My boiler speaks

Many decades of bitter experience have failed to teach me their lesson. I am still unable to shake these linked illusions regarding household appliances:

  • household appliances cannot possibly malfunction, stressfully and expensively, just at the wrong moment;
  • should such an incident occur it will be dealt with by either my (dead) father or my (ex) husband;
  • they will not bother me about the malfunctioning household object since I am a lady and a poet and exist on a higher plane;
  • they will not try to explain to me in mind-numbingly tedious detail the reason for said household object’s malfunction;
  • they will fix it, which will take five minutes rather than three hours, and will not expect money for having done so.

However, in the real world, first my electrical wiring collapses in upon itself, live wires start interacting with one another (and blah blah blah…) so no central heating or hot water all winter. Then my loo seat breaks and has to be replaced by a novelty dog-reading-a-newspaper loo seat – in Latin, I notice, with English headlines. Then, the wiring having been fixed and long, deep, hot baths with wilting paperbacks once again a delightful prospect, the boiler starts making hideous clanking noises and goes out. I restart it numerous times. Same thing happens every time. Would you believe it?

Dead father and/or ex-husband inexplicably fail to materialise in my kitchen bearing spanners and boxes of tissues/consolatory chocolates. I am forced to call a plumber. Sacré bleu! The plumber explains it thusly:

‘Well, yer boiler is ‘eating the ‘ot water. Right? And the ‘ot water is getting up to yer pump in the cupboard on the landing. Right? But yer pump’s not working. Right? ‘Ence it’s getting red ‘ot and ‘umming and the landing smells of ‘ot rubber. Right? Then yer pipes set up a dreadful clatter because the water’s not goin’ on round the system. Right? It’s stuck at the pump.

‘At which point yer boiler says ‘Ere, thassnot right! and closes ‘imself down, ‘ence all the red lights. Issa good thing really. Safety mechanism.’

So – my boiler is male and can speak, and he has a Cockney accent. Who knew?

blue boiler

Playing Elvis to the Buttercups

There’s something very sad about a rusty car; sadder than a tiny teddy bear growing soggy in the gutter; sadder even than a child’s cheap bracelet glittering in the hedge. To me, things are people and I grieve for them in their lost, forgotten and discarded endings.

I think maybe the sadness of a rusty car is that a car is made to shine and made to move. Its great purpose in life is to whizz round corners, to gleam in the sunlight. It is speed made manifest, distance, travel. A car is A to B. It is not A, year after year after forgotten year, whilst its tyres deflate and the weeds grow up around it and mice make a home in its upholstery. It is not this view, this rain, this snow, this burning sun. It was meant to be there, always there, eating up the miles, heading for the horizon. It was never meant to be here. I suppose I see me in rusting cars. I see the future vanishing, without me.

But enough of the rusty gloom. Something very strange has just happened. The rusty car in Krusher’s front garden has been taken away. A low-loader came, two days running. Its strenuous efforts to execute a three-point turn into various unsuitable driveways were worth the risk of a peer round the edges of the net curtains. The first day it got sent away: maybe Krusher couldn’t quite bring himself to let his beloved go. The second day the wreck got loaded onto the low-loader – they had to use the crane – whilst Krusher circled around, wringing his pasty hands, zipping and unzipping his windcheater. It was a torment to him, this final goodbye, the sight of those two bare forever gashes in the mud of his front lawn.

The car was there when I moved in, abandoned at an illogical angle as if someone had just screeched in home one boozy 1980s night, maybe a few pints worse for the wear, and left it where it happened to end up, not even bothering to lock it. ‘Shtraighten it up in the morning, maybe.’ And there it sat forever after, already orange going more orange, its go-faster stripes barely distinguishable from their background. There it sat, annoying all the neighbours, decade after decade.

Something had happened to Krusher. Something had gone wrong with him which meant he could no longer drive his car. He was in a lot of pain. It was his back, some said. His lungs, others said, or maybe it was his heart. On morphine for the pain, someone said. Sits up all night playing on the computer, someone else said. Can’t sleep for it. Krusher became small and bitter and wispy. He shrunk, but then don’t we all? Krusher, you might say, was krushed, but his car was not. They suffered together, he indoors in the dark illuminated only by the lonely blue flash of his computer screen, it outdoors come wind and storm.

