Talk To Me, Please

“Talk to me, please. I’m off to the War quite soon.”

She was alone in the carriage with this young man, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t really safe for a girl to be on a train alone nowadays, especially at night, in the blackout, but she hadn’t want to miss her first lesson. It was so important that she attend right from the start and not miss anything. Her sister Jean was supposed to have come with her, but she’d gone down with the flu. Since It happened – Grace had come to think of It always with a capital letter – they had treated her like glass, something breakable. Afraid to let her out on her own, just in case.

Just in case of what? She didn’t know; nobody seemed to know what exactly, just Something.

She wished he hadn’t taken it into his head to speak to her. What was he thinking, this boy in an ill-fitting uniform with dirt under his fingernails? Didn’t he know it would make a girl anxious, if he spoke to her? Why hadn’t she checked before she opened the door to the carriage – picked one with more people in it?

She gave him a faint smile, hoping that would be enough.

“Please talk to me, Miss. I might be dead soon. I just need someone to talk to, take my mind of it. Is that all right?”

She smiled again, hoping that would be OK and reading the strain in his eyes. He seemed close to tears. Funny, she would never have noticed such things as dirt under someone’s fingernails or a man’s unshed tears before. Now it seemed she noticed them all the time.

“I missed my train, you see. I was saying goodbye to the cows.”

Cows, she got that. A tiny thrill went through her. I got that, she thought. One lesson and I got it. Cows….

But surely not; why would he be telling her about cows? Was he a farmer? Why would he talk about cows?

“They understand, you see. It’s like the bees, you can tell them anything and you must tell them. They like to know. Good listeners, cows. My favourite is Milly. She’s a Frisian. We’ve got a mixed herd, Frisians and Guernseys.”

There is was again, she had seen it. Hooray, she had seen it. Cows.

“I’m scared, you see Miss. I couldn’t tell them that at home, but I’m in a real funk about it. I’m no soldier, Miss. I don’t want to kill people, and I don’t want to get killed. I really don’t want to get killed, Miss. But I couldn’t tell them.”

He was frightened, she could see. Sometimes you didn’t need words. She nodded, hoping if he was going to talk he would just keep talking and not decide to ask her a question.

“Had to put on a brave face, you see. My poor Mum. How are she and Dad going to manage on their own? Farming’s heavy work – well, I’m sure you know that, Miss – and she’s not strong. And Dad, he’s getting old now – too old to be called up. I’m not very bright, Miss. People say I’m three bricks short of a load, stuff like that – but I’m strong, I’m ever so strong, Miss. Look!”

He held up his clenched fist, trying to show her how, under the rough brown serge of his sleeve, the muscles fairly bulged.

She flinched. What was he doing? Did he mean to punch her? Had she misunderstood? How long to the next stop? She would get out at the next stop, even if this was the last train, even if she had to sit on a platform bench all night and catch the milk train home at daylight.

“Oh, sorry Miss. Please don’t be frightened. I won’t do that again. I just want to talk. I’m lonely, you see. I was meant to go up with the boys – the other boys from the village – but I missed the train that they were on.

“It’ll be all right, I’ll still get to the barracks on time. Plenty of time. They’ll all be there before me, that’s all. All my mates. Not that they are my mates, really. They call me The Daftie. They laugh behind my back. But I’m good enough to die, Miss, aren’t I?

“After all, I can die as easy as they can. And maybe when we get there I might save one of them. I might, mightn’t I Miss? I might turn out to be brave after all. I might run into the line of fire and pick up an injured village boy and carry him to safety on my back, like they do in films. They won’t call me Daftie then, will they? I’ll be a hero!”

Hero! Hero? It could be. Hero would go with the uniform. It was more likely than cows. She nodded again, beginning to relax a little. He just wanted to talk. It didn’t look like he would be asking her any questions. All she had to do was look as if she could hear him.

Her mind wandered back to her evening class at the Institute. It had been run by a lady with a dog, a specially trained dog thst did her hearing for her. Labrador, it was, very placid. Cream-coloured. She liked the cream-coloured ones.

All round the walls – grey-blue walls, the same colour they painted battleships – were posters – Careless Talk Costs Lives, Dig for Victory – and a big chart of all the mouth-shapes she was going to have to learn. She knew already that P and B were difficult because they looked so similar. You had to guess them from the context, the dog lady had said. ‘P’ she said, in her mind, trying to visualise the face to go with it. ‘B’.

