Why, why, why, Delilah?

So I’m sitting in the waiting room at the little hospital – where my doctor’s happens to be. The lighty-up thingy above the receptionist’s desk isn’t working, for which I am thankful.  Some long-ago receptionist misheard Mrs – or possibly Ms – for Miss when entering my details for the first time, so the lighty-up thing converts me into a Miss, every single time. When it lights up I have to skulk off down the corridor conscious of all those pitying glances at my back.

Poor old soul, never had a man. Sent back unopened, etc.

Since there is no lighty-up thing today I need to keep my eye on the corridor ahead, since the doctor – or in my case nurse-practitioner, whatever that is – will have to come out in person and shout for me. I have an unobstructed view ahead until…

‘Delilah. Isn’t she sweet? Only born a couple of weeks ago.’

Blocking my view, suddenly, are a mother and daughter, possibly the largest and most look-alike mother and daughter combo I have ever seen. My God, they are so fat. They are also both wearing at least half a ton of make-up. How long did it take them to plaster that lot on? At least an hour each. It must be social media. Everyone feels they’ve got to look like a Kardashian before they leave the house.

Delilah is a po-faced moppet in a shawl and pink cap thing. She is overburdened with ‘product’, as I think they now call it. So many pink garments. Earrings. Frills. On the floor is a two-tone beige carrier thing, with handle. Looks like the Rolls Royce of carrier-things. Baby Delilah and those two gigantic mumsy bottoms are inches from my nose. Like Mr Bean I try to crane my neck around them slowly, so slowly that I won’t be perceived as critically craning. My nurse-practitioner is running fourteen minutes late. In any case Delilah, her besotted attendants and expensive equipment-mountain get called in before me.

I am glad I got the nurse. Many sad years of experience have taught me that all medical practitioners are going to end up faintly despising me. I just can’t communicate in those staccato, scientific sentences medical and normal people use. I have to start way back in the story and sort of creep up to it. Then suddenly veer away from it at the last moment, then finish it, in a breathless rush. When they start trying to logicalize and coherentize me it’s fatal. Either I gabble faster still or turn into Eeyore and stare at the wall, not listening.

But women doctors despise me for fewer things. Both men and women medical-types get impatient with me for being odd, incoherent, long-winded, unnaturally anxious, gabbling and therefore probably hypochondriac. But men doctors also despise me for being female – therefore certainly neurotic- and past reproductive age, therefore incipiently senile. Not worth glancing up from the computer.

I try to explain to her the excruciating pain in my hip, which I am convinced, having looked it all up on the internet, is either Arthritis or some deadly form of You Know What.

Well, it’s not You Know What, she says. Otherwise it would go on hurting even when you were lying down, now wouldn’t it?

Maybe Arthritis? I venture. More likely Sciatica, she says. Hmm – Sciatica doesn’t match the internet I think – but of course, do not say. Doesn’t much matter either way, she says. Treatment’s the same. Painkillers. Patience.

I have to hang on to the receptionist’s desk for a few seconds on the way out; since I am once more vertical the waves of agony are washing over me.

I have to pause on one of the chairs in the waiting room until it subsides again. No sign of Delilah and her entourage.

I have to sit down on one of the squashy chairs outside the pharmacy before I can go in and queue for a packet of Ibuprofen. In the pharmacy, while some woman takes her time deciding between this type of sticky plasters or that – I attempt to stand upright rather than cringing forward or quietly screaming. I wonder if I look pale and drawn, like the heroine of a Victorian novel. Suspect I look irritable and yellow.

The car-park was full to bursting when I arrived, in fact cars were blocking in other cars and littering the muddy grass verges all the way up the drive. My little car ended up more or less abandoned at the last minute in a tiny residential street opposite the hospital. I had to limp uphill for a muddy quarter of a mile or so to keep my appointment.

When I come out I collapse at the bus stop for a while, thinking the bus might come along in a minute or two and might give me a lift down to the end of the drive, though it would mean explaining the whole thing in front of a busload of earwigging strangers.

No bus arrives. Eventually I heave myself up and hobble off down the driveway. I have never been quite so pleased to unlock the driver’s side door and tumble in behind the wheel. Then the bus arrives.

