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’.

An attempt at reconstitution

A phrase from the ‘Mum’ recipe included in the previous post has stuck in mind:

CARE – if you do the latter, don’t let any water get into it or let it get too hot, else it goes solid and you can’t reconstitute it.

She was talking, of course, about the delicate art of melting chocolate. However, it led me into an area of thought I would rather have avoided – or more likely have been avoiding, all this time. To what extent is the ‘Mum’ who appears in this my blog – the reconstituted Mum, as it were – the real one?

I started writing this blog, as I recall, around the time that Mum’s dementia/ psychosis was getting really bad. Around that time we had several silly arguments during my Sunday visits, about foolish claims she made, completely illogical conclusions she had come to, and her patronising insistence that it was me – the stupid child – who had got things all mixed up. Twice I came home from a visit in tears because of the illogicality of it all.  Dementia is something you are forced to learn about from scratch, and usually doesn’t look like dementia to start with. You make mistakes. You let it get to you because somehow or other you haven’t spotted it – that great black storm cloud on the horizon, barrelling towards you.

As far as I recall, the time I wrote my first post and started rescuing all sorts of ancient, spider-infested writings from cardboard boxes in the garage was about the same time I realised I could no longer talk to Mum on an adult to adult, person to person basis. I could no longer talk to her as a daughter. I could no longer ask her advice or rely on her for anything. On the contrary, she was going to be relying on me. It was then that I started this blog.

And so, I have often thought, the ‘dementia’ part of this blog (a relatively small percentage of it) has been an attempt to put her back together again, to recreate her, to preserve her – whatever. And the same for my father – whom I scarcely mourned when he died and did not begin to miss really badly until my mother began to leave me too. And the same of course for my lost life, my lost past selves. These multiple ‘goodbyes’ must happen to every human being as they age, I think – just maybe not all at once or concentrated into so short a time.

In painting word-pictures of Mum, and Dad, and me, and my sisters, I have tried to be honest. I mean, I find it difficult to restrain myself from writing honestly – that’s how it tends to come out – but I sometimes wonder if any of us – the typed up and published ‘us’ – are real? Or could it be that the typed-up and published ‘us’ is in some ways more real than the flesh and blood sad, distracted old folk we really are? Hyper-real.

Damn, I knew this was going to be difficult one to write. How can you put into words something so… transitory and vague?

I find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the Mum of the recipes, the Mum of the sewing box, the Mum with whom I Listened With Mother, the Mum who enraged me by throwing out my boyfriend’s copy of 1984 because she had happened upon the scene with the rats… with the thin, poor person in the plastic armchair, yesterday. I find it difficult to understand this creature who can no longer be shown how to drink from a spout on a plastic cup with the bright-eyed girl who went to grammar school and passed all her exams (except geography!) with flying colours in spite of the second world war. I find it hard to believe that this is a human being let alone my human being. I can no longer talk to her, nor she to me, and without the salve of words I struggle to feel any connection between us. It is as if we no longer belong to the same species, or that she has become animal… or vegetable.

I once had a lover who was – or claimed to be and I have no reason to disbelieve him – clairsentient. He asked me once about the bond between soon-to-be-Ex and I. Did it still feel, he asked, like an umbilical cord stretching between us? Did it still feel as if we were joined by a strong thread, navel to navel and that any separation would produce a painful tug? At the time I suspect I denied it, but whatever I said he would have ‘felt’ the truth as I was speaking. And he was right.

colored dust

It seems to me now that once you have really loved someone, willingly or not, that cord is formed and can never again be broken. You might say that the cord between Ex and I has worn awfully shabby over time and now more closely resembles a thin and greying old piece of elastic than the magnificently throbbing ‘shared umbilical’ of my lover’s psychic imagery. Still, it stretches through the miles between us.

And I suppose the same cord stretches between my mother and I. We are cut off from one another, adrift on different rafts, but still just about within sight. Maybe that is the final, almost-impossible lesson we are forced to learn – how to just be with someone. But how painful it is just to sit. How raw it feels just to be in a room with someone and not be shielded with words or even understanding. How hard it is, finally, to permit yourself to feel the cord stretching and stretching as the other person pulls away, and to know that you are never going to be able to cut the cord, however much it hurts.

