Instead of a handbag…

The Rusty Post Box

Well, I have voted. I am registered for a postal vote and they arrive about two weeks before the election. I could actually walk the dull, fifteen minute walk to the village hall to cast my vote among my fellow villagers but it’s just – so depressing. So, I climbed the dull, two minute climb up the hill to the Rusty Post Box to post my vote – I always return it the same day, before any cat can widdle or vomit on it, or decide to shred it for the pure catty amusement of it.

It was several years before I dared risk inserting anything into the mouth of the Rusty Post Box, assuming the Post Office had abandoned it to its fate, forever to moulder beside the overflowing, never emptied litter bin, steadily encroached upon by vicious triffid brambles from a nearby garden… I have never seen a place like this for Things Falling Apart. It’s almost artistic.

Have you ever thrown a book away?

This was a question posed in a Radio 4 broadcast yesterday. I must say – yes, and no. I recently managed a mass throw-out and taking-to-charity shops. However, a good two thirds of my book collection remained, mouldering in the garage. I only managed it by not stopping to look at what I was throwing into the bags-for-life. However, then I chickened out, and now I have a house full of the remaining books, comfortably warm and dry, but with weird gaps. One or two books missing from a run of the same author, books, like missing teeth. All that random throwing out… So of course I am having to replace them.

It made me think of The Life Of King George V. This is the worse book ever but I find myself unable to throw it out. It came in a job lot with the £2 Odhams’ Encyclopaedia, which I did want. I suspect the owner was glad to get rid of it. It is the ghastliest, grubbiest, dullest, most foxed, most sycophantically fulsome old book I have ever had the misfortune to come across, full of full page brown, smelly old pictures of Royalty in all their medals and jewels, looking unforgiving. To give you just a taste:

The next year saw the King “do his bit” in another way. He gave £100,000 out of his private fortune to the Exchequer to be used for the prosecution of war. It was a notable gesture of self-sacrifice in the common cause, and the extent to which this generous gift crippled the King’s resources was shown by the difficulties of the Royal Household after the war.

So it goes through his life, year by year, one praiseworthy Kingly deed after another. But can I throw it out? No. I find myself hovering with the filthy, dusty old thing over the waste bin. Can I let go of it? It’s managed to survive this long with nobody reading it, nobody caring about it… etc.

Instead of a handbag

Another marathon conversation with Canadian Sister last night. She worries about things, and because she always had a husband to make decisions for her she struggles to make even the smallest them now.

I have to take all of my course artwork in to the University in a suitcase later today (they’re many hours behind us in Edmonton) My tutor won’t give me a grade if I don’t, but the suitcase with all the paintings in it is so heavy I don’t know how I’m going to manage it on the train. All those steps to drag it up…

Is there a lift – sorry, elevator – at the station?

Well, I haven’t seen one.

Wouldn’t somebody be likely to help you up the steps with the case? I mean, in this country if a woman is struggling up a flight of steps with a child in a pushchair, someone will always grab the bottom of the pushchair and help her with it.

I don’t think they do that sort of thing in Canada. They’re more likely to yell at me for blocking the staircase. It’s quite narrow, you see.

But I thought Canadians were all so courteous. I mean, they’re famous for it! What about that beautiful Mountie chap from Down South? Aren’t all Canadians like him?

Someone did help me with a case once, at the airport, on my way over to England. In fact he grabbed the whole huge travel trunk and ran off with it up the stairs. I thought he had stolen it, like, instead of my handbag or something. I was in a terrible panic, but he was there waiting for me at the top of the stairs.

What about a taxi?

Oh yes, they do have taxis at the station… But what if the taxi-driver should be a rapist?

Poor Rosie

Rosie, I am afraid, is becoming incontinent. Well, she is incontinent. You probably don’t want to know this but – I’ve started so I’ll finish. Every time I sit down I have to check the end of sofa Rosie and I share – luckily a third-hand and leather(ish) sofa – for little puddles and dribbles of poo. Every time she sits on my lap I forget to grab a cushion or put something between me and her. Consequently I am washing a pair of jeans every day, in fact sometimes twice a day. Just can’t bring myself to open the door to the postman adorned in driblets of poo. Mind you, I could be wearing an orange wig and full clown make-up and it wouldn’t register with the postman.

