Not yet the flaky roses…

(Sofa In Multiple Occupation)

(Shadow: Sunday Morning Chillin’)

I just typed into Google Is ADHD the same as flaky? (should it have an ‘e’? why does it sometimes have an ‘e’ and sometimes not? distracting…) and Google reckons it is, sort of.

To be exact, Google opines that flaky seemingness (to one’s friends, employers etc) is in fact but one symptom of high-functioning ADHD. So whilst one is not technically or actually flaky (or flakey) everybody will always be convinced that one is. Furthermore, flaky-seemingness is but the visible tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to the daily struggle for survival in a world where 99 out of 100 brains are wired the opposite way to your own.

This is depressing, and the thing is, since I retired – or rather, since the world decided it could no longer be bothered to pay me for being bad at various kinds of work I really didn’t want to do – the ADHD, or whatever it is, has got distinctly worse. I used to be able to read, for instance. Spent hours engrossed, rapt, with my nose in some novel or some abstruse metaphysical text, trying to figure out how exactly I seemed to have missed Birmingham and been taken on to Crewe.

Oh Mr Porter, what shall I do?
I wanted to go to Birmingham but they’ve taken me on to Crewe.
Take me back to London as quickly as you can –
Oh Mr Porter what a silly girl I am!

Now I can read for twenty minutes, as long as it’s something lightly-ish and historical and I’m immersed in hot soapy water. My current in-the-bath read, by the way, is The Posy Ring by Catherine Czerkawska. It’s good, even in damp, twenty minute instalments. About antiques seller Daisy Graham who inherits an ancient house on a Hebridean island. She put a little publicity card in with Blanket.

Because, believe it or not, this is the same lady who, under a different name, sold me Blanket the rickety wartime blanket bear (or just possibly sheep) via eBay, and posted him to me in a shoebox from Scotland. I have now knitted Blanket a warming yellowy-browny scarf, by the way, and fastened it with a big yellow kilt pin. I would have posted a photo (as requested when he last appeared) but it is too dark indoors to take one at the moment. I will put it on my To Do list, which I very occasionally manage To Do something from. (Done)

(This is because it’s dark outdoors too, which seems to happen at intervals.)

The trouble is, you spend your life trying to appear not-flaky. Today, for instance, I agonised for several hours before texting a friend to say that I would not be able to come on a coach trip to Southend because I wasn’t feeling too well. The thing is, I am not feeling too well, so it’s a perfectly genuine excuse, this time. But I know she does not believe me. And if I were her I would not believe me either. But what do you do? The constant battle against flaky-seemingness results in a lifetime of ghastly events sat through with gritted teeth or perspiring brow. Boredom or pain, and no escape in either case because to flake out would be viewed as… flaky. Or flakey.

I think I reached some sort tipping point today. I realised I have to stop trying to explain myself, otherwise I am in for an Old Age as dire and dull as my Youth and Middle Age have been. Well, Bog It, I think, I just want to do what I want. Or at least not continually have to be doing what I don’t want.

And finally… another quote, this time from author Claudia Carroll, writing in an old Woman’s Weekly Godmother passed on to me on Friday:

When you’re in your 20s and 30s, life gives you things, if you’re very lucky. Love, a partner, maybe even kids. But you hit good old middle age, and that’s pretty much when life starts taking things away from you…

A cheering thought there, from Claudia.

It set me thinking, what Life did actually give me in my 20s and 30s. Certainly not children. It took away my husband and gave me a lover who was nice while he lasted, though he didn’t last very long. It gave me wrinkles round my eyes… and violent toothache… or was that in my forties?

But I suppose it did give me a few things. A giant(ish) healthy body inherited from my father, which has served me faithfully till recently. Now not quite so faithfully, but it’s doing it’s best, poor thing. Nineteen cats. I do believe the nineteen cats are my equivalent of the nine lives cats are supposed to have. Every time I lose a cat I lose one of my lives. Conversely, of course, every time I gain a cat I gain a life, but that can’t go on. Moggie Gathering Must Stop. And it’s given me a sister who, if not quite as flaky-seeming as me, is getting there. Or maybe equally as flaky-seeming, but a kind of variant. Same reason (backwards brain wiring) but different manifestation. However, it means that she understands me, and I understand her, and so we can love each other, which is a blessing indeed.

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Oops, no title…

I’m not good at having fun, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever had fun in my life; not really. However, today was a good(ish) day. The sky was blue and so was the sea – well, the one mirrors the other – and it was warm. Shouldn’t have worn the boots, really. Or the long-sleeved autumn outfit. But I thought it was autumn. Well, it was autumn at six o’clock this morning when I awoke, dozily crumpled into a corner of the living room sofa in a sort of uncomfortable dressing-gown/person bundle.

