On Another’s Sorrow

Sometimes you witness something so sad, and yet so ordinary. You want to describe it and yet it defies description. Maybe you shouldn’t even try; and yet it won’t go away until you do.

Today I went shopping. At least, I had been into town ‘on business’ – how important that sounds – and dropped off at the supermarket on the way back for a sandwich and half an hour’s sit/unwind/read in the car before setting off for home.

Often, in car parks, you witness or overhear little dramas. People take it for granted that the parked cars all around them are empty, as mostly they are. In supermarket car-parks people come and go fairly rapidly, and supermarkets tend to bring the worst out in adults as well as children. I remember them having the same effect on me, in the days when I still had somebody to be unpleasant to.

Anyway, I was sitting there, ploughing through yet another chapter of my book on Mindfulness. Obviously not being all that Mindful because the shouting kept distracting me. Several cars down a woman with straight grey hair was berating a young-ish man in a wheelchair. I watched them through my open window, and through three or four other sets of closed windows, so it wasn’t terribly clear. None if it was terribly clear.

She had the rear passenger door open and kept bobbing in and out of the car. Every time she bobbed out again, she shouted at him some more as he sat there in his chair.

Don’t try to help. See what you’ve done now, you’ve spilled it! Look at this mess!

But he didn’t look. He couldn’t have done, really, his chair was parked too far back. He just sat there not looking at her with his head bowed.

She seemed to be taking ages over everything in a kind of petulance, dragging it out as if to prolong the agony of the punishment for whatever it was he had done.

None of your business I told myself sternly, returning my attention to my book. But she was still shouting.

When I looked again he was in the passenger seat, still staring straight ahead. No sign of the wheelchair. She was round the other side, still bobbing into the car and bobbing out again, and shouting. Then she was round the back of the car with the hatchback up, and shouting. She really is making a meal of this, I thought. It was a hot morning but the windows of their car were rolled up.

The keys – just give me the keys! She shouted. And then I do believe she locked him in. I heard that little electronic noise central locking makes.

Then she went off somewhere, pushing their empty trolley, very slowly and leaning on it, kind-of one-armed and oddly. I wondered if she was his mother. I began to wonder if there wasn’t actually something more wrong with her than there was with him. I wondered if she had been drinking and whether she was going to be safe to drive. The sensible thing would be to set off for home right now, before she could come back and decide to jam a bad-tempered foot on her accelerator and broadside my car on the way out. But I didn’t.

I expected her to park the empty trolley and return, but instead she was gone for ages, presumably back into the supermarket to buy a replacement for whatever had been spilled or broken. I looked through the line of car windows again and saw that the young man was crying. Or at least, it looked as if he was.

I don’t often bother to pray but I found myself praying, momentarily, or at least asking on his behalf. It was for some sort of blanket to go around him; some sort of shield against that woman’s loud bitterness; some comfort against the odds.

I remembered when my marriage to Ex was failing – all those half-silent, half-aloud arguments we had in public places – in pubs, in supermarkets, in the street. When it gets past a certain point you are so inward-looking, so consumed by the struggle it’s as if you’re invisible. I remember having this pointed out to me once. A man in a pub – a man I liked and whose good opinion I would have wanted – turned to me abruptly and said ‘You two – don’t force us all to take part in your disputes. Save them for behind closed doors.’

We should have done, but I don’t know whether we did. Good advice is sometimes impossible to take.

I just hope he got that blanket, the man in the wheelchair. I hope he got that shield.

(On Another’s Sorrow: Songs of Innocence: William Blake)

Lounge Socks, Labradoodles and The Lady Vanishes

It’s funny the roundabout way ideas are born.

As you know, I’m a worrier. The prison warders have returned from France, in the dead of night as always, whispering into the parking space next to mine. They are deadly accurate about this, always: the rear bumper of their vehicle exactly lined up with the little brick tower-thingy that separates their rectangle of manicured front lawn from my anthill-y wasteland.

Immediately I started worrying. After six months without neighbours it’s unnerving suddenly to have them again, to hear them clumping up and down the stairs and creaking in and out of their front door, their TV to be heard through the wall, their labradoodle playing with that ridiculous whistling rubber toy out on the decking again. As I lay my head upon the pillow to sleep I hear a toothbrush clinking into a glass in their bathroom – a sound from before.

They were talking of selling up and moving permanently to their newly-built villa in France. They have been moving furniture and belongings down there in instalments, in the whispering vehicle, which is large, and windowless. If it wasn’t so new and shiny I would suspect it of being a repurposed paddy wagon. Ex and My Replacement had something similar when they moved, except theirs was a repurposed Post Office delivery van, and not shiny.

And I was thinking, what if this is it and they have come back to put their house on the market? What if a For Sale sign is just about to go up? And what if it sells to the Nightmare Neighbour From Hell?

And I mean, I’m bound to get him/them, aren’t I? The man using a chainsaw to do DIY at three in the morning, the teenagers playing heavy metal super-loud all day long, the shrieking woman in the garden, the dumpers of garden waste over the fence, the barking Alsatian, maybe a whole puppy farm…

What shall I do, when that happens? (Note the when, not if.)

