H Morey: a short story

The policewoman bent down and picked up a single item of mail from the heap on the mat. It was about life insurance. Her hand, even inside its leather glove, felt icy; the coldest winter for fifty years, so they said. She checked the addressee: H Morey. No title, she thought. Not even the full Christian name. Luckily she wasn’t alone. Her two male colleagues had already gone in. They were being chivalrous, not because she was a woman but because this was her first Discovered Alone.

There was no smell. Usually in these cases there was some kind of stench. She had been prepared for it, but there seemed to be none. She had been told it wore off after a while. A longish while. She didn’t want to see what she knew she was about to see, but there you go, that was the job. Best get on with it. Christ, it was cold today.

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H Morey had not started off as a corpse. Long ago H Morey had been a person, of sorts. She had lived in this house alone and had avoided, as far as it was possible to avoid, the neighbours. There was a balance to be struck, however. You had to talk to them once in a while so as they didn’t get worried and start calling in Social Services or Age Concern. The key to being a hermit was to appear to be moderately sociable, be seen sometimes. Exchange the odd word about the weather. Dredge up a smile from somewhere. That necessary shield.

It had been all right when the old people were next door. She didn’t like them, but then nobody did. They had few friends and therefore few visitors. There was the loud daughter once a week, the one you could hear as clear as day through the kitchen wall. The one that parked her car in front of H Morey’s house and took a short cut across the lawn when she went back to it, car keys jangling. Everything she did made a noise. Big woman, she was; top-heavy, like most round here. And very occasionally they had lesbians. These came in pairs, obviously. H Morey assumed the lesbians had also been prison warders, like the neighbours, since on television they always seemed to be. Brutish looking, shaven-headed women. Also top-heavy. She didn’t care about them being lesbians but they did make such a racket. And they brought dogs with them, which also made a racket. Their dogs barked at the neighbours’ dog and the neighbours’ dog barked at them. It was pandemonium, but the next morning they would all go off somewhere, together but in their separate cars. Some sort of holiday that often lasted for months. H Morey savoured their absences.

The old people had been hard-faced. She imagined them beating their prisoners with little vicious truncheons, and giving back as good as they got in verbal abuse. She was frightened of them but grateful that they left her alone. Occasionally one or other of them came out on the decking – usually it would be him. If she happened to be outside she would treat him to a wince of a smile. He would grimace grimly in return, and then either or both of them would go back indoors: a Chinese wall. It worked well enough.

She always felt self-conscious in her garden because it wasn’t private. Their decking was high and raised them up three foot or so, so her six foot fence panel was useless except as a wind-brake. Six foot was the maximum height, though. The grass tended to get long because she put off mowing it for as long as possible. Then of course it was a struggle. To begin with she went out regularly, proud of her new garden and hoping to maintain it despite her lack of gardening skill, but after a while the eyes on her, the possibility of being viewed from a bathroom window, say, worried her too much. She took to going to bed early and getting up early. Sometimes, in the early dawn, she went out to prune the roses or water the poor hydrangeas in their tubs. At this time of the morning the dew still lay and all the spider’s webs were wet, draped across the leaves. Sometimes the hydrangeas went thirsty. It was too much for her, those eyes.

And then the new people came. The old people disappeared abroad, possibly with the daughter, possibly with the lesbians, it didn’t matter – to start a new life in the sun, he said, when they coincided on the decking. He didn’t let on where. She wondered where abroad could be that sunny. Africa, possibly. She couldn’t imagine the prison warders in Africa. She worried about the new people. Perhaps it will just be one person, she thought: one quiet person. Perhaps it won’t be a family; perhaps not dogs or children, just some lone old woman like me, or a lone old man. Old people were easier to talk to, when you had to. Old people liked her.

The new family arrived with many white vans. There were many men, all with their shirts off. They said Fuck a lot. They guffawed. There were many women, also. There was a fat blonde one who smoked cigarettes out on the patio, and cackled. Why must human beings laugh all the time, and why were their laughs so ugly? She could not work out who was going to be living here, there were so many of them. Later the fat blonde one spent a day there ‘doing the garden’. The prison warders’ garden had been perfect as far as H Morey was concerned. Fat Blonde cut down the tree that was dead-looking all year but came out with a mass of orange berries in the autumn. H Morey had looked forward to those. A splash of colour.

