Gotta Go…

My friend, though older than me (which is saying something) is always several steps ahead, technologically speaking. She was texting before I was really sure what texting was, etc, etc. But then, if my baby sister hadn’t worked in a bank and told me where to shove my card and what buttons to press, I probably still wouldn’t be using ATM machines. Cautious Clarissa, that’s me – Behind-The-Curve-Betsy.

Today I had coffee with my techno-friend (and another) and we had a pleasant, catching-up sort of chat. After an hour or so she glanced at her smart watch. It was instructing her to stand up. She had been sitting too long, it said.

It struck me that a watch like this could be the perfect excuse for getting away from places you were fed up with being in. Not that my friend was tiring of sitting in a noisy café having a mug of over-strong tea with me, of courseprobably – but if she had been…

I began to think of all the other ways people use to escape from one another:

“I mustn’t keep you. Sure you’ve got plenty to do…”

“Must rush, I believe I left the broccoli boiling!”

“Goodness! Is that the time? My dog is waiting for her bowl of biscuits.”

I recall a friend of Ex’s who was having a bit of a thing with the wife of a not-very-nice man know to all of us. She would telephone Ex’s friend late at night to whisper sweet, anguished whatevers down the phone. If we happened to be at his flat and time was getting on he’d say: “Don’t like to throw you out, but my Old Auntie promised to call.”

Ex and I had an unspoken arrangement that if  I desperately wanted to go home I would start looking at him, meaningfully. In those days I couldn’t drive and so couldn’t leave before he did. Also I had – and still have – a very low boredom threshold, whereas he specialised in, well, being boring. Or at least, with a beer or two under his belt, holding forth about this and that until people’s eyes began to glaze over. I had heard every single one of these monologues before. I could have recited them word for word.

So, I would start giving him these pained, meaningful glances around ten o’clock, but by then he was in full swing, with captive audience. At one o’clock I would have given up on the meaningful glances and would be pleating the edge of my skirt, then letting it go again, pleating it, letting it go. Attempting the Zen thing, which I had been reading up on – going with the flow, reminding myself that all things shall eventually pass, even my husband’s explanation about how torque operates in the rotary blades of helicopters… The watch of my techno-wiz friend also, at intervals, reminds her to breathe. I didn’t know one could forget, but I suppose it means Pause, Be Calm, Om! Think Of England or whatever.

Canadian sister shares my short-little-span-of-attention and is no good at hiding it. If she gets fed up in company she will fall completely silent and stare at the wall, like a deactivated robot. English sister, on the other hand, is ultra-skilled in that department. Before she can become even the teensiest bit bored she sabotages the person who is beginning to ramble on. She changes the subject with a swift brutality. I have, in the past, been on the receiving end. After a moment or two, you think “Hang on – wasn’t I just talking about…?” Apparently it’s a customer-service telephone technique she learned at the bank.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I get terribly, terribly bored but can neither rudely “deactivate” nor be rude to the bore. I suffer in silence, wearing an expression of utter fascination.

Many years ago, I would be repeatedly buttonholed in the pub by a man with a big nose who smoked cigars and breathed cigar-breath over me. He would brace his arm against the wall over my right shoulder and kind of lean in. There was no escape. He alternated between telling me how he once dug up a buried motorbike – an Indian-something – and telling me stories involving other women and their operations, in terribly accurate gynaecological detail. Ex would make lurid faces behind the man’s back but made no attempt to rescue me.

And earlier this week I spent a good hour sat in the Hospital atrium next to the stinkiest of unwashed bag ladies whilst she reeled off a long list of all the famous stars of the sixties screen whose children she had been nanny to, and how fond they all were of her, and grateful they all were to her, and how she bumped into them many years later on the Charing Cross Road…

However, I did get a short story out of that one.

…wotthehell…

Well, another funny old Christmas Eve. People will keep checking – pityingly, unbelievingly – that I really will be alone all Christmas. Haven’t I got anybody to go to? Anybody at all? This is really annoying. I mean, where were you-all the last thirty or so Christmases, which I also spent alone?

Where were you nearly all the other days in between, come to that? Which I also spent alone.

