Nurse on a Train!!!

Really, public transport and me don’t mix. I’m constitutionally unequipped for being confined at close quarters with a mélange of members of the human race.

So, after my disastrous schedule of house viewings on the other side of the county with an estate agent called Gavin, I was forced to make my own way home. We had finished earlier, due to every one of the slightly-possible houses being already sold/withdrawn from the market before we even got to them, leaving only a depressing rump of properties no one in the entire world would want buy. This meant that my file full of printed-out Trainline train times was useless. I was going to have to wing it. Except that I didn’t have wings.

Ebbsfleet International, I thought. Sounds scary. Do I really want to make my way home via somewhere I have never heard of before, probably somewhere near London where it is well known there are suicide bombers, and explosives in every waste-bin? Platform 6. Do I want to be scurrying about (Headless Chicken again) a railway station big enough to have six platforms? And I’d have to go on that special fast train. I’ve never been on the special fast train before. And indeed, six might only be the middle of the sequence, or a third of the way through. There could be eighteen platforms. Ooooh no, I can’t be doing with eighteen platforms.

So I caught a train to Canterbury. Then I had to get across Canterbury because Canterbury, infuriatingly, has two separate railway stations. It’s teeming city at the best of times, but this was school chuck-out hour. I headless-chickened out and grabbed a taxi. Then I had to wait for another train, out of the other Canterbury. I was crammed behind a party in black suits, arty scarves and Terry Pratchett hats, loudly chortling about maths conundrums on their mobile phones and showing one another pictures of their latest “ventures into Iceland”. Delegates, I thought – returning home from some conference at the University of Kent. Intellectuals. Pah! None of them noticed the lumpy old biddy in the too-large, too long brown coat clutching an overstuffed rucksack that they had hemmed in beside the chocolate machine.

On the train (at last!) while the Iceland-visiting brigade were high-volume exclaiming that it had been many years since they had alighted upon one of these (trains) my too-long coat got caught up uncomfortably under my left leg but I didn’t dare stand up in case people might notice me, and my left leg began to get pins and needles, prior to complete numbness, so I sat like that, clutching my overstuffed rucksack and tried not to look at the people opposite me. So far so bad, but outside Faversham we stopped, and there we stayed, deafened by a series of British Rail announcements. Firstly, we were waiting for a platform to become available in Faversham station. Then, apparently there had been “people found running about on the line at Herne Bay” and this was causing some delays. Then it appeared that the drivers we needed to take us on past Faversham, were having to come from Herne Bay, and of course… people running about, etc. “So that’s why,” announced the announcer “we’re in a bit of a pickle at the moment”.

“Hah – in a bit of a pickle,” someone mimicked. “In a bit of a pickle.. makes a change from Cows on the Line or the Wrong Sort of Leaves!”

An estate agent phoned me on my mobile phone. I’m afraid of my mobile phone, but it was ringing in the pocket of my brown coat. I tried to ignore it for a while but people began to give my pocket meaningful looks. “Could you hang on a minute?” I said, “Only I’m on a stuck on train outside Faversham and there are all these  announcements..”

“Yes, I can hear them,” he said. “Every word.”

“It seems,” said the announcer, “that someone has actually been hit by a train in Herne Bay…” Hit? Oh no, that’s far worse than Running About. “But on the plus side,” said our announcer, who seemed to have upped the volume by another notch, “your driver has just arrived. He just needs to put his own train in the sidings, and then he will be with us. Might be another ten minutes.”

To cap it all the student nurse in the seat opposite started talking to me. I knew she was a student nurse because that was all I had been able to understand of her endless telephone conversations. She had a weird, young-person way of talking – entire sentences elided into a single word. “So you’ve been house hunting too?” she said.

