A woman needs a bus like a fish needs a bicycle

I think Bertie-bus-stop must be in one of his low phases at the moment . I’ve noticed he swings between talking (a terrible lot) and staring out bitterly at the sea – or what would be the sea if the huge grassy bank of the sea wall wasn’t between us and it, since we’re below sea level. When the tide is up you can actually see boats and ships and stuff floating along on some invisible surface/horizon above your head. It’s weird.

This week he has had a permanent half-a-beard. Not designer stubble, I think, but maybe the result of shaving every third day, or chopping off tufts of beard with the kitchen scissors. The day before yesterday he was on an upswing, telling me in microscopic detail about the method of propagation for wallflowers. He has a family of wallflowers in his conservatory, not that I’ve seen his conservatory. But today it’s low tide and he’s at a low ebb, and he glares out at what would be the sea, if he could see it.

It may be the psoriasis, of course. It seems to be running away with him at the moment. I am not laughing. English Sister gets psoriasis at intervals, when stressed. It seems to start in her hair and creep down onto her forehead, meaning her scalp feels as if it is tightening up and holding her in a vice-like grip. She had to give up swimming because of it. Bertie has it on his hands, which he has shown me, but also – I now see – on his face. He says it’s from using bleach and other chemicals to do cleaning. I am not sure whether he means household cleaning or whether he is a cleaner.

Last time he mentioned the psoriasis I suggested those purple neoprene gloves, but he said he didn’t like wearing rubber gloves because he couldn’t feel what he was doing when cleaning toilets. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to be able to do when cleaning a toilet is to feel what I am doing. I am very, very squeamish and get through all such tasks by trying to ‘move my mind’ elsewhere, to contemplate infinity, to replay the plot of whatever book I am reading or film I saw last. Most of the time (confession time) I just squirt loads of bleach and limescale-remover down there and wander away, until forced to remember and do something about it.

But people do what they do, and don’t do what they don’t do, and I suppose he’s plumped for the psoriasis. And so we both stare at what would be the sea, if we could see it. And the bus doesn’t come, and it doesn’t come and it doesn’t come. Two more people join us, and still no sign of the bus.

Bertie walks up the road a way, posting himself as lookout. He always does this. He has good eyesight and enjoys being ‘bus monitor’. I inspect the scruffy piece of tarmac outside our one and only Store in some detail. How does so much litter manage to miss the litter bin? Once upon a time it would have been used condoms. Nowadays it seems to be cigarette butts, olive green cigarette packets (it makes them less attractive) and lots of little empty plastic tubes. I suspect holidaymaking teenagers may have used these to inhale some recreational substance during the night.

I have Arthur with me, balanced on the damp brick wall, in the pet carrier. We have an appointment at the vets two settlements over, for his claws to be done. The latest pet-carrier is ideal for both the bus journey and the rough terrain round here, normally. You can heave it up onto your back and wear it like a rucksack or you can put it down and pull out a handle, and it has wheels – it turns into a trolley. The cats don’t seem to mind it.  You’d think they would.

But’s it’s been a struggle with Arthur because he’s so heavy. I have staggered the twenty minutes down to the bus stop bent forward under the combined, considerable weight of Arf and the carrier, feeling like Good King Wenceslas’s page in the song, or some venerable crone sent out to gather a bundle of wood in a fairy tale.

Arthur is patient. I can just see his little green eyes peering out of the mesh sides at me, all the rest blending in with the darkness. But he’s been out here for ages, and the bus is twenty minutes late. We’ll not get there in time now, and if we get there late we’ll miss the usual bus home, and that’ll mean an hour and a half or something like, waiting in the draughty bus shelter on the other side of the road. You can’t expect a cat to hold off on the wees-n’-poos indefinitely, especially an old boy like Arthur. And then… squelchy-cat! No getting on a bus for us, in that condition. Or a taxi, for that matter. What do we do then? Totter the six mile back? Squelch, stagger, squelch, stagger…

I give up and ring the vet to cancel the appointment, then bid farewell to Bertie and the two other people waiting, the mousy-looking woman with the shopping basket, and a vaguely familiar local wench – she with the raven hair, the leggings, the lots of eye make up and the computer game that makes goldfish noises.

