An Underwater Fairy

Thinking about it, it was not a beep, exactly. It sounded more like Fairy Tinkerbell drowning in Peter Pan’s water glass. Not that she actually drowned. It was poisoned and she drank it to the last drop to save him, but…

The thing was I’d been hearing this noise in my house whenever it fell quiet, and I couldn’t decide where it was coming from. It wasn’t all the time, and it wasn’t at regular intervals, it was… random. I would find myself listening for the next one. And it wouldn’t come. I would go downstairs, open a book, forget about the beep and then – there it was again. I’m slightly deaf in one ear and have tinnitus in both. I can hear many sounds loudly – sometimes jarringly loudly – but I can rarely be sure what direction they are coming from.

I thought maybe it was the smoke alarms. I have – had – two set of smoke alarms. When the second set was fitted, free  – by our Stay At Home However Old You Get local charity – I was assured that this set did not rely on batteries. These alarms were plumbed into the mains and would last ten years or more. And yet, here was the beep. I’m not having this, I thought so I got up on a stepladder and removed anything white, circular and plastic that looked as if it might be a smoke alarm. I consigned them to a Tupperware box in the garage. Every now and then I go in there and… one of them gives a defiant little squeak.

But inside my house the beeps – or rather the despairing two-tone Drowning Tinkerbell – continued. And then I began to get really worried. You see, my Mum had a psychosis. She also had dementia, but that wasn’t diagnosed till later. She was almost completely deaf but she started asking me if I could hear this – or that. Did the telephone just ring? Could I hear people arguing outside in the street? Couldn’t I hear the owners of the café where we were having lunch talking about us? Saying such awful things (and about me, apparently).

For quite a while she seemed to accept that it was just a trick of her hearing. I found a book about the strange things deaf people sometimes ‘hear’ – music, singing, conversations – just a more elaborate form of tinnitus. She seemed so relieved, clutching the book to her chest. Bless you, she said. But despite the book, after a while she tipped over some edge. She informed me the voices were real. She got quite patronising about it. My hearing must be worse than hers if I really couldn’t hear it. Listen, they were out in the garden, they were talking through the walls!

One day her carers came and found her stretched out on the kitchen floor with her head in a cupboard, the better to hear the voices, which were clearer inside the cupboard. ‘They’ were discussing their plans. They were going to dig up her house and move it several feet to one side. And underneath the foundations they said there were giant slugs, eating away at the floorboards… She had to listen, every minute, or she wouldn’t know what was going on.

Of the whole five years or so of Mum’s ‘going away’, mentally, I found this the worst. I had seen someone with clinical depression but I had never seen psychosis. I tried to follow Mum into her imaginary world. I needed her, so wherever she was going, I needed to go there too. It wasn’t so hard to begin with. It was a bit like reading a slightly creepy kind book, entering into the spooky world the writer had created, trying to predict the next horror, trying to reassure her… But eventually, she shut me out. That was it – like a door closing between one room and the next.

So, that was what I was afraid of.

In a moment of late night inspiration I decided to Google intermittent beep. Various chatrooms informed me it was my landline. No, it was my ISP router. No, it was my smoke alarm – I’d already eliminated that one. No, it was my keyboard. The more I read, the more computer-orientated the suggestions became. One site suggested it was an alarm signifying  problems with one of two types of memory inside the computer.

I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep anyway, so from midnight till somewhere around two in the morning I engaged in a titanic struggle with my desktop computer – this desktop computer – writing down sheets of totally incomprehensible instructions offered by the chatroom nerds, trying, failing, trying again. All the commands they suggested turned out to be hidden in different places on my version of windows. I came up with forbidding-looking panes, like something out of The Matrix, containing important-looking files that I was supposed to say yes or no to, or possibly delete. With one mistaken keystroke I might cripple/kill my entire computer, but I just had to keep risking it. I had no idea what I was doing.

So, in the small hours of the morning there I still was. Outside the window the streetlight went out. I touched my face and realised it was covered in a sheen of cold sweat from the stress. I did a memory diagnostic test. I did another one. Long, long tests. Waiting, waiting, waiting for some little blue bar to creep along. And at the end of it all, still the beep.

It was then that I had my second inspiration. I went down to that little megaphone thing on the right-hand side and I turned off the sound. I listened. I listened some more. I listened some more… and the beep had gone. I mean, it’s probably still beeping, theoretically, in some alternative universe, but the important thing is:

I can’t hear it.