Painkillers. Patience.

Do you speak Hat?

I’m not quite sure what this picture is – an early example of Photoshopping, perhaps.

It just occurred to me whilst doing the washing up that I speak a very specialised language to my cats. I mean, you’d think when a person lives alone, the inside of their solitary dwelling would be perfectly silent. Certainly it was like that with my Mum in her latter years. No radio, no music, no nothing – just the clock ticking. But then she was deaf. And latterly she had those Voices to listen to.

I talk all the time, and so do my cats. Most of it would sound like gibberish to a non-Hat (Human-Cat) speaker, which is why I have hitherto resisted reproducing any of it. In any case, it’s difficult. Hat is a purely verbal/physical language. There is no dictionary of Hat, there are no books in Hat, not even a shopping-list. Cats, not possessing opposable thumbs (Ah, those opposable thumbs again – you just have to rub it in, don’t you?) have problems with pencils.

opposable thumb

So, an example of Hat might be something like (deep breath)

Are you all squirmy-wormy then?
Who’s my tiddly-widdly?
Are you a little wrigglecat?
Hello, Henny-Penny!
Are you an Arfur? Is that my little Arfur?

Cats supplement their briefer and rather more sensible replies (ow! eowww! prrrrrrr…. ) with a bit of basic body language and some primitive telepathy which is nevertheless more advanced than the human version.

I remember in my Glory Days (when brain still working) doing an Open University linguistics course – fascinating! There was a language they mentioned called Motherese – also known as Infant-Directed Speech (IDS) Child-Directed Speech (CDS) and Caretaker Speech). It is the language a mother speaks to her baby, and apparently it helps the baby to develop language faster.

My cats have not yet started talking Human to me, for all my efforts to engage them in the process, but I suspect that is simply because they can’t be bothered. They probably switch to Human when I am out of the house, and refine their subjunctive verbs, adjectives, dependent clauses and dangling modifiers by discussing the rise and fall in the stock market.

I myself tend to be discreet about talking Hat, and take care not come out with any Hat phrase in company, or when I have visitors – unlike the rather lonely young woman I saw recently on The Supervet, who was happily supplying her own voice and the voice of her beloved pet, in order that the vet would fully understand what he was thinking and how he was feeling about everything. The dog had a very deep voice. Gruff, in fact.

Because if you start mixing Human with Hat – or for that matter Hog, Hudgie, Herbil or Harrot – some people will think you are Mad, or at the very least Eccentric, and will smirk behind your back. If you don’t believe me, read the All Creatures Great and Small series by James Herriot. Look out for a wealthy client by the name of Mrs Pumphrey, who owns a much loved but very spoilt Pekingese (Tricki Woo). Tricki Woo suffers from all manner of maladies, and each has its own technical term – Flopbot, Crackerdog…

cat pearl

Nuances: The concert she never went to

She had never been much good with nuances, at least not when they came from other people. Yet she herself could speak in nothing but nuances, whilst assuming that her mumbled half-truths and veiled allusions to this and that would be crystal clear to others. It was a fatal combination.

The boy travelled on her morning bus. She went to right through to the college. Maybe he worked in the town. She’d seen him again and again and thought “Why does that boy keep looking over this way?” It seemed odd. The view from the window on her side was not inspiring – certainly no better than his – industrial units, the perimeter fence of an airfield, a string of semi-detacheds strung out like teeth in the jaw of the road.

Thus it was that when the boy bent beside her one day, oddly stressed-looking, and handed her a longish rectangle of grey card, stammering, “I think you may have dropped this, Miss?” she was horrified. A stranger had spoken to her. A male one. “Oh, did I?” was all that came out. She couldn’t exactly look him in the eye.

People were getting huffy – he was holding up the queue, standing there, so he shuffled away forward, down the steps and off the bus. She caught sight of him loping off down the road, concentrating on his shoes. Trembling, she inspected what appeared to be a ticket for a concert in a local hall. This evening.

For a moment she wondered, if she were to go to the concert alone – the very thought of which filled her with dread, for she had never been anywhere like that on her own – would he be sitting in the seat next to her? Would he turn and smile at her, relieved and pleased: “Oh, there you are.”

