A journal of… whatever this is

I keep wanting to write “A Journal Of The Plague Year”, which I gather is a novel by Daniel Defoe – though it has the appearance of a historical account – of the coming of the Great Plague to the city of London. The Plague came in 1665 but “Journal Of The Plague Year” was published in 1722. Defoe was only five – six at most – in 1665, which is why people tend to categorise it as something other than an eyewitness account.

Well, what is this? Strange times are upon us. I did rather hope for excitement (a gal’s gotta get her thrills where she can) but what has actually happened is, so far, depressing. Or maybe I’m depressed.

I have discovered it’s one thing to isolate yourself from your fellow humans out of choice, another thing to have to do it. And it’s all happening so quickly. The Home rang and told English Sister and Me not to visit our mother for a while. Mostly she’s in bed when we go anyway – way past lunchtime and her breakfast egg-on-toast congealing on the table beside her, her meds undrunk, her tea cold. Not only does she no longer recognise us, she has given up the  pretence of recognising us – that fluty ‘anxious hostess’ voice she used to put on when we walked in – that’s gone. She stays lying down. She might open one eye, then close it again, shutting us out.

All the same, when your Mum’s ninety, and you are forced to abandon her for the duration, you do begin to wonder… will we see her again? Canadian sister is now trapped in Canada, more or less. By next year, when she might manage to get over – who knows whether Mum will still be there, opening one sullen eye.

Canadian Sister seems to be coping with sudden isolation better than me, which is a surprise, since until the virus hit she wasn’t doing so well, what with widowhood and all. She has been doing an art degree course at University, but it looks like this is going to be cancelled, temporarily. She was getting support from her local Seniors group, but that has closed down because of It. Yet she seems happier at the moment. She is waiting for a new armchair to be delivered. She is looking forward to starting work on a rug-making kit. It’s as if now nothing can be expected of her in the way of Adjusting and Moving On, she has breathed a mental sigh of relief, and relaxed.

I expected to be thriving in my increased isolation – after all, this new “life” is not that much different from the old one.  I have no symptoms (long may it stay that way) but decided to “retire” from the rudimentary social life I had, on account of my age and dodgy immune system, and of course to protect elderly friends from me. Not only can I not visit Mum, I can’t visit Godmother either – Godmother is ninety-one. It occurred to me this morning that I love Godmother, and am more afraid of her dying than Mum, maybe because she has all her marbles.

Mum was a bit not there during our childhood – well, for most of her life – and we all three found mother-substitutes. Canadian Sister became attached to her mother-in-law – who unfortunately died a few weeks ago – English Sister spends – or used to spend – she can’t any more – a lot of time with her partner’s elderly Mum and Dad – and I had Nan, and then Godmother. It occurred to me this morning that you don’t actually, physically, feel the love you have for somebody until you are physically cut off from them. Somebody (else) I loved once described it as an invisible rope, or umbilical cord, from your centre to theirs. It doesn’t hurt until you pull apart.

I am struggling to get up speed, as it were. There are a lot of things I could be getting on with – like Canadian Sister and her rug kit – or English Sister who, plague or no plague, got the train up to London to see a Picasso exhibition today. So as not to waste the tickets, which she’d booked months ago. I did do two lots of washing, took delivery of my Tesco order (the man now signs the machine for you, so he’s the only one to handle it) and experimented with a double-layered cloth mask.

Masks are largely useless anyway, but I haven’t been able to get hold of any – all sold out – and I do have to brave the hospital for a blood test shortly. Hours, probably, of waiting in a cramped row of hard chairs, with a motley collection of sick people, coughing! So I printed a likely-looking Japanese pattern for a washable, cotton one on the internet, cut one out and sewed it up. It actually fits, but whether I will have the nerve to wear it in public is another thing. I made it in a neutral, medical pale blue rather than the lurid prints that seem to be popular in Japan. Also, it’s a bit like breathing smog.

Tomorrow I ought to make another one or two, and edit a story, and write the first draft of a new one. Whether I will or not…

 

Featured image: Picasso, 1905: Au Lapin Agile (Arlequin tenant un verre)

Boggarts In My Back Garden

Ow, I have just been landed on by the three-legged cat, and when you have been landed on by a three-legged cat, you know it. He does like to push the keyboard back in, on its slidey-shelf, so I end up with access to the bottom two rows only.

