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?

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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.