Fungums

This is my new umbrella term, as sociologists used to love to intone in the sixties (along with ‘dichotomy ‘) for anything either unexpected or unwanted that suddenly appears in one’s garden. Above is something my mother would probably have called a honey fungus. I wonder how big it will get?

At the bottom is something disgusting and fungus-like which has begun to grow on an old cane chair I left outside. Maybe it is some exotic type of fungus that has lain dormant within the cane since it was imported from India or Malaya or wherever. Maybe it will be like Japanese Knotweed and gradually Take Over.

In the middle is a Something that my burly  next-street-down neighbour kindly left behind in my garden, having invaded whilst I was out in order to replace a fence panel. It’s too heavy for me to lift and too big to go in my car. I was quoted £50 or £60 to remove it, the dumping fee being £30.

Or, said the Quoter gently, seeing the look on my face, you could get out the secateurs and regard it as a Little Winter Project…

Leaks

It seems to be a leaky sort of time all round. Outside it’s a typical English October – leaks: leaks from steely rainclouds overhead; leaks from the neighbours’ guttering, beating an irregular tattoo on their new, annoying conservatory; leaks from my own guttering, landing on the back of my neck every time I open the back door; leaky politicians on the radio, dripping out the same old drivel everyday, and now – ? Leaks from my hot water bottle.

I have – well, had – a hot water bottle. It had a blue plush cover and was of German manufacture and so entirely to be trusted. But I suppose even German hot water bottles have a limited lifespan.

I’ve been unwell for the last couple of days – oh, waves of pain from something or other wrong with my innards. I long ago gave up trying to understand my innards, they are a law unto themselves. No doubt if I went to the doctor (if I could get an appointment with a doctor) he would tell me it was IBS, since I am female and too old for it to be the menopause or anything else female. If I was male, it would no doubt turn out to be something more specific and important-sounding.

And so I resorted to the hot water bottle (plus the occasional paracetamol, and patience)and went to bed clutching one to my poor hurty tummy. It makes not the slightest difference to the pain, of course. All psychological.

Waking at some ungodly hour in the morning, covered in snoring cats, I realised something was amiss. I was soaked. Much of the bed was soaked. The cats snored on, regardless. Surely, I thought, I am as yet too young for Incontinence. Please God do not let it be me who has started leaking! Visions of endless, shameful sheet-washing and visits from uniformed, patronising district nurses to ‘advise’ me on ‘products’… Oh God, please do not let it be that…

But, as you will have guessed by now, it was my no longer/trusty blue hot water bottle. Damnation, I thought, and threw it out, covering the wet patch with a folded blanket and continuing to be in pain until the morning when – guess what – I was in pain again.

Luckily I have two other trusty, Germanic hot water bottles – a cream one and a red one. We will see how long they last.

And now – just to add a little spice to life – my WordPress editor seems to have regressed into some kind of proto-editor, from back in the days of Tim Berners-Lee and the baby internet. I am now having to put in all the code stuff (like italics) by hand. I’m not risking any other code stuff. No idea when, or whether, it might decide to switch itself back to normal.

Tedious online research coming up, though I may risk another cup of coffee first.

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.

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.

Autumn: Michaelmas Daisies and Fallen Leaves

As they drew up to the crematorium they passed the men with the yellow digger, scooping up yesterday’s flowers. It was a familiar sight to Godfrey Snaith. As Vicar of Birchmarsh his attendance had been required here more and more frequently as time went by. Birchmartians, as he tended privately to think of them, preferred to be cremated nowadays, and that was that. They liked this fake, white-walled Texas-cattle-ranch–cum-Grecian temple better than the ancient gloom of St Swithin And All Angels, and untidy graveyard behind and to the side of it. There were burial plots enough for several more generations of  but it seemed these would never be filled.

