Sharing with my sister

She rings me more or les every other evening now, from her kitchen on the far side of Canada, where it is early morning. I have actually never seen her kitchen but I imagine it big and airy, but for some reason rather chilly, with chunky, cluttered work-surfaces and one of those giant American fridges stuffed with joints of meat; lots of brother-in-law’s half-finished DIY projects; things dismantled that will never put back together again.

Outside I visualise a neat, large lawn and other houses similar in design to hers, set at different angles, a kind of giant, Canadian-flavoured Lego construction. I imagine squirrels in trees, vague trees, and looping along the fence panels like the ones I saw when I visited her in Ontario that one time, a quarter of a century ago. Now she is in Alberta, where it is colder. Still kind of Canada but more so. In spring I imagine her garden as a fenced square, kind of big and kind of sterile and kind of green. I imagine a large shed, because I happen to know there is one. I can’t imagine flowers.

Does she think of it as a Yard, I wonder, or is she still English enough for it to be a Garden? I imagine an identical fenced square covered in thick snow in Winter, with the driveway laboriously dug out and snow blown off the road and into the gardens by the snow-blowers. We do not have snow-blowers over here, at least not that I’ve seen. What we have is blocked roads, until the ice chooses to melt of its own accord.

I cannot imagine her state, or her city. Sometimes I type the name of the city into the internet and hit ‘images’ but the images are not enough to reconstruct a city, with that unique, intangible atmosphere each city has; its back-alleys, its park benches, its ponds and trees and shops, its traffic intersections, its threatening corners. I cannot imagine it after dark; I cannot see the inhabitants scurrying along the sidewalks to work in the morning; I cannot hear the noise of its traffic or breathe the air. Photographs are just looking through somebody else’s eyes.

I cannot visualise my sister, most of the time. I haven’t seen her for so long. I look at my face in the mirror and see what has happened to it over the last three years. I try to imagine what will have happened to hers. Has she put on weight, or lost it? Is her hair still tied back, or has she cut it? All I can see is her face when she was four years old and I was seven, when we were having that photograph taken, uncomfortably perched on the back of Mum and Dad’s settee. A round, innocent face.  A big smile whereas I’m looking anxious. She still had her baby teeth; my front teeth were missing altogether. Eyes lighter than mine. Ridiculous ribbon bow on top, same as me. Those ribbons were a kind of dusky pink and cream, with a knurled pattern down the edge.

And now I hear her weeping in this distant kitchen I can’t properly imagine, morning after morning, evening after evening, and try to think of something helpful to say about being confined in a house with a furious, imminently dying husband, who refuses all assistance. She is appealing to me because I am her older sister and she has no one else, but really, if there was anyone else…

I have not experienced this myself. I find it difficult to visualise what she is seeing when she looks at him, though she tries to describe it to me. I cannot visualise worse than the way he looked before, but I can hear the shock and revulsion in her voice. She says it is like being trapped in a horror movie, all day and all night. I think of times I have lost sick or elderly cats, and had no choice but to be with them as they died. I find even this little collection of indelible images difficult to bear, and time makes them no easier. How is she going to cope with remembering this?

I cannot get over there, and apparently no one else can either. One of her neighbours has arranged for a boy to come in mow the lawns and sort out all the overgrown stuff. I picture him quietly working day after day, restoring some order, at least to the Outside. The sight of him seems to calm her too, and the brief expeditions to the bank to get money to pay him. Normal life is still happening, at least Outside.

This bit I can I understand. I remember after a very, very bad time in my life, which also felt like living in a nightmare, making an appointment and going to the hairdresser. I remember looking at my face in the mirror and seeing only some nightmare creature, but the hairdresser was a young girl and she chattered away, seeming to see nothing at all odd in the mirror. She was actually talking to me as if I was a normal person. It was like I really existed, after all. That sunny afternoon, the face in the mirror, the face behind, the quiet snip, snip of the scissors, little wedges of damp, snipped hair falling into my lap, somehow made all the difference.

And so I listen, and I say the same things I said the day before last, and two days before that, and two days before that. I say them over and over. I try to persuade her to get help, ask for carers to come in, doctors, nurses, anyone but she needs his permission. I tell her she needs to take over now, now has become the time. Eventually she is going to have to start thinking things out for herself and acting without permission. But they only had one model for being married, and now it isn’t working. And anyway what do I know about anything? Empty words, no substance behind them.

