1: A house divided

It’s been a long time since I wrote something the low-tech way, ie sat down at a desk with a potful of sharpened pencils and made marks on paper. My usual technique – since I become more distracted and impatient with every day that passes – is to ‘splurge’, suddenly and electronically. I get a wisp of an idea, a little ghostly thought-ette or two, log in to WordPress and permit some primitive part of my brain, in conjunction with my touch-typist’s – though now somewhat stiffening – hands, to do their thing. Then I publish it, fondly believing I have proof-read it. Then I spend the next three years spotting all the mistakes.

I am writing ‘old-fashioned’ in this case because I have pages of notes that just wouldn’t stop coming to me yesterday evening, and the end result is likely to be at least three separate posts. I can’t hold a train of thought over multiple posts – I have to write it, edit it and subdivide it. Bah! So tedious!

When I get to read back what the hands/primitive-part-of-the-brain combo has typed I am often surprised – amazed, even – to discover what I must have been thinking, and what I appear to believe, sometimes quite passionately. I get to meet me in these posts, and the me in these posts seems to have some sort of recognisable personality. WordPress is our rendezvous point: without it the inside of my head would be a kind of darkish soup, with kind of floating bits, the odd, unidentifiable streak of this and that, peered into in vain.

I could not express any of the years of passing thoughts, ideas and reminiscences to be found in Latourabolie (transl: The Ruined Tower, in case anyone is still trying to fathom it out) to anybody face to face. I either say very little – to the many people I don’t like – or ramble joyously and incomprehensibly – to the few people I love or feel at ease with. Occasionally these serendipitous excursions into word-salad and verbal diarrhoea seem to amuse my friends. Sometimes they even laugh out loud in the course of one of my epic, multi-digressionary stories or reminiscences, at least parts of which may be true.

Often they laugh at bits I didn’t realise were funny – or at least not that funny. Maybe they are less amused by the tale itself than the sight of me struggling to bring it to a sensible conclusion, hauling myself back from digression after digression, to just stop. Where would we be without friends?

So, to the subject of this little run of posts – ADD or Attention Deficit Disorder. I leave the ‘H’ out because that stands for Hyperactive or Hyperactivity, and I definitely don’t have that bit. I was never one of those mind-bogglingly annoying little boys who jiggle their feet, jump up and down and cannot remain seated for more than two seconds. My cousin was one of those. Boy was that little boy annoying! He was absolutely unbearable to be around. You just wanted to bellow at him – keep still, you little tyke! You couldn’t, of course, because he was a cousin, and a visitor. I believe he is now a somewhat successful almost-retired something-in-electronics, and owns his own company. The last time I saw him was at English Sister’s wedding. English Sister was the same age as him. He was trying to chat her up, despite the bridal gown and her being his first cousin.

I would guess my type is the ‘inattentive’ type, which tends to manifest more in girls. I did consider the possibility that I was somewhere on the autistic spectrum, preferably at the ‘high functioning’ end. We’d all like to think of ourselves as an Alan Turing manqué, wouldn’t we? I have, in the past, had the occasional full-blown meltdown when things got too much – usually, and appallingly, at work. I do have the dislike of interruptions to my ordered routine, and, to an extent, the obsessive interests – but it’s not enough I think, after exhaustive research, to make me properly autistic.

In any case, it is one of my ‘hunches’ that autism and ADD are  basically one and the same, which is why a lot of people diagnosed as autistic also appear to ‘suffer from’ ADD or ADHD. Much suffering is certainly involved, but these are not illnesses, or disorders. There is nothing wrong with us, we are simply not at all like you.  I predict that ADD will eventually be found to be an alternative manifestation of the same comprehensively different brain wiring that results in autism, the other side of the coin. Or – think of autism/ADD/ADHD as a giant pink cake, liberally sprinkled with ‘hundreds and thousands’ because, after all, it is a statistical kind of cake. ADD, ADHD and autism, both high-functioning and low-functioning, would be slices cut from different parts of the same cake, and sometimes somebody would happen to get two adjacent slices. If you think of it as circular rather than a stack of parallel lines, or spectra, it works better.

