Romeo, Romeo, wherefore wert you…

There is a man playing an acoustic guitar on next door’s little patio, under the pergola, or whatever those overhead latticework things with greenery hanging off them are called. I am doing the ironing, now the day has cooled down a bit. As the iron moves to and fro I listen in, oddly pleased.

He’s teaching himself that Dire Straits one, ‘Sultans of Swing’ so he plays in fits and starts, a few bars here, a few bars there, a few muttered words sung along. Really, he should stick to the few muttered words because his voice isn’t up to his playing. When he has a go at the high bits he gets seriously out of tune, like karaoke. But it makes a change to hear real music played on a real instrument. It brings the hillside to life somehow.

It took me a while to locate the music since sounds echo most peculiarly in this village. Any loud-ish conversation can be heard by all, at least in part. Shouted phrases charge towards you, then are muffled, then return. Laughter sounds like someone’s laughing at the bottom of an invisible canyon. Sound swirls.

The guitar playing reminds me of Ex, which is sad, though not so terribly sad. He was always sitting around in empty rooms, at least in my memory – abstracted, growling away to himself or playing some complicated gigue or saraband in fits and starts. I’m not even sure if I’ve spelt those right.

I know who this chap is. He’s the husband, or rather, for relationships are so complicated nowadays, the former-husband-not-actually-remarried-but-fairly-frequently-present husband of the lady next door. Whereas Ex is my former-husband-basically-never- present, except once or twice a year over the phone. But that seems to be OK.  I suspect I disappear from his mind the instant he puts the phone down. A puff of white smoke, that’s me; what’s left over when you snuff out a candle.

I happened to be talking to Canadian Sister about this on the phone earlier this evening. She is going through another bad patch, the reality of widowhood seeming to have engulfed her all at once. She tells me she can’t abide being alone in the house, that she needs her dead husband to see or have seen what she is doing from one moment to the next. Everything she does she still seems to need to run past her husband first – He would have been interested in that, she says. He would have been proud of me for managing to do this. He wouldn’t have liked me doing this (manufacturing lopsided bright blue buddha candles in his newly-perfected kitchen).

I said when she had been alone for twenty-seven years she would probably find, as I had, that she had evolved in completely the opposite direction, and would find that she could no longer stand the idea of someone else in the house, observing everything she did. For many years after I first was on my own, I confided – casting around for something intelligent-yet-comforting to say and, as usual, failing – I carried Ex around with me in my head. Everywhere I went – maybe for the first ten years – this Miniature Grumpy Hypercritical Ex would be inside my head, providing a running commentary.

You’ve made a complete Dog’s Breakfast of that, haven’t you! Why don’t you do something worthwhile with your life? Have you got the map upside down again? Don’t put apple cores on the windowsill! What you need is a hobby, something to take your mind off things. Etc.

I would hold long, self-pitying, angry conversations with him in my head. But if I asked this apparition its advice, mentally, it would go completely silent on me. Nowadays he is little more than the occasional little cloud of black smoke, a drifting whiff, a kind of Bonfire Night residue. My head is completely empty most of the time. Echoing. Tumbleweed…

… so you see, I said, in my best transatlantic psychotherapist voice, in another twenty-seven years or so you’ll be seeing things through the prism of yourself and not through the prism of your lost husband.

I am likely to be dead in another twenty-seven years, she reminded me.

I must admit I hadn’t thought of that.

Shop Till You Pop

I am not keen on shopping, and neither is my English Sister. A hatred of shopping is one of the three and only three traits we have in common – shopophobia, extreme tallness and a voice. I once worked in a terrible call centre and was given the opportunity to hear my recorded voice. I was not being Bright & Bubbly enough. I gather they thought I sounded like that donkey from Winnie The Pooh, although it did not seem to stop me from persuading members of the public (who were as nauseated by Bright & Bubbly as I am by shopping) to take part in a series of witless, dull market research surveys.

Listening to myself yattering away on tape was unsettling. To myself, you see, I sound a bit like my Dad, with a few of the cockney corners knocked off. On the tape I sound like exactly English Sister sounds on the phone. If I had answered the phone to me, I would have been convinced I was her.

There is a difference, of course, between shopping and spending. I am quite capable of spending. If I were to win a couple of million quid tomorrow I would have a great time. Even with no money I still manage to find considerable enjoyment in spending. Those two 30 litre sacks of cat litter I got at the farm shop this morning, for instance – the bags such a bright, sunshine yellow, the wood pellets inside making a heavy, swishing sound…

Some women may spend a whole day in Lakeside, Bluewater or whatever, searching for that designer handbag or the perfect pale blue Fascinator for a friend’s wedding. You would have to pay me to go to Bluewater – and quite a lot. I can, however, spend happy half hours zooming up and down the lists on Amazon and be delighted to discover a dog-eared one penny paperback version of a book that, last time I looked, was a fat, ruinously expensive hardback.

