Oops, no title…

I’m not good at having fun, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever had fun in my life; not really. However, today was a good(ish) day. The sky was blue and so was the sea – well, the one mirrors the other – and it was warm. Shouldn’t have worn the boots, really. Or the long-sleeved autumn outfit. But I thought it was autumn. Well, it was autumn at six o’clock this morning when I awoke, dozily crumpled into a corner of the living room sofa in a sort of uncomfortable dressing-gown/person bundle.

I did go to bed but eventually had to retreat from the bedroom after one of the cats for some reason took fright and leapt into the air, gouging three long tramlines into my right forearm. That woke me up, as you can imagine, and by the time I had partially staunched the bleeding and debated whether to apply TCP to my right arm and risk stinking out the Over 50s minibus tomorrow, or not apply TCP and risk yet another bout of cellulitis, with a subsequent two weeks of daily drives to the hospital for antibiotic injections, and possible death – I couldn’t get back to sleep. And supposing yet another one of the nineteen moggies should land upon my sleeping form and savage me.

Hence, the sofa. I turned out the lights, arranged myself uncomfortably upon it, trying to keep my stinging arm away from the pale green faux leather – and yet more cats came to perch themselves uncomfortably upon me – any of whom, of course, might leap up in a fright at any moment – and plugged in my MP3 player. And listened to hours of John Renbourne, which reminded me of Ex, which made me cry in a self-pitying, 3 in the morning, just gouged by a cat sort of way. And finally I reflected that listening to John Renbourne would not in any way remind Ex of me, or make him cry, and fell asleep.

My life is so complicated, but I have said that before.

Another complicated thing about life is female friendships. I am no good at this sort of stuff. I don’t understand it. I feel the same about human social interactions as I felt about those interminable netball and hockey games at school – the ones I couldn’t find an excuse to get out of – left-handedness, short-sightedness, a touch of depression, left my PE kit at home – that I am in the middle of a lot of beings flying about and throwing or kicking things at one another, but I don’t know which team is which, or which way I am supposed to be running, or which goal is mine, or why… Why are we running about? What is the purpose? What are the Rules? Why has everybody else had a copy of the Rules, but not me?

The politics of them are more complicated than anything that goes on behind closed doors at Downing Street. I think I may have made a new friend today but I’m not sure how I did that. I mean, I wasn’t trying to. I never try to make friends but just occasionally total strangers for some reason decide to pick me up, look me over, dust me down and adopt me for a while, like a lost bear. And then how do you fit the new friend in with the old friend when they don’t seem to like each other much – or am I imagining that? Should I walk with this one or that one? How do I have more than one friend?

Over the years I have learnt enough to know, at least in theory, that I don’t need to worry myself sick and arrange everything. People usually sort themselves out without my help. I’ve also found that people tend to appreciate me more if I just allow myself to be an oddity instead of trying to appear normal – masking, I think it’s called. Thing is, first you have to notice when you are masking, and that’s an art in itself.

Talking of lost bears, I found another, in a Barnardo’s shop on a coach trip to Whitstable. Even that was complicated. I felt compelled to explain to the volunteer lady in Barnardo’s that I wasn’t the sort of person who habitually walked around with a bear, like Sebastian. Of course, she hadn’t read Brideshead Revisited and had no idea who this Sebastian was.  She told me of an old lady she knew, a harmless madwoman, who carried a doll everywhere and had even made it an outfit to match her own. Well, presumably a  number of outfits…

And then I – and my new friend – and my old friends – oh, so many of us and the relationships between us so fluid and complicated, jostling for position and attention around the depressing racks of wilted cast-offs and bobbly old men’s jumpers in Barnardo’s – went on down the street to a rival charity shop, Demelza’s. Where I got told off by the Demelza lady for buying my bear in Barnardo’s when hers were half the price. And how then to explain the subtle psychic difference between a merely cheap bear (I could have gone to Tesco’s for that) and a damsel-in-distress bear in a blue velvet dress and lopsided velvet bow, languishing among racks of jigsaw puzzles with several pieces missing; brown plastic handbags no one can ever, ever have liked and coffee-stained CDs of jazz musicians that nobody has ever heard of.

