I wish I was a human being

Well, this is where I was at lunchtime today, at a place call Docklands Outlet in Chatham. I think this bit, which is kind of round the back, is probably the Marina rather than the Outlet. I was sheltering from Shopping Man, Shopping Woman and Shopping Infants, and relatively scorching temperatures in a patch of shade six inches by three. I was on a bench, crammed in behind a potted bush identical to the one on the left of the picture. My hip hurt, my feet were swollen and I had only been there an hour and a half. Only two and a half more hours to go before I could go home.

I always head for water when alone and under stress. I must say this wasn’t particularly exciting water, sort of man-channelled, black and not going anywhere much, but it was water, and I was mercifully alone with it. I had just eaten a large dribbly ice cream with a chocolate flake subsiding into it, followed by a double Mars bar, melting so fast I had to eat it before it began to form a chocolately layer in the bottom of my canvas shopping bag. Earlier on I had eaten an expensive toasted cheese sandwich, which wasn’t really agreeing with the chocolate, and Iwas attempting to read a David Mitchell novel called Slade House – much, much shorter but not quite as brilliant as Cloud Atlas – creepy and kind of gothic. But the sun, and the inner battle between melted cheese, melted ice cream and melted chocolate, together with thirst, boredom, loneliness, and the likelihood of being discovered and Sat Next To at any moment by some tedious variant on Shopping Man/Woman/Infants was preying on my mind and I could not really concentrate.

I was on an Outing, in a coach. Only six of us had turned up. One lady’s dog-sitter had let her down, another was ill, another… etc. But most of them had sent along their five pounds anyway, so that was OK. Except for the driver, who wouldn’t be getting as much in the whip-round at the end. I had a conversation with the driver later, about Ant and Dec. He said poor Ant (at last, a way of remembering which of them is which) had been going through such a bad time, what with his wife having left him, and no wonder he turned to drink. I ventured (foolishly) that for all we knew he might have left his wife, or his wife might have left him on account of the drinking. Which came first, the lost wife or the drinking? How could we possibly know?

The driver retorted that it was always the woman’s fault, if she left. (I left.) It transpired that his wife had left him. He then returned to a picture of a large bare lady in the newspaper, whose hands were absently but conveniently cupping the very end part of her gigantic bosoms. I told him those most certainly weren’t real. Silicone, definitely.

Two hours and fifteen minutes. My watch was doing that running backwards thing, like the wall clock in the call centre used to do as I counted down the hours, minutes, seconds even, to the blessed end of another Twilight Shift.

In the end my entire day’s haul was:

  • Two plastic peg baskets
  • Two planet-saving water bottles (with additional compartment at the bottom for biscuits or some other kind of snack)
  • One additional canvas shopping bag
  • An eighteen month diary. Eighteen months of not having to think about getting a diary. Excellent. And for some reason it was cheaper than a twelve month diary.

Then it was home again, complete with hurty hip, to feed a house full of cats. Lo and behold a letter from a Debt Collection Agency on the doormat, insisting once again that I owed an electricity company £82.22, the final balance on a house I moved out of five or six years ago. Last time I phoned them and explained that I did not owe it, I could clearly remember paying the final bill, by card, over the phone etc., I got the weary, condescending disbelief thing from the Young Person on the end of the phone, and then another Young Person, and was eventually reduced to tears. I was on the phone to their call centre for what felt like hours after being held in a queue for hours beforehand – but finally they conceded they probably wouldn’t bother me again.

And today, predictably, they were bothering me again. Would I kindly phone them, the letter said, as Further Information was required. With the nineteen cats gnawing at my ankles in search of their evening Whiskas, and the dirt boxes overflowing from a day’s neglect, I phoned instead the Electricity Company (EDF – whose customer service number was not supplied in the letter from the Debt Collection Company, meaning I had to hunt for it on the internet). The Electricity Company tut-tutted quite a lot and read me out a prepared statement saying to please ignore the Debt Collection Agency, which seemed to have been pursuing innocent former EDF customers in error.

Thing is, I very nearly gave in and paid the £82.22 last time, even though I knew I didn’t owe it, simply because I was so wearied and upset and wanted to be rid of them. It was only because I couldn’t afford to pay the same bill twice over that I dug my heels in, and cried all over them instead. This time, had I phoned the Debt Collection Agency as requested rather than being inspired to call the Electricity Company, I would probably have been ground down into paying it.

So how many poor old ladies and gentlemen have been bullied into paying non-existent electricity bills from years back? Will they be getting their money back anytime soon, I wonder?

