My boiler speaks

Many decades of bitter experience have failed to teach me their lesson. I am still unable to shake these linked illusions regarding household appliances:

  • household appliances cannot possibly malfunction, stressfully and expensively, just at the wrong moment;
  • should such an incident occur it will be dealt with by either my (dead) father or my (ex) husband;
  • they will not bother me about the malfunctioning household object since I am a lady and a poet and exist on a higher plane;
  • they will not try to explain to me in mind-numbingly tedious detail the reason for said household object’s malfunction;
  • they will fix it, which will take five minutes rather than three hours, and will not expect money for having done so.

However, in the real world, first my electrical wiring collapses in upon itself, live wires start interacting with one another (and blah blah blah…) so no central heating or hot water all winter. Then my loo seat breaks and has to be replaced by a novelty dog-reading-a-newspaper loo seat – in Latin, I notice, with English headlines. Then, the wiring having been fixed and long, deep, hot baths with wilting paperbacks once again a delightful prospect, the boiler starts making hideous clanking noises and goes out. I restart it numerous times. Same thing happens every time. Would you believe it?

Dead father and/or ex-husband inexplicably fail to materialise in my kitchen bearing spanners and boxes of tissues/consolatory chocolates. I am forced to call a plumber. Sacré bleu! The plumber explains it thusly:

‘Well, yer boiler is ‘eating the ‘ot water. Right? And the ‘ot water is getting up to yer pump in the cupboard on the landing. Right? But yer pump’s not working. Right? ‘Ence it’s getting red ‘ot and ‘umming and the landing smells of ‘ot rubber. Right? Then yer pipes set up a dreadful clatter because the water’s not goin’ on round the system. Right? It’s stuck at the pump.

‘At which point yer boiler says ‘Ere, thassnot right! and closes ‘imself down, ‘ence all the red lights. Issa good thing really. Safety mechanism.’

So – my boiler is male and can speak, and he has a Cockney accent. Who knew?

blue boiler

The Lambfairy (Angels & Other Occurrences 5.2)

When he saw what stood there, he almost fainted. It was too much. He had hoped for a few more months at least of sanity – maybe increasingly forgetful sanity, but a little more time to spend with Jen and the boy. And now, suddenly, this thing that couldn’t possibly be there. This madness.

“Marcus,” he said, “I think you’d better take me home. It’s my head, it’s … oh Marcus it’s some sort of delusion. I can see a…

Marcus took his arm, but didn’t take his eyes off the open doorway.

“…a lamb, but with wings?” he asked.

“You can see it too?” Could brain tumours be hereditary? Oh no, not Marcus. For the first time in years he found himself praying. Please God, not Marcus too. Not my boy. Please God…

“Yes, Dad, I can see it. It looks like… a Lambfairy.”

The lamb laughed.

Lambs don’t laugh, he thought.

“Lambfairy will do well enough.”

Lambs don’t speak, either.

“Did you… hear that, Marcus? Did it…”

“Speak? Yes it spoke. Um, maybe we ought to say something back?”

What do you say to a lamb with a halo round it and little fluttery wings?

“Hello, Mr Lambfairy,” said Marcus. “How may we be of assistance?” He had heard this phrase in a TV drama recently. It sounded odd – overly formal – but it seemed to mean what he meant.

The Lambfairy laughed again.

Lambs don’t laugh.

“Hello, Mr Marcus. And how are you this fine winter’s night?”

It knows his name. It knows my son’s name.

“I’m OK, Mr Lambfairy.”

“You can be of assistance, actually,” said the Lambfairy. “I just need you both to follow me down the valley – it’s not far – you can see the encampment from here – and I will light the way. I would like you to visit a baby, a new little friend of mine.”

“But that’s the gypsy camp. They’ve been there for weeks. Is it a gypsy’s baby?”

“No, in fact. Well, in a technical sense I suppose He is everyone’s baby.  He is the Son of God. Worth a visit, wouldn’t you say?”

