3: Send in the clowns

Continued from 2: Supping with the Devil (technically, posted on 6/7 – you might need to use the Search box)

It should have been funny, and it kind of was, looking back. Looking back, I can recall the struggles and contradictions of that afternoon as Mum and I listened to these two monolithic men droning on at one another about politics or whatever, beneath the ’70s artex ceiling and ghastly pine wall-covering, giant mugs of tea at the ready: exhilaration, a rather spiteful kind of satisfaction, sadness, anxiety and loss. Part of me knew that Ex had got to win, another part couldn’t bear for Dad to lose. Ridiculously, now, I am reminded of battling silverback gorillas and David Attenborough. (Who can picture a gorilla without David, whispering reverentially close by?) And I recall that last scene in The Railway Children – Daddy, my Daddy!

After twenty-three years or so I screwed up the courage to tell Ex I was leaving. He seemed unmoved, relieved as much as anything. Not long after that the lady I usually refer to as My Replacement came along – well, she’d been ‘along’ for quite some time, I just hadn’t really realised. That was probably the most painful bit.

On one particularly memorable occasion , which I now think of as my Send In The Clowns moment, I had driven across to the small town where Ex still lived. I had an appointment to get my hair cut at my old hairdressers. I had not anticipated that there would be a carnival procession going on, and so had to park some way out of town and walk back in. As I was walking along the road I realised that he – and she – were walking towards me in the far distance, hand in hand. I suppose they must have been out watching the carnival. There was no convenient side-road or alleyway to swerve into, and in any case they had already seen me. I just had to pin on a gruesome attempt at a smile and keep walking forwards on the pavement, one foot in front of the other – and so did they, of course. I found myself feeling sorry for them at the same time as I was feeling sorry for me. It seemed to take years, and he couldn’t exactly drop her hand. I can’t remember another thing about that day. That one memory was enough to last me for ever!

Although most of me knows that leaving, even in middle age, was the right decision, some disconsolate little remnant continues to prowl around my house on sleepless nights mewling Where are you? Why did you stop looking after me? Why didn’t you come and find me?  Didn’t you love me? And I realise it is not just the lost wife crying, but the lost child looking for her father.

daddy

 

In the 1980s Canadian Sister, also ADD-ish, married a man who looked not so very different from Dad. He was very definite in his opinions, very clever, very competent, would brook no arguments, etc., etc., but they remained married until his death earlier this year. Now she rages at him, in his urn on the mantelpiece. He was supposed to be her shield and protector, and in return she knew she must do what she was told and never argue; she went where he wanted to go, watched whatever he wanted to watch on TV; pretended not to be embarrassed when he was rude to shopkeepers and Indian waiters, resisting the urge to apologise on his behalf. That was the clear bargain struck on a cold May day in a black old Northern church all those years ago, and he reneged on it by going and getting cancer.

I have been wondering what conclusion to draw, what ‘advice’, with the benefit of hindsight, I would give to my parents, or any new parents of an unconventional child. Of course I have no right to advise. If I had been able to have children or my own I’m sure I’d have got it just as wrong, and probably more so.

The fashionable motto is that all you really need to be is a Good Enough parent. I would extend that a bit – I think you can be a pretty bad parent and your child will still stand a chance or surviving, more or less, if only she can get what she needs from alternative sources. Which is an argument for old-fashioned rural communal parenting as opposed to the nuclear family, in which any evils are concentrated, hidden and likely to be perpetuated.

I was saved by Nan and Grandad who, by the most enormous stroke of luck, lived at the other end of our street. Nan walked along to see Mum most days, and I spent every Sunday from about the age of three along with Nan and Grandad. To start with this was because Mum and Dad were engaged in building their own house, with Grandad’s help, whilst expecting my sister at any moment. After that it just became a tradition.

Nan and Grandad had a huge garden with a cherry blossom tree, a swing suspended from an apple tree, a lawn full of daisies and buttercups, and all sorts of flowers and vegetables. They also had a smelly old golden Labrador, a roaring fire in winter, stacks of Woman’s Weekly and Carpenter & Joiner magazines, a bookcase full of pre-War hardback books, an etymological dictionary (my favourite) and a tiny black and white TV set.

Nan cooked great Sunday dinners. She washed my hair and I sat in front of the fire to dry it. I was included in whatever she was doing. We put down newspaper and polished a mountain of brass with Brasso and blackening yellow dusters; we picked mint for the mint sauce – she chopped it fine then I stirred it in a little pot with sugar and vinegar. We sat on the back step shelling peas into an enamel bowl whilst staring up at the sky.

