Romeo, Romeo, wherefore wert you…

There is a man playing an acoustic guitar on next door’s little patio, under the pergola, or whatever those overhead latticework things with greenery hanging off them are called. I am doing the ironing, now the day has cooled down a bit. As the iron moves to and fro I listen in, oddly pleased.

He’s teaching himself that Dire Straits one, ‘Sultans of Swing’ so he plays in fits and starts, a few bars here, a few bars there, a few muttered words sung along. Really, he should stick to the few muttered words because his voice isn’t up to his playing. When he has a go at the high bits he gets seriously out of tune, like karaoke. But it makes a change to hear real music played on a real instrument. It brings the hillside to life somehow.

It took me a while to locate the music since sounds echo most peculiarly in this village. Any loud-ish conversation can be heard by all, at least in part. Shouted phrases charge towards you, then are muffled, then return. Laughter sounds like someone’s laughing at the bottom of an invisible canyon. Sound swirls.

The guitar playing reminds me of Ex, which is sad, though not so terribly sad. He was always sitting around in empty rooms, at least in my memory – abstracted, growling away to himself or playing some complicated gigue or saraband in fits and starts. I’m not even sure if I’ve spelt those right.

I know who this chap is. He’s the husband, or rather, for relationships are so complicated nowadays, the former-husband-not-actually-remarried-but-fairly-frequently-present husband of the lady next door. Whereas Ex is my former-husband-basically-never- present, except once or twice a year over the phone. But that seems to be OK.  I suspect I disappear from his mind the instant he puts the phone down. A puff of white smoke, that’s me; what’s left over when you snuff out a candle.

I happened to be talking to Canadian Sister about this on the phone earlier this evening. She is going through another bad patch, the reality of widowhood seeming to have engulfed her all at once. She tells me she can’t abide being alone in the house, that she needs her dead husband to see or have seen what she is doing from one moment to the next. Everything she does she still seems to need to run past her husband first – He would have been interested in that, she says. He would have been proud of me for managing to do this. He wouldn’t have liked me doing this (manufacturing lopsided bright blue buddha candles in his newly-perfected kitchen).

I said when she had been alone for twenty-seven years she would probably find, as I had, that she had evolved in completely the opposite direction, and would find that she could no longer stand the idea of someone else in the house, observing everything she did. For many years after I first was on my own, I confided – casting around for something intelligent-yet-comforting to say and, as usual, failing – I carried Ex around with me in my head. Everywhere I went – maybe for the first ten years – this Miniature Grumpy Hypercritical Ex would be inside my head, providing a running commentary.

You’ve made a complete Dog’s Breakfast of that, haven’t you! Why don’t you do something worthwhile with your life? Have you got the map upside down again? Don’t put apple cores on the windowsill! What you need is a hobby, something to take your mind off things. Etc.

I would hold long, self-pitying, angry conversations with him in my head. But if I asked this apparition its advice, mentally, it would go completely silent on me. Nowadays he is little more than the occasional little cloud of black smoke, a drifting whiff, a kind of Bonfire Night residue. My head is completely empty most of the time. Echoing. Tumbleweed…

… so you see, I said, in my best transatlantic psychotherapist voice, in another twenty-seven years or so you’ll be seeing things through the prism of yourself and not through the prism of your lost husband.

I am likely to be dead in another twenty-seven years, she reminded me.

I must admit I hadn’t thought of that.

The Dark Christmas Of The Soul

I try not to be cynical, but when I see those Salvation Army adverts for those who are homeless, gift-less, cold, shivering or alone at Christmas, I can’t help but wonder things like…

Is the old chap in the armchair real, or when the cameras stop rolling (or whatever cameras do nowadays) does he get up from his shabby armchair, brush back his long, unwashed hair and start talking in ringing Shakespearian tones like Sir John Gielgud? And the poor young chap shivering on the street corner with snow falling all around and people pausing only to mock or kick him. Once the shoot is complete, does he stand up, removing umpteen toasty hot hot-water-bottles from beneath that snow-soaked duvet and suggest everyone repair to the café over the road for a cup-a-soup or cheese on toast? I mean, I know the lonely old chap, the child who won’t be being visited by Santa and the shivering youth exist in all their sad and multiple forms in real life, but are the ones in the adverts real? And does it matter either way?