That took a moment or two to sink in. Then, seeing his poor Dad was rooted to the spot with his mouth half-open, unable to take in any more of this fantastic stuff, Marcus took charge.

“Definitely worth a visit, Mr Lambfairy. But why us? Dad’s just a sheep farmer and I’m just a… a boy. We were just watching the sheep because the security cameras… I mean, Dad…”

“Dad cut the wire to the security cameras,” supplied the Lambfairy, becoming slightly impatient now. “Yes, I saw him. Marcus, I am asking you because you are a good boy, and your father because he is a good man. You care for your flock, you care for each other and you care for your mother, Jen. This is a special night and you are special people.”

“Your father is sick. He’s in pain and I feel it. This night I shall give him back his strength.” And at that the lamb rose in the air on its gossamer wings and something – might have been snow, might have been fairy-dust, gold-dust, rainbow confetti or some kind of mirage – but something started to flutter around the older man. And there was all this singing, suddenly, like a whopping great choir in the sky.

“I feel better,” the man confirmed when the singing stopped.

“You are better,” said the Lambfairy.

“But I’ve…”

“No longer.”

It was hard to take in. The man’s mind, circling in confusion, lighted on a relative triviality. “But what about gifts? We can’t go and visit the baby without gifts.”

“Look in your pockets, gentlemen.”

The man felt around in the pocket of his greatcoat and to his surprise brought out a silk headscarf in a paper bag. It was sky blue, with a band of gold and green flowers for a border. He’d spotted it on a market stall this morning and had decided to buy it for Jen. She was a great one for blue, and flowers.

“But I didn’t buy it!” he exclaimed. “I meant to buy it but something distracted me… can’t remember what it was… and I forgot. I meant to. I could have kicked myself when I got home.”

“I know. I saw your intention and I saw your disappointment.”

“So I could give this to your little friend? This would be enough?”

“He will love it. He’s a great one for blue and flowers too, you know.”

Marcus rummaged in his own coat pocket and found, to his surprise, his school craft project – a little chain carved from a single block of wood. He had been working on it for weeks with the help of his woodwork teacher. He’d hoped to finish it for his father, to cheer him up. But only yesterday there had been an accident and he’d ruined the whole project. Somehow or other the chisel had slipped and taken a very obvious chunk out of one of the links. Marcus had thrown it down on the bench in disgust, breaking another link in the process. He’d have to start again from scratch.

Yet the chain he drew out of his pocket was the same chain – any carver can recognise his own work – but as he had wanted it to be. No break. Completed.

Marcus turned it over and over in his hands, lovingly exploring the curves and edges of his handiwork. “This?” he asked.

“Your gift,” confirmed the Lambfairy. “Right, gentlemen. Follow me.”

They were half way down the lane when the man’s phone rang. It was Jen, with an edge of anxiety in her voice.

“I was wondering when you were going to call it a quits, sweetheart? Dawn will be breaking soon and I’m sure any foxes are asleep in their beds by now. I… I’ve been worrying about you. What with…”

“I’ll be home soon, Jen. I’m just having to follow the Lambfairy. It isn’t far.”

“Lamb… fairy? Darling, is Marcus there? Would you pass the phone over to him, just for a minute? I’d just like a word.” This is it, she was thinking. This is the end stage, but come so suddenly. This is what we’ve both been dreading. And he’s out on the hill in the dark, without me.

“It’s OK, Mum,” Marcus whispered. “Dad’s OK – in fact he’s better than OK. There really is a Lambfairy, you see. I’ll explain – well, I’ll try to explain – when we get home.”

“What? Marcus? Marcus, are you there?”

But Marcus had gone. He was following his father and the Lambfairy down the lane, staying within the orbit of its guiding light, skirting round mud and puddles. And now he could see it, the trailer on the far side with the light coming from it, and the animals all around.

