Everybody’s talking at me…

So far I have been looking for things to ‘snap’ around the house, but it’s been one of those days and I just couldn’t locate any Talking Heads, Jabbering Clowns etc to go with my title.

(Change the title, then, why don’t you?

Too tired!)

It’s been one of those days. One of those days when, after days of blessed silence, broken only by hisses and miaows and the occasional politician blathering on about Brexit, I have been forced to delve deep into my pitiful pot of sociability and talk to people. And all day! It’s too much.

It started with the fridge. The fridge is less than a year old and you might think it would leave me alone, but no. The milk I poured onto my cereal was warm. Everything in the fridge-bit and the freezer-bit was warm. Everything was soggy. I was due to leave the house at quarter to nine so at half past eight I had to have a long conversation with a young woman in a call centre, who sold me yet another lot of fridge insurance (I just cancelled the previous lot but it was the only way I could escape) and promised me an engineer next Wednesday. Five or six day without a fridge. I missed the bus, of course.

Which meant I found myself catching the same bus as Bertie and, not only that, sharing the subsequent train since he was on his way up to London and then down towards the West Country. Bertie is a nice chap but extremely hard work, listening to. And he now wants to know whether I am married. Why? Maybe he’s just curious. Innocently curious.

He is worried about his train connections, and about whether he will be able to book in to his usual hotel room when he gets down there; also whether he will be able to find some flowers to buy (he has to buy some flowers). I am worried about my fridge and what is happening to all those strawberry yoghurts and bottles of milk I didn’t have time to dispose of before running for the later bus. They will have to fester till I get home.

And then there is the conversation with Godmother in the car. Godmother is a piece of cake compared to either Bertie or the woman at the electrical appliances call centre, but I am running out of steam. I am also having to explain why I am so late.

Then there is the conversation with Mum, although today she seems more interested in New Homes By The Seaside, and paddling two pieces of bread around in a bowl of green soup. Godmother and I speculate as to why the soup is always exactly this shade of green, and whether it might be pea, or some sort of pea and mushroom mix.

Another conversation with Godmother on the way back to the station. Exhausted slump in a train, then another train. Half an hour at the bus stop. Teenager on the bench beside me suddenly looks up from his mobile phone and begins to talk to me. There must be something wrong with him, I think. The only people who talk to me at bus stops are people with something wrong with them.

He shows me his app, for the buses, which reveals that our bus is currently passing the fire station just down the road, but it has to go past us and go off somewhere else before coming back, so there’s at least another fifteen minutes to wait. He tells me about the sort of music he likes, which he says has a lot of beat and people shouting or talking over the top. Sounds like what Next Door play. He asks me what sort of music I like. I say I listen to Heart, thinking that might be trendy. He says Heart isn’t really modern music. He explains the online game he likes to play, and how you can wear costumes, or join the police, or wield a sword – anything you like – and how he has friends all over the world, playing the same game at the same time. I tell him of my adventures with the little boat in that dementia game, Sea Hero Quest. He thinks he has heard of that.

He asks me if I have got Netflix and what I watch TV programmes on. He tells me that the pattern is changing and young people watch on all sorts of devices. I already knew this, but I nod, wondering if he might be practising his chatting up techniques on a safe old lady before venturing into the world of Real Girls. He looks no more than fifteen, and I suspect he is shy. He’s practising. Good for him.

He asks me what people did before television. His mother has told him that people played card games and such. I tell him that I can only vaguely remember the world before television, since we got one when I was seven or thereabouts, but I remembered my grandparents playing card games. And talking. Talking? He seems interested in that. He asks me if television was really black and white once upon a time, and had there really only been two channels like his mother said?

At home I dispose of all the runny yoghurts and soggy loaves of bread from the fridge. I recycle the plastic pots. I tip away four pints of warm, suspicious-smelling milk. I fish out anything else that doesn’t look as if it’s going to last till Wednesday.

I remember that I am supposed to be ringing that lady from yesterday’s bus journey, the one who thought I might be interested in outings to Southend to eat fish and chips, in a mini-bus with other people our age, collected from my door and returned, after. Trips to the theatre; get-togethers (with optional fish-and-chip suppers) in pubs and so much more. I have her telephone number on a scrap of paper and I have promised to ring her. Yesterday.

I am slightly interested, I suppose, thinking about all that potential subject matter for the blog, and also the possibility that the company of other humans might do me good. But I can’t face it tonight.

Not another conversation. Just not tonight.

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There is actually a timetable affixed to this bus stop…

Bertie from the bus stop has asked me my name, eventually.

We are standing outside his house, which is just around the corner from the bus stop, way before my house. I still have a fifteen minute hill to climb and am so tired I am wishing that someone would install one of those ski lifts, so that I could just hop on. Bertie thought this was a good idea last time I mentioned it, and asked me how much it would cost.

He has been telling me about his blackberries. These are a tangle of what I would have called brambles in one corner of his front garden. However, they do actually have blackberries on them, half of them unripe as yet. He is saying something about picking them, or not picking them or other people picking or not picking them. I am past the stage of being able to piece it all together. It has been a whole day on public transport to visit Mum.

I have sat next to Bertie on the bus from town for almost an hour and he has been talking at me all the way: shards of his life: fragments that would probably make sense if only he would give you some sort of context for them. It is like ancient coins under a metal detector – you never get the whole horde, only this battered coin, and that.