My middle sister keeps ringing me from Canada. She is in a panic and going through a bad patch because she too is going to be alone – except that she has been invited to Christmas Dinner with an elderly friend down the road whose extended family – all of whom will be in attendance – all seem to smoke a lot, indoors. I would rather stay home alone than breathe in a whole lot of second-hand nicotine and have to cough it out again next morning.

But that’s just me.

“The thing is,” she says, “you’re just very good at being alone, aren’t you? I’m not, you see.”

“It’s not that I’m at all good at being alone,” I say. “It’s that I’m even worse at being with other people. It’s the lesser of two evils.”

Usually she understands stuff like this. This time she doesn’t, but hey…

My own Friend-Down-The-Road texts. She thought I seemed a bit off with her yesterday. Has she Offended me? Am I OK? She sends one of these infuriating texts every few months. There’s no way I can behave that won’t trigger this sudden rush of guilt-inducing, excuse-eliciting, explanation-demanding anxiety. Once again with the reassurance. No, I was just worn out, having driven over twenty miles in ultra-heavy Christmas traffic, visited my Mum in the Home, to find her half in and half out of bed, her nightie up around her waist and a completely blank expression on her face. Who was I?

Having then spent an hour in a noisy coffee shop trying and mostly failing to lip-read what English Sister was saying, much as I actually wanted to hear it, then another twenty miles in the same horrendous traffic, down a road so wide and fast it ought to be a motorway, but isn’t.

I drive it with gritted teeth, clinging to the steering-wheel.

This morning, Ex phones. I have had time by now to digest the fact of his getting married again and not telling me, leaving it to his sister to phone me and ‘accidentally on purpose’ I suspect, mention it. He explains, in minute detail, the financial and practical reasons behind his secret nuptials. Then he explains, in more minute detail, all the horrors and inconveniences he had to go through to treat his prostate problem. If I should ever grow a prostate and subsequently discover I have a scary problem with it I will be extremely well-prepared for the scans, biopsies, enemas and whatever. I will even be forewarned as to the places they put the tiny tattoos.

archy

I forgive him for getting married again – wotthehell, wotthehell – as Archie the cockroach, or possibly Mehitabel the alley-cat – used to type on Don Marquis’s old typewriter. We’re all three of us quite old now and, in varying degrees, sick – wotthehell. Anyway, it appears it was not last summer but last New Year that they got married. So old news.

Apart from the phone call, I have been trying to have a quiet Christmas Eve, doing random, semi-creative things, as is my wont. I have knitted part of a green dishcloth to put in my ‘sell on Etsy’ bundle. I have sorted and systematised my collection of flash fiction ideas. Tomorrow (I promise myself, ha ha!) I will start on the actual, er, writing. I so much prefer the ‘having ideas’ stage but eventually – one has to write. Wotthehell.

I have listened to the Christmas Eve carol service from Kings. I am not sure what or where Kings is – a chapel, and Cambridge, I think. I wish they would sing the ancient music, all those complex, intertwining, almost painful harmonies. Seasonal and clever though it is, this kind of choral singing tends to remind me of Sing Something Simple of a Sunday lunchtime, and Dad singing along to the radio.

I have fed the (nineteen) cats, twice. I have fed the (three) strays, three times. I have fed the birds (once). I have washed up a lot. I have washed my hair and dried it, perched on the corner of the bed. I have broken up some cardboard boxes in the garage and stacked them against the wall. I have accidentally caught the lady-next-door’s new internet dating gentleman up a ladder, fixing one of those really bright annoying lights to her front wall, and been forced to exchange wincing Hi There’s.

He has false teeth. I don’t think I could be doing with false teeth, but I suppose at our age – you probably don’t have to do that much French-kissing.

Strange Days

Well, I fell asleep on the sofa. Then I woke up and the radio was playing The Boxer, over and over again, with different people saying what it had meant to them. Apparently The Boxer was Leonard Nimoy’s favourite song and when he was on his deathbed a grandson found it on his mobile phone and played it to him. This made me sad. Leonard Nimoy – or rather Mr Spock – was my favourite.

