Ivy, Ivy, Give Me Your Answer Do…

Yes I know, but I didn’t have a picture of daisies. And I had a Great Aunt called Ivy.

…et o ces voix d’enfants… (or rather Grandma, to Dad, a hundred years or so ago)

“That Ivy – once she gets her feet under your table she won’t budge…”

Funny how grown-ups assume children aren’t listening – forget they are there, even – and have no thought that a hundred or so years later, when they are dead and gone, that same remark…

Poor old Ivy, whose face I can’t remember. She was single and she was lonely. No wonder she lingered overlong.

I am experimenting with one-finger typing on the tablet in an attempt to combine my photos with my writing, without a technological battle involving a box full of those black joining-up cables, only one of which will talk to my desktop. Sometimes.

Expect very short posts.

I am still shielding. Technically I could now go out for a walk once a day, with one other person, but distancing. The thing is, the virus hasn’t changed, it’s still here. And my health hasn’t changed. Therefore I am just as likely to catch it and expire most unpleasantly from it as I ever was. The only thing that’s changed is the Government’s need to re-start the economy. People have to start dying a bit more, basically. I’m not going to be experimented with. I was never much use to the economy anyway.

This morning I did have to go out, though. Four of the cats’ claws had reached the ‘dangerous’ stage, meaning they had finally entered the realm of ’emergency surgery’ and could be seen. I had had to actually email photos of the sixteen paws in question.

I haven’t had to get myself organised for anything since two weeks before lockdown, now suddenly I had to embasket (probably not a real word) four cats, one of whom is at death’s door, stow them in my car, drive (actually, physically) to the next village and deposit them, in the icy, spitting early morning rain of an English June. I phoned reception, got stuck in the “very, very busy at the moment” queue, then let them know the cats had landed.

A nurse came to the back door, and waved. Rubber gloves, mask. Cats disappeared inside. I waited in my car for half an hour. Rain on the windscreen, fighting the panic attack. I should be in there with them. I seem to be attached to my cats by that old invisible elastic band. It stretches, it stretches…

Then the cats reappear, re-embasketed, with the nurse, and a burly vet. They come right up to the car. This was not how I rehearsed it. No, I squeak, leaping back, I’m meant to be distancing.. My new pink flowery mask, I notice, is still on the dashboard, not on my face.

We do that cumbersome little social dance that only the English can do. The burly vet shuffles backwards on the gravel. The nurse has bought the paying machine out with her. I fumble in my bag for the card. We lean across the cat boxes at an awkward angle, passing bits of plastic back and forth, tapping in the PIN. It rains on us both. It rains on the cats. I mustn’t touch my face till I can get home and soap away the germs.

I mustn’t order any online groceries for at least the next fortnight. Four cats manicured equals two weeks’ food. Of course there’s still the Government’s food box, Friday. All those yummy carrots…

Old Lady Ankle Boots

They were in one of those limp little catalogues that plop through your letter-box on a Monday morning. “Cosy” – a word that nobody under forty-five can think without a flinch. But my feet were so very, very cold that I did think it, and sent for a pair of sheepskin-lined ankle boots.

I worked as a secretary for Messrs Gimp, Stanley & Co, an interesting, eccentric and notoriously parsimonious firm of solicitors. We rented half an eighteenth century building just off the High Street in a road stuffed with solicitors. The other half was taken by our rivals, Messrs Mafford Speers. Maffords were more corporate and less colourful than Gimps. They didn’t like their staff any more, but did see the benefit of central heating.

Equity partners lived on the ground floor, nearest our esteemed and much fawned-over clients. Salaried had offices on the floor above and everyone else, including me, was banished to the floor above that. The higher the floor, the shabbier and colder it got. Whatever the weather, we weren’t permitted to approach the gas fires until November. When November did finally arrive we brought in boxes of cooks’ matches – the ones with the extra-long stems. Failing cooks’ matches we would tape an ordinary match to the end of a metal letter-opener and lean as far back as possible before striking it and turning the gas on full.

The sash windows had been there since the building was new, in 1721. They rattled whenever it was windy. I typed stiff-fingered in a swirling draught, wearing the standard cheap office suit with hand-knitted fingerless gloves. I’d wind a pink woollen scarf tied around my ankles, and sometimes forget to unwind it when I stood up.

The ankle-boots drew disapproving glances from the Partners but they didn’t remark, and I wasn’t that bothered, being next on their list for constructive dismissal. People like me, with a surfeit of inspiration and a deficit in concentration, never tend to last long in offices.

It was winter when I caught sight of him. I was on my lunch break and, of course, wearing the old lady ankle boots with cosy sheepskin lining. There was a long queue in the Post Office and I joined it. My hair was a mess; I felt a bit pasty, with the beginnings of a spot on my forehead. The menopause plays havoc.

He was up the front by the Wait Here sign, next in line for a cashier. He should have been in Scotland, in a sizeable cottage, with small potted trees on either side of the door. Yet here he inexplicably was. Until that moment I had never given much thought to the expression “rooted to the spot”. The queue was closing up and I suppose I was shuffling along with it, but to all intents and purposes, I was rooted. That dear, familiar face, that that bony brow; that strange, masculine-yet-feminine shape that he unfortunately still was. Thirteen years had passed but he genuinely didn’t look any older; neatly turned-out, as always; mid-length camel coat and one of those expensive roll-neck sweaters in pastel blue.

I used to wonder if he was gay, half gay or potentially gay but he proved to be a lusty lover. He told me he had read books on technique – how to caress a woman with only his eyes, how to put her in the mood for love before ever laying hands on her.

He played the church organ, which in retrospect seems quite amusing. He had his piano delivered when we moved into the maisonette. On summer afternoons he would play Yesterday with the windows flung wide open to admit the salt breeze, and local children would drape themselves over the area gates, open-mouthed, to listen. He was good with children. He didn’t want his little girl to be upset by meeting me, so when she came over I would go out. I came to loathe her without ever having met her. Occasionally I had to disappear for a whole weekend.