They had broken for refreshments half way through. The canteen was in the basement, down a lot of steep, narrow steps and painted the same battleship grey; must have been a job lot of paint. They queued up for cups of tea in thick white china mugs. There was a lady with an urn behind a counter. She put a teabag in the mug and the mug underneath the spout, and pulled. Steam came out. Grace had never actually seen a tea-urn before. She had tried to imagine the hissing sound of the steam, superimpose it. She was still thinking like a hearing person.

There had been scones too. Cheese scones. A bit hard. They had sat at the same table in silence eating their scones and sipping their scalding tea. What else could they do? Perhaps it would get easier as the course went on. A group of strangers.

“Meningitis is a cruel disease,” the doctor had told her mother, “but Grace is lucky, it’s only her hearing she’s lost. She could easily have died.”

So that was all right then. She could have died but she hadn’t, so that was all right. Just found herself in a muffled, incomprehensible soundscape. She had always imagined deafness to be silence, but it wasn’t like that. It was random noise, it was a cacophony of whistles and bumps and blarings that didn’t make sense any more. She found herself scanning people’s faces, trying to interpret them. Even before tonight’s classes, she realised now, she had started to lip-read, and to read people as a whole – their whole face, their hand gestures, the way they were standing, their smiles and their frowns. Eventually it would begin to make sense again, just in a different way.

The boy was reaching up to retrieve his kitbag from the string rack overhead. That uniform really didn’t fit. His shirt was coming out at the back. She hoped his Sergeant Major, or whatever they had in the army, wouldn’t pick on him. He seemed a rather harum-scarum lad.

“Gotta go now,” he said. “My stop. Wish me luck, Miss?”

She didn’t know what he had said, but she reached out her hand, and he took it and shook it, quite delicately, like she was a lady and he wasn’t something to do with cows. His hand was hot and damp. He smiled at her and she smiled back and then he was away, slightly swaggering along the platform, his bag hoisted awkwardly upon his shoulder. He’s seen them doing that in films, she thought. He wants to act like a proper soldier in front of me.

The guard came along and slammed the carriage door shut, raising a silver whistle to his lips. The whistle sound sounded like something, but not a whistle. In the darkness it was difficult to see the man’s face, and billows of steam kept getting in the way.

 

Effort at Speech Between Two People: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Speak to me.  Take my hand.  What are you now ?

I  will tell you all. I will conceal nothing.

When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit

who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair :

a pink rabbit: it was my birthday, and a candle

burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.

Oh, grow to know me,  I am not happy.  I will be open :

Now I am thinking of white sails against a sky like music,

like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm about me.

There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now ?

When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental,

fluid : and my widowed aunt played Chopin,

and I bent my head on the painted woodwork, and wept.

I want now to be close to you. I would

link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.

I am not happy.  I will be open.

I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet poems.

There has been fear in my life.  Sometimes I speculate

On what a tragedy his life was, really.

Take my hand. Fist your mind in my hand.  What are you now?

When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide,

and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping towards death :

if the light had not melted clouds and plains to beauty,

if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.

I am unhappy.  I am lonely.  Speak to me.

muriel

I will be open.  I think he never loved me :

he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam

that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls :

he said with a gay mouth: I love you.  Grow to know me.

What are you now?  If we could touch one another,

if these our separate entities could come to grips,

clenched like a Chinese puzzle … yesterday

I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,

and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.

Everyone silent, moving … Take my hand.  Speak to me.

Strangeness

I occasionally attempt to write about subjects randomly generated through a subject generator website. It rarely ends well.

The idea, of course, is that one tends to get bogged down in one’s little domestic world – feeding the birds, tripping over the cats, visiting Mum in the Home, memories of stuff there seems no particular reason to have remembered and even less reason to inflict on anyone else. After a while, you begin to get bored with yourself, or the sound of your own written voice. You start to suffer from bloggers’ angst with angst-ridden questions drifting randomly through your mind, like

Who on earth is going to want to read all this old gubbins anyway?

Should I do everyone a favour and publish something useful, such as ‘Yet more recipes for cleaning stuff with baking powder and lemon juice’ or ‘How to look after your terrapin’?

(Does anybody know what a terrapin is? I have a feeling it’s something that lives in an aquarium.)

Anyway, this afternoon the Random Subject Generator has flung this one back at me:

Strange experiences, that can’t be explained rationally.

