Christmas Dinner on New Year’s Day

Mum is in hospital, miles away. She’s stuck there for the moment, for administrative reasons. The other old ladies on her ward mostly seem to be stuck there too. They don’t change from one visit to the next. From her breathing, one of them sounds as if she is dying, but nobody seems to be paying any attention.

Mum greets me with a kind of horrified joy, as if she has been left behind on Mars for the last hundred years, like whoever-it-was in the movie and I am the one human being she has been utterly desperate to see. Then she loses interest. I am not the one she thought I was: sweet and sour, with Mum nowadays, or perhaps sour and another sort of sour.

Once I have found a chair, of sorts, and made space for it beside the bed she gestures out of the window. Nasty, she says. Yes, I say. Raining! I do our old “rain” home sign, hands fluttering downwards, raindrop-like. She looks at me as if I’m mad. Home signs don’t work nowadays.

And then Christmas Dinner arrives. Have they been having Christmas Dinner every day since Christmas, or have they for some reason postponed it from Christmas? It looks very nice – hospital food has improved since I was last in hospital. There are even Brussels sprouts, though of an odd colour. Overdone, I think, remembering Nan’s (Mum’s Mum’s) story about when she was made a NAAFI canteen supervisor during the war, and the first thing she did – to howls of protest from her canteen workers – was to throw out all the cabbage, which was black, and had been boiling since breakfast-time. There is even a Christmas cracker. I can’t see Mum being persuaded to grasp the other end of it.

I realise I have been ignoring the old lady sitting beside the next bed. She is wearing the same hospital gown as Mum: cotton, crisp, with the hospital’s name spelled out all over again in tiny letters like the tissue paper new shoes arrive in. All the ladies are wearing the same gown.

Steer clear of the parsnips, says the old lady I have been ignoring until now. They’re hard. And now I feel guilty. I have spent so long with Mum – I was just assuming any semi-naked old lady sitting in or beside a hospital bed must be senile. I notice she has been reading something on a Kindle.

That’s a Paperwhite, isn’t it? I had one of those until recently. What a good idea for hospital.

Good grief, am I having a conversation?

Yes, she says. Books are so heavy to hold up. I’ve got this paperback, look, but the Paperwhite is easier. I asked my children to bring it in. Flat as a pancake it was, when they found it. They had to plug it in.

I expect the hospital would let you plug it in in here, too. I find I’ve got stacks of books in the house and stacks of books on the Kindle, and I end up not reading any of them.

She tells me about her late husband, who had the same kind of dementia as my mother. She tells me her name is Mary. I tell her mine is Linda. Hello, Linda, she says.

Mum always hated me talking to anyone else. If we bumped into someone in the street who wanted to talk, she would grab my sleeve and begin to drag me away saying We’ve got to go. Busy. We’ve got to go now. I’d have to make excuses for her rudeness; it was mortifying. Now, however, in slow-motion, she begins to lean against the curtain that semi-separates her from Mary.

She’s leaning, I say. I sound like a proud parent whose child has just done something utterly unremarkable, or a besotted pet-owner. Oh look, she’s smiling! Oh, he’s purring – he must have taken you.

Mary puts her hand round the curtain. She’s obviously in quite a bit of pain. Mum reaches out the fluttering tips of her fingers and Mary reaches out and grasps them. She knows Mum better, now, than I do.

And so we proceed with Christmas Dinner. I have never actually been called upon to feed anybody before. It is an infuriatingly slow and messy process; doesn’t help me being left-handed when she is right. I wish I had one of those green plastic aprons the nurses use. I end up with several handfuls of cold potato and gravy. There’s paper wipes over there by the sink, says Mary.

First a mouthful of potato, then Mum scrapes the meat slowly off the proffered fork, then a spoonful of jam sponge and gluey custard with the spoon. We go on like that for a while, the same spoon now going indiscriminately from the plate to the dish, from gravy to custard. The important thing is eating, not etiquette. She’s lost quite a bit of weight.

How did you ever have the patience to feed the three of us? I ask her.

It’s all the same to me, she says. What is the link ? Maybe there isn’t one.

They’re playing ancient pop songs on the radio, and on comes You were always on my mind. Even in normal circumstances that song tends to set me off and every time the chorus comes round the tears well up in my eyes. For some reason the song reminds me that this is actually a real Christmas Dinner. So every time the chorus comes round I pick up the un-pulled cracker and examine it with great care, noting the way the paper is folded and the tiny patterns in the stuck-on lace. I hold it to my ear and shake it, as people always do, as if curious what might be inside, and this tiny, pointless activity is just enough to un-brim the tears.

I wish I hadn’t eaten that jam sandwich in the car park I hear myself remarking in a bright, unfamiliar voice. I could have come in here and asked for a Christmas Dinner. Yum, it looks nice! Can we manage another Brussels sprout?

I hear Mary laugh from behind the curtain.

The singing will never be done

Today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme, which was to go on for four and a half months and kill an unimaginable number of soldiers. My grandfather was in that war but I will never know whether he was at the Somme, because he never, ever talked about the war. Or anything much else, come to that. He was a silent man. We knew he had a double hernia from pushing heavy guns around, and would never get them treated. He lived into his nineties, still with the hernias; also with bits of shrapnel in his legs. We knew at some point, because of his injuries, he was assigned to light duties, which meant travelling back and forth across the channel, looking after horses being transported to the front. We knew he did embroidery.