He introduced me to leisurely breakfasts in the window-seat, with buttered toast, marmalade and the papers. He taught me to cook, a bit, with garlic even. He introduced me to Vivaldi, and Enya, but wasn’t at all keen a cat despite my wheedling: only later did it occur to me why.

Thirteen years since last I saw him; innumerable icy years to come – who knows what the final total will be – during which I will not to set eyes on him again. I should have tapped him on the shoulder, said something or anything to bank a fresh memory of his face that might tide me over. But those old-lady ankle-boots had glued me to the floor and struck me dumb.

He passed quite close to me on the way out. I looked away, sideways. Though my heart was beating like a thing possessed, as it had once been possessed, though I could barely breathe and tears welled up in eyes, I kept on shuffling forwards in my old lady ankle boots. I pictured him, out of the door, off down the street, off down another street, and then another; finding that expensive car in the car park and driving away. Back to Scotland, or wherever it was he now resided.

He told me once that God would always save him a parking space, in any city. God would reward all those who had faith in Him.

Under The Black Flag

Coffee spoons aren’t the only thing you can measure out your life with: there’s shopping trolleys, for instance.

I had a lot of men, but only two that mattered. The first I called my anchor, the second became my sail. I suppose I was a romantic, for I pictured my life as a voyage in a paper boat across an endless ocean. Or I might have the boat itself: one of those origami things my grandfather failed to teach me. I was either bowling along in a stiff breeze, becalmed in some weed-infested sea-within-a-sea, or sinking.

My anchor was a controlling kind of man. In those days a controlling man was a manly man, as long as he didn’t actually break your arm or black your eye. I loved my manly man, but he would keep taking things out of the shopping trolley. I would put something in and he would take it right back out again.

We went food shopping on Thursdays, in his car. At first this was a novelty. My mother had been in charge of the shopping and I’d never been to a supermarket before. Up and down the aisles we went, he with purpose, I with increasing gloom. I would see something I thought we needed; coffee, perhaps, or cheese. He would frown down at it and, without comment, put it back on the shelf. It wasn’t long before I stopped putting things in the basket.

I remained in charge of pushing the trolley, but I didn’t even do that right. I sensed he felt I was dawdling and daydreaming, which I was, mostly of not being married. I steered it crooked. “Goodness knows what sort of driver you’ll make if you ever manage to pass the test.”

We rented a third-floor flat; a grubby, shabby collection of rooms with a hole in the kitchen wall that you could have fallen through if you tried hard enough. Sometimes I wanted to try. We shovelled up the carpet and its rotten underlay. There was a scattering of tiny, multicoloured sweets mixed in with it, I remember. He shoved the mouse-infested furniture down one end and covered it in blankets. I grew a tomato plant in a pot on the balcony but I had planted the seed in August, which was far too late. The tomatoes stuck at green.

An Aquarian and a Virgo: an unpromising combination.

I was twenty-one and he was thirty.

My sail came along later, and for his sake I cut loose from my anchor. At intervals I wished I hadn’t because the sail, inevitably, was to turn out badly too. He and I were so alike, like mirror images: an Aquarian and an Aquarian, a disastrous collision of star signs. We lived in a place on the seafront – back to rented. The salt spray quickly started to rust my third-hand car.

We also went the supermarket for our groceries, but not necessarily on Thursdays, just when we got round to thinking about it. We had a trolley each and sailed up and down the aisle, side by side, in the whoosh of a following wind. I was not accustomed to fun. I had never scooted a trolley before, or allowed myself to giggle in the company of a man. People gave us looks but it was exhilarating, being young at last.

I was thirty-nine and he was forty.

Apparently I should have found myself an Aries, a Gemini, a Libra or a Sagittarius. It’s too late now.

Now I am so old that I cannot tell you how old I am. If I visit the supermarket at all, I go alone. Mostly I order stuff online and it gets delivered after dark by a man in a uniform who’s anxious to get home to his family. When I do go, I’m grateful for the trolley to lean on. Some days this hip’s so bad, it saves me limping.

I navigate the person-littered aisles with quiet skill, being a much better driver than my anchor once predicted. I place in my trolley what I choose to place in it, but I can’t afford much. I don’t attempt the sailing thing because I can’t. I wouldn’t even if I could because they might lock me away somewhere. Old women are always being locked away; fed with plastic spoons, showered by strangers, slid from bed to chair and back again on a board.

Sail under a black flag, that’s my motto. Don’t let the buggers catch you.

(flash fiction: 753 words)

Time to grow out the moustache?

Until this morning I could think of very few positives to the coronavirus situation. As I have said before, choosing to be a hermit is one thing – having hermitry, hermitage or possibly hermitonomy imposed upon one by the Government is another. I self-isolated of my own accord a week early, knowing I was “at risk”, but now I am being compelled to I am sad. Three months, a whole summer confined with a herd of cats, trying to track down cans of catfood. If the worst really comes to the worst they will have to hold their noses and tackle the Bozita. The Bozita has been in the garage for a year. Not only would they not eat it when I bought it, they wouldn’t go within a yard of it.

But this morning I woke up with an idea. Well, I was woken up, forcibly, by Martha, my self-appointed “alarm cat”. She sees it as her duty to push, jump, scratch, dribble most persistently, hour upon hour if necessary, until I drag myself out of bed. My idea?

Let the moustache grow out!!

When will there ever be a better opportunity? Three months of seeing no one except the odd delivery driver – and delivery drivers never look at you. And now, they are so anxious to get away they linger even less. As the Tesco man said, “If you admit to symptoms we will drop your shopping on the doorstep and run away.”

I would not like anyone to think that I am, in my natural state, a grotesquely bearded lady. As far as I remember – back to when I was twelve or thirteen – the moustache was really only what you might expect to appear on a brown-haired English girl. But in those days – we’re talking Sixties, before Women’s Lib – neither facial not armpit hair was acceptable. Girls aimed to look like Twiggy – vacant, pale, pure and skinny. If it was an eyelash, you loaded it with mascara, liberally lubricated with spit. If it was in an armpit, you shaved it. If it was under your nose you bleached, tweezed, shaved, waxed, chemically removed – in fact bazooka’d it in any way you could.

