Time to grow out the moustache?

Until this morning I could think of very few positives to the coronavirus situation. As I have said before, choosing to be a hermit is one thing – having hermitry, hermitage or possibly hermitonomy imposed upon one by the Government is another. I self-isolated of my own accord a week early, knowing I was “at risk”, but now I am being compelled to I am sad. Three months, a whole summer confined with a herd of cats, trying to track down cans of catfood. If the worst really comes to the worst they will have to hold their noses and tackle the Bozita. The Bozita has been in the garage for a year. Not only would they not eat it when I bought it, they wouldn’t go within a yard of it.

But this morning I woke up with an idea. Well, I was woken up, forcibly, by Martha, my self-appointed “alarm cat”. She sees it as her duty to push, jump, scratch, dribble most persistently, hour upon hour if necessary, until I drag myself out of bed. My idea?

Let the moustache grow out!!

When will there ever be a better opportunity? Three months of seeing no one except the odd delivery driver – and delivery drivers never look at you. And now, they are so anxious to get away they linger even less. As the Tesco man said, “If you admit to symptoms we will drop your shopping on the doorstep and run away.”

I would not like anyone to think that I am, in my natural state, a grotesquely bearded lady. As far as I remember – back to when I was twelve or thirteen – the moustache was really only what you might expect to appear on a brown-haired English girl. But in those days – we’re talking Sixties, before Women’s Lib – neither facial not armpit hair was acceptable. Girls aimed to look like Twiggy – vacant, pale, pure and skinny. If it was an eyelash, you loaded it with mascara, liberally lubricated with spit. If it was in an armpit, you shaved it. If it was under your nose you bleached, tweezed, shaved, waxed, chemically removed – in fact bazooka’d it in any way you could.

We had a French girl at our school once, on an exchange visit. She was incredibly glamorous, we felt, until we all went to play tennis after school. My God, the girl was hiding a dead hamster under either arm. The horror of it! Poor girl. I hope she took no notice of our titters.

So – three months – maybe more – of not zapping the moustache. It occurs to me that since I am going grey – well pepper-and-salt, anyway – maybe el bigote will come out a soft, wispy grey. If it turns out anything like the above, though, it’s a goner.

Just as an aside. One of my two distant friends phoned me up last night, to check that I was all right. She says she will call me once a week from now on, just to touch base. The awfulness and wonderfulness of this is – that this is the same friend who has struggled all her life with bouts of clinical depression. I have witnessed – from the outside – the horrors she has gone through. I have visited her in a hospital ward, surrounded by mad people. I have found her sobbing behind her computer in the office we shared. I never, really, had any idea what to do for the best. Yet she was the one who called me.

A Day At The Seaside

It was a Monday morning and, since he was travelling the wrong way, he more or less had the carriage to himself. Somebody had abandoned a magazine. He flipped through the pages as the train clacked and jolted through the suburbs, scanning images of celebrities he’d never heard of; women with pink sausages for lips, men with broad shoulders, flat stomachs and daft little beards displaying themselves in their spotless mansions, along with their furniture, their chandeliers, their works of art and their glossy, unread books. He was longing for life to be grey, or sepia.

The sun glinted off something jammed down the divide between his seat and the next. It might just be a coin, of large enough denomination to buy himself a mug a tea when he arrived. He pictured himself in a seafront café, a steaming white china mug in front of him, the teabag string still dangling, he noticed. There appeared to be a red plastic tablecloth, a bottle of vinegar, a salt cellar and a dog-eared menu. He sensed a plate of fish and chips on the way and his mouth started watering at the thought of it.

But it wasn’t a coin, it was a mirror. The glass was filthy, as you might expect from something pushed between seats for a long time. It was the sort of thing a child would be drawn to: thick pinkish plastic round the edge and purple flower design, probably part of a set – the kind of tat down-at-heel grannies picked up in the Cheap Shop for birthday gifts and stocking-fillers.

He smeared it clean with his sleeve and, since no one was watching, glanced down at his reflection. He fully expected to see an old guy who hadn’t been bothering to cook much recently, a trifle emaciated, greyish stubble; expected also that death-by-boredom look in his eyes, that one-final-fling desperation, that nobody’s-going-to-talk-to-me expression.

