The fairies have left me some cushions…

I am gradually catching up with Tech, although of course Tech keeps moving on, further and further into the darkling realms of the incomprehensible, further and further beyond my reach…

But I have just learned how to make lists on my smartphone. It has taken me a decade or two to learn the smartphone. The lists, only a few minutes. I have an app. It is called Simple Lists or List-So-Simple – something like that. Now of course I am thinking of all manner of To Do’s that I was managing to forget about, and therefore never having to get round to doing, before.

There are all sorts of weird things on my To Do lists. Under Organisation, for example, is ‘Round up single duvets and wash’. This kind of implies that a herd of single duvets are cavorting round my house, getting grubby. In fact, I have only two single duvets and I have just rounded the second one up. It was lurking in the garage, in a giant-size Bag For Life, inside the metal garden incinerator I bought but never quite managed to use (effectively).

Anyway, this is not about duvets, but cushions. In searching for duvets I happened to look inside the far right door of the wardrobe. There are many doors I do not open. To open this one I had to gently slide a somnolent, one-armed cat a couple of feet to the left. Ah, I thought, another duvet – for there on the top shelf was one of those blue duvet-dry-cleaning bags. When I opened it, however, it was four 16 x 16 inch cushions with dull, open-weave, sea-greenish fabric covers. You could have knocked me down with a feather, because

although I occasionally stumble across an item I thought I had lost, I have always up till now remembered them once I saw them, ie some sort of back-story popped into my mind.

Oh, the builders’ rule Dad gave me, or

Oh yes, that awful ornament I didn’t quite know what to do with or

Oh, that arctic explorer jacket I thought I might need if another ice age were to strike, but which was in fact so bulky and noisy to wear that I never actually wore it, but it cost so much money I didn’t like to throw it away, because after all there still might be another Ice Age…

But these four cushions – I could have sworn I had never seen them before. This is worrying because…  dementia. There’s Mum, and the worry that all of us ‘children’ are now saddled with, that one of us might be next. 

I have never worried too much about being forgetful because I have always been forgetful. All my life, objects have lost themselves around me. I don’t have any sense that I am getting more forgetful over time. But finding an object you could swear you have never seen before – now we’re heading into wipe-out territory.

I must have seen them before, but if so how did I manage to zip them into a blue, duvet dry-cleaning bag (which I do recognise – I can even picture the dry-cleaners, next to Tesco, that supplied it all those years ago) and push them to the back of my wardrobe without noticing? Was I sleep-walking? Where did the cushions come from? They don’t match anything, certainly not my sofa.

There can be only one explanation: it must have been the fairies. Just as fairies are known to exchange fallen milk-teeth for sixpences and good human children for very bad fairy children (or, so I read in Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain, ancient, toothless fairies cunningly disguised as human babies, thus providing for them a luxury retirement home) so they must bring cushions. Fairy cushions!

Luckily I am making cushion-covers at the moment – very, very slowly – and I do not have any 16 x 16 cushion middles. I could therefore make a set of fairy patchwork cushions, somehow…

Ah well, that’s that sorted out.

fairy cushion

Florence Nottingale

The Domestic Science wing at my school was known as The Crimea. This was on account of some connection with Florence Nightingale, the Lady With The Lamp. The headmistress never stopped banging on about old Florence and gave us the impression that wounded soldiers were actually nursed in our Domestic Science wing, in beds, in rows, like the picture above. I never quite understood this, because I thought they were on the battlefield and she went out to them.

You’d think this might have inspired me to be a nurse, or a heroine of some kind, but all I ever wanted to be was a Poet. My parents were not impressed when I told them this. They said I would be making better use of my time as a shorthand typist for the Electricity Board. Actually, over a whole frittered lifetime, there turned out to be nothing much I would have been better using my time doing.

Fast forward and here I am apparently nursing a stray cat with an amputated leg. I mean a very amputated leg, right up at the shoulder. His name is Nicholas, because he has a white necklace. When you have quite a few black and white cats it’s easier to remember them that way, like recognising seabirds by their beaks or whales by their fins. I have been feeding him outside for some time. He and Sunshine (another un-neutered tom) were sharing the garden on an unspoken rota basis. But Nicholas has been missing for several day.