I did go to bed but eventually had to retreat from the bedroom after one of the cats for some reason took fright and leapt into the air, gouging three long tramlines into my right forearm. That woke me up, as you can imagine, and by the time I had partially staunched the bleeding and debated whether to apply TCP to my right arm and risk stinking out the Over 50s minibus tomorrow, or not apply TCP and risk yet another bout of cellulitis, with a subsequent two weeks of daily drives to the hospital for antibiotic injections, and possible death – I couldn’t get back to sleep. And supposing yet another one of the nineteen moggies should land upon my sleeping form and savage me.

Hence, the sofa. I turned out the lights, arranged myself uncomfortably upon it, trying to keep my stinging arm away from the pale green faux leather – and yet more cats came to perch themselves uncomfortably upon me – any of whom, of course, might leap up in a fright at any moment – and plugged in my MP3 player. And listened to hours of John Renbourne, which reminded me of Ex, which made me cry in a self-pitying, 3 in the morning, just gouged by a cat sort of way. And finally I reflected that listening to John Renbourne would not in any way remind Ex of me, or make him cry, and fell asleep.

My life is so complicated, but I have said that before.

Another complicated thing about life is female friendships. I am no good at this sort of stuff. I don’t understand it. I feel the same about human social interactions as I felt about those interminable netball and hockey games at school – the ones I couldn’t find an excuse to get out of – left-handedness, short-sightedness, a touch of depression, left my PE kit at home – that I am in the middle of a lot of beings flying about and throwing or kicking things at one another, but I don’t know which team is which, or which way I am supposed to be running, or which goal is mine, or why… Why are we running about? What is the purpose? What are the Rules? Why has everybody else had a copy of the Rules, but not me?

The politics of them are more complicated than anything that goes on behind closed doors at Downing Street. I think I may have made a new friend today but I’m not sure how I did that. I mean, I wasn’t trying to. I never try to make friends but just occasionally total strangers for some reason decide to pick me up, look me over, dust me down and adopt me for a while, like a lost bear. And then how do you fit the new friend in with the old friend when they don’t seem to like each other much – or am I imagining that? Should I walk with this one or that one? How do I have more than one friend?

Over the years I have learnt enough to know, at least in theory, that I don’t need to worry myself sick and arrange everything. People usually sort themselves out without my help. I’ve also found that people tend to appreciate me more if I just allow myself to be an oddity instead of trying to appear normal – masking, I think it’s called. Thing is, first you have to notice when you are masking, and that’s an art in itself.

Talking of lost bears, I found another, in a Barnardo’s shop on a coach trip to Whitstable. Even that was complicated. I felt compelled to explain to the volunteer lady in Barnardo’s that I wasn’t the sort of person who habitually walked around with a bear, like Sebastian. Of course, she hadn’t read Brideshead Revisited and had no idea who this Sebastian was.  She told me of an old lady she knew, a harmless madwoman, who carried a doll everywhere and had even made it an outfit to match her own. Well, presumably a  number of outfits…

And then I – and my new friend – and my old friends – oh, so many of us and the relationships between us so fluid and complicated, jostling for position and attention around the depressing racks of wilted cast-offs and bobbly old men’s jumpers in Barnardo’s – went on down the street to a rival charity shop, Demelza’s. Where I got told off by the Demelza lady for buying my bear in Barnardo’s when hers were half the price. And how then to explain the subtle psychic difference between a merely cheap bear (I could have gone to Tesco’s for that) and a damsel-in-distress bear in a blue velvet dress and lopsided velvet bow, languishing among racks of jigsaw puzzles with several pieces missing; brown plastic handbags no one can ever, ever have liked and coffee-stained CDs of jazz musicians that nobody has ever heard of.

(Yes, I made the Sebastian joke again – I just couldn’t seem to stop myself – and no, she didn’t laugh either.)

But Whitstable was OK, and so was Herne Bay. Later, trying to eat a huge pink and white ice cream before it melted, under a blue sky, beside a blue sea, at a rainbow-painted bench, I reflected that it wasn’t such a bad day out after all. And recalled that my Aunt always planned to retire to Herne Bay and open a cake shop. It was her dream. But she married a blind chap from Devon several feet shorter than herself, and lived in Exeter, and never visited Herne Bay again, as far as I know. And then died.

That’s the trouble with dreams.