We had a French girl at our school once, on an exchange visit. She was incredibly glamorous, we felt, until we all went to play tennis after school. My God, the girl was hiding a dead hamster under either arm. The horror of it! Poor girl. I hope she took no notice of our titters.

So – three months – maybe more – of not zapping the moustache. It occurs to me that since I am going grey – well pepper-and-salt, anyway – maybe el bigote will come out a soft, wispy grey. If it turns out anything like the above, though, it’s a goner.

Just as an aside. One of my two distant friends phoned me up last night, to check that I was all right. She says she will call me once a week from now on, just to touch base. The awfulness and wonderfulness of this is – that this is the same friend who has struggled all her life with bouts of clinical depression. I have witnessed – from the outside – the horrors she has gone through. I have visited her in a hospital ward, surrounded by mad people. I have found her sobbing behind her computer in the office we shared. I never, really, had any idea what to do for the best. Yet she was the one who called me.

Strange Days

Well, I fell asleep on the sofa. Then I woke up and the radio was playing The Boxer, over and over again, with different people saying what it had meant to them. Apparently The Boxer was Leonard Nimoy’s favourite song and when he was on his deathbed a grandson found it on his mobile phone and played it to him. This made me sad. Leonard Nimoy – or rather Mr Spock – was my favourite.

Then I tidied up and came to bed. Then I realised I couldn’t sleep so I got up again and started writing. Why is it easier to fall asleep on a cold winter’s night such as this in the corner of an uncomfortable faux-leather sofa than in a nice, soft bed with a big, thick duvet?

Nowadays I divide my nights between the two. That seems to work well enough. Two o’clock in the morning may find me back on the sofa, drinking a cup of tea in the dark with the World Service burbling away, low volume. So as not to wake the neighbours up, who plague whole days with their noise.

I have lost my Neighbours’ Names list. You’d think I’d have them off by heart after seven years, wouldn’t you? Yes, it had all their names on, plus their house numbers, plus the names of all their pet dogs and cats so that I could include all of them on the Christmas cards. I have forgotten the names of Next Door, who make all the noise, maybe because I dislike them. So I addressed their envelope “To All @…. ”

Strange days. My sister-in-law finally managed to catch me on the landline. I’ve managed to dodge her for – oh, probably several years. At the end of an hour’s conversation – mostly hers – my God, she can rabbit – she asked me if I knew that Ex had finally married My Replacement, because he was advised to by his financial advisor.

“No,” I said. I could hear myself sounding calm, sensible and quite un-hurt. “When was this?”

“Back in the summer. None of us got invited, they just sent us a slice of manky old cake.”

I hadn’t even got the slice of manky old cake. He hadn’t even rung me. He’d probably never have rung me.

“Oh my God,” she said, “I’m so sorry. I thought you’d know. You’re not upset are you? I mean, I know he’s my brother but, you know, I think we can agree you had a lucky escape.”

“Not upset,” I lied, “but thank you for telling me.”

“You’ll be all right won’t you? I feel bad now.”

“Yes, of course I’ll be all right. It might take me a day or two to process it.”

Process it! I sound like a psychotherapist. It rakes up all the Dad stuff. All the Ex stuff, since Ex, I long ago realised, was but a continuation of the conflict with Dad. All that love, all that violence; all that ancient grief; all that unresolved everything. It puts the full-stop to a forty-six year-long sentence; it gives away my title to someone else; it wipes me out, it negates me; it puts me beyond hope of making my peace with Dad. I can’t actually conjure up my own face inside my head any more. Process it!

(But of course, I will.)mirror6

Well, tomorrow will be another strange day. High winds forecast, and a General Election. I postal-voted weeks ago, and thank goodness I did because windy weather and me don’t mix. I know they worry about voters not turning out in bad weather, which is why Elections are traditionally held in the summer (and almost always on a Thursday, for some reason). I think people will turn out if they feel strongly enough – and I think they do, this time. The December wind will blow them out of their warm, shabby little houses and down the hill to the village hall. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. Mayhem, maybe.

Another sleepless night tomorrow. It will definitely be the uncomfortable sofa-corner then, huddled in a blanket, covered in cats. As I’ve got rid of the TV I shall be tuning to Radio 4. Coverage starts at a quarter to ten, fifteen minutes before the polling stations close. And then the counting starts. This is far more exciting to me than Christmas, but then I’m a politics dweeb.

Objets Perdus

Now, this is a bit of a strange one, and I have been putting off writing about it for days. Something to do with shame, I think – shame and sorrow. But what’s the best way for a writer to call up and exorcise her ghosts?

Write about them.

When I was a child I had a (very) few treasured objects, and one by one I lost them or gave them away. Something seems to compel me to ‘lose’ the things that mean the most to me – and not just objects, people. One by one, I have mislaid them all.

Setting aside the people, because nothing at all can be done about them. Those objects…

I had a copy of Aesop’s Fables. It was a beautiful book – they are ferociously expensive to buy second-hand now. You know, I thought, until this very moment, that I had given it away. I had been wracking my brains to think how I gave it away. Why would I have done that with my beloved Aesop? I read that book over and over. The fables, and the beautiful but slightly creepy illustrations, those glossy, full-page watercolours, seeped into my childhood consciousness.

But I gave it away. Or did I? I just turned sideways and there it was, sitting in the bookcase beside me. It has lost it’s cover, the boards have faded from scarlet to orange, but – still here. Inside I have written my full maiden name, in ink, in weird little-girl writing. Two pages on and an inscription reads With love to Rosie, on her 7th Birthday. From Grandma & Grandpa. Well, Rosie or, you know, whatever.

But other objects I really did lose. I once had a stone, with the impression of a prehistoric sea creature upon it, like a tiny octopus. I found it half-buried in the path between the allotments. It was as if it had been waiting for just me, that magical fossil, for billions and billions of years. If only I had kept it, if only I had not somehow lost it – what luck it might have brought me.

And I gave away my Odhams Encyclopaedia for children. I remember the struggle I had at the time. It was when my niece was born and I foolishly had this idea that the child should “inherit” something of value from her auntie. And I have regretted the loss of that book ever since.