Poor Rosie, she has been my light and salvation for eighteen years and I’m not getting rid of her now she has become a little inconvenient. If only they had the same sort of thing for cats as they have for my Mum and her fellow inmates. Maybe they do, but I wouldn’t have her suffer the indignity.

“Wait a minute, Mr Postman…”

Until sometime around the early ’80s I was very Little Britain, very provincial – I just assumed that everybody had a letterbox in their front door, plus a postman to trudge round every morning pushing letters through it. It wasn’t until my sister emigrated to Canada and started to tell these tales

Well, it seems that even in the middle of winter, when temperatures are 40 degrees below or whatever, if she wants her mail she has to don full arctic gear and big, slip-proof boots and trudge down the newly snow-ploughed driveway in order to spray something on her mailbox to melt the overnight ice that has welded it shut. She also needs a chisel or screwdriver in case the spray doesn’t work, and then a key

And it wasn’t until sometime in the 90s, when I went to work for a university college providing postgraduate distance-learning courses to students all over the globe, that I realised there could be such a thing as a dwelling that does not have a well-defined address. So we could be mailing giant parcels of course materials to “Beyond the village, turn left at the lake, third hut.” I used to wonder how they plugged their computers in, because surely a hut whose location could only be vaguely described would not have electricity. Students also had trouble with beads of sweat dropping onto the page, creeping damp, and ants. Paper-chomping ants.

You would think I would be grateful for my nice, civilised British letter-box and my nice, predictable British postman – or in fact, lady – but I have come to mostly dread what might tumble through it. I cannot properly concentrate until the witching hour – mid-day or thereabouts – has passed and I know I am safe from yet another bill or – OMG, the Bank Statement. That always arrives on the 13th. I spend the whole month dreading the 13th. I count down to the 13th. In various ways I aim to distract myself from the fact that the 13th is drawing ever closer.

Aside from bills there is the monthly Parish Council Newsletter to cast a pall. This is a single sheet of A4 paper folded into three. This month it is yellow. Even the folding-into-three depresses me. It reminds me of when I was a legal secretary and had to fold my boss’s signed post and put it in the envelope, with the address showing exactly in the centre of the glassine window. I was very good at this.

In fact I still am. I only have to look at an A4 sheet of paper and I can fold it exactly into three, with the edges exactly touching. I can even accomplish this feat with my eyes shut. Trouble is, it reminds me that a) I was no good at any other part of that job and b) it was the only thing I ever managed to do that impressed my mother. It seemed to be my life’s work to impress my parents in some way but all I ever manged was the paper-folding thing. And then only my mother.

The Parish Council Newsletter enrages me because it lectures me, in badly-written, ungrammatical prose, on things I have not done wrong:

Dog Fouling: Please be aware it is an instant fine for not picking up after your dogs. It is also unhygienic and nasty!” I don’t have a dog.

Parking: Complaints have been received,  (and why the comma?) that there is an issue with people parking in places that can be considered dangerous. It has also been reported that there has been parking on paths and green areas, you can be fined up to £500 for this offence.” But not me, guv. And where? What green areas? What paths? And complaints by whom? At least make it interesting.

Speeding Cars: Please note that the exit road from the village is a 30mph road, and many concerns have been received especially from parents walking children to and from school.” How is anything managing to drive at over 20mph, say, when the road is beset with giant speed-bumps so large even the bus has to slow right down to negotiate them? Is there a manic 40mph cyclist about?

Or else it tells me things I don’t care about even though I feel I probably ought to:

The Annual Seniors Christmas Lunch in the Village Hall. Forms available from the Post Office.”  Just went gluten-free. And went last year. That was an experience.

Christmas Lights Competition –  6 prizes of £25 each.” Why not use up the earth’s dwindling resources and pollute the starlit night sky with tawdry flashing lights? Why not spend £100 on lights and electricity in order to win £25?