Who reads hardbacks anyway? They are so heavy they hurt your hands and you have to read them propped up on a sofa-cushion, and that thick, expensive paper sets your teeth on edge, like the disposable wooden knife-spoons or sporks they give you with fish and chips. If they want you to eat with bio-degradable implements why don’t they smooth or polish them somehow so that you don’t have to gingerly pick flakes of cod up with your teeth so your actual lips don’t have to make contact with a dry splintery wooden thing? But as usual, I digress.

I have a problem. It involves a friend, and shopping. My friend is disabled and likes to go shopping, a lot. She doesn’t like catching the bus into Town, which I can appreciate as who likes to wait an hour in the icy rain outside the one and only village store in the hope that an overcrowded bus might turn up. What she likes is for me to drive her into Town in my motor car, park for free with her disabled badge, have a lengthy cup of coffee in the disabled persons’ centre, a supermarket café or whatever, followed by a lifetime, an eternity, of shopping. She buys a whole lot of stuff that I could never bear to pick up – fifteen or twenty plastic poinsettias, for example – table decorations for next Christmas.

She picks things up and she puts them down. Then she goes back and picks them up again. She reads all ingredients on every single tin in the supermarket. She will not buy food online because it might not be fresh. How can you tell if it’s fresh if you’re not there in person to poke it and prod it and read and re-read the sell by date? I tell her nothing has ever turned up outside my house in the Tesco van that was not fresh. I would like to tell her that life is too short to read the labels on tins, or anything else. I yearn to bellow that Stuffing The Proverbial Mushroom would be less of a waste of time.

Tired of wandering round behind her, pushing her trolley, carrying her wire basket, reaching up for items beyond reach of her walking stick handle, I sometimes manage to persuade her to let me go off on my own for an hour or so. I tell her where we can meet up. We synchronise our watches. She never turns up. Eventually, after half an hour or so of sitting about trying not to check the time again I might catch a glimpse of her, laden with bags and shopping trolleys, disappearing into some distant shop doorway, and she might give me a half-hearted sort of wave, if she notices me at all.

mr homm

This is how I feel when shopping with my friend – like Mr Homm, Lwaxana’s silent, ever-present and amazingly tall manservant in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Simultaneously totally conspicuous and utterly insignificant.

I am going to have to Say Something, aren’t I? But Saying Something, in the sense of being honest about what I like and don’t like, want and don’t want, is a major trial for me. I dread upsetting people. Well, basically, I don’t dread upsetting them. What I dread is having to add to the burden of self-loathing I already carry their anger, their tears, even their slight chilliness, their bewildered silence, the hint of a huff.  I don’t much like other people, in the flesh, to be honest. I don’t like being forced to negotiate with them, reason with them or charm them. I particularly don’t like having to tell them the unadorned, un-fictionalised truth because then they can lash back at you rather than the elaborate cock-and-bull story you just fed them. Oddly I’m good at it over the phone – hence call centre success despite sounding like Eeyore. But with real people my instinct is always to flinch, and retreat.

Last week, though I approached Breaking Point. After a year of excuses I was finally prevailed upon to transport my friend to an Exciting New Shopping Conglomeration that has grown up around a Mega-Supermarket not far from where we live. Her disabled sticker is temporarily in abeyance meaning I now have to pay for all the parking as well as the petrol and the larger part of the coffees, occasional café lunches, more coffees and whatever. We spent hours in Sports Direct a large, gloomyish store full of po-faced, handsome young men picking up pairs of white trainers and putting them down again. There is nothing in Sports Direct that I want but we lingered for what felt like an eternity by the men’s stretchy shirt racks, hooking down (with the walking stick) one virtually identical shirt after another. For one of her sons.

Then we had to hobble round everything else and not buy it, very, very slowly, still with the armful shirts. Then we had to queue up for another several hours to pay, behind a slow-moving trail of po-faced young men holding pairs of white trainers, pairs of tracksuit-bottoms. Beside us in the queue, a display of white underpants on well-endowed plastic gentlemen. I tried not to look but you know how it is, one of your eyes might be averted but the other gets drawn

And then we went to some enormous underpopulated shop that sold huge, untidy piles of everything in plastic bottles – shampoo, shaving cream, carpet cleaner – plastic poinsettias, garden chairs – and spent almost as long in there. And then another shop – I had just shut down by then. I was existing only inside my head, awaiting for my release from this life-sentence, this torment. I needed to sit down. I was hungry. I desperately needed to pee. I tried hinting at all these things, but…

Oh God, I hate shopping.

Oh God, I am going to have to say so.