Over the course of the years she told me about the recent War, and the War before that. She told me about my Great Grandmother Sarah and her own many sisters. She told me the facts of life, taught me how to darn a sock and sew on a button. She chatted to me unselfconsciously as if I was just another grown-up, or she was just another child. On those Sundays with Nan I was a relaxed, ‘normal’ human being, but as soon as I returned to the other end of the road I became once again the freaky “Prima Donna” or “You Little Bitch”.

In writing this it has occurred to me that Nan had the advantage of having finished bringing up Mum – who had many of the same traits as me – considerably more pronounced, some of them – less than six years before, since Mum married at nineteen. Mum hadn’t had that advantage.

See 4: Imagine

2: Supping with the Devil

Continued from 1: A house divided (technically, published on 29/7. You might need to use the Search box)

It’s a hopeless task, really, trying to explain how an alternative brain-wiring scheme works. I don’t know what it feels like to be inside a different kind of brain. Each of us has either the one experience or the other, so in what terms can I describe my experience?

Dad used to hit me. I think maybe later in life he realised he could be fond of me, but not in those early days. I soon learned not to meet his eye, not to answer back, not to say anything, but he didn’t like that either. He knew I was afraid and he just couldn’t resist the challenge. It would start off in the third person: She’s not saying much – what’s up with her? Then it would go to the first: Cat got your tongue, has it? Hey, you, I’m talking to you. He used to taunt me until I rose to the bait, until I snapped, answered back, pleaded or cried. And then he used to hit me.

I remember crouching once against the front door, with its bobbled glass panels. My head was against the lowest row of glass panels, my left arm covering my head. I remember the fancy sculpted shape of the wooden bits that divided the glass and the rough texture of the cocoanut doormat through the thin cotton of my school dress. I remember waking covered in vomit (the bedroom wall was the background that time) because I had cried myself to sleep. I remember rocking, rocking and howling, and saying over and over to myself for hours, or so it seemed: I will never, never have children. I will never, never do this to them. Sometimes I wonder if that was why. If on that one day, rocking and howling, at the age of eleven I actually killed off all those little eggs.

He used to get off his bike and wheel it round the side and into the garage. I would be listening to his heavy footfall and the sound of his bicycle wheels slowly click-clicking by his side. A monster, a giant was about to burst through the back door. There would be the urgent, whispered conversation between the two of them, before the door was even closed – that was me being reported on. A quick look in my direction, that frown, and then he would hit me. Or maybe he would just send me to my room; or sometimes, for variety, grab me by the collar and drag me to my room. If I resisted he might drag me by the hair along the polished passage floor to my room, blubbering. I would be in there for hours, until I wrote a note apologising in general terms – since in specific terms I didn’t actually know what I had done – crept out and pushed it under the kitchen door.

Whether Dad’s bullying had anything to do with me being odd I will never know. It was beyond my limited understanding. Another thing I didn’t understand at the time was why Mum never stood up for me. Knowing the consequences, why hadn’t she dealt with my crimes herself, before he got home? As it was, the minute he got in from work he was faced with a whispered, unfavourable report. She expected him to ‘do’ something to stop her being upset. And he certainly did.

In retrospect I think Mum was like me, or maybe mildly autistic. Dad was her prop and her shield against the world and she knew she couldn’t – or didn’t want to – cope without him. If he could burn off most of his frustration on me, he would be closer to her. Nothing would be her fault and she would keep him on her side, at her side whatever the cost, no competition. I suppose that’s scapegoating. She fed me to him, that’s what I feel.

Godmother has been around since I was just a bump. She babysat for Mum and Dad in the early days, when they had weekly meetings at the Cycling Club. Recently I asked her about some of this stuff, half expecting that she would say no, it wasn’t like that, you misunderstood – but she had seen it too. She said my father probably shouldn’t have got married and had children. I said maybe he would have been happier staying single, having serial girlfriends, going out on his bike whenever he wanted, not having to work so hard to support all those great lanky girls. He was a handsome enough chap, after all. But she said he probably couldn’t have got away with that. In the 50s marriage and children were the norm.

What that ’50s childhood taught me was that I wasn’t going to win. An unnatural, un-cuddly sort of baby – according to Mum – morphed into a fractious, defensive child, an automatic arguer and questioner of authority; an impulsive blurter-outer; a foolish answerer-back of people much larger and stronger than herself; a raging, hysterical demander of impossible justice. I learned that I was fatally flawed and that my Achilles’ heel was a combination of femaleness and my difference. I realised that I would not be able to get through life without some sort of bodyguard, and bodyguards were usually husbands.

