A pelican of the wilderness

(actually written in pencil yesterday evening while my computer was away in the Magic Workshop)

I knew this was going to happen: bound to, really, since my computer is one of my three best friends. Correction, only friends. Pathetic. Just pathetic!

When it gets dark outside and it isn’t a full moon (everything looks better under a full moon); when the cats are fed and all asleep and therefore I might not exist; when the hedgehog and I have surprised one another at the feeding station yet again (we never seem to learn); when the Evening News is over and there’s an hour and a half to go to Stargate: Atlantis; when I need to look up a word or can’t remember the name of a song or the next line of a poem; when I’ve listened to that Jennifer Warnes CD for the third time in a row; when I start thinking about Mum and what away-with-the-fairies disaster she could be involving herself in right now, and I wouldn’t know; when I begin to avoid looking in the mirror in case I see some other woman there; when I feel tempted to fetch yet another bowl of Frosted Wheats from the kitchen even though I know they give me indigestion; when I …

I’ve run out of whens. But whenever any of these ‘whens’ occur, usually I would hobble upstairs, do that little shimmy thing with Mr Mousie to bring the computer back to life and immerse myself in blogging, Amazon-surfing or clicking through those strings of weird photos of People Who Could Not Possibly Exist, Child Stars Who Grew Up Ugly or Worst Plastic Surgery Disasters Ever, that you know are going to be rubbish and will probably send the Internet Security thingy into a fit of little red Xs but somehow cannot resist. But tonight…

Tonight, I am thwarted. Famous Blue Raincoat remains in the CD player and I just can’t seem to get up off the sofa and remove it. She’s got to that creepy one about Joan of Arc again;

  • Well then fire, make your body cold
  • I’m gonna give you mine to hold
  • And saying this she climbed inside
  • To be his one, to be his only bride

If only I could unglue myself this obsessive-compulsive Jennifer-Warnes-playing thing I could put in something less suicide-inducing like Mary Black or James Taylor. An hour or so of tuneless carolling along to James Taylor would change everything; he’s the best possible medicine for attacks of weltschmerz or existential angst. How could you be downhearted whilst singing I fix broken hearts, baby, I’m your handyman or Goodnight you moonlight ladies, rockabye Sweet Baby James to a roomful of sleeping cats?

How loud that central heating sounds. Did the radiators always rattle like something out of A Christmas Carol? Maybe I could wake a cat or two.

Twenty-nine hours. Only twenty-nine hours to wait. What am I going to do?

There’s plenty I could be doing. There’s a green plastic trayful of blog-post ideas, a stack of green and yellow refill pads for writing on and a Shaun The Sheep mug full of perfectly sharpened pencils. There’s that copy of Peter Pan that arrived in the post today, finally. I could be reading that. There’s that strange Christian blockbuster novel I downloaded onto my Kindle on a whim and have hardly started. What is this slight obsession with Christianity at the moment? Just a phase, probably. Or second childhood.

There are Christmas presents I could start wrapping but it’s hard to get in the mood since we’re not even over Halloween yet. If I wanted to I could hoover the living room with my extremely loud, old-fashioned hoover to welcome home my neighbours who – I see from the black hearse parked outside their house – have just returned from their six month sojourn in the South of France either building their dream villa or staying in a friend’s caravan, depending which other neighbours you choose to believe. Oh here we go – word association again:

  • Je suis un rock star
  • Je avais un residence
  • Je habiter la
  • A la south de France
  •  
  • Voulez vous
  • Partir with me?
  • And come and rester la
  • With me in France?
  • Bill Wyman – (Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star

I do love Franglais, particularly really determinedly, arrogantly bad Franglais. I believe the French detest it.

My sister just telephoned from Canada. It seems she is suffering a similar sense of dislocation, for different reasons. Her kitchen cabinets have all been ripped out and the fitting of the new ones has been delayed for a day. All she can do is microwave and boil water. All her bits and pieces in cardboard boxes. I keep wandering into my office, seeing screen, keyboard, mouse, printer, router, all in their usual places and wondering vaguely why they won’t still work. Could that dull-looking black box-thing really have been the heart of it all. Cables and plug-in thingies trail onto the carpet like severed arteries.

