Unlicensed To Chill

The careers advice at school consisted of one short interview in an office off the main entry hall, with a bored, irritated female “sent from somewhere”. I remember shyly confiding in her – not unreasonably I thought since I was getting good marks in A level English – that I would like to be a newspaper reporter. She shook her head and passed me pamphlets on the Women’s Army. One of the perils of being tall and built like a brick outhouse, thanks to your father, is that people can only picture you charging around some jungle like Camouflage, that heroic and – as it turns out – somewhat ghostly marine.

And her face at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale…

Oh dear, earworm time.

But given the uninspired naffness of this blog title, perhaps the Career Cow was right after all. Too old for a career now, in any case.

But not quite old enough, as yet, to have my free TV licence whipped away from me because neither the Government – that shameful shambles – and the BBC – that parcel of pillocks – are willing to fund it any longer. As from 2020 all pensioners not in receipt of Pension Credit will just have to carry on paying their £12.85 a month until they drop. Up till now, if you succeeded in clawing your way to your 75th birthday you were allowed to watch TV for free. It was the one thing most of us had to look forward to about getting old. Dementia, possibly – galloping arthritis, possibly – chronic constipation, unreachable toenails, being patronised by everybody, whatever – but at 75

I won’t have to pay for my TV licence. Yay !!!**!!!

In one sense I am lucky. I am some way off 75 so would have been having to pay for some years anyway. However, my friend Daisy and beloved Godmother already have the free TV licence. As of next year, those will be snatched away. I wonder whether they are going to drag 100 year old pensioners through the courts because, being a bit wafty or not having access to “online” they didn’t get the email explaining this and therefore failed to start paying. I believe the fine for watching without a licence is £100. You can’t be imprisoned for failing to purchase a TV licence but if you fail to pay the £100, you can be. Imagine prisons filled with bewildered geriatrics. At least they can probably watch TV in there.

So, that is one reason why I have now given up my TV licence. Solidarity with all those unknown oldies who are about to have an already depressing existence made just a tad more depressing. Either they can carry on coughing up £12.85 a month (which will no doubt increase) ad infinitem, or they can do as I just did – chuck the TV, remote control and all that wiring into a cardboard box and banish it to the garage.

(Almost immediately after that my garage was flooded in a freak thunderstorm. I’m not sure the TV would even work now.)

No more live TV and no more catch-up or live TV on BBC iPlayer. (That’s the bigger loss.) No more Charlie and Naga perched on a hideous red sofa chirping out the news every morning. No more weather forecasters with unpronounceable names forecasting gales and flooding. No more interminable weeks of Wimbledon. No more late night panels of journalists pontificating or shouting each other down over Brexit.

The other reason I gave up is logical, but in a female sort of way. It was one of those lightbulb moments: if, to continue watching live TV, I am henceforth doomed to pay £12.85 a month by direct debit until they stuff me into my coffin – why am I actually paying it now? I mean, I really can’t afford it. I can’t afford anything. I have had to give up buying 1p second hand books from Amazon, for goodness sake, because they add on £2-something for postage.

Why am I paying £154-ish per annum to this BBC, who are about to snatch free licences from my elderly friends? Why should I let them pocket a chunk of my meagre State Pension, damn them? They pay a former footballer called Gary something-or-other – who already makes a packet out of advertising potato crisps – trillions per annum just for presenting a sports programme that no woman could ever bear to watch. Why not sack him for a start, Mr Pointless Football Pundit? And his female equivalent high-earner Claudia Winkelman, who is famous for having a too-long fringe and making kooky unfunny jokes on Strictly Come Dancing. Bin her. Bring back free licences.

And the final straw came when some twenty or thirty-something late night journalist, whose opinions I had always been interested to hear, up to that point, blurted out something to this effect:

Old people are nearly all rolling in money anyway, unlike us millennials. They don’t deserve free licences. And after all, they can just go out and buy a subscription to Netflix….