This is the sort of thing you start pondering, when you are alone in a house for two or three days with only the cats and the TV for company. After this, I am going to look up Dark Night of the Soul. I think I may be going through it. Not dark enough, however, to merit a visit from the Salvation Army. Boring, misguiding and distracting the Jehovah ladies has consumed all my psychic energy. It has been quite fun, at times, but I can’t manage the Sally Army on top.

I went to visit Mum in the home a few days ago but discovered her, once again, asleep and corpse-like at nearly lunchtime. I was told it would be better if I made an appointment to visit her instead of “just turning up”. That depressed me. It says in the brochure that relatives are free to visit at any time. And yet I know that if I do call the Home it will ring and ring and no one will answer because the Home is just one of those places where phone-answering is no one’s specific responsibility and so nobody does it.

In the good old, bad old pre-and incipient dementia days, of course, I would have gone over to Mum’s on Christmas Day and we would have sat, mostly in silence because of her deafness and increasing unwillingness to read, or even look at, the notes I passed her. Eventually she would just toss them down on the imitation parquet flooring. We would knit blanket squares together for around three hours in her underheated living room. Poor Kitten (now rescued, and still alive at the human equivalent of 115 or thereabouts) would be crammed underneath the lukewarm storage heater, her nose tightly wrapped in her tail. The clock would be ticking loudly on the mantelpiece, and there we would sit, having consumed…

Well, for a while it was a cooked meal, though not a Christmas cooked meal. Towards the end it would be Ryvita with increasingly eccentric toppings. And then nothing. Shops, meals, preparations for guests or visiting daughters – all such had been erased from her mind.

Canadian Sister is actually in the UK but oop north with her late husband’s rellies. She flew over here solo for the first time – passport renewal, navigation of Schiphol airport, jetlag – the lot. She has texted me once or twice. I was teaching her to text, transatlantic fashion, soon after her husband died. She seems to have mastered that and has sent me several texts from oop north – mostly about underground trains – how many stops between Euston and Victoria – even though Victoria is closed between Christmas and New Year as I keep on and on trying to explain, to no effect whatsoever. However, it hasn’t seemed to occur to her to telephone me, as she would have done if she had been at home in Canada on Christmas Day. I did casually text explaining that it would be possible for her to call my mobile – sorry, cell – phone from oop north on her mobile – sorry, cell – phone – so as to avoid having to run up a bill on mother-in-law’s landline. But maybe the technology tutorials haven’t quite stretched that far. A phone call would have been nice.

By day I look out of the window and note the cars crammed into all the driveways, and wonder who is having whom to visit. By night I look out of those same windows and, up and down the hill, am treated to richly decorated and flashing council house façades. I know why this is. It’s because the Parish Council are offering three prizes of £50 each to the most festively-decorated houses. A few days ago they sent round pairs of judges – all of them couples, each couple with a borrowed dog as a cunning disguise. Disguise dogs… It seems to me it would cost considerably more than £50 to purchase so many fancy lights and keep them lit up with expensive electricity night after night – but perhaps I’m missing something.

My friend down the road had another great granddaughter on Xmas Day. She texted me, joyously. I can’t imagine what it is like to possess a great grandchild, but did my best to sound appropriately pleased, and decorated my reply text with what seemed like appropriate icons.

I listen to my neighbours playing video games. It seeps through the walls. I think they have got a new baby – at least, I can hear something very small and new crying at intervals – and she did get a trifle tubby for a while… But though the rock music marathons have mercifully ceased since the small crying sound started, the intermittent video whooshes and crashes have not. The child – if it actually is a child and not a figment of my imagination – will no doubt grow up to be one of these Pinball Wizards with the joysticks and clickety-buttons, slumped in a beanbag in front of a screen all day.

