Florence Nottingale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concentrate, woman…

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

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

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

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

And Matilda Went Waltzing Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

prodigal2

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

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

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

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

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

A woman needs a bus like a fish needs a bicycle

I think Bertie-bus-stop must be in one of his low phases at the moment . I’ve noticed he swings between talking (a terrible lot) and staring out bitterly at the sea – or what would be the sea if the huge grassy bank of the sea wall wasn’t between us and it, since we’re below sea level. When the tide is up you can actually see boats and ships and stuff floating along on some invisible surface/horizon above your head. It’s weird.

This week he has had a permanent half-a-beard. Not designer stubble, I think, but maybe the result of shaving every third day, or chopping off tufts of beard with the kitchen scissors. The day before yesterday he was on an upswing, telling me in microscopic detail about the method of propagation for wallflowers. He has a family of wallflowers in his conservatory, not that I’ve seen his conservatory. But today it’s low tide and he’s at a low ebb, and he glares out at what would be the sea, if he could see it.

It may be the psoriasis, of course. It seems to be running away with him at the moment. I am not laughing. English Sister gets psoriasis at intervals, when stressed. It seems to start in her hair and creep down onto her forehead, meaning her scalp feels as if it is tightening up and holding her in a vice-like grip. She had to give up swimming because of it. Bertie has it on his hands, which he has shown me, but also – I now see – on his face. He says it’s from using bleach and other chemicals to do cleaning. I am not sure whether he means household cleaning or whether he is a cleaner.

Last time he mentioned the psoriasis I suggested those purple neoprene gloves, but he said he didn’t like wearing rubber gloves because he couldn’t feel what he was doing when cleaning toilets. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to be able to do when cleaning a toilet is to feel what I am doing. I am very, very squeamish and get through all such tasks by trying to ‘move my mind’ elsewhere, to contemplate infinity, to replay the plot of whatever book I am reading or film I saw last. Most of the time (confession time) I just squirt loads of bleach and limescale-remover down there and wander away, until forced to remember and do something about it.

But people do what they do, and don’t do what they don’t do, and I suppose he’s plumped for the psoriasis. And so we both stare at what would be the sea, if we could see it. And the bus doesn’t come, and it doesn’t come and it doesn’t come. Two more people join us, and still no sign of the bus.

Bertie walks up the road a way, posting himself as lookout. He always does this. He has good eyesight and enjoys being ‘bus monitor’. I inspect the scruffy piece of tarmac outside our one and only Store in some detail. How does so much litter manage to miss the litter bin? Once upon a time it would have been used condoms. Nowadays it seems to be cigarette butts, olive green cigarette packets (it makes them less attractive) and lots of little empty plastic tubes. I suspect holidaymaking teenagers may have used these to inhale some recreational substance during the night.

I have Arthur with me, balanced on the damp brick wall, in the pet carrier. We have an appointment at the vets two settlements over, for his claws to be done. The latest pet-carrier is ideal for both the bus journey and the rough terrain round here, normally. You can heave it up onto your back and wear it like a rucksack or you can put it down and pull out a handle, and it has wheels – it turns into a trolley. The cats don’t seem to mind it.  You’d think they would.

But’s it’s been a struggle with Arthur because he’s so heavy. I have staggered the twenty minutes down to the bus stop bent forward under the combined, considerable weight of Arf and the carrier, feeling like Good King Wenceslas’s page in the song, or some venerable crone sent out to gather a bundle of wood in a fairy tale.

Arthur is patient. I can just see his little green eyes peering out of the mesh sides at me, all the rest blending in with the darkness. But he’s been out here for ages, and the bus is twenty minutes late. We’ll not get there in time now, and if we get there late we’ll miss the usual bus home, and that’ll mean an hour and a half or something like, waiting in the draughty bus shelter on the other side of the road. You can’t expect a cat to hold off on the wees-n’-poos indefinitely, especially an old boy like Arthur. And then… squelchy-cat! No getting on a bus for us, in that condition. Or a taxi, for that matter. What do we do then? Totter the six mile back? Squelch, stagger, squelch, stagger…

I give up and ring the vet to cancel the appointment, then bid farewell to Bertie and the two other people waiting, the mousy-looking woman with the shopping basket, and a vaguely familiar local wench – she with the raven hair, the leggings, the lots of eye make up and the computer game that makes goldfish noises.

