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

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

Let’s all just jump on William

Funny how things go: I just sat down here to write an article about – in a rambling sort of way – justice – and cats – and found a comment on that same subject by a new follower, on a different post.

I remember a lengthy conversation I had with Ex. We did have quite a few such lengthy conversations, often after too much beer or cider, which seemed to be the only way we could get past each other’s barriers. Hasten to add, I don’t drink now. Well, maybe the odd glass of wine at Christmas, if offered.

I was working for a firm of solicitors and had just had another conversation with my boss. She was a probate and trusts partner, but I had asked her how a criminal lawyer can bring themselves to defend someone who is pleading innocent although everyone knows he’s guilty – a violent rapist, say, or a mass murderer. Firstly, she said that if at any point the client was foolish enough to tell the lawyer he was guilty, the lawyer could no longer defend him. As long as he maintained his innocence, the lawyer – even though all sorts of verbal games had to be played to keep up this pretence – would continue to represent him, and do his or her utmost to put his side of the case (which isn’t necessarily the same thing as proving him innocent). Secondly, she said, everyone is entitled to a fair trial.

Now, Ex was a complex being. A gentle soul in many ways, he buried his deceased goldfish around the pond. He put up little crosses where each old cat was buried, and asked me to write a poem on a slip of paper to bury with them. He was many IQ points brighter than me (he took the test for MENSA) but if you were just listening to him arguing – about anything – you’d assume he was one of those shaven-headed National Front members, the sort with HATE tattooed on their knuckles. In argument, at least, he was always absolutely black or white, no shades of grey. Me, I love a good paradox: ambiguity is one of the few things I can cope with.

So his take on Justice was – and for all I know may still be – this: if everyone knows some bugger is guilty, then that bugger should be immediately shot, beheaded or castrated, depending on what he did. No time wasted by mealy-mouthed lawyers, arguing on his side. I remember, through the usual cider fog, saying that that was all very well, but just because everyone thinks they know someone is guilty, doesn’t mean that they actually are. After all, everyone knew all those poor, harmless old ladies in the Middle Ages were guilty of witchcraft and allowed the Devil to suckle on their teats, etcetera.

I remember asking him what if you were the one accused of a crime of which you were innocent – but everyone – everyone – knew you were guilty. Wouldn’t you be grateful then for a lawyer willing to prepare your case and argue in your defence? How could we call ourselves civilised, I asked him, if we reverted to taking it upon our individual selves to shoot, hang, castrate – or whatever – anyone we decided we knew was guilty?

And cats? Well, this week I have been looking after a cat called Nicholas.  Oh, let’s be honest, I’ve gone and adopted yet another stray. Nicholas arrived at my back door with a badly mangled arm, and the vet gave me the choice of either amputation at the shoulder, more or less, or euthanasia. So of course I paid for the amputation. I collected the cat later in the day. Inside his box they had wrapped him in a blanket against the cold. They did not offer to show him to me before I took him home, but I could imagine. Actually, though it looks strange – a cat with only one front leg – and sad, it’s not that shocking. He’s still the same Nicholas.

All went well for the first week, then I was woken at 2 in the morning by what sounded like a horrendous cat fight. But it wasn’t. It was Nicholas, standing in his pet bed, wobbling about on all three legs, screaming in terror whilst fighting off some invisible enemy that was obviously much larger than himself. This – whatever it might have been – fox, dog – had him by the leg – the now-amputated front leg – and Nicholas was twisting and turning, lashing out, trying desperately to pull himself free.

All my cats came running, as they always do when there is a ‘fight’. Their idea of justice is this: usually, any fight will involve William. William is a lumbering ginger cat who thinks he is in charge but isn’t – although he used to be. William is not very bright and, I’m afraid, a bit of a bully. So the cats come running and all jump on William. This does solve the problem, though it’s not exactly fair on William – he might have been in the right.

But now, with Nicholas, the weakness of cat strategy – the fundamental alien-ness of cats – has become apparent to me. Every couple of hours, still, in the depth of his nightmares poor Nicholas wakes up screaming. Fighting for his life against an invisible opponent.

Arthur approaches Nicholas. Arthur, huge, but usually the soppiest and most tremulous of cats. Ah, I think, he’s going to try and comfort his little friend. Arthur approaches, on tiptoe and extends a nose towards Nicholas’s nose, whiffling gently. And then he pounces on Nicholas and, notwithstanding the amputated front arm, proceeds to try to murder him. Fur flies everywhere. I grab Arthur. How could you? I ask him, tearfully. Even a human being wouldn’t set upon a disabled member of their own species, especially one who was suffering from PTSD.

Nicholas seems OK, if a bit battered. The stitches are still in place. Arthur looks at me blankly. He doesn’t understand and I don’t understand. How is this logic?

So I am having to think of strategies to protect Nicholas when I am forced to be out of the house, just in case. Feliway Friends (expensive! and you have to buy a refill every thirty days!) plugged in right next to the room he is occupying – the bathroom at the moment, which is very inconvenient (argh, a pun!) – and a long rabbit run for the spare room, so that he can get around but hopefully not be attacked.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: My Life Is So Complicated.

Cows with no legs; a church with no congregation; radioactive singing frogs

In their latter years Mum and Dad ‘did’ the same holiday year after year: they went to Middle Farm. Middle Farm was in the middle of a long and sinuous lane between two villages, and in the middle of the Marsh. They packed the car with practised ease. Mum had a list and she ticked things off. In earlier years they took the bicycles, strapped to the back of the car. Dad never went anywhere without his bike. But later… later there was no point in the bike. He just sort of sat.

They usually went September or October. It was a bit cheaper end of season but the sun still shone, at least once the mist had burnt off the fields. We – ie the three separate sisters, our partners, husbands – or later not – Godmother, cycling chums and other increasingly ancient persons – were invited down there for days, or an afternoon. Mum kept a schedule, I think, and ticked people off with relief.

It was dullish, but it made a change of scene. Mum and Dad didn’t see much of the farm, nor were they really interested in doing so. Not for them the borrowed wellies, lending a hand to muck out the pigs and all that rural stuff. They were happy enough to potter down through the farm, to the bridge over the ditch that marked one of its boundaries, and to sing the praises of Cecilia, the farmer’s wife. Cecilia was the person they saw, since she ran the chalet business.

