Breathing Spaces

Apropos of nothing, the one-armed cat is gaining speed with every day that passes. He has now re-learned how to gallop, and therefore how to scare the bejasus out of selected other cats. This morning I spotted George clinging hot-foot to a central-heating radiator, trying and failing to haul himself up, having been chased up there by some sort of furry Grendel, now nipping joyfully at his ankles. Cats cope with adversity so much better than us. If you had lost an arm, would you be galloping?

I was thinking the other day about the spaces I have found, when I felt like the wounded Grendel. Grendel, if I remember aright, slunk off to the swamp, or maybe some sort of big pond, and drowned there. Poor Grendel! Why do I feel sorrier for him than that granite-jawed hero Beowulf, who also died – in the end?

So, when feeling like a wounded Grendel (on average once a day, when imprisoned in the world of work), I would have to get away. If I couldn’t get away – meltdown. If you’ve never seen a meltdown…

The thing is with meltdowns, you can see them happening from inside. You can witness yourself behaving like some kind of lunatic and yet you can’t stop. Not for hours, sometimes not for days can you stop. And then you have to get yourself home, still sobbing and attracting horrified glances from passers-by. I had to walk four miles in that condition, once. And then you have to recover. And then, somehow, you have to go back, hoping you haven’t been fired in your absence. Pretending it never happened.

Breathing spaces are essential, and the trick is to get to them early, to forestall… it.

When I worked at the Power Station, it was difficult. We were virtually imprisoned many windswept miles from anywhere at all, behind a revolving-gate and plastic-pass security system that sometimes would and sometimes wouldn’t let you out. Mostly I hid in the loos, but there’s only so long you can do that, and toilets are not the most pleasant of places when you’re trying to regain your sang froid. I remember once, a blowsy blonde fellow-employee (I recognised her voice and that inane laugh) entered the cubicle next to me. I took a deep breath. She let off a huge – what’s a polite word for it – oh, bother it – Fart.

Oops! she screeched – that laugh again – But better out than in!

Oh go away, I thought. But people never go away.

In later jobs it got easier, though there was always at least one meltdown per job, just as there was always one bull-necked female supervisor or superior who took a raging dislike to me. Where did I go in those latter days, to breathe?

There was the library, in winter. I would find an empty table in the reference section and prop some weighty tome in front of me. I wasn’t actually using the tome, of course, I was writing, reading or daydreaming behind it.

And there was the church. That was usually empty at lunchtimes. I’ve always liked churches, when empty. I like places with really high ceilings. I think that’s what it is, the ceilings. Which I suppose is why churches and cathedrals were designed that way – as a kind of foretaste of heaven. Occasionally though they would have art exhibitions of fairly bad paintings, or concerts, or flower-arranging competitions.  Not so good.

In summer there was the Memorial Gardens – why do I find death so restful? – where the dead of World War One were cast in greenish bronze on all four sides of a stone memorial. What I liked was the space, and the green of the grass, and the rows of trees, and the unimaginative flower bed with their soldierly ranks of pansies and marigolds. I liked the wasps, and the students mucking about in their lunch-hours, and the drunks in the far bushes with their bottles of stuff in paper bags, or surrounded by a clutter of empty tins. I liked the prim professional people with their sandwiches. I liked the blue sky and the sunshine and the distance. Distance. I have to have space. That was my best place. Most of my best poems were written there.

And at other times I have found sanctuary in cafés, sitting in a parked car in a huge, anonymous supermarket carpark, and on railway stations where I could hang around pretending to wait for trains. Distance again – those rails which might be going – anywhere. I didn’t need to go. It was enough to know that I could go. Sometimes I found a kind of harbour at harbours, or anywhere, really, by the sea. Sea is distance. It is on the edge, it is – where you could, if necessary, walk into the water and swim, or jump onto a ship and sail away, never to be seen or heard of again. Distant parts. Freedom.