Oh dear. The trouble is that although I am very interested in spookiness and strangeness – as a one-time drippy hippie, why wouldn’t I be? – spookiness and strangeness never seem to have happened to me; always to other people.

For example, my younger sister went babysitting over the road, in the company of the (admittedly fairly strange) girl next door. They had not been in the house long when shrieking started and stuff got thrown around. The (admittedly fairly strange) girl insisted that it must have been poltergeists. The owners of the house seemed more inclined to believe that my sister and the (admittedly fairly strange) girl next door had decided to throw a wild teenage party in their absence, and that was why the house was wrecked. However, considering that the girls were twelve or thirteen at the time and knowing my sister’s placid and gentle nature I am more inclined to believe it was poltergeists.

Ex told me a story once, and Ex wasn’t one for fanciful tales, in fact he was compulsively and depressingly honest. No point asking him ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ He would have said ‘Yes, in fact it does’ and wouldn’t have understood why that was the wrong answer.

He told me that he had been visiting a school-friend at a remote farm in the Weald of Kent. Again, they were young teenagers. His friend’s parents were out on the farm somewhere so they stayed indoors, chatting. All at once a cabinet door flew open and shelf upon shelf of glass objects was hurled onto the floor, as if an invisible arm had swept along the shelves. Here’s me with all this imagination, and Ex with his pragmatic, down-to-earth seriousness yet he’s the one who witnesses the smashing glassware.

But why didn’t those poltergeists happen to me? I deserved them, surely, and I’d so have enjoyed them. I spent endless hours babysitting and not once did I encounter a ghost of any sort.

Maybe strangeness has happened to me, but in a different way, expressed through found objects or chance happenings that could easily have be explained logically, but which seemed to have a special significance, for me. In a way, these objects/events have felt like half-memories; clues to something, or perhaps to a whole series of somethings, long since forgotten and maybe irretrievably lost.

When I was a child I picked up a smooth stone in the middle of a piece of waste ground. It was almost buried in the pathway through some brambles so that I had to pry it loose. It contained a perfect fossil of something like a jellyfish, with clearly-defined legs and suckers and such. That stone got lost again. I don’t know what I did with it. I always felt I should have hung onto it, and that things started to go wrong when I let it go.

Many years later, at the end of my marriage, beachcombing mournful and alone (à la Princess Diana) in a little cove in Yorkshire I found amongst the pebbles a piece of white bottle glass worn away into a battered, lopsided heart.

One night, on a train, I found myself alone in the carriage apart from a young soldier. Talk to me, he said, please talk to me. I’m off to Northern Ireland tomorrow. At that time Northern Ireland was a kind of war zone and he might well have been going to his death. I don’t think I did talk to him, much. I think I was too frightened to. He got off the train at the next stop and I never saw him again.

Sprightly!

There are some words you somehow never expect to hear said about yourself and “sprightly” is one of them. It’s one of those Catch 22 words. On the one hand it’s a compliment, because who would want to be the opposite of sprightly, whatever that might be. Sluggish? Creaky? On the other hand, whoever called a young person sprightly? Nimble, perhaps. Quick? A live wire? A bundle of fun? But sprightly seems to imply that you have reached, or are about to reach, the age and stage of not being sprightly. Sprightly implies a certain surprise as to your physical condition.

There are words and phrase that only old people seem to merit. There’s Dear. And then there’s good for your age or some variation thereupon. My dentist recently remarked that my teeth were in about as good condition as could be expected for my age. You’ve still got your own, she said. You can eat with them and they’re firmly attached. I mean, they’re not going anywhere…

Now, where would my teeth go? Would I wake up one morning to discover that all my precious gnashers had leapt out of my mouth overnight and were lined up on the duvet swinging their tiny suitcases. Well, they would chorus, toothsomely – we’ll be off. Sayonara!

And today, not one hundred yards from that dentist’s surgery, a lady in a blue carer’s uniform described me, to me, as seeming to be quite sprightly still. Not even sprightly, but a qualified sprightly.

I had gone, in desperation really, to my local charity for the aged. I knew I needed people to talk to – social interaction as they now call it. I knew I had been sitting indoors on my own for at least two years talking to the cats, talking to the TV, talking to this blog… and basically it wasn’t doing me any good. Furthermore I had endured four years, five maybe, of first creeping, then galloping, then all-consuming dementia with my mother and I didn’t want it! How hard could it be to be taken in a coach to the beach for ice creams, to decorate a wooden spoon, to make a paper hat, to sing along to crooners from twenty years before my time? Surely I could throw a bouncy plastic ball about or reminisce, when required?