Ah well, all’s well that ends well. But sometimes I loathe human beings. I loathe them for their all-pervasiveness and their pomposity and their long-suffering condescension and their overflowing shopping bags and their fat, food-stuffed faces. I despise the lot of ’em.

I wonder when and where my next Outing will be?

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All that glisters is not gold

Funny word, isn’t it? A mixture of glitters, sisters and blisters. The dumb-down-everything brigade are perpetually trying to replace glisters with glitters because people are, in their reckoning, unable to make the mental ‘hop’ from this funny-old-funny-sounding word to the (very similar sounding) word they may have occasionally heard used on some gameshows on TV, even if it isn’t part of their teensy-tiny little personal vocabularies.

Oh, I am so bitter today!

One interesting thing – apparently the exposure of the paedophilic activities of ageing British pop singer Gary Glitter has caused ‘glitter’ to become less popular. It is even possible that people will once again prefer Shakespeare’s poetic alternative. On the other hand, it has got more than one syllable, so they’ll probably plump for ‘bling’.

The quote is from The Merchant of Venice:

O hell! what have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.
All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.

[By the way, if there are any ‘s’s missing from any of my posts, it’s because this keyboard is refusing to type them upon the first striking of the key. No, you have to repeatedly strike the ‘s’ and then it might… However many times I check, I always seem to miss one or two.]

I had to ‘do’ The Merchant of Venice at school. I remember enjoying it, at the time, and it being about a pound of flesh, and there being a court case involved, and that a lady called Portia – or was it Desdemona? – no, she was the one that got strangled by Othello over a handkerchief – no, Portia, dressed up as a man to defend – someone or other. Or did she?

This demonstrates the scant usefulness of most of what we are forced to learn in schools, although you might say that, even if I can no longer remember the plot of either The Merchant or Othello I still love Shakespeare and his genius with language – more and more so in retrospect.

So, one little story to illustrate the saying All That Glisters Is Not Gold:

You may or may not know that I have been volunteering with an Organisation that helps Old Folk in a number of different ways. I’m not much of a volunteer, even, since I have but a single client, a very old lady with dementia. This was not much of a challenge to begin with – just a short bus ride/drive once a week, and an hour spent mostly listening and eating chocolate biscuits. Unfortunately the dementia has taken a sudden turn for the worse, as often happens (I remember it with my Mum) and things have become more challenging. I am finding it difficult, really, after Mum, to find myself on that slippery slope to oblivion all over again, albeit with less responsibility.

Anyway, since before Christmas I kept getting these emails from my contact at the Organisation, asking me to pop in to the Centre whenever I next happened to be in town, as a small Christmas gift awaited me. I kept forgetting. To tell the truth I go into Town as infrequently as I can manage, since it depresses me. I come away feeling as if I have been Captured By The Dementors and Imprisoned in Azkaban for several millennia. Well, an exaggeration maybe but all those tattoo parlours, all those £1 stores, all those boarded up shop (s, keyboard, s!) …

However, the only way to stop the emails was to get in the car and drive to Town specially. I knocked on the back door and was admitted. (Luckily the chiropodist didn’t pop out of his lair like a Scottish spider in a white coat, as I am avoiding him.) The girl led me through to the office and handed me a beautifully wrapped little gift attached to a card. It even had that ribbon that they make all curly by stroking it with the blade of the scissors. Someone had taken a lot of trouble.

‘We had decided to eat them if you didn’t come in by the end of the week!’ she joked.

Ah, so chocolates. But chocolates is/are OK.

I thanked them and made for the door, once again avoiding that beady-eyed chriropodist. I walked the entire length of the High Street back to Tesco, where you can park your car for free for three hours (then they send rude letters to you). I drove all the way home. I put the kettle on and opened my Little Gift, and it was a tiny packet of Maltesers.

Maltesers are OK I suppose. Just not worth that long drive into town, that long, cold, drizzly walk up the High treet (s! foul keyboard – how hard can it be?) past all those tattoo parlours, boarded-up shops, £1 stores and bunches of hoodie-wearing teenage louts who no doubt all carry knives, or at least have perfected the art of looking at you as if they do…

But, a Malteser is a Malteser. Not much chocolate involved, maybe, but…

I opened the box and sat there, with my cup of tea and my half-read historical novel (Lamentation by C J Sansom), and proceeded to pig the lot.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: [Godmother]’s Scrumptious Slice

I shall be seeing Godmother tomorrow, on yet another harrowing visit to Mum, which I will try to avoid writing about afterwards (sighs of relief, echoing around the globe…). However, I thought to mark the occasion I would include a recipe which Godmother originally passed on to Mum.