He had always loved the graveyard with its drunken, weather-smoothed memorial stones, its tufty, unmanageable grass, the monster compost heap against the wall and the surly gravedigger, Ronald Potts. He liked the sense of peace there, the way butterflies crash-landed on the headstones and slow-worms lived under Ronald’s tool-shed next to the church’s flint wall. He liked the way trees overhung the perimeter wall and nobody bothered to cut them back. As now, in Autumn, red and orange leaves fell from these trees, burying the graves nearest the edge, as if to provide an the dead with an extra blanket through winter. On occasion, when he had felt in particular need of a quiet commune with The Boss, he had even gone into the graveyard at night. Leaning unafraid against one side of the mossy family tomb of a sixteenth century local bigwig and his family – Sir Horace Kingsford, Bart, His Lady Wyfe Margaretta Mary and their Vssue Horace Matthew, Chas. Montagve, and Jennet Elyza – and relishing a discreet pipe of St Bruno Flake, Godfrey had loved the way church mice stole out from wherever they secreted themselves during the day – in all those tapestry hassocks, maybe, or behind the wainscoting in the vestry, scurrying about in the search for food. Until he moved here from Bermondsey – could it really have been twenty-nine years ago? – he had taken it for granted that there was a distinct breed of mouse called a church mouse, just as there were field mice and dormice. But it seemed that a church mouse was just any mouse that decided to make its home in a church, braving loneliness and poor pickings. As he leaned, and smoked, and talked to The Boss, the fox would come sniffing round the graves, and owls would glide over.

  • …nearer God’s heart in a garden
  • Than anywhere else on earth…

He murmured to himself.

What was that?

Nothing. Talking to myself. Old man’s habit.

At this point, New Lady Vicar was supposed to say something along the lines of, Oh Godfrey, you’re hardly an old man. Plenty of life in the old dog yet, but she didn’t. His replacement was not much of an empathiser, he suspected; worse, she had no sense of humour. Why had she chosen this particular career, he wondered, when she might have been a lawyer, a doctor or the CEO of some multinational company. Women could do anything nowadays. Inability to see the funny side of life was going to be a problem if she intended to stay in Birchmarsh for any length of time. But perhaps she was ambitious and wouldn’t stay. Might have her eyes on the Archbishopric, for all he knew. Everything seemed to have changed in Birchmarsh – it began so slowly he hardly noticed it, but of recent years everything seemed to be accelerating. Peter was the last of the old ones. He had lived into his ninety-eighth year, unexpectedly outliving Rose, his wife, by a whole ten years. “I shall be glad to go,” he had told Godfrey recently. Glad to go. Godfrey felt the same – except that in his case ‘going’ only involved a return to Bermondsey.

He was unfamiliar with Lady Vicars and had only met this one the day before yesterday when she arrived with a big removal van, to take over the Vicarage. He was being put up in a hotel for the next few days – the ‘debrief and handover period’ as the Archbishop was pleased to call it. Then he would be off, returning to his city roots. He was going to live with his sister, Doris, who was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. She needed him and he needed a home so it made sense. He had decided to write detective stories. And furthermore, though it sounded conceited, he knew he would be good at it. How could he not be, when he had spent a lifetime devouring them? Detective stories and St Bruno Flake: his twin guilty pleasures.

It was a plan that still surprised him. It also made him happy. Godfrey had never really stopped thinking of London as home. He pictured himself back there, comfortably installed in the downstairs front bedroom of his sister’s terraced house, with his shelves of books (he would put them up himself), his new yellow portable typewriter and his wicker waste-paper basket full to the brim of screwed up pages (in illustrations, writers always seemed to be surrounded by screwed up pages). His beloved sister would be pottering round, able to call him if she needed him. He imagined himself sat in the bay window – he would need to get a second-hand desk – looking straight out onto the street, watching people going backwards and forwards about their daily lives, and perhaps taking inspiration from them.

A few streets away there was a little park, not one of those enclosed ones for rich residents, but an open square place, with horse chestnut trees, and benches built round the trunks. I shall go for a stroll every day, he thought. I shall take my pipe, and my notebook. Maybe in the summer I will even write a paragraph or two out there. Maybe Doris would like to come with me.

But there was this cremation to get through first. He wished it did not have to be the cremation of his old friend and parishioner Peter Browning, and he wished it could be him taking the service rather than the New Lady Vicar he was now ‘mentoring’. She didn’t seem all that interested being mentored. Knew it all. You’ve prepared some notes on the life of the deceased? Just let me have the paperwork if you will, and I’ll peruse it this evening.

Peruse. It was the wrong word. Solicitors perused, Doctors, politicians and company chairmen probably perused. Vicars – surely there should be another term – studied, absorbed, meditated upon. Perused was so cold; nothing to do with flesh and blood people. And this was Peter’s funeral. It was for his sake and for that his deaf grand-daughter Sophie, who would be at the service. Godfrey had so wanted the thing to be done right. He had hoped to take care of this one last thing himself.