The meaning of life passes me by – again

So, I was sat there at the bus stop opposite the station having, as nearly always, just missed the bus home. There is a gap, after lunch, of one and a half hours. I had hit that gap.

I had been waiting there for over an hour already. Other buses came and went, and various other people came and waited – and went, on all the buses that arrived that were sadly not my bus. There was just me and this very, very old man. I was sat in the shelter, such as it is, with the narrow hard seats that slope forwards (on purpose, to discourage sleeping tramps, according to Bertie). He was sat behind me and to the side, on a low bench. The low bench is much more comfortable, though difficult to arise out of if you have been sitting in it for any length of time.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the very, very old man wished to talk to me. He was doing that fidgety, glancing in my direction and then glancing away thing that people do. So I went over and sat down next to him. He told me his sight was really bad and he couldn’t make out the numbers of the buses.

Was I by any chance waiting for the same bus that he was waiting for?

I was.

Would I be so kind as to tell him when that bus arrived?

I would.

He had a very soft voice, and unfortunately in the range that I find most difficult to hear. I tried to disregard the noise from a constant stream of traffic, and watched his lips. He told me that he was ninety… something. And now, strangely, that is nearly almost all I can remember of our conversation. I realised he was an educated man. We seemed to be talking about philosophy, and the meaning of life… and all that. I remember struggling to answer him in a way that would make it appear that I had heard… clearly. I wanted to hear. I could tell that what he was saying was really interesting. It came to me that we were kindred spirits of some kind, and that he was meant to be here today, sitting on this bench, and that he had an important message for me.

Finally our bus arrived. He sat next to me and carried on talking, softly. At one point I realised he was reciting Desiderata to me in that soft, kind voice. He knew it, and other poems, by heart. He said when he understood his sight was failing he had begun to memorise poems that were important to him. He said he worked to keep his memory sharp by reciting as many as possible of these poems daily. We discussed the origin of Desiderata, agreeing that it had not been found been nailed to the door of Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692 as was claimed in the 1970s, but that this didn’t matter in the least.

And then, whether by reason of my own physical weariness and anxiety to be home (it had been a long and stressful day) or because the bus was negotiating a series of hills and narrow, twisty roads, causing an increase in background noise, I could not hear him at all. Out of politeness, desperately, I continued to watch his old lips, still reciting and philosophising, still asking questions which I could not hear to answer, and could not lip read either.

As we reached his stop, he suddenly became audible again.  “Well,” he said, “here my journey ends. And yours continues.”

Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle. Horse. Sideways.

I have been vaguely considering the idea of a ‘feature’ day – like Wordless Wednesday when people just post a photo of something or other. So it occurred to me to trial a Totally Random Thursday.

It’s either that or another of Mum’s Old Recipes.

I was feeding the five thousand (cats) just now – impossible to settle down write anything until their insistent twice-daily needs have been met – and it occurred to me how many black or black and white cats I am now surrounded by. It occurs to me that I will soon have reached the scary stage – particularly scary for someone whose mother has dementia – of not being able to recall which name goes with which cat. And then if one of them needs to go to the vet? Will it need to be – ‘Hello, this is Rosie, or possibly Shadow, or then again Arthur, although of course it might be Hector… And he or she needs his or her claws clipping’.

I have a two page Cat List taped to the fridge, neatly typed with each cat’s name, origin/source, probable age, physical description and microchip number if applicable. Not a former legal secretary for nothing. The ostensible purpose of this list is – if I am some day spotted through the window collapsed on the carpet, dead and half-eaten by mice and the RSPCA break in to rescue my horde of cats, they may stand an outside chance of identifying and re-homing some of them.

I constantly rehearse their names and descriptions in my head, making a kind of game of it. At the moment, if it’s quite frail and bony and doesn’t weigh very much it’s Rosie; if it’s got a tiny brown patch under its chin, a tiny white bit on one paw, snapped-off looking front teeth and weighs a ton it’s Little Arf; if it’s plump and soft and barges its way to the food first and in no nonsense fashion it’s Winnie; if it’s tiny and affectionate, with a long face like the Sphynx and slightly scary teeth like a bat or mini-Dracula when she yawns it’s Shadow. And if it has long legs, a pointy nose and hates me it’s probably Pandy from the cat sanctuary.

It occurs to me to wonder why I frighten some people, including most children. Looking at myself in the mirror I look just normal – a bit lumpy, like any oldish person. Harmless. But babies scream at the sight of me in supermarkets. Probably a good thing I wasn’t able to have any, thereby dooming some innocent infant to a life of perpetual apprehension.