I have never been diagnosed and am never likely to be. A formal diagnosis would interest and cheer me immensely in that it would prove me right (See – told you so!) but it would do nothing to heal the distressing bits in my past. It wouldn’t provide me with thousands of pounds to sort out my bank account, make me young again or save me from my eventual fate, whatever that might be – so there’s not much point.

And I do believe – reluctantly – that limited diagnostic resources should be concentrated on children. Not that I like children all that much but they are the future, whether we like them or not. And a diagnosis could help a child make more of its life than I – old, undiagnosed and woefully misunderstood – have been able to do.

So, I have worked out from simple observation – may be wrong, of course – that ADD and  its annoying-little-boy variant, ADHD, both run in my family thus:

The ones in bold are or may be the ‘sufferers’, that awful word:

Maternal side:

Nan : Grandad

Air Force Uncle → annoying boy cousin plus two girl cousins

Mum : Dad

→ Me, Canadian Sister and English Sister

Paternal Side

Grandma: Grampa

Devon Aunt, one baby boy (deceased), Dad

I can’t exactly remember from school all that Mendelian stuff with the sweet peas and the colour combinations, but does this look like a possible pattern, geneticists? Quite probably, no geneticists read my blog.

This unseen (except by me), unrecognised (ditto) fault line in my family has been the cause of no end of problems.

See 2: Supping with the Devil

Devilish Wind

I don’t remember much about Grandma, to be honest. She is more a series of photographs. One in particular, as a young married woman in a long, black Edwardian skirt and frilly blouse, stiffly posed in “gob-stopper” glasses. Poor sight is one of our family problems. She looks bewildered. I suspect it was a memento for Grandpa, who was being posted overseas to China. He would eventually bring her a Buddha made of brass, scrolls with delicate watercolours and Chinese writing from top to bottom – the whole house had a vaguely oriental feel, I remember.

I suspect Grandma was also bewildered by us children. I don’t remember much interaction between us – it was mostly grown-ups talking. She was quiet – probably shy. I remember her mending my teddy-bear’s paw out on the terrace, with a background of lavender bushes. I remember being horrified and wishing she wouldn’t as I watched that giant needle piercing his tender paw, again and again and again. Poor Grandma.

And I remember her – indoors this time – with a background of rust-coloured velvet curtains. It must have been daytime, since we never visited at night, and yet she had drawn them, shutting out the garden.  “Devilish wind!” she was saying. She hated the wind with a passion. It wasn’t just one of those mild preferences, either. When she spoke of it, she trembled. You could feel those waves of misery and unsettlement.

Luckily I didn’t inherit Grandma’s dreadful eyesight – my Canadian sister, poor soul, got that – but I did, at least in part, inherit her dislike of windy weather. It’s windy today. Normally I stay indoors on blustery days. I don’t like – I don’t know what I don’t like, exactly – the aggression of the wind; the way it pushes you and batters you; the way it whips your hair across into your eyes. The way it intrudes. The wind is a bully and a distraction. It’s in your face. But today I had to go out. Christmas the cat has – how to put it delicately – a tummy upset. (Magnify that by three.) I suppose it’s the changeover from mice and leftovers to food out of sachets. I can’t afford to take him to the vet yet again, and I’ve used up my two remaining tins of “post-operative” food on him, so I decided on chicken.

There is only one shop in our village, so I walked, getting buffeted this way and that. I met the blonde (temporarily, for Christmas, blue) post-lady scurrying from her van to the housing estate in her polar-bear hat, white bear-ears squashed out underneath her official post-lady hat. I like the post-lady. She’s cheerful and she talks to me. People mostly aren’t, and don’t, round here. It’s a God-forsaken, windswept place, especially in December. And February… don’t talk to me about February. If only to avoid falling into a crater full of brown water, most people keep their heads down. Unmade roads, you see. It’s like walking on the moon.

And once in the shop I grabbed their only two packets of pre-cooked chicken from the chill cabinet before anyone else could spot them and snatch them from me. As a vegetarian I dislike even buying meat, but needs must, when the Devil drives. Or the Devilish wind. Christmas must have his chicken.

So, we’re safe at home now and he’s eaten a large plateful of the stuff, and now I’m waiting for an explosion of unpleasantness and a pained expression – or not. Fingers crossed, not.

