I seem to be knitting a dog blanket

Yesterday evening, whilst watching TV and trying to decide What Just Happened at Westminster, I happened to look down at my hands and realised I was knitting a dog blanket. The thing is, I have nineteen cats but no dogs, so why am I knitting a dog blanket?

It’s quite a nice blanket consisting of twenty-five multicoloured squares – ten plain, five with small doggie paws on, five with medium doggie paws and five with huge doggie paws – but the fact remains, I do not have a dog.

I have observed this, with my decision-making process. Other people seem to identify a need or a problem, work out a strategy to deal with it, then implement that strategy. So it’s kind of cause and effect. I don’t do that, mostly. I find myself doing things, am mystified as to why I am doing them, and then try to work out why I might have decided to do them.

So, it now occurs to me that I am knitting the dog blanket for Queenie, my almost-Godmother’s almost-dog, for Christmas. Queenie is old, and has been quite ill this year. She doesn’t quite belong to Godmother, who also isn’t technically, officially my godmother. But she ought to be.

Queenie is a small, white nondescript pooch, possibly a Scottie or a Jack Russell or combination of both – I’m not good on dog breeds. She belongs to the overweight, elderly alcoholic woman who lives over the road from Godmother. Godmother regularly responds to slurred phone calls demanding rescue from the foot of the stairs, which the lady is unable to climb due to her day-long wine consumption.

Queenie has to return to the alcoholic lady for one hour a day, but Godmother, who is in her eighties, takes care of Queenie’s daily walks in the park, vastly expensive veterinary care and general need for love and affection.

So Godmother is my guardian angel, Queenie’s owner’s guardian angel, and also of course Queenie’s. I can’t say how much it has comforted me, throughout my life, to know that angels do walk the earth, and that one of them, miraculously, assigned herself to me.

So, the dog blanket is for Queenie. And of course, I knew that all along.

Didn’t I?
NB: Please see my reply to Belladonna’s comment below for further details and a link to the pattern, which was originally connected with an appeal by Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

Daily Dog

I was going to call this post ‘Groundhog Life’ but decided against. It’s a good title, though I say it myself, but who’s going to click on something that might make them miserable in these dire and depressing times? Maybe I should have gone the whole hog (hog!) and called it ‘Reasons to be Cheerful. But there weren’t any.

So, where did ‘Daily Dog’ come from?

A confession, ladies and gentlemen: I am now the possessor of a Daily Dog loo seat, and this in spite of the fact that I twelve cats and no dog. I have never actually had a dog – can’t remember ever taking a dog for a walk, even.

The old loo seat broke – who knew loo seats didn’t just go on forever? – and I had to replace it. I saw this Dog loo seat online and, despite there being other novelty loo seats available – plants, little fishes, bamboo designs etc – and a whole range of acceptably plain white loo seats, for some reason I ordered the Dog one. I couldn’t seem to stop myself.

It’s kind of an ironic Dog, in that here is this foolish lop-eared Jack Russell reading a newspaper called The Daily Dog on my toilet seat, in the midst a houseful of cats. I thought it might make my sister laugh when she next comes over from Canada (I can hear her now, coming down the stairs (‘Linda, am I right in thinking …?’).  And it’s liberating, I suppose, to have at last overcome my working class horror of bad taste.

And I thought it might make me smile when I was taking myself too seriously, and in fact it does although the novelty might wear off in the decades to come. It’s likely to last decades, this loo seat. Excellent quality, whatever its appearance – got the soft close lid and everything. Well, I suppose it could have revolved or played a tinny version of Für Elise. The cats are intrigued. They sit and watch as instead of the usual crashing and splintering the lid gently sinks and the newspaper-reading pooch heaves once again into view.

And ‘Groundhog Life’?

Every now and then I type into Google ‘What is the meaning of life?’ just in case the All Knowing One has come up with the answer since the last time I asked it. Invariably it hasn’t. However, it sometimes throws up interesting bits of random reading. This time I came across an online university philosophy course by a gentleman called James Fieser of UTM (University of Tennessee at Martin) the first chapter of which is entitled The Meaning of Life. It’s an overview of philosophy, very readably written, and I am gradually working my way through it. I thought it might be available in book form, in which case I would have bought it, but it only seems to be accessible online.