He starts in the middle, or he’ll just tell you the edges. He skips from when his Mum was alive, which now seems to have been back in the 70s and in another part of the country; to his health and mobility problems, which he is assuming I know all about; to the problems of a friend who is struggling to help another friend, who lives a long way away. It’s one of those stream-of-consciousness autobiographies – you feel that if only you could put enough energy into your listening you might be able to piece it together.

He is still telling me about the blackberries. My feet are on fire from too much walking about in new walking boots. I am overheated, wilting. The sun has been beating down on me through the bus window and before that there was an hour just waiting at the bus stop in town. Until Bertie came along, that is, and started advising some woman about the times of the buses. Five minutes ago she had asked me the same question and now she was asking him. People just automatically ignore everything I say.

‘There is supposed to be a bus at half past,’ she said. ‘So where is it?’

‘Where exactly are you trying to get to?’ I asked, although I could tell from the look of her where she was going – the holiday camp.

‘To the holiday camp’, she said.

‘Then it’s twelve minutes past’, I say, ‘though it may be up to ten minutes late’.

‘There’s supposed to be one at half past (this hour).’

‘No, there isn’t one till twelve minutes past (next hour).’

So now she turns to Bertie and asks ‘When is the next bus?’

‘Eleven minutes past,’ he says, ‘though it’s usually late’.

She nods, comprehendingly. Oh, eleven minutes past, not twelve minutes like that woman just told me. Eleven minutes past. Bertie, of course, has now got her by the (metaphorical) throat and is regaling her with the intricacies of the local bus timetable; telling her where in the town centre she could obtain a copy of said publication, although of course she will miss the bus if she sets off to obtain one now.

People at bus stops tend to annoy me anyway, especially holidaymakers. They are always cross from the unaccustomed hanging about (apparently buses happen more often than once an hour up in London), they have never read the timetable and every one of them has a different and contradictory certainty as to when the bus ought to have been due. But still they ask you when it is due. And then they don’t believe you when you tell them.

There is actually a timetable affixed to this bus stop, I hear myself pointing out, snarkily. Occasionally, nowadays, I seem to be saying exactly what I mean, having spent a lifetime avoiding this dangerous practice. Pretend Me is always shocked when Real Me decides to pop out of her box and Say Something Snarky. I know it is only because Pretend Me is very, very tired, also hungry and thirsty having just spent lunchtime watching repeats of ‘The Simpsons’ with her mother in a bedroom with a dark blue wallpaper frieze and a view consisting of air-conditioning clutter and a toilet window or two.  All her life Pretend Me has managed to keep Real Me stuffed down under that painted lid, the catch firmly on. Now, at random moments, this strategy fails.

Confused and distracted by Bertie’s monotone mumbled timetable monologue, the woman hasn’t in any case noticed the underlying acidity of Real Me’s remark. She is a faded blonde, this woman; hooped earrings; strappy sundress; glittery cheap flat sandals with bunions poking through the straps, chin beginning to sag into her neck. She’s around about my age, pretending not to be. Pretend Me feel ashamed of Real Me’s intended nastiness, even if she didn’t notice.

But not very.

I sometimes wonder if this blog isn’t the same sort of thing: fragments of a whole life – the double-helix life, perhaps I should say, of Pretend Me and Real Me. And as with Bertie’s autobiography, no one will ever have the time, energy or inclination to piece it all together. Maybe this is an autobiography but with other bits and pieces tossed in for good measure, like the sixpence and the mixed spice in the Christmas pudding.

Maybe one day, so far into the future that nothing remains of this century but internet echoes, some future history student will decide to ‘do’ this blog for their dissertation. And fail, distracted by blackberries, bus stops, observations apropos of nothing, chance acquaintances and recipes for appallingly sugary cakes.

‘I don’t think I caught your name…’ says Bertie, oddly formal and still lurking beside his blackberries.

‘I don’t think I told you,’ I say, and tell him. He repeats it to himself several times.

‘I’ll try to remember that,’ he says, looking anxious.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘I can always remind you’.

You Can’t Exactly Stroke a Fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a bird on a wire

When the song first came out I wept, picturing the bird (aka Leonard Cohen) trapped in a snare, a loop of wire pulled tight around its leg. In those days we didn’t know so much American. I learned later that what we would call a telegraph line Americans would call a wire, and so the bird was probably just perched on it, ready to fly away.

The lineman in Wichita Lineman, then, should have been obvious to a Brit but he wasn’t. He was something ultra-romantic, science fictional almost, a wandering, lonely creature performing some unimaginable task for The County (what was The County?) – not one of those blokes that climbs up poles to fix the electrics.

Of course, I wept at the bird in its imaginary snare, flapping and flapping its tiny wings in a desperate, futile to escape because the bird, aka Leonard Cohen, was also aka me.

I was always two people. One of me was lonely, wild and free. One of me had known even as a child making messy daisy-and-buttercup chains on her grandmother’s lawn, that one day she would take off. As time went on I read the colour supplements my father discarded from the weekend papers. I pored over the photos of remote temples and marketplaces and traveller accounts of exotic destinations.  I was that traveller. One day very, very soon that would be me on the road to Marrakech in my long hippie skirt and my cheesecloth blouse, a fraying backpack containing all that I had in the world; feet blistered, sandals dusty and worn.

