My bathwater is staring at me…

So, I finished running my bath and looked down and lo and behold, little pairs of bubble eyes were circulating, and staring at me. Only for a moment, mind you. Then sanity returned. Please do not let me start hearing voices talking to me from my kitchen cupboards next. Please do not let the bubbles develop little sharp teeth and start snapping at me…

Been there, seen that all before.

But really I think I am just very tired. I am not used to being very tired, either. All my life I have been able to do a normal day’s stuff and recover without even thinking about it. Now it takes me two days to get over a long bus journey.

Went to see Mum yesterday. Fortunately Godmother’s little dog has had a stay of execution and Godmother and her trusty little red car are back online, so I didn’t have to do the epic three-bus solo journey, only the much easier one bus, two train and one car journey. I gave Mum a calendar of American Birds, hanging it on her wall with the garden string (and yes, even small pair of scissors) I had taken over specially. Once a Brownie always a Brownie. Mum made that Emu face. Godmother went to make her a fresh cup of tea (we have both recently memorised the key code for the kitchen).

‘Is that better?’ she foolishly asked, as Mum took a sip from her newly-steaming plastic beaker. Emu face again.

For those who are wondering what an Emu face is, not being old enough or British, I would guess it’s something like a ‘Meh’ face only a tad more ominous. This is it:

emu

Then she started growling, a lot, and baring her teeth. A carer came running.

“It’s all right,” we said, waving cheerily. “It’s only Mum having a bit of a growl.”

Thing is, all this stuff takes it out of you. And it doesn’t go away when you go home. That whole visit stays with you and excerpts from it coming back, like cucumber. Memory burps.

And then there was the reverse journey – car, train, train again and bus. And the hour-and-a-bit wait at the bus stop, alone. And the bus arriving being a single decker, and already stuffed with holidaymakers returning to their chalets, though this was only the second stop.

And the more and more people getting crammed in and nobody ever getting out.

And the pain in my knees (I was sitting over one of the back wheels, and I have long legs) as they continually graunched against the back of the seat in front.

And the little girl in that seat, who kept turning round to bellow at her Mama in Spanish through my face, leaning heavily on the seat back at the same time. I desperately needed to stand up and stretch my legs, but I would have lost my seat and been stood hanging on to a pole round sharp bends with a bad hip for the next forty minutes.

And then, having escaped the bus, the fifteen minute uphill climb home. For the first time ever I had to actually stop, like some old lady, and catch my breath for some moments before continuing. My head was swimming although that might have been the several Mars Bars en route, plus the half a bar of chocolate Godmother produced in the car, and which we shared between us! Also, I was loaded down with second hand copies of the Woman’s Weekly. Godmother passes hers on to me and I do enjoy them, even though she’s always done the crossword, but a whole supermarket bag-full is heavy.

And then I got home and next door decided to have one of their Friday parties. Turn Up The Volume It’s Friday. I was going to have a bath but I went to bed instead, grubby, knowing that I could sleep through a lot of loud music, shouting and thundering about,  but not sit through it. Hence the bath this morning, and the bubbles. And those little swirling eyes in the water…

Still on the subject of public transport: Bertie At The Bus Stop tells me he can easily eat 19 potatoes at one sitting. He loves potatoes. Obviously. He went on some kind of summer camp once and ate up all the potatoes in the bowl, thinking they were all meant for him. Next day, he told me, they wouldn’t let him into the dining room until after everyone else had gone in. He didn’t know why.

He tells me his freezer-in-the-shed went off sometime during that power cut, and failed to restart itself automatically when the electrics came back on. He only noticed hours later because the garden fountain had stopped working. I asked him whether the food would be safe to eat, having once defrosted. It was clear that this was a new idea to him. He thought that once in a freezer food would last forever and that occasional lengthy defrosting would make no difference, as long as the freezer eventually got turned back on.

“They” provided him with the freezer but “They” obviously hadn’t taken the time to explain to him in any detail how it worked.

“Well,” he said, thinking it over, “I could always cook it all overnight. I could stay up all night cooking and put it in my fridge and then I could eat it all the next day, like a big feast…

Poor Bertie, he needs his Old Mum but she isn’t here any more. I know the feeling, and I know I can’t do anything. People have their own lives and you can’t take on everybody’s problems, especially when you have a history of well-meaning attempts at helping that did no good. I can’t magically make Bertie less simple-minded or raise his Old Mum from the dead. Sometimes, maybe, it’s enough to listen to their stories – told on purpose or – as in Bertie’s case – in innocence or by accident. Perhaps, on that day, that was what you happened to be at the bus stop for.

There was a little girl, who had a little curl…

I never told this little story before. It’s a Very Sad Little Story.

When I was about two years old I was sitting at the kitchen table with my Mum. She had her wooden sewing box there on the table – the same wooden sewing box I recently rescued from the doomed bungalow – and from it she withdrew a fold of tissue paper containing one of my baby curls. Apparently I was blonde, for a short while. By the time the blonde curl was produced, however, my hair had turned a common or garden dark brown, and stayed that way till I started to go grey.

And my mother hands me the tissue paper and the curl to play with, or possibly just examine, but there’s not much difference when you’re two years old. And then she went off somewhere and I ruined the curl. I can remember my sadness and horror as the perfect blonde curl – something the workings of which I did not understand, never having previously seen or conceived of a disembodied curl – messed itself up and disintegrated in my pudgy little hands. I remember the sadness, particularly, and the full dawning knowledge that I had done a Wrong Thing.

And I had done a Wrong Thing. Mum’s reaction when she came back and found me, what was left of the curl in my outstretched hands, was similar to mine, only louder, and with tears.

I have never forgotten that, and I have never, ever stopped feeling guilty. It seemed to set the tone for the rest of my childhood, somehow. I was not a Proper Child. I Did Things Wrong.

Looking back on it now, I would say to Mum exactly what Nan said to Mum at the time (because Nan was there, just not in the kitchen). I would say, what made you think it wouldn’t get messed up? Whatever were you thinking?

But ever since then, if I have ever needed an excuse to hate myself, to revile myself for even coming into existence and having the temerity to set foot on this earth which would have been far better off without me… etc, etc, you know the drill… the curl comes first to mind. I mourn it still and long to somehow reverse life, like an old film, and put it back together again.

Well, this was meant to be another Totally Random Thursday but so far it has been all about a curl.

So what about this? I just (sort of) cut my hair using a method demonstrated by someone called Gloria Glam or Glamorous Gloria, I can’t remember which, on YouTube. Gloria Glam is without doubt the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen, and the most glam. My face in the mirror, with my hair bunched into a kind of cuckold’s horn on the front of my head, looked nothing like hers. Having brushed it forwards and done that – hers so thick and glossy, mine so thin and grey, you then bunch it again, and move the elastic thingy down. And then you cut it straight across like a horse’s tail. And then – and here’s the scary bit – you kind of jab upwards into it with the scissors. And what results is a kind of long layer cut. I must say it looks OK, if slightly eccentric. And I had to do something. My hair was getting so long it was streeeeeetching the elastic pony-tail band collection and the whole ghastly grey mane had a tendency to fling itself apart in public, including at a train station ticket office, once.

After that, the fringe was just a doddle.

I just did my budget. This is something I force myself to do every six months, just because it seems like something my mother would approve of if compos mentis (mother, again, and guilt) but in fact it makes no difference at all to the finances apart from forcing you to confront the fact that like dear old Mr Micawber you are still spending too much, and rapidly running out of options for cutting anything. Except perhaps your own hair.

Finally, Oxford Street. I just watched half a repeat of a documentary programme going ‘behind the scenes’ at London’s most famous shopping street, showing how everything kind of works. This week the focus was on rubbish. They interviewed the man who supervised the overnight cleaning squad – a joyous man, who could not help smiling as he said – over and over again, in fact – that he would like the pavements of Oxford Street to be clean enough for people to walk barefooted on. And in fact some – mostly ladies – were walking barefoot. A long night’s dancing, no doubt, and high heels.

And then there was a young couple celebrating the one-year anniversary of their first meeting, in Oxford Street. They had asked to be taken down the sewers under Oxford Street as an extra special treat because they shared a nerdish fascination with a phenomenon known as fatbergs. I promise I won’t describe one of these and its contents in detail, but basically it’s like arteries getting clogged up with cholesterol. Fat clings to the walls and forms a kind of narrowing or berg to which more fat then appends. And after a while the valiant sewer men climb down there in their white plastic suits with their special shovels and chip it all off so that London is not overwhelmed by its own fatty deposits. Apparently in 2015 they cleared a berg the size of a London bus that was causing the sewer to collapse inward from the sheer weight of it…

When the young couple emerged from the manhole they seemed blissfully happy. It was so romantic, they said, as they peeled off their white suits and handed them back to the sewer men. But it was so nice to breathe fresh air again. And off they went, hand in hand, hopefully to take a shower.