Bertie-on-the-bus seems afraid of me too, though that doesn’t stop him talking to me (relentlessly). I’d be quite happy to follow the British on-the-train formula of staring out of the window for as long as possibly, until your neck actually begins to hurt from the effort of not meeting anyone else’s eyes, even accidentally, and appearing very interested in cows, fields and suchlike, but this rule does not apply to rural buses. You have to talk.

Bertie and I have a kind of communication disjunction. I know people like me tend to have this anyway, but Bertie is an especially tricky one. First, he tells you something, but not very much. He is going to his meeting at the Council, he confides. He has mentioned this meeting at the Council several times before and I have not followed it up. I wonder now if he is hoping I’ll ask him about it.

‘Do you work at the Council then, Bertie?’ I venture.

He looks sideways at me, suspiciously. I may be a secret agent.

‘No’, he says, after a very long pause.

‘Did you get to your dentist appointment the other day?’ he asks after a while.

‘Oh well, it was the hygienist actually. She was new – Swedish or something – and just brutal. It was so painful. And since April they’ve put their prices up…’

Now he is staring out of the window, examining the cows.

‘So you did get to the dentist.’

We spot one of his friends at an upcoming bus stop. Bertie has friends all round the route. He knows all their names and their routines, and what days to expect them. He does not know my name, however, and refers to me to other passengers as ‘she’ or ‘her.’ I thought of telling him my name – what harm could come of it? – but decided not to in case he mistakenly concluded I was Making Advances. Bertie, I think, is terrified of women for just that reason: they might Make Advances.

The upcoming friend is the big man with the metal crutches – giant tripping hazards that seem to take up the whole bus – and the endless collection of eccentric tee shirts.

‘He doesn’t really need to put his hand out for the bus,’ I murmur. ‘You could hardly miss him.’ Today he is wearing an acid yellow shirt with broad, grass green horizontal stripes. He looks like the Wasp from Outer Space.

‘No, he does like his tee shirts,’ says Bertie. And then, surprisingly: ‘I knitted a jumper that colour once.’

‘Do you knit, Bertie?’ For once my interest is genuinely piqued. I want to tell him that I knit too and what a relaxing hobby it is, especially on long winter evenings…

He gives me that secret agent look again.

‘I knitted it with my mother.’ Of course he did. I want to ask him more, scenting an actual story here, and one which I will enjoy, but he has turned his attention to the friend with the monster crutches in the yellow and green.

‘I was just telling her…’

I sit in a living room with my elderly Visitee and she goes through her diary with me, reading out her appointments for several weeks to come, with the cleaner, the man who comes to clean out her pond, various specialists etc. I remember these same appointments from last week. My coffee is going cold but I continue to nod and smile in the right places. She tells me again about all the different shops there used to be in Town and we compare our systems for filing household documents. I eat a chocolate biscuit, quickly as it melts in my hand. This one is quite soft. Usually she keeps them in the fridge. In the background, the carriage clock ticks. I quite like this kind of conversation. It reminds me of Mum.

On the bus going back the only empty seat is next to Woman With No Teeth. Now this is a real problem, because I am slightly deaf. Normally it isn’t a problem and I am not conscious of the extent to which I am I am actually lip-reading. But Woman With No Teeth – she just doesn’t make the right mouth-shapes, or rather she makes a whole series of puckery, wrinkly mouth-shapes but these refuse to tie up with any known word. I wonder if it is just the teeth or whether she also has a cleft palate. Either way, I can’t understand her. Today it sounded a bit like this:

‘Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle. Horse. Sideways.’

I try a smile and a sage nod, surmising that as we have just passed two horses being ridden along the side of a narrow road she may be talking about some traffic incident involving horses.

‘Horses are so strong,’ I venture. ‘You have to drive past them really slowly.’

She gives me the secret agent look and begins again:

‘Orem ipsum dolor sit amet. Caravan. Rain.’

Ah, only another twenty minutes.

Talk To Me, Please

“Talk to me, please. I’m off to the War quite soon.”

She was alone in the carriage with this young man, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t really safe for a girl to be on a train alone nowadays, especially at night, in the blackout, but she hadn’t want to miss her first lesson. It was so important that she attend right from the start and not miss anything. Her sister Jean was supposed to have come with her, but she’d gone down with the flu. Since It happened – Grace had come to think of It always with a capital letter – they had treated her like glass, something breakable. Afraid to let her out on her own, just in case.

