Objets Perdus

Now, this is a bit of a strange one, and I have been putting off writing about it for days. Something to do with shame, I think – shame and sorrow. But what’s the best way for a writer to call up and exorcise her ghosts?

Write about them.

When I was a child I had a (very) few treasured objects, and one by one I lost them or gave them away. Something seems to compel me to ‘lose’ the things that mean the most to me – and not just objects, people. One by one, I have mislaid them all.

Setting aside the people, because nothing at all can be done about them. Those objects…

I had a copy of Aesop’s Fables. It was a beautiful book – they are ferociously expensive to buy second-hand now. You know, I thought, until this very moment, that I had given it away. I had been wracking my brains to think how I gave it away. Why would I have done that with my beloved Aesop? I read that book over and over. The fables, and the beautiful but slightly creepy illustrations, those glossy, full-page watercolours, seeped into my childhood consciousness.

But I gave it away. Or did I? I just turned sideways and there it was, sitting in the bookcase beside me. It has lost it’s cover, the boards have faded from scarlet to orange, but – still here. Inside I have written my full maiden name, in ink, in weird little-girl writing. Two pages on and an inscription reads With love to Rosie, on her 7th Birthday. From Grandma & Grandpa. Well, Rosie or, you know, whatever.

But other objects I really did lose. I once had a stone, with the impression of a prehistoric sea creature upon it, like a tiny octopus. I found it half-buried in the path between the allotments. It was as if it had been waiting for just me, that magical fossil, for billions and billions of years. If only I had kept it, if only I had not somehow lost it – what luck it might have brought me.

And I gave away my Odhams Encyclopaedia for children. I remember the struggle I had at the time. It was when my niece was born and I foolishly had this idea that the child should “inherit” something of value from her auntie. And I have regretted the loss of that book ever since.

And then there was my teddy bear. I temporarily forgot about him and instead of taking him with me when I got married I foolishly left him with Mum. In fact he was up in the attic, and I didn’t realise. Mum and my sister are alike in “getting rid”. She accidentally informed me one day, several years later, that she had given my bear to Oxfam. After all, she knew I wouldn’t want it.

I never stopped missing my bear. I mourned for him. Even now – especially now, when I am old – I want my teddy bear back. I realised today that that was what my teddy-bear buying jag had been all about. I now have a cupboard full of disreputable 1950s teddy-bears courtesy of E-bay. None of them are my bear, but I have rescued them. I couldn’t save it but I have saved them.

I know, it doesn’t make sense.

And now I have gone and saved “my” Encyclopedia. And in fact I have saved more than one of them because the other day eBay came up with a second, horribly battered copy for only £2 and I bid the £2 and won. To my surprise. The first one, which arrived a week ago, cost a massive £20 but is in excellent condition. Unlike me, its owner must have held it close, kept it. Presumably there will soon be a stack of second-hand Odhams Encyclopaedias on my coffee table, all ridiculously, pathetically rescued by some ancient woman, just in case one of them might turn out to have been her actual one.

When I was a child the page that fascinated me the most was the one with the anaconda. My mother used to take the mickey, saying that the encyclopaedia would fall open at the snakes page of its own accord. I do hope it was nothing sexual. I mean, I was very young and, lacking any kind of brother (though over-supplied with sisters) did not even suspect the existence of that appendage which, according to Dr Freud, snakes represent.

In my memory the anaconda took up the whole of the page and was vividly coloured, green and gold and glittery. Now I see that it is smaller, and in black and white, but I still like the way the artist has coiled and draped the various snakes around the branches, the way the pictures and the text bleed into one another.

How beautiful that anaconda was to me, and how utterly terrifying. In my mind’s eye I stood before him in the South American jungle, tiny-small in my cotton check school dress and pudding-basin haircut. Anaconda was looking at me out of that glittery, sardonic eye. He was weighing up whether to wrap me in his sinuous, gorgeous coils and crush me to smithereens. Because that is what anacondas do, being the largest of the boa constrictor family.

And I wished he would. And I wished he wouldn’t.

And this is him, my beloved, my childhood version of God: the anaconda, unchanged over the decades and decades since I first caught sight of him.

Why do we lose the things we love?

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‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

When I came across this story it was attributed to James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson, purporting to be something the great man himself had confided.

The story goes that Samuel Johnson’s father took him out for a day’s fishing, and this was the first and only time it happened. Samuel was so very happy that day, he wrote in his diary that he had had the Best Day Ever. Many years later he came across his late father’s diary and couldn’t resist looking up the entry for that day. His father had written:

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

This little story had an immediate effect on me. I found myself back there, in that dusty loft or study or whatever, inhabiting the body of the young Samuel Johnson, feeling his sadness.

I suppose you automatically relate these things to your own experiences. I was linking the Samuel Johnson story to a tiny conversation I had with my mother, maybe ten years ago. We didn’t really realise then that she had dementia: one of the first things to go in her case was empathy – oh yes, and tact – but then the two are intertwined. It seemed safe enough, at this great distance in time, to say that I always assumed my youngest sister had been her favourite. I expect I was hoping she would say ‘Oh no, my dear, we loved all three of you the same.’

‘Yes, she was’, she said, ‘and your middle sister was your Dad’s favourite, always’. Why did she have to add that always? Salt in the wound.

This sort of thing is not supposed to matter as you get older, but of course it does. It just seemed to me that the equation didn’t balance, it was one short. There needed to have been three parents – one to favour each of my sisters and one to love only me. It occurs to me now that this could be one of the ground rules for Brave New World – precisely as many parents in a family as there are children.

Fishing around the internet a bit more (oh dear, a pun) I discovered the same fishing story was said to have happened to virtually every father-and-son combination including some 19th Century political chap called Charles Frances Adams and his son Brook Adams. I also found short stories purported to have been entirely imagined by not-very-good amateur writers. I think it may be one of those urban myths that everybody ‘remembers’ or swears to be true, or ‘knows someone who knows someone who knew the person it happened to’.

I was trying to think of some others. There used to be one about a poodle accidentally cooked in a microwave oven, and one about a man with a bloodstained axe lying low in the back of the car whose mad visage suddenly rears up and appears in the rear view mirror. The classic is the one about the hitchhiker, picked up on some dusty highway and then mysteriously vanishing, often while the car is still moving.

I also found some modern day computer-based ones. There are a whole lot of translations computers are supposed to have made of sayings and book titles. For example:

Angry Raisins (Grapes of Wrath)
Blind & Insane (Out of Sight, Out of Mind)
The Vodka was Good, but the Meat was Rotten (The Spirit is Willing, but the Flesh is Weak)

I suppose the thing is a good story is a good story, and why let it go to waste? Embellish it, change the names, pass it on and take the whole credit for it, why not? I expect that’s how the human race has been functioning since ever it first began to talk.

2: Supping with the Devil

Continued from 1: A house divided (technically, published on 29/7. You might need to use the Search box)

It’s a hopeless task, really, trying to explain how an alternative brain-wiring scheme works. I don’t know what it feels like to be inside a different kind of brain. Each of us has either the one experience or the other, so in what terms can I describe my experience?

Dad used to hit me. I think maybe later in life he realised he could be fond of me, but not in those early days. I soon learned not to meet his eye, not to answer back, not to say anything, but he didn’t like that either. He knew I was afraid and he just couldn’t resist the challenge. It would start off in the third person: She’s not saying much – what’s up with her? Then it would go to the first: Cat got your tongue, has it? Hey, you, I’m talking to you. He used to taunt me until I rose to the bait, until I snapped, answered back, pleaded or cried. And then he used to hit me.