The other me knew it couldn’t go, knew even as a child that it was tethered to a family in which it had no place, engaged in a lifelong struggle of trying but failing to earn that place. The other me knew it needed the mirror they formed, because without that mirror it would vanish. I was only what they showed me; away from them I had no substance: I was a ghost.

And so I enrolled in a teacher training college only a short ride away from home. I took my Mum to a film show there once; she wasn’t impressed. I plodded away at that course for three years, trying to be interested in tessellations, Cuisenaire rods and lesson-planning whilst my friend Anji – she of the wispy, piled up hairdo and the Indian father; she of the many-page letters in green ink and that great circular artistic script; she of the long white raincoat and cool sunglasses; she of the unmistakeably gay boyfriend she was always hoping wasn’t entirely absolutely gay and one day might be startled into kissing her  – Anji went to France with a girlfriend. They worked as waitresses for a while until her friend stole a tablecloth and they were dismissed. She slept under lorries with lorry drivers. It was all in the letters, until they stopped.

But I have found that at least some of those fantasy Me’s do appear, eventually. But it’s like they get watered down and de-romanticised. So, at one point I imagined myself a mysterious Englishwoman living out her final days in a cliff-top village in Brittany or Normandy or somewhere. And here I am, not exactly in France and not exactly mysterious but certainly alone and in a village with a cliff-top.

I imagined myself a hippie traveller, someone who never put down roots, someone who passed through places and had brief conversation with exotic, world-weary strangers. And there I was yesterday, catching buses after years of car-driving, alighting from one train, searching for the next and being talked to (or mostly at) by a series of eccentrics of my own and other generations.

At a bus stop a group of us tried to understand the murder of so many children by a terrorist scarcely older than they were.

On the bus I learned about sunflower seeds.

In a train a young man with learning difficulties spent a long time explaining to me that the train I was on was indeed the right train, and how to tell, in future, if it wasn’t (‘It won’t be at this platform’).

At a station I discovered the Station Master’s name was Estelle and she was the sole member of staff so she had to sweep the platform in the intervals between trains. Also that the station had no loo and the nearest one was Burger King over the road.

In another train I watched a sober old man trying to calm and distract a very drunk young man so that he wouldn’t bellow the F-word aloud in a railway carriage.

I sipped on warm bottled water and ate granola bars in instalments.

I sat behind a boy with a brutally shaven neck and the top of his head crisply waved and dyed bright orange.

I saw many exotic tattoos exposed in hot sunlight and realised how difficult it was to get twins in a buggy off a bus (you have to climb down backwards).

I sat on what might have been an artwork or merely a dysfunctional bench to wait for my friends outside Marks and Spencer.

Hejira, finally.

White plastic popper-beads and a red hat

I have noticed that my posts become increasingly like the white plastic popper bead necklace I had when I was a child, and which broke all over the floor during a game of spin-the-collection-plate at the Sunday School Christmas Party because some stupid boy (probably Peter Stelmazuk) yanked on them to see how they were held together. I get one thought, and that leads on to another, and that another and occasionally if I’m lucky the end thought joins back up to the first one.

I used to know a woman who spoke like I write. Unfortunately she lived opposite me on the new estate that Ex referred to scathingly as Brookside. She was one of those women who having discovered you stuck to you like a veritable limpet and wouldn’t stop talking. I used to get invited over to their house, which was hugely much bigger than mine, with a conservatory, a lovely (if bijou) garden with a water-feature, and those massive, expensive armchairs with electric controls that lift the back, the seat, the arms, the footrest and whatever other moving parts it has up and down so as to ensure your absolute comfort whilst consuming white wine or nibbling on canapés of an evening.

Her husband used to go upstairs to his study as soon as I arrived, either to construct model aeroplanes or to further his bid to become a local councillor so as to have speed bumps inserted into Brookside’s smooth new speed-bumpless circular road, which the local hooligans used as a racetrack, using the car park of the equally new and monstrously big Tesco store as their starting point. He was exhausted being married to this woman and, after only twenty minutes in her company, I was exhausted too. Unfortunately, I never got away with less than a whole evening.

She would talk non-stop, seamlessly segueing from one irrelevancy to another, whilst I tried desperately to keep all the threads together and understand the connection between them. I would watch her mouth moving and moving and moving, fascinated and horrified, wondering when – and how she was ever going to get to the point. Her conversation was like one of those fractal leaves, you know? Endlessly branching, branching and branching. And the thing was, you couldn’t tune out and daydream because every now and then she would stop and ask a question, but never about the branch of the fractal she was currently on, always about something several branches back. I couldn’t abide her, but abide her I did for several years. I felt sorry for her because she had no friends. I knew what it was like to be impossible and unlikeable and not understand why. I suspected she and I had an uncomfortable something in common, but at that time I didn’t know what.

She used to take me shopping in Canterbury. She would drag me round one department store after another, looking for a red hat or similar must-have object. She would never buy anything. In each store, instead of looking for the must-have object she would approach the first sales assistant she spotted on the ground floor and demand to know where the red hats were. She would fail to memorise the instructions and ask the poor woman – who was actually selling make up or perfume rather than hats – for it all to be repeated. Then she would drag me up and down escalators in search of red hats, because of course despite the repetitions of detailed instructions she had instantly forgotten where the red hats were.

