Prize Plum

Something I have never understood about writing, or maybe I mean writers, is how the act of writing, or even the sudden rush of inspiration that precedes the act of writing, can make the world seem more or less all right for a minute or two.

You see, I’ve always been tormented by the following thought: that there is no point at all in doing anything, really. Every now and then it strikes me quite forcibly that whatever we do is utterly pointless since we are going to die. Why put any energy at all into doing anything, when for all the difference it makes one might as well curl up in a resentful ball on the living room carpet and simply wait for time to pass until inevitably the living room carpet and one become one i.e. so much indistinguishable dust?

I suppose this is a philosophical dilemma, and no doubt somebody gloomy and incomprehensible like Schopenhauer or Kant has already disposed of it. Or possibly Sartre…didn’t he and his Existentialists say something to the effect that life is totally meaningless and therefore we must create our own meaning? You see, that’s the problem, for me. I can’t randomly, artificially invent a purpose for my existence or a meaning for life in general. Either there is one or there isn’t. Part of me thinks that the only logical response to finding oneself alive for no obvious reason would be Bertrand Russell’s ‘unyielding despair’.

But unyielding despair is unpleasant and one is forced to distract oneself from it as much as possible. The only thing that distracts me is writing, and there it is.

It may be that each of us is gifted one consolation – one thing with the magical power to make everything right, for a tiny while. But this is so odd because of all the things you might be doing to distract yourself from the gloomy inevitability and pointlessness of human existence, writing is about the most useless. What is writing compared to, say, volunteering to help children in war-torn countries? What is sitting around with pencil and paper and, fitfully, making stuff up compared to cooking Sunday lunch for your extended family or painting one wall of the bathroom in Prize Plum? (Which goes well with Magnolia, as the wrinkly-and-probably-famous chap in the advert says.)

plum.png

However, it seems to be the case that when the faint outline of a story materialises inside my head, when I write a single sentence, cross out one word and substitute another – for those few seconds all has become right with the world. It and I – whatever It is, and whether It exists at all – are in synch. I have a purpose. I am alive.

Unfortunately, most of my ideas come to me when I can’t write them down, and especially when driving. Wasn’t J K Rowling on a train from London to Manchester when she got the plot for the entire however-many Harry Potter books, but had nothing to write them down on? Lesson 1: never have nothing to write things down on. Either that, or have a phenomenal memory and high tolerance for stress.

So, yesterday, driving, I got an idea for a story about a cupboard – bit like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe except that there was no rear exit through the fur coats, as it were, i.e. it wasn’t your classic portal to a fanciful other world, it was more like – a place that retained memories and eventually…retained you.

And then I thought – still not being able to write it down – maybe it’s a stationery cupboard. Think of all the things that go on in office stationery cupboards. And if it was a very old building, things might have been going on in that space before it was a stationery cupboard.

And then I thought, so what does this cupboard symbolise? I mean, come on Linda, what is He trying to tell you here? What is the cupboard and why are you contemplate locking yourself in it? I should mention that my Subconscious is a He. He wears a long black coat and hides his face, communicating with me by way of stories, poems, dreams and funny little flashes of places I have never seen and selves I can’t remember being – or maybe haven’t been yet.

And after a while I thought (changing gears, negotiating tight bends and traffic lights the while) what if it wasn’t a stationery cupboard but something considerably more gruesome like one of those formaldehyde-smelling rooms scientists keep diseased organs in, or frogs with fifteen legs, or entire Victorian babies? I remembered such a room from school – it was where the lab assistants sat around looking bored, or removed your nail varnish with neat acetone. All these bottles. Yellow. Strange things floating about in them. Fascinating. What would a room like that be called, now? The Specimen Room?

(Note to self, Google this when have access to the Fire and hands not required to be on steering wheel). But – no, maybe the stationery cupboard has more scope.