Then I tidied up and came to bed. Then I realised I couldn’t sleep so I got up again and started writing. Why is it easier to fall asleep on a cold winter’s night such as this in the corner of an uncomfortable faux-leather sofa than in a nice, soft bed with a big, thick duvet?

Nowadays I divide my nights between the two. That seems to work well enough. Two o’clock in the morning may find me back on the sofa, drinking a cup of tea in the dark with the World Service burbling away, low volume. So as not to wake the neighbours up, who plague whole days with their noise.

I have lost my Neighbours’ Names list. You’d think I’d have them off by heart after seven years, wouldn’t you? Yes, it had all their names on, plus their house numbers, plus the names of all their pet dogs and cats so that I could include all of them on the Christmas cards. I have forgotten the names of Next Door, who make all the noise, maybe because I dislike them. So I addressed their envelope “To All @…. ”

Strange days. My sister-in-law finally managed to catch me on the landline. I’ve managed to dodge her for – oh, probably several years. At the end of an hour’s conversation – mostly hers – my God, she can rabbit – she asked me if I knew that Ex had finally married My Replacement, because he was advised to by his financial advisor.

“No,” I said. I could hear myself sounding calm, sensible and quite un-hurt. “When was this?”

“Back in the summer. None of us got invited, they just sent us a slice of manky old cake.”

I hadn’t even got the slice of manky old cake. He hadn’t even rung me. He’d probably never have rung me.

“Oh my God,” she said, “I’m so sorry. I thought you’d know. You’re not upset are you? I mean, I know he’s my brother but, you know, I think we can agree you had a lucky escape.”

“Not upset,” I lied, “but thank you for telling me.”

“You’ll be all right won’t you? I feel bad now.”

“Yes, of course I’ll be all right. It might take me a day or two to process it.”

Process it! I sound like a psychotherapist. It rakes up all the Dad stuff. All the Ex stuff, since Ex, I long ago realised, was but a continuation of the conflict with Dad. All that love, all that violence; all that ancient grief; all that unresolved everything. It puts the full-stop to a forty-six year-long sentence; it gives away my title to someone else; it wipes me out, it negates me; it puts me beyond hope of making my peace with Dad. I can’t actually conjure up my own face inside my head any more. Process it!

(But of course, I will.)mirror6

Well, tomorrow will be another strange day. High winds forecast, and a General Election. I postal-voted weeks ago, and thank goodness I did because windy weather and me don’t mix. I know they worry about voters not turning out in bad weather, which is why Elections are traditionally held in the summer (and almost always on a Thursday, for some reason). I think people will turn out if they feel strongly enough – and I think they do, this time. The December wind will blow them out of their warm, shabby little houses and down the hill to the village hall. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. Mayhem, maybe.

Another sleepless night tomorrow. It will definitely be the uncomfortable sofa-corner then, huddled in a blanket, covered in cats. As I’ve got rid of the TV I shall be tuning to Radio 4. Coverage starts at a quarter to ten, fifteen minutes before the polling stations close. And then the counting starts. This is far more exciting to me than Christmas, but then I’m a politics dweeb.

There’s a rockabilly party on Saturday night…

Readers may recall – though probably not – that I recently gave up my TV licence as a protest against the Government/BBC’s plans to remove free TV licenses from the over 75s next year. Annoyingly, the BBC mentioned on their radio news programme this morning that TV viewing figures are falling drastically, especially among the young. I imagined I was rebelliously depriving myself of something for the sake of a principle – now I discover I was conforming to some mindless Younger Generation.

Staring mournfully at the gap where the TV set used to be, I realise I used to use it to switch off, ie to become part of the mindless Older GenerationNow I am finding being at home all day quite hard work – all that thinking about stuff – all that What should I be getting on with now? TV was an excuse to sit still and do nothing. Or knitting.

I’ve been managing quite well with my collection of radios, each tuned to a different station – not being much of a re-tuner of DAB radios. I have one stuck on Radio 4, for the News and Woman’s Hour. I sampled The Archers (‘an everyday story of countryfolk’), in the hope that, being older now, I would suddenly be able to stand to listen to it.

