An Underwater Fairy

Thinking about it, it was not a beep, exactly. It sounded more like Fairy Tinkerbell drowning in Peter Pan’s water glass. Not that she actually drowned. It was poisoned and she drank it to the last drop to save him, but…

The thing was I’d been hearing this noise in my house whenever it fell quiet, and I couldn’t decide where it was coming from. It wasn’t all the time, and it wasn’t at regular intervals, it was… random. I would find myself listening for the next one. And it wouldn’t come. I would go downstairs, open a book, forget about the beep and then – there it was again. I’m slightly deaf in one ear and have tinnitus in both. I can hear many sounds loudly – sometimes jarringly loudly – but I can rarely be sure what direction they are coming from.

I thought maybe it was the smoke alarms. I have – had – two set of smoke alarms. When the second set was fitted, free  – by our Stay At Home However Old You Get local charity – I was assured that this set did not rely on batteries. These alarms were plumbed into the mains and would last ten years or more. And yet, here was the beep. I’m not having this, I thought so I got up on a stepladder and removed anything white, circular and plastic that looked as if it might be a smoke alarm. I consigned them to a Tupperware box in the garage. Every now and then I go in there and… one of them gives a defiant little squeak.

But inside my house the beeps – or rather the despairing two-tone Drowning Tinkerbell – continued. And then I began to get really worried. You see, my Mum had a psychosis. She also had dementia, but that wasn’t diagnosed till later. She was almost completely deaf but she started asking me if I could hear this – or that. Did the telephone just ring? Could I hear people arguing outside in the street? Couldn’t I hear the owners of the café where we were having lunch talking about us? Saying such awful things (and about me, apparently).

For quite a while she seemed to accept that it was just a trick of her hearing. I found a book about the strange things deaf people sometimes ‘hear’ – music, singing, conversations – just a more elaborate form of tinnitus. She seemed so relieved, clutching the book to her chest. Bless you, she said. But despite the book, after a while she tipped over some edge. She informed me the voices were real. She got quite patronising about it. My hearing must be worse than hers if I really couldn’t hear it. Listen, they were out in the garden, they were talking through the walls!

One day her carers came and found her stretched out on the kitchen floor with her head in a cupboard, the better to hear the voices, which were clearer inside the cupboard. ‘They’ were discussing their plans. They were going to dig up her house and move it several feet to one side. And underneath the foundations they said there were giant slugs, eating away at the floorboards… She had to listen, every minute, or she wouldn’t know what was going on.

Of the whole five years or so of Mum’s ‘going away’, mentally, I found this the worst. I had seen someone with clinical depression but I had never seen psychosis. I tried to follow Mum into her imaginary world. I needed her, so wherever she was going, I needed to go there too. It wasn’t so hard to begin with. It was a bit like reading a slightly creepy kind book, entering into the spooky world the writer had created, trying to predict the next horror, trying to reassure her… But eventually, she shut me out. That was it – like a door closing between one room and the next.

So, that was what I was afraid of.

In a moment of late night inspiration I decided to Google intermittent beep. Various chatrooms informed me it was my landline. No, it was my ISP router. No, it was my smoke alarm – I’d already eliminated that one. No, it was my keyboard. The more I read, the more computer-orientated the suggestions became. One site suggested it was an alarm signifying  problems with one of two types of memory inside the computer.

I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep anyway, so from midnight till somewhere around two in the morning I engaged in a titanic struggle with my desktop computer – this desktop computer – writing down sheets of totally incomprehensible instructions offered by the chatroom nerds, trying, failing, trying again. All the commands they suggested turned out to be hidden in different places on my version of windows. I came up with forbidding-looking panes, like something out of The Matrix, containing important-looking files that I was supposed to say yes or no to, or possibly delete. With one mistaken keystroke I might cripple/kill my entire computer, but I just had to keep risking it. I had no idea what I was doing.

So, in the small hours of the morning there I still was. Outside the window the streetlight went out. I touched my face and realised it was covered in a sheen of cold sweat from the stress. I did a memory diagnostic test. I did another one. Long, long tests. Waiting, waiting, waiting for some little blue bar to creep along. And at the end of it all, still the beep.

It was then that I had my second inspiration. I went down to that little megaphone thing on the right-hand side and I turned off the sound. I listened. I listened some more. I listened some more… and the beep had gone. I mean, it’s probably still beeping, theoretically, in some alternative universe, but the important thing is:

I can’t hear it.

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

When I came across this story it was attributed to James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson, purporting to be something the great man himself had confided.

The story goes that Samuel Johnson’s father took him out for a day’s fishing, and this was the first and only time it happened. Samuel was so very happy that day, he wrote in his diary that he had had the Best Day Ever. Many years later he came across his late father’s diary and couldn’t resist looking up the entry for that day. His father had written:

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

This little story had an immediate effect on me. I found myself back there, in that dusty loft or study or whatever, inhabiting the body of the young Samuel Johnson, feeling his sadness.

I suppose you automatically relate these things to your own experiences. I was linking the Samuel Johnson story to a tiny conversation I had with my mother, maybe ten years ago. We didn’t really realise then that she had dementia: one of the first things to go in her case was empathy – oh yes, and tact – but then the two are intertwined. It seemed safe enough, at this great distance in time, to say that I always assumed my youngest sister had been her favourite. I expect I was hoping she would say ‘Oh no, my dear, we loved all three of you the same.’

‘Yes, she was’, she said, ‘and your middle sister was your Dad’s favourite, always’. Why did she have to add that always? Salt in the wound.

This sort of thing is not supposed to matter as you get older, but of course it does. It just seemed to me that the equation didn’t balance, it was one short. There needed to have been three parents – one to favour each of my sisters and one to love only me. It occurs to me now that this could be one of the ground rules for Brave New World – precisely as many parents in a family as there are children.

Fishing around the internet a bit more (oh dear, a pun) I discovered the same fishing story was said to have happened to virtually every father-and-son combination including some 19th Century political chap called Charles Frances Adams and his son Brook Adams. I also found short stories purported to have been entirely imagined by not-very-good amateur writers. I think it may be one of those urban myths that everybody ‘remembers’ or swears to be true, or ‘knows someone who knows someone who knew the person it happened to’.

I was trying to think of some others. There used to be one about a poodle accidentally cooked in a microwave oven, and one about a man with a bloodstained axe lying low in the back of the car whose mad visage suddenly rears up and appears in the rear view mirror. The classic is the one about the hitchhiker, picked up on some dusty highway and then mysteriously vanishing, often while the car is still moving.

I also found some modern day computer-based ones. There are a whole lot of translations computers are supposed to have made of sayings and book titles. For example:

Angry Raisins (Grapes of Wrath)
Blind & Insane (Out of Sight, Out of Mind)
The Vodka was Good, but the Meat was Rotten (The Spirit is Willing, but the Flesh is Weak)

I suppose the thing is a good story is a good story, and why let it go to waste? Embellish it, change the names, pass it on and take the whole credit for it, why not? I expect that’s how the human race has been functioning since ever it first began to talk.

More Comething and Wentething

Further to my previous post. I should link to it, but I’ve forgotten how. It’s just… diddle down a bit.

The Maths Book Cometh

Sometime today. At intervals throughout my life I have attempted to fulfil my fantasy of Being Surprisingly Good At Maths. I did eventually get an ‘O’ level in Maths, many years ago in my twenties. I was quite proud of myself, since I was the one at the (very) bottom of the class who got 12% in one yearly exam, which the teacher informed me was for spelling my own name right at the top. Forced to re-take it, I achieved 7%. Presumably I had even got my name wrong this time. I was humiliated.

Perversely, ever since I have been fascinated by famous mathematicians and physicists, by unintelligible blackboards covered in chalked formulae, by genius. Even more perversely, I have been convinced that I am really a mathematical genius, or was destined to be. Something just went a bit wrong. It is a dream that won’t leave me alone.

So, in the spirit of crossing things off the bucket list of ongoing Lifetime Annoyances, and after spending most of one afternoon covering old envelopes with laborious pencil sums to compare one putative dual fuel tariff to another prior to switching  – yes, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing – I was quite proud of myself – I decided to send for a maths book and study it throughout the forthcoming Winter, a bit every day.