But the room with the formaldehyde babies, that would be a joy to conjure up. Now, how to convey the suffocating stink of formaldehyde…

And thus am I distracted from the pointlessness of all existence for a tiny while. Maybe the living room carpet can wait for a day or two, while I write it…

 

meaningless

Time for Plan B, concluded

Early morning in Splott High Street, and Gethyn was taking Toto for his walk. What breed of dog Toto might be and why he was called Toto, Gethyn didn’t know. Old Tom had been muttering something about shiny red shoes and Kansas – or it might have been Texas – when that last ambulance came and scraped him up. Totes was kind of small and kind of white, and his left eye was missing. Gethyn didn’t like to think overmuch about that eye and how, or for what purpose, it might have been sacrificed. Toto began to pull on his improvised rope lead, and snuffle.

‘Yes, it’s your old place, Totes.’ Marks and Spencer’s doorway was where Old Tom would always sit, muffled up in charity clothes, old bedspreads and various bits of rag. They made a good team. Tom would spread a brown raincoat in front of him, and a greasy, upturned cap. Toto would curl up on the mac looking scruffy and sad, casting the occasional wistful one-eyed glance towards the cap and the four two-penny pieces it always contained at the beginning of the day. Toto’s task was to look as if he was really, really, really needed some food, which wasn’t difficult. Gethyn wasn’t the only one who had lost his job recently.

‘Well, doglet, our little bit of luck ran out.’

Yesterday was a bit of a blur, what with starting his job at the supermarket, failing a test he didn’t even know he was taking, then being dismissed from his job at the supermarket. The only bright side – Gethyn always tried to find the bright side – was the tin of Good Boy dog-food he had accidentally acquired. They had let him come home in his uniform – they had no choice, really, since he’d left his other clothes back at the boarding-house room the charity had found for him – which he was shortly to lose, he supposed. There was one very small window, a kitchenette the size of a cupboard behind a pull-across plastic curtain, and an extensive fungus-formation in the upper corner. Gethyn sometimes awoke in the middle of the night and imagined he could see a face in that fungus.

Human Resources had threatened to get the law on him if he didn’t return the itchy, too-tight uniform. They had even handed him a medium-size supermarket plastic bag to put it in. P45 to follow in the post, they said. End of the month. No mention of a pay packet for his single day of employment. When he got home he realised the tin he had confiscated from the bogus old lady, was still crammed into the pocket. Technically, he supposed, he had shoplifted the dog-food, or re-shoplifted it.

That was it, then. Second chances were hard to come by. You could only become a very, very lucky young man once: after that it was shop doorways for you. Perhaps he could claim the Marks and Spencer spot now Old Tom had gone. Might get it without a fight if he moved a bit quick, like, since there was only that woman in the hijab selling The Big Issue to compete with, and she wasn’t there all the time; moved around a lot, he’d heard; town to town on the railway. Maybe he and Toto could do that, except unlike Mrs Big Issue he didn’t have the fare. ‘We could be hobos, Totes.’ Except that it might be difficult to get onto a moving train with a one-eyed dog and he couldn’t remember which rail was the electrocuting one.

Marks’s was a good spot for begging. People had usually got a fair bit of money if they shopped in here. Money to squander, you might say. That generously overhanging façade kept off the rain and best of all in winter they had this hot-air feature which was meant to put customers in just the right sort of mood for wasting money. As they crossed the threshold a gust of cosy warmth enveloped them from above. Occasionally a little waft of it might also extend to a man and his dog in the doorway, if they’d positioned themselves just right.

They made a detour round the cobbled bit by the church, squeezed through a gap in the churchyard railings and sat on smallish tomb right at the edge to share the pre-packed sandwich lunch Gethyn had found in a bin outside Marks’s. Ham and pickle. Maybe someone bought it and then didn’t fancy it. Toto slurped some water from a puddle by the church wall. Gethyn had refilled his water bottle from the tap before leaving home. It was starting to rain again. When was it ever not, in Splott? ‘We’re poets who don’t know it, Totesie.’

Gethyn always sat on this same tomb. Street people had their favourite places – favourite parks, favourite benches, favourite doorways. It made them feel safe, or relatively. This one was special because it had got a dog on it; not one like Toto but a long, smooth dog with a smug and devious expression, some kind of hound. It had this really weird inscription, and on the stone you could just make out, long-faded and half-obscured by moss, an engraving of a broken gun – not like kaput broken, but like when they deliberately disengaged one half from the other for safety. Gethyn liked to make up stories about the people inside the tombs. He had decided that this man – Henry Marland Mistletoe – or Miftletoe, if you read it the way it looked – must have been a gamekeeper.