Maybe the bus arrived, eventually, or maybe it didn’t. Most likely it was one of those days when the driver decided not to come down our road at all. Sometimes the prison ‘gets it’, sometimes we do, and sometimes the next village is arbitrarily bypassed and all the elderly and disabled folks left to wait for the next (hourly) bus, assuming that doesn’t bypass them too.

Now I remember exactly how lovely it was to have a motor-car. I wonder – could I still balance on a bicycle?fish bike

The Tortoiseshell Cat: Patrick R Chalmers

The tortoiseshell cat

She sits on the mat

As gay as a sunflower she;

In orange and black you see her blink,

And her waistcoat’s white, and her nose is pink,

And her eyes are green of the sea.

But all is vanity, all the way;

Twilight’s coming, and close of day,

And every cat  in the twilight’s grey,

Every possible cat.

 

Matilda and friends

 

The tortoiseshell cat,

She is smooth and fat,

And we call her Josephine,

Because she weareth upon her back

This coat of colours, this raven black,

This red of the tangerine.

But all is vanity, all the way;

Twilight follows the brightest day,

And every cat in the twilight’s grey,

Every possible cat.

 

Patrick Reginald Chalmers (1872–1942) was an Irish writer, who worked as a banker. His first book was Green Days and Blue Days (1912), followed by A Peck of Malt (1915).

He wrote in a number of different areas, including field sports, deerstalking and horse racing, as well biographies of Kenneth Grahame and J. M. Barrie. He was a contributor to Punch magazine and The Field, and editor of the hunting diaries of Edward VIII (as Prince of Wales). He also wrote much poetry, with topics war, dogs and cats, and Irish life, as well as hunting and fishing.

A line from his poem “Roundabouts and Swings” has passed into common parlance, though the origin is often no longer remembered.

Wikipedia

Now that’s interesting, isn’t it? The same poet who wrote this pussycat poem also wrote a kind of novelty poem in which these two sets of ‘end’ lines appear:

But lookin’ at it broad, an’ while it ain’t no merchant king’s,
What’s lost upon the roundabouts we pulls up on the swings!”

For “up an’ down an’ round,” said ‘e, “goes all appointed things,
An’ losses on the roundabouts means profits on the swings!”

And that’s the origin of the common phrase “What you lose on the roundabouts you gain on the swings” or “It’s swings and roundabouts”.

I’d give you the whole poem but it’s long, and in a kind of Irish-Victorian cockney dialect that becomes tedious after a while. I do prefer the cat poem, which is a little masterpiece of cat-poem-ery.

Featured Image cat is Matilda, because when she was a stray, not so long ago, she used to ‘waltz’ up from somewhere mysterious beyond the bottom of my the garden to be fed. Matilda/Tilly is young, and even naughtier than my other tortoiseshell. Difficult to even get a photo of her because she is always waltzing or haring about (haring: verb, British: running around as fast and as wildly as a hare).

Here are some black and white moggies, whilst I’m at it. I struggle to get photos from my tablet to the computer to this blog. Something always seems to go wrong, and in the most dramatic way.

Overnight, for instance, my tablet has accumulated around 500 album covers in it’s photo memory – all the stuff I’ve been listening to on Kindle and Spotify – at least six copies of each. I’ve just been laboriously deleting them all. So let’s make hay while the sun shines:

Left to right, top to bottom:

  1. The elusive Frizzle
  2. Hugo and Hector
  3. Pandy, Hugo and Hector
  4. Ditto
  5. George doing what George does best / least dangerously.

 

Pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules!

Now that’s set your teeth on edge, hasn’t it, proper French speakers?

I had a very unoriginal thought today.  I googled it and discovered that it was in fact even more unoriginal than I imagined. I was looking at my books, all 2,000 of them piled vertically now (for cat fur/ease of hoovering reasons) into a high stack of de-shelved book cases.  It suddenly struck me, if I had to take the complete works of a very limited number of authors to a desert island with me – say, ten – which authors would I choose?

