Sea Hero Pest

But I memorized the map! You showed me a map and I duly memorized it. Three check-in points with 3 at the top and 2 to the left. Sail up to 1. Veer back sharply to 2. Upwards and slightly  right to 3 and then – bingo – another page of the treasure-map-or-whatever is mine! You didn’t mention navigating! You didn’t mention landmarks! I was supposed to guess that that bunch of stylised pointy trees and those mammoths-wearing-shawls were in fact landmarks?

A lot more of this exclaiming has gone on in the past couple of days, since I discovered the dementia-research game/app known as Sea Hero Quest. Apparently one of earliest the signs of dementia is a lessening of the ability to navigate, and I do remember this quite clearly with Mum. She got lost after one of her regular Sunday visits to my house. Ten minutes after leaving she was back, knocking on my door, tearful, insisting that the roads had all changed. They been taking her to Hastings, she said. Hastings was a good hour and a half’s drive away. She had just missed her usual turning.

They tell you that for every ten minutes or so you spend on your smartphone  steering your tiny electronic boat around huge electronic icebergs, you are contributing approximately thirty minutes of invaluable research data to scientists seeking a cure for dementia. Well there’s Mum, and the app was free to download, so how could I not?

To be fair it was my first ever experience of gaming. Apart from Words With Friends, that is, which doesn’t really count because it’s basically Scrabble and doesn’t involve manoeuvring anything. And I do wonder if being of the Sheldon Cooper ilk doesn’t hamper a person in unintended ways. I mean, I don’t suppose the designer of Sea Hero Quest anticipated that someone would be so busy attempting and failing to type her age into a big white box that she did not notice until her fifth try that there was a huge sliding scale underneath. The big white box served no purpose whatsoever. In which case, why have a white box? Or maybe he designed it that way. It could have been some kind of trick…

And I don’t suppose he anticipated that the lack of any but the vaguest of instructions would be much of a problem. Presumably experienced gamers are already familiar the basic conventions of gaming. But I mean, how do you even start? There are kind of lily-pad things. Am I supposed to hop from one to another in number order, or can I click on any one I want at any time? And what is that star thing? What happens if I click on a monster? And why is there a paintbrush in the water?

And then there are the memorisable maps sans landmarks. Memorising maps has never been that stressful for me: I like maps. In my younger days I managed to more-or-less memorise the route from Kent to Scotland and drive there over two days alone, in a tiny car, with nothing but a book of road maps open on the passenger seat and list of place names taped to the driver’s side window. I did get lost on the motorway, but only once, before realising that the sun was now setting in the wrong direction.

And then there is the map that appears to consist entirely of swirling fog and dry land. Perhaps for this particular game Boaty will prove to be an amphibi-boat. Just about anything might be possible in a land featuring shawl-wearing mammoths. Boaty will doubtless sprout crocodile legs and lumber across dry land in the direction of those distant red beacons. But no! When the game starts, there we are in the same icy, glacier-infested waterway.

So what was the point of that map?

Infuriatingly, at the end of one game it asks a series of questions: How did you navigate? Did you count from the beginning? Did you navigate using the landmarks? Or did you count from a landmark?

Count?? Navigate?? They never told me I was supposed to be counting or navigating.  I was just concentrating on this little wizzy item between glaciers and crashing helplessly into one after another. Should I be tapping the phone? Should I be pushing the boat forward, or maybe pulling the boat along somehow, with an ancient palsied digit? Would the phone perhaps respond to bellowed instructions, as with Alexa?

And then there were the sea monsters. The idea is that you pursue the sea monster at top speed through the glaciers, inexplicable mammoths and whatnot. I haven’t found out how to slow Boaty down as yet so we proceed at maximum notts through icy waters, with some kind of Nessie-alike creature speeding ahead. We are meant to be catching up to her and taking her photograph – with what I have no idea – except that flotillas of baby glaciers keep getting in the way.