My mother married my father in 1949 or thereabouts. He was six foot four inches tall, athletic and seven years older than her. He could be charming. He had a sense of humour, plenty of funny stories, a few silly songs and poems. He was at ease talking to  strangers when she was definitely not. He could tell her what to think and what to do. She never once voted a different way, she had no friends but their joint friends. At one point they were both agnostics, and then they were both humanists. They’d sent for all the pamphlets and signed all the forms. It was impossible to talk to one of them independently of the other or even catch one in a different room to the other. Especially towards the end they seemed to have merged into a single being. They stayed happily married until his death, after which Mum got increasingly deaf, then distressingly psychotic, finally settling into a less dramatic kind of dementia.

In ’70s I married a man nine years older than me. He looked like Dad and – guess what – was very definite in his opinions and would brook no argument. On one ‘courting’ visit he won an argument with Dad, and it was at that precise moment that I knew I had found the one. Later on I realised that he talked all the time – droned on, in fact – and since he never paused for breath everyone had to listen to him. In any case, since he was very clever and pretty gifted in several different fields, people admired him. It was as if they were in the presence of royalty. In the pub they would gather round in a circle and gawp at him open-mouthed as he held forth on art, music, model engineering or whatever. I used to watch them sometimes; their expressions. They never noticed because their eyes were glued to him. I didn’t need to join in, couldn’t have done if I had wanted to, and nobody expected me to. When we were alone he barely spoke. This suited me well enough for the first fifteen years or so, although I knew within the first week that it wasn’t going to be joyful.

That seems to be the thing with ‘shield’ relationships. The stronger one shields the weaker, but the power they use to shield you they are draining from you. In the presence of Ex, I would not have dared make a joke. I couldn’t have launched into one of my interminable ‘tales’. I couldn’t have showed off or spoken up, contradicted, criticised, interrupted, sung, recited a poem or laughed. An overbearing husband can hide you from the world, but will also hide you from yourself. Gradually, from behind the shield of his loud voice, broad shoulders, manly tweeds (Germaine Greer’s expression) or whatever, you find yourself fading away. You merge into the wallpaper and turn into a living ghost.

It’s a cliché, isn’t it, escaping your father by marrying someone just like him. On one of his alternate weekend ‘courting’ visit to my family (he used to camp in the living room at mine, I was installed in the spare room at his) he won an argument with my father. He didn’t shout – well, neither of them shouted – but there was this tense, gruff, masculine thing going on. They both just continued ‘reasoning’ at one another, going round and round in circles. Mum and I cringed quietly in our armchairs, waiting for all the windows to shatter and bricks and mortar start crumbling around us. No one contradicted Dad. Except, it seemed, Ex.

See 3: Send in the clowns

Saturday Night Ramble

Mum and Dad used to belong to a Cycling Club, one of whose (which’s?) many sub-activities was know as The Wednesday Wobblers. This was a group of older cyclists who met on a Wednesday and cycled unbelievably long distances in order to eat a pub meal and drink a pint of beer and wobble all the way back home again. My parents disliked the name actually, because they didn’t wobble; they were better cyclists than that. And because it had been invented by their arch enemy, Fat Pat.

And so, being now in a Club of One I thought I would engage in a Saturday Night Ramble, mainly because I haven’t written anything for some time and still can’t come up with anything coherent to say. But that never stopped me in the past. Incoherence is my middle name.

Today it was chilly, and raining on and off, but my friend and I had arranged to go to the next village down for fish and chips and so we went. Actually we almost never manage to get into the fish and chip emporium since it is always stuffed full of seaside-visiting grockles in tracksuits, hooped earrings and tattoos, and today was no exception. We always seem to time it wrong. One moment the place is empty. By the time we have crossed the road – rather slowly since my friend is disabled – the grockles have packed it and are spilling out onto the pavement.

We ended up with egg and chips at another place, almost equally packed, and a three-quarter of an hour wait for that. Then they brought only one plate of egg and chips, though I had clarified (twice, in fact) to the very slow woman at the till that we needed egg and chips twice, there being two of us, as they could clearly see, rather than one of us requiring two eggs with their chips. So I sat and watched my friend eat her chips, and her two eggs, and meanwhile got through six half-slices of bread-and-marge off a hefty white china plate. She had more or less finished by the time my egg and chips arrived. The mug of tea seemed to me to taste strongly of fish, but she said it was probably just that my mind was still in fish and chip mode.

