Writing on a Postage Stamp

Jane Austen pursued her unusual hobby discreetly, so as not to embarrass her family or attract censure but also, I would guess, so that she could observe, unobserved, the social rituals going on all around her and the characters who came to visit. Writing in secret – hiding tiny scribbled slips of paper under her blotter every time she heard the door creak – was her way of being herself. It was her way of being ferociously clever, when women were regarded as more of a – decoration.

So in theory one could write a blog post and make it interesting no matter how dull one’s life had actually become. I have this image of myself sitting in a tiny prison cell, creating the most amazing fantasy kingdom whilst day after day, year after year, nothing ever happened but the cell door opening and a plate of bread and cheese, maybe a mug of beer, being pushed through it by some unseen jailor. That would be the extreme.

My life was never particularly expansive, though I suppose it had its moments. Most of these were too ghastly, shameful or humiliating to want to write about. I have written about a lot of stuff here on this blog, and put out there for public consumption, many tiny episodes, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes raging angry, sometimes frankly pathetic, that I have not told a single friend or relative: never would have, and never will.

Recently, life has narrowed even more for me, though we’ve not quite sunk to the prison cell scenario.  Partly it’s because of getting older and no longer being in the best of health. Partly it’s lack of money, unemployability, far too many cats… and partly it’s my natural inclination. I incline towards the hermit. This necessary stay-at-home, inward-looking-ness has thrown up new challenges, blog-wise. Mainly, the problem is that I am not Jane Austen. Jane Austen was so very gifted, she could have got blood out of a stone.

I think I got on to Jane Austen because I was debating whether or not to tell you the story of the Mystery Beep, and thinking no, that is just too small and uninteresting and generally paltry a sequence of events to write about it, and then thinking But Jane Austen…

I will tell you the story of the Beep, but in a separate post. In the meantime I will disclose that a second-hand Russian textbook has just crashed through my letterbox. The postmen round here are lacking in delicacy. Anything at all, they believe, can be got through a letter box if you shove hard enough.

That’s the thing about being retired and having no money to go out or do anything – you end up having to invent unnecessary but faintly interesting things to do. ‘Projects’. I have three of them on the go at the moment.

One is turning every scrap of yarn, material etc into something just in case I need to swap items for tins of cat food, should cat food be rationed in the case of You Know What. I just have a feeling they aren’t going to ration with nineteen cats in mind. That would constitute a cattery, and I am not one. Officially. So I am making things that could be offered as a swap for either one, two, four or six tins of Whiskas – hippie stuff – knitted dishcloths and pet blankets, knotted hemp bracelets, origami cranes and anything else I can dream up. I will probably end up with a box of items nobody ever wanted, but hey – before that they were boxes of odd balls of wool, balls of string, patchwork scraps. What’s the difference?

Another is re-reading a lifetime’s collection of paperback books. I know I have been determined to do this ever since I began writing this blog, and have never got round to it. I did give quite a few bags away to charity, but now I have sorted what’s left – still a lot – into alphabetical order once more. Since I do not have enough bookshelves (the bottom shelves have to be kept empty so that the boy cats can’t pee at the books when I’m not looking) I have brought in some splintery old apple crates from the garage. Apple crates, when lined with strips cut from plastic cat-litter sacks, make quite good bookshelves. Luckily I’m tall, as they go right up to the ceiling.

The third project is learning languages. I know I will never have occasion to speak another language to another human being, but why should that matter? What I am interested in really is linguistics, and what I really want is to learn as many languages as possible to read and to a certain level, i.e. I do not need to become an expert; I don’t even need to pronounce them correctly, though I’ll try. I’m interested to know how languages work, and how they compare to one another, and to find out whether I can still learn. I imagine myself, during those long, cold winter days – not so far off now – bundled in duvets and shawls to economise on heating, striving to master the intricacies of foreign grammatical systems – and keeping my brain alive.

Today it was Russian – most of these books can be had for less than £1 second-hand on Amazon, plus postage. I sat down with my cup of tea and dipped into it. Some kind soul had annotated many of the pages in tiny, annoying pencil writing, but I suppose for £1 you can’t complain. After a short perusal I decided Russian was going right to the bottom of the languages ‘to do’ heap, even under Welsh. I did learn one word, though – in the Cyrillic alphabet it’s written something like Myxa and pronounced (well of course) moo-ha. It means ‘fly’. So next time one of them is buzzing around my living room I can tell it to Buzz off, you little moo-ha.