The difficulty with this is, many people in the over 75 age group do not have a computer of any sort. And even if you can afford to buy one at that age you are going to need a smartarse grandchild or computer chappie to set it up and teach you how to use it. It is not easy learning to use a computer later in life. I know, I was forced to teach myself the whole lot by trial and error, being childless and so not having access to a smartarse grandchild. Also, how many old people know what Netflix – or even what an app is? How can they afford to subscribe to Netflix if they can’t afford the licence fee? Can you even watch live TV on Netflix? My research says not, but some Millennial will no doubt correct me.

The Millennial’s co-late-night-journalist sat and gazed at her silent and slack-jawed when she came out with that one. I don’t think he could believe she had actually said it.

Anyway, rant over (phew!). I am actually finding it’s OK-ish without TV. I have deleted  BBC iPlayer from my tablet so that I can’t click on it accidentally, thus incurring a £100 fine or communal prison television surrounded by murderers, rapists and drug-dealers. I have three radio sets, set on Radio 4, 4 Extra and – miscellaneous music stations. I look up the daily schedules on one app (thus saving myself the expense of buying the Radio Times), the weather on another and news headlines and in-depth articles on another. Sorted! as they say around here.

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.

Dead Fly Biscuits and Other Horrors

Apologies in advance for my feverish incoherence. I am on the first day of either hay fever or a cold – who knows? – plus, the Heatwave has finally arrived. In between explosive sneezes, my nose dribbles. I hate my nose today.

It’s to be a Saturday Only Heatwave, apparently. In this country we believe in Moderation. ‘Moderation in all things, Miss Nugent’, as Mr Swindley once said on Coronation Street.

Actually it’s not too hot indoors and I had planned to stay indoors until the Jehovah Gentlemen arrived. Yes, Gentlemen. Not the two Ladies who usually enliven the occasional five minutes of not really listening in my back garden, but the husband of one of them and another man with a foolish expression, in a suit – in a suit, and a tie, and a thick shirt, in the Heatwave! The Jehovah Gentlemen proved harder to either discourage or distract than the Jehovah Ladies – I tried them on cats, pets in general, hay fever, I remarked on their bravery to be trudging from door to door in this weather. Nothing deterred them.

Have you got a Bible?

Yes, I told your wife that last time. Which one was your wife, by the way?

Have you  heard of the Lord’s Prayer? How would we know the name of God if it was not for the Lord’s Prayer? It just (what just?) proves that the Bible was not written by earthly hands but has come straight from God…

I don’t care, I was thinking. My right nostril is about to gush.

And God is going to step very soon to save Mankind from all its suffering because like any Good Parent He cannot abide to see His children suffer…

The sun beat down on my poor, aching head, and standing in the long grass of my back garden, as next door’s Rottweiler-or-similar started to bark at us though the fence, I began to feel positively feverish.

The lawn so need mowing, I thought. Should have done it yesterday…

And God…

What a good thing I didn’t put my washing out yet. They would have been staring at my sad old underwear.

Here, you see, it says YHWH and that is the name of God in Roman Numerals…

I know. I did Religious Education O Level. I really must go indoors now. As I said, I’m not feeling well… and the cats…

Ah yes, my wife said you had many cats. All cats are beautiful, aren’t they? I ran a mental inventory of my cats.

Well no, not all of them.

Inside, I mean.

No, not even inside. Thinking of Snoots – he of the Poirot moustache and the supercilious glances – who recently gnawed through the plastic of my last loaf of bread, and also bit me on the hand eighteen months ago, causing cellulitis and a fortnight of daily drives to a very distant hospital for antibiotic injections.

Thinking of discovering my Catch 22 paperback under pile of watery cat-sick on the coffee table, and trying to mop it up. I had planned to read it next for no other reason than that there is a film of Catch 22 with George Clooney in it, which I will not see. Reading the book, finally, after having bought it at least 22 years ago, was the next best thing. The book is sopping wet, the cardboard of its front cover beginning to buckle. So also is the book of short stories that was under it. A cat did that.