It occurred to me that I would have to go out – all day and every day, probably. Either that or maybe I could keep a diary of when it was noisiest and just go out then. When I came back, and if the racket was still going on, I could immediately stuff the MP3 thingies in my ears in the hope of drowning them out with Mozart

And then it occurred to me that, whatever the next-door situation was, I ought to Get Out More. I mean, it’s all very well staying indoors all day, wiggling your toes and admiring your new Lounge Socks with the non-slip little globules on the soles, feeding stale bread to the sparrows or doing load after load of tumble-drying – but is that a life?

It also occurred to me that if I didn’t Go To Places now, when was I going to Go to them? How many years of Go-ability had I got left? I remembered my mother, when she was eighty and just before she started to go wafty, staring down at her wrinkled, liver-spotted hands in puzzlement. How did I get to be eighty? She asked me.

I don’t want to be asking How did I get to be eighty? At least, not till I’ve Got Out More.

So I am making a list of places to Get Out to. For financial and multi-cat reasons they would need to be within a day’s travel, even if a long day, and would have to be worth writing/posting about.

And then it occurred to me, why don’t I start another blog and link it to this one, which I think you can do though I can’t remember how? A blog of my travels – as yet at the highly putative pencil scrawl stage.

Now, what shall I call this hypothetical blog of my putative, pencilled travels?

And before long I was making another list:

La Femme Disparue (oh goodness, not more suspect French )… The Invisible Woman (sounds like something in bandages)… The Lady Vanishes… ?

Write what’s on your mind

Even after a year and a bit of blogging (and many more years before that of Writing Stuff) I still haven’t learned to relax and trust the process. There is still the occasional day when I wake up and think Aaargh – nothing to write about!!! This instantly translates itself, via black and white, catastrophic thinking into Aaargh – there will never be anything to write about again!!!

Sometimes it then progresses into Aaargh – there never was anything to write about, I was deluded, I only thought there was, all my life therefore I have been wasting hours and hours in writing stuff that was totally worthless and uninspired!!!

On really bad days this progresses into My life itself is worthless, I am worthless, nobody loves me, nobody ever loved me, what is the point of me? Sorry, sorry sorry…!!!

No doubt I am not alone in this.

Most of the time I can retrieve the situation by reminding myself of something Pamela Frankau, a long-dead and mostly-forgotten novelist, once wrote of inspiration:

The tanks take longer and longer to refill… I cannot believe that I shall write another book. I remind myself that I have written thirty. And although, at fifty-two, I have far more to say than when I was young, I seem to have far less to say it about. At this gloomy stage, I am certain there’s no new subject for a novel and that, even if there was, I wouldn’t find it.

Then, mysteriously, I am past that stage. I am awake and prowling. The tanks have refilled…

And that is how it is. There are gaps, sometimes uncomfortably long gaps. Then, like London buses, three ideas come along at once.

Pamela is also why even now I have to weed out superfluous commas, inevitably missing some. She caught me at an impressionable age and her writing style became mine for a while. I now feel that by and large experienced readers can be trusted to know when to pause, and breathe. Less is more.

Often I convince myself I can’t write because I’m busy worrying about something, ie there is no space left in my head for inspiration. Recently it has dawned on me that what I’m busy worrying about is exactly the thing to write about. You have to catch – even recognise – thoughts while they’re still raw and unprocessed. It’s kind of ring-fenced but you have to unfence it.

So, ever since Saturday morning, like the Bunyip, I have been sitting-on-a-hypothetical-log biting my fingernails over a sum of money accidentally transferred to the wrong people by my solicitors. In truth, there was no urgency. No need to imagine a whole chain-reaction of worst-case scenarios. It’s me. I’m OK at this sort of thing, and can override Panic Mode if only I can act at once to put it right. Unfortunately, offices being closed over the weekend I couldn’t make the necessary telephone call until Monday morning. I just had to wait. Me and waiting (waiting and I?) don’t mix and the result was no fingernails and two sleepless nights in a row.

Nowadays when I find myself awake at 3 in the morning I get up, make a cup of tea and turn on the TV. Distraction is the only thing that helps. Unfortunately I only have to set foot on the top stair and the cats start charging about, assuming they are going to be fed even if it is pitch black outside.

If you’ve never suffered from insomnia you may not know what rubbish there is on television in the middle of the night. I watched the News, but it was the same news it had been several hours before. No unexpected celebrity deaths, no military coups, no presidential debates happening as yet; the elephant, and something that looks like an armadillo only prettier, whose name I have temporarily forgotten, may begin with K – urgh, commas again – are still endangered species.

I watched and I watched and I watched, wondering why it was perfectly easy even for a too-tall lady to fall asleep on a too-small charity shop sofa during the day, yet in the middle of the night the sofa seemed to shrink, and develop very hard arms. I watched Australians being just as pretentious as Brits on their own version of Grand Designs, and then I watched a programme about what could be done surgically/prosthetically for men who had had their prostates removed and were having trouble

The last thing I remember was some horrible thing being inflated

At least I got a little sleep.

