And then…

Well, this is where I was yesterday. You would have had the photos hot off the old mobile phone, were it not for some sort of misunderstanding between it and Windows 10. I am not on the same wavelength as Windows 10 at all, and my mobile phone and I have only a passing acquaintance.

We were at a place called Teapot Island, which is somewhere near Tonbridge – or possibly Tunbridge Wells. I believe it may be called Wateringbury, or possibly Yalding. At any rate, Wateringbury and Yalding are quite close to one another, and fairly close to either Tonbridge or Tunbridge Wells, where we were to spend all afternoon looking for a sparkly dinner dress for a friend, who has been invited to a terrifyingly superior Ladies Night Dinner. On Saturday. We found an evening handbag, in fact two evening handbags, in silver, and some silver shoes, but we didn’t find the silver sparkly hair ornament and we didn’t find The Dress.

Neither did we find The Dress again this morning, when we went down to Ashford. Sore footed and desperate, unable to reach a decision for her, and having exhausted the possibilities of dress shops so wonderful and expensive I had never bothered to set foot in heretofore, I wondered if, as we hobbled along, I should casually retell the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes… Perhaps no one would say anything if…

But then I thought, no. They actually would say something. In fact, quite a lot.

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So – Teapot Island. We went on the minibus, fourteen of us. Unfortunately it had been raining rather torrentially and Yalding – which I seem to recall is The Most Flooded Village in Kent – was at least partially flooded again. Our valiant Driver turned the minibus on a sixpence at every fresh flooded road onto the Island, eventually finding the one and only unsubmerged entrance. Puddles, as you see, and high water levels. Actually, it wasn’t cold, just damp.

And there were a lot of teapots there. More teapots than you could possibly imagine ever having existed in the entire world. Little café – we had some coffee. I had a blueberry muffin.

I wish I was interested in teapots, and I wish it hadn’t been quite so damp underfoot, but it was a welcome change of scene.

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I don’t think you actually use these teapots. I think you buy them from somewhere between £35 and £100, and put them on your mantelpiece and dust them, or in a display cabinet if you can’t face dusting them.

And then we went sparkly dress hunting, and had chips in a Witherspoons, or possibly a Weatherspoons, which used to be an opera house, and which still holds an opera, with a proper opera company and everything, once a year.

And then we hunted sparkly dresses some more – me, my friend, her friend and the Driver, who turned out to be an unexpected expert on ladies’ clothes shopping, bra sizes, colourways and whatever. And then the Driver bought us all an ice cream in a box from a small supermarket, and when we turned round he had vanished.

And then a poor woman came up to us whose poor dog had just been run over in Australia. She was here for a three month holiday, and had just had an anguished text from her daughter, who presumably had been looking after the dog. And so she sat, or actually collapsed down next to us and tried not to cry, and said she just wanted to sit quietly with some ladies for a couple of minutes. And I gave her an awkward kind of pat on the back, trying not to experience second-hand the full horror of learning that your dog has been run over on the other side of the world, and lent her my mobile phone so she could phone her husband, who was meant to have been picking her up at the station, but hadn’t.

Women’s lives are full of tragedy, and these tragedies are so hard to bear. Other women’s and one’s own, they bite with equal ferocity. And then she stood up, still trying not to look as if she was crying, and went off to meet her husband.

And we began exploring even charity shops in (in my opinion) the completely futile hope of finding lurking in some dark corner undiscovered an almost new, sparkly, not too long and not too darkly coloured dress in an unusual size suitable for wearing to a sit-down knife-and-fork dinner with swanky gifts for the ladies etc. And instead people tried to sell us old books and record players, dusty militaria and whatever they most wanted to get rid of.

And eventually we tottered back to the bus, parked in a side road (Newton Road – “remember a man in a wig with an apple about to fall on his head”) where the Driver was reading his newspaper and people were arguing about seat-belts and the seats being so hard they made your bum go to sleep after less than half an hour.

And eventually we went home.

