The Armageddon Suitcase

In the raspberry wallet file marked Desperate, I found this prompt: What would you pack in your suitcase if you could not go home again?

So what would one pack in one’s Armageddon suitcase? It seemed apposite, when on the News we have been watching Italian villagers, saved from their crushed medieval village after a massive earthquake, but with nothing to call their own. No memories, as they said – also, interestingly, no future. The earthquake, in their perception has stolen their whole lives, past and future.

My first thought was to pack the cats. I would take them in preference to any material possessions, even if they did need a supersize suitcase (with ventilation holes). And people do that, don’t they? You see them on the News shepherding their dogs into the back of the car as the forest fire licks the paint off the veranda; attempting to climb into wobbly boats with their beloved budgies in cages. They save their pets as they would save their children.

But children/pets aside. For material possessions, and if I could never come back…

Part of me thinks it would be as well to leave it all and just grab any cash and cards you happened to have lying about so you could buy new things, if you really needed them. We don’t need most of the objects we surround ourselves with anyway.  No doubt I would miss the 2,000 paperback books since they are, in a way, the story of my life, but rather than choose some I would leave them all and pack the e-reader.

Would I take any clothes? Sometimes I think it would be a relief to start one’s wardrobe again from scratch, to move to a strange town and just wear whatever raggle-taggle collection of garments its charity shops could provide.  I read a local newspaper article once, about an unemployed man who was awarded the princely sum of £20 in Emergency Fund benefit to buy himself new clothes after his only pair of jeans and only tee-shirt were stolen from his washing-line. The paper took up his cause with great enthusiasm and managed to get him a complete outfit from charity shops, including a serviceable pair of leather shoes. This was a long time ago, mind you: might have to settle for broken flip-flops now.

What would I miss the most? Or what would I need the most, in that big blue earthquake tent, crowded sports hall or dismal underground bunker with nuclear war being waged overhead? I think I would end up with a strange and impractical Armageddon suitcase-full:

The e-reader, because I couldn’t bring the books.

Well, maybe two print books – the King James Bible, because it would last forever and there could be no better time to read it (and no more beautiful version of the English language to read it in) – and a book of poems for comfort, and learning by heart. I’d probably go for The Rattle Bag (ed: Heaney & Hughes) or The Faber Book of Modern Verse (ed: Roberts).

I’d have to pack a vast supply of file-paper and pencils (and pencil sharpeners and…) because I’d need to record my adventures in all their horror and interestingness – and there probably won’t be an electricity supply for typing and whatnot. In which case the e-reader would have been a waste of space.

I would pack Nan’s bread-board, because it was Nan’s, and she’s gone now, and Grandad carved it for her. For a thing to have survived that long and then be just – left behind – it doesn’t seem right. And you never know when you might need a bread-board; similarly, her wedding ring. I’d leave my own behind, I think.

I would include the delicate china cup and saucer a friend once gave me. It’s white, red and black and has a design of stylised cats. There is not much use for a china cup and saucer but this one was designed and hand-made by an actual potter. She would have made others of the same general design, but not one exactly like it. Something unique, that much thought has gone into, deserves to go into the Armageddon suitcase.

I think I would bring the green glass cat I found one day at a boot fair, with Ex. At least, Ex was there somewhere – probably rifling through the second-hand railway books or buying battered LPs. It’s a strange, hybrid creature – a cat-that-looks-a-bit-like-a-dog – but the glass is so weighty, so green and so luxurious. It’s an object that’s cold in your hand, yet comforting. It’s just glass-for-glass’-sake and makes me think of Leonard Cohen’s Nancy, who wore green stockings and spent much time alone, gazing at the Late Late Show through a semi-precious stone.

I also recall that My Replacement rather coveted that cat to add to her extensive Green Glass Collection, and hinted as much when she visited my house one day, with Ex.

And didn’t get it!

Ha ha!

Anyway, I shall go on thinking, as I move around the house and examine all the items in it with new eyes. Would you go in the suitcase? Would you?

What would go into your suitcase?

(Photo: Sandra Cunningham)

A Lady Wot Lops

Being a married woman did have its advantages. It was a bit like owning a Rottweiler.