I remember crouching once against the front door, with its bobbled glass panels. My head was against the lowest row of glass panels, my left arm covering my head. I remember the fancy sculpted shape of the wooden bits that divided the glass and the rough texture of the cocoanut doormat through the thin cotton of my school dress. I remember waking covered in vomit (the bedroom wall was the background that time) because I had cried myself to sleep. I remember rocking, rocking and howling, and saying over and over to myself for hours, or so it seemed: I will never, never have children. I will never, never do this to them. Sometimes I wonder if that was why. If on that one day, rocking and howling, at the age of eleven I actually killed off all those little eggs.

He used to get off his bike and wheel it round the side and into the garage. I would be listening to his heavy footfall and the sound of his bicycle wheels slowly click-clicking by his side. A monster, a giant was about to burst through the back door. There would be the urgent, whispered conversation between the two of them, before the door was even closed – that was me being reported on. A quick look in my direction, that frown, and then he would hit me. Or maybe he would just send me to my room; or sometimes, for variety, grab me by the collar and drag me to my room. If I resisted he might drag me by the hair along the polished passage floor to my room, blubbering. I would be in there for hours, until I wrote a note apologising in general terms – since in specific terms I didn’t actually know what I had done – crept out and pushed it under the kitchen door.

Whether Dad’s bullying had anything to do with me being odd I will never know. It was beyond my limited understanding. Another thing I didn’t understand at the time was why Mum never stood up for me. Knowing the consequences, why hadn’t she dealt with my crimes herself, before he got home? As it was, the minute he got in from work he was faced with a whispered, unfavourable report. She expected him to ‘do’ something to stop her being upset. And he certainly did.

In retrospect I think Mum was like me, or maybe mildly autistic. Dad was her prop and her shield against the world and she knew she couldn’t – or didn’t want to – cope without him. If he could burn off most of his frustration on me, he would be closer to her. Nothing would be her fault and she would keep him on her side, at her side whatever the cost, no competition. I suppose that’s scapegoating. She fed me to him, that’s what I feel.

Godmother has been around since I was just a bump. She babysat for Mum and Dad in the early days, when they had weekly meetings at the Cycling Club. Recently I asked her about some of this stuff, half expecting that she would say no, it wasn’t like that, you misunderstood – but she had seen it too. She said my father probably shouldn’t have got married and had children. I said maybe he would have been happier staying single, having serial girlfriends, going out on his bike whenever he wanted, not having to work so hard to support all those great lanky girls. He was a handsome enough chap, after all. But she said he probably couldn’t have got away with that. In the 50s marriage and children were the norm.

What that ’50s childhood taught me was that I wasn’t going to win. An unnatural, un-cuddly sort of baby – according to Mum – morphed into a fractious, defensive child, an automatic arguer and questioner of authority; an impulsive blurter-outer; a foolish answerer-back of people much larger and stronger than herself; a raging, hysterical demander of impossible justice. I learned that I was fatally flawed and that my Achilles’ heel was a combination of femaleness and my difference. I realised that I would not be able to get through life without some sort of bodyguard, and bodyguards were usually husbands.

My mother married my father in 1949 or thereabouts. He was six foot four inches tall, athletic and seven years older than her. He could be charming. He had a sense of humour, plenty of funny stories, a few silly songs and poems. He was at ease talking to  strangers when she was definitely not. He could tell her what to think and what to do. She never once voted a different way, she had no friends but their joint friends. At one point they were both agnostics, and then they were both humanists. They’d sent for all the pamphlets and signed all the forms. It was impossible to talk to one of them independently of the other or even catch one in a different room to the other. Especially towards the end they seemed to have merged into a single being. They stayed happily married until his death, after which Mum got increasingly deaf, then distressingly psychotic, finally settling into a less dramatic kind of dementia.

In ’70s I married a man nine years older than me. He looked like Dad and – guess what – was very definite in his opinions and would brook no argument. On one ‘courting’ visit he won an argument with Dad, and it was at that precise moment that I knew I had found the one. Later on I realised that he talked all the time – droned on, in fact – and since he never paused for breath everyone had to listen to him. In any case, since he was very clever and pretty gifted in several different fields, people admired him. It was as if they were in the presence of royalty. In the pub they would gather round in a circle and gawp at him open-mouthed as he held forth on art, music, model engineering or whatever. I used to watch them sometimes; their expressions. They never noticed because their eyes were glued to him. I didn’t need to join in, couldn’t have done if I had wanted to, and nobody expected me to. When we were alone he barely spoke. This suited me well enough for the first fifteen years or so, although I knew within the first week that it wasn’t going to be joyful.

That seems to be the thing with ‘shield’ relationships. The stronger one shields the weaker, but the power they use to shield you they are draining from you. In the presence of Ex, I would not have dared make a joke. I couldn’t have launched into one of my interminable ‘tales’. I couldn’t have showed off or spoken up, contradicted, criticised, interrupted, sung, recited a poem or laughed. An overbearing husband can hide you from the world, but will also hide you from yourself. Gradually, from behind the shield of his loud voice, broad shoulders, manly tweeds (Germaine Greer’s expression) or whatever, you find yourself fading away. You merge into the wallpaper and turn into a living ghost.

It’s a cliché, isn’t it, escaping your father by marrying someone just like him. On one of his alternate weekend ‘courting’ visit to my family (he used to camp in the living room at mine, I was installed in the spare room at his) he won an argument with my father. He didn’t shout – well, neither of them shouted – but there was this tense, gruff, masculine thing going on. They both just continued ‘reasoning’ at one another, going round and round in circles. Mum and I cringed quietly in our armchairs, waiting for all the windows to shatter and bricks and mortar start crumbling around us. No one contradicted Dad. Except, it seemed, Ex.

See 3: Send in the clowns

A plague on all your Houses

Do you ever suddenly realise – now – something that ought to have been perfectly obvious at the time but wasn’t – because you were a child?

The other night I was lying in the bath, re-reading passages from Stephen King’s On Writing and simultaneously trying to fend off the three-legged cat, who was trying to eat the hairband I had scrunched my hair up in, and about to fall into the hot water. He has no sense, which may be why he ended up at the age of 2 or thereabouts with a leg missing…

And as I was lying in the bath etc., etc I suddenly thought:

When I was at Junior School we had things called House Points.

I can remember my father, who thought he was funny but actually tended to – not be, making a huge fuss about House Points. He thought they were hilarious. Take two house points, he used to say, though mostly to my younger sisters. I never seemed to deserve even one house point.

I recalled, suddenly, a big whiteboard thing on the left-hand wall of my classroom, and how it had been divided into colours – red, green, yellow and blue. When you did something clever, like get 10 out of 10 for maths, or were nauseatingly, toady-ingly obedient to the teacher’s demands, you got given a stick-on star, either in ‘your’ colour or in silver or, rarely, in gold. And you marched proudly up to the whiteboard in front of the whole class and stuck your star on.

And when you did sports, you collected a canvas band in ‘your’ colour and were forced to run about and jump over things on behalf of it. Though strappingly built and tall for my age, I had absolutely no stamina and would become crippled with the Stitch after running a couple of yards, but all teachers persisted in the delusion that strapping and tall must equal athletic. So I rarely won stars for my team. And I was really bad at maths, which was the best thing for getting stars in, so I never got any stars for that…

My allotted colour was blue, and blue was Wolf. Yellow was Sydney, Red was Chatham and Green was Darwin, and these were all Famous People, though we were never told why. Later I would discover that Darwin was the chap with the long straggly beard who invented Natural Selection and horrified Victorians by suggesting we had descended gradually from apes rather than being invented all on one day by God. Wolf, I think, may have been some sort of General who did something or other military in Canada. Chatham I suspect may have been a politician or Prime Minister, possibly Pitt the Younger. Sydney – no idea.

