Cakes and Wine

It was after the war had ended. A time of black cars with mechanical indicators like tiny orange wings that popped out, or sometimes failed to, at the turn of a corner; a time of belisha-beacons and zebra crossings and war memorials with the names of my great uncles inscribed on them. And a time for visiting the graveyard.

I went there often with Nan, not only to visit the slaughtered uncles but to have a word with Sarah, her long-lost mother. Up against the church wall there was a little shed. It contained little trowels and forks, and a collection of vases and jam-jars in case you were in need. Next to it was a standpipe, ending in a tap, for watering.

One afternoon, we were surprised at the tap by the vicar. His name was the Reverend Silas something and he had a very large pointy nose. A black gown flapped out behind him like wings, which somehow went with the nose. He came out of nowhere and swept by the pair of us as if we were invisible. I flattened myself against the flint wall. Nan all but curtsied.

They say that a very few individuals are obnoxious to bees. It might be their bodily odour, an alcohol taint on their breath, their leather or wool clothing, their clumsiness, the loudness of their approach, their fear, their aggression, their anger. Whatever it is, the bees smell it and take umbridge. Looking back it seems not at all surprising that the Reverend Silas should have been one of these.

All of my stories came from Nan, and in due course she told me the story of Reverend Silas and the bees.

Well, as you know my dear, when a beekeeper dies it is most important to invite the bees to his funeral. I didn’t know, but I loved that she thus connected me to the rural past I longed for but hadn’t had. There should be cakes and wine.

For the bees? Do they eat and drink them?

It’s the gesture that counts, my dear. They require our respect.

How do they know when their beekeeper has died?

Someone will go and tell them.

Do they speak English?

They speak another language.

But then – how? I was at the stage of asking too many questions.

Anyway, old Silas – she wasn’t scared to call him that now he was no longer with us – was asked by the daughter to invite the bees to the funeral, at the same time as he made the announcement. She even gave him the words he ought to say. It made him hopping mad – as if people didn’t laugh at him enough already, what with his nose. And he happened to have been stung by bees a lot of times in the past. He was one of those ones – you know.

I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to interrupt again.

So the bees were not invited. The daughter went up to the hives and tried to explain. She told them how her father loved them, and it was just the vicar being the vicar, like. Begged them not to take offence.

But they did?

Well, it’s a bit of a coincidence otherwise.

So they had the funeral and his nearest and dearest turned up along with half the village, all in their Sunday Best. So many hats – like a flower-patch it was. That in itself was a worry.

You were there?

Of course I was. As I said, half the village –

All seemed to go well, in spite of the nervous glances. There was a few bees inside the church, like – perched on ledges, crawling about in the corners – but not more than you might expect on a summer’s day; got in through the holes in the stained-glass, probably. During the war, of course –

Nan, what happened to the vicar?

Well as I say there was a bit of buzzing. Not angry-sounding, like; just talking amongst theirselves, as you might say. The church service finished and out we all traipsed into the graveyard, following the coffin. The grave was already dug and the gravedigger was leaning on his spade, ready.

They lowered it in, all solemn, and the vicar started on with his usual stuff, Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes, droning through that pointy nose, and then the bees came, like, trillions of them. A lot, anyway, in a swarm.

Everybody scattered, hats and all. Gravedigger leapt for the hedge. Only the Reverend Silas didn’t move. Maybe he was petrified with fear, or too proud to. He stood his ground, and the bees settled on every single part of him. He was a swarm in himself, my dear. They stung him and stung him and stung him. Swelled up like a balloon, he did.

Did he pop?

No, he didn’t exactly pop, he just fell down dead. And serves him jolly well right, my dear; you must always invite the bees.

Men Don’t Make Passes… full stop.

When I was a mere slip of a girl in the 50s and 60s there used to be this horrid, patronising, sexist saying: “Men Don’t Make Passes At Girls Who Wear Glasses”, and in my experience this was true. Of course, it may only have been true in my experience. It is possible that other girls with glasses were having a whale of a time.

At least part of this may have been due to the ugliness of glasses in 50s and 60s Britain. From 1948 to 1985 there was a phenomenon unique to Britain – the National Health Spectacle Frame. Apparently these were the envy of other countries, who had neither a National Health nor its spectacle frames, but they were loathed in this country. The range was – limited – to say the least, and what there was seemed to have been designed, either to discourage you from availing yourself of their extreme cheapness, or to advertise to the world that you were too poor to be able to afford anything else. Which of course, you were.

I remember a little boy called Steven Savage (forgive me little Steven, if you are still alive). All the kids used to call him Steven Sandwich, since it sounded like that. Poor Steven Sandwich had National Health specs, and worse, one of the lenses was permanently covered in pink sticky plaster. I believe this was a technique to strengthen a weak ‘other’ eye, by forcing it to do twice the work. Either that or the glass was cracked.