Partly this is to fulfil my inner conviction of being an Einstein or Hawking manqué, partly to fend off dementia. I read somewhere that the best thing you can do to Fend It Off – apart from eating vegetables a lot, jogging cheerily round the park and drinking several gallon of water a day – is to challenge your brain. Maths is the thing that challenges me most, but yet – I have noticed whilst wrestling with the calculator and the well-chewed pencil, that I am totally absorbed in the struggle. Sudoku (taught myself, still bad at it), comparative electricity prices, desperately creative household budgeting, whatever – I am lost to the world. This seem to me a good thing. This seems to me exactly the thing to generate new brain cells and forge new connections between them. The maths book should be arriving later today. Suppose I will have to start at fractions again.

Rationing Rumoured To Be Comething

It is as I suspected. Because of Brexit – sorry, should have said ‘The B Word’ – there are now rumours of rationing after we leave, due to possible hold-ups at customs points in this country or on the Continent, long queues of lorries on the motorways, etc., etc. I knew it, and have been stocking up on tins of cat food for some time. And I have other strategies, which I shall not reveal, for fear that others will copy me. Failing even these, I may have to go round the village knocking on doors, offering to swop one hour of ironing or dog-walking for a single tin of Whiskas. Failing that, I would have to let them out, to mouse as best they can, in spite of having had very little practice. Even the blind one, and the three-leggety one, and the one that’s so old it’s hard to believe she’s still alive… Sob!

Not bothered about me. I can live on bread-and-marmalade and the odd dish of microwaved porridge if necessary. (So much for the dementia-avoiding diet.) But bothered about the cats. It seems to me that if they are going to ration cat food, they will be doing so on the assumption that nobody has more than one or two cats. Stupidly! And of course, I have nineteen. I have visions of the cats and I starving together, slowly, with no way through the bureaucracy, no way of obtaining more of the life-saving Tins.

How ironic, that I should have been born soon enough after the last War for rationing of some items – sweets, I believe, and sugar – still to be in place – and here I am at the other end potentially rationed all over again. All the same, I have been fascinated by rationing all my life – bit like the maths – for no obvious reason. I read that whole series of books of correspondence to Mass Observation – people rejoicing having chanced upon an ancient tin of peaches in a corner shop – people triumphant after a three-hour queue in the rain had yielded a bunch of watercress or some spinach. I even found myself fascinated by the Potato Peel Pie in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (do read, of you get the chance) which consisted of mashed potato with an artful garnish of potato peel. I just loved all that, and imagined myself making do. And mending.

Funny how it always seem to be the awful things that most fascinate you the most. Almost like you are willing them to happen.

PS: I think there was supposed to be a Wentething, but I have forgotten what it was.

I Wish I Was A Wizz

Or should it be: I Wish I Were A Wizz? Suspect latter, but grammar purists free to comment/vote. Unlike UK Parliament at the moment. If I was or were a Wizz, I would no doubt be able to sort out what was going on, politically speaking. Or perhaps only a Sorting Hat could do that.

I always had a bit of a thing about wizards. Not witches, for some reason. I saw myself as a bit of a wizard, only I was a green (with stars) robed wizard, not a blue one. Suspect green is more elevated and wonderful than mere blue, in my imagination. Well, if you’re going to have fantasy fantasies, you might as well be the hero.

It’s been a funny old day. I was meant to go to some sort of ‘do’ at the Over 50s, which is now not, technically, the Over 50s but the Tea and Bingo Club, or possibly the Bingo and Tea Club. All ages welcome. As it turns out I didn’t quite make it to the meeting, in the Scouts Hut in the next village, but suspect 99% of the members playing Bingo and drinking tea will still be Over 70, just as they were when they were the Over 50s and met in the pub.

I did try to go, even though I didn’t want to. It was the Christmas one and would have involved purple tinsel, Christmassy paper plates with red and green elves and reindeer on, and Christmassy tablecloths. I know because I helped with the sourcing of these items in one shop after another in town, and the lugging of them around afterwards. And the driving of them home in the boot of my car, and later re-delivery.

I gave myself a good talking to all morning, trying to work up the enthusiasm.

You know you’ve got to go.

It’ll only be a couple of hours – or three, or four… time will soon pass.

It might be fun, you never know. There’s always a first time, in a fun-less lifetime, for something to turn out to be fun.

They might have made special vegetarian sandwiches for you, the only vegetarian. What are they going to do with a mountain vegetarian sandwiches if you wimp out?

And so on, and so forth. And I did set out, honestly. I drove all the way over to the next village, repeating the above backbone-stiffening mantras in the car, and wound my way through the snarled and tiny streets in the hope of a) avoiding loss of wing-mirrors and b) finding a parking space.

And there was a funeral on. Outside the little, scenic, Christmassily decorated church, a horde, a veritable Ghengis Khan’s Army of self-conscious, shoe-polished, black-clad mourners.

I did try the tiny car park outside the Scouts Hut but, as anticipated, it was clogged to the muddy fences with large, shiny mourners’ car, everything double-parked and blocking everything else in. With difficulty, I extracted myself from the car park and, with even more difficulty, got back out onto the village street again without losing a wing mirror or getting dented. Dented already, of course, but that dent was self-inflicted, which is different.

And I did look for an alternative parking space in the narrow village street, honest, but there was nothing I could get into without parallel parking skills or one of those cars that does it all for you.

And so I panicked and came home. Unlike the Prime Minister, I am not Admirably, but Quite Exhaustingly, Limpetishly Resilient. Or it may be that when I see quite clearly that something is not going to work – never, ever going to work – I instantly give up. Make a new plan, Sam. Hop on the Bus, Gus. Don’t need to discuss much… Etc.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

A Einstein

And so I went home, texted

(apparently only old people say texted, everyone else says, ungrammatically ‘text’. I text… the ‘ed’ which would have made it clear that I am not texting right this second but actually text some hours ago – being silent)

my plate-and-tablecloth buying friend and told her the plain truth, that the funeral had prevented me parking. Which she will not believe. Sigh!

And then, as if in retribution, the Jehovah Ladies turned up again – smiling, anxious, warmly wrapped up against the cold. I have written before of the Jehovah Ladies, who like me. I usually manage to deflect them into discussions of cats with three legs, the weather, my-mother-in-the-home (they had it on their secret card index system that she was passed or gone beyond or whatever and I had to correct them on that – still technically alive). This is where being probably ADHD is an advantage – your mind works on digressions and cul-de-sacs. A veritable quagmire, a bottomless pit of irrelevancies and non-sequiturs is at one’s command… Normally, the difficulty is to avoid sinking into it…

So I got my coat on and stepped out into the back garden to have the usual little chat and accept the limp leaflets – two, this time, because they missed me last time. I don’t actually listen to what they say, to be honest, but I value the fact that they care about my soul, and my salvation. No one else does.

A moment of inattention and they had managed to wrangle me back from three-legged cats, vets, mother-in-the-home, weather etc – to tell me that I need not worry. The world appeared to be in a dreadful state but God would step in. God was just waiting for his opportunity to step in and save us all from ourselves. Didn’t I find that comforting? I would find that comforting indeed, if I could only believe it.

Maybe I should try the back-stiffening mantra thing, as above:

God will fish all the plastic out of the sea…

God cares what happens to us stinky old polluting naked apes…

We really don’t deserve to make ourselves extinct, the sooner the better…

And then they told me the story of Adam and Eve, and how Eve ate the apple because the Devil was disguised as a snake. Strangely enough, I knew that. I remarked that people will always feel compelled to do the one thing they are told not to do, it’s like children. And cats.

And then I foolishly remarked that that would be all very well but it said in the Bible that God granted man dominion over all the animals, which was why man felt entitled to eat said animals and perform horrifically cruel experiments on them. They said ah yes, but dominion only means caring for. God instructed us to care for all his creatures, to love them as He loves them. I said I thought dominion didn’t mean that at all.

So they tried me on another word, subjection. They showed me the relevant verses in Genesis, though none of us had our reading glasses on so it was all a bit out of focus. And they said subjection also meant caring for. And I said, to me subjection meant more or less the same as dominion, it meant imposing your will on something or someone weaker than yourself because you felt you had a right to.

But no, apparently subjection also means caring for.

And then I think I managed to non-sequitur them back to cats, and the price of cat food.

Do you possess a Bible, by any chance?

Actually, yes. Do you possess a cat?

The Chain Gang

I remember reading at some point in my “Buddhist” phase that before he became The Buddha, Buddha was married and had a son, and he named that son Rahula, which means a Shackle, or Impediment. What he actually said was A rahu is born, a fetter has arisen, and what he meant was that this child could tie him to his wife, thus impeding his quest for enlightenment. At the time I remember thinking Gosh, that’s very… honest. Brutal, in fact.