My husband was stern, and brave. I am not sure whether he was stern and brave because he was naturally stern and brave or stern and brave because he was always absolutely and entirely sure that he was Right. He was also clear-thinking and decisive. He did not panic. I used to think, if you were to be cast away on a desert island, he’d be the one to be cast away with. He’d know what to do.

I once had a painful, persistent eye problem, serially misdiagnosed by our hopeless local doctor. One afternoon, when I could no longer bear the light from the window even with my eyes tight shut and my hands over them, he bundled me into the car, drove me forty miles to the nearest eye hospital and made a loud and thorough nuisance of himself in demanding that a specialist come and sort it out, immediately. Apparently, if he hadn’t been so bloody-minded I would have lost the sight in one eye.

It was a bit hit-and-miss, though. Like Rottweilers. On one occasion we were recklessly overtaken by a man in a potato-lorry.  My husband caught up with him in a lay-by and addressed a few stern words to him, whereupon the potato man, who turned out to be a lot wider and stockier than anticipated, threatened to cream him. Over the bonnet. I believe the verb ‘to cream is’, or at the time was, a variant on the verb ‘to marmelize’ except that what is left of you afterwards is not so much orange and chunky as white and thinly-smeared.

Husband was also a boon when energetic, practical stuff needed doing. I am not exactly lazy but I can’t get worked up about power-tools and widgets. The other week I recall I was forced to mention rawlplugs in one of my posts. A lady should not need to know what a rawlplug is. They are uninteresting objects and made of red plastic, which makes them unpleasant to behold.

Similarly, a lady should not be required to wield a pair of loppers. Loppers are man-things, a bit like a giant and very sharp beak on a pair of telescopic arms, for cutting off high branches. Normally the very thought of lopping would have sent me to the sofa with an extra-sugary bowl of Weetabix to watch Loose Women or Countdown until the urge to do so had passed over.

Unfortunately the climbing roses down the side of the garage had grown to way above my head. They were the size of small trees and whipping about shamingly in the wind. Worse, the giant rose bushes had become overgrown with passion-flower, including a bumper crop of overripe orange fruits with disgusting blood-red seeds (I marmelized several). Not only that, there were brambles. Every garden on this hillside is infested with brambles, and not just the ordinary kind; these are brambles on steroids – stems as big as your wrist, each thorn the length of a baby’s finger. But sharper, and more painful when they ping back and hit you in the face. As I discovered.

So I invested in a pair of loppers. The only way I could afford them was because I got paid for one of my many abortive attempts at employment. This one had lasted two weeks and generated sufficient funds to justify the purchase of a stout pair of Taiwanese loppers.

They’ll see me out, I told myself comfortingly. This is something you find yourself saying as you get older. “They’ll see me out” means the object is substantial – a good-quality steel kitchen-knife, say – and you are likely to be dead before it wears out, meaning you’ll never ever have to buy another one.

I can’t say I actually enjoyed lopping, though no doubt the exercise was good for me. It was really hard work. Not only do you have to cut through these big thick prickly stems, which you have to find first, tracing them upwards, visually, to the rose-stem or bramble waving defiantly above your head. Not only that, but once cut they won’t come down. No sir, they just stay there, doomed to wither but ensnared in layer upon layer of rotting passion fruit. So you have to get a hook – luckily the previous people had left behind a hook, whose purpose had hitherto been a mystery to me – and engage in an undignified tug of war with all this super-long cut stuff to try to free it.

So, before the mid-day sun made working outside dangerous for a person of my advancing years and pale complexion, I had built up two giant heaps of brambles/roses/passion-flower/birds-nests. This evening or tomorrow morning I have to go out there with the secateurs (another thing a lady should not be required to trouble herself with) cut it all into more manageable bits and stuff it into numerous plastic garden bags and bins. And then, oh joy of joys, I have to drive it all to the tip.

A man-place!

Mad Dogs and Englishwomen

It’s so hot here at the moment, it’s…

Outside my gate I bump into the woman next door. She is gazing down my driveway at the side of her garage which now has obscene, fungus-like, coffee-coloured excrescences growing from it. Oh my God, she says. Look what he’s done. Her Significant Other was attempting to fill the gaps in the corrugated iron roof of her garage yesterday, with that stuff they fill houses with. I could hear him cough, cough, coughing. This morning I sneaked out and tried to pick some of the solidified fungus globules off my driveway. I felt that I might have wandered into an old episode of Doctor Who.

