Talk, Talk…

Someone introduced me to somebody else recently. Now, who was it? Oh yes, my village friend (I am trying to resist using quotation marks here). We were up at the hospital, drinking that particularly sour brand of coffee perpetrated by the elderly ladies in the Volunteer Shop, whilst waiting for the basement canteen to open for business.

This friend of hers came up – friends of hers are always coming up – and my ‘friend’  introduced me. I did what I thought was the perfectly usual smile and the Hi there! and my ‘friend’ said “Don’t mind her, she’s Quiet”. In what sense, I wondered, did she imagine I was quiet?

It is true that I spend days – sometimes weeks – on my own, in my house with no one to talk to apart from the cats and the radio. After twenty-three years or so, I am used to silence. Sometimes I sing, but it comes out flat. Sometimes I recite poetry to myself. If I am angry about something or other I can have heated arguments with myself, out loud, playing both the parts. But mostly I am silent. In my head, long conversations continue – academic debates; love letters to those long lost, or not so long lost; chats with God, or the Universe or whatever might be Out There. Sometimes I get a word or a phrase stuck in my head and play it over and over to myself, like music. Sometimes, in silence, and without aid of pencil and paper, I write.

I had a great aunt once – Auntie Daisy. Auntie Daisy was stick thin, wore black, had once been a teacher. She was what people then called an Old Maid. It amused her to sign herself Tante Marguerite in birthday cards, which mystified us all since we hadn’t yet started learning French. Coughed up juicy five shilling postal orders every Christmas. I was a greedy child.

And I was a silent child. I had this trick – I could make myself invisible to adults. I would sit there with my hands neatly clasped in my lap, earnestly studying the pattern on the curtain or a tiny speck on the skirting-board, waiting for them to forget I was there. Then I listened in. I learned quite a lot of things that way. I learned, for example, that once Auntie Daisy started talking you Couldn’t Get A Word In Edgewise. I also learned that Once She Got Her Feet Under Your Table There Was No Getting Rid Of Her.

Poor Auntie Daisy. She lived on her own, like I do, and she suffered from the same syndrome – Intermittent Motormouth or Spinster’s Gabble, ie she had no one to talk to most of the time, but occasionally, unpredictably, finding herself in company and with an audience, started talking and simply could not stop.

Daisy could talk for England and so, when the mood comes upon me, can I. People tend to laugh – perhaps because they expect me to be po-faced and miserable and suddenly here I am, cracking jokes, telling endless long-winded stories, forgetting what I was saying, remembering, starting up again…

But it must be so tiring to be on the receiving end of. I can hear myself talking when I get like that, and it exhausts me. I am sending out a silent SOS – Please Shut Me Up Now. But nobody ever does. Eventually I run down of my own accord, like a clockwork robot.

I have had a whole couple of days like that. Yesterday I met English Sister at the Home and we travelled up in the stinky old lift to visit Mum. The smell in that place just hits you. Mum doesn’t speak, really, any more, just looks at us, kind of puzzled. Her white hair – always so short and carefully permed – has long since grown out and grown long. Now they gather a little wispy bunch of it up on top of her head to keep it out of her eyes. She looks like a ninety year old schoolchild. So, we sat there with her, but talked amongst ourselves. The Manageress came in. She says she thinks Mum must still know we are something to do with her – vaguely familiar, otherwise she would have attacked us, violently. Good to know.

Afterwards we drove off in our separate cars, to meet up again at the garden centre café for coffee and more chat. By this time I was in full flow. My sister, I happened to know, voted for the other side in the 2016 referendum. She and her whole family are quite passionate, politically, about the thing I voted against. I assumed she must know that, since our Canadian Sister tends to tell everyone absolutely everything. Unfortunately it began to be obvious from what she was saying that she didn’t. Oh God, I thought, now we are going to have That Conversation. So I took a deep breath and told her how I had voted.

You did WHAT!! she shrieked. How COULD you? The café was quite crowded but it suddenly went quite quiet.

Don’t hate me, I whispered. She has only just re-adopted me.

But anyway, we managed it. We dipped our toes into You Know What. We disagreed, but politely. We wandered off towards something we could agree on – the utter ghastliness of President Trump. We wandered back to the scary muddle the Government had made of the whole Brexit process – something else we could agree on – and our worries about rationing. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves disagreeing about Boris Johnson, so veered off in the direction of climate change. She said she was glad she would not now have grandchildren, her son being gay and her daughter being too frail to risk a pregnancy. Maybe, she said, the world would hold together long enough for them to be all right, but beyond that… For the first time I thought, maybe it was a good thing I couldn’t have children. Maybe in my infertility I was being kind of prescient and noble, unwittingly.

And so the horror of our radically opposed political views was diluted – as Godmother summed it up today (oh, and that was another long, exhausting motormouth session). My sister and I, both passionately convinced, both furious – she with my unbelievably stupid friends and I with her unbelievably stupid family – did at least agree on our fury. We agreed that we could both bear to listen to it no longer, and turned off the radio the minute the subject came up. She said her children did too. I said I had taken to listening to music all day rather than turn on the news.

It does seem to me that that is what we will have to do, all of us, afterwards. We will have to shriek in horror at the betrayal each of us has perpetrated upon the other; we will have to whisper in supplication. And then will have to sit around for hours in cafés and talk, preferably whilst eating half-melted chocolate eclairs and getting sugar all round our mouths, and so much chocolate on our fingers that it is beyond licking off politely. We will have to talk about it, fishing delicately around for the few items we can agree on, diluting the pain and the awkwardness with mugs of tea . Try and see the funny side.

I think I may need to lie down for the rest of the weekend.

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