Home again, I turned the central heating on and sat for several hours doing battle with my mobile phone. It is one of those Doro old-people phones with all possibility of doing anything dangerous strictly hidden from view so as to discourage Mother or Father from tampering with the settings and messing things up. Unfortunately I am not quite old enough for a Doro and am finding it increasingly frustrating, and patronising in its attitude. It thwarts me at every turn. It was populated with an awful lot of what I believe is collectively known as Bloatware – lots of Google stuff I had no need for, and obscure features nobody with any sort of life could possibly have need of. Add to that a small memory, an absolute refusal to use the memory card I had purchased and installed, and an insistence that I delete every single app I had ever installed in order to make room for Bloatware updates it didn’t have enough Memory to perform…

I tried swapping the SIM and the memory card to another phone, but this caused all sorts of problems. Google demanded that I sign in and kept presenting me with all those unreadable wiggly things. After an hour it was still refusing to accept that I was me, and I gave up, moved the SIM and the memory card back. Then I installed a file manager and viciously (viciously, I say) disabled or deleted every single Google bloat-thingy, every single Doro feature I had never found a use for and every single app that I couldn’t attribute a function to. That worked! Pah, I hate smartphones.

And now I am listening to music on my MP3 player to drown out the noise of the party next door. The trick is to turn the volume up just loud enough to partially distract from the thumping electronic beat and screeching pre-teens, but not quite loud enough to damage your own hearing.

Catwise, I now have another problem. One of my outdoor strays looks to have a damaged leg, but I can’t get near him. If he had just allowed himself to get tame first, I could have picked him up. All I can do is keep putting food out and hope he can manage to heal himself. Or for the universe to persuade him he really needs to trust the Giantess to take him to the vet and get fixed. So far the food is continuing to disappear, but I can’t be sure it’s him eating it, since there is Mystery Dog, another ginger tom (Sunshine), the ever-present Ratties and now a small brown mouse. The cats are glued to the back door watching the mouse’s insouciant preening of his whiskers inches from their noses, the wrong side of the double glazing.

The Cats Protection lady is still going to come and see me, but her companion is not. We have arranged this between us. He took a fancy to me and mowed my lawn. Then he told me I was Not Very Practical and obviously needed Taking In Hand and a Real Man To Look After Me. Then he grabbed me in the kitchen and started sending unspeakably suggestive texts all evening, every evening. Yuk! I find it amazing that now, when I am old and toothless (well, not completely toothless) – weirdo men seem to be coming out of the woodwork, attired in big boots, khaki shorts and hearing aids, or too tight overcoats that smell strongly of mothballs. Whereas when I was younger and at least willowy and acceptable-looking I couldn’t seem to get a boyfriend for love nor money. And oh, old men are so disgusting. They just never seem to lose the conviction that any single woman must be just gasping – gasping – for their slobbering embraces. He brought me unwanted food, and secreted it in my fridge, in cupboards etc., when I wasn’t looking. I have been throwing it out as I find it. This morning yet another dryish sultana loaf fell out of the cupboard…

Ow, think I’m going to have to turn the MP3 down. Perhaps they’ve stopped, next door…

Yes, a few minutes break before…

Ah, but there they go again. And it’s that idiot with the paint pot singing “I can hear it coming in the wind tonight”. They always get onto that one sooner or later.

And now Ed Sheeran… beautiful and sweet… we were just kids when we fell in love…

Send In The Clowns

Well, now they have given my mother wheels. I don’t know why they didn’t think of it sooner – or why I didn’t think of it. All those months of visiting and she’s stuck in that heavy chair in front of the TV, and she’s still managing to move it around. She can’t walk, but she heaves it, by instalments, this way and that. Sometimes she’s facing the brown plastic linen basket (an object that seems to worry her greatly), sometimes she’s half way out of the door, and setting off that under-the-carpet alarm thing so the carers have to come running and heave her back. Now – light bulb moment – they’ve removed the alarms, turned off the TV, taken away the heavy chair and put her in a lightweight wheelchair she’s off – like a road runner.

And now, with one of those sudden swerves of pace/tone/logic/emotional atmosphere for which I am famous-or-at-least-mildly-well-known:

It occurs to me that we all have within us all the ages we have ever been – from ancient crone to grown-up woman to surly teenager to vulnerable three year old child – and can switch – and in fact can’t help switching – backwards and forwards between these versions of ourselves, minute by minute, second by second. Today I woke up three years old, and needing my Mum. Well, Dad would probably have done, but he’s dead. At least Mum’s this side of the veil, pro tem.

