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?

Saturday Night Ramble

Mum and Dad used to belong to a Cycling Club, one of whose (which’s?) many sub-activities was know as The Wednesday Wobblers. This was a group of older cyclists who met on a Wednesday and cycled unbelievably long distances in order to eat a pub meal and drink a pint of beer and wobble all the way back home again. My parents disliked the name actually, because they didn’t wobble; they were better cyclists than that. And because it had been invented by their arch enemy, Fat Pat.

And so, being now in a Club of One I thought I would engage in a Saturday Night Ramble, mainly because I haven’t written anything for some time and still can’t come up with anything coherent to say. But that never stopped me in the past. Incoherence is my middle name.

Today it was chilly, and raining on and off, but my friend and I had arranged to go to the next village down for fish and chips and so we went. Actually we almost never manage to get into the fish and chip emporium since it is always stuffed full of seaside-visiting grockles in tracksuits, hooped earrings and tattoos, and today was no exception. We always seem to time it wrong. One moment the place is empty. By the time we have crossed the road – rather slowly since my friend is disabled – the grockles have packed it and are spilling out onto the pavement.

We ended up with egg and chips at another place, almost equally packed, and a three-quarter of an hour wait for that. Then they brought only one plate of egg and chips, though I had clarified (twice, in fact) to the very slow woman at the till that we needed egg and chips twice, there being two of us, as they could clearly see, rather than one of us requiring two eggs with their chips. So I sat and watched my friend eat her chips, and her two eggs, and meanwhile got through six half-slices of bread-and-marge off a hefty white china plate. She had more or less finished by the time my egg and chips arrived. The mug of tea seemed to me to taste strongly of fish, but she said it was probably just that my mind was still in fish and chip mode.

Home again, I turned the central heating on and sat for several hours doing battle with my mobile phone. It is one of those Doro old-people phones with all possibility of doing anything dangerous strictly hidden from view so as to discourage Mother or Father from tampering with the settings and messing things up. Unfortunately I am not quite old enough for a Doro and am finding it increasingly frustrating, and patronising in its attitude. It thwarts me at every turn. It was populated with an awful lot of what I believe is collectively known as Bloatware – lots of Google stuff I had no need for, and obscure features nobody with any sort of life could possibly have need of. Add to that a small memory, an absolute refusal to use the memory card I had purchased and installed, and an insistence that I delete every single app I had ever installed in order to make room for Bloatware updates it didn’t have enough Memory to perform…

I tried swapping the SIM and the memory card to another phone, but this caused all sorts of problems. Google demanded that I sign in and kept presenting me with all those unreadable wiggly things. After an hour it was still refusing to accept that I was me, and I gave up, moved the SIM and the memory card back. Then I installed a file manager and viciously (viciously, I say) disabled or deleted every single Google bloat-thingy, every single Doro feature I had never found a use for and every single app that I couldn’t attribute a function to. That worked! Pah, I hate smartphones.

And now I am listening to music on my MP3 player to drown out the noise of the party next door. The trick is to turn the volume up just loud enough to partially distract from the thumping electronic beat and screeching pre-teens, but not quite loud enough to damage your own hearing.

Catwise, I now have another problem. One of my outdoor strays looks to have a damaged leg, but I can’t get near him. If he had just allowed himself to get tame first, I could have picked him up. All I can do is keep putting food out and hope he can manage to heal himself. Or for the universe to persuade him he really needs to trust the Giantess to take him to the vet and get fixed. So far the food is continuing to disappear, but I can’t be sure it’s him eating it, since there is Mystery Dog, another ginger tom (Sunshine), the ever-present Ratties and now a small brown mouse. The cats are glued to the back door watching the mouse’s insouciant preening of his whiskers inches from their noses, the wrong side of the double glazing.

