The Dark Christmas Of The Soul

I try not to be cynical, but when I see those Salvation Army adverts for those who are homeless, gift-less, cold, shivering or alone at Christmas, I can’t help but wonder things like…

Is the old chap in the armchair real, or when the cameras stop rolling (or whatever cameras do nowadays) does he get up from his shabby armchair, brush back his long, unwashed hair and start talking in ringing Shakespearian tones like Sir John Gielgud? And the poor young chap shivering on the street corner with snow falling all around and people pausing only to mock or kick him. Once the shoot is complete, does he stand up, removing umpteen toasty hot hot-water-bottles from beneath that snow-soaked duvet and suggest everyone repair to the café over the road for a cup-a-soup or cheese on toast? I mean, I know the lonely old chap, the child who won’t be being visited by Santa and the shivering youth exist in all their sad and multiple forms in real life, but are the ones in the adverts real? And does it matter either way?

This is the sort of thing you start pondering, when you are alone in a house for two or three days with only the cats and the TV for company. After this, I am going to look up Dark Night of the Soul. I think I may be going through it. Not dark enough, however, to merit a visit from the Salvation Army. Boring, misguiding and distracting the Jehovah ladies has consumed all my psychic energy. It has been quite fun, at times, but I can’t manage the Sally Army on top.

I went to visit Mum in the home a few days ago but discovered her, once again, asleep and corpse-like at nearly lunchtime. I was told it would be better if I made an appointment to visit her instead of “just turning up”. That depressed me. It says in the brochure that relatives are free to visit at any time. And yet I know that if I do call the Home it will ring and ring and no one will answer because the Home is just one of those places where phone-answering is no one’s specific responsibility and so nobody does it.

In the good old, bad old pre-and incipient dementia days, of course, I would have gone over to Mum’s on Christmas Day and we would have sat, mostly in silence because of her deafness and increasing unwillingness to read, or even look at, the notes I passed her. Eventually she would just toss them down on the imitation parquet flooring. We would knit blanket squares together for around three hours in her underheated living room. Poor Kitten (now rescued, and still alive at the human equivalent of 115 or thereabouts) would be crammed underneath the lukewarm storage heater, her nose tightly wrapped in her tail. The clock would be ticking loudly on the mantelpiece, and there we would sit, having consumed…

Well, for a while it was a cooked meal, though not a Christmas cooked meal. Towards the end it would be Ryvita with increasingly eccentric toppings. And then nothing. Shops, meals, preparations for guests or visiting daughters – all such had been erased from her mind.

Canadian Sister is actually in the UK but oop north with her late husband’s rellies. She flew over here solo for the first time – passport renewal, navigation of Schiphol airport, jetlag – the lot. She has texted me once or twice. I was teaching her to text, transatlantic fashion, soon after her husband died. She seems to have mastered that and has sent me several texts from oop north – mostly about underground trains – how many stops between Euston and Victoria – even though Victoria is closed between Christmas and New Year as I keep on and on trying to explain, to no effect whatsoever. However, it hasn’t seemed to occur to her to telephone me, as she would have done if she had been at home in Canada on Christmas Day. I did casually text explaining that it would be possible for her to call my mobile – sorry, cell – phone from oop north on her mobile – sorry, cell – phone – so as to avoid having to run up a bill on mother-in-law’s landline. But maybe the technology tutorials haven’t quite stretched that far. A phone call would have been nice.

By day I look out of the window and note the cars crammed into all the driveways, and wonder who is having whom to visit. By night I look out of those same windows and, up and down the hill, am treated to richly decorated and flashing council house façades. I know why this is. It’s because the Parish Council are offering three prizes of £50 each to the most festively-decorated houses. A few days ago they sent round pairs of judges – all of them couples, each couple with a borrowed dog as a cunning disguise. Disguise dogs… It seems to me it would cost considerably more than £50 to purchase so many fancy lights and keep them lit up with expensive electricity night after night – but perhaps I’m missing something.

My friend down the road had another great granddaughter on Xmas Day. She texted me, joyously. I can’t imagine what it is like to possess a great grandchild, but did my best to sound appropriately pleased, and decorated my reply text with what seemed like appropriate icons.