Three chalets, later four, in a row, in a field next to the winding road. Sheep in a vast field behind, and a branch railway line, a long way in the distance, chugging down to Rye. During the day you hardly noticed the trains. At night, though, they came through lit up and spectacular, and were a point of interest, something to exclaim over. My parents always exclaimed over them. I expect Mum kept a list of trains too, and ticked them off.

Cecilia irritated me. She was kind of glam and ‘anyone for tennis’. Indeterminate age, long, somehow expensively blonde hair casually caught up. Always bouncing off to the gym, suitably attired. Trim figure – Dad liked that. Dubiously posh accent. Mum liked that. Painted. OK paintings but not brilliant. Several hanging (casually) on the walls of the chalet. Different ones each year. Prices on the back. High prices, for what they were.

But – good, clean accommodation, pleasant surroundings, value for money.

We would go for walks, on our allotted visits. Apart from the walk to the boundary there were three ‘proper’ walks, and Mum had the casting vote. The first was very long and eventually took you, sore-footed, into a village with a pub where you could get a cooked meal and a cup of tea to fortify you for the the very long walk back. I dreaded that one.

There was the one to the church in the middle of the field, for which you had to collect the key – a big rusty iron object – at a cottage some way down the road. We went there once in later autumn. There were cows in the field – sheep, cow and rabbit droppings to crunch over – but you couldn’t seen the cows’ leg for the mist. Half-cows. Inside there were a party of Scottish bell-ringers, on a holiday of their own. Their mission: to ring all the bells in all the churches on the Marsh. They rang them while we were there. But the church itself, rather like a film set. No feeling of people – real people – ever having been there. Just musty. Meaningless. Enclosed.

And then there was the one with the frogs. This was the least onerous. No key to collect, no blisters or perspiration involved, just a square walk round narrow lanes and back again. Lanes so narrow that grass grew in cracks up the middle. Ditches on either side. The Marsh is a magical place but when you’re out in it it always gives you that same uneasy feeling, that this time you might not get back. It might be intending to…swallow you. There’s something dank about it, something ancient, cynical and not entirely welcoming, like the glint in Cecilia’s eye.

At a certain point it was obligatory to stop and listen for the song of the Marsh Frogs. These frogs were famous, and supposedly of a giant variety. They were as invisible as they were audible, so there was no way of telling – and anyway, I’m not sure any of us really knew what a normal frog was supposed to look like. When I worked at the power station, rumour had it they were radioactive, having at some point wallowed in radioactive ditch-water near the plant, and that was why they had grown so monstrously large. I doubt if it was true since the power station were always careful – paranoid, in fact – about not making stuff radioactive. Another rumour was that the frogs had been imported from a far-off land where there were Especially Big Frogs – and had escaped from some domestic pond, gaily to multiply and sing in all the ditches.

But then came the day when Dad was taken ill. We came back from that walk and found him secretly bathing his bandaged bad leg. It had been kind of leaking for a while, we knew that – something to do with the valves inside the veins disintegrating, like a series of broken ladders. But this – was a horrible sight. He had kept secret how bad it had become, not wanting to spoil Mum’s holiday. He had driven down there, somehow, but was in no fit state to drive back. He wouldn’t be persuaded to be taken to hospital, either. In the end I enlisted Ex and (inevitably) My Replacement. They didn’t live that far off. Dad had always got on with Ex and Ex had a way of imposing common sense on chaotic situations. He had never been able to bring himself to say ‘Dad’ so he breezed in with: “Now then Mr — what’s all this then?”

They had a jolly, masculine chat, the pair of them, whilst the rest of us tried very hard to not to look at that monstrous, suppurating leg; but the old Ex magic didn’t work this time. Eventually Mum packed everything up and drove the both of them home. They had only been there a couple of days. There was no refund, of course, and they never went again. Just in case. Just in case.

And that’s what life’s like, isn’t it? That is the way of Time. There is always going to be the Giant Hand, imposing a full stop at the end of our half-finished sentence. We just don’t notice that Hand till afterwards. It descends in silence and always, always, takes us by surprise.

giant frog

Into a ditch with Mozart

When I was younger, so much younger than today…

I was driving my wonky little old car across the Marsh. (One of a series of wonky little old cars.) I think this was the wonky little old red one.

Anyway, I was listening to Mozart, on a tape. Shows you how long ago it was. I was on my way to work.

I was listening to Mozart because he was the only classical composer I could think of the name of. I grew up in an uncultural environment. My mother was a fan of Matt Monro (the singing bus driver) – who died. Also Jim Reeves, who had a very deep voice. And died. My mother cried the day that Jim Reeves died, just as I cried the day John Lennon got shot.

My father liked to sing along to Sing Something Simple, which as far as I remember was Sunday lunchtimes on the radio. Oh, home on the range, he used to croon, melodiously, with the requisite tinge of an American accent, where the deer and the antelope roam… Well, we all used to croon.

My ex-husband was far more educated, musically, than I. He used to play blues guitar, and some classical pieces. I would listen to him in amazement, though it was depressing. I had once wanted to play the guitar and now – how could I?

He was nine years older than me and remembered jazz and folk, obscure (to me) blues singers from the thirties and forties – and all sorts of stuff that I was only able to love and appreciate after I had left him. He even knew about Early Music and the Aeolian mode, and the pentatonic scale, and polyphony. Now I love that stuff (though I still couldn’t explain the Aeolian mode) but I never used to listen to him when he started going on about it. Every time he started to reveal even an edge of his massively greater knowledge of just about everything I would bristle and switch off. Grrr…

But at one point, even while I was married to him, I realised that I did want to learn about Classical Music. I kept secret my experimentation with tapes (borrowed from the public library) because he would no doubt make me feel inadequate yet again if I told him. Telling him anything seemed to result in a helpful, university-type lecture. I accidentally made mention of helicopters once and was treated to a whole lunch hour’s disquisition on torque.

So I was playing Mozart, rather loudly, in the wonky little old car as I drove in to work. It had been raining overnight and the road was muddy, and then this blackbird flew out, really low, and of course I braked

People afterwards kept saying You braked for a BLACKBIRD? You crashed your car into a ditch and nearly killed yourself to save the life of a BIRD? Which only really goes to show that it’s more than skin deep, my belief that all life is sacred and all of absolutely equal value. Not killing birds,  slugs, ants or any living thing – not even carving my name into the bark of a tree or removing a stone from its resting place, is programmed into me. I am those things, and they are me.