Just in case of what? She didn’t know; nobody seemed to know what exactly, just Something.

She wished he hadn’t taken it into his head to speak to her. What was he thinking, this boy in an ill-fitting uniform with dirt under his fingernails? Didn’t he know it would make a girl anxious, if he spoke to her? Why hadn’t she checked before she opened the door to the carriage – picked one with more people in it?

She gave him a faint smile, hoping that would be enough.

“Please talk to me, Miss. I might be dead soon. I just need someone to talk to, take my mind of it. Is that all right?”

She smiled again, hoping that would be OK and reading the strain in his eyes. He seemed close to tears. Funny, she would never have noticed such things as dirt under someone’s fingernails or a man’s unshed tears before. Now it seemed she noticed them all the time.

“I missed my train, you see. I was saying goodbye to the cows.”

Cows, she got that. A tiny thrill went through her. I got that, she thought. One lesson and I got it. Cows….

But surely not; why would he be telling her about cows? Was he a farmer? Why would he talk about cows?

“They understand, you see. It’s like the bees, you can tell them anything and you must tell them. They like to know. Good listeners, cows. My favourite is Milly. She’s a Frisian. We’ve got a mixed herd, Frisians and Guernseys.”

There is was again, she had seen it. Hooray, she had seen it. Cows.

“I’m scared, you see Miss. I couldn’t tell them that at home, but I’m in a real funk about it. I’m no soldier, Miss. I don’t want to kill people, and I don’t want to get killed. I really don’t want to get killed, Miss. But I couldn’t tell them.”

He was frightened, she could see. Sometimes you didn’t need words. She nodded, hoping if he was going to talk he would just keep talking and not decide to ask her a question.

“Had to put on a brave face, you see. My poor Mum. How are she and Dad going to manage on their own? Farming’s heavy work – well, I’m sure you know that, Miss – and she’s not strong. And Dad, he’s getting old now – too old to be called up. I’m not very bright, Miss. People say I’m three bricks short of a load, stuff like that – but I’m strong, I’m ever so strong, Miss. Look!”

He held up his clenched fist, trying to show her how, under the rough brown serge of his sleeve, the muscles fairly bulged.

She flinched. What was he doing? Did he mean to punch her? Had she misunderstood? How long to the next stop? She would get out at the next stop, even if this was the last train, even if she had to sit on a platform bench all night and catch the milk train home at daylight.

“Oh, sorry Miss. Please don’t be frightened. I won’t do that again. I just want to talk. I’m lonely, you see. I was meant to go up with the boys – the other boys from the village – but I missed the train that they were on.

“It’ll be all right, I’ll still get to the barracks on time. Plenty of time. They’ll all be there before me, that’s all. All my mates. Not that they are my mates, really. They call me The Daftie. They laugh behind my back. But I’m good enough to die, Miss, aren’t I?

“After all, I can die as easy as they can. And maybe when we get there I might save one of them. I might, mightn’t I Miss? I might turn out to be brave after all. I might run into the line of fire and pick up an injured village boy and carry him to safety on my back, like they do in films. They won’t call me Daftie then, will they? I’ll be a hero!”

Hero! Hero? It could be. Hero would go with the uniform. It was more likely than cows. She nodded again, beginning to relax a little. He just wanted to talk. It didn’t look like he would be asking her any questions. All she had to do was look as if she could hear him.

Her mind wandered back to her evening class at the Institute. It had been run by a lady with a dog, a specially trained dog thst did her hearing for her. Labrador, it was, very placid. Cream-coloured. She liked the cream-coloured ones.

All round the walls – grey-blue walls, the same colour they painted battleships – were posters – Careless Talk Costs Lives, Dig for Victory – and a big chart of all the mouth-shapes she was going to have to learn. She knew already that P and B were difficult because they looked so similar. You had to guess them from the context, the dog lady had said. ‘P’ she said, in her mind, trying to visualise the face to go with it. ‘B’.

They had broken for refreshments half way through. The canteen was in the basement, down a lot of steep, narrow steps and painted the same battleship grey; must have been a job lot of paint. They queued up for cups of tea in thick white china mugs. There was a lady with an urn behind a counter. She put a teabag in the mug and the mug underneath the spout, and pulled. Steam came out. Grace had never actually seen a tea-urn before. She had tried to imagine the hissing sound of the steam, superimpose it. She was still thinking like a hearing person.

There had been scones too. Cheese scones. A bit hard. They had sat at the same table in silence eating their scones and sipping their scalding tea. What else could they do? Perhaps it would get easier as the course went on. A group of strangers.