On some rare days, friends are not enough: neither is logic enough, or courage enough, or adult conversation, either in person or over the telephone. What would be enough – what you really need – no longer really exists in this world for you. But that doesn’t stop you needing it.

Well, I was going to visit Mum anyway, and so I went, hoping that maybe Old Mum was still lurking somewhere inside that wizened old shell. Hoping against hope, really, that the Fraction of her that knew me so well before I was even born, and the Whole of her that will know me again in the next world, might be tuned in, today.

And there she was, on wheels. And I do believe it was the funniest visit I have ever had with her. Well, the only funny visit. Firstly she ran over my foot, then she spent some time experimentally backwards-and-forwardsing on her new wheels, bumping her knees against mine crying wheeeee! and brrrrroooom!

We obviously weren’t going to stay in her room this visit, dolefully watching The Simpsons together. Oh no. Off we went up the corridor, with Mum branching off at intervals to enter and inspect other people’s rooms. At one point she paused behind a carer who had just gone into a store cupboard, craning her neck around in an exaggeratedly casual way to ascertain what was in there. Only sheets and stuff, nothing to interest you! came the muffled comment from inside the cupboard.

Next minute we were in the almost deserted dining room, and Mum was helping herself to a banana from the fruit bowl on the side. She looked at it for a moment. Yer ‘as to peel it for e’r came a hoarse old voice from the corner. It was a lady waiting for a haircut. Been ‘ere all morning, she grumbled. They left my toast in the microwave and it’s gone stone cold, but I’m about to eat it anyway.

I ended up following my mother around, with an increasing amount of ‘stuff’ – a cup of tea in a white mug; a glass of that anonymous pink water the carers keep giving them, and insisted on giving Mum as well as the cup of tea; a brownish and wilting banana skin; my own bag; five unwanted grapes. We skedaddled into the Day Room and watched the traffic out of the window for a minute or two, then Mum ran over my bag. I moved it. She carefully ran over it again.

You’re…. daughter, she said suddenly. Proud of you.

And I’m proud of you too, Mum.

I stayed half an hour longer than I normally would have done. After that I could see she was getting bored with me and wondering when her Friday Fish was going to get here. I too was hungry. And the cats would need feeding. In the lobby, a teenage carer was sitting with a trolley load of croissants and sweet rolls of various sorts. Can I interest you in one of these? he enquired. For a small donation? Maybe £10?

£10?

Only joking. Most people are putting in about £1.

I put in £1.50 and selected a chocolate croissant. I picked it because it was the only one wrapped in cellophane and total strangers had no doubt been fingering the others.

And on the way home I thought – that’s just what she would have done when I was three years old, and tearful. Distraction. And a memory came to me – a long-lost occasion I know she had forgotten even before she forgot everything, because I asked her about it once and she had no idea what I meant.

Mum and Canadian Sister and I are in the kitchen, eating lemon cup cakes. How old am I on this day? Eight, maybe? Twelve? And my chubby little sister says: Mum, what shall I do with the wrapper? And my mother says, How should I know? STICK IT ON THE WALL!!! And proceeds to stick her own gooey cake wrapper to the kitchen wall (tiled, luckily).

So, in a way, I found both the Old Mum and the New Mum.

(PS: I had to look up ‘rube’, the English-English equivalent of which would probably be bumpkin, or yokel. I thought Clowns was probably near enough.)

For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it. (Proverbs 8:11)

A Doze By Any Other Name

My father, in his declining years, had a propensity for dozing off with his mouth wide open in the presence of visitors. He also had a thing about his pyjamas. Around lunchtime he would start to ask my mother: Can I get into my pyjamas yet? Almost as soon as you arrived he would start looking at his watch, covertly – except it wasn’t very covert because he had eye problems and had to peer quite closely and at a certain angle – apparently counting the seconds until you left, so that he could revert to Pyjamas.

At the time I found these features of my father embarrassing and mildly irritating. Now, as I move closer and closer to old age/older age I begin to understand that it had to do with the way time increasingly telescopes, in ageing perception. Hours feel like quarter-hours. Minutes pass like seconds. Presumably, on that final day, one senses that time has halted, that one has entered some perpetual state of Now…

I always promised myself I wouldn’t start dozing off. Particularly I wouldn’t start dozing off and drooling – a disgusting habit. Still vivid in my mind is an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer Simpson, in the mistaken belief that the world is going to end the following morning, decides he has neglected religion and vows to spend his last night on Earth reading The Bible from cover to cover. So he starts, at Genesis, and a few seconds later is fast asleep. Morning finds him in his armchair, Bible still open at page 1 of Genesis, drooling copiously – and the world has for some reason not ended.