In this chapter Professor Fieser describes a test to determine how much of a grip the ‘What is the meaning of life?’ question has on you personally. This test was designed by German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche and is called The Eternal Return. It’s like a thought experiment. You imagine – doesn’t matter if you don’t believe – that the current universe is just one of an endless series of universes. One universe ends, the next one begins, identical in every detail. You will therefore have no choice but to re-live this same life again and again and again for all eternity. If Eternal Return feels like a nightmare to you, then you have issues with the meaning of life.

It certainly feels like a nightmare to me. Does it to you? It wouldn’t be so bad if you had the opportunity to change things in each successive life, but to carry on having to suffer the same horror, grief and pain, making the same mistakes and never being able to learn from them?

I do try nowadays not to dwell on such stuff. If I catch myself either moping about the past, obsessing about the future, fantasising about better pasts and better futures or away in la-la land generally, I gently return myself to the present moment. Unfortunately the present moment contains President Trump, old people queuing for thirteen hours in hospital corridors because the National Health Service is disintegrating, innocent children starving to death and getting killed, and then people taking umbrage and ringing up complaining because they have been forced to look into the eyes of a newly-dead child…

It contains February, my birthday month (naturally) and the worst month of the year in the UK. It’s ten in the morning and looking out of the window beyond my computer I see the sort of grey-brown foggy darkness you would normally expect around dusk. A cold rain is falling and there is a crust of sleet and snow over all. The birds gobble up anything I put out for them, hanging on through the icy cold so as to produce another springful of baby birds. Everything seems ravenous. Yesterday I found myself putting out an extra slice of bread for the Ratties. Yes, I am even feeding rats now.

So you seek that’s why I just had to have the Jack Russell loo seat!

And as for Schrödinger…

Since I’ve been blogging I’ve realised something: I’m really, really square. See – I don’t even know what the current word for ‘square’ is, except that the very concept of squareness went out in the ‘60s. Or possibly the ‘50s. No doubt somebody will enlighten me.

There are so many things I don’t know. Yesterday I learned from a reader that there is an American author called Bukowski. Everybody on the internet seems to know all about Bukowski. For goodness sake, the poor man’s dead already and I’ve only just discovered he was alive. I ordered one of his books, entitled Women. I gather he liked women – women and alcohol. You know that ‘Look Inside’ arrow on Amazon? I looked inside. Yup, he definitely liked women. Still, I think, if I could get a quarter of the way through Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1971 (that hideous Tralala scene forced my exit from Last Exit) I can cope with Bukowski in 2016.

Nothing much shocks me now, in novels, except a dead dog. I’m afraid I love animals much more than people. People? Pah! I’m a cat lady, as my readers may know. I love cats, but not just cats – creatures in general. My mother used to repeat to all and sundry, a story about me. No, this is not the one she told the Mental Health Team psychiatrist (her psychiatrist, I hasten to add) about my having been an Unsatisfactory Infant. Apparently I just sat on her lap regarding her with a kind of fishy stare instead of – I don’t know, and don’t remember – what are babies supposed to do? Obviously, I failed my Being a Baby exam.

This story concerned a later encounter with a wasp. We had stopped at a roadside van/café and Dad bought us each a polystyrene mug of tea – probably tea rather than coffee, thinking back on it. Coffee was thought of as an overly-sophisticated American import in those days – certainly not suitable for children. Tea was safe enough. A wasp landed in my tea and I instantly emptied the whole mug onto the grass verge so that the wasp could escape. This was an eccentric thing to do, I gather. Afterwards I wondered about that. What would a normal person – a person who had passed their Being a Baby and subsequently their Being a Human Being exam with flying colours – what would they have done in those circumstances? A wasp is a wonder; a tiny, beautiful microcosm of the universe. Would they have taken pleasure in watching one die a slow and painful death in boiling liquid? Would they then have fished out its tiny, stripy corpse and drunk that liquid? That’s why I care more about creatures than people.

