…wotthehell…

Well, another funny old Christmas Eve. People will keep checking – pityingly, unbelievingly – that I really will be alone all Christmas. Haven’t I got anybody to go to? Anybody at all? This is really annoying. I mean, where were you-all the last thirty or so Christmases, which I also spent alone?

Where were you nearly all the other days in between, come to that? Which I also spent alone.

My middle sister keeps ringing me from Canada. She is in a panic and going through a bad patch because she too is going to be alone – except that she has been invited to Christmas Dinner with an elderly friend down the road whose extended family – all of whom will be in attendance – all seem to smoke a lot, indoors. I would rather stay home alone than breathe in a whole lot of second-hand nicotine and have to cough it out again next morning.

But that’s just me.

“The thing is,” she says, “you’re just very good at being alone, aren’t you? I’m not, you see.”

“It’s not that I’m at all good at being alone,” I say. “It’s that I’m even worse at being with other people. It’s the lesser of two evils.”

Usually she understands stuff like this. This time she doesn’t, but hey…

My own Friend-Down-The-Road texts. She thought I seemed a bit off with her yesterday. Has she Offended me? Am I OK? She sends one of these infuriating texts every few months. There’s no way I can behave that won’t trigger this sudden rush of guilt-inducing, excuse-eliciting, explanation-demanding anxiety. Once again with the reassurance. No, I was just worn out, having driven over twenty miles in ultra-heavy Christmas traffic, visited my Mum in the Home, to find her half in and half out of bed, her nightie up around her waist and a completely blank expression on her face. Who was I?

Having then spent an hour in a noisy coffee shop trying and mostly failing to lip-read what English Sister was saying, much as I actually wanted to hear it, then another twenty miles in the same horrendous traffic, down a road so wide and fast it ought to be a motorway, but isn’t.

I drive it with gritted teeth, clinging to the steering-wheel.

This morning, Ex phones. I have had time by now to digest the fact of his getting married again and not telling me, leaving it to his sister to phone me and ‘accidentally on purpose’ I suspect, mention it. He explains, in minute detail, the financial and practical reasons behind his secret nuptials. Then he explains, in more minute detail, all the horrors and inconveniences he had to go through to treat his prostate problem. If I should ever grow a prostate and subsequently discover I have a scary problem with it I will be extremely well-prepared for the scans, biopsies, enemas and whatever. I will even be forewarned as to the places they put the tiny tattoos.

archy

I forgive him for getting married again – wotthehell, wotthehell – as Archie the cockroach, or possibly Mehitabel the alley-cat – used to type on Don Marquis’s old typewriter. We’re all three of us quite old now and, in varying degrees, sick – wotthehell. Anyway, it appears it was not last summer but last New Year that they got married. So old news.

Apart from the phone call, I have been trying to have a quiet Christmas Eve, doing random, semi-creative things, as is my wont. I have knitted part of a green dishcloth to put in my ‘sell on Etsy’ bundle. I have sorted and systematised my collection of flash fiction ideas. Tomorrow (I promise myself, ha ha!) I will start on the actual, er, writing. I so much prefer the ‘having ideas’ stage but eventually – one has to write. Wotthehell.

I have listened to the Christmas Eve carol service from Kings. I am not sure what or where Kings is – a chapel, and Cambridge, I think. I wish they would sing the ancient music, all those complex, intertwining, almost painful harmonies. Seasonal and clever though it is, this kind of choral singing tends to remind me of Sing Something Simple of a Sunday lunchtime, and Dad singing along to the radio.

I have fed the (nineteen) cats, twice. I have fed the (three) strays, three times. I have fed the birds (once). I have washed up a lot. I have washed my hair and dried it, perched on the corner of the bed. I have broken up some cardboard boxes in the garage and stacked them against the wall. I have accidentally caught the lady-next-door’s new internet dating gentleman up a ladder, fixing one of those really bright annoying lights to her front wall, and been forced to exchange wincing Hi There’s.

He has false teeth. I don’t think I could be doing with false teeth, but I suppose at our age – you probably don’t have to do that much French-kissing.