The Blanket Has Landed

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bare teddy bear must be in want of a scarf, and so I have begun knitting him one in green speckled Aran. Blanket, that is. Something of a stretch, metaphorically, from Neil Armstrong to Jane Austen.

Blanket landed this afternoon from somewhere mysterious in Scotland, via Ebay and the Royal Mail. He didn’t cost much (I can’t afford bears that cost much) and was described as “All right as long as he is sitting down, like many of us”. I was half afraid to unbox him in case one of his legs should fall off. It didn’t, but his head seems quite likely to unless he is delicately handled, which he will be. If you didn’t know he was a bear you might think he was a lamb because he has very large floppy ears and a kind of sheep-like expression. But making that leap of faith and assuming he is a bear…

Poor Blanket, propped up among cushions in the corner of my sofa, who was in Scotland a day or so ago, then plunged into the suffocating bubble-wrapped darkness and encased in shoe-box cardboard, emerging suddenly at the far end of This Sceptred Isle, amongst a heap of cats. His expression has not changed, of course, but what must he be feeling?

His is described as Probably a wartime blanket bear. Apparently people made teddy bears out of blankets during the last war, due to a shortage of materials. There seems little doubt that he is wartime, but I query whether he is hand-fashioned out of blanket, or was made by some loving wartime Mummy for her little girl (or boy).

He is certainly made out of something vaguely blanket-like, not the usual golden furry stuff, but I wouldn’t say it was blanket. I had a coat made out of blanket, post war, and boy did it itch. I remember being taken for tottering toddler walks wearing this bright brown, be-toggled monstrosity, and being unbearably itchy everywhere the coat touched, which seemed virtually everywhere. And my mother had a dressing gown made out of blanket. A grey blanket with green woollen daisies embroidered, and green blanket stitch all round the edges. Must have taken her, or Nan, ages to make it. It weighed a ton, but was possibly not as itchy as my little coat. Nothing could have been as itchy as that.

And then there are his joints. They seem to be kind of professional, and interior. It is perhaps thanks to these joints, now badly worn, that Blanket is still, if tenuously, attached to his head and his four limbs. They don’t seem the sort of joints a housewife would have used.

So, not a forgery but a mystery, and likely always to remain so.

I seem to have gone a bit overboard on the bears. The original idea was to buy a couple of battered old bears on Ebay to model the bear scarves which I am knitting and which I thought to sell for a teensy-tiny profit. The trouble is, it’s difficult to resist. I seem to have accumulated quite a few 98p etc bears over a short period of time. Once you’ve rescued one you are kind of compelled to rescue them all, every last battered, lost and suffering one in the world. Which is of course why I have nineteen cats.

Not for the first time I wonder about the connection in my head between cats and bears. I first noticed it many years ago, in the first years of my marriage, when I had a whole series of nightmares about suffering cats – cats that I had forgotten about and escaped through the window, cats that lived in the arm of my armchair (don’t ask me – cats inhabit armchairs in my dreams) and got too near the fire and suffocated; cats that I seemed to have poisoned and was now observing as they died; cats that followed me across zebra crossings and through busy cities amongst the rushing traffic and were in imminent danger, and yet I did nothing.

It seemed to me at first that cats were an obvious symbol for babies, and it was probably something to do with thwarted maternal instinct, etc etc. But later I came to think it was sadder and more visceral than that, and that cats were an outlet for physical affection, a lonely child’s something to love. Hence the suffering cats when I married entirely the wrong man in that respect. I decided this after another dream, when kittens falling to earth on parachutes changed mid-dream to teddy bears, and came to rest in a cornfield, between the furrows. Of course there’s something about furrows and fertility…

Ah, as with my poor rickety, sheep-like Blanket, the truth will never be known, and nobody but me cares about either.

My mother gave my teddy to Oxfam and I never forgave her, but that’s another story.

Talking of metaphor, people seem to be unable to detect it nowadays. Either that or it suits them better to take some sort of manufactured umbrage. One Labour politician pleads with the leader of the Labour party to “call off the dogs” when yet another Labour MP is threatened with deselection for not following the party line. His deputy then takes grave offence because his esteemed Comrades have been insultingly referred to as “dogs”. Hunting metaphor, dear boy. Metaphor, not actual dogs.

Anyway, I will not brood on that, it will make my headache worse. This evening I have been forced to lie on the sofa in my darkened living room, playing Dire Straits to myself through an earpiece and something that was once called an MP3 player. I may be the last person in the world still using an MP3 player. This was to drown out the noise of my neighbours once again playing some kind of war game at full volume, for hours. I wonder how I am going to explain the intermittent cacophony to Canadian Sister when she comes to stay with me after Christmas, as hopefully she will. Perhaps she won’t suffer so much from it, knowing she is soon going to be able to fly off and leave it behind.