(Luke 2: 8 – 15)

The curious incident of the blancmange at the school gates

The question to be answered is: When were you most frightened? I found it on a children’s writing prompt website. I’ve been worrying this idea back and forth for some time. It shouldn’t be that difficult, if children are supposed to be able to manage it. But what have I been frightened of, and which of these frightening things was the most frightening?

I suppose I was frightened of my father, but that wasn’t one particular incident that was all the time. Fear was the natural consequence of being completely the wrong sort of child, and I spent most of my childhood trying to work out how to be the right sort. But I don’t believe I’ve ever been frightened, with that sharp, dramatic fear in real life. What I do feel is a constant, background fear – it’s like that music in lifts, it’s like the clatter of knives and forks in a restaurant, the scraping of chairs, the muffled conversation. Someone once described anxiety as fear-spread-thin – as good a description as any. It’s never not there, but I’ve never known anything else, it’s just the way everything always is. I think I might be very spooked indeed, maybe even miss it if it was suddenly gone.

In dreams, yes. I once dreamt I was driving a bus slowly towards a bottomless ravine. At some point, predictably, the bus slid over the edge, remaining poised there, slow-see-sawing like those runaway lorries in films. It was pretty clear that the dream was meant as a warning, since I was in a dangling-over-the-edge-of-the-ravine situation in real life at the time. And more than once I have dreamt of myself on a ledge at the top of some skyscraper like the Empire State Building. Now that does feel like terror, within the dream, and it stays with you for a long time when you wake up. It’s the indecision. Shall I just jump now and get it over with? Or shall I stay frozen to this ledge, no hope at all of rescue? It was such a very, very, very long way down. I wonder what people think about, on the way down?

But why no acute fear in real life? I was in a car crash once, but remember nothing at all of the twenty minutes leading up to it. Was I afraid when the other car came careering down the hill towards me on the wrong side of the road, as the police described? Ever since then I have expected The Flashback to happen, perhaps when driving – the one where you relive the whole horrible thing in an instant. But it’s never happened, there’s just a generalised sense of…trust having been lost. I imagined the universe was lolloping along beside me, like a large and friendly-ish dog. Then it turned round and bit me, viciously, and who can say when it will decide to bite again.

So what else? I was charged by a barking Alsatian once (we seem to be on a bit of a dog theme). I stood stock still and stared, transmitting terribly dangerous, woman-bites-dog type vibes at it. I’m not that keen on dogs, but I can communicate with them when necessary. The thing landed against my leg with a bump, and open jaws. I must have anticipated being bitten because I remember screaming – faintly and politely, a ladylike British scream, and then being embarrassed for having screamed at all. I must have been frightened, so why can’t I remember how it felt?

I once found myself alone for several days with an acute gallstone attack. I had never been in that much pain before, or felt that cold, sick and shaky. My head was buzzing with imminent unconsciousness. I knew this might possibly kill me – you know when you’re in real danger – but couldn’t muster the energy to pick up the phone to tell anyone, or even the will to make a decision. I just lay down and waited. And waited. Most of the time I was praying it would kill me – very, very, very soon, in fact this instant. I also remember how focussed you get when really under threat, the strength you have to dredge up from somewhere. It’s as if your primative ancestors take over, something else kicks in. I was certainly distressed during those days alone, but not afraid.

No, I think the nearest I came to experiencing actual, animal fear was one evening in my thirteenth year when I dropped a pink blancmange on the school driveway and stood aside helplessly as teachers, queueing to exit the school gates, were one by one compelled to drive through a sea of pink blancmange and broken pudding-dish shards. It was the evil, exasperated, snarly looks on all their faces. They saw me, hovering and horrified, with my now-empty biscuit tin; they linked me to the products of my cookery lesson. I was going to get into so much trouble. I picked up the biggest pudding-dish pieces, put them in the biscuit tin, jammed on the tin-lid and ran. The train home went at ten past four (which was why I’d been sprinting in charge of a blancmange in the first place) and the station was at the bottom of the hill.