Disingenuous What?

Difficult to find an interesting picture of a carpet, so it’s a mat.

I just wondered if anyone would know what a plopcarpet actually is? I’ve had the word going round and round in my head ever since that actor – the less-funny-than-James-Cordon one from Gavin and Stacey – tweeted it at BBC political news editor Laura Kuenssberg in the middle of General Election night. It was meant to be an insult:

Resign, you disingenuous plopcarpet. 

It’s given me the worst kind of earworm – the one word kind.

I haven’t bothered to read the back story too closely, because frankly it’s not as memorable as the insult itself, but I have a feeling poor Laura – my favourite reporter, as it happens – had foolishly mentioned that Labour’s Red Wall appeared to be crumbling. Now, it was crumbling, it did crumble, and you would think it was simply her job as a political analyst to make at least a passing mention of crumbling, but less-funny-than-James-Cordon actor person took offence.

To be fair, he did (eventually) delete the tweet – or string of tweets – and apologise to poor dear Laura, who graciously accepted his apology with more humour than I would have been able to muster at the end of a long, exhausting week of trailing round after politicians.

I googled plopcarpet, assuming it was one of these ultra-trendy snowflake, gangsta, hipster or woke-type words. It was obvious what it sounded like it would have to mean, but if people were going round regularly calling each other plopcarpets, why hadn’t I noticed? Get to the back of the queue, you queue-jumping plopcarpet, you!  Or perhaps they were. Perhaps only an ancient boomer would be unaware of all this electronic plopcarpetry.

But Google had no suggestions either, which means, probably, that the less-funny-than-James-Cordon actor made plopcarpet up on the spur of the moment, and thought it just the right epithet (epithet?) to tweet at a lady news presenter.

And assuming he made it up, what made him imagine that disingenuous was the adjective to qualify it?

However, I must thank the less-funny-than-James-Cordon actor because he has given me an idea for a flash-fiction story. (I am collecting them at the moment, in an exercise book.) It is story in which a person thinks up a ludicrous insult, only to have that predictive texting gremlin helpfully correct it to something horrifyingly unpleasant. And the consequences thereof.

Just to round off this tiny post, here is a selection of famous, and slightly wittier, insults from pre-Twitter times:

She ran the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B. (Dorothy Parker)

All morons hate it when you call them a moron. (J D Salinger)

My dear, you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly. (Winston Churchill)

I like your opera. I think I will set it to music. (Ludwig van Beethoven)

His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork. (Mae West)

She speaks five languages and can’t act in any of them. (Sir John Gielgud)

He is simply a hole in the air. (George Orwell)

Stranger In A Strange Land

It takes me by surprise, every time. I can be driving up the hill towards my house – the house – or staring out of my back window. I can be crossing the unmade, pot-holey road between my neighbour’s house and my own, invited – as I was yesterday – for a coffee. Even after seven – nearly eight – years in this village-at-the-end-of-the-world, I can get this feeling of unfamiliarity. I am not really here, something inside my head is saying. Any moment now I will find myself, as if by magic, in the place I actually inhabit, living the life I am actually living.

I am not here, the voice says. I am actually somewhere else, living a completely different life. I do not look like this. My name is familiar – and yet different – I am well, I am happy, I am where I should have been for the last seven – nearly eight – years and

I have never been here.

This, here, is an illusion.

What’s that called, psychologically-speaking. Alienation? Anomie? Ontological Insecurity? And what might be its cause. Something dire, I’ll be bound.

I typed it into Google and got Mumsnet, and Mumsnet, predictably, completely misunderstood the nature of my query. Back and forth these Mumsies kept assuming I meant “not being satisfied with what I’ve got” and quoting endlessly at one another some old body by the name of Joseph Campbell:

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to live the life we have waiting for us.”

But that wasn’t what I meant, smug Mumsies! It’s some sort of existential angst, not a vague conviction that I landed on earth with the intention of being a millionaire/ess. I mean, I know all about lemons and lemonade. I have made so much lemonade out of my manky old lemons, honestly.

