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.

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

When I came across this story it was attributed to James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson, purporting to be something the great man himself had confided.

The story goes that Samuel Johnson’s father took him out for a day’s fishing, and this was the first and only time it happened. Samuel was so very happy that day, he wrote in his diary that he had had the Best Day Ever. Many years later he came across his late father’s diary and couldn’t resist looking up the entry for that day. His father had written:

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

This little story had an immediate effect on me. I found myself back there, in that dusty loft or study or whatever, inhabiting the body of the young Samuel Johnson, feeling his sadness.

I suppose you automatically relate these things to your own experiences. I was linking the Samuel Johnson story to a tiny conversation I had with my mother, maybe ten years ago. We didn’t really realise then that she had dementia: one of the first things to go in her case was empathy – oh yes, and tact – but then the two are intertwined. It seemed safe enough, at this great distance in time, to say that I always assumed my youngest sister had been her favourite. I expect I was hoping she would say ‘Oh no, my dear, we loved all three of you the same.’

‘Yes, she was’, she said, ‘and your middle sister was your Dad’s favourite, always’. Why did she have to add that always? Salt in the wound.

This sort of thing is not supposed to matter as you get older, but of course it does. It just seemed to me that the equation didn’t balance, it was one short. There needed to have been three parents – one to favour each of my sisters and one to love only me. It occurs to me now that this could be one of the ground rules for Brave New World – precisely as many parents in a family as there are children.

Fishing around the internet a bit more (oh dear, a pun) I discovered the same fishing story was said to have happened to virtually every father-and-son combination including some 19th Century political chap called Charles Frances Adams and his son Brook Adams. I also found short stories purported to have been entirely imagined by not-very-good amateur writers. I think it may be one of those urban myths that everybody ‘remembers’ or swears to be true, or ‘knows someone who knows someone who knew the person it happened to’.

I was trying to think of some others. There used to be one about a poodle accidentally cooked in a microwave oven, and one about a man with a bloodstained axe lying low in the back of the car whose mad visage suddenly rears up and appears in the rear view mirror. The classic is the one about the hitchhiker, picked up on some dusty highway and then mysteriously vanishing, often while the car is still moving.

I also found some modern day computer-based ones. There are a whole lot of translations computers are supposed to have made of sayings and book titles. For example:

Angry Raisins (Grapes of Wrath)
Blind & Insane (Out of Sight, Out of Mind)
The Vodka was Good, but the Meat was Rotten (The Spirit is Willing, but the Flesh is Weak)

I suppose the thing is a good story is a good story, and why let it go to waste? Embellish it, change the names, pass it on and take the whole credit for it, why not? I expect that’s how the human race has been functioning since ever it first began to talk.

More Comething and Wentething

Further to my previous post. I should link to it, but I’ve forgotten how. It’s just… diddle down a bit.

The Maths Book Cometh

Sometime today. At intervals throughout my life I have attempted to fulfil my fantasy of Being Surprisingly Good At Maths. I did eventually get an ‘O’ level in Maths, many years ago in my twenties. I was quite proud of myself, since I was the one at the (very) bottom of the class who got 12% in one yearly exam, which the teacher informed me was for spelling my own name right at the top. Forced to re-take it, I achieved 7%. Presumably I had even got my name wrong this time. I was humiliated.

Perversely, ever since I have been fascinated by famous mathematicians and physicists, by unintelligible blackboards covered in chalked formulae, by genius. Even more perversely, I have been convinced that I am really a mathematical genius, or was destined to be. Something just went a bit wrong. It is a dream that won’t leave me alone.

So, in the spirit of crossing things off the bucket list of ongoing Lifetime Annoyances, and after spending most of one afternoon covering old envelopes with laborious pencil sums to compare one putative dual fuel tariff to another prior to switching  – yes, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing – I was quite proud of myself – I decided to send for a maths book and study it throughout the forthcoming Winter, a bit every day.

Partly this is to fulfil my inner conviction of being an Einstein or Hawking manqué, partly to fend off dementia. I read somewhere that the best thing you can do to Fend It Off – apart from eating vegetables a lot, jogging cheerily round the park and drinking several gallon of water a day – is to challenge your brain. Maths is the thing that challenges me most, but yet – I have noticed whilst wrestling with the calculator and the well-chewed pencil, that I am totally absorbed in the struggle. Sudoku (taught myself, still bad at it), comparative electricity prices, desperately creative household budgeting, whatever – I am lost to the world. This seem to me a good thing. This seems to me exactly the thing to generate new brain cells and forge new connections between them. The maths book should be arriving later today. Suppose I will have to start at fractions again.

Rationing Rumoured To Be Comething

It is as I suspected. Because of Brexit – sorry, should have said ‘The B Word’ – there are now rumours of rationing after we leave, due to possible hold-ups at customs points in this country or on the Continent, long queues of lorries on the motorways, etc., etc. I knew it, and have been stocking up on tins of cat food for some time. And I have other strategies, which I shall not reveal, for fear that others will copy me. Failing even these, I may have to go round the village knocking on doors, offering to swop one hour of ironing or dog-walking for a single tin of Whiskas. Failing that, I would have to let them out, to mouse as best they can, in spite of having had very little practice. Even the blind one, and the three-leggety one, and the one that’s so old it’s hard to believe she’s still alive… Sob!

Not bothered about me. I can live on bread-and-marmalade and the odd dish of microwaved porridge if necessary. (So much for the dementia-avoiding diet.) But bothered about the cats. It seems to me that if they are going to ration cat food, they will be doing so on the assumption that nobody has more than one or two cats. Stupidly! And of course, I have nineteen. I have visions of the cats and I starving together, slowly, with no way through the bureaucracy, no way of obtaining more of the life-saving Tins.

How ironic, that I should have been born soon enough after the last War for rationing of some items – sweets, I believe, and sugar – still to be in place – and here I am at the other end potentially rationed all over again. All the same, I have been fascinated by rationing all my life – bit like the maths – for no obvious reason. I read that whole series of books of correspondence to Mass Observation – people rejoicing having chanced upon an ancient tin of peaches in a corner shop – people triumphant after a three-hour queue in the rain had yielded a bunch of watercress or some spinach. I even found myself fascinated by the Potato Peel Pie in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (do read, of you get the chance) which consisted of mashed potato with an artful garnish of potato peel. I just loved all that, and imagined myself making do. And mending.

Funny how it always seem to be the awful things that most fascinate you the most. Almost like you are willing them to happen.

PS: I think there was supposed to be a Wentething, but I have forgotten what it was.

All that glisters is not gold

Funny word, isn’t it? A mixture of glitters, sisters and blisters. The dumb-down-everything brigade are perpetually trying to replace glisters with glitters because people are, in their reckoning, unable to make the mental ‘hop’ from this funny-old-funny-sounding word to the (very similar sounding) word they may have occasionally heard used on some gameshows on TV, even if it isn’t part of their teensy-tiny little personal vocabularies.