Park Renovations – The Village park is in need of a new paint job, this has been sourced and the work should start shortly.” I’m confused. Are they painting the grass a more acceptable shade of green?

The stupid yellow creature just makes me feel slightly at odds with the rest of the human race – defective, somehow.

Into the Recycling you shall go, ee-aye ee-aye ee-aye oh
And if I catch you bending…

mother brown 2

Knees up, Mother Brown…

But enough of that, now.

Sharing with my sister

She rings me more or les every other evening now, from her kitchen on the far side of Canada, where it is early morning. I have actually never seen her kitchen but I imagine it big and airy, but for some reason rather chilly, with chunky, cluttered work-surfaces and one of those giant American fridges stuffed with joints of meat; lots of brother-in-law’s half-finished DIY projects; things dismantled that will never put back together again.

Outside I visualise a neat, large lawn and other houses similar in design to hers, set at different angles, a kind of giant, Canadian-flavoured Lego construction. I imagine squirrels in trees, vague trees, and looping along the fence panels like the ones I saw when I visited her in Ontario that one time, a quarter of a century ago. Now she is in Alberta, where it is colder. Still kind of Canada but more so. In spring I imagine her garden as a fenced square, kind of big and kind of sterile and kind of green. I imagine a large shed, because I happen to know there is one. I can’t imagine flowers.

Does she think of it as a Yard, I wonder, or is she still English enough for it to be a Garden? I imagine an identical fenced square covered in thick snow in Winter, with the driveway laboriously dug out and snow blown off the road and into the gardens by the snow-blowers. We do not have snow-blowers over here, at least not that I’ve seen. What we have is blocked roads, until the ice chooses to melt of its own accord.

I cannot imagine her state, or her city. Sometimes I type the name of the city into the internet and hit ‘images’ but the images are not enough to reconstruct a city, with that unique, intangible atmosphere each city has; its back-alleys, its park benches, its ponds and trees and shops, its traffic intersections, its threatening corners. I cannot imagine it after dark; I cannot see the inhabitants scurrying along the sidewalks to work in the morning; I cannot hear the noise of its traffic or breathe the air. Photographs are just looking through somebody else’s eyes.

I cannot visualise my sister, most of the time. I haven’t seen her for so long. I look at my face in the mirror and see what has happened to it over the last three years. I try to imagine what will have happened to hers. Has she put on weight, or lost it? Is her hair still tied back, or has she cut it? All I can see is her face when she was four years old and I was seven, when we were having that photograph taken, uncomfortably perched on the back of Mum and Dad’s settee. A round, innocent face.  A big smile whereas I’m looking anxious. She still had her baby teeth; my front teeth were missing altogether. Eyes lighter than mine. Ridiculous ribbon bow on top, same as me. Those ribbons were a kind of dusky pink and cream, with a knurled pattern down the edge.

And now I hear her weeping in this distant kitchen I can’t properly imagine, morning after morning, evening after evening, and try to think of something helpful to say about being confined in a house with a furious, imminently dying husband, who refuses all assistance. She is appealing to me because I am her older sister and she has no one else, but really, if there was anyone else…

I have not experienced this myself. I find it difficult to visualise what she is seeing when she looks at him, though she tries to describe it to me. I cannot visualise worse than the way he looked before, but I can hear the shock and revulsion in her voice. She says it is like being trapped in a horror movie, all day and all night. I think of times I have lost sick or elderly cats, and had no choice but to be with them as they died. I find even this little collection of indelible images difficult to bear, and time makes them no easier. How is she going to cope with remembering this?

I cannot get over there, and apparently no one else can either. One of her neighbours has arranged for a boy to come in mow the lawns and sort out all the overgrown stuff. I picture him quietly working day after day, restoring some order, at least to the Outside. The sight of him seems to calm her too, and the brief expeditions to the bank to get money to pay him. Normal life is still happening, at least Outside.

