Well, these are my worms…

Sadly only two of them. My sister started a kind of tradition of buying me one – well, buying me a small something from the concrete-somethings-place, when she came over. And somehow they always turned out to be worms. They are mating at the moment, or at least engaging in some pretty intense courtship. Often, however, they are just having a chat, chastely at right angles to one another.

I always assumed I was behind all these worm-repositionings until, every now and then, I would find they had moved of their own volition, taking up poses I would never have thought of. I thought maybe it was Charlie from over the road. People do tend to wander in and out, round here. You soon learn to put a dressing gown over your nightie before going into the kitchen. Charlie was occasionally to be spotted somewhere down among the brambles, looking for his blind old dog, or his black and white cat (who much prefers me). But somehow – I didn’t think Charlie had the wit to rearrange a worm.

I now think it might have been assorted delivery drivers. Before lockdown/shielding, the standard thing for Amazon parcels etc was to go round the back and leave them there. I was rarely away for that long. But since I’ve had to be in virtually all of the time, the worms seemed have ceased their unauthorised wiggling.  Poor delivery drivers – they can’t get much amusement, on their never-ending circuits. I never really minded…

I was quietly hoping for another worm to add to my collection – a wormage-a-trois, as you might say, but my sister is unlikely to be over from Canada any time soon. Maybe, whenever – if ever – it feels safe to actually go somewhere and buy something, I will make a pilgrimage to the concrete-something-place, meandering joyfully among as yet unpainted gnomes, naked nymphs and praying-hands birdbaths, just glad to be – ah, shopping! And if there should still be worms, I will purchase one.

Whereas for women that visceral, instinctive – now missing – necessity seems to be the leisurely shop – the browsing, the pondering, the calculating – for men it seems to be building garden sheds. There are so many men round here – white van men, small tradesmen, that sort of chap – and since lockdown there has been one bags-of-sand delivery lorry after another along our road. The lorries come with their own cranes to lift the bags, and every front garden now has its untidy heap of materials. Garden sheds seem to be the favourite.

The man down the bottom from me – the one who cut down my tree – has been threatening for years to put up in its place,  between his garden and mine, “a nice row of sheds”. Now he is out there with a hired roller, flattening the ground in readiness. All day long he and his mate shout instructions at one another. What is is with men, that they can’t just talk to one another when engaged in joint projects? Why has everything got to be high volume?

The Return of Mystery Dog

I sometimes feel as if I am living inside an unpublished chapter of Cold Comfort Farm, here. Like when Charlie says things like

‘Arrr, they comes in from the field, them rats. And in the summer they goes back there.’

How does he know that? I mean, there is a field at the end of our road – acres and acres of one featureless field that stretching so far into the distance that its boundaries are invisible. It grows – field stuff. Stuff that changes colour with the seasons and at least once a year coats everything with a kind of fine chaff. Sometimes it needs ploughing, and it is ploughed. The ploughing seems to go on all through the night and the tractor has a light on it. That is about all I know about the field.

I mean, how has he even got into the field, since we are disbarred from it by a rancid, weedy ditch full of rubbish and brambles, and an old hedge? And assuming he, being a country person, has managed to get in, how has he learned the ways of the local rats? Has he spent many hours standing in the middle of it, like a scarecrow? Indeed, now I think of it he would make an excellent scarecrow.

That’s the trouble with having been born and spent the first twenty-one years of your life in a suburb, among bungalow-rows and metalled roads and tame suburban trees – you never quite fit in anywhere else. Deeply, deeply uneasy in the big city, you are equally out of your depth in rural – by which I mean the real, shabby, workaday rural England, not leafy Surrey with its secluded mansions – though I would probably feel equally ill-at-ease there.

So, the rats have come in from the fields, apparently. And will return there, apparently. I have my doubts. If I was a rat and found a ready supply of tinned cat and dog food, plus bits of bread fallen from the bird table, I think I might decide to stick around, but who knows how a rat thinks? Maybe Charlie really is tuned in to rodent thinking. He certainly seems to be one with the soil, and all that.

