What happens in Imagination, stays in Imagination

There is a kind of logic behind obsessive worrying, which would be instantly understood by the citizens of the alternative universe from which I was, at some point, expelled in error.

The idea is that if you lie awake night after night, and every spare moment, rehearsing some terrible future scenario in the minutest of detail, that scenario will not actually happen. This is the deal the worrier strikes – with God, the Universe, the White Mice or whoever:

Dear God/Universe/White Mice

I will put all my spare energy into imagining infinite variations on post-apocalyptic Britain. I will decide, in grim detail, exactly what I will do. I will foresee everything, I will act it all out and I will also prepare for it in real life, laying in stocks, building that nuclear bunker at the bottom of the garden, so that if it should accidentally come to pass I will be ready for it.

As recompense for all that effort-expended and anguish-experienced, You will not allow said scenario to happen. I am using my imagination inventing this nightmare future-scape, but the very fact that I am imagining it means it cannot then take place in real life. My inner world is one place, my outer world is another, and the equivalent of the Red Sea stands between them. What happens in Imagination stays in Imagination.

So what has gone wrong? I spent all those years imagining exactly this – plague, panic, confined to the house for months with an army of cats, ever-decreasing supplies of Felix and Whiskas in the supermarkets or online – and now this actually seems to be taking place. I spent years devouring all those Mass Observation books about the Bulldog Spirit – How We Coped In The War – How We Nearly Didn’t Cope In The War – How Mrs Nella Last Coped In The War – never thinking it would be me needing to Cope. What sort of glitch in your vast, mathematical computer model is this?

Or perhaps it’s not a glitch. Maybe you just got bored – hmm, Conservative Party conference – hmm, discussion of strawberry propagation on Gardeners’ Question Time – 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire – meh! Bored! Let’s run a proper plague. Let’s get some lager in, and a couple of bags of crisps. We’ll veg out on our celestial sofa with the entire box set.

I’m doing my best to be entertaining. I’ve knitted half a string bag and unravelled it. I’ve watched the first four episodes of This Country and discussed them with my sister by email. I’ve been washing up, and washing clothes, and doing more washing up, and then washing more clothes. I’m planning a patchwork quilt. Are you really going to be be entertained, up there on your giant sofa, as I count my tins of cat-food and hand-sew endless tiny squares onto endless tiny other squares?

Hello?

Anybody there?

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

Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side

I recently learned that Google has extended its mapping service and now not only drives along people’s roads, filming their houses and catching them out in such nefarious activities as walking the poodle, taking the bins out, etcetera, but also employs relays of solitary walkers to film trails inside the Peak District National Park. The walkers set out with that periscope-type camera strapped to their backs. I am just wondering why Google doesn’t use drones now – or maybe it does. The scary little beasties seem to be everywhere, so why not some low-level flying along walking paths and up and down mountain tracks? The occasional beheaded walker to be written off as collateral damage.

Because after all look at the results – and they are truly impressive:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-29933459

The Peak District has become the first national park to have its trails and hard-to-reach locations captured on Google Street View.

http://www.ukclimbing.com/news/item.php?id=69285

Selected bits of the Peak District have become the first off-road terrain in a British national park to be featured on Google’s Street View.

I am not against Google Maps per se, having used them myself when house-hunting. It’s very useful to be able to walk up and down the road in which you are thinking of viewing a house, since that highly-photo-shopped picture of the house on the property websites doesn’t give you any idea what sort of area it is in – whether there’s a gasworks at the end of the street; or the street’s so narrow there’s nowhere to park; or there’s a school right opposite which will be besieged by parking ‘mummies’ and dangerously running-about children twice a day; or there are tattered red and white ‘England’ flags flapping out of the windows – meaning you will be living in a National Front stronghold, or at least among an unacceptably high number of football fanatics, who will drink lager in their front rooms during the World Cup and cheer, suddenly.

Google Maps does save you a lot of time and petrol but it works both ways. Prospective buyers of your house, who might otherwise be fooled into coming and viewing it, may take a virtual dislike, and you’ve lost them before you’ve begun.

And it is useful for spying. When the Irish lady (she of the red jumper who lurked behind the glass – see earlier post) and her husband moved away, unexpectedly I was feeling lonely without them. In a moment of weakness I typed into Google Maps the name of the far-away town they had moved to, and the street name, and then ‘walked’ the length and breadth of it.