Instead of that he saw a girl in a blue cotton dress with a band of complicated white embroidery across the bodice. It had those small puff sleeves with cuffs, like kids wore in the fifties. In fact her whole face was somehow antiquated – that fair, slightly greasy hair drawn up in a topknot and tied with a gingham ribbon, half-slipping down. She didn’t look at all like a kid might look like today. Was she was gazing at her own reflection, or back out at him? He ventured a smile. She smiled back, but whether she thought she was smiling at herself or back at him, he couldn’t tell.

He knew, of course, that vampires did not reflect in mirrors, and it would have surprised him less, somehow, if he’d been turned into one of those; but he’d never heard of an old man acquiring the reflection of a child, of the opposite gender and from way back in the past. If he’d been a character in one of his own crappy novels he’d no doubt have gasped, dropped the mirror, wrenched open the carriage door and jumped, breaking his neck in the process. His ghost stories or, as they called them nowadays, Supernatural Tales – didn’t sell well. Maybe he’d turn today into a story, if and when today was over.

The carriage had also changed. Above the seats were stylised, panoramic posters advertising Brighton. Pointy-breasted women in swirly skirts and woollen twinsets trailed little girls much like the one in the mirror; buckets and spades, bottles of pop, frilly sunshades – all so smug and wholesome. Everything was all right in their world.

Countryside flowed past, greener and less spoiled than it should have been. Steam clouded the windows in fits and starts. Of course, steam. Trains made a different sound in those/these days. He looked down at the unfamiliar body inside the blue dress, both of which he now somehow inhabited. He – no, she – had no breasts, which meant she would be nine or ten years old. There was a pocket in the side of dress. He/she slid the mirror into this. There was a button, and a buttonhole. He/she fastened the button carefully, and checked it. If it the mirror got lost, there might be no way back? There might be no way back in any case. He rather hoped not.

They could feel the sun on their arm through the window-glass. The window was open a crack at the top, and the smell the sea came through it –seaweed and salt from long ago. Up in the luggage rack – a string hammock – was a tin bucket shaped like a castle, with towers, and a red tin spade with a wooden handle. They would build a sandcastle, they thought. Warm sea-water would trickle between their toes. They would have fish and chips and penny cornets.

The sky would be blue all day.

(flash fiction: 805 words)

A journal of… whatever this is

I keep wanting to write “A Journal Of The Plague Year”, which I gather is a novel by Daniel Defoe – though it has the appearance of a historical account – of the coming of the Great Plague to the city of London. The Plague came in 1665 but “Journal Of The Plague Year” was published in 1722. Defoe was only five – six at most – in 1665, which is why people tend to categorise it as something other than an eyewitness account.

Well, what is this? Strange times are upon us. I did rather hope for excitement (a gal’s gotta get her thrills where she can) but what has actually happened is, so far, depressing. Or maybe I’m depressed.

I have discovered it’s one thing to isolate yourself from your fellow humans out of choice, another thing to have to do it. And it’s all happening so quickly. The Home rang and told English Sister and Me not to visit our mother for a while. Mostly she’s in bed when we go anyway – way past lunchtime and her breakfast egg-on-toast congealing on the table beside her, her meds undrunk, her tea cold. Not only does she no longer recognise us, she has given up the  pretence of recognising us – that fluty ‘anxious hostess’ voice she used to put on when we walked in – that’s gone. She stays lying down. She might open one eye, then close it again, shutting us out.

All the same, when your Mum’s ninety, and you are forced to abandon her for the duration, you do begin to wonder… will we see her again? Canadian sister is now trapped in Canada, more or less. By next year, when she might manage to get over – who knows whether Mum will still be there, opening one sullen eye.

Canadian Sister seems to be coping with sudden isolation better than me, which is a surprise, since until the virus hit she wasn’t doing so well, what with widowhood and all. She has been doing an art degree course at University, but it looks like this is going to be cancelled, temporarily. She was getting support from her local Seniors group, but that has closed down because of It. Yet she seems happier at the moment. She is waiting for a new armchair to be delivered. She is looking forward to starting work on a rug-making kit. It’s as if now nothing can be expected of her in the way of Adjusting and Moving On, she has breathed a mental sigh of relief, and relaxed.