Small Objects of Desire

I remember once, a long time ago, reading a weekend colour-supplement article entitled Small Objects of Desire. It must have been a long time ago – probably the 1980s since one of the desired articles was a mobile phone. I seem to recall that in the ’80s most mobile phones were the size of a dachshund dog, and had aerials. The phones, not the dachshunds.

Try as I might I can’t remember any of the other desired objects listed in that article, but the pictures of them were lovely. My father tended to discard a whole heap of supplements every weekend in favour of the newspapers they fell out of. I rescued them and relished them, mostly because of the arty colour photographs and sophisticated, intellectual, cultured, urban lifestyle they seemed to imply everyone lived. This was in the days before the internet, of course: nowadays we’re awash with arty images.

I’ve actually been trying to find out where that oddly memorable phrase Small Objects of Desire came from. It struck me it had to be a quote rather than something a journalist would just make up. The nearest I have got to it is something on Wikipedia, linking it to French psychoanalyst by the name of Lacan in the 1950s or ‘60s, who coined the term Object petit a which makes no sense grammatically and which he stipulated should never be translated. So I haven’t. Neither have I been able to untangle Monsieur Lacan’s psychoanalytical theories though I’m normally quite good at that sort of thing.

But it did lead me to wondering what might be my small objects of desire? I think the phrase rules out anything you already possess – such as the green glass cat I mentioned in The Armageddon Suitcase. I think it means things you want. Little things. Exquisite little things. Or maybe things you have lost.

I’m afraid the first thing that occurred to me was my Phillips screwdriver with the orange handle. In fact, that may be what inspired this post. I found it, you see. It was a particularly useful screwdriver – just the right size for most household uses – and I liked the orangeness of the handle. It was a lucky object for me, like the battered retractable tape-measure my father once gave me. I lost both of them, eventually. The tape-measure has never returned. Despite serial house moves since then I can’t help but continue to keep an eye out for it.

But the orange screwdriver turned up the other day, in a cardboard box with an old red kettle. Why I had kept the kettle (which didn’t work – I tried it) and why and when I had dropped the screwdriver into the cardboard box with it – who knows. Finding it I felt… as if all had become slightly less skew-whiff with the world, somehow. But the world is still somewhat skew-whiff because of Dad’s tape-measure.

So – lost objects are objects of desire, almost by definition, but what about purely desired objects?

I tend to desire expensive stationery. Yes, I know that’s odd. Those completely useless little leather notebooks with vellum-like paper, smoothly-rounded edges and marbled boards or marbled endpapers (I used to catalogue old books for a publisher – that’s what they’re called, those swirly patterns). And I crave pencils – specifically those dark green pencils that look as if they’re crafted from the skins of wooden alligators; 2B graphite, no other; and sharp.

The desiring does not necessarily depend on how much an object costs, though it may do.

Paintings – little paintings. I think if I had money I would buy little watercolours and display them all up the stairs. But I’d have to get the stairway redecorated first, to show them off to best advantage. That’s the trouble, isn’t it? One expenditure will always beget another.

Books – I would buy old books, especially dictionaries.  I like the outdated or wilfully eccentric definitions of words (Samuel Johnson: Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people) combined with indecipherable typefaces and that unmistakeable smell of crumbling pages, the dust of centuries disturbed…

Anyway, I’ve run out of puff with this idea and the tumble dryer has started beeping at me. A list to be added to another time, perhaps.

What are your small objects of desire?

And have you any idea what old Lacan was on about?

Life Apparently Is All Ha Ha Hee Hee

Some while back I wrote about my neighbour’s threatened Big 6 – 0 birthday party, and how yet more rustic Hobbit signs had appeared in her garden to accompany the map of The Shire on the back end of her garage. NB: I spotted another one this afternoon – it’s half way down the left boundary fence and reads Half-Blood Headquarters or some such. Thanks to Artistic Daughter the whole garden has recently become appalling mixture of Hobbit and Harry Potter, with a preponderance of Hobbit. I would guess this is something to do with number 12 Grimmauld Place, home of the wizarding House of Black, later taken over by…

Which now seems to have disappeared from London to rematerialize half way down my neighbour’s fence.

The party itself, which at least one of my readers urged me to please attend in order to report back on it, has been happening at last, but now seems to be over. It was something of a damp squib. I didn’t get to go since her earlier invitation was not repeated (I locked myself in at lunchtime as a precaution) however I saw the guest arriving and heard the rest of it.

Around lunchtime, the usual signifiers of a party hereabouts – unfamiliar cars abandoned all over the road including one right outside my house, taking up half of my parking space and half of the Prison Warders’ parking space, though the Prison Warders are in France at the moment, or at least rumoured to be, so it won’t bother them.

Out of the abandoned vehicle came a whole lot of really elderly folks, some with Zimmer frames, some supported by relatives. I am guessing that one of them must have been Frail Old Uncle From Far Away, of whom I have heard tell.

And then more cars and more people.