Yesterday I got home from a routine visit the vet’s to find Nicholas outside. He looked brisk and business-like enough but he was holding a front paw in the air. Perhaps a thorn, I thought, or a cut. Looking on the bright side, or trying to, I reached down and scooped him up. Bad sign, that he let me do that.

Several phone calls to the vet, the RSPCA (to get an Incident Number), to the vet again, to a taxi firm. I can’t take a sick cat all that way on the bus. By lunchtime we are back at the vets. Probably an abscess, says the vet, in that Russian-type accent I have never been able to reproduce. If you are going to take him I will do the operation and castrate him at the same time. But when the x-rays come in he shows me – that leg is shattered. You have three options he says: have the cat put to sleep, refer him to an orthopaedic surgeon – because I can’t fix that – which would cost you around £4,000 – or have the leg amputated and the castration done at the same time, which I could do cheaply for you for only… Only?

The cat might be adopted afterwards, of course. He looks round from his computer and grins. ‘You don’t have to take them all.’ But he knows perfectly well that I do.

And so here I am – Mrs Squeamish, who hates any kind of physical responsibility, trying to be Florence Nightingale. Nicholas is alternately stretched out and curled up in an untidy heap of pet bed, blanket and folded fleece in the corner, partly covered by a blanket. He doesn’t look too bright, but he has eaten something and doesn’t seem averse to a stroke and a purr every now and again, between long sleeps. For some reason I think about Beowulf, and Grendel and his arm torn off at the shoulder at the battle of Heriot…

Concentrate, woman…

To be honest, I have never seen a newly-amputated creature before. An amputee is one thing – you see them on TV all the time – but a new wound is another. I had to bathe it this morning, and of course there are ugly things, like stitches and blood and shaven, puckered skin. I shall be so glad when that fur begins to grow back, Nicholas. He squirms over onto his tummy and squints up at me. I am going to get so bitten, I think, approaching on creaking knees with the cotton wool and the bowl of warm water. But no, he lies patiently and lets me clean him up and looks ever so slightly less appalling afterwards. Much smarter, I say.

I was thinking about angels, and that mysterious old man on the bus who talked to me about the meaning of life, recited Desiderata and vanished. I was wondering if we are all obliged to do ‘Angel Duty’ – a bit like conscription – at some point, or in one aspect of our lives. I was thinking maybe it was my job to be Nicholas’ angel today, and that he had at least chosen the right person to hobble to. I was wondering who my right person was, or would be if and when the time came, to hobble to.

I was thinking about competence and incompetence, and how the both things can exist in the same person at the same time. I was thinking that my sister doesn’t speak to me now, and wondering if it is because she has got lumbered with all the financial and practical stuff in connection with my mother, and despises me and my irresponsibility/incompetence/host of financial phobias and anxieties, for having backed out of all that so smartly. Did I let her down? At the time I just knew she would be better at it, but all the same… I’m the older sister and that should have been my responsibility.

No, you don’t have to take them all in. And you don’t have to be an Angel in everything. You have your one thing, and maybe only that one thing. That’s your mission, should you choose to accept it…

And Matilda Went Waltzing Away

I was shuffling about the kitchen in my ancient man’s dressing gown. (Ancient dressing gown meant for a man, that is, not a dressing gown stolen from or donated by an ancient man.) The sleeves are so long I have to turn them up several times so they don’t dangle in the washing-up water, but I don’t suppose you wanted to know that.

Outside it is pitch black. It’s what I hate the worst about winter: being in that kitchen with the big windows and the big french doors and outside it’s like… Space, The Final Frontier…

But the cats need to be fed, which includes not only all of mine but also the various black-and-white and ginger huge toms that materialise out of the darkness. Sometimes, even at 4 in the morning – yes, sometimes I can’t sleep and am up at 4 in the morning when it is just as dark as at 6 – you can see one or other of their little furry faces pressed up against the glass. Where exactly are my three personal bowls of Felix, missuss?

Of course, this requires opening and closing the kitchen doors, collecting old bowls, taking out new ones, and this gives Matilda her daily chance to do a runner, which she does today.

I called her Matilda because every evening at dusk when she was a stray she would come waltzing up the garden, a veritable painted lady, a tortoiseshell of the most lurid black, white and orange design, full of confidence, and ravenous.