(Yes, I made the Sebastian joke again – I just couldn’t seem to stop myself – and no, she didn’t laugh either.)

But Whitstable was OK, and so was Herne Bay. Later, trying to eat a huge pink and white ice cream before it melted, under a blue sky, beside a blue sea, at a rainbow-painted bench, I reflected that it wasn’t such a bad day out after all. And recalled that my Aunt always planned to retire to Herne Bay and open a cake shop. It was her dream. But she married a blind chap from Devon several feet shorter than herself, and lived in Exeter, and never visited Herne Bay again, as far as I know. And then died.

That’s the trouble with dreams.

The Blanket Has Landed

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bare teddy bear must be in want of a scarf, and so I have begun knitting him one in green speckled Aran. Blanket, that is. Something of a stretch, metaphorically, from Neil Armstrong to Jane Austen.

Blanket landed this afternoon from somewhere mysterious in Scotland, via Ebay and the Royal Mail. He didn’t cost much (I can’t afford bears that cost much) and was described as “All right as long as he is sitting down, like many of us”. I was half afraid to unbox him in case one of his legs should fall off. It didn’t, but his head seems quite likely to unless he is delicately handled, which he will be. If you didn’t know he was a bear you might think he was a lamb because he has very large floppy ears and a kind of sheep-like expression. But making that leap of faith and assuming he is a bear…

Poor Blanket, propped up among cushions in the corner of my sofa, who was in Scotland a day or so ago, then plunged into the suffocating bubble-wrapped darkness and encased in shoe-box cardboard, emerging suddenly at the far end of This Sceptred Isle, amongst a heap of cats. His expression has not changed, of course, but what must he be feeling?

His is described as Probably a wartime blanket bear. Apparently people made teddy bears out of blankets during the last war, due to a shortage of materials. There seems little doubt that he is wartime, but I query whether he is hand-fashioned out of blanket, or was made by some loving wartime Mummy for her little girl (or boy).

He is certainly made out of something vaguely blanket-like, not the usual golden furry stuff, but I wouldn’t say it was blanket. I had a coat made out of blanket, post war, and boy did it itch. I remember being taken for tottering toddler walks wearing this bright brown, be-toggled monstrosity, and being unbearably itchy everywhere the coat touched, which seemed virtually everywhere. And my mother had a dressing gown made out of blanket. A grey blanket with green woollen daisies embroidered, and green blanket stitch all round the edges. Must have taken her, or Nan, ages to make it. It weighed a ton, but was possibly not as itchy as my little coat. Nothing could have been as itchy as that.

And then there are his joints. They seem to be kind of professional, and interior. It is perhaps thanks to these joints, now badly worn, that Blanket is still, if tenuously, attached to his head and his four limbs. They don’t seem the sort of joints a housewife would have used.

So, not a forgery but a mystery, and likely always to remain so.

I seem to have gone a bit overboard on the bears. The original idea was to buy a couple of battered old bears on Ebay to model the bear scarves which I am knitting and which I thought to sell for a teensy-tiny profit. The trouble is, it’s difficult to resist. I seem to have accumulated quite a few 98p etc bears over a short period of time. Once you’ve rescued one you are kind of compelled to rescue them all, every last battered, lost and suffering one in the world. Which is of course why I have nineteen cats.

Not for the first time I wonder about the connection in my head between cats and bears. I first noticed it many years ago, in the first years of my marriage, when I had a whole series of nightmares about suffering cats – cats that I had forgotten about and escaped through the window, cats that lived in the arm of my armchair (don’t ask me – cats inhabit armchairs in my dreams) and got too near the fire and suffocated; cats that I seemed to have poisoned and was now observing as they died; cats that followed me across zebra crossings and through busy cities amongst the rushing traffic and were in imminent danger, and yet I did nothing.