“Meningitis is a cruel disease,” the doctor had told her mother, “but Grace is lucky, it’s only her hearing she’s lost. She could easily have died.”

So that was all right then. She could have died but she hadn’t, so that was all right. Just found herself in a muffled, incomprehensible soundscape. She had always imagined deafness to be silence, but it wasn’t like that. It was random noise, it was a cacophony of whistles and bumps and blarings that didn’t make sense any more. She found herself scanning people’s faces, trying to interpret them. Even before tonight’s classes, she realised now, she had started to lip-read, and to read people as a whole – their whole face, their hand gestures, the way they were standing, their smiles and their frowns. Eventually it would begin to make sense again, just in a different way.

The boy was reaching up to retrieve his kitbag from the string rack overhead. That uniform really didn’t fit. His shirt was coming out at the back. She hoped his Sergeant Major, or whatever they had in the army, wouldn’t pick on him. He seemed a rather harum-scarum lad.

“Gotta go now,” he said. “My stop. Wish me luck, Miss?”

She didn’t know what he had said, but she reached out her hand, and he took it and shook it, quite delicately, like she was a lady and he wasn’t something to do with cows. His hand was hot and damp. He smiled at her and she smiled back and then he was away, slightly swaggering along the platform, his bag hoisted awkwardly upon his shoulder. He’s seen them doing that in films, she thought. He wants to act like a proper soldier in front of me.

The guard came along and slammed the carriage door shut, raising a silver whistle to his lips. The whistle sound sounded like something, but not a whistle. In the darkness it was difficult to see the man’s face, and billows of steam kept getting in the way.

 

Effort at Speech Between Two People: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Speak to me.  Take my hand.  What are you now ?

I  will tell you all. I will conceal nothing.

When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit

who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair :

a pink rabbit: it was my birthday, and a candle

burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.

Oh, grow to know me,  I am not happy.  I will be open :

Now I am thinking of white sails against a sky like music,

like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm about me.

There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now ?

When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental,

fluid : and my widowed aunt played Chopin,

and I bent my head on the painted woodwork, and wept.

I want now to be close to you. I would

link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.

I am not happy.  I will be open.

I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet poems.

There has been fear in my life.  Sometimes I speculate

On what a tragedy his life was, really.

Take my hand. Fist your mind in my hand.  What are you now?

When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide,

and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping towards death :

if the light had not melted clouds and plains to beauty,

if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.

I am unhappy.  I am lonely.  Speak to me.

muriel

I will be open.  I think he never loved me :

he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam

that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls :

he said with a gay mouth: I love you.  Grow to know me.

What are you now?  If we could touch one another,

if these our separate entities could come to grips,

clenched like a Chinese puzzle … yesterday

I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,

and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.

Everyone silent, moving … Take my hand.  Speak to me.

What is it about me that’s so scary?

There’s probably quite a range of things that can give you the heebie-jeebies and dent your confidence in your own sanity. As an example: if I started seeing little green men everywhere I went – the classic kind with boggly eyes and tinny, mechanical voices, my first thought would be –

Goodness! something has gone ‘ping’ in my head whilst I slept. Where is the nearest hospital? Perhaps I should just call an ambulance?

as opposed to

Gracious! Interplanetary voyagers have invaded whilst I slept. Are the police aware? Perhaps it would be prudent to hide in case they have weapons that reduce a human to a little heap of carbon dust or a puddle of water.

Well, it hasn’t got to that stage yet, but there is this something… this something about me that seems to startle or physically frighten some people.

And I don’t know what it is.

Earlier today I took one of the cats to the vets to get her claws clipped. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Judy the receptionist did not cower behind her desk and beg me to just take the contents of the till, and Rosie my cat, and be gone. I had a jolly little chat with yet another Polish locum who was all for charging me nothing at all to clip Rosie’s nails until Judy sotto voce corrected him.

So far so more or less normal, but then I got home. No sooner was I safely indoors and thinking about sandwiches than Charlie appeared in my back garden carrying an empty dog lead. This is not unusual for Charlie. He’s a bit simple, is constantly mislaying one pet or another and has no concept of trespass or privacy. There he was, nose pressed up against my patio doors, looking in.

So I went out. He took several steps back, quaking – sort of.

What’s up, Charlie? Though the empty dog-lead was a clue.

Together we searched my garden for his dog. He hung back, seeming unwilling to venture further into my garden with me. He’s happy enough to wander round it when he thinks I’m out – even in the middle of the night when he assumes I’ll be asleep.