Pitch black outside. Unable just to close the door on her and wait, or at least hope that she comes back I make trip after trip out into the damp, dark garden, wambling around in my carpet slippers and dangle-sleeved dressing gown whispering Pusscat? Puss Puss Puss? I am aware that the neighbours may be watching and listening, but the need to recapture Matilda trumps self-respect.

Matilda? I call, setting down a bowl of her favourite Gourmet. I spot her, at intervals – a grey shape circling round me. I make several efforts to grab her but she’s young, and fast.

Matilda? I cry, returning with my second to last mini-tin of tuna? I sit on the (rain-soaked) plastic garden seat and wait. The grey shape materialises and gets near the tuna, but not near enough. Matilda has been caught like this before.

And so it goes on. And on. Daylight dawns and I catch sight of her coming over the wall from the neighbours then sashaying off up the hill, in the opposite direction to the one she always used to arrive from. More distant, my Matilda, every time I catch sight her.

Really I am inundated, drowning in stray cats – and you’d think that I might even be quite relieved to mislay one every now and again. You’d think I could say, Well suit yourself, Matilda. That’s the way you want it, moggie, that’s the way you got it. But it doesn’t seem to work that way.

I return to the washing up, plunging my arms into the tepid water, not even bothering to roll up the dangling sleeves this time, and as I wipe away tears on damp dressing-gown I suddenly understand the story of the Prodigal Son as I never did at Sunday School and, being childless, had never really thought about since. How joyfully his father celebrated that selfish boy’s return, and he wasn’t even a tortoiseshell cat.

prodigal2

I was going to go on about the rest of my doleful Matilda-less morning, about the bit on the news about talking to potential ‘jumpers’ on railway platforms. Say anything at all, talk about the weather, anything that disrupts that train of suicidal thoughts… And my darkly sardonic thought that I would be less likely to spot a potential suicide than for a potential suicide to spot me and come running up, wanting to tell me their whole dreadful life story and, clinging to me for dear life, refuse to be rescued by anyone else

And I had planned to tell you how I was obliged to set off on the bus to pay the weekly visit to my ‘befriendee’ lady, whilst all the time that bumptious, overconfident Matilda was waltzing around in the wild, up hill and down dale, almost certainly being eaten by foxes or raped by one or other of the great lascivious toms I myself had been feeding.

I was going to convey to you how nobly and kindly I smiled as I did my befriending, maintaining eye-contact whilst eating two chocolate biscuits (it was definitely a two-chocolate-biscuit day) and forcing myself to focus on the issue of whether it would be a good idea for her to purchase a replacement television in time for Christmas, whilst all the time my poor little Matilda…

But I expect all you really want to know whether Matilda ever came back. And she did, after a lengthy walkabout, lured through an open kitchen door by the last remaining tin of tuna. Even then she was half way escaped again by the time I managed to tiptoe round and shut it behind her. She almost got her paws squashed.

I don’t suppose she’s likely to fall for that one again.

If you go down to the woods today…

Outside Mum’s window the sky is iron grey. The chill strikes even through my winter coat, my thickest scarf, the extra cardigans. I am wearing so many layers today I resemble a padded black cube, with legs. Mum seems to be suggesting a picnic. Recently she has become convinced that, whoever we are, we must be entertained. She struggles to explain her plans, the arrangements she is mentally making. If she could walk, she seems to be saying, we could put her into the front seat of a car. We could go out, and sit on the grass and eat our picnic. At least, that’s what I imagine she is saying. I seem to need something nobody else does – to impose a narrative on the anxious, incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness stuff that actually comes out. Godmother is more down to earth: ‘Too cold for a picnic today, but they’ll be bringing your fish and chips soon’.

‘I think the fish must be swimming here’, she mutters. ‘Where is it?’

Godmother simply tells the truth. ‘Is my Mum still alive?’ Mum asks me, suddenly. I turn to Godmother, silently asking for help, the loss of Nan suddenly flooding back in.

‘No. She died a long time ago,’ says Godmother.

Mum considers this. ‘Is my Dad alive?’

‘No, he’s dead too.’

‘Him?’ She points at her brother’s photo – there he is in 1949 in tropical uniform,  film-star handsome. Cyprus, maybe.