He got up and walked around the tomb. The grass at the edge was bumpy, and full of rabbit droppings. He thought he had read everything there was to read on it, but now he spotted something else, a single line engraved along the base of the stone at the back. It said

The Lord helpf thofe who help themfelves

Not so much a gamekeeper as a poacher, then. That might why they’d stuck him out at the edge here. Disreputable, but not exactly hated. Someone – the stonemason, perhaps – had had a sense of humour and been fond of Henry Mistletoe. Growing on the grave were some odd-looking blue flowers – some sort of weeds. Gethyn wondered why he had hadn’t noticed them before, and why they had only decided to grow on this particular grave.

The rain was coming down faster now. He picked Totes up and thrust him inside his jacket for warmth. ‘Let’s get ourselves off home, doglet. I’ve got an idea. A cunning plan, even.’

That evening, curled up on his single mattress with Totes as starlight streamed through the one small window and the giant fungus cast eerie patterns on the walls, Gethyn finished re-reading all the handouts in the beautiful bright blue file they had given him on the training course. He got up stiffly and made himself a cup of cocoa, came back to the mattress and thought for a bit. Toto was chasing rabbits in his dreams, paws twitching.

Then Gethyn took up the brand new black Bic pen they had given him on the Psychology of Theft course; also what was left of his beautiful pad of file-paper with the pale blue ruling and four holes that exactly matched the silver rings in the bright blue plastic file, and set to work, writing Modus Operandi across the top and underlining it. Everything he could possibly need to know, do and avoid doing had been here all the time. He and Toto were about to become the best shoplifters ever.

Time for Plan B, continued

Gethyn’s heart was racing but the training had kicked in. ‘Keep the subject under observation at all times. Observe her failing to pay for the item or items. Follow her out of the store. Then and only then, apprehend her.’

He observed her picking up one or two more items and putting them in her basket, but not the tin of dog-food he had seen her push down the front of her coat. He observed her passing through the supermarket checkout and paying, but not for the dog-food.

But what if he had made a mistake? What if somehow she had paid for the dog-food, even though he had had his eyes fixed on her the whole time? But he had to follow through. She had stolen the dog-food, and this was his chance to impress. On his first day!

What if it was the wrong old woman altogether? What if, without realising it, he had taken his eyes off her for a second and some other old woman, an old woman without a tin of dog-food, had taken her place? His subconscious was recognising something strange about her. Something about her gait, was it? Or that permed white hair, so perfectly white, like the Queen’s. And those wrinkled stockings. Surely it was all pull-on slacks and sensible, flat shoes nowadays?

She seemed to have put on a turn of speed now that she was heading for the exit. Free and clear, thought Gethyn, or so she thinks. This is it, he thought, wishing himself anywhere but here but determined to do his duty.

He followed her out through the automatic doors and down the covered way with all the higgledy-piggledy trolleys in it. He nearly fell over one in his haste and his horror. He tapped her on the shoulder and she turned, with a perfect imitation of surprise.

‘Yes?’

‘Mad…madam, please, I…’ This wasn’t going right. What were the proper words, now?

‘Madam, I am a Loss Prevention Associate…’

The woman cupped her hand to her ear. ‘A what?’

‘A Loss Prevention…a store detective, madam. I have been observed you in this store and have reason to believe that you have exited the premises with a tin of dog-food for which you have not paid… for.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, young man – I’ve paid for all my shopping. Look, here is my till receipt.’ She pulled it out of one of the plastic bags and waved it at him.

‘For what’s in your basket, yes, but I have reason to believe that a tin of dog-food has been concealed down your…down your…down the front of your coat, madam. Hand it over to me please.’ What if he had got the wrong woman?

Slowly, with trembling hands, she pulled out a single tin of Good Boy dog food and handed it to him. Then she burst into trembly, old-lady tears. Boo hoo.

Hoo.

Oh, my God, thought Gethyn.