Maybe the bus arrived, eventually, or maybe it didn’t. Most likely it was one of those days when the driver decided not to come down our road at all. Sometimes the prison ‘gets it’, sometimes we do, and sometimes the next village is arbitrarily bypassed and all the elderly and disabled folks left to wait for the next (hourly) bus, assuming that doesn’t bypass them too.

Now I remember exactly how lovely it was to have a motor-car. I wonder – could I still balance on a bicycle?fish bike

The Tortoiseshell Cat: Patrick R Chalmers

The tortoiseshell cat

She sits on the mat

As gay as a sunflower she;

In orange and black you see her blink,

And her waistcoat’s white, and her nose is pink,

And her eyes are green of the sea.

But all is vanity, all the way;

Twilight’s coming, and close of day,

And every cat  in the twilight’s grey,

Every possible cat.

 

Matilda and friends

 

The tortoiseshell cat,

She is smooth and fat,

And we call her Josephine,

Because she weareth upon her back

This coat of colours, this raven black,

This red of the tangerine.

But all is vanity, all the way;

Twilight follows the brightest day,

And every cat in the twilight’s grey,

Every possible cat.

 

Patrick Reginald Chalmers (1872–1942) was an Irish writer, who worked as a banker. His first book was Green Days and Blue Days (1912), followed by A Peck of Malt (1915).

He wrote in a number of different areas, including field sports, deerstalking and horse racing, as well biographies of Kenneth Grahame and J. M. Barrie. He was a contributor to Punch magazine and The Field, and editor of the hunting diaries of Edward VIII (as Prince of Wales). He also wrote much poetry, with topics war, dogs and cats, and Irish life, as well as hunting and fishing.

A line from his poem “Roundabouts and Swings” has passed into common parlance, though the origin is often no longer remembered.

Wikipedia

Now that’s interesting, isn’t it? The same poet who wrote this pussycat poem also wrote a kind of novelty poem in which these two sets of ‘end’ lines appear:

But lookin’ at it broad, an’ while it ain’t no merchant king’s,
What’s lost upon the roundabouts we pulls up on the swings!”

For “up an’ down an’ round,” said ‘e, “goes all appointed things,
An’ losses on the roundabouts means profits on the swings!”

And that’s the origin of the common phrase “What you lose on the roundabouts you gain on the swings” or “It’s swings and roundabout”.

I’d give you the whole poem but it’s long, and in a kind of Irish-Victorian cockney dialect that becomes tedious after a while. I do prefer the cat poem, which is a little masterpiece of cat-poem-ery.

Featured Image cat is Matilda, because when she was a stray, not so long ago, she used to ‘waltz’ up from somewhere mysterious beyond the bottom of my the garden to be fed. Matilda/Tilly is young, and even naughtier than my other tortoiseshell. Difficult to even get a photo of her because she is always waltzing or haring about (haring: verb, British: running around as fast and as wildly as a hare).

Here are some black and white moggies, whilst I’m at it. I struggle to get photos from my tablet to the computer to this blog. Something always seems to go wrong, and in the most dramatic way.

Overnight, for instance, my tablet has accumulated around 500 album covers in it’s photo memory – all the stuff I’ve been listening to on Kindle and Spotify – at least six copies of each. I’ve just been laboriously deleting them all. So let’s make hay while the sun shines:

Left to right, top to bottom:

  1. The elusive Frizzle
  2. Hugo and Hector
  3. Pandy, Hugo and Hector
  4. Ditto
  5. George doing what George does best / least dangerously.

 

Pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules!

Now that’s set your teeth on edge, hasn’t it, proper French speakers?

I had a very unoriginal thought today.  I googled it and discovered that it was in fact even more unoriginal than I imagined. I was looking at my books, all 2,000 of them piled vertically now (for cat fur/ease of hoovering reasons) into a high stack of de-shelved book cases.  It suddenly struck me, if I had to take the complete works of a very limited number of authors to a desert island with me – say, ten – which authors would I choose?