Maybe it’s a project, I thought. Maybe I’m the Old Person she needs to Engage in so many hours Conversation with in order to qualify for her NVQ or whatever student nurses study for. Why else would she talk to me? Nobody under seventy talks to me, ever. Though I’m a big hit with the over seventies, hence the old lady singing at me and demanding chocolate fingers in the mental hospital. Did I tell you, by the way, that there was an old man on his back in the Recreation Room, when I was visiting my mother on Sunday? Yes, like a beetle, upended. He was wearing pyjamas and had his legs and slipper-clad feet in the air, and was busy dismantling the chairs from underneath. By the end of my visit he had dismantled almost a whole row and there was a neat pile of square plastic seats on the floor beside him. Fascinating!

She was really pretty, this student, except that she had funny eyes – sort of downward- sloping and goggly. It was difficult to look away from her once transfixed. “I just found a place to rent,” she said. “It’s a student house, but it looks like a cottage on the outside. Really nice!”

“Oh,” I said, never having been to university and trying to recall how student accommodation worked. “So you spent the first year on campus and now you are moving out to…?”

“No,” she said, I decided to go straight into rented. I just got this lovely scarf in Canterbury, do you see?” She pulled out a white chiffon scarf and draped it round her neck for me to admire. “And I got some flats.” (Flats?) “Because I haven’t got any flats at all you see, and these were so nice, with little black bows on the front.”

“Well,” I said, cautiously, “you can never have too many shoes?”

“Or scarves,” she said. “I love shopping, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, “you can never have too much shopping,” wondering how many years ago it was when I had the money to buy myself a scarf or a pair of shoes; wondering how long before that driver finished shunting his previous train into the siding and started driving this train onwards, through and beyond Faversham. Oh blessed relief. Beyond Faversham.

“Yes,” said the student nurse. “I’m just dying to get home for my Spag Bol.” Spag Bol, I was thinking, rifling through the rusty biscuit tin of my vocabulary – food. A species of food containing meat combined with … must be… spaghetti.

“Do you like shopping?” she asked. “I’m going to phone my Dad to collect me. I have to be careful because he’s on shift work and sometimes he comes home early and sometimes he comes home late so he’s not always there to collect me…”

Dear God In Heaven, I thought. From ghosties and ghoulies, long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night; from people running about on the track at Herne Bay and student nurses with verbal diarrhoea, Good Lord deliver us…

The curious incident of the blancmange at the school gates

The question to be answered is: When were you most frightened? I found it on a children’s writing prompt website. I’ve been worrying this idea back and forth for some time. It shouldn’t be that difficult, if children are supposed to be able to manage it. But what have I been frightened of, and which of these frightening things was the most frightening?

I suppose I was frightened of my father, but that wasn’t one particular incident that was all the time. Fear was the natural consequence of being completely the wrong sort of child, and I spent most of my childhood trying to work out how to be the right sort. But I don’t believe I’ve ever been frightened, with that sharp, dramatic fear in real life. What I do feel is a constant, background fear – it’s like that music in lifts, it’s like the clatter of knives and forks in a restaurant, the scraping of chairs, the muffled conversation. Someone once described anxiety as fear-spread-thin – as good a description as any. It’s never not there, but I’ve never known anything else, it’s just the way everything always is. I think I might be very spooked indeed, maybe even miss it if it was suddenly gone.

In dreams, yes. I once dreamt I was driving a bus slowly towards a bottomless ravine. At some point, predictably, the bus slid over the edge, remaining poised there, slow-see-sawing like those runaway lorries in films. It was pretty clear that the dream was meant as a warning, since I was in a dangling-over-the-edge-of-the-ravine situation in real life at the time. And more than once I have dreamt of myself on a ledge at the top of some skyscraper like the Empire State Building. Now that does feel like terror, within the dream, and it stays with you for a long time when you wake up. It’s the indecision. Shall I just jump now and get it over with? Or shall I stay frozen to this ledge, no hope at all of rescue? It was such a very, very, very long way down. I wonder what people think about, on the way down?