The Cats Protection lady is still going to come and see me, but her companion is not. We have arranged this between us. He took a fancy to me and mowed my lawn. Then he told me I was Not Very Practical and obviously needed Taking In Hand and a Real Man To Look After Me. Then he grabbed me in the kitchen and started sending unspeakably suggestive texts all evening, every evening. Yuk! I find it amazing that now, when I am old and toothless (well, not completely toothless) – weirdo men seem to be coming out of the woodwork, attired in big boots, khaki shorts and hearing aids, or too tight overcoats that smell strongly of mothballs. Whereas when I was younger and at least willowy and acceptable-looking I couldn’t seem to get a boyfriend for love nor money. And oh, old men are so disgusting. They just never seem to lose the conviction that any single woman must be just gasping – gasping – for their slobbering embraces. He brought me unwanted food, and secreted it in my fridge, in cupboards etc., when I wasn’t looking. I have been throwing it out as I find it. This morning yet another dryish sultana loaf fell out of the cupboard…

Ow, think I’m going to have to turn the MP3 down. Perhaps they’ve stopped, next door…

Yes, a few minutes break before…

Ah, but there they go again. And it’s that idiot with the paint pot singing “I can hear it coming in the wind tonight”. They always get onto that one sooner or later.

And now Ed Sheeran… beautiful and sweet… we were just kids when we fell in love…

Keep Calm And Carry On

This phrase – famous from mugs, biscuit tins tea towels and whatever – was invented by the British Government in 1939 just before the start of the Second World War. It was a motivational poster intended to carry the British populace through such horrors as the Blitz, and to remind them that the British were famous for their Stiff Upper Lip. I can’t imagine what a Stiff Upper Lip looks like, in practice, can you? How did they communicate, with all that stiffness going on?

For some reason, in spite of the Blitz actually Happening and turning out to be Even Worse than Anybody Could Have Imagined, the poster was hardly used.

I was thinking it’s a bit like that now. Still no motivational poster, while we wait, with a growing sense of Foreboding, for those superpower idiots to stumble into bombing and nuking – or maybe horribly gassing and poisoning – the hell out of one another, presumably in and around what’s left of Syria. And in the meantime a military grade nerve agent, apparently capable of wiping out the entire population of the UK, is used on a former Russian spy and his daughter on the quiet streets of – of all places – Salisbury. Until now, nothing of note ever happened in Salisbury. People who don’t live there are not even sure where it is. It was just getting on with things, minding its own business.

But we are the British. We possess Stiff Upper Lips. We Keep Calm and Carry On. Apparently. But it seems to me that that is what ordinary people, everywhere, tend to do. Mostly.

My Mum had what they then called a Nervous Breakdown, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time I wasn’t aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and only aware of my Mum’s Nervous Breakdown because it involved what seemed to me like Years of lying on the sofa taking aspirins every four hours, and Nan coming along the road to do Mum’s housework after she had done her own, and me getting ignored and understanding that this was all My Fault. Indeed, my father told me it was My Fault. Mine and my sister’s, for fighting so much.

The thing Mum was most worried about, she told me later, was the Atomic Bomb. The Atomic Bomb was about to fall on all of us, any day now, and we would be just like the people in Hiroshima, reduced to piles of smoking ash, black shadows on walls or irradiated to death. Now we all live with that, don’t we? It’s got old and tired, and we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns over it. Indeed, we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns. We get Tired and Emotional, or we suffer from Exhaustion and have to book ourselves into some Clinic or other, for Cognitive Therapy.

All over the world, we carry on; we wash the dishes and put out the rubbish; we feed our pets and fill in our tax returns; we grumble because the bus hasn’t turned up – again; we wonder whether we should mow the lawn, or is it too wet still? There is nothing whatsoever we can do about the Bigger Picture: having no power to do anything else we focus on our postage-stamp lives and hope that somehow or other Armageddon will give us a miss.