This bit I can I understand. I remember after a very, very bad time in my life, which also felt like living in a nightmare, making an appointment and going to the hairdresser. I remember looking at my face in the mirror and seeing only some nightmare creature, but the hairdresser was a young girl and she chattered away, seeming to see nothing at all odd in the mirror. She was actually talking to me as if I was a normal person. It was like I really existed, after all. That sunny afternoon, the face in the mirror, the face behind, the quiet snip, snip of the scissors, little wedges of damp, snipped hair falling into my lap, somehow made all the difference.

And so I listen, and I say the same things I said the day before last, and two days before that, and two days before that. I say them over and over. I try to persuade her to get help, ask for carers to come in, doctors, nurses, anyone but she needs his permission. I tell her she needs to take over now, now has become the time. Eventually she is going to have to start thinking things out for herself and acting without permission. But they only had one model for being married, and now it isn’t working. And anyway what do I know about anything? Empty words, no substance behind them.

And then I remember that Ex has a gentle side as well as the more evident bombastic, endlessly-opinionated side. I remember he possessed a miraculous knack for reassurance, a matter-of-fact, earthy acceptance of How Things Are. And so I email him and ask if he will do me a favour, and eventually he does phone her, and it seems to have helped, at least a little. Now she has two people she can talk to, albeit miles apart from one another and thousands of miles across the sea. Now she has two listeners, and two voices on the end of the phone, one male and one female, and it looks as if she has asked for help, though it hasn’t yet arrived.

I hope that this will be over soon, and the sun will be permitted to shine in that unimaginable Canadian garden, and the squirrels can resume their dancing, and the birds can start their singing.

Below and above: Mary and Martha, sister cats.

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Patchwork by post

Well, just to make a change – this is the beginnings of Canadian sister’s Christmas present. Shh! Don’t tell her. (Luckily she doesn’t read my blog so we’re safe enough.) The idea is to make a cushion cover, from the pattern below, plus a simple bag for the inner part of the cushion, and – one or two other bits – and then post the same to Canada. I shall have to get my skates on, though. To get anything bulkier than a letter to Canada by post you need to post it several decades in advance, or so it always seems:

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Somewhat blurry, but I can’t face a second battle of wills with the computer. Maybe I will take another set of photos, as the project progresses, assuming it does progress. This is the first one I’ve made and it’s a bit trial and error, geometrically/mathematically. There are two possible arrangements for the prism (or ‘little house’, if you prefer). The other one looks quite interesting.

Canadian sister is going through a really bad time at the moment. Brother-in-law is now onto his Plan B chemotherapy, Plan A having failed after a couple of years. He has also just retired so he’s at home all day, so things are now really tense. She’s talking about taking up an option for counselling. People always tell you to be strong, unfailingly cheerful etc., for the sake of the other person, who needs your support. But how noble can you manage to be when you’ve been married, childless and deeply dependent for thirty-seven years or so and when, aside from your dying husband, you are alone in a ‘foreign’ country? You would need to have had a completely different life leading up to this point. You would need to have always been a different kind of woman.

There is nothing I can do. If only I could fly over to Canada, like the Stork, scoop her up in some sort of human fishing net and trawl her back to England. I can’t even make her want to come back – later – afterwards. Maybe Canada feels like home, now. The other day it occurred to me that the family she left behind in 1980 is not really here any more. Dad is long dead, Mum would be unlikely to recognise her; English Sister is here but gone all odd and mostly incommunicado. I’m here, of course but, three years the elder and a lifetime duller and wearier, would I that much of a draw?

But I know she likes crafting, and that is her form of meditation. I know she could probably make this cushion better than me, and that she will probably look at it and say ‘her light rows are not light enough’ or ‘she needed a zinger here or there’. Canadian sister is very fond of her zingers. And I thought I would include a photocopy of the pattern, and a duplicate template (quilters’ plastic) and another set of pieces. With the job half done, I think, she might be tempted make up a matching cover, or try the alternative design or even supplement the pieces with a whole lot of Canadian ‘zingers’ and make several cushions.

