Kiss it better

Canadian sister and I were talking, transatlantic fashion, about how much we missed Mum. Mum’s in a home, and she does not know us. I visited her today and she asked, in a rare half sentence, where The Daughters were. I am guessing that in her mind The Daughters are not the lumpy, grey old badgers that come to visit her but spotty, insolent teenagers or pigtailed infants.

The television was on loud. People being pompous about food, drizzling this jus or that jus on this or that. We agreed that we both particularly hated cooking programmes.

Finding her propped up in the armchair, my Adopted Godmother (or Godmother Elect) and I lowered ourselves onto Mum’s squishy orthopaedic bed with our feet on the squashy blue plastic ‘in case of falls’ mattress. Every time one or other of us moved, or stood up to make Mum a cup of tea or find her a jacket, both bed and fall mattress gave a fart and a chorus of desperate sighs. It was how we felt.

Last night Canadian sister told me how she felt when she learned her husband of forty years had cancer. She said she wanted to tell Mum, straight away. She knew Mum couldn’t do anything about it but she had to tell her all the same. But she couldn’t tell her. Mum was past understanding anything anyone said. She had tiptoed off without bothering to say goodbye, it felt like.

I told her something I had not realised until I said it, that although Mum had spent most of her life annoying me in one way or another I often longed to talk to Old Mum about New Mum. If only she would come back just for one day so that I could ask her what to do, even though there is nothing at all to be done.

When you lose your parents it’s weird. It’s not like you become a grown-up, suddenly. Here you are, still a five year old inside the elderly carapace you hardly recognise in the mirror, but now you’re abandoned, cast back upon your own inadequate five year old resources. All the bad and sad stuff that has always been inside you, all that stuff that will probably get better someday all the while Mum and Dad are in the world – suddenly they aren’t in the world, in any meaningful way. And then all the bad and sad stuff starts to creep and snuffle its way out. Unchecked. Unbalanced. No one to kiss it better.

When we were children, if we fell over and cut our knees she would wash and bandage them for us. “Mummy kiss it better,” she would say, and the magic always seemed work. It occurred to us that it’s not important whether or not a parent – or anyone else – has any actual power to help you. It only matters that you can tell them. It’s just somebody being there to listen.

I suddenly remembered a time when my parents were both alive but old and, as the unmarried daughter, I seemed to have to go around everywhere with them. We went to a museum once. Admittedly it was raining and all three of us arrived at the reception desk in dripping rain-hoods, looking like drowned rats. ‘Three Seniors?’ the woman enquired with not even a trace of face-saving irony. Dad even bought me a walking stick exactly like his though I didn’t (and still don’t) need one.  How depressing I found that museum visit. How I wish I could turn back the clock and relive it now, torrential rain, walking stick, stupid receptionist and all.

No voice at the world’s tribunals

I always wondered about this business of taking up space. One person feels he is entitled to all the space in the world. Another, like a wild cat unwillingly rescued, spends her life continually try to squeeze herself into the smallest possible space, longing for invisibility. I suppose I’d be one of those – a wild cat unwillingly rescued by human society.

It used to be OK, when I had Ex. Ex was pugnacious enough for both of us. Sometimes this was embarrassing, like the time he chased a man in a potato lorry who was driving too fast, and the enormous man in the potato lorry unexpectedly slammed on the brakes and got out, marched back and threatened to “cream him over the bumper”. Other times I can only be grateful for, like the time he drove me to the eye hospital after weeks of misdiagnosis and ineffectual treatment by our local doctor, and demanded that a specialist see me at once. He made a loud, almighty, alpha male-type fuss in a room full of people who probably all had referral letters and had no doubt been waiting patiently for hours. That saved my sight.

Since I have been on my own – longer now than I was with him – I have had to learn to stand my ground, sometimes. I am so not good at it. I have to be very angry to confront someone, which means, basically, that I have no control over what comes out of my mouth. It always horrifies me and there will always a be disproportionately huge cost attached.

When the new people moved in next door I made friendly conversation over the fence. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? I resigned myself to the thundering feet up the stairs, the loud Disney-type music from the child’s bedroom, the hammering, the… whatever. Families are different, I told myself. You can’t expect them to be as unobtrusive as old folk. You can’t move, so get used to it.

I tried not to hear their loud, silly conversations out on the decking. When they lit the barbeque next to my garden fence and the smell of half-cooked pork sausages began to drift across my vegetarian garden I closed the windows, discreetly, hoping they wouldn’t notice and take umbrage.