Yesterday – apropos of nothing, or something, not sure – I took Fifi to the vet to get her claws clipped. For months she had been hooking up on one bit of furniture or another. It was time. But Fifi didn’t think so. Fifi is a tiny tabby, old and kind of frizzy looking, but on the nurse’s table she turned into a Wild Beast. It took two nurses to hold her, plus the application of a teensy-tiny muzzle that covered her whole face so she couldn’t see and being wrapped in a thick blanket. The nurses wrestled with poor Fifi, whose snarls and spitting could be clearly heard in the waiting room, and finally the claws were clipped. “If only you could have just Kept Calm, Fifi,” said one of the nurses, “it would all have been over with in a few seconds.”

But cats, unlike humans, are not programmed to Keep Calm And Carry On.

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“Words That Stung”

Yes, it’s come to this: in desperation I have printed off a list of Interesting Personal Essay Ideas. Sigh! And this was on there – the title, not the wasp, or wapsie as Canadian sister used to say when little, several millennia ago. I know why the current lack of inspiration: things have been happening in my life as usual, but for various reasons nothing I can actually write about here. This always stymies me, since my usual method is simply to ask myself What am I obsessing about/ ruminating over/ pondering/ remembering right this minute? And however unlikely the subject is, I sit down and ‘splurge’ about that.

I usually avoid internet lists of essay titles. They mostly seem to be aimed at schoolchildren and involve school, teenage crushes, dreams and plans for the future, lurve or parents – none of which I have, in any useful sense. Note of gloom creeping in here – buck up, do, you old misery!

Words That Stung – hmmm, we all have some of those, don’t we? And how not to turn a feeble attempt at an entertaining Monday Morning Post into All The Nasty Things People Have Ever Said To Me. Let’s just select a few, then over to you for your examples.

There was the time my mother told me I had to keep my face still when we were out shopping, because some lady had said What a pity your little girl has St Vitus Dance, or words to that effect. My mother explained that St Vitus’ Dance was when your face kept twitching, kind of grotesquely. I wonder who St Vitus was? Somebody who danced, obviously. Will have to look him up.

There was the time Canadian Sister and I entered a children’s writing competition in the local newspaper (Uncle Mac’s Corner). The title was something like Why My Mummy Is The Best In The World. I wrote it really, but sister provided some enthusiastic input. She was probably too young to write at that stage. I was so proud when it appeared in Uncle Mac’s Corner the next day, and expected Mummy to be pleased (chocolate cup cakes for a week, I imagined) but she wasn’t.

Instead she launched into a – to me, at seven or so – inexplicable and hysterical rant, to the effect that I sent that to the newspaper, secretly, for all to see and laugh at, and I could write all that but I could never tell her to her face. It was true that I had never told her to her face. It had never occurred to me because what kid goes up to their Mum and says all that sugary, embarrassing stuff? And anyway writing was my telling, my speaking, my confiding – was then and has remained so.

And then I had to walk to school, with my face all red and puffy, hiccupping, and get teased and stared at all day for the mess I was in. I maybe understood a bit better when I got older, but I never forgave her.

There was the time – no, I can’t tell you that one. Or…that one, either.

And then there was the time a supervisor told me the ‘bosses’ regarded me as some kind of slightly addled old hippy – nice, but vague – or words to that effect. I wasn’t actually nice, and I wasn’t actually vague, and if only I had been a hippy.

There was the time a visiting financial advisor remarked that of course the root of all my problems was a) insufficient income and b) all those cats. The sensible thing, he said, will be to dispose of all, or most of, these stray cats. I wondered whether he had children, and how many of them he would dispose of in times of financial stress, and which of them he would choose.

There was the time the doctor told me my bad back would get better if I lost some of the excess weight when actually I was just bundled up in an old winter raincoat with the belt bunched up funny round the waist (à la little Meghan’s posh white coat in her official engagement photo, but nobody said she could do with shedding a few pounds because it happened to be a chilly day and her belt was tied sort of funny!)

On similar lines, and talking of fat, these Stinging Words are not mine, but were related to me by a colleague. She said she had gone to the doctor one Winter’s day wearing a puffy anorak with her woolly gloves poked into the pocket, and he had asked her how far along her pregnancy was – when she wasn’t. Mind you, she was a bit chunky.