Initially I try to avoid them by tapping to the left or the right. This works twice. Thenceforward no amount of leftward or rightward tapping makes any difference whatsoever – no corresponding evasive skipping by Boaty occurs. Ah well, I think, since the iceberg flotilla don’t seem to be damaging her, as they would surely do in real life,  I might as well just laissez faire, que-sera-sera and power on through. But this only slows you down. Eventually Nessie takes pity and stops of her own accord so that you can take her photo, for which you are rewarded with one hot-cross-bun type star and a patronising message: Try to go a little faster next time to gain more points. I was trying to slow down.

Three hours later and there I am on the sofa, in gathering darkness, hungry, surrounded by dozing cats and still apparently attempting to master Sea Hero Quest. But in fact I am not really playing. I am driving my nasty little electronic sailing vessel around in ever decreasing circles and deliberately slamming her into first one glacier and then another. Yes, I am graunching her dear, jaunty little painted sides along those serrated ice-edges.

Kerrang!

Pow!!

H Morey: a short story

The policewoman bent down and picked up a single item of mail from the heap on the mat. It was about life insurance. Her hand, even inside its leather glove, felt icy; the coldest winter for fifty years, so they said. She checked the addressee: H Morey. No title, she thought. Not even the full Christian name. Luckily she wasn’t alone. Her two male colleagues had already gone in. They were being chivalrous, not because she was a woman but because this was her first Discovered Alone.

There was no smell. Usually in these cases there was some kind of stench. She had been prepared for it, but there seemed to be none. She had been told it wore off after a while. A longish while. She didn’t want to see what she knew she was about to see, but there you go, that was the job. Best get on with it. Christ, it was cold today.

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H Morey had not started off as a corpse. Long ago H Morey had been a person, of sorts. She had lived in this house alone and had avoided, as far as it was possible to avoid, the neighbours. There was a balance to be struck, however. You had to talk to them once in a while so as they didn’t get worried and start calling in Social Services or Age Concern. The key to being a hermit was to appear to be moderately sociable, be seen sometimes. Exchange the odd word about the weather. Dredge up a smile from somewhere. That necessary shield.

It had been all right when the old people were next door. She didn’t like them, but then nobody did. They had few friends and therefore few visitors. There was the loud daughter once a week, the one you could hear as clear as day through the kitchen wall. The one that parked her car in front of H Morey’s house and took a short cut across the lawn when she went back to it, car keys jangling. Everything she did made a noise. Big woman, she was; top-heavy, like most round here. And very occasionally they had lesbians. These came in pairs, obviously. H Morey assumed the lesbians had also been prison warders, like the neighbours, since on television they always seemed to be. Brutish looking, shaven-headed women. Also top-heavy. She didn’t care about them being lesbians but they did make such a racket. And they brought dogs with them, which also made a racket. Their dogs barked at the neighbours’ dog and the neighbours’ dog barked at them. It was pandemonium, but the next morning they would all go off somewhere, together but in their separate cars. Some sort of holiday that often lasted for months. H Morey savoured their absences.

The old people had been hard-faced. She imagined them beating their prisoners with little vicious truncheons, and giving back as good as they got in verbal abuse. She was frightened of them but grateful that they left her alone. Occasionally one or other of them came out on the decking – usually it would be him. If she happened to be outside she would treat him to a wince of a smile. He would grimace grimly in return, and then either or both of them would go back indoors: a Chinese wall. It worked well enough.

She always felt self-conscious in her garden because it wasn’t private. Their decking was high and raised them up three foot or so, so her six foot fence panel was useless except as a wind-brake. Six foot was the maximum height, though. The grass tended to get long because she put off mowing it for as long as possible. Then of course it was a struggle. To begin with she went out regularly, proud of her new garden and hoping to maintain it despite her lack of gardening skill, but after a while the eyes on her, the possibility of being viewed from a bathroom window, say, worried her too much. She took to going to bed early and getting up early. Sometimes, in the early dawn, she went out to prune the roses or water the poor hydrangeas in their tubs. At this time of the morning the dew still lay and all the spider’s webs were wet, draped across the leaves. Sometimes the hydrangeas went thirsty. It was too much for her, those eyes.