And then I remember that Ex has a gentle side as well as the more evident bombastic, endlessly-opinionated side. I remember he possessed a miraculous knack for reassurance, a matter-of-fact, earthy acceptance of How Things Are. And so I email him and ask if he will do me a favour, and eventually he does phone her, and it seems to have helped, at least a little. Now she has two people she can talk to, albeit miles apart from one another and thousands of miles across the sea. Now she has two listeners, and two voices on the end of the phone, one male and one female, and it looks as if she has asked for help, though it hasn’t yet arrived.

I hope that this will be over soon, and the sun will be permitted to shine in that unimaginable Canadian garden, and the squirrels can resume their dancing, and the birds can start their singing.

Below and above: Mary and Martha, sister cats.

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The Return of Mystery Dog

I sometimes feel as if I am living inside an unpublished chapter of Cold Comfort Farm, here. Like when Charlie says things like

‘Arrr, they comes in from the field, them rats. And in the summer they goes back there.’

How does he know that? I mean, there is a field at the end of our road – acres and acres of one featureless field that stretching so far into the distance that its boundaries are invisible. It grows – field stuff. Stuff that changes colour with the seasons and at least once a year coats everything with a kind of fine chaff. Sometimes it needs ploughing, and it is ploughed. The ploughing seems to go on all through the night and the tractor has a light on it. That is about all I know about the field.

I mean, how has he even got into the field, since we are disbarred from it by a rancid, weedy ditch full of rubbish and brambles, and an old hedge? And assuming he, being a country person, has managed to get in, how has he learned the ways of the local rats? Has he spent many hours standing in the middle of it, like a scarecrow? Indeed, now I think of it he would make an excellent scarecrow.

That’s the trouble with having been born and spent the first twenty-one years of your life in a suburb, among bungalow-rows and metalled roads and tame suburban trees – you never quite fit in anywhere else. Deeply, deeply uneasy in the big city, you are equally out of your depth in rural – by which I mean the real, shabby, workaday rural England, not leafy Surrey with its secluded mansions – though I would probably feel equally ill-at-ease there.

So, the rats have come in from the fields, apparently. And will return there, apparently. I have my doubts. If I was a rat and found a ready supply of tinned cat and dog food, plus bits of bread fallen from the bird table, I think I might decide to stick around, but who knows how a rat thinks? Maybe Charlie really is tuned in to rodent thinking. He certainly seems to be one with the soil, and all that.

When he departed, to sort and deliver several hundred parcels that had just been dumped on his driveway by the gigantic daily lorry, I thought again about poor Mystery Dog, and his plaintive woofs in the pitch-black garden around midnight, when he found his giant bowl of dog-food absent. I thought I had made a grown up decision for once, a sensible decision, in discouraging the ever-burgeoning colony of rats in my garden, but the thought of that little woof… And such a big dog, who must have been so very hungry these past two nights…

I have noticed, every time I make a grown-up decision it turns out to be the wrong one. I should obviously be following my instincts rather than trying to think. So I put more food out. Maybe the rats will have forgotten that there ever was food here, after two days of no food. How long is a rat’s memory, for goodness sake? I suspect it is pretty long since they can work out mazes and stuff, and press buttons in complicated sequences to get grapes – or is that monkeys? But still I put the food out.

I think maybe Mystery Dog himself will have forgotten, after two nights of misery. Maybe he has packed his belongings in a spotted handkerchief and set off for pastures new. But this morning all his food was gone. The stray cats’ dishes were polished too. So it’s either him or – as Charlie suggested – a fox. Or a hedgehog capable of eating three times its volume in supermarket meaty chunks.

Who made honey long ago

I tend to wamble around the house these days, opening books at random. In search of what? Entertainment? Inspiration? It may be that, having still not learned that most difficult of all lessons, I am still hoping the Meaning of Life will jump out at me one of these days.

The older I get, the shorter my attention span. I am like Edmund Blunden’s honey bee, buzzing around the sunlit meadow of incipient old age, sipping at nectar here, nectar there…

Like the bee that now is blown

Honey-heavy on my hand,

From his toppling tansy-throne

In the green tempestuous land, –

I’m in clover now, nor know

Who made honey long ago.