He’s still alive,’ says Godmother, seeing me nodding.

‘But very old now,’ I add. (And never bothered to visit you for the last twenty-five years, I think, though you waited and waited and always believed he would.)

‘And him?’ She points at Dad’s picture, the one of him in his seventies, in that veterans’ cycle race, leaning into the curve of a corner as he goes whizzing by.

‘That’s my Dad,’ I say, foolishly. ‘Your husband.’

She looks puzzled. ‘Is he still alive?’

‘No, he’s dead too,’ says Godmother. ‘Shall I go and make you a fresh cup of tea?’

Mum nods vigorously, then starts to look dubious.

‘Go quick,’ I say, ‘before it turns into a no.’

Mum points at Gordon Ramsay on the television, being beastly to someone because their restaurant isn’t up to scratch. Something about him – maybe the red, constantly-mobile face – seems to have caught her attention. At least she doesn’t ask me if he’s still alive.

picnic

At the Over 50s lunch a lady called Daphne has taken charge of me. She is helping me with my Bingo.

‘No,’ she tuts. ‘Turn that sheet upside down then you won’t be tempted to put anything on it. Look, I’m turning the blue sheet upside down. You don’t need it yet. Out of sight, out of mind. No – you’ve just done the line but you’ve still got the house – don’t go throwing the whole book away!’

Truth to tell, I am exaggerating my helplessness a bit because it’s so unexpectedly nice to be nagged. I had forgotten what that was like, the way Mums talk to you.

We all have to sit in the same seats, every time, even though it’s a huge great pub. This I discovered earlier, when I sat in the wrong one. ‘Oh no. You’ll have to move along one.’

‘I just didn’t really want to sit under that potted tree. The leaves are sort of sharp and dangle down your neck…’

‘Well we’ll move the table out a bit, keep you more or less away from the tree. But that’s your seat now. Don’t give Her a chance to have a go at you. Once She starts…’

Gosh, I think. It’s like being back at school. Have I really reached this age only to be forced to sit for several hours in a corner seat half obscured by a potted tree of vicious temperament because somebody tells me to?

An old man two seats down (exactly where he was last month) tells a very off-colour joke involving falling into a bucket, with some tits. He laughs uproariously, mouth wide open.

‘Don’t you get started on those jokes of yours, Cecil. There’s a young lady present.’ It take me a minute to realise they mean me.

picnic

Back at the home, Mum’s asking, over and over again, ‘But what about me? What do you want me to do? What shall I do now?’

Oh Mum, I think. Ask me if I went and cut my own fringe again, because it’s all up one side and down the other. Offer to make me an appointment with your own hairdresser round the corner. ‘That one you were in the same class at junior school with’.

Tell me off for sneaking pieces into your jigsaw puzzle behind your back.

Ask me if I’m putting on weight and suggest that it’s plastering all those great chunks of butter on my toast that does it.

Tell me you’re worried about me and my raggle-taggle lifestyle. Tell me I’ve always been a worry to you, really.

Tell me you’d like me to get you a new book in that historical series, but the paperback, mind you, not the hardback: mess up the look of your bookshelves, hardbacks do.

Tell me you’d think I’d have something better to do with my time than play Bingo with a lot of old farts in a pub in the back of beyond somewhere.

Tell me anything, anything at all. I’m listening so hard now.

The Quality of Mercy

I must admit I am approaching this piece of writing gingerly. The thought of being trolled by some appalling witch of a woman in Tower Hamlets, some union-jack flapping person in Penge or a coven of ghastly, acne-faced sprogs in Market Harborough, fills me with dread. This is just my opinion, and you are free to decide I’m wrong.

Firstly, on the BBC’s news channel today were further details of the Welsh politician who took his own life this week, whilst under investigation by the Labour Party. Now – after his death – it appears that the accusations are in connection with inappropriate touching, or groping. He and his family felt that he had been denied natural justice. Since he had not been allowed to have any details of the accusations, he could not defend himself.

This is what I think:

No action is so bad that a human being should be driven by public opinion to commit suicide. Whatever someone has been accused of, in this country at least, they remain innocent until proven guilty. And even if they are eventually proven guilty they should be given a chance to put their side of the story, to apologise, to express remorse and to attempt to make amends. We do not have the moral right to push another person over the edge.

