Hospit-ality

Hospitals are not my natural milieu, you might say

(she types, wincingly, with injured paw).

I mean, I just don’t go with the décor. Sitting in the Friends of the Hospital shop toying with a Styrofoam cup of unlikely-coloured tea with rapidly submerging tea-bag

(the dangly bit fell in)

is not my idea of Christmas Eve. I have bought a TV listings magazine to pass the time until I make my way to the clinic for my appointment

(if you don’t arrive before ten a.m. there are no parking spaces till tomorrow before ten a.m.)

but it contains nothing but staged photos of soap-opera actors pretending to be anguished, because it’s Christmas, and everyone knows Christmas is the perfect time to murder your missus and bury her beheath the patio.

(I hate soaps.)

At least it’s different. I mean, what else would I have been doing over Christmas? Compared to sitting in the conservatory with my mother for three silent hours listening to the clock ticking, and maybe knitting a row or two, driving 23.3 miles to the nearest A&E hospital

(and the same back)

four days in a row

(yes four, including Christmas Day)

to have my bitten hand prodded and redressed and antibiotics injected into some miniature piece of yellow or blue plastic bandaged into to my arm for the duration, this is actually quite exciting. This hospital is almost beginning to feel like a Home From Home. Like Home, without the cat litter and the non-functioning lightbulbs

(they are packing up in some mysterious sequence – it may be a code)

and Bertie ringing me up at 1.30 in the morning saying he thinks he’s dying but he’s not sure what of and it could be his waterworks but it might be his throat… or his psoriasis… and now I’ve got a car would I mind driving him to the hospital because an ambulance will never arrive in time… but that’s another story.

I may not tell it. Maybe it would be unkind? It probably would be unkind. But I may still tell it, because in spite of the nurse telling me I was a kind person, really I’m a bit of a moo.

I might tell it…

Suffice it for now to say that Nurse has instructed me to instruct Bertie next time he telephones in the middle of the night that the Nurse has ordered me to conserve my strength at the moment or my hand won’t get better. She says the technique is to be apologetic, kindly, sympathetic but not of any actual practical use over and over again. Eventually, she says, the person gets the message.

(I do not think Bertie is of a constitution to get any message, ever, but maybe her advice would be worth a try. It was kind of her to offer it, whilst slowly squeezing cold stuff into my arm from an enormous syringe.)

You will be please to hear

(I hope you are not reading this over your Christmas Dinner)

that although my cat-savaged hand still looks like the surface of some distant red planet, with scattered, erupting volcanoes, and feels as sore as the surface of such a planet must feel after aeons of being erupted under and onto by volcanoes, the hand itself has now returned to normal size. It originally swelled up and looked like the puffer fish featured above, without the mouth and the funny little fins. And at that point, of course, I could not drive although the taxi driver

(I have met quite a few taxi drivers in the past few days)

did explain to me that I could probably change gear for 23.3 miles by pushing the gear stick with the puffer-fish-type hand. He has obviously had to drive this way in the past so as to maintain his livelihood. A truly scary thought.

There’s a few good things about stuff like this. You get to chat to people you would never have chanced to meet, in your life. This morning, for example, I spent a couple of minutes with a middle-European lady who was allergic to painkillers, who was suffering from the most agonising bad back I have ever witnessed someone trying to walk along with. I think she must have slipped a disc. Even sitting still, talking to me, she was pausing to scream at intervals. I wished – I jut wished, at that point – that I possessed those healing hands, the sort you can just lay on or hover above people, to take away their pain. But hopefully they will find at least one painkiller she is not allergic to.

You may find out things about yourself you would never otherwise have known. I discovered via the blood tests that though  I may not have sepsis (may not, presumably I’d feel a bit iller if I had) I do have anaemia. So now I have iron tablets. How exciting! This may be the beginning of the inevitable metamorphosis into one of those old ladies with a medicine cupboard bursting with cardboard boxes of tablets for this and tablets for that…

And you get to master new skills, if only tiny ones. I am a coward, you see. I tend to avoid doing stuff that’s stressful, and for me, anything I haven’t done before, anything new, tends to get avoided. New cars contain many such skills, and I have been avoiding learning them all. In case I couldn’t. In case it was stressful.