This may sound strange, for a carpenter. We think he was taught it in hospital when he was recovering. We think he embroidered going across the channel, with the horses. The embroidery was always white – I have a feeling it might be called whitework – and had tiny round holes cut in it. Something like this:

embroidery 2

Or this:

white work

He died in hospital, after a fall. He was the first person I had seen near death. It was an awful place. Green, everything green, and all around us, old men dying in metal beds. He didn’t speak, but the look he gave me was almost hostile, as if to say “Seen enough, now?” I remember Mum giving me a sweet – like she would have done when I was a child, I suppose, to cheer me up. I remember the mixture of sweet and salt in my mouth: tears and barley-sugar.

The night he died I dreamt I was in his kitchen, just standing there, and he walked past me, muttering. I could see him but he couldn’t see me. I had become the ghost. I played Brothers in Arms to myself, and cried. My husband didn’t react to emotions at all, usually, but after watching me curiously for a while he ventured: It reminds you of your granddad? This was perceptive, for him.

Don’t you sometimes wish you could go back and watch someone’s life, like a film? Don’t you sometimes wish you didn’t miss out on it all, having been born too late? I wish I knew what made my grandad my grandad, what it felt like to be swimming in mud, hurt and surrounded by death. I wish I knew what made him fall in love with Nan, whose family lived in the same road, and whose sister was married to his brother. I wonder what it felt like when they walked up the road together one grey Christmas Eve morning, to be married almost alone at St Margaret’s, without the blessing or presence of either family. I wonder what he really thought of me, the annoying grandchild. He hardly spoke to me but allowed me to accompany him down the garden to dig up potatoes and pick mint for our Sunday dinner, or to play in the sawdust in his workshop, picking up and rearranging stray offcuts of wood while he got on with his ‘making things’. We didn’t seem to need words.

Everyone Sang: Siegfried Sassoon, 1920

And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Crinkle-cut chips and other mishaps

It wasn’t till many years later that I began to understand how much I must have irritated my mother-in-law. She only bore with me, I suspect, because I had been the one to take her gifted, gruff, eccentric son off her hands. He was twenty-eight when I met him and nearly thirty by the time we married. At that point I still believed he was a catch but she must have felt he was approaching some sort of sell-by date.

All the same, whenever we arrived on her doorstep, though punctual and expected, we would be greeted with a disappointed and slightly huffy “Oh – it’s you.” The conversation tended to be punctuated with south-ist exclamations like “Damn southerners – all swank”. Not looking at me, of course.

There were a number of misdemeanours – firstly, the crinkle-cut chips. My parents in law moved a lot and every house they moved to was better than any other house they had ever inhabited, the neighbours more upper-crust and highly-educated… for six months or so at least, till the magic wore off and the bitching-over-the-garden-fence started.

MIL, extolling the virtues of the latest neighbourhood, informed me that it even had an Asda that sold crinkle-cut chips. To which my innocent reply was: What’s an Asda? I was guessing some kind of machine or kitchen gadget.

And I failed twice over, in never having heard of crinkle-cut chips. My mother, when she wanted to make chips, sliced up some potatoes and fried them in the chip pan. It had never occurred to me that you could get them ready sliced in packets. To this day I can’t see why a chip with wavy sides would taste any different to, or contain any more nourishment than, a chip with plain sides.

On my first visit to… one of their houses, the one with the rabbit… On the way down I sat on an ice lolly some kid had left on the train seat and didn’t realise till I stood up: yellow bell-bottoms, pink ice lolly, soggy bottom; not exactly a cool entrance. And then I got locked in the loo and had to call out of the window for help – trying to call quietly and politely I recall – and be rescued, which involved a great deal of laughter at my expense and the pushing of a little key under the door.

Then there was the coffee. MIL’s coffee and tea were exactly alike – whitey-brown, transparent, a slight fizz on the top and lacking in any kind of taste. Came the fateful day when I plumped for the wrong one and thanked her for coffee which turned out to be tea. Why did I even have to mention coffee or tea? Why couldn’t I have just nodded when she handed me the mug of brown fizzy whatever-it-was?

I was young for my age, naïve and socially unskilled. His family – the female side of it at least – were exactly the opposite: non-stop communicators. Truth to tell I couldn’t understand most of what MIL was saying most of the time, especially when she speeded up. It was that Liverpool accent she pretended she didn’t have – so fast – a torrent of words. Even if I succeeded in sussing out one of her sentences I was unlikely to cotton on to the underlying significance. Hence the Asda/crinkle-cut chips debacle. I was supposed to be impressed but had deliberately failed to be.

The worst thing was the announcement that we were eating Ex’s little sister’s pet rabbit for Sunday lunch. This was before Ex and I were married – at which point we were just staying at each other’s parents’ houses on alternate weekends. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years now, but I wasn’t in those far off days.

There were these slices tough dark meat, with some splotches of gravy scattered about it, and half way through the meal Ex’s father announced that this was in fact little sister’s bunny-rabbit. I think this was aimed at little sister rather than me – to toughen her up, make her face food facts – maybe as an exercise of masculine or paternal power – I don’t know. It was cruel – to rabbit and child. She was thirteen, I was nineteen. She stopped eating and started crying; I put down my knife and fork and sat blank-faced and speechless wanting to spit out the current mouthful. Ex, an animal-lover for all his faults, was angry too. It didn’t seem to have occurred to either parent that more than one person would be upset.

I could go on: the great Christmas debate between MIL and a visiting Liverpool Auntie about the presence (or not) of dog-dirt on the pavements outside; the seven year silent Cold War that began in mid-sentence as we walked in

“… and yes, you Stole my Goldfish…”

Blending in with the rhododendrons

My niece has purple hair at the moment. This isn’t her, by the way.

