A Doze By Any Other Name

My father, in his declining years, had a propensity for dozing off with his mouth wide open in the presence of visitors. He also had a thing about his pyjamas. Around lunchtime he would start to ask my mother: Can I get into my pyjamas yet? Almost as soon as you arrived he would start looking at his watch, covertly – except it wasn’t very covert because he had eye problems and had to peer quite closely and at a certain angle – apparently counting the seconds until you left, so that he could revert to Pyjamas.

At the time I found these features of my father embarrassing and mildly irritating. Now, as I move closer and closer to old age/older age I begin to understand that it had to do with the way time increasingly telescopes, in ageing perception. Hours feel like quarter-hours. Minutes pass like seconds. Presumably, on that final day, one senses that time has halted, that one has entered some perpetual state of Now…

I always promised myself I wouldn’t start dozing off. Particularly I wouldn’t start dozing off and drooling – a disgusting habit. Still vivid in my mind is an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer Simpson, in the mistaken belief that the world is going to end the following morning, decides he has neglected religion and vows to spend his last night on Earth reading The Bible from cover to cover. So he starts, at Genesis, and a few seconds later is fast asleep. Morning finds him in his armchair, Bible still open at page 1 of Genesis, drooling copiously – and the world has for some reason not ended.

I do doze off, only I tend to call it Listening To Music. I think, well, I have been busy for all of an hour now and accomplished quite a lot, for me, so I will just plug in the ear-thingies and listen to Spotify for a while, thus broadening my musical horizons and revisiting old favourites. Several hours later…

This evening when I emerged from my musical not-a-doze I discovered the three-legged cat (the same cat that bit me most viciously before Christmas and caused me to spend the entire festive season driving back and forth to hospital to have antibiotics injected into a cannula in the crook of my arm) cradled in that same crook, gazing up at me adoringly. It occurs to me that cats may be the only animals – aside from human beings – that would waste time and energy in gazing adoringly at that beloved, but totally unconscious, Somebody Special.

This was not particularly unpleasant. What was unpleasant was discovering that my eardrums were now being assaulted by an appalling, appalling cringe-makingly mawkish Irish ballad entitled Scorn Not His Simplicity, performed by someone with a big-ish red beard by the name Luke Kelly. Upon not-falling-asleep I had been listening to Irish ballads – I seem to have quite a Celtic thing going on recently. I had started off with my current favourite Loreena McKennitt and moved on to Bert Jansch singing The Curragh of Kildare

I feel bad that I cannot abide Scorn Not His Simplicity since on googling it I discovered that it was written by songwriter Phil Coulter about his struggle to come to terms with the birth of his Downs Syndrome son. I do feel bad, for him, but it is still a very bad song. And yet Sinead O’Connor also recorded it: the great Sinead O’Connor – so can it really be that bad? Apparently it’s an Irish classic. But it’s still bad.

I think why it’s bad is that 1970s ramming the message home with a sledgehammer thing. There was a phase, in the late 60s, early 70s, when everything had to have a message and the message was so Crucial, Man! that nothing in a song was allowed to take precedence over it, and especially not the music. It was a phase analogous to that Victorian one where people were greatly affected by tales of orphans giving up their porridge to other orphans in work-houses and little match girls freezing to death on street corners with seraphic smiles on their pinched little faces.

Irritating that a Downs Syndrome child – such children now being readily accepted and even cherished – should then have needed to have excuses made for him, a special case in his defence. Irritating the golden hair and the ‘eyes that show the emptiness inside’. (Irritating also that Spotify listed it as Screen Not His Simplicity.)

What does this dreadful song remind me of? I asked myself, levering myself up from the corner of the sofa and dislodging the worshipping three-legged cat. And back came the answer: Camouflage.