And glasses or not, I had other issues. It wasn’t just the glasses that failed to attract men to me, but me being taller than all of them and possessed of what a doctor once (erroneously, a it turned out) referred to as “child-bearing hips” or was it “child-bearing thighs”? My Dad was 6 foot 4 inches tall and all my female relatives on his side were Amazonian in build. I had an aunt and a sister both pushing 6 foot, and another sister 5 foot 10. I was actually the lucky one – I was the shortest.

And I didn’t know how to talk to them. I grew up with sisters. I went to school with girls. Boys were – alien. They guffawed a lot. They patronised. They obviously felt themselves to be superior. And the advice then was not, under any circumstances, to appear to be cleverer than them. Men liked clever girls even less than they liked girls who wore glasses. So I tried to be stupid but could never quite pull it off.  Unable to speak my actual thoughts, I was left with nothing at all to say. Banter was beyond me. Giggling – just couldn’t manage it. Flirting – never quite got the hang.

Eventually I managed to bag a man or two, but only by signalling my availability really, really obviously, and how I even did that I can’t remember. And even then these chaps didn’t exactly rush to take advantage of me. Special Offer, and all that. It was more like an unenthusiastic amble.

And then I didn’t fancy them anyway, because:

Premise Number 1:

Who would want a man who only ambled? I wanted my Hero, my Knight on a White Charger, that man who would pursue me desperately to the ends of the earth; somebody driven frantic by my very presence in a room. I wanted romance, I wanted passion.

But even if there had been a Mr Darcy I would have instantly lost interest in him, because:

Premise Number 2:

If he was the sort of man desperate enough to want me he couldn’t be a proper man. He needs must be wimp, a total loser; there had to be something seriously wrong with him.

Premise Number 2 is the killer because there’s absolutely no way around it. For an entire lifetime your logical mind can argue the self-defeating ridiculousness of Premise Number 2: some primitive, damaged part of your subconscious will continue to know it is true.

At one point I had an inspiration. I could be a Lesbian! I wasn’t sure, to be honest, what Lesbians did with each other, but I knew I was already built for the part. All it would take was one of those shaven hairdos and perhaps a silver stud through my tongue. My niece – she of the pink hair, the Doc Martens, the many exotic tattoos and, sadly, now, the failed kidneys, once shared a flat with a gaggle of Lesbians and it didn’t seem to do her any harm. In fact my exotic niece seems to have had an awful lot more fun in her life than I ever did.

Anyway, so I looked around at women and attempted to find at least a few of them attractive but, inconveniently, could not. (My old friends Rose and Daisy will be relieved to hear this.)

And now – well, now things are better. I don’t feel obliged to attract men at all, and certainly not in that competitive, trophy-hunting, 1960s kind of way.  I like men – mostly and I like women – mostly. And mostly people are just people to me nowadays. I treat them alike, whatever they are.

And – bonus – the National Health Spectacle Frame is no more – abolished, I believe, by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I can wear any specs I like. I can send for them through the post, I can try them on at home and send them back if I don’t like them. I can have three pairs. I can have purple ones, or tortoiseshell, or knicker-pink.  I can go Dame Edna or John Lennon. I can – what else can I do…? Oh well, you know what I mean.

nhs

Biting the bath plug

Still enjoying the voluminous (luckily, electronic) diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, alias Maggie Joy Blunt.

One woman shouldn’t be cheered by another’s problems, of course – but since we have quite a lot in common – single-wise, man-wise, too-many-cat-wise and compulsive-record-keeping-wise – discovering that she too has her bad days and disasters is a consolation. Oh, the violence lurking just beneath the surface in a tranquil country cottage!

Here are three entries from 1952:

Wed 16 April

The final straw was to see that my longed-for bath water was disappearing instead of mounting in the bath. The plug for some reason has gone on strike – it doesn’t seem to have perished but simply would not stay in the hole. This brought on such a paroxysm of rage that I bit a piece out of the rubber.

Thursday, May Day

I found the perfect grey cardigan and put my live cigarette end right through the back of it the same night. It has been mended professionally, but the place still shows a little. I could have strangled myself.

housewife 2

Wed 2 July

My story about biting the bath plug has met with huge success. E.D. suggests that I keep the plug hung in a convenient place and bite chunks of it whenever overcome by rage. But I should not let myself be seen doing so, or I should be locked up.

housewife

 

(Rubber-gloved/green gingham lady: Jennifer Lopez in disguise, I do believe.)

Once apron a time

Mrs Daniels lived in the bungalow next door to Nan and Grandad’s. I don’t remember much about her. She was small, a bit shrivelled-looking. There was definitely a Mr Daniels. He seemed to be bigger, and red in the face. Nan, who was a much better source of stories than Mum, told me that Mrs Daniels’ one peculiarity was collecting those frilly waist-tied aprons 1950s housewives were often pictured wearing.