Update: by popular (well, one) request a portrait of Blanket has been added, getting to know his new little friend Whitstable. More of Whitstable later. Probably. Once coffee consumed and gigantic fish and chips and strawberry ice cream slept off.

Of church, carrot cake and a chatty chihuahua

Sorry – how many times have I said sorry in my life, I wonder? – for not having written much recently. I seem to have lost my mojo or, as Shakespeare implied, find myself unarmed when it comes to the battle of wits. How wonderful Shakespeare was.

The best I can manage – and only because this morning I foolishly mentioned to Daisy in a text that I might do – is a brief summary of yesterday, which, as indicated in my title, did indeed involve churches, carrot cake and chihuahuas. As to whether the chihuahua – a tiny, pretty little soul – was actually talking, I will leave to your imagination.

I have reached that age, and those financial circumstances, where I have to take my entertainment wherever I can find it, the main test being Is it free, or at least no more than 50p? Thus did I find myself in a village church at 10 o’clock on a Monday morning, sharing a long trestle table with a number of quite old people – who for some reason didn’t seem to be noticing how much less wrinkly than them than them I looked – or maybe only imagined I looked – drinking tea from a mug and consuming carrot cake from a saucer, with a fork that looked as if it might originally have been intended for fish. I had just bought a paperback cozy detective (set in the Cotswolds, wherever they are, somewhere in England, rural, prone to inexplicable murders, with pitchforks, in graveyards) from the wooden trolley in the corner, which was another 50p. Moths flew up as I unzipped the purse. Really pushing the boat out today!

The chihuahua arrived with his owner in a wheelchair – I mean, the chihuahua was in the wheelchair, which the owner was pushing along, with great difficulty – and sat himself opposite me. I’ve got verbal diahorreah, he said, and he was not wrong.

But then we’re all different, aren’t we? Wouldn’t be the same if we were all the same, would it. We’re all odd in some sort of way. Ooh, cake…

He’s seen the carrot cake, said his owner. And indeed his nose was twitching. The dog’s, that is.

Cake? said the dog. Biscuit, maybe?

After all, said the dog, they’re getting punished for it now. And quite right too.

Punished?

Yes, serves them right. Why should they expect to get medals and honours and things when they don’t pay their taxes? Inland Revenue says no, you get to the back of the queue Mr Big Headed Old Comedian, Mr Internet Blogging Star Person…

I was impressed. A chihuahua who watched the news.

Carrot cake? That little left over corner morsel perhaps…?

No, it’s mine. It cost me 50p.

And later we ventured further – it was a kind of a Cheap Places To Go Trawl – to the hospital canteen, where for a modest sum we purchased overflowing platefuls of lentil risotto with boiled cabbage and carrots, followed by peach crumble. The canteen is in the basement. Anyone can go there and buy a whopping great platefuls of nourishing grub. Actually cooked, hot food, not the cheese-mayo-and-watercress-sandwiches (and probiotic yoghurt) one existed on most of last week. Smells like school dinners but looks and tastes so much better than school dinners ever did.

And to my mind there return images of actual sixties school dinners – scrag end of neck of lamb, lumps of gristle strung together with fatty elastic – liver and bacon, invisible under several feet of cold, greasy gravy in a communal tin, Gypsy Tart, so sickeningly sweet as to be good for nothing but drawing tramline patterns in with your fork…

Oh so much better, these hospital dinners. But just as cheap. And you can’t smell the smell after a while. It’s like perfume – all those little receptors inside your nose get full up and you can’t smell it any more.

And then, full of food, a quick drive down to another church, much more isolated, to find out when Harvest Festival was going to take place. Over the lentil risotto I had had a sudden whim, to go to a Harvest Festival service. The last one must have been when I was fifteen or so, at the Methodist. Something about Harvest Festival – and the Carol Services there will be before Christmas – suddenly seemed comforting, and indispensable. And of course, more or less free, though there would no doubt be a collection.

And then a little walk down a rutted track, looking out over the water at other land masses, at boats, and fields of corn. And the sun was suddenly quite hot, even though it’s autumn. I wondered whether to take off my cardigan. Got a bit of grit in my sandals. If I’d only known, I’d have brought the walking boots.

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The Battle Of Shapely Diamond

The above is not my Shapely Diamond Dishcloth, by the way. The above example is considerably worse than mine – which is pretty bad, but at least kind of straight around the edges and a nice pale gold colour – and this is heartening.