When they had a party, which they did warn me about, sort of, I plugged in the old earpieces and tried to distract myself from a garden full of football-kicking little boys with soothing music. “Don’t kick that ball on the decking,” I couldn’t help discerning over Thomas Tallis. “You know what happened last time!”

What had happened last time? Had they by any chance been snuffling around my garden while I was out, looking for a lost football?

I tried not to hear ever-increasing volume of cackling and mindless laughter that seems to go with alcohol. I tried not to wonder what the loud, screechy row just the other side of my living room wall was all about. I tried – and of course failed – to resist peering round the curtain when the woman started running round in the front garden and banging on the front windows bellowing “They’re my fam’ly, they’re my fam’ly!” Who are? Not being able to work out exactly what was going on was almost as bad as psychic exposure to other people’s second-hand upset and aggression, like being given a single torn-out page from a library book.

I tried not to be horrified as the woman and a man manhandled a bellowing boy-child out to the car, he holding an arm and she a leg, and tossed the boy unceremoniously inside, where he continued to bellow, more loudly than before.

But when the next day someone from next door parked a white van – nay, the Mother of All White Vans, in front of my driveway and blocking me in I just sort of – found myself out in the garden, demanding to see him and asking him to remove it. It didn’t sound like me. It didn’t feel like me. It felt as if “me” was away on holiday and some storybook character was confronting her neighbour, and I was writing it.

“I will in a minute,” he said.

“No,” this storybook me was heard to say. “I want you to move it now.”

He did, but remarked that I could always have come round and asked him to move it if and when I needed to go out.

Since then, although he moved the car and has not blocked me in again, it falls silent every time I go out into the garden. If one of their loud conversations is going on there is a pause, and then laughter. Since then I cannot go out into my garden, basically, until after dark or until they all happen to go out in one of their many cars and vans. Since then I tiptoe about feeding my stray cats in the dusk. I pile up rubbish bags in the corner of kitchen by the door, only creeping out with them to the dustbins when the moon has risen because I cannot stand being seen and being listened to by hostile, mocking presences.

Now, the point of this is twofold:

Not everyone is like you. Not everyone can temporarily forget about/shut off from a blocked-in car. For some of us, neurotics maybe, it means having to ‘stew’ all night, unable to sleep for worrying about the blocked-in car and wondering if it’s gone yet. Some of us are claustrophobic and instantly feel that their only escape, whether needed or not, has now been cut off.

Not everyone is a thirty-something male souped-up on testosterone and self-regard. Not all of us can stride round to a stranger’s house at 7 on a Sunday morning and chortle “Mind moving your car now, mate?” Some of us are old, some of us are female, some of us are timid and some of us are shy.  We don’t all have a grim-faced and grumpy husband in the background who might possibly decide to “cream you” if you don’t get on and move the thing.

I related the story to Canadian sister over the phone. “You did the right thing,” she said. “It’s the same over here – you just don’t block people in. It’s rude.”

The thing to do, surely, is pause for a moment, engage your imagination and try to anticipate the effect your actions may have on people who are not you, and not like you. Isn’t that what all those undrawn boundaries and unspoken social rules are all about?

It is an attempt to reach others and make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find that you have no voice at the world’s tribunals, and that no one will speak for you.

Anita Brookner: Look At Me

Featured Image: Boxed In: Denice Goldschmidt

Play that song…

So there I was, aged thirteen and three-quarters or thereabouts, attending the Methodist Youth Club. All Around Me (as the ghastly Christmas song would have it) Children Playing, Having Fun…. Except that I wasn’t having fun and the Methodist Youth Club wasn’t anything like everyone cracked it up to be.

It was held in the back room of the Methodist Chapel in Station Road. The floor was uncarpeted boards and kind of dusty. Having moved the long metal benches to one side a handful of teenagers thundered about on it, aimlessly. In one corner there stood an out-of-tune piano. Every once in a while a brave or show-offy teenager attempted Chopsticks on it, very loudly and very badly. One or two could also manage a version of a tune I notice has come back again recently, in disguise. Now it’s hiding in a catchy rap-type thing called Play That Song:

Play that song
The one that makes me go all night long
The one that makes me think of you
That’s all you gotta do
 Hey, mister DJ when you gonna spin it
My baby’s favorite record she been waiting for a minute
She invited all her friends and I’m buying all the rounds…. etc
 Originally it was known as Heart & Soul (Hoagy Carmichael, 1939) and had different words.