Oh, I am so bitter today!

One interesting thing – apparently the exposure of the paedophilic activities of ageing British pop singer Gary Glitter has caused ‘glitter’ to become less popular. It is even possible that people will once again prefer Shakespeare’s poetic alternative. On the other hand, it has got more than one syllable, so they’ll probably plump for ‘bling’.

The quote is from The Merchant of Venice:

O hell! what have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.
All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.

[By the way, if there are any ‘s’s missing from any of my posts, it’s because this keyboard is refusing to type them upon the first striking of the key. No, you have to repeatedly strike the ‘s’ and then it might… However many times I check, I always seem to miss one or two.]

I had to ‘do’ The Merchant of Venice at school. I remember enjoying it, at the time, and it being about a pound of flesh, and there being a court case involved, and that a lady called Portia – or was it Desdemona? – no, she was the one that got strangled by Othello over a handkerchief – no, Portia, dressed up as a man to defend – someone or other. Or did she?

This demonstrates the scant usefulness of most of what we are forced to learn in schools, although you might say that, even if I can no longer remember the plot of either The Merchant or Othello I still love Shakespeare and his genius with language – more and more so in retrospect.

So, one little story to illustrate the saying All That Glisters Is Not Gold:

You may or may not know that I have been volunteering with an Organisation that helps Old Folk in a number of different ways. I’m not much of a volunteer, even, since I have but a single client, a very old lady with dementia. This was not much of a challenge to begin with – just a short bus ride/drive once a week, and an hour spent mostly listening and eating chocolate biscuits. Unfortunately the dementia has taken a sudden turn for the worse, as often happens (I remember it with my Mum) and things have become more challenging. I am finding it difficult, really, after Mum, to find myself on that slippery slope to oblivion all over again, albeit with less responsibility.

Anyway, since before Christmas I kept getting these emails from my contact at the Organisation, asking me to pop in to the Centre whenever I next happened to be in town, as a small Christmas gift awaited me. I kept forgetting. To tell the truth I go into Town as infrequently as I can manage, since it depresses me. I come away feeling as if I have been Captured By The Dementors and Imprisoned in Azkaban for several millennia. Well, an exaggeration maybe but all those tattoo parlours, all those £1 stores, all those boarded up shop (s, keyboard, s!) …

However, the only way to stop the emails was to get in the car and drive to Town specially. I knocked on the back door and was admitted. (Luckily the chiropodist didn’t pop out of his lair like a Scottish spider in a white coat, as I am avoiding him.) The girl led me through to the office and handed me a beautifully wrapped little gift attached to a card. It even had that ribbon that they make all curly by stroking it with the blade of the scissors. Someone had taken a lot of trouble.

‘We had decided to eat them if you didn’t come in by the end of the week!’ she joked.

Ah, so chocolates. But chocolates is/are OK.

I thanked them and made for the door, once again avoiding that beady-eyed chriropodist. I walked the entire length of the High Street back to Tesco, where you can park your car for free for three hours (then they send rude letters to you). I drove all the way home. I put the kettle on and opened my Little Gift, and it was a tiny packet of Maltesers.

Maltesers are OK I suppose. Just not worth that long drive into town, that long, cold, drizzly walk up the High treet (s! foul keyboard – how hard can it be?) past all those tattoo parlours, boarded-up shops, £1 stores and bunches of hoodie-wearing teenage louts who no doubt all carry knives, or at least have perfected the art of looking at you as if they do…

But, a Malteser is a Malteser. Not much chocolate involved, maybe, but…

I opened the box and sat there, with my cup of tea and my half-read historical novel (Lamentation by C J Sansom), and proceeded to pig the lot.

Just Keep Taking The Tablets

Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People. When I first saw this poster I wondered how long it took him to think that one up? I imagined him, this mysterious Dr Williams, as some sort of Victorian gentleman with luxuriant side-whiskers. I saw him seated by a roaring fire in a stuffy drawing room, The Times newspaper folded by his side – and maybe a pipe of some sort, emitting a rich aroma of tobacco. Yes, there he sits in a fug of scented smoke, scribbling in a little black leather notebook with – what would they have used in those days? – did they have pencils?

Green Pills for Greenish Girls, he scribbles.

Hmmm…

Lavender Lozenges for Lethargic Ladies…

Hmmm… Ah….

Pink Pills for Pale People! That way you attract both male and female customers. And Pale… that could mean anything. It was claimed that Pink Pills could cure chorea, or “St Vitus Dance”. This was something my mother accused me of having as a child, I remember, because some passing woman had made a comment about her toddler (me) making funny faces all the time. Did I? It has been one of my nightmares (confession imminent) that I have been making funny faces all my life but just can’t seem to catch myself doing it. People may have just been too kind to tell me.

Pink Pill were good for all sorts of other things too, it seems – locomotor ataxia (no idea) partial paralyxia (no idea), seistica (definitely no idea), neuralgia, rheumatism, nervous headache, the after effects of la grippe (flu?), palpitation of the heart, pale and sallow complexions and all forms of weakness in male or female.

In fact it seems unlikely that Dr Williams himself ever existed except as an advertising concept, since Dr Williams’ Medicine Company was the trading arm of G T Fulford & Company, Canada.

Pills… endless pills. Until Christmas I was quite proud of myself for having attained this advanced age without being permanently on pills of any sort, this one interacting unfavourably with that one… An Old People Thing, pills were. On the rare occasion that I was prescribed pills, for this and that, mostly I wouldn’t take them.

The ghastliness of old age. I think I have just witnessed too much of it, through shadowing a carer (twice) and through Mum and her endless dementia. She had pills, first in a pill-sorter and then (after she began to toss her pills all over the kitchen for some reason) in a sealed dosette box from the chemist. But she quickly learned how to break into it, and added whimsical things to the various compartments – giant, unidentifiable orange vitamin pills, for example. This used to annoy the carers. As did hiding the toaster so that they couldn’t do her tea.

I will never, I promised myself, become that sort of zombified old person surrounded by medical impedimenta. I will never, I vowed, possess a pill-sorter. No dosette box shall ever pass over my doorstep. (In fact Mum used to put the dosette box, together with the carers’ blue plastic record book and various other unrelated objects, back over her doorstep as soon as they departed. She stacked them in a corner of the porch, where they got damp, or buried under the usual blizzard of incoming junk mail.)

The words for things change when you become old. No longer do you rifle around in the medicine cabinet (biscuit tin, in my case) hoping to locate an ancient plaster to stick on a  cut. No, somebody comes and puts a dressing on you. No longer do you rummage in the medicine cabinet/biscuit tin for a couple of ancient Paracetamol still in their foil casing and so probably hygienic enough. Now teams of people come and discuss pain management. Every part of you seems to be going manky, somehow, and you’re not even in control of it.