And then somebody (Splendidly Bewhiskered Son, I think) on a shiny motorbike which he parked on her drive opposite my front door where it sat making made unsettling scarlet patterns through the frosted glass panel.

And then, believe it or not, a removal lorry bringing what looked like the new occupants of Down The End Next To The Field. They wended their way in forwards, sat in the cab for a while outside their new abode, possibly bewildered or just thinking it was too wet to start moving furniture today, reversed back and vanished. No doubt they will to try again tomorrow when everybody’s trying to get a lie-in.

After that the music started up down the bottom of Neighbour’s garden. A bit tinny, much of it blown away by the wind – I forgot to mention the black clouds, semi-gale and intermittent gusts of rain – but recognisably Seventies, Bruce Springsteen in fact; and all the oldies were singing along. This depressed me because a) I used to sing along to Bruce Springsteen too, until I stopped myself and b) on a recent visit to the Home where Mum now lives, one of the carers advised me that they periodically update the background music to recall the youth of the current intake. They were only up to the late Fifties. I imagine myself, being wheeled into a Home and being greeted by a tinny and long-forgotten Springsteen, or perhaps some James Taylor.

I couldn’t use my spy window because they were all sitting directly underneath it, under the patio trellis-thing, despite the rain. I wondered if she had made a big bowl of Ribena punch and left it on the kitchen table with stacks of plastic cups. Whatever it was, they became very jolly very quickly. In fact they laughed louder and louder every time a new gust blew in to chill and soak them still further.

And there she was, right on cue. There’s always one at every party, the woman who laughs like a drain.

Har-har-HAR!! Har-har-HAR!!

Every time she did it she triggered a soft storm of giggles all around her.

And then more tinkling laughs, and hysterical Artistic Daughterly shrieks mingled with elderly/ motor-bike riding masculine Ho-hos.

And so on for hours.

I couldn’t concentrate on the television, couldn’t concentrate to read a book. Incessant Har-hars and Tee-hees were driving me mad. Finally I retreated to bed, though it was still early. I lay there fully dressed under the duvet watching the sky turn from afternoon storm-grey to star-strewn night navy. Little Arf came and claimed his precarious night perch between myself and the edge of the bed. The Gingery Gentleman continued to snore on my right. He smells of peppery dust, always, as if he has just arisen from the tomb. One of the fluffy ones mountaineered onto my chest to impede my breathing. And all the time with the Har-har-HAR and the Hee-hee-HEE next door.

I drifted off for a while, dreaming of spaceships and solicitors’ offices. When I awoke they had gone, and there was still time to go down and watch The Papers. And Neighbour’s 6 – 0 at last, which means she cannot possibly be 6 – 0 ever again.

(Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee: a novel by Meera Syal, 1999)

A little early in the morning for Thomas Tallis

It seems a little early in the morning for Thomas Tallis…

(We are rifling through my CD collection. My inner Monkey seems far more ‘precious’ and intellectual than me. I’m not at all sure I like him.)

I’ve been reading The Untethered Soul by Michael A Singer – a New York Times Best Seller in 2007.

You always get them late…

I am thinking this is going to be…

Finally!

…a really useful book, mostly because it’s in such brutally plain English it’s almost scary. I read a lot of stuff about Zen back in… oh, who knows? Particularly the splendidly named Christmas Humphreys, though he wasn’t much help. I recall a lot of stuff about monkey-mind, fingers pointing at the moon; bullocks, or maybe oxen, pulling carts; monks carrying beautiful ladies across raging rivers but scarcely noticing; people who went around saying “Mu” a lot; people who somehow ‘saw’ flowers in a way that lonely housewives from Kent could not ‘see’ flowers, and the Sound of One Hand Clapping. Now what’s that all about? That One Hand thing, it’s bothered me ever since.

But then of course, since it’s a Koan, it’s meant to bother you. It’s meant to explode your mind into some higher consciousness…

Why hasn’t it, then?

Maybe some Jackson Browne? Blast from the past? That rather lovely picture of him emerging from the river – or possibly just the local swimming pool.  Kate used to like him, didn’t she? She had that polaroid photo of the two of them together blu-tacked up on her notice board at work. Taken at some concert in London. Treasuring it into her old age. She looked so young then, with that sixties hairdo and all the kohl eye-liner…

Shut up!

Who exactly are you telling to shut up? I am not you, remember? I am a figment, a chimera, an ostrobogulation… and yet I am you – whatever you might actually be – attempting to control the outside world, manufacturing an illusion that it’s not as real and random as it truly is…

An ostro-what?

Good one for WordsWithFriends. Daisy’ll never have heard of that one.

That’s because it doesn’t exist, you…Monkey!

Look it up.

It doesn’t… Good God, there is such a word as ostrobogulation.

Slightly risqué, indecent, bizarre, interesting, unusual..

Why would there even need to be such a word?

I don’t think I ever ‘got religion’ though Ex informed everyone I had. That was around the time I left him, and shortly after the time of reading Christmas Humphreys.

You can see how he conflated the two concepts. And it would have made sense of it for him – exchanging his Godlike self for another.