I imagined them walking there in the flesh. Which way would they go to the shops? What would they see around this corner? Was there a bit of a park nearby, for the old dog’s daily walkies? But it didn’t end there. Confession time. Unable to resist employing a minor gift for detective work I managed to find their house, still on sale on the estate agent’s website (they leave them there for ages after they’re sold, I’ve discovered – to make you think there is much more on their books than there is – oh that one, unfortunately that one just sold, but this one… ) and clicked on ‘Start Slideshow’, and inspected every single one of their new rooms. The place was smaller than I expected, though neat and newly-decorated. Shame about that little bit of decking instead of a garden…

I imagined I was the only one with this grubby little secret but later discovered that most of the neighbours had done variations on the same prying search. Even the lady who had bought the house next door had done it. She was cross with them for not telling her about the rotten floorboards concealed beneath the bedroom carpet. I think she was plotting long-distance virtual vengeance of some sort.

This virtual Peak District tour, though – it’s walking porn – walking for those who haven’t the energy to walk, just want to enjoy the views they would enjoy if they were walking. Similarly there’s cookery porn – cookery programmes for those who live on chips and take-away curries in real life – gardening porn – garden makeover programmes for those whose gardens are full of children’s toys, dog poo, long grass and rusty swings – holiday porn – for those who can’t even afford a train ticket to Blackpool – and even ballroom porn – for those who have never sewn on a sequin and couldn’t fleckle if their lives depended on it. And now we have this long-distance yomping porn – for those who rarely get off the sofa or close their laptops. Slugs, the lot of ’em.

Google’s latest wheeze did, however, inspire me into writing post. I thought I would go out for my usual walk round the block, but ‘wearing’ an imaginary periscope-type Google camera. (There is only one walk you can do here, really, unless you go round twice, or clockwise sometimes and anti-clockwise other times, or make a sort of squarish figure-of-eight of it by cutting through alleyways.) With the help of my imaginary periscope-type Google camera I would proceed to ‘record’ my little walk, but using words in place of film. This, then, would be boredom porn – for those who actually have interesting and beautiful places to walk, but yearn to experience the exotic desolation of my surroundings – without actually having to come here.

So, out of the back door (everyone uses their back doors as their front doors round here. My house doesn’t have a front door, only a side door – but I don’t use that) and here is my garden. The grass is a bit too long. Felix is crouching in the midst of it, eyes firmly fixed on the wire bird-feeder, swaying with hungry sparrows in spite of him. He doesn’t eat them very often. More often he just watches. Sparrow porn.

Now round the slippery, muddy bit at the side – when it rains, torrents of mud slide down the hillside and make, specifically, for my driveway – and out into the road. Opposite, now, is the house of Caravan Man. He used to be Washing Man because he was depressed and would stand in his back garden for hours watching his white sheets rotating on his rotary drier. Now he’s got a girlfriend – well, sort of – so he’s given over watching his sheets go round (laundry porn) and bought a white caravan, not to use for anything but to fill up the whole of the concrete hard-standing outside his house so that lorries, vans and neighbours can no longer use it for reversing. Now they struggle with tight three-point turns and worsen the potholes instead. The potholes are full of water. This morning the Council men came and (hurrah!) one of them raised the other up in a cherry-picker and he mended the orange streetlamp. Tonight, for the first time in months, there will be something other than pitch-darkness outside our windows.

Weather – blue sky, just little scratty bits of cloud. But it’s cool. The lawns are wet, the potholes still full of stormwater. Autumn is here to stay.

Past the Chinese chap with the very loud voice and the nice garden.

Past the chap at the end who breeds parrots and lets several dogs out every time he sees me. Hello, doggies! Disappointingly for him, dogs do not tend to attack me.

Past the nettles – a whole back garden, nothing but nettles. I wonder if there is the corpse of a stabbed-person in the middle (we specialise in stabbings round here) or maybe a maggot-infested badger, or an ancient mattress with brambles growing through the springs…

It reminds me of Nan’s garden. There was an old apple tree surrounded by a sea of mint, and on one sawn-off branch of the tree the head of a bisque doll. My uncle hung the dolls head on a twig. Then he joined the RAF and went away, and the twig grew, and grew, and eventually the doll’s head was firmly stuck on the fattened twig. Nan warned me that the doll’s head would be bound to break – the twig would burst it. I didn’t believe her. Then it happened. That’s life, isn’t it? Bad things happen, but somehow you manage to pretend they might not.

And then they do.