H Morey had enjoyed the neighbours’ garden more than her own. From behind the bedroom curtain you could look down into it – the palm tree-thing, the orange berries, the tiny greenhouse at the end with its rows of seedlings and stacks of unused buckets, the bird house nailed to the tree that no birds ever went into, but it had looked right, where they had put it. They had worked on the garden together, the old people. Sometimes the dog would be out there, playing with its squeaky toy. Sometimes you could hear the squeaking late at night and then you knew the dog was out on the decking, getting its late-night airing.

The new family had children who thundered up and down the stairs. They played the music from Disney films, very loud, in their bedrooms. It was confusing, who the children belonged to, how many there were and why they weren’t all there all of the time. Were they his, hers, or a product of them both? To H Morey it seemed important to know but she didn’t know, couldn’t know, never would.

Sometimes there was a little girl, who whined in next door’s kitchen and kicked a ball about and then kicked it over H Morey’s fence and subsequently came round to collect it, looking surly. Sometimes there were teenage boys. These rode mountain bikes about on the decking and the reverberations seemed to permeate H Morey’s house. There were heaps of what looked like washing-machine drums out on the decking. The old ones had kept everything neat, the wooden patio chairs and table varnished every year. The new ones removed the wooden furniture and installed a green sun-lounger, a portable silver barbecue and an outdoor ashtray. Groups of them came and they cooked sausages and the vile meaty smell drifted in through H Morey’s kitchen window.

They played loud music which could go on for hours, but not always. It was worse, in a way, the way it could just start up and you didn’t know when. They played it at top volume, and then they laughed a lot, and then they said Fuck a lot and had arguments that involved running around on the lawn and screeching. H Morey learned to bear it. She fished out her old MP3 player – people used phones for that nowadays, she had heard, but she didn’t know how. She put the little plastic buds in her ears and turned it up as loud as she dared without damaging her hearing. After a while she left the buds in all the time and walked round all day in a sea of long-forgotten folk music and half-remembered pop. She rediscovered Leonard Cohen. She wondered why she had ever downloaded that Madonna one, though it was quite good.

There seemed no point in checking, after a while, whether the noise next door had stopped. When they started one of their parties she took to her bed, at seven, or eight, whenever they started the racket. She fell asleep with the music in her ears and woke at three, four or five in the morning to find the battery flat and next door silent. Blessed darkness outside. There were bats in the dusk but this time of the morning nothing, not even the hedgehog. She wandered around the house in her dressing gown, doing the housework she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on later, when they were awake.

She adapted in all sorts of ways, tried things out – things that would make it tolerable. She realised she could change her hours permanently. She would become nocturnal – no, that wasn’t the word – crepuscular. Creeping crepuscularly through the dawn and the dusk, like a cat. She fed the stray cats, but only in the dawn and the dusk. She peered sideways out of her kitchen window, checking there were no humans out on next door’s decking, and then she would scurry out, with plates on a tray already filled with food, but carefully. How awful if she tripped down the step with a clatter. How unbearable if they knew she was outside.

One day they cut down the tall shrub on their side of the fence panel. Now there was no privacy at all. Washing up at the kitchen sink she would suddenly find herself observed by one or more fat and cigarette-smoking persons; sundress-wearers, laughers-at-nothing; smelly-sausage-gobblers. She hated them now.

Then they parked one of their huge vans across her driveway. She had had to say something about that or he would start doing it all the time, taking it as his right. It wasn’t that she needed that bit of space outside but it hemmed her in, it blocked her exit. Panic rose in her at the thought. She couldn’t bear it.

He had been surly, like the daughter. Then the woman had come round about something or other. She had been surly too, but no ‘words’ were had. H Morey could not remember any of their names, next door, though she had been told them, once. They remembered hers, of course. Pinned down like a butterfly, she thought. Netted, gassed, skewered and pinned in a case; on permanent display. She wondered, sometimes, if she could find a way to die. One that wouldn’t involve any actual suffering or knowledge of what one was doing. But of course, a dead butterfly is dead already. No room for manoeuvre.