I don’t know whether Godmother christened them Scrumptious Slices or whether it was Mum who decided they were Scrumptious. I also have no idea what a Scrumptious Slice might look like when it comes out of the oven (please do report back if you decide to make them) and can’t post a picture of Godmother herself, so here is a fairy godmother instead.

SCRUMPTIOUS SLICE

  • 8 oz puff pastry
  • 8 oz marzipan
  • 3 oz glacé cherries
  • 3 oz dessicated cocoanut
  • 2 egg whites slightly beaten
  • 8 oz Cadbury Flakes (if you can’t get Cadbury Flakes, they are basically milk chocolate shaped into flaky log-things)
  • Caster sugar

Preheat oven to 230°C /450°F / Gas 8

Roll pastry out 10″ (inches) x 12″ rectangle. Roll marzipan to a slightly smaller rectangle and lay on top of pastry.

Chop cherries, mix with the cocoanut & add enough egg white to bind. Spread over the marzipan & lay Flakes in pairs down the centre (You may need to be a bit creative here if you are using an alternative to Cadbury’s Flake).

Dampen pastry edges – seal together lengthwise & then seal ends. Lift onto a greased baking sheet, ‘join’ side down. Brush with egg white, sprinkle with caster sugar.

Mark diagonal lines on top.

Bake for about 15 minutes until golden brown.

Hmm, they do sound quite yummy whatever they look like! 🙂

An attempt at reconstitution

A phrase from the ‘Mum’ recipe included in the previous post has stuck in mind:

CARE – if you do the latter, don’t let any water get into it or let it get too hot, else it goes solid and you can’t reconstitute it.

She was talking, of course, about the delicate art of melting chocolate. However, it led me into an area of thought I would rather have avoided – or more likely have been avoiding, all this time. To what extent is the ‘Mum’ who appears in this my blog – the reconstituted Mum, as it were – the real one?

I started writing this blog, as I recall, around the time that Mum’s dementia/ psychosis was getting really bad. Around that time we had several silly arguments during my Sunday visits, about foolish claims she made, completely illogical conclusions she had come to, and her patronising insistence that it was me – the stupid child – who had got things all mixed up. Twice I came home from a visit in tears because of the illogicality of it all.  Dementia is something you are forced to learn about from scratch, and usually doesn’t look like dementia to start with. You make mistakes. You let it get to you because somehow or other you haven’t spotted it – that great black storm cloud on the horizon, barrelling towards you.

As far as I recall, the time I wrote my first post and started rescuing all sorts of ancient, spider-infested writings from cardboard boxes in the garage was about the same time I realised I could no longer talk to Mum on an adult to adult, person to person basis. I could no longer talk to her as a daughter. I could no longer ask her advice or rely on her for anything. On the contrary, she was going to be relying on me. It was then that I started this blog.

And so, I have often thought, the ‘dementia’ part of this blog (a relatively small percentage of it) has been an attempt to put her back together again, to recreate her, to preserve her – whatever. And the same for my father – whom I scarcely mourned when he died and did not begin to miss really badly until my mother began to leave me too. And the same of course for my lost life, my lost past selves. These multiple ‘goodbyes’ must happen to every human being as they age, I think – just maybe not all at once or concentrated into so short a time.

In painting word-pictures of Mum, and Dad, and me, and my sisters, I have tried to be honest. I mean, I find it difficult to restrain myself from writing honestly – that’s how it tends to come out – but I sometimes wonder if any of us – the typed up and published ‘us’ – are real? Or could it be that the typed-up and published ‘us’ is in some ways more real than the flesh and blood sad, distracted old folk we really are? Hyper-real.

Damn, I knew this was going to be difficult one to write. How can you put into words something so… transitory and vague?

I find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the Mum of the recipes, the Mum of the sewing box, the Mum with whom I Listened With Mother, the Mum who enraged me by throwing out my boyfriend’s copy of 1984 because she had happened upon the scene with the rats… with the thin, poor person in the plastic armchair, yesterday. I find it difficult to understand this creature who can no longer be shown how to drink from a spout on a plastic cup with the bright-eyed girl who went to grammar school and passed all her exams (except geography!) with flying colours in spite of the second world war. I find it hard to believe that this is a human being let alone my human being. I can no longer talk to her, nor she to me, and without the salve of words I struggle to feel any connection between us. It is as if we no longer belong to the same species, or that she has become animal… or vegetable.