I wouldn’t have discovered she had purple hair at the moment if it wasn’t for Facebook – so the stupid social media site has had at least one use. Three in fact, since it inspired this post and has also, I suspect, inspired an as yet unwritten (but plotted) sci-fi story.

I don’t think I’m really a Facebook kind of person. I mean, I joined it, but then it asked me for friends. Friends? I thought. Oh dear! Well, I do – I have three, but none of them are on Facebook. The only people, shamefully, I could think of to ask to be made a friend of was my sister, her husband and their daughter, my niece. There was a longish wait before they agreed. For a while I thought it was only going to be the brother-in-law, who is a kindly soul and probably felt one of them had to. So I get an awful lot of stuff about football and motorbikes.

After a while I realised they weren’t actually reading my posts, or rather the links to my posts, put there by WordPress. (Not another of those dire Auntie Linda ramblings.) A while after that I realised WordPress and Facebook had had some sort of coming-to-blows over my posts, and Facebook was no longer posting my posts. Miserable, useless thing! If Twitter can do it, why can’t you? I worked out how to post manually, but I was discouraged. Why am I faffing about like this, posting links to posts that only three other people in the universe will see, and they won’t be reading? So I stopped.

However, there was this phrase – blending in with the rhododendrons. My niece had taken yet another selfie of herself in front of some rhododendron bushes on a visit to a country house, and appended to it a tiny story, of how she had had to dye her hair four times in a single day because the lilac (obviously the colour she was after) wouldn’t take at the roots, meaning she had orange roots and lilac other-bits, which wasn’t a good look. It was that phrase. A little shiver of recognition – another writer. So the gene did get passed on – from Dad to me – and to her. What would you call that shiver – WriteDar? And I recalled that Mum was always telling me how good at writing my niece was, when at school, and how that had truly pissed me off since writing was all I could ever do well, and no one had thought to sing my praises. Basically, I was jealous of the infant. Then I forgot. Till Facebook.

In the photo she is smiling, rather sweetly, and wearing glasses. I haven’t seen her for years but I see she has a silver stud underneath her lower lip. She always did look – the way I wanted to look, but didn’t. She turned up to Dad’s funeral in Doc Martens, I seem to remember, and something long, black and gothic, and pink spiky hair. Tattoos – she has those too. When they were going to whip her kidney out – or was it put the new one in – she was so worried about spoiling her best tattoo. And now she’s got no kidneys at all, poor kid, no functioning kidneys anyway. There’s the long drive to hospital three times a week for dialysis.

However, in between times she works in a chemist’s shop, and she’s looking for a flat. And she visits country houses and gardens with rhododendrons, and takes her picture in front of them, grinning, because she never knows how long she’ll be well enough to enjoy her freedom. Long spells in hospital. Spells of purple hair, rock concerts and rhododendrons.

So, that’s the post inspired by duff old Facebook, by a photo of a niece I haven’t seen for ages (who knows, she may come to my funeral) and a chance turn of phrase.

Now on to the sci-fi short story.

purple hair

This isn’t her either, but a lovely shade of purple, don’t you think? Especially with the snow. I wonder – if I was to – no, I couldn’t –

I was just wondering if having purple hair, say, or Doc Martens, tattoos and piercings – would be enough to keep one out of the old folks home. I mean, would they be able to view you as an old person and make the assumptions people do about old persons, if you didn’t look anything like one?

Things fall apart

When our marriage had entered the beginning of its end, my husband asked me this: If Bruce Springsteen came knocking at our front door one day, would you go off with him? It came out of the blue, and I hesitated.

You know how you know you just made the wrong call, but by then it’s too late? I should have told him the truth – that if Bruce Springsteen knocked at our front door I would have hidden behind the hat-stand. I couldn’t have coped with a Bruce Springsteen – or any man even approaching that rolled-sleeved, muscular gorgeousness. No matter that his singing might draw from me tears of yearning on occasions, I didn’t want to actually meet him.

I should have told my husband I loved him, only wanted love back from him. I should have told him I would rather overhear him singing Knocking on Heaven’s Door – quietly to himself, in that growly familiar voice, hunched over his second-best guitar – than be carted off by some lantern-jawed musical hunk. That was what he really wanted to know, but the penny failed to drop. The pause was seconds too long; he never gave me another chance.

I don’t know why I told you that, except sometimes, as you get older, there are things you find you need to say out loud – or just put into words.

And it was kind of leading into my real subject, which is whether I actually even have a home town any more.

Yesterday I drove through the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a home town – the place I lived from age three to twenty-one. Over the years I’ve been back there countless times, mostly to visit Mum on a Sunday; more frequently over the past couple of years as Mum got less and less predictable, more out of control with dementia, more disaster-prone. There were the evening phone calls from carers, saying she wouldn’t let them in – or in, but with Mum screeching in the background; calls from friends saying she had turned up on their doorsteps in the evening, frightened of something she couldn’t put into words; reports of her crossing busy roads on hour-long walks with the shopping trolley, looking neither left nor right.

Once upon a time ‘home town’ had been associated with a time to be a child – not necessarily a happy child but a child nonetheless – playing in the Rec, swinging on the swings, collecting leaves in sacks for Bonfire Night, walking to school on gloomy, rainy days; watching ants on the pavement; snow heaped and mud-spattered in the streets at Christmas. Now it was taken over – home town meant yet another problem, yet another thing that needed fixing that she couldn’t fix, yet another pile of junk mail and bills on the table that she wanted me to explain; noticing she’d been wearing the same blue jumper every Sunday for over a month; having her order me to leave because I queried some outrageous, illogical explanation for something quite obvious. Home town became a sinking feeling, and drowned out childhood.