And then I got to wondering whether Oxford Street actually did lead to Oxford. I mean, if you just couldn’t get enough fresh air after the sewers and needed to just keep on walking – for weeks and weeks, maybe, would Oxford ever be on the menu?

Turns out it would be. Oxford Street is technically, though signposts don’t mention it, part of the A40 which goes all the way to Wales, via Oxford. If you just kept going you would end up in a delightful little place  in North Wales called Fishguard. It looks like this:

Boats in harbour Lower Fishguard Pembrokeshire South Towns and Villages

So now you know. 🙂

Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle. Horse. Sideways.

I have been vaguely considering the idea of a ‘feature’ day – like Wordless Wednesday when people just post a photo of something or other. So it occurred to me to trial a Totally Random Thursday.

It’s either that or another of Mum’s Old Recipes.

I was feeding the five thousand (cats) just now – impossible to settle down write anything until their insistent twice-daily needs have been met – and it occurred to me how many black or black and white cats I am now surrounded by. It occurs to me that I will soon have reached the scary stage – particularly scary for someone whose mother has dementia – of not being able to recall which name goes with which cat. And then if one of them needs to go to the vet? Will it need to be – ‘Hello, this is Rosie, or possibly Shadow, or then again Arthur, although of course it might be Hector… And he or she needs his or her claws clipping’.

I have a two page Cat List taped to the fridge, neatly typed with each cat’s name, origin/source, probable age, physical description and microchip number if applicable. Not a former legal secretary for nothing. The ostensible purpose of this list is – if I am some day spotted through the window collapsed on the carpet, dead and half-eaten by mice and the RSPCA break in to rescue my horde of cats, they may stand an outside chance of identifying and re-homing some of them.

I constantly rehearse their names and descriptions in my head, making a kind of game of it. At the moment, if it’s quite frail and bony and doesn’t weigh very much it’s Rosie; if it’s got a tiny brown patch under its chin, a tiny white bit on one paw, snapped-off looking front teeth and weighs a ton it’s Little Arf; if it’s plump and soft and barges its way to the food first and in no nonsense fashion it’s Winnie; if it’s tiny and affectionate, with a long face like the Sphynx and slightly scary teeth like a bat or mini-Dracula when she yawns it’s Shadow. And if it has long legs, a pointy nose and hates me it’s probably Pandy from the cat sanctuary.

It occurs to me to wonder why I frighten some people, including most children. Looking at myself in the mirror I look just normal – a bit lumpy, like any oldish person. Harmless. But babies scream at the sight of me in supermarkets. Probably a good thing I wasn’t able to have any, thereby dooming some innocent infant to a life of perpetual apprehension.

Bertie-on-the-bus seems afraid of me too, though that doesn’t stop him talking to me (relentlessly). I’d be quite happy to follow the British on-the-train formula of staring out of the window for as long as possibly, until your neck actually begins to hurt from the effort of not meeting anyone else’s eyes, even accidentally, and appearing very interested in cows, fields and suchlike, but this rule does not apply to rural buses. You have to talk.

Bertie and I have a kind of communication disjunction. I know people like me tend to have this anyway, but Bertie is an especially tricky one. First, he tells you something, but not very much. He is going to his meeting at the Council, he confides. He has mentioned this meeting at the Council several times before and I have not followed it up. I wonder now if he is hoping I’ll ask him about it.

‘Do you work at the Council then, Bertie?’ I venture.

He looks sideways at me, suspiciously. I may be a secret agent.

‘No’, he says, after a very long pause.

‘Did you get to your dentist appointment the other day?’ he asks after a while.

‘Oh well, it was the hygienist actually. She was new – Swedish or something – and just brutal. It was so painful. And since April they’ve put their prices up…’

Now he is staring out of the window, examining the cows.

‘So you did get to the dentist.’

We spot one of his friends at an upcoming bus stop. Bertie has friends all round the route. He knows all their names and their routines, and what days to expect them. He does not know my name, however, and refers to me to other passengers as ‘she’ or ‘her.’ I thought of telling him my name – what harm could come of it? – but decided not to in case he mistakenly concluded I was Making Advances. Bertie, I think, is terrified of women for just that reason: they might Make Advances.

The upcoming friend is the big man with the metal crutches – giant tripping hazards that seem to take up the whole bus – and the endless collection of eccentric tee shirts.

‘He doesn’t really need to put his hand out for the bus,’ I murmur. ‘You could hardly miss him.’ Today he is wearing an acid yellow shirt with broad, grass green horizontal stripes. He looks like the Wasp from Outer Space.

‘No, he does like his tee shirts,’ says Bertie. And then, surprisingly: ‘I knitted a jumper that colour once.’

‘Do you knit, Bertie?’ For once my interest is genuinely piqued. I want to tell him that I knit too and what a relaxing hobby it is, especially on long winter evenings…

He gives me that secret agent look again.

‘I knitted it with my mother.’ Of course he did. I want to ask him more, scenting an actual story here, and one which I will enjoy, but he has turned his attention to the friend with the monster crutches in the yellow and green.

‘I was just telling her…’

I sit in a living room with my elderly Visitee and she goes through her diary with me, reading out her appointments for several weeks to come, with the cleaner, the man who comes to clean out her pond, various specialists etc. I remember these same appointments from last week. My coffee is going cold but I continue to nod and smile in the right places. She tells me again about all the different shops there used to be in Town and we compare our systems for filing household documents. I eat a chocolate biscuit, quickly as it melts in my hand. This one is quite soft. Usually she keeps them in the fridge. In the background, the carriage clock ticks. I quite like this kind of conversation. It reminds me of Mum.

On the bus going back the only empty seat is next to Woman With No Teeth. Now this is a real problem, because I am slightly deaf. Normally it isn’t a problem and I am not conscious of the extent to which I am I am actually lip-reading. But Woman With No Teeth – she just doesn’t make the right mouth-shapes, or rather she makes a whole series of puckery, wrinkly mouth-shapes but these refuse to tie up with any known word. I wonder if it is just the teeth or whether she also has a cleft palate. Either way, I can’t understand her. Today it sounded a bit like this:

‘Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle. Horse. Sideways.’

I try a smile and a sage nod, surmising that as we have just passed two horses being ridden along the side of a narrow road she may be talking about some traffic incident involving horses.

‘Horses are so strong,’ I venture. ‘You have to drive past them really slowly.’

She gives me the secret agent look and begins again:

‘Orem ipsum dolor sit amet. Caravan. Rain.’

Ah, only another twenty minutes.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Christmas Morning Cranberry Muffins

I know it’s not Christmas, and I know I mentioned Christmas once before already this summer. Blame it on the patchwork. For some reason best known to Self-of-a-few-days-ago I am piecing some Christmas fabric at the moment. Presumably then-Self thought it would be an excellent ruse to try to sell Christmas cushion-covers or a Christmas quilt top in July/August. Who knows?

(Oh dear, five Christmases!)

However, that’s what they’re called, according to Mum. And after all who’s likely to be cooking muffins on Christmas Day itself? Need a few practice runs.

(Seven!)

CHRISTMAS MORNING CRANBERRY MUFFINS (eight, sorry)

  • 1 cup cranberries
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

I had to look up ‘all purpose flour’. It’s is in Mum’s own handwriting but I notice everything’s in cups so this may originally have been an American or Canadian recipe. According to the internet British plain flour can be substituted for ‘all-purpose’ in all recipes, except bread.

  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 2 tsps (teaspoons) baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 1/4 tsp grated orange peel
  • 3/4 cup orange juice
  • 1/3 cup melted margarine
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Coarsely chop cranberries. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup sugar. Set aside.

In bowl stir together flour, 1/4 cup sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon & spice. Make a well in the centre.

Combine egg, orange peel, orange juice & melted butter. Add all at once to the flour mixture to moisten. Fold in cranberry mixture and nuts.

Fill greased muffin tins and bake at 375º F for 15-20 minutes or until golden.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Mystery Sister Tea Brack

I’ve called it that because it’s in one of the sisters’ handwriting but I can’t decide which. They both went through a cramped, backward-slanting gothic phase, as in fact did Mum (she was briefly learning calligraphy from a retired drama-school headmistress who lived down the road). Since the cost is given in ‘s’ and ‘d’ it must be pre the 1971 decimalisation.