And then the new people came. The old people disappeared abroad, possibly with the daughter, possibly with the lesbians, it didn’t matter – to start a new life in the sun, he said, when they coincided on the decking. He didn’t let on where. She wondered where abroad could be that sunny. Africa, possibly. She couldn’t imagine the prison warders in Africa. She worried about the new people. Perhaps it will just be one person, she thought: one quiet person. Perhaps it won’t be a family; perhaps not dogs or children, just some lone old woman like me, or a lone old man. Old people were easier to talk to, when you had to. Old people liked her.

The new family arrived with many white vans. There were many men, all with their shirts off. They said Fuck a lot. They guffawed. There were many women, also. There was a fat blonde one who smoked cigarettes out on the patio, and cackled. Why must human beings laugh all the time, and why were their laughs so ugly? She could not work out who was going to be living here, there were so many of them. Later the fat blonde one spent a day there ‘doing the garden’. The prison warders’ garden had been perfect as far as H Morey was concerned. Fat Blonde cut down the tree that was dead-looking all year but came out with a mass of orange berries in the autumn. H Morey had looked forward to those. A splash of colour.

H Morey had enjoyed the neighbours’ garden more than her own. From behind the bedroom curtain you could look down into it – the palm tree-thing, the orange berries, the tiny greenhouse at the end with its rows of seedlings and stacks of unused buckets, the bird house nailed to the tree that no birds ever went into, but it had looked right, where they had put it. They had worked on the garden together, the old people. Sometimes the dog would be out there, playing with its squeaky toy. Sometimes you could hear the squeaking late at night and then you knew the dog was out on the decking, getting its late-night airing.

The new family had children who thundered up and down the stairs. They played the music from Disney films, very loud, in their bedrooms. It was confusing, who the children belonged to, how many there were and why they weren’t all there all of the time. Were they his, hers, or a product of them both? To H Morey it seemed important to know but she didn’t know, couldn’t know, never would.

Sometimes there was a little girl, who whined in next door’s kitchen and kicked a ball about and then kicked it over H Morey’s fence and subsequently came round to collect it, looking surly. Sometimes there were teenage boys. These rode mountain bikes about on the decking and the reverberations seemed to permeate H Morey’s house. There were heaps of what looked like washing-machine drums out on the decking. The old ones had kept everything neat, the wooden patio chairs and table varnished every year. The new ones removed the wooden furniture and installed a green sun-lounger, a portable silver barbecue and an outdoor ashtray. Groups of them came and they cooked sausages and the vile meaty smell drifted in through H Morey’s kitchen window.

They played loud music which could go on for hours, but not always. It was worse, in a way, the way it could just start up and you didn’t know when. They played it at top volume, and then they laughed a lot, and then they said Fuck a lot and had arguments that involved running around on the lawn and screeching. H Morey learned to bear it. She fished out her old MP3 player – people used phones for that nowadays, she had heard, but she didn’t know how. She put the little plastic buds in her ears and turned it up as loud as she dared without damaging her hearing. After a while she left the buds in all the time and walked round all day in a sea of long-forgotten folk music and half-remembered pop. She rediscovered Leonard Cohen. She wondered why she had ever downloaded that Madonna one, though it was quite good.

There seemed no point in checking, after a while, whether the noise next door had stopped. When they started one of their parties she took to her bed, at seven, or eight, whenever they started the racket. She fell asleep with the music in her ears and woke at three, four or five in the morning to find the battery flat and next door silent. Blessed darkness outside. There were bats in the dusk but this time of the morning nothing, not even the hedgehog. She wandered around the house in her dressing gown, doing the housework she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on later, when they were awake.

She adapted in all sorts of ways, tried things out – things that would make it tolerable. She realised she could change her hours permanently. She would become nocturnal – no, that wasn’t the word – crepuscular. Creeping crepuscularly through the dawn and the dusk, like a cat. She fed the stray cats, but only in the dawn and the dusk. She peered sideways out of her kitchen window, checking there were no humans out on next door’s decking, and then she would scurry out, with plates on a tray already filled with food, but carefully. How awful if she tripped down the step with a clatter. How unbearable if they knew she was outside.