What else have I done? Now, let me think. I must have scooped out poop at least fifty times over the last few days. The moggies seem to be going into poop-overdrive for the festive season. And I have fed all nineteen of them twice a day, and washed all the dirty bowls up after. Not to mention the current outdoor moggie, Buster, a scary hissy-and-snarly ginger bruiser who has been turning up every day at dawn and dusk recently in the expectation of a whole tin of Whiskas and then waits round the corner or behind the bins, just out of sight, for maybe another 400g tin? It’s like that figgy pudding song – We all want some figgy pudding, so bring some out here!

I have watched a whole lot of Call The Midwife Christmas Specials – so many of those lifelike rubbery babies emerging – so many nuns – and a whole afternoon’s kind of box set on Channel 4 or something similar, of The Yorkshire Vet. I just got into it whilst knitting squares for my blanket and somehow or other couldn’t turn it off. Do you know, in every single programme he takes his top off and puts his arm up a cow? And in every single program at least one set of gonads are removed with a squelch – pig, dog, cat, ferret, polecat … I feel I could now castrate almost any living thing, from memory.

The Antipreneur

I thought of this snazzy little title on the way to the vets, with Winnie. In fact, when approaching an awkward mini-roundabout. That beastly little roundabout is particularly good for popping blog post titles into one’s head, I’ve noticed. No wonder cars always seem to be having collisions there.

Money or the lack of it always crosses my mind (multiple times) on the way to the vets, with a cat. But today being the Sabbath it was a locum, and he mightily impressed me by not extracting money from me when he undoubtedly could have, since having nineteen cats (as he could see from his computer screen) tends to give the game away – that you will do anything for a sick or suffering moggie, even if it involves remortgaging or maxing out the plastic.

But he spent a long time making a gentle fuss of poor Winnie and listening to her alarming breathing, and then told me it was a difficult one. He said he asked himself, if this was his own cat, or a human being, would he put them through an anaesthetic, an x-ray, a battery of blood tests, to find out what was wrong. Long experience has equipped me with a mental calculator for veterinary investigations. You’re looking at hundreds, I thought. Hundreds and hundreds… in fact maybe a thousand… Simultaneously trying to recall the PIN for my credit card – the one I swore I would never again buy anything on.

There is some sort of process going on inside Winnie, he said, but without the investigations it is hard to guess. I can tell by the flecks in her eyes, he said, that she is maybe fourteen or fifteen years old (this is news to me, as she was a stray, but I am not surprised). Winnie is an old lady. As long as she is eating and drinking, and seems to be happy, I think it might be better just to watch her, and wait. Bring her back to me when the time is right.

And with that he restored my faith in human nature. I hope he won’t get into trouble for not selling anything this rainy sabbath. I seemed to be their only customer this morning, so his lack of financial killer instinct will be pretty obvious when they come to do the till at lunchtime. I hope poor Winnie’s “time” will not come for a while yet, but when it does I will know, because he also restored my confidence in myself, my own instincts.

As for Anti-preneur – I guess that is I what I must be. At intervals I research into ways of supplementing the meagre income; preferably very, very quickly; without a huge outlay for three years of evening classes in upholstery, or the purchase of a stack of books on website design. Apparently website design is now becoming a bit “niche” as an income-generator, since the technology for building one’s own website is nowadays available to all online. I throw out that hint in case any of you are also making long lists of How To Make Money.

Truth is, I just haven’t got the mindset. I need money but I am not interested in it. I need money but I am not terribly willing to do – or terribly capable of doing – any of the things that are necessary to get it. I found a very useful article in The Guardian – Fifty side businesses to set up from home.

What is a side business, I wonder. I suppose if you are making oodles in the City, a side business would be something you did in your back bedroom, after spending three hours commuting home on a tightly-packed train. I have never had a front business, let alone a side one.