When he departed, to sort and deliver several hundred parcels that had just been dumped on his driveway by the gigantic daily lorry, I thought again about poor Mystery Dog, and his plaintive woofs in the pitch-black garden around midnight, when he found his giant bowl of dog-food absent. I thought I had made a grown up decision for once, a sensible decision, in discouraging the ever-burgeoning colony of rats in my garden, but the thought of that little woof… And such a big dog, who must have been so very hungry these past two nights…

I have noticed, every time I make a grown-up decision it turns out to be the wrong one. I should obviously be following my instincts rather than trying to think. So I put more food out. Maybe the rats will have forgotten that there ever was food here, after two days of no food. How long is a rat’s memory, for goodness sake? I suspect it is pretty long since they can work out mazes and stuff, and press buttons in complicated sequences to get grapes – or is that monkeys? But still I put the food out.

I think maybe Mystery Dog himself will have forgotten, after two nights of misery. Maybe he has packed his belongings in a spotted handkerchief and set off for pastures new. But this morning all his food was gone. The stray cats’ dishes were polished too. So it’s either him or – as Charlie suggested – a fox. Or a hedgehog capable of eating three times its volume in supermarket meaty chunks.

He’ll be there waiting for me

Quite a while back I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post which I called Sleeping With The Gingery Gentleman. Hopefully WordPress’s Similar Posts miraculous algorithm thingammajig will pick it up and put it at the bottom of this post, but if it doesn’t I will go looking for it and link it, if I can remember how. That’s the thing about growing old – if you don’t use it you tend to lose it, at least when it comes to computers.

The post was in fact about sleeping – or rather, finding it somewhat difficult to sleep – with an ancient but fiercely determined ginger gentleman cat called Rufus. If I remember, I whimsically depicted him as plucking at the duvet like an importunate old man, wheedling for just five minutes of ‘making the two spoons’ on a cold winter’s night, which would greatly ease his arthritics. It was an extended metaphor. Yes, ladies and gentleman, I can even do those.

I recall I was nervous about calling it Sleeping With… but assumed that the picture of a ginger cat at the top would sufficiently give the game away in advance, which it did, to all but one of my readers, and there then ensued the most entertaining exchanges of comments and answers I have had. God love him, that gentleman, he was so nice, and the highlight of my week!

Rufus was very old when I first took him in. He had one of three cats belonging to Ruth, the disabled lady over the road. When Ruth died I took in two of them.  Unfortunately Felix, the elegant black-and-white boy I really longed for, was allocated to Charlie, my rival cat-person. Grrr…!

Poor Rufus, his “Mummy” was so badly disabled she could not even raise her arms, so he and the other cats had been fed by Ruth’s sister Amy. At least twice a day I would see Amy, very elderly herself by this time, picking her way slowly  back and forth along our treacherous little bit of unmade road to visit Ruth and feed the cats, even though at the time she believed she was allergic to cats.

So though regularly fed, neither cat got much of a fuss; but Rufus was always out the front on sunny days and other neighbours, like Charlie, would bend to give him a stroke in passing. But Rufus did have an unfortunate habit of vigorously attaching himself, tooth and extended claw, to the hand of the unwary stroker. He didn’t have much of a life, little Rufus, but people did what they could for him.

And so he came to me, and for two and a half years has been tottering around upstairs, like a little gingery skeleton, and occasionally managing to get under the duvet for a cuddle on cold winter’s nights. He was also somewhat incontinent, or wildly unpredictable, shall we say, in his choice of location. Another reason I was reluctant to allow him under the duvet (although of course I did).

He had got to about twenty-and-a-half in human years when, on Christmas Night/Boxing Day Morning, he passed away. There was nothing I could do to help him in the process – everywhere being closed – so I just bent down and gave him a little stroke every now and again in passing, and this time he didn’t make a grab for my hand. Then there was the business after Christmas, of arranging for the stiff little body to be cremated.

Anyway, I rarely see Amy nowadays so I left a message with her neighbours, and later that evening she arrived at my door. She came in for a brief chat, older than ever but as beautifully made-up as always, and I wondered again if she had been an actress or a model in her younger days.

She said she had been expecting for some time to hear that Rufus had gone, and thanked me for doing the best I could for him at the end of his life.

“Don’t be sad,” she said. “He’ll be there waiting for me.”


Featured Image: The Great Cat by Gu Yingzhi (1945 – )

You Can’t Exactly Stroke a Fish

Or can you? You just said it, but is it strictly true? Maybe someone, somewhere has stroked a fish. There may even be a profession of fish-stroker similar to horse-whisperer or chicken-sexer. My mind is heckling me.