That poem, Forefathers, was one of the first I ‘discovered’ having crossed the threshold. I should explain. At some point, whilst still at school, poetry ceased to be one of the dire somethings that teachers tormented me with – not quite as dire as algebra, perhaps, and nowhere near as dire as netball, but dire. Maybe it happened as they were reading me Poem in October or The Wild Swans at Coole – or even during an argument between a Jehovah’s Witness girl and our poetry master, over the lines I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids / Sprouting despondently at area gates…  (there was no such thing as the soul, she maintained, and got dragged off to the headmistress’s office by the left ear for maintaining it). Whenever it happened, at some point poetry morphed into one of the loves of my life.

Forefathers, the Edmund Blunden poem – I discovered it in a little book A New Anthology of Modern Verse 1920 – 1940. And it was modern. That particular edition was published in 1943. Below the junk shop owner’s pencilled 25p someone has written in faded blue-black ink, what looks like Tring (but can’t be) – with love, Xmas 1943. Even handwriting was different in those far off days. The cheap paper is by now the colour of cappuccino, together with sprinkles. Foxing, they call that – the mottled brown spots old books, like old people, develop in extreme old age.

How lovely it is, to have a book you can hold in your hands and turn the time-buckled pages of. Such a book has its texture (cheap cloth over board), its colour (a streaky red, faded almost to pink) and a smell (dust; dried-out and crumbling glue; possibly Players cigarettes, the sort people used to buy in packets of ten, with cards inside depicting famous footballers in strange, long shorts, and well-known Shakespearian characters). A book is a thing in and of itself, not just its contents stripped out and digitally stored.

Forefathers may not even be a good poem. I no longer bother to categorise poems as good or bad: I either like them or I don’t. Maybe it’s a sentimental poem – in fact it probably is. When a country is at war its people cling to that all-important myth of their homeland. Our myth is of Englishness and goes beyond hobbits in hobbit-holes, long-bearded, wand-wielding wizards and forests full of Ents. Probably everyone has their own myth of England.

My England seems to contain larks ascending from sunlit cornfields, cumulus clouds lumbering across endless green hills, little lakes hidden among (relatively) little mountains. I’m not ashamed – too old to be ashamed – maybe it also contains that ploughman, wending his weary way through the churchyard, with its drunken gravestones; a village blacksmith or two; country choirs; A E Coppard’s higgler traipsing round the villages selling ribbons, saucepans and patent medicines for a living; convivial harvest suppers and yes, maybe even a wooing or two, lit by the Huntsman’s Moon.

Men enlisted to defend this poetic vision of an England that never was, which they perfectly understood never actually was – rather the everyday England of corned beef, chilblains, soggy fish-and-chips and queues for almost everything. This vision, I (hesitantly) suggest, is what politicians and city stockbrokers utterly failed to take into account, and are still overlooking whilst wittering endlessly on about how Brexit was Not Supposed to Happen: not a thuggish, Union Jack and knuckle-duster-wearing racism; not plebeian ignorance and the lack of a university education; not a sudden national obsession with border control; nothing at all like Donald Trump and his band of redneck followers; not the arrant selfishness of old folks who ought to just die and let young folks have what they imagine, at the moment, they want; not even the prospect of being able to make our own laws again – who, really, gives a stuff about laws? – but the heartfelt need for England. I saw a bit of film of an old man crying after the vote. I’ve got my country back, he said.

Incidentally, and on a lighter note, I learned quite a lot from that poem – the word ‘thew’ for instance – so useful for Scrabble.

These were men of pith and thew…

Pith and thew, don’t you just love the sound them, whatever they mean?

tansy

And I learned there was such a thing as a tansy-flower. It was to be many years before, thanks to Google Images, I actually saw a picture of a tansy and noted that its petals were of a very distinctive pale gingery yellow – which was exactly the hair-colour of the only lady I ever met by the name of Tansy. I suppose Tansy must have been born with a full head of hair, or at least a reasonable covering. Otherwise how could her parents have known to call her Tansy? I mean, if she’d been born bald, as most babies seem to be, she could have ended up as a Poppy, or a Violet, a Rose or even – perish the thought – a Prune-ella.