But last night, thanks to Bertie and his hyponchondria/panic attack demand to be whisked to the Community Hospital (only about 6 miles away) I was forced to work out where the button was to switch on the headlights

(yay!)

and this morning, in anticipation of having to retrieve a car-park ticket from one of those scary yellow machines via the car window so that the barrier would lift, I had to devote some time to deducing how to open windows in a car so very modern it has no handle to wind. At all. And then I managed the drive to the hospital, round one of the worst-designed many-laned roundabouts of all time

(get in your lane well in advance and don’t whatever you do move out of it till you get to the other side: taxi driver)

and bought petrol, even though the petrol place is on completely the wrong side of the car and there is no cap just some sort of hole

and found my way on Christmas Eve through dense traffic in an unfamiliar town, and actually found a parking space, and then actually managed to reverse the entire sequence

(apart from buying petrol, which would have been silly)

on the way back.

Trad Jazz and Tarantulas

If you had asked me to make a list of what I was expecting from last night’s Outing tarantulas would have been unlikely to feature on it.

Not that I would have probably got round to making such a list because making such a list would fall under the banner of Mushroom Stuffing, Mushroom Stuffing being but one of that multitude of things that life is too short to do. A further example – Bertie spent much of our Thursday bus stop waiting time recounting the lengths he had gone to in rejuvenating his last year’s Remembrance Day poppy. The black bit in the middle had come out, he said, and he couldn’t find it, but eventually he did find it under the fridge/ washing machine/ spare-room bed/ hallway hat-stand, and then it was a matter of attaching a fresh bit of wire, hunting out the superglue and attaching the battered red petals to the new framework… This must have taken him several hours. Mushroom stuffing.

I mentioned mushroom stuffing. Nobody knew what I meant, of course.

Last night I went on an Outing. For most of my life the concept of Outings has been a foreign one to me. I am that pathetic, lone-wolf type person whose default position would be Do This Alone, Go There Alone, Solve This Yourself etc. But now I no longer have a car and have perforce become more reliant on other people and have had to retrain myself, somewhat, if not exactly into sheep-hood, at least into a lone-wolf/ovine combination. I have also read that Social Interaction might help you not get Alzheimers.

This I how, with three of my fellow Over 50s I came to be being driven into town (after dark) in a frankly odoriferous – dog/ cigarettes/ air freshener/ unidentified-but-unpleasant, possibly nappies – car, to a district on the outskirts of Town that I would until now have been nervous of frequenting in daylight let alone on the night before Bonfire Night, with premature fireworks lighting up the sky. I focussed on my breathing. There was very little air inside this car, and so many people breathing it.

However, it was a good night, if stressful. In this district the new owners of an old shop were renovating it when they came across a sealed room. On breaking in they found a perfect little music hall theatre left over from 1879 or thereabouts and somehow forgotten. It had offered “rational amusement for all classes”, including a one-armed juggler.

The sound of one arm juggling…

They restored it, making it into a mixture of tiny heritage centre, tiny museum, tiny cinema and tiny theatre. Just the sort of place I like. Sort of place you could set a book in.

Behind the Scenes at the… oh no, that’s been done before.

I wasn’t expecting much from a 1920s evening. Not even the oldest Over 50, I think, can actually remember the Roaring Twenties. I imagined we might be in for a party of not-very-good flapper dancers in thick, cheerful make-up, performing ragged Charlestons, or maybe re-enacting romantic scenes from Noel Coward plays. But it was an Outing. I just went because Outings are supposed to be good for one.

But it wasn’t that at all, it was an “orchestra” of six elderly chaps playing traditional jazz, and rather well, plus a slightly younger crooner-type singer, wearing a tuxedo, a bow-tie and sinister BBC announcer/German spy type spectacles, and playing the saxophone in between. They consisted of a trumpeter, with mute; a clarinet player with a white ZZ Top type beard; a snowy-haired, feisty drummer, for whose life I feared during a vigorous drum-solo; a guitar/banjo player who appeared to be asleep through out, with mouth open, but nevertheless kept on playing, and someone in the middle at the very back playing what I assumed to be a tuba – something like a battered brass snake that enveloped him, with a giant gramophone horn attached to the end – but later discovered it was a souzaphone.