Most of my life I have been typing. Typing and thinking have become one and the same thing to me. Now the pencil looks strange in my hand and my own handwriting – though surprisingly attractive – seems to belong to someone I used to know.

After a few pages your own hand starts to yell at you. Writing hurts!

I could go out. At least in theory. At least tomorrow, when it gets light. Except where? I could try living some sort of real life for a little while, but what would a real, live person do?

Maybe they would decide to attend the Halloween Extravaganza at the one and only pub this Friday. Someone pushed one of those glossy advertising fliers through my letterbox this afternoon, or rather into my letterbox where it got stuck and concertinaed by those twin brush-things. What are the twin brush-things on letterboxes for, does anybody know? Maybe just to frighten postmen.

I could go if I was prepared to dress up as a witch (little make-up required) or a pumpkin-lady in plus-size orange tights and a cardboard pumpkin body; and if I was prepared to go unescorted into a public house; and if I was happy to abandon the twelve cats to the onslaughts of door-rattling, menacing little trick-or-treat-persons. Were I to do so I might enjoy, according to the flier:

  • Apple Bobbing (check)
  • Mummy Wrap (children permitted to encase female parent in yards of toilet paper, just this once?)
  • Zombie Dancing (would they be importing a bona fide Zombie Dancing troupe to give a demonstration, or would they be selecting Michael Jackson on the jukebox and expecting all present to dance along to Thriller, making those fearsome faces?)
  • Jelly Bobbing (like Apple Bobbing but substituting jelly for water? Isn’t this overkill? I mean, first you get your hair wet then you get a faceful of strawberry jelly)
  • Disco (check)
  • Balloon Games (oh no. I remember balloon games from my youth. Undignified)
  • Beer Pong (Beer Pong? Beer Pong? Like Ping Pong perhaps only with pint mugs flying back and forth?)

Reality makes so very little sense.

Twenty eight hours…

I have become like an owl of the waste places. I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.

Psalm 102:6

In the kitchen at parties

I never did like parties. Parties don’t suit my miserable, self-conscious, unsociable personality – but sometimes you can’t get out of them. I’ve noticed they get less frequent and more dire in direct proportion to one’s age. I’ve also noticed that my very presence at a party seems to guarantee dismalness…dismality…dismalaciousness…

So, the last party I went to was New Year’s Eve 2014. It was at my new neighbour’s house. Her ex-husband was there and between them they had cooked, or maybe bought (difficult to tell once out of the cardboard box and displayed on a reindeer plate left over from Christmas) a mountain of vol-au-vents, little quichey things, sausages on sticks and whatever. She said come over at nine. That seemed quite a late start but at least it cut down the amount of hours I could possibly be expected to be there. As I stepped over the wonky little brick wall that divides her house from mine I rehearsed my escape story. My sister had mentioned phoning from Canada at midnight our time. I just had to be next to the phone in case she did. So difficult to get a line from places like Canada and the States on a public holiday. All the ex-pats calling home at once. Etc.

I left it till ten past nine. That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? And I figured it would be packed in there by that time and there would be less conspicuity involved. I tend to like to edge in sideways, find a seat and slither into it, and never leave that seat again unless forced to do so for a bathroom visit, throughout which I worry that ‘my’ seat won’t be there when I get back and I might have to stand.

So I knocked on the door and there was no one there, except neighbour and ex-husband in a rather startling red-walled living room; she had obviously been redecorating in the current local style – feature walls – visual indigestion. I loathe red. And there we sat. The ex-husband was conscientious about small talk. I did my best. None of us mentioned the fact that… well, that was the elephant in the room. All that food. No one to eat it. Then one other neighbour arrived with his girlfriend. He isn’t very keen on me, I think. He talked about long-distance lorry-driving a lot, and the correct way of loading a long-distance lorry, and the correct way of fastening a tarpaulin to a long-distance lorry. And eventually I remembered my sister’s imminent call, collected my coat from the knob on the end of the bannister, and went home. I felt this would be exactly the night for drinking half, if not three quarters of a bottle of Blue Nun all alone whilst watching TV till 2 in the morning and falling asleep on the sofa, but of course I had no Blue Nun so I microwaved myself some milk and put a teaspoon of honey in it.