Anyway, I was in this ditch for only about ten minutes. I couldn’t find the switch to turn Mozart off, and anyway I do believe I was shaking. So weird, that long, rightwards and downwards Mozartesque slither. So balletic. Then I understood that thing about time slowing down. And all around me were kind of weeds and tiny trees – a tiny tree had impeded my further descent – the Marsh ditches are major drainage channels, and deeper than average – and the road was now… somewhere up there!

I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I grabbed my handbag. Women always grab their handbags, I think. I pushed the car door open as far as it would go, which wasn’t all the way. Brambles. There was a sort of latticework of vegetation but no clear indication of where the actual bank was. I looked at my work shoes. High(ish) heels. I looked at my work tights. The tights were for it.

But shortly two, or maybe three cars stopped and two, or maybe three kind men came running from various directions and pulled me out of the ditch. One of them gave me a lift home. By this time I was shaking like a leaf and couldn’t stop talking. I remember thinking, stop talking, you wally! But I couldn’t.

My car was a write-off. It didn’t look too badly damaged but apparently its engine and all its working parts were kind of jammed up with mud. I never saw it again. Somebody must have dragged it out and disposed of it.

I have since listened with pleasure to a wide range classical composers, and have become a particular fan of Thomas Tallis. But Mozart? Poor Mozart, I can no longer listen to him.

Cor(e) Blimey

Well, I never thought I would find myself lusting after three pieces of orange neon Perspex shaped like apple-cores, but you live and learn. All over the internet are ladies commenting on quilting posts, and their universal reaction to a picture of an apple core quilt or the apple core template is “Where did you get it? I want one”.

I never learn. I’d been happily sewing squares together on the machine and waiting for my left-handed rotary cutter to arrive from America. (Left-handed rotary cutters are as scarce as the droppings of rocking horses, but right-handed ones are no good because you can’t see where you’re cutting.)  Well, happily… it was getting a bit boring. It’s OK sewing a few squares together but a whole quilt-full and it becomes like working in a Greetings Card Factory. Something I have also done. Believe me, you don’t know the meaning of tedious until you have spent the whole of July at a bench with a glue-gun attaching red glitter to luxurious padded Valentine cards.

I first saw an apple-core quilt on the internet. It was done by an Amish lady and it was utterly magical. I wanted one!  To add to the magic, it’s a template that can only be used on it’s own. It disdains to fit with anything else, like those common old squares and triangles and whatnot.

Anyway, my templates finally arrived today – all three of them, glowing a discreet orange and seductively heavy. From Poland! No wonder they took so long. In between my usual tasks – feeding, watering and mucking out after eighteen cats; doing several machine-loads of washing and so forth – I have been watching YouTube videos and experimenting.

I have watched ladies in tartan shorts sitting in rocking chairs on their back porches sewing apple-cores by hand. I have watched ladies with pearls and neat white perms sewing apple-cores by machine. I have read articles about the history of patchwork by unknown bloggers. This is the way I teach myself to do anything nowadays. I used to go and get books from the library and immediately lose interest at the sight of all those diagrams. Video tutorials are quicker and easier.

The thing with the apple-core is, it’s got a curve to it. That makes it difficult, and the more difficult the smaller the template you are working with. “It’s all right for you,” I tell the perm-and-pearls lady, “working with a template the size of a house brick”. But she does give some excellent advice, which is:

“You can’t hurry a curve.”

You can say that again. First you fold to find your centre, then you pin in an elaborate kind of way, and then you – well, then I – tack and then you run it through your sewing machine really slowly – like one of those slow bicycle races.

And then you unpick it and try again.

Eventually you get it more or less right and iron the seam flat.

Then you start again.

The thing is, if you are feeling depressed, if life has become a bit much for you, if you are harassed or in any way unhappy, I would recommend attaching one single apple core piece to another. This will take you about an hour of quiet concentration, and at the end of it you will be happy.

By the way, no British person has said Cor Blimey or its variant Gor Blimey since the 1950s. The last time I remember it was in a comic song by Lonnie Donegan entitled “My Old Man’s A Dustman”. The words went something like this:

My old man’s a dustman

He wears a dustman’s hat

He wears Gor Blimey trousers

And he lives in a council flat…

or something like that.

donegan2

Oh yes, and the Dick Van Dyke attempt whilst playing Bert the chimney-sweep in Mary Poppins, which sounded a bit like Gar Bloimey. Apparently DVD has recently apologised for his atrocious Cockney accent in that film. He said he asked a famous old English actor, then working in Hollywood, what a Cockney accent might sound like. So the famous old English actor demonstrated the accent and DVD copied it faithfully. The rest is history.

Apparently he tackled the elderly English actor about this later and the English actor said something to the effect that he never claimed to have actually met a Cockney.

No, no one much says Cor Blimey. It’s one of those phrases that went out with the Ark, like Stap Me Vitals or ‘Zounds, Sir, Have At Ye! (Both to be exclaimed by a sword-fighting nobleman in slashed knickerbockers or maybe tights, swathes of lace at his wrist and a pet monkey on his shoulder) or Avast, Ye Swabs! (Suitable for a pirate captain with a wooden leg and a parakeet on his shoulder). Or Arr, pieces of eight, pieces of eight! (Suitable only for the parakeet.)

Although I did actually sit next to an man wearing Gor Blimey trousers once, in a village pub. Ex was up at the bar getting the drinks (I just had to sit) and I was sat on this bench next to old – let’s call him Harry. And there was this smell something like the long-cooked cabbage we had for school dinners. When the opportunity presented itself I asked Ex (in a whisper, of course) what that smell was. He said it was Harry’s trousers. Innocently I enquired: But why would Harry’s trousers smell like that?

Ex explained.

(Ex, by the way, had a Lonnie Donegan blue-and-white sweater as a teenager. I believe his Mum knitted it for him.)

Did I just not-bodge something?

I have lived a long time and in all that time I have been, as far as I could tell, a bit of a bodger.

My father was a bodger too, sadly. I think I inherited the gene. My father mended things with lumps of putty and wadges of duct tape. My father stood in the bath in his boots to descale the boiler. The bath – as my mother had, in hysterical whispers, predicted – filled up with sharp lumps of stuff which the big boots then ground in, ruining the surface of the bath. More hysterical whispers. My parents rowed in whispers, and occasional muffled sobs.