I expected to be thriving in my increased isolation – after all, this new “life” is not that much different from the old one.  I have no symptoms (long may it stay that way) but decided to “retire” from the rudimentary social life I had, on account of my age and dodgy immune system, and of course to protect elderly friends from me. Not only can I not visit Mum, I can’t visit Godmother either – Godmother is ninety-one. It occurred to me this morning that I love Godmother, and am more afraid of her dying than Mum, maybe because she has all her marbles.

Mum was a bit not there during our childhood – well, for most of her life – and we all three found mother-substitutes. Canadian Sister became attached to her mother-in-law – who unfortunately died a few weeks ago – English Sister spends – or used to spend – she can’t any more – a lot of time with her partner’s elderly Mum and Dad – and I had Nan, and then Godmother. It occurred to me this morning that you don’t actually, physically, feel the love you have for somebody until you are physically cut off from them. Somebody (else) I loved once described it as an invisible rope, or umbilical cord, from your centre to theirs. It doesn’t hurt until you pull apart.

I am struggling to get up speed, as it were. There are a lot of things I could be getting on with – like Canadian Sister and her rug kit – or English Sister who, plague or no plague, got the train up to London to see a Picasso exhibition today. So as not to waste the tickets, which she’d booked months ago. I did do two lots of washing, took delivery of my Tesco order (the man now signs the machine for you, so he’s the only one to handle it) and experimented with a double-layered cloth mask.

Masks are largely useless anyway, but I haven’t been able to get hold of any – all sold out – and I do have to brave the hospital for a blood test shortly. Hours, probably, of waiting in a cramped row of hard chairs, with a motley collection of sick people, coughing! So I printed a likely-looking Japanese pattern for a washable, cotton one on the internet, cut one out and sewed it up. It actually fits, but whether I will have the nerve to wear it in public is another thing. I made it in a neutral, medical pale blue rather than the lurid prints that seem to be popular in Japan. Also, it’s a bit like breathing smog.

Tomorrow I ought to make another one or two, and edit a story, and write the first draft of a new one. Whether I will or not…

 

Featured image: Picasso, 1905: Au Lapin Agile (Arlequin tenant un verre)

Twelfth Night

Soon after she left us, it began to snow. From now on my life would be all snow, and all falling. My husband cleared our driveway then dug a diagonal path across the lawn, starting at the back door and ending at his shed. The snow didn’t ease or stop as it normally would have; it crept up the glass in our patio doors; it piled up on our windowsills; icicles oozed down from the guttering.

It had been so very dark inside our house, and for so long. Twelfth night: the sixth of January, the day people in other houses would be taking down their decorations.

I had not crossed the threshold since it happened. I was frozen already: why would I want to be colder? But Twelfth Night made me realise I must. I couldn’t spend the rest of my days indoors. My maiden voyage would be this: I would exit by the back door, navigate the icy patio, cross the lawn diagonally via my husband’s snow-path, stand outside his shed for a minute then come back.

I wrapped my scarf around my face, covering my nose. Birds’ feet patterned the snow. What does it feel like to weigh so little? When – or if – Jesus walked on water, did he feel like one of God’s beloved sparrows, hopping about on snow?

The snow my husband shovelled aside this morning was already in the process freezing, forming a rough wall at the level of my elbows. Fresh snow was already settling on the cleared path between the walls, so I made footsteps.

Then I saw it – a small, honey-coloured arm poking out of the broken snow. In his narrow focus on the task in hand my husband must have overlooked it. He is a different man nowadays: something has been subtracted from us both.

There was no hand to grasp, only a familiar, frayed, mended, frayed-again paw. I eased the body out of the snow with care, afraid that the arm would sever itself in my hands. Touching it took me back. I was sitting by a lilac bush in my mother-in-law’s garden, with a needle and strong thread, an off-cut of yellow felt pinned to the thinning fur fabric. How warm it had been that day and how rich the scent of the lilac. Jessica must have been there that day, but somehow I couldn’t see her.

