Time to grow out the moustache?

Until this morning I could think of very few positives to the coronavirus situation. As I have said before, choosing to be a hermit is one thing – having hermitry, hermitage or possibly hermitonomy imposed upon one by the Government is another. I self-isolated of my own accord a week early, knowing I was “at risk”, but now I am being compelled to I am sad. Three months, a whole summer confined with a herd of cats, trying to track down cans of catfood. If the worst really comes to the worst they will have to hold their noses and tackle the Bozita. The Bozita has been in the garage for a year. Not only would they not eat it when I bought it, they wouldn’t go within a yard of it.

But this morning I woke up with an idea. Well, I was woken up, forcibly, by Martha, my self-appointed “alarm cat”. She sees it as her duty to push, jump, scratch, dribble most persistently, hour upon hour if necessary, until I drag myself out of bed. My idea?

Let the moustache grow out!!

When will there ever be a better opportunity? Three months of seeing no one except the odd delivery driver – and delivery drivers never look at you. And now, they are so anxious to get away they linger even less. As the Tesco man said, “If you admit to symptoms we will drop your shopping on the doorstep and run away.”

I would not like anyone to think that I am, in my natural state, a grotesquely bearded lady. As far as I remember – back to when I was twelve or thirteen – the moustache was really only what you might expect to appear on a brown-haired English girl. But in those days – we’re talking Sixties, before Women’s Lib – neither facial not armpit hair was acceptable. Girls aimed to look like Twiggy – vacant, pale, pure and skinny. If it was an eyelash, you loaded it with mascara, liberally lubricated with spit. If it was in an armpit, you shaved it. If it was under your nose you bleached, tweezed, shaved, waxed, chemically removed – in fact bazooka’d it in any way you could.

We had a French girl at our school once, on an exchange visit. She was incredibly glamorous, we felt, until we all went to play tennis after school. My God, the girl was hiding a dead hamster under either arm. The horror of it! Poor girl. I hope she took no notice of our titters.

So – three months – maybe more – of not zapping the moustache. It occurs to me that since I am going grey – well pepper-and-salt, anyway – maybe el bigote will come out a soft, wispy grey. If it turns out anything like the above, though, it’s a goner.

Just as an aside. One of my two distant friends phoned me up last night, to check that I was all right. She says she will call me once a week from now on, just to touch base. The awfulness and wonderfulness of this is – that this is the same friend who has struggled all her life with bouts of clinical depression. I have witnessed – from the outside – the horrors she has gone through. I have visited her in a hospital ward, surrounded by mad people. I have found her sobbing behind her computer in the office we shared. I never, really, had any idea what to do for the best. Yet she was the one who called me.

My disbelief grows weary of suspending itself…

I’m onto a sticky wicket with suspenders, I know. American suspenders are as illustrated below:

suspenders

British suspenders are things that hold up stockings, supposedly wicked, lacy and black (or red) but as I recall them from my uncomfortable schooldays, more often medical, pinkish and rubbery, and held together with sixpenny pieces when they broke. They always broke. The rubber perished. The little suspend-things cracked and disintegrated…

So what do Americans call suspenders-suspenders if what we call braces are there known as suspenders? But what holds up American stockings? If that’s suspenders too, how do they know what they are holding up? Is it just a matter of deduction from the context?

But this post is not about that.

When I was at school, struggling with the uncomfortable suspenders and the 60-denier sun-mist-stockings-with-seams – surely the ugliest stocking ever invented (not about that, remember!) it was explained to me that when we get completely lost in a book, or a film, or a story told by some grey-haired hippie-type lady whilst sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the library (pre-suspenders) was called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

I did not used to find this difficult, except in the case of plays. Plays have never done it for me. I’ve never been able to get past the reality of a lot of foreshortened real human beings prancing about on a stage and acting at one another. I can tell it’s acting. I can always tell it’s acting, even if it’s good acting, and it annoys me. People are pretending and I can see them doing it.

A posh lady I went to a play with once advised me that this was probably because I hadn’t grown up in a theatre-going household. She didn’t mean to be patronising, and she was right, partially – we didn’t go to plays, or the ballet or opera, come to that.