She isn’t here, Charlie. Usually she just comes in, does a big poop on my lawn and leaves. I even had to buy one of those pooper-scoopers…

I am trying, in our oblique English way, to make a point about dog poop, but subtlety does not register with Charlie. You’d have to hit him over the head with a hammer –

Giant Poodle poop THWACK! in my back garden THWACK! not THWACK! at all THWACK! acceptable THWACK! THWACK!

And of course I wouldn’t do that. Live and let live; anything for a quiet life.

All the same, he is starting at me in horror and backing away, muttering. I give up and come indoors.

Gazing in the living-room mirror, I try to work out what it is, since this is not the first time I have had this reaction. Admittedly, it’s a bit gloomy in my living room since I have to keep the curtains closed, since the cats swung on the nets and ripped the rawlplug out of the wall… But surely I could see if I had sprouted a big hairy wart on the end of my nose? Do I have fangs, perhaps? All I can see is a tired, pale, oval of a face. Sure, it looks like no face I ever imagined I would be wearing, but we all grow old sooner or later. It’s familiar enough.

Am I making weird faces? Of course, now I am staring in the mirror I am not making faces, but maybe I only make faces when I’m not staring in the mirror. Someone once asked my mother if I had St Vitus’ Dance when I was an infant. I had no idea who St Vitus was or why he should be dancing or what that had to do with me, and I never found out. What I was left with was her displeasure. Her embarrassment, her irritation even, to be saddled with a child like me.

Do I twitch?

Do I grimace?

The other thing that used to happen to me was in supermarkets. I thought to begin with it was only when I was with Mum. She had this habit of grabbing at me in horror as if I was about to step on someone – or blaring (she was deaf) Watch out Linda there’s a lady behind you – when I’d been perfectly aware of the lady and was in no danger of crashing into her. And if anything she was the one who was not aware of her surroundings: I always seemed to be having to coax her out of the way of other shoppers.

I thought it was just me she did this to, but later discovered that my Canadian sister had also been irritated at being treated like some sort of ticking time bomb or monstrous impediment in public.

I thought it was Mum, not me. But then I was in the supermarket on my own one day, quietly shopping, aware of an elderly lady shopping some considerable distance away from me, when suddenly she gasped, stepped back and threw her hands up, as if convinced I was about to assault her. I wanted to yell at her What IS it with you? What exactly did I just do to elicit that reaction?

But of course I didn’t, since that would only have frightened her more. She’s probably have screamed for the manager.

Maybe I don’t want to know the answer, even with Halloween coming up.

What is it about me that’s so scary?

Time to stand and stare

Dad used to like quoting poetry. Not whole poems, just snippets, mostly of army doggerel or surreal little verses recalled from the music hall. But he did know one of two better quality pieces, one of which was William Henry Davies’ Leisure:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

I believe he learned it from his own father. It meant something special to him at any rate, and he repeated if often.

When he got old he got depressed. It was lonely for him living with Mum in those latter years; she’d never exactly been a listener and now wouldn’t wear her hearing aids so he couldn’t have a proper conversation with her. He didn’t really want to go anywhere or do anything. If you did take him somewhere – and you had to take him everywhere – he wanted to sit down rather than walk about, so Mum used to “park” him for twenty to thirty minutes at a time. She seemed to be terrified all the while she was away from him that somehow he wouldn’t still be there when she got back.

For twenty frenetic minutes she would zoom about the shopping centre hunting down the items on her shopping list fretting about having left Dad unattended, while Dad sat on a bench and watched ladies rushing by in strange outfits, the toddlers attached to the women, young men in bellowing groups, the multi-coloured shopping bags, the wheels of push-chairs and shopping-trolleys, the walking-sticks and the worn-down shoes. Mum left the newspaper with him but didn’t read it. After a while we realised he couldn’t read it, and hadn’t been able to for some time.

Sometimes we went to Leeds Castle. Mum always wanted to go inside just to check that nothing had changed – no new oak staircase, moved portrait or missing suit of armour – but Dad didn’t; once was enough for him so he sat on the wall outside, not-reading but quietly watching.

Is there  a gene for ‘standing and staring’, I wonder? Why do some people seem to feel the need to contemplate at length while others cannot bear to? If there is such a gene, two of us inherited it and the other one, like Mum, did not. On the whole, the one who did not is more successful. Standing and staring doesn’t tend to get you anywhere in life, it just makes life vaguely tolerable for those who, at intervals, find it intolerable.