Camouflage was actually written by someone called Stan Ridgeway in 1986, but about the Vietnam war. It reached number 4 in the English pop charts, number 2 in the Irish – surprise, surprise. Camouflage tells the story of several young marines caught in a barrage (how I abhor that phrase) who are rescued by a huge marine who suddenly appears in the jungle and performs all sorts of unbelievably heroic feats, thus saving their lives. On returning to camp they learn that the massive marine was in fact known as Camouflage. Whilst lying on his deathbed the noble Camouflage had expressed one final wish – to save some young marines caught in a barrage. At the very moment he expires – pouf! his giant-sized ghost reappears in the jungle and saves the young marines who are indeed caught in a barrage. Oh… eushhh!

I just recalled another one called Working My Way Back To You. In this case it wasn’t so much the song itself that was cringe-worthy as the Top Of The Pops dance routine that went with it. They were dressed in shiny jackets and lined up and miming rhythmical shovelling as if digging a whole row of imaginary graves and throwing the earth over their shoulders…


Do you speak Hat?

I’m not quite sure what this picture is – an early example of Photoshopping, perhaps.

It just occurred to me whilst doing the washing up that I speak a very specialised language to my cats. I mean, you’d think when a person lives alone, the inside of their solitary dwelling would be perfectly silent. Certainly it was like that with my Mum in her latter years. No radio, no music, no nothing – just the clock ticking. But then she was deaf. And latterly she had those Voices to listen to.

I talk all the time, and so do my cats. Most of it would sound like gibberish to a non-Hat (Human-Cat) speaker, which is why I have hitherto resisted reproducing any of it. In any case, it’s difficult. Hat is a purely verbal/physical language. There is no dictionary of Hat, there are no books in Hat, not even a shopping-list. Cats, not possessing opposable thumbs (Ah, those opposable thumbs again – you just have to rub it in, don’t you?) have problems with pencils.

opposable thumb

So, an example of Hat might be something like (deep breath)

Are you all squirmy-wormy then?
Who’s my tiddly-widdly?
Are you a little wrigglecat?
Hello, Henny-Penny!
Are you an Arfur? Is that my little Arfur?

Cats supplement their briefer and rather more sensible replies (ow! eowww! prrrrrrr…. ) with a bit of basic body language and some primitive telepathy which is nevertheless more advanced than the human version.

I remember in my Glory Days (when brain still working) doing an Open University linguistics course – fascinating! There was a language they mentioned called Motherese – also known as Infant-Directed Speech (IDS) Child-Directed Speech (CDS) and Caretaker Speech). It is the language a mother speaks to her baby, and apparently it helps the baby to develop language faster.

My cats have not yet started talking Human to me, for all my efforts to engage them in the process, but I suspect that is simply because they can’t be bothered. They probably switch to Human when I am out of the house, and refine their subjunctive verbs, adjectives, dependent clauses and dangling modifiers by discussing the rise and fall in the stock market.

I myself tend to be discreet about talking Hat, and take care not come out with any Hat phrase in company, or when I have visitors – unlike the rather lonely young woman I saw recently on The Supervet, who was happily supplying her own voice and the voice of her beloved pet, in order that the vet would fully understand what he was thinking and how he was feeling about everything. The dog had a very deep voice. Gruff, in fact.

Because if you start mixing Human with Hat – or for that matter Hog, Hudgie, Herbil or Harrot – some people will think you are Mad, or at the very least Eccentric, and will smirk behind your back. If you don’t believe me, read the All Creatures Great and Small series by James Herriot. Look out for a wealthy client by the name of Mrs Pumphrey, who owns a much loved but very spoilt Pekingese (Tricki Woo). Tricki Woo suffers from all manner of maladies, and each has its own technical term – Flopbot, Crackerdog…

cat pearl

The Wonderful Everyday

I have always been fascinated by the story of the village sisters Mary and Martha – how Jesus came to their house one day, and whilst Mary settled herself at his feet to listen Martha slaved away resentfully in the kitchen unaided. I even renamed two of my rescue cats Martha and Mary – well, they were Fluffy and Tiny. Actually, Fluffy and Tiny describes them just as well, though Tiny has put on a pound or two since then and Fluffy, for reasons best known to herself, has licked away most of her back fur, so she now resembles the Last of the Mohicans, or Baldy at the Back, Fluffy at the Front.