And now she was pointing at something with mottled, old-lady hand. In the distance, on the far side of the car park, he could just about see a dog, tied by its lead. It looked like a some kind of whippet.  And Gethyn could guess what she was going to say. The dog was hers and it was hungry and her pension just wouldn’t stretch… She couldn’t bear not to feed her little doggie, the light of her life he was, and so… She would never shoplift on her own account. It was just for the sake of her poor, hungry little dog…

When she finished telling him about the dog Gethyn turned and walked back into the store, fishing around for some sort of cover story. If anyone asked him he would say he had got it wrong. There had been no crime committed. It was his first day and, over-eager to make his first ‘capture’ he had followed an old woman out of the store: a mistake, his mistake, but after all, better safe than sorry.

He was quite pleased with the story. He was wondering whether there was somewhere he could sit down for a minute or two without being spotted by the security cameras. His legs had turned to jelly.

The old lady watched him go; then, straightening up, she walked briskly around the corner and into the delivery bay. Out of sight she whipped off the white wig and reached beneath a disordered mane of auburn hair to retrieve a miniature radio microphone. ‘Did you get all that, Mr Price?’

‘Loud and clear, thank you Eirlys. And that’s the third fail this month. Wherever would we be without your talent for amateur dramatics?’

Inside the store the tannoy was doing its work.

Gethyn Thomas. Gethyn Thomas. Gethyn Thomas to Human Resources. Now, please!

(To be concluded)

Time for Plan B

Well, I promised myself I’d start writing short stories again and that’s what I’ve done – started writing one. Not, exactly, finished writing one. I think that might take another two posts.

Thing is, I know what the story’s about. I know how it’s going to turn out.

I just have to write the damn thing.

This reminds me of Ex. He was an artist and the paintings he did were large, in oils, and detailed. A ‘short’ painting might take six weeks, a longer one six months. I have no idea how we survived financially since it never occurred to me to ask and he wouldn’t have told me anyway. Maybe he was waiting tables or doing night shifts at Tesco when I wasn’t looking.

He used to say an awful lot of things – but one of the things he used to say while he was still bothering to say anything at all, was this – that he knew before he ever bought the brushes (a complete new set of brushes to every painting) exactly what the painting was going to look like when finished. The in-between bit – that six weeks or six months – was just a drag for him, like painting by numbers. He never wanted to be an artist. He wanted to fly aeroplanes in the RAF and shoot at other aeroplanes.

There is an element of that with my stories. I know what’s going to happen in them, I just wish I could farm the writing of them out to some willing drudge or other.

By the way, this is not going to be a story about a shoplifting dog although shoplifting – also South Wales and uncomfortable uniforms – do play a part in it.

TIME FOR PLAN B

(by me)

In the Pet Food aisle Gethyn slipped a finger inside the collar, trying to ease it away from his neck. At the start of his training he had been asked for his uniform size. He didn’t know his anything size. The last time he had had new clothes his Ma had bought them for him, and he’d forgotten how many years ago that might have been. Time disappears, rough-sleeping.

So they’d measured him, including his neck. ‘Stand still and don’t fidget, young man.’ He’d tried to stand still as she tightened the mustard-coloured tape-measure around his neck. Its edges were scratchy. So was the collar.

He hadn’t quite understood the need for the uniform. Surely if you were trying to catch shop-lifters you needed to be inconspicuous. Was anyone going to shop-lift in front of a man/boy in a uniform? They told him to begin with he would have Mainly Deterrent Value, but that once his probation was up and he’d put in a year or two he could be considered – considered – for an upgrade to plain clothes.

Gethyn fastened his hands behind his back as he’d been taught and pasted on the lofty, all-seeing, all-knowing expression he rehearsed in front of a mirror under the cruel strip-lighting of the long room above the High-Flier Fitness and Sauna Complex, Splott.

He’d learned many other things in that room – all the different ways shop-lifters attempted to shop-lift things and all the little ‘tells’ by means of which an experienced Loss Prevention Agent could catch them in the act such as an unseasonably sweaty brow or an excess of fiddling.

‘Lifters often attempt to disguise their intentions by excessive casualness…’ said Bob the Instructor and former plain-clothes officer in the Cardiff Heddlu.