It seemed to me at first that cats were an obvious symbol for babies, and it was probably something to do with thwarted maternal instinct, etc etc. But later I came to think it was sadder and more visceral than that, and that cats were an outlet for physical affection, a lonely child’s something to love. Hence the suffering cats when I married entirely the wrong man in that respect. I decided this after another dream, when kittens falling to earth on parachutes changed mid-dream to teddy bears, and came to rest in a cornfield, between the furrows. Of course there’s something about furrows and fertility…

Ah, as with my poor rickety, sheep-like Blanket, the truth will never be known, and nobody but me cares about either.

My mother gave my teddy to Oxfam and I never forgave her, but that’s another story.

Talking of metaphor, people seem to be unable to detect it nowadays. Either that or it suits them better to take some sort of manufactured umbrage. One Labour politician pleads with the leader of the Labour party to “call off the dogs” when yet another Labour MP is threatened with deselection for not following the party line. His deputy then takes grave offence because his esteemed Comrades have been insultingly referred to as “dogs”. Hunting metaphor, dear boy. Metaphor, not actual dogs.

Anyway, I will not brood on that, it will make my headache worse. This evening I have been forced to lie on the sofa in my darkened living room, playing Dire Straits to myself through an earpiece and something that was once called an MP3 player. I may be the last person in the world still using an MP3 player. This was to drown out the noise of my neighbours once again playing some kind of war game at full volume, for hours. I wonder how I am going to explain the intermittent cacophony to Canadian Sister when she comes to stay with me after Christmas, as hopefully she will. Perhaps she won’t suffer so much from it, knowing she is soon going to be able to fly off and leave it behind.

Update: by popular (well, one) request a portrait of Blanket has been added, getting to know his new little friend Whitstable. More of Whitstable later. Probably. Once coffee consumed and gigantic fish and chips and strawberry ice cream slept off.

Not Exactly Rubik’s Cube

For some reason today I resolved to make the perfect Dutchman’s Puzzle block.  Well, it is now 20 to 7 in the evening and I seem to have been making – and unmaking – versions of the Dutchman’s Puzzle all day. My sewing room (ie spare bedroom) floor is littered with discarded snippets, wispy ends of cotton and, somewhere or other – the back off one of my stud earrings. No doubt that has gone the way of all stud earring backs and now resides in one of the gaps between alternate universes.

It was meant to be a 12″ block but for some mathematical reason I cannot fathom has turned out to be 11″. So it won’t fit in with any other blocks and is an orphan, i.e. completely useless unless I decide to make another million of them just the same, and there’s a truly daunting prospect.

Nobody ever seems to show any curiosity as to why traditional blocks are called what they are. What, for instance, was the inspiration for Old Tippercanoe? Possibly someone in the Wild West had an ancient canoe that kept tipping them out, but for all that they were rather fond of it?

Dutchman’s Puzzle is an old block, dating back to around 1800, but why exactly was the Dutchman puzzled, or what is the puzzle the block contains? According to Ruby McKim who wrote One Hundred And One Patchwork Patterns somewhere around 1931, ‘The darker always points into the lighter and thus the Puzzle is solved into a 12-inch block’. Or in my case, 11-inch. But is that it? I mean, is that all there is to it? It’s like listening to someone tell a shaggy dog story and at the end having no idea what was meant to be funny.

Maybe he’s puzzled because something’s gone wrong with his sails (especially since I sewed them).

It didn’t turn out to be the perfect block. Apart from being an inch too small all round, even though I (thought I) did all the calculations, and the edges wafty and bedraggled-looking, the middles don’t match up

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and I accidentally included some of the holes from the selvedge. And now I wonder why exactly I spent all day – apart from mowing two lawns, cutting back the brambles, washing up several times, feeding the N-n-n-n-nineteen twice, taking delivery of a stack of slippery-shiny magazines which I’ve got to force through a minimum 188 eccentric letterboxes tomorrow, and driving over to the vets for three tins of disgusting-smelling invalid cat food for my invalid cat who, of course, flatly refuses to go anywhere near it –  in rapt concentration teaching myself to do something so utterly pointless.

