Into a ditch with Mozart

When I was younger, so much younger than today…

I was driving my wonky little old car across the Marsh. (One of a series of wonky little old cars.) I think this was the wonky little old red one.

Anyway, I was listening to Mozart, on a tape. Shows you how long ago it was. I was on my way to work.

I was listening to Mozart because he was the only classical composer I could think of the name of. I grew up in an uncultural environment. My mother was a fan of Matt Monro (the singing bus driver) – who died. Also Jim Reeves, who had a very deep voice. And died. My mother cried the day that Jim Reeves died, just as I cried the day John Lennon got shot.

My father liked to sing along to Sing Something Simple, which as far as I remember was Sunday lunchtimes on the radio. Oh, home on the range, he used to croon, melodiously, with the requisite tinge of an American accent, where the deer and the antelope roam… Well, we all used to croon.

My ex-husband was far more educated, musically, than I. He used to play blues guitar, and some classical pieces. I would listen to him in amazement, though it was depressing. I had once wanted to play the guitar and now – how could I?

He was nine years older than me and remembered jazz and folk, obscure (to me) blues singers from the thirties and forties – and all sorts of stuff that I was only able to love and appreciate after I had left him. He even knew about Early Music and the Aeolian mode, and the pentatonic scale, and polyphony. Now I love that stuff (though I still couldn’t explain the Aeolian mode) but I never used to listen to him when he started going on about it. Every time he started to reveal even an edge of his massively greater knowledge of just about everything I would bristle and switch off. Grrr…

But at one point, even while I was married to him, I realised that I did want to learn about Classical Music. I kept secret my experimentation with tapes (borrowed from the public library) because he would no doubt make me feel inadequate yet again if I told him. Telling him anything seemed to result in a helpful, university-type lecture. I accidentally made mention of helicopters once and was treated to a whole lunch hour’s disquisition on torque.

So I was playing Mozart, rather loudly, in the wonky little old car as I drove in to work. It had been raining overnight and the road was muddy, and then this blackbird flew out, really low, and of course I braked

People afterwards kept saying You braked for a BLACKBIRD? You crashed your car into a ditch and nearly killed yourself to save the life of a BIRD? Which only really goes to show that it’s more than skin deep, my belief that all life is sacred and all of absolutely equal value. Not killing birds,  slugs, ants or any living thing – not even carving my name into the bark of a tree or removing a stone from its resting place, is programmed into me. I am those things, and they are me.

Anyway, I was in this ditch for only about ten minutes. I couldn’t find the switch to turn Mozart off, and anyway I do believe I was shaking. So weird, that long, rightwards and downwards Mozartesque slither. So balletic. Then I understood that thing about time slowing down. And all around me were kind of weeds and tiny trees – a tiny tree had impeded my further descent – the Marsh ditches are major drainage channels, and deeper than average – and the road was now… somewhere up there!

I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I grabbed my handbag. Women always grab their handbags, I think. I pushed the car door open as far as it would go, which wasn’t all the way. Brambles. There was a sort of latticework of vegetation but no clear indication of where the actual bank was. I looked at my work shoes. High(ish) heels. I looked at my work tights. The tights were for it.

But shortly two, or maybe three cars stopped and two, or maybe three kind men came running from various directions and pulled me out of the ditch. One of them gave me a lift home. By this time I was shaking like a leaf and couldn’t stop talking. I remember thinking, stop talking, you wally! But I couldn’t.

My car was a write-off. It didn’t look too badly damaged but apparently its engine and all its working parts were kind of jammed up with mud. I never saw it again. Somebody must have dragged it out and disposed of it.

I have since listened with pleasure to a wide range classical composers, and have become a particular fan of Thomas Tallis. But Mozart? Poor Mozart, I can no longer listen to him.

Parallel Processing

The car crash. I’ll try not to dwell on the blood and gore elements – but more on the psychic consequences. I don’t remember the crash itself at all – I was knocked unconscious. All I remember, weirdly, is this.