I seem to have discovered dishcloths. Dishcloths, the use and knitting of, seem to be very popular in America and Canada, less so here. Here, we buy those blue J-cloths in packets of 25 and throw them away as we use them. Dishcloths have to be washed and used again, but they are eco-friendly, sustainable and all that. In America and Canada, I gather, you can buy medium cotton yarn in every supermarket. Here, you have a job even to find knitting wool on sale nowadays, let alone cotton. You have to get if off the internet.

Canadian Sister got me into dishcloths, which she was being forced to manufacture by the Seniors group she belongs to, on the grounds that dishcloths will sell whereas lime-green and purple crocheted elephants probably won’t. I must admit, for the longest time, as they say in Canada, I imagined a dishcloth to be something off-whiteish and holey. Maybe rather slimy; the sort of item I vaguely remembered lurking around Nan’s kitchen sink. People actually buy those?

However, I have since discovered that dishcloth cotton comes in many bright colours, including interesting many-hued varieties called ombres. Furthermore, they work. They are really good at washing dishes. And, as Canadian Sister pointed out, although they are technically dishcloths, what they are, in fact, are samplers of many different and exotic knitting stitches. They are an opportunity to transform yourself into an Advanced Knitter without too much wastage of wool, an opportunity to express your creativity and show off your skills.

So there is more to a knitted dishcloth than meets the eye.

Once bitten by the dishcloth-knitting bug, as is always the case with my rapidly passing obsessions, I just had to buy a book on it. The book is called Kitchen Bright Dishcloths and features pictures of perfect, unwobbly, square-rather-than-unexpectedly-rectangular dishcloths. Perfect dishcloths. One cat vomited over it, projectile-ly, almost immediately, and another cat decorated it with claw-marks overnight but hey – they were just expressing their creativity. The patterns are still readable.

The last one in the book – for good reason – is called Shapely Diamond – and it is a beast of a pattern, 65 lines long and every line different. I am operating at a disadvantage, also, in having to learn American/Canadian knitting terms. One I puzzled over for ages was yarn over (in this country, wool forward). My sister managed a transatlantic phone tutorial in the various kinds of yarn over and make one – with neither of us able to see what the other was describing. We don’t have Skype, or Facetime or whatever. Lucky we have known each other a long, long time and are sort of psychic.

Anyway, I thought I would attempt Shapely Diamond just once. If you can manage that, I thought, you can manage anything. It was going quite well, and I had got past the half-way point with no major glitches. This is going to be a two-day dishcloth, I thought, and made the foolish mistake of going to bed. Next morning I picked it up again, but something had gone wrong. Somehow, many rows back, there had materialised – an Error. My diamond no longer looked exactly diamond-shaped. There was a wobbly step in it.

But, I thought, it’s only a dishcloth after all. No one’s going to see the thing, it’s just going to be washing dishes. And after all, as Leonard Cohen says, there is a crack in everything (that’s how the light gets in). And after all, you have never in your life successfully managed to unravel a pattern like this, for an unknown number of rows, and a) pick up all those weird loopy yarn overs and k2tbl’s – and b) find out which row of the monstrous 65 row pattern you had landed back on.

However, I found myself unravelling, and counting the rows as I unravelled. Eight rows. And I found myself picking up the yarn overs and the k2tbl‘s and crossing off the last eight rows from my checklist and (take a deep breath) starting again at that row, which might or might not have been the right one. And it worked! I had saved my Shapely Diamond. Not that the end result is in any way worth all that time and effort but at least I haven’t got to look at the thing for ever after and think there’s a mistake in it.

My life seems to be made up of fairly big disasters interspersed with (as in the example above) minuscule successes. Today the Jehovah’s Witness ladies came round. They seem to like me. I came out and closed the door behind me, so as not to let all nineteen cats escape. They told me about their cats. I feigned interest, and in the little leaflets about Family Life and God Knows The Future Even If You Don’t. And they showed me a verse from the Bible, and read it to me. I noticed they left most of a whole sub-clause out in the reading (a tiresome relic of having once been a legal secretary) and was so busy digesting this that I forgot to take any notice of the verse itself.

I think the Jehovah ladies thought I would have discovered Jesus by now. Instead I appear to have discovered dishcloths, but it’s a start.

