Cows with no legs; a church with no congregation; radioactive singing frogs

In their latter years Mum and Dad ‘did’ the same holiday year after year: they went to Middle Farm. Middle Farm was in the middle of a long and sinuous lane between two villages, and in the middle of the Marsh. They packed the car with practised ease. Mum had a list and she ticked things off. In earlier years they took the bicycles, strapped to the back of the car. Dad never went anywhere without his bike. But later… later there was no point in the bike. He just sort of sat.

They usually went September or October. It was a bit cheaper end of season but the sun still shone, at least once the mist had burnt off the fields. We – ie the three separate sisters, our partners, husbands – or later not – Godmother, cycling chums and other increasingly ancient persons – were invited down there for days, or an afternoon. Mum kept a schedule, I think, and ticked people off with relief.

It was dullish, but it made a change of scene. Mum and Dad didn’t see much of the farm, nor were they really interested in doing so. Not for them the borrowed wellies, lending a hand to muck out the pigs and all that rural stuff. They were happy enough to potter down through the farm, to the bridge over the ditch that marked one of its boundaries, and to sing the praises of Cecilia, the farmer’s wife. Cecilia was the person they saw, since she ran the chalet business.

Three chalets, later four, in a row, in a field next to the winding road. Sheep in a vast field behind, and a branch railway line, a long way in the distance, chugging down to Rye. During the day you hardly noticed the trains. At night, though, they came through lit up and spectacular, and were a point of interest, something to exclaim over. My parents always exclaimed over them. I expect Mum kept a list of trains too, and ticked them off.

Cecilia irritated me. She was kind of glam and ‘anyone for tennis’. Indeterminate age, long, somehow expensively blonde hair casually caught up. Always bouncing off to the gym, suitably attired. Trim figure – Dad liked that. Dubiously posh accent. Mum liked that. Painted. OK paintings but not brilliant. Several hanging (casually) on the walls of the chalet. Different ones each year. Prices on the back. High prices, for what they were.

But – good, clean accommodation, pleasant surroundings, value for money.

We would go for walks, on our allotted visits. Apart from the walk to the boundary there were three ‘proper’ walks, and Mum had the casting vote. The first was very long and eventually took you, sore-footed, into a village with a pub where you could get a cooked meal and a cup of tea to fortify you for the the very long walk back. I dreaded that one.

There was the one to the church in the middle of the field, for which you had to collect the key – a big rusty iron object – at a cottage some way down the road. We went there once in later autumn. There were cows in the field – sheep, cow and rabbit droppings to crunch over – but you couldn’t seen the cows’ leg for the mist. Half-cows. Inside there were a party of Scottish bell-ringers, on a holiday of their own. Their mission: to ring all the bells in all the churches on the Marsh. They rang them while we were there. But the church itself, rather like a film set. No feeling of people – real people – ever having been there. Just musty. Meaningless. Enclosed.

And then there was the one with the frogs. This was the least onerous. No key to collect, no blisters or perspiration involved, just a square walk round narrow lanes and back again. Lanes so narrow that grass grew in cracks up the middle. Ditches on either side. The Marsh is a magical place but when you’re out in it it always gives you that same uneasy feeling, that this time you might not get back. It might be intending to…swallow you. There’s something dank about it, something ancient, cynical and not entirely welcoming, like the glint in Cecilia’s eye.

At a certain point it was obligatory to stop and listen for the song of the Marsh Frogs. These frogs were famous, and supposedly of a giant variety. They were as invisible as they were audible, so there was no way of telling – and anyway, I’m not sure any of us really knew what a normal frog was supposed to look like. When I worked at the power station, rumour had it they were radioactive, having at some point wallowed in radioactive ditch-water near the plant, and that was why they had grown so monstrously large. I doubt if it was true since the power station were always careful – paranoid, in fact – about not making stuff radioactive. Another rumour was that the frogs had been imported from a far-off land where there were Especially Big Frogs – and had escaped from some domestic pond, gaily to multiply and sing in all the ditches.