Before the crash I was replaying in my mind – or felt, afterwards, I had been replaying – the final episode of Two Thousand Acres of Sky in which the hero dies. Knowing the heroine has fallen in love with someone else, without meaning to commit suicide, exactly, he goes out in a small, unseaworthy boat and ends up on the beach of some windswept island, dying. Except that he doesn’t know he is dying. He thinks he’s dropping off to sleep. He is rather peaceful about it. We are, somehow, participating in his dying delusions, experiencing his faltering consciousness with him. I hadn’t been expecting that final dramatic twist in what was supposed to be a romantic comedy – it had shocked me.

The next thing I knew, the ‘drowning hero’ narrative was picking up exactly where it had left off, as I swam up from depths of unconsciousness. I remember thinking – something just happened, but yet it can’t have. I’m still in the same story.

Thinking about it now, I would guess my mind was gently talking to me in pictures (that’s what it does – there are no words in the Unconscious). It was letting me know, in its own way, that I either was dying, might be dying or had died, but that now it was time to wake up. Don’t drift away, it seemed to be warning me.

February 2002, that was. Climbing a long, winding hill-road, with woods on either side. Apparently some idiot was coming down the hill, turning round to talk to his kids in the back, swerved over to my side of the road and hit my car head on. My car rolled over – possibly more than once – and landed on its roof in the woods. I don’t know how I got out, but I did. The first thing I remember is the green uniform of the ambulance man leaning over me. It didn’t seem surprising – merely puzzling. He asked me where I had been going. I asked him what day it was. He said Saturday. I said if it was Saturday I must have been going to visit my parents. I apparently gave him their full address including post-code – I found where he had written it all out in my handbag notebook afterwards.

I ended up in hospital with a head injury, a neck injury, a bashed-in elbow, a twisted ankle and something wrong with my ribs, possibly from hanging upside down in the seatbelt. My glasses were in the car, smashed, so in hospital I couldn’t see anything. They kept moving me from ward to ward: same white-ish, green-ish blur.

Not a good time, and it took months to recover. My neck’s never exactly worked since. Even when I was well enough to drive again and the insurance had secured me a replacement for my written-off car, I couldn’t bring myself to drive up that hill. I followed a series of lengthy and inconvenient detours for the next six months.

I felt that the accident both had and hadn’t happened. I was me, now, recovering but I was her, then, and the accident was still waiting for me half way up that hill. The universe had bitten me, and now it was lurking in the undergrowth, waiting its chance to rush out and bite me again.

But that wasn’t all. It was the conviction that grew on me in the weeks after the crash, that I had died in the crash and that this was not that life but… this life. I felt that I had died and at that moment had moved into one of my parallel universes, in which I was continuing with my life as it would have been, except everything was subtly altered. Nothing was quite as it should be.

Make of that what you will. This still feels like the wrong universe but I suppose it’s better to be here (if I am here). After all, if I am still there what’s left of me is a paragraph in the local newspaper and an unvisited brass plaque in the grounds of the crematorium!

fishes2

The curious incident of the blancmange at the school gates

The question to be answered is: When were you most frightened? I found it on a children’s writing prompt website. I’ve been worrying this idea back and forth for some time. It shouldn’t be that difficult, if children are supposed to be able to manage it. But what have I been frightened of, and which of these frightening things was the most frightening?

I suppose I was frightened of my father, but that wasn’t one particular incident that was all the time. Fear was the natural consequence of being completely the wrong sort of child, and I spent most of my childhood trying to work out how to be the right sort. But I don’t believe I’ve ever been frightened, with that sharp, dramatic fear in real life. What I do feel is a constant, background fear – it’s like that music in lifts, it’s like the clatter of knives and forks in a restaurant, the scraping of chairs, the muffled conversation. Someone once described anxiety as fear-spread-thin – as good a description as any. It’s never not there, but I’ve never known anything else, it’s just the way everything always is. I think I might be very spooked indeed, maybe even miss it if it was suddenly gone.