To give the above some context, Godmother Elect and I are sitting once again in Mum’s nursing home room. Mum is watching TV, or so the Home would have us believe, just as they would have us believe she has been reading that ancient, water-stained copy of Woman’s Weekly on her little wheelie-table, or leafing through that disintegrating book of colour photos of lakes and castles . Window dressing!

This morning on TV it’s property porn. You know the kind of thing – New Homes In The Country,  Splendid Homes By The Sea, Coast or Country Which Will You Choose? Iceland or Azerbaijan Which Will It Be? I must admit I used to like them, a bit, but the novelty’s long since worn off. Mum doesn’t care what she watches. Her eyes follow the flickering screen. How thin she is now.

GE and I spend the statutory ten minutes trying to engage/include Mum in conversation. That’s a nice birthday card, Mum. Who’s that one from? It’s from the Home. Somebody in the office has run off a sheet of A4 paper on a colour printer and folded it into a four-leaf card-shape. They have scribbling her name into the box on the front in crayon. Infant-school writing. Everybody gets that same card. Sometimes Mum gets the birthday cards of such of the other residents as can still shuffle about. They tend to circulate around the corridors.

Godmother Elect and I then do what we always end up doing and relapse into adult conversation whilst keeping an eye on Mum and rescuing her teetering plastic mug of tea at intervals. Today I was telling GE about my Befriender visit yesterday to an old lady, and being taken out to admire the koi carp in the pond in her back garden. GE and I agree that koi carp are very beautiful creatures and compare notes as to the likely price of even a medium-sized koi at an aquatic centre. GE, a dog person through and through, said that fish were all right but she couldn’t really warm to them as pets. No, I said, you can’t exactly stroke a fish.

So, that’s the context. I still find it difficult to say meaningless stuff. Hence the heckling. The strictly logical side of my ‘wiring’ objects to it even now. But I do know it’s the proper thing to do…

(Sorry – distracted. Charlie-over-the-the road has been scanning the bar codes of his delivery round parcels, topless, as usual. He has been ignoring loud claps of thunder and the flashes of lightning following imminently upon them. The parcels are set out on his driveway, as usual, ready to go in his car. And now the rain comes, falling in sheets and torrents on everybody’s mail order goods, as the bangs and flashes continue. A torn plastic cagoule now covers Charlie’s almost-nakedness but nothing covers the parcels as he rushes about trying to rescue them. And there are hundreds. I do love a good disaster. But poor Charlie.)

…but I know it’s the proper thing to do. When I was a child people assumed, and I suppose I assumed too, that I was shy. In fact I was socially unequipped, which isn’t quite the same thing. Lacking any instinctive knowledge I became a keen observer of Homo Sapiens, and even more so of Homo NotVeryMuch Sapiens, like poor Charlie. I observed that they spoke a lot of rubbish most of the time but it didn’t seem to matter. After a while I worked it out – it doesn’t matter what you say when you are forced into the company of your fellow humans. It only matters that you say something.

Later still, at teacher training college, I learned that this kind of thing is known as phatic conversation. Phatic means words or actions whose purpose is to show the other person that you are friendly, not dangerous, that you like them, or might like them, that you want to be friends.

It’s also known as ‘stroking’, ie ‘That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing, Ivy. Where did you buy it?” or “I wish my kids were as well-behaved as your three!” or “That’s just fascinating. Do tell me more…” Apparently there is a kind of unspoken tariff for ‘strokes’ too. On the whole one earns one in return, but on occasion it can be more complicated. It depends how much you want the other person to like you, how much you have to gain from them – or even how frightened you are of them. You are exchanging nicenesses.

All this is – or was – foreign to me. For a long time I laboured under the misapprehension that if I were to say something stupid/meaningless/dull/trite I would be ruthlessly judged and found wanting. I must be interesting – the Oscar Wilde of small talk – or keep quiet.

So most of the time I said nothing. This is not the same thing as being shy. I did want to talk to people, just misunderstood how the thing was done. You don’t have to be perfect straight away. You start with the fish-stroking and lovely dress stuff and then, if and when you get to know people well, you can say stuff that means something and, if you’re lucky, they will say stuff that means something back.