Whatever, they plonked it out on the piano for a minute or two before losing interest.

There were only other things to do to pass the time at the Methodist Youth Club, which as I recall was more or less unsupervised by any kind of adult. You could disappear into the back room to take part in a kind of seething mass snog in the dark, which was where ninety percent of them went. Or you could play ping pong. Mass snogging was obviously a total no-no for a girl of my mangy ilk. Nobody ever asked me to play pingpong and I would have been mortified if they did. I therefore stood around watching other people play pingpong.

I stood around trying to pretend I wasn’t the only person standing around with not a soul to talk to.

I stood around trying to look as if I could have played pingpong or disappeared into the back room for a snog in the dark – if I’d chosen to.

I stood around, a too-tall, spotty teenager who wouldn’t take off her blue school mac (why? why did I go round in my school mac all the time? I must have been so weirder even than I remember), her hair scraped up into two wispy school-type bunches. I had not only spots all over my chin all the time but, as it seemed to me, boils. People laughed at me. I dreaded going to the Youth Club. I dreaded not going. I looked forward all week to going. I hated actually being there.

On the subject of ‘why’. Why do mothers come out with stuff like ‘Oh you might get the odd little spot or two now you’re a teenager, but by the time you’re eighteen your hormones will have settled down…? Untrue, so untrue. It’s one of those absolute lies regularly told to women and little girls, such as:

‘Childbirth? Not nearly as bad as people make out…’

‘The change? Scarcely noticed it!’

‘No, of course old ladies don’t have hairs growing out of their chins. That only happens to wicked witches in storybooks…’

So I stood there week after week, one Airforce Blue school raincoat-clad elbow casually draped upon what had once been the mantelpiece, appearing to be reading with utter fascination the only other book in the room apart from a massive Bible on a lectern, which nobody would have been seen dead even approaching.

There I stood, week after a week after week after week, under the beady eyes of Jesus. He was a wrinkled print in a cheap frame. He was sitting on a hilltop somewhere, on a hillock or maybe a boulder. I remember he didn’t look a bit Jewish, more blonde, curly and wispy-brown-bearded. He had a halo of course, and all around him were children of all nations gazing up in longing and adoration. I believe it might have been captioned Suffer the little children to come unto me. I seem to remember little girls were perched on his knee and even at the time it struck me as a bit creepy and horrid.

However, He was Jesus and He was looking down on me and even at thirteen and three quarters or thereabouts I hoped that He might be looking after me as well and saw me as I stood there hideously self-conscious and awkward beyond all description. He saw the meanest sparrow fall unnoticed in the street, after all. Why not me and my many zits? It’s not at all fun suddenly being adolescent especially when, even before a tidal wave of hormones decided to envelope you, you were pretty screwed up.

The book was called The Midwich Cuckoos and it was by John Wyndham. I can see it now, a cream and orange penguin paperback somebody had abandoned on what had once been the mantelpiece to gather dust. It was a library copy – a paperback that converted into a hardback and plasticised, a torn date label inside. The plastic had gone brittle in the sunlight and was crackling away at the edges.

I can see that book so clearly, what I can’t remember is the plot since I never read a single word of it in all the months that I stared so earnestly and learnedly into its brown and faded pages.

I suppose I’ll have to read it now. Exorcise the ghost.

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In Oppley they’re smart, and in Stouch they’re smarmy, but Midwich folk are just plain barmy”  (The Midwich Cuckoos: John Wyndham)

Featured Image: Piano Duet: Pamela Blaies

White plastic popper-beads and a red hat

I have noticed that my posts become increasingly like the white plastic popper bead necklace I had when I was a child, and which broke all over the floor during a game of spin-the-collection-plate at the Sunday School Christmas Party because some stupid boy (probably Peter Stelmazuk) yanked on them to see how they were held together. I get one thought, and that leads on to another, and that another and occasionally if I’m lucky the end thought joins back up to the first one.

I used to know a woman who spoke like I write. Unfortunately she lived opposite me on the new estate that Ex referred to scathingly as Brookside. She was one of those women who having discovered you stuck to you like a veritable limpet and wouldn’t stop talking. I used to get invited over to their house, which was hugely much bigger than mine, with a conservatory, a lovely (if bijou) garden with a water-feature, and those massive, expensive armchairs with electric controls that lift the back, the seat, the arms, the footrest and whatever other moving parts it has up and down so as to ensure your absolute comfort whilst consuming white wine or nibbling on canapés of an evening.