Or had he really, actually, meant “Did you drop this?”

She had never been good with nuances. Not knowing what to think she didn’t go, but she did look out for the boy for many mornings after that.

He never got on the bus again.

(Unfortunately, a true story : ) )

Talk To Me, Please

“Talk to me, please. I’m off to the War quite soon.”

She was alone in the carriage with this young man, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t really safe for a girl to be on a train alone nowadays, especially at night, in the blackout, but she hadn’t want to miss her first lesson. It was so important that she attend right from the start and not miss anything. Her sister Jean was supposed to have come with her, but she’d gone down with the flu. Since It happened – Grace had come to think of It always with a capital letter – they had treated her like glass, something breakable. Afraid to let her out on her own, just in case.

Just in case of what? She didn’t know; nobody seemed to know what exactly, just Something.

She wished he hadn’t taken it into his head to speak to her. What was he thinking, this boy in an ill-fitting uniform with dirt under his fingernails? Didn’t he know it would make a girl anxious, if he spoke to her? Why hadn’t she checked before she opened the door to the carriage – picked one with more people in it?

She gave him a faint smile, hoping that would be enough.

“Please talk to me, Miss. I might be dead soon. I just need someone to talk to, take my mind of it. Is that all right?”

She smiled again, hoping that would be OK and reading the strain in his eyes. He seemed close to tears. Funny, she would never have noticed such things as dirt under someone’s fingernails or a man’s unshed tears before. Now it seemed she noticed them all the time.

“I missed my train, you see. I was saying goodbye to the cows.”

Cows, she got that. A tiny thrill went through her. I got that, she thought. One lesson and I got it. Cows….

But surely not; why would he be telling her about cows? Was he a farmer? Why would he talk about cows?

“They understand, you see. It’s like the bees, you can tell them anything and you must tell them. They like to know. Good listeners, cows. My favourite is Milly. She’s a Frisian. We’ve got a mixed herd, Frisians and Guernseys.”

There is was again, she had seen it. Hooray, she had seen it. Cows.

“I’m scared, you see Miss. I couldn’t tell them that at home, but I’m in a real funk about it. I’m no soldier, Miss. I don’t want to kill people, and I don’t want to get killed. I really don’t want to get killed, Miss. But I couldn’t tell them.”

He was frightened, she could see. Sometimes you didn’t need words. She nodded, hoping if he was going to talk he would just keep talking and not decide to ask her a question.

“Had to put on a brave face, you see. My poor Mum. How are she and Dad going to manage on their own? Farming’s heavy work – well, I’m sure you know that, Miss – and she’s not strong. And Dad, he’s getting old now – too old to be called up. I’m not very bright, Miss. People say I’m three bricks short of a load, stuff like that – but I’m strong, I’m ever so strong, Miss. Look!”

He held up his clenched fist, trying to show her how, under the rough brown serge of his sleeve, the muscles fairly bulged.

She flinched. What was he doing? Did he mean to punch her? Had she misunderstood? How long to the next stop? She would get out at the next stop, even if this was the last train, even if she had to sit on a platform bench all night and catch the milk train home at daylight.

“Oh, sorry Miss. Please don’t be frightened. I won’t do that again. I just want to talk. I’m lonely, you see. I was meant to go up with the boys – the other boys from the village – but I missed the train that they were on.

“It’ll be all right, I’ll still get to the barracks on time. Plenty of time. They’ll all be there before me, that’s all. All my mates. Not that they are my mates, really. They call me The Daftie. They laugh behind my back. But I’m good enough to die, Miss, aren’t I?

“After all, I can die as easy as they can. And maybe when we get there I might save one of them. I might, mightn’t I Miss? I might turn out to be brave after all. I might run into the line of fire and pick up an injured village boy and carry him to safety on my back, like they do in films. They won’t call me Daftie then, will they? I’ll be a hero!”

Hero! Hero? It could be. Hero would go with the uniform. It was more likely than cows. She nodded again, beginning to relax a little. He just wanted to talk. It didn’t look like he would be asking her any questions. All she had to do was look as if she could hear him.