Fingers crossed for rain. Better still, fog. I am a foggy kinda gal. You know, if I had to design a planet for me – just for me – it would be cool, and thickly shrouded in mist. Seagulls, cats and occasional post-persons would be permitted but the roads would be smoothly surfaced in black tarmacadam. There would be no such thing as white plaster donkey ornaments (with panniers for pansies in summer) and bits of old boats or wells made out of driftwood in gardens. It would also be illegal – on pain of dunking in December’s briny ocean – to call one’s house Casa Mia, Dunroamin’, Ere-we-are, Thislldoo, Safe Harbour, Admiral’s Rest, Bay Cottage, Bayview, Blue Peter, By the C, Driftwood, Jolly Roger, Ocean Glory, Ripple Cove, Rippleside, Sea-breeze, Seacrest, Seaholme, Sea Shanty, Seaspray, Seaviews, Seven Seas, The C Syde, The Mooring…

A game of bagatelle

I seem to have written a lot about my maternal grandparents. They lived in the same street as us, further down, on the opposite side. I would walk past their house on my way to school. I would seek sanctuary there when things got too bad at home – Nan got all the sessions of hysterical sobbing Mum never saw. I would spend nearly every Sunday with them – so obviously they loom large.

I would guess my parents thought of my Sundays with Nan and Grandad as a welcome break, allowing them to focus on my two younger sisters. To me, it was a lifeline. Nan and Grandad gave me safety, space, solitude, old-fashioned books to read, peas to shell, mint sauce to make, brass to polish, a fat old labrador to pet, splendid Sunday Dinners and a fund of family stories and happy memories that I continue to draw on and console myself with. Those Sundays made the difference between survival and drowning, I have always felt.

There’s a TV ad at the moment for Workplace Pensions. It’s the Government trying to drum up a bit of interest in something worthy but really dull. In this advert, Workplace Pensions has become a giant, multi-coloured parrot-like creature with bulging eyes and a pleasant, puzzled expression. He pads through the park on his giant feathery feet, occasionally pausing to sit on a park bench next to someone, who ignores him, or to wave hesitantly at a group of Nannies with pushchairs, who also ignore him. No one notices. And that was how I felt as a child – the cuckoo in the nest. Nan and Grandad saw me as I was, in all my hugeness, with my puzzled expression and my multi-coloured feathers, and did not waste words, energy, slaps or sarcasm trying to convert me into a sparrow.

However, everyone has two sets of grandparents – and what a bonus that is.

My father’s parents lived three towns distant in the broad ribbon of suburbia we all belonged to, so we visited them less often. My mother was always tense during these visits, and that made us all on edge. My mother was the supplier of moods for the whole family. It was a bungalow in a quiet street. You walked in and down the hallway and the floor seemed to bounce underneath you. I was always half afraid it would collapse. Everything jingled oddly, all the way along to the kitchen at the end. Inside the front door, Grampa’s hat stand with its disused umbrellas, the grey belted mackintosh, the soft black hat. One day he went out to post a letter but died of a heart attack in the street. Sometimes I wonder, who was the letter to? Did he manage to post it before he died or was it still in his mackintosh pocket when they found him? That’s the advantage and the disadvantage of a brain wired like this. You lust after details, crave the whole story. Wood, of no consequence – look at the trees – no, look at the twigs, look at the leaves – no, just look at the patterns the sky makes, between the leaves…

The musical walk down the hallway seemed very long indeed. On either side, glimpses of double beds with shiny, eau-de-nil quilts and candlewick bedspreads; dressing tables laden with antiquated bedroom clutter – powder-puffs with ribbons on the back, for holding them; heavy hairbrushes and combs to match; little sea green pots with lids on, for face-cream maybe. It was all rather alien, like landing in Edwardian times. The closer you got to the kitchen the more all-pervasive the smell of Wrights Coal Tar soap became, and in the kitchen was a gas stove (the most likely source of the jingling) and over it a wooden contraption for airing clothes, which could be lowered and raised.