It’s strange the things we grow to love, supposedly inanimate objects we just can’t let go of, that have become an integral part of us. Sometimes, driving along, I pat my little car’s steering wheel. “Good girl,” I whisper. “I had you from new and I’ll look after you, don’t you worry. Whatever it costs we’re going to see each other out.” Each time I renew my secret vows to her and put aside those treacherous, ever-present fantasies of a massive olive green four-by-four, a capacious white van or even a slick black Cadillac for cruising down quiet spring lanes or under the lush green canopies of summer trees, playing Elvis to the buttercups or Motown classics to the cows.

The beauty of the morning

On the 3rd of September 1802 William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were both moved by the sight of London spread out before them as they viewed it from Westminster Bridge. Dorothy recorded her impressions in her diary:

“…the sun shone so brightly, with such a pure light, that there was something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand spectacles.”

And William was inspired to write one of his most famous sonnets:

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

It seems to me that there are two sides to every coin, two faces to ever view. Wordsworth saw the majesty and beauty of his capital city from a famous bridge and yesterday we saw the strange fruits of terrorism strung out along that same bridge – men, women and children mown down by a stranger in a hired car.

It seems to me also that for every hate-filled, lone revolutionary who somehow concludes that his political beliefs make it OK for him to kill or injure a random group of people who just happened to be crossing a particular bridge at a particular moment in time, there is an unarmed policeman willing to be stabbed to death to prevent him from entering the Houses of Parliament. I think of the blood-smeared face of an MP trying unsuccessfully to keep him alive until the ambulance came.

I think of all those bodies on the bridge but also of the doctors running out of hospitals and along the bridge to help the wounded. I think of every injured or dying person on the pavement surrounded by a crowd of passers-by whose instinct was to stop, try to help, reassure or just keep them company in their hour of need.

I think of the police giving first aid to the terrorist they had just been forced to shoot, and of the medics who afforded the same care to him as to his victims.

And it seems to me that for every wound inflicted there is a great flowering of fellow-feeling and human kindness, and that compassion will always overcome, in the end.

Lucy: I Am Everywhere

‘Lucy’ was one of many films I would have liked to see when they were new, but had to wait till they appeared on TV. And last night, at last, it did appear and I actually sat down and watched it, all the way through from start to finish. Like, amazing!

Mostly I get to see films on TV in snatches and completely out of sequence, and subsequently piece them together in my mind. That’s half the fun – imagining the missing segments, then finding out segment by segment that they were not the way I imagined them – or were. That way you get several films for the price of one, or rather for the price of an annual television licence. (And if I can survive long enough into old age even that will be free.)

My most watched-in-fragments film by far is The Fifth Element, which seems to haunt Freeview. Whichever channel you flick to, there it is. And I am still noticing new things it. Second would be Avatar. I love Avatar. I seem to be drawn to anything sci-fi or fantasy – unusual in a lady of my age, but it can’t be helped. On the other hand I loathe soaps. I’ve never managed to watch any episode East Enders, Coronation Street or Emmerdale for more than five minutes without being driven to switch over by the gloom, the grating accents, the hysteria, the bellowing and the inch-thick makeup.

And I do like Scarlett Johansson. If God gives me a choice next time round to look less like a giant racing-cyclist’s daughter I will ask to look more like Scarlett. Much more. The world would be one’s oyster with a face like that. And she can convey something like terror, for instance, with nothing more than an impassive face and a rapid flickering of the eyes. This is a contained reaction – terror as you and I would like to imagine we would manifest it, if about to be operated on and have a huge plastic wrap of some brain-enhancing blue crystal substance concealed amongst our intestines against our will. Terror without the screeching, the gibbering and the uncontrollable widdling.

Much as I like watching films I do not much enjoy going to the cinema, at least alone. Cinemas are dark. They are full of people who kick the back of your seat, try to grope you (well, not so much of that nowadays) continue using their mobile phones, eat, chat and dump their inconvenient children next to you. Yes, I once had a pair of parents pointing their horrible, fidgety, snot-nosed children to come and hem me in at the end of a side aisle, whilst they repaired to another part of the cinema completely. I have never known a pair of children to get up, go out to the loo, come back, sit down, get up… and so forth, so many times in succession.