Her mind wandered back to her evening class at the Institute. It had been run by a lady with a dog, a specially trained dog thst did her hearing for her. Labrador, it was, very placid. Cream-coloured. She liked the cream-coloured ones.

All round the walls – grey-blue walls, the same colour they painted battleships – were posters – Careless Talk Costs Lives, Dig for Victory – and a big chart of all the mouth-shapes she was going to have to learn. She knew already that P and B were difficult because they looked so similar. You had to guess them from the context, the dog lady had said. ‘P’ she said, in her mind, trying to visualise the face to go with it. ‘B’.

They had broken for refreshments half way through. The canteen was in the basement, down a lot of steep, narrow steps and painted the same battleship grey; must have been a job lot of paint. They queued up for cups of tea in thick white china mugs. There was a lady with an urn behind a counter. She put a teabag in the mug and the mug underneath the spout, and pulled. Steam came out. Grace had never actually seen a tea-urn before. She had tried to imagine the hissing sound of the steam, superimpose it. She was still thinking like a hearing person.

There had been scones too. Cheese scones. A bit hard. They had sat at the same table in silence eating their scones and sipping their scalding tea. What else could they do? Perhaps it would get easier as the course went on. A group of strangers.

“Meningitis is a cruel disease,” the doctor had told her mother, “but Grace is lucky, it’s only her hearing she’s lost. She could easily have died.”

So that was all right then. She could have died but she hadn’t, so that was all right. Just found herself in a muffled, incomprehensible soundscape. She had always imagined deafness to be silence, but it wasn’t like that. It was random noise, it was a cacophony of whistles and bumps and blarings that didn’t make sense any more. She found herself scanning people’s faces, trying to interpret them. Even before tonight’s classes, she realised now, she had started to lip-read, and to read people as a whole – their whole face, their hand gestures, the way they were standing, their smiles and their frowns. Eventually it would begin to make sense again, just in a different way.

The boy was reaching up to retrieve his kitbag from the string rack overhead. That uniform really didn’t fit. His shirt was coming out at the back. She hoped his Sergeant Major, or whatever they had in the army, wouldn’t pick on him. He seemed a rather harum-scarum lad.

“Gotta go now,” he said. “My stop. Wish me luck, Miss?”

She didn’t know what he had said, but she reached out her hand, and he took it and shook it, quite delicately, like she was a lady and he wasn’t something to do with cows. His hand was hot and damp. He smiled at her and she smiled back and then he was away, slightly swaggering along the platform, his bag hoisted awkwardly upon his shoulder. He’s seen them doing that in films, she thought. He wants to act like a proper soldier in front of me.

The guard came along and slammed the carriage door shut, raising a silver whistle to his lips. The whistle sound sounded like something, but not a whistle. In the darkness it was difficult to see the man’s face, and billows of steam kept getting in the way.

 

Effort at Speech Between Two People: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Speak to me.  Take my hand.  What are you now ?

I  will tell you all. I will conceal nothing.

When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit

who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair :

a pink rabbit: it was my birthday, and a candle

burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.

Oh, grow to know me,  I am not happy.  I will be open :

Now I am thinking of white sails against a sky like music,

like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm about me.

There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now ?

When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental,

fluid : and my widowed aunt played Chopin,

and I bent my head on the painted woodwork, and wept.

I want now to be close to you. I would

link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.

I am not happy.  I will be open.

I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet poems.

There has been fear in my life.  Sometimes I speculate

On what a tragedy his life was, really.

Take my hand. Fist your mind in my hand.  What are you now?

When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide,

and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping towards death :

if the light had not melted clouds and plains to beauty,

if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.

I am unhappy.  I am lonely.  Speak to me.

muriel

I will be open.  I think he never loved me :

he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam

that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls :

he said with a gay mouth: I love you.  Grow to know me.

What are you now?  If we could touch one another,

if these our separate entities could come to grips,

clenched like a Chinese puzzle … yesterday

I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,

and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.

Everyone silent, moving … Take my hand.  Speak to me.

