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.

picnic

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.

Patchwork by post

Well, just to make a change – this is the beginnings of Canadian sister’s Christmas present. Shh! Don’t tell her. (Luckily she doesn’t read my blog so we’re safe enough.) The idea is to make a cushion cover, from the pattern below, plus a simple bag for the inner part of the cushion, and – one or two other bits – and then post the same to Canada. I shall have to get my skates on, though. To get anything bulkier than a letter to Canada by post you need to post it several decades in advance, or so it always seems:

IMG_20171101_085856

Somewhat blurry, but I can’t face a second battle of wills with the computer. Maybe I will take another set of photos, as the project progresses, assuming it does progress. This is the first one I’ve made and it’s a bit trial and error, geometrically/mathematically. There are two possible arrangements for the prism (or ‘little house’, if you prefer). The other one looks quite interesting.

Canadian sister is going through a really bad time at the moment. Brother-in-law is now onto his Plan B chemotherapy, Plan A having failed after a couple of years. He has also just retired so he’s at home all day, so things are now really tense. She’s talking about taking up an option for counselling. People always tell you to be strong, unfailingly cheerful etc., for the sake of the other person, who needs your support. But how noble can you manage to be when you’ve been married, childless and deeply dependent for thirty-seven years or so and when, aside from your dying husband, you are alone in a ‘foreign’ country? You would need to have had a completely different life leading up to this point. You would need to have always been a different kind of woman.

There is nothing I can do. If only I could fly over to Canada, like the Stork, scoop her up in some sort of human fishing net and trawl her back to England. I can’t even make her want to come back – later – afterwards. Maybe Canada feels like home, now. The other day it occurred to me that the family she left behind in 1980 is not really here any more. Dad is long dead, Mum would be unlikely to recognise her; English Sister is here but gone all odd and mostly incommunicado. I’m here, of course but, three years the elder and a lifetime duller and wearier, would I that much of a draw?

But I know she likes crafting, and that is her form of meditation. I know she could probably make this cushion better than me, and that she will probably look at it and say ‘her light rows are not light enough’ or ‘she needed a zinger here or there’. Canadian sister is very fond of her zingers. And I thought I would include a photocopy of the pattern, and a duplicate template (quilters’ plastic) and another set of pieces. With the job half done, I think, she might be tempted make up a matching cover, or try the alternative design or even supplement the pieces with a whole lot of Canadian ‘zingers’ and make several cushions.

Patchwork cushions. The best a sister can do.

IMG_20171101_085804.jpg

 

Powered by leprechauns

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!

IMG_20170909_185024_kindlephoto-980345.jpg

Love the one you’re with

We recently lost Bruce Forsyth, the all round entertainer and game show host. I must admit he wasn’t one of my favourites but I recognised his abilities, his professionalism, his popularity and his longevity. He had many catchphrases but his most recent and best-remembered is “You’re My Favourite”. Hosting one of the BBC’s most popular shows, Strictly Come Dancing his job, in a way, was to protect the contestants from the judges.

Each couple went on and danced. Some were brilliant, others made a bit of a mess of it, but invariably at the end he would greet the bespangled, lycra-and-satin clad couple as they sashayed towards him trying not to look as if they were gasping for breath, with a huge smile. And before they turned to face the judges he would reassure them in a stage whisper “You’re My Favourite“. Nobody believed him of course, but I bet it mattered to hear it at that point. Sometimes we have to pretend, and pretending can be enough.

Growing up, both Canadian Sister and I understood that English Sister was Mum’s favourite. Her last-born, her surprise baby. This was just a fact of life though we may have grumbled about it between ourselves, every now and again. Anyway, Mum got old and she got galloping dementia and other stuff, at which stage all sorts of things that might best have been kept secret began to be blurted out. During one of my Sunday visits she said “Of course (Canadian Sister) was always your Dad’s favourite”, and that cut like a knife. She had lost the ability to make connections between things by that time – logic was one of the first things to go – and I suppose it didn’t occur to her that that left me as nobody’s favourite. It’s simple when you think about it – two parents, three children – if there must be favourites then one of them has to be out in the cold. Why had it taken me so long to realise?

However, life isn’t fair for anybody, and we survive these things.

I can’t blame my Mum. I have eighteen cats and it’s difficult to share the attention and affection out equally. Often I’m harassed and worn out, wading through this sea of cats, all demanding something. And some cats, lets face it, are especially charming. It’s easy to love short-sighted George, for example, a goofy, clumsy cat who falls off everything and falls over himself in sheer excitement if he gets to sit on your lap. George is beautiful and fluffy, and he needs someone to look out for him.

Not so easy to love Kitten, who is ancient and deaf; who wakes me in the middle of the night bellowing for attention; who hauls pieces of food out of her bowl and distributes them over a wide area for me to clean up; who is voluminously sick on the carpet at least twice a day; who may die at any minute, so every morning when I find her curled up in her favourite cardboard box I have to wonder, is she going to lift her head when I tap on the edge to wake her, or is this going to be The Day?