Now this isn’t as easy as it seems. It would be no good taking to a desert island a book with a thrilling but memorable plot, for example. However good it was, what would be the point of reading it again?

No good taking anything too distinctive, either. Harry Potter, for instance. I loved reading Harry Potter, each new book as eagerly anticipated as if I had been thirteen and three quarters rather than middle-aged. But once you’ve read them the surprise is gone out of them – they were whizz-bangs when they landed on our bookshelves but now… they’ve fizzled.

Not really much point in taking thrillers or detective novels, for the same reason. You might not think you remember whodunit but as soon as you start to read, you will.

And humour probably wouldn’t travel well. Only so many times you can laugh at a conversation between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves whilst fishing in the sea with a piece of string and an improvised hook, or trying to persuade yourself that shredded palm leaves are edible. Jokes are best not repeated – to the same audience – yourself.

No, the books would have to be kind of meaty. The sort that, though they may be a bit of a struggle to get into, pay dividends on later reflection. Also books with plots so labyrinthine that it is impossible to remember them on re-reading.

But you’d also need an element of comfort reading. So some of your books would be there just because they reminded you of home in some way – winter afternoons by the fire and snow falling outside; long walks down country lanes kicking autumn leaves with your wellies – whatever.

I’m thinking that, as with Desert Island Discs, a few ‘master’ works should be taken for granted – found in a deserted cabin, chewed a bit by moths but still perfectly readable, say. I believe Desert Island Discs allows castaways to assume The Complete Works of Shakespeare and a copy of the Bible, and I would add the Complete Works of Dickens. (It’s my island, I can make Dickens be in the deserted cabin if I want to. Maybe I’ll put the skeleton of the previous inhabitant in there too…)

Of course, the books you take may also reflect the age you happen to be when cast away. If you are twenty, say, you will have longer to savour the books of your choice, but also longer to get heartily sick of them. If you are ninety-five you might want to be more rigorously selective still, or take rather more spiritually-inclined reading matter.

So this is my list, in no particular order Still a work in progress. As you will see at the end I still haven’t managed to whittle it down to ten. I did consider simply putting the total up to twenty, but that seemed like cheating.

  1. Isaac Asimov
  2. A S Byatt
  3. Neil Gaiman
  4. Annie Proulx
  5. Charlotte Brontë
  6. Rose Tremain
  7. Alice Munro
  8. George McKay Brown (non-fiction, comfort reading)
  9. Ellis Peters (comfort reading – how could you be on a desert island and not have Cadfael for company?)
  10. ….

And here’s where I’m stuck. I feel I should take at least one author that I always felt I should read but only ever got round to reading around the edges of – so I’m torn at the moment between George Eliot, Anthony Trollope and Aldous Huxley. Maybe Huxley would be a bit dated? Trollope would certainly be meaty but… as well as Dickens? And Eliot – is she perhaps one of those authors you feel you ought to read but Life’s Too Short for – like whoever perpetrated Moby Dick and War and Peace? Not to mention Ulysses. I carted that fat paperback of Ulysses around with me for years when I was a student: never managed to get beyond the first page.

I don’t know… I don’t know… And remember you have got to take all their works – pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules! as I like to imagine they would say in Brussels. So you can’t take Howard’s End and leave the posthumous Maurice behind, or take the whole of Neil Gaiman except American Gods which is just too long.

To digress slightly. Having just discovered (after how many years?) that I can watch more or less unlimited dramas and TV series on my Kindle Fire for absolutely-free merely by tapping on that dull little icon top right – who knew? – I launched into American Gods on video, thinking I might find it more digestible.

They were putting each other’s eyes out! Severed limbs were flying through the air! I don’t remember that, in the twenty percent of the book I did manage to get through. So I plumped for The Night Manager.

To digress again. I read a comment on the internet by a girl who felt it should correctly be deserted, not desert island, since how many islands do you find in the desert? Duh! An island with nothing on it but a lot of desert-type sand and perhaps a wobbly palm tree and a man in faded rags with several weeks-worth of stubble – not an island rising majestically from the sands of the Sahara.