I listen to my neighbours playing video games. It seeps through the walls. I think they have got a new baby – at least, I can hear something very small and new crying at intervals – and she did get a trifle tubby for a while… But though the rock music marathons have mercifully ceased since the small crying sound started, the intermittent video whooshes and crashes have not. The child – if it actually is a child and not a figment of my imagination – will no doubt grow up to be one of these Pinball Wizards with the joysticks and clickety-buttons, slumped in a beanbag in front of a screen all day.

What else have I done? Now, let me think. I must have scooped out poop at least fifty times over the last few days. The moggies seem to be going into poop-overdrive for the festive season. And I have fed all nineteen of them twice a day, and washed all the dirty bowls up after. Not to mention the current outdoor moggie, Buster, a scary hissy-and-snarly ginger bruiser who has been turning up every day at dawn and dusk recently in the expectation of a whole tin of Whiskas and then waits round the corner or behind the bins, just out of sight, for maybe another 400g tin? It’s like that figgy pudding song – We all want some figgy pudding, so bring some out here!

I have watched a whole lot of Call The Midwife Christmas Specials – so many of those lifelike rubbery babies emerging – so many nuns – and a whole afternoon’s kind of box set on Channel 4 or something similar, of The Yorkshire Vet. I just got into it whilst knitting squares for my blanket and somehow or other couldn’t turn it off. Do you know, in every single programme he takes his top off and puts his arm up a cow? And in every single program at least one set of gonads are removed with a squelch – pig, dog, cat, ferret, polecat … I feel I could now castrate almost any living thing, from memory.

Party On, Gran!

The usual Christmas card came from an old friend, many miles away. It contained the usual folded-in-four, once-a-year letter. I’m not sure how old Jen is now but she must be ancient, considering she was a great deal older than me when we typed together for a while, in that tiny, exhaust-fume filled basement next to the ring road – bars on the windows; stiflingly crammed with sweating female bodies and those massive old word processors and printers. She tells me that her husband and his mother are on different floors of the same hospice – rooms above and below one another – and that she walks uphill for twenty minutes or so several times a week to visit them both. Neither of them know who she is.

One sentence from her letter has stuck in my mind – “I am afraid my world has become rather narrow”. Poor Jen, it was always narrow, though she wasn’t one to complain – a narrow, if cheerful, upbringing, narrow horizons, narrow expectations, narrow opportunities – and now it is narrower still.

Yesterday I went to the free Christmas Dinner the Parish Council put on every year. This place gradually seeps into your bones. You find yourself beginning to acquire the local cunning, which basically boils down to a series of mottoes such as:

  • Pay no more than 50p for anything.
  • Get the 9.30 bus so that you can use your bus pass. Argue piously with the driver if he says it’s 29 minutes past. By the time you have finished arguing it will be 30 minutes past. And then you can use your bus pass.
  • Leggings go with everything, and they are very cheap.
  • Tee shirts go with leggings, and they are also cheap.
  • Get your hair (beautifully) cut and (unpredictably) coloured by college students. They are very cheap.

Everyone goes to the Christmas Dinner, and every tiny parish has one. You have to fill in a form from the Post Office requesting a place. You have to be old, and local. There are a series of Christmas Dinners on different days in one of the three possibly “venues”. Sometimes the same venue hosts different parishes on different days of the month. It’s complex. But free. And actually, quite good. At least there’s plenty of it, even sprouts, even those tough-ish roast potatoes that remind you of school – even if a rainstorm is swirling outside, the car park is a sea of mud, your baby elephant sized paper hat is falling down over your ears and you are being forced to listen to mega-amplified Sixties classics sung by a man with sideburns in a shiny suit.

saw him, hiding behind the amplifier, wolfing it down before he began. A plate of Christmas Dinner must be part of the fee.