TEA BRACK – dated 5th August, no year

  • Cost: about 4s 2d
  • Approximate preparation time: 15 mins (plus overnight standing)
  • Cooking time: 2 hours

Ingredients:

  • 8 ozs (ounces) sultanas, cleaned
  • 8 ozs currants, cleaned
  • 8 ozs soft brown sugar
  • 1/2 pint medium-strength cold tea (plenty of that swilling around in the UK)
  • 1 lb (pound) self-raising flour
  • 4 tablespoons milk

Method:

  • Put fruit, sugar and tea in a bowl. Soak overnight
  • Next day, turn on oven: set at moderate, 375º F, Mark 5 (gas)
  • Grease a round 8 in (inch) tin; line base with greaseproof paper and grease the paper
  • Sift the flour into bowl of fruit. Add milk and beat
  • Turn into prepared tin. Bake in centre of pre-heated oven for 2 hours.
  • Cool on a rack

I’ve sorted it out and bullet-pointed it to make it less cramped-looking on the page, and easier to follow.

Enjoy 🙂

PS: if you’re wondering where the word ‘brack’ comes from, it’s a short form of barm brack, an Irish recipe upon which there are many variations (including this one). In Irish gaelic it’s bairín breac. So now you know.

shamrock.jpg

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Scones

Friend Daisy just tactfully pointed out that I forgot to include the quantity of breadcrumbs in Mum’s previous recipe. It’s 3oz wholemeal, and I have now corrected the recipe. You see, this is why I was a mediocre (looking kindly upon it) legal secretary and Daisy was a so much more excellenter one…

[Warning: if English is not your first language and you are using this rather odd blog to practice reading English – please do not employ that last sentence in an essay or drop it into casual conversation. You want to write proper English like wot other people writ it.]

Daisy is a very fast typist, conscientious and with an eagle eye for errors. I am a very fast typist but an impatient, slip-sloppy one who tends to lose interest in what she has typed the minute she has typed it. (Heavy sigh!)

Anyway, scones. Hopefully I can get this right as Mum’s scones were one of her best things. I still remember that waft delicious hot-air aroma when she opened the oven door…

SCONES – Recipe dated 27th August 1990 (Mum: These are good!)

8oz (ounces) plain flour

2 tbsp (tablespoons) sugar

Pinch of salt

1 tsp (teaspoon) Bicarb (Bicarbonate of Soda)

2 tsp Cream of Tartar

(Goodness, can you even buy Cream of Tartar nowadays? Isn’t ‘Baking Powder’ a ready-made mixture of Bicarb and Cream of Tartar anyway?)

2oz margarine

5 tbsp milk

Method –

Sift flour & mix all dry ingredients together

Rub in margarine

Add milk & mix to a dough

Roll out to about 1″ (inch) thick & cut into rounds

Place a greased baking tray and brush over top with beaten egg or milk

Place in a pre-heated oven

Turn out onto a wire rack to cool

Servings: 8 scones

Small (?) oven: 220ºC –   10 – 15 minutes – middle shelf

Fan oven: 210ºC –   8 – 10 minutes

Variations

  • 4 oz wholemeal flour instead of 4 oz plain flour
  • 3 oz grated cheese & 1/2 tsp mustard. Omit sugar
  • 3 oz mixed dried fruit
  • 1 oz dates, chopped and 1oz walnuts, finely chopped

Mum: The above variations should be added before the addition of milk to the dough

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Curried Nut Roast

1/2 lb (pound) hazel or Brazil or walnuts, finely chopped

1/2 lb fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 medium-sized green pepper, deseeded and finely chopped

3 oz wholewheat breadcrumbs

2 medium-size onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs or 2 teaspoons fresh mixed herbs

1 tablespoon mild curry powder (or a heaped teaspoon of hot Madras curry powder)

1 egg, beaten

Cooking oil

Salt and freshly-milled black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 7, 425ºF (220ºC)

One 7 Inch square cake tin, greased

Begin by gently frying the onion and chopped pepper in a little oil until they’re softened – about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the nuts and breadcrumbs together in a large bowl, adding the garlic, herbs and curry powder. Then stir in the onion, pepper and tomatoes, mix very thoroughly and season. Now add the beaten egg to bind the mixture together. Finally, pack the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 3–40 minutes until golden.

This can be served hot with spiced pilau rice, yoghurt, mango chutney, or a fresh tomato sauce. It’s also very good served cold with a salad.

Enjoy 🙂

An attempt at reconstitution

A phrase from the ‘Mum’ recipe included in the previous post has stuck in mind:

CARE – if you do the latter, don’t let any water get into it or let it get too hot, else it goes solid and you can’t reconstitute it.

She was talking, of course, about the delicate art of melting chocolate. However, it led me into an area of thought I would rather have avoided – or more likely have been avoiding, all this time. To what extent is the ‘Mum’ who appears in this my blog – the reconstituted Mum, as it were – the real one?

I started writing this blog, as I recall, around the time that Mum’s dementia/ psychosis was getting really bad. Around that time we had several silly arguments during my Sunday visits, about foolish claims she made, completely illogical conclusions she had come to, and her patronising insistence that it was me – the stupid child – who had got things all mixed up. Twice I came home from a visit in tears because of the illogicality of it all.  Dementia is something you are forced to learn about from scratch, and usually doesn’t look like dementia to start with. You make mistakes. You let it get to you because somehow or other you haven’t spotted it – that great black storm cloud on the horizon, barrelling towards you.

As far as I recall, the time I wrote my first post and started rescuing all sorts of ancient, spider-infested writings from cardboard boxes in the garage was about the same time I realised I could no longer talk to Mum on an adult to adult, person to person basis. I could no longer talk to her as a daughter. I could no longer ask her advice or rely on her for anything. On the contrary, she was going to be relying on me. It was then that I started this blog.

And so, I have often thought, the ‘dementia’ part of this blog (a relatively small percentage of it) has been an attempt to put her back together again, to recreate her, to preserve her – whatever. And the same for my father – whom I scarcely mourned when he died and did not begin to miss really badly until my mother began to leave me too. And the same of course for my lost life, my lost past selves. These multiple ‘goodbyes’ must happen to every human being as they age, I think – just maybe not all at once or concentrated into so short a time.

In painting word-pictures of Mum, and Dad, and me, and my sisters, I have tried to be honest. I mean, I find it difficult to restrain myself from writing honestly – that’s how it tends to come out – but I sometimes wonder if any of us – the typed up and published ‘us’ – are real? Or could it be that the typed-up and published ‘us’ is in some ways more real than the flesh and blood sad, distracted old folk we really are? Hyper-real.

Damn, I knew this was going to be difficult one to write. How can you put into words something so… transitory and vague?

I find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the Mum of the recipes, the Mum of the sewing box, the Mum with whom I Listened With Mother, the Mum who enraged me by throwing out my boyfriend’s copy of 1984 because she had happened upon the scene with the rats… with the thin, poor person in the plastic armchair, yesterday. I find it difficult to understand this creature who can no longer be shown how to drink from a spout on a plastic cup with the bright-eyed girl who went to grammar school and passed all her exams (except geography!) with flying colours in spite of the second world war. I find it hard to believe that this is a human being let alone my human being. I can no longer talk to her, nor she to me, and without the salve of words I struggle to feel any connection between us. It is as if we no longer belong to the same species, or that she has become animal… or vegetable.

I once had a lover who was – or claimed to be and I have no reason to disbelieve him – clairsentient. He asked me once about the bond between soon-to-be-Ex and I. Did it still feel, he asked, like an umbilical cord stretching between us? Did it still feel as if we were joined by a strong thread, navel to navel and that any separation would produce a painful tug? At the time I suspect I denied it, but whatever I said he would have ‘felt’ the truth as I was speaking. And he was right.

colored dust

It seems to me now that once you have really loved someone, willingly or not, that cord is formed and can never again be broken. You might say that the cord between Ex and I has worn awfully shabby over time and now more closely resembles a thin and greying old piece of elastic than the magnificently throbbing ‘shared umbilical’ of my lover’s psychic imagery. Still, it stretches through the miles between us.