And one from my sister, when she and her husband were trying unsuccessfully for a baby, who kept receiving pamphlets in Air Mail letters from her mother-in-law, about female infertility. Her husband had been trying to intercept the post on his way out to work, to fish out any pamphlets before my sister saw them. But that’s not so much a Stinging Word as a Stinging Action or a Stinging Assumption.

Have any Stinging Words (not too painful to share at this distance in time) remained indelibly seared into your memory over the years?

Send In The Clowns

Well, now they have given my mother wheels. I don’t know why they didn’t think of it sooner – or why I didn’t think of it. All those months of visiting and she’s stuck in that heavy chair in front of the TV, and she’s still managing to move it around. She can’t walk, but she heaves it, by instalments, this way and that. Sometimes she’s facing the brown plastic linen basket (an object that seems to worry her greatly), sometimes she’s half way out of the door, and setting off that under-the-carpet alarm thing so the carers have to come running and heave her back. Now – light bulb moment – they’ve removed the alarms, turned off the TV, taken away the heavy chair and put her in a lightweight wheelchair she’s off – like a road runner.

And now, with one of those sudden swerves of pace/tone/logic/emotional atmosphere for which I am famous-or-at-least-mildly-well-known:

It occurs to me that we all have within us all the ages we have ever been – from ancient crone to grown-up woman to surly teenager to vulnerable three year old child – and can switch – and in fact can’t help switching – backwards and forwards between these versions of ourselves, minute by minute, second by second. Today I woke up three years old, and needing my Mum. Well, Dad would probably have done, but he’s dead. At least Mum’s this side of the veil, pro tem.

On some rare days, friends are not enough: neither is logic enough, or courage enough, or adult conversation, either in person or over the telephone. What would be enough – what you really need – no longer really exists in this world for you. But that doesn’t stop you needing it.

Well, I was going to visit Mum anyway, and so I went, hoping that maybe Old Mum was still lurking somewhere inside that wizened old shell. Hoping against hope, really, that the Fraction of her that knew me so well before I was even born, and the Whole of her that will know me again in the next world, might be tuned in, today.

And there she was, on wheels. And I do believe it was the funniest visit I have ever had with her. Well, the only funny visit. Firstly she ran over my foot, then she spent some time experimentally backwards-and-forwardsing on her new wheels, bumping her knees against mine crying wheeeee! and brrrrroooom!

We obviously weren’t going to stay in her room this visit, dolefully watching The Simpsons together. Oh no. Off we went up the corridor, with Mum branching off at intervals to enter and inspect other people’s rooms. At one point she paused behind a carer who had just gone into a store cupboard, craning her neck around in an exaggeratedly casual way to ascertain what was in there. Only sheets and stuff, nothing to interest you! came the muffled comment from inside the cupboard.

Next minute we were in the almost deserted dining room, and Mum was helping herself to a banana from the fruit bowl on the side. She looked at it for a moment. Yer ‘as to peel it for e’r came a hoarse old voice from the corner. It was a lady waiting for a haircut. Been ‘ere all morning, she grumbled. They left my toast in the microwave and it’s gone stone cold, but I’m about to eat it anyway.

I ended up following my mother around, with an increasing amount of ‘stuff’ – a cup of tea in a white mug; a glass of that anonymous pink water the carers keep giving them, and insisted on giving Mum as well as the cup of tea; a brownish and wilting banana skin; my own bag; five unwanted grapes. We skedaddled into the Day Room and watched the traffic out of the window for a minute or two, then Mum ran over my bag. I moved it. She carefully ran over it again.

You’re…. daughter, she said suddenly. Proud of you.

And I’m proud of you too, Mum.

I stayed half an hour longer than I normally would have done. After that I could see she was getting bored with me and wondering when her Friday Fish was going to get here. I too was hungry. And the cats would need feeding. In the lobby, a teenage carer was sitting with a trolley load of croissants and sweet rolls of various sorts. Can I interest you in one of these? he enquired. For a small donation? Maybe £10?