Even fictional ones. I read a literary novel a few years back – one of those ‘money’s worth’ ones with the five hundred or so chapters. I can’t remember the title or author now – female, Zadie Smith or someone of her ilk. I was fine with the listlessly failing marriage of couple concerned, their half-hearted adulteries in the afternoon and so forth. But then their little white dog got hit by a car and, enervated by all the adultery and failing-marriagery, they neglected to take their pet to be checked by the vet. They just assumed – in some minimally-alluded-to way – that he would get over his injuries in a day or so. He looked OK, more or less. But doggie died. To be fair, they did then feel quite bad, each of them, in their self-absorbed, bewildered, adulterous fashion. To be doubly fair, I would guess the authoress had deliberately set out to make this scene a shocker, and in that she succeeded. It was admirably crafted… but how could she have borne to write it?

They should have jumped off a fictional cliff hand in hand, or shot each other point blank with some handy, fictional blunderbuss. As far as I was concerned nothing could compensate for what that pair of numbskulls did to that poor, fictional dog. I shut the book with four hundred or so chapters left to go and didn’t open it again. Neither did I buy another of her novels. There’s no getting past a dead dog.

Similarly, if I read a book in which a cat appears to be taking centre stage – if the human characters, and particularly the heroine, seem rather fond of it; if it has a name; if it has an endearingly eccentric personality, and particularly if happens to be in a detective novel – I stop reading at once. The cat always gets it. Second to last chapter – poisoned milk, found floating face down in the water butt, or whatever happens to add a last sadistic twist to the plot. I can’t even approach a doomed cat.

And as for Schrödinger – that man had such a lot to answer for. I know it was a thought experiment but… not only is the hypothetical thought-moggie trapped in its hypothetical though-box in perpetuity with neither hypothetical thought-food nor hypothetical thought-water for succour, but that hypothetical thought-cat stands a 50:50 chance of being hypothetically gassed or poisoned or something by some hypothetical random decaying atom or circulating electron or something.

I hate him.

The curious incident of the blancmange at the school gates

The question to be answered is: When were you most frightened? I found it on a children’s writing prompt website. I’ve been worrying this idea back and forth for some time. It shouldn’t be that difficult, if children are supposed to be able to manage it. But what have I been frightened of, and which of these frightening things was the most frightening?

I suppose I was frightened of my father, but that wasn’t one particular incident that was all the time. Fear was the natural consequence of being completely the wrong sort of child, and I spent most of my childhood trying to work out how to be the right sort. But I don’t believe I’ve ever been frightened, with that sharp, dramatic fear in real life. What I do feel is a constant, background fear – it’s like that music in lifts, it’s like the clatter of knives and forks in a restaurant, the scraping of chairs, the muffled conversation. Someone once described anxiety as fear-spread-thin – as good a description as any. It’s never not there, but I’ve never known anything else, it’s just the way everything always is. I think I might be very spooked indeed, maybe even miss it if it was suddenly gone.

In dreams, yes. I once dreamt I was driving a bus slowly towards a bottomless ravine. At some point, predictably, the bus slid over the edge, remaining poised there, slow-see-sawing like those runaway lorries in films. It was pretty clear that the dream was meant as a warning, since I was in a dangling-over-the-edge-of-the-ravine situation in real life at the time. And more than once I have dreamt of myself on a ledge at the top of some skyscraper like the Empire State Building. Now that does feel like terror, within the dream, and it stays with you for a long time when you wake up. It’s the indecision. Shall I just jump now and get it over with? Or shall I stay frozen to this ledge, no hope at all of rescue? It was such a very, very, very long way down. I wonder what people think about, on the way down?

But why no acute fear in real life? I was in a car crash once, but remember nothing at all of the twenty minutes leading up to it. Was I afraid when the other car came careering down the hill towards me on the wrong side of the road, as the police described? Ever since then I have expected The Flashback to happen, perhaps when driving – the one where you relive the whole horrible thing in an instant. But it’s never happened, there’s just a generalised sense of…trust having been lost. I imagined the universe was lolloping along beside me, like a large and friendly-ish dog. Then it turned round and bit me, viciously, and who can say when it will decide to bite again.