I’m not that old yet, I suppose. I always thought, when I got that old, I would do a Virginia Woolf, weighting the old pockets with stones (such strong pockets she must have had) and wading into the river. How do you know when you’ve reached that fulcrum moment, I wonder, between being capable of deciding your own destiny and no longer being capable? Presumably you don’t know, and that is why there are so many old folks sitting around on plastic armchairs in Homes, watching Gordon Ramsay on Daytime TV.

But, you have to be practical. Yesterday I sorted all my various antibiotics and iron tablets into a jolly, multi-coloured pill-sorter. It has compartments for Morning, Noon, Evening and Reserve. What is reserve for goodness sake? Hopefully the antibiotics will be finished by next Thursday, then I will just be left with the iron pills, which I should be able to remember without the aid of the multi-coloured pill-sorter.

But it never ends. Today I took Shadow to the vet’s. She’s got an eye infection. I’d intended to take her before Christmas but then I got sick and anyway, conveniently, the cat’s eye infection seemed to be going away. Then I got better, and the cat’s eye infection – inconveniently – came back in full force. So now I have not only all my pills but eye drops (twice a day) and antibiotic ointment three times a day for her.

I have had to re-do my list.

I seem to be spending all day either trying to swallow monstrous pills myself (I inherited from my father the greatest difficulty swallowing pills) and pursuing an unwilling cat round the house, managing to do first one eye then, half an hour later the other eye. Or not

pink pills

The fairies have left me some cushions…

I am gradually catching up with Tech, although of course Tech keeps moving on, further and further into the darkling realms of the incomprehensible, further and further beyond my reach…

But I have just learned how to make lists on my smartphone. It has taken me a decade or two to learn the smartphone. The lists, only a few minutes. I have an app. It is called Simple Lists or List-So-Simple – something like that. Now of course I am thinking of all manner of To Do’s that I was managing to forget about, and therefore never having to get round to doing, before.

There are all sorts of weird things on my To Do lists. Under Organisation, for example, is ‘Round up single duvets and wash’. This kind of implies that a herd of single duvets are cavorting round my house, getting grubby. In fact, I have only two single duvets and I have just rounded the second one up. It was lurking in the garage, in a giant-size Bag For Life, inside the metal garden incinerator I bought but never quite managed to use (effectively).

Anyway, this is not about duvets, but cushions. In searching for duvets I happened to look inside the far right door of the wardrobe. There are many doors I do not open. To open this one I had to gently slide a somnolent, one-armed cat a couple of feet to the left. Ah, I thought, another duvet – for there on the top shelf was one of those blue duvet-dry-cleaning bags. When I opened it, however, it was four 16 x 16 inch cushions with dull, open-weave, sea-greenish fabric covers. You could have knocked me down with a feather, because

although I occasionally stumble across an item I thought I had lost, I have always up till now remembered them once I saw them, ie some sort of back-story popped into my mind.

Oh, the builders’ rule Dad gave me, or

Oh yes, that awful ornament I didn’t quite know what to do with or

Oh, that arctic explorer jacket I thought I might need if another ice age were to strike, but which was in fact so bulky and noisy to wear that I never actually wore it, but it cost so much money I didn’t like to throw it away, because after all there still might be another Ice Age…

But these four cushions – I could have sworn I had never seen them before. This is worrying because…  dementia. There’s Mum, and the worry that all of us ‘children’ are now saddled with, that one of us might be next. 

I have never worried too much about being forgetful because I have always been forgetful. All my life, objects have lost themselves around me. I don’t have any sense that I am getting more forgetful over time. But finding an object you could swear you have never seen before – now we’re heading into wipe-out territory.

I must have seen them before, but if so how did I manage to zip them into a blue, duvet dry-cleaning bag (which I do recognise – I can even picture the dry-cleaners, next to Tesco, that supplied it all those years ago) and push them to the back of my wardrobe without noticing? Was I sleep-walking? Where did the cushions come from? They don’t match anything, certainly not my sofa.

There can be only one explanation: it must have been the fairies. Just as fairies are known to exchange fallen milk-teeth for sixpences and good human children for very bad fairy children (or, so I read in Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain, ancient, toothless fairies cunningly disguised as human babies, thus providing for them a luxury retirement home) so they must bring cushions. Fairy cushions!

Luckily I am making cushion-covers at the moment – very, very slowly – and I do not have any 16 x 16 cushion middles. I could therefore make a set of fairy patchwork cushions, somehow…

Ah well, that’s that sorted out.

fairy cushion

If you go down to the woods today…

Outside Mum’s window the sky is iron grey. The chill strikes even through my winter coat, my thickest scarf, the extra cardigans. I am wearing so many layers today I resemble a padded black cube, with legs. Mum seems to be suggesting a picnic. Recently she has become convinced that, whoever we are, we must be entertained. She struggles to explain her plans, the arrangements she is mentally making. If she could walk, she seems to be saying, we could put her into the front seat of a car. We could go out, and sit on the grass and eat our picnic. At least, that’s what I imagine she is saying. I seem to need something nobody else does – to impose a narrative on the anxious, incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness stuff that actually comes out. Godmother is more down to earth: ‘Too cold for a picnic today, but they’ll be bringing your fish and chips soon’.

‘I think the fish must be swimming here’, she mutters. ‘Where is it?’

Godmother simply tells the truth. ‘Is my Mum still alive?’ Mum asks me, suddenly. I turn to Godmother, silently asking for help, the loss of Nan suddenly flooding back in.

‘No. She died a long time ago,’ says Godmother.

Mum considers this. ‘Is my Dad alive?’

‘No, he’s dead too.’

‘Him?’ She points at her brother’s photo – there he is in 1949 in tropical uniform,  film-star handsome. Cyprus, maybe.

He’s still alive,’ says Godmother, seeing me nodding.

‘But very old now,’ I add. (And never bothered to visit you for the last twenty-five years, I think, though you waited and waited and always believed he would.)

‘And him?’ She points at Dad’s picture, the one of him in his seventies, in that veterans’ cycle race, leaning into the curve of a corner as he goes whizzing by.

‘That’s my Dad,’ I say, foolishly. ‘Your husband.’

She looks puzzled. ‘Is he still alive?’

‘No, he’s dead too,’ says Godmother. ‘Shall I go and make you a fresh cup of tea?’

Mum nods vigorously, then starts to look dubious.

‘Go quick,’ I say, ‘before it turns into a no.’

Mum points at Gordon Ramsay on the television, being beastly to someone because their restaurant isn’t up to scratch. Something about him – maybe the red, constantly-mobile face – seems to have caught her attention. At least she doesn’t ask me if he’s still alive.

picnic

At the Over 50s lunch a lady called Daphne has taken charge of me. She is helping me with my Bingo.