Because of course we are nearly all well-and-truly shackled to/impeded by a whole host of other living beings, whether or not we admit as much to ourselves, or verbalise it. I had no children, but no doubt would have felt as shackled to them as the Buddha was to his Rahula. And now I am shackled to my poor elderly mother, who scarcely recognises me, and to nineteen cats, most of which are ungrateful and one of which bit me and ruined my Christmas.

I was thinking just now, what would I actually like to do with the rest of my life, were I to be given a choice. I found it quite difficult even to imagine what I would like to do, given that I have never had much of a choice up to now.

I closed my eyes. I could sort of imagine myself travelling. Maybe buy a camper van and go all over Britain, like a (comfortable) lady tramp or gypsy. And I could imagine myself being able to draw – how, I’m not sure, but this is fantasy, right? – and setting off on my travels equipped with sketchbook and drawing pencils. Oh, lots of pencils, beautifully sharpened, of all different grades… And maybe a tin of watercolours…

I could imagine writing a bit of a book about my travels – all the odd people I encountered and maybe discussed the Meaning of Life with along the way. I am some sort of honeypot to oddbods, so that would be no problem!

I wishfully imagined never having to see the inside of this house again – the thin, inherited carpet – ancient when I arrived – the ruined, cat-ripped furniture; the chipped plates, the unwashed windows; the damp forming morning pools on the window-sills in winter; the impossibility of ever keeping anything really clean; looking out at gone-to-seed garden; those thorny rose-stalks towering high as trees above the garage. And I think what a relief it would be to leave it all behind. To just abandon it all.

For I am a person who was meant to change, and change, and change. I am one of those skin-shedders, those metamorphosers, those shape-shifters. But now I am fixed, absolutely fixed, in this dull place, inside this dull, imperfect body and in these dire circumstances.

And now – last straw, really – I seem to be feeding a dog. As if nineteen cats was not enough, now my garden is being haunted by some large, brown creature who turns up, usually in the rain – as just now – soaking wet and ravenous. Luckily I had some dog food. He ate whole a tin of that plus six sachets of Felix, and continued to lurk around the back door for some time with an air of vague disappointment and underfedness about him. He leaps back if I get anywhere near him, so must be as frightened of me as I am of him. I don’t think I will try patting him on the head. One septic hand is quite enough.

I have no idea what sort of dog he might be. He is about as high as a supermarket trolley, and a sort of brindled brown. He is vaguely greyhound shaped but much bigger and shaggier. Narrow… He has ears like a spaniel, but smaller, and instead of drooping down they stick out kind of sideway, in tufts. I wonder if I can find a picture…

lurcher

Yeah, he looks a bit like a very large, quite a bit darker and very wet version of this, which according to the internet is a lurcher. So perhaps a gypsies’ dog. It seems almost as if this dog is living out my fantasy existence on my behalf, except he’s not having much fun doing it because he’s hungry and wet and it’s February, which is the darkest, dampest, chilliest, most horrible month of the year.

But what am I to do? I mean, about any of the above? I can’t see any possible scenario – apart from a heap of gold coins and priceless diamond descending upon me from the sky – where I could buy that camper van, abandon the grim and peeling décor of the inside of my house and abandon nineteen beloved cats to the whims of fate. Frankly, even if I had the money to buy the camper van I’d probably not have the courage to drive it, or to set off in it, on my own.

I suppose I could take arts and crafts classes. I did have a bit of a scroll down Adult Education. Can’t say I’m inspired by flower arranging or clay medallion making, and all the art classes seem to be a long way away, And full. There are waiting lists.

And the dog. If I report him to the RSPCA, what will they do with him? I don’t want to be responsible for him being carted off, shut in a concrete-floored cage for months, then unsentimentally euthanased because nobody wants him. Anyway, he eats, he vanishes. Unlike cats he keeps to no predictable routine. Am I to have an RSPCA man lurking in my garden, day in, day out, just in case?

So I expect for the time being I will just do nothing. Have dog food ready. Not take art lessons, not buy a camper van. Generally, go on exactly as before.

All that glisters is not gold

Funny word, isn’t it? A mixture of glitters, sisters and blisters. The dumb-down-everything brigade are perpetually trying to replace glisters with glitters because people are, in their reckoning, unable to make the mental ‘hop’ from this funny-old-funny-sounding word to the (very similar sounding) word they may have occasionally heard used on some gameshows on TV, even if it isn’t part of their teensy-tiny little personal vocabularies.

Oh, I am so bitter today!

One interesting thing – apparently the exposure of the paedophilic activities of ageing British pop singer Gary Glitter has caused ‘glitter’ to become less popular. It is even possible that people will once again prefer Shakespeare’s poetic alternative. On the other hand, it has got more than one syllable, so they’ll probably plump for ‘bling’.

The quote is from The Merchant of Venice:

O hell! what have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.
All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.

[By the way, if there are any ‘s’s missing from any of my posts, it’s because this keyboard is refusing to type them upon the first striking of the key. No, you have to repeatedly strike the ‘s’ and then it might… However many times I check, I always seem to miss one or two.]

I had to ‘do’ The Merchant of Venice at school. I remember enjoying it, at the time, and it being about a pound of flesh, and there being a court case involved, and that a lady called Portia – or was it Desdemona? – no, she was the one that got strangled by Othello over a handkerchief – no, Portia, dressed up as a man to defend – someone or other. Or did she?

This demonstrates the scant usefulness of most of what we are forced to learn in schools, although you might say that, even if I can no longer remember the plot of either The Merchant or Othello I still love Shakespeare and his genius with language – more and more so in retrospect.

So, one little story to illustrate the saying All That Glisters Is Not Gold:

You may or may not know that I have been volunteering with an Organisation that helps Old Folk in a number of different ways. I’m not much of a volunteer, even, since I have but a single client, a very old lady with dementia. This was not much of a challenge to begin with – just a short bus ride/drive once a week, and an hour spent mostly listening and eating chocolate biscuits. Unfortunately the dementia has taken a sudden turn for the worse, as often happens (I remember it with my Mum) and things have become more challenging. I am finding it difficult, really, after Mum, to find myself on that slippery slope to oblivion all over again, albeit with less responsibility.

Anyway, since before Christmas I kept getting these emails from my contact at the Organisation, asking me to pop in to the Centre whenever I next happened to be in town, as a small Christmas gift awaited me. I kept forgetting. To tell the truth I go into Town as infrequently as I can manage, since it depresses me. I come away feeling as if I have been Captured By The Dementors and Imprisoned in Azkaban for several millennia. Well, an exaggeration maybe but all those tattoo parlours, all those £1 stores, all those boarded up shop (s, keyboard, s!) …

However, the only way to stop the emails was to get in the car and drive to Town specially. I knocked on the back door and was admitted. (Luckily the chiropodist didn’t pop out of his lair like a Scottish spider in a white coat, as I am avoiding him.) The girl led me through to the office and handed me a beautifully wrapped little gift attached to a card. It even had that ribbon that they make all curly by stroking it with the blade of the scissors. Someone had taken a lot of trouble.

‘We had decided to eat them if you didn’t come in by the end of the week!’ she joked.

Ah, so chocolates. But chocolates is/are OK.

I thanked them and made for the door, once again avoiding that beady-eyed chriropodist. I walked the entire length of the High Street back to Tesco, where you can park your car for free for three hours (then they send rude letters to you). I drove all the way home. I put the kettle on and opened my Little Gift, and it was a tiny packet of Maltesers.

Maltesers are OK I suppose. Just not worth that long drive into town, that long, cold, drizzly walk up the High treet (s! foul keyboard – how hard can it be?) past all those tattoo parlours, boarded-up shops, £1 stores and bunches of hoodie-wearing teenage louts who no doubt all carry knives, or at least have perfected the art of looking at you as if they do…

But, a Malteser is a Malteser. Not much chocolate involved, maybe, but…

I opened the box and sat there, with my cup of tea and my half-read historical novel (Lamentation by C J Sansom), and proceeded to pig the lot.

Just Keep Taking The Tablets

Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People. When I first saw this poster I wondered how long it took him to think that one up? I imagined him, this mysterious Dr Williams, as some sort of Victorian gentleman with luxuriant side-whiskers. I saw him seated by a roaring fire in a stuffy drawing room, The Times newspaper folded by his side – and maybe a pipe of some sort, emitting a rich aroma of tobacco. Yes, there he sits in a fug of scented smoke, scribbling in a little black leather notebook with – what would they have used in those days? – did they have pencils?