I’ll have to come round some time and tidy that up, she says. She won’t.

Maybe it’ll weather, I say. It won’t.

Yes, she says. In the winter it might go a bit black. Thank you for taking in the new phone for me, by the way.  It wasn’t supposed to be here till lunchtime. Thought I’d got time to go out and come back. I dropped my other one in the sea.

Phones seem to be attracted to water, I say. They don’t, but it’s something to say.

I walk up the hill to post some letters. Up at the post box I bump into She-of-the-illegal-Scotsman, except the Scotsman isn’t with her – he’s out selling solar panels – Big Puppy is. Big Puppy’s stubby black and grey-speckled fur glistens in the heat. She mists him with water every few minutes from one of those plant-spray bottles.

Well, he will insist on going out at the same time every day. Big Puppy’s tongue lolls out as he stands by the post-box in full one o’clock sun and I find myself singing (not aloud, of course) Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun… Even got the Noel Coward intonations.

‘Ow did the caring job go?

It didn’t… really.

Nah, she says, didn’t think it would. You need to be a Certain Type and you’re not. Used to do The Dying, myself. It wasn’t at all pretty sometimes but I got on well with The Dying. This I can imagine.

I used to say to her You can have as much hot chocolate and digestive biscuits as you like, missus, but only if you start getting your jim-jams on. Moved quick enough after that, she did. Liked them digestives. Well, I better move on. He’s baking up.

I imagine Big Puppy encased in tinfoil and stretched out on a barbecue. Poor Big Puppy. He’s a nice old dog.

Yes, you carry on.

It’s shadier down by the sea.

I drop my letters into the box. I can tell from the sound they make that the box is empty. People round here don’t write that many letters. If it wasn’t for me I expect they’d have rooted up the little post-box long ago and then I’d have had to trudge all the way down to the Shop. It was going rusty when I discovered it. Now they’ve had to repaint it.

Dust has turned my beach shoes brown. The soles are thin for this terrain. I can feel the stones and brickbats of our unmade road through them. Have to pick a careful course.

Post Lady sails down the hill in a Postman Pat van, being driven by a post man. She flashes us a big grin and waves. Post Lady is the only other person round here who knows my name, apart from the immediate neighbours. Gets it off the letters, of course, but it’s nice of her to make the effort. I wonder whereabouts she lives and whether the Post Office drop her off at the bottom of the village first thing in the morning and collect her from its far-flung upper reaches in the early afternoon, and whether she has to wander around in between times with her heavy sack and no refreshments, and always at the back of her mind Will they ever come back for me? But she doesn’t look the type to worry about people ever coming back for her.

That would be me.

Even Meaner than the Queen?

Just as I thought (it was safe to come out of the water, no…) I had made every possible economy, it has become necessary to make even more.

Part of me actually loves making economies. That’s the part I inherited from my mother, who had somehow to manage on a post-war electrician’s wages – or such of them as was handed over to her in housekeeping each week – to bring up three big, hungry daughters. They had built their own house. At one point towards the end of construction they had a mere £15 in the bank.

My mother had a number of attributes that served her well. Firstly she was organised and she liked recording things. She had tiny, round, neat handwriting and excelled in keeping records in it. Up to the point when dementia claimed her she had a double-spread home-made book-keeping system that foxed me entirely. When she started to lose her memory she asked me to help her and I couldn’t, at least not using her system. Such a complexity of columns! And items moved backwards and forwards from one column to another, recorded multiple times under this heading and then that heading…

My budget is simpler. I fold a sheet of paper in half and make a list of unavoidable household expenses down the left-hand side and a list of what they cost down the right hand side. I then add them up on the calculator – usually four or five times because the stupid calculator comes up with a different result every single time – and every single time I discover that my outgoings are greater than my income. And that’s without food, or clothes, or petrol, or…

Mum was thorough to screaming-point. She never started to use a new gadget – a blender, say, or a lawn-mower, without sitting down and reading the instructions from cover to cover. Sometimes she read them twice, or three times. I’m sure she also attempted to read the sections in Finnish, Japanese and Serbo-Croat.