I think it must be the dream. It’s a form of escape. So, as I cut and snip, and sew and unpick, arrange and rearrange, I am living another life. I am some lady in cotton bonnet in a log cabin in the middle of winter, and I am making the most of the daylight of some short winter day, thriftily using up scraps too small for anything else. And no doubt I have a husband who looks like that Grizzly Adams or that rather personable chap from Little House On The Prarie, who will shortly be returning home from a long day chopping firewood or what ever Grizzly Adamses do, and will greatly appreciate my homely cooking, my frugal patchwork and all my other other wifely attributes…

(Sigh!)

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PS: Invalid Mog has suddenly eaten whole tin of the disgusting invalid catfood, plus antibiotic tablet hastily thrown in, and drunk a whole bowlful of water, so maybe some sort of corner has been turned.

 

A Plague By Any Other Name

William or Leetle Weely as the vet calls him has a disgusting-looking ailment of the paws. The vet speaks very good English, but it is not his first language and I believe has not quite got the hang of seaside postcard humour and double entendres. It may be that double entendres are the last linguistic hurdle a foreigner has to cross.

Speaking of double-entendres, even I missed one the other night. I was in a long conversation with my sister in Canada, complaining bitterly about an overbearing male who entered my kitchen and even, irritatingly, sniggered at the way I cut the cheese, saying it was probably because I was left handed etc., etc. Said man has now been disposed of (fingers crossed) but not before he nearly electrocuted himself by poking a kitchen knife into my toaster, whilst said toaster was plugged into the electric socket and red hot, because he had managed to get a crumpet stuck in it. He then asked me why I had turned the toaster off and I mentioned saving him from electrocution. Probably I should just have left him to it – would have been easier than trying to convince him to kindly leave me alone – but, as one of my neighbours said to me when I went out to mow the lawn this afternoon, you wouldn’t want the corpse of a fat, condescending old baggage cluttering up your vinyl floor covering.

Anyway – rambling again – I kept referring to cutting the cheese as part of this sisterly transatlantic rant, and it wasn’t until the end of the conversation that my sister told me that cutting the cheese in Canadian was actually a euphemism for breaking wind.

Anyway, William has a paw complaint, which hopefully will be improved by antibiotics and steroids. Its scientific name is Plasma Cell Pododermatitis but it’s also known as Pillow Foot or, the vet tells me, Bumble Foot. Really, if you hadn’t seen Leetle Weely hobbling about on the sore, scabby and peeling paws in question you might imagine him joyously floating about with a tiny white pillow strapped to each foot, or maybe being transported by a quartet of little fluffy bees…

It made me think about the names we choose for diseases, and why they are so often really attractive names when the ailment they represent is so unattractive. When I was a child I had Scarlatina (why Scarlatina and not Scarletina?). I don’t remember much about it except that I had a sore throat and my mother hung white sheets at my bedroom window. They had to be soaked in something-or-other (disinfectant, probably). I believe  Scarlatina was quite serious – children often died – and yet what a lovely name someone chose for it! Can’t you just imagine it – a flamenco dancer in a red silk dress, clacking black cube heels on a polished floor.

And then there was Impetigo. Just down the road from me lived the butcher’s twin girls (well, one of them was a girl, the other nobody was ever quite sure). They were not identical, obviously, but what they did have was permanent identical Impetigo – like crusty stuff around their mouths. In those days the treatment for Impetigo was Gentian Violet (another lovely name) and so the poor non-identical twins were permanently daubed in purple. But Impetigo – can’t you just imagine it stalking silently through a green and gold jungle, the ghost of twinkle in its eye?

We were once asked in an English lesson what our favourite-sounding word of all time was, and whether we loved it for its sound alone, or for the meaning of the word. One girl said she just loved the sound of Diahorrea (the spellcheck obviously doesn’t – I could never decide how to spell it) which caused much laughter but showed that, as Shakespeare put it, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

And what about Schizophrenia, Chlamydia, Fasciitis, Eczema. If you didn’t know what these words meant, wouldn’t you think they were rather lovely?