Green Pills for Greenish Girls, he scribbles.

Hmmm…

Lavender Lozenges for Lethargic Ladies…

Hmmm… Ah….

Pink Pills for Pale People! That way you attract both male and female customers. And Pale… that could mean anything. It was claimed that Pink Pills could cure chorea, or “St Vitus Dance”. This was something my mother accused me of having as a child, I remember, because some passing woman had made a comment about her toddler (me) making funny faces all the time. Did I? It has been one of my nightmares (confession imminent) that I have been making funny faces all my life but just can’t seem to catch myself doing it. People may have just been too kind to tell me.

Pink Pill were good for all sorts of other things too, it seems – locomotor ataxia (no idea) partial paralyxia (no idea), seistica (definitely no idea), neuralgia, rheumatism, nervous headache, the after effects of la grippe (flu?), palpitation of the heart, pale and sallow complexions and all forms of weakness in male or female.

In fact it seems unlikely that Dr Williams himself ever existed except as an advertising concept, since Dr Williams’ Medicine Company was the trading arm of G T Fulford & Company, Canada.

Pills… endless pills. Until Christmas I was quite proud of myself for having attained this advanced age without being permanently on pills of any sort, this one interacting unfavourably with that one… An Old People Thing, pills were. On the rare occasion that I was prescribed pills, for this and that, mostly I wouldn’t take them.

The ghastliness of old age. I think I have just witnessed too much of it, through shadowing a carer (twice) and through Mum and her endless dementia. She had pills, first in a pill-sorter and then (after she began to toss her pills all over the kitchen for some reason) in a sealed dosette box from the chemist. But she quickly learned how to break into it, and added whimsical things to the various compartments – giant, unidentifiable orange vitamin pills, for example. This used to annoy the carers. As did hiding the toaster so that they couldn’t do her tea.

I will never, I promised myself, become that sort of zombified old person surrounded by medical impedimenta. I will never, I vowed, possess a pill-sorter. No dosette box shall ever pass over my doorstep. (In fact Mum used to put the dosette box, together with the carers’ blue plastic record book and various other unrelated objects, back over her doorstep as soon as they departed. She stacked them in a corner of the porch, where they got damp, or buried under the usual blizzard of incoming junk mail.)

The words for things change when you become old. No longer do you rifle around in the medicine cabinet (biscuit tin, in my case) hoping to locate an ancient plaster to stick on a  cut. No, somebody comes and puts a dressing on you. No longer do you rummage in the medicine cabinet/biscuit tin for a couple of ancient Paracetamol still in their foil casing and so probably hygienic enough. Now teams of people come and discuss pain management. Every part of you seems to be going manky, somehow, and you’re not even in control of it.

I’m not that old yet, I suppose. I always thought, when I got that old, I would do a Virginia Woolf, weighting the old pockets with stones (such strong pockets she must have had) and wading into the river. How do you know when you’ve reached that fulcrum moment, I wonder, between being capable of deciding your own destiny and no longer being capable? Presumably you don’t know, and that is why there are so many old folks sitting around on plastic armchairs in Homes, watching Gordon Ramsay on Daytime TV.

But, you have to be practical. Yesterday I sorted all my various antibiotics and iron tablets into a jolly, multi-coloured pill-sorter. It has compartments for Morning, Noon, Evening and Reserve. What is reserve for goodness sake? Hopefully the antibiotics will be finished by next Thursday, then I will just be left with the iron pills, which I should be able to remember without the aid of the multi-coloured pill-sorter.

But it never ends. Today I took Shadow to the vet’s. She’s got an eye infection. I’d intended to take her before Christmas but then I got sick and anyway, conveniently, the cat’s eye infection seemed to be going away. Then I got better, and the cat’s eye infection – inconveniently – came back in full force. So now I have not only all my pills but eye drops (twice a day) and antibiotic ointment three times a day for her.

I have had to re-do my list.

I seem to be spending all day either trying to swallow monstrous pills myself (I inherited from my father the greatest difficulty swallowing pills) and pursuing an unwilling cat round the house, managing to do first one eye then, half an hour later the other eye. Or not

pink pills

The fairies have left me some cushions…

I am gradually catching up with Tech, although of course Tech keeps moving on, further and further into the darkling realms of the incomprehensible, further and further beyond my reach…

But I have just learned how to make lists on my smartphone. It has taken me a decade or two to learn the smartphone. The lists, only a few minutes. I have an app. It is called Simple Lists or List-So-Simple – something like that. Now of course I am thinking of all manner of To Do’s that I was managing to forget about, and therefore never having to get round to doing, before.

There are all sorts of weird things on my To Do lists. Under Organisation, for example, is ‘Round up single duvets and wash’. This kind of implies that a herd of single duvets are cavorting round my house, getting grubby. In fact, I have only two single duvets and I have just rounded the second one up. It was lurking in the garage, in a giant-size Bag For Life, inside the metal garden incinerator I bought but never quite managed to use (effectively).

Anyway, this is not about duvets, but cushions. In searching for duvets I happened to look inside the far right door of the wardrobe. There are many doors I do not open. To open this one I had to gently slide a somnolent, one-armed cat a couple of feet to the left. Ah, I thought, another duvet – for there on the top shelf was one of those blue duvet-dry-cleaning bags. When I opened it, however, it was four 16 x 16 inch cushions with dull, open-weave, sea-greenish fabric covers. You could have knocked me down with a feather, because

although I occasionally stumble across an item I thought I had lost, I have always up till now remembered them once I saw them, ie some sort of back-story popped into my mind.

Oh, the builders’ rule Dad gave me, or

Oh yes, that awful ornament I didn’t quite know what to do with or

Oh, that arctic explorer jacket I thought I might need if another ice age were to strike, but which was in fact so bulky and noisy to wear that I never actually wore it, but it cost so much money I didn’t like to throw it away, because after all there still might be another Ice Age…

But these four cushions – I could have sworn I had never seen them before. This is worrying because…  dementia. There’s Mum, and the worry that all of us ‘children’ are now saddled with, that one of us might be next. 

I have never worried too much about being forgetful because I have always been forgetful. All my life, objects have lost themselves around me. I don’t have any sense that I am getting more forgetful over time. But finding an object you could swear you have never seen before – now we’re heading into wipe-out territory.

I must have seen them before, but if so how did I manage to zip them into a blue, duvet dry-cleaning bag (which I do recognise – I can even picture the dry-cleaners, next to Tesco, that supplied it all those years ago) and push them to the back of my wardrobe without noticing? Was I sleep-walking? Where did the cushions come from? They don’t match anything, certainly not my sofa.

There can be only one explanation: it must have been the fairies. Just as fairies are known to exchange fallen milk-teeth for sixpences and good human children for very bad fairy children (or, so I read in Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain, ancient, toothless fairies cunningly disguised as human babies, thus providing for them a luxury retirement home) so they must bring cushions. Fairy cushions!

Luckily I am making cushion-covers at the moment – very, very slowly – and I do not have any 16 x 16 cushion middles. I could therefore make a set of fairy patchwork cushions, somehow…

Ah well, that’s that sorted out.

fairy cushion

If you go down to the woods today…

Outside Mum’s window the sky is iron grey. The chill strikes even through my winter coat, my thickest scarf, the extra cardigans. I am wearing so many layers today I resemble a padded black cube, with legs. Mum seems to be suggesting a picnic. Recently she has become convinced that, whoever we are, we must be entertained. She struggles to explain her plans, the arrangements she is mentally making. If she could walk, she seems to be saying, we could put her into the front seat of a car. We could go out, and sit on the grass and eat our picnic. At least, that’s what I imagine she is saying. I seem to need something nobody else does – to impose a narrative on the anxious, incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness stuff that actually comes out. Godmother is more down to earth: ‘Too cold for a picnic today, but they’ll be bringing your fish and chips soon’.

‘I think the fish must be swimming here’, she mutters. ‘Where is it?’

Godmother simply tells the truth. ‘Is my Mum still alive?’ Mum asks me, suddenly. I turn to Godmother, silently asking for help, the loss of Nan suddenly flooding back in.

‘No. She died a long time ago,’ says Godmother.

Mum considers this. ‘Is my Dad alive?’

‘No, he’s dead too.’

‘Him?’ She points at her brother’s photo – there he is in 1949 in tropical uniform,  film-star handsome. Cyprus, maybe.

He’s still alive,’ says Godmother, seeing me nodding.

‘But very old now,’ I add. (And never bothered to visit you for the last twenty-five years, I think, though you waited and waited and always believed he would.)