The Bible…

I was unable to tear my eyes away from the moving mouth of the Husband One. He had false teeth, rather uneven on one side, but a sort of brown fleck in the middle of the right front one. I wondered how I had ever found men attractive. I prayed that in my next life, if I was forced to have one, I could go back in time and be a monk or a nun, or some prim ascetic living in a cave on a desert island…

I was listening to Radio 4. They were discussing their favourite ways of cooking aubergines. I thanked YHWH that I was not middle class and therefore did not need to care about cooking aubergines. Until that moment, it had had never occurred to me that an aubergine could be cooked. I had an aubergine in Devon once. I was on an ultra long-distance date with a lonely middle-aged farmer. This was in the days when I felt I needed to replace Ex with someone, even if they did live at the other end of the country and play the trumpet to their cows. Even if they didn’t believe in central heating, even in February…

Anyway, we stopped off at a supermarket on the way back from the train station to his isolated and unheated farm, and he told me one of his cows had died recently and he’d had to bury it single-handedly, and he bought some aubergines and some sort of dressing to go on them. That was OK, but it wasn’t cooked.

He smelt of cows.

He smelt very much of cows and I was a vegetarian.

Later he chased me round the kitchen table, amongst the muddy wellingtons.

He did not catch me.

I was consuming the Dead Fly biscuits instead of my usual mid-morning sandwich. They were the ones left over from a packet of Sainsbury’s assorted biscuits and I had been putting off eating them. They don’t taste too bad, it’s just the look. Even Snoots wouldn’t touch them.

I was phoning the Doro helpline about my Doro phone. Doro phones are designed for rather old people, I suppose, and are Scandinavian in origin, possibly Finnish. Like their potential users, Doro phones are short on memory. Also, they tend to flash up simple but strangely unsettling phrases like ‘Welcome to Internet’ and ‘Apps For Home’.

I explained to the Finnish (or alternative Scandinavian) lady that my Doro phone would not let me move any single one of my apps to the new 32GB SD card I had just inserted, not a single one.

There are many apps that the Doro phone will not move. That is just the way it is. We can’t help you.

But surely it should move some apps. I mean, Amazon is full of comments from people who have installed a 32GB SD card in a Doro phone and been delighted with the extra storage it afforded…

These are no doubt system apps, that the manufacturer will not allow you to move…

No, it’s all apps. Every single one. Even apps that have nothing to do with the system, that I have downloaded myself. And on Amazon people are saying…

I am afraid I cannot help you.  These are system apps and the manufacturer will not allow you to move…

But, um, what is the point of the phone having a slot to insert an SD card in, if no single item can be moved across onto a SD card?

The manufacturer will not allow you to move…

And so I rang off, having thanked her, with elaborate and formal politeness, for her time. Afterward I wondered why I felt I had to be polite to some foreign woman for not actually solving, or even really listening to, my problem and could only think that it was because she had been from Scandinavia, where ABBA came from.

Turn Left At Dover

I haven’t written anything for months. Sorry.  Canadian Sister came over to stay just after Christmas, laden with bugs, gave the bugs to me, returned to Canada and got better. Whereas in March I was still trying to sleep propped up in the corner of the sofa because I couldn’t manage to breathe and lie down at the same time. Feeling that bad for that long kind of makes you feel that life is not worth living, let alone blogging about.

Anyway, where is the heatwave? For days the BBC have been exhibiting these bright red charts and warning us of heatwave horrors on their way to us from France. Apparently Nimes or somewhere similar is set to exceed last year’s summer heat record by one degree. If it does so it will also be setting a new temperature record for France. Global Whatsit, of course. They show pictures of temporary mist machines set up in public places, of young ladies in chic shorts prancing about in Parisian fountains. Apparently air-conditioned cool places have been pinpointed all over that city for citizens to escape into when the midday sun becomes unbearable. And this – delight – is about to blaze its way up to the UK.

In Britain, of course, the nearest thing to air-conditioning is the freezer section of Tesco. I was thinking of driving into Town and spending a surreptitious hour or two Freezer Bathing with an empty wire basket if things got too bad. Never do to admit that one was wilting, of course. Mad Dogs and Englishmen and all that.

I also reviewed my underwear. I decided I had to find an alternative to bras, which have been the bane of my very, very long life – at least, it seems very long when I think of all those sweltering days in the office with Les Girls encased in sturdy elastic and my shoulders being cut into by even sturdier elastic. I abhor bras. When I was young it was rumoured that my contemporaries were burning theirs in the cause of women’s liberation, although I never actually saw one being burnt and it still seemed impossible, on pain of pointed stares and terminal embarrassment, to go out in public – let alone to work – without one.