But why no acute fear in real life? I was in a car crash once, but remember nothing at all of the twenty minutes leading up to it. Was I afraid when the other car came careering down the hill towards me on the wrong side of the road, as the police described? Ever since then I have expected The Flashback to happen, perhaps when driving – the one where you relive the whole horrible thing in an instant. But it’s never happened, there’s just a generalised sense of…trust having been lost. I imagined the universe was lolloping along beside me, like a large and friendly-ish dog. Then it turned round and bit me, viciously, and who can say when it will decide to bite again.

So what else? I was charged by a barking Alsatian once (we seem to be on a bit of a dog theme). I stood stock still and stared, transmitting terribly dangerous, woman-bites-dog type vibes at it. I’m not that keen on dogs, but I can communicate with them when necessary. The thing landed against my leg with a bump, and open jaws. I must have anticipated being bitten because I remember screaming – faintly and politely, a ladylike British scream, and then being embarrassed for having screamed at all. I must have been frightened, so why can’t I remember how it felt?

I once found myself alone for several days with an acute gallstone attack. I had never been in that much pain before, or felt that cold, sick and shaky. My head was buzzing with imminent unconsciousness. I knew this might possibly kill me – you know when you’re in real danger – but couldn’t muster the energy to pick up the phone to tell anyone, or even the will to make a decision. I just lay down and waited. And waited. Most of the time I was praying it would kill me – very, very, very soon, in fact this instant. I also remember how focussed you get when really under threat, the strength you have to dredge up from somewhere. It’s as if your primative ancestors take over, something else kicks in. I was certainly distressed during those days alone, but not afraid.

No, I think the nearest I came to experiencing actual, animal fear was one evening in my thirteenth year when I dropped a pink blancmange on the school driveway and stood aside helplessly as teachers, queueing to exit the school gates, were one by one compelled to drive through a sea of pink blancmange and broken pudding-dish shards. It was the evil, exasperated, snarly looks on all their faces. They saw me, hovering and horrified, with my now-empty biscuit tin; they linked me to the products of my cookery lesson. I was going to get into so much trouble. I picked up the biggest pudding-dish pieces, put them in the biscuit tin, jammed on the tin-lid and ran. The train home went at ten past four (which was why I’d been sprinting in charge of a blancmange in the first place) and the station was at the bottom of the hill.

I made my getaway but said nothing to my parents and spent an entirely sleepless night visualising tomorrow’s terminal humiliation. It was the headmistress’s habit to ‘mention’ these things in assembly. The dreadful deed would be described in lingering, sarcastic detail and then the girl responsible would be invited to stand – own up to her sins so that everybody could turn, titter and gloat. The one thing I dreaded above all others was becoming the centre of attention – being pointed at, looked at, seen, even glimpsed. I craved invisibility. I would have cheerfully suffered how ever many lashes a dropped blancmange might attract, in private. I would have been so glad to write on the blackboard, alone in an empty classroom, night after night for the next three years, I must not drop my blancmange, I must not drop my blancmange… What I couldn’t abide was being laughed at.

I do believe I tottered into that assembly hall in genuine fear. I do believe I trembled as I sat cross-legged on the floor with several hundred others teenage girls while the headmistress lectured us on the correct way to make a pot of tea (take the kettle to the pot and not the pot to the kettle – or was it the other way round?) and the necessity of wearing sixty-denier Sun Mist stockings at all times, reserving thirty-denier seamless un-Sun-Mist to wear with our Pretty Party Dresses (she was a trifle out of touch – sorry, accidental pun). And after all that, she didn’t mention It. Nobody mentioned It. And I couldn’t even feel relieved because blancmange-terror was now welded into my psyche. And pink blancmange, my favourite. If only it hadn’t been pink.

I GET NO KICK FROM CHAMPAGNE…

Apart from the Big Bad Nasties – cigarettes, heroin, and alcohol – what are you addicted to? Apparently we’re all addicted to something.

I was trying to think what mine are. It’s actually difficult to make a list. There’s something about addictions that makes you not want to make a list, as if they’re actually willing you not to look at them, even conspiring with one another. Omertà, a conspiracy of silence. Just gloss over me, one murmurs. Me? Little old me? Whispers another. Haven’t you got more important things to think about? queries a third.