And so we would sit, in winter, in their living room, with the threadbare plush curtains drawn. Grandma abhorred windy weather – a trait I have inherited – and would always attempt to shut it out. “Devilish wind, devilish wind”. And because of Mum’s being so ill at ease we all, even Dad, seemed to be perched on the edge of our armchairs. The adults had tea, with a teapot and proper cups on a wooden tray with a cloth. We had warm, over-watery lemon barley-water in clear plastic beakers. The adults conversed and we knew we must be silent. I would let my eyes wander to the letter rack stuffed with mysterious bills and letters, the blue china plates on the wall with their scenes of canals and windmills, the Chinese scroll with the letters written downwards and dragons loosely coiled in the margins; the roll-top desk with the paperback books beneath, a string-holder with a trail of white string from a hole in its top, the sheets of postage stamps, letter-knives, sealing-wax, glue bottles with glue-scabbed orange rubber tops, and a bottle of blue-black ink. Blue-black. The right colour for ink, I always thought.

Grampa sometimes tried to help me with sums, since my parents told everyone who would listen how dreadful I was at arithmetic, but he was stymied by the residual terror from my father attempting the same thing, losing patience almost immediately and triggering yet another screaming, smacking and door-slamming session. Tears, tears, tears. All this unfortunately transferred itself to my mild, helpful Grampa. He kept talking about something called ‘minus’ when the sum seemed to have the sign for ‘take away’ in it. I was precise and intransigent about words. There was one ‘right’ word for each thing. Words meant what the dictionary said they meant, not what somebody casually decided they meant. As a child I took them at face value; as an adult I trained myself not to.

Occasionally we were allowed to go into the front parlour, though never without an adult hovering behind us, on tenterhooks. In here was a gramophone with a trumpet for sound to come out of, and a brass arm with a tiny needle in it to swing across and lower very gently onto the record. It had a handle you inserted in the side and wound, and this made the record go round. And there was a bagatelle board.

As a child I assumed there was a gramophone and bagatelle board in every front parlour throughout the land. The only reason neither we nor Nan and Grandad had got them was that we didn’t have front parlours. We would take one of the silver ball-bearings from the wooden slot at the side, place it against the end of the spring, pull back the silver piston and let it go. The ball would shoot out onto the board and bang around, sometimes getting caught in one or other of the semi-circles of rusty pins, sometimes going free. But it always ended up back in the slot, rolling down the side of the machine, joining the queue of other silver balls waiting to be fired again. I suppose that’s where pinball came from.

I’ve been thinking these last few days about the way we retrace our tracks throughout our lives, walking up and down the same roads, decade after decade, visiting familiar corners of familiar cities, sitting on the same park bench or at the same café table, year on year, in different circumstances, scarcely aware of all the times before. For instance, I grew up on that one street where my parents and maternal grandparents both lived. As a teenager I courted on the corner of that same street, while my mother sat sourly knitting in the kitchen. As an adult I returned to my parents’ house in the same street for visits. As a child I sat in that living room and watched the boy next door build a snowman for me. Now I sat with my new husband, restless, wondering how long before we could escape. My sisters and I sat on the floor opening our Christmas presents in that room, surrounded by discarded wrapping-paper. Now it’s full of cane conservatory furniture that’s uncomfortable to sit on and my mother sits alone in one corner, where Dad’s armchair used to be, unable to read, trying to follow television programmes she can neither hear nor concentrate on.

I imagine it in time-lapse – the parquet floor suddenly covered with swirly-patterned ‘70s carpet, then once again exposed; chairs and sofas coming and going, people scurrying in and out like ants, new curtains, net curtains, the TV flashing on and off like morse code. I think of those housewives in the Fifties and Sixties, being tracked around their kitchen for time and motion studies, light bulbs or some similar contraption attached to their wrists – back and forth in an endless cats’ cradle between stove, sink and refrigerator. And sometimes I think, what if you tracked a person like that throughout their entire life, recording this same drive superimposed on that one, this visit on that visit, this scenario on that scenario – what would that light pattern look like? This may be possible soon, I suppose, since we all now carry mobile phones. I believe they already track crowd build-up in potential riot situations that way.

And – straining the metaphor considerably, but for the last time, I promise – it seems to me that we humans are not unlike those silver bagatelle balls. We are shot out into the world by some invisible force, pinging and crashing around in a severely confined space, knowing of no other space, unable to control our trajectory; and sooner or later most of us will be snared by those little rusty nails. The rest remain free – but only for so long as it takes for their momentum to run out. Then they find themselves back in the slot again and rolling back down to the start.