‘No,’ she tuts. ‘Turn that sheet upside down then you won’t be tempted to put anything on it. Look, I’m turning the blue sheet upside down. You don’t need it yet. Out of sight, out of mind. No – you’ve just done the line but you’ve still got the house – don’t go throwing the whole book away!’

Truth to tell, I am exaggerating my helplessness a bit because it’s so unexpectedly nice to be nagged. I had forgotten what that was like, the way Mums talk to you.

We all have to sit in the same seats, every time, even though it’s a huge great pub. This I discovered earlier, when I sat in the wrong one. ‘Oh no. You’ll have to move along one.’

‘I just didn’t really want to sit under that potted tree. The leaves are sort of sharp and dangle down your neck…’

‘Well we’ll move the table out a bit, keep you more or less away from the tree. But that’s your seat now. Don’t give Her a chance to have a go at you. Once She starts…’

Gosh, I think. It’s like being back at school. Have I really reached this age only to be forced to sit for several hours in a corner seat half obscured by a potted tree of vicious temperament because somebody tells me to?

An old man two seats down (exactly where he was last month) tells a very off-colour joke involving falling into a bucket, with some tits. He laughs uproariously, mouth wide open.

‘Don’t you get started on those jokes of yours, Cecil. There’s a young lady present.’ It take me a minute to realise they mean me.

picnic

Back at the home, Mum’s asking, over and over again, ‘But what about me? What do you want me to do? What shall I do now?’

Oh Mum, I think. Ask me if I went and cut my own fringe again, because it’s all up one side and down the other. Offer to make me an appointment with your own hairdresser round the corner. ‘That one you were in the same class at junior school with’.

Tell me off for sneaking pieces into your jigsaw puzzle behind your back.

Ask me if I’m putting on weight and suggest that it’s plastering all those great chunks of butter on my toast that does it.

Tell me you’re worried about me and my raggle-taggle lifestyle. Tell me I’ve always been a worry to you, really.

Tell me you’d like me to get you a new book in that historical series, but the paperback, mind you, not the hardback: mess up the look of your bookshelves, hardbacks do.

Tell me you’d think I’d have something better to do with my time than play Bingo with a lot of old farts in a pub in the back of beyond somewhere.

Tell me anything, anything at all. I’m listening so hard now.

Trad Jazz and Tarantulas

If you had asked me to make a list of what I was expecting from last night’s Outing tarantulas would have been unlikely to feature on it.

Not that I would have probably got round to making such a list because making such a list would fall under the banner of Mushroom Stuffing, Mushroom Stuffing being but one of that multitude of things that life is too short to do. A further example – Bertie spent much of our Thursday bus stop waiting time recounting the lengths he had gone to in rejuvenating his last year’s Remembrance Day poppy. The black bit in the middle had come out, he said, and he couldn’t find it, but eventually he did find it under the fridge/ washing machine/ spare-room bed/ hallway hat-stand, and then it was a matter of attaching a fresh bit of wire, hunting out the superglue and attaching the battered red petals to the new framework… This must have taken him several hours. Mushroom stuffing.

I mentioned mushroom stuffing. Nobody knew what I meant, of course.

Last night I went on an Outing. For most of my life the concept of Outings has been a foreign one to me. I am that pathetic, lone-wolf type person whose default position would be Do This Alone, Go There Alone, Solve This Yourself etc. But now I no longer have a car and have perforce become more reliant on other people and have had to retrain myself, somewhat, if not exactly into sheep-hood, at least into a lone-wolf/ovine combination. I have also read that Social Interaction might help you not get Alzheimers.

This I how, with three of my fellow Over 50s I came to be being driven into town (after dark) in a frankly odoriferous – dog/ cigarettes/ air freshener/ unidentified-but-unpleasant, possibly nappies – car, to a district on the outskirts of Town that I would until now have been nervous of frequenting in daylight let alone on the night before Bonfire Night, with premature fireworks lighting up the sky. I focussed on my breathing. There was very little air inside this car, and so many people breathing it.

However, it was a good night, if stressful. In this district the new owners of an old shop were renovating it when they came across a sealed room. On breaking in they found a perfect little music hall theatre left over from 1879 or thereabouts and somehow forgotten. It had offered “rational amusement for all classes”, including a one-armed juggler.

The sound of one arm juggling…

They restored it, making it into a mixture of tiny heritage centre, tiny museum, tiny cinema and tiny theatre. Just the sort of place I like. Sort of place you could set a book in.

Behind the Scenes at the… oh no, that’s been done before.

I wasn’t expecting much from a 1920s evening. Not even the oldest Over 50, I think, can actually remember the Roaring Twenties. I imagined we might be in for a party of not-very-good flapper dancers in thick, cheerful make-up, performing ragged Charlestons, or maybe re-enacting romantic scenes from Noel Coward plays. But it was an Outing. I just went because Outings are supposed to be good for one.

But it wasn’t that at all, it was an “orchestra” of six elderly chaps playing traditional jazz, and rather well, plus a slightly younger crooner-type singer, wearing a tuxedo, a bow-tie and sinister BBC announcer/German spy type spectacles, and playing the saxophone in between. They consisted of a trumpeter, with mute; a clarinet player with a white ZZ Top type beard; a snowy-haired, feisty drummer, for whose life I feared during a vigorous drum-solo; a guitar/banjo player who appeared to be asleep through out, with mouth open, but nevertheless kept on playing, and someone in the middle at the very back playing what I assumed to be a tuba – something like a battered brass snake that enveloped him, with a giant gramophone horn attached to the end – but later discovered it was a souzaphone.

I promised myself I would not, Kermit-fashion, jiggle up and down in my seat in time to the music, or even tap my feet, but of course I did. They played all those bits of jazz I remember from black and white films on TV on rainy Saturday afternoons in my childhood. Long, silly introductions. Little sung stories leading into sudden bursts of rampageous jazz. I looked around. We were surrounded by union jacks and tasteless swags of red ribbon, and vases of lilies, something that looked like a church organ, weird deco. It could have been wartime. How appropriate, as Britannia sinks beneath – or, fingers-crossed and baited breath, may just about float upon – the waves…

Never, Never, Never to be Slaves….

Afterwards, as we were standing outside awaiting the return odoriferous lift , I asked a silly question. What’s behind that great big wall?  Right opposite us, mere feet away, was the tallest and oldest brick wall I think I have ever seen. This would not have been a silly question for a visitor from outer space (and I could see by the micro-expressions on my companions faces that I had just asked that sort of question) but I do live here. That, I was told, is the Dockyard.

And this is where the tarantulas come in. Behind that wall, my companions explained, as our breath steamed in the damp night air, is the Dockyard. And in that wall are tarantulas that have escaped from all the crates that were ever unloaded here. They live in the cracks in the wall… The wall is still pitted with shrapnel holes from where this street (well, they were obviously aiming for the Dockyard) was bombed in the last war.

Really? Do they bite?

No, they’re not the biting sort. They just live in the cracks.

Someone has tested that?