The Chain Gang

I remember reading at some point in my “Buddhist” phase that before he became The Buddha, Buddha was married and had a son, and he named that son Rahula, which means a Shackle, or Impediment. What he actually said was A rahu is born, a fetter has arisen, and what he meant was that this child could tie him to his wife, thus impeding his quest for enlightenment. At the time I remember thinking Gosh, that’s very… honest. Brutal, in fact.

Because of course we are nearly all well-and-truly shackled to/impeded by a whole host of other living beings, whether or not we admit as much to ourselves, or verbalise it. I had no children, but no doubt would have felt as shackled to them as the Buddha was to his Rahula. And now I am shackled to my poor elderly mother, who scarcely recognises me, and to nineteen cats, most of which are ungrateful and one of which bit me and ruined my Christmas.

I was thinking just now, what would I actually like to do with the rest of my life, were I to be given a choice. I found it quite difficult even to imagine what I would like to do, given that I have never had much of a choice up to now.

I closed my eyes. I could sort of imagine myself travelling. Maybe buy a camper van and go all over Britain, like a (comfortable) lady tramp or gypsy. And I could imagine myself being able to draw – how, I’m not sure, but this is fantasy, right? – and setting off on my travels equipped with sketchbook and drawing pencils. Oh, lots of pencils, beautifully sharpened, of all different grades… And maybe a tin of watercolours…

I could imagine writing a bit of a book about my travels – all the odd people I encountered and maybe discussed the Meaning of Life with along the way. I am some sort of honeypot to oddbods, so that would be no problem!

I wishfully imagined never having to see the inside of this house again – the thin, inherited carpet – ancient when I arrived – the ruined, cat-ripped furniture; the chipped plates, the unwashed windows; the damp forming morning pools on the window-sills in winter; the impossibility of ever keeping anything really clean; looking out at gone-to-seed garden; those thorny rose-stalks towering high as trees above the garage. And I think what a relief it would be to leave it all behind. To just abandon it all.

For I am a person who was meant to change, and change, and change. I am one of those skin-shedders, those metamorphosers, those shape-shifters. But now I am fixed, absolutely fixed, in this dull place, inside this dull, imperfect body and in these dire circumstances.

And now – last straw, really – I seem to be feeding a dog. As if nineteen cats was not enough, now my garden is being haunted by some large, brown creature who turns up, usually in the rain – as just now – soaking wet and ravenous. Luckily I had some dog food. He ate whole a tin of that plus six sachets of Felix, and continued to lurk around the back door for some time with an air of vague disappointment and underfedness about him. He leaps back if I get anywhere near him, so must be as frightened of me as I am of him. I don’t think I will try patting him on the head. One septic hand is quite enough.

I have no idea what sort of dog he might be. He is about as high as a supermarket trolley, and a sort of brindled brown. He is vaguely greyhound shaped but much bigger and shaggier. Narrow… He has ears like a spaniel, but smaller, and instead of drooping down they stick out kind of sideway, in tufts. I wonder if I can find a picture…

lurcher

Yeah, he looks a bit like a very large, quite a bit darker and very wet version of this, which according to the internet is a lurcher. So perhaps a gypsies’ dog. It seems almost as if this dog is living out my fantasy existence on my behalf, except he’s not having much fun doing it because he’s hungry and wet and it’s February, which is the darkest, dampest, chilliest, most horrible month of the year.

But what am I to do? I mean, about any of the above? I can’t see any possible scenario – apart from a heap of gold coins and priceless diamond descending upon me from the sky – where I could buy that camper van, abandon the grim and peeling décor of the inside of my house and abandon nineteen beloved cats to the whims of fate. Frankly, even if I had the money to buy the camper van I’d probably not have the courage to drive it, or to set off in it, on my own.

I suppose I could take arts and crafts classes. I did have a bit of a scroll down Adult Education. Can’t say I’m inspired by flower arranging or clay medallion making, and all the art classes seem to be a long way away, And full. There are waiting lists.

And the dog. If I report him to the RSPCA, what will they do with him? I don’t want to be responsible for him being carted off, shut in a concrete-floored cage for months, then unsentimentally euthanased because nobody wants him. Anyway, he eats, he vanishes. Unlike cats he keeps to no predictable routine. Am I to have an RSPCA man lurking in my garden, day in, day out, just in case?