I have no time to stand and stare at the moment, which doesn’t mean I don’t need to. I yearn for summer lunch hours in the Memorial Gardens many moons ago, eating my sandwiches, watching the teenagers escaped from the Technical College, prim office types with their plastic lunchboxes; the tramps, those experts in being invisible.

I remember the too-hot sunshine and the too-cool shadow, but not wanting to move. I remember the sparrows, hoping for crumbs. Sometimes the sparrows got most of my lunch, to tell the truth. How many poems got started – or finished – on one or other of those park benches? How I lingered on there, into September, October, while the leaves began to clatter and swirl around me, not wanting to give up my thinking-place. How I searched for other places to tide me over the icy months of winter – the corner table in the reference library; a straight-backed pew in an almost empty church.

Never underestimate the power of standing and staring. Never let anyone tell you you’re not allowed to, or that there are so many other things you might be doing. Think of the squirrel, the blackbird, the tramp and the falling leaf. They need their witnesses.

Unfrangling my Franglais

I always said I wouldn’t do brain training. I knew instinctively that it wouldn’t work for me. After all these years of knitting my own education – school wasn’t terribly useful – I know how I learn and I know how I think; I know what I am going to remember without even trying and what I am going to forget no matter how hard I try. Basically if I’m interested I’ll remember, if I’m not interested I won’t. I have a short little span of attention as Paul Simon once sang, and dull stuff will bypass the Leeetle Grey Cells altogether. This is the reason I have such a problem with instructions, and how I end up building bookcases and slotting pet-carriers together by trial and error, and not realising there is such a thing as a condenser at the bottom of my tumble-drier, requiring to be cleaned out at 30 day intervals, until my washing starts coming out wetter than it went in. At that point I dig out the instruction leaflet, and read (only) the paragraph that refers to troubleshooting and soggy washing.

However, yesterday I broke my own rule. I spotted this thing on Google – Discover Your Brain Age in Five Minutes and – inevitably – clicked on it. And was faced with a raft of daft games, and tiny time limits for completing them in. So I had a go, but my old failing – an inability to focus on instructions – kicked in again. And then the anxiety started up. Once that kicks in, no thinking at all takes place. What do you mean? I heard myself pleading with the computer. What do you want me to DO? What ARE all these little zoomy-about things?

That was the one I really fell down on, the Zoomy-Abouts. Never having played computer games I just sat there watching these silly little gold football things popping up in rapid succession all over the screen becoming more and more terrified. Yes, but what am I supposed to DO? It took me most of the game to work out that I was supposed to ‘catch’ them with the mouse, and then I only caught one because they were far too fast. That scored me a brain age of 96. But never mind, said the computer, that was only one game. It merely contributes to the total score. I did quite well on the anagrams – that got me a 25 – and not too badly on some of the others, and in the end my Brain Age turned out to be two years less than my actual age. If I’d realised what I was supposed to do with the Zoomy-Abouts I flatter myself it might have been considerably less. Oh yes!

Hoping to repair my damaged self-esteem I looked up the results of the experiment the BBC has been running on the efficacy of online brain-training for older persons, i.e. they split the ancient ones into several groups and gave some of them one type of exercise, some another, some another. There was also a control group, who did no exercises. The data-analysts came to conclusion that brain-training had no effect at all on memory – or at least no greater effect than three weeks surfing the internet. Since I surf the internet every day, as part of – this sort of thing – I was pleased. To say the least.

You see – trying not to get too serious here – as I have mentioned in other posts, my Mum has dementia. I didn’t mention my Dad had it too, but he died before it got to the diagnosis stage – and at that point he had Mum to look after him. As far as we know, they are the only two in the family. My Mum is refusing even to allow a diagnosis, and has now gone well beyond the stage where it is possible to reason with her about anything. So we are left with an old lady who won’t wash her hair or go to the hairdresser, who can no longer make sense of the notes we write for her (she is deaf and won’t wear her hearing aids), who is convinced that all the equipment in the kitchen is broken, who hears voices, who can’t fit her key in the front door without a dozen failed attempts, who can’t remember how to pay for her shopping, who has to be brought food on our visits and lives the rest of the time on Ryvita and yoghurts; who won’t allow carers or, indeed, anyone apart from us to cross her threshold. The list goes on.