And then I drove away the Jehovah ladies, more by accident than design, but another of those minuscule triumphs – by boring them to death about the six boxes of little shiny magazines that had just arrived and how, this very afternoon, I would need to stuff every one of the little shiny magazines with a navy blue flier with a picture of a bright yellow octopus on it, and then tomorrow I would have to load up my car with the little shiny magazines, take them into town and poke them through the first of seven or eight days’ worth of recalcitrant and badly-designed letterboxes; how I would have to face a succession of rabid Alsatians determined to remove my fingers, and weave my way through one overgrown nettle-and rubbish-infested front garden after another…

I can be very, very boring, I know, and once I start on one of my very, very boring jags I can’t seem to stop. (Ex was like this, too, it must be an Asperger’s thing). I mean, I can hear myself being very, very boring but somehow my mouth won’t stop talking, in fact the more panic-stricken I get about being very, very boring the more Mouth redoubles its efforts… like a kind of survival mechanism.

They backed off up my driveway and left me still talking, and clutching the two wilting Jesus magazines, and surrounded by boxes of little shiny other magazines, and navy blue fliers with bright yellow octopii upon them…

Another disaster, I suppose. Or another tiny triumph.

Mad Dogs and Englishwomen…

I was sitting in a little park today, around about 1 o’clock. This in itself was brave and/or disobedient of me as the Government has warned us all to stay indoors between 11 and 3 because The Sun Is Too Hot. Particularly if we are elderly, dehydration and heat stroke may just push us over the edge into Not Being Able To Cope. We may become Confused.

Thing was, I had just had my hair done. Well, that’s irrelevant. And I had just had my Free Eye Test. That’s irrelevant too. Thing was, I had to sit somewhere and eat my Boots packaged sandwiches and my car – but a few yards away – had been sitting in the sun all morning and would now be likely to Fry me if I attempted to sit in it without the engine running and the air-conditioning on full blast.

Yesterday morning I was delivering hundreds and hundreds of shiny little magazines round one of the less edifying sections of town. By mid-day I was tottering, despite my giant water bottle. Yes, I know I was out in the sun after 11, but I had to be. I only have ten days to deliver a whole garage-full (well, six boxes) and I can only manage one and a half hours at a time of trudging up and down people’s driveways, dragging my shopping trolley along behind me. You know, dog pee and garbage smell even worse when it’s hot? Most people’s front gardens seem to smell of that. Also, metal letter box flaps – when you can reach them for the discarded children’s tricycles, rusty old washing-machines and mountains of black bin sacks – burn your fingers. Wore foolish sun-hat. Didn’t think to wear gloves.

England is red hot. So, I gather, is most of Europe. Even Scandinavia is red hot and Scandinavia is such a cool place, usually. And in Japan it’s like, 40-something degrees. Here its somewhere between 30 and 35 depending on which newspaper you believe (Fake Weather!). And it doesn’t get any cooler at night. And then the next day it’s just the same. And the next night. How I long for snow, for a prolonged and arctic winter.

Anyway, in this little park there are gravestones, crowded into a narrow strip down the left hand side. They are very old gravestones, with names weather-faded in strange curly scripts, with ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s. They are long-gone people, with nobody to visit them and somebody on the Council, at some point, must have thought it a good idea to repurpose their graveyard as a little park. So they crammed all the gravestones, and those big box tombs, the sort you can sit upon to eat your sandwiches, into the strip down the left. Over the years they have developed a sort of earnest forward slant, as if desperate to escape.

I hate this. I have always hated this little park and seeing again what they did to those dead people. And funnily enough, it is unpopular. Only me in it today, and the Council gardening truck, the door flung open and a man’s booted foot just visible, poking out the passenger side and resting on the dashboard. He too is eating his sandwiches.

It’s not as if they’ve even done much to it. There were all these tall trees, but now they’ve cut them down, all but the stumps, from which leaves are still trying to grown. There’s a kind of dead-looking large shrub thing in the middle, and they’ve cut out a few random rectangular flower beds. This year every flower bed is planted with red geraniums. What is the point of red geraniums?

But you know how you can be looking at something for a while and then, suddenly, something strikes you as significant. I was eating my (interminable) sandwich in the heat of the midday sun, and staring at the yellow-brown grass of the Nasty Little Park, and comparing it to pictures I had seen on the news of Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, where the grass is also dying from lack of rain. And suddenly I saw it – the pattern of the graves of all those poor dead people, whose memorial stones were penned in on the left hand side. There they were, quite clearly – squares and rectangles, even and uneven, resurfaced from long ago.

I could have cried, actually, but it was too hot. Normally covered by lush green grass, now here they all were. I have seen aerial photos of similar things. With the earth being all scorched, this year it has become possible for archaeologists to see the outlines of unknown Roman Villas, or extra circles of wall beyond the known walls of castles. And with the reservoirs drying up, it has become possible once again to see the villages that were drowned in their making, outlines of cottages people once lived in, little stone bridges they once walked over.