I once had a lover who was – or claimed to be and I have no reason to disbelieve him – clairsentient. He asked me once about the bond between soon-to-be-Ex and I. Did it still feel, he asked, like an umbilical cord stretching between us? Did it still feel as if we were joined by a strong thread, navel to navel and that any separation would produce a painful tug? At the time I suspect I denied it, but whatever I said he would have ‘felt’ the truth as I was speaking. And he was right.

colored dust

It seems to me now that once you have really loved someone, willingly or not, that cord is formed and can never again be broken. You might say that the cord between Ex and I has worn awfully shabby over time and now more closely resembles a thin and greying old piece of elastic than the magnificently throbbing ‘shared umbilical’ of my lover’s psychic imagery. Still, it stretches through the miles between us.

And I suppose the same cord stretches between my mother and I. We are cut off from one another, adrift on different rafts, but still just about within sight. Maybe that is the final, almost-impossible lesson we are forced to learn – how to just be with someone. But how painful it is just to sit. How raw it feels just to be in a room with someone and not be shielded with words or even understanding. How hard it is, finally, to permit yourself to feel the cord stretching and stretching as the other person pulls away, and to know that you are never going to be able to cut the cord, however much it hurts.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Ma’s Delight (or Mars Delight)

I just watched a YouTube video (don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the recipe) of a young man demonstrating his method of tracing sewing patterns onto thin polythene sheeting, meaning that the same pattern can be re-used as many times as you want and you can make it in all the different sizes it has to offer.

It was a very clear and useful video – some people are just natural explainers/ entertainers aren’t they? – but I spent most of it wondering what this ‘sharpie’ thing was he kept referring to. It sounded like something a surgeon might use to take out someone’s appendix yet he seemed to be wielding nothing more dangerous than a fine-tipped permanent marker. Reading the comments below the video it was clear that other viewers had had to research this object too. I looked it up on Amazon and voilà (or possibly voilá) – more Sharpies than you could shake a stick at.

So it is with Mars Bars. Every Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman, Welshman (Cornishman?) knows what a Mars Bar is. Mars Bars are part of our culture. But it occurs to me that there may be parts of the globe where they do have computers but do not have Mars Bars or where there is a Mars-type chocolate bar but it goes under a different name.

I do not have the secret recipe for Mars Bars but basically it’s squidgy, caramel-y toffee thickly coated with milk chocolate. A lifetime of consuming Mars Bars is one reason for my feminine curves today. However, I’m sure any similar chocolate bar (or rather three chocolate bars!) would do as well. Perhaps best to avoid ones with peanuts in as that might alter the taste and some people are allergic.

Finally, she gets round to it

Ma’s Delight, or Mars Delight

3 cups Rice Crispies (I use 3 mugs) (3 oz – ounces)

3 oz butter or marge (margarine)

1 slab of milk cooking chocolate

3 Mars Bars (large) – 200 grams is about right, ie approx 7 oz)

Put a thick bottomed pan on low heat and melt the butter in bottom. Cut the Mars Bars into slices and add. Keep on a low heat until all is melted into a gungy mess, stir it all up with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat and add the Krispies, stirring until all is coated with the mixture. Spread in a swiss roll tin, lightly packing it all down. Break the chocolate into pieces and either melt in a microwave on high for a couple of minutes, or, melt in a bowl placed in a saucepan of hot water. CARE if you do the latter, don’t let any water get into it or let it get too hot, else it goes solid and you can’t reconstitute it.

Spread it over the flat Krispies and leave to go solid.

Mum used tin 11″ x 7″.

Dooz Oofs Ay Poms De Tare Fritz

There’s pampering, of course. I’ve never quite known what this entails but it sounds terrifying. Something to do with buying – or trying – a lot of pampering products and sitting around in some girl’s bedroom, hundreds of you, all in towelling dressing-gowns, giggling and offering to paint one another’s toenails. Oh no!

Or I suppose you can go to a spa. Can you go to a spa, for pampering? For a treat? What does that involve? More towelling dressing-gowns. Those disposable slippers they give you in posh hotels, sitting about on loungers waiting for your turn to have heavy stones laid along your naked spine or for someone to cover you in mud and cucumber slices. Oh no no no!

What would your idea of a treat be?

My treats have tended to get smaller and more innocent as I’ve got poorer and older, but nonetheless treats for all that.

Sometimes I drive to that distant town and I treat myself to egg and chips and a pot of tea in the café opposite the Post Office. The egg is underdone; the chips are those long thin ones that are probably made of reconstituted potato dust rather than sliced potato. I don’t care: it’s hot food and somebody else has cooked it.