And I suppose the same cord stretches between my mother and I. We are cut off from one another, adrift on different rafts, but still just about within sight. Maybe that is the final, almost-impossible lesson we are forced to learn – how to just be with someone. But how painful it is just to sit. How raw it feels just to be in a room with someone and not be shielded with words or even understanding. How hard it is, finally, to permit yourself to feel the cord stretching and stretching as the other person pulls away, and to know that you are never going to be able to cut the cord, however much it hurts.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Ma’s Delight (or Mars Delight)

I just watched a YouTube video (don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the recipe) of a young man demonstrating his method of tracing sewing patterns onto thin polythene sheeting, meaning that the same pattern can be re-used as many times as you want and you can make it in all the different sizes it has to offer.

It was a very clear and useful video – some people are just natural explainers/ entertainers aren’t they? – but I spent most of it wondering what this ‘sharpie’ thing was he kept referring to. It sounded like something a surgeon might use to take out someone’s appendix yet he seemed to be wielding nothing more dangerous than a fine-tipped permanent marker. Reading the comments below the video it was clear that other viewers had had to research this object too. I looked it up on Amazon and voilà (or possibly voilá) – more Sharpies than you could shake a stick at.

So it is with Mars Bars. Every Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman, Welshman (Cornishman?) knows what a Mars Bar is. Mars Bars are part of our culture. But it occurs to me that there may be parts of the globe where they do have computers but do not have Mars Bars or where there is a Mars-type chocolate bar but it goes under a different name.

I do not have the secret recipe for Mars Bars but basically it’s squidgy, caramel-y toffee thickly coated with milk chocolate. A lifetime of consuming Mars Bars is one reason for my feminine curves today. However, I’m sure any similar chocolate bar (or rather three chocolate bars!) would do as well. Perhaps best to avoid ones with peanuts in as that might alter the taste and some people are allergic.

Finally, she gets round to it

Ma’s Delight, or Mars Delight

3 cups Rice Crispies (I use 3 mugs) (3 oz – ounces)

3 oz butter or marge (margarine)

1 slab of milk cooking chocolate

3 Mars Bars (large) – 200 grams is about right, ie approx 7 oz)

Put a thick bottomed pan on low heat and melt the butter in bottom. Cut the Mars Bars into slices and add. Keep on a low heat until all is melted into a gungy mess, stir it all up with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat and add the Krispies, stirring until all is coated with the mixture. Spread in a swiss roll tin, lightly packing it all down. Break the chocolate into pieces and either melt in a microwave on high for a couple of minutes, or, melt in a bowl placed in a saucepan of hot water. CARE if you do the latter, don’t let any water get into it or let it get too hot, else it goes solid and you can’t reconstitute it.

Spread it over the flat Krispies and leave to go solid.

Mum used tin 11″ x 7″.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Carrot and Banana Bread

10 oz (ounces) wholemeal flour

1 level tsp (teaspoon) baking powder

1/4 level tsp salt

1/4 level tsp mixed spice

4 oz marge (margarine)

6 oz brown sugar

2 eggs, beaten

4 oz banana, mashed

4 oz carrot, grated

Set oven at 350°F (175°C)

Lightly grease 2 lb (pound) loaf tin

Put the flour, baking powder, salt & spice into bowl. Cream the marge and sugar together until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs. Stir in the banana and carrot. Add the flour and fold in. Place mixture in the tin & smooth over. Cook for 1 hr 15 mins or until firm.

Turn out when cold. Slice and butter.

Enjoy 🙂

Listen With Mother

It had sat in that same corner all my life – beside the window chair in the living room – my mother’s sewing box – and yet I had forgotten about it.

When I was a child she often gave me the sewing box to tidy, and I genuinely believed I was helping rather than – as seems more likely now – being kept amused. I remember sitting on the floor surrounded by cotton reels and cards of press-studs and hooks and eyes and being full of my own importance. I was helping. This goes back to the time before things went wrong, before Mum started lying on the sofa and crying for most of the morning instead of dusting. The time before Nan started coming along to help, and Mum started taking two aspirins every four hours for most of many days.

In those days we would listen to Listen With Mother together on the radio. She would sit me on her lap and I would start twiddling a lock of my hair in sheer anticipation. What would it be today? See-saw Marjorie Daw or the one about the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? We had to have teddy with us. The radio lady always asked us if we had our teddies with us, and whether we were sitting comfortably.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

But back to the sewing box. I think I took it all rather seriously. I not only sorted out the cotton reels but wound in every loose end and secured it in the little notch at the top. I not only tidied the button box but threaded the buttons into a long string using one of Mum’s darning needles – little buttons at one end, all the way up to giant coat-type buttons at the other. Duffle-coat toggles were a bit of a worry…

I had to go back there about a week ago – I think I wrote about it – to remove Ex’s paintings as the house is now being sold to pay Mum’s fees. I was dreading it, and it was pretty dreadful, in some ways. Arriving half an hour before the removal firm man, I sat on the doorstep for ten minutes unable to go inside on my own. When he arrives, I thought, I’ll usher him in first and he can confront the ghosties! But then the neighbours started making casual passes back and forth. I realised they didn’t know who I was and assumed some sort of Bag Lady. Maybe they were about to call the police and have me removed… so I plucked up my courage and went in.

I busied myself packing Nan’s blue half-a-tea-service, which I had promised Mum I would save, and which nobody else seemed to want. I remembered the tea service from Sundays with Nan and Grandad. When first Nan and then Grandad died the half-a-tea-service (presumably my uncle had the other half) moved along the road and took up residence on a Welsh dresser in Mum’s living room. I had brought newspapers with me, and carrier bags.

Take anything you like, my sister said. The house clearance man was coming to take the lot. Probably been and gone by now.

I found a little album with a few random photos in it, of Mum and Dad and me maybe fifteen years ago, exploring the local chalk-pit that had been turned into a tourist attraction (or that was the idea) by the addition of wooden walkways and stairs. I have no photos of Mum and Dad – indeed, no photos at all of any part of my life – somebody else seems to have had them all at each step of the way, so I put that in the bag. I found a grubby old “Knitting Patterns” album containing not knitting patterns but recipes – all Mum’s favourite recipes in her familiar handwriting, recipes torn out of women’s magazines and annotated. Little interjections, mostly with her favourite exclamation marks

Delicious!

I substitute sultanas for mixed fruit!

360F, middle shelf!!

I thought I might share a few of the recipes with you, in occasional future posts. A way of Mum living on and in a small way contributing to the future, if you see what I mean.

And then I spotted it – the sewing basket. It was very, very heavy but I brought that home too. It sat at my feet high up in the removal man’s van. You need to be a veritable mountaineer to get into one of those things, and I all but landed in a heap trying to climb down out of it at the other end.

And then there was the dilemma. That evening I sat with Mum’s sewing basket on my knees and shed the few tears I ought to have shed a year earlier, at the thought of Mum to all intents and purposes gone. Mum in that home. Mum not at home. The house I grew up in not my home now. Everything off with the house clearance man to be distributed, no doubt, among charity shops.

But what should I do with the basket? Part of me wanted to sit on the floor, take out a whole lifetime of bits and bobs, half-cards of bias binding, folds of orange ribbon, samples of hessian (whatever did she use that for?) and of course the button box which, when I was a child had seemed a huge and magical container and now seemed to have shrunk to a hexagonal toffee tin with pictures of rabbits and 1950s postmen on the front.

Part of me wanted to leave it exactly as it was, so that the muddle inside should be Mum’s muddle, her memorial, a little bit of her practical, creative mind. In a way I wanted to keep her boxed, rather than bottled.

The dilemma continued for some time. Should I use the sewing box – as she would probably have wanted – or leave it undisturbed? After all, they were not really magic, the rusty tin of pins, the darning needles rusted into the tartan pincushion… I remember her teaching me to make a version of that pincushion for my Brownie sewing badge. They were just old things.

And then today I decided to design something to sew. Now, don’t laugh. There is a reason for it but I haven’t got time to go into it right now. I designed a Sad Cat Hat, taking the pattern from a sunhat I bought at a market stall on a recent visit to Canterbury, cutting out paper pattern pieces from the front cover of the Radio Times and pinning them onto an old pillow case for my “trial version” of this unlikely object. And then I thought, I no longer have any dressmaker’s shears and the kitchen scissors are too blunt. Maybe Mum has some?

In the bottom of Mum’s sewing box was a perfect pair of dressmaker’s scissors and – and this is the strange thing – left handed ones. Now, how does that happen? Mum was right handed. I’m left-handed.

And it seems to me that Mum – wherever she hides, inside that poor old grey head – was trying to get a message to me. Take the middle way. Use what you need but only when you need it, leave the muddle mostly, but not entirely, undisturbed.

Bluebird ober de white cliff of Dober…

Life gets ever more bizarre, but in ever tinier and ever more domestic ways.