She didn’t just collect the occasional apron. She collected one a day – at least. She got them from Hazell’s, a kind of all-purpose grocery shop and Post Office just below the station. In this same shop I was stung by a wasp which was lurking under the counter, just where I happened to place my hand. The wasp was attracted to the sticky cakes which were, of course, uncovered and displayed at the front of the counter so as to collect the maximum amount of dust, sneeze-germs and halfpennies dropped from purses. Same logic as hanging entire dead animals on hooks outside butchers shops so as to attract flies and absorb traffic fumes. I remember making no sound, but completing my purchases and waiting till I was outside to inspect the sting. Being stared at and fussed over was infinitely worse than pain and a bit of poison.

Hazell’s may well have been staying afloat financially only because of Mrs Daniels. The brightly coloured pinnies were hung from a hook on a pillar, and a garland of fresh ones appeared every day (I guess they bought in bulk, especially for Mrs Daniels). They certainly were attractive – I could see why she liked them. The 1950s was a time of bright and bold design. Fabrics were sprinkled with larger-than life vegetables and illustrations of kitchen equipment – colanders, apple-corers, wooden spoons and so forth. The colour thing was a reaction against the drabness of war, the dark, utility clothing, the sensibleness of everything. And the housewife – well, housewives were the new rock and roll. Men were back from the war. Women had to be encouraged not to keep the jobs they had proven so efficient at during the war. The emphasis once again was on femininity, on the household arts. A woman was encouraged keep young and beautiful, stand by her man and have lots and lots of babies. This was to replace Britain’s lost boys, the widows’ lost husbands, the spinsters’ lost fiancés. A generation of slaughtered, unconceived and unborn children. It was a woman’s duty to be fruitful. Hence the baby boomer generation.

Yes, if I had been of apron-wearing age, and if my pocket money hadn’t been so measly I too would have been attracted to frilly pinafores. I remember asking Nan what exactly Mrs D did with her aprons. Did she wear them one on top of the other – each serving to protect the one beneath? Nan laughed. It reminded her of a song about a spider and a fly. There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…

If she did leave the aprons on, why wasn’t she as stout as a barrel by now? Did she even take them off at night? How long would it take to untie them, smooth and fold them all?  Or did she keep them stacked neatly and laid them in her airing-cupboard just in case. Just in case the thousand other aprons should be stolen from her. Just in case the moth should get in and chew holes from the top of the stack to bottom. Just in case… Because I sense that would be the underlying fear. There is always an underlying fear. One day she would be in dire need of an apron, and wouldn’t have one. Yes, she might run out of aprons. Unfortunately, and I am loath to admit it, I can understand that quirk.

I worry about running out of things too. After a trawl round the supermarket I don’t even have to glance down at my trolley to know that I will have bought two of everything – two cakes, two packs of eight yoghurts, two loaves of bread. I will buy two loaves of bread even when I know one will be stale before I open it. Everything must be backed up. My mother is the same, I notice – two currant cakes, when she doesn’t even like currant cake – or four, or six – but never an odd number. It’s that fear of being without, of finding the cupboard bare – even if the corner shop is just around the corner. Unsatisfied want. Probably something to do with breast-feeding. Yes, let’s blame it on the bosoms.

I read somewhere that people who do this may actually be twins, but one of the twin has been lost in the womb (making that person a Womb Twin Survivor). That impulse to provide for the other, to make real the missing sibling, never to let them go. The same thing as children, insisting that a place be laid at table for their imaginary friend, and bereaved parents keeping their child’s room untouched for years. That tie of love, that cord stretching between the living and the lost. The impossibility of letting go.

I read somewhere else that extreme hoarding is a way of not dealing with a problem in the past – something so painful the person isn’t capable of dealing with it – at least, not without help. And even with help, extreme hoarders are known to be among the least motivated and most recalcitrant of subjects when it comes to therapy. So what is the point of hoarding? What is the mechanism? One theory is that a hoarder is creating a second problem, which supersedes the first. So, a houseful of junk is a suit of armour. Remove the junk and that person is raw, terrified – like a snail without its shell.

I suppose the thing is, we are none of us that far from OCD. Where does eccentricity end and extreme hoarding begin? At what point do you cross the line, from thinking It’s getting terribly crowded in here with all these aprons, or I could do with a sixth garden shed to house my lawnmower collection to I can’t let this tottering mountain of old newspapers go? I have no option but to read them all in case there’s something I’ve missed – an article, maybe, or an advert. Something in the obituaries. And even then, I won’t let them go…

Or it may be that Mrs Daniels was bored and depressed. Lonely. The aprons were bright, fresh and pretty, they smelled of new cotton, they were crackling-stiff with that starchy ‘dressing’ and they made her feel better. Or buying an apron made her feel she had accomplished something– that here was at least one thing she could tick off her list.

She died a long time ago. I sometimes wonder whether she isn’t wandering around heaven, collecting dropped angel-feathers to arrange in crystal vases, or…