Now this isn’t as easy as it seems. It would be no good taking to a desert island a book with a thrilling but memorable plot, for example. However good it was, what would be the point of reading it again?

No good taking anything too distinctive, either. Harry Potter, for instance. I loved reading Harry Potter, each new book as eagerly anticipated as if I had been thirteen and three quarters rather than middle-aged. But once you’ve read them the surprise is gone out of them – they were whizz-bangs when they landed on our bookshelves but now… they’ve fizzled.

Not really much point in taking thrillers or detective novels, for the same reason. You might not think you remember whodunit but as soon as you start to read, you will.

And humour probably wouldn’t travel well. Only so many times you can laugh at a conversation between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves whilst fishing in the sea with a piece of string and an improvised hook, or trying to persuade yourself that shredded palm leaves are edible. Jokes are best not repeated – to the same audience – yourself.

No, the books would have to be kind of meaty. The sort that, though they may be a bit of a struggle to get into, pay dividends on later reflection. Also books with plots so labyrinthine that it is impossible to remember them on re-reading.

But you’d also need an element of comfort reading. So some of your books would be there just because they reminded you of home in some way – winter afternoons by the fire and snow falling outside; long walks down country lanes kicking autumn leaves with your wellies – whatever.

I’m thinking that, as with Desert Island Discs, a few ‘master’ works should be taken for granted – found in a deserted cabin, chewed a bit by moths but still perfectly readable, say. I believe Desert Island Discs allows castaways to assume The Complete Works of Shakespeare and a copy of the Bible, and I would add the Complete Works of Dickens. (It’s my island, I can make Dickens be in the deserted cabin if I want to. Maybe I’ll put the skeleton of the previous inhabitant in there too…)

Of course, the books you take may also reflect the age you happen to be when cast away. If you are twenty, say, you will have longer to savour the books of your choice, but also longer to get heartily sick of them. If you are ninety-five you might want to be more rigorously selective still, or take rather more spiritually-inclined reading matter.

So this is my list, in no particular order Still a work in progress. As you will see at the end I still haven’t managed to whittle it down to ten. I did consider simply putting the total up to twenty, but that seemed like cheating.

  1. Isaac Asimov
  2. A S Byatt
  3. Neil Gaiman
  4. Annie Proulx
  5. Charlotte Brontë
  6. Rose Tremain
  7. Alice Munro
  8. George McKay Brown (non-fiction, comfort reading)
  9. Ellis Peters (comfort reading – how could you be on a desert island and not have Cadfael for company?)
  10. ….

And here’s where I’m stuck. I feel I should take at least one author that I always felt I should read but only ever got round to reading around the edges of – so I’m torn at the moment between George Eliot, Anthony Trollope and Aldous Huxley. Maybe Huxley would be a bit dated? Trollope would certainly be meaty but… as well as Dickens? And Eliot – is she perhaps one of those authors you feel you ought to read but Life’s Too Short for – like whoever perpetrated Moby Dick and War and Peace? Not to mention Ulysses. I carted that fat paperback of Ulysses around with me for years when I was a student: never managed to get beyond the first page.

I don’t know… I don’t know… And remember you have got to take all their works – pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules! as I like to imagine they would say in Brussels. So you can’t take Howard’s End and leave the posthumous Maurice behind, or take the whole of Neil Gaiman except American Gods which is just too long.

To digress slightly. Having just discovered (after how many years?) that I can watch more or less unlimited dramas and TV series on my Kindle Fire for absolutely-free merely by tapping on that dull little icon top right – who knew? – I launched into American Gods on video, thinking I might find it more digestible.

They were putting each other’s eyes out! Severed limbs were flying through the air! I don’t remember that, in the twenty percent of the book I did manage to get through. So I plumped for The Night Manager.

To digress again. I read a comment on the internet by a girl who felt it should correctly be deserted, not desert island, since how many islands do you find in the desert? Duh! An island with nothing on it but a lot of desert-type sand and perhaps a wobbly palm tree and a man in faded rags with several weeks-worth of stubble – not an island rising majestically from the sands of the Sahara.