No doubt I could learn how to stream films but that would mean committing myself to sitting down and watching them and – apart from the odd exception like ‘Lucy’ – that is something the inherited Mum side of me won’t let me do. Mum used to claim that it was Grandad, her father, making it impossible for her to sit down, stay put and concentrate on anything for more than two minutes, or rather her internalised, reproving father figure.

Grandad only lived along the road and had become, for Mum, a kind of troll-under-the-bridge bogeyman. After Nan died he was lonely, desperate to be useful and had a tendency to materialise at our back  (kitchen) door with an overlarge panful of peeled potatoes mid-morning (‘He will dig the eyes out – they’re full of craters!’). According to Mum if he caught her sitting down with a cup of tea he would ask her if she hadn’t anything better she could be getting on with.

As a know-it-all teenager I once pointed out to her that Grandad was merely an excuse to rationalise her naturally jumpy, hyperactive nature but she wasn’t into self-analysis. I on the other hand was gradually analysing myself away to some sort of vanishing point at which the real, spontaneous, basic me could no longer be accessed. The ‘real’ me seemed to have retreated to some kind of fantasy garden to which I had mislaid the key. And perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to fantasy and sci-fi. Roaming these fantastical other worlds I am hoping against hope one day to meet up with me.

everywhere 3

 

He was only expecting a manicure

Could forgetfulness be some kind of germ – catching, transmittable, etc? I only ask because… because….

Well, as you know my mother’s got dementia. I’m not at all sure she knows who I am now – if she looks up at all when I go in, it is with a vague sort of puzzlement. I might be anybody, from cleaner to carer to relative to friend. The important thing is, can I reach her water jug? Can I untangle her sheets?

And of course, you start to check yourself – daily, hourly, by the minute. Why didn’t that fact spring to mind? Why was there that slight hesitation over someone’s name? Have I just done something peculiar? Would I know if I had?

The other night the new lady came round from next door. She introduced herself. After she’d gone I went straight through to the kitchen, scribbled “Claire” on a slip of paper and taped it to the fridge. Gotcha!

Next night she came round again. We were talking about a workman who might be needed to do a repair on her house. “He does know you want to see him,” I assured her. “I told him that your name was Claire.”

“Ros,” she said.

At least it’s not just me. Yesterday one of my elderly neighbours very kindly offered to help me with my many cats if ever the need arose. “I’ve written my number on a piece of paper,” she said. “You have only to call me and I’ll come straight over.”

“That’s so kind of you,” I said, “but aren’t you allergic to cats?”

“No,” she said. “I love little moggies.”

Now a few years back she told me she couldn’t take in a particularly muddy, flea-ridden and unneutered stray kitten herself, though she would have loved to, since she was allergic. Started sneezing and coughing almost straight away, she did. (That’s how I got George.) Several times she’s come to the door and I’ve invited her in and she’s dithered in terror on my doorstep. “Oh no, I couldn’t. I’m allergic, you see. Start sneezing and coughing almost straight away…”

Has she forgotten the allergy or the fib? Or could I over the years somehow have fabricated an entire narrative, in several successive parts, about my neighbour and her allergy to cats? Either way, I’ve got to think of a way for her to feel useful and wanted now that she no longer has her disabled sister to care for – which I suspect is what she really needs – without letting her loose on my rambunctious and precious moggies, at least in any unsupervised capacity.

And finally, as they say on the News. Late this afternoon I telephoned the vet’s receptionist . “Could I make an appointment for Rufus to come in and have his claws clipped by the nurse?”

“Certainly,” she said. We discussed possible dates as she leafed through the diary. In the background I could hear somebody muttering “Anal glands, anal glands.”

That’s odd, I thought. Maybe there’s someone standing behind her, trying to remind her of the urgent anal glands of some other furry client.

“Yes,” she said, “Rufus can come in for his anal glands on Saturday morning.”

“Um, where are you getting anal glands from? Poor little chap, he was only expecting a manicure…

“Not anal glands?”

No, really, just his claws.”

“Oh dear! Where did I get anal glands from?”

Who knows? How did Ros metamorphose into Claire between the front door and the refrigerator? And where did my neighbour’s allergy disappear to?