H Morey: a short story

The policewoman bent down and picked up a single item of mail from the heap on the mat. It was about life insurance. Her hand, even inside its leather glove, felt icy; the coldest winter for fifty years, so they said. She checked the addressee: H Morey. No title, she thought. Not even the full Christian name. Luckily she wasn’t alone. Her two male colleagues had already gone in. They were being chivalrous, not because she was a woman but because this was her first Discovered Alone.

There was no smell. Usually in these cases there was some kind of stench. She had been prepared for it, but there seemed to be none. She had been told it wore off after a while. A longish while. She didn’t want to see what she knew she was about to see, but there you go, that was the job. Best get on with it. Christ, it was cold today.

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H Morey had not started off as a corpse. Long ago H Morey had been a person, of sorts. She had lived in this house alone and had avoided, as far as it was possible to avoid, the neighbours. There was a balance to be struck, however. You had to talk to them once in a while so as they didn’t get worried and start calling in Social Services or Age Concern. The key to being a hermit was to appear to be moderately sociable, be seen sometimes. Exchange the odd word about the weather. Dredge up a smile from somewhere. That necessary shield.

It had been all right when the old people were next door. She didn’t like them, but then nobody did. They had few friends and therefore few visitors. There was the loud daughter once a week, the one you could hear as clear as day through the kitchen wall. The one that parked her car in front of H Morey’s house and took a short cut across the lawn when she went back to it, car keys jangling. Everything she did made a noise. Big woman, she was; top-heavy, like most round here. And very occasionally they had lesbians. These came in pairs, obviously. H Morey assumed the lesbians had also been prison warders, like the neighbours, since on television they always seemed to be. Brutish looking, shaven-headed women. Also top-heavy. She didn’t care about them being lesbians but they did make such a racket. And they brought dogs with them, which also made a racket. Their dogs barked at the neighbours’ dog and the neighbours’ dog barked at them. It was pandemonium, but the next morning they would all go off somewhere, together but in their separate cars. Some sort of holiday that often lasted for months. H Morey savoured their absences.

The old people had been hard-faced. She imagined them beating their prisoners with little vicious truncheons, and giving back as good as they got in verbal abuse. She was frightened of them but grateful that they left her alone. Occasionally one or other of them came out on the decking – usually it would be him. If she happened to be outside she would treat him to a wince of a smile. He would grimace grimly in return, and then either or both of them would go back indoors: a Chinese wall. It worked well enough.

She always felt self-conscious in her garden because it wasn’t private. Their decking was high and raised them up three foot or so, so her six foot fence panel was useless except as a wind-brake. Six foot was the maximum height, though. The grass tended to get long because she put off mowing it for as long as possible. Then of course it was a struggle. To begin with she went out regularly, proud of her new garden and hoping to maintain it despite her lack of gardening skill, but after a while the eyes on her, the possibility of being viewed from a bathroom window, say, worried her too much. She took to going to bed early and getting up early. Sometimes, in the early dawn, she went out to prune the roses or water the poor hydrangeas in their tubs. At this time of the morning the dew still lay and all the spider’s webs were wet, draped across the leaves. Sometimes the hydrangeas went thirsty. It was too much for her, those eyes.

And then the new people came. The old people disappeared abroad, possibly with the daughter, possibly with the lesbians, it didn’t matter – to start a new life in the sun, he said, when they coincided on the decking. He didn’t let on where. She wondered where abroad could be that sunny. Africa, possibly. She couldn’t imagine the prison warders in Africa. She worried about the new people. Perhaps it will just be one person, she thought: one quiet person. Perhaps it won’t be a family; perhaps not dogs or children, just some lone old woman like me, or a lone old man. Old people were easier to talk to, when you had to. Old people liked her.

The new family arrived with many white vans. There were many men, all with their shirts off. They said Fuck a lot. They guffawed. There were many women, also. There was a fat blonde one who smoked cigarettes out on the patio, and cackled. Why must human beings laugh all the time, and why were their laughs so ugly? She could not work out who was going to be living here, there were so many of them. Later the fat blonde one spent a day there ‘doing the garden’. The prison warders’ garden had been perfect as far as H Morey was concerned. Fat Blonde cut down the tree that was dead-looking all year but came out with a mass of orange berries in the autumn. H Morey had looked forward to those. A splash of colour.