So what else? I was charged by a barking Alsatian once (we seem to be on a bit of a dog theme). I stood stock still and stared, transmitting terribly dangerous, woman-bites-dog type vibes at it. I’m not that keen on dogs, but I can communicate with them when necessary. The thing landed against my leg with a bump, and open jaws. I must have anticipated being bitten because I remember screaming – faintly and politely, a ladylike British scream, and then being embarrassed for having screamed at all. I must have been frightened, so why can’t I remember how it felt?

I once found myself alone for several days with an acute gallstone attack. I had never been in that much pain before, or felt that cold, sick and shaky. My head was buzzing with imminent unconsciousness. I knew this might possibly kill me – you know when you’re in real danger – but couldn’t muster the energy to pick up the phone to tell anyone, or even the will to make a decision. I just lay down and waited. And waited. Most of the time I was praying it would kill me – very, very, very soon, in fact this instant. I also remember how focussed you get when really under threat, the strength you have to dredge up from somewhere. It’s as if your primative ancestors take over, something else kicks in. I was certainly distressed during those days alone, but not afraid.

No, I think the nearest I came to experiencing actual, animal fear was one evening in my thirteenth year when I dropped a pink blancmange on the school driveway and stood aside helplessly as teachers, queueing to exit the school gates, were one by one compelled to drive through a sea of pink blancmange and broken pudding-dish shards. It was the evil, exasperated, snarly looks on all their faces. They saw me, hovering and horrified, with my now-empty biscuit tin; they linked me to the products of my cookery lesson. I was going to get into so much trouble. I picked up the biggest pudding-dish pieces, put them in the biscuit tin, jammed on the tin-lid and ran. The train home went at ten past four (which was why I’d been sprinting in charge of a blancmange in the first place) and the station was at the bottom of the hill.

I made my getaway but said nothing to my parents and spent an entirely sleepless night visualising tomorrow’s terminal humiliation. It was the headmistress’s habit to ‘mention’ these things in assembly. The dreadful deed would be described in lingering, sarcastic detail and then the girl responsible would be invited to stand – own up to her sins so that everybody could turn, titter and gloat. The one thing I dreaded above all others was becoming the centre of attention – being pointed at, looked at, seen, even glimpsed. I craved invisibility. I would have cheerfully suffered how ever many lashes a dropped blancmange might attract, in private. I would have been so glad to write on the blackboard, alone in an empty classroom, night after night for the next three years, I must not drop my blancmange, I must not drop my blancmange… What I couldn’t abide was being laughed at.

I do believe I tottered into that assembly hall in genuine fear. I do believe I trembled as I sat cross-legged on the floor with several hundred others teenage girls while the headmistress lectured us on the correct way to make a pot of tea (take the kettle to the pot and not the pot to the kettle – or was it the other way round?) and the necessity of wearing sixty-denier Sun Mist stockings at all times, reserving thirty-denier seamless un-Sun-Mist to wear with our Pretty Party Dresses (she was a trifle out of touch – sorry, accidental pun). And after all that, she didn’t mention It. Nobody mentioned It. And I couldn’t even feel relieved because blancmange-terror was now welded into my psyche. And pink blancmange, my favourite. If only it hadn’t been pink.