And then there was my teddy bear. I temporarily forgot about him and instead of taking him with me when I got married I foolishly left him with Mum. In fact he was up in the attic, and I didn’t realise. Mum and my sister are alike in “getting rid”. She accidentally informed me one day, several years later, that she had given my bear to Oxfam. After all, she knew I wouldn’t want it.

I never stopped missing my bear. I mourned for him. Even now – especially now, when I am old – I want my teddy bear back. I realised today that that was what my teddy-bear buying jag had been all about. I now have a cupboard full of disreputable 1950s teddy-bears courtesy of E-bay. None of them are my bear, but I have rescued them. I couldn’t save it but I have saved them.

I know, it doesn’t make sense.

And now I have gone and saved “my” Encyclopedia. And in fact I have saved more than one of them because the other day eBay came up with a second, horribly battered copy for only £2 and I bid the £2 and won. To my surprise. The first one, which arrived a week ago, cost a massive £20 but is in excellent condition. Unlike me, its owner must have held it close, kept it. Presumably there will soon be a stack of second-hand Odhams Encyclopaedias on my coffee table, all ridiculously, pathetically rescued by some ancient woman, just in case one of them might turn out to have been her actual one.

When I was a child the page that fascinated me the most was the one with the anaconda. My mother used to take the mickey, saying that the encyclopaedia would fall open at the snakes page of its own accord. I do hope it was nothing sexual. I mean, I was very young and, lacking any kind of brother (though over-supplied with sisters) did not even suspect the existence of that appendage which, according to Dr Freud, snakes represent.

In my memory the anaconda took up the whole of the page and was vividly coloured, green and gold and glittery. Now I see that it is smaller, and in black and white, but I still like the way the artist has coiled and draped the various snakes around the branches, the way the pictures and the text bleed into one another.

How beautiful that anaconda was to me, and how utterly terrifying. In my mind’s eye I stood before him in the South American jungle, tiny-small in my cotton check school dress and pudding-basin haircut. Anaconda was looking at me out of that glittery, sardonic eye. He was weighing up whether to wrap me in his sinuous, gorgeous coils and crush me to smithereens. Because that is what anacondas do, being the largest of the boa constrictor family.

And I wished he would. And I wished he wouldn’t.

And this is him, my beloved, my childhood version of God: the anaconda, unchanged over the decades and decades since I first caught sight of him.

Why do we lose the things we love?

IMG_20191118_133816

Haunted By Davids

Haunted by Davids

I observed fairly early on that the names of everyday boys and men, and those of the men in the romantic short stories in Nan’s old Woman’s Realms belonged to two different subsets of men’s names. Boys in my class, for instance, tended to be called John, James, Robert, William, Michael, David, Richard, Thomas, Charles or Gary. I remember one Andrew – but he was quite exotic – and one Paul – but of course he was Polish. What we didn’t have were any Dirks, Aidens, Bryces, Calebs, Dantes or Micahs.

I guessed, correctly, that a plain big lumpy girl like me was never going to snare herself a Micah. But I was haunted by Davids, for some reason. Everywhere I went, throughout my life there a David would “happen to be”. For some reason all Davids seemed to like me, whereas no other-named kind of man did.

I didn’t even like Davids, at least not in a marrying way. Davids sounded as if they ought to be round-shouldered and work in shoe shops, bringing out boxes of shoes to shoehorn onto your ungrateful feet; or perhaps behind the desk at the library, pathetically eager to help you locate obscure non-fictions in the card-index system or to point you in the direction of French dictionaries.

And so I married a man with another ordinary-ish man’s name. I didn’t particularly like it, but it was attached to him so I married it. Over the next twenty-two years or so I came to feel that I might have been better off with a David after all. Coincidentally, Devon Aunt chose to name all her rescue cats David. One stray, furry David after another, for thirty years or so.

Apple Peel and Cherry Pips

Halloween used to be a good time to find out the name of your future mate. At Halloween, it was said, a girl might see his face reflected dimly in a mirror – maybe standing behind you. I wonder if clothed or unclothed… Then there was the game with the apple core. You peeled an apple, being sure to keep the peel in a single piece, and tossed the peel over your shoulder, where it would – or might – form the initial of your husband to be.

Alternatively you could line up hazelnuts along a hot grate, giving each hazelnut the name of a prospective husband. Then you would recite:

If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die!

A variation – such of the nuts as cracked would be the fickle suitors.

Or you could place your shoes in the form of a letter ‘T’ (representing Thor’s hammer) and say

Hoping this night my true love to see, I place my shoes in the form of a “T”.

And then there were the cherry stones, which you placed around the rim of your plate as you ate them. My Nan actually taught me this one:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.

Nan preserved cherries in the summer from the cherry tree in the garden and we ate them in the winter, from thick glass jars arrayed on shelves around the top of the living room, just underneath the ceiling. But what I couldn’t understand was how one Sunday I was going to marry a Thief and the next a Rich Man, and so ad infinitum, all winter long. And if I didn’t like what appeared I could always eat another cherry.

Apparently there was also Silk, Satin, Muslin, Rags. That was what you would be married in. But Nan didn’t teach me that.

The Green Oil Lamp

I have only ever been to a fortune teller twice in my life. The second one asked me if I was married to a long-distance lorry driver, as she sensed my husband seemed to be absent a lot. I wanted to tell her that you didn’t need a long-distance lorry to seem to be absent a lot. A shed at the bottom of the garden would do just as well.

The first fortune teller had been the vicar’s wife, in a small but elaborate tent, masquerading as Gypsy Rose Something Or Other. I was quite young, and it was at a fête in the grounds of the local “big house”. I remember I had just failed to get the metal ring along yards of wiggly electrified loops, and was looking for something else to do. And thinking back – yes, I was dressed as Florence Nightingale in a longish skirt and a white apron, and clutching a green oil lamp.