But then came the day when Dad was taken ill. We came back from that walk and found him secretly bathing his bandaged bad leg. It had been kind of leaking for a while, we knew that – something to do with the valves inside the veins disintegrating, like a series of broken ladders. But this – was a horrible sight. He had kept secret how bad it had become, not wanting to spoil Mum’s holiday. He had driven down there, somehow, but was in no fit state to drive back. He wouldn’t be persuaded to be taken to hospital, either. In the end I enlisted Ex and (inevitably) My Replacement. They didn’t live that far off. Dad had always got on with Ex and Ex had a way of imposing common sense on chaotic situations. He had never been able to bring himself to say ‘Dad’ so he breezed in with: “Now then Mr — what’s all this then?”

They had a jolly, masculine chat, the pair of them, whilst the rest of us tried very hard to not to look at that monstrous, suppurating leg; but the old Ex magic didn’t work this time. Eventually Mum packed everything up and drove the both of them home. They had only been there a couple of days. There was no refund, of course, and they never went again. Just in case. Just in case.

And that’s what life’s like, isn’t it? That is the way of Time. There is always going to be the Giant Hand, imposing a full stop at the end of our half-finished sentence. We just don’t notice that Hand till afterwards. It descends in silence and always, always, takes us by surprise.

giant frog

The meaning of life passes me by – again

So, I was sat there at the bus stop opposite the station having, as nearly always, just missed the bus home. There is a gap, after lunch, of one and a half hours. I had hit that gap.

I had been waiting there for over an hour already. Other buses came and went, and various other people came and waited – and went, on all the buses that arrived that were sadly not my bus. There was just me and this very, very old man. I was sat in the shelter, such as it is, with the narrow hard seats that slope forwards (on purpose, to discourage sleeping tramps, according to Bertie). He was sat behind me and to the side, on a low bench. The low bench is much more comfortable, though difficult to arise out of if you have been sitting in it for any length of time.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the very, very old man wished to talk to me. He was doing that fidgety, glancing in my direction and then glancing away thing that people do. So I went over and sat down next to him. He told me his sight was really bad and he couldn’t make out the numbers of the buses.

Was I by any chance waiting for the same bus that he was waiting for?

I was.

Would I be so kind as to tell him when that bus arrived?

I would.

He had a very soft voice, and unfortunately in the range that I find most difficult to hear. I tried to disregard the noise from a constant stream of traffic, and watched his lips. He told me that he was ninety… something. And now, strangely, that is nearly almost all I can remember of our conversation. I realised he was an educated man. We seemed to be talking about philosophy, and the meaning of life… and all that. I remember struggling to answer him in a way that would make it appear that I had heard… clearly. I wanted to hear. I could tell that what he was saying was really interesting. It came to me that we were kindred spirits of some kind, and that he was meant to be here today, sitting on this bench, and that he had an important message for me.

Finally our bus arrived. He sat next to me and carried on talking, softly. At one point I realised he was reciting Desiderata to me in that soft, kind voice. He knew it, and other poems, by heart. He said when he understood his sight was failing he had begun to memorise poems that were important to him. He said he worked to keep his memory sharp by reciting as many as possible of these poems daily. We discussed the origin of Desiderata, agreeing that it had not been found been nailed to the door of Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692 as was claimed in the 1970s, but that this didn’t matter in the least.

And then, whether by reason of my own physical weariness and anxiety to be home (it had been a long and stressful day) or because the bus was negotiating a series of hills and narrow, twisty roads, causing an increase in background noise, I could not hear him at all. Out of politeness, desperately, I continued to watch his old lips, still reciting and philosophising, still asking questions which I could not hear to answer, and could not lip read either.

As we reached his stop, he suddenly became audible again.  “Well,” he said, “here my journey ends. And yours continues.”

Powered by leprechauns

I believe there must be a leprechaun inside my smartphone. Well, not even a very smart phone – a phone that in reality does all the stuff normal smartphones do, but disguises the fact so as not to spook the elderly. A deafening musical cadence every time you switch the thing on or off tells everyone else in the railway carriage that you must be extremely hard of hearing, and menus in big letters, with simple alternative words for things, ensure that anyone under eighty will be confused. I spent the first three months wondering where they had hidden the ‘Text’ function before realising that

‘What do you want to do…?