I still hated it, apart from one episode when a character called Hayley was going round frantically demanding money from fellow villagers in order to solve her mortgage shortfall problem – telling them she was entitled to it. She was being so annoying and so manifestly and counter-productively foolish in her approach, and all in a fake rural accent, that I just wanted to slap her. I suppose I was gripped, but not enough to make me tune in to the next episode.

One of my other radios is tuned to something called Mellow Magic. I have always resisted anything with the word mellow in it, along with the words heart-warming and epic – but I tried it and was hooked. Basically they play all the songs you remember quite a few of the words to, that whisk you back to your past.

Another radio is tuned to Scala, which advertises itself a classical music station with a modern twist. I use this as background music for reading. I used to use Spotify for this, but was always worried that by listening online I might be using up a lot of data, whatever that is.

Most of the time it’s fine – film scores, sad tinkly piano music – but occasionally you are jolted back into the living room by something unexpected and truly ghastly such as the Dam-Busters March or Mars, the Bringer of War. It’s even worse when you’re trying to get to the end of a popular physics book which is proving beyond your comprehension. I used to read books that dealt with string theory, multiverses and spooky action at a distance, but I think my brain must have atrophied since then.

So, I just migrate from one radio to another. Now what I need is some kind of hooked pokey-stick, or series of long pieces of string tied to all the radio like reins – to take the place of the TV remote control.

Then there are the TED talks. Someone stands on stage somewhere in the world – Iceland, Toronto, whatever – and records a short talk about whatever they happen to know or feel strongly about. These talks are free to listen to and are useful if suddenly craving the sight of a human being moving about and gesticulating, as opposed to disembodied voices. You have to be selective – no point watching fifteen minutes of someone enlightening you on how to sell a million pink plastic water-jugs in one day.

That’s how I came to be watching a lady psychologist talking about deathbed visions. I think she worked in end-of-life care or similar. She was saying people attending at a death should not be surprised if the dying person was able to ‘see’ other people in the room, or even reached up to them. One person had regular visits from an old dog who had died many years before, and which slept curled up on a chair. The psychologist lady explained that visions would usually be tailored to the person’s cultural background, so people in different countries might see angels, or the Buddha, or the Hindu god of death. And children tended to see visions tailored to them – so one child told his parents that the children’s train had arrived at the station; it was time for him to go.

People also see dead relatives or friends, and have the sense that they have come to greet them from the after-world, and help them across. This set me to thinking – who would I want to come and meet me? At first I thought, nobody.  What dead person would be willing to go to the trouble of struggling into human form again, and go and lurk around at some windswept crossroads waiting for me to turn up? And then I thought, well it would be the ultimate poor sad me thing, wouldn’t it – turning up at the afterlife crossroads and nobody – not even the Devil – who I gather has a tendency to keep assignations at crossroads-es to collect the souls people have sold to him – could be bothered to be there to say ‘Hi’.

So I settled for Nan, who would probably be wearing her cardigan and her flowery overall; Sophie, a long-lost and much loved black and white ‘tuxedo’ cat, and Godmother. Godmother isn’t actually dead yet, but she’s ninety, so presumably she would be by that time. Unless, of course, what probate solicitors often refer to as The Under The Bus Scenario were to happen fairly shortly. I even considered Ex but then I thought no, he’d be tapping his watch saying You’re three-and-a-half-minutes late! Don’t you know that you are Low On My List of Priorities?

Who or what would you want to crowd around your deathbed, or be waiting for you at the crossroads?

rockabilly

There’s a rockabilly party on Saturday night
Are you gonna be there?
(Well I got my invite)
Gonna bring your records?
(Oh, will do) …

Mott the Hoople, Roll Away The Stone, 1974

3: Send in the clowns

Continued from 2: Supping with the Devil (technically, posted on 6/7 – you might need to use the Search box)

It should have been funny, and it kind of was, looking back. Looking back, I can recall the struggles and contradictions of that afternoon as Mum and I listened to these two monolithic men droning on at one another about politics or whatever, beneath the ’70s artex ceiling and ghastly pine wall-covering, giant mugs of tea at the ready: exhilaration, a rather spiteful kind of satisfaction, sadness, anxiety and loss. Part of me knew that Ex had got to win, another part couldn’t bear for Dad to lose. Ridiculously, now, I am reminded of battling silverback gorillas and David Attenborough. (Who can picture a gorilla without David, whispering reverentially close by?) And I recall that last scene in The Railway Children – Daddy, my Daddy!