I had been in for the fancy dress competition because Mum told me I must, and I hadn’t had any more success with that than the metal ring and the electrified snake. The green oil lamp occupied one entire small hand, and it was greasy and smelled of paraffin. I wanted to put it down somewhere and forget about it but I couldn’t, because Mum had told me I mustn’t.

The vicar’s wife looked at me despairingly from beneath her curtain-ring fringed headscarf. Then she waved her hands about and around her crystal ball. You will have four children and, um, an operation when you are forty, she pronounced, and snatched my penny or tuppence from the hand that wasn’t holding the oil lamp.

I waited for those four children with an odd superstitious confidence, considering I knew it was only the vicar’s wife; and I felt quite aggrieved when not only did the promised four offspring not arrive, but none did. And I do believe I rather dreaded that operation, which also did not happen – or at least not when it was supposed to.

The sprouting of damp souls

I have ordered a new smartphone; cheaper and, I sincerely hope, smarter than the Doro. The Doro wasn’t very smart at all. My sister is seven years younger than me and has a son with a degree in computing who designs apps for a living – at least, we believe that’s approximately what he does – and says the Doro has got to go. “It’s time,” she says. A smartphone deserves to be in a bin, she says, if it

  • turns itself off and on at random;
  • will no longer charge except within its own special little cradle;
  • refuses to open one of those little square boxes with patterns on that produce Amazon return labels, whilst its Owner is edging towards the front of the queue at the Post Office;
  • is perpetually loading but never actually starting a weather advice app that it’s owner didn’t want in the first place;
  • has space for only one app in addition to the Google and Doro bloatware that it came with and demands that you delete even that every time Google or Doro want to update any of the never-used bloat-stuff; and
  • becomes convinced, after every unscheduled hibernation, that the date is January 1st 1970 and can only become convinced that it is 2019 or thereabouts after five minutes of laborious scrolling. And then there is the time to reset from 01:00 hours –

Why would it even contain a calendar going back to 1970? Surely mobile phones – those huge house-brick things that go with the frizzy hair, the weird lipstick and the rainbow-coloured exercise outfits – didn’t appear till the ’80s?

I have also given up and turned on the central heating. It was getting kind of dank in here. The washing – which I’ve been draping from the doorframes to dry since the tumble-drier gave up the ghost – was not drying, at all, merely adding to the general air of Dickensian dampness. It’ll be the black spots next, I thought. And after that tiny mushrooms or maybe – toadstools – sprouting from the skirting-boards.

Which reminds me of a school poetry lesson many years ago, when a Jehovah’s Witness classmate objected to the souls in ‘Morning at the Window’ by T S Eliot. “There is no such thing as The Soul, sir!” she said, standing up behind her desk. Her desk was near mine, and I could see her trembling. “No such thing!”

After fruitless negotiations, along the lines of “Couldn’t we just assume the existence of The Soul, in the context of this particular poem – ?” she was led away by the left ear and deposited on the bench outside the headmistresses office.

Poor girl. How hard it is to speak up when we should, and how hard to stay silent.

Morning at the Window – T S Eliot 1888 – 1965

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs.

Useless And Unacceptable Gifts

I think today’s probably takes the biscuit – a portable mouth-to-mouth resuscitation kit in a tiny green plastic box, on a wire keyring. At the moment I am still trying to think what the heck to do with it, so it is hanging from the knob of one of my kitchen cupboards. The giver (the Illegal Scotsman from over the road) explained to me that new “innards” can be obtained for the tiny green plastic box free of charge from his firm, once I have resuscitated someone. He also explained that it was so that you did not have to ingest any of a person’s highly infectious spittle whilst attempting to save their life. I turn into the proverbial headless chicken the moment there is any sort of medical emergency…

He was rewarding me for allowing him to park his work van in front of my house for the rest of the day. He didn’t want some people who were coming to visit him to discover what sort of work he actually did.  I thought he sold solar panels to go on south-facing rooftops, but the new van proclaims that he is a plumber. Since when? Is he qualified? All sorts of dodges like that happen round here.

This reminded of the comedienne Joyce Grenfell. If you have access to Spotify you will be able to hear her recorded “talk” to some kind of Institute. It’s worth a listen, though not perhaps quite up to the classic George, Don’t Do That. In it she plays a lady earnestly describing some Useful And Acceptable Gifts for you to make. The first is a (gruesomely mispronounced) boutonnière fashioned from “beech nut husk clusters”, a phrase the lady obviously loves the sound of since she repeats it ad nauseam. I had to look up boutonnière; apparently it’s a little spray of flowers to be worn in a gentleman’s buttonhole at a wedding. I haven’t been to a wedding since 1980 or thereabouts.

The second Useful And Acceptable item was an artistic waste paper basket made out of a biscuit tin. You had to persuade someone to give you the biscuits first, and then remove all trace of advertising matter. The third I was having awful trouble working out – maybe you can. Either my hearing’s even worse than I thought or it is a very crackly recording.

That reminded me of my father, whose greatest pride was that he had danced with Joyce Grenfell when she came out to entertain the troops in India during the War, and that he had been the driver trusted to drive her back to the station in his army truck at the end of the evening. It was his Fifteen Minutes of Fame. Actually, if you look at a picture of Joyce Grenfell you are looking at Devon Aunt, my late father’s older sister. It’s uncanny. Maybe that’s why was so taken with her.

joyce grenfell.jpg

Joyce Grenfell, 1910 – 1979

I was trying to recall other gifts I have received, appalling enough to come under the heading Useless And Unacceptable. I do recall a white plastic soap-dish on a stalk, a present from a Great Aunt soon after I was married. It was like a half a clamshell. Perhaps it was intended as a late wedding present. The minute you put a bar of soap on it, it toppled over.

There were the endless manicure kits. I bit my nails from seven onwards, and in fact have only managed to stop in the last few years by the simple expedient of clipping and filing my nails the minute they reach the ends of my fingers so that there is nothing to bite.

Mum presumably informed every single friend or relative that I bit my nails, which resulted in a fresh manicure set from one ancient aunt or another every Christmas and birthday complete with orange stick – I never worked out what that was for – a coarse, unusable metal file with a little mother-of-pearl handle and another, matching item for pushing back the bit at the top of your nail – the quick, my mother called it. My quicks never seemed to actually need pushing back and I couldn’t understand why other people’s did.