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The policewoman was glad to get out. Natural causes, the bloke in the white suit said. Been there for years, probably, on the sofa, quietly falling apart. It hadn’t been so bad; more like dust that still had a bit of a shape to it. She shivered. The frost was beginning to melt, just a little, as the sun rose. There was a flask of hot tea in the van. She was so looking forward to it.

(Apologies: this is at least twice as long as recommended for a blog post, but I wrote it in one three hour session and there seemed no point in splitting it arbitrarily into instalments. Tiny bit gruesome – sorry about that too. And about the rude word, but it did seem necessary, for this story.)

Post McEwan Stress Disorder

This picture is from tiny card my mother once sent me. The message inside is mundane:

Monday, 2pm

I received your letter. Went over to the garage. Explained about little red spanner [Skoda’s irritating ‘service due’ warning light].

They can deal with little red spanner ie: take it off so that it won’t be a nuisance any more.

I left the key with them. It will soon be dealt with.

Love, Mum XXX

It felt a bit creepy reading this so-ordinary and long-forgotten message from Mum’s earlier self, but it was nice to see her handwriting, and to see that all the full stops were once again in the right place, the ‘i’s all meticulously dotted and the ‘t’s all crossed. The style’s clumsy for her, though – ‘it’ must already have begun at that point, and I didn’t realise.

It was a long drawn out and horrible Flowers For Algernon process, for us both, first watching her handwriting decline and then her mind refusing to tell her what to write in letters to friends, and her desperate strategies to keep doing so: the sudden change to writing in pencil – I bought her a whole box of 2Bs and a desktop pencil-sharpener which neither of us could then fasten to the desk; the endless, obsessive process of rubbing out bits of sentences and trying again; the rewriting of entire letters; the asking me to check them before she posted them.

I have a little nightmare of the same thing happening to me one day – and not realising – and gibberish appearing in this blog, and either no one telling me (and who would want to be the one to do that?) or everyone just Unfollowing. Oh, God save us from an unknown future.

I found Mum’s butterfly card in one of my books. Being lazy and using everything from letters to bus tickets to torn-off pieces of cereal packet does have its upside. You never know what little treasure you might to come across when you get round to tidying your books. I also found a lot of bookmarks from a particular second-hand bookseller.

Every time you order a second-hand book from them, no matter if it only cost 99p, they include a nice cardboard bookmark with a design submitted by a reader. And they are excellent bookmarks (they must have many graphic artists among their readers) and also an excellent selling point. It works with me anyway: I always look down the list and see if I can get the book from them rather than any of the alternatives, out of sheer bookmark-greed.

I notice a preponderance of the black-and-white-one-with-the-many-skulls. I remember, in fact, them sending me three black-and-white skull bookmarks inside a single ancient paperback one time, and picturing some poor, bored school-leaver on work-experience in an office on an industrial estate, fishing for the umpteenth time into a plastic bin full of pretty bookmarks and flinging in whatever happened to come out. I wonder if they do swapsies?

And now, by the magic of technology and a lot of messing about with fancy filters I am able to use Mum’s little butterfly card in a post. Mum would have been horrified, not at the idea per se but at the prospect of me attempting to explain it to her. Her eyes would glaze over the minute I started on about my computer: Mum was very good at un-listening, as no doubt most Mums are.

Why am I going on about butterflies? Well, I was going to use this picture as an illustration for the next Books From My Bookcase item. This was going to be a debut collection of short stories called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (2004). The book leapt out at me because it is one of two physically beautiful books I possess, the other one being the hardback first edition of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – the one with the gorgeous red flowers. Hang on, lets try to find it:

how i live cover

The above doesn’t do it justice. Bits of it (the leaves) are all shiny and lit up – sorry, metallicised – can’t find it in the dictionary but sure it’s a real word – metallized just wont do! – and bits of it are left matt. And Tropical Butterflies is yellow and brown and kind of fusty-Victorian-looking, and inside there is a bonus – an extra sheet – what do you call that? – the front paper – with a glossy version of the same yellow cover, a delightful little shock when you open it.