I promised myself I would not, Kermit-fashion, jiggle up and down in my seat in time to the music, or even tap my feet, but of course I did. They played all those bits of jazz I remember from black and white films on TV on rainy Saturday afternoons in my childhood. Long, silly introductions. Little sung stories leading into sudden bursts of rampageous jazz. I looked around. We were surrounded by union jacks and tasteless swags of red ribbon, and vases of lilies, something that looked like a church organ, weird deco. It could have been wartime. How appropriate, as Britannia sinks beneath – or, fingers-crossed and baited breath, may just about float upon – the waves…

Never, Never, Never to be Slaves….

Afterwards, as we were standing outside awaiting the return odoriferous lift , I asked a silly question. What’s behind that great big wall?  Right opposite us, mere feet away, was the tallest and oldest brick wall I think I have ever seen. This would not have been a silly question for a visitor from outer space (and I could see by the micro-expressions on my companions faces that I had just asked that sort of question) but I do live here. That, I was told, is the Dockyard.

And this is where the tarantulas come in. Behind that wall, my companions explained, as our breath steamed in the damp night air, is the Dockyard. And in that wall are tarantulas that have escaped from all the crates that were ever unloaded here. They live in the cracks in the wall… The wall is still pitted with shrapnel holes from where this street (well, they were obviously aiming for the Dockyard) was bombed in the last war.

Really? Do they bite?

No, they’re not the biting sort. They just live in the cracks.

Someone has tested that?

And suddenly I imagined all these poor little tarantulas and the lives they must have led. The Wall was as far as they could get. Scuttling out of their crates into, not the tropical sunshine they had been used to but some grey, damp February or November day. Heading for the nearest cover – that Wall. Living in the cracks, unable to go any further, unable to go home. How sorely they must have missed it, the music of the oil drum bands, those joyous calypsos beneath the palm trees. I hope they were at least tapping their feet along to strains of jazz drifting across from the little theatre. I hope they were jiggling just a little, Kermit-fashion in their shrapnel holes, and those crumbling interstices.

souza

 

Everybody’s talking at me…

So far I have been looking for things to ‘snap’ around the house, but it’s been one of those days and I just couldn’t locate any Talking Heads, Jabbering Clowns etc to go with my title.

(Change the title, then, why don’t you?

Too tired!)

It’s been one of those days. One of those days when, after days of blessed silence, broken only by hisses and miaows and the occasional politician blathering on about Brexit, I have been forced to delve deep into my pitiful pot of sociability and talk to people. And all day! It’s too much.

It started with the fridge. The fridge is less than a year old and you might think it would leave me alone, but no. The milk I poured onto my cereal was warm. Everything in the fridge-bit and the freezer-bit was warm. Everything was soggy. I was due to leave the house at quarter to nine so at half past eight I had to have a long conversation with a young woman in a call centre, who sold me yet another lot of fridge insurance (I just cancelled the previous lot but it was the only way I could escape) and promised me an engineer next Wednesday. Five or six day without a fridge. I missed the bus, of course.

Which meant I found myself catching the same bus as Bertie and, not only that, sharing the subsequent train since he was on his way up to London and then down towards the West Country. Bertie is a nice chap but extremely hard work, listening to. And he now wants to know whether I am married. Why? Maybe he’s just curious. Innocently curious.

He is worried about his train connections, and about whether he will be able to book in to his usual hotel room when he gets down there; also whether he will be able to find some flowers to buy (he has to buy some flowers). I am worried about my fridge and what is happening to all those strawberry yoghurts and bottles of milk I didn’t have time to dispose of before running for the later bus. They will have to fester till I get home.

And then there is the conversation with Godmother in the car. Godmother is a piece of cake compared to either Bertie or the woman at the electrical appliances call centre, but I am running out of steam. I am also having to explain why I am so late.

Then there is the conversation with Mum, although today she seems more interested in New Homes By The Seaside, and paddling two pieces of bread around in a bowl of green soup. Godmother and I speculate as to why the soup is always exactly this shade of green, and whether it might be pea, or some sort of pea and mushroom mix.

Another conversation with Godmother on the way back to the station. Exhausted slump in a train, then another train. Half an hour at the bus stop. Teenager on the bench beside me suddenly looks up from his mobile phone and begins to talk to me. There must be something wrong with him, I think. The only people who talk to me at bus stops are people with something wrong with them.