One day they cut down the tall shrub on their side of the fence panel. Now there was no privacy at all. Washing up at the kitchen sink she would suddenly find herself observed by one or more fat and cigarette-smoking persons; sundress-wearers, laughers-at-nothing; smelly-sausage-gobblers. She hated them now.

Then they parked one of their huge vans across her driveway. She had had to say something about that or he would start doing it all the time, taking it as his right. It wasn’t that she needed that bit of space outside but it hemmed her in, it blocked her exit. Panic rose in her at the thought. She couldn’t bear it.

He had been surly, like the daughter. Then the woman had come round about something or other. She had been surly too, but no ‘words’ were had. H Morey could not remember any of their names, next door, though she had been told them, once. They remembered hers, of course. Pinned down like a butterfly, she thought. Netted, gassed, skewered and pinned in a case; on permanent display. She wondered, sometimes, if she could find a way to die. One that wouldn’t involve any actual suffering or knowledge of what one was doing. But of course, a dead butterfly is dead already. No room for manoeuvre.

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The policewoman was glad to get out. Natural causes, the bloke in the white suit said. Been there for years, probably, on the sofa, quietly falling apart. It hadn’t been so bad; more like dust that still had a bit of a shape to it. She shivered. The frost was beginning to melt, just a little, as the sun rose. There was a flask of hot tea in the van. She was so looking forward to it.

(Apologies: this is at least twice as long as recommended for a blog post, but I wrote it in one three hour session and there seemed no point in splitting it arbitrarily into instalments. Tiny bit gruesome – sorry about that too. And about the rude word, but it did seem necessary, for this story.)

There is actually a timetable affixed to this bus stop…

Bertie from the bus stop has asked me my name, eventually.

We are standing outside his house, which is just around the corner from the bus stop, way before my house. I still have a fifteen minute hill to climb and am so tired I am wishing that someone would install one of those ski lifts, so that I could just hop on. Bertie thought this was a good idea last time I mentioned it, and asked me how much it would cost.

He has been telling me about his blackberries. These are a tangle of what I would have called brambles in one corner of his front garden. However, they do actually have blackberries on them, half of them unripe as yet. He is saying something about picking them, or not picking them or other people picking or not picking them. I am past the stage of being able to piece it all together. It has been a whole day on public transport to visit Mum.

I have sat next to Bertie on the bus from town for almost an hour and he has been talking at me all the way: shards of his life: fragments that would probably make sense if only he would give you some sort of context for them. It is like ancient coins under a metal detector – you never get the whole horde, only this battered coin, and that.

He starts in the middle, or he’ll just tell you the edges. He skips from when his Mum was alive, which now seems to have been back in the 70s and in another part of the country; to his health and mobility problems, which he is assuming I know all about; to the problems of a friend who is struggling to help another friend, who lives a long way away. It’s one of those stream-of-consciousness autobiographies – you feel that if only you could put enough energy into your listening you might be able to piece it together.

He is still telling me about the blackberries. My feet are on fire from too much walking about in new walking boots. I am overheated, wilting. The sun has been beating down on me through the bus window and before that there was an hour just waiting at the bus stop in town. Until Bertie came along, that is, and started advising some woman about the times of the buses. Five minutes ago she had asked me the same question and now she was asking him. People just automatically ignore everything I say.

‘There is supposed to be a bus at half past,’ she said. ‘So where is it?’

‘Where exactly are you trying to get to?’ I asked, although I could tell from the look of her where she was going – the holiday camp.

‘To the holiday camp’, she said.

‘Then it’s twelve minutes past’, I say, ‘though it may be up to ten minutes late’.

‘There’s supposed to be one at half past (this hour).’

‘No, there isn’t one till twelve minutes past (next hour).’

So now she turns to Bertie and asks ‘When is the next bus?’

‘Eleven minutes past,’ he says, ‘though it’s usually late’.

She nods, comprehendingly. Oh, eleven minutes past, not twelve minutes like that woman just told me. Eleven minutes past. Bertie, of course, has now got her by the (metaphorical) throat and is regaling her with the intricacies of the local bus timetable; telling her where in the town centre she could obtain a copy of said publication, although of course she will miss the bus if she sets off to obtain one now.