Then we found the red hats, and one particular red hat she really loved. Then we would leave the shop in search of a cash machine because she had not got any cash out before going shopping. This would take some time. Then neither of us would be able to remember where the particular red hat was, so would spend the rest of the morning trying to relocate it. Then she would disappear into changing rooms and leave me standing in the middle of the store. Hours later, still standing there, I would wonder if she had simply gone home. I would ask shop assistants if they had happened to see her. None of them ever had.

I moved house but she came to visit me, turning up in her husband’s bright yellow sports car and skewing it across two of my new neighbours’ parking spaces. She was not a good driver though it was a good car. The best air-conditioning I had ever experienced, and it smelt of new leather and great expense. She also phoned, at great length. I had ‘caller display’ put on and took to not answering it when her number showed up. I felt bad about that.

Now, I remember where this was going. Sooner or later we will get on to the Youth Club, the out-of-tune piano and a single battered copy of The Midwich Cuckoos. And somewhere in the mix will be a queasy, beatific portrait of Jesus surrounded by unlikely children of all races, suffering them to come to him. And then there will be my newly-found Certificate of Baptism and my dear Godmother who is not, in fact, my godmother at all as it transpires.

I think it will have to be another post.

Maybe even two.

poppers

Lukewarm

“You are so capable,” I remember saying.

I remember exactly where I sat when I said it, that tatty armchair by the gas fire that had the middle bar missing. That was my seat. The other seat was your seat. A small black and white TV on the carpet – miles away, it seemed. It was around that time, twenty-one or twenty-two, when I began to suspect I needed glasses.

It was cold in that room because the ceilings were so high. What heat there was from the broken gas fire went straight up and lingered way above our heads, an invisible, ineffective fug. Our flat was on the third floor. It had once been servants’ quarters.

How soon it became winter that year. We married late in the August, a boiling hot day, so hot that my Nan, in her navy blue suit, almost fainted. But by the November winter had set in, dreich and damp.

I remember having no money to speak of but walking down to the shops for something to do; something to get me away from you, already. I stood and stared into shop windows at various desirable objects and imagined buying them. I went home and wrote a poem with one and a half good lines in it – ‘And my green ghost stands behind me/ Spending money’. ‘Poem in November,’ it was called. No idea what happened to it.

“You are so capable,” I said, in that cold armchair, on the day I suddenly found I simply couldn’t move for misery.

“You don’t let me cook, you don’t let me clean. You watch me all the time so that you will be able to put right what I am just about to do wrong. We go to the supermarket and you remove from our shopping trolley every single item I put into it, substituting your own choice. You make me feel useless.”

“You know, what you need,” you said “is a hobby, or a purpose in life. Some sort of challenge or crusade. Keep your mind active. Stop this sort of thing keep happening.”

“Tell me one thing I can do, that you can’t,” I said. “Anything at all that I can do even fractionally better than you.”

You thought for a while. I could see you were uncomfortable. The silence stretched on and on, like our future together.

“I’ve noticed you always answer letters promptly,” you said at last.

Lukewarm

Are these lemons, and is lemonade what I’m making?

The last time I got my feet seen to, it must have been ten years ago. Maybe. Or eight, or fifteen. I never was good with time. I went to an alternative health centre in my old town – proper carpets, it had, and those leather-look plastic armchairs that make a kind of sighing noise when you sink into them; prints of sailing boats on the wall; a receptionist in a white uniform, with a name badge; tasteful displays of leaflets for soothing-sounding, alternative-type things: acupuncture, counselling, reiki, aromatherapy. It was expensive, but I was working then and I justified the expense by leaving over-long gaps between visits and reminding myself that you should never skimp on your feet, a saying I had adapted from one of my father’s: You should never skimp on brakes or tyres.

My then-chiropodist was a lady. She was nice, but in a loud and terrifying sort of way. As soon as I was safely tethered on her couch she, giant-thighed astride a stool at the foot of it, busy with her mini-pliers, her tiny sanders-and-polishers, her sharp little razors, would start to interrogate me about the most intimate details of my life. Somehow it seemed impossible not to answer her. In full. She didn’t so much speak as boom, and had a way of repeating and amplifying every juicy detail she had just extracted from me. I was always afraid that those in the plush waiting room outside would hear. In fact I knew they would because I myself had been waiting in that plush waiting room and overhearing.

Today I went to another chiropodist at the day-care centre up here. Cut rate because of it being an old people place. Worth being an old person, for cut rate. He met me at the door and signed me in and I followed him into a kind of utility room-cum-workshop. There was a washing-machine going in the corner. It had just reached rinse-and-spin. Part way through my appointment a Chinese gentleman dressed in a donkey jacket with a tabard over the top entered with another pile of washing. He didn’t knock, but then it was only my naked feet he was catching a fleeting glimpse of. Everything appeared to be covered in a fine film of feet-dust, not all of it mine. I was reminded of what they said about crematoria and dead people’s ashes.

However, my feet got done, nicely and professionally, and I fairly skipped back to the car park thinking My toes, my toes, what twinkling toes I do have! I had forgotten, through all the years of skimping and scrimping, what it felt like to look after myself in any physical way. Somewhere along the way I had mislaid that sense of deserving any care. It also occurred to me that that apart from fleeting interactions with the neighbours, the post-lady and the visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses – with whom, unfortunately, I now seem to be on first-name terms – the conversation with the chiropodist was probably only the second real conversation I had had here in the past four years.