He shows me his app, for the buses, which reveals that our bus is currently passing the fire station just down the road, but it has to go past us and go off somewhere else before coming back, so there’s at least another fifteen minutes to wait. He tells me about the sort of music he likes, which he says has a lot of beat and people shouting or talking over the top. Sounds like what Next Door play. He asks me what sort of music I like. I say I listen to Heart, thinking that might be trendy. He says Heart isn’t really modern music. He explains the online game he likes to play, and how you can wear costumes, or join the police, or wield a sword – anything you like – and how he has friends all over the world, playing the same game at the same time. I tell him of my adventures with the little boat in that dementia game, Sea Hero Quest. He thinks he has heard of that.

He asks me if I have got Netflix and what I watch TV programmes on. He tells me that the pattern is changing and young people watch on all sorts of devices. I already knew this, but I nod, wondering if he might be practising his chatting up techniques on a safe old lady before venturing into the world of Real Girls. He looks no more than fifteen, and I suspect he is shy. He’s practising. Good for him.

He asks me what people did before television. His mother has told him that people played card games and such. I tell him that I can only vaguely remember the world before television, since we got one when I was seven or thereabouts, but I remembered my grandparents playing card games. And talking. Talking? He seems interested in that. He asks me if television was really black and white once upon a time, and had there really only been two channels like his mother said?

At home I dispose of all the runny yoghurts and soggy loaves of bread from the fridge. I recycle the plastic pots. I tip away four pints of warm, suspicious-smelling milk. I fish out anything else that doesn’t look as if it’s going to last till Wednesday.

I remember that I am supposed to be ringing that lady from yesterday’s bus journey, the one who thought I might be interested in outings to Southend to eat fish and chips, in a mini-bus with other people our age, collected from my door and returned, after. Trips to the theatre; get-togethers (with optional fish-and-chip suppers) in pubs and so much more. I have her telephone number on a scrap of paper and I have promised to ring her. Yesterday.

I am slightly interested, I suppose, thinking about all that potential subject matter for the blog, and also the possibility that the company of other humans might do me good. But I can’t face it tonight.

Not another conversation. Just not tonight.

IMG_20170906_224223

There is actually a timetable affixed to this bus stop…

Bertie from the bus stop has asked me my name, eventually.

We are standing outside his house, which is just around the corner from the bus stop, way before my house. I still have a fifteen minute hill to climb and am so tired I am wishing that someone would install one of those ski lifts, so that I could just hop on. Bertie thought this was a good idea last time I mentioned it, and asked me how much it would cost.

He has been telling me about his blackberries. These are a tangle of what I would have called brambles in one corner of his front garden. However, they do actually have blackberries on them, half of them unripe as yet. He is saying something about picking them, or not picking them or other people picking or not picking them. I am past the stage of being able to piece it all together. It has been a whole day on public transport to visit Mum.

I have sat next to Bertie on the bus from town for almost an hour and he has been talking at me all the way: shards of his life: fragments that would probably make sense if only he would give you some sort of context for them. It is like ancient coins under a metal detector – you never get the whole horde, only this battered coin, and that.

He starts in the middle, or he’ll just tell you the edges. He skips from when his Mum was alive, which now seems to have been back in the 70s and in another part of the country; to his health and mobility problems, which he is assuming I know all about; to the problems of a friend who is struggling to help another friend, who lives a long way away. It’s one of those stream-of-consciousness autobiographies – you feel that if only you could put enough energy into your listening you might be able to piece it together.

He is still telling me about the blackberries. My feet are on fire from too much walking about in new walking boots. I am overheated, wilting. The sun has been beating down on me through the bus window and before that there was an hour just waiting at the bus stop in town. Until Bertie came along, that is, and started advising some woman about the times of the buses. Five minutes ago she had asked me the same question and now she was asking him. People just automatically ignore everything I say.

‘There is supposed to be a bus at half past,’ she said. ‘So where is it?’

‘Where exactly are you trying to get to?’ I asked, although I could tell from the look of her where she was going – the holiday camp.

‘To the holiday camp’, she said.

‘Then it’s twelve minutes past’, I say, ‘though it may be up to ten minutes late’.

‘There’s supposed to be one at half past (this hour).’

‘No, there isn’t one till twelve minutes past (next hour).’

So now she turns to Bertie and asks ‘When is the next bus?’

‘Eleven minutes past,’ he says, ‘though it’s usually late’.

She nods, comprehendingly. Oh, eleven minutes past, not twelve minutes like that woman just told me. Eleven minutes past. Bertie, of course, has now got her by the (metaphorical) throat and is regaling her with the intricacies of the local bus timetable; telling her where in the town centre she could obtain a copy of said publication, although of course she will miss the bus if she sets off to obtain one now.