And now Mum’s gone – not dead, just gone – and her house will need to be sold to pay the bills for her care home. She was the centre, by default, of the family. She was the reason we saw each other at all, most of the time, the reason we talked, emailed, consulted, arranged, reported, made plans. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold – as in the Yeats poem. Going back yesterday I felt that.

I avoided the street where, for the time being, my mother’s house still sits. Who knows how it may be transformed in six months time, with a new owner. Maybe it will have been  knocked down and a row of town-houses built on the plot. Popular with commuters – no garden to bother about.

I drove straight to the shopping centre, and wandered around. Small, ugly shops; strutting pigeons, litter; well-frequented bookmakers and poorly-frequented bookshop. Too much traffic and too many human beings. I mooched round Demelza’s and found what I was looking for – a second-hand kitchen pine table; breakfast for one, mostly. On impulse I bought another thing – an eccentric shelf unit/cupboard arrangement. Fatally, I felt sorry for it.

Stray cats and old furniture, why do I pity them?

Even the man behind the desk didn’t know what to put on the delivery sheet. We laughed and settled on Wooden Thing; he put the stock number next to it in brackets. I stocked up on headache tablets in the chemists, yoghurts and porridge at the mini-market. And then I went home: which isn’t my mother’s house, or what used to be my home town. It isn’t even the house I’m living in now, since I’ll soon be moving away – back to the town where my husband once asked me about Bruce Springsteen, now I come to think about it. It will be strange, but maybe it will start being home again after a while. Same town, familiar shops and streets and places to go for walks; a different house, one street up from where we used to live; a husband long since gone; a ‘me’ replaced.

I won’t go back. Hometown’s been vaporised, and home… even home’s becoming something of a mirage.

Blogging While Rome Burns

I’m not good at plans. I make any number of them. My computer’s littered with them. Mostly they are called Plan. Sometimes they are called Plan 2 or Plan 3. I found one the other day called Yet Another Plan. But not a single one of these Plans have I ever managed to put into action. Making them used to make me feel like I was doing something. Like I was in control. It doesn’t nowadays but I can’t seem to stop making them.

I don’t know whether my life is currently going to hell in a handcart, and my survival so far has just been a lucky accident. I don’t know the state of my life because another thing I’m not good at is assessing and coming to logical conclusions. I am very logical; drearily, pedantically logical in fact at times. I just can’t apply the dreary logic to my own circumstances. My mind goes off at tangents, and then tangents from the tangents. It slithers away from most things. Slithers back to the single thing it was designed for – scribbling stories; finessing poems few people will ever read – and of course to blogging, this endless tap-tap-tapping away and one damned machine or another. I am all input and no output. Consumed by what I am, and the way my brain is wired, I need another planet to be on.

Sorry, this sounds like some ancient Roman death-rattle and it didn’t start off like that. There’s nothing new in the situation – I’m just noticing it more at the moment, what with the pending house move and all the alien focussing-on-dull-stuff that that process entails. And Mum going into a home.

When Mum was around it was my role to be her child. I knew where I was with that. However old I got, having no children of my own, I remained her child. Now she’s left me, mentally – physically too, since she was carted off in an ambulance with an exhausted lady social worker. I was one of the principals in our family play. I played the eldest daughter, that gifted disappointment, the damp squib. I was the Sunday visitor staring into space; the one who did the tortoise shuffle up to the café with her; who manoeuvred her arms, with all those woolly layers, into the sleeves of her winter coat; who fumbled about for her walking-stick under the table. I was the one with the endless capacity for boredom (which was really a capacity to be thinking of many other things whilst appearing to listen). I was the incompetent, the unlucky one, an endless source of concern for a mother who ran on worry. ‘Oh Linda!’ her constant refrain. That was what I was for.

And suddenly here I am – one of a faceless crowd mumbling rhubarb-rhubarb to sound like I’m really talking; third from the left in the chorus; the soldier who walks on with a spear in the Second Act.

So, at the moment my own particular Rome may be burning. Or I may just be worrying too much. Usually it’s the worrying, but as usual I have no way of telling. But I can tell you this one thing, best beloveds: writing makes the world all right. Writing about disintegration pulls everything back together. Writing about chaos makes some temporary sense of it. Writing is threading a giant bowlful of beads into a necklace. Why or how that should be… I don’t know.

I did some cursory research about the Emperor Nero. He couldn’t actually have fiddled while Rome burned since violins – that whole class of instruments – hadn’t been invented yet. He might have played the cithara, which may or may not be the wooden instrument he is shown with, in the above illustration. Or his fiddle/cithara playing may be purely metaphorical. Sadistic, decadent, unpopular – he wasn’t nice at all, old Nero. He was an ineffectual leader, not bothered about the sufferings of his people, and that’s probably what the legends of his fiddle-playing were all about.

Therefore blog on, best beloveds. Like the orchestra on the Titanic, we shall keep on playing Nearer my God to Thee as sea-water dampens our trouser-bottoms. If Rome is indeed burning, such music shall we have.

THE LAMBFAIRY (Angels & Other Occurrences 5.1)

There would come a day, he knew, when he could no longer remember what it was – the thing he needed to tell Marcus. Marcus knew about the headaches he’d been having recently, but not about that devastating diagnosis – inoperable. He and Jen had decided amongst themselves to protect the boy from the truth for as long as possible.