I run through the list, listlessly, trying to convince myself that I could manage one, or any of them:

Antiques dealing – what do they think I am going to purchase the antiques with? (Sigh!) And would I know an antique if I saw one? (Sigh!)
Babysitting. No one would let a childless old baggage like me near their children. And I don’t even much like children. I would be like Nanny McPhee… without the magic.
Bed and Breakfast, it says. I don’t want another person under my roof – unless they are my sister, for a week, in January – and anyway, I would have to hoover, relentlessly. And what about the nineteen cats?
Biscuit-making – oven broken
Cake-making – ditto
Car boot sales (Sigh!)
Car cleaning/valeting (Sighhhh!)
Census distributor – not till 2022, and I have a feeling I somewhat failed to impress at that the time before last…
Computer repairer/trouble-shooter – if only I could, I could save myself hundreds of pounds in visits from Scary Computer Man…
Become a DJ – seriously?
Be a doula – OMG, no….

Every time I think about making money my subconscious, which utterly refuses to stick to the point in any situation, however dire – in fact the direr the situation the more it is tempted to stray from/misremember any conceivable point – reminds me, visually and facetiously, that I need only to purchase a Red Hat and walk up and down the High Street murmuring… whatever ladies in Red Hats are supposed to murmur… Hello sailor! Got a light, dearie? Maybe ladies in Red Hats did murmur that sort of thing in the days when there were plenty of sailors and everybody used to smoke. Maybe. I doubt if they wear Red Hats nowadays, and suspect that whatever they now murmur to passing gentlemen, it is  direct, and graphic.

Deceased Devon Aunt once informed me that if I bought a bottle of Devon Violets perfume I would smell like a Lady of The Brook (or, as her Deceased Brother – my Father – would more likely have put it – like a Whore’s Handbag). Perhaps I should look on Amazon to see if one can still purchase little bottles of Devon Violets perfume – or red hats for that matter – and if so set forth to supplement my pension in this time-honoured way.

If only I wasn’t so old. And if only I could bear the thought…

So I suppose I will just have to write the novel. But that will take years. And what sort of novel. And whatever sort of novel, nobody is likely to publish it. And…

(Sigh!)

Not yet the flaky roses…

(Sofa In Multiple Occupation)

(Shadow: Sunday Morning Chillin’)

I just typed into Google Is ADHD the same as flaky? (should it have an ‘e’? why does it sometimes have an ‘e’ and sometimes not? distracting…) and Google reckons it is, sort of.

To be exact, Google opines that flaky seemingness (to one’s friends, employers etc) is in fact but one symptom of high-functioning ADHD. So whilst one is not technically or actually flaky (or flakey) everybody will always be convinced that one is. Furthermore, flaky-seemingness is but the visible tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to the daily struggle for survival in a world where 99 out of 100 brains are wired the opposite way to your own.

This is depressing, and the thing is, since I retired – or rather, since the world decided it could no longer be bothered to pay me for being bad at various kinds of work I really didn’t want to do – the ADHD, or whatever it is, has got distinctly worse. I used to be able to read, for instance. Spent hours engrossed, rapt, with my nose in some novel or some abstruse metaphysical text, trying to figure out how exactly I seemed to have missed Birmingham and been taken on to Crewe.

Oh Mr Porter, what shall I do?
I wanted to go to Birmingham but they’ve taken me on to Crewe.
Take me back to London as quickly as you can –
Oh Mr Porter what a silly girl I am!

Now I can read for twenty minutes, as long as it’s something lightly-ish and historical and I’m immersed in hot soapy water. My current in-the-bath read, by the way, is The Posy Ring by Catherine Czerkawska. It’s good, even in damp, twenty minute instalments. About antiques seller Daisy Graham who inherits an ancient house on a Hebridean island. She put a little publicity card in with Blanket.