People at bus stops tend to annoy me anyway, especially holidaymakers. They are always cross from the unaccustomed hanging about (apparently buses happen more often than once an hour up in London), they have never read the timetable and every one of them has a different and contradictory certainty as to when the bus ought to have been due. But still they ask you when it is due. And then they don’t believe you when you tell them.

There is actually a timetable affixed to this bus stop, I hear myself pointing out, snarkily. Occasionally, nowadays, I seem to be saying exactly what I mean, having spent a lifetime avoiding this dangerous practice. Pretend Me is always shocked when Real Me decides to pop out of her box and Say Something Snarky. I know it is only because Pretend Me is very, very tired, also hungry and thirsty having just spent lunchtime watching repeats of ‘The Simpsons’ with her mother in a bedroom with a dark blue wallpaper frieze and a view consisting of air-conditioning clutter and a toilet window or two.  All her life Pretend Me has managed to keep Real Me stuffed down under that painted lid, the catch firmly on. Now, at random moments, this strategy fails.

Confused and distracted by Bertie’s monotone mumbled timetable monologue, the woman hasn’t in any case noticed the underlying acidity of Real Me’s remark. She is a faded blonde, this woman; hooped earrings; strappy sundress; glittery cheap flat sandals with bunions poking through the straps, chin beginning to sag into her neck. She’s around about my age, pretending not to be. Pretend Me feel ashamed of Real Me’s intended nastiness, even if she didn’t notice.

But not very.

I sometimes wonder if this blog isn’t the same sort of thing: fragments of a whole life – the double-helix life, perhaps I should say, of Pretend Me and Real Me. And as with Bertie’s autobiography, no one will ever have the time, energy or inclination to piece it all together. Maybe this is an autobiography but with other bits and pieces tossed in for good measure, like the sixpence and the mixed spice in the Christmas pudding.

Maybe one day, so far into the future that nothing remains of this century but internet echoes, some future history student will decide to ‘do’ this blog for their dissertation. And fail, distracted by blackberries, bus stops, observations apropos of nothing, chance acquaintances and recipes for appallingly sugary cakes.

‘I don’t think I caught your name…’ says Bertie, oddly formal and still lurking beside his blackberries.

‘I don’t think I told you,’ I say, and tell him. He repeats it to himself several times.

‘I’ll try to remember that,’ he says, looking anxious.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘I can always remind you’.

My bathwater is staring at me…

So, I finished running my bath and looked down and lo and behold, little pairs of bubble eyes were circulating, and staring at me. Only for a moment, mind you. Then sanity returned. Please do not let me start hearing voices talking to me from my kitchen cupboards next. Please do not let the bubbles develop little sharp teeth and start snapping at me…

Been there, seen that all before.

But really I think I am just very tired. I am not used to being very tired, either. All my life I have been able to do a normal day’s stuff and recover without even thinking about it. Now it takes me two days to get over a long bus journey.

Went to see Mum yesterday. Fortunately Godmother’s little dog has had a stay of execution and Godmother and her trusty little red car are back online, so I didn’t have to do the epic three-bus solo journey, only the much easier one bus, two train and one car journey. I gave Mum a calendar of American Birds, hanging it on her wall with the garden string (and yes, even small pair of scissors) I had taken over specially. Once a Brownie always a Brownie. Mum made that Emu face. Godmother went to make her a fresh cup of tea (we have both recently memorised the key code for the kitchen).

‘Is that better?’ she foolishly asked, as Mum took a sip from her newly-steaming plastic beaker. Emu face again.

For those who are wondering what an Emu face is, not being old enough or British, I would guess it’s something like a ‘Meh’ face only a tad more ominous. This is it:

emu

Then she started growling, a lot, and baring her teeth. A carer came running.

“It’s all right,” we said, waving cheerily. “It’s only Mum having a bit of a growl.”

Thing is, all this stuff takes it out of you. And it doesn’t go away when you go home. That whole visit stays with you and excerpts from it coming back, like cucumber. Memory burps.

And then there was the reverse journey – car, train, train again and bus. And the hour-and-a-bit wait at the bus stop, alone. And the bus arriving being a single decker, and already stuffed with holidaymakers returning to their chalets, though this was only the second stop.

And the more and more people getting crammed in and nobody ever getting out.