Need a definition here, since we tend bandy words about like tennis balls. For instance I could say I’m addicted to Jimmy Choo shoes and mean all sorts of things. I could mean, I really, really like these beautiful shoes and if I had the money I would buy lots and lots and lots of them. I could mean, or at least be intending to convey, Unlike you, I’m rich! What I probably don’t mean is If I can’t buy another pair of Jimmy Choo shoes within the next hour I am going to die. I will do anything to obtain another pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, whether it involves stealing, lying…

Addiction: the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.

Hmm… severe trauma. On this basis, maybe I’m not truly addicted to anything. As I have become older and older I have also become poorer and poorer. This is in part misfortune, in part my inadequacy as a human being lacking in any sort of money-making gene/instinct. So, over the years I have been cutting down and cutting out – as you do. Nowadays when some desirable item appears on TV, say, or in a magazine, I no longer desire it, simply because there is no point in desiring it. Jimmy Choo… who? I haven’t smoked since my early twenties, and never used drugs. I used to like the odd glass of wine, and even bought the odd bottle of wine. At Christmas I might have treated myself to a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, more for sweet, seductive the taste than the alcohol content. Nowadays Bailey’s, like make-up, hairdos, handbags, new shoes and new clothes is but a distant dream.

But apart from that, is there anything, the loss of which might provoke a fit of the screaming ab-dabs? (I have no idea what ab-dabs are, by the way – equivalent to throwing the toys out of the pram or throwing a monstrous wobbly – it would be interesting to compile a worldwide list of these expressions.)

My central heating just packed up. I can’t actually afford to get it fixed but I will because the cats mustn’t be allowed to get chilly. Outside my window it’s dank and foggy…and muddy…and murky. However, stiff-upper-lip, call the plumber, put on another jumper. Could be January or February, but it’s only November. I don’t suppose I’ll freeze to death before this evening. No, physical comfort is not one of my addictions.

Then there’s the computer. I do rely on this a lot, and have become quite fond of it. For someone living in a remote area it’s a lifeline. Without it I would have to drive for miles and spend hours trailing round supermarkets, then cart the whole lot back and unload it. Supermarket shopping seems to get heavier and heavier as I get older. But then everything does. But it’s the cats, you see – they must have a good stock of food in case of blizzards, floods and whatever – and those giant boxes of Felix weigh a ton. And then there are the biscuits – giant green ‘cattery-sized’ bags from the farm shop. And the litter – 30 litre sacks. Ordered online it’s expensive but at least someone else does the lifting. Wait a few days, a courier of some kind turns up, groaning under the weight of them. All I have to do is sign the little plastic gadget and lug them round the back in the wheelbarrow. Still just about up to that.

A few days ago my computer went away to the Magic Shop to have Windows 10 installed on it. I certainly did miss it. I missed being able to check my emails and get into my blog, for a start. All those ‘likes’ I might be receiving. All those comments people might be making. It could have been my biggest two days ever for viewings (it wasn’t, but it might have been) and I wouldn’t have known. If the computer had just been taken away from me, never to return – yes, I would find it very inconvenient. I would have to reorganise my life. Apart from anything else I’m not going to be able to drive forever, and living this far from civilisation without either a car or a computer would be all but impossible.

I suppose eventually either my little car will become frail and bewildered, or I will, but at the moment we’re each other’s biggest allies. Come on, my dear I whisper, patting her steering-wheel as we tackle a particularly steep hill, you can do it. If in some wistful daydream I find myself replacing her with a capacious van or an all-terrain vehicle (the best options round here) I gasp, and apologise unreservedly. Don’t worry – we’re going to look after each other, we’ll see each other out. She reads my thoughts, you see, and it wouldn’t do to hurt her feelings. It’s true I would be lost without a car but I’d manage. I’d set about moving house for a start. To somewhere with a train station. Hate buses. But it would have to be big enough for the cats. If it was just me, a flat would do. But there’s the cats. And what if one of them needed to go to the vet? You can’t take a cat to the vet on a bus nowadays – at least I don’t think so. And they’d be bound to pee or poo or something, and everyone would give us those sideways, snotty-nosed looks… And what if the little furry darling were to die on the bus because it took so long to get there?