Strangeness

I occasionally attempt to write about subjects randomly generated through a subject generator website. It rarely ends well.

The idea, of course, is that one tends to get bogged down in one’s little domestic world – feeding the birds, tripping over the cats, visiting Mum in the Home, memories of stuff there seems no particular reason to have remembered and even less reason to inflict on anyone else. After a while, you begin to get bored with yourself, or the sound of your own written voice. You start to suffer from bloggers’ angst with angst-ridden questions drifting randomly through your mind, like

Who on earth is going to want to read all this old gubbins anyway?

Should I do everyone a favour and publish something useful, such as ‘Yet more recipes for cleaning stuff with baking powder and lemon juice’ or ‘How to look after your terrapin’?

(Does anybody know what a terrapin is? I have a feeling it’s something that lives in an aquarium.)

Anyway, this afternoon the Random Subject Generator has flung this one back at me:

Strange experiences, that can’t be explained rationally.

Oh dear. The trouble is that although I am very interested in spookiness and strangeness – as a one-time drippy hippie, why wouldn’t I be? – spookiness and strangeness never seem to have happened to me; always to other people.

For example, my younger sister went babysitting over the road, in the company of the (admittedly fairly strange) girl next door. They had not been in the house long when shrieking started and stuff got thrown around. The (admittedly fairly strange) girl insisted that it must have been poltergeists. The owners of the house seemed more inclined to believe that my sister and the (admittedly fairly strange) girl next door had decided to throw a wild teenage party in their absence, and that was why the house was wrecked. However, considering that the girls were twelve or thirteen at the time and knowing my sister’s placid and gentle nature I am more inclined to believe it was poltergeists.

Ex told me a story once, and Ex wasn’t one for fanciful tales, in fact he was compulsively and depressingly honest. No point asking him ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ He would have said ‘Yes, in fact it does’ and wouldn’t have understood why that was the wrong answer.

He told me that he had been visiting a school-friend at a remote farm in the Weald of Kent. Again, they were young teenagers. His friend’s parents were out on the farm somewhere so they stayed indoors, chatting. All at once a cabinet door flew open and shelf upon shelf of glass objects was hurled onto the floor, as if an invisible arm had swept along the shelves. Here’s me with all this imagination, and Ex with his pragmatic, down-to-earth seriousness yet he’s the one who witnesses the smashing glassware.

But why didn’t those poltergeists happen to me? I deserved them, surely, and I’d so have enjoyed them. I spent endless hours babysitting and not once did I encounter a ghost of any sort.

Maybe strangeness has happened to me, but in a different way, expressed through found objects or chance happenings that could easily have be explained logically, but which seemed to have a special significance, for me. In a way, these objects/events have felt like half-memories; clues to something, or perhaps to a whole series of somethings, long since forgotten and maybe irretrievably lost.

When I was a child I picked up a smooth stone in the middle of a piece of waste ground. It was almost buried in the pathway through some brambles so that I had to pry it loose. It contained a perfect fossil of something like a jellyfish, with clearly-defined legs and suckers and such. That stone got lost again. I don’t know what I did with it. I always felt I should have hung onto it, and that things started to go wrong when I let it go.

Many years later, at the end of my marriage, beachcombing mournful and alone (à la Princess Diana) in a little cove in Yorkshire I found amongst the pebbles a piece of white bottle glass worn away into a battered, lopsided heart.

One night, on a train, I found myself alone in the carriage apart from a young soldier. Talk to me, he said, please talk to me. I’m off to Northern Ireland tomorrow. At that time Northern Ireland was a kind of war zone and he might well have been going to his death. I don’t think I did talk to him, much. I think I was too frightened to. He got off the train at the next stop and I never saw him again.