No prophecy at all, just sadness

Yesterday I watched David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street, being calm and dignified in the face of overwhelming political defeat. This was something my generation grew up with and took as read – that an Englishman would be generous in victory and gracious in defeat. That was ‘only cricket’. I can’t say I’m a fan of Westminster, politicians, the establishment or the political élite but he managed that particularly sad situation just as you – or we, in earlier times – might have expected an Englishman to do.

So whatever happened to the rest of us?

Last night I watched a young, white woman drown out an elderly academic during what was supposed to be an interesting political discussion on the results of the Referendum. He was an old, white man, she shouted, and that was why he felt entitled to talk over her and steal her air time. I suppose technically she won since she got all this in before the interviewer could moderate her. Yes, she succeeded in being sexist, ageist, racist and cruel in a single sentence and stunned the elderly academic into silence. He had been trying to say that in a democracy we each have one vote. Where did this sense of entitlement come from? Did she think maybe that people under forty should have two votes, and those over forty none?

This morning I went out in the car for a while. When I came back my neighbour was out in the front garden. He and his wife are retired prison warders and since retiring they have been spending more and more time at the house they are building in France: they had returned just in time to vote.

They and I have history. When I first moved to this area I was told – by another neighbour – a horrible story about the male prison warder. It may or may not have been true, but at the time I believed it. There was so much ghastly detail attached; how could I not give it credence? I was told that he killed one of a neighbour’s cats with an air rifle, because he didn’t like cats and it came into his garden. I was told he got rid of the creature’s body in the Council’s green bin and then laughed about it, boasting of what he had done.

Anything to do with animal cruelty horrifies me. I can’t abide it. Until then my cats had roamed freely out of doors: that ended that night. At ten o’clock at night, with a torch, I rounded up my whole feline tribe and have never dared let them go outside since. If one of them does escape, as of course happens at intervals, I spend the many hours it takes to find them and persuade them to come back indoors in a torment of anxiety, imagining that at any moment they might get shot from a bedroom window.

And yet, over the years, though I wouldn’t say we’ve got to know each other any better, we have come to an unspoken agreement. I still don’t know if the cat-murder story is true, and probably never will know, but we talk to each other now, in passing. He asked if he could come into my garden to prune his roses from the other side of the fence. When, during a gale some time back, his roof sent a ridge tile crashing through my car windscreen, he and his wife knocked on the door, came in and paid me, unasked, for the inconvenience this had caused.

This morning we chatted about his impending move to France, and mine to the far side of the county. During the talk it became clear to me that we had voted in opposite directions in the Referendum. I carefully adjusted anything I might have said. He carefully avoided saying anything that might require me to confirm which way I had voted. We talked generally about immigration and about people’s motives for voting Leave or voting Remain in this neighbourhood. We talked about the endless legal delays and complications involved in moving house. I told him I was dreading mowing my lawn, which had grown so long recently the mower was unlikely cope with it. He laughed and said he had had to take the strimmer to his, having been away in France so long. We talked but we kept it general; we steered the conversation onto safer ground.

neighbours 3

That’s what British people do – or what they used to do. We avoid confrontation.  Along with the Japanese – another overcrowded island race – and, I gather, the indigenous peoples of Australia – we practice something called negative politeness.

There are things both parties to a conversation know, but avoid putting into words. We avoid asking the other person any question that might conceivably embarrass them – even if it wouldn’t, and they are in fact just dying to tell us what we are just dying to find out.

We proceed on the assumption that the speaker is imposing on the listener, and that this imposition should be prefaced by elaborate apologies. We go to great lengths to avoid putting the other person in an awkward position.

We tread delicately, gently alluding rather than baldly stating, mentioning the unlikely possibility of rather than directly asking for. Occasionally we become so veiled in our allusions that we give bewildered visitors the impression that we are talking in code, which of course we are, in a way.

As a nation we have many faults but we used at least to be kind – courteous to one another and to strangers, anxious above all not to give offence. What changed, I wonder, and when?

neighbours 2

prophecy

Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax, of Cabbages and Kings

Well, I’ve had a long and stressful day, made even longer and more stressful by a couple of new telephone handsets in need of charging. Charge handsets for 24 hours before using I can understand. But why are the damn things ringing me every five minutes telling me they are out of range and to check their cables? Out of range of what? And what cables? The phone socket cable? But I’m not supposed to plug you in yet – am I? I mean, you’re charging for 24 hours…

On a good day, I can think my way around a new piece of equipment or think my way through a computer problem. But not all days are good days. This is not a good day. I’m tired. If only they’d stop ringing me up!!! I’m only following BT’s instructions. I shall ignore them. I shall hide them under the laundry basket where, hopefully, no cat will be inspired to pee at them. They peed at the old phone. Hence the new phones.