And for the first time it occurred to me to ask, what did they do with all the people? Did they dig up all the bones and toss them into some unmarked pit? Did they consecrate them, hold some sort of service? Or are the people all still there, exactly where they were, arranged in this slightly eccentric grid pattern?

They’re all still here, I thought. One way or another, in bone or in spirit. And they’re accusing us.

The Tempting of Aoife

Aoife observes that the Guide is bored, taking this group of people round the power station, and uncomfortable in her tight navy uniform. The Guide is a woman of a certain age, so flushing may be a problem; and it can’t help that the uniform was designed with lengthy, windswept winters in mind, but there’s a heat-wave going on outside. A primitive air-conditioning system is just recycling the hot air, distilling the stuffiness. There is a smell of metal and dust, and maybe something else. Would nuclear power have a smell of its own? The Guide has bristly, striped-greying hair like a badger and a sprinkling of tiny red dots on her upper lip, which would be needle-marks from a recent electrolysis session.

Aoife McKendrick notices details like this. Connections snap themselves together in her mind so rapidly and effortlessly that she long since gave up trying to trace them back to any logical source. She would have made a good Sherlock Holmes, she often thinks. What she does not think is that her thought processes are wild and unpredictable, like cables arcing out in a flooded tunnel. She does not think of herself as dangerous.

Aoife has never told anybody about Bub, partly because they would say she is mad, and she is not mad, or if she is mad it’s none of their business. Degenerates! And partly because it’s such a foolish name, the sort a child might attach to their invisible friend. She thinks she knows where Bub comes from – that faint, continual buzzing of wasps, or maybe flies – is another clue. But she doesn’t believe in Where Bub Comes From, and Bub is not a friend. Bub is not something that sits upon her shoulder and whispers in her ear: it’s more subtle than that.

Bub tells her that the human race is doomed, eventually, anyway, but that the process needs to be speeded up. In visions sometimes he shows her the whole world, and she sees how it is infested, gnarled and infected by these filthy apes with their overstuffed brains and their lack of moral perspective. She sees how they are polluting the seas and even the atmosphere around this planet, how their detritus will eventually spill out into the furthest reaches of space, how they and their waste products will be everywhere, soon. She sees the murders in back alleys, the addicts shooting up, the children raped and the animals slaughtered and mistreated. Bub shows her all, and it is true. Something must be done about it. Bub wants her to do it.

There have been rumours on social media, about a Red Button. The Red Button, here, in this power station. These stories started popping up on the net about a year ago; before that Aoife had not really thought of Britain as having a Red Button at all. But it made sense that any nuclear nation would have a Red Button, and that it would be hidden somewhere inside their own country, and what more sensible place to hide it than a nuclear power station? This one is particularly remote, in the middle of the Scottish Highlands surrounded by purple heather and rabbits, and the kind of game bird that turns a snowy white in winter. A beautiful place….

Until they built a power station in it!” The background buzzing is quite loud this time. It tends to get louder the angrier Bub was. He tends to get angry if he catches her thinking that things are beautiful, or that people are not so bad.

They have come up on a day trip from the University of Edinburgh, where Aoife has been working on her MSc in biochemistry. Of themselves, power stations are of little interest to her and of little relevance to her studies, but this one – this particular one might just possibly be the home of the Red Button. She had seen a small poster advertising the visit on one of many scruffy, overcrowded notice-boards at uni. It was partly covered over by newer posters, but the date was still visible, and hadn’t happened yet.

Time to further pursue our investigations,” says Bub. “An opportunity not to be missed, and one unlikely to arise again.” Bub can be wordy at times. He speaks like a civil servant, Aoife thinks, or a police officer giving a televised statement.

Aoife lingers towards the back of the group, looking from side to side rather than ahead, where the Guide leads them, perspiring whilst explaining about fuel rods, graphite powder, the purpose of the little blue badges they had been given to wear on their lapels, etcetera. Earlier they had been forced to watch a scratchy film in which protons and electrons were depicted as billiard balls of different colours and sizes, whizzing – but conveniently slowly – about one another. How many generations have passed since people stopped conceiving of atoms as slowly-whizzing, different coloured billiard balls, she wonders.

She’s looking out for a door left ajar, perhaps, or an unattended corridor that might take her closer to the rumoured Red Button. Even now she can scarcely imagine that there could be such a thing, and that if it really is here they can be so cavalier about it, when visitors are about.