Send…?

Send what…?

A Message?’

actually meant Text. Godmother has the same phone (but Godmother is six months older than my mother) which does at least mean that I can help her when her leprechaun is playing up. I managed to get hers off Aeroplane Mode last week. It had been stuck like that for months.

The phone’s inner leprechaun is obviously quite bright. On my last journey to meet Godmother/visit Mum together, I got to the station, bought my ticket and whilst waiting for the train checked my screen (I’ve just got my head round Roaming). He told me the name of a station and informed me that the station was ‘functioning’ – which was a relief, since I was already standing on the platform, senior rail ticket in hand. He also told me when my next train was due. This I also knew as there are only two trains an hour, and indeed only one platform, terminating in a pile of weedy rubble, whether you are Outgoing or Inbound.

However, my leprechaun does tend to slip out for a pint of Guinness occasionally. In Godmother’s car, an hour and a half and quite a few miles away, he informed me I was in England. This was a relief too. If ever I was taken up into a spaceship by aliens, experimented on and dropped randomly back to earth with my Old Person’s Smartphone I would at least know that I was in Africa, say, or Mongolia.

I thought about it. If he doesn’t know what town I’m in, at this moment in time, how can he proclaim with such confidence that I’m in England? And then I thought, ah, he’s applying logic, as computerised thingies are known to do. He has worked out that the town I was in, before he went out for the pint of Guinness, is such a long way from the borders of either Scotland, Wales or Ireland that I wouldn’t have had time by any known means of transport to have traversed one of said borders. Ergo, since I had been in England, I must still be in England. I was lost in admiration.

A cousin of the smartphone leprechaun lives in my television and informs me at intervals that a Weak or No Signal is being received. He actually knows, somehow, that the cats have just pulled the aerial out of the socket.

Another particularly malevolent cousin lives in my desktop computer. Every day he attempts to send me a massive Update to Internet Explorer, which he tells me will take longer than usual, but is a pressing matter, absolutely vital. Every time I allow him to do this my desktop computer chunters away for a while, then dies. “Bluescreens”, as they say in internet chatrooms. It is then very difficult to revive my computer. Much turning it off at the wall and turning it back on again. Desktop leprechaun then tells me the Update has failed and he is restoring my previous version of Internet Explorer. I cannot afford to pay the Computer Man £120 to fix this Illogicality for me, any more than I could afford to pay the plumber to stop water constantly rippling into my loo from the cistern – until I had to spend all one day bailing into a bucket.

The next day the desktop leprechaun sends me an even tetchier message. “Let’s cross this one off your list… Come on now, you know it makes sense…” I tick “Remind Me Tomorrow” as there seems to be no option for “Bog Off”.

leprechaun

Into a ditch with Mozart

When I was younger, so much younger than today…

I was driving my wonky little old car across the Marsh. (One of a series of wonky little old cars.) I think this was the wonky little old red one.

Anyway, I was listening to Mozart, on a tape. Shows you how long ago it was. I was on my way to work.

I was listening to Mozart because he was the only classical composer I could think of the name of. I grew up in an uncultural environment. My mother was a fan of Matt Monro (the singing bus driver) – who died. Also Jim Reeves, who had a very deep voice. And died. My mother cried the day that Jim Reeves died, just as I cried the day John Lennon got shot.

My father liked to sing along to Sing Something Simple, which as far as I remember was Sunday lunchtimes on the radio. Oh, home on the range, he used to croon, melodiously, with the requisite tinge of an American accent, where the deer and the antelope roam… Well, we all used to croon.

My ex-husband was far more educated, musically, than I. He used to play blues guitar, and some classical pieces. I would listen to him in amazement, though it was depressing. I had once wanted to play the guitar and now – how could I?