Patchwork cushions. The best a sister can do.

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Mote-Mote, Montreal and Marmalade Bread Pudding…Mountains of Things

Well, little mote-mote has had to be sold because I could not afford to drive her any more – for a sum equivalent to the Biblical thirty pieces of silver. By a kind of divine retribution for my Betrayal of my Beloved she has been bought by the Brother-in-Law of the man over the road who, for some reason that he did explain but I was too upset to understand, is keeping her on the driveway of the man over the road and seems in no hurry to take her away. So – there sits my little blue car for an unknown, indefinite spell, no longer mine and not even invisible.

In the odd, sinuous way my mind works, particularly when in distress, this reminds me of Canada and some lines from a famous poem:

My brother-in-law is haberdasher to Mr Spurgeon

O God! O Montreal!

Of course there is plenty to be getting on with, to take my mind off it. There are cats to be fed, there’s divan beds to be manoeuvred downstairs, there are bathroom sinks to be cleaned, there are two lawns to be mown, there’s an empty bird table, there’s a monster pile of ironing. Stuff to do, people to see…

The world is full of stuff, isn’t it? There’s no getting away from what singer Tracy Chapman once referred to, tunefully but irritatingly, as Mountains O’ Thangs and which Zen Buddhists tend to refer to as ‘The Ten Thousand Things’:

“All things are one and have no life apart from it; the One is all things and is incomplete without the least of them. Yet the parts are parts within the whole, not merged in it; they are interfused with Reality while retaining the full identity of the part, and the One is no less One for the fact that it is a million-million parts.”

(Yes, I read D T Suzuki too; and no, I didn’t understand most of it either.)

This, owing to the aforementioned sinuous way my mind works, reminds me of a little motto my sister once recited to me over the phone: Your in-tray will never be empty, which was the single most depressing piece of advice anyone ever gave me. The thought of an endless in-tray, endlessly refilled… O God! (O Montreal!) it’s like that bloke having to push the boulder up the mountain day after day and it rolling down again at night, or Penelope at her loom, weaving her husband’s burial shroud by day, unweaving it by night…

Canadians seem to be fond of little mottoes, or maybe it’s just my sister: mottoes, ice hockey, children and crafts. Innocent, homely, Little House on the Prairie type things. I rather wish I was there now: how much nicer to be collecting little mottoes and entranced by the manufacture of braided coasters and the knitting of dishcloths than a barrage of Brexit, Bombs and Burning Buildings. O God! O British Isles!

But this reminds me – homely things – I promised to share with you one or two of Mum’s recipes from the recipe book I rescued the other day. Here is the first one. I’m afraid I don’t know what the equivalent quantities are in other systems, but I have put the abbreviations in full in brackets, to assist:

MARMALADE BREAD PUDDING

Makes 16 slices

1 lb (pound) stale bread, with crusts removed

Grated rind and juice of 1 orange

½ pint milk

8 oz (ounces) mixed dried fruit

4 oz dark brown sugar

3 oz soft magarine

2 level tsp (teaspoons) mixed spice

4 level tbsp (tablespoons) marmalade

1 level tbsp granulated sugar

7 x 11 x 1-inch tin, greased

Set oven to moderately hot, Gas Mark 5 or 375F/190C

Cut the bread into small pieces, place in a large bowl with the orange rind and juice and milk. Leave to soak for 15 minutes. Mash with a fork and break up the pieces.

Add the dried fruit, brown sugar, margarine, mixed spice and marmalade to the soaked bread. Mix well together.

Turn into the tin, level out the surface and bake for 1 ¼ hours until firm. Leave in the tin to cool, turn out on to a wire rack and dredge (dredge? does that mean dust?) the top with sugar. Cut into 16 slices.

To freeze: Wrap in foil or polythene bags. Will keep well for 3 months.

No voice at the world’s tribunals

I always wondered about this business of taking up space. One person feels he is entitled to all the space in the world. Another, like a wild cat unwillingly rescued, spends her life continually try to squeeze herself into the smallest possible space, longing for invisibility. I suppose I’d be one of those – a wild cat unwillingly rescued by human society.