That thing about casting the first stone – male or female, which of us hasn’t done or said stuff in their past that – in the light of current thinking – they now wish they hadn’t?  Is it proportional, is it fair to seek a belated revenge for some decades-old pat on the knee or unwanted kiss after a boozy lunch by destroying somebody’s career? We cannot really know the vulnerabilities of others. They may appear strong and confident, but how desperate might they be, inside, right now? They could be waving, but then again they might be drowning.

wavingMy second thought is about the American actor Kevin Spacey. I don’t know whether he is guilty of all the things he has been accused of – I didn’t even know he was gay – but it seems that now they are planning to edit him out of his latest film. By the miracle of technology they are going to substitute a different actor for him.

Until now there has always been a clear, if unspoken, barrier between the work of an artist and the private life of the same. Painters, musicians, actors, writers, scientific geniuses, just like the rest of us, may be held to account and if necessary prosecuted for any wicked or foolish act they commit, but are we really going to deprive ourselves for ever after of what that person is capable of creating?

It seems to me that Kevin Spacey is one of the very few great American actors. Compared to him most American actors (and yes, actresses) are pants, frankly. Has it now become impossible for him to act in anything, ever again? I have this feeling, you see, that people with gifts are sent here to use them, and preventing them from using them is a form of spiritual torture, which is something none of us has the right to inflict.

I seem to recall that one of the main pieces of advice handed out to couples in counselling and parents having trouble parenting their children is never to say ‘I hate you’, but rather to say ‘I hate what you just did’ or ‘What you said made me angry, and this is why…’ Surely we should apply this principle when those in public life fall short of whatever standard of behaviour society happens to be finding acceptable at the moment?

Surely we could bring ourselves to say: we hate what you did but we will not pretend that you never existed. We will not prevent you from exercising your art, or from giving humanity whatever gift you were sent here to give, because you are human and we too are human. We disapprove of what you may have done in your past and private life, but we will not airbrush you out.

Trad Jazz and Tarantulas

If you had asked me to make a list of what I was expecting from last night’s Outing tarantulas would have been unlikely to feature on it.

Not that I would have probably got round to making such a list because making such a list would fall under the banner of Mushroom Stuffing, Mushroom Stuffing being but one of that multitude of things that life is too short to do. A further example – Bertie spent much of our Thursday bus stop waiting time recounting the lengths he had gone to in rejuvenating his last year’s Remembrance Day poppy. The black bit in the middle had come out, he said, and he couldn’t find it, but eventually he did find it under the fridge/ washing machine/ spare-room bed/ hallway hat-stand, and then it was a matter of attaching a fresh bit of wire, hunting out the superglue and attaching the battered red petals to the new framework… This must have taken him several hours. Mushroom stuffing.

I mentioned mushroom stuffing. Nobody knew what I meant, of course.

Last night I went on an Outing. For most of my life the concept of Outings has been a foreign one to me. I am that pathetic, lone-wolf type person whose default position would be Do This Alone, Go There Alone, Solve This Yourself etc. But now I no longer have a car and have perforce become more reliant on other people and have had to retrain myself, somewhat, if not exactly into sheep-hood, at least into a lone-wolf/ovine combination. I have also read that Social Interaction might help you not get Alzheimers.

This I how, with three of my fellow Over 50s I came to be being driven into town (after dark) in a frankly odoriferous – dog/ cigarettes/ air freshener/ unidentified-but-unpleasant, possibly nappies – car, to a district on the outskirts of Town that I would until now have been nervous of frequenting in daylight let alone on the night before Bonfire Night, with premature fireworks lighting up the sky. I focussed on my breathing. There was very little air inside this car, and so many people breathing it.

However, it was a good night, if stressful. In this district the new owners of an old shop were renovating it when they came across a sealed room. On breaking in they found a perfect little music hall theatre left over from 1879 or thereabouts and somehow forgotten. It had offered “rational amusement for all classes”, including a one-armed juggler.

The sound of one arm juggling…

They restored it, making it into a mixture of tiny heritage centre, tiny museum, tiny cinema and tiny theatre. Just the sort of place I like. Sort of place you could set a book in.

Behind the Scenes at the… oh no, that’s been done before.