It’s more a feeling that any minute now I am going to wake up. Except I don’t. I am a stranger in a strange land.

Which got me wondering where I heard that phrase, and I remembered reading a very good sci-fi novel with that title, by Robert A Heinlen. 1961, he wrote it. And having remembered it, I’ll have to read it again, forthwith. Or rather she will – the version of me that’s inexplicably here, as well as being wherever else she is.

Now I discover that Robert A Heinlen was quoting someone else – The Bible. It’s in Exodus 2:22 and it’s about Moses and his wife Zipporah – or Tziporah – which means “bird”.

And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for, he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

And then, of course, I had to look up Gershom, for why should being called Gershom have anything to do with the case? And I find that in Biblical Hebrew, Gershom means Stranger There or Stranger Is His Name or Exile, Expelled.

So now you know.

And I know.

But who, exactly – am I?

Strange Days

Well, I fell asleep on the sofa. Then I woke up and the radio was playing The Boxer, over and over again, with different people saying what it had meant to them. Apparently The Boxer was Leonard Nimoy’s favourite song and when he was on his deathbed a grandson found it on his mobile phone and played it to him. This made me sad. Leonard Nimoy – or rather Mr Spock – was my favourite.

Then I tidied up and came to bed. Then I realised I couldn’t sleep so I got up again and started writing. Why is it easier to fall asleep on a cold winter’s night such as this in the corner of an uncomfortable faux-leather sofa than in a nice, soft bed with a big, thick duvet?

Nowadays I divide my nights between the two. That seems to work well enough. Two o’clock in the morning may find me back on the sofa, drinking a cup of tea in the dark with the World Service burbling away, low volume. So as not to wake the neighbours up, who plague whole days with their noise.

I have lost my Neighbours’ Names list. You’d think I’d have them off by heart after seven years, wouldn’t you? Yes, it had all their names on, plus their house numbers, plus the names of all their pet dogs and cats so that I could include all of them on the Christmas cards. I have forgotten the names of Next Door, who make all the noise, maybe because I dislike them. So I addressed their envelope “To All @…. ”

Strange days. My sister-in-law finally managed to catch me on the landline. I’ve managed to dodge her for – oh, probably several years. At the end of an hour’s conversation – mostly hers – my God, she can rabbit – she asked me if I knew that Ex had finally married My Replacement, because he was advised to by his financial advisor.

“No,” I said. I could hear myself sounding calm, sensible and quite un-hurt. “When was this?”

“Back in the summer. None of us got invited, they just sent us a slice of manky old cake.”

I hadn’t even got the slice of manky old cake. He hadn’t even rung me. He’d probably never have rung me.

“Oh my God,” she said, “I’m so sorry. I thought you’d know. You’re not upset are you? I mean, I know he’s my brother but, you know, I think we can agree you had a lucky escape.”

“Not upset,” I lied, “but thank you for telling me.”

“You’ll be all right won’t you? I feel bad now.”

“Yes, of course I’ll be all right. It might take me a day or two to process it.”

Process it! I sound like a psychotherapist. It rakes up all the Dad stuff. All the Ex stuff, since Ex, I long ago realised, was but a continuation of the conflict with Dad. All that love, all that violence; all that ancient grief; all that unresolved everything. It puts the full-stop to a forty-six year-long sentence; it gives away my title to someone else; it wipes me out, it negates me; it puts me beyond hope of making my peace with Dad. I can’t actually conjure up my own face inside my head any more. Process it!

(But of course, I will.)mirror6

Well, tomorrow will be another strange day. High winds forecast, and a General Election. I postal-voted weeks ago, and thank goodness I did because windy weather and me don’t mix. I know they worry about voters not turning out in bad weather, which is why Elections are traditionally held in the summer (and almost always on a Thursday, for some reason). I think people will turn out if they feel strongly enough – and I think they do, this time. The December wind will blow them out of their warm, shabby little houses and down the hill to the village hall. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. Mayhem, maybe.