If only I could have got religion, life would have been so much simpler. How very much I would have liked to be sure that Jesus would save me if only I was good…

…as in Norman Greenbaum: Prepare yourself you know it’s a must / Gotta have a friend in Jesus / So you know that when you die / He’s gonna recommend you to the spirit in the sky…

You’re even heckling me with forward-slashes now?

… but I could never narrow myself down to that.

I remember being temporarily impressed by something a visiting Methodist preacher said, about all the leaves, and all the tiny veins on the leaves, and… because where else did all this come from, if there wasn’t a Great Designer?

Ah, the old Argument From Design; but leaves-and-such – an intellectual argument, and not satisfying. And you didn’t know about evolution then. Not that it negates evolution. Actually, if I was God I’d use evolution because after all I’d have invented evolution. So elegant, so subtle, so classy…

Actually, how am going to think if I can’t talk to myself? It is possible to reason at all without words?

Is that the same Monkey, or another Monkey?

Many Monkeys. Mind full of Monkeys…

Even as a child, leaves, planets, the vast unfathomable reaches of space… none of that was enough. What was enough was the harum-scarum flight It took me on one stormy afternoon, over fields and walls and fences, to a field with one great tree in it. Enough was when It told me that It loved me and wanted me back. Nothing else, but that stormy day, the pink light, the thunder and the lightning flashes, the falling of raindrops on laurel leaves…

Nothing else but that solitary, magical, childhood flight has been enough.

flight

You’re the colour of the sky

Reflected in each store-front window pane

You’re the whispering and the sighing

Of my tires in the rain

You’re the hidden cost and the thing that’s lost

In everything I do… *

 

*Sky Blue and Black: Jackson Browne

Surreal

We travel, some of us forever…

On the bus, I always preferred to be between the place I had come from and home. I didn’t want to go back but I didn’t want to arrive. I wanted to be always, forever, in the front seat on the top deck, clinging to that silver rail as we swerved between parked cars or veered left into urban bus stops, a schoolgirl mahout on some urban elephant.

On the train I was always afraid – of the other people, of crowds, of getting lost, of not being able to understand those great banks of destination boards, of not being able to hear the porter’s announcements over the noise of the train (those days are, thankfully, gone), of somehow falling asleep and ending up, like Marie Lloyd, at Crewe instead of Birmingham.

But still I never wanted to arrive. What I wanted was to be forever sat in the window seat, rattling over the rails, head resting against arm resting against tiny, mud-spattered window, my reflection ghostly. In entering the train I had become nothing, less real than the cows grazing in the fields, less real than the children waving at the crossings, less real than the city people in their long, thin back gardens, hanging out their washing to get covered in a fine film of soot. I was free. I was incorporeal.

I always liked motorway service stations – those times you stop to get petrol, to pick up a newspaper, to walk into a half-empty café full of formica-topped tables and buy a pot of tea and something-or-other with chips. Maybe it’s night outside; look up at stars and an alien moon. The hands on the clock have stopped. At this moment you are nothing, but could be anything at all.

Not till I became much older did I read about liminality. Originally it was an anthropological term and meant the mid-stage of rituals of passage, when the ‘old’ person had been destroyed but the ‘new’ person had not yet been created. It was a kind of standing on the threshold, a dangerous and yet a creative time, when anything could happen.

Nowadays the meaning has broadened out. It can mean, for instance, an engagement before a marriage, or the time between death and burial. It might mean the little while between the end of university studies and the graduation ceremony. It might mean the shady twilight zone, that space between day and night where – as we discovered from the TV series – anything may happen. It might mean New Year’s Day, or a dream in which some truth is revealed. It might mean a church, as a meeting place between ‘down here’ and ‘up there’. It might mean being stateless, or illegal. It might mean being transgender, or of mixed ethnicity. It might mean being a teenager, a cyborg or a shape-shifter.

I think we need liminal spaces, liminal states and liminal individuals for growth. In order to change, we… things… have to become plastic, vague. It seems to me there is rarely a sharp moment when things morph from one thing to another. There’s nearly always a space in between.

But still I wonder why some of us crave those silent spaces whilst others barely seem to notice them.

Anais Nin said this:

We travel, some of us, forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.

Maybe it’s that.

passport

All is safely gathered in…

I don’t know how it happens but there comes a day towards the end of every summer when I start getting that “autumn” feeling. Something to do with the weather, no doubt, but also something more subtle in the air, something I’m attuned to.

It’s that feeling that you need to be preparing, gathering in. This week I ordered more “store-cupboard” stores than usual – the sort of thing you horde in a cardboard box in case of power-cuts or getting snowed in – baked beans, peanut butter, rice, soup. Stuff that will last.

I remember the hurricane. I was living in a different village then. Over one long night window-glass flew through the air, roof-slates smashed onto pavements, all the old trees got uprooted and we had three days without electricity. I watched a succession of blue flashes on the horizon as first one electrical item blew up and then another.