My father brought home some special rubberised white paint and painted the sandpaper surface of our bath. We did not have a shower in those days and so had all had to put up with sandpapered sit-upons for some weeks by then. The special rubberised white paint began to blister and peel the first time it came into contact with hot water. We are a family of tinkerers and destroyers. Powerless to resist we all separately and secretly picked and tinkered at that peeling paint until the bath was a mass of torn white strips. I don’t recall what happened to the bath in the end. Did they ever replace it?

My father cut down my mother’s favourite tree in the front garden, though she had begged him not to. He just couldn’t resist having a go at that tree once the urge to tinker and destroy struck him. I know that feeling. Must…just…ruin something.

Ex was scathing about the practical manly abilities of my father – and indeed of my grandfather, a carpenter with a tendency to produce stools with a slight wobble to them – criticisms which hurt my feelings all the more deeply for being factually correct. Ex was a clever, gifted and gentle man in many ways but there was a Wide Sargasso Sea of human interaction that he never managed to navigate – or even notice. You could summarise it something like this:

  • Occasionally you can avoid stating the obvious.
  • Sometimes, with difficulty, you can bite your tongue and pretend not to know something when in fact you know it very well.
  • Once in a while you can allow people prove you wrong even when, if you really set your incisive, logical mind to it, you could easily prove them wrong.
  • It is not lying to appear to be impressed by something that is neither clever or wonderful, purely for love of the person who just paid you the compliment of sharing it with you.

Where was this leading? Someone remind me…

Oh yes, not-bodging. Today I made my first patchwork quilt block on the sewing machine. I took care over it, mainly because I wanted to, and because am hoping to sell the ‘quilt’, or rather the quilt top as I have recently learned to call it, once completed. I ironed every seam. I unpicked one seam that had failed to come out exactly a quarter of an inch at one end. And do you know, examine it as I might I can’t actually find any evidence of bodging. One down, only seventy-seven more like that to go.

I thought I might enjoy designing my own quilt patterns but am still waiting for  squared paper to arrive. In the meantime, so as to strike while the iron is hot, I have embarked on a Christmas-themed sampler quilt – ie, working my way through all of the traditional American quilt blocks in my book using the three templates conveniently provided in an envelope at the back. They thought of everything!

Did I just mention the ‘C’ word in July? Sorry.

They have lovely names, but some of the block patterns are more compelling than others. I started with Anvil, which does look like an anvil but is pretty ugly. I guess it may look better when repeated over an entire quilt. Good to get that one out of the way first, I thought, so that’s what I did. And not-bodged it! Next block: Barbara Frietchie’s Star. I am wondering who Barbara Frietchie actually was (and what ‘Old Tippercanoe’ might signify). Answers on a postcard, please.

By the way, if you haven’t yet got round to reading Wide Sargasso Sea – a kind of ‘prequel’ to Jane Eyre from the point of view of Mr Rochester’s infamous Madwoman in the Attic – it’s good. Disturbing, but good.

sargasso.jpg

An attempt at reconstitution

A phrase from the ‘Mum’ recipe included in the previous post has stuck in mind:

CARE – if you do the latter, don’t let any water get into it or let it get too hot, else it goes solid and you can’t reconstitute it.

She was talking, of course, about the delicate art of melting chocolate. However, it led me into an area of thought I would rather have avoided – or more likely have been avoiding, all this time. To what extent is the ‘Mum’ who appears in this my blog – the reconstituted Mum, as it were – the real one?

I started writing this blog, as I recall, around the time that Mum’s dementia/ psychosis was getting really bad. Around that time we had several silly arguments during my Sunday visits, about foolish claims she made, completely illogical conclusions she had come to, and her patronising insistence that it was me – the stupid child – who had got things all mixed up. Twice I came home from a visit in tears because of the illogicality of it all.  Dementia is something you are forced to learn about from scratch, and usually doesn’t look like dementia to start with. You make mistakes. You let it get to you because somehow or other you haven’t spotted it – that great black storm cloud on the horizon, barrelling towards you.

As far as I recall, the time I wrote my first post and started rescuing all sorts of ancient, spider-infested writings from cardboard boxes in the garage was about the same time I realised I could no longer talk to Mum on an adult to adult, person to person basis. I could no longer talk to her as a daughter. I could no longer ask her advice or rely on her for anything. On the contrary, she was going to be relying on me. It was then that I started this blog.

And so, I have often thought, the ‘dementia’ part of this blog (a relatively small percentage of it) has been an attempt to put her back together again, to recreate her, to preserve her – whatever. And the same for my father – whom I scarcely mourned when he died and did not begin to miss really badly until my mother began to leave me too. And the same of course for my lost life, my lost past selves. These multiple ‘goodbyes’ must happen to every human being as they age, I think – just maybe not all at once or concentrated into so short a time.

In painting word-pictures of Mum, and Dad, and me, and my sisters, I have tried to be honest. I mean, I find it difficult to restrain myself from writing honestly – that’s how it tends to come out – but I sometimes wonder if any of us – the typed up and published ‘us’ – are real? Or could it be that the typed-up and published ‘us’ is in some ways more real than the flesh and blood sad, distracted old folk we really are? Hyper-real.

Damn, I knew this was going to be difficult one to write. How can you put into words something so… transitory and vague?

I find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the Mum of the recipes, the Mum of the sewing box, the Mum with whom I Listened With Mother, the Mum who enraged me by throwing out my boyfriend’s copy of 1984 because she had happened upon the scene with the rats… with the thin, poor person in the plastic armchair, yesterday. I find it difficult to understand this creature who can no longer be shown how to drink from a spout on a plastic cup with the bright-eyed girl who went to grammar school and passed all her exams (except geography!) with flying colours in spite of the second world war. I find it hard to believe that this is a human being let alone my human being. I can no longer talk to her, nor she to me, and without the salve of words I struggle to feel any connection between us. It is as if we no longer belong to the same species, or that she has become animal… or vegetable.

I once had a lover who was – or claimed to be and I have no reason to disbelieve him – clairsentient. He asked me once about the bond between soon-to-be-Ex and I. Did it still feel, he asked, like an umbilical cord stretching between us? Did it still feel as if we were joined by a strong thread, navel to navel and that any separation would produce a painful tug? At the time I suspect I denied it, but whatever I said he would have ‘felt’ the truth as I was speaking. And he was right.

colored dust

It seems to me now that once you have really loved someone, willingly or not, that cord is formed and can never again be broken. You might say that the cord between Ex and I has worn awfully shabby over time and now more closely resembles a thin and greying old piece of elastic than the magnificently throbbing ‘shared umbilical’ of my lover’s psychic imagery. Still, it stretches through the miles between us.