Not so easy to love Rufus, either – that bony little ginger chap inherited from the disabled woman over the road. Rufus was left mostly to his own devices, I think. He lived a hard, tom-cat sort of life and he hung around outside most of the time. He got fed by anyone who happened to remember. Rufus now has a cauliflower ear and a weepy, half-closed eye that the vet can’t do anything about. He likes to curl up in the bed with me on winter nights, which means I can’t get to sleep in case I squash him, so I lie and wait for him to leave of his own accord. He sometimes bites – luckily he has very few teeth nowadays – and sometimes spits. He has never forgiven me for stealing him away from Old Mummy, not understanding that Old Mummy died.

So I pretend, and I keep reminding myself to do so. I remind myself to talk to them and make a bit of a fuss of them in passing. I remind myself that ultimately we are All One and that Kitten and Rufus have souls no less valuable than mine, and no less beautiful than the souls of the other cats. That’s about all anyone can do, isn’t it?

IMG_20170913_084509_kindlephoto-2869089

Where sheep may safely graze

I always associated this piece of music with England, perhaps from constantly hearing it on The Home Service (1939 – 1967 national radio station, now BBC Radio 4) in my childhood. Now (ach!) I discover that it is in fact Bach’s Cantata 208 and the ‘sheep’ of the title are not so much our lovely, fat woolly English sheep roaming over hill and dale, as the citizens of Weissenfels, who could ‘safely graze’ under the gracious care of the Duke of Weissenfels. Presumably the Duke was a patron or sponsor. Later it came to be thought of as the sheep being looked after by the Good Shepherd. However, it’s a lovely piece of music and I have included a classical guitar version of it. Much prefer guitar to other instruments (particularly abhor trumpets).

I was thinking about the love of one’s country the other night, whilst plugged into the MP3 player, drowning out the upstairs-and-downstairs thundering of the beastly neighbours by listening to, among other things, The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. Music is more powerful than words. It cuts through all those ‘logical’ explanations, our sophisticated smokescreens. Like Sheep, The Lark Ascending reminds me that if you are British you cannot ever really get away from the love of your own country. This is an unfashionable and somewhat embarrassing thing to say, and it usually only surfaces here when some external threat arises.

It’s one of those visceral things like there sometimes are between people – an invisible cord joining the two, painless and mostly-forgotten about until you try to pull, or find yourself being pulled away. I feel that I have always been here, through all my incarnations. I suspect some of us are ‘travellers’, soul-wise, and some of us arise the soil. We grow out of a particular landscape, and are part of it.

When I was quite young my mother sank into depression. In those far-off days everything female/unhappy-related came under the heading of – in ascending order of severity – Needing a Tonic, Nerves, or Nervous Breakdown – the standard treatments being a) bottle of iron tonic from the chemist b) Pull Yourself Together – ‘Curtains’ as the Samaritans put it – or c) Being Taken Away. Suspect Mum had the Nervous Breakdown. She did not get Taken Away, but it felt as if she had gone away somewhere, and she only half returned.

I remember she stopped practising cartwheels on the lawn and no longer felt like playing tennis on the road with us, in the gaps between infrequent (and always black) motor cars. I remember mainly that it seemed to go on for years, and involved having to be quiet while Mum curled up on the sofa with yet another headache and Nan tiptoed round doing the housework, and getting us our tea. I remember all the aspirins, and the four hour thing. On the dot, every four hours, another two aspirins. No more than twelve a day. I remember Dad telling me it was my fault, for arguing with my sister. If I was better behaved, he said, Mum wouldn’t be sick.

One thing I don’t remember, from then, but do recall overhearing Mum talking about years later, was her obsession with the Atomic Bomb. She was convinced that we, her three girls, were all going to die, at once, and soon, under some great mushroom cloud. I am guessing that this bit of her illness may have been around 1962, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recently it has occurred to me that what with North Korea, and America, and Russia – the whole world, it seems – threatening dire outcomes and technicolour mass destruction – wouldn’t it just be ironic if what Mum so feared for her children were to come to pass after all, but over half a century later and when she was way past fearing or comprehending it? What if she even somehow wished it into being and is somehow linked, to it?

But let’s not venture onto that same dark pathway into the woods: no good ever comes of it. Let’s just say the music made me think, about all that has been, here, on this little archipelago of islands, swished around by a chilly sea, lashed by gales in winter, rained on every few days, blessedly warm and sunlit on occasions.

All our history, all those little lives. Dinosaurs once walked where I live now. We find their footprints. We find their bones. All those kings and queens, those beggars and paupers. All those families, all those mothers fearing for their children, all those wars, all that surviving somehow-or-other, all the new generations, all the moving on, the changing and the staying the same. Sometimes, like my mother before me, I feel that something pulling away, that potential for catastrophic loss, that painful tug on the cord.