Heavy duty pain-killers had done a lot to ease the headaches, but already he had noticed himself forgetting or not being able to do certain things. Not people’s names and not the names of his entire flock of Cotswold sheep, which he still had by heart. No, it was silly things like where he’d put the honey jar. Jen had found it in the fridge. She’d pretended she’d done it, making some weak joke about forgetting her own head if it wasn’t screwed on, but he knew it had been him, and she knew he knew. There were lots of little lies – kind, sad little lies – between them now.

He had always done the wages for his workmen himself but this last quarter he’d found himself in a terrible pickle with it, and it really got to him. Jen had found him in tears – a shocking event in itself – and they had agreed that now would be the right time to hand over the farm accounts to Jim Parry, their neighbours’ excellent accountant. They had been thinking of doing just that for some time, was their mutual pretence. ‘Save you the bother,’ Jen said. ‘Free you up to do other, more enjoyable stuff.’

But they wouldn’t tell Marcus. Not yet. Let the boy have this lovely, white Norfolk winter – the last of his childhood; tell him in the spring, maybe. ‘See how it goes,’ said Jen.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘let’s just see how it goes.’

It was funny how, as his short-term memory faded he seemed to be remembering more and more of the past. He was thinking only this morning to the times when he and his father would go shepherding together – real, old-fashioned shepherding out on the hills at night in all weathers. No need for all that nowadays: they had security cameras. The farm had prospered over the past twenty years and they had been able to upgrade in all sorts of ways. They even had a gadget called (oh please, let me remember) a photoelectric cell. If a fox, dog or any other animal broke the invisible beam from this cell, his mobile started ringing. My mobile, he thought, bewildered. A fox enters a field two miles down the road and my phone rings…

Nowadays he puzzled endlessly over things – small things he would just have accepted before. He needed to sort out in his head why things were, why things worked the way they did… These things, they brought him to a stop sometimes. He wanted to get on but found himself motionless, wondering.

From the age of eleven had gone onto the hills at night with his father, and that was when they really got to know one another – not as father and son but as men. That was what he had thought, watching over the sheep, dark shadows dotted over dark fields. I am a man now. There were things his father had told him during those long, sleepless nights that he had not known before. There were things he told his father.

It wasn’t that difficult to disable the security cameras. Just a snip to a single wire. The switch in the barn remained in the “on” position but the screens went blank. He returned to the house doing a good job, or so he thought, of grumbling about unreliable electrics and demanding that Jen to phone the electrician first thing in the morning.

“Marcus,” he said, turning to the boy,“how d’you fancy a rather chilly night out? Old Reynard’s been round a lot recently and I can’t risk him getting his teeth into my… our flock, especially now, with so many ewes in lamb. Of course, if you’re tired I could go by myself but the company would be…”

“I’ll come, Dad. No school in the morning, remember? No biggie.”

No biggie, he thought, no biggie. What on earth was that supposed to mean? Yes, presumably.

*

As they huddled together by the primus stove in the tumbledown looker’s hut he said, “In the old days, you know, there was a custom: a shepherd would always be buried with a Lock of Wool clasped in his right hand so that as soon as he arrived at the Pearly Gates the angels, seeing the Lock of Wool, would let him in. They’d know a shepherd couldn’t get to church of a Sunday.”

“I never heard you tell that story before,” said Marcus. “Do you know any others?”

“Probably,” he said, but he couldn’t think of any. Had he ever known any others, or had they vanished. The thing in his head was voracious, he thought; feeding on memories. “If another story pops into my head at any time I’ll tell it, how’s that?”

“Yeah,” said Marcus. “Good plan. ‘Cos you’re always so busy. It’s nice just to sit and talk sometimes.”

“There was something I wanted to ask you, Marcus” he said. “Something… in the way of… a favour”. Now it had come to it, he wondered if he was going to be able to spit the thing out at all.

“I know, Dad. That’s why you sabotaged the security cameras; so we could do the man-to-man chat thing?”

“How did you know that?”

“You dropped your scarf.”

“Ah… oh, yes. Guilty as charged, Your Honour. But… that favour.”

“I know that too, Dad. The Lock of Wool. You want me to…” His voice sounded odd all of a sudden. “You want me to do that for you when – I mean if  you…. And I will. I’d like to be the one.”

“Marcus, there’s something else,” he said on impulse. “Something your mother and I were planning to tell you, but not until…”

“Dad. I overheard you talking in the kitchen the other night. I know already. Gosh, I’m a bit of a know-all tonight aren’t I?”

And that was all they would say on the subject that night because right at that moment somebody – or something – knocked what little was left of the looker’s hut door.

Carrie

Baby brother’s crying in his cot. I peer at him through the white-painted bars. His face is very red and one little arm in its knitted cardigan flails against the bars. He has thrown his little bear. Where is it this time? I get down on my hands and knees and crawls around in search of it. There, against the curtain-hem. How did he throw it that far? Must be very strong. But boys are strong. I brush the dust off the little bear. It’s blue, with rainbow stripes across the chest. Very soft, it feels. I push it back through the bars. A minute later it comes sailing out again.

I carry my satchel on my back, leading my brother by the hand. It’s his first day at Infants and he’s getting in a pickle with his coat, his own little satchel and his Mr Men lunchbox. Mum was too upset about saying goodbye so I ended up bringing him. I lean across to take the Mr Men lunchbox from him. He resists at first, but then lets go. He knows I’m trying to help.

And here we are on Brighton beach. I am fourteen. There is me, my little brother and my Mum, and the new brother or sister that’s inside Mum. Mum doesn’t want to know if it’s a boy or a girl as long as it’s fit and healthy. Dad isn’t with us. He doesn’t come with us to the beach because he lives with another lady now. Her name’s Janice. Dad refers to Mum’s new man, Darren, as her Squeeze. Darren’s the baby’s father, of course. Squeeze is a coarse sort of word.