Cats have been violently sick precisely in the middle of no less two 2016 diaries so far. I just bought a third. My cats never throw up at random: they carefully select either the item I am using most at the moment or the one that will be most fiddly to fix. I’ve just been re-entering birthdays, house viewings, dental appointments, Indian meals…

Anyway… in the middle of the day I met my friends for coffee, which doesn’t happen very often. And we sat in our usual café surrounded by the usual blend of high-pitch, high volume children and solitary old duffers with cloth caps, cups of tea and currant buns. Presumably my friends and I are also in the process of transmogrifying into solitary old duffers. But we’re not there yet.

So we chatted, of shoes and ships and sealing wax and so on and so forth. It’s good to have the sort of conversation, where afterwards you can’t remember much of what was said. Two hours disappear before you know it. Because of course, if you’re bored the exact opposite happens. You find yourself looking at the clock and doing the ‘minus’ thing. As at work. Five o’clock minus four hours, twenty five minutes and forty seconds… Five o’clock minus four hours, forty six minutes and seven seconds…

I know we talked about Magnetic Bottoms. Initially in connection with ovens, ceramic hobs and the workings thereof. But broadening out into speculations as to how Magnetic Bottoms might work if humans were equipped with them. If Bottoms were of opposing poles, for example, strangers would find themselves fastened back to back. Bottoms of like poles would be equally disadvantageous as their owners would find themselves repelled in opposite directions.

This would make travelling on the Underground difficult.

 

Oh, my Grace I got no hidin’ place (2)

The psychiatrist is telling me a whole list of stuff that I’ll be expected to report to all concerned by email afterwards. Something about organic based secondary psychosis. Interesting words – especially as I thought she’d got dementia. Well, she has got dementia. This seems to be on top. What is an organic psychosis? Is it something like carrots grown without fertiliser, or bread made of special brown flour like you get in delicatessens? It’s something to do with her hearing loss and long-term refusal to wear her hearing aids. It’s something like people get in intensive care when they’ve been in there a long time. Solitary confinement would do the same, probably.

We need to get Mother’s ears re-tested, he says. New hearing aids might make all the difference. They need to be tried first.

How are we going to get her out of the house and to the hospital? Hit her over the head with a hefty vase and whisk her away whilst still unconscious? How are we going to keep any new hearing aids in her actual ears when she refuses to wear the ones she’s got, and keeps hiding them? How am I going to explain to her why she needs to wear the new hearing aids without reminding her that I can’t actually hear her chorus of sinister voices? She knows such a lot of blindingly obvious things – about the neighbours, about the people standing in the garden, and those who are coming from Gravesend to syphon off her water supply, about the poison in the tapwater – that I seem to be unaware of. She’s recently consigned me to the Dark Side for failing to agree, categorically, that all this stuff is real. If there’s such a place as Double Dark Side – that’s where I’ll be.

And the aids still won’t be in the ears.

It becomes like that dog in the cartoon. Think bubbles and Blah Blah Blah; one’s own name cropping up at intervals. I want to be at home with the Mogglies. I want right now to have already safely negotiated that scary bit of the A249 where you have to filter into a line thundering lorries at such an acute angle that you have to lean right forward to see in your wing mirror, then jam your foot on the accelerator and shoot out fast, usually to a chorus of horn-honking, and be back at home, picking up thirteen empty cat-dishes and refilling them with Felix, changing their water bowls. They will be getting hungry by now. Thought I’d be back much earlier. I miss them. It’s like thirteen elastic bands – after an hour or so away from them I start needing to get back.

Go home and cuddle a cat, my sister advised earlier in the week, at the conclusion of another multicoloured, stressful meeting, one in which we both took part. How does she happen to know that about me? How could she hit on that very thing, yet not know when she is hurting my feelings or making me angry? What is it about me that’s so rawly transparent to other people one minute, so impenetrably opaque the next?