He was nine years older than me and remembered jazz and folk, obscure (to me) blues singers from the thirties and forties – and all sorts of stuff that I was only able to love and appreciate after I had left him. He even knew about Early Music and the Aeolian mode, and the pentatonic scale, and polyphony. Now I love that stuff (though I still couldn’t explain the Aeolian mode) but I never used to listen to him when he started going on about it. Every time he started to reveal even an edge of his massively greater knowledge of just about everything I would bristle and switch off. Grrr…

But at one point, even while I was married to him, I realised that I did want to learn about Classical Music. I kept secret my experimentation with tapes (borrowed from the public library) because he would no doubt make me feel inadequate yet again if I told him. Telling him anything seemed to result in a helpful, university-type lecture. I accidentally made mention of helicopters once and was treated to a whole lunch hour’s disquisition on torque.

So I was playing Mozart, rather loudly, in the wonky little old car as I drove in to work. It had been raining overnight and the road was muddy, and then this blackbird flew out, really low, and of course I braked

People afterwards kept saying You braked for a BLACKBIRD? You crashed your car into a ditch and nearly killed yourself to save the life of a BIRD? Which only really goes to show that it’s more than skin deep, my belief that all life is sacred and all of absolutely equal value. Not killing birds,  slugs, ants or any living thing – not even carving my name into the bark of a tree or removing a stone from its resting place, is programmed into me. I am those things, and they are me.

Anyway, I was in this ditch for only about ten minutes. I couldn’t find the switch to turn Mozart off, and anyway I do believe I was shaking. So weird, that long, rightwards and downwards Mozartesque slither. So balletic. Then I understood that thing about time slowing down. And all around me were kind of weeds and tiny trees – a tiny tree had impeded my further descent – the Marsh ditches are major drainage channels, and deeper than average – and the road was now… somewhere up there!

I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I grabbed my handbag. Women always grab their handbags, I think. I pushed the car door open as far as it would go, which wasn’t all the way. Brambles. There was a sort of latticework of vegetation but no clear indication of where the actual bank was. I looked at my work shoes. High(ish) heels. I looked at my work tights. The tights were for it.

But shortly two, or maybe three cars stopped and two, or maybe three kind men came running from various directions and pulled me out of the ditch. One of them gave me a lift home. By this time I was shaking like a leaf and couldn’t stop talking. I remember thinking, stop talking, you wally! But I couldn’t.

My car was a write-off. It didn’t look too badly damaged but apparently its engine and all its working parts were kind of jammed up with mud. I never saw it again. Somebody must have dragged it out and disposed of it.

I have since listened with pleasure to a wide range classical composers, and have become a particular fan of Thomas Tallis. But Mozart? Poor Mozart, I can no longer listen to him.

He answered the door with a single duvet wrapped around his waist…

A damp autumn evening in 1982 or thereabouts. I had been apprehensive about the invitation to Caz and Rupert’s party, but this was unexpected. Rupert appeared to have been – or to still be – asleep. He squinted out at the dead leaves swirling in drizzle and lamplight and shivered. He seemed to be trying to either hitch the duvet up or secure it. I looked away, rather hastily. I was a married woman. And then I looked back. The duvet was still in place.

Caz and Rupert lived in the big house opposite us, in a village far from here. It was the posh house, with tall Victorian chimneys and a walled garden. Lady Something-or-Other had lived in it, until she died. Lady Something-or-Other had been nothing much in herself – just some sort of typist – but she had married Lord Something-or-Other and thereafter developed delusions of grandeur. She lived till about a hundred and became a terribly dangerous driver, crashing into shops, mounting pavements and so forth, but she kept bribing some private doctor to certify her competent.

When she finally expired the village breathed a respectful sigh of relief, but then Caz and Rupert moved in. Caz was fat and slothful. She did not care about clothes and made me feel somehow square and buttoned-up every time she looked at me. Rupert – who might or might not have been married to Caz – was charming, but bonkers. They did not appear have children, but they did have Daddy.

Daddy was old, courteous and rich, and tended to open the front door in a red velvet smoking jacket with gold frogging. It was he who had bought Lady Something-or-Other’s house for them and kept them afloat, financially, since neither of them did much work. Technically I think Rupert stripped pine furniture in chemicals, on a bit of waste land at the far end of a railway station. He never seemed to actually go there, though. He was always at home, lying on the sofa.