It’s a mystery.

Cum On Feel The Noize

The above track, originally recorded by British group Slade, must surely be a contender for Shoutiest Record. Subtract a couple of centuries, put him in a brocade jacket and a tricorne hat, give him a giant hand-bell and their lead singer, the jovial, curly-mulleted Noddy Holder, would have made an excellent Town Crier.

On the same theme – more or less – I recall one afternoon many years ago walking into the entrance hall of my teacher training college to find it suspiciously quiet. All eyes were focussed on our English/Drama lecturer (I have forgotten his name and no doubt he’s dead by now but in my mind he will forever be associated with Beowulf or vice versa) who was in the process of chalking a message up on a blackboard in that kind of fluid, cursive script you never get to enjoy nowadays. With many a flourish, he wrote:

‘Wanted – shouty records. Example: Shirley Bassey.’

To this day it remains a mystery to me that an elderly, softly-spoken, bearded academic should have discovered an urgent requirement for Shirley Bassey or her ilk. Even now, in idle moments, I find myself attempting to reconstruct a lesson-plan or lecture notes incorporating ‘shouty records’.

Of course there’s shouty and then there’s shouty. There’s the ear-grating, murderous-thoughts-inspiring shouting that mothers direct at their kids, and kids at each other in crowded shopping malls. Then there’s the melodious shoutiness of Edith Piaf as she laments lost lovers and promises them her total, heartbroken obsessive love for ever more. So It’s not exactly the loudness of shoutiness that’s so irritating, it’s the mindless, purposeless superfluity of it.

Today I have workmen digging drainage channels across my driveway. So far we have had the rotary saw – I’m guessing from the clouds of brown dust gusting past my kitchen window, since I dare not look out. And we have had the attacking of crumbling concrete with what may well be a stout metal bar. Still to come, the promised “hired man with a Kango hammer”.

Oh happy days…

Nuances: The concert she never went to

She had never been much good with nuances, at least not when they came from other people. Yet she herself could speak in nothing but nuances, whilst assuming that her mumbled half-truths and veiled allusions to this and that would be crystal clear to others. It was a fatal combination.

The boy travelled on her morning bus. She went to right through to the college. Maybe he worked in the town. She’d seen him again and again and thought “Why does that boy keep looking over this way?” It seemed odd. The view from the window on her side was not inspiring – certainly no better than his – industrial units, the perimeter fence of an airfield, a string of semi-detacheds strung out like teeth in the jaw of the road.

Thus it was that when the boy bent beside her one day, oddly stressed-looking, and handed her a longish rectangle of grey card, stammering, “I think you may have dropped this, Miss?” she was horrified. A stranger had spoken to her. A male one. “Oh, did I?” was all that came out. She couldn’t exactly look him in the eye.

People were getting huffy – he was holding up the queue, standing there, so he shuffled away forward, down the steps and off the bus. She caught sight of him loping off down the road, concentrating on his shoes. Trembling, she inspected what appeared to be a ticket for a concert in a local hall. This evening.

For a moment she wondered, if she were to go to the concert alone – the very thought of which filled her with dread, for she had never been anywhere like that on her own – would he be sitting in the seat next to her? Would he turn and smile at her, relieved and pleased: “Oh, there you are.”

Or had he really, actually, meant “Did you drop this?”

She had never been good with nuances. Not knowing what to think she didn’t go, but she did look out for the boy for many mornings after that.

He never got on the bus again.

(Unfortunately, a true story : ) )

I am become a nervous boat!

I am become a nervous boat!

This is just to illustrate the perils of attempting to compose a letter in English, with the aid of never so weighty and prestigious an English dictionary, when English is not your first language. The same would apply to any other language, of course.

It’s a line from an anguished letter sent by a postgraduate Agronomy (or was it Food Science?) student in America. I remember it now, the ultra-thin prison notepaper, the raggedy scrawl…

I was working at an agricultural college at the time, and the department I worked in specialised in postgraduate distance learning courses – similar to the Open University but for agricultural subjects only. This particular student was a long-term prisoner in an American jail – I seem to remember Elk Creek or Moose Gulley or Buffalo Gulch. He was studying because he was allowed to, and perhaps also to maintain his sanity during a long incarceration.

