“Words That Stung”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

If only there was a recipe

My sister did the last trip to Accident & Emergency, and that was only three days ago. Mum had fallen, again. She spent three hours there until Mum had been tested, found to be mostly undamaged, and was about to be returned to the home. She duly reported to the rest of the family by email and, as always after one of these excursions, spent the next day in bed with a migraine. Yesterday it was my turn to spend the day with Mum, in a different Accident & Emergency some hour and a half’s drive away.

The home had left us a cryptic message. The ambulance was at the door and Mum was just off to Accident & Emergency and given what we think it is she was being taken to a different hospital. No hint as to what ‘what we think it is’ actually was. For about an hour we both, separately, attempted to call the home back. The phone rang and rang (and rang and rang) and eventually, every time, cut off.

In between abortive telephone calls I was trying to simultaneously get dressed, wash my hair, finish feeding the cats, do something about a fortnight’s laundry I had been in the process of sorting and washing by instalments, dry up the washing up I had washed earlier but not dried and pack a bag with things I might need on a hospital visit of unknown length, just in case. Did I need my mobile phone charger? Should I take spare underwear in case this was time would turn out to be the dreaded “it” that the daughters of a frail 87 year old cannot help but anticipate? Would I be required to sit at a hospital bedside all night? What was it, this what we think it is?

Finally it was decided that I would drive to the hospital, and so I set off, leaving the tumble-drier un-emptied, the bed stripped but not re-made, the cats fed once but not left food for later, my hair still damp, cups and plates drying smearily on the drainer, three loads of washing still to do, a mountain of ironing…

I stress about stuff, particularly when my routine is interrupted. Normally I would have been obsessing all the way down about whether I had enough coins of the right denominations for the exorbitant hospital parking machines. Should I assume I would be there all night, empty my purse into the fiendish thing and hope that was enough? But by now I had reached anxiety-overload status, and parking machine charges had paled into insignificance. If this was really my mother’s last day on earth, what would a parking ticket matter? What would it matter if they decided to clamp the car, come to that? I could sit in the car park and cry hysterically later. Eventually someone would come along and help me – or not.

I found her in a corner cubicle attached to all sorts of machines. They had given her painkillers she barely registered my presence. At one point she opened her eyes. “Hello?” I said, experimentally. She looked at me as if I might be a human being or possibly a kangaroo of some sort, but either way she didn’t care, and closed her eyes again. I learned for the first time that she had broken her hip in a fall.

After some hours of me just sitting there, being too hot and developing a headache, a man from Orthopaedics came along and enquired how the fall had happened. I said I didn’t know. Well, he said impatiently, what did you observe when it happened? He was not English but obviously felt he was being called upon to explain my own language to me because I was very stupid. I said I wasn’t there when it happened. I had just driven for an hour and a half to find out what had happened, because my sister and I had been trying to phone the home back who had left a message to say that something had happened, but were getting no reply from the home…

Just answer questions in the order I ask them to you, he snapped. I hate that. Being snapped at just confuses me and makes me even more circuitous.  I don’t know what happened, I repeated. My sister got an answerphone message that my mother had been brought to this hospital and I have driven down here to find out what happened.

But you’re the daughter.

But my mother lives in a residential home.

But how am I to decide on treatment if you won’t tell me what happened?

But I don’t know what happened. Look, can I give you the telephone number of the home? Maybe they would pick up the phone to you, since you’re a hospital. Maybe it’s only relatives they’re not picking up the phone to.

I am aware that at this point a normal person would be acting differently. My sister, if (only) she were here, would be coolly, even humorously, in charge of the whole situation. My sister doesn’t merely cope she manages people. I am coping, I suppose, but with difficulty. Why can I never cope elegantly? Accident & Emergency is tropical; even the nurses are sweating and fanning themselves with handfuls of brightly-coloured information leaflets grabbed from the wall displays. It is very, very noisy. Every single piece of monitoring equipment in every cubicle, including Mum’s, is either beeping, whining or whistling and nobody seems to be making any move to silence them. The place seethes with staff in blue scrubs, green scrubs, maroon scrubs, office-wear or ambulance-drivers’ uniforms.

I have been here for ever.

In the next-door cubicle is an old man with a ruptured hernia. He is alternately moaning in dreadful pain and then apologising for being forced to moan. I learn all about his hernia and its side effects. I learn about the TIA he had, only a minor one, back in the eighties. I learn that he had a Zantac injection yesterday and maybe it was that that caused this. I learn that he is on blood-thinners. I learn his army pay number, which he keeps reciting, saying that’s the one number you never ever forget. (Don’t count on it, buster, I think. You can and quite probably will forget everything, not just who you were but what you are, and why you are.)

His whole family seem to be present in that next-door cubicle. Two invisible oldish children, the female of which used to be a nurse, and an invisible, senile Mother who is continually trying to feed Father biscuits and having to be prevented in case he needs surgery. As he will, to judge the moaning.

Invisible, senile Mother has parked herself on the other side of the blue curtain to me and keeps pushing her chair back into my space, crushing me against my mother’s hospital bed. At one point I hear myself quavering Oi, look out!  It does no good so I resort to kicking the intruding chair back again every time she sounds as if she may be shifting her considerable weight off it. But she keeps re-encroaching. Soon I will be actually, physically trapped in a corner and will be forced to contravene all the unwritten laws of British politeness, whip back the curtain and confront her. But how can I, when who knows what state of horrid undress the poor old chap may be in? A moment ago he said I bet you never saw your Dad like this before, son!

Once again I pull the thin hospital blanket back over Mum so that the whole of Accident & Emergency cannot see her like this. I want to be somewhere else. Could I just make a run for it?  But which way is out? I can see no Exit signs.

What medicines is she on? Asks the foreign interpreter of my own language, who does not seem to have gone away, whilst I was wool-gathering.

I don’t know, I say. There were at least four, but I don’t know what the home gives her now.

You must know. It just says Paracetamol here, is that correct?

It doesn’t sound correct. Unless they have stopped all the others without telling us.

But what are the others?

I don’t know what they are. Once again, if you were able to get through to the home, they could tell you what medicines she’s on.

I am aware that a normal person wouldn’t talk like this to an orthopaedi… atrist… atrician.  I refer to my comprehensive set of Mental Notes. Remember the status factor in this situation. The proper thing might be to attempt the submissive female simper or even the more drastic status-poor old female simper. And he’s a man, and foreign. He’ll expect enhanced simpering on account of that.

But how much simpering? What degree of feigned respect might be appropriate in such a case? How to respond to a series of stupid, unanswerable questions when your elderly parent’s treatment, maybe even her life, might depend on what you say now? How do you make someone actually listen, when they are determined not to?

Maybe try and channel my younger sister – attempt “brisk and businesslike”?

If only there was a recipe.

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.