My approach is simpler. I unpack the thing, look at it and surmise what all the buttons are for. If I’m not sure what the buttons are I press each of them in turn, keeping the device at arm’s length in case something sharp starts whizzing or rotating unexpectedly. Within five minutes I know how to use it. If I don’t, I lose interest and give up.

Part of me hates making economies. This is the part I inherited from my father. He wasn’t a big spender on the whole but if he wanted something – new tyres for his racing bike; a second-hand van – he just came home with it. He needed it, he bought it. I used to be like that, but unlike him I don’t have a careful wife with a metal cash-box, each household bill carefully saved for in tiny compartments, the contents of each compartment labelled in pencil on a slip of paper. And unlike Mum, I don’t have – and have never had – a husband with a safe and useful job and a modest but predictable wage. I was married to an artist. He might get paid every six months, for a big painting. I was never allowed to know how much money he/we had.

This is the part of me that suddenly finds – or found – everything must be in the past-tense – that she had ordered £30 worth of paperbacks on Amazon. Or a gadget she didn’t really need, or… This was the part of me that couldn’t be bothered to total up how much all those odd little expenses cost. A trip to the cinema. A transatlantic phone call. That little extra box of Gourmet cat-food.

This has all gradually changed. Necessity is indeed the Mother of Invention. Necessity imposes carefulness upon you. It snuffs out your inner Mr Toad and ushers in first Mole, with his endless worrying, and then the competent, organised Ratty. This is not a decision you have to make. This is just how you change.

Anyway, last time I was bleating on about money someone very kindly suggested Ilona Richards’ blog Life After Money. Ilona is 67 now and used to be a lorry-driver. She gave that up at 59 and now claims to live on £2,400 a year and spend £10 a week on food. I am not sure how she does this, even after reading her website. She is obviously very, very sensible; probably sensible enough not to have accumulated twelve rescue cats.

It’s an interesting website and she has some excellent – if extreme – suggestions. Unfortunately most of them I discovered I was already doing. In a way this is good – I can pat myself on the back. In a way it’s bad – because what is the Mean beyond Queen of Mean? It’s the Beyond of Eternity.

On another website I discovered washing in cold water – I tried that out this morning and the clothes don’t look noticeably less clean than they did at 30 degrees. I am following Ilona’s suggestion and replacing expensive tea and coffee with hot-water + splash of fruit juice. Not enjoying, but worth a try. I am doing the ‘grey water’ thing and saving washing-up and cat-bowl water for other purposes. Nearly pulls the arms of out their sockets carrying the bucket upstairs but I’m saving the planet. I am trying the thing about moving around the house with a torch rather than turning the house-lights on, which is rather fun, if surprise-ful with twelve cats underfoot. Cats don’t need torches of course. They have see-in-the-dark eyes.

I draw the line at boys’ underpants, though. Apparently, Ilona buys these and they are cheaper and also last far longer. However, Ilona is thin, as you will see from her photo if you click on the website/Daily Mail article links. I am… well, not as thin as Ilona. Even if I could overcome my instinctive horror of y-fronts and masculine undies generally (shirts, trousers, tee-shirts no problem – underwear no!) I doubt if I could find a Boy to fit me.

Prayers, Pipe-smoke and the Problem Page

I have a bit of a soft spot for Woman’s Realm. Not that I buy it. Oh no, that would be… a no-no. Mostly I get a heap of them, back-dated, in a Tesco bag. It’s a bit like one of those drug-dealer exchanges on motorway slip-roads. Betty passes them over to me in the car park of Mum’s care home. We meet up there before the Visit, cars parked neatly side by side, both of us dreading the Going In and longing for the Coming Out. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Not wanting to go in? I feel a bit better because Betty feels the same. I email her in advance.

Are you OK for a visit to Mum this Sunday, usual time and place?

And inevitably she emails back something like: I’m game if you are or If you can do it, I can.

I realise she is not coming to see Mum, now, but to give me the courage to see her.