I do doze off, only I tend to call it Listening To Music. I think, well, I have been busy for all of an hour now and accomplished quite a lot, for me, so I will just plug in the ear-thingies and listen to Spotify for a while, thus broadening my musical horizons and revisiting old favourites. Several hours later…

This evening when I emerged from my musical not-a-doze I discovered the three-legged cat (the same cat that bit me most viciously before Christmas and caused me to spend the entire festive season driving back and forth to hospital to have antibiotics injected into a cannula in the crook of my arm) cradled in that same crook, gazing up at me adoringly. It occurs to me that cats may be the only animals – aside from human beings – that would waste time and energy in gazing adoringly at that beloved, but totally unconscious, Somebody Special.

This was not particularly unpleasant. What was unpleasant was discovering that my eardrums were now being assaulted by an appalling, appalling cringe-makingly mawkish Irish ballad entitled Scorn Not His Simplicity, performed by someone with a big-ish red beard by the name Luke Kelly. Upon not-falling-asleep I had been listening to Irish ballads – I seem to have quite a Celtic thing going on recently. I had started off with my current favourite Loreena McKennitt and moved on to Bert Jansch singing The Curragh of Kildare

I feel bad that I cannot abide Scorn Not His Simplicity since on googling it I discovered that it was written by songwriter Phil Coulter about his struggle to come to terms with the birth of his Downs Syndrome son. I do feel bad, for him, but it is still a very bad song. And yet Sinead O’Connor also recorded it: the great Sinead O’Connor – so can it really be that bad? Apparently it’s an Irish classic. But it’s still bad.

I think why it’s bad is that 1970s ramming the message home with a sledgehammer thing. There was a phase, in the late 60s, early 70s, when everything had to have a message and the message was so Crucial, Man! that nothing in a song was allowed to take precedence over it, and especially not the music. It was a phase analogous to that Victorian one where people were greatly affected by tales of orphans giving up their porridge to other orphans in work-houses and little match girls freezing to death on street corners with seraphic smiles on their pinched little faces.

Irritating that a Downs Syndrome child – such children now being readily accepted and even cherished – should then have needed to have excuses made for him, a special case in his defence. Irritating the golden hair and the ‘eyes that show the emptiness inside’. (Irritating also that Spotify listed it as Screen Not His Simplicity.)

What does this dreadful song remind me of? I asked myself, levering myself up from the corner of the sofa and dislodging the worshipping three-legged cat. And back came the answer: Camouflage.

Camouflage was actually written by someone called Stan Ridgeway in 1986, but about the Vietnam war. It reached number 4 in the English pop charts, number 2 in the Irish – surprise, surprise. Camouflage tells the story of several young marines caught in a barrage (how I abhor that phrase) who are rescued by a huge marine who suddenly appears in the jungle and performs all sorts of unbelievably heroic feats, thus saving their lives. On returning to camp they learn that the massive marine was in fact known as Camouflage. Whilst lying on his deathbed the noble Camouflage had expressed one final wish – to save some young marines caught in a barrage. At the very moment he expires – pouf! his giant-sized ghost reappears in the jungle and saves the young marines who are indeed caught in a barrage. Oh… eushhh!

I just recalled another one called Working My Way Back To You. In this case it wasn’t so much the song itself that was cringe-worthy as the Top Of The Pops dance routine that went with it. They were dressed in shiny jackets and lined up and miming rhythmical shovelling as if digging a whole row of imaginary graves and throwing the earth over their shoulders…

detroit

The Marmite Child and the Man Without a Candle

I was not entirely ignorant of French before I got to Technical school at the age of eleven, and started being taught it/him. My Grandfather had been in the First World War and came back with some useful phrases – one for “two eggs and chips”, for example. I won’t repeat my previously-blogged attempts to convey the mangling effect of Grandad on the French language. Once is painful enough.

And there was one that sounded distantly like Parlez vous, mademoiselle? a phrase I suspect British soldiers would use to make the acquaintance of kindly French ladies. I’ll call them kindly French ladies since – well, this is my Grandad we’re talking about.

French exerts a kind of magnetic pull on the English. It sounds like magical incantations – meaningless, scary, but interesting – and so we have appropriated bits of it here and there, rolling those strange sounds around on the tongue. There was that cycling club, for instance – the San Fairy Ann.