There was also a horse’s head key-rack, from a rather strange schoolfriend. Wooden, shaped like a horse’s head and garishly painted. In those days I did not have a single key to hang up. My parents never did let me have the longed-for ‘key of the door’. When I reached twenty-one I got tired of waiting. I got married, and got one, and unfortunately also a husband.

Chaos At The OK Corral

Chaos, etc

So, it is not the Iceman that Cometh after all, but the B-word. Or maybe not. Who knows? Who cares?

Unfortunately, we all do care, and that’s the problem. Mostly, in this country, we don’t care about very much. Cricket? Football? Taxes? The Cost of Living? Nah! Most of us shuffle about our daily chores in soggy old England, soggy old Wales, even soggier old Ireland and soggy, windy and snowy old Scotland, not really caring about very much. Most of us are more interested in who’s going to be in Strictly this year or what ghastly disaster is currently causing the cast of Coronation Street to bellow and screech at each other in unbearably exaggerated local accents.

Before the B word, most of us were wandering about in supermarkets trying to decide between salted peanuts or salt-and-vinegar crisps or, at the weekend, wandering about in garden centres trying to decide whether to plant tulips or daffs next spring. Unless roused, we are not a passionate race. It takes a lot to get us out on the street, bellowing stupidities through a megaphone for twelve hours a day, or throwing milkshakes at one another. Mostly we just do – in England, anyway, is a bit of vicious mumbling, the odd heavy sigh or – if really furious – a barely-audible click of annoyance.

But now we all do care. They – whoever they are – have actually made us care – and we are simply not equipped for it. We were mostly brought up to be polite, to the point of never actually saying exactly what we mean to anyone. We were mostly brought up to be deferential, retiring, obsequious, oblique – and now – now we are really, really, really angry, all of us, and we don’t know what to do about it. Who or what can we beat up? Should we take to the streets with yellow umbrellas, like in Japan? Who actually possesses a yellow umbrella, in this country? Who do we scream at? Is anyone going to listen if we do?

What can we break? Because sooner or later, something is going to get broken. And once that old Viking berserker has taken possession of us, do we actually have the wherewithal to turn him off?

I have decided, in order to survive the next few weeks and months, my plan is this: I will make myself numerous cups of tea and huddle in the corner of my sofa listening to Country & Western music all day. I will cry with Dolly Parton. Along with all those lonesome cowboys and cowgirls I will pine for parts of America I have never visited or heard of, and have no idea where they are in relation to all the other bits of America.

I will knit endless, pointless dishcloths just because I happen to have a lot of cotton yarn. I will carry on reading my way through a houseful of disintegrating paperbacks. I will feed the cats twice a day. If things get really bad I will turn Dolly Parton up to full volume:

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene… I will trill, off key and out of tune

… Please don’t take him just because you can.

Hindi in Three Months

This book arrived today and I read the introduction whilst munching my cheese and mayo sandwich. Not a good idea, grease-wise, but who cares? The world is about to end anyway. It seems reassuringly laid-back in comparison with the other books in the Three Months series, which strive to impress upon you how hard Language X is going to be, how much work you are letting yourself in for if you are foolish enough to proceed with the course, etc., etc. Hindi in Three Months tells you that it is not expecting you to actually write Hindi, just (with any luck) be able to communicate, in a basic sort of way, should you walk into a village in some remote part, where English is not spoken.  I particularly like this bit:

In Hindi, all nouns are masculine or feminine (with no logic to decide which). They can be singular, plural, honorific or ‘oblique’, and their endings change accordingly. Similar changes apply also to adjectives and verbs. In commonly-spoken Hindi, though, such rules are blatantly disregarded…

Hooray! It’s like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

My father was sent to India during the war. His job was driving trucks around. He had only ever driven his father’s car around a car park in Rochester, but because he admitted that… Never volunteer for anything, he told me. Never admit, for example, that you can play the piano, or they’ll have you moving one.

My father was an electrician. Apprenticed before the war, when they finally allowed him to return (along with the germs for recurrent malaria) he was employed in the same trade. Around that time there was a big wave of immigration, and Chatham, one of his main areas of work, seemed to fill up with people newly-arrived from India, many of whom, especially the ladies, did not speak English and were therefore isolated, in the poorest and most depressing back-streets.

Sent to investigate an electrical problem he would walk in – and I can imagine, all six foot four of him, deep voice, ready smile – and announce – well, it sounded like – Tora Tora Hindi Bolla which, he said, meant I speak a little Hindi. And then, he said, everyone would be delighted and very pleased to see him, and offer him Chai.

I never quite believed this. It used to make me cringe, rather, as one’s parents always do. Surely this mangled phrase fell into the same embarrassing category as Grandad’s Dooz Ooofs ay Pom de Tare Fritz Si Voo Plate! However, I just did some detective work in the mini-dictionary at the back and I can see he was more or less right:

thoRaa – a little

bolnaa – to say, to speak

So – a little, a little – Hindi – I speak. Somehow, this pleases me.

My Emotional Support Rabbit

I want an Emotional Support Rabbit, I’ve decided. According to the BBC, anyway, such fabulous creatures are allowed to accompany those suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues on to American aeroplanes. What a wonderful thing. There have apparently been Emotional Support Kangaroos, Emotional Support Turkeys, Emotional Support Cats and Dogs, even an Emotional Support Miniature Horse. (Presumably the turkeys would be excused flights home for Thanksgiving.) However, a Support Peacock by the name of Dexter was turned away because he was too big and heavy. The Support Miniature Horse was in fact smaller and lighter than the Support Peacock?

After the peacock incident United Airlines decided to ban a range of less usual creatures, including frogs, hedgehogs and goats, and are currently limiting it to cats, dogs, and of course miniature horses.