And I suppose the same cord stretches between my mother and I. We are cut off from one another, adrift on different rafts, but still just about within sight. Maybe that is the final, almost-impossible lesson we are forced to learn – how to just be with someone. But how painful it is just to sit. How raw it feels just to be in a room with someone and not be shielded with words or even understanding. How hard it is, finally, to permit yourself to feel the cord stretching and stretching as the other person pulls away, and to know that you are never going to be able to cut the cord, however much it hurts.

One Long Frog

‘First swallow your frog’ used to be one of my favourite mottoes. In other words, at the beginning of each day tackle that one task you want to do about as much as swallowing a live frog. However, it seems to me that the older you get the more frogs seem to string themselves together until some days seem to be One Long Frog.

Take the other day, for instance: mammogram; long wait to see a doctor about a persistent cough; chest x-ray. And I only had tooth x-rays the day before. Won’t I be radioactive? Or are mammograms some other sort of wave and/or particle? Long bus journey there. Long bus journey back.

And tomorrow? One Long Frog. Long bus journey to see my elderly lady. Well, I like seeing my elderly lady and she likes seeing me, but listening-and-prompting for an hour is surprisingly hard work – like job interviews – something I was good at. Good at the interview, rubbish at the job, usually.

After elderly lady? Remove scratchy ‘visitor’ dingly-dangly thing with awful photo from around neck. Speedwalk to bus stop. Catch next bus into town instead of home. No doubt will get the Smelly Person again. I never realised human beings were smelly until I started caching buses. In town, catch next train. Then another train. Then walk to Mum’s bungalow to meet a person called Peter from a removal firm. Person called Peter is going to pack up a whole bunch of Ex’s paintings and prints and drive them and me back home. Thank goodness. At least I haven’t got to brave the school bus, this time.

While he’s making the Works of Art damp- and rodent-proof – for who knows how long they will now be languishing in my garage? – I have to pack up Nan’s blue tea set. That’s the only thing I’m ‘rescuing’ before the house is cleared – by someone called Gavin, or was it Steven? – and Mum’s lifetime possessions, and all my lifetime memories, get driven off and distributed around the local charity shops.

To be honest, I don’t know which is worse – seeing Ex’s painting again and being reminded of Ex – because the paintings are the person – or seeing Mum’s house half empty, and that garden – her life’s passion and obsession – merely mown. Just sort of kept under control until the new owners or, as seems more likely, the bulldozers move in.

I always promised myself I wouldn’t go back, after that last traumatic/humiliating day/night when Mum was marched off to hospital, sandwiched between two burly ambulance-men. ‘Worst part of my job, this is’ one of them told me. But there’s no avoiding it. I’ve had my orders.

However, I remind myself of what happened with Nan and Grandad’s bungalow, in the same street. After they died Mum insisted I went along there with her. I was young(ish) then and had never seen a cleared house before. Nothing of Nan and Grandad remained: empty rooms smelling of linseed oil where someone had been fixing the windows. That house meant so much to me and it had never, ever, occurred to me that one day its whole shabby-familiar insides, together with Nan and Grandad, could just be gone. I hated Mum for taking me along there. I hated her businesslike mood.

‘Don’t you miss Nan?’ I asked her.

‘Oh, I’ve shed a tear or two, when I’ve been on my own.’

Shed a tear or two. Is that what you say about your own mother? But I knew what she was doing: brushing it under the carpet, setting it aside, saving it for later when I wasn’t there. Self defence.

That night I dreamed myself back in that house. I was standing in the empty kitchen and Grandad hurried past. I tried to talk to him but he couldn’t seem to see me. It was as if I was the ghost. And outside a sea of daisies pushed their way up through the lawn in that clever, punning way that subconscious daisies have.

For a long time I couldn’t see anything else but that empty, linseed-smelling house. It overlaid every childhood memory. My past had been removed. But gradually, over the years, the house as I had known it returned. I realised I could revisit it at any stage in its history, and myself in any stage of mine. All its past incarnations were still there, and so were mine.

And so I hope that gradually, after tomorrow’s final visit to Mum’s house, the colours of the past and all those lost versions of me will start to surface again. Finality and emptiness will be just one version.

Bonphobia

I was going to call this post C’mon Baby, Light My Fire. It would probably have attracted more clicks but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t.

I was a Girl Guide, actually, for about a week. Having miraculously escaped being drummed out of the Brownies for landing in the middle of the Toadstool and crushing it to death I became a Girl Guide but my new blue uniform hadn’t even arrived before I left of my own accord having been instructed to light a fire in a puddle round the back of the Junior School.

I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. It wasn’t so much the fire, at that stage, it was the ridiculousness of it.

I have never before tried to light a bonfire, to be honest. All this time and I left it to men. It was one of those men-tasks. Ex was very keen on starting fires. He was a man of many talents and in spite of being an artist worked for quite a while as a miniature steam train driver. As they chugged along – he and the Guard, who shovelled in the coal – they frequently set accidental fires all along the track. He loved doing that.

Later on he used to hold Bonfire Night parties and invite all the neighbours, and he personally would have built that gigantic bonfire down the bottom of the garden, and the elaborate Guy Fawkes. He personally had set up and would rush round setting off every single firework. He personally would have cooked vast trays of sausages and he personally would be dishing them up, in between rockets. I did nothing. All I saw of him all evening was this demonic shadow, leaping about, running the whole show. Something of a control freak.

Yesterday I was forced to try to light my first bonfire. I mean, how hard can it be to set light to some stuff in a bin? Too hard for me, evidently.

I was having to have the bonfire because I can no longer afford to drive my car. Seventeen cats means an awful lot of damp sawdust minus poo, sacks and sacks of it, and the Council only collects once a fortnight. Hitherto I had solved the problem by loading the car up with black sacks at intervals and driving ten miles or so to the tip where Council employees might or might not help me to drag the (leaking) sacks up the steep wooden stairs to the skip and heave them, somehow, over the top. Over the years as I have become weaker this has become more difficult.

I did ring the Council. I explained about the not driving and asked whether it would be possible for me to hire a second green bin, though really I couldn’t have afforded to.

No, she said.

Then would it be possible to class, say, paper bags full of sawdust as garden waste and hire one of those brown bins?

No, she said. Could you perhaps bury ten bin sacks full of damp sawdust in your garden every week?

Not really, I said.