There’s books, of course. I suppose I might be a book-addict – or at least might have been. I keep telling myself not to order them, especially now my eyes aren’t so good, especially now my house is so full of books I can hardly move for the things – but cardboard packages and brown-paper parcels still occasionally land with a thud on the doormat. Opening them, I think Did I really order this? Why? But if it was a choice between books and cats… if I had to give up just one of my cats to save a lifetime’s collection of paperback books – out would come the cardboard boxes and in would go the books, every last one of them.

Being anxious, and overwrought in the imagination department, I frequently find myself playing out in gory detail a scenario where a violent intruder has broken into my house. There he is, parading around my living room with his black mask and stripy shirt and a bag marked ‘Swag’. He also has a long, sharp knife, and is about to murder one of my cats. Without a moment’s hesitation I grab the nearest heavy object and murder him right back, most likely several times over. I know I have it in me. I would risk my life for any one of my moggies. I would go to prison, for any one of them. I would cheerfully put their little furry lives above that of any manky old human burglar – any manky old human being, come to that.

But addicted to anything?

No, don’t think so.

In the kitchen at parties

I never did like parties. Parties don’t suit my miserable, self-conscious, unsociable personality – but sometimes you can’t get out of them. I’ve noticed they get less frequent and more dire in direct proportion to one’s age. I’ve also noticed that my very presence at a party seems to guarantee dismalness…dismality…dismalaciousness…

So, the last party I went to was New Year’s Eve 2014. It was at my new neighbour’s house. Her ex-husband was there and between them they had cooked, or maybe bought (difficult to tell once out of the cardboard box and displayed on a reindeer plate left over from Christmas) a mountain of vol-au-vents, little quichey things, sausages on sticks and whatever. She said come over at nine. That seemed quite a late start but at least it cut down the amount of hours I could possibly be expected to be there. As I stepped over the wonky little brick wall that divides her house from mine I rehearsed my escape story. My sister had mentioned phoning from Canada at midnight our time. I just had to be next to the phone in case she did. So difficult to get a line from places like Canada and the States on a public holiday. All the ex-pats calling home at once. Etc.

I left it till ten past nine. That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? And I figured it would be packed in there by that time and there would be less conspicuity involved. I tend to like to edge in sideways, find a seat and slither into it, and never leave that seat again unless forced to do so for a bathroom visit, throughout which I worry that ‘my’ seat won’t be there when I get back and I might have to stand.

So I knocked on the door and there was no one there, except neighbour and ex-husband in a rather startling red-walled living room; she had obviously been redecorating in the current local style – feature walls – visual indigestion. I loathe red. And there we sat. The ex-husband was conscientious about small talk. I did my best. None of us mentioned the fact that… well, that was the elephant in the room. All that food. No one to eat it. Then one other neighbour arrived with his girlfriend. He isn’t very keen on me, I think. He talked about long-distance lorry-driving a lot, and the correct way of loading a long-distance lorry, and the correct way of fastening a tarpaulin to a long-distance lorry. And eventually I remembered my sister’s imminent call, collected my coat from the knob on the end of the bannister, and went home. I felt this would be exactly the night for drinking half, if not three quarters of a bottle of Blue Nun all alone whilst watching TV till 2 in the morning and falling asleep on the sofa, but of course I had no Blue Nun so I microwaved myself some milk and put a teaspoon of honey in it.

The one before that was the Christmas before the Christmas before that. That was a lively one. Oh yes. I didn’t escape from that till one a.m. It was at another neighbour’s – the one down the end next the giant field that they seem to plough all year round, even in the middle of the night with floodlights on the tractor, when not spraying it with dung or pesticide.