Now, later on in life, I understand why I married an artist. I thought it was only an unhappy childhood and alternative brain-wiring we shared but it was also an eye for beauty. In another life, maybe, I shall be a  collector of objects d’art Maybe I can go back (since I doubt that ‘lives’ are in chronological order) to the 17th Century and be a man (makes life easier, always) and have a cabinet of curiosities full of wonderful and mysterious things that I can show off to callers. Or maybe I’ve already had that life.

Rats.

In any case, having found A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies I realised I had only in fact read a few little bits of it. The short stories look good, if a mite challenging. They certainly got good reviews:

“John Murray’s stories are a genuine cultural breakthrough… adventures of the mind, and rich in human feeling, true departures from any other known fiction.” Muriel Spark

I think I read a little bit of one and had uncomfortable flashbacks to Ian McEwan. I had a really bad experience with his macabre short story collection The Cement Garden (1978). Every one of those tales frightened the living daylights out of me. Never been the same since. Post McEwan Stress Disorder.

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From my bookcase: Flowers For Algernon: Daniel Keyes

I’m experimenting, really. Feel free to skip.

For my artsy-craftsy patchwork-selling project, which seems to be moving at snail’s pace like all of my projects, I need to be able to take still-life-type pictures on that Fire-Thingy and transfer said pictures to this Computer-Thingy. Of patchwork stuff. And sell it. That’s the idea, anyway.

It may surprise you to learn (or not) that my level of expertise is not high. More or less everything I know about computers I have worked out for myself, then usually forgotten or lost my voluminous notes for, then had to teach myself all over again. Sigh! My sole asset is a pig-headed Holmesian determination to work out, by the Application of Logic, the Elimination of the Impossible and so on, how to achieve something horribly complicated once I have set my mind to it.

This doesn’t happen very often. Usually I give up. 

So, I took the above photo. It took quite a few attempts and in the meantime I discovered that a cat had peed in my ‘budget’ tray overnight – or possibly several nights ago –  and soaked my latest budget and related papers. Also remembered that I had four letters to post and had neither washed up nor made the bed.

The photo is not a brilliant but it is, after hours of faffing about, sitting at the top of a WordPress post. Yay! My computer is now demanding a password every time I turn it on. How did that happen? Someone?

The basic idea is that every now and then I will select a book from my book case more or less at random, ‘compose’ an amateur-arty-farty still-life photo to hone my electronic photo-taking/uploading skills and then write a tiny bit about the book to make it worthwhile.

So, Flowers For Algernon was a long short-story, published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1959, which later metamorphosed into a novel. It is a story about the friendship between a boy and a doomed laboratory mouse called Algernon. It is about the blossoming and fading of intelligence. It is about the joy of understanding everything and the grief when you realise your new understanding is fading.

How – or whether – you read it depends on your life experience, I think. If you have had to deal with disability or seen dementia in real life you may find this book closer to horror than science fiction. It’s very, very sad.

If you can cope with it, though, it’s one of the finest short stories/novels ever written. (Not for nothing does my edition of the book have MASTER WORKS printed down the side.)

Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence by artificial means. The story is told by a series of progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, the first human test subject for the surgery, and it touches upon many different ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled. Wikipedia

It is technically brilliant because the language tracks the mental enhancement and subsequent mental degeneration of Charlie, from an IQ of 68 to an IQ of 185 and back again. To sustain that throughout a very long story – I don’t know how he did it, and mostly I do know how writers did it, even if I couldn’t do it myself.

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Flowers For Algernon

🙂

Just Tell Daisy

I was just emailing Daisy and mentioned in passing I was going to have to resort to another of Mum’s Old Recipe Book recipes as alternative blogging inspiration had failed to strike – when it did. Second time it’s happened. So, that’s the cure for Writer’s Block then – just tell Daisy.