So I expect for the time being I will just do nothing. Have dog food ready. Not take art lessons, not buy a camper van. Generally, go on exactly as before.

Time for Plan B, concluded

Early morning in Splott High Street, and Gethyn was taking Toto for his walk. What breed of dog Toto might be and why he was called Toto, Gethyn didn’t know. Old Tom had been muttering something about shiny red shoes and Kansas – or it might have been Texas – when that last ambulance came and scraped him up. Totes was kind of small and kind of white, and his left eye was missing. Gethyn didn’t like to think overmuch about that eye and how, or for what purpose, it might have been sacrificed. Toto began to pull on his improvised rope lead, and snuffle.

‘Yes, it’s your old place, Totes.’ Marks and Spencer’s doorway was where Old Tom would always sit, muffled up in charity clothes, old bedspreads and various bits of rag. They made a good team. Tom would spread a brown raincoat in front of him, and a greasy, upturned cap. Toto would curl up on the mac looking scruffy and sad, casting the occasional wistful one-eyed glance towards the cap and the four two-penny pieces it always contained at the beginning of the day. Toto’s task was to look as if he was really, really, really needed some food, which wasn’t difficult. Gethyn wasn’t the only one who had lost his job recently.

‘Well, doglet, our little bit of luck ran out.’

Yesterday was a bit of a blur, what with starting his job at the supermarket, failing a test he didn’t even know he was taking, then being dismissed from his job at the supermarket. The only bright side – Gethyn always tried to find the bright side – was the tin of Good Boy dog-food he had accidentally acquired. They had let him come home in his uniform – they had no choice, really, since he’d left his other clothes back at the boarding-house room the charity had found for him – which he was shortly to lose, he supposed. There was one very small window, a kitchenette the size of a cupboard behind a pull-across plastic curtain, and an extensive fungus-formation in the upper corner. Gethyn sometimes awoke in the middle of the night and imagined he could see a face in that fungus.

Human Resources had threatened to get the law on him if he didn’t return the itchy, too-tight uniform. They had even handed him a medium-size supermarket plastic bag to put it in. P45 to follow in the post, they said. End of the month. No mention of a pay packet for his single day of employment. When he got home he realised the tin he had confiscated from the bogus old lady, was still crammed into the pocket. Technically, he supposed, he had shoplifted the dog-food, or re-shoplifted it.

That was it, then. Second chances were hard to come by. You could only become a very, very lucky young man once: after that it was shop doorways for you. Perhaps he could claim the Marks and Spencer spot now Old Tom had gone. Might get it without a fight if he moved a bit quick, like, since there was only that woman in the hijab selling The Big Issue to compete with, and she wasn’t there all the time; moved around a lot, he’d heard; town to town on the railway. Maybe he and Toto could do that, except unlike Mrs Big Issue he didn’t have the fare. ‘We could be hobos, Totes.’ Except that it might be difficult to get onto a moving train with a one-eyed dog and he couldn’t remember which rail was the electrocuting one.

Marks’s was a good spot for begging. People had usually got a fair bit of money if they shopped in here. Money to squander, you might say. That generously overhanging façade kept off the rain and best of all in winter they had this hot-air feature which was meant to put customers in just the right sort of mood for wasting money. As they crossed the threshold a gust of cosy warmth enveloped them from above. Occasionally a little waft of it might also extend to a man and his dog in the doorway, if they’d positioned themselves just right.

They made a detour round the cobbled bit by the church, squeezed through a gap in the churchyard railings and sat on smallish tomb right at the edge to share the pre-packed sandwich lunch Gethyn had found in a bin outside Marks’s. Ham and pickle. Maybe someone bought it and then didn’t fancy it. Toto slurped some water from a puddle by the church wall. Gethyn had refilled his water bottle from the tap before leaving home. It was starting to rain again. When was it ever not, in Splott? ‘We’re poets who don’t know it, Totesie.’