Ah well, you live, you watch, you learn.

‘Av yer seen the ginger cat?

Charlie: my nemesis.

I can see him now. I mean actually, not as a figment. He’s out on his driveway with that old heap of a silver car. Both are engulfed in a sea of parcels. The Hermes lorry has just been.

You’d think Charlie and I would be the best of friends. I suppose in a way we are since he’s the other Cat Person in this road. He’s the only other one that rescues cats rather than trying to chase them away with a pitchfork and/or murder them. We have this much in common – eccentric, misfits, shabby, shy and surrounded by rescued animals.

And then there’s Felix. Felix is one of the loves of my life, cat-wise – I can’t say the love, cat-wise, as there was once another.

Charlie got Felix when Felix’s owner died. I got her other two cats, Rufus and Missy. I didn’t mind giving them a home – really – and no one else would have had them. Missy is fluffy, grumpy and spherical – God knows how she got to be that shape – and has an odd left eye – looks like the iris has broken and spilled out all over it. Rufus is ancient and bony. He’s a biter and has an odd right eye – all brown and permanently weeping. They hate each other.

I wanted Felix.

Felix isn’t fussed who he belongs to. He spends much of the day in my back garden, birdwatching / killing, but reports back to Charlie of an evening. When we all occasionally meet up in the middle of the road Felix tangles himself around our legs, chirping up at both of us in a diplomatic, non-committal fashion.

But Charlie always seems to set something off in me – some terrible primal Anxiety and Bewilderment. And he’s always either losing his own cats or worrying about strays. Yesterday lunchtime he buttonholed me returning from a trip to the tip with garden waste. My heart sank as the familiar, shambling figure approached. I wound down the car window. He leant in, slightly too far. Onion sandwiches.

‘Av yer seen the ginger cat recently?’

You need to be always a couple of steps ahead in a conversation with Charlie. He’s not the greatest supplier of information.

‘The ginger…?’

‘E’s got very thin?’

‘Oh, the ginger and white one. Tom, unneutered, quite grubby?’

‘Yus, the ginger one that’s got very thin. I ‘aven’t caught sight ‘im for quite a while. Used to see ‘im out and about, down the other end of the village, up the hill. ‘Aven’t seen ‘im. Reckon Something Dreadful’s ‘appened to ‘im.

‘E was a nice cat, too. I thought maybe you’d rescued ‘im?’

‘No, sorry.’  I seem to have rescued all the other stray cats on the Island, apart from the ginger one. Possibly they are now bussing stray cats in from off-island. In the dead of night the doors swish open and a stream of them alight, with their little suitcases, right outside my front door.

He shakes his head mournfully and shambles off over the road. I wonder how he keeps those few long strands of hair in place. I wonder how his trousers stay up and whether he ever washes.

But now he’s set me off.  Now I can’t stop thinking about the ginger cat. I put some food out. Poor thing’s probably decaying in a ditch somewhere or locked in someone’s garage, but now I’m glued to the patio door and the view down the back garden. Every time I pass that view I look out. Where is that Lost Ginger Cat? I am getting obsessed. I put more food out.

I put food out again that night. In the morning the dish is polished clean, but that’s not good. That’s what the hedgehog does. I put out more food for the sun to burn down on and bluebottles to lay their eggs in. I am still glued to the view down the back garden. Where could he be, the Poor Ginger Cat? And then that evening I catch sight of him en passant.  He looks thin, but no thinner than before. He sniffs at the various food dishes dotted around the lawn and ignores them all. He’s about important business. He is en passant and will not pause.

I must let Charlie know. He’ll be overjoyed.

Charlie is deaf and never comes out when you knock, so I wait until the Hermes lorry comes along knowing this alone will winkle my neighbour out of his house. I watch from behind the net curtains till the Hermes man has finished flinging a huge stack of loose parcels and canvas bags containing other parcels from the back of his lorry into the road. I watch as Charlie starts to drag stuff up onto his driveway. The canvas bags are almost as big as he is.

Timing it to perfection, as the Hermes lorry begins its long, beeping reverse I skip out. Guess what, Charlie. I spotted the ginger cat. Yes, at seven o’clock last night…

Ginger cat? Charlie does not look up. He is surveying the monstrous heap of parcels on his driveway and scratching his few remaining wisps of hair. He’s visualising his route, I guess. He’s Anxious and Bewildered, trying to work how long this lot is going to take him to get rid of, assuming he can get them sorted and stuffed into the car by mid-morning…

Ginger cat was yesterday.