And then I thought:

Why were they called House Points?

And then I thought:

Oh, of course, our allotted colours and names (Blue/Wolf) were our houses, so the different coloured stars we got were house points. Duh! So it was a bit like Harry Potter and Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, except much, much duller.

It’s funny how memory works. From my first day at Infant School to my last day at Junior I knew both the Christian name and Surname of my fellow Infants, or Juniors, by heart. I can hear them now – Peter-Wheeler, Andrew-Begley, Lynda-Smith – and this is because every morning we had the calling of the Register, the names being read out in alphabetical order so that you could shout Present, or Here Miss, or whatever, and Miss could make a tick next to your name, with her fountain pen.

Now, I tend to recall the Christian names of a few close friends most of the time, although even those tend to escape me at odd moments, infuriatingly, usually when tired or distracted. You have this annoying situation where you can see someone’s face, know exactly where you first met them and whether you liked them or not, maybe recall huge swathes of their family history, but their name won’t swim to the surface.

Or you get this weird thing where information crops up, but not the information you want or need. So, I see a woman on the other side of the room, I know I worked with her once and where, I know what I thought of her and exactly what job she did – but not her name. I do, however, know that she had a daughter called Bethany, because she talked about her all the time but would pronounce it Beffany – my Beffany – and that this Beffany was some kind of wondrous prodigy…

The thing is, I don’t need to know this, any more than I needed to know why house points were called house points, or who Chatham was, or Sydney. And as for Beffany, I never met Beffany, thank goodness, and never will. Why does my brain waste so much energy on all this redundant stuff? Why can’t it conserve it’s limited energy and focus on useful stuff?

Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.

My disbelief grows weary of suspending itself…

I’m onto a sticky wicket with suspenders, I know. American suspenders are as illustrated below:

suspenders

British suspenders are things that hold up stockings, supposedly wicked, lacy and black (or red) but as I recall them from my uncomfortable schooldays, more often medical, pinkish and rubbery, and held together with sixpenny pieces when they broke. They always broke. The rubber perished. The little suspend-things cracked and disintegrated…

So what do Americans call suspenders-suspenders if what we call braces are there known as suspenders? But what holds up American stockings? If that’s suspenders too, how do they know what they are holding up? Is it just a matter of deduction from the context?

But this post is not about that.

When I was at school, struggling with the uncomfortable suspenders and the 60-denier sun-mist-stockings-with-seams – surely the ugliest stocking ever invented (not about that, remember!) it was explained to me that when we get completely lost in a book, or a film, or a story told by some grey-haired hippie-type lady whilst sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the library (pre-suspenders) was called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

I did not used to find this difficult, except in the case of plays. Plays have never done it for me. I’ve never been able to get past the reality of a lot of foreshortened real human beings prancing about on a stage and acting at one another. I can tell it’s acting. I can always tell it’s acting, even if it’s good acting, and it annoys me. People are pretending and I can see them doing it.

A posh lady I went to a play with once advised me that this was probably because I hadn’t grown up in a theatre-going household. She didn’t mean to be patronising, and she was right, partially – we didn’t go to plays, or the ballet or opera, come to that.

My parents were working class and, even if they could have afforded to go, would have been terrified to pass through the doors of a theatre. They wouldn’t have known what to wear or how to behave. They would have felt they stuck out like a sore thumb.

An all-encompassing self-consciousness is one of the things which go with being not-posh. Only when you are middle class can you raise your voice above a low murmur, not minding if others hear. Only when you are middle class can you walk about with your shoulders back and your snoot in the air, flinging your purple pashmina dramatically over your right shoulder, and not even know you are doing it. That’s confidence. Read Alan Bennett’s loving tales of his Mum and Dad if you don’t believe me. He knows. Alan Bennett is the greatest.

But I could get lost in a book. So could my mother, but my father appeared not to possess the suspension of disbelief gene. Maybe he lost it, as he lost so much, as a young conscript in the second world war. The war really did for him in a lot of ways, I think. He could never leave me alone when I was reading. He used to wave his hands in front of my face and think it was funny. ‘Look at her – she’s miles away. Away with the fairies.’ He never did understand why this was annoying.

Same with films, although mercifully my father wasn’t usually with me when I went to the pictures: I could be immersed in the story, living inside even the most far-fetched sci-fi blockbuster. I would be one or all of the characters, fleeing in terror from the scary monsters, falling in love, falling off a high building… The film’s ‘afterglow’ would stay with me for days afterwards, the story re-running itself in my head, scenes acting themselves out before my inner eye. And maybe it would still be the same, if I could afford to go.

Instead of fiction-reading, my father used to read out columns from newspapers – anything he found to be of interest. He was interested in politics and the financial markets, the way they worked, even though these things had little effect on his everyday life. We used to sit there bored, and the read-out paragraphs seemed to get longer and longer. When he grew ancient, however, propped up in a chair with a cushion behind his neck and the walker by his side, he lapsed into depression and scarcely spoke.  My mother used to gauge how happy, or not, he was by whether he read out any paragraphs. Eventually, he read out no paragraphs. He read nothing. He told my sister he had forgotten everything he had ever been or ever done. God save us.

As I have grown older I have become more interested in politics and found it more and more difficult – not to read – the words still make perfect sense – but to get lost in reading. My suspension of disbelief seems to have suspended operations. I am turning into my father, and this saddens me. Reading was all I had. I got through a tedious and difficult life mostly by daydreaming. I could lose myself in stories, and in plans I would never carry out, journeys I would never, practically, be able to make. Now, although I am still doing my best to get it back I feel – now here’s a simile for you, or maybe a metaphor – like a hunted rabbit, all exits sealed by the men with the dogs – or is it ferrets? – just an airless darkness and waiting for Whatever-it-is to be sent down after me.

There was a little girl, who had a little curl…

I never told this little story before. It’s a Very Sad Little Story.

When I was about two years old I was sitting at the kitchen table with my Mum. She had her wooden sewing box there on the table – the same wooden sewing box I recently rescued from the doomed bungalow – and from it she withdrew a fold of tissue paper containing one of my baby curls. Apparently I was blonde, for a short while. By the time the blonde curl was produced, however, my hair had turned a common or garden dark brown, and stayed that way till I started to go grey.

And my mother hands me the tissue paper and the curl to play with, or possibly just examine, but there’s not much difference when you’re two years old. And then she went off somewhere and I ruined the curl. I can remember my sadness and horror as the perfect blonde curl – something the workings of which I did not understand, never having previously seen or conceived of a disembodied curl – messed itself up and disintegrated in my pudgy little hands. I remember the sadness, particularly, and the full dawning knowledge that I had done a Wrong Thing.

And I had done a Wrong Thing. Mum’s reaction when she came back and found me, what was left of the curl in my outstretched hands, was similar to mine, only louder, and with tears.

I have never forgotten that, and I have never, ever stopped feeling guilty. It seemed to set the tone for the rest of my childhood, somehow. I was not a Proper Child. I Did Things Wrong.

Looking back on it now, I would say to Mum exactly what Nan said to Mum at the time (because Nan was there, just not in the kitchen). I would say, what made you think it wouldn’t get messed up? Whatever were you thinking?

But ever since then, if I have ever needed an excuse to hate myself, to revile myself for even coming into existence and having the temerity to set foot on this earth which would have been far better off without me… etc, etc, you know the drill… the curl comes first to mind. I mourn it still and long to somehow reverse life, like an old film, and put it back together again.

Well, this was meant to be another Totally Random Thursday but so far it has been all about a curl.