People at bus stops tend to annoy me anyway, especially holidaymakers. They are always cross from the unaccustomed hanging about (apparently buses happen more often than once an hour up in London), they have never read the timetable and every one of them has a different and contradictory certainty as to when the bus ought to have been due. But still they ask you when it is due. And then they don’t believe you when you tell them.

There is actually a timetable affixed to this bus stop, I hear myself pointing out, snarkily. Occasionally, nowadays, I seem to be saying exactly what I mean, having spent a lifetime avoiding this dangerous practice. Pretend Me is always shocked when Real Me decides to pop out of her box and Say Something Snarky. I know it is only because Pretend Me is very, very tired, also hungry and thirsty having just spent lunchtime watching repeats of ‘The Simpsons’ with her mother in a bedroom with a dark blue wallpaper frieze and a view consisting of air-conditioning clutter and a toilet window or two.  All her life Pretend Me has managed to keep Real Me stuffed down under that painted lid, the catch firmly on. Now, at random moments, this strategy fails.

Confused and distracted by Bertie’s monotone mumbled timetable monologue, the woman hasn’t in any case noticed the underlying acidity of Real Me’s remark. She is a faded blonde, this woman; hooped earrings; strappy sundress; glittery cheap flat sandals with bunions poking through the straps, chin beginning to sag into her neck. She’s around about my age, pretending not to be. Pretend Me feel ashamed of Real Me’s intended nastiness, even if she didn’t notice.

But not very.

I sometimes wonder if this blog isn’t the same sort of thing: fragments of a whole life – the double-helix life, perhaps I should say, of Pretend Me and Real Me. And as with Bertie’s autobiography, no one will ever have the time, energy or inclination to piece it all together. Maybe this is an autobiography but with other bits and pieces tossed in for good measure, like the sixpence and the mixed spice in the Christmas pudding.

Maybe one day, so far into the future that nothing remains of this century but internet echoes, some future history student will decide to ‘do’ this blog for their dissertation. And fail, distracted by blackberries, bus stops, observations apropos of nothing, chance acquaintances and recipes for appallingly sugary cakes.

‘I don’t think I caught your name…’ says Bertie, oddly formal and still lurking beside his blackberries.

‘I don’t think I told you,’ I say, and tell him. He repeats it to himself several times.

‘I’ll try to remember that,’ he says, looking anxious.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘I can always remind you’.

From my bookcase: Dissolution: C J Sansom

It is well known that cats are drawn to those who fear them most, and sit at their feet, eyes wide and sort of… threatening. I have long suspected that this principle is in fact universal, and that potentially life-threatening items are inexorably attracted to those who fear them most. Hence the deadly nightshade.

I have deadly nightshade in my garden. I cannot dig it out (as advised by the internet) because its actual roots are in my next door neighbour’s garden and she, being a school teacher and not afraid of anything, didn’t take me seriously when I hinted that she might dig it out. She had her fence panels renewed recently and I suppose the ground being disturbed has given new life to the indigenous weed population. Now the dreaded belladonna has joined those two other local residents, the giant bramble and the unidentifiable yellow triffid-thing.

I’ve always been worried about poisonous vegetation. I remember even as a child, some other infant telling me not to eat the tiny black seeds that rained onto the pavement from the laburnum tree in my mother’s front garden because they were deadly poisonous. That set the seed, as it were, for my not-quite-phobia.

Every few weeks or so the stuff starts sprouting and every few weeks or so I go out there armed with thick rubber gardening gloves, the secateurs, a garden-rubbish bag and a bottle of vinegar to cut it back.  The internet advises that deadly nightshade cannot thrive in a vinegar-treated environment. I can see the amateur chemistry behind this – acetic acid versus poisonous alkaloid. Unfortunately my deadly nightshade plant just seems to guzzle it up and sprout away again.