The bear had never had a name. He was just Bear. Did he know his owner had gone away? Could a stuffed bear sense that sort of thing? I stowed him inside my coat while I completed my journey to the shed. I held him close to my breast as I waited the minute or two I had promised myself to wait. We took a few quiet breaths together before setting off back to the kitchen. When I took off my coat, the jumper I wore beneath it was soaked and icy.

I washed him in soapy water, rinsed him in plain but warm. I wrapped him in a towel as if he were a child, folding the cloth carefully around his threadbare neck to keep out the draught.

I sat him in her little chair by the kitchen range.

I gave the chair a bit of a push, and it rocked as it used to do.

I sat down and cried and cried.

When he dried out, I wrapped him in a patchwork shawl and hid him in her room. I sat him on the bed with her favourite picture book. Sometimes, for variety, I propped him up in the window seat so that he could look out at the garden. Every now and then I would sit beside him, and together we watched the patterns black branches made against a grey sky. Sometimes he sat on my lap, while I knitted him a scarf. Jessica had liked pink, so I knitted her bear’s new scarf in many shades of pink.

Together we sat and waited for the spring.

(flash fiction: 671 words)

Things are [Utterly Messed Up]

Plague-wise and every-other-wise, things are going from bad to worse. This no longer surprises or depresses me. My father used to quote some music-hall comedian – I haven’t been able to find it on Google – hopefully I didn’t just imagine it! I’ll expunge the B word in case innocent kiddies are reading, however unlikely that may be, since they all hang out on Insta or PeeWee or Grommit, or whatever:

“Life were [utterly messed up] when I came into it and no doubt it will be
[utterly messed up] when I go.”

I placed my Tesco order. They have no delivery slots until Saturday. Everybody putting in massive orders for quilted toilet paper, I suppose. Toilet paper has become the staff of life, more precious than bread, milk or cheese.

I have enough to live on, if I have to self-isolate. I have a cat-food mountain, for the mountain of cats. They chomp and slurp their way through ten tins a day. I also have a cat in the bath. She’s a bit off – sneezing, etc – more likely cat flu than some hypothetical cat-coronavirus – and the bath is cool. If I hoist her out, she relocates instantly to the wash-hand basin. If I decide to clean my teeth or – yes – wash my hands yet again and slather on the magic stinky pink stuff the vet introduced me to (Hibiscrub) I have to remove a miserable, moulting, watery-eyed moggie first.

It is rumoured that within the next week to ten days, ‘the elderly’ and vulnerable will be advised to self-isolate regardless. I do not regard myself as one of ‘the elderly’ but technically I suppose I do fit into both the age and dodgy immune system category, so I suppose that’ll be me, and the cat-mountain, cut off from society.

In some ways I don’t mind. My whole life, since I tunnelled out of the work-prison, seems to have been an attempt to avoid other human beings. When I’m alone I have some dignity. Forced to mix with other people I turn into this kind of clown-figure. I never know quite what I am going to say next or what new risible/embarrassing mistake I am likely to make. So, though I can get ‘cabin fever’ like everyone else, and appreciate the need to mingle occasionally for the benefit one’s mental health, I don’t feel compelled to.

My biggest problem will be my disabled friend, who lives an inconveniently short distance from me. She climbs the walls if she can’t interact with at least nine or ten people per day, preferably at great length, in person. Her health is also ‘compromised’ and she catches everything. Then, next time I have to take her anywhere in my car, she gives it to me. So what do I do, if she asks me for a lift to the hospital? What do I do if she’s running out of groceries because ‘they’ won’t allow her to use a computer? I suppose you just have to ‘play it by ear’. I don’t like playing things by ear, but you have to, sometimes.

Then there’s my own appointments – blood tests, specialist – coming up soon. Do I stay at home, hiding from germs, or do I venture forth and swim around in a sea of illnesses and infections at two separate hospitals, trying not to breathe in? Playing it by ear, again.

Part of me, though, is attracted to the drama of it. Part of me is angry and terminally bored and longs for the romance of some great disaster – a plague, a crashing stock-market, global meltdown or whatever. How weird is that?