I do despair of myself some days…

most days…

every day, in fact…

because I can’t seem to focus. I have the attention span of a gnat and the persistence of… something that’s not very persistent… can’t actually think of anything (ideas?)

I can’t seem to be able to manage anything sensible and business-like.

I’ve been trying to activate my dormant Crafting gene in order to have stuff to sell at the Artisan Market. Up to now all my ‘creativity’ seems to have gone into writing but now that seems to have worn itself out, or at least the fiction-creating part of it. But surely, I thought, I could make like Canadian Sister and Make Interesting Stuff. Trouble is, though both of us have the gene for inventing, neither of us seem to have the gene for selling or being able to conceive of what might sell. She is always getting into trouble at the Seniors Craft Group in her local community centre for not wanting to knit dishcloths and insisting instead on trying out green and purple crocheted elephants. “Elephants Don’t Sell” the Seniors are always telling her. “Dishcloths Do.”

“But how do you know my Elephants Won’t Sell if you won’t even Put One On Your Stall? How are people to know there is the Possibility of Elephants when all they are ever presented with are Dishcloths?”

I paraphrase and possibly exaggerate here, but you see what I mean.

I have been trying to force myself to make sensible little items – “small objects of desire” as the phrase used to be – but what comes out is weird stuff – eccentric items that surely Won’t Sell – a miniature Dr Who scarf, for example – so many possible uses:

  • Winter wrist-warmer
  • Granny Chic bracelet (I have only just discovered Granny Chic, unfortunately you have to be no older than twenty-two to wear it)
  • Must-have addition to Teddy’s wardrobe?

Or the Dancing Doorknob Cat (don’t ask) or the Two-Tailed Catnip Mice (my cats look askance at them) or the Odd-Eyed Lucky Fish. I can visualise the potential customers at the Artisan Market – that army of muffin-topped, much-tattooed, legging-wearing, toddler-toting females – and somehow I can’t see them going for the Dancing Doorknob Cat even if I label it Shabby Chic. Shabby Chic, like the lurid feature wall, is much in vogue here still. Granny Chic hasn’t got here yet and probably never will.

Canadian Sister once told me she finds it difficult to make more than two iterations of any design – she just wants to move on – and I suspect I’m the same. No wonder she hated doing all those dishcloths. I’m sick of the sight of Two-Tailed Mice already.

And now I’ve discovered Pinterest. For years Pinterest was just a nuisance to me, popping up all over the internet and interrupting my browsing. I didn’t know what it was for, to be honest. And then I saw someone on the business programme explaining it was a search engine, like Google, but for images, and the penny dropped. I registered. Now, far from constantly clicking on that little ‘x’ in the corner to get rid of it because I didn’t want to enter my email address, I’m hooked on Pinterest.

But now I am both fascinated and depressed. Fascinated because there’s an Aladdin’s Cave of beautiful, creative, wonderful stuff being produced all over the globe. But depressed because – too overwhelmingly many un-have-able (by-me) crafting ideas. Too wonderful ever to be emulated by a spare-room Lucky Fish manufacturer like me. I feel like Mrs Macron standing next to Milania Trump – like, why bother being a svelte, elegant, Parisian older woman when there’s that towering above me?

Ah well, on with the motley. Tomorrow, maybe, a patchwork bag with a Two-Tailed Mouse poking out of the pocket…

dr who cat

 

The past: a foreign country

This will almost certainly never happen – so don’t don’t hold your breath whatever you do – but I thought I might pen a fantastically successful ‘cozy’ (or ‘cosy’, if you’re English) detective series. This would solve all my financial worries in one swoop, in perpetuity, and be very good for my ego. However, I’m not much good at getting to the beginning of projects let alone the end, and this would be a very long project indeed.

But I am very good at preparing. I enjoy the preparing so much more than the doing. This is because doing – especially writing-type doing – is very hard work and that fierce concentration, that excitement, that passion – sucks the very life-blood out of you.

So, in ‘preparation’ I am reading a monster of a book by Dominic Sandbrook (in fact there are two books, this is the first) entitled Never Had It So Good: a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles. My God, it’s a huge thing, I mean Bible-sized. You feel like you need a lectern.  My right thumb all but fell off with cramp after five minutes of reading.