Pick up your brother’s bucket and spade, would you, Carrie? He’s gone and left it down there and the tide’s coming in.

I am going on my first date, carrying my first grown-up handbag. It like it. It’s crocodile, see? Not real crocodile – crocodile skin pattern. I mean, you wouldn’t get a pink crocodile. I have all sorts of stuff in it – too much, probably. What do you need on a date? I have brought along some money, both change and notes, and my mobile phone. I have brought paper hankies in case of mascara smudges and for blotting the new lipstick, which I have also brought. I have brought a fold-up mirror, in case there isn’t one where we are going. I don’t know yet where we are going. I have brought a hairbrush and a comb, and a notebook and a pencil in case of… in case of… emergencies. Or whatever.

We are Christmas shopping. It’s our first Christmas together, so very romantic. Money is tight so I’ve made a list, allocating a certain amount to each person. It’s quite fun, finding stuff when you’re on a budget, but hard work. Have to shop around, literally. And all the time you’re lugging the stuff with you in those extra-deep Christmas bags with the silly string handles that cut into the palms of your hands.

Got room in one of those bags for the calendars, Cazza? They’re a bit awkward. Need my hands free.

I ease myself into the coffee-shop armchair, almost tearful in my gratitude for its cosy support but wondering if I will be able to get out of it without help in half an hour’s time. How embarrassing to have to call out to the waitress for a tow. The child weighs heavy in my womb. Going to be a big baby, Mum says. And overdue. Only by a few days, though. They say the first is often a bit late. My back hurts so. I want my body back.

How much longer?

I am packing the car for a visit to my brother and his wife. We need a bigger car really. Once you’ve got all the baby stuff in there – disposable nappies, wipes, plastic bags, spare Babygro, in fact two spare Babygros, toys, bottle, formula –not much room left. And that seat takes up so much space. Buggy folded and crammed into the back. Maybe if hubby gets that promotion we can get a bigger car. Hopefully before the next baby comes along.

We are walking in the woods. It’s a family outing. I am giving my little girl a piggy-back. She started to get tired half a mile back, started whingeing. All right now though. It’s one of those Forestry Commission places. Lovely, lovely day. The sun beats down through the leaves and dapples the path ahead of us. Top of my head is really quite hot with it. Should have brought a sunhat. They do say to protect the back of your neck. At least I thought to bring her sunhat.

Ibiza at last. Here we come, just him and me, finally empty-nesters. Two whole weeks of lying about by the pool reading dog-eared paperbacks. In theory. Sun-tan lotion, check. Cardigans, check. It can get chilly of an evening. Both our bathing gear, check. Insect-repellent, check. His asthma inhaler just in case, check. Passports, check…

Well, that’s the café visit accomplished. It gets harder and harder work, being out of doors with him. Don’t forget your stick. Huh? I said, Don’t forget your stick. My…? Stick! Your stick. It’s fallen under the table. Hang about, I think can reach it. Now, your coat. Coat! Left arm back. No, into the sleeve. You’ll need to bend it slightly. I said, bend it slightly! That’s it. Now, right arm back…

Damn, that’s the stick gone again.

Biting my Nails with a Bunyip

Around 1955 Mum and Dad finished building their bungalow on the site of an old orchard. This particular plot of orchard land, and most of the land in our street, had once been the inheritance of a mysterious great, great aunt. As time went by she began to sell it off in separate plots to other members of the family, and they all built houses. At one time, my grandmother, her parents, my grandfather, his parents, and a second cousin all lived in our street. My grandfather married my grandmother and his brother married her sister. There were thirteen or fourteen siblings in each family, plus a number un-commented upon reverse baby adoptions, by the older generation from the younger, which complicate the family tree. Many of the brothers died in the First World War. One, Uncle Walter, was blinded. He had been an officer, but when he came back all he could do was weave stools and baskets. They taught him this skill so that he could contribute to the family income. The children used to mock him, sometimes, at the dinner table. This made my great grandmother very, very angry.

My great grandmother was often very angry, and also disaster-prone. There is a story of her in church one Sunday – a large woman in a long, black, Victorian skirt, with her children following behind her. The children were giggling because she had left her blouse untucked at the back. Worse was the story of a favourite chicken that had strayed into her kitchen while she was trying to sweep it. Enraged, she swiped at the bird’s behind with her besom broom, but instead of exiting the kitchen the poor thing fell dead on the floor. Great grandmother wept and wept. Another, less harrowing, story was the one we used to call ‘Jelly Alice?’ which involved great grandmother offering my great aunt Alice a plate of jelly during a family meal – which promptly slithered into her lap.

There were many such catchphrases. If something had gone astray it was likely to be ‘Up in Annie’s room, behind the clock.’ If you asked what was for dinner you would be told ‘Cold kippers and custard,’ or ‘Cold cabbage and lard.’ If a storm was approaching the sky would be pronounced ‘Black as yer ‘at over Will’s Mother’s.’

And there were songs. My mother lacked my grandmother’s ebullience and rarely sang, though she used to whistle, which embarrassed me. Nan, however, used to come out with snatches of unseemly ditties such as:

Chase me, Charlie, / Chase me, Charlie, / Lost the leg o’me drawers…

And Carmen Miranda’s

I, I, I, I, I, I like you very much

(which embarrassed my mother).

