. You knew all the time.

red blue

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”