I’ve been reading up about the village of Eyam, in Nottinghamshire. In the 17th Century, the Plague was sweeping through Britain. The disease came to Eyam and the villagers, lead by their vicar, decided to isolate themselves in their village to protect neighbouring villages. On the outskirts of the village there was a Boundary stone. The villagers left money in the holes in the stone, and people from the surrounding area left provisions there, to keep them going. The Earl of Devonshire also helped support them. In the course of  fourteen months, 260 out of 800 isolated villagers would die. People agreed to bury their own dead, close to their own homes, rather than in consecrated ground.

People may be a pain, but some of them are noble too.

The Bag Lady

Pete scanned the atrium for a vacant seat. The hospital had recently invested in wider, squashier, blue ones: more comfortable. He had an hour to wait before the host-human’s annual physical; time to slow, then stop his second and third hearts. Human physiology has a certain lag to it. Best to adjust with caution rather than lose consciousness and have someone groping around with a stethoscope before one was ready.

The next thing he did was a mistake. He sat down next to a bag lady – a female human who either chose not to wash or lacked the opportunity to, and therefore stank to high heaven. She was old and obese, wearing layer upon layer of clothing, including a frayed, overlarge woollen item. Elastic bands above her wrists kept the garment from dangling over her hands. As he watched, she lifted her skirt to scratch her knee. It was grossly swollen.

“I saw a doctor about it,” she said. “He didn’t do nothing.”

Too late, Pete realised he had allowed her a conversational opening. The smell coming from her would have been rank, even to a genuine human. To Pete, whose olfactory nerves were ten or twelve times more efficient, it was unbearable. He switched focus from heart-slowing to the gag reflex, suppressing it, fast

“I was nanny to the stars, you know,” the old woman confided. All them Carry On chaps – I nursed all their kids…!

Force of habit, Pete accessed the supplementary database lodged just behind his pituitary gland. The names she was continuing to reel off were those of once-famous British stars but one of them, at least, had been gay. No record of progeny. If she was lying about him she was probably lying – or deluded – about all the rest. Not that it mattered. He was still sat next to her, with no alternative seating, and she was obviously planning to run through every single star of sixties comedy and tell him how affectionate they had felt towards her and how much they had admired her childcare technique. The next worst thing to a human stinker is a human bore.

“I see things,” she said, suddenly, half an hour later. He would have suppressed his hearing, but he would need it to hear his name called by the Receptionist.

“Yes?” Why had he said yes? A single word was encouragement to a human bore.

“Shall I tell you one of my visions?”

No, he thought. “What sort of visions?” his treacherous human host-mind was asking.

She leant in towards him. He suppressed the give-away nose-wrinkle of disgust. “I seed the world ending.”

“When?”

“In exactly three days and fifty-four minutes. We’ll all be blown to smithereens, my dearie.” Something about the way she said it alerted something in the alien part of his brain.

“Where did you see it?”

“In a dream, dearie.”

“But aren’t you frightened?”

“No,” she said. Something like sanity crept into her eyes. “If you were me, would you be averse to dying?”

Out of curiosity, he accessed his database again, instructing it to run on ‘future’ rather than ‘past’. To his horror, the human brain showed him image after image of fire and destruction. He saw buildings falling and people screaming, in their millions. Now that he had directed his attention to it he clearly felt the build up of forces deep within the earth’s crust.

He supposed, if he had been an actor in one of those films of the sixties – the sci-fi kind where asteroids headed towards the planet, monsters rose from the deep or killer vegetation took root and started to chomp their way through the population – he would at this point have been deciding to call the Prime Minister, or even standing up in this crowded atrium and shouting “You’re all about to die, and there’s nowhere for you to go. Your race, backward as yet, possesses neither star-ships nor space-charts, and even if you did you lack the ability to comprehend disaster and act fast enough to evacuate.

The bag lady was asleep, having slid down her blue plastic chair. The fat, grubby arms on the wooden rests were the only thing that stopped her from landing on the floor. An ancient mobile phone fell out of her pocket and landed on the floor between her feet with a clatter, cracking the glass. Human politeness dictated that he should pick it up and hand it to her, germs and all.