Except sometimes in the middle of the night he would be riding the massive sit-on lawnmower Daddy had bought him, round and round the massive lawn, in circles. He preferred circles. You couldn’t see them from the road because of the high wall. He also used to dig in the flower border with chopsticks. He told me that  himself, during the party. There was to be no escape from the party.

Rupert led us inside. His feet were bare and grubby. There was all sorts of broken glass on the uncarpeted floor. I watched as his feet magically managed to avoid being cut to ribbons by it. He never looked down once. Inside it was very dark. It was crammed with people about Rupert and Caz’s (indeterminate) age, plus Daddy in his smoking jacket, urbane and imperturbable as always.

There was a record-player with records being put on it and ripped off it at intervals. “Help yourself to drinks,” Rupert said, relieving us of the six pack of beer and bottle of whisky we had brought. He gestured towards the kitchen sink where there were a lot of empty bottles and no full ones. People were drinking out of blue glass glasses, which turned all their drinks the same witchy green colour. But whatever there had been to drink was long gone. We spent all evening drink-less, wandering, or rather blundering around, bumping into unwashed bodies, crunching on broken glass.

At some point the police arrived, because of the noise. “Send Daddy”, someone yelled. Daddy answered the door, urbane and charming. “Can I help you, officers?” he asked, smiling, brushing a few specks of cigar smoke off the red velvet jacket.

The thing that has stuck in my mind about that party all this time, is this. Not the social awfulness of it. Not the bizarre interestingness of it. Not the weirdness of it, either. It was the complete reversal of roles between Ex and I. At home he was – well, anal. I didn’t dare leave an apple core on the windowsill for so much as a second because he would start nagging me about it. The place for apple cores was in the bin, in the kitchen. I didn’t dare put a piece of coal on the fire that he had built in the grate, because I would be doing it wrongly or unnecessarily. Even if he was down in his shed, and I sneaked a piece of coal on, he could tell, from the quality of the smoke coming from our chimney, what I had done. He made a nervous wreck of me, really.

But in my mind I consoled myself that I was the misplaced hippie chick, the free-spirited wild wanderer, temporarily captured by this up-tight monster. In fantasising thus, to make myself feel less than totally defeated, I was conveniently overlooking several items I knew about my husband’s past – like that he had played blues guitar around the folk clubs with somebody called Chips, during which time they had had no permanent abode but had slept on people’s floors and peed on the unwashed dishes in various filthy sinks.

I also discounted a visit we once made to the local jewellery “fence”, unexpectedly an acquaintance of Ex’s, who was living in a seafront flat. He opened the door with a more-or-less naked girl on either side, and a strong smell of pot gusted out. Ex did not seem in the least fazed by this, but I was.  I was the timid, conventional one. He had boundless confidence and nine-years greater life experience. I had gone straight from a suburban bungalow to the altar. On the outside I was twenty-one, on the inside sixteen still.

And even now, when the logic or otherwise of this role reversal can hardly matter, I still can’t comprehend it. But the point at which Rupert appeared at his front door, naked but for a duvet, was the point at which I lost hope, seeing clearly for the first time how “stuck” I really was, and how difficult it was going to be to ever get away.

Poem: Once in a while

I talk to you in the kitchen, no? Wouldn’t you laugh if you knew?

Except of course that you wouldn’t because you didn’t; not ever,

no matter how sunny and bright I tried to be.

These long nights I turn off the TV to read and listen;

various cats come slouching along the wall,

sinking deep into the clefts between the cushions, sleeping instantly.

Peace breaking out between us as it rarely ever did

when both of us were real, and really here.

 

You never did read, did you? Your eyes would glaze over

at any page lacking diagrams or photos, or a bunch of formulae.

Nonetheless, your hypothetical self sits next to me on this fourth-or-fifth-hand sofa

and when I get to a track you might have relished I pass you the other earphone;

we listen in together, I and the shade of the man-you-might-now-be.

Once in a while you appear to forget that I’m here – I being a ghost to you –

and mumble along to the music, absently. And your singing voice is as soft and

loud, and as slightly-off-key as it always used to be. I loved your voice.