Where are your breathing spaces? Or don’t you need them?

deep-breath

The Marmite Child and the Man Without a Candle

I was not entirely ignorant of French before I got to Technical school at the age of eleven, and started being taught it/him. My Grandfather had been in the First World War and came back with some useful phrases – one for “two eggs and chips”, for example. I won’t repeat my previously-blogged attempts to convey the mangling effect of Grandad on the French language. Once is painful enough.

And there was one that sounded distantly like Parlez vous, mademoiselle? a phrase I suspect British soldiers would use to make the acquaintance of kindly French ladies. I’ll call them kindly French ladies since – well, this is my Grandad we’re talking about.

French exerts a kind of magnetic pull on the English. It sounds like magical incantations – meaningless, scary, but interesting – and so we have appropriated bits of it here and there, rolling those strange sounds around on the tongue. There was that cycling club, for instance – the San Fairy Ann.

San Fairy Ann were bitter local rivals of my father’s cycling club, the Medway Wheelers. The Wheelers wore green and orange racing shirts and The Fairies yellow and purple. If a Wheeler happened to pass a Fairy at a race or on the road there would be a kind of grunt of recognition as they whizzed past one another, a gruff acknowledgement only.

And – why was I talking about this? – remind me, someone – oh yes, San Fairy Ann was born of a French phrase – ça ne fait rien – which means something like ‘it doesn’t matter’, ‘it is of no importance’. Another wartime acquisition, though maybe from a later war. Ça ne fait rien – I suppose for the Fairies it contained the essence of that post-war joy: bowling along those damp, green, but most importantly English country lanes on your racing bike, out in the fresh air, alone, after the ghastliness of foreign battlefields. It meant I’m home again and life is good!

My French teacher, Madame Beesden, didn’t much like me. I sensed this and it came as no surprise. I had long understood that I was one of those Marmite Children whom teachers would either loathe or take a kind of bewildered pity on. Oddly enough I greatly admired her, and would have liked her if she’d let me. Children have a nose for an excellent teacher: I sensed that our Madame, unlike many French teachers employed by English schools in those days, was the possessor of a proper French accent, even though – it was rumoured – she was Turkish rather than French. Confusing, the combination of Arab looks – the dark skin, the hooded eyes, the fierce expression – with a French title and what sounded very much like an English surname. She was pretty old then, and must be long dead.

She drummed that troublesome French ‘r’ into us almost straight away, via a little rhyme:

Trois très gros rats / Dans trois très gros trous / Rongeait trois très gros grains d’orge.

Three very fat rats in three very big holes gnawed on three very big grains of barley.

I think. There seem to be more complicated versions on You Tube now, involving croutons rather than grain, and the rats being grey rats rather than just rats, but perhaps La Beesden simplified it for us. I never actually found that ‘r’ difficult once I had worked out that you had to kind of breathe in and breathe out at the same time. I had a good ear for the subtleties of pronunciation, even if I was Marmite.

She started us on the verb être (to be), which banjaxed us at the very outset.  There seemed to be so many versions of ‘be’ – suis, es, est, sommes, êtes. The trouble was – and this was something she never fully appreciated – English was our mother tongue and it had never occurred to us that our own verbs had different ‘people’ too, and that am, are, is etc are also different versions of a single verb. Neither were we willing to entertain such an outlandish idea. To us it was obvious that am, are, is and so forth were just the same. Our language was obvious. It was perfectly simple.

The songs were best. She had a good voice, considering she was old and quavery, and though monumentally dignified was not self-conscious about singing. She taught us Frère Jacques and Au Clair de la Lune:

Ma chandelle est morte. Je n’ai plus de feu…

My candle has died. I have no more fire…

and she taught us the one about the bridge at Avignon:

Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse / Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse tout en rond

On the bridge of Avignon, people dancing, people dancing, on the bridge of Avignon, people dancing round and round (something like that, anyway).