I wasn’t expecting much from a 1920s evening. Not even the oldest Over 50, I think, can actually remember the Roaring Twenties. I imagined we might be in for a party of not-very-good flapper dancers in thick, cheerful make-up, performing ragged Charlestons, or maybe re-enacting romantic scenes from Noel Coward plays. But it was an Outing. I just went because Outings are supposed to be good for one.

But it wasn’t that at all, it was an “orchestra” of six elderly chaps playing traditional jazz, and rather well, plus a slightly younger crooner-type singer, wearing a tuxedo, a bow-tie and sinister BBC announcer/German spy type spectacles, and playing the saxophone in between. They consisted of a trumpeter, with mute; a clarinet player with a white ZZ Top type beard; a snowy-haired, feisty drummer, for whose life I feared during a vigorous drum-solo; a guitar/banjo player who appeared to be asleep through out, with mouth open, but nevertheless kept on playing, and someone in the middle at the very back playing what I assumed to be a tuba – something like a battered brass snake that enveloped him, with a giant gramophone horn attached to the end – but later discovered it was a souzaphone.

I promised myself I would not, Kermit-fashion, jiggle up and down in my seat in time to the music, or even tap my feet, but of course I did. They played all those bits of jazz I remember from black and white films on TV on rainy Saturday afternoons in my childhood. Long, silly introductions. Little sung stories leading into sudden bursts of rampageous jazz. I looked around. We were surrounded by union jacks and tasteless swags of red ribbon, and vases of lilies, something that looked like a church organ, weird deco. It could have been wartime. How appropriate, as Britannia sinks beneath – or, fingers-crossed and baited breath, may just about float upon – the waves…

Never, Never, Never to be Slaves….

Afterwards, as we were standing outside awaiting the return odoriferous lift , I asked a silly question. What’s behind that great big wall?  Right opposite us, mere feet away, was the tallest and oldest brick wall I think I have ever seen. This would not have been a silly question for a visitor from outer space (and I could see by the micro-expressions on my companions faces that I had just asked that sort of question) but I do live here. That, I was told, is the Dockyard.

And this is where the tarantulas come in. Behind that wall, my companions explained, as our breath steamed in the damp night air, is the Dockyard. And in that wall are tarantulas that have escaped from all the crates that were ever unloaded here. They live in the cracks in the wall… The wall is still pitted with shrapnel holes from where this street (well, they were obviously aiming for the Dockyard) was bombed in the last war.

Really? Do they bite?

No, they’re not the biting sort. They just live in the cracks.

Someone has tested that?

And suddenly I imagined all these poor little tarantulas and the lives they must have led. The Wall was as far as they could get. Scuttling out of their crates into, not the tropical sunshine they had been used to but some grey, damp February or November day. Heading for the nearest cover – that Wall. Living in the cracks, unable to go any further, unable to go home. How sorely they must have missed it, the music of the oil drum bands, those joyous calypsos beneath the palm trees. I hope they were at least tapping their feet along to strains of jazz drifting across from the little theatre. I hope they were jiggling just a little, Kermit-fashion in their shrapnel holes, and those crumbling interstices.

souza

 

Etsy, Itsy, Bitsy, Betsy…

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Sorry – blurred again. Looks a bit like Jaws, doesn’t it? Or Moby Dick.

Why did I choose almost the only shape in the pattern book that involved inset (or ‘Y’) seams? I know why, because I was being ADD-ish. I was saying to myself Oh, rows of little houses. That one looks nice! Instead of saying, Exactly how are all those pointy bits going to fit together?

There’s one good thing – once you have completed an 18″ x 18″ cushion cover containing row after row of inset (or ‘Y’) seams having watched several unbelievably smug ladies making it look easy on YouTube, you will be as good at inset (or ‘Y’) seams as you are ever going to be.

Never again. I’ll finish (eventually) this one for Canadian Sister and stick to simple stuff from then on, especially if I might be planning to sell such items on Etsy, Itsy, Bitsy, Betsy or whatever. (Am I?) I calculate it would take a week and a half for me to complete a single cushion involving Y seams. You’d have to charge the earth to make it worthwhile, and no one’s going to know why you’re charging the earth because they are unlikely to appreciate the sheer, hellish, irritating, impossible horribleness of even one Y seam, let alone a whole cushionfull