And suddenly I imagined all these poor little tarantulas and the lives they must have led. The Wall was as far as they could get. Scuttling out of their crates into, not the tropical sunshine they had been used to but some grey, damp February or November day. Heading for the nearest cover – that Wall. Living in the cracks, unable to go any further, unable to go home. How sorely they must have missed it, the music of the oil drum bands, those joyous calypsos beneath the palm trees. I hope they were at least tapping their feet along to strains of jazz drifting across from the little theatre. I hope they were jiggling just a little, Kermit-fashion in their shrapnel holes, and those crumbling interstices.

souza

 

Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Bread Pudding

Serves 6

Good way of using up left-over bread.

  • 12 oz (ounces) stale bread
  • 2 oz granulated sugar
  • 4 oz sultanas
  • 1 1b mincemeat (this is sweet – not minced/ground meat)
  • 4 level teaspoons mixed spice
  • 2 level tablespoons granulated sugar, for sprinkling
  • 7 inch square cake tin, greased and lined at the base

Cut the bread into one inch pieces. Put in a bowl and add enough cold water to cover the bread. Leave to soak for at least an hour. Drain well and squeeze out all the water.

Put the bread in a mixing bowl and beat in the sugar. Mix in the sultanas, mincemeat and mixed spice.

Moderate oven. Gas mark 4 or 350ºF/ 180º C.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 2 1/2 hours until golden. Cool slightly and remove from the tin, then sprinkle with granulated sugar. When cold, cut into squares. Can also serve warm with custard or cream.

Hector likes to live life on the edge!

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Sea Hero Pest

But I memorized the map! You showed me a map and I duly memorized it. Three check-in points with 3 at the top and 2 to the left. Sail up to 1. Veer back sharply to 2. Upwards and slightly  right to 3 and then – bingo – another page of the treasure-map-or-whatever is mine! You didn’t mention navigating! You didn’t mention landmarks! I was supposed to guess that that bunch of stylised pointy trees and those mammoths-wearing-shawls were in fact landmarks?

A lot more of this exclaiming has gone on in the past couple of days, since I discovered the dementia-research game/app known as Sea Hero Quest. Apparently one of earliest the signs of dementia is a lessening of the ability to navigate, and I do remember this quite clearly with Mum. She got lost after one of her regular Sunday visits to my house. Ten minutes after leaving she was back, knocking on my door, tearful, insisting that the roads had all changed. They been taking her to Hastings, she said. Hastings was a good hour and a half’s drive away. She had just missed her usual turning.

They tell you that for every ten minutes or so you spend on your smartphone  steering your tiny electronic boat around huge electronic icebergs, you are contributing approximately thirty minutes of invaluable research data to scientists seeking a cure for dementia. Well there’s Mum, and the app was free to download, so how could I not?

To be fair it was my first ever experience of gaming. Apart from Words With Friends, that is, which doesn’t really count because it’s basically Scrabble and doesn’t involve manoeuvring anything. And I do wonder if being of the Sheldon Cooper ilk doesn’t hamper a person in unintended ways. I mean, I don’t suppose the designer of Sea Hero Quest anticipated that someone would be so busy attempting and failing to type her age into a big white box that she did not notice until her fifth try that there was a huge sliding scale underneath. The big white box served no purpose whatsoever. In which case, why have a white box? Or maybe he designed it that way. It could have been some kind of trick…

And I don’t suppose he anticipated that the lack of any but the vaguest of instructions would be much of a problem. Presumably experienced gamers are already familiar the basic conventions of gaming. But I mean, how do you even start? There are kind of lily-pad things. Am I supposed to hop from one to another in number order, or can I click on any one I want at any time? And what is that star thing? What happens if I click on a monster? And why is there a paintbrush in the water?

And then there are the memorisable maps sans landmarks. Memorising maps has never been that stressful for me: I like maps. In my younger days I managed to more-or-less memorise the route from Kent to Scotland and drive there over two days alone, in a tiny car, with nothing but a book of road maps open on the passenger seat and list of place names taped to the driver’s side window. I did get lost on the motorway, but only once, before realising that the sun was now setting in the wrong direction.

And then there is the map that appears to consist entirely of swirling fog and dry land. Perhaps for this particular game Boaty will prove to be an amphibi-boat. Just about anything might be possible in a land featuring shawl-wearing mammoths. Boaty will doubtless sprout crocodile legs and lumber across dry land in the direction of those distant red beacons. But no! When the game starts, there we are in the same icy, glacier-infested waterway.

So what was the point of that map?

Infuriatingly, at the end of one game it asks a series of questions: How did you navigate? Did you count from the beginning? Did you navigate using the landmarks? Or did you count from a landmark?

Count?? Navigate?? They never told me I was supposed to be counting or navigating.  I was just concentrating on this little wizzy item between glaciers and crashing helplessly into one after another. Should I be tapping the phone? Should I be pushing the boat forward, or maybe pulling the boat along somehow, with an ancient palsied digit? Would the phone perhaps respond to bellowed instructions, as with Alexa?

And then there were the sea monsters. The idea is that you pursue the sea monster at top speed through the glaciers, inexplicable mammoths and whatnot. I haven’t found out how to slow Boaty down as yet so we proceed at maximum notts through icy waters, with some kind of Nessie-alike creature speeding ahead. We are meant to be catching up to her and taking her photograph – with what I have no idea – except that flotillas of baby glaciers keep getting in the way.

Initially I try to avoid them by tapping to the left or the right. This works twice. Thenceforward no amount of leftward or rightward tapping makes any difference whatsoever – no corresponding evasive skipping by Boaty occurs. Ah well, I think, since the iceberg flotilla don’t seem to be damaging her, as they would surely do in real life,  I might as well just laissez faire, que-sera-sera and power on through. But this only slows you down. Eventually Nessie takes pity and stops of her own accord so that you can take her photo, for which you are rewarded with one hot-cross-bun type star and a patronising message: Try to go a little faster next time to gain more points. I was trying to slow down.

Three hours later and there I am on the sofa, in gathering darkness, hungry, surrounded by dozing cats and still apparently attempting to master Sea Hero Quest. But in fact I am not really playing. I am driving my nasty little electronic sailing vessel around in ever decreasing circles and deliberately slamming her into first one glacier and then another. Yes, I am graunching her dear, jaunty little painted sides along those serrated ice-edges.

Kerrang!

Pow!!

There is actually a timetable affixed to this bus stop…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘To the holiday camp’, she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not very.

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: [Godmother]’s Scrumptious Slice

I shall be seeing Godmother tomorrow, on yet another harrowing visit to Mum, which I will try to avoid writing about afterwards (sighs of relief, echoing around the globe…). However, I thought to mark the occasion I would include a recipe which Godmother originally passed on to Mum.