I made my getaway but said nothing to my parents and spent an entirely sleepless night visualising tomorrow’s terminal humiliation. It was the headmistress’s habit to ‘mention’ these things in assembly. The dreadful deed would be described in lingering, sarcastic detail and then the girl responsible would be invited to stand – own up to her sins so that everybody could turn, titter and gloat. The one thing I dreaded above all others was becoming the centre of attention – being pointed at, looked at, seen, even glimpsed. I craved invisibility. I would have cheerfully suffered how ever many lashes a dropped blancmange might attract, in private. I would have been so glad to write on the blackboard, alone in an empty classroom, night after night for the next three years, I must not drop my blancmange, I must not drop my blancmange… What I couldn’t abide was being laughed at.

I do believe I tottered into that assembly hall in genuine fear. I do believe I trembled as I sat cross-legged on the floor with several hundred others teenage girls while the headmistress lectured us on the correct way to make a pot of tea (take the kettle to the pot and not the pot to the kettle – or was it the other way round?) and the necessity of wearing sixty-denier Sun Mist stockings at all times, reserving thirty-denier seamless un-Sun-Mist to wear with our Pretty Party Dresses (she was a trifle out of touch – sorry, accidental pun). And after all that, she didn’t mention It. Nobody mentioned It. And I couldn’t even feel relieved because blancmange-terror was now welded into my psyche. And pink blancmange, my favourite. If only it hadn’t been pink.

AND WHERE ARE THE CLOWNS? THERE OUGHT TO BE CLOWNS…

There’s this film out at the moment, called The Walk. It’s based on the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit and his walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in August 1974. I must admit I haven’t seen it, and probably couldn’t bring myself to see it, since heights frighten me. Twice in my life I have dreamed I was perched on the ledge of a building so high you could barely see the ground. I wasn’t dreaming, or so I believed – I was right there, agonising whether to keep still, shut my eyes and hope for rescue, or jump and get it over with. Thanatos, the death impulse, the dark side of the life impulse, Eros – is present within all of us but normally suppressed.

As far as I was concerned that dream contained enough terror for one lifetime. Heights have always ‘done my head in’ as they used to say. (I wonder what they say now?) I even managed to get stuck at the top of the children’s slide on Penenden Heath and had to be rescued by my father. He was not sympathetic but then I suppose if you’ve been through conscription, forced to drive a truck with a red-hot steering wheel back and forth across India, through rivers and swamps and whatnot, having only previously driven once or twice round the works car-park, a gibbering female child at the top of a little low slide would be exasperating.

That’s the thing with sitting on a high ledge, isn’t it? We’re terrified when it’s us – but when somebody else is in that position, there’s a fascination. We are good, kind people and we don’t want them to fall but – what if they did, what if they actually did? Thanatos wants out, and he’s greedy; and when someone may be about to die he attaches himself, leech-like, to that sight. What better and safer way to experience ‘death’ and the fear of death than to watch someone else fall off a high wire? Through them we get to experience that great, final adrenaline rush. Through them we experience the sublime.

The sublime is a difficult thing to define. The Romantic poets thought of the sublime as the heightened feeling you might experience in viewing the majesty of the Alps, or a great waterfall – a fascinating beauty, intermingled with horror.

The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from beauty was first brought into prominence in the 18th century in the writings of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, and John Dennis, in expressing an appreciation of the fearful and irregular forms of external nature, and Joseph Addison’s synthesis of concepts of the sublime in his The Spectator, and later the Pleasures of the Imagination. All three Englishmen had, within the span of several years, made the journey across the Alps and commented in their writings of the horrors and harmony of the experience, expressing a contrast of aesthetic qualities. Wikipedia

This is the attraction of vampire movies, especially for young girls: the pale, exotic, beautiful, tormented hero with the bloodlust and the deadly fangs. What’s not to long for?