‘…making a big show of tapping and fiddling and examining the article as if trying to decide whether to purchase it. A legitimate shopper, ironically – you know what ironically means, gentlemen? – wastes very little time inspecting, though behaviour patterns vary slightly between the sexes. A man tends to know what he wants. Inside the store he locates it, he grabs it and he sweeps it into his basket. Job done. A woman probably doesn’t know exactly. She is more just enjoying the shopping. But she won’t on the whole fiddle – no, she will stand at some distance, thinking. She might move up the aisle a bit and then move back, engaged in a feminine struggle to make up her mind. But she doesn’t want to look too eager – she will play it cool – and then she’ll grab it and sweep it into her basket.’

Gethyn had learned a lot of stuff like this during the course, and all paid for by Work for the Homeless. He was very lucky. He knew he was very lucky. He was a very, very lucky young man indeed and was being given a second chance. He’d quite enjoyed the studying, actually, and being forced to think again. He’d been really interested in the Psychology of Theft. He’d appreciated being indoors, out of the everlasting Cardiff rain. He’d really appreciated all the food, the burgers and the chips – mountains and mountains of chips – the mushy peas, the cups of hot steaming tea… Another reason why his collar was tormenting him now.

He’d even enjoyed the stationery they gave him – the black and blue Bic biros, the block of file-paper with pale blue, wide-ruled lines and four holes that magically coincided with the silver rings inside the royal blue plastic folder they’d also given him.

‘Keep all your stuff together, see,’ said Bob the Instructor. ‘Your written notes and all the hand-outs we shall be handing out to you.’ Gethyn had even liked the handouts. He appreciated things that were planned, sensible and in order, and not like his life had been for the last…few… years.

But now he was In Situ. Now he had been Deployed, and Deployment was a whole different kettle of fish.

And just as he was thinking that, about kettles of fish and so forth, he saw an old woman lift a can of dog-food off the shelf, bold as brass, and shove it down her coat.

(To be continued)

 

‘Write a short story every week.

It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row’

(Ray Bradbury)

(Not possible for Ray Bradbury, that is.)

No good deed goes unpunished

“Excuse me, can you tell me the way to the bus station?”

The old lady was sat on a low wall. Behind her some railings and a small private park like the one in Notting Hill that Hugh Grant and Whatsername climb into – Residents Only. It was autumn; I remember mounds of orange leaves on the pavement: papery, like her skin. Folkestone was not my hometown, but I had lived here once. Four years of a new but growing-old marriage. Four years of walking about in the rain asking God what exactly He had meant me to do with my life, if it wasn’t this, and could He please, please tell me now?

“It’s down this way,” I said. “Are you OK?” She didn’t look OK. Even sitting on the wall, she was wheezing.

“Just a bit puffed, dearie. If you can give me a moment…”

Give her a moment? I was on my way to the shops.

“I’m going that way,” I heard myself saying. “Would you like me to walk with you?”

“Yes, dearie.” She heaved herself up off the wall. I noticed she didn’t have a coat, just a dress and a pale blue cardigan. She did have shoes on, though. Very faintly, alarm bells started to ring.

Luckily it was downhill. We walked side by side, very, very slowly. There were several busy roads to cross. I began to wonder how she would have managed if muggins here hadn’t come along.

“Where are you going, on the bus?”

“Neasden,” she replied promptly. The alarm bells returned. I wasn’t an expert on public transport but it seemed to me that Folkestone to Neasden by bus, late on an autumn afternoon, was not a realistic prospect. I only happened to know where Neasden was by accident. When I was here, all those years ago, I worked with a hippie girl. She had crinkly hair which she said she got like that by plaiting it overnight, and wore those strange trousers with lace-up flies which were fashionable at the time. She told me she got men by jumping on them and announcing “You’re nice. Will you go to bed with me?” Things like that tend to stick in your mind.

Anyway, she had come from Neasden. That was where her family lived. “Where’s Neasden?” I asked her and she had given me that look like, what planet are you from? “It’s part of London,” she said. “But a nice part. Leafy.”

“You might be better off catching a train,” I said. The railway station is turn-left just down here. Do you want me to take you there?” Part of me was registering that she had no handbag either. She paused, looking irritated. My questions often seem to irritate people.

“No, the bus station.”

“Are you going to visit family?”

“I live there.” Obviously I should have known that.

By the time we got to the bus depot dusk was falling. We sat and waited for a while and I was thinking, why am I waiting here with an old lady for a bus that I know isn’t going to come along? But somehow I couldn’t not wait. I was trapped. I might as well go home after this is all over, I was thinking. There won’t be any time for shopping.