I obtained all the stuff. The dustbin with the chimney, the red fireproof gloves, some little sachets called “fire starters”, a poker. I checked online when I was allowed to have fires and which weather conditions to avoid. The sawdust mountain was taking over the garage and I knew the day had came when I had to actually Set Light To Stuff. I hardly slept the night before. I don’t like to draw attention, you see. I don’t like to be seen. Setting Light To Stuff and causing a lot of smelly smoke was the equivalent, for me, of the casting off of the Seventh Veil.

As an afterthought I filled a large bucket of water to throw on it if it got out of hand.

I had no idea how to begin.

I realised I couldn’t just tip the sawdust in because there were air-holes in the bottom of the bin and it would just fall through. I thought I might have solved that problem by bagging the sawdust in paper bags. I put quite a lot of these in the bottom, and a bit of garden waste, and one or two of those little sachets of what looked like damp sugar, took a deep breath, lit a match and threw it in there.

Fifteen matches later, most of the bags had kind of singed through and blackened cat litter was trickling out of them. There had been a small amount of smoke but scarcely any flame, and what little flame there had been had died, repeatedly.

So, what did I do? Well, I did what I usually do in such crushing situations, of which there have been many in my life, I hid and trembled for a bit. Luckily in the corner behind the garage there happened to be plastic chair. No one could see me. Could they?

After a while I gathered myself together and went indoors, leaving the mess, temporarily. I went upstairs and turned on the computer and watched several YouTube videos on – How To Start A Fire, My New Garden Incinerator etc. Twenty minutes of watching some man throwing one log in after another and then putting the lid back on. I thought I would die of boredom but it was better than dealing with the mess.

I decided I had missed out several stages. I should have scrumpled up paper in the bottom, and on top of that I should have placed something called ‘kindling’ in a kind of horizontal lattice pattern on top. I searched for ‘kindling’ on Amazon and ordered some. Oh God, more expense. I should have set light to that and then introduced the cat litter once it was really hot. But how to introduce the cat litter, a mountain of which was currently bagged up in large brown paper bags guaranteed to kill any flame?

Then I found a video made by some bearded man with a pipe in a garage in America. It was about making fire-starters out of sawdust. He gnawed on this pipe as he melted down wax candles and mixed them with the sawdust in a bucket. Something about him was…soothing. Maybe it was the sound of the rain hammering on his workshop roof. I’m gonna work indoors today, he said, because of the rain. I wondered what manly, competent thing he usually did outdoors.

And then, he mumbled, around the pipe, you transfer the mixture still warm to these here muffin tins. Don’t use your wife’s (your wife?) best muffin tins because she will not be pleased. You press it down hard, like this and you put these here muffin tins in the fridge for twenty minutes or so to harden off and then you knock them out, like this, and…

So that’s what I’m going to try next, just as soon as the candles arrive.

A Dutchman, a Quiche and One White Eyebrow

Ex was not an easy chap to get along with, which was why, after twenty-two years or so, I had to leave him. I loved him then and suppose I still do – in an eccentric-older-brother sort of way – although now he is getting on in years and lives with another lady (search: My Replacement). He has developed one bristly white eyebrow at which, on the increasingly rare occasions that I see him, I cannot help staring. It reminds me of Thunderbird puppets.

He is still handsome. He kept the albums but I can still recall a photo of him, in his thirties, sitting against a Yorkshire farm gate, tanned, cotton shirt unbuttoned, reading a map. We were on holiday. He had no idea at all that he was handsome, and that was one reason that I loved him. Downside: he had no real idea what I looked like. He could paint a steam engine down to the last gleaming, mirror-surfaced detail – correct livery for the year, right number of bands on the funnel and everything (that’s so important to a steam buff). He could capture stark winter trees, stormy skies and sunny meadows but he didn’t do faces – couldn’t draw me, or human figures in general.

Now, where was I going with this? Forgive me, it’s nearly midnight and I’m propped up in bed, be-shawled and scribbling, blanketed in cats and trying to convince myself the headache is getting better. Oh yes, the Dutchman and his infernal Quiche.

Wim and his partner, another Dutch gentleman whose name I never knew – red-haired, he was – came to our village and opened a delicatessen in the High Street in what had been – what had it been? – the sort of antique shop that hardly ever has any customers and only opens on Leap Year Day. It was a good delicatessen, if rather exotic for our remote English village at that time.

Ex worked from home and was in charge of the cooking – well, in charge of everything – and was relentless in his adherence to custom and routine. Every day (every single day) we had boiled potatoes, spring greens and a Third Item. He adapted to my becoming a vegetarian, owing to having moved next door to a field of fluffy lambs, by substituting a meaty Third Item with a small vegetarian quiche, in my case or, as he preferred to call it, Flan. The only place you could get this Quiche, aka Flan, was the delicatessen run by Wim and his friend.

Now, Ex was surprisingly good with gay men, mostly, I suspect, because they did not include women. And he did, surprisingly again – for a person who ran like a clockwork toy, Ex was constantly surprising me – succeed in pronouncing Wim as ‘Vim’, which was how Wim pronounced it, and making no mention of the sink scouring powder of the same name. However, he would not say Quiche and Wim/Vim would not say Flan.

I wasn’t allowed to shop, but for some reason I always seemed to have to accompany Ex on food shopping expeditions, trailing submissively in his wake like one of those indoctrinated cult members; I always felt I should be wearing dusty sandals, a white robe made from a sheet, and my hair dishevelled around my shoulders. So whenever we went to the deli to buy my vegetarian Quiche aka Flan, the conversation would go something like this:

Wim/Vim (with a faint, continental curl of the lip):  What can I get you today, sir?

Ex:  One of your small vegetarian Flans, please.

Wim/Vim:  Quiche!

Ex:  Yes, Flan.

Wim/Vim:  Quiche!!

Ex: As I said, Flan.

Had Wim/Vim been married to Ex for twenty-two years he would have realised that there was no point at all in disputing with him about anything at all, let alone Quiche. At two or three in the morning, after many repetitious hours of disputation, you would have turned into a gibbering, screeching wreck. Ex, on the other hand, would be loftily calm and if anything even more convinced of his absolute correctness in this and all things. Wim/Vim could have ‘sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs’ till the cows came home but he would never have got Ex to concede that a Flan could be a Quiche.

The deli closed long ago. Poor little Wim/Vim – I do hope that he and his gingery consort are now enjoying a prosperous and well-deserved retirement amid the windmills and tulip fields and have managed to forget all about Quiche.