Older than Mum, she has been with us both since before I was born. She knew me when I was an awkward bump. She used to look after me every Friday evening so that Mum and Dad could go out. A single lady, she told me recently she was terrified every time that Something Dreadful might happen to me whilst I was in her care and it would all be her fault. And yet she is reassurance itself.

It has always seemed to me that Betty could cope with anything. She is the very embodiment of Keep Calm and Carry On. But I sense that she is out of her depth in this nightmare of a place, and with the nightmare Mum is becoming. Too close to home, I guess, to be sat amongst those who are the same age as you or younger; in constant peril of being mistaken for an inmate and hoisted into a wheelchair or forced to drink yet more cranberry juice from a plastic cup.

Mind you, the inmates mistake me for an inmate sometimes. And other times they mistake me for the person who knows where their lost suitcase is, or the person who has come to cut their toenails, or the person who speaks fluent Italian. I made the mistake last week of trying out my few phrases of Italian on Maria, whose word-of-choice is Bella! (Mum’s is Well…)

Yole vole lavare quista camichetta? I ventured, remembering the phrase from a long-ago BBC Learning Zone programme. Non parl… speak Italian… much.

Poco? She pinches her fingers together. She has no teeth. Her chin all buts the end of her nose, like the witches in fairy-tale book illustrations.

Si, molto poco.


La sciarpetta?


And then a lady from the church arrives to bring her communion. We watch as the priest-lady sets out a tiny cross on a white handkerchief. It has been ironed into quarters. She takes out a prayer book, and a little silver container of communion wafers. She has just gone through the exact same service for the only other Catholic lady in another room. We listen to the prayer for the sick, and to other prayers. We listen as she says In the name of the Father… and Maria crosses herself and mumbles in nomine patris…Bella! I find the prayers soothing, though they are not intended for me. I wonder if I should start reading the Bible a bit, knowing I probably won’t.

Betty, I sense, does not find the prayers soothing, rather the opposite, and yet she is the nearest thing to a Guardian Angel I have ever known. She guarded Mum and now she’s doing what she can to guard me. But she is fidgeting and trying not to look at the door.

Well occasionally in moments of extreme stress I do buy a Woman’s Realm. Woman’s Realm is to me what chocolate – or Baileys Irish Cream – are to other women: comfort reading, because the magazine reminds me of Nan.

Every Sunday I used to go along the road to Nan and Grandad’s for Sunday Dinner and Sunday Tea. A whole day’s respite, if you counted Sunday School first, from having to keep out of my father’s way and from having to protect my mother from anything that might set off her Nerves again and have her lying on the sofa with her eyes shut, clutching a handkerchief in hands that shook and shook.

Every Sunday – well, I’ve written about it before – but while Nan was cooking our Sunday Dinner I would hang around with Grandad in the living room. He would fill his pipe with St Bruno Flake and fill the whole room with a thick fug of aromatic, if unhealthy, smoke. He would idle through pink back-copies of The Carpenter & Joiner and I would read Nan’s Woman’s Realm.

I was supposed to be reading it only for a cartoon about a family of little robins – Mummy Robin, Daddy Robin and… Other Robins, but I didn’t understand the cartoon much. What I liked to look at was the knitting patterns – lantern-jawed husband-material posed stiffly in black and white, showing off their new blackberry-stitch cardigan – babies surrounded by lacy layettes, a halo of little shawls, bonnets, cardis and bootees of infinite complexity.

fair isle.jpg

I seized my chance to create one of these challenging little lacy things – a cardigan, it was, complete with buttons and knitted buttonholes – for my youngest sister when she was expecting her first child. It didn’t go down too well. Apparently the modern baby wears the baby-grow.

I read at least sections of those endless romantic serials, wondering why there was such a scarcity of stern, broken-hearted Highland Lairds in my part of Kent.

And, of course, I read the Problem Page. It was always at the back, so easy to find. From readers’ letters I learned, after a fashion, the facts of life. My innocent requests for the Meanings of Long Words forced Nan to explain, albeit in a whimsical and euphemistic manner, Certain Things to me that might come in useful later (though not very useful, as it turned out). I doubt if Mum would even have mentioned them.

The day the war was won

Nan told me about the day the war was won,

How they stood on the back step shading their eyes from the sun,

How the aeroplanes came howling, howling by,

Scorching black patterns in the August sky.