Today Godmother Elect and I went once again to visit Mum in the Home. We find her sitting in the day room with many others, classical music playing loud enough to drown out any vestige of thought. Catching sight of us she raises her arms and reaches out to us in what looks like terror or despair.

My legs don’t work, she says. I try, but they just won’t. (Later the carer tells us that Mum’s mobility is improving and that when she thinks no one is looking she can now shuffle herself unaided and, more importantly, un-hoisted from one chair to the next.)

I’m dead, she says. I’m dead. And though it’s a ghastly thing to hear, she’s telling us the truth. I wonder whether there really is some in-between place like Purgatory where the dead and the living walk side by side for a spell, and know not which they are.

Soon it’s time for lunch. They start wheeling the oldies into the dining room and since we have only just arrived we wheel ourselves in too.

A man on the other side of the room cries out joyfully –

Another lovely lady. Come in, come in, lovely lady and sit upon my knee!

He is referring to GE, not me. GE is even older than my mother.

His wife is at his side. It’s because you look a bit like me, she tells GE apologetically. Certainly they both have short white hair. All the same, I’m slightly miffed.

While they are dishing up we read the menu out to Mum. Plaice and chips! That sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Or ham, eggs and chips inserts one of the carers. Irrelevant, I think. Pedantic.

Mum seems terrified of the thought of chips whether with plaice or with ham and just then the man sharing ‘our’ table begins to wave his hands gently as if conducting an invisible orchestra. Someone has turned on the radio and some of the would-be diners start singing along.

One of the carers is a bit of a puzzle. We have never been able work out where she is from but she has an accent so thick it is not always possible to tell whether she is speaking English or her own language – sort of Mexican. But would someone travel all the way from Mexico to wear a brightly-coloured tee-shirt with Carer printed on it in nursery letters?

But she raises her voice and sings along to Vera Lynn and it is a sound so pure and perfectly pitched it brings tears to my eyes –

Dere be bluebird ober de white cliff of Dober… doo murrow jus’ you wade an see….

And it doesn’t matter if she even understands what she is singing, what a powerful resonance those words still have for this room full of the lost and bewildered.

She’s wasted here, GE observes.

But I think maybe not.

You Can’t Exactly Stroke a Fish

Or can you? You just said it, but is it strictly true? Maybe someone, somewhere has stroked a fish. There may even be a profession of fish-stroker similar to horse-whisperer or chicken-sexer. My mind is heckling me.

To give the above some context, Godmother Elect and I are sitting once again in Mum’s nursing home room. Mum is watching TV, or so the Home would have us believe, just as they would have us believe she has been reading that ancient, water-stained copy of Woman’s Weekly on her little wheelie-table, or leafing through that disintegrating book of colour photos of lakes and castles . Window dressing!

This morning on TV it’s property porn. You know the kind of thing – New Homes In The Country,  Splendid Homes By The Sea, Coast or Country Which Will You Choose? Iceland or Azerbaijan Which Will It Be? I must admit I used to like them, a bit, but the novelty’s long since worn off. Mum doesn’t care what she watches. Her eyes follow the flickering screen. How thin she is now.

GE and I spend the statutory ten minutes trying to engage/include Mum in conversation. That’s a nice birthday card, Mum. Who’s that one from? It’s from the Home. Somebody in the office has run off a sheet of A4 paper on a colour printer and folded it into a four-leaf card-shape. They have scribbling her name into the box on the front in crayon. Infant-school writing. Everybody gets that same card. Sometimes Mum gets the birthday cards of such of the other residents as can still shuffle about. They tend to circulate around the corridors.

Godmother Elect and I then do what we always end up doing and relapse into adult conversation whilst keeping an eye on Mum and rescuing her teetering plastic mug of tea at intervals. Today I was telling GE about my Befriender visit yesterday to an old lady, and being taken out to admire the koi carp in the pond in her back garden. GE and I agree that koi carp are very beautiful creatures and compare notes as to the likely price of even a medium-sized koi at an aquatic centre. GE, a dog person through and through, said that fish were all right but she couldn’t really warm to them as pets. No, I said, you can’t exactly stroke a fish.

So, that’s the context. I still find it difficult to say meaningless stuff. Hence the heckling. The strictly logical side of my ‘wiring’ objects to it even now. But I do know it’s the proper thing to do…

(Sorry – distracted. Charlie-over-the-the road has been scanning the bar codes of his delivery round parcels, topless, as usual. He has been ignoring loud claps of thunder and the flashes of lightning following imminently upon them. The parcels are set out on his driveway, as usual, ready to go in his car. And now the rain comes, falling in sheets and torrents on everybody’s mail order goods, as the bangs and flashes continue. A torn plastic cagoule now covers Charlie’s almost-nakedness but nothing covers the parcels as he rushes about trying to rescue them. And there are hundreds. I do love a good disaster. But poor Charlie.)

…but I know it’s the proper thing to do. When I was a child people assumed, and I suppose I assumed too, that I was shy. In fact I was socially unequipped, which isn’t quite the same thing. Lacking any instinctive knowledge I became a keen observer of Homo Sapiens, and even more so of Homo NotVeryMuch Sapiens, like poor Charlie. I observed that they spoke a lot of rubbish most of the time but it didn’t seem to matter. After a while I worked it out – it doesn’t matter what you say when you are forced into the company of your fellow humans. It only matters that you say something.

Later still, at teacher training college, I learned that this kind of thing is known as phatic conversation. Phatic means words or actions whose purpose is to show the other person that you are friendly, not dangerous, that you like them, or might like them, that you want to be friends.

It’s also known as ‘stroking’, ie ‘That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing, Ivy. Where did you buy it?” or “I wish my kids were as well-behaved as your three!” or “That’s just fascinating. Do tell me more…” Apparently there is a kind of unspoken tariff for ‘strokes’ too. On the whole one earns one in return, but on occasion it can be more complicated. It depends how much you want the other person to like you, how much you have to gain from them – or even how frightened you are of them. You are exchanging nicenesses.

All this is – or was – foreign to me. For a long time I laboured under the misapprehension that if I were to say something stupid/meaningless/dull/trite I would be ruthlessly judged and found wanting. I must be interesting – the Oscar Wilde of small talk – or keep quiet.

So most of the time I said nothing. This is not the same thing as being shy. I did want to talk to people, just misunderstood how the thing was done. You don’t have to be perfect straight away. You start with the fish-stroking and lovely dress stuff and then, if and when you get to know people well, you can say stuff that means something and, if you’re lucky, they will say stuff that means something back.

Ah well, you live, you watch, you learn.

He was only expecting a manicure

Could forgetfulness be some kind of germ – catching, transmittable, etc? I only ask because… because….

Well, as you know my mother’s got dementia. I’m not at all sure she knows who I am now – if she looks up at all when I go in, it is with a vague sort of puzzlement. I might be anybody, from cleaner to carer to relative to friend. The important thing is, can I reach her water jug? Can I untangle her sheets?

And of course, you start to check yourself – daily, hourly, by the minute. Why didn’t that fact spring to mind? Why was there that slight hesitation over someone’s name? Have I just done something peculiar? Would I know if I had?

The other night the new lady came round from next door. She introduced herself. After she’d gone I went straight through to the kitchen, scribbled “Claire” on a slip of paper and taped it to the fridge. Gotcha!

Next night she came round again. We were talking about a workman who might be needed to do a repair on her house. “He does know you want to see him,” I assured her. “I told him that your name was Claire.”

“Ros,” she said.

At least it’s not just me. Yesterday one of my elderly neighbours very kindly offered to help me with my many cats if ever the need arose. “I’ve written my number on a piece of paper,” she said. “You have only to call me and I’ll come straight over.”

“That’s so kind of you,” I said, “but aren’t you allergic to cats?”

“No,” she said. “I love little moggies.”

Now a few years back she told me she couldn’t take in a particularly muddy, flea-ridden and unneutered stray kitten herself, though she would have loved to, since she was allergic. Started sneezing and coughing almost straight away, she did. (That’s how I got George.) Several times she’s come to the door and I’ve invited her in and she’s dithered in terror on my doorstep. “Oh no, I couldn’t. I’m allergic, you see. Start sneezing and coughing almost straight away…”

Has she forgotten the allergy or the fib? Or could I over the years somehow have fabricated an entire narrative, in several successive parts, about my neighbour and her allergy to cats? Either way, I’ve got to think of a way for her to feel useful and wanted now that she no longer has her disabled sister to care for – which I suspect is what she really needs – without letting her loose on my rambunctious and precious moggies, at least in any unsupervised capacity.