I used to see myself as a Definite Mary – the spiritual one. Not the drab, cross one fretting about a mountain of washing up in another room. But things have happened to me recently which have made me reassess my attitude to everyday life and value two items – the company of my multitude of cats, and the endless tiny repetitions of simple tasks – the drudgery, if you like, of everyday life. Indeed these two threads are intertwined since ninety percent of the drudgery is generated by the many cats!

Twice a day I pick up twenty empty, or half-empty, cat-food bowls and scrape them into a green waste bin. (It should be nineteen, since Rufus left us for those sunny meadows in the sky on Christmas Day – but I can’t be bothered to divide tins of Whiskas into precise fractions-of-a-tin first thing in the morning. When we get back to even numbers again, I’ll do the math. Probably.)

Twice a day I put out twenty more bowls and change four bigger bowls of water.

Twice a day I wash up those twenty bowls, plus a lot of other stuff that seems to have accumulated by the sink. In between, I clean out dirt-boxes, dispense medicines, mop up piles of sick, separate those who would murder one another and unhook various hapless creatures from items of soft furniture to which they have managed to hook themselves irretrievably. Twice a day day, just when I collapse on the sofa with a cup of tea and a biscuit, under the impression that I have finished my ‘duties’ for the time being at least, more muddle materialises.

And then there is that Zen tale, of the monk who was repeatedly told, after eating his rice: Wash Your Bowl”, upon hearing which he was Enlightened. The idea is, I would guess, that you should avail yourself of any passing opportunity to be existing ‘in the moment’. After eating your rice, wash your bowl. Do not decide to wash your bowl, or wonder why you are washing your bowl, or resent having to wash your bowl. After eating, wash your bowl: it is a form of meditation.

So maybe the tale of Mary and Martha isn’t so black and white after all. Maybe Martha wasn’t the villain – or wouldn’t necessarily have been if she hadn’t got all self-righteous and started whingeing. Maybe both sisters were heroes, and the contrast between them shows that there are many different ways of focussing on what’s important; more than one way of Being in the world.

Men Don’t Make Passes… full stop.

When I was a mere slip of a girl in the 50s and 60s there used to be this horrid, patronising, sexist saying: “Men Don’t Make Passes At Girls Who Wear Glasses”, and in my experience this was true. Of course, it may only have been true in my experience. It is possible that other girls with glasses were having a whale of a time.

At least part of this may have been due to the ugliness of glasses in 50s and 60s Britain. From 1948 to 1985 there was a phenomenon unique to Britain – the National Health Spectacle Frame. Apparently these were the envy of other countries, who had neither a National Health nor its spectacle frames, but they were loathed in this country. The range was – limited – to say the least, and what there was seemed to have been designed, either to discourage you from availing yourself of their extreme cheapness, or to advertise to the world that you were too poor to be able to afford anything else. Which of course, you were.

I remember a little boy called Steven Savage (forgive me little Steven, if you are still alive). All the kids used to call him Steven Sandwich, since it sounded like that. Poor Steven Sandwich had National Health specs, and worse, one of the lenses was permanently covered in pink sticky plaster. I believe this was a technique to strengthen a weak ‘other’ eye, by forcing it to do twice the work. Either that or the glass was cracked.

And glasses or not, I had other issues. It wasn’t just the glasses that failed to attract men to me, but me being taller than all of them and possessed of what a doctor once (erroneously, a it turned out) referred to as “child-bearing hips” or was it “child-bearing thighs”? My Dad was 6 foot 4 inches tall and all my female relatives on his side were Amazonian in build. I had an aunt and a sister both pushing 6 foot, and another sister 5 foot 10. I was actually the lucky one – I was the shortest.

And I didn’t know how to talk to them. I grew up with sisters. I went to school with girls. Boys were – alien. They guffawed a lot. They patronised. They obviously felt themselves to be superior. And the advice then was not, under any circumstances, to appear to be cleverer than them. Men liked clever girls even less than they liked girls who wore glasses. So I tried to be stupid but could never quite pull it off.  Unable to speak my actual thoughts, I was left with nothing at all to say. Banter was beyond me. Giggling – just couldn’t manage it. Flirting – never quite got the hang.