The Patience of Gryphons: part the third

Sybil was not having a satisfactory day. The whole world seemed to be celebrating but she, at home in Surrey, was fretting about the view from the terrace windows. Grey English drizzle ruined the lovely sloping view down the garden, to the point where it met with a field of grazing sheep. The leaded panes still bore their crosswise brown-paper strips in case of bomb-blast – though that was unlikely, since the War was in the process of ending. Yesterday had been VE Day. Sailors and drunken girls had danced in the streets. Some had climbed lamp-posts to wave at the seething crowds below. The radio had been full of talk of “Good Old Winnie” leading us to victory. Sybil knew she should be happy. She was a well-kept woman of thirty-seven, with a wealthy husband. They and what remained of their pre-War staff had come safely through the six years of War and austerity. Curtyss Manor had suffered no damage, from bombs or shrapnel at any rate. One wing of the house had been taken over by soldiers, for a while, and that had sustained some damage – boot-marks on the skirting board, rips in the curtains, cigarette burns all over the place… why did soldiers have to make such a mess?

It was scarcely patriotic to feel, as she did today, both restless and miserable.

Why does everything conspire to obscure one’s view? She murmured to herself. Now a spring mist was starting to creep in. A moment more and she would no longer be able to see…

Why was it, she wondered, that the sight affected her so, the sight of that lonely little gryphon at the far edge of the terrace? Why was she still annoyed at the auction house for their oversight in delivering only one of the pair. The other was perfectly safe in their store room, they had assured her, and would be delivered next time one of their vehicles was in Surrey. Shortage of petrol, of course. She did understand. They could hardly just leap into their van and make a special trip, for the sake of one garden ornament. But that gryphon, out there in the drizzle, in its lonely singularity, annoyed her. It was designed to be in a pair, it was part of set. Its current singularity irritated her and… and she couldn’t help feeling, illogical though it was, that this gryphon was missing it’s mate, or twin, or whatever you called it. It was as if… as if it was calling to her. Every time she passed this window she felt somehow compelled to look out, and the feeling was getting stronger. It had got so that she couldn’t pass the drawing room door without going in, going to the terrace window, looking out. Just to check…

To check what? What was she expecting, that the solitary little gryphon would have moved since last time she checked up on it? That maybe it would have packed its little stone bags and set off for London in search of its missing twin? Fanciful, thought Sybil, ridiculous! She was normally such a sensible person. Might it be a case of nerves? Perhaps the stress of war had affected her more than she realised.

The rain continued, but Sybil had had an idea. Her little ‘creature’ couldn’t move, but she could. She could pack an overnight bag and take the motor-car to London, herself.  The idea both scared and excited her. There was the London traffic and unfamiliar roads, of course, but that wasn’t it. “It” was that Sybil had been taught to drive by one of the officers billeted at Curtyss. Her husband had been posted overseas for a while, and it had happened during his absence.  For some reason, she had never told him that she could drive.

Had it been to protect his masculine pride? Henry did have rather old fashioned views on women drivers. It was an extension of his conviction that machinery and the fair sex did not mix. Or had it been because that particular officer had been rather handsome? He’d been married, of course. Five years married. Two young boys and a girl, he’d told her. Nothing untoward had happened; no meaningful glances, no accidental brushing of hands. They had been friends, and that was all. And he had taught her to drive. A useful skill, but one Henry didn’t happen to know about.

“Well, I shall just set forth”, she told herself. Her husband was not an early riser. She could be gone before he awoke and deal with the explanations… afterwards.  No doubt it would put it down to her age: hormones and such.

The poor lost creature on the terrace seemed to be calling to her now. Its distress had become hers, and since she had had her Idea the volume of that distress seemed only to be increasing. She could not ignore it. Ridiculous it might be, but she absolutely must set forth and fetch the gryphon’s mate.

NaPoWriMo 5/4/16: Ashford in November

It’s our town now. In the face of a wet wind

We tack from lighted shop to lighted shop

Or sit and smoke, staring from burger bars.

Our tea’s too hot; it’s steaming up the windows,

Our shopping bags are stashed beneath the tables

And it’s our town now.

 

It’s our town now. In the Municipal Park

Only the man with the overcoat remains.

This is where it rains, this is somewhere trains

Shoot through, and rubbish skips round corners;

This is where we wonder

Whether to queue for the Post Office now or later.

And it’s our town now.

 

It’s our town now. It’s not LA or London,

It’s not a tourist attraction

And it’s not where we would have wanted once to be;

But it is where We are We

And it’s our town now.

Unnaturally Birds

I remember when we were driving / In the summer of seventy-three, / We were talking, but of nothing, / That’s the way it would always be; / And how much I longed to touch you / And to say I understood. / But I never did, my dearest / And like you, I never could.