And finally, as they say on the News. Late this afternoon I telephoned the vet’s receptionist . “Could I make an appointment for Rufus to come in and have his claws clipped by the nurse?”

“Certainly,” she said. We discussed possible dates as she leafed through the diary. In the background I could hear somebody muttering “Anal glands, anal glands.”

That’s odd, I thought. Maybe there’s someone standing behind her, trying to remind her of the urgent anal glands of some other furry client.

“Yes,” she said, “Rufus can come in for his anal glands on Saturday morning.”

“Um, where are you getting anal glands from? Poor little chap, he was only expecting a manicure…

“Not anal glands?”

No, really, just his claws.”

“Oh dear! Where did I get anal glands from?”

Who knows? How did Ros metamorphose into Claire between the front door and the refrigerator? And where did my neighbour’s allergy disappear to?

It’s a mystery.

The Kama Sutra Mystery

My Uncle and Aunt invited me down to Devon when I was sixteen. I was to stay for a week. To this day I’m not sure why they suddenly took it into their heads to invite me. Childless themselves, maybe they were assessing me for an inheritance. If only that had worked out. Maybe my parents had secretly begged for me to be taken off their hands.

I doubt if my Uncle and Aunt were enchanted by me either – a sullen, awkward lump of a teenager with nothing to say, who insisted on going to church on her own on Sunday and spent most of the time holed up in the spare room of their narrow Victorian mid-terrace hammering away on a black Imperial typewriter she had found there. What was I writing, I wonder? Something terribly creative but not terribly good, probably.

My Uncle was blind – well, as good as. He had those creepy gobstopper glasses. Green glass, perfectly round. At that point he was still keeping up his bicycle round as a door-to-door collector of insurance premiums. He had an inner map of all the streets in Exeter, and navigated using this. When I visited years later, with my new husband, we managed to get ourselves hopelessly lost in some godforsaken suburb of the city. I had come down on the train when I visited before, so I had no idea how to drive there. We telephoned Auntie for help but Uncle answered and proceeded to talk my then-husband through the entire route to their house in the town centre from memory; which still doesn’t explain how he managed to stay on his bicycle when he couldn’t see more than an inch in front of him.

Uncle was bold, quite fearless and seemingly unaware of danger. Walking with him on the quayside at Brixham one afternoon, my Aunt and I were in a constant state of fear, ready to retrieve him as he strode towards fallen ropes, anchors and bollards as if they couldn’t possibly exist, and somehow managed to avoid them all. Later, though, he wasn’t so lucky. Someone had left open a pavement hatch leading to a coal-cellar, and down he tumbled.

On the night of the moon landing he stayed up all night in an armchair, leaning forwards, his nose pressed almost against the glass of their tiny black-and-white TV. ‘Your Uncle will be in a very bad mood by morning,’ my Aunt warned me. ‘Best we stay out of his way.’

They were an odd couple to look at – she a gawky, big-hipped, toothy six footer – far taller than other women of her generation – he a small, round man with a West Country accent thicker than clotted cream. They had met at night school somehow – quite how I don’t know, given the geographical separation between Devon and Kent – and married when my Aunt was over thirty and well-settled into the old-maidhood for which she seemed to have been designed.

Instead, Uncle whisked her off to Devon to spend many years running round after her mother-in-law, who despised this unexpected ‘foreign’ giantess of a daughter-in-law and quickly developed dementia. Years later, Uncle also got dementia, so Auntie was destined for the double whammy. But in between these two episodes of horror there would be a good few decades of peaceful companionship. My Aunt was a patient woman and content with very little – visits to the allotment; a part-time job in the Post Office; a never-to-be-realised fantasy of one day retiring to Herne Bay, where she would open a genteel cake shop on the sea front, and a series of semi-adopted neighbourhood cats, all known as David.

It may have been that night or another when I discovered paperback copies of The Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden in the bookcase, in my attic room. Full colour illustrations  of exotic, glassy-eyed men and ladies doing strange things to one another with oddly abstracted expressions. They were concealed by a row of dull Fabian Society pamphlets and thick layer of dust.

I read them, of course, then hid them again. It added a certain spice to the week and I learned quite a bit, though nothing that was to come in very useful, really. Whatever Cosmopolitan said, there never seemed to be a lot of call for all those contorted and excruciating positions… ah, well. I did memorise a number of words that have come into their own recently in Scrabble, so they weren’t wasted.

But the mystery remains: which of them had been reading The Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden, given that Uncle was blind and Aunt so very school-girlish and corseted?

And why, exactly?

Sprightly!

There are some words you somehow never expect to hear said about yourself and “sprightly” is one of them. It’s one of those Catch 22 words. On the one hand it’s a compliment, because who would want to be the opposite of sprightly, whatever that might be. Sluggish? Creaky? On the other hand, whoever called a young person sprightly? Nimble, perhaps. Quick? A live wire? A bundle of fun? But sprightly seems to imply that you have reached, or are about to reach, the age and stage of not being sprightly. Sprightly implies a certain surprise as to your physical condition.

There are words and phrase that only old people seem to merit. There’s Dear. And then there’s good for your age or some variation thereupon. My dentist recently remarked that my teeth were in about as good condition as could be expected for my age. You’ve still got your own, she said. You can eat with them and they’re firmly attached. I mean, they’re not going anywhere…

Now, where would my teeth go? Would I wake up one morning to discover that all my precious gnashers had leapt out of my mouth overnight and were lined up on the duvet swinging their tiny suitcases. Well, they would chorus, toothsomely – we’ll be off. Sayonara!

And today, not one hundred yards from that dentist’s surgery, a lady in a blue carer’s uniform described me, to me, as seeming to be quite sprightly still. Not even sprightly, but a qualified sprightly.

I had gone, in desperation really, to my local charity for the aged. I knew I needed people to talk to – social interaction as they now call it. I knew I had been sitting indoors on my own for at least two years talking to the cats, talking to the TV, talking to this blog… and basically it wasn’t doing me any good. Furthermore I had endured four years, five maybe, of first creeping, then galloping, then all-consuming dementia with my mother and I didn’t want it! How hard could it be to be taken in a coach to the beach for ice creams, to decorate a wooden spoon, to make a paper hat, to sing along to crooners from twenty years before my time? Surely I could throw a bouncy plastic ball about or reminisce, when required?

Social interaction is one of the things they say you should do to avoid the dreaded D-thing – along with exercise, not smoking, not being overweight and intellectual challenges. I thought back over my mother’s long life and she seemed to have done almost everything right – she never smoked, never drank, was never more than an ounce overweight; was always determined to offer you a saucer of orange segments rather than something nicer, like biscuits.

Until earlier this year, battiness notwithstanding, she could walk for an hour and a half, out into the traffic and over busy main roads with never a glance to left or right, at a pace that left daughters and pursuing social workers puffing to keep up. All her life she had walked, she had cycled, she had spent long days in the garden, out in the mid-day sun like mad dogs and Englishmen, heaving up tree roots or whatever. She was just one huge accusation to her weary and slothful progeny. And still she got dementia.

The only thing she did fall down on was the social interaction. Increasingly deaf (though there is a question now as to how much was deafness and how much a cover up for a growing inability to process language) and profoundly shy, she had avoided other people all her life. Dad did the talking, always. After Dad died I printed out lists for her and marked things with pencil X’s – things she might like to join – deaf groups, knitting groups, chatting groups, book groups – all which she filed, neatly, without even reading.

And now here I was, going the same way if I wasn’t careful. And there I stood, in the middle of the day care centre, surrounded by very, very old people at circular tables, drinking breakfast tea and eating, by the smell of it and from the pale blue haze that hung in the room illuminated by shafts of winter sunlight, very burnt toast. Burnt toast makes me cough.

It was no good. Try as I might I was going to stick out like a sore thumb here. It said Over 50s on the website, but no one here was that young. Or sprightly. I could have been any one of their daughters. I started to back towards the door, politely, and that was when she performed a lightning change of tack, that cheery lady in the blue uniform.

You still appear to be quite sprightly, and you can drive. We’re desperate for volunteers…

And away I went, with a sheaf of forms to fill in and return at my earliest convenience.

Featured Image: Ronald Searle “Gay and Sprightly” 1994

Memento Mori

My sister sent me an email, advising me that she had moved Mum into her new Home. So far so predictable but at the foot of the email was one of those little grey paperclip things and hidden behind the little grey paperclip thing a disconcerting photo, of my mother peacefully asleep in her new bed, in her new room, and my sister with her hand resting on Mum’s forehead being photographed by – whom? Godmother and I agreed, there was something spooky, even gruesome about it.