My parents were working class and, even if they could have afforded to go, would have been terrified to pass through the doors of a theatre. They wouldn’t have known what to wear or how to behave. They would have felt they stuck out like a sore thumb.

An all-encompassing self-consciousness is one of the things which go with being not-posh. Only when you are middle class can you raise your voice above a low murmur, not minding if others hear. Only when you are middle class can you walk about with your shoulders back and your snoot in the air, flinging your purple pashmina dramatically over your right shoulder, and not even know you are doing it. That’s confidence. Read Alan Bennett’s loving tales of his Mum and Dad if you don’t believe me. He knows. Alan Bennett is the greatest.

But I could get lost in a book. So could my mother, but my father appeared not to possess the suspension of disbelief gene. Maybe he lost it, as he lost so much, as a young conscript in the second world war. The war really did for him in a lot of ways, I think. He could never leave me alone when I was reading. He used to wave his hands in front of my face and think it was funny. ‘Look at her – she’s miles away. Away with the fairies.’ He never did understand why this was annoying.

Same with films, although mercifully my father wasn’t usually with me when I went to the pictures: I could be immersed in the story, living inside even the most far-fetched sci-fi blockbuster. I would be one or all of the characters, fleeing in terror from the scary monsters, falling in love, falling off a high building… The film’s ‘afterglow’ would stay with me for days afterwards, the story re-running itself in my head, scenes acting themselves out before my inner eye. And maybe it would still be the same, if I could afford to go.

Instead of fiction-reading, my father used to read out columns from newspapers – anything he found to be of interest. He was interested in politics and the financial markets, the way they worked, even though these things had little effect on his everyday life. We used to sit there bored, and the read-out paragraphs seemed to get longer and longer. When he grew ancient, however, propped up in a chair with a cushion behind his neck and the walker by his side, he lapsed into depression and scarcely spoke.  My mother used to gauge how happy, or not, he was by whether he read out any paragraphs. Eventually, he read out no paragraphs. He read nothing. He told my sister he had forgotten everything he had ever been or ever done. God save us.

As I have grown older I have become more interested in politics and found it more and more difficult – not to read – the words still make perfect sense – but to get lost in reading. My suspension of disbelief seems to have suspended operations. I am turning into my father, and this saddens me. Reading was all I had. I got through a tedious and difficult life mostly by daydreaming. I could lose myself in stories, and in plans I would never carry out, journeys I would never, practically, be able to make. Now, although I am still doing my best to get it back I feel – now here’s a simile for you, or maybe a metaphor – like a hunted rabbit, all exits sealed by the men with the dogs – or is it ferrets? – just an airless darkness and waiting for Whatever-it-is to be sent down after me.

Whatever gets you through the night…

I was going to call this post Loose Elastic (there used to be jokes, in the days when ladies’ undergarments were held up by perilously slim pieces of actual elastic, about a young lady called Lucy Lastic) but decided against. A bit frivolous for the subject matter, I decided.

Because these are a few passing thoughts about anxiety and depression. I don’t know about you but I usually seem to be suffering from one or another of these. I’m lucky in that although these two Nasssty Creatures walk alongside me more or less daily they rarely get unbearably Nasssty. I have witnessed real clinical depression: I know I’m lucky.

Of course they’re not really two separate Creatures but alternative and interchangeable manifestations of the same Creature and it occurs to me that both are the result of not being able to stay in the present moment. You could say that depression is the result of being pulled back into the past, and anxiety the result of being pushed into the future. It’s as if your poor mind is on a piece of elastic and being bounced first this way and then that.

When I am depressed it’s usually because I’m going over and over thing that happened in the past, thinking about people I once knew, people who died, people I said the wrong thing to, situations I handled badly; terrible, terrible mistakes I made. My imagination busies itself with ‘what ifs’. I resurrect the vanished and dead and hold long, sad conversations with them. I replay the dreadful bits of my past, trying to get them right second time round. I imagine lives where this or that wouldn’t have happened, in which I might have been happier.

If I’m anxious it’s usually because I am going over and over things that are scheduled to happen soon – it might be something simple, like a visit from the plumber or driving to an unfamiliar place – imagining all the things that might – no, are bound to – go wrong, hoping that if I rehearse them well enough I will be able to influence what happens, inoculate myself against an evil future. Stop The Bad Thing Happening.