For months it had rained on England, / There was green in every tree, / And we flew along those country roads / Beneath the canopy, / In our second skin of metal / And our third skin of words, / Pretending to be human, / Unnaturally birds.

I wonder when you die, my dear, / Will I see you as you are, / Or will you drift away again / To perch on a different star?

 

In defence of sleazy pubs

Imagine you have been banished. You are whiling away your expatriate existence in some far-flung emirate among the air-conditioned apartment blocks and mathematically-spaced palms. You have a swimming pool, you have servants, you have everything you want except a ticket home. You lie awake listening to the roulette wheel spinning in the casino next door, and the gentle belching of camels, thinking of England, thinking particularly of your own county, Kent.

What do you see? I see cherry blossoms, almond blossom, windmills, black and white cows, wet sunlit orchards seen through train windows, mounds of snow on motorway verges, spangled with grit from passing juggernauts – and some shabby old men sitting in a pub. Inevitably, they are discussing sheep, cesspools, roofing tiles or the cultivation of monster vegetables.

Our “local” was once a place where evening sun shrivelled the potted plants on the windowsill, where the door stood open all night to admit a breeze carrying the scent of nettles and roses, and motorbike exhausts. Where there was a girlie calendar, but you weren’t allowed to lift the page and sneak a look at next month. Where there was a piano but, mercifully, no one able to play it – and anyway, the key had been lost centuries ago. A place where malodorous dogs slumbered heavily across their owners’ feet, or monitored their every move with pessimistic eyes.

It was a place where you could eat whelks (pron: wilks) and could purchase a pickled egg from a large jar to dunk in your bag of crisps. The landlord would roll his sleeve back to the elbow and plunge a great greasy hand down into the vinegar to capture one for you. It was a place for tall stories. Each one was so lengthy, so complex, so elegantly inconsequential that you might well have gone away believing every word – if you hadn’t been forced to hear it at least a hundred times already. Sadly, this last ingredient for my whimsical Essence of Kent is becoming harder and harder to find. I watched it fading in our own local pub – saw the gleam in the storyteller’s eye out-glittered by fairy lights, his audience mesmerised by the manic whirlings of blackcurrants and lemons in the fruit-machine. The fruit-machine and the pool table attracted a new kind of customer – the wafer-thin, cynical variety of teenager that makes a lot of noise.

Nowadays the old men are truly old. They shuffle in and hunch themselves over their beer. They mumble at one another. Once upon a time such a man would have swaggered into the room, knocked his pipe out on his heel and announced his latest Thought to the entire company. Now the place has been done up. It has springy armchairs, fake horse-brasses and a cheese-plant in a ceramic pot. It’s all in the best possible taste. No more Thoughts. No more ancient jokes. No more tall stories, ever.

A public house needs to be shabbier and in every way less salubrious than your own home. It should be a familiar, restful place full of all the things you’re not supposed to like – emerald green flock wallpaper; bendy cardboard Babycham ladies; candles in bottles; those coloured glass ball things with which fishermen were supposed once to have kept their nets afloat; piano-stools full of sheet music for unheard-of ’50s hits; insanitary toilets with spiders in the corners and unshaded light-bulbs. A pub is the kind of lady a man quite likes to spend an evening with but would never aspire to marry. She is Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna. In a pub a person should be able to relax – in other words behave worse than he would at home.

If you were beamed down in the middle of a supermarket or fast-food outlet you would be hard put to it to say whether you were in Dartford or Dumfries. Could the same soon become true of pubs? Hopefully not just yet. At least few strange, murky hostelries still lurk in the back streets of Kentish towns and villages.

However odd or uncomfortable they are, one remembers them. They are part of the area, its colour and its character. This is why foreign tourists head straight to our little inns – they are looking for the real Britain and real Britons – people, not dummies over-awed by plastic décor.

If your town or village is lucky enough still to have an untampered-with sleazy pub, look after it. Don’t let anyone suck down your cobwebs and paint everything eau-de-nil. Don’t let them install Hawaiian Muzak, bamboo furniture, potted creepers and a ceiling fan and rename your Pig & Whistle the Paradise Lost. If they suggest it just narrow your eyes, put on your best rural accent and tell them, with a sinister hint of a threat:

‘We likes our pubs sleazy!’

First published in Kent Life, November 1987