It struck me as odd at the time that anyone who already had an agricultural degree of some sort, as he must have done to gain entry to a postgraduate course, should have ended up in that hell hole in Moose Gulley, Buffalo Gulch or whatever in the first place. I don’t know what crime he committed. He was never asked. At the time I hoped against hope that he wasn’t on Death Row. Nobody enquired about that, either.

Poor chap, his most recent batch of study materials had failed to reach him. Someone inside the jail had stolen them, he was convinced. And he was desperate. Exams were coming up. Kind ladies, I know not what to do, he wrote. I am become a nervous boat!

Is there a very thin man inside my TV set?

I still don’t know how my TV works. Do you? Basically, I don’t know how most household items work unless they happen to be held together with nuts, bolts, screws or elastic bands and don’t require electricity to function. And basically I’m not interested enough to find out. I prefer things that I can take apart and put together – things where you can see what’s what.

I gather from WikiLeaks that the FBI may now be able to spy on me from my TV. Apparently there are microphones inside Samsung television sets – and naturally I have a Samsung television set – that can be recording the most intimate details of one’s private life whilst appearing to be safely turned off. Reactions have been mixed. One man has vowed only to watch TV in the nude from now on.

The only thing is, it says smart TVs. Now, I’m not sure my Samsung TV is all that smart. The thing seems to have trouble even managing its pixels. A good strong wind or a torrential downpour outside and it takes to pixilating wildly. If the bad weather continues it become one big pixel and no picture. Then I have to try all the usual recipes for getting electronic devices to work – first I talk to it, gently but reprovingly; then I screw all its little pointy plugs back in at the back, several times over; then I waggle its wires and inspect the bits stuffed into the waste paper basket (yes, my wires are in a waste paper basket) that one of the cats once peed on. Have those sections dissolved any more since last time I looked at them? Finally, I do what everyone the world over does – I turn it off and turn it on again. Of course it might still be listening? The rainstorm pixel-storm might just be a ruse to make me think it was turned off or a cover for FBI agents or Russians tuning in:

Hey, Hank, it’s the dame with the knitting and the Sudoku set or

Ach, Yuri – dat babushka vid all the felines…

I was trying to think whether I had got anything at all in my house that might be classed as “smart”. There’s the fridge of course. It’s fairly new but it doesn’t seem to talk to anything, just sits there – whitely, despondently – gurgling to itself at intervals. It certainly doesn’t hold conversations with the oven, which just sits there – rustily, sulkily – refusing to communicate with anybody.

I tried to clean the interior of the oven a while back, with a substance recommended on the internet – probably bicarbonate of soda, that’s what the internet usually recommends. It foamed up, dribbled out and, eventually, rusted. Not that I cook much anyway. I did manage one of my signature vegetable hotpots in it yesterday, and that tasted OK. There’s the toaster, of course, but most of the time it lurks inside one of my kitchen cupboards. I do place my ear to the door at intervals but so far haven’t heard it tapping, or a muffled toaster-y voice demanding to be let out.

As for tech, I have a mobile phone but it’s not the smart kind – devious perhaps – forever hiding the address book and relocating the place where you can update the clock. It and I do not get on.

I have a desktop computer – indeed, and here I am sitting in front of it – but somehow I doubt that it is looking back at me. It’s been rebuilt so many times by despairing Mr Computer Fixits that any eavesdropping device the FBI may have put in is likely to have been destroyed several times over.

There is the tablet, of course, the Kindle Fire. Now that may indeed be smart. Certainly it’s got apps on it: does merely having apps make something smart? I wonder if they will ever get round to installing apps into children – bypass all that schoolwork, just download Pythagoras’ Theorem, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Shakespeare’s Sonnets….?

In any case I can’t see why anybody would be in the least interested in listening in to me and my twelve moggies. I mean, they’d surely die of boredom since most of the time it would be silence; maybe the odd shuffling of paper, a cough, the slurping of tea, a chorus of plaintive meows around feeding time. Reluctantly, I had to rule myself out as a potential candidate for Gogglebox on that very basis.