I decided to purchase a pack of three boob tubes (made in China, of course) in view of the apocalyptically hot weather. They might be cooler, and I would be able to open the door to Amazon man without having to rush about looking for a shirt to disguise any unwarranted jiggliness.  So now I am experimenting with them. They are cooler but they worry me. I am thinking  that, lacking in straps, the thing is going to end up around my waist. Or ride up suddenly, and I will find myself opening the door to the Amazon man with an inelegant roll of elastic somewhere north of my armpits. Not that he’d probably notice. They don’t look at you, just toss the parcel in your general direction and run away.

I woke up this morn expecting Dante’s Inferno, having left all the windows propped a little way open overnight to get a through draught without letting the nineteen cats go sailing down into the garden – no, seventeen – one is blind and one is very, very old – they probably wouldn’t be so foolhardy – only to find it was cool. Overcast even. I went out to collect the dustbin and actually had to put on a cardigan over my sawn-off jeans, loose teeshirt, newly-purchased boob tube etc. So where exactly is this heatwave?

If asked where anywhere ‘foreign’ was my father would invariably reply Turn Left At Dover. I guess I have inherited his devil-may-care attitude to Geography. Canadian Sister is, I believe, currently on a short break in a place called Jasper with some female friends. At any rate, she hasn’t WhatsApp’d me for while. Yes, I have mastered WhatsApp. And today I even managed to stuff an SD card in my Kindle Fire. What next? A job with Microsoft?

To begin with I was convinced that this idyllic Jasper short-break destination was in Colorado. Surely Colorado is quite a long way away from Edmonton, I mused. Isn’t it in America? Which part of America is Colorado in? Then I realised I was probably thinking of Boulder, which may or may not be in Colorado, wherever Colorado is, very possibly America. Finally I bothered to Google jasper Canada map and discovered that Jasper is left of Edmonton and down a bit, in what looks like the Rocky Mountains. I am sure she will enjoy that. Whether the three ladies she is sharing a hotel room with will enjoy it, I am not sure. Can only hope that they are not unpleasant to her, as she won’t understand why.

Well, I was going to tell you how my garage was flooded in a positively vicious thunder-and-lightning storm a couple of days ago – Global Whatsit again, no doubt – and how Snoots the moustachioed black and white cat nibbled chunks out of my one and only remaining loaf of bread all down one side through the plastic – not once but twice.

I was going to tell what I had been reading, and all about the dishcloths I had been knitting. Oh yes, and that the man over the road had scissor-trimmed the front two-thirds of his ancient blind poodle-type dog (he’s doing her in instalments) and all about a lady called Ilona in Yorkshire who believes in wearing Boys Pants because they’re cheaper and more substantial, and my attempts to manufacture handkerchiefs out of some spare pillow-cases….

But I mustn’t go on. Gotta save something exciting for next time…

Thank God For Cup-A-Soup

It’s a long time since I wrote anything and the bit of WordPress that I can see when I type stuff seems to have turned a loathsome shade of magenta-cum-chestnut. Nothing stays the same, does it? Turn your back and…

I only retuned the TV at Christmas, in readiness for Canadian Sister’s visit. Retuning a TV is a Man Job as far as I’m concerned, but since there was no Man I was forced to puzzle it out. Well, I thought – that’s that sorted for another few years, but no. This week my Freeview channels have started vanishing again. Already! So I had to detach the instructions I taped to the back of the TV last time. My eyes seem to have gone to pieces in the last few weeks. I can’t read any writing on the TV now from the sofa, but, I think, if I stagger forward and perch on the coffee table

On the coffee table I make the unwelcome discovery that things are equally out of focus from there, merely larger. I settle for larger and, squinting, start to follow my own instruction. I had to cancel my optician’s appointment because of the chest infection my Sister gave me. Not even an exotic Canadian chest infection but something she picked up in Stockport.