I remember how everything instantly fell to pieces in an amusingly British way. Politeness abandoned, in the following days ladies fell to elbowing one another out of the way in the local mini-market for the tins on the bottom shelves – tins they could scarcely read the labels of because there was no lighting (it’s surprising how dark the interior of a shop can be, even in daytime). If it was a tin, they made a determined grab for it. At the till, or what would have been the till if there had been any electricity, a worried teenager attempted to total long columns of figures in pencil on a paper bag, and the ever-lengthening and increasingly-irritated queue trying to help her out with mental arithmetic of their own.

It’s particularly important to have at least some sort of contingency plan, living here. There is one small shop, woefully stocked at any time of year, but even more so when the caravanners have gone; and only one road in or out, which has been known to flood. Apparently, before my time, supplies had to be airlifted in and dumped on the seafront for distribution. I can imagine the free-for-all that would have been.

Important to stock up on cat-food too, because how to explain to twelve cats that feeding time – the highlight of their day – will be postponed for a day or two. I’d probably end up as lunch and even if not, the pester-power of cats greatly exceeds that of infants.

Of course, I may never need to use the contents of the cardboard box, in which case come spring I will be obliged to live on rice, baked beans, peanut butter and soup for weeks on end. I won’t make the mistake of stockpiling those crispbreads as substitutes for bread, though: nothing is more depressing, or more likely to be jettisoned when the snow starts to thaw and the birds start to sing, than a heap of faded crispbread packets.

But how do I know when the gathering-in is due? What makes me think of knitting woolly mittens and getting through all those outdoor jobs while the weather is still fine? Because it is still fine, still intermittently too hot in fact, and there are only a handful of fallen leaves.

I like to think I am hearing echoes of Stone Age instincts, the same thing that cats and birds have – a weather sense, or winter sense. I have often wondered how the first humans managed to survive any winter, let alone an Ice Age. Of course, they would have sheltered in caves, lit fires and huddled around them. They would have added an extra layer of furs and skins, and presumably they would have continued to hunt. Maybe prey would have easier to spot in the snow – but then you’d have to chase things through the snow. And what about the “gathering” bit? Could you have stockpiled? Nuts might keep, but would roots and berries? Perhaps there wouldn’t be any roots and berries. Mammoth, mammoth and yet more mammoth – it would be a terribly restricted diet. Almost as bad as crispbread.

They must have been tougher than us. Here I am slightly apprehensive- not terribly, having grown up without central heating – because my central heating has packed up and I am going to have to “overwinter” with just plug-in radiators; yet earlier today I watched an interview with a young man who loves to sleeps out in all weathers, and without a tent. He wants to be one with nature, he says, and live as the animals do. It’s called wild sleeping. I must admit I was tempted, though I believe wild sleeping is technically illegal in England – not Scotland, for some reason. What must it be like to lie on the ground and watch stars wheeling overhead? How much we have lost.

Since it’s illegal – and I would hate to be wakened from my slumbers by a uniformed bobby at 3 in the morning in the middle of a dark wood – maybe next year I could just sleep out in my own back garden. Surely it wouldn’t be illegal to do that, if I was discreet? Might nervous neighbours mistake me for a vagrant and report me? Might the hedgehog come snuffling blindly along and mountaineer over my prostrate form? Would I hear worms, slithering underground beneath my head? Might that stray ginger tom anoint me as he anoints virtually everything else in my garden, in passing? Would I attract the attention of ants?

Questions well worth pondering in the long, un-centrally-heated months to come.

By George!

Have you ever discovered an injury and not known how you got it? All sorts of lurid explanations flash through your mind:

I must have started sleep-walking and walked into a cupboard, then walked back to bed and fallen asleep again. That’s why I have this purple bump on my forehead…

I was abducted by aliens, who did experiments on me. That’s why there’s this inexplicable star-like scratch on my knee – it’s a kind of marker so they know not to abduct me twice. And then of course they would have had to erase my memory…

I was just shuffling about in my bedroom slippers, as you do, when suddenly…

Ow! Why are my big toe and second toe suddenly so painful?

Incidentally – and I know you didn’t want to know this – my big toe and second toe happen to be the same length, in fact I believe the second toe may be a micro-millimetre the longer of the two. This indicates that my genome contains Neanderthal genes. Maybe. But I digress.

I inspected the toes in question with care. They looked a trifle puffy, a trifle bruised perhaps but had retained their waggleability so were probably not broken.

My imagination went into overdrive. It must have happened when I was out in the garden yesterday. Some awful jungle critter had burrowed its way into my foot and only now was I noticing the first symptoms as it chomped and chomped, consuming my flesh from the inside, and from the big-and-next toes up.

There had been a lot on TV about the prevalence of ticks and their dreaded consequence, Lyme’s Disease. OMG, I thought, it’s only a matter of time before that distinctive target-like rash appears on my foot, and then I’m a gonner. Maybe I should start finding foster homes for the cats now, before the pain gets too bad? Is my Will up to date?

And then it dawned on me – George, the clumsiest cat on the planet. It was George who did my toes in. He was pottering past Kitten’s Room yesterday morning and was involved in yet another of the Incidents that George always seems to be getting involved in.