And the pain in my knees (I was sitting over one of the back wheels, and I have long legs) as they continually graunched against the back of the seat in front.

And the little girl in that seat, who kept turning round to bellow at her Mama in Spanish through my face, leaning heavily on the seat back at the same time. I desperately needed to stand up and stretch my legs, but I would have lost my seat and been stood hanging on to a pole round sharp bends with a bad hip for the next forty minutes.

And then, having escaped the bus, the fifteen minute uphill climb home. For the first time ever I had to actually stop, like some old lady, and catch my breath for some moments before continuing. My head was swimming although that might have been the several Mars Bars en route, plus the half a bar of chocolate Godmother produced in the car, and which we shared between us! Also, I was loaded down with second hand copies of the Woman’s Weekly. Godmother passes hers on to me and I do enjoy them, even though she’s always done the crossword, but a whole supermarket bag-full is heavy.

And then I got home and next door decided to have one of their Friday parties. Turn Up The Volume It’s Friday. I was going to have a bath but I went to bed instead, grubby, knowing that I could sleep through a lot of loud music, shouting and thundering about,  but not sit through it. Hence the bath this morning, and the bubbles. And those little swirling eyes in the water…

Still on the subject of public transport: Bertie At The Bus Stop tells me he can easily eat 19 potatoes at one sitting. He loves potatoes. Obviously. He went on some kind of summer camp once and ate up all the potatoes in the bowl, thinking they were all meant for him. Next day, he told me, they wouldn’t let him into the dining room until after everyone else had gone in. He didn’t know why.

He tells me his freezer-in-the-shed went off sometime during that power cut, and failed to restart itself automatically when the electrics came back on. He only noticed hours later because the garden fountain had stopped working. I asked him whether the food would be safe to eat, having once defrosted. It was clear that this was a new idea to him. He thought that once in a freezer food would last forever and that occasional lengthy defrosting would make no difference, as long as the freezer eventually got turned back on.

“They” provided him with the freezer but “They” obviously hadn’t taken the time to explain to him in any detail how it worked.

“Well,” he said, thinking it over, “I could always cook it all overnight. I could stay up all night cooking and put it in my fridge and then I could eat it all the next day, like a big feast…

Poor Bertie, he needs his Old Mum but she isn’t here any more. I know the feeling, and I know I can’t do anything. People have their own lives and you can’t take on everybody’s problems, especially when you have a history of well-meaning attempts at helping that did no good. I can’t magically make Bertie less simple-minded or raise his Old Mum from the dead. Sometimes, maybe, it’s enough to listen to their stories – told on purpose or – as in Bertie’s case – in innocence or by accident. Perhaps, on that day, that was what you happened to be at the bus stop for.

Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle. Horse. Sideways.

I have been vaguely considering the idea of a ‘feature’ day – like Wordless Wednesday when people just post a photo of something or other. So it occurred to me to trial a Totally Random Thursday.

It’s either that or another of Mum’s Old Recipes.

I was feeding the five thousand (cats) just now – impossible to settle down write anything until their insistent twice-daily needs have been met – and it occurred to me how many black or black and white cats I am now surrounded by. It occurs to me that I will soon have reached the scary stage – particularly scary for someone whose mother has dementia – of not being able to recall which name goes with which cat. And then if one of them needs to go to the vet? Will it need to be – ‘Hello, this is Rosie, or possibly Shadow, or then again Arthur, although of course it might be Hector… And he or she needs his or her claws clipping’.

I have a two page Cat List taped to the fridge, neatly typed with each cat’s name, origin/source, probable age, physical description and microchip number if applicable. Not a former legal secretary for nothing. The ostensible purpose of this list is – if I am some day spotted through the window collapsed on the carpet, dead and half-eaten by mice and the RSPCA break in to rescue my horde of cats, they may stand an outside chance of identifying and re-homing some of them.

I constantly rehearse their names and descriptions in my head, making a kind of game of it. At the moment, if it’s quite frail and bony and doesn’t weigh very much it’s Rosie; if it’s got a tiny brown patch under its chin, a tiny white bit on one paw, snapped-off looking front teeth and weighs a ton it’s Little Arf; if it’s plump and soft and barges its way to the food first and in no nonsense fashion it’s Winnie; if it’s tiny and affectionate, with a long face like the Sphynx and slightly scary teeth like a bat or mini-Dracula when she yawns it’s Shadow. And if it has long legs, a pointy nose and hates me it’s probably Pandy from the cat sanctuary.