“Words That Stung”

Yes, it’s come to this: in desperation I have printed off a list of Interesting Personal Essay Ideas. Sigh! And this was on there – the title, not the wasp, or wapsie as Canadian sister used to say when little, several millennia ago. I know why the current lack of inspiration: things have been happening in my life as usual, but for various reasons nothing I can actually write about here. This always stymies me, since my usual method is simply to ask myself What am I obsessing about/ ruminating over/ pondering/ remembering right this minute? And however unlikely the subject is, I sit down and ‘splurge’ about that.

I usually avoid internet lists of essay titles. They mostly seem to be aimed at schoolchildren and involve school, teenage crushes, dreams and plans for the future, lurve or parents – none of which I have, in any useful sense. Note of gloom creeping in here – buck up, do, you old misery!

Words That Stung – hmmm, we all have some of those, don’t we? And how not to turn a feeble attempt at an entertaining Monday Morning Post into All The Nasty Things People Have Ever Said To Me. Let’s just select a few, then over to you for your examples.

There was the time my mother told me I had to keep my face still when we were out shopping, because some lady had said What a pity your little girl has St Vitus Dance, or words to that effect. My mother explained that St Vitus’ Dance was when your face kept twitching, kind of grotesquely. I wonder who St Vitus was? Somebody who danced, obviously. Will have to look him up.

There was the time Canadian Sister and I entered a children’s writing competition in the local newspaper (Uncle Mac’s Corner). The title was something like Why My Mummy Is The Best In The World. I wrote it really, but sister provided some enthusiastic input. She was probably too young to write at that stage. I was so proud when it appeared in Uncle Mac’s Corner the next day, and expected Mummy to be pleased (chocolate cup cakes for a week, I imagined) but she wasn’t.

Instead she launched into a – to me, at seven or so – inexplicable and hysterical rant, to the effect that I sent that to the newspaper, secretly, for all to see and laugh at, and I could write all that but I could never tell her to her face. It was true that I had never told her to her face. It had never occurred to me because what kid goes up to their Mum and says all that sugary, embarrassing stuff? And anyway writing was my telling, my speaking, my confiding – was then and has remained so.

And then I had to walk to school, with my face all red and puffy, hiccupping, and get teased and stared at all day for the mess I was in. I maybe understood a bit better when I got older, but I never forgave her.

There was the time – no, I can’t tell you that one. Or…that one, either.

And then there was the time a supervisor told me the ‘bosses’ regarded me as some kind of slightly addled old hippy – nice, but vague – or words to that effect. I wasn’t actually nice, and I wasn’t actually vague, and if only I had been a hippy.

There was the time a visiting financial advisor remarked that of course the root of all my problems was a) insufficient income and b) all those cats. The sensible thing, he said, will be to dispose of all, or most of, these stray cats. I wondered whether he had children, and how many of them he would dispose of in times of financial stress, and which of them he would choose.

There was the time the doctor told me my bad back would get better if I lost some of the excess weight when actually I was just bundled up in an old winter raincoat with the belt bunched up funny round the waist (à la little Meghan’s posh white coat in her official engagement photo, but nobody said she could do with shedding a few pounds because it happened to be a chilly day and her belt was tied sort of funny!)

On similar lines, and talking of fat, these Stinging Words are not mine, but were related to me by a colleague. She said she had gone to the doctor one Winter’s day wearing a puffy anorak with her woolly gloves poked into the pocket, and he had asked her how far along her pregnancy was – when she wasn’t. Mind you, she was a bit chunky.

And one from my sister, when she and her husband were trying unsuccessfully for a baby, who kept receiving pamphlets in Air Mail letters from her mother-in-law, about female infertility. Her husband had been trying to intercept the post on his way out to work, to fish out any pamphlets before my sister saw them. But that’s not so much a Stinging Word as a Stinging Action or a Stinging Assumption.