And then tonight on TV there was yet another Island programme – in this case Fair Isle, which I gather is half way between Shetland and Orkney. I’m a sucker for programmes about Islands since in my younger days I had a fantasy – one of many fantasies, all totally unrealistic – of going to live on a Scottish island and becoming, somehow – how, given my total inability to join in or mingle? – part of a close-knit community. Yes, I would be knitting lovely jumpers from wool spun from Island sheep, which would be fluffy sheep, not large and greasy and obstreperous as I know real sheep to be.

I would be doubling as the island’s postmistress, pottering around windswept, rain-lashed lanes in my little red van, or possibly red tractor. I might have a workshop and… paint stuff…even though I have no artistic talent. I might help out on a fishing boat in my spare time, even though I’m a vegetarian and couldn’t bear to hurt a fish, or teach in a little school with five charming children. Any more than five, charming or not, as I discovered as a hopeless student teacher would be quite beyond me. I would be weather-beaten, spare and romantically tough. I would twist my hair up into a loose knot, with some sort of tortoiseshell slide and it would stay put, not fall apart immediately. I would wear faded jeans, check shirts, woolly hats and muddy wellingtons and I would be competent and… useful.

Subsequently it occurred to me that dreams can be very dangerous things. This indulgence in fantasies of future lives is one massive great tempting of fate. You are likely find that you have been vouchsafed instead the pale cousin of that life, its echo – its wraith, if you will – and that may be worse, far worse, than having been granted nothing at all. On the other hand, of course, it may be necessary to dream first of nectarines to pave the way for the inevitable lemons and the lemonade, of sorts, that might be made from them.

nectarine.jpg

What wondrous life is this I lead!

Ripe apples drop upon my head;

The luscious clusters of the vine

Upon my mouth do crush their wine;

The nectarine and curious peach

Into my hands themselves do reach…

From: The Garden, by Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678)

Mrs Prothero and the firemen

One of the downsides of living a largely interior life is that others find you dull – so very dull, in fact, that they cannot think of anything to ask you when they meet you. I have noticed, you see, that when ‘exterior’ people bump into each other in the street they tend to enquire about a whole range of things –

How are the kids?

How’s the revising going for that big exam?

Did your Aunt Mabel ever make that attempt on Everest?

And so forth.

It’s like they have a mental filing cabinet. They see you walking towards them in the street. Quickly they open a drawer in the filing cabinet and out pop the kids, that big exam, Aunt Mabel, Mount Everest and a whole lot of other potentially conversational stuff. Memory – it’s a rag bag. Dylan Thomas put it much better than me, a very long time ago:

I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs Prothero and the firemen.

But when people meet me – or rather realise they are not going to be able to avoid me – on the street, they have no Mrs Prothero, no convenient firemen. When the silence becomes too awkward most of them ask one of two things:

Do you still have all those cats?

How’s your mother?

And what can you say?

Yes.

Still quite old.

It was not always so. During my married years Ex’s friends would often come to the house to visit him – never us.  Often it was to discuss model engineering at great length whilst staring into the middle distance; very occasionally it was to buy a painting; once in a while it was to persuade him to fix their lawnmower. (It’s one of the things with being self-employed and working from home – people don’t regard it as proper work, so you’re bound to have time to fix their lawnmower or get their grandfather’s pocket-watch ticking again.)

During my married years all these middle-aged ‘men’s men’, for whom I was an embarrassing and inconvenient appendage to the Real Person of the house, if absolutely forced to address me would enquire either –

Ironing? or

Knitting?

And what can you say to that?

Yes.

No.ironing

But worse, spend too much time alone and you become as uninteresting as other people think you are. I went to visit my friends the other day, and we had coffee. You know how, after a conversation you tend to go back over it, try and remember what you said? As I clambered into the car and headed for Tesco’s all I could remember was that I had talked nearly all of the time about dustbins and those little orange caddies they provide you with to recycle your food waste. Oh yes, and maggots. Those little orange caddie things are prone to maggots, which is why hardly anyone uses them. And there’s nothing worse than maggots…

And so I think, should I try to do a number of Interesting Things, to help out casual acquaintances? Should I maybe volunteer to feed the homeless, then people could ask:

Have you fed any more of those homeless people recently? And I could say, Well, yes, actually I fed one only yesterday. Soup, it was. And sandwiches.

Maybe I should attempt to become good at Sudoku. Instead of staring at my Chinese Sudoku board (“Number Is Alone”) for three hours, then giving up because the numbers just won’t go in the right places, maybe I should get good at it and go in for competitions.

Maybe I should join a fitness group and become taut and toned like those people in the post-Christmas home fitness ads. Then acquaintances who inconveniently bumped into me in supermarkets could gush:

Is that really you? I hardly recognise you, you’ve got so slim! And  just look at those abs!

Or maybe I should try and knock up a cynically quick novel – a thing about rampant vampire lust, perhaps, or some sort of murder mystery involving a locked gymnasium and a vaulting horse, or a body buried under a vegetable patch resulting in a suspiciously wonderful crop of onions. And then people could ask:

Did you ever get that vampire novel published?

And I could say.

Well, no.

Nurse on a Train!!!

Really, public transport and me don’t mix. I’m constitutionally unequipped for being confined at close quarters with a mélange of members of the human race.