Such stuff as friends are made on

I probably wouldn’t notice – not straight away, anyway – if one of my followers decided to stop following me. This is partly because I find any kind of statistics difficult to pay attention to, but it’s also WordPress’s fault, or at least the fault of some electronic WordPress thingy. My stats today say I have exactly 200 followers but the widgety-thing (bottom right) says no, you have 212 followers. They haven’t agreed for some time. Both seem to fluctuate from day to day so presumably I am being followed and un-followed all the time. Is it the same people going away, changing their minds and coming back? Or are they going away for good but being compensated for by new arrivals?

After a while, of course, it would dawn on me I hadn’t heard from a regular follower a while, and I would miss them. No more feedback, no shared similar experiences, no comments. No little : )s  or ; )s. Even then I doubt that I’d check to see if they’d unfollowed me as opposed to being away on a lengthy, luxury cruise or locked up for some nefarious doing or other. What you don’t know doesn’t hurt you. Better that things stay vague, in a comforting electronic limbo.

Which leads me to my Thought For The Day. What exactly is a real friend? Is a real friend

(1)  a flesh and blood person you can share a pot of tea and a giggle with in Debenhams? Someone who will listen to you without judgment, though they’ve heard you wittering on about whatever it is so many times before? Somebody who mysteriously continues to like you however dislikeable you know yourself to be?

(2) a name-and-selfie you have never heard of, who has clicked some button on Facebook – is that a friend? or

(3) somebody you will never meet (thank goodness! I hear you all sighing), who may live  many thousands of miles away and in a culture so different from your own that you can barely imagine it; somebody whose real name, age, gender or circumstances you may never know, but you have shared at least some of your history with them and at least a few of your innermost thoughts, feelings and ideas. Is that a friend?

In my headI think – well, I would be thinking if I was in my head – a friend is another entity I have shared time and stories with. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot of time – maybe even a chance encounter would count as friendship, a joke about the lateness of the train, an intercepted glance and a half-smile across a crowded street would qualify. Friends, or followers, can be fleeting or longer-lasting.

It doesn’t even need to be human. It might be an animal, or even a book. It could be an encounter/series of encounters with anyone or anything as long as time and stories have been involved. On that basis I think I would go for (1) and (3) but scrub (2).

After all, we have in a sense ‘imagined’ every one and every thing we think we know. Every friend you ‘have’, whether now or then, here or now and whether constituted of flesh or electrons, is stored in your head as a kind of blueprint, a memory-pattern to be reconstituted as required by the firing of electrical pulses between neurons.

We store every thing, every one and every when and every where as electrical patterns. In my head I have at least my version of all the things, people and places I have ever encountered. In my head jumble around together my flesh-and-blood friends, my internet friends, friends long-dead and friends long fallen-out-with. They’re all the same stuff.

I can never visit my grandmother’s garden again but it’s here and, by the firing of neurons in a particular pattern or sequence, I can walk around it. I can see the hollyhocks and the London Pride, the yellow roses, the swing on the apple tree, the bird-bath with the poem all round it. I can recite the poem. I can see it. I can never see my father again, but he’s in here somewhere and if I want to I can hold a conversation with him. I can never meet Jane Eyre – after all she’s not ‘real’, merely a character I constructed with the help of Charlotte Brontë. I can never meet Charlotte Brontë either.

And yet here they both are.

Lounge Socks, Labradoodles and The Lady Vanishes

It’s funny the roundabout way ideas are born.

As you know, I’m a worrier. The prison warders have returned from France, in the dead of night as always, whispering into the parking space next to mine. They are deadly accurate about this, always: the rear bumper of their vehicle exactly lined up with the little brick tower-thingy that separates their rectangle of manicured front lawn from my anthill-y wasteland.

Immediately I started worrying. After six months without neighbours it’s unnerving suddenly to have them again, to hear them clumping up and down the stairs and creaking in and out of their front door, their TV to be heard through the wall, their labradoodle playing with that ridiculous whistling rubber toy out on the decking again. As I lay my head upon the pillow to sleep I hear a toothbrush clinking into a glass in their bathroom – a sound from before.