I thought I would let you know about the writing. I have been very good, surprisingly, producing a rough version of one of my little flash fictions every day. Today I started on part II of my plan, which was to also second-edit one. It’s a system, you see. I have a stack of plastic trays and the printed out stories progress down the trays until they settle, sedimentishly, in REJ – rejected. Of course, if any were to stick at ACC, the tray above REJ, I would be extremely pleased.

I am planning to publish more stories on the blog, but have to start being disciplined about it. The aim of writing them was to try to get them published in internet flash fiction magazines, maybe even earn a cent or two. Research suggests it would only be a cent or two, too.

But when I first attempted to publish an e-book of – longer, older – short stories on Kindle I had problems. Amazon’s automated-bot-crawling-thing became convinced that I had filched my short stories from some other writer. They refused to publish the book and started emailing me, rather scarily, like I was a criminal.

I had to do quite a bit of panic-stricken emailing back before they/it accepted that ‘I’ was in fact ‘Me’ – ie the Elsewhere their had software had detected my stories in was Here. I’ve long since deleted that e-book anyway – approximately three and a half people bought it – but all the stories it contained are here. See dedicated Page at top of blog/menu for how to find them.

Anyway, my plan is to put up a new very-short-story every two weeks. That way I’ll still have the pleasure of sharing stories with you and getting your feedback. If I can continue to write one story a day there should be plenty to spare.

What else? That’s the trouble, nothing non-fictional ever seems to happen to me anymore. That’s the trouble with getting old, at least without money. The high spot – last night I had to pick up my down-the-road friend from the hairdressers in town. She likes to go to the training college, because it’s cheaper, but they are very, very slow – take aeons to complete a single hairdo to the satisfaction of their supervisors. Plus they only open on Wednesdays afternoons and evenings, finishing after the last bus has gone. So I have to wait for a text, jump in the car and drive for 25 minutes, at night, with all those headlights coming towards me. When I would normally be watching some rubbish film on Prime, or dozing.

I never did much like going out at night, especially in winter. I know it’s the same things and places exactly, only with less sunlight, but it doesn’t feel like that. The world seems altogether a different place when it’s dark. Things may be lurking in my garden when I come back. I am afraid to turn away from them to put my key in the lock, and so I fumble. Yes, readers, there are boggarts on my back lawn and they are creeping

I’d better be careful about that or I might end up like Mum. She was absolutely sure there were people, out there behind her drawn curtains, standing in the dark, invisible but watching. How terrifying a genuine psychosis must be. Note to self: remain sane.

Another elderly acquaintance phoned this morning after a long gap. She always looks kind of, well, you know, at death’s door. I hadn’t seen her over Christmas as expected, and for a horrible-creepy-man related reason I wasn’t able to phone her at home to check she was all right. The longer the silence went on the more dead I feared she must be. However, she phoned this morning and she’s not. Not that I actually asked her if she was. She isn’t too well, though.

And tomorrow – tomorrow I think it is lunch with above nocturnally-coiffed down-the-road friend, in the subterranean canteen of the local hospital. It’s a bit like eating in a fish tank. Unfortunately since I have gone gluten-free I am confined to cheese-baked-potato with whatever vegetables they happen to have. Nothing much else is safe. I now have to have cheese-baked-potatoes everywhere I go, whilst others are consuming heaped, delicious steaming great platefuls of pie, chips, pasta and so forth. I will soon begin to look like a baked potato.

To make it even more exciting, we might have to take a ticket and wait for several hours so that she can get her blood test. Note to self: take a book.

But I want to be a POET!!!

Nobody trained my parents. I mean, parents are supposed to provide Guidance, right? But nobody seems to have told my parents that. In any case, we were working class and so weren’t actually going to have careers, right? People like Us had jobs, if we were lucky. And we hung on to our precious jobs, because They might not give us other jobs, if we were to lose them. People like Us accepted we’d have to barter most of our short little lives for money.

I remember only one conversation with my parents about careers. It was when we had to choose our O Level subjects. The school sent a form, with tick-boxes. At some point during this conversation – heated and tearful, like all our conversations – one of them asked Well what do you want to do with your life? And I remember wailing

But I want to be a POET!!!”

And them making that suppressed snorting noise that parents make, and telling me no one ever made any money out of being a POET and I should pick something sensible like being a TYPIST!!!