The one before that was the Christmas before the Christmas before that. That was a lively one. Oh yes. I didn’t escape from that till one a.m. It was at another neighbour’s – the one down the end next the giant field that they seem to plough all year round, even in the middle of the night with floodlights on the tractor, when not spraying it with dung or pesticide.

The house is eccentric, being full of every sort of light imaginable. Everything lights up and moves all at once – pictures (waterfalls, etc) , fairy lights, a multitude of lava-lamps, the blue winking Christmas tree in the window, put there specially to annoy the neighbours over the road (‘Her and her Illegal Scotsman’) who were loathed and never invited; an enormous flat-screen TV with the volume up to 92 or thereabouts, which somebody kept flicking at with the remote control. I never knew a television could have so many channels and so many menus to find those channels on, or that you could watch five or six channels at once, whilst smoking packet after packet of cigarettes, dancing with children, drinking, telling jokes, and experimenting with a home karaoke kit. Forgive me, Delilah, I just couldn’t take any moooooore…

Once again, I found my chair – or rather half a small sofa – and stuck to it. The springs were wrecked and I suspected my bottom might actually be on the floor. It felt like it. People kept coming and sitting next to me, which was nice, if stressful. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about as I’m slightly deaf. Normally I don’t notice it but in any loud environment all I can hear is multi-directional loudness. I am reduced to lip-reading. Although I have become quite good at this over the years, it’s difficult when people are talking about tragic events that happened in the neighbourhood long before you arrived. At twelve-fifty a.m. mine host started to tell me for the second time that evening the tale of the old lady who had once lived next to the Illegal Scotsman.

Old lady, she was, and we didn’t realise she had died. It was them little dogs, you see. When her son found her a week later she was scratched to ribbons – scratched to ribbons, she was. It were them little dogs. He thought she’d been murdered.

Just what you want to hear when you have a vivid imagination and live alone with a multitude of cats. And for the second time in one evening. I couldn’t bear it. My head was spinning, my eyes were watering with all the smoke and I was full of chocolate mini-rolls and mince-pies. I made my polite excuses. No one else was leaving. It all went a bit silent. But we’re only just getting going…

At one o’clock in the morning! Had I been expected to stay the night?

And then there were all those other parties, stretching back into my depressing, lonely past like the white plastic poppers of a necklace I had as a child. I wore it to the Methodist Sunday School party, which was in fact not too bad. The poppers got pulled apart and scattered all over the floor by some idiot boy when we were playing spin-the-collection-plate (oh yes, we Methodists knew how to party) but there were sandwiches, and jelly with dobs of ersatz cream; there were balloons, and crackers with mottoes in them and adult-sized purple paper hats that ended up resting on our shoulders, and little dangly ‘skellingtons’. And best of all we didn’t have to wash up. The grown-ups crammed themselves into the kitchen – a corrugated iron shed attached to the Sunday School room – to do that.

And then there was the one when we were supposed to go in fancy dress. That was soon after I got married. We made our own costumes, thinking that was what you did. I went as a tree because I happened to have some brown cloth and some green cloth. I think I had an apple or two attached. I can’t remember what my husband went as. Everyone else had hired proper costumes and stared at us. It was in an expensive cottage, half way down a steep hill. The sort where everything gleams.

And there were the ones where we suddenly realised dancing had changed since we were single, and that imperceptibly we had become a couple, and dull. And the earlier one where I met my husband – and I would only drink orange juice, which was rather acidic – and somebody was smoking pot, which worried me and I wondered if I ought to inform someone – and I was wearing this long flowery dress which somehow seemed now too long, and not thick enough. And my future husband (I already knew) danced, and that was both embarrassing and endearing because he looked like a scarecrow come to life, all angles and elbows and self-conscious jiggling about. And afterwards we had to stay the night, but there was only the living room so we spent the night together on folding camp beds of different heights, him with his long, long curly hair and his grey gypsy eyes and the trousers his mother had lengthened for him with strips of appalling curtain material, I in my long flowery dress which didn’t look right, securely tucked around my ankles. Horizontally but chastely we conversed – I from aloft and he from below – and played the same three Leonard Cohen singles over and over – and I supposed we must have slept because eventually light came streaming in through the kitchen window, and it was a new day.

