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.