I carry them around in my mind. Ever since, all down the years, those inexplicable dancers have been dancing around in circles on the bridge and that midnight-writing chap has been fretting away about his candle. Ever since, those smug, fat rats have continued to chomp on those grains of – whatever – down in their dark, mysterious holes.

au clair

My Café Collection

The one-armed cat is asleep, a scarf draped over the still-baldy-bit where his arm until recently was. I felt he might be cold. I’m certainly cold, in spite of the central heating. Sleety snow falling outside. A long, soggy trek to the bird table to fill it up yet again. Darkness falling though it’s barely afternoon. According to the not-so-smartphone it’s 4 degrees C in my location. I notice it’s even 9 degrees C in Edmonton, where my sister is, and that’s only somewhat south of the Arctic Circle. Something’s gone wrong.

I was thinking about cafés the other day. I accidentally met Bertie in a café in town, to which I had resorted in desperation having found myself with yet another hour to fill whilst waiting for my bus home. Bertie had had the same idea, as had a number of his disabled friends. It’s an Italian café, the usual thing – formica-topped tables, cheery service, steamy coffee with free tiny biscuit wrapped in cellophane.

 I actually walked right past Bertie, startling though he is to behold – wrapped in my own thoughts, a number of scarves and a woolly hat. Till he yelled my name. If Bertie yells your name, you know it. Everybody, all along the High Street, knows it.

And so we all passed the time. There was a man from Spain – or at least he was English but he had been in Spain for quite a few years. He had come home for a ‘recce’, presumably spooked by the idea of being marooned in Spain sans pension after Brexit, the plan being to do the ‘recce’, have his car shipped over and then drive round looking for somewhere to live, back in Blighty. 

However, one cold, damp afternoon in town, drinking tea in steaming cafés, surrounded by tattoo parlours, pound stores, charity shops, seedy pubs and branches of Nationwide had begun to sew seeds of doubt in his mind. ‘Maybe I won’t get the car shipped over,’ he remarked to Bertie. Bertie started listing the library opening hours for him. Bertie likes to provide answers, if not to questions anyone has actually asked.

And I fell to wondering how many dingy cafés I had inhabited in this my elderly life. What would they look like strung end to end, I mused. As Bertie continued with the library list and the returning expat continued to agonise and ruminate, unheard, about the car locked in the garage behind his rented villa in drier and sunnier climes, I visualised a string of past cafés and myself wandering through them endlessly, in one door and out the other, over the whole of my life. 

Here was Lyons Tea Shop in Chatham, where I went with my mother. I must have been quite small. I remember the black tiles and the mirrors – the long, long mirrors and the way they made the room look twice as big – and the woman behind the counter slopping teas from a giant teapot over a selection of teacups on a grid, not caring if the tea went in the cups or not. And the Knickerbocker Glories – ice creams and other miraculous sweet stuff in a glass so tall you had to eat it with a long spoon, and I could only just reach…

And then the cafés I went to with Mum and Dad on their Sunday cycling club marshalling duties. Plain, workmanlike cafés with cheese sandwiches, and egg and chips, and solid white mugs, unbreakable unless you hurled them forcefully against a wall. Full of cyclists, chatty and rather sweaty, in embarrassing get-ups: not lycra in those days but plus-fours, cycle clips, saggy shorts (with special saddle-padding, as my Dad foolishly showed me once) and cycling shoes that clicked and clacked as they walked. Loud. They were always very loud.

And the cafés where I did my student courting. Romance blossoming in some tiny, trendy dive. Juke box playing the same records over and over. People going up to put money in them. Coffee machines that sent out sudden jets of steam and deafened you further. What was that romantic thing he just murmured? My long-haired, half-Austrian lothario (several inches shorter than self) in the fraying cardigan his mother had knitted for him.

And the garden centre cafés I would meet Mum and Dad in, most of the rest of my life, on Sundays. People shopping for bags of manure for their roses, for garden trowels, for just the right lawnmower. People pottering and dawdling and thoroughly enjoying themselves, as British people love to do on a Sunday. Dad sitting there with his knife and fork clasped in his ham-like hands, impatient for dinner. Mum spotting a cyclist outside the window behind my back, before I had finished the sentence, so I would have to repeat it. Then spotting another cyclist. Nothing I could say was interesting enough to hold either of their attentions for the span of a complete sentence.