San Fairy Ann were bitter local rivals of my father’s cycling club, the Medway Wheelers. The Wheelers wore green and orange racing shirts and The Fairies yellow and purple. If a Wheeler happened to pass a Fairy at a race or on the road there would be a kind of grunt of recognition as they whizzed past one another, a gruff acknowledgement only.

And – why was I talking about this? – remind me, someone – oh yes, San Fairy Ann was born of a French phrase – ça ne fait rien – which means something like ‘it doesn’t matter’, ‘it is of no importance’. Another wartime acquisition, though maybe from a later war. Ça ne fait rien – I suppose for the Fairies it contained the essence of that post-war joy: bowling along those damp, green, but most importantly English country lanes on your racing bike, out in the fresh air, alone, after the ghastliness of foreign battlefields. It meant I’m home again and life is good!

My French teacher, Madame Beesden, didn’t much like me. I sensed this and it came as no surprise. I had long understood that I was one of those Marmite Children whom teachers would either loathe or take a kind of bewildered pity on. Oddly enough I greatly admired her, and would have liked her if she’d let me. Children have a nose for an excellent teacher: I sensed that our Madame, unlike many French teachers employed by English schools in those days, was the possessor of a proper French accent, even though – it was rumoured – she was Turkish rather than French. Confusing, the combination of Arab looks – the dark skin, the hooded eyes, the fierce expression – with a French title and what sounded very much like an English surname. She was pretty old then, and must be long dead.

She drummed that troublesome French ‘r’ into us almost straight away, via a little rhyme:

Trois très gros rats / Dans trois très gros trous / Rongeait trois très gros grains d’orge.

Three very fat rats in three very big holes gnawed on three very big grains of barley.

I think. There seem to be more complicated versions on You Tube now, involving croutons rather than grain, and the rats being grey rats rather than just rats, but perhaps La Beesden simplified it for us. I never actually found that ‘r’ difficult once I had worked out that you had to kind of breathe in and breathe out at the same time. I had a good ear for the subtleties of pronunciation, even if I was Marmite.

She started us on the verb être (to be), which banjaxed us at the very outset.  There seemed to be so many versions of ‘be’ – suis, es, est, sommes, êtes. The trouble was – and this was something she never fully appreciated – English was our mother tongue and it had never occurred to us that our own verbs had different ‘people’ too, and that am, are, is etc are also different versions of a single verb. Neither were we willing to entertain such an outlandish idea. To us it was obvious that am, are, is and so forth were just the same. Our language was obvious. It was perfectly simple.

The songs were best. She had a good voice, considering she was old and quavery, and though monumentally dignified was not self-conscious about singing. She taught us Frère Jacques and Au Clair de la Lune:

Ma chandelle est morte. Je n’ai plus de feu…

My candle has died. I have no more fire…

and she taught us the one about the bridge at Avignon:

Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse / Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse tout en rond

On the bridge of Avignon, people dancing, people dancing, on the bridge of Avignon, people dancing round and round (something like that, anyway).

I carry them around in my mind. Ever since, all down the years, those inexplicable dancers have been dancing around in circles on the bridge and that midnight-writing chap has been fretting away about his candle. Ever since, those smug, fat rats have continued to chomp on those grains of – whatever – down in their dark, mysterious holes.

au clair

My Café Collection

The one-armed cat is asleep, a scarf draped over the still-baldy-bit where his arm until recently was. I felt he might be cold. I’m certainly cold, in spite of the central heating. Sleety snow falling outside. A long, soggy trek to the bird table to fill it up yet again. Darkness falling though it’s barely afternoon. According to the not-so-smartphone it’s 4 degrees C in my location. I notice it’s even 9 degrees C in Edmonton, where my sister is, and that’s only somewhat south of the Arctic Circle. Something’s gone wrong.

I was thinking about cafés the other day. I accidentally met Bertie in a café in town, to which I had resorted in desperation having found myself with yet another hour to fill whilst waiting for my bus home. Bertie had had the same idea, as had a number of his disabled friends. It’s an Italian café, the usual thing – formica-topped tables, cheery service, steamy coffee with free tiny biscuit wrapped in cellophane.

 I actually walked right past Bertie, startling though he is to behold – wrapped in my own thoughts, a number of scarves and a woolly hat. Till he yelled my name. If Bertie yells your name, you know it. Everybody, all along the High Street, knows it.

And so we all passed the time. There was a man from Spain – or at least he was English but he had been in Spain for quite a few years. He had come home for a ‘recce’, presumably spooked by the idea of being marooned in Spain sans pension after Brexit, the plan being to do the ‘recce’, have his car shipped over and then drive round looking for somewhere to live, back in Blighty. 