When I first began to notice things, in the 50’s, the adults around me seemed preoccupied with the War – remembering it, trying to forget it, but always talking about it. I lived in a forest of voices, reminiscing, way above my head. In Nan’s living room, in Mum’s kitchen, in other unplaceable rooms, there always seemed to be these stories going on. They were about having to eat horsemeat, covering your legs with gravy-browning to look like stockings, making wedding dresses out of parachute silk and dressing-gowns out of blankets; babies slept on unscathed in buildings demolished by doodlebugs – wonderful name, horrible purpose. The doodlebugs came over making this noise, and then they stopped making this noise, and then you were for it.

I was shown, at intervals, a piece of white embroidery Grandad had made on the boats going over to France during the War. He had been injured by shrapnel (indeed, when he died at ninety-four he had shrapnel still inside him, plus the double hernia he got from having to haul great guns around on the battlefield) and this was the ‘easy’ job they gave him afterwards – travelling back and forth on the transport boats, looking after the horses. His embroidery was so delicate. I could never imagine Grandad’s rough hands, with their black and broken carpenter’s fingernails, scabby with Evostick, Bostick or whatever, embroidering. I had watched him in his workshop sawing up bits of woods and hammering in nails, of which he kept a huge collection on a shelf above his bench, in rusty tobacco tins labelled with sticking plaster. I imagined the boat rocking in a cross-Channel storm, the horses spooked, salt water everywhere, and being surrounded by hundreds of other men, most of whom, like those poor, requisitioned horses, were going to be killed. How could you embroider through all that? Imagination is a curse sometimes.

I could never get enough of my family’s above-the-head stories – well, any stories – but at the same time they made me realised how insignificant I was in the greater scheme of things. I even wondered sometimes if I was becoming invisible. I used to walk along the road and think, can people see me or not? Will I become invisible if I believe I am? Sometimes I quite enjoyed playing this game, it made me feel safe to disappear, but at other times invisibility just came over me, unannounced, and I seemed to be melting into the scenery, becoming air and bushes and fences and raindrops, and I was never sure whether I would get myself back.

How was I to compete with the War, this great cuckoo’s egg of an event, which had ended only seven years before I was born? I think I was a bit of a cuckoo’s egg myself. I didn’t fit in. Nobody seemed to know what to do with me or say to me. Everything seemed to be going on over my head. Nothing happened.

So, for something to do, I began to dig.

In the building of their bungalow, Mum and Dad unearthed small pieces of treasure. These things remained unnoticed at their feet. No doubt they would have been too exhausted to look down after all those evenings and weekends of heavy labour. In Mum’s case, I don’t suppose she could see the ground over the bump that was shortly to turn into my little sister. She was still carrying tiles up the ladder to the roof, though.

At first I thought I would tunnel to Australia. I was a bit worried about the hot stuff in the middle but I liked the idea of emerging, upside-down, among the kangaroos and aborigines. In one of my books there was a story about a Bunyip, who sat on a log most of the time, biting his fingernails. Since I bit my fingernails (and I suspect may have taken up biting them in imitation) I hoped that when I got to Australia I would catch sight of a Bunyip, and that maybe we could sit side by side on the log, nibbling companionably. To this day I am not sure whether wombats actually exist or whether they come into the same category as unicorns and flying elephants.

Unfortunately I got no further with my little tin spade than a cool layer of sand and worms. After that I contented myself with surface workings, raking around with my fingers to find, for example, great lumps of Kentish flint sheared off at unlikely angles. It was ugly stuff but supposed to be good for building walls and lighting fires. I tried knocking two of them together but no sparks came. I tried to knock bits off and make arrowheads like the cavemen, but the flints were heavy and resistant. My mother was going through one of her depressions at the time and feared that we would all be squashed by the awful Atom Bomb, which could fall on us at any moment. I began to wonder what it would be like when the Atom Bomb fell and we all had to fend for ourselves. Could we master the Kentish flint quickly enough to make arrowheads and spears?

There were all sorts of bits of china, as if someone had broken six or seven different willow-pattern tea services out there in the orchard. There were pink bits and blue bits and occasionally – much prized – green bits. Some of them had handles on. I washed them in bowls of soapy water to bring out the patterns. I tried fitting them together but time or the weather had worn away the edges.

There were bits of clay pipes, similar to the ones you could still buy in the corner shop, for blowing bubbles. I imagined our garden full of sailors dancing jigs and carelessly dropping their pipes.

Once I found a fossil, a complete starfish imposed upon a large round stone, as if it had just come to rest there one day and fallen asleep. Another time I found a fire-damaged medal with scorched, rainbow-coloured ribbons. It had an angel on it. Grandad said it was the Angel of Mons.

The best find of all was Evenings in Paris, a small, stoppered glass bottle – dark, midnight blue. Mum helped me to open the bottle and out came the most delicious smell I had ever smelt. I kept sniffing and sniffing. The smell itself seemed to be dark blue. Thick, warm and velvety. I have since been told that Evenings in Paris was considered a cheap scent, Woolworth’s sort of stuff. Maybe it was because it was my first experience of perfume, or because smells, like tastes and textures, are more vivid to children. Oh, the appalling tinny taste of cabbage; the poisonous bitterness of rhubarb; the viscous, boiled-slug texture of rice pudding!

At infant’s school you were supposed to eat up all your dinner before you were allowed back to your lessons. I remember our attempts to smuggle gristly meat and cold, lumpy mashed-potato past the giant, white-overalled dinner-ladies on pig-bin duty. You had to heap it up under your knife and fork or turn your spoon upside down to conceal the disgusting stuff. All this teaches you is that it is sometimes necessary to deceive grown-ups. I was the most cowardly child, and haven’t got much braver since, but sometimes I get pushed into corners by people. I can remember sitting in the empty canteen until three o’clock in the afternoon with a teacher urging me to finish my rice pudding, and just looking at this plateful of stuff, with its dob of synthetic red strawberry jam in the middle, wanting to be a good girl, frightened of the consequences, but not eating it. They must have given up in the end.