Or Flan.

Time for Plan B

Well, I promised myself I’d start writing short stories again and that’s what I’ve done – started writing one. Not, exactly, finished writing one. I think that might take another two posts.

Thing is, I know what the story’s about. I know how it’s going to turn out.

I just have to write the damn thing.

This reminds me of Ex. He was an artist and the paintings he did were large, in oils, and detailed. A ‘short’ painting might take six weeks, a longer one six months. I have no idea how we survived financially since it never occurred to me to ask and he wouldn’t have told me anyway. Maybe he was waiting tables or doing night shifts at Tesco when I wasn’t looking.

He used to say an awful lot of things – but one of the things he used to say while he was still bothering to say anything at all, was this – that he knew before he ever bought the brushes (a complete new set of brushes to every painting) exactly what the painting was going to look like when finished. The in-between bit – that six weeks or six months – was just a drag for him, like painting by numbers. He never wanted to be an artist. He wanted to fly aeroplanes in the RAF and shoot at other aeroplanes.

There is an element of that with my stories. I know what’s going to happen in them, I just wish I could farm the writing of them out to some willing drudge or other.

By the way, this is not going to be a story about a shoplifting dog although shoplifting – also South Wales and uncomfortable uniforms – do play a part in it.

TIME FOR PLAN B

(by me)

In the Pet Food aisle Gethyn slipped a finger inside the collar, trying to ease it away from his neck. At the start of his training he had been asked for his uniform size. He didn’t know his anything size. The last time he had had new clothes his Ma had bought them for him, and he’d forgotten how many years ago that might have been. Time disappears, rough-sleeping.

So they’d measured him, including his neck. ‘Stand still and don’t fidget, young man.’ He’d tried to stand still as she tightened the mustard-coloured tape-measure around his neck. Its edges were scratchy. So was the collar.

He hadn’t quite understood the need for the uniform. Surely if you were trying to catch shop-lifters you needed to be inconspicuous. Was anyone going to shop-lift in front of a man/boy in a uniform? They told him to begin with he would have Mainly Deterrent Value, but that once his probation was up and he’d put in a year or two he could be considered – considered – for an upgrade to plain clothes.

Gethyn fastened his hands behind his back as he’d been taught and pasted on the lofty, all-seeing, all-knowing expression he rehearsed in front of a mirror under the cruel strip-lighting of the long room above the High-Flier Fitness and Sauna Complex, Splott.

He’d learned many other things in that room – all the different ways shop-lifters attempted to shop-lift things and all the little ‘tells’ by means of which an experienced Loss Prevention Agent could catch them in the act such as an unseasonably sweaty brow or an excess of fiddling.

‘Lifters often attempt to disguise their intentions by excessive casualness…’ said Bob the Instructor and former plain-clothes officer in the Cardiff Heddlu.

‘…making a big show of tapping and fiddling and examining the article as if trying to decide whether to purchase it. A legitimate shopper, ironically – you know what ironically means, gentlemen? – wastes very little time inspecting, though behaviour patterns vary slightly between the sexes. A man tends to know what he wants. Inside the store he locates it, he grabs it and he sweeps it into his basket. Job done. A woman probably doesn’t know exactly. She is more just enjoying the shopping. But she won’t on the whole fiddle – no, she will stand at some distance, thinking. She might move up the aisle a bit and then move back, engaged in a feminine struggle to make up her mind. But she doesn’t want to look too eager – she will play it cool – and then she’ll grab it and sweep it into her basket.’

Gethyn had learned a lot of stuff like this during the course, and all paid for by Work for the Homeless. He was very lucky. He knew he was very lucky. He was a very, very lucky young man indeed and was being given a second chance. He’d quite enjoyed the studying, actually, and being forced to think again. He’d been really interested in the Psychology of Theft. He’d appreciated being indoors, out of the everlasting Cardiff rain. He’d really appreciated all the food, the burgers and the chips – mountains and mountains of chips – the mushy peas, the cups of hot steaming tea… Another reason why his collar was tormenting him now.

He’d even enjoyed the stationery they gave him – the black and blue Bic biros, the block of file-paper with pale blue, wide-ruled lines and four holes that magically coincided with the silver rings inside the royal blue plastic folder they’d also given him.

‘Keep all your stuff together, see,’ said Bob the Instructor. ‘Your written notes and all the hand-outs we shall be handing out to you.’ Gethyn had even liked the handouts. He appreciated things that were planned, sensible and in order, and not like his life had been for the last…few… years.

But now he was In Situ. Now he had been Deployed, and Deployment was a whole different kettle of fish.

And just as he was thinking that, about kettles of fish and so forth, he saw an old woman lift a can of dog-food off the shelf, bold as brass, and shove it down her coat.

(To be continued)

 

‘Write a short story every week.

It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row’

(Ray Bradbury)

(Not possible for Ray Bradbury, that is.)

Even Meaner than the Queen?

Just as I thought (it was safe to come out of the water, no…) I had made every possible economy, it has become necessary to make even more.

Part of me actually loves making economies. That’s the part I inherited from my mother, who had somehow to manage on a post-war electrician’s wages – or such of them as was handed over to her in housekeeping each week – to bring up three big, hungry daughters. They had built their own house. At one point towards the end of construction they had a mere £15 in the bank.

My mother had a number of attributes that served her well. Firstly she was organised and she liked recording things. She had tiny, round, neat handwriting and excelled in keeping records in it. Up to the point when dementia claimed her she had a double-spread home-made book-keeping system that foxed me entirely. When she started to lose her memory she asked me to help her and I couldn’t, at least not using her system. Such a complexity of columns! And items moved backwards and forwards from one column to another, recorded multiple times under this heading and then that heading…

My budget is simpler. I fold a sheet of paper in half and make a list of unavoidable household expenses down the left-hand side and a list of what they cost down the right hand side. I then add them up on the calculator – usually four or five times because the stupid calculator comes up with a different result every single time – and every single time I discover that my outgoings are greater than my income. And that’s without food, or clothes, or petrol, or…

Mum was thorough to screaming-point. She never started to use a new gadget – a blender, say, or a lawn-mower, without sitting down and reading the instructions from cover to cover. Sometimes she read them twice, or three times. I’m sure she also attempted to read the sections in Finnish, Japanese and Serbo-Croat.