 

Every so often I go to your funeral, as in reality it is not very likely

that I will be asked to do. Over there – that’s me in fusty black under grey, imagined

sky, trying not to make it too obvious that I’m freezing –

at the brutalist crematorium that swallowed up my Dad.

I rarely cry except a tear or two, hypothetically. Because all said and done

this isn’t really real. And I wonder how the Real Thing would have gone

if you’d happened to go before me, and if we had still been We,

not You and I.

 

Featured Image: Funeral Procession: Clementine Hunter (1886-1998)

A Lilith of what you fancy (does you good)

Succumb‘ is not a fruitful prompt for someone my age. I mean, it’s not likely to be ‘the insistent advances of handsome millionaire actor George Clooney’, is it? More like viral pneumonia, or rheumatoid arthritis. All I could think of was Succubus.

When I was at school we ‘did’ Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. I wanted to like Chaucer, really I did, but it was difficult with the textbook we were given. There was Chaucer and his Olde English (well, technically Middle English) on one side of the page and a translation on the opposite side. All well and good, but we were ‘doing’ the Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Wife of Bath was – as I guessed but could not discover how, from the translation – a somewhat saucy baggage. I remember learning that she had a gap between her two front teeth and that in the middle ages a gap-toothed lady was regarded as very saucy. I am not a medieval man, so I have no idea why this should be. Maybe it was the symbolism.

It doesn’t seem to work the other way round…

thomas

The trouble was, every time Nanny Translator got to a saucy bit she substituted an ellipsis (…). I would have entirely forgotten the word swynke by nowand probably Chaucer and the Wife of Bath too – as in

As help me God, I laughe when I thynke / How piteously a-night I made him swynke

had it not been for the fact that swynke was represented on the translation page by those tantalising three dots and the teacher flatly refused to even hint what it might mean. Our teenage imaginations went into overdrive. What could swynke-ing be, for goodness sake? And how was she making him do it?

Actually it just means work very hard, though by a-night we know she isn’t referring to heaving heavy sacks of coal or peeling potatoes.

However… (ellipsis) why was I going on about Chaucer? Oh yes, it was via Chaucer that I learned of the existence, in medieval legend, of a demon known as the succubus. There are incubi and succubi. Incubi are male demons that prey on women, and succubi are female demons that prey on men. Particularly monks. They appear in dreams and tempt their victims to do all sorts of sinful and salacious stuff.

Succcubus and succumb are related, loosely. From the Latin and then the French succomber – sub (under) + cumbere (to lie down). To succumb is to yield to a superior force or strength, or to be overpowered by a desire. It is also to be brought to an end (as in death) by destructive or disruptive forces. Since the evil succubus would exhaust or even kill her dreaming victim by feeding on his dream ‘energy’ you can see the connection, and if you google ‘succubus’ and click on Images you will get all sorts of lurid artistic re-imaginings of what she might have looked like.

You know how you suddenly realise an author has been cleverer than you realised – that pleasant little moment when the penny drops? J K Rowling is particularly good a this. For example, Sirius Black in Harry Potter, who tends to turn into a large black dog at intervals, has the name of the dog star, Sirius. And Diagon Alley is diagonally.

Well, I thought I had one of those with the character Lilith from Cheers and Frasier. Lilith is Frasier’s ex-wife, who simultaneously haunts, fascinates and drains him:

Six months ago I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating… So I ended the marriage once and for all, packed up my things, and moved back here to my home town of Seattle.

(1993 pilot episode of Frasier, “The Good Son”)

Ah, I thought. Lilith from Jewish mythology was in fact a succubus – a night-hag or night-monster. How clever they have been, those screenwriters, in choosing exactly the right name for Frasier’s scary, vampiric (but nonetheless amusing) ex-wife.

But then they went and let me down, those screenwriters. Researching further I discovered that Rob Sternin and Prudence Frasier had simply wanted a name that embodied sternness, like a Dickensian… headmistress in a high-necked blouse and tight bun. The Biblical badass didn’t factor in.

Well…well… bah! Why didn’t it? It jolly well should have.

I’m quite put out about it.

Humbug!