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…

Love the one you’re with

We recently lost Bruce Forsyth, the all round entertainer and game show host. I must admit he wasn’t one of my favourites but I recognised his abilities, his professionalism, his popularity and his longevity. He had many catchphrases but his most recent and best-remembered is “You’re My Favourite”. Hosting one of the BBC’s most popular shows, Strictly Come Dancing his job, in a way, was to protect the contestants from the judges.

Each couple went on and danced. Some were brilliant, others made a bit of a mess of it, but invariably at the end he would greet the bespangled, lycra-and-satin clad couple as they sashayed towards him trying not to look as if they were gasping for breath, with a huge smile. And before they turned to face the judges he would reassure them in a stage whisper “You’re My Favourite“. Nobody believed him of course, but I bet it mattered to hear it at that point. Sometimes we have to pretend, and pretending can be enough.

Growing up, both Canadian Sister and I understood that English Sister was Mum’s favourite. Her last-born, her surprise baby. This was just a fact of life though we may have grumbled about it between ourselves, every now and again. Anyway, Mum got old and she got galloping dementia and other stuff, at which stage all sorts of things that might best have been kept secret began to be blurted out. During one of my Sunday visits she said “Of course (Canadian Sister) was always your Dad’s favourite”, and that cut like a knife. She had lost the ability to make connections between things by that time – logic was one of the first things to go – and I suppose it didn’t occur to her that that left me as nobody’s favourite. It’s simple when you think about it – two parents, three children – if there must be favourites then one of them has to be out in the cold. Why had it taken me so long to realise?

However, life isn’t fair for anybody, and we survive these things.

I can’t blame my Mum. I have eighteen cats and it’s difficult to share the attention and affection out equally. Often I’m harassed and worn out, wading through this sea of cats, all demanding something. And some cats, lets face it, are especially charming. It’s easy to love short-sighted George, for example, a goofy, clumsy cat who falls off everything and falls over himself in sheer excitement if he gets to sit on your lap. George is beautiful and fluffy, and he needs someone to look out for him.

Not so easy to love Kitten, who is ancient and deaf; who wakes me in the middle of the night bellowing for attention; who hauls pieces of food out of her bowl and distributes them over a wide area for me to clean up; who is voluminously sick on the carpet at least twice a day; who may die at any minute, so every morning when I find her curled up in her favourite cardboard box I have to wonder, is she going to lift her head when I tap on the edge to wake her, or is this going to be The Day?

Not so easy to love Rufus, either – that bony little ginger chap inherited from the disabled woman over the road. Rufus was left mostly to his own devices, I think. He lived a hard, tom-cat sort of life and he hung around outside most of the time. He got fed by anyone who happened to remember. Rufus now has a cauliflower ear and a weepy, half-closed eye that the vet can’t do anything about. He likes to curl up in the bed with me on winter nights, which means I can’t get to sleep in case I squash him, so I lie and wait for him to leave of his own accord. He sometimes bites – luckily he has very few teeth nowadays – and sometimes spits. He has never forgiven me for stealing him away from Old Mummy, not understanding that Old Mummy died.

So I pretend, and I keep reminding myself to do so. I remind myself to talk to them and make a bit of a fuss of them in passing. I remind myself that ultimately we are All One and that Kitten and Rufus have souls no less valuable than mine, and no less beautiful than the souls of the other cats. That’s about all anyone can do, isn’t it?

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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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