Because, believe it or not, this is the same lady who, under a different name, sold me Blanket the rickety wartime blanket bear (or just possibly sheep) via eBay, and posted him to me in a shoebox from Scotland. I have now knitted Blanket a warming yellowy-browny scarf, by the way, and fastened it with a big yellow kilt pin. I would have posted a photo (as requested when he last appeared) but it is too dark indoors to take one at the moment. I will put it on my To Do list, which I very occasionally manage To Do something from. (Done)

(This is because it’s dark outdoors too, which seems to happen at intervals.)

The trouble is, you spend your life trying to appear not-flaky. Today, for instance, I agonised for several hours before texting a friend to say that I would not be able to come on a coach trip to Southend because I wasn’t feeling too well. The thing is, I am not feeling too well, so it’s a perfectly genuine excuse, this time. But I know she does not believe me. And if I were her I would not believe me either. But what do you do? The constant battle against flaky-seemingness results in a lifetime of ghastly events sat through with gritted teeth or perspiring brow. Boredom or pain, and no escape in either case because to flake out would be viewed as… flaky. Or flakey.

I think I reached some sort tipping point today. I realised I have to stop trying to explain myself, otherwise I am in for an Old Age as dire and dull as my Youth and Middle Age have been. Well, Bog It, I think, I just want to do what I want. Or at least not continually have to be doing what I don’t want.

And finally… another quote, this time from author Claudia Carroll, writing in an old Woman’s Weekly Godmother passed on to me on Friday:

When you’re in your 20s and 30s, life gives you things, if you’re very lucky. Love, a partner, maybe even kids. But you hit good old middle age, and that’s pretty much when life starts taking things away from you…

A cheering thought there, from Claudia.

It set me thinking, what Life did actually give me in my 20s and 30s. Certainly not children. It took away my husband and gave me a lover who was nice while he lasted, though he didn’t last very long. It gave me wrinkles round my eyes… and violent toothache… or was that in my forties?

But I suppose it did give me a few things. A giant(ish) healthy body inherited from my father, which has served me faithfully till recently. Now not quite so faithfully, but it’s doing it’s best, poor thing. Nineteen cats. I do believe the nineteen cats are my equivalent of the nine lives cats are supposed to have. Every time I lose a cat I lose one of my lives. Conversely, of course, every time I gain a cat I gain a life, but that can’t go on. Moggie Gathering Must Stop. And it’s given me a sister who, if not quite as flaky-seeming as me, is getting there. Or maybe equally as flaky-seeming, but a kind of variant. Same reason (backwards brain wiring) but different manifestation. However, it means that she understands me, and I understand her, and so we can love each other, which is a blessing indeed.

flaky1

Oops, no title…

I’m not good at having fun, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever had fun in my life; not really. However, today was a good(ish) day. The sky was blue and so was the sea – well, the one mirrors the other – and it was warm. Shouldn’t have worn the boots, really. Or the long-sleeved autumn outfit. But I thought it was autumn. Well, it was autumn at six o’clock this morning when I awoke, dozily crumpled into a corner of the living room sofa in a sort of uncomfortable dressing-gown/person bundle.

I did go to bed but eventually had to retreat from the bedroom after one of the cats for some reason took fright and leapt into the air, gouging three long tramlines into my right forearm. That woke me up, as you can imagine, and by the time I had partially staunched the bleeding and debated whether to apply TCP to my right arm and risk stinking out the Over 50s minibus tomorrow, or not apply TCP and risk yet another bout of cellulitis, with a subsequent two weeks of daily drives to the hospital for antibiotic injections, and possible death – I couldn’t get back to sleep. And supposing yet another one of the nineteen moggies should land upon my sleeping form and savage me.

Hence, the sofa. I turned out the lights, arranged myself uncomfortably upon it, trying to keep my stinging arm away from the pale green faux leather – and yet more cats came to perch themselves uncomfortably upon me – any of whom, of course, might leap up in a fright at any moment – and plugged in my MP3 player. And listened to hours of John Renbourne, which reminded me of Ex, which made me cry in a self-pitying, 3 in the morning, just gouged by a cat sort of way. And finally I reflected that listening to John Renbourne would not in any way remind Ex of me, or make him cry, and fell asleep.