Anyway, enough. What would be your ten desert island authors? Or just the first one on the list…

Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.

From my bookcase: Sovereign: C J Sansom

I have discovered there are only so many way you can ‘stage’ a paperback book on a sofa, or in a kitchen. Note that the cup is empty apart from a tastefully arranged teaspoon, and the scraping-of-the-barrel with the Tesco Oaty Granola bar (which happened to match the book). I fed my hoard of digestive biscuits to the birds whilst awaiting my cholesterol score. The granola bar has been lurking in a cupboard for at least a year, uneaten and unappetising. I knew it would come in useful if I hung onto it long enough.

I’ve now reached book 3 in the ‘Shardlake’ sequence of historical mysteries by C J Sansom. The first one, which I have written about before, was ‘Dissolution’ and the second one ‘Dark Fire’. I read on the internet that C J Sansom is suffering from a form of cancer, though doing well with chemotherapy and currently working on the next massive book in the series. For his personal sake, of course, but also for mine and that of all his other readers, I am keeping my fingers crossed. I am looking forward to reading the several future books he has in mind, which would take his crook-backed detective/lawyer Matthew Shardlake well into old age, and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

‘Sovereign’ is said to be Sansom’s own favourite instalment, so far.  It is one of those novels that draws you in, the way some films do, so that you find yourself mentally wandering round the streets of – in this case – the teeming, tumbledown city of York long after the you have put the actual book down. York is a dangerous place and Shardlake finds himself narrowly escaping sharp bits of metal flying at him from roasting spits, bears let out of their cages on purpose on dark nights as he is passing, and a crossbow aimed at his chest. There seem to be more deaths in this book, and poor, principled, lonely, misshapen, Shardlake will be forced to disentangle them all amid a web of dark politics and ulterior motives before he is permitted to return to London and the sanctuary of his legal practice.

There is a particularly vivid scene in which Shardlake is obliged to be presented King Henry when he comes to York on a Royal Progress. King Henry, officially anyway, is felt to be a kind of demigod, God’s ‘voice’ on earth, but when he makes a mockery of Shardlake’s disability, describing him as a ‘bottled spider’ in comparison with the tall old man standing next to him, things change. In that moment the lawyer senses the King revelling in his cruelty, whilst making a calculated political point. The King is a monster, a  terrifying creature glimpsed only in segments, as all eyes must be lowered in his presence.

Shardlake ‘records’ the details other people miss. Even as he is being mocked by the King and his entourage he notices that one leg is thicker than the other and that the bandage concealed beneath the hose is discoloured, and catches the rotten smell of pus from Henry’s ulcerated leg.

Sansom’s hero is a modern man trapped in a late medieval setting. This makes his life both difficult and melancholy, but throws into relief the very different mindset of the day. Do not expect much introspection, self-analysis or sympathy for baited bears, dying horses, whipped urchins, starving peasants or emaciated and hideously tortured prisoners, except from Shardlake.

Here are another couple of moggie pictures, while I think about it:

Martha wonders whether she will be the legal owner of this selfie, whilst George has a little wash 🙂

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Pigeon Pout

I am having to force myself to go out for walks. It’s for my health. More of this in a mo, no doubt. Who knows what I am going to write?

I dislike going out for walks. Partly this is because there’s nowhere to walk round here – I mean, it’s a mini-bungalow-grid attached to civilisation by means of one very, very long road lined with holiday camps. The very-very-long-road is very weedy, in between the holiday camps. More kinds of weeds than you could shake a stick at. To mitigate the utter boredom of either walking round the bungalow grid three times in succession, possibly reversing polarity midway, or walking from one end of the very-very-long road to the other, turn left and sit on a damp bench for five minutes before heading back, I listen to music. Even with the sound up it is difficult to hear the music over the passing traffic. Yesterday the left ear of my headset packed up. It was chewed by a cat, some five years ago, and held together with sticky tape.