After twenty-three years or so I screwed up the courage to tell Ex I was leaving. He seemed unmoved, relieved as much as anything. Not long after that the lady I usually refer to as My Replacement came along – well, she’d been ‘along’ for quite some time, I just hadn’t really realised. That was probably the most painful bit.

On one particularly memorable occasion , which I now think of as my Send In The Clowns moment, I had driven across to the small town where Ex still lived. I had an appointment to get my hair cut at my old hairdressers. I had not anticipated that there would be a carnival procession going on, and so had to park some way out of town and walk back in. As I was walking along the road I realised that he – and she – were walking towards me in the far distance, hand in hand. I suppose they must have been out watching the carnival. There was no convenient side-road or alleyway to swerve into, and in any case they had already seen me. I just had to pin on a gruesome attempt at a smile and keep walking forwards on the pavement, one foot in front of the other – and so did they, of course. I found myself feeling sorry for them at the same time as I was feeling sorry for me. It seemed to take years, and he couldn’t exactly drop her hand. I can’t remember another thing about that day. That one memory was enough to last me for ever!

Although most of me knows that leaving, even in middle age, was the right decision, some disconsolate little remnant continues to prowl around my house on sleepless nights mewling Where are you? Why did you stop looking after me? Why didn’t you come and find me?  Didn’t you love me? And I realise it is not just the lost wife crying, but the lost child looking for her father.

daddy

 

In the 1980s Canadian Sister, also ADD-ish, married a man who looked not so very different from Dad. He was very definite in his opinions, very clever, very competent, would brook no arguments, etc., etc., but they remained married until his death earlier this year. Now she rages at him, in his urn on the mantelpiece. He was supposed to be her shield and protector, and in return she knew she must do what she was told and never argue; she went where he wanted to go, watched whatever he wanted to watch on TV; pretended not to be embarrassed when he was rude to shopkeepers and Indian waiters, resisting the urge to apologise on his behalf. That was the clear bargain struck on a cold May day in a black old Northern church all those years ago, and he reneged on it by going and getting cancer.

I have been wondering what conclusion to draw, what ‘advice’, with the benefit of hindsight, I would give to my parents, or any new parents of an unconventional child. Of course I have no right to advise. If I had been able to have children or my own I’m sure I’d have got it just as wrong, and probably more so.

The fashionable motto is that all you really need to be is a Good Enough parent. I would extend that a bit – I think you can be a pretty bad parent and your child will still stand a chance or surviving, more or less, if only she can get what she needs from alternative sources. Which is an argument for old-fashioned rural communal parenting as opposed to the nuclear family, in which any evils are concentrated, hidden and likely to be perpetuated.

I was saved by Nan and Grandad who, by the most enormous stroke of luck, lived at the other end of our street. Nan walked along to see Mum most days, and I spent every Sunday from about the age of three along with Nan and Grandad. To start with this was because Mum and Dad were engaged in building their own house, with Grandad’s help, whilst expecting my sister at any moment. After that it just became a tradition.

Nan and Grandad had a huge garden with a cherry blossom tree, a swing suspended from an apple tree, a lawn full of daisies and buttercups, and all sorts of flowers and vegetables. They also had a smelly old golden Labrador, a roaring fire in winter, stacks of Woman’s Weekly and Carpenter & Joiner magazines, a bookcase full of pre-War hardback books, an etymological dictionary (my favourite) and a tiny black and white TV set.

Nan cooked great Sunday dinners. She washed my hair and I sat in front of the fire to dry it. I was included in whatever she was doing. We put down newspaper and polished a mountain of brass with Brasso and blackening yellow dusters; we picked mint for the mint sauce – she chopped it fine then I stirred it in a little pot with sugar and vinegar. We sat on the back step shelling peas into an enamel bowl whilst staring up at the sky.