In Britain, of course, we are far more staid. Just tune in to a session of Parliament and watch the MPs discussing Brexit – bellowing, jeering, catcalling and even, fairly recently, making sheep noises – to be sure of this. (I am not sure if they ever tracked down that sheep-noise maker: they were certainly trying quite hard to.) So, British airlines, being far more staid, do not permit support animals for mental health conditions, though they do permit physical disability/guide dogs, and presumably those might be doubling as emotional support.

This reminds me of a Christmas Dinner I was once forced to attend with my colleagues at Poop, Stagger & Collapse, Solicitors (no, not really). We were sitting around long tables in a restaurant slightly more expensive than most of us would have normally been able to afford – draughty and underheated, with snowy-white tablecloths adding to the general chill. At the end of the food and quite a few bottles of wine, nearly all of the partners (or so it seemed) stood up to give a speech about the progress the firm had made in the past year and it’s plans for the one to come. The final, particularly long and rambling speech was interrupted by mysterious crowings – Cock-a-doodle-doooo, etc – from a novelty alarm clock. Everyone knew who it was, but since he was a Partner himself nothing was done.

Back to Emotional Support Creatures. Given the choice I would go for an Emotional Support Little Rabbit – just big enough to fit in my jacket pocket, with large brown eyes and twitchy little whiskers. Much as I love cats they are absolutely no good at emotional support. A cat will scratch you when you’re down, demand food when you’re stressed. Cats poop, piddle and vomit everywhere. Trying to persuade a cat not to perform three of his five Favourite Natural Functions just because it was on an aeroplane – nah! Taking a cat anywhere, even six miles in a motor car, leaves one a nervous wreck. Or nervous boat as a distance learning student once put it:

My postal course materials am stolen in the prison where I reside. Please, I am become a nervous boat.

It does seem to be a week for animal-themed posts. I follow an excellent WordPress blog called ‘English Language Thoughts’ and the question posed was;

Which would you choose – to be able to speak another language or to speak to the animals?

My Comment was that talking to the animals would be best. At my time of life and in my straitened circumstances I am hardly likely to need to speak to a foreign person in their own language. Unless Britain happens to be invaded by Foreign Persons in which case I shall sincerely wish I had learned that particular language and start scrabbling around for text books and studying by candle-light.

But how useful, to be able to ask your pet how it felt instead of hazarding a guess. Pets are notoriously ‘stoical’, ie they keep a poker face and disguise suffering as a defence against predators. How many trips to the vet could be saved if they could just tell you.

On the other hand – what if our beloved animals, no longer mute, chose to inform us stuff we didn’t want to hear – anything from I abhor this leopard-skin collar to Why exactly did you remove my reproductive organs when I was just a kitten? to What about vivisection!

I have always assumed my own cats to be super intelligent. Inside those furry little noddles they would have been composing Oscar Wilde-type witticisms or ruminating upon the meaning of life from a feline perspective. But it occurs to me that this ain’t necessarily so. Supposing they are really stupid? Supposing all they can chat about is Whiskas versus Felix? Supposing their political opinions can be summarised in one sentence: Well, there’s nothing I can do about anything in any case so I’m not even going to think about it.

Yes, someone actually said that to me. And she wasn’t a cat, either.

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

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

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

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4: Imagine

Continued from 3: Send in the clowns

I was also saved by my imagination and, if you like, the weird alternative-brain thing itself. That was – and is – by far the strongest form of defence, less costly than human relationships, far more flexible/portable than a husband. I always had the ability to tune right out, and this happened automatically whenever I began to get bored or things got rough. When things got very rough indeed I used to practice Silent Singing, most often The Sun Has Got His Hat On. I had my own way of distributing my consciousness between several places at once. I disappeared into books and stories, daydreams and plans. Inside my head was something like the Holodeck on the Spaceship Enterprise – the entire range of alternate universes on demand – and I spent many aeons away on my holidays on distant planets.

Later I started writing poems and stories. I found out how I felt through the poems and learned how I worked and what I thought through the stories. Together they became my Voice. I didn’t fret greatly that little I wrote was ever likely to get published – that wasn’t why I wrote. Much later I came to understand that a poem written (or a song sung, a painting painted, a love loved, an experience experienced) is engraved on the fabric of the universe, and will never be lost. You may have forgotten all the words or lost the old envelope it was scribbled on, but the poem is still there: all is taken in by the All That Is, which is constantly Becoming, in us and through us.

My parents were pretty bad until I left home. Almost as soon as I did they became pretty good. They did what they could to support me through the trials of what passed for my ‘adult’ life, though I never ceased to bewilder and exasperate them. I relied heavily on them for company as Ex seemed to be drifting further and further away, and when I found myself divorced, as a middle-aged ‘teenager’, basically – I had to learn how to change a light bulb and get petrol – I was glad of their support. I think they loved me. If only they could have told me so when I was young enough for it to have made a difference.

I would say to parents: even if you don’t understand what’s ‘wrong’ with your child – even if there is no medical word for it yet – even if (he or) she seems uncomfortably different to you or anybody else you have ever met – even if she is neither what you wanted nor what you anticipated – try to accept and love – or at least appear to love – what you did get. It works both ways. Your child has absolutely no choice but accept and love you, even as you shout abuse and raise your hand to strike.

When you are many years dead, do you really want your now elderly child to remember in technicolour what it felt like when you slammed her head into a door, trumping any good memories – like the day you taught her to swim; those Stanley Holloway monologues that made her laugh; the communal singing in the car?

If one approach fails, try and think of another. Watch and listen to your new child, as you would a new and exotic pet: work out what she needs. If you can’t work that out, talk to other people and be willing to ask for help. Be kind. Be gentle. Be creative. Think about what you are doing.

2: Supping with the Devil

Continued from 1: A house divided (technically, published on 29/7. You might need to use the Search box)

It’s a hopeless task, really, trying to explain how an alternative brain-wiring scheme works. I don’t know what it feels like to be inside a different kind of brain. Each of us has either the one experience or the other, so in what terms can I describe my experience?