It’s not that I do not know what my mother looks like now, in her 87th year and suffering from dementia; how her face has thinned and yellowed and her smile has gone. I saw her only last weekend after all. I fed her a belated Christmas Dinner and wrote a post about it. It’s worse than that. It’s two things:

Firstly (my sister couldn’t have known this, but if she had it wouldn’t have stopped her) it reminded me so much of the painting on the cover of one of my old paperbacks of metaphysical poetry. It’s a mourning painting. Sir Thomas’s fine white hand beneath a frill of stiff white lace, rests on a skull. People are ranged around in their best-black-and-lace, looking mournful but resigned. The deceasing lady is propped up on many pillows, only her head and shoulders visible. And unfortunately, my sister had managed to mirror that exact pose in her smartphone snap.

Secondly, it reminded me of all those wildlife programmes where a vulture inspects the corpse of some recently slaughtered elephant or wildebeest – avidly, thoughtfully – as if debating whether a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or maybe a handful or two of chives might be a good idea.

The fact that associations like this are made my mind is shocking, even to me. Why do I – why even can I think such things? Couldn’t I switch off this poeticising, or in this case anti-poeticising, facility when appropriate? The answer is no. This sort of brain doesn’t switch off; there’s no editing what goes into it, no stopping it from ‘seeing’. And what it has seen can never subsequently be forgotten. It’s what makes people like me able to write. It’s what forces us to write, to exorcise what we cannot but see and know. It’s what makes living difficult.

Whilst on the subject of death (might as well get it all over in one post!) I am reminded of those roadside floral tributes, and my parents’ attitude towards them; also to funerals.

My mother in particular despised those bunches of flowers people nowadays tend to sticky-tape to lamp-posts or thread through the links of chain-link fences at the exact spot where a close relative had died. She hated how the flowers were renewed, month after month, year after year, “littering up the place”. What she really hated, I think, was the naked expression of grief. To my parents a death meant a cremation, as soon as possible. It meant a funeral service in a modern chapel with no embarrassing tears or screams of anguish, as characterless and forgettable as possible. After that, that was that, done with. The person, done with. Rarely mentioned again.

I like the flowers. I sometimes walk along the seafront passing all those memorial benches people have donated, and stop to read how Gerry loved to play the guitar or how Sid the taxi-driver is now driving the angels around in heaven, in a shiny white taxi. I love the bunches of flowers and imagine the relatives coming here, with a fresh bunch and a fresh card, and having a little chat with Gerry or Sid.

I like graveyards; when I worked in an office I used to eat my lunchtime sandwiches in one. On a sunny, summer’s day there is less to be afraid of in a graveyard than in the whole of the rest of the world. The dead enjoy your company. They appreciate a little chat every now and again. And did you know that you can talk to any dead person in any graveyard? They will always make themselves available even if what remains of their bodies is on the other side of the country.

I always found this sanitised modern death difficult. I longed for great black Victorian hearses, pulled by black horses and festooned in black lace. Brought up in the lowest possible church, and that most conformist of social groups the upper working class, my instincts are entirely Catholic and Gothic. I need those swinging censers, the trails of incense, the solemn faces, the cascades of tears, the wailing and the beating of breasts. I need the man with the black hat walking in front of the coffin with his mace and his black-crêpe streamers.

And I need a place to go to be with that person. I do understand the allure of the exact spot where someone died. I know that the lost one may still in a sense be there, exactly there.  Magical thinking, of course, but I know that where they went up they may, in a sense also, if earnestly implored, and if they choose, come down. Their ghost is anchored there. This is their own place, their little ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ as that poem puts it.

Let us not deprive people of their magic, if magic is what they need to process the horror and the loss. Let’s not sanitise it all and cut out the ritual, if ritual is what people crave. My parents would have said – but the dead person isn’t there any longer – what’s the point of going to all that expense and – more importantly from an upper working class perspective – making all that unnecessary and embarrassing fuss and show – showing off like that?

But rituals are not intended for the dead, they are for the healing of the living.

Featured Image: Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his First Wife: John Slouch

Christmas Dinner on New Year’s Day

Mum is in hospital, miles away. She’s stuck there for the moment, for administrative reasons. The other old ladies on her ward mostly seem to be stuck there too. They don’t change from one visit to the next. From her breathing, one of them sounds as if she is dying, but nobody seems to be paying any attention.

Mum greets me with a kind of horrified joy, as if she has been left behind on Mars for the last hundred years, like whoever-it-was in the movie and I am the one human being she has been utterly desperate to see. Then she loses interest. I am not the one she thought I was: sweet and sour, with Mum nowadays, or perhaps sour and another sort of sour.

Once I have found a chair, of sorts, and made space for it beside the bed she gestures out of the window. Nasty, she says. Yes, I say. Raining! I do our old “rain” home sign, hands fluttering downwards, raindrop-like. She looks at me as if I’m mad. Home signs don’t work nowadays.

And then Christmas Dinner arrives. Have they been having Christmas Dinner every day since Christmas, or have they for some reason postponed it from Christmas? It looks very nice – hospital food has improved since I was last in hospital. There are even Brussels sprouts, though of an odd colour. Overdone, I think, remembering Nan’s (Mum’s Mum’s) story about when she was made a NAAFI canteen supervisor during the war, and the first thing she did – to howls of protest from her canteen workers – was to throw out all the cabbage, which was black, and had been boiling since breakfast-time. There is even a Christmas cracker. I can’t see Mum being persuaded to grasp the other end of it.

I realise I have been ignoring the old lady sitting beside the next bed. She is wearing the same hospital gown as Mum: cotton, crisp, with the hospital’s name spelled out all over again in tiny letters like the tissue paper new shoes arrive in. All the ladies are wearing the same gown.

Steer clear of the parsnips, says the old lady I have been ignoring until now. They’re hard. And now I feel guilty. I have spent so long with Mum – I was just assuming any semi-naked old lady sitting in or beside a hospital bed must be senile. I notice she has been reading something on a Kindle.

That’s a Paperwhite, isn’t it? I had one of those until recently. What a good idea for hospital.

Good grief, am I having a conversation?

Yes, she says. Books are so heavy to hold up. I’ve got this paperback, look, but the Paperwhite is easier. I asked my children to bring it in. Flat as a pancake it was, when they found it. They had to plug it in.

I expect the hospital would let you plug it in in here, too. I find I’ve got stacks of books in the house and stacks of books on the Kindle, and I end up not reading any of them.

She tells me about her late husband, who had the same kind of dementia as my mother. She tells me her name is Mary. I tell her mine is Linda. Hello, Linda, she says.

Mum always hated me talking to anyone else. If we bumped into someone in the street who wanted to talk, she would grab my sleeve and begin to drag me away saying We’ve got to go. Busy. We’ve got to go now. I’d have to make excuses for her rudeness; it was mortifying. Now, however, in slow-motion, she begins to lean against the curtain that semi-separates her from Mary.

She’s leaning, I say. I sound like a proud parent whose child has just done something utterly unremarkable, or a besotted pet-owner. Oh look, she’s smiling! Oh, he’s purring – he must have taken you.

Mary puts her hand round the curtain. She’s obviously in quite a bit of pain. Mum reaches out the fluttering tips of her fingers and Mary reaches out and grasps them. She knows Mum better, now, than I do.

And so we proceed with Christmas Dinner. I have never actually been called upon to feed anybody before. It is an infuriatingly slow and messy process; doesn’t help me being left-handed when she is right. I wish I had one of those green plastic aprons the nurses use. I end up with several handfuls of cold potato and gravy. There’s paper wipes over there by the sink, says Mary.

First a mouthful of potato, then Mum scrapes the meat slowly off the proffered fork, then a spoonful of jam sponge and gluey custard with the spoon. We go on like that for a while, the same spoon now going indiscriminately from the plate to the dish, from gravy to custard. The important thing is eating, not etiquette. She’s lost quite a bit of weight.

How did you ever have the patience to feed the three of us? I ask her.

It’s all the same to me, she says. What is the link ? Maybe there isn’t one.

They’re playing ancient pop songs on the radio, and on comes You were always on my mind. Even in normal circumstances that song tends to set me off and every time the chorus comes round the tears well up in my eyes. For some reason the song reminds me that this is actually a real Christmas Dinner. So every time the chorus comes round I pick up the un-pulled cracker and examine it with great care, noting the way the paper is folded and the tiny patterns in the stuck-on lace. I hold it to my ear and shake it, as people always do, as if curious what might be inside, and this tiny, pointless activity is just enough to un-brim the tears.