I don’t know whether Godmother christened them Scrumptious Slices or whether it was Mum who decided they were Scrumptious. I also have no idea what a Scrumptious Slice might look like when it comes out of the oven (please do report back if you decide to make them) and can’t post a picture of Godmother herself, so here is a fairy godmother instead.

SCRUMPTIOUS SLICE

  • 8 oz puff pastry
  • 8 oz marzipan
  • 3 oz glacé cherries
  • 3 oz dessicated cocoanut
  • 2 egg whites slightly beaten
  • 8 oz Cadbury Flakes (if you can’t get Cadbury Flakes, they are basically milk chocolate shaped into flaky log-things)
  • Caster sugar

Preheat oven to 230°C /450°F / Gas 8

Roll pastry out 10″ (inches) x 12″ rectangle. Roll marzipan to a slightly smaller rectangle and lay on top of pastry.

Chop cherries, mix with the cocoanut & add enough egg white to bind. Spread over the marzipan & lay Flakes in pairs down the centre (You may need to be a bit creative here if you are using an alternative to Cadbury’s Flake).

Dampen pastry edges – seal together lengthwise & then seal ends. Lift onto a greased baking sheet, ‘join’ side down. Brush with egg white, sprinkle with caster sugar.

Mark diagonal lines on top.

Bake for about 15 minutes until golden brown.

Hmm, they do sound quite yummy whatever they look like! 🙂

Post McEwan Stress Disorder

This picture is from tiny card my mother once sent me. The message inside is mundane:

Monday, 2pm

I received your letter. Went over to the garage. Explained about little red spanner [Skoda’s irritating ‘service due’ warning light].

They can deal with little red spanner ie: take it off so that it won’t be a nuisance any more.

I left the key with them. It will soon be dealt with.

Love, Mum XXX

It felt a bit creepy reading this so-ordinary and long-forgotten message from Mum’s earlier self, but it was nice to see her handwriting, and to see that all the full stops were once again in the right place, the ‘i’s all meticulously dotted and the ‘t’s all crossed. The style’s clumsy for her, though – ‘it’ must already have begun at that point, and I didn’t realise.

It was a long drawn out and horrible Flowers For Algernon process, for us both, first watching her handwriting decline and then her mind refusing to tell her what to write in letters to friends, and her desperate strategies to keep doing so: the sudden change to writing in pencil – I bought her a whole box of 2Bs and a desktop pencil-sharpener which neither of us could then fasten to the desk; the endless, obsessive process of rubbing out bits of sentences and trying again; the rewriting of entire letters; the asking me to check them before she posted them.

I have a little nightmare of the same thing happening to me one day – and not realising – and gibberish appearing in this blog, and either no one telling me (and who would want to be the one to do that?) or everyone just Unfollowing. Oh, God save us from an unknown future.

I found Mum’s butterfly card in one of my books. Being lazy and using everything from letters to bus tickets to torn-off pieces of cereal packet does have its upside. You never know what little treasure you might to come across when you get round to tidying your books. I also found a lot of bookmarks from a particular second-hand bookseller.

Every time you order a second-hand book from them, no matter if it only cost 99p, they include a nice cardboard bookmark with a design submitted by a reader. And they are excellent bookmarks (they must have many graphic artists among their readers) and also an excellent selling point. It works with me anyway: I always look down the list and see if I can get the book from them rather than any of the alternatives, out of sheer bookmark-greed.

I notice a preponderance of the black-and-white-one-with-the-many-skulls. I remember, in fact, them sending me three black-and-white skull bookmarks inside a single ancient paperback one time, and picturing some poor, bored school-leaver on work-experience in an office on an industrial estate, fishing for the umpteenth time into a plastic bin full of pretty bookmarks and flinging in whatever happened to come out. I wonder if they do swapsies?

And now, by the magic of technology and a lot of messing about with fancy filters I am able to use Mum’s little butterfly card in a post. Mum would have been horrified, not at the idea per se but at the prospect of me attempting to explain it to her. Her eyes would glaze over the minute I started on about my computer: Mum was very good at un-listening, as no doubt most Mums are.

Why am I going on about butterflies? Well, I was going to use this picture as an illustration for the next Books From My Bookcase item. This was going to be a debut collection of short stories called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (2004). The book leapt out at me because it is one of two physically beautiful books I possess, the other one being the hardback first edition of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – the one with the gorgeous red flowers. Hang on, lets try to find it:

how i live cover

The above doesn’t do it justice. Bits of it (the leaves) are all shiny and lit up – sorry, metallicised – can’t find it in the dictionary but sure it’s a real word – metallized just wont do! – and bits of it are left matt. And Tropical Butterflies is yellow and brown and kind of fusty-Victorian-looking, and inside there is a bonus – an extra sheet – what do you call that? – the front paper – with a glossy version of the same yellow cover, a delightful little shock when you open it.

Now, later on in life, I understand why I married an artist. I thought it was only an unhappy childhood and alternative brain-wiring we shared but it was also an eye for beauty. In another life, maybe, I shall be a  collector of objects d’art Maybe I can go back (since I doubt that ‘lives’ are in chronological order) to the 17th Century and be a man (makes life easier, always) and have a cabinet of curiosities full of wonderful and mysterious things that I can show off to callers. Or maybe I’ve already had that life.

Rats.

In any case, having found A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies I realised I had only in fact read a few little bits of it. The short stories look good, if a mite challenging. They certainly got good reviews:

“John Murray’s stories are a genuine cultural breakthrough… adventures of the mind, and rich in human feeling, true departures from any other known fiction.” Muriel Spark

I think I read a little bit of one and had uncomfortable flashbacks to Ian McEwan. I had a really bad experience with his macabre short story collection The Cement Garden (1978). Every one of those tales frightened the living daylights out of me. Never been the same since. Post McEwan Stress Disorder.

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From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Somerset Apple Cake

  • 8 ounces self-raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 3 heaped tablepoons soft margarine (4 ounces)
  • 3 heaped tablespoons caster sugar (4 ounces)
  • 1 pound peeled, cored and diced apples
  • A little milk (if necessary)
  • 1 large beaten egg
  • Spoonful granulated sugar for garnishing
  • Mum has made a note: ‘add 2 ounces mixed chopped nuts’ – this may have been her own preference rather than an essentialapple

Grease and line 8″ (inch) cake tin. Sift flour and spice into bowl and rub in the margarine. Stir in caster sugar and chopped apples. Add beaten egg to make a spreading mixture. If it seems a little dry add some milk.

Turn into the tin and bake at 350ºF for 1 – 1 1/4 hours. Turn onto wire tray. Just before serving sprinkle the top with sugar.

🙂

My bathwater is staring at me…

So, I finished running my bath and looked down and lo and behold, little pairs of bubble eyes were circulating, and staring at me. Only for a moment, mind you. Then sanity returned. Please do not let me start hearing voices talking to me from my kitchen cupboards next. Please do not let the bubbles develop little sharp teeth and start snapping at me…

Been there, seen that all before.