Gethyn always sat on this same tomb. Street people had their favourite places – favourite parks, favourite benches, favourite doorways. It made them feel safe, or relatively. This one was special because it had got a dog on it; not one like Toto but a long, smooth dog with a smug and devious expression, some kind of hound. It had this really weird inscription, and on the stone you could just make out, long-faded and half-obscured by moss, an engraving of a broken gun – not like kaput broken, but like when they deliberately disengaged one half from the other for safety. Gethyn liked to make up stories about the people inside the tombs. He had decided that this man – Henry Marland Mistletoe – or Miftletoe, if you read it the way it looked – must have been a gamekeeper.

He got up and walked around the tomb. The grass at the edge was bumpy, and full of rabbit droppings. He thought he had read everything there was to read on it, but now he spotted something else, a single line engraved along the base of the stone at the back. It said

The Lord helpf thofe who help themfelves

Not so much a gamekeeper as a poacher, then. That might why they’d stuck him out at the edge here. Disreputable, but not exactly hated. Someone – the stonemason, perhaps – had had a sense of humour and been fond of Henry Mistletoe. Growing on the grave were some odd-looking blue flowers – some sort of weeds. Gethyn wondered why he had hadn’t noticed them before, and why they had only decided to grow on this particular grave.

The rain was coming down faster now. He picked Totes up and thrust him inside his jacket for warmth. ‘Let’s get ourselves off home, doglet. I’ve got an idea. A cunning plan, even.’

That evening, curled up on his single mattress with Totes as starlight streamed through the one small window and the giant fungus cast eerie patterns on the walls, Gethyn finished re-reading all the handouts in the beautiful bright blue file they had given him on the training course. He got up stiffly and made himself a cup of cocoa, came back to the mattress and thought for a bit. Toto was chasing rabbits in his dreams, paws twitching.

Then Gethyn took up the brand new black Bic pen they had given him on the Psychology of Theft course; also what was left of his beautiful pad of file-paper with the pale blue ruling and four holes that exactly matched the silver rings in the bright blue plastic file, and set to work, writing Modus Operandi across the top and underlining it. Everything he could possibly need to know, do and avoid doing had been here all the time. He and Toto were about to become the best shoplifters ever.

Time for Plan B, continued

Gethyn’s heart was racing but the training had kicked in. ‘Keep the subject under observation at all times. Observe her failing to pay for the item or items. Follow her out of the store. Then and only then, apprehend her.’

He observed her picking up one or two more items and putting them in her basket, but not the tin of dog-food he had seen her push down the front of her coat. He observed her passing through the supermarket checkout and paying, but not for the dog-food.

But what if he had made a mistake? What if somehow she had paid for the dog-food, even though he had had his eyes fixed on her the whole time? But he had to follow through. She had stolen the dog-food, and this was his chance to impress. On his first day!

What if it was the wrong old woman altogether? What if, without realising it, he had taken his eyes off her for a second and some other old woman, an old woman without a tin of dog-food, had taken her place? His subconscious was recognising something strange about her. Something about her gait, was it? Or that permed white hair, so perfectly white, like the Queen’s. And those wrinkled stockings. Surely it was all pull-on slacks and sensible, flat shoes nowadays?

She seemed to have put on a turn of speed now that she was heading for the exit. Free and clear, thought Gethyn, or so she thinks. This is it, he thought, wishing himself anywhere but here but determined to do his duty.

He followed her out through the automatic doors and down the covered way with all the higgledy-piggledy trolleys in it. He nearly fell over one in his haste and his horror. He tapped her on the shoulder and she turned, with a perfect imitation of surprise.

‘Yes?’

‘Mad…madam, please, I…’ This wasn’t going right. What were the proper words, now?

‘Madam, I am a Loss Prevention Associate…’

The woman cupped her hand to her ear. ‘A what?’

‘A Loss Prevention…a store detective, madam. I have been observed you in this store and have reason to believe that you have exited the premises with a tin of dog-food for which you have not paid… for.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, young man – I’ve paid for all my shopping. Look, here is my till receipt.’ She pulled it out of one of the plastic bags and waved it at him.

‘For what’s in your basket, yes, but I have reason to believe that a tin of dog-food has been concealed down your…down your…down the front of your coat, madam. Hand it over to me please.’ What if he had got the wrong woman?