Instead, he reactivated both his supplementary hearts, diverted power to his ante-pituitary database, magnified power to paltry human muscle-tissue. His craft was concealed 25.7 miles from here, in an old factory on waste ground. He had a car, in the hospital car park, but he would leave it where it was.

It would be quicker, now, to run.

Gotta Go…

My friend, though older than me (which is saying something) is always several steps ahead, technologically speaking. She was texting before I was really sure what texting was, etc, etc. But then, if my baby sister hadn’t worked in a bank and told me where to shove my card and what buttons to press, I probably still wouldn’t be using ATM machines. Cautious Clarissa, that’s me – Behind-The-Curve-Betsy.

Today I had coffee with my techno-friend (and another) and we had a pleasant, catching-up sort of chat. After an hour or so she glanced at her smart watch. It was instructing her to stand up. She had been sitting too long, it said.

It struck me that a watch like this could be the perfect excuse for getting away from places you were fed up with being in. Not that my friend was tiring of sitting in a noisy café having a mug of over-strong tea with me, of courseprobably – but if she had been…

I began to think of all the other ways people use to escape from one another:

“I mustn’t keep you. Sure you’ve got plenty to do…”

“Must rush, I believe I left the broccoli boiling!”

“Goodness! Is that the time? My dog is waiting for her bowl of biscuits.”

I recall a friend of Ex’s who was having a bit of a thing with the wife of a not-very-nice man know to all of us. She would telephone Ex’s friend late at night to whisper sweet, anguished whatevers down the phone. If we happened to be at his flat and time was getting on he’d say: “Don’t like to throw you out, but my Old Auntie promised to call.”

Ex and I had an unspoken arrangement that if  I desperately wanted to go home I would start looking at him, meaningfully. In those days I couldn’t drive and so couldn’t leave before he did. Also I had – and still have – a very low boredom threshold, whereas he specialised in, well, being boring. Or at least, with a beer or two under his belt, holding forth about this and that until people’s eyes began to glaze over. I had heard every single one of these monologues before. I could have recited them word for word.

So, I would start giving him these pained, meaningful glances around ten o’clock, but by then he was in full swing, with captive audience. At one o’clock I would have given up on the meaningful glances and would be pleating the edge of my skirt, then letting it go again, pleating it, letting it go. Attempting the Zen thing, which I had been reading up on – going with the flow, reminding myself that all things shall eventually pass, even my husband’s explanation about how torque operates in the rotary blades of helicopters… The watch of my techno-wiz friend also, at intervals, reminds her to breathe. I didn’t know one could forget, but I suppose it means Pause, Be Calm, Om! Think Of England or whatever.

Canadian sister shares my short-little-span-of-attention and is no good at hiding it. If she gets fed up in company she will fall completely silent and stare at the wall, like a deactivated robot. English sister, on the other hand, is ultra-skilled in that department. Before she can become even the teensiest bit bored she sabotages the person who is beginning to ramble on. She changes the subject with a swift brutality. I have, in the past, been on the receiving end. After a moment or two, you think “Hang on – wasn’t I just talking about…?” Apparently it’s a customer-service telephone technique she learned at the bank.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I get terribly, terribly bored but can neither rudely “deactivate” nor be rude to the bore. I suffer in silence, wearing an expression of utter fascination.

Many years ago, I would be repeatedly buttonholed in the pub by a man with a big nose who smoked cigars and breathed cigar-breath over me. He would brace his arm against the wall over my right shoulder and kind of lean in. There was no escape. He alternated between telling me how he once dug up a buried motorbike – an Indian-something – and telling me stories involving other women and their operations, in terribly accurate gynaecological detail. Ex would make lurid faces behind the man’s back but made no attempt to rescue me.

And earlier this week I spent a good hour sat in the Hospital atrium next to the stinkiest of unwashed bag ladies whilst she reeled off a long list of all the famous stars of the sixties screen whose children she had been nanny to, and how fond they all were of her, and grateful they all were to her, and how she bumped into them many years later on the Charing Cross Road…

However, I did get a short story out of that one.