Social interaction is one of the things they say you should do to avoid the dreaded D-thing – along with exercise, not smoking, not being overweight and intellectual challenges. I thought back over my mother’s long life and she seemed to have done almost everything right – she never smoked, never drank, was never more than an ounce overweight; was always determined to offer you a saucer of orange segments rather than something nicer, like biscuits.

Until earlier this year, battiness notwithstanding, she could walk for an hour and a half, out into the traffic and over busy main roads with never a glance to left or right, at a pace that left daughters and pursuing social workers puffing to keep up. All her life she had walked, she had cycled, she had spent long days in the garden, out in the mid-day sun like mad dogs and Englishmen, heaving up tree roots or whatever. She was just one huge accusation to her weary and slothful progeny. And still she got dementia.

The only thing she did fall down on was the social interaction. Increasingly deaf (though there is a question now as to how much was deafness and how much a cover up for a growing inability to process language) and profoundly shy, she had avoided other people all her life. Dad did the talking, always. After Dad died I printed out lists for her and marked things with pencil X’s – things she might like to join – deaf groups, knitting groups, chatting groups, book groups – all which she filed, neatly, without even reading.

And now here I was, going the same way if I wasn’t careful. And there I stood, in the middle of the day care centre, surrounded by very, very old people at circular tables, drinking breakfast tea and eating, by the smell of it and from the pale blue haze that hung in the room illuminated by shafts of winter sunlight, very burnt toast. Burnt toast makes me cough.

It was no good. Try as I might I was going to stick out like a sore thumb here. It said Over 50s on the website, but no one here was that young. Or sprightly. I could have been any one of their daughters. I started to back towards the door, politely, and that was when she performed a lightning change of tack, that cheery lady in the blue uniform.

You still appear to be quite sprightly, and you can drive. We’re desperate for volunteers…

And away I went, with a sheaf of forms to fill in and return at my earliest convenience.

Featured Image: Ronald Searle “Gay and Sprightly” 1994

Pleasurable Dread

The Prison Warders are moving to their villa/caravan in France by instalments. Sometime in the last three days they must have whispered off to the continent yet again in their current version of the Black Mariah. I no longer hear their chocolate-coloured labradoodle barking on the patio, or the squeak of her squeaky toy, or the sound of their toilet flushing behind the party wall at midnight and the chink of one of them throwing their toothbrush back into the glass. I quite miss them, though not their heavy metal music radio session from 11 to 2 every day.

And so – I can mosey down the garden in my dressing-gown to feed the birds as soon as it gets light with no need to fear the Prison Warders’ prying eyes. Of course there are other prying eyes but then I also have my imaginary Cloak of Invisibility and my old person’s Don’t Much Care Any More. It’s not that I’m lazy about getting dressed, it’s just that things happen in the wrong order. I get up in the dark and cold, more or less wrestled out of bed by innumerable hungry cats, and I mean to get dressed but then I find myself feeding them, washing up, watching (with daily increasing horror) the morning News, drinking instant coffee, sending back WordsWithFriends… and at 10 the dressing-gown may still be on.

Today is a day Carol the Weather Lady has been going on about since last Sunday. Yes, it’s Very Cold Thursday. The winds have changed and we may expect to be drawing in icy blue air from the continent, which is ravaged with cold, and that icy air, coupled with the Wind Chill Factor, will mean it feels like minus something-or-other.

I made my plans accordingly. I would not venture out on Very Cold Thursday. I would stay in and do – all my usual stuff. Pleasurable Dread. The British weather – it’s an ongoing horror show; either plummeting temperatures bound to kill off all the old folk and those with weak chests, and harmless infants in their cribs – or unbearably soaring temperatures meaning we will all be forced to open windows, paddle around in an embarrassed-but-desperate sort of way in municipal fountains or lie prostrate in parks praying for the rain to return.

But I have to feed the birds. My instinct to care for harmless sparrows, pheasants, cats, hedgehogs, worms and even rats by far exceeds any fleeting concern I may have for my fellow mutant apes. So, in a concession to Very Cold Thursday I put a coat on over my dressing gown and trudge up and down the garden several times (not enough hands) bearing jugs of seed and water and plates of anything I can find for the birdies, including those ghastly mealworms. Yes, it is cold but I am surprised to find I am not dying of it, even in my dressing gown and carpet slippers. A winter without central heating must have toughened me up.