After the aeroplanes, the song of the birds –

After the birds,

Came I.


The war grew in her garden – London Pride,

Poppies enough to drug the days away,

An air-raid shelter for a garden shed –

Tug at the door, feel the hot air burst free,

Sour with old earth, and poison for the weeds –

Those rusty spades, those trapped and shrivelled spiders

Hanging in corners.



I was blasted in that garden before I grew,

A disregarded child who knew

Nothing, heard nothing, part of the scenery,

One with the nodding of foxgloves, the buzz of the bee.

I was never real at all, just one of their dreams,

Caught in the aftermath,

A kind of lie.

How not to jump over a toadstool

Yesterday I wrote about Being a Beastly Sister. Now I have to confess I was also a Bad Brownie.

I’m not sure whether Brownies are called Brownies in all parts of the world. I don’t mean the biscuits so much as collections of little girls who gather together to sing harmless-but-stupid songs like ‘There’s a long, long worm a-crawling (around the pole of my tent…)


Good evening, friend Brownie / How are you this evening? / We’ll dance in a circle / And bow and pass on…


Were you ever in Quebec / Stowing timber on the deck / Where there’s a king with a golden crown / Riding on a donkey (Hey-ho, away we go, donkey-riding, donkey-riding…)

Needless to say, none of us were ever in Quebec or ever likely to be, but ever since I have had this ineradicable vision of Quebec as a mysterious, misty place containing old-fashioned ships, tall trees and a lot of donkeys. The king with the golden crown was a bit of a misfit so he got edited out.

I always wanted to be in Quebec, in that fresh, chilly morning, inhaling that exotic, vaguely-French atmosphere. I was a big, strong man in these fantasies, and always tended to be wearing a XXXX sized red and black lumberjack shirt. I never wanted to be a girl anyway. And anything would have been better than the Brownies.

My mother made me go. Meetings were held in the main hall of the same wee-wee stinking junior school I was compelled to attend during the day. I had no friends, she told me. This wasn’t normal. I must Join Something and the Brownies was handy. It was the same misguided reasoning that led her, when I passed puberty and still had no mates, to arrange for me to be “friends” with a girl I had never met on the other side of town, the daughter of a colleague. I was into the Beatles at the time, as was every post-pubescent girl apart from this Daughter of a Friend. She was into Elvis. Oh, and the Beach Boys.

So I had to go to her house and it was very awkward. She played me her entire Elvis LP (long-player) collection (it felt like) and a good quarter of her Beach Boys LP collection before I managed to escape/she managed to get rid of me. I didn’t have to go again.

The irony of it was, Mum had no friends. Mum was exactly the same as me. Perhaps she didn’t want me to turn out like her. Perhaps she couldn’t see herself, as I could, from the outside. Either way, nobody made her go and listen to Elvis LPs with total strangers. She was allowed to stay at home and listen to Matt Monro and Val Doonican…

Delaney had a donkey that everyone admired / Temporary lazy and permanently tired / A leg at every corner a-balancing his head / and a tail to let you know which end he wanted to be fed …

I have tried so hard to forget all these asinine lyrics (how do donkeys creep into so many songs?) but no, they are etched in my memory.

I was a bad Brownie. I charged about when I should have been sitting still. I got myself stung all over with stinging-nettles playing hide and seek on a Brownie picnic (nobody told me it was OK to move if I was coming up in great swollen weals…). Mum sent me on a Brownies hike/walk thing through woods and over fields with a tin flask of milk instead of the fruit-juice everyone else had got. It quickly went sour in the midsummer heat and gave off a horrible smell. But worst of all…

I jumped over the Toadstool, but landed on it. I don’t know what I was thinking except that here was this massive great red and white spotty Toadstool and it just looked as if it needed jumping over. It was made of chicken-wire and papier-mâché, lovingly and artistically painted by Brown Owl’s husband in their poky little front room in Henry Street. Of course, it was crushed. I was bruised and scratched, but nobody seemed to care about that.

Brown Owl took it very, very personally on Mr Brown Owl’s behalf. She was muttering about it for a full half an hour with Tawny Owl.

Unfortunately, she still didn’t Drum Me Out.