The other thing people used to say was ‘Eat up your cabbage/rhubarb/rice pudding because the Starving Children in Africa would love it.’ I could never believe that they would love my rice pudding; however Starving they were, but I would have been only too happy to ladle mine into a cardboard box and post it to them.

Anyway – Evenings in Paris. I promised myself that when I grew up I would buy myself a whole bottle of it and carry it round in my pocket, always. If the Atom Bomb hadn’t dropped by then. It never did. I never did.

Pamela Frankau: imaginary friend (1)

Recently my eyes have been revolting – paying me back, that is, for far too many years of staring at a computer screen; one hour staring at the screen now translates into two days of eye-based headache which no painkiller will touch. So I went back to doing things the old-fashioned way. Having laid in a good stock of paper (yes, paper) and pencils (yes, pencils) I now write the first two drafts in longhand (yes, writing) then type up the final draft, one hour per day, whilst starting on the first two drafts of the next piece. Whilst this means a permanent backlog and some frustration – it takes a certain amount of self-discipline to set aside one piece of work and move on to another, rather than having a beautiful electronic ‘script’ to gloat over. Re-learning the art of writing on paper is surprisingly difficult too. This is because word-processing and the internet re-routes your synapses, shortens your attention-span and generally fries your brain. If you want to find out more about this I suggest you download or even (gasp!) read the paper version of an excellent little book by Nicholas Carr entitled The Shallows.

Despite all this, I am quite enjoying it. It seems to be turning me back into a writer and, in some mysterious way reconnecting me to m my youthful self. It’s brought back memories. For example, one day in Woolworths…

One day in Woolworths, when I was fifteen and a half years old, I spotted a copy of Pamela Frankau’s Pen To Paper: A Novelist’s Notebook on a low display stand somewhere between Pick ‘n Mix and Cosmetics. It was a hot Saturday afternoon, and motes of dust were dancing in the sunbeams streaming in from outside. Pen To Paper beckoned me. I circled the stand and flipped it open while my companion’s attention was elsewhere. There was a sign: All Books 6d.

6d. Even with my measly 5s a week pocket money I could afford that.

My life changed the moment Pamela caught my eye in Woolworths that day, and I knew it. I was desperate to ditch Lyndsay Barwell so that I could get the train home, open those enticing, print-smelling pages and start reading it, but Lyndsay Barwell was not an easy girl to ditch. Besides I had only met her at the station half an hour ago. Lyndsay lived in Gillingham and I in Rainham, one stop down the line. Dull, determined, the only-child of older parents, she had fished me out of our form’s Least Popular reservoir as most likely to comply with instructions, or the least likely to have made other plans. Only-children have a nose for losers. We were both Man From Uncle fans. Lyndsay fancied Napoleon Solo and I, fortunately, doted on Illya Kuryakin. She went a step further and composed supplementary episodes of Man From Uncle in the back bedroom of her parents’ terraced house. She never actually made me read them. There is a name for this nowadays – fanfic (‘fic’ to its afficionados). I was just kind of embarrassed for her.

So, we went on to do the kind of thing teenage girls did on a Saturday afternoon in the sixties. The hardback book seemed to be trying to melt its way out of the plastic bag I was so noncholantly swinging, but we pootled on, buying a pink Rimmel lipstick each and staring at shoes we couldn’t afford in shop windows. Vacantly we grooved – or pretended to groove –to the new hit singles in the listening booths; we backcombed our hair, freed today from schoolgirl bunches; we drank tasteless coffee from glass mugs in a café with mirrors and a jukebox, smirking at the boys while the boys smirked back at us. I wanted to read that book. I wanted to read that book.

Finally it was time to go home. Bye bye, Lindsay Barwell, see you at school Monday. Terraces, allotments and fields hurtled past the window and ten minutes later the train deposited me on the down platform amongst the nettles and sweet-papers. I scuttled back to the side street, the ugly bungalow, my nagging, nuisance parents, my unbearable sisters and the bedroom I shared with the airing cupboard, to open Pen To Paper.

According to Lyndsay, who knew almost everything, the book was a remainder. She was about to tell me what remainders were, but I could see by the look of them. They had a slightly fly-blown look, poor things, and their dust-jackets were beginning to curl at the edges. They were books nobody much wanted to buy. Poor things! Years of being whispered about behind my back and not being picked for the hockey team – I identified with them. And then there was the 6d, and the fact that a book on novel-writing technique and one novelist’s life had turned up in a Woolworths store at all. Obviously a job lot; some assistant had tipped them out of a cardboard box unsorted.

According to the dust-jacket Pen To Paper had originally cost 18s. The jacket was a kind of mushroom colour upon which in curly brown capitals the designer had splurged the initials PF. I doubt if it took him more than five minutes. But I was not to be put off. I had known for some time that I was going to be a writer. I had no idea how to set about writing a book or how a writer was supposed to live. Trapped in my suburban, semi-educated world I hungered and thirsted for one of my own kind to talk to. I was like ET, without a phone to phone home with. And now, here, was my new best friend Pamela, chatting away to me as if we were idling side by side on the Rec swings, scuffing our shoes on the gravel, twisting the chains, passing time till dusk when the Rec-keeper emerged from his corrugated iron HQ next to the toilets, to expel us before he locked the gates.