But this Thanatos/Eros thing extends, downwards, from the Alps and the high-wire walker to (in my case) playground equipment and (in all our cases) the world of popular entertainment. We watch Amy Winehouse destroying herself with drugs and alcohol – everyone sees the accident waiting to happen, nobody intervenes. We listen to her singing her heart out, like the mythical thorn bird, self-impaled to produce its final, sweetest song. We watch talent show contestants walking on stage, we hear the silence fall, we long for them to be bad. How much more satisfying a conceited, self-deluded, aggressive or foolish contestant than any old sweet boy band, or a nervous nineteen year-old in ripped jeans with a pretty good voice. How much more entertaining.

In Roman times, as we all know, the crowds filled the stone amphitheatres to witness gladiators fight other gladiators or condemned criminals to the death. Animals, even. The Romans staged “hunts” in their auditoria. Thousands of wild animals would be slaughtered in one day.

During the inauguration of the Colosseum over 9,000 animals were killed. Wikipedia

Were the Ancient Romans a different species of human being to ourselves? How could they take such pleasure in the prospect of all that suffering? Or were they maybe more honest about their desires than the audience at The X-Factor, or watchers of Big Brother, waiting for one of the inhabitants of the House to crack under the strain? And how far we will go? Take Jade Goody, who behaved stupidly and unpleasantly towards a fellow housemate, Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, and subsequently, presumably in an attempt to repair her ruined reputation, became a Housemate on the Indian version of Big Brother. I didn’t see the programme here in the UK, but according to the newspaper reports she was called into the Diary Room to speak to her specialist in London over the phone. He then informed her, on live TV, she that she was dying of cervical cancer. Twenty-seven and nowhere to hide.

Mocking the afflicted, as they say. How often are we actually doing this, telling ourselves we’re just having fun? I suppose it depends how you define ‘afflicted’. Is it someone with a physical disability? Is it someone like Jade Goody, poorly-educated, to all appearances not very bright, and unconsciously racist? Is it Amy Winehouse, gifted but desperate and kind of ‘cracked’? Is it a deluded teenage factory worker seizing his one chance, maybe his only chance, of fame on the X-Factor? Or is it the odd, plain, middle-aged woman in the cheap gold dress and the wrong-colour tights?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5D5DgQi2oqA

Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent Audition: April 11, 2009

More questions than answers:

How can you not cringe at this classic television encounter? How can you not get to your feet and cheer for her? How can you not cry? Did they treat her well? If her voice had turned out to be all of a piece with her physical appearance on that day, would she have deserved the reaction she would most certainly have got – the sniggers from the audience, patronising comments from the panel? Would that treatment even have made a dent in her confident self-belief? She knew she had one of the best voices ever, but then all the contestants know they are the best ever, and most turn out to be deluded. Who could have denied her the recognition and the applause? She said she wanted to be as famous as musical star Elaine Paige and they laughed behind their hands. Of course – who wouldn’t? And then she sang, and blew Elaine Paige out of the water.

Given what we later witnessed in the way of erratic, inappropriate and stressed-out behaviour – would rejection have destroyed Susan Boyle? Or, without the careful management she later received, might success have destroyed her? Labelled “brain-damaged” as a child in her Scottish village, she has since been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Just listen to this with your eyes shut. Where is this coming from? How can someone who can barely express herself sensibly in words, nevertheless interpret these words and this music like this?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=Yb3XAP0c8WU

Susan Boyle: Wild Horses

A personal story to end on. Some Sundays I would go to Open Mic sessions a folk club in Rochester with my ex-husband. He had run a folk club himself, in Northampton, some years before we met. Although used to singing and playing in front of an audience, he never offered to perform on these occasions. We just used to watch. There was this one woman – oldish. She played the accordion dreadfully, missing notes all over the place, and sang even more dreadfully. People used to guffaw at her, literally; groans echoed round the room as she staggered up onto the stage. I asked my husband once, why she kept on doing it, and why the audience were so cruel. He shrugged: If you choose to put yourself up there, you take the consequences. There seemed no arguing with this. He had taken the same risk himself, many times. He had walked the walk. But I wonder now – about the damaged ego of the person who puts herself forward, and the damaged soul of the person who watches, and mocks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8L6KGuTr9TI

