Objets Perdus

Now, this is a bit of a strange one, and I have been putting off writing about it for days. Something to do with shame, I think – shame and sorrow. But what’s the best way for a writer to call up and exorcise her ghosts?

Write about them.

When I was a child I had a (very) few treasured objects, and one by one I lost them or gave them away. Something seems to compel me to ‘lose’ the things that mean the most to me – and not just objects, people. One by one, I have mislaid them all.

Setting aside the people, because nothing at all can be done about them. Those objects…

I had a copy of Aesop’s Fables. It was a beautiful book – they are ferociously expensive to buy second-hand now. You know, I thought, until this very moment, that I had given it away. I had been wracking my brains to think how I gave it away. Why would I have done that with my beloved Aesop? I read that book over and over. The fables, and the beautiful but slightly creepy illustrations, those glossy, full-page watercolours, seeped into my childhood consciousness.

But I gave it away. Or did I? I just turned sideways and there it was, sitting in the bookcase beside me. It has lost it’s cover, the boards have faded from scarlet to orange, but – still here. Inside I have written my full maiden name, in ink, in weird little-girl writing. Two pages on and an inscription reads With love to Rosie, on her 7th Birthday. From Grandma & Grandpa. Well, Rosie or, you know, whatever.

But other objects I really did lose. I once had a stone, with the impression of a prehistoric sea creature upon it, like a tiny octopus. I found it half-buried in the path between the allotments. It was as if it had been waiting for just me, that magical fossil, for billions and billions of years. If only I had kept it, if only I had not somehow lost it – what luck it might have brought me.

And I gave away my Odhams Encyclopaedia for children. I remember the struggle I had at the time. It was when my niece was born and I foolishly had this idea that the child should “inherit” something of value from her auntie. And I have regretted the loss of that book ever since.

And then there was my teddy bear. I temporarily forgot about him and instead of taking him with me when I got married I foolishly left him with Mum. In fact he was up in the attic, and I didn’t realise. Mum and my sister are alike in “getting rid”. She accidentally informed me one day, several years later, that she had given my bear to Oxfam. After all, she knew I wouldn’t want it.

I never stopped missing my bear. I mourned for him. Even now – especially now, when I am old – I want my teddy bear back. I realised today that that was what my teddy-bear buying jag had been all about. I now have a cupboard full of disreputable 1950s teddy-bears courtesy of E-bay. None of them are my bear, but I have rescued them. I couldn’t save it but I have saved them.

I know, it doesn’t make sense.

And now I have gone and saved “my” Encyclopedia. And in fact I have saved more than one of them because the other day eBay came up with a second, horribly battered copy for only £2 and I bid the £2 and won. To my surprise. The first one, which arrived a week ago, cost a massive £20 but is in excellent condition. Unlike me, its owner must have held it close, kept it. Presumably there will soon be a stack of second-hand Odhams Encyclopaedias on my coffee table, all ridiculously, pathetically rescued by some ancient woman, just in case one of them might turn out to have been her actual one.

When I was a child the page that fascinated me the most was the one with the anaconda. My mother used to take the mickey, saying that the encyclopaedia would fall open at the snakes page of its own accord. I do hope it was nothing sexual. I mean, I was very young and, lacking any kind of brother (though over-supplied with sisters) did not even suspect the existence of that appendage which, according to Dr Freud, snakes represent.

In my memory the anaconda took up the whole of the page and was vividly coloured, green and gold and glittery. Now I see that it is smaller, and in black and white, but I still like the way the artist has coiled and draped the various snakes around the branches, the way the pictures and the text bleed into one another.

How beautiful that anaconda was to me, and how utterly terrifying. In my mind’s eye I stood before him in the South American jungle, tiny-small in my cotton check school dress and pudding-basin haircut. Anaconda was looking at me out of that glittery, sardonic eye. He was weighing up whether to wrap me in his sinuous, gorgeous coils and crush me to smithereens. Because that is what anacondas do, being the largest of the boa constrictor family.

And I wished he would. And I wished he wouldn’t.

And this is him, my beloved, my childhood version of God: the anaconda, unchanged over the decades and decades since I first caught sight of him.

Why do we lose the things we love?

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Florence Nottingale

The Domestic Science wing at my school was known as The Crimea. This was on account of some connection with Florence Nightingale, the Lady With The Lamp. The headmistress never stopped banging on about old Florence and gave us the impression that wounded soldiers were actually nursed in our Domestic Science wing, in beds, in rows, like the picture above. I never quite understood this, because I thought they were on the battlefield and she went out to them.

You’d think this might have inspired me to be a nurse, or a heroine of some kind, but all I ever wanted to be was a Poet. My parents were not impressed when I told them this. They said I would be making better use of my time as a shorthand typist for the Electricity Board. Actually, over a whole frittered lifetime, there turned out to be nothing much I would have been better using my time doing.