They were talking of selling up and moving permanently to their newly-built villa in France. They have been moving furniture and belongings down there in instalments, in the whispering vehicle, which is large, and windowless. If it wasn’t so new and shiny I would suspect it of being a repurposed paddy wagon. Ex and My Replacement had something similar when they moved, except theirs was a repurposed Post Office delivery van, and not shiny.

And I was thinking, what if this is it and they have come back to put their house on the market? What if a For Sale sign is just about to go up? And what if it sells to the Nightmare Neighbour From Hell?

And I mean, I’m bound to get him/them, aren’t I? The man using a chainsaw to do DIY at three in the morning, the teenagers playing heavy metal super-loud all day long, the shrieking woman in the garden, the dumpers of garden waste over the fence, the barking Alsatian, maybe a whole puppy farm…

What shall I do, when that happens? (Note the when, not if.)

It occurred to me that I would have to go out – all day and every day, probably. Either that or maybe I could keep a diary of when it was noisiest and just go out then. When I came back, and if the racket was still going on, I could immediately stuff the MP3 thingies in my ears in the hope of drowning them out with Mozart

And then it occurred to me that, whatever the next-door situation was, I ought to Get Out More. I mean, it’s all very well staying indoors all day, wiggling your toes and admiring your new Lounge Socks with the non-slip little globules on the soles, feeding stale bread to the sparrows or doing load after load of tumble-drying – but is that a life?

It also occurred to me that if I didn’t Go To Places now, when was I going to Go to them? How many years of Go-ability had I got left? I remembered my mother, when she was eighty and just before she started to go wafty, staring down at her wrinkled, liver-spotted hands in puzzlement. How did I get to be eighty? She asked me.

I don’t want to be asking How did I get to be eighty? At least, not till I’ve Got Out More.

So I am making a list of places to Get Out to. For financial and multi-cat reasons they would need to be within a day’s travel, even if a long day, and would have to be worth writing/posting about.

And then it occurred to me, why don’t I start another blog and link it to this one, which I think you can do though I can’t remember how? A blog of my travels – as yet at the highly putative pencil scrawl stage.

Now, what shall I call this hypothetical blog of my putative, pencilled travels?

And before long I was making another list:

La Femme Disparue (oh goodness, not more suspect French )… The Invisible Woman (sounds like something in bandages)… The Lady Vanishes… ?

Write what’s on your mind

Even after a year and a bit of blogging (and many more years before that of Writing Stuff) I still haven’t learned to relax and trust the process. There is still the occasional day when I wake up and think Aaargh – nothing to write about!!! This instantly translates itself, via black and white, catastrophic thinking into Aaargh – there will never be anything to write about again!!!

Sometimes it then progresses into Aaargh – there never was anything to write about, I was deluded, I only thought there was, all my life therefore I have been wasting hours and hours in writing stuff that was totally worthless and uninspired!!!

On really bad days this progresses into My life itself is worthless, I am worthless, nobody loves me, nobody ever loved me, what is the point of me? Sorry, sorry sorry…!!!

No doubt I am not alone in this.

Most of the time I can retrieve the situation by reminding myself of something Pamela Frankau, a long-dead and mostly-forgotten novelist, once wrote of inspiration:

The tanks take longer and longer to refill… I cannot believe that I shall write another book. I remind myself that I have written thirty. And although, at fifty-two, I have far more to say than when I was young, I seem to have far less to say it about. At this gloomy stage, I am certain there’s no new subject for a novel and that, even if there was, I wouldn’t find it.

Then, mysteriously, I am past that stage. I am awake and prowling. The tanks have refilled…

And that is how it is. There are gaps, sometimes uncomfortably long gaps. Then, like London buses, three ideas come along at once.

Pamela is also why even now I have to weed out superfluous commas, inevitably missing some. She caught me at an impressionable age and her writing style became mine for a while. I now feel that by and large experienced readers can be trusted to know when to pause, and breathe. Less is more.