I ain’t afraid of no ghosts

There are almost as many ‘explanations’ of ghosts as there are ghosts themselves. One day, all ghostly phenomena may be explicable in scientific terms or, one day, we may become aware of a parallel or interfused reality in which they, and other such inexplicable things, have their existence. Here are just some of the possible explanations:

  • A ghost could be a folk memory of an ancient tragedy. For example the crying child ghost heard at the Roman fortress of Reculver, in Kent. In 1966 the skeletons of several babies were discovered beneath the foundations. Could the crying ghosts be ‘memories’ of a ritual child sacrifice some 2000 years ago? At Richborough, sixteen or seventeen miles from Reculver, a ghostly Roman cohort is sometimes seen, its phantom soldiers marching into the sea.
  • Ghosts are not even always human beings. Phantom ships have been seen sailing towards shore, leaving the water and continuing to ‘sail’ for a considerable distance overland. In Cornwall ‘corpse candles’ were said to foretell a death. These small blobs of yellow light would process along the street and stop over the house where a death was imminent. This is a strange, parallel – Cornish lights hovering over a house of death; the Star of Bethlehem hovering over a house of birth.
  • In some parts of Britain there have been reports of spectral coaches drawn by headless horses. This could be a ‘memory’ of the Norse invaders and their god Odin/Woden – whose Wild Hunt was said to cross the night sky in Winter followed by baying hounds. To witness the Wild Hunt was to be carried off to a distant land. To speak with the Huntsman meant certain death. Spectral dogs could be a folk-memory of Odin’s fearsome hounds.
  • Many ghosts are said to be those of famous or royal personages. It may be that we just cannot let go of the idea of these individuals – that they are so vividly alive in our imaginations that we cannot accept the mundane fact of their deaths. Think of Elvis Presley and all the rumours that he did not die, that he has been sighted walking past a window at Gracelands and so forth.
  • And then there is the legion of Grey Ladies, Brown Ladies and other nameless ghosts, whose original purpose for remaining has faded with time, but who still walk the corridors of country houses, or haunt the cellars of castles, apparently manifesting some long-ago instense emotion – love, hate, fear, the need for revenge or a final farewell – leaving some kind of pattern in the fabric of time for sensitives to pick up on.
  • Animals react to ghosts in different ways. Horses sweat and shy, and dogs bark in the presence of a ghost, but cats enjoy the company of ghosts and are said to purr when they are around. The farmyard cockerel could banish ghosts and avert the evil eye, at least in the Hebrides. A cock crowing at dawn told the farmer it was safe to rise and begin his day’s work, for the spirits of darkness had all been banished. It was said that a cockerel could frighten away the Devil himself – one reason cockerels appear so often in church weathervanes.
  • Many of the old customs around the time of death and in connection with funerals, were not so much to honour the dead as to make sure they could not come back and haunt their fearful relatives. Touching the dead person, gently and respectfully, prevented the toucher from being haunted by the ghost of the corpse. It was also a way of proving that goodwill existed between toucher and corpse. A murdered man’s body was said to bleed if touched by his murderer.
  • Fairies were once believed to be the ghosts of those that had died before Christianity came to Britian, and of the stillborn and the unbaptised.
  • The festival of Samain or Samhain (pronounced sahwin or sowin), the Gaelic festival marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter (31 October/1 November – the origin of our Halloween) was a time when natural laws were suspended and ghosts and demons were free to roam. Samain was the beginning of the celtic calendar and signified both death and new life. This was the time for animals to be slaughtered to provide food for winter, and for sheep to be mated for next year’s flock.

Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side

I recently learned that Google has extended its mapping service and now not only drives along people’s roads, filming their houses and catching them out in such nefarious activities as walking the poodle, taking the bins out, etcetera, but also employs relays of solitary walkers to film trails inside the Peak District National Park. The walkers set out with that periscope-type camera strapped to their backs. I am just wondering why Google doesn’t use drones now – or maybe it does. The scary little beasties seem to be everywhere, so why not some low-level flying along walking paths and up and down mountain tracks? The occasional beheaded walker to be written off as collateral damage.

Because after all look at the results – and they are truly impressive:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-29933459

The Peak District has become the first national park to have its trails and hard-to-reach locations captured on Google Street View.

http://www.ukclimbing.com/news/item.php?id=69285

Selected bits of the Peak District have become the first off-road terrain in a British national park to be featured on Google’s Street View.