Anyway, enough. What would be your ten desert island authors? Or just the first one on the list…

From my bookcase: Sovereign: C J Sansom

I have discovered there are only so many way you can ‘stage’ a paperback book on a sofa, or in a kitchen. Note that the cup is empty apart from a tastefully arranged teaspoon, and the scraping-of-the-barrel with the Tesco Oaty Granola bar (which happened to match the book). I fed my hoard of digestive biscuits to the birds whilst awaiting my cholesterol score. The granola bar has been lurking in a cupboard for at least a year, uneaten and unappetising. I knew it would come in useful if I hung onto it long enough.

I’ve now reached book 3 in the ‘Shardlake’ sequence of historical mysteries by C J Sansom. The first one, which I have written about before, was ‘Dissolution’ and the second one ‘Dark Fire’. I read on the internet that C J Sansom is suffering from a form of cancer, though doing well with chemotherapy and currently working on the next massive book in the series. For his personal sake, of course, but also for mine and that of all his other readers, I am keeping my fingers crossed. I am looking forward to reading the several future books he has in mind, which would take his crook-backed detective/lawyer Matthew Shardlake well into old age, and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

‘Sovereign’ is said to be Sansom’s own favourite instalment, so far.  It is one of those novels that draws you in, the way some films do, so that you find yourself mentally wandering round the streets of – in this case – the teeming, tumbledown city of York long after the you have put the actual book down. York is a dangerous place and Shardlake finds himself narrowly escaping sharp bits of metal flying at him from roasting spits, bears let out of their cages on purpose on dark nights as he is passing, and a crossbow aimed at his chest. There seem to be more deaths in this book, and poor, principled, lonely, misshapen, Shardlake will be forced to disentangle them all amid a web of dark politics and ulterior motives before he is permitted to return to London and the sanctuary of his legal practice.

There is a particularly vivid scene in which Shardlake is obliged to be presented King Henry when he comes to York on a Royal Progress. King Henry, officially anyway, is felt to be a kind of demigod, God’s ‘voice’ on earth, but when he makes a mockery of Shardlake’s disability, describing him as a ‘bottled spider’ in comparison with the tall old man standing next to him, things change. In that moment the lawyer senses the King revelling in his cruelty, whilst making a calculated political point. The King is a monster, a  terrifying creature glimpsed only in segments, as all eyes must be lowered in his presence.

Shardlake ‘records’ the details other people miss. Even as he is being mocked by the King and his entourage he notices that one leg is thicker than the other and that the bandage concealed beneath the hose is discoloured, and catches the rotten smell of pus from Henry’s ulcerated leg.

Sansom’s hero is a modern man trapped in a late medieval setting. This makes his life both difficult and melancholy, but throws into relief the very different mindset of the day. Do not expect much introspection, self-analysis or sympathy for baited bears, dying horses, whipped urchins, starving peasants or emaciated and hideously tortured prisoners, except from Shardlake.

Here are another couple of moggie pictures, while I think about it:

Martha wonders whether she will be the legal owner of this selfie, whilst George has a little wash 🙂

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From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Bread Pudding

Serves 6

Good way of using up left-over bread.

  • 12 oz (ounces) stale bread
  • 2 oz granulated sugar
  • 4 oz sultanas
  • 1 1b mincemeat (this is sweet – not minced/ground meat)
  • 4 level teaspoons mixed spice
  • 2 level tablespoons granulated sugar, for sprinkling
  • 7 inch square cake tin, greased and lined at the base

Cut the bread into one inch pieces. Put in a bowl and add enough cold water to cover the bread. Leave to soak for at least an hour. Drain well and squeeze out all the water.

Put the bread in a mixing bowl and beat in the sugar. Mix in the sultanas, mincemeat and mixed spice.

Moderate oven. Gas mark 4 or 350ºF/ 180º C.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 2 1/2 hours until golden. Cool slightly and remove from the tin, then sprinkle with granulated sugar. When cold, cut into squares. Can also serve warm with custard or cream.

Hector likes to live life on the edge!

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