BACK TO WHERE YOU ONCE BELONGED

When you are a child you imagine that everything will continue to be as it always was. You think you’re in the driving seat and that time, space and people are yours to command. This isn’t true, of course, but it’s a realisation that tends to sinks in slowly. Re-reading my post ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL and the Methodist chapel, reminded me that I have been there since – since those days, I mean – and it has not stayed the same.

Five, or maybe six years ago my sister was visiting from Canada. Normally this would happen in September/October but this particular year it was December. The British weather was not playing ball. Although undoubtedly warmer – or at any rate less arctic – than Canada in December, it had chosen to be rainy and black. Day after day dragged by. Rainy. Black. Black. Rainy. We were running out of things to do and foolishly came up with this idea to revisit the Methodist.

I had vivid childhood memories of services there, but when I ceased to go, when I lost interest, married and moved away the actual physical Methodist didn’t just vanish. Somehow you think things ought to do that; how dare they go on, existing, living a life of their own? There it sat, getting older and uglier. The seventies flitted by, then the eighties, the nineties; the arched front door got painted pillar-box red, then royal blue, when once it had been a sensible kind of brown; the nettles round the outside gave way to gravel and the corrugated iron lean-to attached to the far end was replaced by a concrete-looking one. The notice board outside continued to announce the times of church services, but now there seemed to have been a take-over by some multi-faith conglomeration. The services were no longer Methodist, but Christian. What did that mean?

But what did it matter?

So we went back, and of course, wished we hadn’t. It was a Sunday morning and the Christians were inside – so that was OK. What wasn’t OK was that all the wooden pews had disappeared. And the tiered choir seats. And the wheezy organ with the missing notes and the dusty purple silk. And the pulpit and stained-glass windows. All that remained was acres of bright blue carpet and people sitting around in a circle on hard-backed chairs. We subsided into the rear tier of the circle, separately wondering, but each knowing that the other was wondering, how, having entered, we might manage a quick exit. There was some nondescript singing and a bit of praying. Maybe we could slip out while their eyes were shut? But it was too late: we were being zeroed-in on. We were having our hands shaken.

They were pleased to see new people – nice new ladies, wanting to know Jesus. I felt I already did know Jesus, at least as well as they did. Hadn’t I sat in those now-invisible pews year after year, listening to stories about Him? Hadn’t I sung hymns and carols to Him and about Him in shafts of dusty sunlight beneath those now-vandalised stained-glass windows? What were they doing in my church, these happy-clappy Johnny-come-latelys? It was awkward.

Presumably because we were there under false pretences we felt compelled to explain. We told them that we had attended services here as children and had just wanted to see… They continued to be polite, but the light of conquest died in their eyes. They had stopped listening.

Sometimes it’s best not to see what happens. I was forced to see Nan and Grandad’s house when they both had died. My parents were clearing it out prior to sale and I was called to attend, for some reason. Nothing of my grandparents was there – the furniture, the fire, the rheumaticky labador; the pictures; the sideboard with the brass pen-holder and Nan’s two amber hat pins; her little box of rouge; Grandad’s pipe and pipe-cleaners; the books I grew up with, my Sunday reading; the conservatory with the rusty mangle and the view of London Pride and yellow roses. It smelt of hoover-dust and linseed oil. It echoed.

That night Grandad made a walk-on appearance in my dreams for the first and last time. I standing in the kitchen and he pushed right past me, an old man muttering under his breath. It was as if I had become the ghost. I still visit my mother and, since the two houses are in the same road, I am forced to drive past Nan and Grandad’s house every time. Usually I don’t look. Grandad’s carpentry workshop has been demolished and replaced by a double garage with up-and-over doors.

The only way to keep places or people is in your head. That’s something else you learn. It’s better than a film or photograph – you can replay them if you want to; they simply exist in another form. My ‘writings’ once existed on paper; now they exist  in cyberspace. Nan and Grandad were once flesh and blood, now they, and the house they lived in, and the Methodist chapel and a gallimaufry of other people and things exist in potential as electrical patterns within my brain. Nothing is gone, as long as I can still remember.

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
To His Coy Mistress: Andrew Marvell