So what about this? I just (sort of) cut my hair using a method demonstrated by someone called Gloria Glam or Glamorous Gloria, I can’t remember which, on YouTube. Gloria Glam is without doubt the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen, and the most glam. My face in the mirror, with my hair bunched into a kind of cuckold’s horn on the front of my head, looked nothing like hers. Having brushed it forwards and done that – hers so thick and glossy, mine so thin and grey, you then bunch it again, and move the elastic thingy down. And then you cut it straight across like a horse’s tail. And then – and here’s the scary bit – you kind of jab upwards into it with the scissors. And what results is a kind of long layer cut. I must say it looks OK, if slightly eccentric. And I had to do something. My hair was getting so long it was streeeeeetching the elastic pony-tail band collection and the whole ghastly grey mane had a tendency to fling itself apart in public, including at a train station ticket office, once.

After that, the fringe was just a doddle.

I just did my budget. This is something I force myself to do every six months, just because it seems like something my mother would approve of if compos mentis (mother, again, and guilt) but in fact it makes no difference at all to the finances apart from forcing you to confront the fact that like dear old Mr Micawber you are still spending too much, and rapidly running out of options for cutting anything. Except perhaps your own hair.

Finally, Oxford Street. I just watched half a repeat of a documentary programme going ‘behind the scenes’ at London’s most famous shopping street, showing how everything kind of works. This week the focus was on rubbish. They interviewed the man who supervised the overnight cleaning squad – a joyous man, who could not help smiling as he said – over and over again, in fact – that he would like the pavements of Oxford Street to be clean enough for people to walk barefooted on. And in fact some – mostly ladies – were walking barefoot. A long night’s dancing, no doubt, and high heels.

And then there was a young couple celebrating the one-year anniversary of their first meeting, in Oxford Street. They had asked to be taken down the sewers under Oxford Street as an extra special treat because they shared a nerdish fascination with a phenomenon known as fatbergs. I promise I won’t describe one of these and its contents in detail, but basically it’s like arteries getting clogged up with cholesterol. Fat clings to the walls and forms a kind of narrowing or berg to which more fat then appends. And after a while the valiant sewer men climb down there in their white plastic suits with their special shovels and chip it all off so that London is not overwhelmed by its own fatty deposits. Apparently in 2015 they cleared a berg the size of a London bus that was causing the sewer to collapse inward from the sheer weight of it…

When the young couple emerged from the manhole they seemed blissfully happy. It was so romantic, they said, as they peeled off their white suits and handed them back to the sewer men. But it was so nice to breathe fresh air again. And off they went, hand in hand, hopefully to take a shower.

And then I got to wondering whether Oxford Street actually did lead to Oxford. I mean, if you just couldn’t get enough fresh air after the sewers and needed to just keep on walking – for weeks and weeks, maybe, would Oxford ever be on the menu?

Turns out it would be. Oxford Street is technically, though signposts don’t mention it, part of the A40 which goes all the way to Wales, via Oxford. If you just kept going you would end up in a delightful little place  in North Wales called Fishguard. It looks like this:

Boats in harbour Lower Fishguard Pembrokeshire South Towns and Villages

So now you know. 🙂

The day the war was won

Nan told me about the day the war was won,

How they stood on the back step shading their eyes from the sun,

How the aeroplanes came howling, howling by,

Scorching black patterns in the August sky.

After the aeroplanes, the song of the birds –

After the birds,

Came I.

 

The war grew in her garden – London Pride,

Poppies enough to drug the days away,

An air-raid shelter for a garden shed –

Tug at the door, feel the hot air burst free,

Sour with old earth, and poison for the weeds –

Those rusty spades, those trapped and shrivelled spiders

Hanging in corners.

spitfire

 

I was blasted in that garden before I grew,

A disregarded child who knew

Nothing, heard nothing, part of the scenery,

One with the nodding of foxgloves, the buzz of the bee.

I was never real at all, just one of their dreams,

Caught in the aftermath,

A kind of lie.

Walking Ghosts

A strange coincidence – yesterday I wrote about having dreamed of my grandfather on the day he died, and feeling that it was I who had now become the ghost, and then yesterday evening, on the News, video of this unexpected art project taking place in various UK cities as a tribute to the men who died on the Somme. I thought it was amazing, and I’m not often amazed. How better to bring the sadness and the great losses of war home to people.

The whole concept of what is and is not “art” seems to be changing – or at least, it has changed since I was a gel. I grew up in a working-class household and at no time did it occur to any of us that art was for working-class people too. “Art” was something posh people went to galleries to stare at. Art was square pictures in square frames.

Posh art was in ornate, gilded frames and was mostly about pink and cream naked ladies, usually rather large, with a laughable wisps of drapery here and there. Either that or it was statues with no arms, or Romans on plinths with sightless eyes and no bodies. Or it was Picasso, and who could understand him? I mean, people just didn’t have both eyes on the same side of their face, did they? Even posh people.

Amateur art lived in cheaper, less twiddly frames and was mostly really bad. It was the sort of thing you saw strapped to the railings at the seaside – dreadful watercolours of nothing in particular – portraits of women with thighs like sacks of potatoes, that might have been wearing jodhpurs but probably weren’t; odd little oil-paint boats pinned to static oil-paint seas with fluffy little oil-paint clouds creeping over them.

Later I married an artist, but the gradual expansion in my taste for art happened in spite of rather than because of him, since he was only really interested in his own paintings, which were mostly of steam engines and aeroplanes. Everything else came under the heading of Interesting (yawn!). Someone gave me a very expensive book – or maybe I bought it for myself: Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art. Over half of its pages were colour plates, as I remember, and it covered the whole span of art, from cave drawings and native art to the present day, and not just paintings but drawings, architecture and sculptures. I discovered a taste for the medieval – or perhaps a bit later than that – for Dürer and Bosch. I discovered an unfashionable liking for the Pre-Raphaelites and all those elongated women with flowing titian hair. I discovered an even greater liking for drawings than paintings. I met Turner, Van Gough and Vermeer. I stumbled over still lives with skulls, rotting fruit and mysterious symbolism. I found that somebody had painted a shattering Scream on a bridge, and someone else had captured the elegant boredom of a French barmaid.

manet.jpg

A bar at the Folies Bergère: Manet

And now – now it seems that art and all the other arts are coming together. Visiting Leeds Castle I noticed a wickerwork dragon growing out of the ground by a pond, its coils to all appearances buried in mud and daffodils. I spot herds of flat cows on roundabouts; trees wearing knitted mufflers; gardens mysteriously appearing on scraps of waste ground; stencilled cartoons on walls that are instantly so valuable the wall itself gets stolen; ceramic poppies spilling from the Tower of London and First World War soldiers standing in the streets singing We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here. I stumble across poems mixed with music; songs that are really poems in disguise; poems that are partly drawings; cartoons that are really art; flash-crowds of people, summoned by social media, suddenly dancing some cool little dance in the street; staid buildings and monuments transformed by light-shows, or changing colour to mourn the victims of terrorism.

It seems to me art’s now more interesting and more democratic. It occurs to me that one day all the different boxes creativity now squeezes itself into will dissolve. Labels like art, architecture, music, poetry, novelising, dance, lighting, fashion, craft, acting – and who knows what other forms of creativity yet to be invented – might blend into one great synaesthesia of the imagination.

ghosts 2.jpg

Photo credits:

Walking Ghosts at Waterloo: Alastair Steward/ITV News; Soldiers among commuters: PA

The singing will never be done

Today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme, which was to go on for four and a half months and kill an unimaginable number of soldiers. My grandfather was in that war but I will never know whether he was at the Somme, because he never, ever talked about the war. Or anything much else, come to that. He was a silent man. We knew he had a double hernia from pushing heavy guns around, and would never get them treated. He lived into his nineties, still with the hernias; also with bits of shrapnel in his legs. We knew at some point, because of his injuries, he was assigned to light duties, which meant travelling back and forth across the channel, looking after horses being transported to the front. We knew he did embroidery.