And the Greek café I had to take Mum to, when we were still pretending she wasn’t yet quite mad enough to be Taken Away.  The powdered scrambled egg, the sea of baked beans, the wobbly plates, the tasteless frothy coffee. Sugar in a long tube. Ever frugal, Mum took the tubes home in her handbag, but then forgot about them.

The malicious comments she thought she heard (though deaf). The accusations to the waiting staff. The explanations that were necessary. The walking stick on the floor, constantly on the floor, getting sticky, and me having to retrieve it. Trying to get her arms into her coat when they didn’t seem to want to bend backwards, even a little bit. I drew a broken heart right on your windowpane playing faintly in the background. Too-small dresses in the charity shop opposite. The bookshop she wouldn’t let me go into when we came out…

The cafés with friends. Serviettes with the sandwiches, overworked staff, sudden bursts of baby bellowing, toddlers running up and down the aisle, plate glass windows, shoppers scuttling far beneath like one of those L S Lowrie painting. All only half-noticed. The conversation is the thing.

And then a hundred – seems more like a thousand – cafés alone. The cafés above department stores and supermarkets, long and echoing. Complicated systems for queueing up for food and self-service beverages. Draughts. Shopping bags dumped under the tables. Unnatural quiet. The cafés on train stations, warming my hands on a polystyrene cup, wondering if the lid will fit back on if the train comes…

And this one. Bertie seems to have exhausted Library Opening Hours and is staring at me, perplexed. I ought to be talking, presumably. I’ve been in one of my Absences. The man from sunny Spain is gone ahead of us to the bus stop, to catch one of the red buses (we are waiting for a blue one). But when we get to the bus stop he is nowhere to be found. Bertie is concerned. I wonder if he is simply Walking Back to Spain, just like that woman used be Walking Back To Happiness on the juke box, all those years ago…

On Brain Art, Brownspeak, the Curate’s Egg and Various Lengthy Conversations with the Fairies

To begin, I will tell you a tiny story. It is probably of no significance but it will keep returning to me.

Many, many years ago, for some reason, I was in a small car being driven along the sea front at Hastings – I’m fairly sure it was Hastings and not Brighton or Bexhill (immaterial, but I seem to have to mention it anyway).

My father was doing the driving. There was someone else sitting in the passenger seat beside him and my mother and I were in the back seat. As we sped along we passed a small blue wrought-iron gate, which seemed to serve no purpose, set into the long, concrete expanse of the sea front. And in those few seconds I recorded that this seemingly useless piece of street furniture was in the shape of a breaking wave, and knew that it was that shape because we were at the seaside. And had moved on, just as the car moved on, to some other reverie.

My mother remarked, ‘That was an odd-shaped gate’.

I said, ‘No – it was a breaking wave.’

My mother said, ‘How on earth did you notice that?’

And I thought, but fortunately did not say, ‘How on earth did you not notice it?’

Because stuff like that zooms in on me all the time. It’s like I have to notice all the irrelevant details of a landscape: Hunter’s Mind, as they sometimes, mercifully, call it. I’ve been researching (intermittently and inefficiently, of course) the ‘inattentive’ variant of ADD and wondering if this is what I’ve got. I’ve sure as hell got something. I don’t suppose I will ever know because who cares if someone my age has ‘got it’? By my age it’s too late. Any life you might have had has been well and truly buried under a heap of distractions, sudden passions, fading interests, forgotten-ness…

Everything, important or unimportant, descends instantly into a kind of memory mulch and – with the occasional exception like the sea-wave gate – cannot be retrieved. But which will retrieve themselves, when and if they see fit. Oh no, they haven’t gone, all those useful facts – how many years ago did I move here? what was my postcode in 1987? did I ever get vaccinated against German Measles? what year was my father born? – all the practical details other people seem to recall without effort – they are just hiding. Determinedly.