H Morey had enjoyed the neighbours’ garden more than her own. From behind the bedroom curtain you could look down into it – the palm tree-thing, the orange berries, the tiny greenhouse at the end with its rows of seedlings and stacks of unused buckets, the bird house nailed to the tree that no birds ever went into, but it had looked right, where they had put it. They had worked on the garden together, the old people. Sometimes the dog would be out there, playing with its squeaky toy. Sometimes you could hear the squeaking late at night and then you knew the dog was out on the decking, getting its late-night airing.

The new family had children who thundered up and down the stairs. They played the music from Disney films, very loud, in their bedrooms. It was confusing, who the children belonged to, how many there were and why they weren’t all there all of the time. Were they his, hers, or a product of them both? To H Morey it seemed important to know but she didn’t know, couldn’t know, never would.

Sometimes there was a little girl, who whined in next door’s kitchen and kicked a ball about and then kicked it over H Morey’s fence and subsequently came round to collect it, looking surly. Sometimes there were teenage boys. These rode mountain bikes about on the decking and the reverberations seemed to permeate H Morey’s house. There were heaps of what looked like washing-machine drums out on the decking. The old ones had kept everything neat, the wooden patio chairs and table varnished every year. The new ones removed the wooden furniture and installed a green sun-lounger, a portable silver barbecue and an outdoor ashtray. Groups of them came and they cooked sausages and the vile meaty smell drifted in through H Morey’s kitchen window.

They played loud music which could go on for hours, but not always. It was worse, in a way, the way it could just start up and you didn’t know when. They played it at top volume, and then they laughed a lot, and then they said Fuck a lot and had arguments that involved running around on the lawn and screeching. H Morey learned to bear it. She fished out her old MP3 player – people used phones for that nowadays, she had heard, but she didn’t know how. She put the little plastic buds in her ears and turned it up as loud as she dared without damaging her hearing. After a while she left the buds in all the time and walked round all day in a sea of long-forgotten folk music and half-remembered pop. She rediscovered Leonard Cohen. She wondered why she had ever downloaded that Madonna one, though it was quite good.

There seemed no point in checking, after a while, whether the noise next door had stopped. When they started one of their parties she took to her bed, at seven, or eight, whenever they started the racket. She fell asleep with the music in her ears and woke at three, four or five in the morning to find the battery flat and next door silent. Blessed darkness outside. There were bats in the dusk but this time of the morning nothing, not even the hedgehog. She wandered around the house in her dressing gown, doing the housework she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on later, when they were awake.

She adapted in all sorts of ways, tried things out – things that would make it tolerable. She realised she could change her hours permanently. She would become nocturnal – no, that wasn’t the word – crepuscular. Creeping crepuscularly through the dawn and the dusk, like a cat. She fed the stray cats, but only in the dawn and the dusk. She peered sideways out of her kitchen window, checking there were no humans out on next door’s decking, and then she would scurry out, with plates on a tray already filled with food, but carefully. How awful if she tripped down the step with a clatter. How unbearable if they knew she was outside.

One day they cut down the tall shrub on their side of the fence panel. Now there was no privacy at all. Washing up at the kitchen sink she would suddenly find herself observed by one or more fat and cigarette-smoking persons; sundress-wearers, laughers-at-nothing; smelly-sausage-gobblers. She hated them now.

Then they parked one of their huge vans across her driveway. She had had to say something about that or he would start doing it all the time, taking it as his right. It wasn’t that she needed that bit of space outside but it hemmed her in, it blocked her exit. Panic rose in her at the thought. She couldn’t bear it.

He had been surly, like the daughter. Then the woman had come round about something or other. She had been surly too, but no ‘words’ were had. H Morey could not remember any of their names, next door, though she had been told them, once. They remembered hers, of course. Pinned down like a butterfly, she thought. Netted, gassed, skewered and pinned in a case; on permanent display. She wondered, sometimes, if she could find a way to die. One that wouldn’t involve any actual suffering or knowledge of what one was doing. But of course, a dead butterfly is dead already. No room for manoeuvre.

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The policewoman was glad to get out. Natural causes, the bloke in the white suit said. Been there for years, probably, on the sofa, quietly falling apart. It hadn’t been so bad; more like dust that still had a bit of a shape to it. She shivered. The frost was beginning to melt, just a little, as the sun rose. There was a flask of hot tea in the van. She was so looking forward to it.

(Apologies: this is at least twice as long as recommended for a blog post, but I wrote it in one three hour session and there seemed no point in splitting it arbitrarily into instalments. Tiny bit gruesome – sorry about that too. And about the rude word, but it did seem necessary, for this story.)