So, after my disastrous schedule of house viewings on the other side of the county with an estate agent called Gavin, I was forced to make my own way home. We had finished earlier, due to every one of the slightly-possible houses being already sold/withdrawn from the market before we even got to them, leaving only a depressing rump of properties no one in the entire world would want buy. This meant that my file full of printed-out Trainline train times was useless. I was going to have to wing it. Except that I didn’t have wings.

Ebbsfleet International, I thought. Sounds scary. Do I really want to make my way home via somewhere I have never heard of before, probably somewhere near London where it is well known there are suicide bombers, and explosives in every waste-bin? Platform 6. Do I want to be scurrying about (Headless Chicken again) a railway station big enough to have six platforms? And I’d have to go on that special fast train. I’ve never been on the special fast train before. And indeed, six might only be the middle of the sequence, or a third of the way through. There could be eighteen platforms. Ooooh no, I can’t be doing with eighteen platforms.

So I caught a train to Canterbury. Then I had to get across Canterbury because Canterbury, infuriatingly, has two separate railway stations. It’s teeming city at the best of times, but this was school chuck-out hour. I headless-chickened out and grabbed a taxi. Then I had to wait for another train, out of the other Canterbury. I was crammed behind a party in black suits, arty scarves and Terry Pratchett hats, loudly chortling about maths conundrums on their mobile phones and showing one another pictures of their latest “ventures into Iceland”. Delegates, I thought – returning home from some conference at the University of Kent. Intellectuals. Pah! None of them noticed the lumpy old biddy in the too-large, too long brown coat clutching an overstuffed rucksack that they had hemmed in beside the chocolate machine.

On the train (at last!) while the Iceland-visiting brigade were high-volume exclaiming that it had been many years since they had alighted upon one of these (trains) my too-long coat got caught up uncomfortably under my left leg but I didn’t dare stand up in case people might notice me, and my left leg began to get pins and needles, prior to complete numbness, so I sat like that, clutching my overstuffed rucksack and tried not to look at the people opposite me. So far so bad, but outside Faversham we stopped, and there we stayed, deafened by a series of British Rail announcements. Firstly, we were waiting for a platform to become available in Faversham station. Then, apparently there had been “people found running about on the line at Herne Bay” and this was causing some delays. Then it appeared that the drivers we needed to take us on past Faversham, were having to come from Herne Bay, and of course… people running about, etc. “So that’s why,” announced the announcer “we’re in a bit of a pickle at the moment”.

“Hah – in a bit of a pickle,” someone mimicked. “In a bit of a pickle.. makes a change from Cows on the Line or the Wrong Sort of Leaves!”

An estate agent phoned me on my mobile phone. I’m afraid of my mobile phone, but it was ringing in the pocket of my brown coat. I tried to ignore it for a while but people began to give my pocket meaningful looks. “Could you hang on a minute?” I said, “Only I’m on a stuck on train outside Faversham and there are all these  announcements..”

“Yes, I can hear them,” he said. “Every word.”

“It seems,” said the announcer, “that someone has actually been hit by a train in Herne Bay…” Hit? Oh no, that’s far worse than Running About. “But on the plus side,” said our announcer, who seemed to have upped the volume by another notch, “your driver has just arrived. He just needs to put his own train in the sidings, and then he will be with us. Might be another ten minutes.”

To cap it all the student nurse in the seat opposite started talking to me. I knew she was a student nurse because that was all I had been able to understand of her endless telephone conversations. She had a weird, young-person way of talking – entire sentences elided into a single word. “So you’ve been house hunting too?” she said.

Maybe it’s a project, I thought. Maybe I’m the Old Person she needs to Engage in so many hours Conversation with in order to qualify for her NVQ or whatever student nurses study for. Why else would she talk to me? Nobody under seventy talks to me, ever. Though I’m a big hit with the over seventies, hence the old lady singing at me and demanding chocolate fingers in the mental hospital. Did I tell you, by the way, that there was an old man on his back in the Recreation Room, when I was visiting my mother on Sunday? Yes, like a beetle, upended. He was wearing pyjamas and had his legs and slipper-clad feet in the air, and was busy dismantling the chairs from underneath. By the end of my visit he had dismantled almost a whole row and there was a neat pile of square plastic seats on the floor beside him. Fascinating!

She was really pretty, this student, except that she had funny eyes – sort of downward- sloping and goggly. It was difficult to look away from her once transfixed. “I just found a place to rent,” she said. “It’s a student house, but it looks like a cottage on the outside. Really nice!”

“Oh,” I said, never having been to university and trying to recall how student accommodation worked. “So you spent the first year on campus and now you are moving out to…?”

“No,” she said, I decided to go straight into rented. I just got this lovely scarf in Canterbury, do you see?” She pulled out a white chiffon scarf and draped it round her neck for me to admire. “And I got some flats.” (Flats?) “Because I haven’t got any flats at all you see, and these were so nice, with little black bows on the front.”

“Well,” I said, cautiously, “you can never have too many shoes?”

“Or scarves,” she said. “I love shopping, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, “you can never have too much shopping,” wondering how many years ago it was when I had the money to buy myself a scarf or a pair of shoes; wondering how long before that driver finished shunting his previous train into the siding and started driving this train onwards, through and beyond Faversham. Oh blessed relief. Beyond Faversham.