This may sound strange, for a carpenter. We think he was taught it in hospital when he was recovering. We think he embroidered going across the channel, with the horses. The embroidery was always white – I have a feeling it might be called whitework – and had tiny round holes cut in it. Something like this:

embroidery 2

Or this:

white work

He died in hospital, after a fall. He was the first person I had seen near death. It was an awful place. Green, everything green, and all around us, old men dying in metal beds. He didn’t speak, but the look he gave me was almost hostile, as if to say “Seen enough, now?” I remember Mum giving me a sweet – like she would have done when I was a child, I suppose, to cheer me up. I remember the mixture of sweet and salt in my mouth: tears and barley-sugar.

The night he died I dreamt I was in his kitchen, just standing there, and he walked past me, muttering. I could see him but he couldn’t see me. I had become the ghost. I played Brothers in Arms to myself, and cried. My husband didn’t react to emotions at all, usually, but after watching me curiously for a while he ventured: It reminds you of your granddad? This was perceptive, for him.

Don’t you sometimes wish you could go back and watch someone’s life, like a film? Don’t you sometimes wish you didn’t miss out on it all, having been born too late? I wish I knew what made my grandad my grandad, what it felt like to be swimming in mud, hurt and surrounded by death. I wish I knew what made him fall in love with Nan, whose family lived in the same road, and whose sister was married to his brother. I wonder what it felt like when they walked up the road together one grey Christmas Eve morning, to be married almost alone at St Margaret’s, without the blessing or presence of either family. I wonder what he really thought of me, the annoying grandchild. He hardly spoke to me but allowed me to accompany him down the garden to dig up potatoes and pick mint for our Sunday dinner, or to play in the sawdust in his workshop, picking up and rearranging stray offcuts of wood while he got on with his ‘making things’. We didn’t seem to need words.

Everyone Sang: Siegfried Sassoon, 1920

And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

NaPoWriMo 6/4/16: Seven-League Boots

Once more I am a child on Grandma’s lawn,

Slitting the stems of the daisies and buttercups,

The green juice under my nails.

I thread them alternately, one by one,

For the chain must be long and contain

Both silver and gold.

 

I have seven-league boots.

I am looking out over the hills,

And when I grow up I will stride out over

Those green and simple miles.

 

But the sun goes in,

And inside me something fails.

If I should go, then who will mirror me?

If they forget, what homecoming can there be?

And the lawn becomes a prison, the hills the bars,

And the world becomes as far away

As Mars.

George and the Imaginary Dragon

George was a bully, no doubt about that. Looking back I can see it quite clearly but at the time… At the time Georgina was much admired, by many. After Lights Out she held forth on many subjects, albeit in whispers, and nobody contradicted her.  A hefty girl, with early-sprouting breasts, she assigned tasks and issued orders to the rest of us, her dorm-mate foot-soldiers, with the confidence of a Napoleon or a Nelson.

She didn’t like new girls, George, and she didn’t like small people. Unfortunately Arabella was both. She came from a background several notches above George’s – you could tell by her accent. She had a pony, in a paddock, at home. His name was Randolph. Foolishly, she mentioned this in George’s hearing. George – as we all knew – had neither paddock nor pony. George’s parents came from Eastbourne and had made their money from a bed and breakfast establishment.

Arabella was easily spooked. If you crept up behind her she would inevitably jump or scream. This made George laugh. Arabella was a sensitive and imaginative child. On all these counts she was grist to George’s mill: the perfect victim.

It started with the stories. After lights out,  George began to refer, casually, to the dragon that lived in the box room. The box room was at the end of our corridor. It was used to store suitcases, and the wooden sea-chests belonging to girls whose parents had packed them off “home” from overseas – from the Empire, as we said in those days.

George did not address her dragon tales to Arabella, but made sure she would overhear them. It was not a Loud Roaring dragon, she explained, but one of the Silent Types which are so much worse. Its scales were sometimes blue and sometimes green – iridescent, like mother-of-pearl. It was not a terribly big dragon, she said – but quite big enough to swallow a small child. Whole – she said – a child of, say, Arabella’s size – in one gulp.

Anaconda-like, for at least a week after feeding the Silent dragon would have a bump in the middle, said George. That, of course, was the child, still alive and in the process of being digested by its stomach juices. If you were foolish enough to creep up and lay your head on that dragon’s belly, said George, you would hear it gurgling disgustingly. Those were its juices at work. You might even hear a faint gasp or scream if what was left of the trapped child were to sense you there.

Then she started on the dares. She dared any one of us to go, at midnight, along the corridor to the box room. We could take a torch, she conceded. “Any one of you,” she said “can confirm that I am telling the truth. Who will be brave enough?” Nobody volunteered. This charade went on for several nights until George decided enough was enough – someone jolly well had to verify her story and she would select a volunteer. “Arabella,” she said, in a brisk, condescending tone. Off you go. You’d be about the right size to fit inside a dragon.”

She handed Arabella the torch. We couldn’t see the poor child’s face in the darkness but could guess ‘the colour had drained out of it’ as they say, in ghost stories. Then, twisting the handle silently, she opened the dormitory door and tiptoed out.

I don’t think George had really expected her to go. I suspect the idea was for Arabella to refuse, in terror, giving George a chance to mock, or maybe punish her. George could be inventive, when it came to punishments. We waited, in silence, for a minute or two.

“She must have reached the box room by now,” said George. “Unless she’s run away. Silly little squirt.”

“Maybe you should check, George,” I said. “As our leader.”

There may have been a smidgeon of malice behind this suggestion. I didn’t like George.

Arabella returned a little later, with Matron. She had gone straight to Matron’s quarters and spun her some tale… or maybe just told the truth. At any rate, she had snitched on George. Snitching was entirely infra dig, of course, but for some reason Arabella’s popularity was increased rather than decreased by this particular transgression.

But of George, no trace. She went to the box room. She did not come back. A search was made of the school, and of course of the room itself. There was nothing to be seen in there of anything but sea-chests and suitcases.

The excitement of the night before had rather upset my digestion. Rising from my bed in the cold morning light I tied my dressing-gown tightly around me and shuffled to the bathroom. The door of the box-room was ajar, and there, on the threshold was something rather large, blue and iridescent. I bent to pick it up.  It appeared to be a scale, even tapering to a point. Part of some tessellated pattern. I tested it with my finger. It was needle-sharp. I secreted it in my dressing-gown pocket and when the hols came round I took it home with me for safe-keeping. I collect… interesting objects. Have done so all my life.

And yes, my dear, here it is in my cabinet. Strange, is it not – how the glow has never dimmed…?

Could it be Falling Leaf Syndrome, doctor?

What is your earliest memory? Describe it in detail, and tell us why you think that experience was the one to stick with you.

It’s difficult to separate, sometimes, what you can remember, what somebody showed you a photograph of, or what you remember remembering but don’t remember directly now. If that makes sense? If not – it’s a getting old thing.

The first mental image I have of myself is from before I could walk. It’s from a black and white photograph. There I am, plonked down on the back garden path at Bedford Road. I am playing with a bucket – not one of those little plastic children’s buckets, no, but a full size cast-iron builder’s bucket. It is almost as big as me. I am wearing dungarees and a stupid sunhat. I look a bit fat, frankly – but then babies do. I am not smiling.

