Breathing Spaces

Apropos of nothing, the one-armed cat is gaining speed with every day that passes. He has now re-learned how to gallop, and therefore how to scare the bejasus out of selected other cats. This morning I spotted George clinging hot-foot to a central-heating radiator, trying and failing to haul himself up, having been chased up there by some sort of furry Grendel, now nipping joyfully at his ankles. Cats cope with adversity so much better than us. If you had lost an arm, would you be galloping?

I was thinking the other day about the spaces I have found, when I felt like the wounded Grendel. Grendel, if I remember aright, slunk off to the swamp, or maybe some sort of big pond, and drowned there. Poor Grendel! Why do I feel sorrier for him than that granite-jawed hero Beowulf, who also died – in the end?

So, when feeling like a wounded Grendel (on average once a day, when imprisoned in the world of work), I would have to get away. If I couldn’t get away – meltdown. If you’ve never seen a meltdown…

The thing is with meltdowns, you can see them happening from inside. You can witness yourself behaving like some kind of lunatic and yet you can’t stop. Not for hours, sometimes not for days can you stop. And then you have to get yourself home, still sobbing and attracting horrified glances from passers-by. I had to walk four miles in that condition, once. And then you have to recover. And then, somehow, you have to go back, hoping you haven’t been fired in your absence. Pretending it never happened.

Breathing spaces are essential, and the trick is to get to them early, to forestall… it.

When I worked at the Power Station, it was difficult. We were virtually imprisoned many windswept miles from anywhere at all, behind a revolving-gate and plastic-pass security system that sometimes would and sometimes wouldn’t let you out. Mostly I hid in the loos, but there’s only so long you can do that, and toilets are not the most pleasant of places when you’re trying to regain your sang froid. I remember once, a blowsy blonde fellow-employee (I recognised her voice and that inane laugh) entered the cubicle next to me. I took a deep breath. She let off a huge – what’s a polite word for it – oh, bother it – Fart.

Oops! she screeched – that laugh again – But better out than in!

Oh go away, I thought. But people never go away.

In later jobs it got easier, though there was always at least one meltdown per job, just as there was always one bull-necked female supervisor or superior who took a raging dislike to me. Where did I go in those latter days, to breathe?

There was the library, in winter. I would find an empty table in the reference section and prop some weighty tome in front of me. I wasn’t actually using the tome, of course, I was writing, reading or daydreaming behind it.

And there was the church. That was usually empty at lunchtimes. I’ve always liked churches, when empty. I like places with really high ceilings. I think that’s what it is, the ceilings. Which I suppose is why churches and cathedrals were designed that way – as a kind of foretaste of heaven. Occasionally though they would have art exhibitions of fairly bad paintings, or concerts, or flower-arranging competitions.  Not so good.

In summer there was the Memorial Gardens – why do I find death so restful? – where the dead of World War One were cast in greenish bronze on all four sides of a stone memorial. What I liked was the space, and the green of the grass, and the rows of trees, and the unimaginative flower bed with their soldierly ranks of pansies and marigolds. I liked the wasps, and the students mucking about in their lunch-hours, and the drunks in the far bushes with their bottles of stuff in paper bags, or surrounded by a clutter of empty tins. I liked the prim professional people with their sandwiches. I liked the blue sky and the sunshine and the distance. Distance. I have to have space. That was my best place. Most of my best poems were written there.

And at other times I have found sanctuary in cafés, sitting in a parked car in a huge, anonymous supermarket carpark, and on railway stations where I could hang around pretending to wait for trains. Distance again – those rails which might be going – anywhere. I didn’t need to go. It was enough to know that I could go. Sometimes I found a kind of harbour at harbours, or anywhere, really, by the sea. Sea is distance. It is on the edge, it is – where you could, if necessary, walk into the water and swim, or jump onto a ship and sail away, never to be seen or heard of again. Distant parts. Freedom.

Where are your breathing spaces? Or don’t you need them?

deep-breath

Florence Nottingale

The Domestic Science wing at my school was known as The Crimea. This was on account of some connection with Florence Nightingale, the Lady With The Lamp. The headmistress never stopped banging on about old Florence and gave us the impression that wounded soldiers were actually nursed in our Domestic Science wing, in beds, in rows, like the picture above. I never quite understood this, because I thought they were on the battlefield and she went out to them.

You’d think this might have inspired me to be a nurse, or a heroine of some kind, but all I ever wanted to be was a Poet. My parents were not impressed when I told them this. They said I would be making better use of my time as a shorthand typist for the Electricity Board. Actually, over a whole frittered lifetime, there turned out to be nothing much I would have been better using my time doing.

Fast forward and here I am apparently nursing a stray cat with an amputated leg. I mean a very amputated leg, right up at the shoulder. His name is Nicholas, because he has a white necklace. When you have quite a few black and white cats it’s easier to remember them that way, like recognising seabirds by their beaks or whales by their fins. I have been feeding him outside for some time. He and Sunshine (another un-neutered tom) were sharing the garden on an unspoken rota basis. But Nicholas has been missing for several day.