I should explain that Kitten is well over a hundred in human-equivalent years. I had to rescue her from Mum a while back and she immediately ring-fenced the spare bedroom for herself, sleeping in a cardboard box underneath what was once my writing desk, waking up at widely-spaced intervals to totter across to her feeding station and sample a few gumsful of special old-lady catfood, or to bellow in deafening, hideous senile fashion for… something. I still haven’t discovered what. Maybe she just forgets where, what or why she is.

So just as George pottered past, splendid black tail aloft, Kitten did her party-trick – the high-speed, sideways, fully fluffed-up totter out of the spare room. In terror, George tried to bolt but instead encountered my slippered right foot and rammed most of his black and white furry self between big-toe-and-next. Both of us screeched. He ran off. I somehow forgot about it. Kitten retreated to her cardboard palace.

Mystery solved.

How to lose and win at the same time

I watched a bit of the Paralympics this afternoon – one of those races where blind runners run ‘fastened’ to a sighted guide. It reminded me of something – and here I must be careful because – oh well, you will see why because.

Many years ago I read an article about cruelty to animals, or more specifically about the practice of using mice, rats and so on in laboratory experiments to benefit humans. I don’t know whether this story is true or not – there was a photo, but that doesn’t mean the story was true. The photo was of two rats, one blind and one not. The sighted rat was leading the blind rat by means of a straw.

straw.png

(I know, these are probably mice. I couldn’t find the rats)

You see why I had to be careful. I am not comparing disabled human athletes to rats, I am merely trying to say that there does seem to be something, some instinct or gene, that leads living creatures, in situations where one is disadvantaged, to try to help each other.

And then of course at the Olympics there was the American runner who, after she and another had both fallen, stopped to help her injured competitor rather than running on. They finished the race last although both, on appeal, were allowed to go through to the next stage.

I was just thinking, for some reason, what invading Nietzschean Super-beings from Outer Space would make of this utterly pointless behaviour. So much more sensible for the sighted rat to have ignored the blind rat, as surely any run-of-the-mill rat would do. How weak, how ridiculous, to throw away the fruits of four years hard training in order to hobble over the finish line last with a competitor from another country, a girl you had never met before.

How foolish to run at all when you can’t see where you’re going. Why not walk, for goodness sake? Or take up something more suitable, if you must do anything? And how pathetic to match your pace to another, slower athlete, pulling up just short of the finish line so that they can cross it first. And then to stand and stare politely into space as your partner is interviewed, taking no credit for the skill and hard work it must take to become a guide runner; merely remarking that you were grateful to have been chosen.

I suppose it would depend Superman’s own values and culture, wouldn’t it? A large percentage of us might find ourselves vaporised in short order for imperfections physical, intellectual and psychological. I wonder what fragment of the human/animal population of planet Earth would remain after the ‘cleansing’, and whether that tiny, flawless minority would be particularly likeable – to anyone apart from Superman.

runner-stops-2

The Big 6 – 0 comes to Drippin’ Dell

So I looked out of my side window, the one at the top of the stairs and the only one that allows me a glimpse into my neighbour’s garden. She’s the one with supersize Polish dog that looks like the Hound of the Baskervilles, but is actually quite a pussycat. Her name is Ajska. The dog, that is. I tend register the animals’ names and forget the humans.

It’s been raining – hasn’t rained for months. Everything is wearing a necklace of unfallen raindrops.

I never mean to spy but it gets a bit lonely inside this plain brick box with the twelve delinquent cats. Occasionally it’s tempting to look out – or in this case down – to see if anything at all is going on. Usually it isn’t. What you see most of round here are ambulances, white vans and sparrows. Humans are a bonus.

And when I looked down out of my side window I noted with that at least one more sign had appeared overnight. Rustic signs – oval slices of strange-shaped tree, wobbly-hand-lettered. This latest one said:

No Admittance Except On Party Business

My first thought was that Neighbour must have been one of those Corbynistas all along and was now preparing to host the annual Corbyn Party Conference in her front room/kitchen-diner. Oh my God, I thought, they’ll be singing the Red Flag with their hands clenched passionately to their breasts, or coming round collecting funds in a king-size bucket like the Firemen at Christmas.

My second thought was, no, this is something to do with the Artistic Daughter and – perish the thought – the Big 6 – 0 must have come round at last. She mentioned some months back that she was approaching (coy smile) a Big Birthday. She’s too faded for the Big 5 – 0 but not crumpled enough for the Big 7 – 0 so it wasn’t hard to guess.

She also mentioned that she would be having a birthday party – whenever it was – I didn’t catch the date – and I was welcome to come to it. She was saying that, of course, because the party was likely to be drunken and noisy and you have to invite your neighbours to neutralise them. She would have known perfectly well from last New Year’s Eve when I was forced to sit in her front room with only three other people and a mountain of food and make very, very small talk for hours – I believe at one point I was feigning interest in the correct technique for loading and tarping-up a lorry – that in me she had found the polar opposite of the Life and Soul of the Party.