But really, I was right. What I wanted to be was what I actually was. I WAS a poet. But really, they were right. Nobody ever made any money out of it.

Shortly thereafter I taught myself to touch-type on two different mechanical typewriters – the sort that have ribbons that are one half black and one half red, for some reason and that you never really do learn to change when they run out. I was fast and accurate on the letter keys, slower and less accurate on the numbers (I abhorred numbers) and eventually I got myself a job, in fact a series of jobs, being a typist.

I continued to scribble poems in my spare time. I was a good poet, if I says so myself, as shouldn’t. And of course I had visions of my gem-like offerings twinkling from the pages of the Sunday Supplement Magazines. In my head, I was lined up for an interview with someone like Melvyn Bragg on some sort of TV Book Programme. There I was, hair swept up in some much longer and slightly birds-nesty hairdo, eccentric-yet-stylish in fringed shawls and Laura Ashley prints, lounging in some black leather armchair by a roaring fire, being effortlessly intelligent and witty for all the world to see. I was revered, my genius rewarded.

In the meantime, I carried on typing, really fast, and my hands grew gnarly and thin from all that hammering of the keys. People tended to ask me if I played the piano, because I definitely had piano-player’s hands. Long, long fingers, flexible, prehensile, splayed at the ends. Nails cut – or bitten – short. I carried on typing year after year. My hands began to hurt, suddenly, when I went to open a door or reached out for something. That damage never went away.

So – the sad story of a poet manqué.

I am no longer good at poems. My muse slunk off into the desert early on, as the muses of poets have a tendency to do, burnt out or bone idle. However, in the last few weeks has occurred to me that what I am still good at is Short. I can write Short Stuff. Anything up to a thousand words, it just sort of flows, occasionally veritably cascades out of me. Anything over a thousand words and things rapidly go wrong. I’m like one of those little clockwork puppies. Wind me up and I buzz around busily and turn the occasional somersault, all furry and appealing. Then the clockwork stops and there’s me stranded, mid table-top.

With an effort I cranked up my imagination again – clouds of dust from the ears – and started jotting down flash fiction ideas in notebooks. At first it was one idea a day: now I can’t stop them. Soaking in the bath, in the middle of washing up, or half way through a phone conversation or a really good film and – blast it, another four or five ideas. So many pesky ideas I couldn’t actually get started on writing them, till today. Today I have written one, and it didn’t take me any longer than a blog post.

But then, it isn’t any longer than a blog post. So – Yay!

Red Sky In The Morning

If you have never been to Britain, maybe this is your image of a British winter. All powdery snow and happy, cold-pawed doggies, a heavy hat of snow on car bonnets, lych-gates and wall … what do they call those little brick-built tower-things at the ends of low garden walls? No doubt there is a technical term.

It’s all very Christmas-cardy. Any minute now, one feels, a carriage and horses will appear, complete with overcoated coachman. Any minute now, Santa’s sleigh. Any minute now a fat robin will flutter down and arrange himself, scenically, in the foreground on a red post-box. And surely, all over Britain, there must be villages exactly like this. Surely it can’t all be wishful thinking.

When I was at school, as part of English lessons, they used to occasionally attempt to teach us creative writing, only it was disguised as Composition. (Editing was disguised as Précis, and proved much more useful in later years than Composition.) It was before the Seventies and they weren’t into all that stuff like inspiration-producing heaps of photos or magazine cuttings, inspirational tracks of music, mysterious works of art. In those days the teacher turned her back and chalked up on the board something like “The Life History of a Penny”, “Ten Minutes To Wait” or “Seen Through A Window”. Prompts, in other words. The internet is heaving with them now.

The truth is, that if you can write you can write, with or without prompts. Indeed, you will write whether or not you want to, feel like it or are ever likely to be read by anyone. And if you can’t write, this sad fact will not be changed by any number of creative writing prompts. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, trawl for prompts.

Anyway, “Seen From My Window”.

Seen From My Window this morning is an untidy rectangle of lawn, thick with frost. At the far end of it, in the half-light, a fat blackbird and one of the Ratties are picking up yesterday’s overspill from the bird-feeder. The dawn sky is a strange mixture – streaks of almost-summer pale blue overlaid with streaks of pink and orange cloud. Bad sign. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning. (And in case you’re unfamiliar, Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight.)