“Um, where did you come from?” I asked. I had a feeling I knew.

“Neasden!”

“No, I mean today – this afternoon.”

“Why do you want to know that?”

“Oh, just…wondering.” I’d never have made an interrogator.

“Running Waters”, she said. It sounded suspiciously like one of those old people places. There were a lot of those in Folkestone. But it was none of my business. If she wanted to go to Neasden, who was I to stop her?

I told her I had to go now and that my husband – what husband? – would be waiting for his tea. She’d understand that. A man must have his tea when he comes home from work, and his slippers put to warm in front of the fire. I wished her luck for the journey and she smiled and waved me goodbye.

I walked off up the road a bit, to the telephone box outside the Post Office. It wasn’t far enough away, really, but it would have to do; keeping an eye on her in the distance, a tiny figure on a bench, looking straight ahead, trusting that the bus would be along soon. I looked up Running Waters in the phone book. Running Waters Nursing Home. I called. I asked if they were missing an old lady, quite short, white hair, pale blue cardigan, print dress. Yes, they were. I was to stay right where I was and they would send someone.

Stay where I was? Why should I? I was an innocent shopper. Had I asked to get caught up in all this?

I stayed where I was. I hid behind the telephone box until the policemen arrived. I even pointed her out to them: Judas, without the bag of silver for consolation.

It has sometimes seemed to me that life on this plane is a process of being destroyed. You arrive with an ego the size of the planet; a boundless ignorance, an entire conceit. As the years go by some cosmic knife, in various human form, comes along and whittles bits and pieces off you. Rarely, a whole great chunk falls away, like land in an earthquake or an iceberg melting. The idea is, I suppose, that at death we are free and clean; prepared to move on, bodiless and ego-less, to our next assignment.

If so, that old lady did me a favour because at one slash, in a single word, she severed a great slice of my self-regard. I was humbled. I was grovelling on the floor of some cosmic court and begging for a forgiveness that did not come. God failed me again.

The policemen marched her straight past the telephone box where I had been hoping to remain concealed. She looked me in the eye and I got it all at once – the hurt, the disbelief, the anger.

“Traitor!” she hissed, as they carried her away.

Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen has been part of the song-track of my life. He introduced me to my future husband.

Well, not literally. I met my future husband at a party. No, and that’s not true either. I met him in the back of a college friend’s too-small car on the forecourt of Dover Priory station. I was late, having gone past the station and waited for the next train back up the line, and clutching a cheap guitar. (My sister had dropped a clock through that guitar and my grandfather, a carpenter, had glued a bit of wood over the hole.) The man in the back of the car had very long hair – sort of wild and curly – and an equally wild beard and long, slanty grey eyes, like a gypsy. Really, you couldn’t see much of him under the hair, but then I didn’t look at him very much and he didn’t look at me.

I couldn’t play my cheap guitar but I thought it looked cool. Later that weekend I discovered that not only could my future husband play, but could play really, really (embarrassingly really) well, even on a cheap and broken guitar.

So, we got driven around – endlessly and too fast – in the back seat of a too-small car with the mended guitar crammed between us. At several points the friends, none too subtly matchmaking, parked in strange towns and just left us there, for ages. Neither of us had any conversational skills so we sat there in awkward silence, watching the traffic go by.

And then there was the party, in the friends’ tiny cottage, to which I wore a long, stupid, tangerine-coloured floaty frock like nobody else was wearing. I didn’t drink in those days so stood in a corner and consumed an awful lot of orange juice. I remember standing in that corner furtively watching future husband dance and thinking he definitively couldn’t: elbows everywhere. Oddly enough this didn’t put me off. I couldn’t dance either.

That night, matchmaking friends went upstairs to bed in the one bedroom, having dragged two folding camp beds down off the top of the wardrobe for us so that we could ‘sleep’ in the living room. Other people were sleeping in the kitchen, so we were lucky. The kitchen floor was pretty filthy. So, shocking as it sounds, the day I met my future husband I also spent the night with him.