“Yes,” said the student nurse. “I’m just dying to get home for my Spag Bol.” Spag Bol, I was thinking, rifling through the rusty biscuit tin of my vocabulary – food. A species of food containing meat combined with … must be… spaghetti.

“Do you like shopping?” she asked. “I’m going to phone my Dad to collect me. I have to be careful because he’s on shift work and sometimes he comes home early and sometimes he comes home late so he’s not always there to collect me…”

Dear God In Heaven, I thought. From ghosties and ghoulies, long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night; from people running about on the track at Herne Bay and student nurses with verbal diarrhoea, Good Lord deliver us…

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.

 

Trolls, Molls and rocking horses

I was wambling about on the internet recently and came across one of those websites where one person asks a question and many anonymous other persons contribute their answers. I’m thinking chat room or message board, but I’m probably wrong. Maybe forum? I’m just an old biddy who stumbles across weird stuff online every now and again. It was one of those places. A whatever.

Anyway, this person asked: Why do human beings make conversation? And somebody else answered to the effect: Why do human beings ask really stupid questions? Presumably this kind of response is like being a Troll, but not quite so vicious. More like a Mocker, or a Moll. Or a Smartarse.

Because it seemed to me that, whether he or she was in fact stupid, this questioner had come up with a good question. Why do we talk to one another? After all, animals don’t. I’ve never heard a tabby cat addressing a ginger cat thusly: Excuse me, O Ginger One, would you mind moving over so that I might enjoy some of that lap-space? No. Tabby will appraise the situation for either a short or a long while. Then, upon concluding that Ginger is both bigger and stroppier than herself, will turn softly and exit stage left. Alternatively Tabby will place a hefty paw on Ginger’s head. If nothing happens as a consequence she will actually stand on said head, then walk all over Ginger and sit on top of him. My lap! she will be saying, just not aloud. Mine, mine, mine!

Ginger will then slide to the floor, conceding the lap. Or he may hiss and spit a bit, then slide to the floor. What are they doing that is any different to what human beings are doing to one another daily – in the workplace, in the street, in war-zones, in conference rooms, on the green or red leather seats of the Houses of Parliament? Encroaching, retreating, negotiating, asserting. All without words.

When I was a child I would often try to imagine of a world without words. It seemed to me that words were unnecessary in all but the least important of situations. If someone is grieving, how can your voice help them? So sorry for your loss. The same thing happened to me. I can’t begin to imagine how you feel. Or you could rest a hand on their shoulder, or sit with them in silence.

How much simpler the world might be if we all woke up one morning and discovered we couldn’t speak. We’d have to look at each other’s faces, get better at body language, start using that sixth sense we all possess but are mostly unaware of. We would develop sign languages, of course – or appropriate the languages deaf people are already using. This would once again be conversing, but less intrusive. If I didn’t want to overhear your detailed, hour long run-down on last night’s televised football match I could turn away. If I didn’t want to be dragged into your marital disagreement in the supermarket queue just because I was unfortunate enough to be standing behind you, I could close my eyes. You and your unwanted information/gouts of stale, second-hand emotion would be gone. The world would be beautiful again.

On another website I came upon a list of Conversation Starters. Good grief, I thought. Why are we so desperate to keep on and on talking at one another, even when we can’t think of a thing to say? Why do we need to exchange phatic pleasantries with total strangers whilst clutching a glass of wine in one hand, a sausage roll and three vol-au-vents on a bendy paper plate in the other? Wouldn’t a smile be enough – to show that no harm is meant? Why are we even putting ourselves in situations where we know so little about the others present in the room that we find ourselves resorting to:

What is your favourite party game? (I can’t remember a single party game. Have I ever even played a party game?)

What is your favourite hang-out spot? (Hang-out spot?)

What’s in your fridge? (Oh…stuff.)

Do you know who sings the song that is playing? (What song?)

What do you think about this weather? (Think about it?)

If you had to give yourself a new name, what name would you pick? (Gloriana, maybe – because then I could dress up like Elizabeth I, wear a tall white ruff and something called a stomacher. I could sit there looking pasty and half-bald and have my portrait painted. Then, if I wished, have the painter beheaded…)

In keeping with the season, these would be Bah, humbug! responses to silly questions. Genuinely rude responses to genuinely silly questions. I’d never use them, of course, because at heart I’m not a Troll – not even a Moll. If I did find myself (Heaven forefend) lingering about in a roomful of people with a glass of wine in one hand, a sausage roll and two vol-au-vents on a bendy paper plate in the other, and someone was attempting to be make conversation with me – however awkward the question and however vague and inadequate my response, I’d hope at least not to hurt their feelings or spoil their evening.

And if someone did ask me an interesting question I hope I’d acknowledge that, and take the trouble to think about what they had asked. Because to ask an interesting question is quite an art. An interesting question is a sign that the questioner has engaged their brain for some time before opening their mouth. Genuinely interesting questions are as rare as rocking horse droppings.

So what would you ask a stranger at a party? On a bus? When stuck in a lift together?