The human ape, in its arrogance and conceit, has an amazing propensity for carelessness,” Bub reminds her, neither on her shoulder nor quite inside her head. Sometimes Aoife wonders whether Bub is male or female. It seems to be both, or neither; or either one, depending on its mood…

And then, to her left, she spots it. Down a narrow green-painted corridor a heavy door has been left open, and from it spills a faint, reddish light. It isn’t difficult to slip away from the group. There are cameras in the corridor ceiling, she notices, but they do not alter their position to follow her as she tiptoes towards the door. The floor is made of springy silver metal, with raised patterns.

And there it is, a small room with nothing else inside it but a plinth upon which sits the Red Button; an enormous button, to fit a giant’s hand. Will she even have the strength to push it, she wonders. Will she have the courage? She is suddenly very nervous. Pressing it will result in her own destruction as well as everyone else’s. What will it feel like to die in such a violent way? She finds she cannot console herself with a paradise flowing with milk and honey and endlessly available virgins, or angels perched on clouds and playing harps… she can manufacture no belief in such things. What will Nothing At All feel like?

No more of me whispering in your ear,” says Bub. Bub knows her so very well. Silence, peace and quiet, a rest from Bub is an attractive prospect.

Aoife is momentarily afraid to cross the threshold in case the heavy metal door slams shut behind her. In films, that’s what always happens. Whether it is a heavy metal door, a secret panel or a concealed stone door in a cave on some distant planet, it always swings shut behind you. But she can read what is stencilled on the button, even from the doorway. It says: DO NOT PRESS.

It is those words that make it easy. For who can resist the urge to press any button that says DO NOT PRESS? It just has to be done, just as cliffs have to be jumped off and ledges on skyscraper buildings become unbearably confining, so that one must take flight…

Aoife strides towards the button. Shutting her eyes very tight, she presses it.

fruitfly

Thinking about it at her leisure – and she is to have a lot of leisure – she realises that any actual nuclear missile would take time to be despatched towards – the enemy, whoever they currently are – and many more minutes for it to reach its target. And then there would be an interlude of forty minutes or so before the enemy’s retaliation arrived. But at the time she was expecting a blast of shrapnel to rip through her, or at the very least to be deafened by klaxons or sirens. She was expecting lights to flash and all hell instantly let loose.

She isn’t expecting crude masculine laughter. Nor is she expecting, when she does manage to unglue her eyelids from one another, to see that an unremarkable rectangular wall-panel has transformed itself into a window, and that behind the glass are three uniformed security guards in high-backed black chairs, laughing and pointing at her.

Gotcha!

Bagged us another one, Harry. That’ll be three this month.

And then the door clangs shut.

fruitfly

Two year later Aoife McKendrick is discharged from the secure mental health facility in which she has been being treated for paranoid schizophrenia. The authorities soon realised that she is not connected with the worrying phenomenon of Killer Queens, as the newspapers have started to call them – a surge in the number of young white women, seemingly unknown to each other, who have come to the conclusion that the human race is too vile to survive and that they are the ones to do the exterminating.
They have decided that Aoife McKendrick falls into a more familiar and explicable category: she is merely insane. Common or garden madness was normal in comparison to this mysterious, cold, destructive instinct that had arisen in women all over the globe. Aoife could be started on anti-psychotics. A bright young woman, by all accounts. No reason she shouldn’t return to her studies once her illness had been got under control.

Aoife is happy too, for she is finally free of the buzzing, and the insistent voice of her tormentor and companion, Bub.

She grew up a plain girl, fat and rather spotty, but during her two years in the facility the excess blubber has dropped off, without her even trying. The food was dull and there wasn’t enough of it for the old Aoife, but it was wholesome. Her acne gradually subsided. Towards the end of her sentence she selected as one of her therapeutic activities a few afternoons of Cosmetic Therapy, tutored by a visiting beautician. By the time she steps out into late summer sunshine at the end of her two years she looks like a new woman. In her bag is a letter from the University of Edinburgh, welcoming her back to finish the MSc in biochemistry.

And it is a beautiful day. The flowers in parks and gardens are somewhat past their prime, but the bees are buzzing. Honey is being made. Her past need not be spoken of, they have said, as long as she keeps on taking the tablets. There will always be a need for promising scientific minds like hers.

Of course, dear Aoife,” says Bub, resuming their dialogue as if he only paused it a second ago, “the Red Button is merely a metaphor.

It will have occurred to you by now that there is more than one kind of button, and that it doesn’t have to be red.

It doesn’t even have to be a button.