That poster – You Never Had It So Good and the face of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan were part of my early teens. You couldn’t walk up Station Road without those hooded old eyes and those droopy old moustaches following your every move: MacMillan was the Big Brother of the early sixties.

But at that time I was just starting a new school, with all the terrors involved in that. Politics didn’t mean anything to me then and I had no idea that I was living through the seminal decade of the twentieth century. Whilst others were sitting around looking cool in coffee-bars or prancing round campsites in the West Country bedecked with flowers I was going up and down Station Road in my school uniform, burdened – yea, burdened – by hormones and a generalised sense of doom. I had no overview.

I would like to ‘write’ the sixties but the thing that worries me is the non-PC aspect. Can I really manage the awful, repugnant attitudes, the rampant racial prejudice, the ghastly belittling of women? Of course any writer worth their salt ought to be able to but it’s so very close to home. I was alive then. I didn’t know, but I was complicit.

We once had a temporary teacher of English. He was a young man – somewhat under thirty at any rate – and personable. We were a girls school full of frustrated teenage virgins (mostly) and you can imagine the electrical effect he had on us. Hysteria. We followed him everywhere, primping and giggling. But once in his lessons he threw a board-rubber – one of those great chunky wooden things – at a girl. It hit her on the forehead and she started to bleed. He was apologetic of course.

And once a Jehovah’s Witness girl stood up and confronted him. She was a timid girl, gingery, freckled and mostly silent – but he had just read out a couple of lines from T S Eliot’s Morning At The Window and it sparked something in her:

I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids

Sprouting despondently from area gates.

There is no such thing as the soul, sir, she said.

OK Susan, but let’s pretend there is such a thing as the soul, for the sake of the poem.

No sir, there is no such thing as the soul…

She was being courageously, terminally annoying. I’m not sure how I would have handled that situation as a teacher. What I think I would not have done even then was take her by the ear and drag her, tearful but unprotesting, to the headmistress’s office and dump her on the bench outside.

None of us thought a thing of it. He was our beloved, gorgeous English teacher. He was strong-jawed and handsome. His thick blonde hair was combed back in a kind of quiff. She was not popular, and he was a man.

In my new tome of a research book, I read an extract from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a famous novel of the sixties. I remember reading it at the time and thinking nothing of it. Arthur Seaton is sleeping with two married women, but tells himself:

If ever I get married… and have a wife that carries on like Brenda and Winnie carry on, I’ll give her the biggest pasting any woman ever had. I’d kill her. My wife’ll have to look after any kids I fill her with, keep the house spotless. And if she’s good at that I might let her go to the pictures ever now and again and take her for a drink on Saturday. But if I thought she was carrying on behind my back she’d be sent back to her mother with two black eyes before she knew what was happening.

Arthur Seaton is the hero of the novel.

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Our handsome, bequiffed English teacher left after a term. He had in fact been a good English teacher as far as English was concerned, introducing us to challenging and relatively modern poems like Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October which I would never have come across otherwise. He broadened our minds. He threw board-rubbers at us. He took us by the ear and dragged us.

He left to become a Black And White Minstrel on TV. My parents loved that programme and, forever after, every time it came on our black-and-white TV I would look out for him, although of course you couldn’t tell under the black-face makeup. Apparently he was a resting actor. You didn’t have to be qualified in those days as long as you had a degree. It never occurred to me that it was offensive for white people to black up. It never occurred to me, to be honest, that Minstrels were supposed to be black people. They were just Minstrels to me, as Gollywogs were just a kind of teddy-bear alternative. Not people.

Which is another story, and one that I don’t feel up to telling at the moment.

White plastic popper-beads and a red hat

I have noticed that my posts become increasingly like the white plastic popper bead necklace I had when I was a child, and which broke all over the floor during a game of spin-the-collection-plate at the Sunday School Christmas Party because some stupid boy (probably Peter Stelmazuk) yanked on them to see how they were held together. I get one thought, and that leads on to another, and that another and occasionally if I’m lucky the end thought joins back up to the first one.