‘And him?’ She points at Dad’s picture, the one of him in his seventies, in that veterans’ cycle race, leaning into the curve of a corner as he goes whizzing by.

‘That’s my Dad,’ I say, foolishly. ‘Your husband.’

She looks puzzled. ‘Is he still alive?’

‘No, he’s dead too,’ says Godmother. ‘Shall I go and make you a fresh cup of tea?’

Mum nods vigorously, then starts to look dubious.

‘Go quick,’ I say, ‘before it turns into a no.’

Mum points at Gordon Ramsay on the television, being beastly to someone because their restaurant isn’t up to scratch. Something about him – maybe the red, constantly-mobile face – seems to have caught her attention. At least she doesn’t ask me if he’s still alive.

picnic

At the Over 50s lunch a lady called Daphne has taken charge of me. She is helping me with my Bingo.

‘No,’ she tuts. ‘Turn that sheet upside down then you won’t be tempted to put anything on it. Look, I’m turning the blue sheet upside down. You don’t need it yet. Out of sight, out of mind. No – you’ve just done the line but you’ve still got the house – don’t go throwing the whole book away!’

Truth to tell, I am exaggerating my helplessness a bit because it’s so unexpectedly nice to be nagged. I had forgotten what that was like, the way Mums talk to you.

We all have to sit in the same seats, every time, even though it’s a huge great pub. This I discovered earlier, when I sat in the wrong one. ‘Oh no. You’ll have to move along one.’

‘I just didn’t really want to sit under that potted tree. The leaves are sort of sharp and dangle down your neck…’

‘Well we’ll move the table out a bit, keep you more or less away from the tree. But that’s your seat now. Don’t give Her a chance to have a go at you. Once She starts…’

Gosh, I think. It’s like being back at school. Have I really reached this age only to be forced to sit for several hours in a corner seat half obscured by a potted tree of vicious temperament because somebody tells me to?

An old man two seats down (exactly where he was last month) tells a very off-colour joke involving falling into a bucket, with some tits. He laughs uproariously, mouth wide open.

‘Don’t you get started on those jokes of yours, Cecil. There’s a young lady present.’ It take me a minute to realise they mean me.

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Back at the home, Mum’s asking, over and over again, ‘But what about me? What do you want me to do? What shall I do now?’

Oh Mum, I think. Ask me if I went and cut my own fringe again, because it’s all up one side and down the other. Offer to make me an appointment with your own hairdresser round the corner. ‘That one you were in the same class at junior school with’.

Tell me off for sneaking pieces into your jigsaw puzzle behind your back.

Ask me if I’m putting on weight and suggest that it’s plastering all those great chunks of butter on my toast that does it.

Tell me you’re worried about me and my raggle-taggle lifestyle. Tell me I’ve always been a worry to you, really.

Tell me you’d like me to get you a new book in that historical series, but the paperback, mind you, not the hardback: mess up the look of your bookshelves, hardbacks do.

Tell me you’d think I’d have something better to do with my time than play Bingo with a lot of old farts in a pub in the back of beyond somewhere.

Tell me anything, anything at all. I’m listening so hard now.

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I believe there must be a leprechaun inside my smartphone. Well, not even a very smart phone – a phone that in reality does all the stuff normal smartphones do, but disguises the fact so as not to spook the elderly. A deafening musical cadence every time you switch the thing on or off tells everyone else in the railway carriage that you must be extremely hard of hearing, and menus in big letters, with simple alternative words for things, ensure that anyone under eighty will be confused. I spent the first three months wondering where they had hidden the ‘Text’ function before realising that

‘What do you want to do…?

Send…?

Send what…?

A Message?’

actually meant Text. Godmother has the same phone (but Godmother is six months older than my mother) which does at least mean that I can help her when her leprechaun is playing up. I managed to get hers off Aeroplane Mode last week. It had been stuck like that for months.

The phone’s inner leprechaun is obviously quite bright. On my last journey to meet Godmother/visit Mum together, I got to the station, bought my ticket and whilst waiting for the train checked my screen (I’ve just got my head round Roaming). He told me the name of a station and informed me that the station was ‘functioning’ – which was a relief, since I was already standing on the platform, senior rail ticket in hand. He also told me when my next train was due. This I also knew as there are only two trains an hour, and indeed only one platform, terminating in a pile of weedy rubble, whether you are Outgoing or Inbound.

However, my leprechaun does tend to slip out for a pint of Guinness occasionally. In Godmother’s car, an hour and a half and quite a few miles away, he informed me I was in England. This was a relief too. If ever I was taken up into a spaceship by aliens, experimented on and dropped randomly back to earth with my Old Person’s Smartphone I would at least know that I was in Africa, say, or Mongolia.

I thought about it. If he doesn’t know what town I’m in, at this moment in time, how can he proclaim with such confidence that I’m in England? And then I thought, ah, he’s applying logic, as computerised thingies are known to do. He has worked out that the town I was in, before he went out for the pint of Guinness, is such a long way from the borders of either Scotland, Wales or Ireland that I wouldn’t have had time by any known means of transport to have traversed one of said borders. Ergo, since I had been in England, I must still be in England. I was lost in admiration.

A cousin of the smartphone leprechaun lives in my television and informs me at intervals that a Weak or No Signal is being received. He actually knows, somehow, that the cats have just pulled the aerial out of the socket.

Another particularly malevolent cousin lives in my desktop computer. Every day he attempts to send me a massive Update to Internet Explorer, which he tells me will take longer than usual, but is a pressing matter, absolutely vital. Every time I allow him to do this my desktop computer chunters away for a while, then dies. “Bluescreens”, as they say in internet chatrooms. It is then very difficult to revive my computer. Much turning it off at the wall and turning it back on again. Desktop leprechaun then tells me the Update has failed and he is restoring my previous version of Internet Explorer. I cannot afford to pay the Computer Man £120 to fix this Illogicality for me, any more than I could afford to pay the plumber to stop water constantly rippling into my loo from the cistern – until I had to spend all one day bailing into a bucket.

The next day the desktop leprechaun sends me an even tetchier message. “Let’s cross this one off your list… Come on now, you know it makes sense…” I tick “Remind Me Tomorrow” as there seems to be no option for “Bog Off”.

leprechaun

Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.

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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Everybody’s talking at me…

So far I have been looking for things to ‘snap’ around the house, but it’s been one of those days and I just couldn’t locate any Talking Heads, Jabbering Clowns etc to go with my title.

(Change the title, then, why don’t you?

Too tired!)

It’s been one of those days. One of those days when, after days of blessed silence, broken only by hisses and miaows and the occasional politician blathering on about Brexit, I have been forced to delve deep into my pitiful pot of sociability and talk to people. And all day! It’s too much.

It started with the fridge. The fridge is less than a year old and you might think it would leave me alone, but no. The milk I poured onto my cereal was warm. Everything in the fridge-bit and the freezer-bit was warm. Everything was soggy. I was due to leave the house at quarter to nine so at half past eight I had to have a long conversation with a young woman in a call centre, who sold me yet another lot of fridge insurance (I just cancelled the previous lot but it was the only way I could escape) and promised me an engineer next Wednesday. Five or six day without a fridge. I missed the bus, of course.

Which meant I found myself catching the same bus as Bertie and, not only that, sharing the subsequent train since he was on his way up to London and then down towards the West Country. Bertie is a nice chap but extremely hard work, listening to. And he now wants to know whether I am married. Why? Maybe he’s just curious. Innocently curious.

He is worried about his train connections, and about whether he will be able to book in to his usual hotel room when he gets down there; also whether he will be able to find some flowers to buy (he has to buy some flowers). I am worried about my fridge and what is happening to all those strawberry yoghurts and bottles of milk I didn’t have time to dispose of before running for the later bus. They will have to fester till I get home.

And then there is the conversation with Godmother in the car. Godmother is a piece of cake compared to either Bertie or the woman at the electrical appliances call centre, but I am running out of steam. I am also having to explain why I am so late.

Then there is the conversation with Mum, although today she seems more interested in New Homes By The Seaside, and paddling two pieces of bread around in a bowl of green soup. Godmother and I speculate as to why the soup is always exactly this shade of green, and whether it might be pea, or some sort of pea and mushroom mix.

Another conversation with Godmother on the way back to the station. Exhausted slump in a train, then another train. Half an hour at the bus stop. Teenager on the bench beside me suddenly looks up from his mobile phone and begins to talk to me. There must be something wrong with him, I think. The only people who talk to me at bus stops are people with something wrong with them.