But really I think I am just very tired. I am not used to being very tired, either. All my life I have been able to do a normal day’s stuff and recover without even thinking about it. Now it takes me two days to get over a long bus journey.

Went to see Mum yesterday. Fortunately Godmother’s little dog has had a stay of execution and Godmother and her trusty little red car are back online, so I didn’t have to do the epic three-bus solo journey, only the much easier one bus, two train and one car journey. I gave Mum a calendar of American Birds, hanging it on her wall with the garden string (and yes, even small pair of scissors) I had taken over specially. Once a Brownie always a Brownie. Mum made that Emu face. Godmother went to make her a fresh cup of tea (we have both recently memorised the key code for the kitchen).

‘Is that better?’ she foolishly asked, as Mum took a sip from her newly-steaming plastic beaker. Emu face again.

For those who are wondering what an Emu face is, not being old enough or British, I would guess it’s something like a ‘Meh’ face only a tad more ominous. This is it:

emu

Then she started growling, a lot, and baring her teeth. A carer came running.

“It’s all right,” we said, waving cheerily. “It’s only Mum having a bit of a growl.”

Thing is, all this stuff takes it out of you. And it doesn’t go away when you go home. That whole visit stays with you and excerpts from it coming back, like cucumber. Memory burps.

And then there was the reverse journey – car, train, train again and bus. And the hour-and-a-bit wait at the bus stop, alone. And the bus arriving being a single decker, and already stuffed with holidaymakers returning to their chalets, though this was only the second stop.

And the more and more people getting crammed in and nobody ever getting out.

And the pain in my knees (I was sitting over one of the back wheels, and I have long legs) as they continually graunched against the back of the seat in front.

And the little girl in that seat, who kept turning round to bellow at her Mama in Spanish through my face, leaning heavily on the seat back at the same time. I desperately needed to stand up and stretch my legs, but I would have lost my seat and been stood hanging on to a pole round sharp bends with a bad hip for the next forty minutes.

And then, having escaped the bus, the fifteen minute uphill climb home. For the first time ever I had to actually stop, like some old lady, and catch my breath for some moments before continuing. My head was swimming although that might have been the several Mars Bars en route, plus the half a bar of chocolate Godmother produced in the car, and which we shared between us! Also, I was loaded down with second hand copies of the Woman’s Weekly. Godmother passes hers on to me and I do enjoy them, even though she’s always done the crossword, but a whole supermarket bag-full is heavy.

And then I got home and next door decided to have one of their Friday parties. Turn Up The Volume It’s Friday. I was going to have a bath but I went to bed instead, grubby, knowing that I could sleep through a lot of loud music, shouting and thundering about,  but not sit through it. Hence the bath this morning, and the bubbles. And those little swirling eyes in the water…

Still on the subject of public transport: Bertie At The Bus Stop tells me he can easily eat 19 potatoes at one sitting. He loves potatoes. Obviously. He went on some kind of summer camp once and ate up all the potatoes in the bowl, thinking they were all meant for him. Next day, he told me, they wouldn’t let him into the dining room until after everyone else had gone in. He didn’t know why.

He tells me his freezer-in-the-shed went off sometime during that power cut, and failed to restart itself automatically when the electrics came back on. He only noticed hours later because the garden fountain had stopped working. I asked him whether the food would be safe to eat, having once defrosted. It was clear that this was a new idea to him. He thought that once in a freezer food would last forever and that occasional lengthy defrosting would make no difference, as long as the freezer eventually got turned back on.

“They” provided him with the freezer but “They” obviously hadn’t taken the time to explain to him in any detail how it worked.

“Well,” he said, thinking it over, “I could always cook it all overnight. I could stay up all night cooking and put it in my fridge and then I could eat it all the next day, like a big feast…

Poor Bertie, he needs his Old Mum but she isn’t here any more. I know the feeling, and I know I can’t do anything. People have their own lives and you can’t take on everybody’s problems, especially when you have a history of well-meaning attempts at helping that did no good. I can’t magically make Bertie less simple-minded or raise his Old Mum from the dead. Sometimes, maybe, it’s enough to listen to their stories – told on purpose or – as in Bertie’s case – in innocence or by accident. Perhaps, on that day, that was what you happened to be at the bus stop for.

There was a little girl, who had a little curl…

I never told this little story before. It’s a Very Sad Little Story.

When I was about two years old I was sitting at the kitchen table with my Mum. She had her wooden sewing box there on the table – the same wooden sewing box I recently rescued from the doomed bungalow – and from it she withdrew a fold of tissue paper containing one of my baby curls. Apparently I was blonde, for a short while. By the time the blonde curl was produced, however, my hair had turned a common or garden dark brown, and stayed that way till I started to go grey.

And my mother hands me the tissue paper and the curl to play with, or possibly just examine, but there’s not much difference when you’re two years old. And then she went off somewhere and I ruined the curl. I can remember my sadness and horror as the perfect blonde curl – something the workings of which I did not understand, never having previously seen or conceived of a disembodied curl – messed itself up and disintegrated in my pudgy little hands. I remember the sadness, particularly, and the full dawning knowledge that I had done a Wrong Thing.

And I had done a Wrong Thing. Mum’s reaction when she came back and found me, what was left of the curl in my outstretched hands, was similar to mine, only louder, and with tears.

I have never forgotten that, and I have never, ever stopped feeling guilty. It seemed to set the tone for the rest of my childhood, somehow. I was not a Proper Child. I Did Things Wrong.

Looking back on it now, I would say to Mum exactly what Nan said to Mum at the time (because Nan was there, just not in the kitchen). I would say, what made you think it wouldn’t get messed up? Whatever were you thinking?

But ever since then, if I have ever needed an excuse to hate myself, to revile myself for even coming into existence and having the temerity to set foot on this earth which would have been far better off without me… etc, etc, you know the drill… the curl comes first to mind. I mourn it still and long to somehow reverse life, like an old film, and put it back together again.

Well, this was meant to be another Totally Random Thursday but so far it has been all about a curl.

So what about this? I just (sort of) cut my hair using a method demonstrated by someone called Gloria Glam or Glamorous Gloria, I can’t remember which, on YouTube. Gloria Glam is without doubt the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen, and the most glam. My face in the mirror, with my hair bunched into a kind of cuckold’s horn on the front of my head, looked nothing like hers. Having brushed it forwards and done that – hers so thick and glossy, mine so thin and grey, you then bunch it again, and move the elastic thingy down. And then you cut it straight across like a horse’s tail. And then – and here’s the scary bit – you kind of jab upwards into it with the scissors. And what results is a kind of long layer cut. I must say it looks OK, if slightly eccentric. And I had to do something. My hair was getting so long it was streeeeeetching the elastic pony-tail band collection and the whole ghastly grey mane had a tendency to fling itself apart in public, including at a train station ticket office, once.

After that, the fringe was just a doddle.