The house is eccentric, being full of every sort of light imaginable. Everything lights up and moves all at once – pictures (waterfalls, etc) , fairy lights, a multitude of lava-lamps, the blue winking Christmas tree in the window, put there specially to annoy the neighbours over the road (‘Her and her Illegal Scotsman’) who were loathed and never invited; an enormous flat-screen TV with the volume up to 92 or thereabouts, which somebody kept flicking at with the remote control. I never knew a television could have so many channels and so many menus to find those channels on, or that you could watch five or six channels at once, whilst smoking packet after packet of cigarettes, dancing with children, drinking, telling jokes, and experimenting with a home karaoke kit. Forgive me, Delilah, I just couldn’t take any moooooore…

Once again, I found my chair – or rather half a small sofa – and stuck to it. The springs were wrecked and I suspected my bottom might actually be on the floor. It felt like it. People kept coming and sitting next to me, which was nice, if stressful. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about as I’m slightly deaf. Normally I don’t notice it but in any loud environment all I can hear is multi-directional loudness. I am reduced to lip-reading. Although I have become quite good at this over the years, it’s difficult when people are talking about tragic events that happened in the neighbourhood long before you arrived. At twelve-fifty a.m. mine host started to tell me for the second time that evening the tale of the old lady who had once lived next to the Illegal Scotsman.

Old lady, she was, and we didn’t realise she had died. It was them little dogs, you see. When her son found her a week later she was scratched to ribbons – scratched to ribbons, she was. It were them little dogs. He thought she’d been murdered.

Just what you want to hear when you have a vivid imagination and live alone with a multitude of cats. And for the second time in one evening. I couldn’t bear it. My head was spinning, my eyes were watering with all the smoke and I was full of chocolate mini-rolls and mince-pies. I made my polite excuses. No one else was leaving. It all went a bit silent. But we’re only just getting going…

At one o’clock in the morning! Had I been expected to stay the night?

And then there were all those other parties, stretching back into my depressing, lonely past like the white plastic poppers of a necklace I had as a child. I wore it to the Methodist Sunday School party, which was in fact not too bad. The poppers got pulled apart and scattered all over the floor by some idiot boy when we were playing spin-the-collection-plate (oh yes, we Methodists knew how to party) but there were sandwiches, and jelly with dobs of ersatz cream; there were balloons, and crackers with mottoes in them and adult-sized purple paper hats that ended up resting on our shoulders, and little dangly ‘skellingtons’. And best of all we didn’t have to wash up. The grown-ups crammed themselves into the kitchen – a corrugated iron shed attached to the Sunday School room – to do that.

And then there was the one when we were supposed to go in fancy dress. That was soon after I got married. We made our own costumes, thinking that was what you did. I went as a tree because I happened to have some brown cloth and some green cloth. I think I had an apple or two attached. I can’t remember what my husband went as. Everyone else had hired proper costumes and stared at us. It was in an expensive cottage, half way down a steep hill. The sort where everything gleams.

And there were the ones where we suddenly realised dancing had changed since we were single, and that imperceptibly we had become a couple, and dull. And the earlier one where I met my husband – and I would only drink orange juice, which was rather acidic – and somebody was smoking pot, which worried me and I wondered if I ought to inform someone – and I was wearing this long flowery dress which somehow seemed now too long, and not thick enough. And my future husband (I already knew) danced, and that was both embarrassing and endearing because he looked like a scarecrow come to life, all angles and elbows and self-conscious jiggling about. And afterwards we had to stay the night, but there was only the living room so we spent the night together on folding camp beds of different heights, him with his long, long curly hair and his grey gypsy eyes and the trousers his mother had lengthened for him with strips of appalling curtain material, I in my long flowery dress which didn’t look right, securely tucked around my ankles. Horizontally but chastely we conversed – I from aloft and he from below – and played the same three Leonard Cohen singles over and over – and I supposed we must have slept because eventually light came streaming in through the kitchen window, and it was a new day.