I am not against Google Maps per se, having used them myself when house-hunting. It’s very useful to be able to walk up and down the road in which you are thinking of viewing a house, since that highly-photo-shopped picture of the house on the property websites doesn’t give you any idea what sort of area it is in – whether there’s a gasworks at the end of the street; or the street’s so narrow there’s nowhere to park; or there’s a school right opposite which will be besieged by parking ‘mummies’ and dangerously running-about children twice a day; or there are tattered red and white ‘England’ flags flapping out of the windows – meaning you will be living in a National Front stronghold, or at least among an unacceptably high number of football fanatics, who will drink lager in their front rooms during the World Cup and cheer, suddenly.

Google Maps does save you a lot of time and petrol but it works both ways. Prospective buyers of your house, who might otherwise be fooled into coming and viewing it, may take a virtual dislike, and you’ve lost them before you’ve begun.

And it is useful for spying. When the Irish lady (she of the red jumper who lurked behind the glass – see earlier post) and her husband moved away, unexpectedly I was feeling lonely without them. In a moment of weakness I typed into Google Maps the name of the far-away town they had moved to, and the street name, and then ‘walked’ the length and breadth of it.

I imagined them walking there in the flesh. Which way would they go to the shops? What would they see around this corner? Was there a bit of a park nearby, for the old dog’s daily walkies? But it didn’t end there. Confession time. Unable to resist employing a minor gift for detective work I managed to find their house, still on sale on the estate agent’s website (they leave them there for ages after they’re sold, I’ve discovered – to make you think there is much more on their books than there is – oh that one, unfortunately that one just sold, but this one… ) and clicked on ‘Start Slideshow’, and inspected every single one of their new rooms. The place was smaller than I expected, though neat and newly-decorated. Shame about that little bit of decking instead of a garden…

I imagined I was the only one with this grubby little secret but later discovered that most of the neighbours had done variations on the same prying search. Even the lady who had bought the house next door had done it. She was cross with them for not telling her about the rotten floorboards concealed beneath the bedroom carpet. I think she was plotting long-distance virtual vengeance of some sort.

This virtual Peak District tour, though – it’s walking porn – walking for those who haven’t the energy to walk, just want to enjoy the views they would enjoy if they were walking. Similarly there’s cookery porn – cookery programmes for those who live on chips and take-away curries in real life – gardening porn – garden makeover programmes for those whose gardens are full of children’s toys, dog poo, long grass and rusty swings – holiday porn – for those who can’t even afford a train ticket to Blackpool – and even ballroom porn – for those who have never sewn on a sequin and couldn’t fleckle if their lives depended on it. And now we have this long-distance yomping porn – for those who rarely get off the sofa or close their laptops. Slugs, the lot of ’em.

Google’s latest wheeze did, however, inspire me into writing post. I thought I would go out for my usual walk round the block, but ‘wearing’ an imaginary periscope-type Google camera. (There is only one walk you can do here, really, unless you go round twice, or clockwise sometimes and anti-clockwise other times, or make a sort of squarish figure-of-eight of it by cutting through alleyways.) With the help of my imaginary periscope-type Google camera I would proceed to ‘record’ my little walk, but using words in place of film. This, then, would be boredom porn – for those who actually have interesting and beautiful places to walk, but yearn to experience the exotic desolation of my surroundings – without actually having to come here.

So, out of the back door (everyone uses their back doors as their front doors round here. My house doesn’t have a front door, only a side door – but I don’t use that) and here is my garden. The grass is a bit too long. Felix is crouching in the midst of it, eyes firmly fixed on the wire bird-feeder, swaying with hungry sparrows in spite of him. He doesn’t eat them very often. More often he just watches. Sparrow porn.

Now round the slippery, muddy bit at the side – when it rains, torrents of mud slide down the hillside and make, specifically, for my driveway – and out into the road. Opposite, now, is the house of Caravan Man. He used to be Washing Man because he was depressed and would stand in his back garden for hours watching his white sheets rotating on his rotary drier. Now he’s got a girlfriend – well, sort of – so he’s given over watching his sheets go round (laundry porn) and bought a white caravan, not to use for anything but to fill up the whole of the concrete hard-standing outside his house so that lorries, vans and neighbours can no longer use it for reversing. Now they struggle with tight three-point turns and worsen the potholes instead. The potholes are full of water. This morning the Council men came and (hurrah!) one of them raised the other up in a cherry-picker and he mended the orange streetlamp. Tonight, for the first time in months, there will be something other than pitch-darkness outside our windows.