My life is so complicated, but I have said that before.

Another complicated thing about life is female friendships. I am no good at this sort of stuff. I don’t understand it. I feel the same about human social interactions as I felt about those interminable netball and hockey games at school – the ones I couldn’t find an excuse to get out of – left-handedness, short-sightedness, a touch of depression, left my PE kit at home – that I am in the middle of a lot of beings flying about and throwing or kicking things at one another, but I don’t know which team is which, or which way I am supposed to be running, or which goal is mine, or why… Why are we running about? What is the purpose? What are the Rules? Why has everybody else had a copy of the Rules, but not me?

The politics of them are more complicated than anything that goes on behind closed doors at Downing Street. I think I may have made a new friend today but I’m not sure how I did that. I mean, I wasn’t trying to. I never try to make friends but just occasionally total strangers for some reason decide to pick me up, look me over, dust me down and adopt me for a while, like a lost bear. And then how do you fit the new friend in with the old friend when they don’t seem to like each other much – or am I imagining that? Should I walk with this one or that one? How do I have more than one friend?

Over the years I have learnt enough to know, at least in theory, that I don’t need to worry myself sick and arrange everything. People usually sort themselves out without my help. I’ve also found that people tend to appreciate me more if I just allow myself to be an oddity instead of trying to appear normal – masking, I think it’s called. Thing is, first you have to notice when you are masking, and that’s an art in itself.

Talking of lost bears, I found another, in a Barnardo’s shop on a coach trip to Whitstable. Even that was complicated. I felt compelled to explain to the volunteer lady in Barnardo’s that I wasn’t the sort of person who habitually walked around with a bear, like Sebastian. Of course, she hadn’t read Brideshead Revisited and had no idea who this Sebastian was.  She told me of an old lady she knew, a harmless madwoman, who carried a doll everywhere and had even made it an outfit to match her own. Well, presumably a  number of outfits…

And then I – and my new friend – and my old friends – oh, so many of us and the relationships between us so fluid and complicated, jostling for position and attention around the depressing racks of wilted cast-offs and bobbly old men’s jumpers in Barnardo’s – went on down the street to a rival charity shop, Demelza’s. Where I got told off by the Demelza lady for buying my bear in Barnardo’s when hers were half the price. And how then to explain the subtle psychic difference between a merely cheap bear (I could have gone to Tesco’s for that) and a damsel-in-distress bear in a blue velvet dress and lopsided velvet bow, languishing among racks of jigsaw puzzles with several pieces missing; brown plastic handbags no one can ever, ever have liked and coffee-stained CDs of jazz musicians that nobody has ever heard of.

(Yes, I made the Sebastian joke again – I just couldn’t seem to stop myself – and no, she didn’t laugh either.)

But Whitstable was OK, and so was Herne Bay. Later, trying to eat a huge pink and white ice cream before it melted, under a blue sky, beside a blue sea, at a rainbow-painted bench, I reflected that it wasn’t such a bad day out after all. And recalled that my Aunt always planned to retire to Herne Bay and open a cake shop. It was her dream. But she married a blind chap from Devon several feet shorter than herself, and lived in Exeter, and never visited Herne Bay again, as far as I know. And then died.

That’s the trouble with dreams.

Sharing with my sister

She rings me more or les every other evening now, from her kitchen on the far side of Canada, where it is early morning. I have actually never seen her kitchen but I imagine it big and airy, but for some reason rather chilly, with chunky, cluttered work-surfaces and one of those giant American fridges stuffed with joints of meat; lots of brother-in-law’s half-finished DIY projects; things dismantled that will never put back together again.