I just did my budget. This is something I force myself to do every six months, just because it seems like something my mother would approve of if compos mentis (mother, again, and guilt) but in fact it makes no difference at all to the finances apart from forcing you to confront the fact that like dear old Mr Micawber you are still spending too much, and rapidly running out of options for cutting anything. Except perhaps your own hair.

Finally, Oxford Street. I just watched half a repeat of a documentary programme going ‘behind the scenes’ at London’s most famous shopping street, showing how everything kind of works. This week the focus was on rubbish. They interviewed the man who supervised the overnight cleaning squad – a joyous man, who could not help smiling as he said – over and over again, in fact – that he would like the pavements of Oxford Street to be clean enough for people to walk barefooted on. And in fact some – mostly ladies – were walking barefoot. A long night’s dancing, no doubt, and high heels.

And then there was a young couple celebrating the one-year anniversary of their first meeting, in Oxford Street. They had asked to be taken down the sewers under Oxford Street as an extra special treat because they shared a nerdish fascination with a phenomenon known as fatbergs. I promise I won’t describe one of these and its contents in detail, but basically it’s like arteries getting clogged up with cholesterol. Fat clings to the walls and forms a kind of narrowing or berg to which more fat then appends. And after a while the valiant sewer men climb down there in their white plastic suits with their special shovels and chip it all off so that London is not overwhelmed by its own fatty deposits. Apparently in 2015 they cleared a berg the size of a London bus that was causing the sewer to collapse inward from the sheer weight of it…

When the young couple emerged from the manhole they seemed blissfully happy. It was so romantic, they said, as they peeled off their white suits and handed them back to the sewer men. But it was so nice to breathe fresh air again. And off they went, hand in hand, hopefully to take a shower.

And then I got to wondering whether Oxford Street actually did lead to Oxford. I mean, if you just couldn’t get enough fresh air after the sewers and needed to just keep on walking – for weeks and weeks, maybe, would Oxford ever be on the menu?

Turns out it would be. Oxford Street is technically, though signposts don’t mention it, part of the A40 which goes all the way to Wales, via Oxford. If you just kept going you would end up in a delightful little place  in North Wales called Fishguard. It looks like this:

Boats in harbour Lower Fishguard Pembrokeshire South Towns and Villages

So now you know. 🙂

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Christmas Morning Cranberry Muffins

I know it’s not Christmas, and I know I mentioned Christmas once before already this summer. Blame it on the patchwork. For some reason best known to Self-of-a-few-days-ago I am piecing some Christmas fabric at the moment. Presumably then-Self thought it would be an excellent ruse to try to sell Christmas cushion-covers or a Christmas quilt top in July/August. Who knows?

(Oh dear, five Christmases!)

However, that’s what they’re called, according to Mum. And after all who’s likely to be cooking muffins on Christmas Day itself? Need a few practice runs.

(Seven!)

CHRISTMAS MORNING CRANBERRY MUFFINS (eight, sorry)

  • 1 cup cranberries
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

I had to look up ‘all purpose flour’. It’s is in Mum’s own handwriting but I notice everything’s in cups so this may originally have been an American or Canadian recipe. According to the internet British plain flour can be substituted for ‘all-purpose’ in all recipes, except bread.

  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 2 tsps (teaspoons) baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 1/4 tsp grated orange peel
  • 3/4 cup orange juice
  • 1/3 cup melted margarine
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Coarsely chop cranberries. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup sugar. Set aside.

In bowl stir together flour, 1/4 cup sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon & spice. Make a well in the centre.

Combine egg, orange peel, orange juice & melted butter. Add all at once to the flour mixture to moisten. Fold in cranberry mixture and nuts.

Fill greased muffin tins and bake at 375º F for 15-20 minutes or until golden.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Scones

Friend Daisy just tactfully pointed out that I forgot to include the quantity of breadcrumbs in Mum’s previous recipe. It’s 3oz wholemeal, and I have now corrected the recipe. You see, this is why I was a mediocre (looking kindly upon it) legal secretary and Daisy was a so much more excellenter one…

[Warning: if English is not your first language and you are using this rather odd blog to practice reading English – please do not employ that last sentence in an essay or drop it into casual conversation. You want to write proper English like wot other people writ it.]

Daisy is a very fast typist, conscientious and with an eagle eye for errors. I am a very fast typist but an impatient, slip-sloppy one who tends to lose interest in what she has typed the minute she has typed it. (Heavy sigh!)

Anyway, scones. Hopefully I can get this right as Mum’s scones were one of her best things. I still remember that waft delicious hot-air aroma when she opened the oven door…

SCONES – Recipe dated 27th August 1990 (Mum: These are good!)

8oz (ounces) plain flour

2 tbsp (tablespoons) sugar

Pinch of salt

1 tsp (teaspoon) Bicarb (Bicarbonate of Soda)

2 tsp Cream of Tartar

(Goodness, can you even buy Cream of Tartar nowadays? Isn’t ‘Baking Powder’ a ready-made mixture of Bicarb and Cream of Tartar anyway?)

2oz margarine

5 tbsp milk

Method –

Sift flour & mix all dry ingredients together

Rub in margarine

Add milk & mix to a dough

Roll out to about 1″ (inch) thick & cut into rounds

Place a greased baking tray and brush over top with beaten egg or milk

Place in a pre-heated oven

Turn out onto a wire rack to cool

Servings: 8 scones

Small (?) oven: 220ºC –   10 – 15 minutes – middle shelf

Fan oven: 210ºC –   8 – 10 minutes

Variations

  • 4 oz wholemeal flour instead of 4 oz plain flour
  • 3 oz grated cheese & 1/2 tsp mustard. Omit sugar
  • 3 oz mixed dried fruit
  • 1 oz dates, chopped and 1oz walnuts, finely chopped

Mum: The above variations should be added before the addition of milk to the dough

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Curried Nut Roast

1/2 lb (pound) hazel or Brazil or walnuts, finely chopped

1/2 lb fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 medium-sized green pepper, deseeded and finely chopped

3 oz wholewheat breadcrumbs

2 medium-size onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs or 2 teaspoons fresh mixed herbs

1 tablespoon mild curry powder (or a heaped teaspoon of hot Madras curry powder)

1 egg, beaten

Cooking oil

Salt and freshly-milled black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 7, 425ºF (220ºC)

One 7 Inch square cake tin, greased

Begin by gently frying the onion and chopped pepper in a little oil until they’re softened – about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the nuts and breadcrumbs together in a large bowl, adding the garlic, herbs and curry powder. Then stir in the onion, pepper and tomatoes, mix very thoroughly and season. Now add the beaten egg to bind the mixture together. Finally, pack the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 3–40 minutes until golden.

This can be served hot with spiced pilau rice, yoghurt, mango chutney, or a fresh tomato sauce. It’s also very good served cold with a salad.

Enjoy 🙂