In dreams, yes. I once dreamt I was driving a bus slowly towards a bottomless ravine. At some point, predictably, the bus slid over the edge, remaining poised there, slow-see-sawing like those runaway lorries in films. It was pretty clear that the dream was meant as a warning, since I was in a dangling-over-the-edge-of-the-ravine situation in real life at the time. And more than once I have dreamt of myself on a ledge at the top of some skyscraper like the Empire State Building. Now that does feel like terror, within the dream, and it stays with you for a long time when you wake up. It’s the indecision. Shall I just jump now and get it over with? Or shall I stay frozen to this ledge, no hope at all of rescue? It was such a very, very, very long way down. I wonder what people think about, on the way down?

But why no acute fear in real life? I was in a car crash once, but remember nothing at all of the twenty minutes leading up to it. Was I afraid when the other car came careering down the hill towards me on the wrong side of the road, as the police described? Ever since then I have expected The Flashback to happen, perhaps when driving – the one where you relive the whole horrible thing in an instant. But it’s never happened, there’s just a generalised sense of…trust having been lost. I imagined the universe was lolloping along beside me, like a large and friendly-ish dog. Then it turned round and bit me, viciously, and who can say when it will decide to bite again.

So what else? I was charged by a barking Alsatian once (we seem to be on a bit of a dog theme). I stood stock still and stared, transmitting terribly dangerous, woman-bites-dog type vibes at it. I’m not that keen on dogs, but I can communicate with them when necessary. The thing landed against my leg with a bump, and open jaws. I must have anticipated being bitten because I remember screaming – faintly and politely, a ladylike British scream, and then being embarrassed for having screamed at all. I must have been frightened, so why can’t I remember how it felt?

I once found myself alone for several days with an acute gallstone attack. I had never been in that much pain before, or felt that cold, sick and shaky. My head was buzzing with imminent unconsciousness. I knew this might possibly kill me – you know when you’re in real danger – but couldn’t muster the energy to pick up the phone to tell anyone, or even the will to make a decision. I just lay down and waited. And waited. Most of the time I was praying it would kill me – very, very, very soon, in fact this instant. I also remember how focussed you get when really under threat, the strength you have to dredge up from somewhere. It’s as if your primative ancestors take over, something else kicks in. I was certainly distressed during those days alone, but not afraid.

No, I think the nearest I came to experiencing actual, animal fear was one evening in my thirteenth year when I dropped a pink blancmange on the school driveway and stood aside helplessly as teachers, queueing to exit the school gates, were one by one compelled to drive through a sea of pink blancmange and broken pudding-dish shards. It was the evil, exasperated, snarly looks on all their faces. They saw me, hovering and horrified, with my now-empty biscuit tin; they linked me to the products of my cookery lesson. I was going to get into so much trouble. I picked up the biggest pudding-dish pieces, put them in the biscuit tin, jammed on the tin-lid and ran. The train home went at ten past four (which was why I’d been sprinting in charge of a blancmange in the first place) and the station was at the bottom of the hill.

I made my getaway but said nothing to my parents and spent an entirely sleepless night visualising tomorrow’s terminal humiliation. It was the headmistress’s habit to ‘mention’ these things in assembly. The dreadful deed would be described in lingering, sarcastic detail and then the girl responsible would be invited to stand – own up to her sins so that everybody could turn, titter and gloat. The one thing I dreaded above all others was becoming the centre of attention – being pointed at, looked at, seen, even glimpsed. I craved invisibility. I would have cheerfully suffered how ever many lashes a dropped blancmange might attract, in private. I would have been so glad to write on the blackboard, alone in an empty classroom, night after night for the next three years, I must not drop my blancmange, I must not drop my blancmange… What I couldn’t abide was being laughed at.

I do believe I tottered into that assembly hall in genuine fear. I do believe I trembled as I sat cross-legged on the floor with several hundred others teenage girls while the headmistress lectured us on the correct way to make a pot of tea (take the kettle to the pot and not the pot to the kettle – or was it the other way round?) and the necessity of wearing sixty-denier Sun Mist stockings at all times, reserving thirty-denier seamless un-Sun-Mist to wear with our Pretty Party Dresses (she was a trifle out of touch – sorry, accidental pun). And after all that, she didn’t mention It. Nobody mentioned It. And I couldn’t even feel relieved because blancmange-terror was now welded into my psyche. And pink blancmange, my favourite. If only it hadn’t been pink.