Outside I visualise a neat, large lawn and other houses similar in design to hers, set at different angles, a kind of giant, Canadian-flavoured Lego construction. I imagine squirrels in trees, vague trees, and looping along the fence panels like the ones I saw when I visited her in Ontario that one time, a quarter of a century ago. Now she is in Alberta, where it is colder. Still kind of Canada but more so. In spring I imagine her garden as a fenced square, kind of big and kind of sterile and kind of green. I imagine a large shed, because I happen to know there is one. I can’t imagine flowers.

Does she think of it as a Yard, I wonder, or is she still English enough for it to be a Garden? I imagine an identical fenced square covered in thick snow in Winter, with the driveway laboriously dug out and snow blown off the road and into the gardens by the snow-blowers. We do not have snow-blowers over here, at least not that I’ve seen. What we have is blocked roads, until the ice chooses to melt of its own accord.

I cannot imagine her state, or her city. Sometimes I type the name of the city into the internet and hit ‘images’ but the images are not enough to reconstruct a city, with that unique, intangible atmosphere each city has; its back-alleys, its park benches, its ponds and trees and shops, its traffic intersections, its threatening corners. I cannot imagine it after dark; I cannot see the inhabitants scurrying along the sidewalks to work in the morning; I cannot hear the noise of its traffic or breathe the air. Photographs are just looking through somebody else’s eyes.

I cannot visualise my sister, most of the time. I haven’t seen her for so long. I look at my face in the mirror and see what has happened to it over the last three years. I try to imagine what will have happened to hers. Has she put on weight, or lost it? Is her hair still tied back, or has she cut it? All I can see is her face when she was four years old and I was seven, when we were having that photograph taken, uncomfortably perched on the back of Mum and Dad’s settee. A round, innocent face.  A big smile whereas I’m looking anxious. She still had her baby teeth; my front teeth were missing altogether. Eyes lighter than mine. Ridiculous ribbon bow on top, same as me. Those ribbons were a kind of dusky pink and cream, with a knurled pattern down the edge.

And now I hear her weeping in this distant kitchen I can’t properly imagine, morning after morning, evening after evening, and try to think of something helpful to say about being confined in a house with a furious, imminently dying husband, who refuses all assistance. She is appealing to me because I am her older sister and she has no one else, but really, if there was anyone else…

I have not experienced this myself. I find it difficult to visualise what she is seeing when she looks at him, though she tries to describe it to me. I cannot visualise worse than the way he looked before, but I can hear the shock and revulsion in her voice. She says it is like being trapped in a horror movie, all day and all night. I think of times I have lost sick or elderly cats, and had no choice but to be with them as they died. I find even this little collection of indelible images difficult to bear, and time makes them no easier. How is she going to cope with remembering this?

I cannot get over there, and apparently no one else can either. One of her neighbours has arranged for a boy to come in mow the lawns and sort out all the overgrown stuff. I picture him quietly working day after day, restoring some order, at least to the Outside. The sight of him seems to calm her too, and the brief expeditions to the bank to get money to pay him. Normal life is still happening, at least Outside.

This bit I can I understand. I remember after a very, very bad time in my life, which also felt like living in a nightmare, making an appointment and going to the hairdresser. I remember looking at my face in the mirror and seeing only some nightmare creature, but the hairdresser was a young girl and she chattered away, seeming to see nothing at all odd in the mirror. She was actually talking to me as if I was a normal person. It was like I really existed, after all. That sunny afternoon, the face in the mirror, the face behind, the quiet snip, snip of the scissors, little wedges of damp, snipped hair falling into my lap, somehow made all the difference.

And so I listen, and I say the same things I said the day before last, and two days before that, and two days before that. I say them over and over. I try to persuade her to get help, ask for carers to come in, doctors, nurses, anyone but she needs his permission. I tell her she needs to take over now, now has become the time. Eventually she is going to have to start thinking things out for herself and acting without permission. But they only had one model for being married, and now it isn’t working. And anyway what do I know about anything? Empty words, no substance behind them.