Often I convince myself I can’t write because I’m busy worrying about something, ie there is no space left in my head for inspiration. Recently it has dawned on me that what I’m busy worrying about is exactly the thing to write about. You have to catch – even recognise – thoughts while they’re still raw and unprocessed. It’s kind of ring-fenced but you have to unfence it.

So, ever since Saturday morning, like the Bunyip, I have been sitting-on-a-hypothetical-log biting my fingernails over a sum of money accidentally transferred to the wrong people by my solicitors. In truth, there was no urgency. No need to imagine a whole chain-reaction of worst-case scenarios. It’s me. I’m OK at this sort of thing, and can override Panic Mode if only I can act at once to put it right. Unfortunately, offices being closed over the weekend I couldn’t make the necessary telephone call until Monday morning. I just had to wait. Me and waiting (waiting and I?) don’t mix and the result was no fingernails and two sleepless nights in a row.

Nowadays when I find myself awake at 3 in the morning I get up, make a cup of tea and turn on the TV. Distraction is the only thing that helps. Unfortunately I only have to set foot on the top stair and the cats start charging about, assuming they are going to be fed even if it is pitch black outside.

If you’ve never suffered from insomnia you may not know what rubbish there is on television in the middle of the night. I watched the News, but it was the same news it had been several hours before. No unexpected celebrity deaths, no military coups, no presidential debates happening as yet; the elephant, and something that looks like an armadillo only prettier, whose name I have temporarily forgotten, may begin with K – urgh, commas again – are still endangered species.

I watched and I watched and I watched, wondering why it was perfectly easy even for a too-tall lady to fall asleep on a too-small charity shop sofa during the day, yet in the middle of the night the sofa seemed to shrink, and develop very hard arms. I watched Australians being just as pretentious as Brits on their own version of Grand Designs, and then I watched a programme about what could be done surgically/prosthetically for men who had had their prostates removed and were having trouble

The last thing I remember was some horrible thing being inflated

At least I got a little sleep.

They did what?

In my perambulations around the internet I keep a weather eye (what is a weather eye, I wonder?) out for things to write about. These tend to be presented in the form of lists numbered one to one hundred. I usually lose interest after about six. Then I tend to file the list, find it a year later and… into the recycling it goes, along with all those brightly coloured posters from people who want to renew my double-glazing, build me a conservatory, persuade me to buy a take-away curry or two at their Balti Restaurant, have my hypothetical poodle groomed at their grooming studio or my nails sculpted at their nail-bar.

And then I end up writing about some murky bit of my past, some ancient, eccentric auntie, my mother in the old folks home, the state of the nation, scrabble… whatever.

So, on the latest list – 100 NOT-boring Writing Prompts for Middle & High Schoolers – let’s start with number 2:

What things will people in the future say about how we live now? (Examples: They ate that? They believed that?)

As far as eating goes…

They actually cooked inoffensive small slimy sea creatures in their shells and then winkled them out with a special winkle-pin? There was actually a Winkle Club with an ornamental winkle pin for each member’s lapel? More bizarrely yet:

Each Winkle Club Member (or ‘Winkler’) carries a winkle shell which they must produce when challenged to ‘winkle up’.

Wikipedia

Drinking…

You mean they actually knocked this tequila stuff back in one go, having first licked salt off the back of their hands and then sucked on a lime?

Believing…

They actually believed that this misogynist with the wispy yellow comb-over and strange hand-gestures might become President? (And he did?)

Or, to be even-handed:

They actually believed that irritating, bearded, totally charisma-free little man with the bewildered expression might be elected Prime Minister? On what planet?

Fifty percent of UK TV presenters continued to pronounce idyllic eyedillic even when they knew (or jolly well should have known) it was wrong?

All sorts of important people continued to pronounce nuclear noo-cu-lar even when the spelling was right there in front of them on the page?

They read? You mean, like, books? They couldn’t plug themselves in and download?

Well, I could go on, but I won’t, as I’m worn out and a cup of coffee, a roomful of neglected cats and Stargate beckon.

Feel free to append as many of your own futuristic “They did whats?” to the list as you would like.