Behind that is, as far as I have been able to discover in the last seven years, anyway, the only beautiful house in the village. I am thankful, that I am the one who gets to gaze at her from her kitchen window in moments of abstraction. She’s kind of Tudor, with a multitude of weirdly sloping tiled roofs, and those black beams. I say kind of Tudor because she’s not. Probably 1920s or 30s.

However, she’s been here on this bramble-infested hillside for so much longer than any of the excrescences that surround her. She must have been on her own, once. Her new owner has managed to ruin the garden by chopping down a couple of trees, bulldozing most of the rest and installing a portable building-site toilet in one corner, but hasn’t yet thought to paint her white bits dayglo pink or jazz her up with a Roman portico. No doubt he will.

My green bin’s lips are sealed against me. I went out there in the almost-dark to collect the stray-cat dishes and put new out, and put the overnight black bag of waste into my green bin. Had I been keen and energetic I should have done like Canadian Sister with her post-box at the end of the Infinite Driveway – returned with special spray, chisel and whatever to do battle with frozen binny. But what I did was dump the black bag on top of it. Why struggle, when the sun will (eventually) be coming out?

Later, hopefully wearing slightly more than damp bedroom slippers, a worn-thin droopy nightie and a man’s velvetesque dressing-gown, I will have to brave the garage (assuming it will let me in) to fetch more cat food and the shopping bags. Sainsbury’s are delivering this morning, whoopee. A tiny moment of excitement.

‘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.

“Words That Stung”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish I could think something useful

I have had a moderately thought-free day today, Praise Be. I have been sat sitting – I was sat sitting there – a colloquial, northern British expression though why I’m suddenly using it I don’t know. I don’t know much today. I probably know even less than Missy (above) who is possibly the world’s least intelligent cat.

So, what have I been doing today? Well, mostly cutting out hexagons for patchwork. This is my kind of work, I have discovered. Stuff that you can do – industriously, obsessively, even – that leaves your brain absolutely free to think of what it wants to think of. Or to listen to the umpteenth repetition of Pink’s Beautiful Trauma on Heart. I’m not averse to a smidgeon of Pink but you can have too much of a good thing. As that male hairdresser said – the one who cut my hair very short and then donked me most painfully on the head four times with his extra-long phallic black hairdryer – Oh, Pink – she’s got a belting voice – and I could tell he actually couldn’t stand her, belting or not.

pink

Or perhaps he was just wishing he could be working on her hair rather than mine. More scope for his creativity.

(Sigh! This is one of those post you just keep writing in the hope it will eventually make sense…)

(So far it hasn’t.)

I was thinking about Stephen Hawking, who died recently. I was thinking several things, the oddest of which was that our one and only Guardian Angel just got up walked out the door – at the very moment when we could do with more than one Guardian Angel. His Guardian Angelness did not occur to me while he was alive. Three cheers for Stephen Hawking, who finally escaped his bone-bound island and is now floating free in the universe he imagined better than anyone else since Einstein.

Beyond this island bound
By a thin sea of flesh
And a bone coast,
The land lies out of sound
And the hills out of mind.
No birds or flying fish
Disturbs this island’s rest.

Dylan Thomas: Ears In The Turrets Hear

The other thing I was thinking about Stephen Hawking is this: that he had the best job in the world. One hour or so a day teaching, and the rest of the day being allowed to Think. In Peace! He had the sort of brain that made Thinking worthwhile, of course. He could concentrate on the nature of the universe for hours – for days, maybe – whereas my concentration span, even when it comes to laboriously cutting out paper hexagons (tongue clamped between teeth) and tacking tiny hexagonal bits of cloth to them, is a microsecond or two.

I was thinking how odd it was that it has taken me all this time to realise that the only sort of work I am capable of engaging in happily is precisely this sort – the sort I once despised. I remember once telling a tutor that I wanted to be a writer, and him kind of snorting (politely) and saying in that case I would be better advised to give up the worthless Sociology ‘A’ Level, the worthless Commercial French ‘A’ Level and his own worthless English Language & Literature ‘A’ Level, and go and get a job in a factory. And he was right. But I was a snob. I was an intellectual, right? It was one of those road-not-taken moments. One of many.

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms…

Stephen Spender: I Think Continually