And then I remember that Ex has a gentle side as well as the more evident bombastic, endlessly-opinionated side. I remember he possessed a miraculous knack for reassurance, a matter-of-fact, earthy acceptance of How Things Are. And so I email him and ask if he will do me a favour, and eventually he does phone her, and it seems to have helped, at least a little. Now she has two people she can talk to, albeit miles apart from one another and thousands of miles across the sea. Now she has two listeners, and two voices on the end of the phone, one male and one female, and it looks as if she has asked for help, though it hasn’t yet arrived.

I hope that this will be over soon, and the sun will be permitted to shine in that unimaginable Canadian garden, and the squirrels can resume their dancing, and the birds can start their singing.

Below and above: Mary and Martha, sister cats.

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A Plague By Any Other Name

William or Leetle Weely as the vet calls him has a disgusting-looking ailment of the paws. The vet speaks very good English, but it is not his first language and I believe has not quite got the hang of seaside postcard humour and double entendres. It may be that double entendres are the last linguistic hurdle a foreigner has to cross.

Speaking of double-entendres, even I missed one the other night. I was in a long conversation with my sister in Canada, complaining bitterly about an overbearing male who entered my kitchen and even, irritatingly, sniggered at the way I cut the cheese, saying it was probably because I was left handed etc., etc. Said man has now been disposed of (fingers crossed) but not before he nearly electrocuted himself by poking a kitchen knife into my toaster, whilst said toaster was plugged into the electric socket and red hot, because he had managed to get a crumpet stuck in it. He then asked me why I had turned the toaster off and I mentioned saving him from electrocution. Probably I should just have left him to it – would have been easier than trying to convince him to kindly leave me alone – but, as one of my neighbours said to me when I went out to mow the lawn this afternoon, you wouldn’t want the corpse of a fat, condescending old baggage cluttering up your vinyl floor covering.

Anyway – rambling again – I kept referring to cutting the cheese as part of this sisterly transatlantic rant, and it wasn’t until the end of the conversation that my sister told me that cutting the cheese in Canadian was actually a euphemism for breaking wind.

Anyway, William has a paw complaint, which hopefully will be improved by antibiotics and steroids. Its scientific name is Plasma Cell Pododermatitis but it’s also known as Pillow Foot or, the vet tells me, Bumble Foot. Really, if you hadn’t seen Leetle Weely hobbling about on the sore, scabby and peeling paws in question you might imagine him joyously floating about with a tiny white pillow strapped to each foot, or maybe being transported by a quartet of little fluffy bees…

It made me think about the names we choose for diseases, and why they are so often really attractive names when the ailment they represent is so unattractive. When I was a child I had Scarlatina (why Scarlatina and not Scarletina?). I don’t remember much about it except that I had a sore throat and my mother hung white sheets at my bedroom window. They had to be soaked in something-or-other (disinfectant, probably). I believe  Scarlatina was quite serious – children often died – and yet what a lovely name someone chose for it! Can’t you just imagine it – a flamenco dancer in a red silk dress, clacking black cube heels on a polished floor.

And then there was Impetigo. Just down the road from me lived the butcher’s twin girls (well, one of them was a girl, the other nobody was ever quite sure). They were not identical, obviously, but what they did have was permanent identical Impetigo – like crusty stuff around their mouths. In those days the treatment for Impetigo was Gentian Violet (another lovely name) and so the poor non-identical twins were permanently daubed in purple. But Impetigo – can’t you just imagine it stalking silently through a green and gold jungle, the ghost of twinkle in its eye?

We were once asked in an English lesson what our favourite-sounding word of all time was, and whether we loved it for its sound alone, or for the meaning of the word. One girl said she just loved the sound of Diahorrea (the spellcheck obviously doesn’t – I could never decide how to spell it) which caused much laughter but showed that, as Shakespeare put it, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

And what about Schizophrenia, Chlamydia, Fasciitis, Eczema. If you didn’t know what these words meant, wouldn’t you think they were rather lovely?