New Lady Vicar parked the mini neatly in the car park and leant across to open the passenger-side door for him. Does she think I’m senile? Godfrey wondered. Can’t remember how to work the door-handle? He caught a glimpse of the woman’s face in the rear-view mirror. It was pale and irritable-looking.

*

Sophie folded Maria’s push-chair and left it in a corner of the ante-room reserved for close family. It should be safe enough. She would walk in with her daughter in her arms. Granda would have liked that. He had never been a fan of what he called “contraptions”, preferring simplicity, and the old ways. Her husband hadn’t been able to make it, today. He was being interviewed for the headship of an inner-city school and the two dates had clashed. He did so want that job. She would be keeping her fingers crossed for him, but for the next few hours must concentrate all her energies on saying goodbye to Granda. She wished it could have been in the parish church, but her parents had favoured on cremation. She also wished it could have been Reverend Snaith taking the service. He looked lost, perched at the end of the front view. The new lady was already standing up at the lectern, flapping a sheaf of notes about and fidgeting. Panicking – Sophie could see it instantly – but pretending not to be; putting on a front. Deaf from birth, Sophie compensated with other senses. Unable to hear the things people said, she sensed the things they didn’t.

The first hymn went without a hitch. Sophie didn’t sing, of course, and she could not feel the music through the floor as well as she might have done in church. She knew what they were singing, of course, since it was she who had had planned the service. It was The Old Rugged Cross: an old- fashioned hymn, ill-suited to the surroundings, but suited to Granda. Granda had been a carpenter and, in his spare time, a whittler and carver of wood. He would have understood the cross, would have related to it, possibly more than to the man crucified upon it.

*

New Lady Vicar launched into the body of her sermon, and that was when things started to go badly wrong.

We meet here today to honour and pay tribute to the life of our brother Paul, and to express our love and admiration for him. Also to try to bring some comfort to those of Paul’s family and friends who are here and have been deeply hurt by his death.

Oh God, how am I going to stop her? thought Godfrey Snaith. She’s got the wrong name.

Paul was not a particularly religious person, so it’s befitting that his funeral ceremony should reflect what he was, a gentle, kind, loving person; devoted to his wife and family…

I can even see how she did it, he thought. She forgot the name – for all her blasted ‘perusing’ she must have forgotten poor Peter’s name. Instead of stopping and asking, which would have been the sensible thing, knowing it began with a ‘P’ she through the Apostles – ah, Paul. It must be Paul. Let’s go with Paul.

Paul wasn’t a particularly religious person but it was thought that his funeral service should include some form of religious content and prayers.

I’ve got to stop her – but how? Godfrey Snaith stayed rooted to his seat. He was not a brave man. He was not a man designed for emergencies.

Sophie passed her sleeping daughter to the woman next to her and stood up, her eyes fixed on New Lady Vicar. She was signing something, repeatedly.

New Lady Vicar saw and was confused, but unfortunately not enough to stop talking.

It’s only natural that we should be sad today, because in a practical sense, our brother Paul is no longer a part of our lives…

Sophie signed the sign again, and again. New Lady Vicar fell silent, looking backwards and forwards in disbelief from the young woman who had until recently been Sophie Browning, to the old man who had until recently been The Reverend Godfrey Snaith. Godfrey Snaith came to his senses.

Peter, he said in a low voice. She’s signing Peter.

New Lady Vicar simply looked confused. She was as frozen to the lectern as Godfrey had been to his seat.

Godfrey took a deep breath and stood up.

Might I say a few words, my dear? You see, Peter Browning was a good friend of mine.

Lady Vicar sat down, cross, embarrassed, still confused but relieved to be out of the limelight.

Godfrey turned to the congregation with a smile.

A good friend of many years’ standing – he, his late wife Rose and his Granddaughter Sophie – all friends. You might say the four of us have grown up and grown old together. Peter was a difficult chap, in some ways – grumpy, not what you might call the life and soul of the party. Not much of a churchgoer, either. He might turn up at Christmas, under duress, and very occasionally at Easter; Rose never did him to a Harvest Festival, though it was her favourite service. But if you should decide to pay a visit to our beautiful parish church, St Swithin and All Angels – where, by the way, funeral services can also be conducted – you will notice a carved altar rail – Peter did that. He bought the wood, he designed and carved the rail and he gave it to the church. It took him six months to complete. And the lattice screen – the one with the birds and flowers? Peter Browning made that too…