I do enjoy Gogglebox, though like everything else it becomes almighty tedious after the first few series. Gogglebox consists entirely of couples and families slumped around on sofas throughout the realm, being filmed as they are watching TV whilst eating sandwiches and salted peanuts, attempting to remove large dogs from their line of vision, screaming, gasping, chortling, arguing and exchanging barbed marital witticisms.

giles.png

Giles and Mary, Gogglebox

I did think I would like to be on it, but it’s difficult to be entertaining, even unintentionally, when you live on your own. Whether it’s a baby bird teetering on the edge of its nest high up in some mountain eyrie, a turtle being chased by hundreds of snakes and just about making it over the sand dunes to the water’s edge, some politician saying something mind-bogglingly stupid or someone falling over and revealing their bespangled knickers whilst meant to be ballroom dancing – what can you say, when you’re on your own in the room? It’s hardly worth an “Oh!”

I was looking at the TV just now – not the front, the back. It’s very narrow. When we got our first television set it seemed to take up most of the living room. It was the size of a sideboard. In those days it was quite possible to credit what your parents told you – that there was a little man who lived in the TV, and he was what made it work. I really believed that. I used to worry about him. Wasn’t it stuffy and dark in there? Didn’t he ever get tired of wrestling with the vertical hold? How did he eat? How did he pee? Did he have a special bottle?

Now of course I have put away such childish misconceptions: if the FBI or the Russians are indeed lurking inside my TV set with microphones or secret cameras, all I can say is they must be very thin men (or ladies) indeed.

Never Jam Today

“The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.” It’s one of those things you think your Granny must have said, but no – well, she might have said it, but it comes from Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

It does remind me of my Granny, though. I remember her kitchen on jam-making days, and Nan stirring away like a Queen Mother-shaped witch at some great metal pot on the gas stove, tipping in sugar and goodness knows what. Presumably Mum must have been there, otherwise why would I have been? I never remember Mum being anywhere, even when she was.

I remember a lot of jam-jars, all hot and steamy. Presumably Nan had been collecting them in some cupboard or shed and now they had to be washed to get rid of dust and dead spiders. I remember that there was always some nervousness as to whether the jam would set, and that something had to be added to some sorts of jam to make it set. I remember the sweet, sugary smell as the contents of the saucepan were decanted into the jars, and the circles of greaseproof paper that went on the top of the jam. Would she have cut these out for herself, maybe using the neck of a jam-jar to draw round? Or perhaps you could buy packets of them at the corner shop – same place you bought pink and blue birthday candles and red candle-holders, hundreds-and-thousands; that strange green stuff, angelica; cake cases, paper doilies, chocolate sprinkles, silver dragees, marzipan.

The paper caps always pleased me, pushed over the top of the jar and pinched in with a bit of ribbon. The sticky labels pleased me most of all, because I was allowed to write those. I remember the jars lined up along a high shelf, along with bottled fruit sealed tight in sinister kilner jars, like tiny dead babies. Tasted all right with ice cream, though, and kept us going all winter.

I wonder what happened to all that time – the time women seemed to have to do stuff like that, to make preserves, polish brass and mend socks on a wooden darning mushroom. What happened to knitting jumpers, replacing buttons and sewing on square patches? What happened to pulling up carrots and digging new potatoes just before a meal? What happened to mint sauce made in a teacup with mint from the garden? What happened to damsons picked from the hedge, and playing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as you lined up the cherry pips around the edge of your plate? What happened to buttered crumpets, pipe smoke, coal fires and elderly snoring dogs?

Sometimes I think they must be still going on somewhere – that in one – or maybe all of my concurrent ‘other’ lives, and to paraphrase Rupert Brooke, there must be crumpets still for tea. And that I must be seven again, with a gap where my two front teeth should be and a crumpled ribbon slip-sliding out of my hair.  And in those other lives I am forever consuming crumpets as butter drips through those curious holes to make my fingers greasy.

Whatever gets you through the night…

I was going to call this post Loose Elastic (there used to be jokes, in the days when ladies’ undergarments were held up by perilously slim pieces of actual elastic, about a young lady called Lucy Lastic) but decided against. A bit frivolous for the subject matter, I decided.

Because these are a few passing thoughts about anxiety and depression. I don’t know about you but I usually seem to be suffering from one or another of these. I’m lucky in that although these two Nasssty Creatures walk alongside me more or less daily they rarely get unbearably Nasssty. I have witnessed real clinical depression: I know I’m lucky.