He shows me his app, for the buses, which reveals that our bus is currently passing the fire station just down the road, but it has to go past us and go off somewhere else before coming back, so there’s at least another fifteen minutes to wait. He tells me about the sort of music he likes, which he says has a lot of beat and people shouting or talking over the top. Sounds like what Next Door play. He asks me what sort of music I like. I say I listen to Heart, thinking that might be trendy. He says Heart isn’t really modern music. He explains the online game he likes to play, and how you can wear costumes, or join the police, or wield a sword – anything you like – and how he has friends all over the world, playing the same game at the same time. I tell him of my adventures with the little boat in that dementia game, Sea Hero Quest. He thinks he has heard of that.

He asks me if I have got Netflix and what I watch TV programmes on. He tells me that the pattern is changing and young people watch on all sorts of devices. I already knew this, but I nod, wondering if he might be practising his chatting up techniques on a safe old lady before venturing into the world of Real Girls. He looks no more than fifteen, and I suspect he is shy. He’s practising. Good for him.

He asks me what people did before television. His mother has told him that people played card games and such. I tell him that I can only vaguely remember the world before television, since we got one when I was seven or thereabouts, but I remembered my grandparents playing card games. And talking. Talking? He seems interested in that. He asks me if television was really black and white once upon a time, and had there really only been two channels like his mother said?

At home I dispose of all the runny yoghurts and soggy loaves of bread from the fridge. I recycle the plastic pots. I tip away four pints of warm, suspicious-smelling milk. I fish out anything else that doesn’t look as if it’s going to last till Wednesday.

I remember that I am supposed to be ringing that lady from yesterday’s bus journey, the one who thought I might be interested in outings to Southend to eat fish and chips, in a mini-bus with other people our age, collected from my door and returned, after. Trips to the theatre; get-togethers (with optional fish-and-chip suppers) in pubs and so much more. I have her telephone number on a scrap of paper and I have promised to ring her. Yesterday.

I am slightly interested, I suppose, thinking about all that potential subject matter for the blog, and also the possibility that the company of other humans might do me good. But I can’t face it tonight.

Not another conversation. Just not tonight.

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Sea Hero Pest

But I memorized the map! You showed me a map and I duly memorized it. Three check-in points with 3 at the top and 2 to the left. Sail up to 1. Veer back sharply to 2. Upwards and slightly  right to 3 and then – bingo – another page of the treasure-map-or-whatever is mine! You didn’t mention navigating! You didn’t mention landmarks! I was supposed to guess that that bunch of stylised pointy trees and those mammoths-wearing-shawls were in fact landmarks?

A lot more of this exclaiming has gone on in the past couple of days, since I discovered the dementia-research game/app known as Sea Hero Quest. Apparently one of earliest the signs of dementia is a lessening of the ability to navigate, and I do remember this quite clearly with Mum. She got lost after one of her regular Sunday visits to my house. Ten minutes after leaving she was back, knocking on my door, tearful, insisting that the roads had all changed. They been taking her to Hastings, she said. Hastings was a good hour and a half’s drive away. She had just missed her usual turning.

They tell you that for every ten minutes or so you spend on your smartphone  steering your tiny electronic boat around huge electronic icebergs, you are contributing approximately thirty minutes of invaluable research data to scientists seeking a cure for dementia. Well there’s Mum, and the app was free to download, so how could I not?

To be fair it was my first ever experience of gaming. Apart from Words With Friends, that is, which doesn’t really count because it’s basically Scrabble and doesn’t involve manoeuvring anything. And I do wonder if being of the Sheldon Cooper ilk doesn’t hamper a person in unintended ways. I mean, I don’t suppose the designer of Sea Hero Quest anticipated that someone would be so busy attempting and failing to type her age into a big white box that she did not notice until her fifth try that there was a huge sliding scale underneath. The big white box served no purpose whatsoever. In which case, why have a white box? Or maybe he designed it that way. It could have been some kind of trick…

And I don’t suppose he anticipated that the lack of any but the vaguest of instructions would be much of a problem. Presumably experienced gamers are already familiar the basic conventions of gaming. But I mean, how do you even start? There are kind of lily-pad things. Am I supposed to hop from one to another in number order, or can I click on any one I want at any time? And what is that star thing? What happens if I click on a monster? And why is there a paintbrush in the water?

And then there are the memorisable maps sans landmarks. Memorising maps has never been that stressful for me: I like maps. In my younger days I managed to more-or-less memorise the route from Kent to Scotland and drive there over two days alone, in a tiny car, with nothing but a book of road maps open on the passenger seat and list of place names taped to the driver’s side window. I did get lost on the motorway, but only once, before realising that the sun was now setting in the wrong direction.

And then there is the map that appears to consist entirely of swirling fog and dry land. Perhaps for this particular game Boaty will prove to be an amphibi-boat. Just about anything might be possible in a land featuring shawl-wearing mammoths. Boaty will doubtless sprout crocodile legs and lumber across dry land in the direction of those distant red beacons. But no! When the game starts, there we are in the same icy, glacier-infested waterway.

So what was the point of that map?

Infuriatingly, at the end of one game it asks a series of questions: How did you navigate? Did you count from the beginning? Did you navigate using the landmarks? Or did you count from a landmark?

Count?? Navigate?? They never told me I was supposed to be counting or navigating.  I was just concentrating on this little wizzy item between glaciers and crashing helplessly into one after another. Should I be tapping the phone? Should I be pushing the boat forward, or maybe pulling the boat along somehow, with an ancient palsied digit? Would the phone perhaps respond to bellowed instructions, as with Alexa?

And then there were the sea monsters. The idea is that you pursue the sea monster at top speed through the glaciers, inexplicable mammoths and whatnot. I haven’t found out how to slow Boaty down as yet so we proceed at maximum notts through icy waters, with some kind of Nessie-alike creature speeding ahead. We are meant to be catching up to her and taking her photograph – with what I have no idea – except that flotillas of baby glaciers keep getting in the way.

Initially I try to avoid them by tapping to the left or the right. This works twice. Thenceforward no amount of leftward or rightward tapping makes any difference whatsoever – no corresponding evasive skipping by Boaty occurs. Ah well, I think, since the iceberg flotilla don’t seem to be damaging her, as they would surely do in real life,  I might as well just laissez faire, que-sera-sera and power on through. But this only slows you down. Eventually Nessie takes pity and stops of her own accord so that you can take her photo, for which you are rewarded with one hot-cross-bun type star and a patronising message: Try to go a little faster next time to gain more points. I was trying to slow down.

Three hours later and there I am on the sofa, in gathering darkness, hungry, surrounded by dozing cats and still apparently attempting to master Sea Hero Quest. But in fact I am not really playing. I am driving my nasty little electronic sailing vessel around in ever decreasing circles and deliberately slamming her into first one glacier and then another. Yes, I am graunching her dear, jaunty little painted sides along those serrated ice-edges.

Kerrang!

Pow!!

There is actually a timetable affixed to this bus stop…

Bertie from the bus stop has asked me my name, eventually.

We are standing outside his house, which is just around the corner from the bus stop, way before my house. I still have a fifteen minute hill to climb and am so tired I am wishing that someone would install one of those ski lifts, so that I could just hop on. Bertie thought this was a good idea last time I mentioned it, and asked me how much it would cost.

He has been telling me about his blackberries. These are a tangle of what I would have called brambles in one corner of his front garden. However, they do actually have blackberries on them, half of them unripe as yet. He is saying something about picking them, or not picking them or other people picking or not picking them. I am past the stage of being able to piece it all together. It has been a whole day on public transport to visit Mum.

I have sat next to Bertie on the bus from town for almost an hour and he has been talking at me all the way: shards of his life: fragments that would probably make sense if only he would give you some sort of context for them. It is like ancient coins under a metal detector – you never get the whole horde, only this battered coin, and that.

He starts in the middle, or he’ll just tell you the edges. He skips from when his Mum was alive, which now seems to have been back in the 70s and in another part of the country; to his health and mobility problems, which he is assuming I know all about; to the problems of a friend who is struggling to help another friend, who lives a long way away. It’s one of those stream-of-consciousness autobiographies – you feel that if only you could put enough energy into your listening you might be able to piece it together.

He is still telling me about the blackberries. My feet are on fire from too much walking about in new walking boots. I am overheated, wilting. The sun has been beating down on me through the bus window and before that there was an hour just waiting at the bus stop in town. Until Bertie came along, that is, and started advising some woman about the times of the buses. Five minutes ago she had asked me the same question and now she was asking him. People just automatically ignore everything I say.