Weather – blue sky, just little scratty bits of cloud. But it’s cool. The lawns are wet, the potholes still full of stormwater. Autumn is here to stay.

Past the Chinese chap with the very loud voice and the nice garden.

Past the chap at the end who breeds parrots and lets several dogs out every time he sees me. Hello, doggies! Disappointingly for him, dogs do not tend to attack me.

Past the nettles – a whole back garden, nothing but nettles. I wonder if there is the corpse of a stabbed-person in the middle (we specialise in stabbings round here) or maybe a maggot-infested badger, or an ancient mattress with brambles growing through the springs…

It reminds me of Nan’s garden. There was an old apple tree surrounded by a sea of mint, and on one sawn-off branch of the tree the head of a bisque doll. My uncle hung the dolls head on a twig. Then he joined the RAF and went away, and the twig grew, and grew, and eventually the doll’s head was firmly stuck on the fattened twig. Nan warned me that the doll’s head would be bound to break – the twig would burst it. I didn’t believe her. Then it happened. That’s life, isn’t it? Bad things happen, but somehow you manage to pretend they might not.

And then they do.

THE DARKNESS OF THE MUSIC OF THE NIGHT

When I moved here I thought – well, this is the middle of nowhere, the end of the earth, but at least I’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep.

It was not exactly the area I would have chosen, but it was the nearest I could afford to move to my ailing mother. This week I have been wondering how much longer I will be here. A few days back I was visiting her at home with a lady social worker and Mum airily referred to me as my friend over there. She was never much of a one for verbal flourishes, but could she have meant it in an elliptical, literary sort of way? Or had she, for that moment, forgotten my name and how we were related? These lapses are only brief; another time she will know me, but for how much longer? Not too long I suspect before it doesn’t really matter where I am; I’ll just need to turn up to visit every couple of weeks and remind her I was once her daughter.

When that time does come maybe I will up sticks and go back to where I once belonged; or go somewhere else new, where I have never belonged. Maybe at that point I’ll discover that what’s left of my gypsy spirit has trickled away and I just can’t face all over again packing my life into cardboard boxes; amassing two great lever-arch files of legal paperwork, one labelled Sale and one labelled Purchase; booking cattery places on an industrial scale and being fawned over by two separate sets of estate agents. Oh for a crystal ball and a magic wand.

Well, it certainly is dark here. We did have a street-light. It gave off a faint orange light, most of the time. The lamp-post is still here, right opposite my house, listing drunkenly to port, but the orange light no longer lights up. Opposite my house is where lorries and delivery vans are obliged to reverse, so being reversed into was something of a foregone conclusion for that poor, solitary lamp-post, but that wasn’t what stopped it working. That was the local Council on one of its economy drives. Since we lived in the middle of nowhere they didn’t think we would miss it.

Almost every night the current custodian of the famous, beautiful and psychic Felix (see FELIX BROUGHT ME A MOUSE) stumbles up and down our unmade road in pitch darkness with a torch in search of him. We have all memorised the potholes and it is possible to avoid them, even in the dark, but you have to concentrate. Firstly Neighbour whistles that anxious, repetitive cat-summoning whistle that cats automatically disregard, then he starts with the calling:

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

Felix quite often lurks in my back garden but I refuse to reveal his secrets. Felix and I have a bond.

I know what’s going to happen next. After ten minutes or so the whistling and calling resumes in my back garden. I am not supposed to notice. I am assumed to be asleep.

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

This does rather annoy me. How come I am the only person in the street whose back garden can be entered by anyone who pleases? Just like I was the only person who could be left sitting around in a waiting room at the eye hospital with both eyes full of atropine drops, unable to read a magazine or even see the time on the clock without help, until the drops wore off and had to be put in again because a lot of more important people came in.