It wasn’t all free-love and gay abandon even then. I got the higher of the two camp beds and he got the lower. We lay side by side, still awkward, fully clothed like those effigies of kings and queens on medieval tombs, playing our hosts’ Leonard Cohen records on low volume all night and – at last – talking.

I don’t remember what we talked about but I do remember those Leonard Cohen songs.  Leonard Cohen CDs have followed me around, from house to house, from a long marriage, to a short divorce to a long, long, long solitude. He’s been one of the few constant things.

Next morning for some reason I decided to wash my hair, and we all set off for a walk to blow away the cobwebs. As we crossed the threshold he touched my hair in that vague, bewildered way he had and muttered “Lindy-lou’s washed her hair”. That was when I fell in love.

Leonard Cohen didn’t have the best voice in the world but he was one of the best songwriters and song performers in the world and one of the greatest poets of our generation. This morning, when I heard that he had died, it felt like the last thread had broken.

leonard

Leonard Cohen, 1934 – 2016

On truth being stranger than fiction

This evening, in the one hour hiatus between the end of Stargate SG1 and the start of the new Stephen Poliakoff drama Close to the Enemy (I never miss a Stephen Poliakoff) I switched off the TV (yes, occasionally I do), put on a curate’s egg of a Jorma Kaukonen CD (Quah – one brilliant track, one ear-wormy, the rest, hmmm….) and dipped a cautious toe into a book I never expected to be reading at this stage in my career – Writing Short Stories by Zoe Fairbairn.

I long ago grew weary of How To Write books. Also, I have had short stories published, if only a few and mostly in out of the way places. I have in the past been better at winning short story competitions than getting things published on a bread-and-butter, i.e. money-making, basis. I have very little sticking power and am easily discouraged.

For the longest time, as my Canadian sister says, I posted story after story to women’s magazines – and got them all back. Most of them are on this site as a matter of fact, if you want to know what a woman’s magazine reject looks like, though there quite a few that have been written specially for ‘here’ and have never been sent anywhere. Virgin stories – tee hee.

On the other hand I came first, second and third in one competition. Anonymous, you see – they thought I was three different people, one of them a man because the story happened to be written from a man’s point of view. And I was one of six finalists in a BBC End of Story competition. Last time I looked there was still an awful photo of me buried in their archived pages. I am very pink, not quite so old, with a terrified, lopsided grin and falling-down bird’s-nest hair.

And I did get that thing about the dying witch in The Cat that time. She was dying with a cat, of course.

But recently – well, I wrote about it a few days back – for one reason or another I stopped reading and then stopped writing. It was a kind of Old Testament feeling, like that story about Pharoah’s dream of the seven lean and ill-favoured kine (Genesis 41:27 for fellow text-obsessives). Yes, I felt as if I had entered a sort of shrivelled cow phase.

I started reading again by going back in time to young adult books, fantasy and science fiction: easy reading and my imagination’s natural home. And thinking that what worked for reading might also work for writing I ordered the aforesaid beginner’s short story-writing book.

(Sigh!) I hate all those exercises they give you. I never want to do them. However – onwards and upwards – the first exercise was What happened to you yesterday?

What did happen to me yesterday? I couldn’t remember a thing that happened yesterday. This is not, I think (I hope) down to failing memory. More that every day is the same nowadays. I have no job, Mum’s in a Home, one sister in Canada, another not requiring my company and neighbours who now view me as a hermit. I’m working on it, certainly.

So, I’m indoors in November with twelve cats and no central heating. Of necessity my days are dominated by zoo-keeping activities, and keeping warm. I heat one room and stay in it. Seven out of the twelve cats also stay in it. They rather like the plug-in radiators. In between zoo-keeping, housework and ‘admin’ I watch TV, knit, read, tiddle about with this blog. Could I be doing more? Who knows. Anyway, it’s much the same every day.

Maybe I could write a story about an old biddy living in one room with a lot of cats who can’t remember what she did yesterday, I ponder. Ah…or maybe I could write about an old biddy who discovered, in the early hours of the morning after very little sleep, that a man with an orange face and a startling blonde comb-over who used to be on reality TV and wanted to build a wall between America and Mexico had just been voted into the White House.

Nah! They’d never buy it.

 

Featured Image: Jorma Kaukonen in longer-haired days. I do believe he’s 75 now. Time flies.