Over the course of the years she told me about the recent War, and the War before that. She told me about my Great Grandmother Sarah and her own many sisters. She told me the facts of life, taught me how to darn a sock and sew on a button. She chatted to me unselfconsciously as if I was just another grown-up, or she was just another child. On those Sundays with Nan I was a relaxed, ‘normal’ human being, but as soon as I returned to the other end of the road I became once again the freaky “Prima Donna” or “You Little Bitch”.

In writing this it has occurred to me that Nan had the advantage of having finished bringing up Mum – who had many of the same traits as me – considerably more pronounced, some of them – less than six years before, since Mum married at nineteen. Mum hadn’t had that advantage.

See 4: Imagine

Who’d a thunk it?

Firstly, I have realised something about my fridge-freezer. It isn’t. I bought it thinking the bottom half was a freezer because, after all, top or bottom, one half of a fridge-freezer is always a freezer, isn’t it?

I suppose I did vaguely wonder, over the eight months or so that this great white monster, larger than any fridge I ever owned before, purchased in a fit of post Brexit/Apocalyptic prepping, was not actually making the many loaves of cheap sliced bread I stored in it rock hard. I had a vague memory of having to defrost frozen bread before eating but this – this was just a bit on the parky side. Half an hour in the fridge proper and Bob’ yer Uncle.

Yesterday, the on which the British Heat Record of 2003 was broken – the hottest day in Britain ever – I staggered out to the garage in search of my acrylic heart-shaped ice-cube moulds. Why they were in the garage is a long story. To do with ill-fated soap-making. I filled all the wobbly moulds with tap water and wobbled them back across the kitchen to the “freezer”, spilling quite a bit. I left them in the “freezer” and forgot about them.

The hottest day has come and gone. Canadian Sis rang up and, after an hour of (once again) advising her how to deal with her intrusive, borderline bullying next-door-neighbour and (once again) explaining that negotiating with, defending against or manoeuvring around Other People is not a generic Man’s/Husband’s Job, but something that, male of female, we all need to set our minds to sooner or later. She is so angry at her deceased husband for leaving her with all these unsuspected complications that she actually berates his Ashes, in their Urn on the mantel piece, in passing. How could you go and get cancer and leave me to deal with all this… stuff? You weren’t supposed to do that! Anyway, after that hour, I peeled the landline phone from my left cheek to find it – the phone, that is – running with sweat. No wonder it crackles.

After an appalling night spread-eagled naked on top of the bed (not as exciting as it sounds) which had somehow been wheeled into some sort of nightmarish oven full of itchy, hot cats, aching heads, lightning flashes and distant thunder, waking at fifteen minute intervals to drink lukewarm water from a row of plastic bottles, and then at thirty minute intervals to totter out to the loo to spend a penny – after which my face still looks like some puffy, puce balloon – I staggered to my “freezer”, remembering my “ice cubes”. Which of course were still unfrozen. A bit colder, perhaps, than they would have been in the fridge but definitely still liquid.

I can’t say I understand, but I think the best and cheapest option is a change of nomenclature: my fridge freezer is, henceforward, the fridge-and-ever-so-slightly-colder.

Secondly, we have a new Prime Minister. I doubt if anybody is very hopeful. Pity us poor Brits, all hope has been leached out of us – leached, I say. How could the Government have stuffed things up so very badly? How can we possibly escape from this dreadful mire? All is lost. We might once have hoped for greatness from Boris, and maybe we still do, secretly, in a dull, dispirited sort of way. However, he is if nothing else telling us to lighten up. He is standing at the Dispatch Box, waving his arms about, laughing, joking, and assuring us that everything is going to be all right. Better than all right, in fact. Fantastic! Somehow. And it’s the greatest relief. Not the extravagant promises, not the fractional likelihood of success, not the grim political odds against him, not the likelihood of this brilliant but careless man making some gaffe or blunder and thereby ruining it for himself, but the humour. Humour is our national medicine, like grass to cats. It’s the way we cope. It’s that Monty Python thing. It’s our weird, homegrown kind of courage and it’s the glue that holds us together. Irreverence, bad jokes, the refusal to take our opponents, however formidable, at all seriously; wild, wonderful laughter – is perhaps, right now, our only faint hope of a cure.