Another sleepless night tomorrow. It will definitely be the uncomfortable sofa-corner then, huddled in a blanket, covered in cats. As I’ve got rid of the TV I shall be tuning to Radio 4. Coverage starts at a quarter to ten, fifteen minutes before the polling stations close. And then the counting starts. This is far more exciting to me than Christmas, but then I’m a politics dweeb.

Red Sky In The Morning

If you have never been to Britain, maybe this is your image of a British winter. All powdery snow and happy, cold-pawed doggies, a heavy hat of snow on car bonnets, lych-gates and wall … what do they call those little brick-built tower-things at the ends of low garden walls? No doubt there is a technical term.

It’s all very Christmas-cardy. Any minute now, one feels, a carriage and horses will appear, complete with overcoated coachman. Any minute now, Santa’s sleigh. Any minute now a fat robin will flutter down and arrange himself, scenically, in the foreground on a red post-box. And surely, all over Britain, there must be villages exactly like this. Surely it can’t all be wishful thinking.

When I was at school, as part of English lessons, they used to occasionally attempt to teach us creative writing, only it was disguised as Composition. (Editing was disguised as Précis, and proved much more useful in later years than Composition.) It was before the Seventies and they weren’t into all that stuff like inspiration-producing heaps of photos or magazine cuttings, inspirational tracks of music, mysterious works of art. In those days the teacher turned her back and chalked up on the board something like “The Life History of a Penny”, “Ten Minutes To Wait” or “Seen Through A Window”. Prompts, in other words. The internet is heaving with them now.

The truth is, that if you can write you can write, with or without prompts. Indeed, you will write whether or not you want to, feel like it or are ever likely to be read by anyone. And if you can’t write, this sad fact will not be changed by any number of creative writing prompts. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, trawl for prompts.

Anyway, “Seen From My Window”.

Seen From My Window this morning is an untidy rectangle of lawn, thick with frost. At the far end of it, in the half-light, a fat blackbird and one of the Ratties are picking up yesterday’s overspill from the bird-feeder. The dawn sky is a strange mixture – streaks of almost-summer pale blue overlaid with streaks of pink and orange cloud. Bad sign. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning. (And in case you’re unfamiliar, Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight.)

Behind that is, as far as I have been able to discover in the last seven years, anyway, the only beautiful house in the village. I am thankful, that I am the one who gets to gaze at her from her kitchen window in moments of abstraction. She’s kind of Tudor, with a multitude of weirdly sloping tiled roofs, and those black beams. I say kind of Tudor because she’s not. Probably 1920s or 30s.

However, she’s been here on this bramble-infested hillside for so much longer than any of the excrescences that surround her. She must have been on her own, once. Her new owner has managed to ruin the garden by chopping down a couple of trees, bulldozing most of the rest and installing a portable building-site toilet in one corner, but hasn’t yet thought to paint her white bits dayglo pink or jazz her up with a Roman portico. No doubt he will.

My green bin’s lips are sealed against me. I went out there in the almost-dark to collect the stray-cat dishes and put new out, and put the overnight black bag of waste into my green bin. Had I been keen and energetic I should have done like Canadian Sister with her post-box at the end of the Infinite Driveway – returned with special spray, chisel and whatever to do battle with frozen binny. But what I did was dump the black bag on top of it. Why struggle, when the sun will (eventually) be coming out?

Later, hopefully wearing slightly more than damp bedroom slippers, a worn-thin droopy nightie and a man’s velvetesque dressing-gown, I will have to brave the garage (assuming it will let me in) to fetch more cat food and the shopping bags. Sainsbury’s are delivering this morning, whoopee. A tiny moment of excitement.

Instead of a handbag…

The Rusty Post Box

Well, I have voted. I am registered for a postal vote and they arrive about two weeks before the election. I could actually walk the dull, fifteen minute walk to the village hall to cast my vote among my fellow villagers but it’s just – so depressing. So, I climbed the dull, two minute climb up the hill to the Rusty Post Box to post my vote – I always return it the same day, before any cat can widdle or vomit on it, or decide to shred it for the pure catty amusement of it.