My approach is simpler. I unpack the thing, look at it and surmise what all the buttons are for. If I’m not sure what the buttons are I press each of them in turn, keeping the device at arm’s length in case something sharp starts whizzing or rotating unexpectedly. Within five minutes I know how to use it. If I don’t, I lose interest and give up.

Part of me hates making economies. This is the part I inherited from my father. He wasn’t a big spender on the whole but if he wanted something – new tyres for his racing bike; a second-hand van – he just came home with it. He needed it, he bought it. I used to be like that, but unlike him I don’t have a careful wife with a metal cash-box, each household bill carefully saved for in tiny compartments, the contents of each compartment labelled in pencil on a slip of paper. And unlike Mum, I don’t have – and have never had – a husband with a safe and useful job and a modest but predictable wage. I was married to an artist. He might get paid every six months, for a big painting. I was never allowed to know how much money he/we had.

This is the part of me that suddenly finds – or found – everything must be in the past-tense – that she had ordered £30 worth of paperbacks on Amazon. Or a gadget she didn’t really need, or… This was the part of me that couldn’t be bothered to total up how much all those odd little expenses cost. A trip to the cinema. A transatlantic phone call. That little extra box of Gourmet cat-food.

This has all gradually changed. Necessity is indeed the Mother of Invention. Necessity imposes carefulness upon you. It snuffs out your inner Mr Toad and ushers in first Mole, with his endless worrying, and then the competent, organised Ratty. This is not a decision you have to make. This is just how you change.

Anyway, last time I was bleating on about money someone very kindly suggested Ilona Richards’ blog Life After Money. Ilona is 67 now and used to be a lorry-driver. She gave that up at 59 and now claims to live on £2,400 a year and spend £10 a week on food. I am not sure how she does this, even after reading her website. She is obviously very, very sensible; probably sensible enough not to have accumulated twelve rescue cats.

It’s an interesting website and she has some excellent – if extreme – suggestions. Unfortunately most of them I discovered I was already doing. In a way this is good – I can pat myself on the back. In a way it’s bad – because what is the Mean beyond Queen of Mean? It’s the Beyond of Eternity.

On another website I discovered washing in cold water – I tried that out this morning and the clothes don’t look noticeably less clean than they did at 30 degrees. I am following Ilona’s suggestion and replacing expensive tea and coffee with hot-water + splash of fruit juice. Not enjoying, but worth a try. I am doing the ‘grey water’ thing and saving washing-up and cat-bowl water for other purposes. Nearly pulls the arms of out their sockets carrying the bucket upstairs but I’m saving the planet. I am trying the thing about moving around the house with a torch rather than turning the house-lights on, which is rather fun, if surprise-ful with twelve cats underfoot. Cats don’t need torches of course. They have see-in-the-dark eyes.

I draw the line at boys’ underpants, though. Apparently, Ilona buys these and they are cheaper and also last far longer. However, Ilona is thin, as you will see from her photo if you click on the website/Daily Mail article links. I am… well, not as thin as Ilona. Even if I could overcome my instinctive horror of y-fronts and masculine undies generally (shirts, trousers, tee-shirts no problem – underwear no!) I doubt if I could find a Boy to fit me.

Les Tricoteuses

Whenever things turn stressful I get the urge to knit. It doesn’t matter what – in fact the simpler the item the better. Mum and Nan were the same. Nan only seemed to stop knitting in order to peel potatoes or mop the lino, and Mum knitted so many blankets made of multi-coloured six inch squares that she ended up trying to give one away to Oxfam. But in spite of its being a particularly splendid one, and in spite of the fact that they had always advertised for blankets made of squares, Oxfam refused it. According to the woman in the shop there had been a change of policy – home-made blankets tended to be of non-standard size and didn’t stack economically in their transportation trucks. She didn’t even smile.

Mum went on knitting, year after year, stacking the useless things in a cupboard. She had given up all pretence of their being replacements for blankets that were wearing out. Woolly blankets never seem to wear out; they just stretch to twice their original length and get bobbly.

I knit in times of stress but I never end up wearing anything I knit – partly because I don’t like the look of it and partly because wool’s far too itchy. I make squares too, but tend to sew them into smaller blankets. The cats appreciate them more than Oxfam did. Every now and then I make one of those little tee-shaped stripy jumpers from the Oxfam pattern, for children in war-torn areas. Basically, you don’t need a pattern for those – you could just make them up.

Presumably knitting is a form of displacement activity. Those painting of Madame Guillotine during the French Revolution…those ladies sitting beneath with clay pipes clenched between rotten teeth, and clackety tricot needles, were maybe not so much heartless as deeply traumatised as the severed heads rolled one by one into the baskets.

knitting guillotine

Technically – she writes, as if she knew as much before she looked it up – displacement behaviour is a behaviour that appears odd/out of context. It usually happens when there is a conflict between excitement/agitation and frustration. A dog meets a high fence, say. He desperately wants to be on the other side of the fence but the fence is too high to jump. Naturally, then, he sits down and scratches his ear or bites the dog next to him. Displacement behaviour is often related to comforting activities, like grooming, scratching, drinking or eating. So, human beings scratch their heads when perplexed and a pair of fighting birds might stop and peck at the ground.

I suppose the classic would be rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Did anybody actually do that, I wonder? Was it in the film? I never saw the film. I suppose deckchair-rearranging would only be a displacement activity if you knew the ship had just hit an iceberg. If you were merely up on deck for a little stroll on a bracing afternoon and thought – those deckchairs would be so much better disposed thus – well that would make you a sad, and possibly an obsessive, person but not necessarily one engaged in displacement activity.

I also sharpen pencils; in times of great distress I have been known to sharpen whole boxes of blunt pencils, until my fingers are squashed into strange shapes at the ends, and black with graphite, and the sharpener’s running hot. Or I sit down and write a post for this blog, though it will rarely be about the thing that’s worrying me. That’s likely to come later: emotion recollected in tranquillity as Wordsworth put it. It’s a help to be absorbed in pushing words around for a couple of hours.

Ex was the only person I ever met who dealt with stress by keeping utterly still. Most of the time he would be rushing hither and thither, obsessed by what he was doing, frowning over his easel or his lathe, or his workbench – painting stuff or making stuff. At rare intervals, however, he would take what he referred to as a Lying Fallow Day. This seemed to mean slumping half on and half off of the living-room sofa, his long legs jack-knifed into an inverted V. There he would remain all day staring out of the window at the rose bushes and occasionally farting. It was as if he had deactivated himself.

squares