Slowly, with trembling hands, she pulled out a single tin of Good Boy dog food and handed it to him. Then she burst into trembly, old-lady tears. Boo hoo.

Hoo.

Oh, my God, thought Gethyn.

And now she was pointing at something with mottled, old-lady hand. In the distance, on the far side of the car park, he could just about see a dog, tied by its lead. It looked like a some kind of whippet.  And Gethyn could guess what she was going to say. The dog was hers and it was hungry and her pension just wouldn’t stretch… She couldn’t bear not to feed her little doggie, the light of her life he was, and so… She would never shoplift on her own account. It was just for the sake of her poor, hungry little dog…

When she finished telling him about the dog Gethyn turned and walked back into the store, fishing around for some sort of cover story. If anyone asked him he would say he had got it wrong. There had been no crime committed. It was his first day and, over-eager to make his first ‘capture’ he had followed an old woman out of the store: a mistake, his mistake, but after all, better safe than sorry.

He was quite pleased with the story. He was wondering whether there was somewhere he could sit down for a minute or two without being spotted by the security cameras. His legs had turned to jelly.

The old lady watched him go; then, straightening up, she walked briskly around the corner and into the delivery bay. Out of sight she whipped off the white wig and reached beneath a disordered mane of auburn hair to retrieve a miniature radio microphone. ‘Did you get all that, Mr Price?’

‘Loud and clear, thank you Eirlys. And that’s the third fail this month. Wherever would we be without your talent for amateur dramatics?’

Inside the store the tannoy was doing its work.

Gethyn Thomas. Gethyn Thomas. Gethyn Thomas to Human Resources. Now, please!

(To be concluded)

A TOUCH OF EYEFLUENZA

Well, tomorrow’s the day I have to go to the doctors,and then possibly on the hospital if he/she thinks I have a detached retina. Fingers crossed, I am hoping for something lesser. At the moment my right eye has become home to a colony of frogspawn and tadpoles, illuminated of an evening by random flashes of lightning. It makes blogging that much more interesting, shall we say, as the white screen brings out the frogspawn in all its dotty gelatinousity.

Getting to the nearest hospital on public transport is a nightmare in itself – one bus, two trains and a long, untried walk with a street-map – so if the worst comes to the worst I will drive over to my mother’s and get a taxi from there. And then there’s the coming back, with an eye full of atropine and everything out of focus. But we shall manage, one way or another, because we always do. And, looking on the bright side, who knows what blogging material might wander my way whilst I’m hanging about on the 99th floor of a ‘special measures’ NHS hospital? I shall be sure to take a big notebook, a tin of pencils and a pencil-sharpener.

To be fair, apart from a nightmarish parking situation I have had no bad experiences at that hospital to date. And, looking on the brighter side, I may well not have a detached retina – far more likely to be something that will clear up in a week – a touch of eyefluenza, say.

And now for genuinely good news. If you happened to read my recent(ish) post concerning a very large, very loud dog I was thinking of as Baskerville (it was the post with a lot of Wooooofs in it – my onomatopoeic attempts at capturing the sheer volume of Baskerville’s bark) – well, he’s still next door. But I did happen to bump into my neighbour this morning, and got the whole story over what’s left of the garden fence. Baskerville is in fact a lady, and her name is Ayesha – or something that sounds like Ayesha but is spelt differently – something like Ajska – on her Polish doggy passport. Ayesha was rescued from a man who lives round here, who required payment of the full, humungous pedigree price before he would let her go. I am happy because although it probably means putting up with a helluva lotta wooooofing from now on, Ayesha is safe.

In fact as my neighbour was speaking I realised something. This is the dog I would hear howling and crying whenever I went for a walk or to post letters. Being a cat lady I’m not exactly an expert on barks, but something in that distressed doggy voice always hurt and worried me. I just didn’t know what to do about it. I wasn’t even sure where the dog was, as everything echoes and gets distorted round here. But that was Ayesha, and Ayesha now lives next door.

One more lost soul finds sanctuary.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHPOzQzk9Qo