Neither makes any difference. The past remains the past, the dead are still dead, the gone are still gone. The future remains unknown and uncontrollable. I am still right here, and still exactly as unhappy/afraid.

Meditation is supposed to be good for staying in the present moment, and I keep meaning to do that, when I can stop fretting for an hour or two. What I have found is that it helps at least to attempt to be mindful. Once you start to notice that you are maundering around in the past or fretting away in the future, you can take a deep breath and return yourself to the present moment. No use trying not to go there in the first place, just start noticing when you have.

I usually say something to myself, like: Well, you’ve done quite a bit of worrying about that, now concentrate on your driving/walking/washing up – or whatever. This is really the equivalent of the technique they teach you at meditation/relaxation classes: identify your worry and place it in an imaginary black sack; tie the sack up and place it to one side for the time being; you can come back and open it any time. Except you don’t really need the black sack. If you can just get as far as noticing, the worry tends to leap into the sack and tie itself up automatically.

I’ve also noticed I tend to get most anxious or depressed when I am doing nothing – lying in bed trying to sleep, for instance – or doing semi-automatic but uninteresting stuff like driving, walking or washing up. Ping! There goes the elastic and there I am, sloshing around in the past or tiptoeing around in the future. The answer seems to be to keep busy, but for preference at something interesting, that absorbs you. You know what your particular thing is, and when you are in the zone, don’t you? It’s when time flies without you noticing it, where you are filled with a kind of joy, an almost feverish excitement about the task in hand. Whatever it is, when you have completed it you are aware that you have achieved something, and that you have been, for a while, entirely and perfectly yourself.

Writing is mine, and reading used to be. I am now re-training myself to read – properly, deeply – that ‘getting lost in a book’ feeling that I used to get as a child. The internet is rewiring our brains, did you know that? We are in the process of becoming skimmers, clickers, extractors of key words and phrases. The only way to get reading back is to keep practising. After a while – maybe many weeks or even months – the ‘getting lost’ facility comes back. What you really need is a brain that can do both – skim for information, read for pleasure. Stories – either telling them or listening them – ideal. Stories distract you from that dreary self-absorption, that endless monologue.

I can imagine that for some people the key to at least a temporary ‘present momentness’ would be music (to sooth the savage breast, etcetera), for others it might be a complicated piece of knitting or the challenge of drawing a difficult subject or capturing a landscape. I can imagine it might be maths, or solving puzzles if you are that way inclined.

But is reading or writing really being present, or might it be the ultimate form of being elsewhere? Maybe I can’t bear to be here at all, even for a second; can only sustain life on this ghastly planet, in these terrifying times, by being as much as possible, second by second, elsewhere? What is a book but a yet another imaginary world, an alternative world, another place?

In which case, I’m tempted to say to hell with it! I’ll be elsewhere in whatever way happens to make me happiest, or at any rate least unhappy. I’ll be absent without leave. Bother the Buddha, I’m going to get through my compulsory sojourn on this doomed planet in any which way I can.

Whatever gets you through the night.

gin-lane

Once apron a time

Mrs Daniels lived in the bungalow next door to Nan and Grandad’s. I don’t remember much about her. She was small, a bit shrivelled-looking. There was definitely a Mr Daniels. He seemed to be bigger, and red in the face. Nan, who was a much better source of stories than Mum, told me that Mrs Daniels’ one peculiarity was collecting those frilly waist-tied aprons 1950s housewives were often pictured wearing.

She didn’t just collect the occasional apron. She collected one a day – at least. She got them from Hazell’s, a kind of all-purpose grocery shop and Post Office just below the station. In this same shop I was stung by a wasp which was lurking under the counter, just where I happened to place my hand. The wasp was attracted to the sticky cakes which were, of course, uncovered and displayed at the front of the counter so as to collect the maximum amount of dust, sneeze-germs and halfpennies dropped from purses. Same logic as hanging entire dead animals on hooks outside butchers shops so as to attract flies and absorb traffic fumes. I remember making no sound, but completing my purchases and waiting till I was outside to inspect the sting. Being stared at and fussed over was infinitely worse than pain and a bit of poison.