Dad used to hit me. I think maybe later in life he realised he could be fond of me, but not in those early days. I soon learned not to meet his eye, not to answer back, not to say anything, but he didn’t like that either. He knew I was afraid and he just couldn’t resist the challenge. It would start off in the third person: She’s not saying much – what’s up with her? Then it would go to the first: Cat got your tongue, has it? Hey, you, I’m talking to you. He used to taunt me until I rose to the bait, until I snapped, answered back, pleaded or cried. And then he used to hit me.

I remember crouching once against the front door, with its bobbled glass panels. My head was against the lowest row of glass panels, my left arm covering my head. I remember the fancy sculpted shape of the wooden bits that divided the glass and the rough texture of the cocoanut doormat through the thin cotton of my school dress. I remember waking covered in vomit (the bedroom wall was the background that time) because I had cried myself to sleep. I remember rocking, rocking and howling, and saying over and over to myself for hours, or so it seemed: I will never, never have children. I will never, never do this to them. Sometimes I wonder if that was why. If on that one day, rocking and howling, at the age of eleven I actually killed off all those little eggs.

He used to get off his bike and wheel it round the side and into the garage. I would be listening to his heavy footfall and the sound of his bicycle wheels slowly click-clicking by his side. A monster, a giant was about to burst through the back door. There would be the urgent, whispered conversation between the two of them, before the door was even closed – that was me being reported on. A quick look in my direction, that frown, and then he would hit me. Or maybe he would just send me to my room; or sometimes, for variety, grab me by the collar and drag me to my room. If I resisted he might drag me by the hair along the polished passage floor to my room, blubbering. I would be in there for hours, until I wrote a note apologising in general terms – since in specific terms I didn’t actually know what I had done – crept out and pushed it under the kitchen door.

Whether Dad’s bullying had anything to do with me being odd I will never know. It was beyond my limited understanding. Another thing I didn’t understand at the time was why Mum never stood up for me. Knowing the consequences, why hadn’t she dealt with my crimes herself, before he got home? As it was, the minute he got in from work he was faced with a whispered, unfavourable report. She expected him to ‘do’ something to stop her being upset. And he certainly did.

In retrospect I think Mum was like me, or maybe mildly autistic. Dad was her prop and her shield against the world and she knew she couldn’t – or didn’t want to – cope without him. If he could burn off most of his frustration on me, he would be closer to her. Nothing would be her fault and she would keep him on her side, at her side whatever the cost, no competition. I suppose that’s scapegoating. She fed me to him, that’s what I feel.

Godmother has been around since I was just a bump. She babysat for Mum and Dad in the early days, when they had weekly meetings at the Cycling Club. Recently I asked her about some of this stuff, half expecting that she would say no, it wasn’t like that, you misunderstood – but she had seen it too. She said my father probably shouldn’t have got married and had children. I said maybe he would have been happier staying single, having serial girlfriends, going out on his bike whenever he wanted, not having to work so hard to support all those great lanky girls. He was a handsome enough chap, after all. But she said he probably couldn’t have got away with that. In the 50s marriage and children were the norm.

What that ’50s childhood taught me was that I wasn’t going to win. An unnatural, un-cuddly sort of baby – according to Mum – morphed into a fractious, defensive child, an automatic arguer and questioner of authority; an impulsive blurter-outer; a foolish answerer-back of people much larger and stronger than herself; a raging, hysterical demander of impossible justice. I learned that I was fatally flawed and that my Achilles’ heel was a combination of femaleness and my difference. I realised that I would not be able to get through life without some sort of bodyguard, and bodyguards were usually husbands.

My mother married my father in 1949 or thereabouts. He was six foot four inches tall, athletic and seven years older than her. He could be charming. He had a sense of humour, plenty of funny stories, a few silly songs and poems. He was at ease talking to  strangers when she was definitely not. He could tell her what to think and what to do. She never once voted a different way, she had no friends but their joint friends. At one point they were both agnostics, and then they were both humanists. They’d sent for all the pamphlets and signed all the forms. It was impossible to talk to one of them independently of the other or even catch one in a different room to the other. Especially towards the end they seemed to have merged into a single being. They stayed happily married until his death, after which Mum got increasingly deaf, then distressingly psychotic, finally settling into a less dramatic kind of dementia.

In ’70s I married a man nine years older than me. He looked like Dad and – guess what – was very definite in his opinions and would brook no argument. On one ‘courting’ visit he won an argument with Dad, and it was at that precise moment that I knew I had found the one. Later on I realised that he talked all the time – droned on, in fact – and since he never paused for breath everyone had to listen to him. In any case, since he was very clever and pretty gifted in several different fields, people admired him. It was as if they were in the presence of royalty. In the pub they would gather round in a circle and gawp at him open-mouthed as he held forth on art, music, model engineering or whatever. I used to watch them sometimes; their expressions. They never noticed because their eyes were glued to him. I didn’t need to join in, couldn’t have done if I had wanted to, and nobody expected me to. When we were alone he barely spoke. This suited me well enough for the first fifteen years or so, although I knew within the first week that it wasn’t going to be joyful.

That seems to be the thing with ‘shield’ relationships. The stronger one shields the weaker, but the power they use to shield you they are draining from you. In the presence of Ex, I would not have dared make a joke. I couldn’t have launched into one of my interminable ‘tales’. I couldn’t have showed off or spoken up, contradicted, criticised, interrupted, sung, recited a poem or laughed. An overbearing husband can hide you from the world, but will also hide you from yourself. Gradually, from behind the shield of his loud voice, broad shoulders, manly tweeds (Germaine Greer’s expression) or whatever, you find yourself fading away. You merge into the wallpaper and turn into a living ghost.

It’s a cliché, isn’t it, escaping your father by marrying someone just like him. On one of his alternate weekend ‘courting’ visit to my family (he used to camp in the living room at mine, I was installed in the spare room at his) he won an argument with my father. He didn’t shout – well, neither of them shouted – but there was this tense, gruff, masculine thing going on. They both just continued ‘reasoning’ at one another, going round and round in circles. Mum and I cringed quietly in our armchairs, waiting for all the windows to shatter and bricks and mortar start crumbling around us. No one contradicted Dad. Except, it seemed, Ex.

See 3: Send in the clowns

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.

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.

keep calm 2

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.