I wish I hadn’t eaten that jam sandwich in the car park I hear myself remarking in a bright, unfamiliar voice. I could have come in here and asked for a Christmas Dinner. Yum, it looks nice! Can we manage another Brussels sprout?

I hear Mary laugh from behind the curtain.

Angel Delight

The story behind the story?

As always, miscellaneous. Late last night I thought, ‘I do believe I will try one of those six bottles of speciality, fruity-type beer I bought myself for Christmas’. I promise I only drank one bottle, in fact I drink so rarely nowadays that I’d had to buy a bottle-opener to go with it. Anyway, it was fruity, and a bit strange, and I woke at three in the morning sharing a fur-splotched pillow with Arthur (a black cat) who was snoring. No headache just a slight sense of confusion.

The Miseries arrived with a whoosh. I started thinking about Mum in that hospital bed, not ‘mobilising’ as they had so confidently predicted, not eating, not drinking, hardly responding. I was thinking how hard it was to live with the undead, the drowning, and how at some point you had to let them sink away down and out of sight, like Kate Winslet in that film ‘Titanic’. But how do you loosen your grip on the last of  your whole-life relationships? Mum has, with the best of intentions, been driving me round the bend my whole life and yet now I find I can’t imagine life without her.

And then – with that lightning switch you can only manage at three in the morning – I found myself worrying about the new broadband router instead. Would the little brown box arrive tomorrow as scheduled? Would I be able to sort out all those little plugs and wires and get it working? No doubt it would mean yet another stressful, circular call to a surly individual, barely able to speak English in a call centre half way round the globe.

At this point I gave up and got up. Stumbling downstairs I made myself a cup of builders’ tea, wrapped the spare dressing-gown round my knees to cut out the draught from the front door and turned on the TV. Mostly it was teleshopping but I managed to find something – was it Lucy Worsley wittering on about the six wives of Henry VIII? Or maybe she was the night before. Maybe last night it was endlessly-looped repeats of the unbearable carnage in Aleppo and the temporary ceasefire gone west again. The day ahead was promising to be a very, very bad one indeed, unless I could manage to write something.

And then I thought, supposing you were to get your new broadband router, plug all the bits and pieces in and get the all those little lights flashing? Something or someone materialises on your computer screen: but very much not the something or someone you had been expecting…

ANGEL DELIGHT

Two things woke Pete – bright mid-morning sun hitting his eyelids because he had forgotten to close the curtains last night, and some stupid bastard leaning on the doorbell. He squeezed his throbbing eyes tighter shut but could not shut his ears. However long he waited the ringing would not stop. He moved slightly and fell off the sofa, landing in the cold remains of a pepperoni pizza and knocking over a half-empty beer-can full of cigarette butts. Breakfast TV had already finished. They were on to the Business Program.

‘All right, all right!’ he screamed, and then wished he hadn’t. His skull hurt, and unknown creatures whistled, shrieked and reverberated inside it like bats in a cave. How much had he drunk, for God’s sake?

The cat got in his way as he staggered towards the door. He kicked out at it with his still-booted foot, not really expecting it to connect with the animal’s scrawny frame, but it did connect and the cat cried out and fell down. How long since he had fed that thing? Pete couldn’t recall. Why had it even persisted in hanging around? It wasn’t even his. Shelley had taken the kid but not the kid’s cat when she ran off to that feminist shelter place. Looked like he’d done for it this time, anyway – it wasn’t getting up.

The front door seemed unusually far from the sofa. That sun needed a dimmer switch. There wasn’t room on the carpet for him to tread without treading something underfoot: everywhere, clothes, magazines, bottles and cold, greasy take-away food. Bile rose in his throat.

‘I will never eat again,’ he told himself. Not realising it was true.

To be continued…

Angel Delight, continued

Angel Delight, concluded

Featured Image: Black Angel Cat – Green Eyes 2: Cyra R Cancel, Florida

No good deed goes unpunished

“Excuse me, can you tell me the way to the bus station?”

The old lady was sat on a low wall. Behind her some railings and a small private park like the one in Notting Hill that Hugh Grant and Whatsername climb into – Residents Only. It was autumn; I remember mounds of orange leaves on the pavement: papery, like her skin. Folkestone was not my hometown, but I had lived here once. Four years of a new but growing-old marriage. Four years of walking about in the rain asking God what exactly He had meant me to do with my life, if it wasn’t this, and could He please, please tell me now?

“It’s down this way,” I said. “Are you OK?” She didn’t look OK. Even sitting on the wall, she was wheezing.

“Just a bit puffed, dearie. If you can give me a moment…”

Give her a moment? I was on my way to the shops.

“I’m going that way,” I heard myself saying. “Would you like me to walk with you?”

“Yes, dearie.” She heaved herself up off the wall. I noticed she didn’t have a coat, just a dress and a pale blue cardigan. She did have shoes on, though. Very faintly, alarm bells started to ring.

Luckily it was downhill. We walked side by side, very, very slowly. There were several busy roads to cross. I began to wonder how she would have managed if muggins here hadn’t come along.

“Where are you going, on the bus?”

“Neasden,” she replied promptly. The alarm bells returned. I wasn’t an expert on public transport but it seemed to me that Folkestone to Neasden by bus, late on an autumn afternoon, was not a realistic prospect. I only happened to know where Neasden was by accident. When I was here, all those years ago, I worked with a hippie girl. She had crinkly hair which she said she got like that by plaiting it overnight, and wore those strange trousers with lace-up flies which were fashionable at the time. She told me she got men by jumping on them and announcing “You’re nice. Will you go to bed with me?” Things like that tend to stick in your mind.

Anyway, she had come from Neasden. That was where her family lived. “Where’s Neasden?” I asked her and she had given me that look like, what planet are you from? “It’s part of London,” she said. “But a nice part. Leafy.”

“You might be better off catching a train,” I said. The railway station is turn-left just down here. Do you want me to take you there?” Part of me was registering that she had no handbag either. She paused, looking irritated. My questions often seem to irritate people.

“No, the bus station.”

“Are you going to visit family?”

“I live there.” Obviously I should have known that.

By the time we got to the bus depot dusk was falling. We sat and waited for a while and I was thinking, why am I waiting here with an old lady for a bus that I know isn’t going to come along? But somehow I couldn’t not wait. I was trapped. I might as well go home after this is all over, I was thinking. There won’t be any time for shopping.

“Um, where did you come from?” I asked. I had a feeling I knew.

“Neasden!”

“No, I mean today – this afternoon.”

“Why do you want to know that?”

“Oh, just…wondering.” I’d never have made an interrogator.

“Running Waters”, she said. It sounded suspiciously like one of those old people places. There were a lot of those in Folkestone. But it was none of my business. If she wanted to go to Neasden, who was I to stop her?

I told her I had to go now and that my husband – what husband? – would be waiting for his tea. She’d understand that. A man must have his tea when he comes home from work, and his slippers put to warm in front of the fire. I wished her luck for the journey and she smiled and waved me goodbye.

I walked off up the road a bit, to the telephone box outside the Post Office. It wasn’t far enough away, really, but it would have to do; keeping an eye on her in the distance, a tiny figure on a bench, looking straight ahead, trusting that the bus would be along soon. I looked up Running Waters in the phone book. Running Waters Nursing Home. I called. I asked if they were missing an old lady, quite short, white hair, pale blue cardigan, print dress. Yes, they were. I was to stay right where I was and they would send someone.

Stay where I was? Why should I? I was an innocent shopper. Had I asked to get caught up in all this?

I stayed where I was. I hid behind the telephone box until the policemen arrived. I even pointed her out to them: Judas, without the bag of silver for consolation.

It has sometimes seemed to me that life on this plane is a process of being destroyed. You arrive with an ego the size of the planet; a boundless ignorance, an entire conceit. As the years go by some cosmic knife, in various human form, comes along and whittles bits and pieces off you. Rarely, a whole great chunk falls away, like land in an earthquake or an iceberg melting. The idea is, I suppose, that at death we are free and clean; prepared to move on, bodiless and ego-less, to our next assignment.

If so, that old lady did me a favour because at one slash, in a single word, she severed a great slice of my self-regard. I was humbled. I was grovelling on the floor of some cosmic court and begging for a forgiveness that did not come. God failed me again.

The policemen marched her straight past the telephone box where I had been hoping to remain concealed. She looked me in the eye and I got it all at once – the hurt, the disbelief, the anger.

“Traitor!” she hissed, as they carried her away.