Fast forward and here I am apparently nursing a stray cat with an amputated leg. I mean a very amputated leg, right up at the shoulder. His name is Nicholas, because he has a white necklace. When you have quite a few black and white cats it’s easier to remember them that way, like recognising seabirds by their beaks or whales by their fins. I have been feeding him outside for some time. He and Sunshine (another un-neutered tom) were sharing the garden on an unspoken rota basis. But Nicholas has been missing for several day.

Yesterday I got home from a routine visit the vet’s to find Nicholas outside. He looked brisk and business-like enough but he was holding a front paw in the air. Perhaps a thorn, I thought, or a cut. Looking on the bright side, or trying to, I reached down and scooped him up. Bad sign, that he let me do that.

Several phone calls to the vet, the RSPCA (to get an Incident Number), to the vet again, to a taxi firm. I can’t take a sick cat all that way on the bus. By lunchtime we are back at the vets. Probably an abscess, says the vet, in that Russian-type accent I have never been able to reproduce. If you are going to take him I will do the operation and castrate him at the same time. But when the x-rays come in he shows me – that leg is shattered. You have three options he says: have the cat put to sleep, refer him to an orthopaedic surgeon – because I can’t fix that – which would cost you around £4,000 – or have the leg amputated and the castration done at the same time, which I could do cheaply for you for only… Only?

The cat might be adopted afterwards, of course. He looks round from his computer and grins. ‘You don’t have to take them all.’ But he knows perfectly well that I do.

And so here I am – Mrs Squeamish, who hates any kind of physical responsibility, trying to be Florence Nightingale. Nicholas is alternately stretched out and curled up in an untidy heap of pet bed, blanket and folded fleece in the corner, partly covered by a blanket. He doesn’t look too bright, but he has eaten something and doesn’t seem averse to a stroke and a purr every now and again, between long sleeps. For some reason I think about Beowulf, and Grendel and his arm torn off at the shoulder at the battle of Heriot…

Concentrate, woman…

To be honest, I have never seen a newly-amputated creature before. An amputee is one thing – you see them on TV all the time – but a new wound is another. I had to bathe it this morning, and of course there are ugly things, like stitches and blood and shaven, puckered skin. I shall be so glad when that fur begins to grow back, Nicholas. He squirms over onto his tummy and squints up at me. I am going to get so bitten, I think, approaching on creaking knees with the cotton wool and the bowl of warm water. But no, he lies patiently and lets me clean him up and looks ever so slightly less appalling afterwards. Much smarter, I say.

I was thinking about angels, and that mysterious old man on the bus who talked to me about the meaning of life, recited Desiderata and vanished. I was wondering if we are all obliged to do ‘Angel Duty’ – a bit like conscription – at some point, or in one aspect of our lives. I was thinking maybe it was my job to be Nicholas’ angel today, and that he had at least chosen the right person to hobble to. I was wondering who my right person was, or would be if and when the time came, to hobble to.

I was thinking about competence and incompetence, and how the both things can exist in the same person at the same time. I was thinking that my sister doesn’t speak to me now, and wondering if it is because she has got lumbered with all the financial and practical stuff in connection with my mother, and despises me and my irresponsibility/incompetence/host of financial phobias and anxieties, for having backed out of all that so smartly. Did I let her down? At the time I just knew she would be better at it, but all the same… I’m the older sister and that should have been my responsibility.

No, you don’t have to take them all in. And you don’t have to be an Angel in everything. You have your one thing, and maybe only that one thing. That’s your mission, should you choose to accept it…

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Mystery Sister Tea Brack

I’ve called it that because it’s in one of the sisters’ handwriting but I can’t decide which. They both went through a cramped, backward-slanting gothic phase, as in fact did Mum (she was briefly learning calligraphy from a retired drama-school headmistress who lived down the road). Since the cost is given in ‘s’ and ‘d’ it must be pre the 1971 decimalisation.

TEA BRACK – dated 5th August, no year

  • Cost: about 4s 2d
  • Approximate preparation time: 15 mins (plus overnight standing)
  • Cooking time: 2 hours

Ingredients:

  • 8 ozs (ounces) sultanas, cleaned
  • 8 ozs currants, cleaned
  • 8 ozs soft brown sugar
  • 1/2 pint medium-strength cold tea (plenty of that swilling around in the UK)
  • 1 lb (pound) self-raising flour
  • 4 tablespoons milk

Method:

  • Put fruit, sugar and tea in a bowl. Soak overnight
  • Next day, turn on oven: set at moderate, 375º F, Mark 5 (gas)
  • Grease a round 8 in (inch) tin; line base with greaseproof paper and grease the paper
  • Sift the flour into bowl of fruit. Add milk and beat
  • Turn into prepared tin. Bake in centre of pre-heated oven for 2 hours.
  • Cool on a rack

I’ve sorted it out and bullet-pointed it to make it less cramped-looking on the page, and easier to follow.

Enjoy 🙂

PS: if you’re wondering where the word ‘brack’ comes from, it’s a short form of barm brack, an Irish recipe upon which there are many variations (including this one). In Irish gaelic it’s bairín breac. So now you know.

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