I also dislike going for walks because walks mean going Out There, and Out There is full of Them. By Them I mean both Locals, who stare at you slack-jawed and drooling as you pass by their front gardens (possibly an exaggeration) and the Holidaymakers, who are here ten months of the year. Holidaymakers are more or less normal to look at but they wear funny clothes; shorts and strange shirts over big hairy bellies, or, in the case of women, sundresses over big but less hairy bellies, and sandals.

Some of them are rather sweet, though, in a city sort of way. Yesterday I passed two ladies in sundresses, with the usual huge, toddler-filled stroller each. They had stopped, fascinated by a couple of pigeons having a bath in a puddle. Apparently London pigeons don’t ‘do’ washing in puddles. I was tempted to stop and point out that there probably aren’t as many giant pavement-craters in London as there are round here, for the rainwater to collect in. I’m sure a London pigeon would be pleased to splash around and get the dust off its feathers, if only it had the facilities.

The walking boots are rather heavy: it’s like gravity increases as soon as you put them on. If only I could turn the world upside down like a piggy bank, I think, clumping womanfully along to the suicidal maunderings of Sarah McLachlan. Then all the people would fall out… somewhere… and I could go for my walk in peace.

So, it’s the cholesterol. I don’t know the reading yet but some pharmacist is threatening to phone from the doctor’s surgery on Monday morning. I am guessing it’s not too bad because last time they tested it it was under the safe limit, but the wretched girl was so mysterious about it over the phone.

‘Why is the pharmacist going to ring me?’ I asked.

‘Um, about cholesterol.’

‘So, is my cholesterol too high?’

‘Um…’

‘Could you give me my results, please?’

‘Ummmm…’ It’s as if I have asked something really embarrassing. But I mean, it’s cholesterol, not gonorrhoea.

‘The pharmacist will discuss it with you on Monday.’

I was so cross that I looked up the legal situation on the internet. Bad news: apparently one’s blood test results are not one’s own property in this country. They belong to the National Health Service, or more specifically to the Secretary of State for Health. So if this pharmacist chooses, he or she could simply say: ‘Your actual cholesterol score is confidential and none of your business, but I recommend you take statins until you rattle, for the rest of your life.’ Hopefully, he or she will be more helpful than that or I will be forced to go private, or buy one of those expensive self-testing kits and puncture one of my own fingers with a nasty sharp piece of metal. I just have to stew about it all weekend.

However, I have already made a start on my not-taking-statins-under-any-circumstances campaign. I have started on the daily walking and am gradually feeding the birds the large store of cakes, biscuits, sugary pies and so forth I happened to have in stock. The bird are dining like Henry VIII at the moment, off the fat of the land.

I have swapped butter for that yellow substance that looks like margarine but is advertised as hoovering up cholesterol. I have exchanged hard cheese for cottage cheese. I have exchanged ordinary pasta and bread for wholemeal pasta and bread. I am reading a book about it. I suspect I’m even going to have to cook again: no more cheese-and-pickle sandwiches and hastily microwaved soup; no more late-night bowls of cereal slathered in sugar; no more Mars Bars.

Hard cheese – it is indeed. Forced to eat stuff I don’t like. Forced to not eat stuff I do like. Forced to go out for walks. Outside. With people.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Bread Pudding

Serves 6

Good way of using up left-over bread.

  • 12 oz (ounces) stale bread
  • 2 oz granulated sugar
  • 4 oz sultanas
  • 1 1b mincemeat (this is sweet – not minced/ground meat)
  • 4 level teaspoons mixed spice
  • 2 level tablespoons granulated sugar, for sprinkling
  • 7 inch square cake tin, greased and lined at the base

Cut the bread into one inch pieces. Put in a bowl and add enough cold water to cover the bread. Leave to soak for at least an hour. Drain well and squeeze out all the water.

Put the bread in a mixing bowl and beat in the sugar. Mix in the sultanas, mincemeat and mixed spice.

Moderate oven. Gas mark 4 or 350ºF/ 180º C.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 2 1/2 hours until golden. Cool slightly and remove from the tin, then sprinkle with granulated sugar. When cold, cut into squares. Can also serve warm with custard or cream.

Hector likes to live life on the edge!

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