It was several years before I dared risk inserting anything into the mouth of the Rusty Post Box, assuming the Post Office had abandoned it to its fate, forever to moulder beside the overflowing, never emptied litter bin, steadily encroached upon by vicious triffid brambles from a nearby garden… I have never seen a place like this for Things Falling Apart. It’s almost artistic.

Have you ever thrown a book away?

This was a question posed in a Radio 4 broadcast yesterday. I must say – yes, and no. I recently managed a mass throw-out and taking-to-charity shops. However, a good two thirds of my book collection remained, mouldering in the garage. I only managed it by not stopping to look at what I was throwing into the bags-for-life. However, then I chickened out, and now I have a house full of the remaining books, comfortably warm and dry, but with weird gaps. One or two books missing from a run of the same author, books, like missing teeth. All that random throwing out… So of course I am having to replace them.

It made me think of The Life Of King George V. This is the worse book ever but I find myself unable to throw it out. It came in a job lot with the £2 Odhams’ Encyclopaedia, which I did want. I suspect the owner was glad to get rid of it. It is the ghastliest, grubbiest, dullest, most foxed, most sycophantically fulsome old book I have ever had the misfortune to come across, full of full page brown, smelly old pictures of Royalty in all their medals and jewels, looking unforgiving. To give you just a taste:

The next year saw the King “do his bit” in another way. He gave £100,000 out of his private fortune to the Exchequer to be used for the prosecution of war. It was a notable gesture of self-sacrifice in the common cause, and the extent to which this generous gift crippled the King’s resources was shown by the difficulties of the Royal Household after the war.

So it goes through his life, year by year, one praiseworthy Kingly deed after another. But can I throw it out? No. I find myself hovering with the filthy, dusty old thing over the waste bin. Can I let go of it? It’s managed to survive this long with nobody reading it, nobody caring about it… etc.

Instead of a handbag

Another marathon conversation with Canadian Sister last night. She worries about things, and because she always had a husband to make decisions for her she struggles to make even the smallest them now.

I have to take all of my course artwork in to the University in a suitcase later today (they’re many hours behind us in Edmonton) My tutor won’t give me a grade if I don’t, but the suitcase with all the paintings in it is so heavy I don’t know how I’m going to manage it on the train. All those steps to drag it up…

Is there a lift – sorry, elevator – at the station?

Well, I haven’t seen one.

Wouldn’t somebody be likely to help you up the steps with the case? I mean, in this country if a woman is struggling up a flight of steps with a child in a pushchair, someone will always grab the bottom of the pushchair and help her with it.

I don’t think they do that sort of thing in Canada. They’re more likely to yell at me for blocking the staircase. It’s quite narrow, you see.

But I thought Canadians were all so courteous. I mean, they’re famous for it! What about that beautiful Mountie chap from Down South? Aren’t all Canadians like him?

Someone did help me with a case once, at the airport, on my way over to England. In fact he grabbed the whole huge travel trunk and ran off with it up the stairs. I thought he had stolen it, like, instead of my handbag or something. I was in a terrible panic, but he was there waiting for me at the top of the stairs.

What about a taxi?

Oh yes, they do have taxis at the station… But what if the taxi-driver should be a rapist?

Poor Rosie

Rosie, I am afraid, is becoming incontinent. Well, she is incontinent. You probably don’t want to know this but – I’ve started so I’ll finish. Every time I sit down I have to check the end of sofa Rosie and I share – luckily a third-hand and leather(ish) sofa – for little puddles and dribbles of poo. Every time she sits on my lap I forget to grab a cushion or put something between me and her. Consequently I am washing a pair of jeans every day, in fact sometimes twice a day. Just can’t bring myself to open the door to the postman adorned in driblets of poo. Mind you, I could be wearing an orange wig and full clown make-up and it wouldn’t register with the postman.

Poor Rosie, she has been my light and salvation for eighteen years and I’m not getting rid of her now she has become a little inconvenient. If only they had the same sort of thing for cats as they have for my Mum and her fellow inmates. Maybe they do, but I wouldn’t have her suffer the indignity.