And finally, the Meaning Of Life. Never say I don’t end with a biggie. Many years ago when I was still, if precariously, living with Ex, I was driving home from work one day and fell into a kind of reverie, and out of the blue it came to me: The Meaning Of Life. Which was (wait for it) The Two Worlds Are One. I remember being overjoyed as I drove down this long, twisty country lane across the Marsh, avoiding deep ditches on either side, that The Meaning Of Life had miraculously been vouchsafed to me.

The next day, although I could remember that The Two Worlds Were One, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what that meant – or what I had thought it meant during my Road to Damascus moment. I suspect I am not the only person that has happened to.

Every since, at intervals, I have wondered whether The Two Worlds Are One meant anything at all. I mean, how likely was it that a mediocre legal secretary would intuit something that people like Einstein had been unable to tell us? But finally, cheeringly – today I opened a book called “You Are The Universe” by Deepak Chopra. It had just come through the door. I stripped off the Amazon cardboard, took a sip of coffee and opened it randomly at page 232, and there was this (subtly ungrammatical) paragraph:

“The great pause can be found in the words of a scientist, including Heisenberg and Schrödinger, who suddenly sees, quite clearly, that there is only one reality, not two. There is no inner and outer, no me and you, no mind and matter, each half guarding its own marked off territory. The realisation is like a pause because the mind has stopped conceiving of reality and now starts living it.”

Ta da!

2: Supping with the Devil

Continued from 1: A house divided (technically, published on 29/7. You might need to use the Search box)

It’s a hopeless task, really, trying to explain how an alternative brain-wiring scheme works. I don’t know what it feels like to be inside a different kind of brain. Each of us has either the one experience or the other, so in what terms can I describe my experience?

Dad used to hit me. I think maybe later in life he realised he could be fond of me, but not in those early days. I soon learned not to meet his eye, not to answer back, not to say anything, but he didn’t like that either. He knew I was afraid and he just couldn’t resist the challenge. It would start off in the third person: She’s not saying much – what’s up with her? Then it would go to the first: Cat got your tongue, has it? Hey, you, I’m talking to you. He used to taunt me until I rose to the bait, until I snapped, answered back, pleaded or cried. And then he used to hit me.

I remember crouching once against the front door, with its bobbled glass panels. My head was against the lowest row of glass panels, my left arm covering my head. I remember the fancy sculpted shape of the wooden bits that divided the glass and the rough texture of the cocoanut doormat through the thin cotton of my school dress. I remember waking covered in vomit (the bedroom wall was the background that time) because I had cried myself to sleep. I remember rocking, rocking and howling, and saying over and over to myself for hours, or so it seemed: I will never, never have children. I will never, never do this to them. Sometimes I wonder if that was why. If on that one day, rocking and howling, at the age of eleven I actually killed off all those little eggs.

He used to get off his bike and wheel it round the side and into the garage. I would be listening to his heavy footfall and the sound of his bicycle wheels slowly click-clicking by his side. A monster, a giant was about to burst through the back door. There would be the urgent, whispered conversation between the two of them, before the door was even closed – that was me being reported on. A quick look in my direction, that frown, and then he would hit me. Or maybe he would just send me to my room; or sometimes, for variety, grab me by the collar and drag me to my room. If I resisted he might drag me by the hair along the polished passage floor to my room, blubbering. I would be in there for hours, until I wrote a note apologising in general terms – since in specific terms I didn’t actually know what I had done – crept out and pushed it under the kitchen door.

Whether Dad’s bullying had anything to do with me being odd I will never know. It was beyond my limited understanding. Another thing I didn’t understand at the time was why Mum never stood up for me. Knowing the consequences, why hadn’t she dealt with my crimes herself, before he got home? As it was, the minute he got in from work he was faced with a whispered, unfavourable report. She expected him to ‘do’ something to stop her being upset. And he certainly did.