Eventually I managed to bag a man or two, but only by signalling my availability really, really obviously, and how I even did that I can’t remember. And even then these chaps didn’t exactly rush to take advantage of me. Special Offer, and all that. It was more like an unenthusiastic amble.

And then I didn’t fancy them anyway, because:

Premise Number 1:

Who would want a man who only ambled? I wanted my Hero, my Knight on a White Charger, that man who would pursue me desperately to the ends of the earth; somebody driven frantic by my very presence in a room. I wanted romance, I wanted passion.

But even if there had been a Mr Darcy I would have instantly lost interest in him, because:

Premise Number 2:

If he was the sort of man desperate enough to want me he couldn’t be a proper man. He needs must be wimp, a total loser; there had to be something seriously wrong with him.

Premise Number 2 is the killer because there’s absolutely no way around it. For an entire lifetime your logical mind can argue the self-defeating ridiculousness of Premise Number 2: some primitive, damaged part of your subconscious will continue to know it is true.

At one point I had an inspiration. I could be a Lesbian! I wasn’t sure, to be honest, what Lesbians did with each other, but I knew I was already built for the part. All it would take was one of those shaven hairdos and perhaps a silver stud through my tongue. My niece – she of the pink hair, the Doc Martens, the many exotic tattoos and, sadly, now, the failed kidneys, once shared a flat with a gaggle of Lesbians and it didn’t seem to do her any harm. In fact my exotic niece seems to have had an awful lot more fun in her life than I ever did.

Anyway, so I looked around at women and attempted to find at least a few of them attractive but, inconveniently, could not. (My old friends Rose and Daisy will be relieved to hear this.)

And now – well, now things are better. I don’t feel obliged to attract men at all, and certainly not in that competitive, trophy-hunting, 1960s kind of way.  I like men – mostly and I like women – mostly. And mostly people are just people to me nowadays. I treat them alike, whatever they are.

And – bonus – the National Health Spectacle Frame is no more – abolished, I believe, by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I can wear any specs I like. I can send for them through the post, I can try them on at home and send them back if I don’t like them. I can have three pairs. I can have purple ones, or tortoiseshell, or knicker-pink.  I can go Dame Edna or John Lennon. I can – what else can I do…? Oh well, you know what I mean.


Of cats in cupboards and head-banging to Rita Ora

This is not the most genteel of areas, and the many cats I have rescued from it do seem to reflect that. They are… delinquents.

A few days ago Henry climbed onto the back of the sofa behind my head and sneezed, voluminously, all over my face. Of course, then I got a sore throat, sneezes, snuffles… I thought cat viruses were not transferrable to humans but Henry’s seem to be. Although of course I could just as easily have picked it up from some unhygienic surface at the hospital whilst waiting for my appointment.

Then there are the fights between Nicholas the three-legged cat (aka Hoppity) and Snoots (aka Snooty-Poops). For two practically identical black and white cats they don’t seem to like each other at all and it was one of their yowling, snarling, rolling around sessions that resulted in a savagely bitten hand for me, and a whole unpleasant series of subsequent events.

Last night they engaged in another of their seven-legged wrestling matches leaving the living room floor ankle deep in black and white fur ‘feathers’ – which of course I had to clear up.

And then the TV started acting spookily – nothing to do with cats you might think. It was off, but then suddenly it was on, and then off. And then strange menus started appearing on the screen and scary choices being made on drop-down menus. To avoid stress and confusion I never touch anything on a remote control apart from Channel Change, Volume and Up & Down. I get by perfectly well with those. But of course cats are more adventurous. One of them was standing on it, and paddling about randomly with her great, furry feet.

And then there are the piles of sick hidden behind sofas – anywhere you might not look for a few days – or right in the middle of the landing where you cannot help but tread. There are the ripped net curtains (I have now thrown out all net curtains and use decorative plastic film instead) and the shredded water-bottle tops, the taps with teethmarks on them, the spectacle arms that suddenly become rough and scratchy where someone has had a jolly good chew when I wasn’t looking.