It occurs to me to wonder why I frighten some people, including most children. Looking at myself in the mirror I look just normal – a bit lumpy, like any oldish person. Harmless. But babies scream at the sight of me in supermarkets. Probably a good thing I wasn’t able to have any, thereby dooming some innocent infant to a life of perpetual apprehension.

Bertie-on-the-bus seems afraid of me too, though that doesn’t stop him talking to me (relentlessly). I’d be quite happy to follow the British on-the-train formula of staring out of the window for as long as possibly, until your neck actually begins to hurt from the effort of not meeting anyone else’s eyes, even accidentally, and appearing very interested in cows, fields and suchlike, but this rule does not apply to rural buses. You have to talk.

Bertie and I have a kind of communication disjunction. I know people like me tend to have this anyway, but Bertie is an especially tricky one. First, he tells you something, but not very much. He is going to his meeting at the Council, he confides. He has mentioned this meeting at the Council several times before and I have not followed it up. I wonder now if he is hoping I’ll ask him about it.

‘Do you work at the Council then, Bertie?’ I venture.

He looks sideways at me, suspiciously. I may be a secret agent.

‘No’, he says, after a very long pause.

‘Did you get to your dentist appointment the other day?’ he asks after a while.

‘Oh well, it was the hygienist actually. She was new – Swedish or something – and just brutal. It was so painful. And since April they’ve put their prices up…’

Now he is staring out of the window, examining the cows.

‘So you did get to the dentist.’

We spot one of his friends at an upcoming bus stop. Bertie has friends all round the route. He knows all their names and their routines, and what days to expect them. He does not know my name, however, and refers to me to other passengers as ‘she’ or ‘her.’ I thought of telling him my name – what harm could come of it? – but decided not to in case he mistakenly concluded I was Making Advances. Bertie, I think, is terrified of women for just that reason: they might Make Advances.

The upcoming friend is the big man with the metal crutches – giant tripping hazards that seem to take up the whole bus – and the endless collection of eccentric tee shirts.

‘He doesn’t really need to put his hand out for the bus,’ I murmur. ‘You could hardly miss him.’ Today he is wearing an acid yellow shirt with broad, grass green horizontal stripes. He looks like the Wasp from Outer Space.

‘No, he does like his tee shirts,’ says Bertie. And then, surprisingly: ‘I knitted a jumper that colour once.’

‘Do you knit, Bertie?’ For once my interest is genuinely piqued. I want to tell him that I knit too and what a relaxing hobby it is, especially on long winter evenings…

He gives me that secret agent look again.

‘I knitted it with my mother.’ Of course he did. I want to ask him more, scenting an actual story here, and one which I will enjoy, but he has turned his attention to the friend with the monster crutches in the yellow and green.

‘I was just telling her…’

I sit in a living room with my elderly Visitee and she goes through her diary with me, reading out her appointments for several weeks to come, with the cleaner, the man who comes to clean out her pond, various specialists etc. I remember these same appointments from last week. My coffee is going cold but I continue to nod and smile in the right places. She tells me again about all the different shops there used to be in Town and we compare our systems for filing household documents. I eat a chocolate biscuit, quickly as it melts in my hand. This one is quite soft. Usually she keeps them in the fridge. In the background, the carriage clock ticks. I quite like this kind of conversation. It reminds me of Mum.

On the bus going back the only empty seat is next to Woman With No Teeth. Now this is a real problem, because I am slightly deaf. Normally it isn’t a problem and I am not conscious of the extent to which I am I am actually lip-reading. But Woman With No Teeth – she just doesn’t make the right mouth-shapes, or rather she makes a whole series of puckery, wrinkly mouth-shapes but these refuse to tie up with any known word. I wonder if it is just the teeth or whether she also has a cleft palate. Either way, I can’t understand her. Today it sounded a bit like this:

‘Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle. Horse. Sideways.’

I try a smile and a sage nod, surmising that as we have just passed two horses being ridden along the side of a narrow road she may be talking about some traffic incident involving horses.

‘Horses are so strong,’ I venture. ‘You have to drive past them really slowly.’

She gives me the secret agent look and begins again:

‘Orem ipsum dolor sit amet. Caravan. Rain.’

Ah, only another twenty minutes.