Bedford Road was an Edwardian(ish) terraced house in a long, long narrow road on the outskirts of a rather ghastly town. It’s still rather ghastly – famous for it, in fact – but hey, it’s a town. It has stuff like shops, and metalled roads, and railway stations, unlike here. I recently emailed Betty, my Godmother, to ask her what number we lived at. She’s older than Mum but still compos mentis – I knew she’d know. She told me. She lived next door to Mum and Dad at the time. She told me she used to come home from work at lunchtime and Mum would put me over the garden fence so that I could toddle up and down her garden path and chase the dog. She said she used to babysit me on a Friday so that Mum and Dad could attend Cycling Club meetings, and was always slightly worried in case I woke up as she was (still is) a single lady with no experience of babies. Mum never told me any of this, and now all her memories are gone. Details – like dead leaves, so fragile and so easily blown away.

The first proper, non-photograph, non-Betty memory I have of myself is when I was three. I thought this was pretty good, but Ex can recall lying in his cot as a baby and watching the model aeroplanes suspended from the ceiling spinning round. Possibly the start of a lifetime interest in aeroplanes. I wonder who made the models.

When I was three I was sitting on the closed seat of a brand new (disconnected, of course) toilet in the living room of the new bungalow Mum, Dad and Grandad were in the process of building. Mum’s still there now. So’s the toilet (connected, of course). Unfortunately Mum no longer recognises either the toilet or bathroom as real rooms. They have invaded them. They are In There Now. But I digress. I think we must have been having a tea-break. I vaguely remember Dad being there – so Mum must have been (she was never anywhere Dad wasn’t). How memories are layered. The same street, the same house, the same room and so many versions of your life lived out in it.

And now I am thinking of moving, and for some reason – maybe this is where Falling Leaf Syndrome kicks in – had an irresistible urge to set eyes on that house in Bedford Road again – the house where I was born. That must have been why I emailed Betty for the number – I didn’t realise it at the time. So, courtesy of Google Maps, I viewed it, and duly saved it to Favourites. Really, it looks just like thousands of other terraced houses – a narrow, mud-coloured sliver of downmarket real estate squashed into an endless vista of other, near-identical properties.

I can’t imagine myself actually living in the Bedford Road house – even if it was for sale – or in that town – can I? And yet I wish – I so wished – to be allowed to go inside and wander round, alone. For some reason I needed to know whether the stairs were on the left, as I remembered them, or on the right, as appears from the placement of the windows. And did the kitchen really did have a brown Belfast sink? I believe I wished to sit on that garden path (getting down there is a possibility, getting up again another matter) with bucket and stupid frilly hat if necessary – and become ‘me’ again, at the age when anything might have happened. Before it did happen, and went pear-shaped.

Falling leaves return to their roots. Chinese proverb, popularised by Adeline Yen Mah’s best-selling biography/autobiography: Falling Leaves (1998)

 

And as for Schrödinger…

Since I’ve been blogging I’ve realised something: I’m really, really square. See – I don’t even know what the current word for ‘square’ is, except that the very concept of squareness went out in the ‘60s. Or possibly the ‘50s. No doubt somebody will enlighten me.

There are so many things I don’t know. Yesterday I learned from a reader that there is an American author called Bukowski. Everybody on the internet seems to know all about Bukowski. For goodness sake, the poor man’s dead already and I’ve only just discovered he was alive. I ordered one of his books, entitled Women. I gather he liked women – women and alcohol. You know that ‘Look Inside’ arrow on Amazon? I looked inside. Yup, he definitely liked women. Still, I think, if I could get a quarter of the way through Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1971 (that hideous Tralala scene forced my exit from Last Exit) I can cope with Bukowski in 2016.

Nothing much shocks me now, in novels, except a dead dog. I’m afraid I love animals much more than people. People? Pah! I’m a cat lady, as my readers may know. I love cats, but not just cats – creatures in general. My mother used to repeat to all and sundry, a story about me. No, this is not the one she told the Mental Health Team psychiatrist (her psychiatrist, I hasten to add) about my having been an Unsatisfactory Infant. Apparently I just sat on her lap regarding her with a kind of fishy stare instead of – I don’t know, and don’t remember – what are babies supposed to do? Obviously, I failed my Being a Baby exam.

This story concerned a later encounter with a wasp. We had stopped at a roadside van/café and Dad bought us each a polystyrene mug of tea – probably tea rather than coffee, thinking back on it. Coffee was thought of as an overly-sophisticated American import in those days – certainly not suitable for children. Tea was safe enough. A wasp landed in my tea and I instantly emptied the whole mug onto the grass verge so that the wasp could escape. This was an eccentric thing to do, I gather. Afterwards I wondered about that. What would a normal person – a person who had passed their Being a Baby and subsequently their Being a Human Being exam with flying colours – what would they have done in those circumstances? A wasp is a wonder; a tiny, beautiful microcosm of the universe. Would they have taken pleasure in watching one die a slow and painful death in boiling liquid? Would they then have fished out its tiny, stripy corpse and drunk that liquid? That’s why I care more about creatures than people.

Even fictional ones. I read a literary novel a few years back – one of those ‘money’s worth’ ones with the five hundred or so chapters. I can’t remember the title or author now – female, Zadie Smith or someone of her ilk. I was fine with the listlessly failing marriage of couple concerned, their half-hearted adulteries in the afternoon and so forth. But then their little white dog got hit by a car and, enervated by all the adultery and failing-marriagery, they neglected to take their pet to be checked by the vet. They just assumed – in some minimally-alluded-to way – that he would get over his injuries in a day or so. He looked OK, more or less. But doggie died. To be fair, they did then feel quite bad, each of them, in their self-absorbed, bewildered, adulterous fashion. To be doubly fair, I would guess the authoress had deliberately set out to make this scene a shocker, and in that she succeeded. It was admirably crafted… but how could she have borne to write it?

They should have jumped off a fictional cliff hand in hand, or shot each other point blank with some handy, fictional blunderbuss. As far as I was concerned nothing could compensate for what that pair of numbskulls did to that poor, fictional dog. I shut the book with four hundred or so chapters left to go and didn’t open it again. Neither did I buy another of her novels. There’s no getting past a dead dog.

Similarly, if I read a book in which a cat appears to be taking centre stage – if the human characters, and particularly the heroine, seem rather fond of it; if it has a name; if it has an endearingly eccentric personality, and particularly if happens to be in a detective novel – I stop reading at once. The cat always gets it. Second to last chapter – poisoned milk, found floating face down in the water butt, or whatever happens to add a last sadistic twist to the plot. I can’t even approach a doomed cat.

And as for Schrödinger – that man had such a lot to answer for. I know it was a thought experiment but… not only is the hypothetical thought-moggie trapped in its hypothetical though-box in perpetuity with neither hypothetical thought-food nor hypothetical thought-water for succour, but that hypothetical thought-cat stands a 50:50 chance of being hypothetically gassed or poisoned or something by some hypothetical random decaying atom or circulating electron or something.

I hate him.

ANTS AND ANACONDAS

IN the early 1950s Gallipoli Street was a dead end. A makeshift metal barrier – ideal for doing head-over-heelses – separated the street from a brief, muddy slope – ideal for sliding) which lead down to an expanse of wasteland. Every morning I would set off for the junior school, just visible on the far side of the wasteland, except in spring, when all vegetation was thriving, and the wasteland turned into a jungle. To a seven year-old it seemed like a very long journey indeed. I had been reading about anacondas in Odhams Encyclopaedia. The stuck-together ae in the middle of Encyclopaedia, which I have since learned is a beastie known as a ‘typographic ligature’) fascinated me almost as much as the anacondas. I was convinced I would come face to face with one – an anaconda not a ligature – but never caught sight of so much as a grass snake. By the time I got to school the hem of my green pleated skirt would be soggy with dew or prickly with burrs. In summer, creamy cabbage white butterflies flew up as I passed through. In winter I would hobble through frosted thistles, chilblains itching and burning in spite of stout lace-up shoes and the grey, knee-length socks which elastic garters failed to sustain. Nan-knitted fair isle mittens dangled from my raincoat sleeves on yet more elastic.