I have a cat who – with great difficulty and much contortion of his flexible feline self – stoops to drink from the toilet, when there are two large bowls of fresh water right outside the door. I have one who leaves piles of aromatic poo on top of the kitchen cabinets, too high for a human to see. It’s a process of elimination. If you can’t see one in any of the usual places get out the telescopic mirror and run it along the top of the cabinet like a periscope.

I have cats who turn the taps on when I am out, meaning I come home to gushing (expensive) hot water. I now have to remember to tie the two taps together with a child’s elastic hairband, before I go out. I have cats who turn on the cooker gas taps, so when I leave the house I have to cover them with a plastic box.

I have a cat who tries to help the iron to do the ironing, and one who sits on the mouse mat and tethers the mouse and its cord to the desk. There she sits, mournfully, reflecting upon life in general. Sometimes for a change she comes and sits in front of the screen so I can’t see what I’m typing.

I have a cat who jumps into the food cupboard every time I open the door, and cannot be removed without scattering tins and packets all over the place. Usually all that is visible of her is the rear end, tail defiantly aloft, and all that can be heard is the sound of her licking the top biscuit of an open packet of digestives.

This morning, driving cross-country round twisty country lanes, it suddenly occurred to me that since I stood no chance of beating the moggies at their little games I might as well join them. I decided to become – gradually – a Delinquent Pensioner.

All my life I have modified my behaviour, shall we say, partly so as not to be a nuisance to my fellow human beings but mainly so as not to be conspicuous. That was the overwhelming theme of my childhood:

Do not draw attention to yourself!!!

We were taught to walk quietly, eat quietly and with our mouths closed, never put our elbows on the table (except for Dad, who could do whatever he liked) – hell, even think quietly. We were taught to keep our opinions to ourselves. We were taught to laugh discreetly and never, never raise our voices to the level that other people were forced to overhear our conversations. We were little mice, and I was the Arch-Mouse.

So, ever since I have been driving – since 1980 or thereabouts – I have tried to resist the temptation to dance to the car radio. Know what I mean – that jiggling about, head-banging activity when your favourite song comes on? Not enough to sing along to it (quietly, tunelessly, missing out most of the words, getting out of breath) – you have to dance. Whilst driving.

Now, I have always tried to suppress my natural in-car jiggly-ness because people behind might laugh, or people behind might think I was a dangerous driver, or people might think it inappropriate to be singing at the top of my voice and head-banging along to Rita Ora:

Over the hills and far away
A million miles from L.A
Just anywhere away with you…

But this morning I did.

Think you can misbehave, Moggies?


You ain’t seen nothing yet!

Flash Fiction: When the alarm sounded…

When the alarm sounded we knew it could only be a minute or two so I took the tea-towels out of the tumble-dryer and folded them neatly (somehow I couldn’t enter Eternity without that being done) and

Pete went down the garden with a bucket to dig up the spuds for Sunday Lunch because that’s what he had been just about to do, and it wouldn’t be Sunday Lunch without new potatoes. Not that we’d get to eat them.

I thought about that Clause I’d put in my Will aimed at Cousin Julia who’d stopped talking to me in 1978 (or was it ’79?) but realised it was too late to have it taken out since all the solicitors would be down the shelters by now and anyway Armageddon was upon us and Julia was about to be toast along with the Will and all the rest of us.

Just time to let the canary out of its cage, poor dear, for one last flap around the living room.

Pete had been a very long time getting those potatoes.

new potatoes

Ah well…

(180 words)

Star Voyage: 1 and 2


You find me becalmed here
Adrift and alone
My star voyage fated to fail – 
He that I loved was my anchor
He that I lost was my sail.


Now I am the sailor and I am the helm
And the wind’s blowing fierce in my sail;
And I am these timbers both seasoned and salty
And I have no reason to fail.

I cut them adrift and they took their own courses,
I cut through the hawsers that bound them to me;
One went to the westward and one to the eastward;
One lost in the sea-foam behind –

But I never looked back, and from island to island
From here to horizon, through sun-scorch and rain
I sailed on untrammelled and rarely companioned
To barter my wares on each new shining strand.