Hazell’s may well have been staying afloat financially only because of Mrs Daniels. The brightly coloured pinnies were hung from a hook on a pillar, and a garland of fresh ones appeared every day (I guess they bought in bulk, especially for Mrs Daniels). They certainly were attractive – I could see why she liked them. The 1950s was a time of bright and bold design. Fabrics were sprinkled with larger-than life vegetables and illustrations of kitchen equipment – colanders, apple-corers, wooden spoons and so forth. The colour thing was a reaction against the drabness of war, the dark, utility clothing, the sensibleness of everything. And the housewife – well, housewives were the new rock and roll. Men were back from the war. Women had to be encouraged not to keep the jobs they had proven so efficient at during the war. The emphasis once again was on femininity, on the household arts. A woman was encouraged keep young and beautiful, stand by her man and have lots and lots of babies. This was to replace Britain’s lost boys, the widows’ lost husbands, the spinsters’ lost fiancés. A generation of slaughtered, unconceived and unborn children. It was a woman’s duty to be fruitful. Hence the baby boomer generation.

Yes, if I had been of apron-wearing age, and if my pocket money hadn’t been so measly I too would have been attracted to frilly pinafores. I remember asking Nan what exactly Mrs D did with her aprons. Did she wear them one on top of the other – each serving to protect the one beneath? Nan laughed. It reminded her of a song about a spider and a fly. There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…

If she did leave the aprons on, why wasn’t she as stout as a barrel by now? Did she even take them off at night? How long would it take to untie them, smooth and fold them all?  Or did she keep them stacked neatly and laid them in her airing-cupboard just in case. Just in case the thousand other aprons should be stolen from her. Just in case the moth should get in and chew holes from the top of the stack to bottom. Just in case… Because I sense that would be the underlying fear. There is always an underlying fear. One day she would be in dire need of an apron, and wouldn’t have one. Yes, she might run out of aprons. Unfortunately, and I am loath to admit it, I can understand that quirk.

I worry about running out of things too. After a trawl round the supermarket I don’t even have to glance down at my trolley to know that I will have bought two of everything – two cakes, two packs of eight yoghurts, two loaves of bread. I will buy two loaves of bread even when I know one will be stale before I open it. Everything must be backed up. My mother is the same, I notice – two currant cakes, when she doesn’t even like currant cake – or four, or six – but never an odd number. It’s that fear of being without, of finding the cupboard bare – even if the corner shop is just around the corner. Unsatisfied want. Probably something to do with breast-feeding. Yes, let’s blame it on the bosoms.

I read somewhere that people who do this may actually be twins, but one of the twin has been lost in the womb (making that person a Womb Twin Survivor). That impulse to provide for the other, to make real the missing sibling, never to let them go. The same thing as children, insisting that a place be laid at table for their imaginary friend, and bereaved parents keeping their child’s room untouched for years. That tie of love, that cord stretching between the living and the lost. The impossibility of letting go.

I read somewhere else that extreme hoarding is a way of not dealing with a problem in the past – something so painful the person isn’t capable of dealing with it – at least, not without help. And even with help, extreme hoarders are known to be among the least motivated and most recalcitrant of subjects when it comes to therapy. So what is the point of hoarding? What is the mechanism? One theory is that a hoarder is creating a second problem, which supersedes the first. So, a houseful of junk is a suit of armour. Remove the junk and that person is raw, terrified – like a snail without its shell.

I suppose the thing is, we are none of us that far from OCD. Where does eccentricity end and extreme hoarding begin? At what point do you cross the line, from thinking It’s getting terribly crowded in here with all these aprons, or I could do with a sixth garden shed to house my lawnmower collection to I can’t let this tottering mountain of old newspapers go? I have no option but to read them all in case there’s something I’ve missed – an article, maybe, or an advert. Something in the obituaries. And even then, I won’t let them go…

Or it may be that Mrs Daniels was bored and depressed. Lonely. The aprons were bright, fresh and pretty, they smelled of new cotton, they were crackling-stiff with that starchy ‘dressing’ and they made her feel better. Or buying an apron made her feel she had accomplished something– that here was at least one thing she could tick off her list.

She died a long time ago. I sometimes wonder whether she isn’t wandering around heaven, collecting dropped angel-feathers to arrange in crystal vases, or…