Marmite Mouse Hangs Up His Spurs

I don’t think I ever told you about George.

George arrived one teeming February morning, upside-down in the arms of Sylvia, a vintage lady of, I would guess, theatrical connections. He was black and white in random patches; he was very small, very young, very  hungry and very wet. His legs were caked with mud.

It keeps coming round, said Sylvia. It keeps asking to be fed and I do feed it, sometimes, but I can’t keep on. And I can’t pick it up, you see, because of my chest. As if to demonstrate, she was shaken by a long, chesty cough.

I’m allergic, you see.

Privately, I thought a lifetime of smoking Players Extra Strong might have contributed to her cat-allergy.

I have never, ever referred to an animal as “it”. All animals have a gender and a name, which they will tell us if we ask them nicely. George was telling me that his name was George. He didn’t need to tell me he was a tom, and an unneutered one, since he was upside down with his legs in the air.

So I took him in, and paid for him to be neutered, de-wormed, de-flea’d and expensively poked and prodded by the local vet. After that, Sylvia brought me three more cats, spread over a year or so. Sylvia, like Charlie, is a species of menace. I’ve told you about Charlie.

George is also a menace, although he doesn’t mean to be. I suspect he’s either not very bright, or short-sighted. He falls off every surface he throws himself at – and he throws himself at a lot of surfaces. He walks past his food bowl every single time, though he has been frantically pacing the work surface for minutes. I feed him first, yet at the end of the Feeding of the Thirteen, George somehow has no bowl of food; everyone’s food is more interesting than his; he inspects them all and eats nothing. George intersects your trajectory, wherever you go. He will always manage to be exactly where your feet are when you walk across a room. He has a permanently bewildered look. But I am fond of him.

Hence the impulse purchase, in Tesco, of Marmite the mouse. Marmite is vaguely brown, made of pear-shaped pieces of felt. His body is flat, being unstuffed, and his nose is cone-shaped. He has round felt ears, frayed and permanently pinned back now due to repeated traumas in the washing-machine. Tesco no longer seem to sell the Marmite Mouse, though they sell other, less interesting mice. At one point – I’d just got a sewing machine – I even tried to make a Marmite Mouse pattern, but Marmite is more complicated than he looks. Normally I’m quite good at that spatial stuff but none of his home-made “replacements” looked anything like him.

Marmite became Marmite, I think, because of his propensity to be loved and hated simultaneously. If – not being English, perhaps – you are unfamiliar with the vegetarian food-spread known Marmite, you may find this simile problematic. Marmite – the food-spread – has a very strong and distinctive taste, put it like that. A Marmite Company, in temp agency parlance, is a company some temps love to work for and others refuse at all costs to venture into.

George has loved Marmite – loved him almost to death. For almost a year, Marmite has been hooked on George’s scimitar claws, bitten on the nose by George’s sharp young teeth. George has attempted (unsuccessfully, since he’s George) to chew off Marmite’s ears, and gouge out his little eyes.

The cats have got a kind of ladder/platform arrangement in the kitchen. They run up the ladder and perch on one of several shelves. Once in a while George manages to get to the top shelf without falling off, and there he waits, impatiently, for me to locate Marmite. Often he’s under the washing machine or in one of the litter trays or squashed into a corner somewhere gathering dusty. It has been my job to throw Marmite into the air so that George can leap up and either catch Marmite between his clumsy paws or fall right off the platform. This game – which mothers will no doubt recognise – is a variety of “throw teddy out of the pram” and results in “Mummy” getting far more exercise than “baby”/George.

However, just recently Marmite has been showing signs of exhaustion. Enough is enough, Big Mummy, I have heard him pleading. No more Georgie. So, Sir Marmite Mouse has entered an honourable retirement. He has hung up his spurs and divested himself of his armour. (No? No, I knew you weren’t going to believe the bit about the chain mail.) He has had one final adventure in the washing machine and now accompanies me all over the place as my lucky mascot. Sometimes he is in my coat pocket, sometimes in that capacious bag of mine. You never know where he’s going to pop up next.

George is still looking.