My uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall

Canadian sister phones. I thought maybe once her husband had died she would stop phoning me, that I would be cast aside like some moth-eaten fur coat etc etc. This has not happened – just now she phones me at all odd times. Before she could only phone me when he was asleep. And then he would wake up. Always. I could hear the creaking of the bedroom door upstairs in their house, right across the Atlantic. Sometimes I heard it before she heard it. I could hear the change in her tone of voice. The worried note creeping in, the sudden summing up, the hasty goodbye.

She is all at sea without him, and yet, I note, she is surviving. She says she has just spent the two longest evenings of her life, alone in the house. ‘What do single people do in the evenings?’ she asks me. ‘Well, I say, hobbies tend to expand to fill the time available for doing them…’ I am aware that I am paraphrasing someone. ‘What did you do of an evening when he was still alive, and well?’

‘Mostly he was outside in his workshop. If he came inside I might knit while he watched TV.’

I resist saying that this seems to me as much like being alone as being alone. I remember when I was married, all those years ago. Being always alone, even when not.

‘You can call me any time,’ I say. ‘After all, nobody else does. I mean, it’s not like you’re interrupting a huge queue of my fans, all eagerly trying to contact me…’

‘Nobody?’

She sounds shocked. I would have lied, if necessary. I would have told her the above story so that she didn’t feel she was being in any way a nuisance phoning me at all hours, because at the moment I am one of her few fixed points in a radically shifting universe. I am good at making up tales on the spur of the moment. Sometimes I don’t realise they’re tales, till after.

And sometimes I don’t realise they’re true, till after.

So, today I have had a very stressful day. Stress exhausts me, so I tend only ever to schedule one stressful or unpleasant event per day, but today I thought, why not get them all over with at once, for once? So I set off, early, stopping off at the post office in the next village to post Canadian Sister a belated birthday present. Two books. The cost of the airmail is greater than the combined cost of the books. But that was OK, and I managed to get myself out of the tiny car park, with the parking spaces all at the wrong angles.

I went on to the Tip, in Town. I managed to get my car in and not have to sit drumming my fingers on the dash for three-quarters of an hour down the stinky alleyway that leads to it. I managed to heave out the six monstrously heavy black sacks full of used cat litter, pretending to be innocent household waste. I managed to lug four of them, one at a time, up the slippery metal steps to the skip and, with a muscle-wrenching effort, heave them over the rim of the skip. Then – that rare event – one of the men in high-vis yellow came to my rescue, and made off with my two remaining sacks – in the direction of the skip labelled Garden Waste.

‘Did yer want the bags back?’

‘Er, no…’

I knew I should have yelled after him, ‘Excuse me, my man, but I believe you may be under a misapprehension. That is in fact Non-Recyclable Household Waste’ (cat poo).

But I didn’t. I reversed, rather smartly, and exited.

And then I did a rather long and illogical detour to the petrol station, where an elderly idiot with a white moustache rather like the current transient US Secretary of State’s, nearly took my wing-mirror off in his selfish efforts not to let me get to the pump I needed, which was not the same pump he needed.

Ah, I thought, things are reverting to the usual dire pattern. I swore voluminously at him, but from inside my car so that he could see perfectly well that I was swearing voluminously, but we could both, upon exiting our cars, pretend it wasn’t aimed at him.

And then I drove over to visit my mother in the Home. This was number four (?) of Things I Don’t Want To Do Today But Am Going To Do Anyway. But Mum was asleep, with the curtains drawn. All the other residents were up. She looked dreadfully like a corpse so I tiptoed in and checked that she was still breathing. Then I went and found the Nurse – not in the Nurses Station (that was occupied by Someone Who Didn’t Even Work There) but in a cupboard. He said Mum was OK, but had been left to sleep in after one of her night-time rampages. I have never seen one of these rampages, and find them difficult to imagine, but apparently she shouts at other residents, and they shout back. She was never like this. Anything not to draw attention to herself, to stay in the background.

When I get home the Nurse will phone me again to say that after I left she wrestled another resident to the ground (where she happened to be lying) and was having a fight with them.

‘I wonder,’ I said, if it’s all the things they suppress during their lifetimes, when they are them, that suddenly start escaping when this happens?

The Nurse did not seem all that interested in my intellectual speculations.

After the Home I drove down to Ashford, thinking to stock up on black bin sacks in my favourite former supermarket, then drive home. Gridlocked.  When I finally inched my way there – instantly to be blocked in by a giant black-windowed vehicle that was going to make reversing out a nightmare – the woman behind the till tried to explain what was causing the gridlock. It’s the closure of the A2070 she said. I could not remember which of the many road around Ashford the A2070 was and hence, when trying to escape from Ashford some time later, got caught in two further lots of gridlock because I guessed wrong and headed straight for it rather than away from it.

You see that’s the trouble. Road diversions are signposted by men, and usually men who have GPS in their cars. I am a woman, and I do not have GPS. I do not understand Diversion signs and I navigate the sensible way, by Landmarks, not Numbers. If they had put up a sign saying Motorway Junction Absolutely And Completely Closed, well then I wouldn’t have gone that way, would I? I’d have wended my way up the back roads to Smelly Farm Corner and turned right towards The Place Where There Is A Pub I Once Walked Along The Grass Verge To With The Boyfriend With The Pointy Nose. Of course I would have got stuck in another lot of gridlock, but a smaller and more ultimately hopeful lot.

And how are you? my sister asks, eventually. It’s early morning in Alberta. She hasn’t already had a whole day of Utter Ghastliness.

‘Oh… a bit tired, maybe?’

phone tap

Featured Image: London street art by Banksy

 

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.