Just tell me it’s not the end of the line

The Greasy Café is where we go most Sundays, Mum and I. We go there because you don’t have to walk far if it’s raining, or if Mum’s feet are bad, as they are at the moment. And it’s near mini-Tesco’s, in case of a Ryvita and currant-cake famine. Actually, the things we end up buying in Tesco’s seem to have little to do with what Mum has in her store cupboard or even what she likes – they are more likely to be what her internal elves instruct her to buy, and in whatever strange quantities they stipulate – four currant-cakes when once home she will say she doesn’t like cake, a single yoghurt when she eats at least two a day, meat cat food when the cat prefers fish, no bananas when she has no bananas. I have learned not to argue, on the basis that it will do no good in any event, and any food in her cupboard is better than none at all. I am not sure whether she remembers to eat it, or what she eats, but she seems to stay around the same weight so she must be eating something.

But, before that we go to the Greasy Café. We always have to have the same thing – two Choice One. The frothy coffees are free. It’s really a breakfast meal – two slices of toast, one underdone tomato cut into quarters, two potato cakes and a mountain of rubbery scrambled egg, which I suspect starts off as yellow powder in an industrial-size tub. The café is run by Cypriots, a husband and wife team, with occasional weekend waiters or waitresses. Every other week Mum asks me in a deaf person’s whisper where I think they come from, and whether they are Indians, and I pretend not to hear since they are only a foot or so away. If there is a waiter he will learn how handsome he is – could have been a model. If there is a waitress she will learn how slim she is – surprising with all this food around. People are enormous nowadays. Great wobbly things. Look at his stomach! And why do the women wear those long dresses?

The café owners know us well. We walk in and they wave at us, he from the kitchen and she from behind the till. The usual?

Are you going to give them our order? I don’t think they’ve seen us.

They know our order. They’ll be along in a minute with the coffee.

But she hasn’t come to the table with her notebook.

They know our order. We always have the same.

I don’t think they’ve seen us.

They know our order. They’ll be along in a minute…

And then we sink into silence and wait, because Mum doesn’t like to wear her hearing aids, and can’t hear me. And anyway, we have nothing much to say, having got through any ‘business’ over mugs of tea before we came out. I have a notebook and biro in my bag in case of emergencies.

We’ve been waiting for half an hour. Are they very busy?

The café is empty apart from us, the Cypriot owners and a couple of middle aged men commenting the sports pages of the newspaper. They are always here. Seem to be friends of the boss. And outside, there are the vapers – a strange-looking couple who sit at one of the outside tables in all weathers, vaping. Lady boss takes coffee out to them at intervals.

It’s only been ten minutes. She’ll be here with the coffee shortly.

Do they know we’re here? She didn’t come to the table with her notebook.

Outside is the shopping precinct. It was built long after I left, on the land which used to belong to Mum’s school. They demolished Mum’s school. The playground is now a bookmakers, and a Wilco store. Behind that there is a pet shop where Mum sometimes buys cat-biscuits because she feels sorry for them, and a bookshop which I am not allowed to go into because Mum doesn’t do browsing, and a charity shop side window. I make sure to be facing the window, and every Sunday I look out at clumps of fat people going past, the women in the long frocks my mother so dislikes, the children in hoodies, on skateboards, the men with their big bellies in long shorts and tattoos. I am just too far away to read the titles of the second hand hardback books stacked in the bookshop window, but in any case I have been in there on my own and know he overcharges. And I know they’ll be unweildy histories of naval battles in the Second World War, and indexes of all the films ever made, and craft books showing you how to make floral covers for paper tissue boxes, or Easter Bunny peg-bags. And in the charity shop, the same three dresses – a red one, a very short blue one and a longer, beige-coloured one. Always the same three, in some tiny size. Obviously there are not enough small women around here. Oh yes, and a handbag. A battered brown handbag, very large, with black clasps. A homeless handbag.

Our coffees arrive. There is a spoon each to spoon off the froth.

I’ve got three bags of sugar.

Oh, I’ve got two this time.

But I don’t need three bags of sugar.

Put them in your handbag for later, then.

It’s not the done thing. And they might need them for other people.

Leave them on the table, then.

But why have I got three and you’ve got two?

I don’t know. Sometimes I get three and you get two. Sometimes we both get two…

Do they know we’re here? She hasn’t been over…

Our two Choice Ones arrive. I shall be feeling queasy all afternoon. I am thinking, I’ve got a bit of a headache. The toast isn’t too bad, though. I’ll leave half the egg.

This is better than the beans, isn’t it? The one with the beans we used to have. So many beans they used to spill off the edge of the plate. And they made the plate wobble. I could never keep my plate still. Yours never seemed to wobble. Why did I always get the wobbly plate?

I don’t know. Maybe it was a wobbly table.

There’s a dead fly on this table.

It’s just a mark. Look, I’ll poke it – it doesn’t move.

It looks like a dead fly.

But it doesn’t move.

It won’t move if it’s dead.

There is no fly. Look, it’s a mark on the table.

This is better than the beans, isn’t it?

They’ve turned on the radio. Music, to soothe a savage breast.

It’s very noisy in here. What’s that noise all of a sudden?

But I am floating away on a tide of music, and none of it matters any more, not the three same dresses and the homeless handbag, not the unreachable books or the fat people, or the hooded children on their skateboards, not the people in wheelchairs, the people smoking, the tattooed men, the grey clouds overhead, the likelihood of rain, Tesco still to come…

I drew a broken heart

Right on your window pane

Waited for your reply

Here in the pouring rain

Just breathe against the glass

Leave me some kind of sign

I know the hurt won’t pass, yeah

Just tell me it’s not the end of the line…