The three of us – my youngest sister, godmother (six months older than my mother) and I – are just about managing the situation, most of the time at the moment.  We lurch from crisis to crisis and, since it seems nobody will do anything and nothing can be done without Mum’s consent, we are waiting for the inevitable crisis with a capital C to take place. In a way, you have to admire her for her steely determination. But only in a way.

Much as I love my Mum, I wouldn’t wish this vile condition on anyone. She is vigorous and healthy for her age but she’s frightened and bewildered, losing touch with herself; and we have already lost her. She wouldn’t have wanted it this way. And I find it so difficult to be patient, though I suppose I am patient in effect. I need things to make sense. I need things to be logical. I can’t bear it when they don’t, and aren’t. It’s so difficult not to snap, sigh or contradict; not to try to explain or risk upsetting her by unravelling the mental tangles, the false conclusions, the tall stories and the paranoia. I can hear myself screaming inside my head Oh for God’s sake don’t be so STUPID!  But I don’t scream it – nobody would.

Instead I remind myself that she’s going backwards, from a grown-up to – eventually –  a baby. By now I estimate she’s somewhere around five years old and no one would get impatient with a five year old for behaving in the exasperating way five year olds tend to do. The thing is, it’s cute when a five year old has a meltdown or says something utterly ridiculous – especially if you’ve had a five year old yourself, which I haven’t. I’m having to learn child-care at an age when I would rather be free to do my own thing – at last. It’s not cute in an old person, its ghastly. With five year olds there’s the future. You can think, what will my child become? And how quickly they are becoming. There’s no becoming for a five year old octogenarian, just more and more of the same, followed by worse.

There – I went and got all bleak in spite of my good intentions. So – hence the brain games research. As my Canadian sister said recently, now we are all afraid. There’s this sinister shadow over our separate lives – the two of us in England, the one in Canada, under the same cloud. Any tiny example of absent-mindedness – like the other week I found the honey jar in the fridge instead of the cupboard, and I was the only one who could have put it there – any longer-than-usual delay in recalling a word or phrase – and all three of us will be thinking – is it me? Is it my turn next?

But who in their right mind would want to do brain-training anyway? Much more absorbing to write and research these daily (or almost) posts. I love those daily moments when, just when I think there can be nothing of interest left to write about, a new post starts to write itself in my head. Quick, grab a pencil, make a few notes before it evaporates. (Like those straw hats you used to get at the seaside: Kiss Me Quick Before I’m Sick.) I love those moments when you find you have written down something you didn’t realise you knew, or thought, or in a way that is unexpectedly poetic, and you wonder Where did that spring from?

I also found something else, in my (brain-enhancing) surfings yesterday. It’s this thing from Harvard Medical School. This is the link:

http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/6-simple-steps-to-keep-your-mind-sharp-at-any-age

It struck me that this was good, plain advice and probably all anyone can do to protect themselves, at least until someone finds a cure or more is known about the disease. Two of their ‘Six Simple Steps’ struck me in particular. One is Keep Learning. It occurred to me to take up French again, for a start. I did A (Advanced) Level French at school and have a good memory for language – but school was a long time ago. I have found myself dropping silly bits of French into this blog – almost as if the French is still in there and wanting to be used. I do rather relish the odd bit of Franglais, but suspect it annoys genuine French people and I oughtn’t to do it. So, I am waiting for some books from Amazon – a sort of re-teach yourself French book and three Maigret detective novels.

I thought I’d tackle the Maigrets with the help of my giant French Dictionary (at present propping up the mirror along with Chambers Dictionary and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and occasionally crashed onto the floor by that pale ginger streak of a cat Henry on one of his skittish evening strolls around the upper levels of the living room – bookcase, bookcase, mantelpiece – knock off dictionary – bookcase, bookcase, windowsill, bookcase, sofa top – land on Mummy’s head… ow!). I did try this at one point with a German dictionary and Harry Potter Und der Stein der Weisen, but my German was too bad and it was too easy to hazard guesses at meanings, having once read the book in English.

The second Harvard piece of advice was Believe In Yourself. They say not to accept the negative stereotypes connected with ageing and memory, not to joke about ‘senior moments’, not to excuse yourself from thinking hard and pushing yourself to learn. I do believe we are to some extent what we decide to be – and maybe instead of even thinking about dementia at this point I should be deciding to become Something New and Wonderful!

  • A man walks down the street
  • He says why am I short of attention
  • Got a short little span of attention
  • And wo my nights are so long
  • Where’s my wife and family
  • What if I die here
  • Who’ll be my role-model
  • Now that my role-model is
  • Gone Gone

From: Call Me Al by Paul Simon