Her husband used to go upstairs to his study as soon as I arrived, either to construct model aeroplanes or to further his bid to become a local councillor so as to have speed bumps inserted into Brookside’s smooth new speed-bumpless circular road, which the local hooligans used as a racetrack, using the car park of the equally new and monstrously big Tesco store as their starting point. He was exhausted being married to this woman and, after only twenty minutes in her company, I was exhausted too. Unfortunately, I never got away with less than a whole evening.

She would talk non-stop, seamlessly segueing from one irrelevancy to another, whilst I tried desperately to keep all the threads together and understand the connection between them. I would watch her mouth moving and moving and moving, fascinated and horrified, wondering when – and how she was ever going to get to the point. Her conversation was like one of those fractal leaves, you know? Endlessly branching, branching and branching. And the thing was, you couldn’t tune out and daydream because every now and then she would stop and ask a question, but never about the branch of the fractal she was currently on, always about something several branches back. I couldn’t abide her, but abide her I did for several years. I felt sorry for her because she had no friends. I knew what it was like to be impossible and unlikeable and not understand why. I suspected she and I had an uncomfortable something in common, but at that time I didn’t know what.

She used to take me shopping in Canterbury. She would drag me round one department store after another, looking for a red hat or similar must-have object. She would never buy anything. In each store, instead of looking for the must-have object she would approach the first sales assistant she spotted on the ground floor and demand to know where the red hats were. She would fail to memorise the instructions and ask the poor woman – who was actually selling make up or perfume rather than hats – for it all to be repeated. Then she would drag me up and down escalators in search of red hats, because of course despite the repetitions of detailed instructions she had instantly forgotten where the red hats were.

Then we found the red hats, and one particular red hat she really loved. Then we would leave the shop in search of a cash machine because she had not got any cash out before going shopping. This would take some time. Then neither of us would be able to remember where the particular red hat was, so would spend the rest of the morning trying to relocate it. Then she would disappear into changing rooms and leave me standing in the middle of the store. Hours later, still standing there, I would wonder if she had simply gone home. I would ask shop assistants if they had happened to see her. None of them ever had.

I moved house but she came to visit me, turning up in her husband’s bright yellow sports car and skewing it across two of my new neighbours’ parking spaces. She was not a good driver though it was a good car. The best air-conditioning I had ever experienced, and it smelt of new leather and great expense. She also phoned, at great length. I had ‘caller display’ put on and took to not answering it when her number showed up. I felt bad about that.

Now, I remember where this was going. Sooner or later we will get on to the Youth Club, the out-of-tune piano and a single battered copy of The Midwich Cuckoos. And somewhere in the mix will be a queasy, beatific portrait of Jesus surrounded by unlikely children of all races, suffering them to come to him. And then there will be my newly-found Certificate of Baptism and my dear Godmother who is not, in fact, my godmother at all as it transpires.

I think it will have to be another post.

Maybe even two.

poppers

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair…

Apparently, human beings are evolving towards a state of complete hairlessness. This is because being less rather than more hairy is considered attractive, particularly in women. Therefore, by a process of natural selection over many thousands of years, hair is  on the way out – faster in women than in men because quite a few women still rather like the hairy man and continue to select him for a mate.

Apparently, for reasons I have now forgotten, if I ever read that bit, our many, many times great grandchildren may have huge foreheads, great gobstopper eyes like those Manga characters, and teensy-tiny teeth. They are likely to be very tall, but physically rather weak. Etiolated – I seem to remember that word from biology. You put a plant in a dark cupboard and it grows and grows, looking for light, but not finding any light it blanches and weakens and droops. That’s what we’re doing as we sit in the flickering dark catching up on all those box sets. Etiolating.

But that’s in 100,000 years time, and by that time we’ll probably all have long since nuked or poisoned ourselves to extinction. Earth will be crawling with cockroaches and the sea a mass of blind white amoeba type things. Pseudopodium – another word I remember from school biology. It means “false foot” and is a temporary protrusion on the wall of an amoeboid cell for movement or feeding. Irrelevant, of course.

(Why am I suddenly writing about hair? Well, I found this vast list of one word subjects for poems – far better than the usual WordPress prompts – you know the sort of thing – Taxes – Beige – Ant – Cactus – Hat. I thought I would make use of them here from time to time, taking care to cross them off neatly once used, like my mother with her shopping list – Ryvita – Yoghurt – Comb – Comb again – Tinned Peaches – T/paste.)