It used to be OK, when I had Ex. Ex was pugnacious enough for both of us. Sometimes this was embarrassing, like the time he chased a man in a potato lorry who was driving too fast, and the enormous man in the potato lorry unexpectedly slammed on the brakes and got out, marched back and threatened to “cream him over the bumper”. Other times I can only be grateful for, like the time he drove me to the eye hospital after weeks of misdiagnosis and ineffectual treatment by our local doctor, and demanded that a specialist see me at once. He made a loud, almighty, alpha male-type fuss in a room full of people who probably all had referral letters and had no doubt been waiting patiently for hours. That saved my sight.

Since I have been on my own – longer now than I was with him – I have had to learn to stand my ground, sometimes. I am so not good at it. I have to be very angry to confront someone, which means, basically, that I have no control over what comes out of my mouth. It always horrifies me and there will always a be disproportionately huge cost attached.

When the new people moved in next door I made friendly conversation over the fence. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? I resigned myself to the thundering feet up the stairs, the loud Disney-type music from the child’s bedroom, the hammering, the… whatever. Families are different, I told myself. You can’t expect them to be as unobtrusive as old folk. You can’t move, so get used to it.

I tried not to hear their loud, silly conversations out on the decking. When they lit the barbeque next to my garden fence and the smell of half-cooked pork sausages began to drift across my vegetarian garden I closed the windows, discreetly, hoping they wouldn’t notice and take umbrage.

When they had a party, which they did warn me about, sort of, I plugged in the old earpieces and tried to distract myself from a garden full of football-kicking little boys with soothing music. “Don’t kick that ball on the decking,” I couldn’t help discerning over Thomas Tallis. “You know what happened last time!”

What had happened last time? Had they by any chance been snuffling around my garden while I was out, looking for a lost football?

I tried not to hear ever-increasing volume of cackling and mindless laughter that seems to go with alcohol. I tried not to wonder what the loud, screechy row just the other side of my living room wall was all about. I tried – and of course failed – to resist peering round the curtain when the woman started running round in the front garden and banging on the front windows bellowing “They’re my fam’ly, they’re my fam’ly!” Who are? Not being able to work out exactly what was going on was almost as bad as psychic exposure to other people’s second-hand upset and aggression, like being given a single torn-out page from a library book.

I tried not to be horrified as the woman and a man manhandled a bellowing boy-child out to the car, he holding an arm and she a leg, and tossed the boy unceremoniously inside, where he continued to bellow, more loudly than before.

But when the next day someone from next door parked a white van – nay, the Mother of All White Vans, in front of my driveway and blocking me in I just sort of – found myself out in the garden, demanding to see him and asking him to remove it. It didn’t sound like me. It didn’t feel like me. It felt as if “me” was away on holiday and some storybook character was confronting her neighbour, and I was writing it.

“I will in a minute,” he said.

“No,” this storybook me was heard to say. “I want you to move it now.”

He did, but remarked that I could always have come round and asked him to move it if and when I needed to go out.

Since then, although he moved the car and has not blocked me in again, it falls silent every time I go out into the garden. If one of their loud conversations is going on there is a pause, and then laughter. Since then I cannot go out into my garden, basically, until after dark or until they all happen to go out in one of their many cars and vans. Since then I tiptoe about feeding my stray cats in the dusk. I pile up rubbish bags in the corner of kitchen by the door, only creeping out with them to the dustbins when the moon has risen because I cannot stand being seen and being listened to by hostile, mocking presences.

Now, the point of this is twofold:

Not everyone is like you. Not everyone can temporarily forget about/shut off from a blocked-in car. For some of us, neurotics maybe, it means having to ‘stew’ all night, unable to sleep for worrying about the blocked-in car and wondering if it’s gone yet. Some of us are claustrophobic and instantly feel that their only escape, whether needed or not, has now been cut off.