‘There is supposed to be a bus at half past,’ she said. ‘So where is it?’

‘Where exactly are you trying to get to?’ I asked, although I could tell from the look of her where she was going – the holiday camp.

‘To the holiday camp’, she said.

‘Then it’s twelve minutes past’, I say, ‘though it may be up to ten minutes late’.

‘There’s supposed to be one at half past (this hour).’

‘No, there isn’t one till twelve minutes past (next hour).’

So now she turns to Bertie and asks ‘When is the next bus?’

‘Eleven minutes past,’ he says, ‘though it’s usually late’.

She nods, comprehendingly. Oh, eleven minutes past, not twelve minutes like that woman just told me. Eleven minutes past. Bertie, of course, has now got her by the (metaphorical) throat and is regaling her with the intricacies of the local bus timetable; telling her where in the town centre she could obtain a copy of said publication, although of course she will miss the bus if she sets off to obtain one now.

People at bus stops tend to annoy me anyway, especially holidaymakers. They are always cross from the unaccustomed hanging about (apparently buses happen more often than once an hour up in London), they have never read the timetable and every one of them has a different and contradictory certainty as to when the bus ought to have been due. But still they ask you when it is due. And then they don’t believe you when you tell them.

There is actually a timetable affixed to this bus stop, I hear myself pointing out, snarkily. Occasionally, nowadays, I seem to be saying exactly what I mean, having spent a lifetime avoiding this dangerous practice. Pretend Me is always shocked when Real Me decides to pop out of her box and Say Something Snarky. I know it is only because Pretend Me is very, very tired, also hungry and thirsty having just spent lunchtime watching repeats of ‘The Simpsons’ with her mother in a bedroom with a dark blue wallpaper frieze and a view consisting of air-conditioning clutter and a toilet window or two.  All her life Pretend Me has managed to keep Real Me stuffed down under that painted lid, the catch firmly on. Now, at random moments, this strategy fails.

Confused and distracted by Bertie’s monotone mumbled timetable monologue, the woman hasn’t in any case noticed the underlying acidity of Real Me’s remark. She is a faded blonde, this woman; hooped earrings; strappy sundress; glittery cheap flat sandals with bunions poking through the straps, chin beginning to sag into her neck. She’s around about my age, pretending not to be. Pretend Me feel ashamed of Real Me’s intended nastiness, even if she didn’t notice.

But not very.

I sometimes wonder if this blog isn’t the same sort of thing: fragments of a whole life – the double-helix life, perhaps I should say, of Pretend Me and Real Me. And as with Bertie’s autobiography, no one will ever have the time, energy or inclination to piece it all together. Maybe this is an autobiography but with other bits and pieces tossed in for good measure, like the sixpence and the mixed spice in the Christmas pudding.

Maybe one day, so far into the future that nothing remains of this century but internet echoes, some future history student will decide to ‘do’ this blog for their dissertation. And fail, distracted by blackberries, bus stops, observations apropos of nothing, chance acquaintances and recipes for appallingly sugary cakes.

‘I don’t think I caught your name…’ says Bertie, oddly formal and still lurking beside his blackberries.

‘I don’t think I told you,’ I say, and tell him. He repeats it to himself several times.

‘I’ll try to remember that,’ he says, looking anxious.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘I can always remind you’.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: [Godmother]’s Scrumptious Slice

I shall be seeing Godmother tomorrow, on yet another harrowing visit to Mum, which I will try to avoid writing about afterwards (sighs of relief, echoing around the globe…). However, I thought to mark the occasion I would include a recipe which Godmother originally passed on to Mum.

I don’t know whether Godmother christened them Scrumptious Slices or whether it was Mum who decided they were Scrumptious. I also have no idea what a Scrumptious Slice might look like when it comes out of the oven (please do report back if you decide to make them) and can’t post a picture of Godmother herself, so here is a fairy godmother instead.

SCRUMPTIOUS SLICE

  • 8 oz puff pastry
  • 8 oz marzipan
  • 3 oz glacé cherries
  • 3 oz dessicated cocoanut
  • 2 egg whites slightly beaten
  • 8 oz Cadbury Flakes (if you can’t get Cadbury Flakes, they are basically milk chocolate shaped into flaky log-things)
  • Caster sugar

Preheat oven to 230°C /450°F / Gas 8

Roll pastry out 10″ (inches) x 12″ rectangle. Roll marzipan to a slightly smaller rectangle and lay on top of pastry.

Chop cherries, mix with the cocoanut & add enough egg white to bind. Spread over the marzipan & lay Flakes in pairs down the centre (You may need to be a bit creative here if you are using an alternative to Cadbury’s Flake).

Dampen pastry edges – seal together lengthwise & then seal ends. Lift onto a greased baking sheet, ‘join’ side down. Brush with egg white, sprinkle with caster sugar.

Mark diagonal lines on top.

Bake for about 15 minutes until golden brown.

Hmm, they do sound quite yummy whatever they look like! 🙂

My disbelief grows weary of suspending itself…

I’m onto a sticky wicket with suspenders, I know. American suspenders are as illustrated below:

suspenders

British suspenders are things that hold up stockings, supposedly wicked, lacy and black (or red) but as I recall them from my uncomfortable schooldays, more often medical, pinkish and rubbery, and held together with sixpenny pieces when they broke. They always broke. The rubber perished. The little suspend-things cracked and disintegrated…

So what do Americans call suspenders-suspenders if what we call braces are there known as suspenders? But what holds up American stockings? If that’s suspenders too, how do they know what they are holding up? Is it just a matter of deduction from the context?

But this post is not about that.

When I was at school, struggling with the uncomfortable suspenders and the 60-denier sun-mist-stockings-with-seams – surely the ugliest stocking ever invented (not about that, remember!) it was explained to me that when we get completely lost in a book, or a film, or a story told by some grey-haired hippie-type lady whilst sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the library (pre-suspenders) was called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

I did not used to find this difficult, except in the case of plays. Plays have never done it for me. I’ve never been able to get past the reality of a lot of foreshortened real human beings prancing about on a stage and acting at one another. I can tell it’s acting. I can always tell it’s acting, even if it’s good acting, and it annoys me. People are pretending and I can see them doing it.

A posh lady I went to a play with once advised me that this was probably because I hadn’t grown up in a theatre-going household. She didn’t mean to be patronising, and she was right, partially – we didn’t go to plays, or the ballet or opera, come to that.

My parents were working class and, even if they could have afforded to go, would have been terrified to pass through the doors of a theatre. They wouldn’t have known what to wear or how to behave. They would have felt they stuck out like a sore thumb.

An all-encompassing self-consciousness is one of the things which go with being not-posh. Only when you are middle class can you raise your voice above a low murmur, not minding if others hear. Only when you are middle class can you walk about with your shoulders back and your snoot in the air, flinging your purple pashmina dramatically over your right shoulder, and not even know you are doing it. That’s confidence. Read Alan Bennett’s loving tales of his Mum and Dad if you don’t believe me. He knows. Alan Bennett is the greatest.

But I could get lost in a book. So could my mother, but my father appeared not to possess the suspension of disbelief gene. Maybe he lost it, as he lost so much, as a young conscript in the second world war. The war really did for him in a lot of ways, I think. He could never leave me alone when I was reading. He used to wave his hands in front of my face and think it was funny. ‘Look at her – she’s miles away. Away with the fairies.’ He never did understand why this was annoying.

Same with films, although mercifully my father wasn’t usually with me when I went to the pictures: I could be immersed in the story, living inside even the most far-fetched sci-fi blockbuster. I would be one or all of the characters, fleeing in terror from the scary monsters, falling in love, falling off a high building… The film’s ‘afterglow’ would stay with me for days afterwards, the story re-running itself in my head, scenes acting themselves out before my inner eye. And maybe it would still be the same, if I could afford to go.

Instead of fiction-reading, my father used to read out columns from newspapers – anything he found to be of interest. He was interested in politics and the financial markets, the way they worked, even though these things had little effect on his everyday life. We used to sit there bored, and the read-out paragraphs seemed to get longer and longer. When he grew ancient, however, propped up in a chair with a cushion behind his neck and the walker by his side, he lapsed into depression and scarcely spoke.  My mother used to gauge how happy, or not, he was by whether he read out any paragraphs. Eventually, he read out no paragraphs. He read nothing. He told my sister he had forgotten everything he had ever been or ever done. God save us.