Overnight Kitten, who is around 105 in human years, has finally given in and moved herself back to the heater; in fact her ancient, gnarled little legs are jammed right under the heater. She has the whole of the spare room to herself since she refuses either to leave it or allow any other cat in. She has her own heater, food station and dirt-box, and a choice several beds. She exists in magnificent isolation but still she isn’t happy. Pleasurable Dread – I go in to see her every morning, steeling myself for the worst, that stiff little furry corpse in the corner – and always she is still alive and squawking, staggering out of her basket and falling over several times on her way to see me, demanding her sachet of Felix.

Pleasurable Dread: every evening now I watch a news magazine programme called 100 Days. Two correspondents anchor the programme jointly, one in Washington and one in London. How do they achieve this? Who knows? Something to do with satellites. Anyway, 100 Days is following the new President’s critical first one hundred days in office, plus Brexit and the whole fiasco around triggering Article 50 and actually getting on with leaving. I wish I could not-watch it but I seem to be addicted. I have even foregone an ancient re-run of Stargate Atlantis on Pick in order to do so. And with every day that I watch 100 Days, as one lot of rampant sociopathic insanity (on the American side) and legal obfuscation, havering, incompetence and delay (on the British side) crowds in upon another, Pleasurable Dread edges closer towards Horror.

I am afraid. I am very afraid.

To be a fly on the wall

I love visual puns, and I particularly enjoy the pugs below, for their endless visual circularity: flies on the wall/up the wall, pugs might fly, pigs might fly…

pugs

There seem to be no end of things you can have flying up your wallpaper nowadays, aside from the traditional three ducks of my youth. You can have actual pigs or even toucans bearing pints of Guinness, and why not?

Of course, up till fairly recently flying anything up the wall was the Worst Possible Taste but these are Post Modern or possibly even Ironic Flying Objects. So that’s OK. The only wall decoration worse than those flying ducks was The Green Lady, versions of which (or should it be whom?) appeared on living room walls in the ’60s or thereabouts. I have a horrible suspicion, now, that my parents might have had one. If so I’ve been buying a shameful memory all this time.

green-lady

Would you like to be a fly on the wall? If so, where and when?

As a child I would hear my parents arguing about me in the bedroom. I was always convinced it was about me, at any rate. It was a small bungalow and the walls were thin. Not thin enough, unfortunately. I could hear them arguing, the rise and fall of their voices, his low and angry, hers high and tearful, but never the actual words. As a child I longed to have some sort of listening device (I hadn’t heard of the wine-glass-against-the-wall trick then, and anyway my parents didn’t have wine-glasses) so that I could hear all the nasty things they were saying about me and be enraged, which would have been more comfortable than just upset. On the other hand…

…they say people who eavesdrop never hear anything good of themselves. But it’s such fun. I eavesdrop on conversations whenever and wherever I can, partly because you never know when something’s going to be the start of a short story, but also to find out what ‘normal’ people are talking about when they engage all that endless, exhausting-looking yattering.

I’ve picked up some lovely snippets. My favourite, whilst a menial sort of secretary at an agricultural college, was an arch observation between two environmental scientists: He thinks he’s an ecologist because he can do hanging baskets.  I once went to the doctors in my local village. I hadn’t been there before. It was a ‘compact and bijou’ waiting room so it wasn’t at all difficult to listen in.

He’s a very good doctor, Doctor W…

Is he?

Yes, he looked after my cousin Mildred.

Did he?

Yes (long pause) – she died, of course.

And then it was my turn to go in.

I have heard – and indeed read about on other people’s blogs, of something called remote viewing, where it is possible to ‘see’ a place or object that is actually, physically being seen by a different person, perhaps hundreds of miles away. I have never experienced this myself, though I did engage in a kind of thought experiment with Ex, many years ago. It was around the time of Uri Geller and his spoon-bending. (Spoons always fascinated Ex, who was even less normal than me. He used to play the spoons – really, really well but so loudly and embarrassingly – when drunk on the table-cloths of Indian restaurants whilst waiting for his dinner.)

We decided to do that thing where one of you concentrates on a shape or a simple object in their mind’s eye, and the other one has to concentrate and draw it. The first person then draws what they were imagining, and you compare the pictures. We were moderately good at it – we could manage numbers, and pictures of doors, cats and so forth.  We lost interest after a while. There’s only so much door-drawing you can do.