I used to know a woman who spoke like I write. Unfortunately she lived opposite me on the new estate that Ex referred to scathingly as Brookside. She was one of those women who having discovered you stuck to you like a veritable limpet and wouldn’t stop talking. I used to get invited over to their house, which was hugely much bigger than mine, with a conservatory, a lovely (if bijou) garden with a water-feature, and those massive, expensive armchairs with electric controls that lift the back, the seat, the arms, the footrest and whatever other moving parts it has up and down so as to ensure your absolute comfort whilst consuming white wine or nibbling on canapés of an evening.

Her husband used to go upstairs to his study as soon as I arrived, either to construct model aeroplanes or to further his bid to become a local councillor so as to have speed bumps inserted into Brookside’s smooth new speed-bumpless circular road, which the local hooligans used as a racetrack, using the car park of the equally new and monstrously big Tesco store as their starting point. He was exhausted being married to this woman and, after only twenty minutes in her company, I was exhausted too. Unfortunately, I never got away with less than a whole evening.

She would talk non-stop, seamlessly segueing from one irrelevancy to another, whilst I tried desperately to keep all the threads together and understand the connection between them. I would watch her mouth moving and moving and moving, fascinated and horrified, wondering when – and how she was ever going to get to the point. Her conversation was like one of those fractal leaves, you know? Endlessly branching, branching and branching. And the thing was, you couldn’t tune out and daydream because every now and then she would stop and ask a question, but never about the branch of the fractal she was currently on, always about something several branches back. I couldn’t abide her, but abide her I did for several years. I felt sorry for her because she had no friends. I knew what it was like to be impossible and unlikeable and not understand why. I suspected she and I had an uncomfortable something in common, but at that time I didn’t know what.

She used to take me shopping in Canterbury. She would drag me round one department store after another, looking for a red hat or similar must-have object. She would never buy anything. In each store, instead of looking for the must-have object she would approach the first sales assistant she spotted on the ground floor and demand to know where the red hats were. She would fail to memorise the instructions and ask the poor woman – who was actually selling make up or perfume rather than hats – for it all to be repeated. Then she would drag me up and down escalators in search of red hats, because of course despite the repetitions of detailed instructions she had instantly forgotten where the red hats were.

Then we found the red hats, and one particular red hat she really loved. Then we would leave the shop in search of a cash machine because she had not got any cash out before going shopping. This would take some time. Then neither of us would be able to remember where the particular red hat was, so would spend the rest of the morning trying to relocate it. Then she would disappear into changing rooms and leave me standing in the middle of the store. Hours later, still standing there, I would wonder if she had simply gone home. I would ask shop assistants if they had happened to see her. None of them ever had.

I moved house but she came to visit me, turning up in her husband’s bright yellow sports car and skewing it across two of my new neighbours’ parking spaces. She was not a good driver though it was a good car. The best air-conditioning I had ever experienced, and it smelt of new leather and great expense. She also phoned, at great length. I had ‘caller display’ put on and took to not answering it when her number showed up. I felt bad about that.

Now, I remember where this was going. Sooner or later we will get on to the Youth Club, the out-of-tune piano and a single battered copy of The Midwich Cuckoos. And somewhere in the mix will be a queasy, beatific portrait of Jesus surrounded by unlikely children of all races, suffering them to come to him. And then there will be my newly-found Certificate of Baptism and my dear Godmother who is not, in fact, my godmother at all as it transpires.

I think it will have to be another post.

Maybe even two.

poppers

Whatever gets you through the night…

I was going to call this post Loose Elastic (there used to be jokes, in the days when ladies’ undergarments were held up by perilously slim pieces of actual elastic, about a young lady called Lucy Lastic) but decided against. A bit frivolous for the subject matter, I decided.

Because these are a few passing thoughts about anxiety and depression. I don’t know about you but I usually seem to be suffering from one or another of these. I’m lucky in that although these two Nasssty Creatures walk alongside me more or less daily they rarely get unbearably Nasssty. I have witnessed real clinical depression: I know I’m lucky.