They have a different concept of privacy round here. It’s a cultural difference. At one point I found several children clustered round my side door, laboriously reading aloud a note I had taped to it for the delivery man. My next door neighbour at that time was an Irish lady with a red jumper. She’d never knock, just somehow be outside my side door now and again. I’d pass the side door and either catch her clambering stiffly over the low garden wall that separated our two houses or she’d just be there, silently waiting for me to pass my side door on the inside, catch sight of a scarlet woolly cloud behind the glass and open up. It could have been an hour since I last passed the door.  Had she been there all that time?

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

If the worst comes to the worst Neighbour knocks on my door, wringing his hands in the darkness, distressed, pathetic, imploring, and I have to put on my fluffy slippers and go out into my own rain-soaked garden, with my own torch, in my dressing gown, to search for his cat. Felix, wherever he is, now realises the game is up; Neighbour will almost certainly have disappeared into his own house, a svelte black and white bundle under his arm, long before I get back to my living room, muddy, cross and even less likely to sleep.

Then there are the shift-workers coming home. This tends to be about 2.30 a.m. if they’re on 7 to 2. Their headlights sweep past my window, gravel swishes, rainwater exits deep potholes with a splosh, car radio gets turned off in mid-thump, car door opens, car door is slammed shut. Sometimes they give each other lifts and then there has to be the lengthy goodbye-see-you-tomorrow-all-right-mate conversation.

Then there are the doggy conversations echoing all round the hillside. These have got louder and more frequent since the coming of a giant black dog, Ayesha (Ajska) who was rescued by my next-door neighbour from another, far less kindly, neighbour. Ayesha is actually a lady of Polish origins; she has a Polish passport, even. She also has the deepest, loudest bark imaginable and is an early riser. Four o’clock in the morning:

Wooooooof!!! (It’s ME!!!)

At once a doggy dawn chorus starts up, answering her, answering one another:

Here I am! Me too!! Are you there? No, I’m here! Who are you? Are you her? No, I’m me! Who’s me? Me! You know me! Me down here. You’re down there? I’m up here! He’s over there!

Occasionally there is a party and dance music will drift up to me from open windows. That isn’t too bad – it’s free music after all, and sometimes I sing along. It’s the way the partygoers tend to get drunker and drunker and louder and louder that’s the problem. Then come the arguments and then the bottle-throwing. Everything seems to echo round here. Thunderstorms; parties; Saturday night Karaoke in the social club down the road; police car sirens; ambulance sirens; after-pub staggering home conversations, the boys cajoling, the girls shrieking in response. Once in a terrible while a girl will scream and not stop screaming. Occasionally gangs of caravan site people bump into gangs of locals on the beach and stab one other. Drowning would be a quieter, and the sea is conveniently close, but knives seem to be favourite. Shortly thereafter, the sirens. But that’s only on the worst nights.

There are pleasanter noises. Bats for instance: strictly speaking you don’t hear bats, their cries being ultrasonic, but you do kind of sense them drawing near. Somewhere around nine or nine-thirty, that’s their time. You’ll see them if you are patient: watch for a bird not moving like a bird, something black and winged that dips and swoops, abruptly changing direction. At around the same time the hedgehog is on the move. On moonlit nights, look for a patch of lawn appearing to move; a small, round, scuttling segment of darkness. At around midnight he’ll come closer in search of food. I leave a bowl of cat food out for him; sometimes Felix nabs it first but if there’s any left the hotchi-pig has it. And I always know which one of them it was. Cats will pick from the bowl, and always leave some; hedgehogs stand in the bowl, tip it up, empty it out and clatter it around with their little pointy snouts; and in the morning there is nothing left.

I once went out to change the bowl of cat food. In the darkness, I groped around for the bowl in its usual place and found the hedgehog instead. Hedgehog hearing isn’t good; my hand accidentally brushed the top of his spines. Instantly, a great clattering and scrabbling as he jumped forward and rolled himself into a ball. Sorry, I whispered, putting the new food down and creeping indoors to bed.