Poor chap, he worked really, really hard, but they made the mistake of calling the raffle (30 sumptuous prizes, including a box of biscuits-for-cheese) moments before he got up to tune his guitar (new strings, he was having problems with them). Immediately afterwards all the oldies started struggling into their coats and hats to go home. Mr Guitar Man was left, mid-afternoon, trying to ginger up a three parts empty hall, the few remaining oldies in the middle with their elephant hats, full of Xmas Pud and clapping sporadically, and a few schoolgirls (still in uniform) propping up the bar. Presumably they were related to the proprietors rather than hardened drinkers.

And oh, he sang Driving Home For Christmas. Extremely tunefully, but very loud. How I loathe that song. And Another Brick In the Wall by Pink Floyd, which I used to like but only for about three and a half minutes back in the Seventies. Very, very loud. And that Ride, Sally, Ride one. What’s that all about? Wasn’t that the Fifties?

And this – by way of attempting to bite one’s tail, post-wise, serpent-wise – is what really worries me. But I don’t think I can explain it. Oh well, I’ll have a bash.

It’s what my first-paragraph friend said about the narrowing of one’s world. I see it happening to me, of course, and yet, oddly, not. I see the advantages of being sucked in and submerged, the comfort and blanketing ease that narrowness brings – old age, no money, working class. Belonging. You see, that is what I have never, ever experienced, and part of me wishes only to be absorbed into it, never to have to think ‘outside the box’ again. Never again to be forced to sit on some hard, chilly seat and observe. I didn’t want to write this, because I observed it.

All the while I was sitting in the corner on that hard, chilly seat and knew however much I was clapping and smiling and chinking glasses and wishing people Happy Christmas at the socially appropriate (also observed) times, playing with the debris from the Christmas crackers, wishing I’d got one of those tiny spinning tops instead of a tiny yellow car – I was making mental notes, and I couldn’t stop. And I knew that I would never be able to, however lonely it was.

Watching my friend (of this paragraph) struggling to her feet to clap and sing along to Driving Home For Christmas; watching her propping her telescopic walking stick out of sight and hobbling onto the dance floor to do a kind of dignified, shuffling Sixties dance in the middle of the floor with another woman; observing her dancing, her with her floaty, surprisingly-coloured-by-students hairdo, wearing a blouse so large, twinkly and besequinned it was like a little constellation all of itself, I so wished I could do that, be like that. And yet I didn’t, and I couldn’t. I would rather the floor had opened and swallowed me whole than venture forth to dance. The other half of me was wondering how soon it could think of an excuse to go home and feed the cats.

The part of me that recognised courage in the face of adversity, a certain inexplicable joyousness about her, also felt the horror.

I Wish I Was A Wizz

Or should it be: I Wish I Were A Wizz? Suspect latter, but grammar purists free to comment/vote. Unlike UK Parliament at the moment. If I was or were a Wizz, I would no doubt be able to sort out what was going on, politically speaking. Or perhaps only a Sorting Hat could do that.

I always had a bit of a thing about wizards. Not witches, for some reason. I saw myself as a bit of a wizard, only I was a green (with stars) robed wizard, not a blue one. Suspect green is more elevated and wonderful than mere blue, in my imagination. Well, if you’re going to have fantasy fantasies, you might as well be the hero.

It’s been a funny old day. I was meant to go to some sort of ‘do’ at the Over 50s, which is now not, technically, the Over 50s but the Tea and Bingo Club, or possibly the Bingo and Tea Club. All ages welcome. As it turns out I didn’t quite make it to the meeting, in the Scouts Hut in the next village, but suspect 99% of the members playing Bingo and drinking tea will still be Over 70, just as they were when they were the Over 50s and met in the pub.

I did try to go, even though I didn’t want to. It was the Christmas one and would have involved purple tinsel, Christmassy paper plates with red and green elves and reindeer on, and Christmassy tablecloths. I know because I helped with the sourcing of these items in one shop after another in town, and the lugging of them around afterwards. And the driving of them home in the boot of my car, and later re-delivery.

I gave myself a good talking to all morning, trying to work up the enthusiasm.

You know you’ve got to go.

It’ll only be a couple of hours – or three, or four… time will soon pass.

It might be fun, you never know. There’s always a first time, in a fun-less lifetime, for something to turn out to be fun.