I even read somewhere of psychics being able to travel, themselves, in an out-of-body sort of way and see what friends or contacts many hundreds of miles away were up to. I remember one lady was infuriated because she had been in a state of dishevelment or undress when she became aware of a psychic ‘visitor’ lurking in her room one night. There really ought to be some sort of Code of Conduct for Psychic Lurkers.

What I can do – possibly everyone can – is visit places in my imagination. I can visualise houses, and rooms – layouts, stairs, furnishings – from far away and long ago. I can, if bored, go on a guided tour of a house that no longer exists. I can ascend the steep stairs of my old schoolfriend’s house, a two-up-two-down terrace on a mean little street – the same stairs that I fell down once, landing on my old schoolfriend, who was mercifully quite plump. I can look out of the bedroom window (behind me a shiny turquoise quilt and an undersized dressing-table, its veneer chipped and peeling) and see her father’s black bicycle propped up against the drainpipe. They had a black cat, and the black cat used to jump out of that same bedroom window and land on the narrow saddle of that same black bike.

I can walk round Nan and Grandad’s house, and down to the bottom of the garden where the Anderson shelter had become a garden shed full of spiders, and dusty blue damsons hung heavy in the hedgerow. I can see where all the flower beds were, and the great sea of mint around the apple tree, and the bisque doll’s head my uncle (now 90) had jammed onto a twig, which grew into it. I have sometimes thought I would manage quite well in prison as long as I was allowed to be in solitary confinement. Communing with other prisoners would be hell (I would be the one who was beaten to a pulp in the shower and had most of her food pinched) but solitary confinement would be OK. I could go on my travels. I could follow favourite countryside walks I haven’t seen for years. I could have a little chat with Nan on the back step, whilst shelling peas and listening to the bees humming. I could be out in the Lodge with Grandad, watching him doing his carpentry and breathing in sawdust and glue.

And then of course there are the entirely imaginary journeys. Attending some meditation classes a while back I discovered visualisation – you know, when you picture yourself walking out over a rainbow, or in a rocking chair in a room with a quietly ticking clock or walking alongside a river, through meadows, brushing the grass as you pass…? I can do one of those any time. You just decide where you want to be to start with and your mind somehow does the rest – it even supplies the journey for you, you don’t have to make it up. Every now and then a rabbit might appear on the path, or a frog on a lilypad, or maybe, surprisingly, the sun will choose to set…

Feed the birds, tuppence a bag…

…except that it costs a lot more than tuppence a bag nowadays.

Does everybody know what tuppence is, or has it faded out of the English language like farthing and ha’penny? Tuppence (two-pence) was two old pre-decimal pence. For tuppence you could have bought eight of those little pink-and-orange farthing chews. For a ha’penny (half-penny) you could have bought two farthing chews. For a farthing, of course, you could only have bought one farthing chew, which wouldn’t have gone far towards filling the yawning, gurgling gap between breakfast and dinner. But I loved farthings, because of the little wren on the back.

farthing.jpg

Wasn’t keen on the threepence (pron: throopence for some reason) because of the irritating edges and the portcullis on the back, which put me in mind of prisons.

threepence.jpg

Another forgettable but mildly interesting fact – old pence were abbreviated not to ‘p’ as new pence are, but ‘d’. So those eight farthing chews would have been 2d. Something to do with Roman coins being called ‘denarii’. The daily wage for a common soldier or unskilled labourer was one denarius. Not much, in other words.

(I can’t stand Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, by the way. For some reason I seem to be compelled to study accents, analyse them, work out whether they are genuine or fake, one accent or several accents layered, one over the other. Inside my head, I imitate them, trying to get them right. Inside my head, note. I don’t go round doing impressions. Dick Van Dyke’s was by far the worst cockney accent ever perpetrated by an American. Nowadays they are much better. Meryl Streep is pretty good at it, in spite of what a certain farthing-chew coloured gentleman tweeted about her. Will he ever stop tweeting? The only fake English accent that completely fooled me was Renée Zellweger. I sat and watched Bridget Jones’ Diary all the way through never guessing she was American. I thought she sounded a trifle odd, but only in the way that real English people sound when they are trying to sound genteel.)