Yesterday I got home from a routine visit the vet’s to find Nicholas outside. He looked brisk and business-like enough but he was holding a front paw in the air. Perhaps a thorn, I thought, or a cut. Looking on the bright side, or trying to, I reached down and scooped him up. Bad sign, that he let me do that.

Several phone calls to the vet, the RSPCA (to get an Incident Number), to the vet again, to a taxi firm. I can’t take a sick cat all that way on the bus. By lunchtime we are back at the vets. Probably an abscess, says the vet, in that Russian-type accent I have never been able to reproduce. If you are going to take him I will do the operation and castrate him at the same time. But when the x-rays come in he shows me – that leg is shattered. You have three options he says: have the cat put to sleep, refer him to an orthopaedic surgeon – because I can’t fix that – which would cost you around £4,000 – or have the leg amputated and the castration done at the same time, which I could do cheaply for you for only… Only?

The cat might be adopted afterwards, of course. He looks round from his computer and grins. ‘You don’t have to take them all.’ But he knows perfectly well that I do.

And so here I am – Mrs Squeamish, who hates any kind of physical responsibility, trying to be Florence Nightingale. Nicholas is alternately stretched out and curled up in an untidy heap of pet bed, blanket and folded fleece in the corner, partly covered by a blanket. He doesn’t look too bright, but he has eaten something and doesn’t seem averse to a stroke and a purr every now and again, between long sleeps. For some reason I think about Beowulf, and Grendel and his arm torn off at the shoulder at the battle of Heriot…

Concentrate, woman…

To be honest, I have never seen a newly-amputated creature before. An amputee is one thing – you see them on TV all the time – but a new wound is another. I had to bathe it this morning, and of course there are ugly things, like stitches and blood and shaven, puckered skin. I shall be so glad when that fur begins to grow back, Nicholas. He squirms over onto his tummy and squints up at me. I am going to get so bitten, I think, approaching on creaking knees with the cotton wool and the bowl of warm water. But no, he lies patiently and lets me clean him up and looks ever so slightly less appalling afterwards. Much smarter, I say.

I was thinking about angels, and that mysterious old man on the bus who talked to me about the meaning of life, recited Desiderata and vanished. I was wondering if we are all obliged to do ‘Angel Duty’ – a bit like conscription – at some point, or in one aspect of our lives. I was thinking maybe it was my job to be Nicholas’ angel today, and that he had at least chosen the right person to hobble to. I was wondering who my right person was, or would be if and when the time came, to hobble to.

I was thinking about competence and incompetence, and how the both things can exist in the same person at the same time. I was thinking that my sister doesn’t speak to me now, and wondering if it is because she has got lumbered with all the financial and practical stuff in connection with my mother, and despises me and my irresponsibility/incompetence/host of financial phobias and anxieties, for having backed out of all that so smartly. Did I let her down? At the time I just knew she would be better at it, but all the same… I’m the older sister and that should have been my responsibility.

No, you don’t have to take them all in. And you don’t have to be an Angel in everything. You have your one thing, and maybe only that one thing. That’s your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Cum On Feel The Noize

The above track, originally recorded by British group Slade, must surely be a contender for Shoutiest Record. Subtract a couple of centuries, put him in a brocade jacket and a tricorne hat, give him a giant hand-bell and their lead singer, the jovial, curly-mulleted Noddy Holder, would have made an excellent Town Crier.

On the same theme – more or less – I recall one afternoon many years ago walking into the entrance hall of my teacher training college to find it suspiciously quiet. All eyes were focussed on our English/Drama lecturer (I have forgotten his name and no doubt he’s dead by now but in my mind he will forever be associated with Beowulf or vice versa) who was in the process of chalking a message up on a blackboard in that kind of fluid, cursive script you never get to enjoy nowadays. With many a flourish, he wrote:

‘Wanted – shouty records. Example: Shirley Bassey.’

To this day it remains a mystery to me that an elderly, softly-spoken, bearded academic should have discovered an urgent requirement for Shirley Bassey or her ilk. Even now, in idle moments, I find myself attempting to reconstruct a lesson-plan or lecture notes incorporating ‘shouty records’.

Of course there’s shouty and then there’s shouty. There’s the ear-grating, murderous-thoughts-inspiring shouting that mothers direct at their kids, and kids at each other in crowded shopping malls. Then there’s the melodious shoutiness of Edith Piaf as she laments lost lovers and promises them her total, heartbroken obsessive love for ever more. So It’s not exactly the loudness of shoutiness that’s so irritating, it’s the mindless, purposeless superfluity of it.

Today I have workmen digging drainage channels across my driveway. So far we have had the rotary saw – I’m guessing from the clouds of brown dust gusting past my kitchen window, since I dare not look out. And we have had the attacking of crumbling concrete with what may well be a stout metal bar. Still to come, the promised “hired man with a Kango hammer”.

Oh happy days…