Of course, I said what you always say in these circumstances. Oh… that would be nice. Yeees… maybe… probably… see how it goes… Since then I have been hoping that the birthday party would either be forgotten or might take place during one of my rare absences. Obviously not.

She did tell me about her Artistic Daughter’s cute design for the garden. Artistic Daughter had been away in Australia with her boyfriend for six months; they were now back with Mum for a while, at a post-colonial loose end. So they set to and did all sorts of stuff to the garden. There was a lot of sawing, smoking, laughing, music, swearing and whatever.

Apparently there is a now map of Mordor – or was it The Shire? – painted on the back end of the garage, in fact I can see the top edge of it over those bright new fence panels. (Where’s all the money coming from, for fence panels and serial DIY?) Apparently there are rabbits, runes, riddles and mystic messages everywhere. It all sounds perfectly dreadful.

And worse, an inaccuracy has arisen. An anomaly. It’s just unbearable.

From my spy-window I can just about see a rustic signpost with cutesy little hobbit signs pointing in all directions. One of them, of course, says The Shire, but another – and this is what really gets my goat – another says Diagon Alley. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Diagon Alley…

Frankly, my dear…

Do you ever find yourself going back over conversations and inserting the reply you should have made, rather than the one you actually made?

I just wish I’d been ruder – so much ruder, since in the majority of cases it wouldn’t actually have made me less popular. I’m a bit of an acquired taste in any case. Fortunately throughout my life one or two people at a time have thought I was worth acquiring.

In fact I almost wish I had been violent, but it’s too late now.

The only time I was violent to a non-family-member, that I can recall, was one day coming down the hill from school. I’d have been about thirteen or fourteen. Most of my days at school were pretty stressful. I usually ended up with a headache going home on the train. And yet often I didn’t want to get to the station because that would mean I was only ten minutes away from walking in through the front door of my parents bungalow – more stress. Instant accusations.

So this day I was walking down the hill towards the station. (This wasn’t the day I dropped the pink blancmange in the school driveway and all the teachers drove through it, by the way.) And I’d had this really bad day. And we had to wear these ludicrous air-force blue felt bowler hats as part of our uniform. And we weren’t allowed to take off any item of uniform until we got home, no matter how hot it was or how uncomfortable we felt, because all the while we were visible we were Representatives of the School.

And there was this child in front of one of the terraced houses. It was sitting on a wall – not the little low part in the middle but one of the two tall tower bits at the end – the bits that held the gate.

And I kind of knew this child was planning to do something – I don’t know why. I don’t remember any particular expression on its face – in fact, perhaps that was it – it looked just too expressionless.

And as I went past the child swiped at my hat and knocked it off. And in almost the same instant, as I bent my headache-filled head to retrieve the horrid bowler, I saw red. As I dealt this child a silent, adult-force blow, whether with blue felt hat or the flat of my hand I can’t remember, tipping it off its concrete perch into its weedy front garden I understood how unpremeditated murders could happen.

As far as words are concerned, don’t you just wish the right phrase would flow from your lips in those emotional moments?

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn…

One situation I have never found the right words for:

I was working at the Council as a word-processor operator. I got something wrong and the team-leader ordered me to do this thing where you insert and reinsert a document into a manual typewriter, trying to line up a single letter on the document up with the precise spot where the same-letter key will strike, and somehow or other strike a delete over it. The most skilful operative, even the supervisor herself, I suspect, would have stood but a vanishingly small chance of lining those two particular letters up on the roller by eye.

In any sensible universe the document – by this time more crumpled, spoiled and tear-stained than it had started out – would have been ditched and started again. A fast typist, I could have completed an entire tape of urgent correspondence in the time I was being compelled to waste, attempting the impossible. But of course she knew that. Dad once told me that in the army, to break their spirits, new recruits were forced to shovel a huge heap of coal from point A to point B. Having done that, they were forced to move it back again. Having done that, they were forced to whitewash the heap of coal.

After what seemed like several hours of trying, by which time sweat was dripping from my brow and my hands were shaking so much I could hardly get the paper into the typewriter, I went to her and told her I had tried really, really hard but just couldn’t manage to do it. She then accused me of having a Bad Attitude and No Team Spirit. I have no idea what I actually said. It involved apologies and abject mumbling and wasn’t, as it should probably have been, Frankly, my dear I don’t give a damn…

And then there was the new colleague at the university – actually a much-beloved and welcomed old colleague from before my time, returning to work after a period of illness. For some reason I mentioned ironing and she swept me with her lofty, on-a-higher-plane, planet-saver gaze before witheringly informed me that ironing was a waste of precious electricity; if a garment was properly hung or folded it would lose its creases within a very short time – anyone who knew anything about environmental science would have know that. The poor woman had something like MS but temporarily in remission. It didn’t seem right to answer someone back, them being mortally sick an’ all.

But I was thinking today what I should have replied, mortal illness or no. I was trying out my answering riposte as I made the bed. What I should have said was: How can you live with yourself, being so very smug and self-righteous?

Is there any riposte you’d like to rewrite?