So her visit, much looked forward to, did not go entirely to plan. My sister’s visits never go entirely to plan but this time, since so much has happened in between, and she has lost her husband in the meantime, I suppose I was fondly imagining that everything would be back to normal, ie back to the way it was when we were teenagers, not that either of us were exactly normal then. But of course, it wasn’t. Much water under the bridge.

I mustn’t catch this, I was thinking, in between trips to the fridge to find her ice-cold yoghurts or trips to the kettle to make her honey and lemon drinks. I simply mustn’t allow myself catch this, I thought, as I marvelled again at how giant shreds of damp and germy paper tissue could have spread themselves over such a wide area of carpet and sofa, in spite of the Tesco bag supplied for their depositing. The Tesco bag kept disappearing. It went upstairs every few hours and then did not come back down again. But of course I catch everything nowadays, and once I’ve got it I can’t get rid of it. By the Wednesday evening I had the Throat.

There wasn’t much we could do, what with her being sick and me being sick and my friend from down the village – who had scared us both with a long hypothetical and never-to-actually-be-disclosed list of activities, all of which would involve her – being sick as well. So we sat at home and watched TV.

Poor Sister. What they don’t tell you is now cruel a dying spouse can be. Apparently, among other things, he told her that all she had ever done was sit at home and watch TV. I wonder why dying people need to be so brutal, however frightened they are of death, knowing that their words will echo on down the years until all that people will remember is not forty years of Who You Were but two weeks of What You Said.

So we watched TV. Turns out we both ‘fans’ (possibly not the right word) of Whiny Lady, who has long, perfectly coiffed red hair and lives on a cowboy ranch. Day after day, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, we had been tuning in to Whiny Lady, learning how she prepares Yummy Meals months in advance and saves them all in Tupperware containers in her vast freezer, and how she loves to cook up vast plates of Mexican style meat from all the huge, handsome cowboy men and beautiful, healthy cowboy children in her life, and how she loves her Mom, and her Mom in law, and her Father in law, and how she cooks up huge, wonderful chocolate Thingys for them…

As we watched, and choked and sneezed, and the soggy remnants of paper tissue rained down upon my sofa and living room carpet and cats, we tried to analyse what exactly was the fascination here. Sister has been somewhat more adventurous in the kitchen than I – when permitted in the kitchen, which wasn’t often – but not necessarily more successful. My cookery is more like Do I Have Anything That Might Fit Between Two Pieces Of Bread? Hers is more of an ongoing scientific experiment. At least now she can conjure up slightly wonky Buddha candles in her kitchen – something that also used to be on the verboten list.

We analysed what it was about our daily doses Whiny Woman that absorbed our attention. Sister decided it was lifestyle porn, ie we didn’t so much want to be able to cook like her but to have all those wonderful husbands and check-shirted sons and daughters and supportive relatives, and a great big kitchen separate from the Ranch in its own Lodge, and the bunch of flowers on the ledge and all those tops. Whiny Woman wears a different wonderful top over her cowgirl jeans to cook in every day. Does she store them a walk-in wardrobe the size of Texas? Does she throw them away after a single use? Are they supplied to her by manufacturers of wonderful tops? How does she fry up all that pork and beef and chicken and grits (grits?) and never attract a spot of grease?

I narrowed it down to Implement Envy. I do not want to cook like Whiny
Woman and I know perfectly well that I’d be as miserable as sin on a cowboy ranch and couldn’t possibly cope with all that sincere and syrupy wonderfulness with relatives, but…

Oh look, she’s got a pale blue saucepan that exactly matches her top…. and that frying pay – sorry, skillet – yesterday – so heavy, so perfectly designed, so lusciously expensive and – it matched her top! And a special shiny silvery thing for draining cauliflower.

So now Sister is gone, returned with some difficulty, first on the train to Stockport via London, and then to Canada. And here I have been, at death’s door, ever since, sleeping upright in a corner of the sofa for a week and a half, night turning into day, a curious pall of unreality covering everything. You only know you’ve got a Respiratory Tract when you get an Infection of some kind. It’s the bit (apart from your head) that hurts so much when you cough that you hope to fall asleep so as not to be forced to cough for a while. It’s the bit the penicillin doesn’t seem to make any difference whatsoever to. Thank goodness for Cup-A-Soup.

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.