The same way as Mum remembers (and of course tells the psychiatrist) that when she passes on I have my eye on one of the two miniature landscapes Ex once painted for her and my Dad. It’s perfectly true. I never, ever told her this yet somehow she remembers. You can be sitting there dry-eyed and she says Now I’ve made you cry. And she has – just not on the outside. How does she know things like that and yet not how to eat a piece of currant cake or to change that blasted blue jumper?

What’s that she’s got down it now? Some sort of dark orange sauce. Must be one of the microwave meals the carers have started doing for her now. Before, she only ate yoghurt and Ryvita. Those made less obvious marks.

Is there any way of persuading her to have a wash and change her clothes? I seem to be enquiring, suddenly. The roomful of multicoloured people all stop talking at once and stare at me.

That must have been a Wrong Thing. How was it Wrong this time? Probably they were talking about something else and I interrupted them apropos of nothing, which seems to be my speciality. I would have come in from left field somewhere – wherever I was – with this utter irrelevancy.

It’s just that – I hate her to be dirty, I hear myself saying. My voice is now fading into the wallpaper. They stare at me for yet another, separate moment, then continue with the multicoloured Blah, Blah, Blah from before my interruption. Really, I can’t bear that blue jumper. I imagine how such a filthy old thing would feel against your skin – sticky.

We believe in enablement rather that prescription, the social worker says, noticing I’m getting my Away With The Fairies atmosphere again. I look at her, anxiously. She decides she must be using words that are too long. She thinks for a moment. How to make it simpler for this Primary Carer…

We don’t believe in lecturing old people about changing their clothes, more encouraging them. Gently.

Encouraging? A month’s worth of my gentle encouragement has resulted in what? That same blue jumper. At what point will someone peel that disgusting old woolly item off my mother, throw it in the dustbin, preferably double-bagged in black plastic, encourage her into a warm bath – one with actual soap – and encourage a clean jumper onto her? Is that never going to happen?

I need to focus, but the more I try the less I can. Why won’t people write things down as they speak, or give me space to do so? How must their memories work if they can assimilate and store all this guff in real time? I am in a room full of aliens – all but one. I recognised him straight off. He sits at the back by the mirror on a low, cube-shaped footstool – something my mother would still refer to as a pouffe if she hadn’t lost the word. Watching, not saying much. Every now and then he catches my eye and smiles. What are they like, this lot? He’s saying.

My mother has landed in the conversation again, with the usual giant splash, drowning out all and sundry. I’ve got a very, very dry mouth, she shouts, over and over again, making a noise like trying to peel a giant tongue off the roof of a giant mouth. I hate it when she does that noise: it makes my flesh crawl. Shall we go and make a cup of tea? my lifeline asks her. Come on, let’s go to the kitchen. Show me how you make a cup of tea. And off they go together to the kitchen.

Without the heckling the conversation should be easier to follow, but somehow it isn’t. Now that my one and only piece of floating driftwood is gone, alien waters rise swiftly and cover my head.

  • When darkness fell, excitement kissed the crowd
  • And made them wild
  • In an atmosphere of freaky holiday
  • When the spotlight hit the boy
  • And the crowd began to cheer
  • He flew away
  •  
  • Oh, my Grace
  • I got no hidin’ place
  • Oh, my Grace
  • I got no hidin’ place
  • Oh, my Grace
  • I got no hidin’ place
  • Oh, my Grace
  • I got no hidin’ place
  • Oh, my Grace
  • I got no hidin’ place

Unnaturally Birds

I remember when we were driving / In the summer of seventy-three, / We were talking, but of nothing, / That’s the way it would always be; / And how much I longed to touch you / And to say I understood. / But I never did, my dearest / And like you, I never could.

For months it had rained on England, / There was green in every tree, / And we flew along those country roads / Beneath the canopy, / In our second skin of metal / And our third skin of words, / Pretending to be human, / Unnaturally birds.

I wonder when you die, my dear, / Will I see you as you are, / Or will you drift away again / To perch on a different star?