Have any Stinging Words (not too painful to share at this distance in time) remained indelibly seared into your memory over the years?

More Siesta Than Fiesta

I’ve often gazed aghast at Tracey Emin’s conceptual artwork (I believe that’s what it’s called) Unmade Bed. I gather it is a recreation of her actual bed, that she actually slept in. How could anyone? I mean how could anyone …? And if she did, how could she actually admit to people that she actually spent her nights, and possibly her days, in such appalling squalor? But I suppose that’s the point. She’s saying that most people live squalid little lives and put on a face, most of the time, try to convince other people that they’ve got it all together, that they know what they’re doing. When they haven’t. And they don’t.

Do you think? I mean, if that was her aim, she succeeded, didn’t she? I would never have had the courage to admit to those care-home furry slippers let alone some of the other disgusting objects. But then I don’t live like that – yet – though tending in that direction, sadly.

What made me think of this was moving mattresses around today. I must admit, the older and wearier I get, and the more cats decide to share their little lives with me, the harder it seems to keep up with the housework. All winter the cats have been increasing but the hoovering… hasn’t. And it’s got disorganised. It does that at intervals. Usually I move house – that sorts it out. Throw all sorts of stuff away, pack the rest in boxes. Start again somewhere else. But now I don’t have that option. I’m fixed.

I’ve been trying to clear some space in the spare room, for sewing things in the hope of selling the things I sewed… somewhere or other. Etsy, or jumble sales or something. You can tell I don’t exactly have a business brain. There just wasn’t enough room for cutting out patterns and storing stuff and all the other things you have to do, to be efficient.

So, I decided to move the two single mattresses out of the spare room, where they had been propped up against the wall – until one of them toppled over and landed squarely on a row of cat dirt-boxes in the middle of the night. I decided I didn’t have the energy to manhandle two mattresses along the landing, round a corner, down the stairs, round another corner, through the kitchen and out to the garage. Also, it was raining, and they would get wet. Not that it would have mattered very much, having landed in the dirt boxes.

So I made a cunning plan. I would spend a morning removing all the stuff from my bedroom, hoovering it (first find the hoover), spraying all round the edges with an expensive substance called Indorex, which is meant to kill fleas, then piling up in some or other fashion two single mattresses and two double mattresses.

I did actually experiment with the piling up last night. I tried it with the two double mattresses (what remains of the double bed is in the garage – don’t ask) on the bottom and the two single mattresses one on top of the other on top of that. Ideal, I thought. Save all that hauling myself up first thing in the morning, and it will be interesting to sleep so much closer to the ceiling. Change of perspective.

Unfortunately it was also quite dangerous. Unused to a single bed, I several times awoke teetering perilously near one edge or the other. Visions of tumbling, humpty-dumpty-like, onto the floor beneath and shattering some part of myself then kept me awake. I was afraid to sleep.

Also, the cats, used to a whole double bed and a somnolent human to potter about on all night, were confused. And annoyed. Four at a time, they attempted to balance on top of me, on top of the four teetering mattresses, which had now taken on a kind of jelly-like motion. This must be what a water bed feels like, I mused. Water beds were quite popular at some time in my past. Maybe the seventies. Or the eighties. Can anyone remember?

Anyway, that didn’t really work. I awoke irritable and sneezing and all the cats fell off. So this morning I set to again, with the rolled-up sleeves and the open window and the Indorex spray. You are really supposed to clear the whole house and all livestock before spraying Indorex, I think. No chance that was ever going to happen. Opened the window.

The result is weird, inelegant, but safe, and now I have room to breathe in my new ‘workroom’. I even have a whole wallpaper table for cutting patterns on. Have had to prop it up underneath the hinged bit in the middle as the three-legged one keeps landing, heavily on it, and all the force goes down through that one front leg. He is very painful, when he lands on you. A few more of those landings and my precious, but flimsy table would start sagging.

And I now have a half-empty, flea-free bedroom. Only another four rooms to go. I’m tackling them one a day. Apart from the days when I’m doing something else and can’t. Like tomorrow.