They might have made special vegetarian sandwiches for you, the only vegetarian. What are they going to do with a mountain vegetarian sandwiches if you wimp out?

And so on, and so forth. And I did set out, honestly. I drove all the way over to the next village, repeating the above backbone-stiffening mantras in the car, and wound my way through the snarled and tiny streets in the hope of a) avoiding loss of wing-mirrors and b) finding a parking space.

And there was a funeral on. Outside the little, scenic, Christmassily decorated church, a horde, a veritable Ghengis Khan’s Army of self-conscious, shoe-polished, black-clad mourners.

I did try the tiny car park outside the Scouts Hut but, as anticipated, it was clogged to the muddy fences with large, shiny mourners’ car, everything double-parked and blocking everything else in. With difficulty, I extracted myself from the car park and, with even more difficulty, got back out onto the village street again without losing a wing mirror or getting dented. Dented already, of course, but that dent was self-inflicted, which is different.

And I did look for an alternative parking space in the narrow village street, honest, but there was nothing I could get into without parallel parking skills or one of those cars that does it all for you.

And so I panicked and came home. Unlike the Prime Minister, I am not Admirably, but Quite Exhaustingly, Limpetishly Resilient. Or it may be that when I see quite clearly that something is not going to work – never, ever going to work – I instantly give up. Make a new plan, Sam. Hop on the Bus, Gus. Don’t need to discuss much… Etc.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

A Einstein

And so I went home, texted

(apparently only old people say texted, everyone else says, ungrammatically ‘text’. I text… the ‘ed’ which would have made it clear that I am not texting right this second but actually text some hours ago – being silent)

my plate-and-tablecloth buying friend and told her the plain truth, that the funeral had prevented me parking. Which she will not believe. Sigh!

And then, as if in retribution, the Jehovah Ladies turned up again – smiling, anxious, warmly wrapped up against the cold. I have written before of the Jehovah Ladies, who like me. I usually manage to deflect them into discussions of cats with three legs, the weather, my-mother-in-the-home (they had it on their secret card index system that she was passed or gone beyond or whatever and I had to correct them on that – still technically alive). This is where being probably ADHD is an advantage – your mind works on digressions and cul-de-sacs. A veritable quagmire, a bottomless pit of irrelevancies and non-sequiturs is at one’s command… Normally, the difficulty is to avoid sinking into it…

So I got my coat on and stepped out into the back garden to have the usual little chat and accept the limp leaflets – two, this time, because they missed me last time. I don’t actually listen to what they say, to be honest, but I value the fact that they care about my soul, and my salvation. No one else does.

A moment of inattention and they had managed to wrangle me back from three-legged cats, vets, mother-in-the-home, weather etc – to tell me that I need not worry. The world appeared to be in a dreadful state but God would step in. God was just waiting for his opportunity to step in and save us all from ourselves. Didn’t I find that comforting? I would find that comforting indeed, if I could only believe it.

Maybe I should try the back-stiffening mantra thing, as above:

God will fish all the plastic out of the sea…

God cares what happens to us stinky old polluting naked apes…

We really don’t deserve to make ourselves extinct, the sooner the better…

And then they told me the story of Adam and Eve, and how Eve ate the apple because the Devil was disguised as a snake. Strangely enough, I knew that. I remarked that people will always feel compelled to do the one thing they are told not to do, it’s like children. And cats.

And then I foolishly remarked that that would be all very well but it said in the Bible that God granted man dominion over all the animals, which was why man felt entitled to eat said animals and perform horrifically cruel experiments on them. They said ah yes, but dominion only means caring for. God instructed us to care for all his creatures, to love them as He loves them. I said I thought dominion didn’t mean that at all.

So they tried me on another word, subjection. They showed me the relevant verses in Genesis, though none of us had our reading glasses on so it was all a bit out of focus. And they said subjection also meant caring for. And I said, to me subjection meant more or less the same as dominion, it meant imposing your will on something or someone weaker than yourself because you felt you had a right to.

But no, apparently subjection also means caring for.

And then I think I managed to non-sequitur them back to cats, and the price of cat food.

Do you possess a Bible, by any chance?

Actually, yes. Do you possess a cat?