“Wait a minute, Mr Postman…”

Until sometime around the early ’80s I was very Little Britain, very provincial – I just assumed that everybody had a letterbox in their front door, plus a postman to trudge round every morning pushing letters through it. It wasn’t until my sister emigrated to Canada and started to tell these tales

Well, it seems that even in the middle of winter, when temperatures are 40 degrees below or whatever, if she wants her mail she has to don full arctic gear and big, slip-proof boots and trudge down the newly snow-ploughed driveway in order to spray something on her mailbox to melt the overnight ice that has welded it shut. She also needs a chisel or screwdriver in case the spray doesn’t work, and then a key

And it wasn’t until sometime in the 90s, when I went to work for a university college providing postgraduate distance-learning courses to students all over the globe, that I realised there could be such a thing as a dwelling that does not have a well-defined address. So we could be mailing giant parcels of course materials to “Beyond the village, turn left at the lake, third hut.” I used to wonder how they plugged their computers in, because surely a hut whose location could only be vaguely described would not have electricity. Students also had trouble with beads of sweat dropping onto the page, creeping damp, and ants. Paper-chomping ants.

You would think I would be grateful for my nice, civilised British letter-box and my nice, predictable British postman – or in fact, lady – but I have come to mostly dread what might tumble through it. I cannot properly concentrate until the witching hour – mid-day or thereabouts – has passed and I know I am safe from yet another bill or – OMG, the Bank Statement. That always arrives on the 13th. I spend the whole month dreading the 13th. I count down to the 13th. In various ways I aim to distract myself from the fact that the 13th is drawing ever closer.

Aside from bills there is the monthly Parish Council Newsletter to cast a pall. This is a single sheet of A4 paper folded into three. This month it is yellow. Even the folding-into-three depresses me. It reminds me of when I was a legal secretary and had to fold my boss’s signed post and put it in the envelope, with the address showing exactly in the centre of the glassine window. I was very good at this.

In fact I still am. I only have to look at an A4 sheet of paper and I can fold it exactly into three, with the edges exactly touching. I can even accomplish this feat with my eyes shut. Trouble is, it reminds me that a) I was no good at any other part of that job and b) it was the only thing I ever managed to do that impressed my mother. It seemed to be my life’s work to impress my parents in some way but all I ever manged was the paper-folding thing. And then only my mother.

The Parish Council Newsletter enrages me because it lectures me, in badly-written, ungrammatical prose, on things I have not done wrong:

Dog Fouling: Please be aware it is an instant fine for not picking up after your dogs. It is also unhygienic and nasty!” I don’t have a dog.

Parking: Complaints have been received,  (and why the comma?) that there is an issue with people parking in places that can be considered dangerous. It has also been reported that there has been parking on paths and green areas, you can be fined up to £500 for this offence.” But not me, guv. And where? What green areas? What paths? And complaints by whom? At least make it interesting.

Speeding Cars: Please note that the exit road from the village is a 30mph road, and many concerns have been received especially from parents walking children to and from school.” How is anything managing to drive at over 20mph, say, when the road is beset with giant speed-bumps so large even the bus has to slow right down to negotiate them? Is there a manic 40mph cyclist about?

Or else it tells me things I don’t care about even though I feel I probably ought to:

The Annual Seniors Christmas Lunch in the Village Hall. Forms available from the Post Office.”  Just went gluten-free. And went last year. That was an experience.

Christmas Lights Competition –  6 prizes of £25 each.” Why not use up the earth’s dwindling resources and pollute the starlit night sky with tawdry flashing lights? Why not spend £100 on lights and electricity in order to win £25?

Park Renovations – The Village park is in need of a new paint job, this has been sourced and the work should start shortly.” I’m confused. Are they painting the grass a more acceptable shade of green?

The stupid yellow creature just makes me feel slightly at odds with the rest of the human race – defective, somehow.

Into the Recycling you shall go, ee-aye ee-aye ee-aye oh
And if I catch you bending…

mother brown 2

Knees up, Mother Brown…

But enough of that, now.