In the 1960s they dug up the wasteland at the end of our street and built a housing estate. It was, and remains, the ugliest collection of houses I have ever seen. The building work unearthed no anacondas but did produce king-size muddy puddles for jumping in. I lost a wellington boot in a particularly deep puddle. Rather than fishing it out, which would have been the sensible thing to do, I left it and lolloped home one-wellied.

We didn’t really appreciate the advantages of living in a dead-end street until the metal barricades were removed, the street having been extended into the new estate. Until that time there had been few cars anyway, and the few that did venture along Gallipoli Street were looked upon as minor interruptions to our roller-skating and tennis. We stood aside and waited for the exotic creatures to pass. All cars were black in those days. Instead of flashing lights they had little orange arms for indicators, which popped out unexpectedly.

Even if there were no other children about one could still amuse oneself. On dry days I used to sit on the hot pavement and watch the ants swarming over a discarded boiled street, trying to guess what they were thinking. On one particularly hot day I overheard a passer-by saying it was hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement. I wanted to try it out, and asked my mother for an egg, but it was not forthcoming. On rainy days I used to stare into the gutter, mesmerised by the twigs and leaves eddying along towards the drain. As a child, I read voluminously and indiscriminately but never happened across Winnie the Pooh, so didn’t realise that what I was playing was called Pooh-Sticks.

There was always something or someone to see, somebody passing through. Often there would be tramps, or men who looked as if they might latterly have been soldiers, trudging along the gutters in grey raincoats collecting cigarette butts. They emptied out all the little odd bits of tobacco into the tobacco tins they carried, and later made roll-ups out of Rizzla papers.

Then there was the knife-grinder, with his bicycle-powered knife-sharpening equipment. As soon as he arrived the housewives would appear from houses up and down the street – some radar alerting them to his presence, for he made no call – brandishing blunt kitchen knives for him to sharpen, which he did by working some kind of leather strop arrangement with his feet. Perhaps it was attached to a pedal!

Most Sundays the rag-and-bone man would come along with his horse and cart shouting something unintelligible which I later realised was ‘Rag’nBone’ distorted through much use. And out would come the housewives again, in their frilly pinnies, this time brandishing buckets and coal-shovels, since the steaming horse-droppings were much prized as rose fertiliser.

Best of all, the shrimp man. Nan would despatch me back down the street with a pint jug and enough money to fill it with shrimps for our Sunday tea. I savoured the fresh, briny smell of the shrimps but for eating purposes they were more trouble than they were worth; so much de-whiskering and de-tailing for so little greyish meat.

Gallipoli Street was best of all when it snowed. We would walk along from our house to Nan and Grandad’s at the other end, for Christmas Dinner. The snow was thick and slippery and the houses had changed from unexceptional suburban semi’s with names like Fernlea and Foxholme to story-book houses with lighted windows with paper-chains, tinsel and Christmas Trees. We would hang on to the low front walls so as not to slip over, anticipating beef and roast potatoes and a long somnolent afternoon in a roaring hot front room, wheezing a little in the thick cloud of second-hand St Bruno Flake from Grandad’s pipe and listening to the snoring of their fat, honey-coloured labrador.

In later years – or maybe it was just our later years – Gallipoli Street seemed to become a different place altogether. Now there were high-heeled, beehived girls clattering along it under the evening streetlights, the streetlights reflected blue in the puddles after rain. It became a place where courting happened, just out of range of parental surveillance. Later still it became a bus route, though there wasn’t really room for the buses, and a place where commuters left their cars all day because they could park for free and leg it the rest of the way to the station. A few extra houses and bungalows got built, plugging the remaining gaps. Strangers came; people with pushchairs, boys on mountain bicycles.

Now when I visit Gallipoli Street I sometimes think I see the ghosts of roller-skating 1950s kids mingling with the bicycling boy-racers. The shrimp man, the knife grinder, the rag-and-bone man and the old soldiers are no longer to be seen and I notice the ‘ae’ has mysteriously disappeared from encyclopaedia, but one thing hasn’t changed: there are still no anacondas in Gallipoli Street. At least, as far as I know.

Safe (2)

This is another one of those prompts, this time a non-fiction one. The actual prompt is:

The place where you felt happiest or safest…so I’ll go for safest.

Which only leads me to wonder whether I have ever felt safe anywhere, which sounds rather dramatic. Which in turn reminds me of something novelist Pamela Frankau once wrote about writing:

The number of people who have said to me since I was nineteen, ‘I imagine one can only write when one feels like it’ merely sets me wondering whether I have ever felt like it. Discipline alone makes the hand with the pen move; keeps it moving; sees to it that the snail-pace of the morning accelerates by afternoon.

 You can tell it was the 1960s. One doesn’t tend to say ‘one’ anymore, does one? And who writes with a pen? But she was right, whatever she wrote with, and even with ‘ones’ sprinkled around like fairy-dust.

I’m avoiding the subject. Safest.

I suppose I must have felt safe with Mum and Dad at times. I just wonder why I can’t remember any of those times. I mostly felt nail-bitingly anxious, particularly around my father whose moods were erratic. I was afraid of my father: of his coming home from work; of his strong-jawed face and blue-grey eyes; of his towering height; of his booming, sarcastic voice; of the things he said or was capable of saying; of the things he did or was capable of doing; of his casting his eye upon me and finding me – aggravating.

He was good with words, my Dad. He would wind me up and then verbally demolish me. And I knew I had the ability to do that too, to someone else, if I lost control. I had all his words at the tip of my tongue, that same streak of cruelty. As soon as I heard his footsteps coming round the side of house, although I plodded on methodically at whatever I had been doing, I would be cataloguing the minor and major crimes I had committed in his absence, and of which he would at any moment be informed. I schooled myself to say as little as possible when he was at home, not letting him catch my eye, but the more distant I became the more he baited me. Then one day when I was fourteen and he was trying to drag me away from the sink where I was washing my hair, I turned round and hit him back. It was a clumsy, soggy, ineffectual kind of hitting back but it shocked us both.

But years later, finding myself in a hospital A&E Department after a car accident, nauseated, confused, semi-conscious – after what felt like hours of being left bleeding on a trolley waiting for some nurse or doctor or someone to get round to doing something about me – I caught sight of Dad’s face, floating like a balloon between me and the ceiling. The hospital had telephoned my parents and they had jumped in the car and driven down to find me. And everything was all right then. I was five years old; my Daddy was here for me now, and he would look after me. Until that day I had not known how much it meant just having a father, in spite of everything, and how much I loved him. I suppose that moment was safety.

So I always felt safest when invisible, but it was difficult to be invisible because I was not that  small. Having a 6 foot 4 inch father, you’re never going to be easily stowed away. I towered over the children in my infant’s school class. At eleven, mercifully, I stopped getting any taller giving my classmates a chance to catch up. But still, I would try to hide. In hockey, for example, I would shrink into the back of the goal (where they always put me) and, staring poetically into the middle distance, jump lightly over the ball if and when it came my way, closely followed by a horde of sweaty, screeching, stick-wielding amazons. The two team captains used to argue over me in loud whispers:

It’s your turn to have her this time.

I had her last time and I’m not having her again.