A long and winding introduction, then, to C J Sansom’s historical crime novel, first in the ‘Shardlake’ series, entitled ‘Dissolution’. You may remember that in a previous post I mentioned my calamitous loss-of-mojo as far as reading was concerned, but I also said I was still trying to get lost in books again, and ‘Dissolution’ is the novel I am trying it with. I found a battered copy in a charity shop – 50p, excellent value – on the way from the bus to the train station. I seem to be permanently between bus and train station nowadays, when not mucking out or feeding cats, decapitating monster brambles or sloshing vinegar on the belladonna.

I suppose this is a sign the book-mojo-magic-thing worked, at least temporarily: having read to the end of Chapter 12, where a poor little novice monk is poisoned by deadly nightshade and comes to a terrible, hallucinating, twistingly-spasmodic end, I put down the book and went out under the full glare of the midday sun (gosh, it’s hot out there!) and attacked the belladonna. It’s been well and truly cut off and vinegar-sodden and I have washed my hands at length at the kitchen sink using yellow washing-up liquid. Irrelevant, I know, the yellowness of the washing-up liquid, but the good detective (or hunchbacked lawyer/agent of Lord Cromwell in this case) lets no detail pass unrecorded.

So, a good one to read if you like that sort of thing. ‘Dark Fire’, the next one in the ‘Shardlake’ series, arrived today. Post-lady gave up trying to push it through the letter box after ten minutes or so of determined wrestling (I was watching her in the living room mirror – even behind frosted glass that tomato-red Royal Mail uniform is unmistakeable) and had to knock on the door and hand it to me in person. Really, I suppose, I should have got up and opened the front door but I was curious to discover how long she would spend trying to ram a thick novel through an obviously inadequate hole in a door.

The cat in the photo is Sophie, by the way. She was my first cat and has, sadly, gone to that great Summer Garden in the sky. And greatly missed she is, even now, hence the elaborate photo frame which I found, of all places, in a garden centre café whilst queuing for egg-on toast and a pot-of-tea with Mum and Dad. Funny how objects bring back memories.

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From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: [Godmother]’s Scrumptious Slice

I shall be seeing Godmother tomorrow, on yet another harrowing visit to Mum, which I will try to avoid writing about afterwards (sighs of relief, echoing around the globe…). However, I thought to mark the occasion I would include a recipe which Godmother originally passed on to Mum.

I don’t know whether Godmother christened them Scrumptious Slices or whether it was Mum who decided they were Scrumptious. I also have no idea what a Scrumptious Slice might look like when it comes out of the oven (please do report back if you decide to make them) and can’t post a picture of Godmother herself, so here is a fairy godmother instead.

SCRUMPTIOUS SLICE

  • 8 oz puff pastry
  • 8 oz marzipan
  • 3 oz glacé cherries
  • 3 oz dessicated cocoanut
  • 2 egg whites slightly beaten
  • 8 oz Cadbury Flakes (if you can’t get Cadbury Flakes, they are basically milk chocolate shaped into flaky log-things)
  • Caster sugar

Preheat oven to 230°C /450°F / Gas 8

Roll pastry out 10″ (inches) x 12″ rectangle. Roll marzipan to a slightly smaller rectangle and lay on top of pastry.

Chop cherries, mix with the cocoanut & add enough egg white to bind. Spread over the marzipan & lay Flakes in pairs down the centre (You may need to be a bit creative here if you are using an alternative to Cadbury’s Flake).

Dampen pastry edges – seal together lengthwise & then seal ends. Lift onto a greased baking sheet, ‘join’ side down. Brush with egg white, sprinkle with caster sugar.

Mark diagonal lines on top.

Bake for about 15 minutes until golden brown.

Hmm, they do sound quite yummy whatever they look like! 🙂

My disbelief grows weary of suspending itself…

I’m onto a sticky wicket with suspenders, I know. American suspenders are as illustrated below:

suspenders

British suspenders are things that hold up stockings, supposedly wicked, lacy and black (or red) but as I recall them from my uncomfortable schooldays, more often medical, pinkish and rubbery, and held together with sixpenny pieces when they broke. They always broke. The rubber perished. The little suspend-things cracked and disintegrated…

So what do Americans call suspenders-suspenders if what we call braces are there known as suspenders? But what holds up American stockings? If that’s suspenders too, how do they know what they are holding up? Is it just a matter of deduction from the context?