As I have grown older I have become more interested in politics and found it more and more difficult – not to read – the words still make perfect sense – but to get lost in reading. My suspension of disbelief seems to have suspended operations. I am turning into my father, and this saddens me. Reading was all I had. I got through a tedious and difficult life mostly by daydreaming. I could lose myself in stories, and in plans I would never carry out, journeys I would never, practically, be able to make. Now, although I am still doing my best to get it back I feel – now here’s a simile for you, or maybe a metaphor – like a hunted rabbit, all exits sealed by the men with the dogs – or is it ferrets? – just an airless darkness and waiting for Whatever-it-is to be sent down after me.

Post McEwan Stress Disorder

This picture is from tiny card my mother once sent me. The message inside is mundane:

Monday, 2pm

I received your letter. Went over to the garage. Explained about little red spanner [Skoda’s irritating ‘service due’ warning light].

They can deal with little red spanner ie: take it off so that it won’t be a nuisance any more.

I left the key with them. It will soon be dealt with.

Love, Mum XXX

It felt a bit creepy reading this so-ordinary and long-forgotten message from Mum’s earlier self, but it was nice to see her handwriting, and to see that all the full stops were once again in the right place, the ‘i’s all meticulously dotted and the ‘t’s all crossed. The style’s clumsy for her, though – ‘it’ must already have begun at that point, and I didn’t realise.

It was a long drawn out and horrible Flowers For Algernon process, for us both, first watching her handwriting decline and then her mind refusing to tell her what to write in letters to friends, and her desperate strategies to keep doing so: the sudden change to writing in pencil – I bought her a whole box of 2Bs and a desktop pencil-sharpener which neither of us could then fasten to the desk; the endless, obsessive process of rubbing out bits of sentences and trying again; the rewriting of entire letters; the asking me to check them before she posted them.

I have a little nightmare of the same thing happening to me one day – and not realising – and gibberish appearing in this blog, and either no one telling me (and who would want to be the one to do that?) or everyone just Unfollowing. Oh, God save us from an unknown future.

I found Mum’s butterfly card in one of my books. Being lazy and using everything from letters to bus tickets to torn-off pieces of cereal packet does have its upside. You never know what little treasure you might to come across when you get round to tidying your books. I also found a lot of bookmarks from a particular second-hand bookseller.

Every time you order a second-hand book from them, no matter if it only cost 99p, they include a nice cardboard bookmark with a design submitted by a reader. And they are excellent bookmarks (they must have many graphic artists among their readers) and also an excellent selling point. It works with me anyway: I always look down the list and see if I can get the book from them rather than any of the alternatives, out of sheer bookmark-greed.

I notice a preponderance of the black-and-white-one-with-the-many-skulls. I remember, in fact, them sending me three black-and-white skull bookmarks inside a single ancient paperback one time, and picturing some poor, bored school-leaver on work-experience in an office on an industrial estate, fishing for the umpteenth time into a plastic bin full of pretty bookmarks and flinging in whatever happened to come out. I wonder if they do swapsies?

And now, by the magic of technology and a lot of messing about with fancy filters I am able to use Mum’s little butterfly card in a post. Mum would have been horrified, not at the idea per se but at the prospect of me attempting to explain it to her. Her eyes would glaze over the minute I started on about my computer: Mum was very good at un-listening, as no doubt most Mums are.

Why am I going on about butterflies? Well, I was going to use this picture as an illustration for the next Books From My Bookcase item. This was going to be a debut collection of short stories called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (2004). The book leapt out at me because it is one of two physically beautiful books I possess, the other one being the hardback first edition of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – the one with the gorgeous red flowers. Hang on, lets try to find it:

how i live cover

The above doesn’t do it justice. Bits of it (the leaves) are all shiny and lit up – sorry, metallicised – can’t find it in the dictionary but sure it’s a real word – metallized just wont do! – and bits of it are left matt. And Tropical Butterflies is yellow and brown and kind of fusty-Victorian-looking, and inside there is a bonus – an extra sheet – what do you call that? – the front paper – with a glossy version of the same yellow cover, a delightful little shock when you open it.

Now, later on in life, I understand why I married an artist. I thought it was only an unhappy childhood and alternative brain-wiring we shared but it was also an eye for beauty. In another life, maybe, I shall be a  collector of objects d’art Maybe I can go back (since I doubt that ‘lives’ are in chronological order) to the 17th Century and be a man (makes life easier, always) and have a cabinet of curiosities full of wonderful and mysterious things that I can show off to callers. Or maybe I’ve already had that life.

Rats.

In any case, having found A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies I realised I had only in fact read a few little bits of it. The short stories look good, if a mite challenging. They certainly got good reviews:

“John Murray’s stories are a genuine cultural breakthrough… adventures of the mind, and rich in human feeling, true departures from any other known fiction.” Muriel Spark

I think I read a little bit of one and had uncomfortable flashbacks to Ian McEwan. I had a really bad experience with his macabre short story collection The Cement Garden (1978). Every one of those tales frightened the living daylights out of me. Never been the same since. Post McEwan Stress Disorder.

IMG_20170818_153722_kindlephoto-22387772.jpg

From my bookcase: Flowers For Algernon: Daniel Keyes

I’m experimenting, really. Feel free to skip.

For my artsy-craftsy patchwork-selling project, which seems to be moving at snail’s pace like all of my projects, I need to be able to take still-life-type pictures on that Fire-Thingy and transfer said pictures to this Computer-Thingy. Of patchwork stuff. And sell it. That’s the idea, anyway.

It may surprise you to learn (or not) that my level of expertise is not high. More or less everything I know about computers I have worked out for myself, then usually forgotten or lost my voluminous notes for, then had to teach myself all over again. Sigh! My sole asset is a pig-headed Holmesian determination to work out, by the Application of Logic, the Elimination of the Impossible and so on, how to achieve something horribly complicated once I have set my mind to it.

This doesn’t happen very often. Usually I give up. 

So, I took the above photo. It took quite a few attempts and in the meantime I discovered that a cat had peed in my ‘budget’ tray overnight – or possibly several nights ago –  and soaked my latest budget and related papers. Also remembered that I had four letters to post and had neither washed up nor made the bed.

The photo is not a brilliant but it is, after hours of faffing about, sitting at the top of a WordPress post. Yay! My computer is now demanding a password every time I turn it on. How did that happen? Someone?

The basic idea is that every now and then I will select a book from my book case more or less at random, ‘compose’ an amateur-arty-farty still-life photo to hone my electronic photo-taking/uploading skills and then write a tiny bit about the book to make it worthwhile.

So, Flowers For Algernon was a long short-story, published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1959, which later metamorphosed into a novel. It is a story about the friendship between a boy and a doomed laboratory mouse called Algernon. It is about the blossoming and fading of intelligence. It is about the joy of understanding everything and the grief when you realise your new understanding is fading.

How – or whether – you read it depends on your life experience, I think. If you have had to deal with disability or seen dementia in real life you may find this book closer to horror than science fiction. It’s very, very sad.

If you can cope with it, though, it’s one of the finest short stories/novels ever written. (Not for nothing does my edition of the book have MASTER WORKS printed down the side.)

Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence by artificial means. The story is told by a series of progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, the first human test subject for the surgery, and it touches upon many different ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled. Wikipedia

It is technically brilliant because the language tracks the mental enhancement and subsequent mental degeneration of Charlie, from an IQ of 68 to an IQ of 185 and back again. To sustain that throughout a very long story – I don’t know how he did it, and mostly I do know how writers did it, even if I couldn’t do it myself.

IMG_20170814_082651_kindlephoto-57296444
Flowers For Algernon

🙂

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Somerset Apple Cake

  • 8 ounces self-raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 3 heaped tablepoons soft margarine (4 ounces)
  • 3 heaped tablespoons caster sugar (4 ounces)
  • 1 pound peeled, cored and diced apples
  • A little milk (if necessary)
  • 1 large beaten egg
  • Spoonful granulated sugar for garnishing
  • Mum has made a note: ‘add 2 ounces mixed chopped nuts’ – this may have been her own preference rather than an essentialapple

Grease and line 8″ (inch) cake tin. Sift flour and spice into bowl and rub in the margarine. Stir in caster sugar and chopped apples. Add beaten egg to make a spreading mixture. If it seems a little dry add some milk.

Turn into the tin and bake at 350ºF for 1 – 1 1/4 hours. Turn onto wire tray. Just before serving sprinkle the top with sugar.

🙂