Judy Collins: Send In The Clowns

MY FATHER, ON THE OTHER HAND…

…was a different kettle of fish. My father, unlike my mother, did not throw novels away in disgust: he simply refused to read them. An intelligent man, he read the daily papers from front page to back, including the financial columns, and would often read aloud (rather too lengthy) passages that he thought would interest us all. He watched the News on TV every evening. He wrote editorials and articles for a cycling club magazine which he and my mother between them manufactured using an electric typewriter, my mother’s precise cut-and-paste/handwritten captioning, and the battered second-hand photocopier that took up most of the spare bedroom. Later he wrote his ‘memoirs’ which succeeded in telling me a lot, and almost nothing. For a working man he had an advanced vocabulary, apart from one time when he asked me what ‘priapic’ meant. Difficult to know which of us was the most embarrassed or amused by my stumbling, circuitous attempts to define this word, which he had read in the newspaper. What was priapic doing in a newspaper anyway?

Yet he abhorred fiction. In fact it went deeper than that – he abhorred history. More than that, I would say he was a History Denier. It never happened, any of it, he used to say. It’s all lies. Once or twice as a teenager I tried arguing it out with him, applying my own immature logic to the situation. With parents, particularly with fathers, it’s never a good idea.

But something must have happened in the past. It can’t just be a blank before we were born. How did we get here at all?

All lies!

When we visited Leeds Castle we mostly stuck to the gardens where there was more than enough to keep us busy for a couple of hours – places to sit down and look at swans on lakes, places to drink tea and eat sandwiches; but every once in a while Mum and I liked to go inside the castle, take another look at Henry VIII’s suit of armour, Lady Baille’s languorous and strangely elongated portrait, her magnificent 1930s shoe collection or – my favourite – the lonely little fountain in the central courtyard. Dad, meanwhile, would sit on the wall outside reading his newspaper. Inside did not exist.

I used to think something had happened to him during the War, aside from driving military trucks across India (steering-wheel so hot it would burn your hands if you weren’t careful) and getting a bad case 0f malaria in Burma (stand by your beds when the Top Brass come round, whether or not you are dying). He showed us a few sepia photographs of himself out there. It was difficult to tell him apart from various other young men in khaki shirts and shorts, hands shading their eyes, squinting into the lens.

The only other thing he ever said when the subject of non-existent history came up was this: when he was at school they had showed him the Atlas, and most of the Atlas was coloured pink. The pink areas, he was told, belonged to the Glorious British Empire. But then when he got to India it wasn’t true. The Atlas – or maybe his teachers – had lied.

Did he mean they lied because the Empire wasn’t glorious? Was no longer an Empire? Because the Indian people he met disliked rather than revered their British occupiers? Because the British were not behaving gloriously? I never got to understand why he told this half-a-story. I am not sure he knew why either but it was obviously connected in some way. Those ideas – it’s all lies… history never happened… at school they showed me the Atlas – always came up together. It was like a kind of short circuit, a closed loop. Was he pointing out that history is written by the victors? But we all know that, don’t we? We can still believe  that some sort of history happened.

My own instinct is that something, or maybe a series of somethings, happened to my father in India. There’s this feeling of betrayal, and rage. The Atlas story must be true – I’m sure schoolchildren were propagandised in this way – but it’s only one element. I get a ‘background’ of real encounters with real people – real situations – real humiliations – maybe real cruelty, his or someone else’s. Neither I nor my mother succeeded in fighting our way through that particular thorny thicket, and now my father has packed up his mysteries in his old kit bag and gone, gone, gone, leaving us none the wiser.

* http://www.leeds-castle.com/home