I have had so few people in my life – maybe three and a half (the half being Ex, and reliant on alcohol) that I could very occasionally allow myself talk the way my brain works, without the Sensible Filters applied. I learned, somewhere around the age of four, that for all of my life I would need to translate everything I actually thought into what I used to think of as a child as Brownspeak, or people would kind of… snigger.

In this blog it’s a mixture – a Curate’s Egg, as they used to say, somewhere around Dickens’ time or maybe – no – earlier – maybe around Goldsmith’s unreadable The Vicar of Wakefield.

Some posts, when I am arguing a point, I tend to try to ‘craft’ a bit. It’s not that I can’t do that. It’s just that I mostly can’t be arsed to do it, because it’s dull. But if you publish and be damned, leaving holes in your argument, people will inevitably home in on them, because the holes are the bits that interest them. The holes, to me, are the bits I wouldn’t have wasted precious time filling in, if I was just being me.

Other posts, like the rare (as hens’ teeth – I love that phrase) short story I will also polish – but this time, because the editing and the story-writing all form part of one indivisible process. This, I suppose, is the famous hyper-focus phenomenon. Writing is the only thing that that it kicks in for, for me. Cannot leave it alone until both aspects are right. Stuck at the computer, sometimes for day on end (hyperbole) because – not right, not right, not quite right yet…

But in most posts I do this sort of thing. I allow myself to ramble, soar, snooze, wake up, find myself talking to the fairies on some bleak hillside where the sedge is appropriately withering and no birds sing, or materialise back at the computer screen with frozen feet, a longing for caffeine and the thing half written, chuckling or aghast at what – somebody, anyway – seems to have just typed up there.

And now I think, would I have given it up – Brain Art, as one girl in the comments section of an ADD website described it when asked to list any positives of ADD – for the chance to have lived a normal life? That phrase jumped out at me – Brain Art – and I knew exactly what she meant. Although if you type it into Google now she seems to have disappeared, that girl in the comments section. All you get are lurid pictures of actual, physical brains with their branching neuronal systems lit up in various arty, rainbow-coloured ways. Quite jolly, but not something I would want on my living room wall whilst consuming Oeufs en Cocotte, Pigs in Blankets or whatever.

What would it have been like without a lifetime of pencilled and computerised Plans, none of which I could ever find the impetus, or manage to remember for long enough, to put into effect? What would it have been like to be able to make a decent living and not have to be constantly, constantly frightened? What would it have been like, not to have the funny looks, not to be odd – to have been a Brown person and lived in that Brown world where wave-like gates did not leap out at you, where you did not notice the patterns between the branches of trees rather than the branches themselves and realise that stately dance against the sky, for the tree in itself, was Art?

What would it be like not to get bored with and leave, or get fired from (usually both) nearly everywhere I worked? Wouldn’t it have been worth it to be able to store something I wanted to say, or do, or remember, in my head for more than a few seconds before a new thought or seven came rushing in to crowd it out?

What would it have been like not to be permanently Away With The Fairies – or rather never to know at what moment the Fairies would choose to reclaim me, and then release me?

To sacrifice those few seconds of joy, just every now and again; that occasional swooping flight of felicity; that unexpected, almost shocking burst of laughter when an image or series of images I somehow, accidentally managed to articulate hit home with my ‘audience’ – images I had just been somehow given?

To lose that feeling when a post suddenly makes sense, then the beginning suddenly bites the tail of the ending, and then connections branch out in all directions, between this post and other posts, between now and then. To never again discover, as if reading it for the first time, some small thing I must have been thinking all these years?

What would it have been like, to exchange my bewildering, endless, swooping inner landscape for a decent-sized back garden with a crazy-paving path up the middle and a selection of well-tended roses? Would it have been worth it, the chance of life – a proper, real, safe, contented, prosperous, happily married and gainfully employed life – in exchange for handing back my wings?