But as you get older disappearing gets easier. It gets so that you can put it on like a cloak, something J K Rowling also knew. Supermarkets are good – everybody’s looking at the shelves, wondering where the baked beans have got to, trying to work out whether this packet cereal is 5p cheaper than that one, or only seems to be. And I like railway stations, particularly the out-of-the-way rural kind where there’s one train an hour and you could sit all day if you wanted to, pretending to read, listening to the crickets in the hedgerows, the birds in the trees and the faint ringing in the rails when a train is on its way. And I like motorway service stations. But that’s the thing with any kind of travelling: in between places you are in between identities – not so much no one as anyone – anyone you want to be. I believe such in-between zones are known to anthropologists as liminal spaces. And when you write – fiction, at any rate – the place you write from is another liminal space. I feel it as a kind of forest, separating this land and that land.

And then there were Nan and Grandad, balancing the scales. I spent most of every Sunday with them, and they were the best refuge any child might hope for. There I got my Sunday Dinner – an excellent feast – and my Sunday Tea, which involved a whole head of celery in a jug, thin buttered bread, shrimps from the shrimp man and toasting crumpets in front of the fire with Grandad.

There I got my hair washed, and dried it in front of the same fire.

There a fat old Labrador snored and Grandad’s pipe filled the room with choking, scented smoke.

There I read Woman’s Weekly, The Carpenter and Joiner and whatever I could dig out of the bookcase – dictionaries, Pilgrim’s Progress, outmoded novels, anthologies of children’s verse, encyclopaedias. Nan and Grandad’s was where I was whisked away to in the middle of the night while my mother was giving birth to my sister, and where I sat upright under the slippery counterpane in their spare bedroom, my feet resting on one of their stone hot water bottles (wrapped in a jumper to save is burning my feet) singing Once in Royal David’s City over and over and over. It felt Christmassy, somehow, rather than my sister’s zero birthday.

There I watched Pinky & Perky on a tiny TV with a dodgy vertical hold, and Sooty and Sweep, and the divers Armand and Michaela Denis conducting bubbly undersea investigations in black and white.

There I watched Grandad planting potatoes in the garden, pulling up carrots by their green topknots, or out in his Lodge making tables and sideboards.

There in the kitchen I was in charge of stirring the gravy for Nan while Grandad stropped his razor on the leather strap hanging from the cupboard and covered his face with foam from an enamel cup, ready for shaving. I marvelled at the complicated loops and buttons that held his trousers up and his braces down.

There I asked for, and was told, the facts of life.

There I learned to darn a sock, sew on a button, polish brass and mix mint sauce.

There I helped to make jam and bottle fruit.

There I watched the washing being boiled in the copper, hauled steaming into a tin bath on a bleached white stick, rinsed, starched and “blued” in the sink and pushed through a wrought-iron mangle.

There I examined Nan’s wide pink corsets hanging on the line, and wondered how hard it was to get the whalebones in.

There I did forward-rolls in the grass and made buttercup chains, and swung from the apple-tree swing that Grandad had made.

There I was told about foxgloves, known to some as dead man’s bells or witch’s gloves, that a poison called digitalis could be made from them, and that an Ancient Greek had once been forced to poison himself with it.

There I saw a bisque doll’s head stuck on the branch of a tree.

There I heard about the War, and how we had to eat horsemeat and paint lines up the backs of our legs to look like stocking seams, and about how a baby slept in its crib unharmed while a bomb reduced the house to rubble all round him; and about how the lady next door  collected aprons and wore them one on top of another; and about how the woman down the road lost her drawers in the High Street but kept her composure – ‘I just picked them up and put them in my bag’ – and about how that bleached blonde floosy from over the road was No Better Than She Ought To Be, went about Done Up Like a Dog’s Dinner, and all sorts of other stuff.

That, once a week, was my childhood, and once a week I was safe. It was as if I had been given more than other children, all crammed into Sunday, to make up for the rest.

Only Connect (1)

I look around my house and have to admit it – books and cats have taken over. ‘Nuff said about the cats: no one approves of them. But every now and then I come across a spare couple of feet – behind the armchair to cover the faded bit – maybe where the cat-dishes are now – maybe in front of that cupboard under the stairs? After all, who needs a cupboard? I’m thinking… bookcases.

There are books on my bed, books beside my bed, books in the bathroom, books attracting mildew and holding up shelves in the garage. When I go out, there are books in my bag – at least two, and big ones in case I get stuck in a motorway tailback for three hours. This has only happened to me on one occasion, and of course when it does you can’t relax to read because you never know when you’re going to have to start inching forwards again…

I wouldn’t dare go on holiday abroad because this would mean an aeroplane, which would mean book limitation; I could never carry enough books to tide me over for two weeks. Yet after a lifetime of reading I can estimate, probably to within the hour, how much ‘reading’ a book contains. I know I’m not going to get through ten books in one week, or even two weeks, but…supposing I don’t like the book I’ve got with me? Supposing I feel the need to read three books in tandem?

Which brings me to my mother again. Last time she visited my house, before the fairies came and stole away her logic, her concentration and her common sense, she looked around and said:

‘At your age, you’ll never have time to read all of these!’

And of course she was right; it just hadn’t occurred to me. And then the familiar rush of Mum-induced panic and depression. But I must. I can’t leave them. I must read them. What can I do to save time? If I give up work? If I give up TV? If I sleep only half the night? How did I get that old?

All mothers must take a fairy-course in Undermining Daughters. Or is it in their DNA? With a single, innocent remark she had convinced me that everything, not just reading but any interest and any project for ever after, was pointless, really, because we are going to die. Why do anything? Just watch TV and gobble Polo-mints, why don’t we? Give all but the basics for survival to the charity shop – it’ll save them time when they come to clear this place out. Find a good home for the cats. Take up smoking. Fill your pockets with stones and go and jump in the sea.

But seriously (that wasn’t serious?) I was thinking the other day about how Mum must see me now: this girl of 17 or thereabouts, mysteriously grown large, lumpy, pale, grey and harassed-looking; this creature who mouths a series of words with unreadable shapes to them; this half-forgotten relative whose careful notes, all in block capitals, refuse to form proper sentences; this Sunday visitor whose name sometimes goes AWOL; so bothersome, so repetitious, and such hard work to be with. And requiring cups of tea when she must know the kettle has disappeared, the fridge has drunk the milk and there are strange little faces in the bottom of the cups.

When was the last day? Before you Marched Out and this sad, bored, distressed little elfling Marched In? They say the fairies do that – substitute one of their Ancients for an earthling child, so that they may die in comfort.* If I’d known you were about to be posted I could have said goodbye, and maybe wished you good luck in your new billet.

Once more I am a child in the High Street in romper suit and blue leather reins, throwing the usual tantrum. Once more you drop the reins and walk away, thinking to scare me silent. And it works. You’re chatting away to Nan, or maybe laughing. You’re muffled. I can’t make out what the pair of you are saying. The sky goes black and comes down on my head. I stand stock still with these clouds and this black air pressing down on me, watching you walk away as a century ticks by. Then I turn and set off in the wrong direction, back the way we came, the blue leather reins trailing the pavement behind me. It doesn’t matter now which way I go. You won’t come back – why would you? Why would you come back for me?

I want to talk to my old Mum about my new Mum. I want to ask her what to do about all of this. All those years of more or less misunderstanding one another yet this is so much worse. Word salad it’s called – vague words, wrong words, words in the wrong order, words based on misapprehensions; the quarter sentences you seem to think you have finished; the stories that seem to go on for ever and you still haven’t got to the point, if there ever was one. Confabulation; tall tales; nonsense, vigorously defended. You know what you mean but I don’t. I know what I mean but you don’t.

Only connect.

* ‘A changeling is a wizened, deformed, insatiable and frequently old fairy that has been exchanged for an often-unbaptised human child.’

The Greenwood Encyclopaedia of Fairy Tales: A-F (Donald Haase)