However, one cold, damp afternoon in town, drinking tea in steaming cafés, surrounded by tattoo parlours, pound stores, charity shops, seedy pubs and branches of Nationwide had begun to sew seeds of doubt in his mind. ‘Maybe I won’t get the car shipped over,’ he remarked to Bertie. Bertie started listing the library opening hours for him. Bertie likes to provide answers, if not to questions anyone has actually asked.

And I fell to wondering how many dingy cafés I had inhabited in this my elderly life. What would they look like strung end to end, I mused. As Bertie continued with the library list and the returning expat continued to agonise and ruminate, unheard, about the car locked in the garage behind his rented villa in drier and sunnier climes, I visualised a string of past cafés and myself wandering through them endlessly, in one door and out the other, over the whole of my life. 

Here was Lyons Tea Shop in Chatham, where I went with my mother. I must have been quite small. I remember the black tiles and the mirrors – the long, long mirrors and the way they made the room look twice as big – and the woman behind the counter slopping teas from a giant teapot over a selection of teacups on a grid, not caring if the tea went in the cups or not. And the Knickerbocker Glories – ice creams and other miraculous sweet stuff in a glass so tall you had to eat it with a long spoon, and I could only just reach…

And then the cafés I went to with Mum and Dad on their Sunday cycling club marshalling duties. Plain, workmanlike cafés with cheese sandwiches, and egg and chips, and solid white mugs, unbreakable unless you hurled them forcefully against a wall. Full of cyclists, chatty and rather sweaty, in embarrassing get-ups: not lycra in those days but plus-fours, cycle clips, saggy shorts (with special saddle-padding, as my Dad foolishly showed me once) and cycling shoes that clicked and clacked as they walked. Loud. They were always very loud.

And the cafés where I did my student courting. Romance blossoming in some tiny, trendy dive. Juke box playing the same records over and over. People going up to put money in them. Coffee machines that sent out sudden jets of steam and deafened you further. What was that romantic thing he just murmured? My long-haired, half-Austrian lothario (several inches shorter than self) in the fraying cardigan his mother had knitted for him.

And the garden centre cafés I would meet Mum and Dad in, most of the rest of my life, on Sundays. People shopping for bags of manure for their roses, for garden trowels, for just the right lawnmower. People pottering and dawdling and thoroughly enjoying themselves, as British people love to do on a Sunday. Dad sitting there with his knife and fork clasped in his ham-like hands, impatient for dinner. Mum spotting a cyclist outside the window behind my back, before I had finished the sentence, so I would have to repeat it. Then spotting another cyclist. Nothing I could say was interesting enough to hold either of their attentions for the span of a complete sentence.

And the Greek café I had to take Mum to, when we were still pretending she wasn’t yet quite mad enough to be Taken Away.  The powdered scrambled egg, the sea of baked beans, the wobbly plates, the tasteless frothy coffee. Sugar in a long tube. Ever frugal, Mum took the tubes home in her handbag, but then forgot about them.

The malicious comments she thought she heard (though deaf). The accusations to the waiting staff. The explanations that were necessary. The walking stick on the floor, constantly on the floor, getting sticky, and me having to retrieve it. Trying to get her arms into her coat when they didn’t seem to want to bend backwards, even a little bit. I drew a broken heart right on your windowpane playing faintly in the background. Too-small dresses in the charity shop opposite. The bookshop she wouldn’t let me go into when we came out…

The cafés with friends. Serviettes with the sandwiches, overworked staff, sudden bursts of baby bellowing, toddlers running up and down the aisle, plate glass windows, shoppers scuttling far beneath like one of those L S Lowrie painting. All only half-noticed. The conversation is the thing.

And then a hundred – seems more like a thousand – cafés alone. The cafés above department stores and supermarkets, long and echoing. Complicated systems for queueing up for food and self-service beverages. Draughts. Shopping bags dumped under the tables. Unnatural quiet. The cafés on train stations, warming my hands on a polystyrene cup, wondering if the lid will fit back on if the train comes…

And this one. Bertie seems to have exhausted Library Opening Hours and is staring at me, perplexed. I ought to be talking, presumably. I’ve been in one of my Absences. The man from sunny Spain is gone ahead of us to the bus stop, to catch one of the red buses (we are waiting for a blue one). But when we get to the bus stop he is nowhere to be found. Bertie is concerned. I wonder if he is simply Walking Back to Spain, just like that woman used be Walking Back To Happiness on the juke box, all those years ago…