Anyway, so I bought some mealworms for the birdies, and in particular for my robin. You’re honoured if you get a robin. They’re not like other birds. Robin appears first, and always alone, just as the overnight frost is beginning to steam in the newly-risen sun. Robins are partial to mealworms. My God, mealworms are expensive but it’s either that or breed them – a difficult and disgusting process. Mealworms, I have learned, are the larvae of beetles. When I first saw them on the web I thought no, I can’t cope with whatever that is – I’m a squeamish vegetarian – but I sent a message – a perfectly sensible message, I thought:

They are dead aren’t they? They don’t wriggle?

And after a few seconds a lady replied to me, from somewhere in the ether.

Your question made me smile. No, they don’t wriggle, they are freeze dried. They sometimes look as if they are wriggling when they slither down the side of the jug (eugh, slithering…). Chickens go mad for them.

And suddenly I felt I had made a friend, one of those instant, transient amigos/amigas you stumble across on the internet. I imagined her, wherever she was, scattering the disgusting freeze-dried little brown critters to her hens, and the hens all running and clucking and so forth, bursting with feathery excitement at the prospect. Was she a farmer’s wife, I wondered, somewhere up in Yorkshire. Maybe she was on the other side of the world, feeding her hens in some South African coop or Australian back yard. I would never know, but it didn’t matter. Another person had been added to my universe.

Mrs Prothero and the firemen

One of the downsides of living a largely interior life is that others find you dull – so very dull, in fact, that they cannot think of anything to ask you when they meet you. I have noticed, you see, that when ‘exterior’ people bump into each other in the street they tend to enquire about a whole range of things –

How are the kids?

How’s the revising going for that big exam?

Did your Aunt Mabel ever make that attempt on Everest?

And so forth.

It’s like they have a mental filing cabinet. They see you walking towards them in the street. Quickly they open a drawer in the filing cabinet and out pop the kids, that big exam, Aunt Mabel, Mount Everest and a whole lot of other potentially conversational stuff. Memory – it’s a rag bag. Dylan Thomas put it much better than me, a very long time ago:

I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs Prothero and the firemen.

But when people meet me – or rather realise they are not going to be able to avoid me – on the street, they have no Mrs Prothero, no convenient firemen. When the silence becomes too awkward most of them ask one of two things:

Do you still have all those cats?

How’s your mother?

And what can you say?

Yes.

Still quite old.

It was not always so. During my married years Ex’s friends would often come to the house to visit him – never us.  Often it was to discuss model engineering at great length whilst staring into the middle distance; very occasionally it was to buy a painting; once in a while it was to persuade him to fix their lawnmower. (It’s one of the things with being self-employed and working from home – people don’t regard it as proper work, so you’re bound to have time to fix their lawnmower or get their grandfather’s pocket-watch ticking again.)

During my married years all these middle-aged ‘men’s men’, for whom I was an embarrassing and inconvenient appendage to the Real Person of the house, if absolutely forced to address me would enquire either –

Ironing? or

Knitting?

And what can you say to that?

Yes.

No.ironing

But worse, spend too much time alone and you become as uninteresting as other people think you are. I went to visit my friends the other day, and we had coffee. You know how, after a conversation you tend to go back over it, try and remember what you said? As I clambered into the car and headed for Tesco’s all I could remember was that I had talked nearly all of the time about dustbins and those little orange caddies they provide you with to recycle your food waste. Oh yes, and maggots. Those little orange caddie things are prone to maggots, which is why hardly anyone uses them. And there’s nothing worse than maggots…

And so I think, should I try to do a number of Interesting Things, to help out casual acquaintances? Should I maybe volunteer to feed the homeless, then people could ask:

Have you fed any more of those homeless people recently? And I could say, Well, yes, actually I fed one only yesterday. Soup, it was. And sandwiches.

Maybe I should attempt to become good at Sudoku. Instead of staring at my Chinese Sudoku board (“Number Is Alone”) for three hours, then giving up because the numbers just won’t go in the right places, maybe I should get good at it and go in for competitions.

Maybe I should join a fitness group and become taut and toned like those people in the post-Christmas home fitness ads. Then acquaintances who inconveniently bumped into me in supermarkets could gush:

Is that really you? I hardly recognise you, you’ve got so slim! And  just look at those abs!

Or maybe I should try and knock up a cynically quick novel – a thing about rampant vampire lust, perhaps, or some sort of murder mystery involving a locked gymnasium and a vaulting horse, or a body buried under a vegetable patch resulting in a suspiciously wonderful crop of onions. And then people could ask:

Did you ever get that vampire novel published?

And I could say.

Well, no.