Not everyone is a thirty-something male souped-up on testosterone and self-regard. Not all of us can stride round to a stranger’s house at 7 on a Sunday morning and chortle “Mind moving your car now, mate?” Some of us are old, some of us are female, some of us are timid and some of us are shy.  We don’t all have a grim-faced and grumpy husband in the background who might possibly decide to “cream you” if you don’t get on and move the thing.

I related the story to Canadian sister over the phone. “You did the right thing,” she said. “It’s the same over here – you just don’t block people in. It’s rude.”

The thing to do, surely, is pause for a moment, engage your imagination and try to anticipate the effect your actions may have on people who are not you, and not like you. Isn’t that what all those undrawn boundaries and unspoken social rules are all about?

It is an attempt to reach others and make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find that you have no voice at the world’s tribunals, and that no one will speak for you.

Anita Brookner: Look At Me

Featured Image: Boxed In: Denice Goldschmidt

Just Another Solo Sunday

Christmas Eve. I have been sitting in the dark watching forgettable TV and feeling sorry for myself. My sister phones me from Canada.

We talk about family matters for a while. Practical matters. She is distracted by her husband who, despite advanced cancer, is determined to drag the washing machine back into position after re-tiling the kitchen floor. Go and help him  – you can phone me back. But no, he’s a man and he Doesn’t Need Help.

She tells me she is going to have to entertain one of her husband’s work colleagues and family on Boxing Day. Last time they saw me I was a weepy mess, she says. It’s embarrassing.

Think yourself on the other side of it, I counsel, knowing I couldn’t do so myself. Remind yourself that it’s only a few hours and then they will be gone. How many hours can they stay?

Well, now they’ve got the two-year-old to think of, maybe five hours…

Five hours! I think.

Five hours! she says.

Maybe you can have a few excuses lined up – things that will get you out of the room for twenty minutes here and there… I’ve run out of inspiration.

We turn to the subject of my solo Christmas Day. I’ll be on my own, Mum being unexpectedly in hospital with a broken hip. Would probably have been on my own anyway, Mum having been in the home since April or thereabouts. Somehow or other I haven’t planned for it. Why didn’t I think to volunteer to muck cats out at the local sanctuary? I know the answer – the cats would be pleased to see me but the worthy women at the cat sanctuary wouldn’t. They would look at me askance as people – and particularly women – tend to do. I was born without the ability to Bond.

We talk about our other sister – how come two sisters can never have a conversation without talking about the third? She will have her family around her – her partner, her daughter and ‘the boys’, ie her son and his partner. We think/hope maybe it won’t be as jolly and wonderful as it sounds. They’ll probably get fractious and bored. The boys will probably wander off somewhere. Couldn’t cope with all those people ourselves, etc. Not that sociable.

But it would have been nice to have had the option.

If we’d been in the same country, she says, you would have been coming to us for Christmas. It would have been only natural, the two childless ones.

Yes, I say. Or we might have taken it in turns to invite? 

I am comforted, inspired even, by the thought of the succession of Canadian Christmases we might have had. I remember my one and only trip to Canada back in the ‘eighties. It was Christmas then. There were plastic reindeer galloping merrily across every front garden (or should it be yard?) and plastic Santas attempting to squeeze themselves down non-existent chimneys. Fake snow decorated every window, real snow fell ‘snow on snow’ into the garden and creatures that might have been squirrels or maybe skunks looped their way along the tops of boundary fences. It would have been nice to be there every Christmas.

It would have been nice…

A bit of a long paddle, though. She is talking about the Atlantic.

She goes on talking and I suppose I am listening and making the appropriate replies, but also I am imagining myself walking on water, skimming the Atlantic Ocean on foot, only it isn’t icy cold and mind-bogglingly, Titanic-sinkingly deep like the real Atlantic but shallow and warm. Yes, I am that woman in the Dior perfume ad – Charlize whatever – and I am slender and young and wearing a gold dress so tiny and yet so beautiful it seems part of me. Water glistens down my throat, and the sun catching it and glinting off it, and I am perfumed and mysterious and splashing my way across calm waters towards a golden sunset.