£10?

Only joking. Most people are putting in about £1.

I put in £1.50 and selected a chocolate croissant. I picked it because it was the only one wrapped in cellophane and total strangers had no doubt been fingering the others.

And on the way home I thought – that’s just what she would have done when I was three years old, and tearful. Distraction. And a memory came to me – a long-lost occasion I know she had forgotten even before she forgot everything, because I asked her about it once and she had no idea what I meant.

Mum and Canadian Sister and I are in the kitchen, eating lemon cup cakes. How old am I on this day? Eight, maybe? Twelve? And my chubby little sister says: Mum, what shall I do with the wrapper? And my mother says, How should I know? STICK IT ON THE WALL!!! And proceeds to stick her own gooey cake wrapper to the kitchen wall (tiled, luckily).

So, in a way, I found both the Old Mum and the New Mum.

(PS: I had to look up ‘rube’, the English-English equivalent of which would probably be bumpkin, or yokel. I thought Clowns was probably near enough.)

For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it. (Proverbs 8:11)

Of Olive And Her Ankles

This will not be a long post, being simply a response to a ridiculous prompt: mnemonic.

It will not be a long post because although at school – when mnemonics are most useful – I was quite good at thinking up mnemonics, I was not at all good at remembering what they stood for. I was interested in the mnemonic for its own sake, not the boring thing that originally necessitated it, and I had a tendency to forget boring things.

The one everyone recalls from school, I suppose, is Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – EGBDF. This is something to do with Music – maybe the notes on a piano? There is also FACE. I never had the faintest interest in learning to read music, so I instantly forgot what they stood for and was persecuted by Miss Spokes the music teacher for ever after. Miss Spokes was going thin on top, and her false teeth occasionally fell out on the piano whilst she was playing. She had a voice like Hilda Ogden from Coronation Street (on a bad day) all cracked and hideous. She told me I was a soprano, and forced me to sing – or rather mime – the soprano part in every single song we ever sang, even though I was, and knew I was, and have for ever after continued to be, an alto of severely limited range.

At school I was even less interested in Maths than I was in Music. This was partly my mother’s fault. Just before I started infant school, aged 4.5 or possibly 5, she foolishly told me she had never been any good at Maths at school and didn’t expect I would be either. Instant fear. Instant failure. They sat me on the ‘bottom table’ for Maths and the top table for English, and in these locations I remained, either metaphorically or actually, for the rest of my school career.

In my thirties, however, I decided I needed to teach myself Maths and get a Maths ‘O’ level. I bought that year’s text book in Smiths – a great, fat thing it was – and taught myself. I did it mostly by working backwards from the answers. One of the Engineers at work taught me some basic algebra. So – this is where the mnemonic comes in – for the exam I had to memorise the rules for calculating sines, cosines and tangents.

In those days, by the way, there were no calculators. You had a skinny, dog-eared set of tables full of tiny, tiny numbers and you had to look them up, and since I have the kind of eyes that cannot follow a row all the way along, but will skip up and down at random  I would have to put a coloured ruler underneath the row and follow it along that way.

I recall that sines, cosines and tangents are something to do with right-angled triangles but have no idea now – and I suspect had no idea when I passed my Maths O Level with flying colours – what possible use one might make of them once one had calculated them. I invented a mnemonic to remember them, which was:

Olive Has Always Had Orange Ankles
Opposite over Hypotenuse, Adjacent over Hypotenuse, Opposite over Adjacent

Olive, by the way, was the receptionist at the Power Station where I worked (hence the availability of Engineers to help with the algebra). Olive was harshly made-up, sour faced and completely lacking in a sense of humour. She once crashed her car on the way to work, I remember, by ‘just looking down on the floor for her handbag for a moment’. She did not like me.

Poor Olive: presumably she’s dead by now. And what a way to be immortalised – in a mnemonic invented by someone you didn’t much like, for something nobody much understands or ever wanted to much understand in the first place.