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.

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 Lion and Saint Jerome

If you prefer, you can imagine me in a darkly-panelled study. Imagine it similar to that which, many centuries later, will be engraved by a certain long-haired German artist. Here I am then, in my study amongst my books. As usual I am shown with a long beard, a quill pen and a ledger. This is because I lived to be old, and wrote a lot.

The German engraver has not included my eyeglasses. In the latter years of mortal existence my eyesight became very bad. After dusk I was unable to make out the letters in Greek manuscripts, even with the help of a candle. It greatly hampered my studies.

A skull gathers dust in the window-seat. This is what they used to call a memento mori, to remind us that life is short and we have only a limited time to earn our place in heaven. It is also meant to remind you that I have become very wise in my old age. Angels, apparently, whisper divine truths into my ear.

Closest to you, viewers, is my lion. He does not sleep but lies relaxed on the wooden boards, luxuriously extended within swiping distance of a plump German corgi. What a tasty snack that dog would have made for my lion, in the old days.

The artist is gifted but cannot, I think, have had a real lion in front of him as he worked. Before lions were available to view, in zoos and such, artists seemed to imagine them the size of extra-large dogs. In real life, my lion was an impressive sight indeed. He was taller than me when standing on his hind legs, and could have ripped me apart in seconds. I am eternally grateful that he chose to love me instead.

The musculature and the claws are excellent and the tail, if not quite accurate, is at least decorative. But he is too small, as I have said, and this Dürer fellow has given him the face of a domestic cat; those charming, bristled whiskers, those Siamese eyes. The ears appear to belong to another creature entirely – a bear, perhaps, or even a mouse’s, scaled up. And the creature is smiling to himself. Neither cat nor lion would be likely to do so, but we can allow him a degree of artistic licence.

They say I removed a thorn from my lion’s paw, and in fact I did. It was a very long time ago, when I lived in a monastery. He was limping badly, and made straight for me, as if he had been sent. The others ran away, in any case. He sat before me and lifted his paw, that I might inspect it. I fetched water and cloths and cleaned the wound, and then could see the great thorn he had in it. So great was it in size that I could grasp it firmly between finger and thumb, without resort to an implement.

“This will hurt, my Brother,” I said, looking straight into his eyes. He put his head on one side and gazed straight back into mine. I gave the thorn a quick, sharp tug and out it came in a gush of blood and infected matter. Afterwards I applied the same healing herbs as I would have used for my monastic brothers, binding them into a paste with spiders’ webs and wild honey. My lion sat patiently as I bound up that giant paw with linen strips.

How, what shall I say happened between me and the lion? From my vantage point I can see both past and future, and I know that my lion has become a kind of fairy-story. They say he was attached to me by mistake, centuries later. They claimed that my lion was but a fable for the entertainment of credulous pilgrims to Bethlehem, where I left behind the mortal shell that was Jerome or, as others called me, Hieronymus.

You may believe what you like. My lion died of old age some years before me. He and I are back where we began, in the All and the Everything. We are one, my lion and I. You may sense us around you; within, enfolding and permeating you. We lift up our paws to you in supplication. We rest our golden heads upon your frail human shoulders.

We purr, and yes, we smile.

durer 4

Rinse and Repeat

Is that even a thing?

I have heard people use this expression on television but it’s the first time anyone has actually asked it of me. I now feel quite hip!

It was English Sister. We’d been texting, kind of randomly. She asked me how my tummy upset was. I tried to work out a way to tell her that it was actually sciatica, without appearing to ask her why she thought it was a tummy upset.

She told me she was going to make a cut-and-come-again cake. In the next text she told me that the whole house was filled with the scent of shepherd’s pie. I decided not to ask.

I told her I gave a cat a bath today, something I had never attempted before. I told her the cat had been so very smelly and filthy that even after two sinks full of water and liberal application of cat shampoo the water was still the colour of an Irish bog. And that’s when she asked me

cat shampoo – is that even a thing?

It is. And it’s expensive. The one I have is meant to smell like peaches. I can only say that at the end of her bath this particular cat still smells – if less so – of dusty fur and dried poop, so I am going to give her a few days to dry off and regain her dignity before repeating the procedure.

It could have been worse. She made a token attempt to climb out of the sink rather than the yowling, scratching, biting resistance I had been expecting. Being blind and confused handicapped her a bit. I felt bad – never in all my years as a cat mummy have I deliberately tipped water over a cat – but then she began to purr. By the time it was over I was very, very wet, in spite of my Christmas Cat apron, and two bath towels were ruined.

As I shampoo-d I recalled that there was one kind of cat that was supposed to like water – a swimming cat. So I looked it up. They are called Turkish Van cats and often have odd-coloured eyes. This is connected, genetically, with their unusual piebald colouring, but it doesn’t make them deaf. Deafness is more likely in white cats with two blue eyes.  They have gingery markings, but confined to their heads and tails.

Turkish Van Cat

They have other peculiarities. They grow very big – up to 7kg for a male. My cats all average around 4kg – males a bit more, females a bit less, old or sick cats even less – so 7kg is impressive. Also they are very strong, and can spring from the floor to the top of a tall refrigerator with ease. Also – they have odd coats, with no fluffy underlayer. This gives them an odd, rabbit-like texture but also makes them waterproof. Which would explain the swimming, if indeed they do swim. It also makes them difficult to bathe.

This tells me two things:

  1. That other people really do bathe their cats, and
  2.  It’s a good thing that I can’t afford a creature as beautiful and “collectable” as a Turkish Van, because if he or she got grubby I wouldn’t be able to resort to the cat shampoo. Although of course I could just fill the bath up and fasten a little diving-board to the edge…

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.