But this post is not about that.

When I was at school, struggling with the uncomfortable suspenders and the 60-denier sun-mist-stockings-with-seams – surely the ugliest stocking ever invented (not about that, remember!) it was explained to me that when we get completely lost in a book, or a film, or a story told by some grey-haired hippie-type lady whilst sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the library (pre-suspenders) was called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

I did not used to find this difficult, except in the case of plays. Plays have never done it for me. I’ve never been able to get past the reality of a lot of foreshortened real human beings prancing about on a stage and acting at one another. I can tell it’s acting. I can always tell it’s acting, even if it’s good acting, and it annoys me. People are pretending and I can see them doing it.

A posh lady I went to a play with once advised me that this was probably because I hadn’t grown up in a theatre-going household. She didn’t mean to be patronising, and she was right, partially – we didn’t go to plays, or the ballet or opera, come to that.

My parents were working class and, even if they could have afforded to go, would have been terrified to pass through the doors of a theatre. They wouldn’t have known what to wear or how to behave. They would have felt they stuck out like a sore thumb.

An all-encompassing self-consciousness is one of the things which go with being not-posh. Only when you are middle class can you raise your voice above a low murmur, not minding if others hear. Only when you are middle class can you walk about with your shoulders back and your snoot in the air, flinging your purple pashmina dramatically over your right shoulder, and not even know you are doing it. That’s confidence. Read Alan Bennett’s loving tales of his Mum and Dad if you don’t believe me. He knows. Alan Bennett is the greatest.

But I could get lost in a book. So could my mother, but my father appeared not to possess the suspension of disbelief gene. Maybe he lost it, as he lost so much, as a young conscript in the second world war. The war really did for him in a lot of ways, I think. He could never leave me alone when I was reading. He used to wave his hands in front of my face and think it was funny. ‘Look at her – she’s miles away. Away with the fairies.’ He never did understand why this was annoying.

Same with films, although mercifully my father wasn’t usually with me when I went to the pictures: I could be immersed in the story, living inside even the most far-fetched sci-fi blockbuster. I would be one or all of the characters, fleeing in terror from the scary monsters, falling in love, falling off a high building… The film’s ‘afterglow’ would stay with me for days afterwards, the story re-running itself in my head, scenes acting themselves out before my inner eye. And maybe it would still be the same, if I could afford to go.

Instead of fiction-reading, my father used to read out columns from newspapers – anything he found to be of interest. He was interested in politics and the financial markets, the way they worked, even though these things had little effect on his everyday life. We used to sit there bored, and the read-out paragraphs seemed to get longer and longer. When he grew ancient, however, propped up in a chair with a cushion behind his neck and the walker by his side, he lapsed into depression and scarcely spoke.  My mother used to gauge how happy, or not, he was by whether he read out any paragraphs. Eventually, he read out no paragraphs. He read nothing. He told my sister he had forgotten everything he had ever been or ever done. God save us.

As I have grown older I have become more interested in politics and found it more and more difficult – not to read – the words still make perfect sense – but to get lost in reading. My suspension of disbelief seems to have suspended operations. I am turning into my father, and this saddens me. Reading was all I had. I got through a tedious and difficult life mostly by daydreaming. I could lose myself in stories, and in plans I would never carry out, journeys I would never, practically, be able to make. Now, although I am still doing my best to get it back I feel – now here’s a simile for you, or maybe a metaphor – like a hunted rabbit, all exits sealed by the men with the dogs – or is it ferrets? – just an airless darkness and waiting for Whatever-it-is to be sent down after me.

Post McEwan Stress Disorder

This picture is from tiny card my mother once sent me. The message inside is mundane:

Monday, 2pm

I received your letter. Went over to the garage. Explained about little red spanner [Skoda’s irritating ‘service due’ warning light].

They can deal with little red spanner ie: take it off so that it won’t be a nuisance any more.

I left the key with them. It will soon be dealt with.