You may have noticed the picture at the top of La Tour Abolie. I do believe it is of Rapunzel and may have been taken in some open air Grimm’s fairy tales museum. She was the girl who, imprisoned in a tower by a nasty bit of work by the name of Dame Gothel – a tower with no stairs only a very, very high window – learned to let down her long golden hair so that a Prince who happened to be passing could climb up. There are various versions of what happens next. Her skirt becomes mysteriously tight around the waist. She gives the game away to the witch, who cuts her hair and casts her out into the wilderness. Rapunzel’s hair grows back once the Prince touches it. She gives birth to twins. Dame Gothel herself gets trapped in the stairless tower. Who knows?

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb thy golden stair.

rapunz 2

And then there’s poor Sampson, Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves. Foolish man, he (eventually) confided in the prostitute Delilah that his fantastic strength resided in the seven braids of his hair, which were at once shaven off so that his strength left him, and his eyes were gouged out and he was sent to work at the prison mill, grinding grain with slaves. However, the shaven hair at once began to grow back, and…

sampon 4

In praise of contraptions

What is the difference between a contraption, a gadget, a device, an apparatus, an invention…?

To me a contraption needs an element of eccentricity, a fair amount of ingenuity and a sprinkling of creative overkill.

This morning on the news there featured a gentleman in Bristol – like Banksy – not Banksy, presumably – disguised in an all-enveloping jacket with the hood up, his voice muffled: the anonymous Grammar Vigilante. He goes around in the dead of night, often in fear and trembling lest he be discovered, inserting apostrophes into words on shop and business signs where apostrophes have been sinfully omitted and removing apostrophes from words into which they have been equally sinfully inserted. But people might say, says the news reporter, that what you are doing is illegal. You don’t have permission to correct stuff.

It’s not right, he says simply. Someone has to put it right. I’m proud that it’s me. And good on him. I’d do the same myself if I had the nerve.

What struck my eye, though, was his special gadget. His contraption. He called it “The Apostrophiser” and it was a wonderful thing – with one end he could apply, at some height above his head, the apostrophe, carefully matched to the original sign for colour and font. The apostrophe started off as a blob and was carefully, expertly, smeared into the proper shape by a small wheel. On the other end was a gadget for blanking out superfluous apostrophes. The Apostrophiser worked a treat but was so big he had to carry it openly about the night-time streets of Bristol. I did wonder as to the necessity of the hoodie etc for a man with a giant wooden Apostrophiser dangling from his right arm, but…

Life is so much more interesting for contraptions, isn’t it? Nan and Grandad didn’t have a fridge, which was a problem on Sundays when they bought a block of Raspberry Ripple ice cream (my favourite) to go with our Sunday Lunch. Grandad dug a deep, square hole under the bathroom washbasin – it must have taken him at least a day – and made a kind of dumb waiter to lower the ice cream into. It seemed to work. It don’t remember it melty. He also made what he referred to as a dibber out of the handle of an old garden fork. Sawed it off and sharpened it. I think the idea of a dibber was to make a nice neat hole to settle seedlings into.

I recently spent ages combing the internet, trying to find a contraption I had imagined, in my head (sorry, it would have been in my head, wouldn’t it?). I could see the thing but nobody seemed to be selling it. Ridiculous. There’s somebody selling everything. It was a thing for squeezing every last drop of meat out of the cats’ Felix sachets. I’m a vegetarian. I hate getting gravy all over my hands and I hate waste. Some poor old horse or chicken or whatever has perished that my moggies might eat and it just feels iniquitous to waste its precious little chunks of flesh.

The thing I had in mind had two prongs, or two somethings – like hair-straighteners? For flattening the pouch. At last I found one, and a very good one. In fact I bought two in case one of the precious items should go missing. Why can’t they call things by sensible names? Like, the sort of description you might type into Amazon when searching?

Dad did try with contraptions, but he didn’t have Grandad’s flair. He once made me a T-shaped thing for reaching down into the hole that the water-meter is in, outside the house, and kind of twisting the handle. Actually, an arm with a hand on the end works rather better, but I keep Dad’s gadget anyway, like the walking stick he bought me and which I am not yet incapacitated enough to use, the rusty screw-driver and the ancient ruler, because he gave them to me.