In retrospect I think Mum was like me, or maybe mildly autistic. Dad was her prop and her shield against the world and she knew she couldn’t – or didn’t want to – cope without him. If he could burn off most of his frustration on me, he would be closer to her. Nothing would be her fault and she would keep him on her side, at her side whatever the cost, no competition. I suppose that’s scapegoating. She fed me to him, that’s what I feel.

Godmother has been around since I was just a bump. She babysat for Mum and Dad in the early days, when they had weekly meetings at the Cycling Club. Recently I asked her about some of this stuff, half expecting that she would say no, it wasn’t like that, you misunderstood – but she had seen it too. She said my father probably shouldn’t have got married and had children. I said maybe he would have been happier staying single, having serial girlfriends, going out on his bike whenever he wanted, not having to work so hard to support all those great lanky girls. He was a handsome enough chap, after all. But she said he probably couldn’t have got away with that. In the 50s marriage and children were the norm.

What that ’50s childhood taught me was that I wasn’t going to win. An unnatural, un-cuddly sort of baby – according to Mum – morphed into a fractious, defensive child, an automatic arguer and questioner of authority; an impulsive blurter-outer; a foolish answerer-back of people much larger and stronger than herself; a raging, hysterical demander of impossible justice. I learned that I was fatally flawed and that my Achilles’ heel was a combination of femaleness and my difference. I realised that I would not be able to get through life without some sort of bodyguard, and bodyguards were usually husbands.

My mother married my father in 1949 or thereabouts. He was six foot four inches tall, athletic and seven years older than her. He could be charming. He had a sense of humour, plenty of funny stories, a few silly songs and poems. He was at ease talking to  strangers when she was definitely not. He could tell her what to think and what to do. She never once voted a different way, she had no friends but their joint friends. At one point they were both agnostics, and then they were both humanists. They’d sent for all the pamphlets and signed all the forms. It was impossible to talk to one of them independently of the other or even catch one in a different room to the other. Especially towards the end they seemed to have merged into a single being. They stayed happily married until his death, after which Mum got increasingly deaf, then distressingly psychotic, finally settling into a less dramatic kind of dementia.

In ’70s I married a man nine years older than me. He looked like Dad and – guess what – was very definite in his opinions and would brook no argument. On one ‘courting’ visit he won an argument with Dad, and it was at that precise moment that I knew I had found the one. Later on I realised that he talked all the time – droned on, in fact – and since he never paused for breath everyone had to listen to him. In any case, since he was very clever and pretty gifted in several different fields, people admired him. It was as if they were in the presence of royalty. In the pub they would gather round in a circle and gawp at him open-mouthed as he held forth on art, music, model engineering or whatever. I used to watch them sometimes; their expressions. They never noticed because their eyes were glued to him. I didn’t need to join in, couldn’t have done if I had wanted to, and nobody expected me to. When we were alone he barely spoke. This suited me well enough for the first fifteen years or so, although I knew within the first week that it wasn’t going to be joyful.

That seems to be the thing with ‘shield’ relationships. The stronger one shields the weaker, but the power they use to shield you they are draining from you. In the presence of Ex, I would not have dared make a joke. I couldn’t have launched into one of my interminable ‘tales’. I couldn’t have showed off or spoken up, contradicted, criticised, interrupted, sung, recited a poem or laughed. An overbearing husband can hide you from the world, but will also hide you from yourself. Gradually, from behind the shield of his loud voice, broad shoulders, manly tweeds (Germaine Greer’s expression) or whatever, you find yourself fading away. You merge into the wallpaper and turn into a living ghost.

It’s a cliché, isn’t it, escaping your father by marrying someone just like him. On one of his alternate weekend ‘courting’ visit to my family (he used to camp in the living room at mine, I was installed in the spare room at his) he won an argument with my father. He didn’t shout – well, neither of them shouted – but there was this tense, gruff, masculine thing going on. They both just continued ‘reasoning’ at one another, going round and round in circles. Mum and I cringed quietly in our armchairs, waiting for all the windows to shatter and bricks and mortar start crumbling around us. No one contradicted Dad. Except, it seemed, Ex.

See 3: Send in the clowns