Of course they’re not really two separate Creatures but alternative and interchangeable manifestations of the same Creature and it occurs to me that both are the result of not being able to stay in the present moment. You could say that depression is the result of being pulled back into the past, and anxiety the result of being pushed into the future. It’s as if your poor mind is on a piece of elastic and being bounced first this way and then that.

When I am depressed it’s usually because I’m going over and over thing that happened in the past, thinking about people I once knew, people who died, people I said the wrong thing to, situations I handled badly; terrible, terrible mistakes I made. My imagination busies itself with ‘what ifs’. I resurrect the vanished and dead and hold long, sad conversations with them. I replay the dreadful bits of my past, trying to get them right second time round. I imagine lives where this or that wouldn’t have happened, in which I might have been happier.

If I’m anxious it’s usually because I am going over and over things that are scheduled to happen soon – it might be something simple, like a visit from the plumber or driving to an unfamiliar place – imagining all the things that might – no, are bound to – go wrong, hoping that if I rehearse them well enough I will be able to influence what happens, inoculate myself against an evil future. Stop The Bad Thing Happening.

Neither makes any difference. The past remains the past, the dead are still dead, the gone are still gone. The future remains unknown and uncontrollable. I am still right here, and still exactly as unhappy/afraid.

Meditation is supposed to be good for staying in the present moment, and I keep meaning to do that, when I can stop fretting for an hour or two. What I have found is that it helps at least to attempt to be mindful. Once you start to notice that you are maundering around in the past or fretting away in the future, you can take a deep breath and return yourself to the present moment. No use trying not to go there in the first place, just start noticing when you have.

I usually say something to myself, like: Well, you’ve done quite a bit of worrying about that, now concentrate on your driving/walking/washing up – or whatever. This is really the equivalent of the technique they teach you at meditation/relaxation classes: identify your worry and place it in an imaginary black sack; tie the sack up and place it to one side for the time being; you can come back and open it any time. Except you don’t really need the black sack. If you can just get as far as noticing, the worry tends to leap into the sack and tie itself up automatically.

I’ve also noticed I tend to get most anxious or depressed when I am doing nothing – lying in bed trying to sleep, for instance – or doing semi-automatic but uninteresting stuff like driving, walking or washing up. Ping! There goes the elastic and there I am, sloshing around in the past or tiptoeing around in the future. The answer seems to be to keep busy, but for preference at something interesting, that absorbs you. You know what your particular thing is, and when you are in the zone, don’t you? It’s when time flies without you noticing it, where you are filled with a kind of joy, an almost feverish excitement about the task in hand. Whatever it is, when you have completed it you are aware that you have achieved something, and that you have been, for a while, entirely and perfectly yourself.

Writing is mine, and reading used to be. I am now re-training myself to read – properly, deeply – that ‘getting lost in a book’ feeling that I used to get as a child. The internet is rewiring our brains, did you know that? We are in the process of becoming skimmers, clickers, extractors of key words and phrases. The only way to get reading back is to keep practising. After a while – maybe many weeks or even months – the ‘getting lost’ facility comes back. What you really need is a brain that can do both – skim for information, read for pleasure. Stories – either telling them or listening them – ideal. Stories distract you from that dreary self-absorption, that endless monologue.

I can imagine that for some people the key to at least a temporary ‘present momentness’ would be music (to sooth the savage breast, etcetera), for others it might be a complicated piece of knitting or the challenge of drawing a difficult subject or capturing a landscape. I can imagine it might be maths, or solving puzzles if you are that way inclined.

But is reading or writing really being present, or might it be the ultimate form of being elsewhere? Maybe I can’t bear to be here at all, even for a second; can only sustain life on this ghastly planet, in these terrifying times, by being as much as possible, second by second, elsewhere? What is a book but a yet another imaginary world, an alternative world, another place?

In which case, I’m tempted to say to hell with it! I’ll be elsewhere in whatever way happens to make me happiest, or at any rate least unhappy. I’ll be absent without leave. Bother the Buddha, I’m going to get through my compulsory sojourn on this doomed planet in any which way I can.

Whatever gets you through the night.

gin-lane