Love, Mum XXX

It felt a bit creepy reading this so-ordinary and long-forgotten message from Mum’s earlier self, but it was nice to see her handwriting, and to see that all the full stops were once again in the right place, the ‘i’s all meticulously dotted and the ‘t’s all crossed. The style’s clumsy for her, though – ‘it’ must already have begun at that point, and I didn’t realise.

It was a long drawn out and horrible Flowers For Algernon process, for us both, first watching her handwriting decline and then her mind refusing to tell her what to write in letters to friends, and her desperate strategies to keep doing so: the sudden change to writing in pencil – I bought her a whole box of 2Bs and a desktop pencil-sharpener which neither of us could then fasten to the desk; the endless, obsessive process of rubbing out bits of sentences and trying again; the rewriting of entire letters; the asking me to check them before she posted them.

I have a little nightmare of the same thing happening to me one day – and not realising – and gibberish appearing in this blog, and either no one telling me (and who would want to be the one to do that?) or everyone just Unfollowing. Oh, God save us from an unknown future.

I found Mum’s butterfly card in one of my books. Being lazy and using everything from letters to bus tickets to torn-off pieces of cereal packet does have its upside. You never know what little treasure you might to come across when you get round to tidying your books. I also found a lot of bookmarks from a particular second-hand bookseller.

Every time you order a second-hand book from them, no matter if it only cost 99p, they include a nice cardboard bookmark with a design submitted by a reader. And they are excellent bookmarks (they must have many graphic artists among their readers) and also an excellent selling point. It works with me anyway: I always look down the list and see if I can get the book from them rather than any of the alternatives, out of sheer bookmark-greed.

I notice a preponderance of the black-and-white-one-with-the-many-skulls. I remember, in fact, them sending me three black-and-white skull bookmarks inside a single ancient paperback one time, and picturing some poor, bored school-leaver on work-experience in an office on an industrial estate, fishing for the umpteenth time into a plastic bin full of pretty bookmarks and flinging in whatever happened to come out. I wonder if they do swapsies?

And now, by the magic of technology and a lot of messing about with fancy filters I am able to use Mum’s little butterfly card in a post. Mum would have been horrified, not at the idea per se but at the prospect of me attempting to explain it to her. Her eyes would glaze over the minute I started on about my computer: Mum was very good at un-listening, as no doubt most Mums are.

Why am I going on about butterflies? Well, I was going to use this picture as an illustration for the next Books From My Bookcase item. This was going to be a debut collection of short stories called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (2004). The book leapt out at me because it is one of two physically beautiful books I possess, the other one being the hardback first edition of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – the one with the gorgeous red flowers. Hang on, lets try to find it:

how i live cover

The above doesn’t do it justice. Bits of it (the leaves) are all shiny and lit up – sorry, metallicised – can’t find it in the dictionary but sure it’s a real word – metallized just wont do! – and bits of it are left matt. And Tropical Butterflies is yellow and brown and kind of fusty-Victorian-looking, and inside there is a bonus – an extra sheet – what do you call that? – the front paper – with a glossy version of the same yellow cover, a delightful little shock when you open it.

Now, later on in life, I understand why I married an artist. I thought it was only an unhappy childhood and alternative brain-wiring we shared but it was also an eye for beauty. In another life, maybe, I shall be a  collector of objects d’art Maybe I can go back (since I doubt that ‘lives’ are in chronological order) to the 17th Century and be a man (makes life easier, always) and have a cabinet of curiosities full of wonderful and mysterious things that I can show off to callers. Or maybe I’ve already had that life.

Rats.

In any case, having found A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies I realised I had only in fact read a few little bits of it. The short stories look good, if a mite challenging. They certainly got good reviews:

“John Murray’s stories are a genuine cultural breakthrough… adventures of the mind, and rich in human feeling, true departures from any other known fiction.” Muriel Spark

I think I read a little bit of one and had uncomfortable flashbacks to Ian McEwan. I had a really bad experience with his macabre short story collection The Cement Garden (1978). Every one of those tales frightened the living daylights out of me. Never been the same since. Post McEwan Stress Disorder.

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