Of course they’re not really two separate Creatures but alternative and interchangeable manifestations of the same Creature and it occurs to me that both are the result of not being able to stay in the present moment. You could say that depression is the result of being pulled back into the past, and anxiety the result of being pushed into the future. It’s as if your poor mind is on a piece of elastic and being bounced first this way and then that.

When I am depressed it’s usually because I’m going over and over thing that happened in the past, thinking about people I once knew, people who died, people I said the wrong thing to, situations I handled badly; terrible, terrible mistakes I made. My imagination busies itself with ‘what ifs’. I resurrect the vanished and dead and hold long, sad conversations with them. I replay the dreadful bits of my past, trying to get them right second time round. I imagine lives where this or that wouldn’t have happened, in which I might have been happier.

If I’m anxious it’s usually because I am going over and over things that are scheduled to happen soon – it might be something simple, like a visit from the plumber or driving to an unfamiliar place – imagining all the things that might – no, are bound to – go wrong, hoping that if I rehearse them well enough I will be able to influence what happens, inoculate myself against an evil future. Stop The Bad Thing Happening.

Neither makes any difference. The past remains the past, the dead are still dead, the gone are still gone. The future remains unknown and uncontrollable. I am still right here, and still exactly as unhappy/afraid.

Meditation is supposed to be good for staying in the present moment, and I keep meaning to do that, when I can stop fretting for an hour or two. What I have found is that it helps at least to attempt to be mindful. Once you start to notice that you are maundering around in the past or fretting away in the future, you can take a deep breath and return yourself to the present moment. No use trying not to go there in the first place, just start noticing when you have.

I usually say something to myself, like: Well, you’ve done quite a bit of worrying about that, now concentrate on your driving/walking/washing up – or whatever. This is really the equivalent of the technique they teach you at meditation/relaxation classes: identify your worry and place it in an imaginary black sack; tie the sack up and place it to one side for the time being; you can come back and open it any time. Except you don’t really need the black sack. If you can just get as far as noticing, the worry tends to leap into the sack and tie itself up automatically.

I’ve also noticed I tend to get most anxious or depressed when I am doing nothing – lying in bed trying to sleep, for instance – or doing semi-automatic but uninteresting stuff like driving, walking or washing up. Ping! There goes the elastic and there I am, sloshing around in the past or tiptoeing around in the future. The answer seems to be to keep busy, but for preference at something interesting, that absorbs you. You know what your particular thing is, and when you are in the zone, don’t you? It’s when time flies without you noticing it, where you are filled with a kind of joy, an almost feverish excitement about the task in hand. Whatever it is, when you have completed it you are aware that you have achieved something, and that you have been, for a while, entirely and perfectly yourself.

Writing is mine, and reading used to be. I am now re-training myself to read – properly, deeply – that ‘getting lost in a book’ feeling that I used to get as a child. The internet is rewiring our brains, did you know that? We are in the process of becoming skimmers, clickers, extractors of key words and phrases. The only way to get reading back is to keep practising. After a while – maybe many weeks or even months – the ‘getting lost’ facility comes back. What you really need is a brain that can do both – skim for information, read for pleasure. Stories – either telling them or listening them – ideal. Stories distract you from that dreary self-absorption, that endless monologue.

I can imagine that for some people the key to at least a temporary ‘present momentness’ would be music (to sooth the savage breast, etcetera), for others it might be a complicated piece of knitting or the challenge of drawing a difficult subject or capturing a landscape. I can imagine it might be maths, or solving puzzles if you are that way inclined.

But is reading or writing really being present, or might it be the ultimate form of being elsewhere? Maybe I can’t bear to be here at all, even for a second; can only sustain life on this ghastly planet, in these terrifying times, by being as much as possible, second by second, elsewhere? What is a book but a yet another imaginary world, an alternative world, another place?

In which case, I’m tempted to say to hell with it! I’ll be elsewhere in whatever way happens to make me happiest, or at any rate least unhappy. I’ll be absent without leave. Bother the Buddha, I’m going to get through my compulsory sojourn on this doomed planet in any which way I can.

Whatever gets you through the night.

gin-lane