I am reminded of Grandad, who was in the first world war. He was over in France and the only bit of ‘French’ he had – or at least would admit to in front of his grandchildren – was ‘dooz oofs ay poms de tare Fritz sil voo plate’. Maybe it’s genetic, then – a racial or familial memory.

I sit facing the window. I watch people coming out of the Post Office and going in. I pour my tea, lovingly, from a cheap white china pot. I savour the fact that there are two cups of tea in this one teapot. I examine the strange tube of sugar they provide before shuffling it into my handbag (it’ll do for visitors). I read the little poem they print on the paper serviette. What a good idea, to have poems on serviettes. Sometimes it rains and the window steams up from all those damp coats coming in. Sometimes it doesn’t. The ladies behind the counter are friendly. You pay on your way out, not on your way in. Civilised, like.

Chocolates. Mum used to allow Dad one chocolate a day because she was watching their weight. Poor Dad. He was eighty-seven and could hardly move from his armchair. A trip to the loo was a major expedition involving the zimmer frame and a lot of shuffling. Surely he could have had three chocolates? At eighty-seven-and-losing-your-mind does it really matter if you put on a few pounds? For myself, I avoid chocolates, simply because I couldn’t eat just one. A whole box would be gone just like that.

There seems to be a theme to my treats. Could it be food?

Do you allow yourself any special treats?

Synchronicity in writing

It seems to me that if you start looking for something in earnest you are almost certain to find it, or something weirdly related to it, and often where you would least expect. It’s a kind of coincidence thing – no logical explanation. Start reading and thinking and you will find that other, related stuff starts seeping out from under the skirting boards, wafting down the chimney and tap-tap-tapping at the window.

I am not the first to notice this. Famously, C G Jung talks about the coincidences that seem to happen in the world outside one’s head when something is going on inside it. This phenomenon he referred to on his good days as synchronicity; on his duller days he called it acausal parallelism. It is implied in common sayings like Seek and Ye Shall Find and When the pupil is ready, the Master appears. Anyway, enough of the Biblical/mystical stuff. I will give you an example of something synchronicitous that happened to me last year.

I had been writing about Sherlock Holmes and the justifications given in the novels for his rather shocking – to the modern reader – use of cocaine when bored. It happened to be my birthday that day and I was forced to take the day off, not to do anything birthdayish but to drive my car to a garage forty miles distant for its annual service. Car services take several hours and it was far too cold to be hobbling around the windswept streets of this distant town whilst waiting, so I spent part of the time in a nearby Tesco store, slowly filling a wire basket with birthday cards, cheese and pickle sandwiches, packs of fifty black biros and all those other things you tend to purchase when you just need to be somewhere indoors and heated in the coldest month of the year.

One of the things I spotted was a glossy science and technology magazine called Focus. I never normally buy magazines and had never heard of Focus, but it was in this randomly-purchased item that I discovered an article by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (Professor of Psychology at McGill University, Montreal). There were several interesting bits. For example, did you know that human beings can only pay attention to a maximum of four things at any one time? So if you’re driving the car and searching for a parking space you may need to turn off the car radio to concentrate. (According to Cesar Milan the TV Dog Whisperer, by the way, dogs can only attend to one thing at a time.)

The two sentences that really caught my attention were these:

Ten thousand years ago things didn’t change very fast, so if something novel presented itself it was a good adaptive strategy to pay attention. We evolved a chemical system whereby we get a little shot of dopamine that makes us feel good every time we encounter something new.

and further down the same paragraph:

Dopamine is the chemical released when you eat chocolate, when gamblers win a bet and that gets people addicted to cocaine.

So do you see? Although Arthur Conan Doyle was a qualified doctor he could not have known about the neurotransmitter dopamine, since he died in 1930 and it was not discovered until 1957; yet he had Sherlock Holmes resorting to the drug cocaine when the stimulation he got from detection (encountering something new) was absent – spot on! The connection is dopamine, but the creator of Sherlock Holmes could not possibly have known this.

It’s a trivial thing, and would probably only be useful if you were writing a scholarly paper about Sherlock Holmes, but that’s what I mean about synchronicity. The more you read, the more you wonder, the more you become absorbed in, fascinated by and focussed upon a subject, the more related information will somehow pop up, get mentioned on the news or wander across the road in front of you. You will find that books fall open at the right page; the poster you glide past on the escalator will contain the quote you need; a random internet page will lead you to another and then another – and there some relevant something will happen to be.