Fork Goodness Sake

Fork?

WordPress, you are scraping the barrel. Presumably soon it will be Knife or even… wait for it… Spoon.

How about Potato-Masher, Ceramic Hob or Whisk? All equally depressing. Maybe they’ve been done already. Honestly, fork – a word that reminds me of nothing – apart from the obvious rude word of similar pronunciation (which everyone else will no doubt seize upon) and late tiny comedian Ronnie Corbett and his sketch about the four candles/fork-handles. Yes, large man goes into hardware shop and demands fork-handles. Little man behind the counter goes away and comes back with… four candles. Ha ha.

Ha… ?

So I’ll just ramble on all Virginia Woolf and stream-of-consciousness whilst pretending to write about forks.

Today I forced myself to leave the house. I’ve always been somewhat reclusive but since moving here, to the End of the Earth (or England, anyway) where there is nothing and no one to tempt me from my portals, I have been turning into a veritable hermit. I even read some books about becoming a hermit at one stage. One was called A Pelican of the Wilderness. A good deal more interesting, as a title, than Fork.

Going out always involves Anxiety with a capital A. The more items going out involves, the greater the degree of uncertainty/variability to the enterprise and the longer the list of Bad Things That Might Possibly Happen. I don’t have that ability normal people seem to have, to have a long list of To Dos in front of them, but only worry about one at a time. If I have three To Dos I am forced to fear all three simultaneously and in precisely equal measure. But – sometimes it can’t be helped.

Today – number one – I had to go to the dentist. My worry-scape for that involved:

  • Timing – when to set off so as not to be too early or too late;
  • 5p pieces – have huge numbers of – tiny coins, size of washers – need to get rid of in that parking ticket machine – but how long will it take to feed £2 worth of 5p pieces (40?) into that parking ticket machine, and what if there’s some evil Man behind me, tapping his feet and sighing – what if my hands start shaking and I drop all the 5p pieces on the floor and have to do some sort of extended bunny dip in order to pick them up, and all the while he’s huffing and puffing?
  • What if there’s not a space in that car park at all? Sometimes there isn’t.
  • Dentist – is it the dentist or the hygienist this time? I can’t remember. Am I to be breathed-on and lectured, or spiked, polished and lectured?
  • Will it be Upstairs or Downstairs?
  • Should I take anything to read? Will I be able to concentrate to read, with the TV blaring in the corner showing endless Close Calls and Lucky Escapes on some channel I don’t usually watch?

Number two – oh God, another thing – I have to go to the tip, as it’s in the same Godawful town and I have to combine Things to save Petrol. Worry-scape:

  • What if I zoom straight past the entrance to the Household Recycling Centre, which is somewhat unexpected and disguised by the entrance to the station and a line of unfriendly-looking taxis?
  • What if there are too many cars in the tip and I have to do sort of manoeuvring, and I hit another car because I’ve reversed kind of crooked and then the man will get out and he’s bound to be a really horrid old man with a sort of tweedy cap and he’ll be so sarcastic and his wife, snooty-nosed cow, will be sitting in the passenger seat regarding me disapprovingly in the rear-view mirror and…
  • What if that bearded operative with the high-vis jacket comes over and wants to help me with the mountain of smelly black sacks I’ve just stacked in the back of the car? He doesn’t speak he just sort of leers at you and…
  • What if he doesn’t come over and I have to hike all these smelly black sacks up all those steps to that hellish skip-thing and heave them over the edge using all the strength in my ancient arms and… and then I’m bound to fall down the steps and then I’ll end up in hospital with a broken leg, maybe two broken legs and then who’s going to feed the cats?

Thirdly, to the vets.

  • What if it turns out really expensive and crashes my already severely stressed credit card and then I have to stand in the vets being embarrassed and trying to find another credit card in my wallet that won’t crash? How kind they’ll be to me. How silently-yet-audibly impatient all those waiting large-dog, gerbil and parakeet owners…
  • What if I cry, even though I don’t feel like I’m going to, when I see Rufus’s empty basket?
  • What if I start talking nineteen-to-the-dozen about Auntie Gladys or visiting Mum in the Home or the relative merits of different makes of saucepan? It could go either way.
  • What if it’s really hot in there and I have to wait and wait and wait, and I’ll be too self-conscious to take my cardigan off or maybe the vet will come out – the one who Did the Deed, and I’ll be forced to say Yes, Fine Thanks or talk about saucepans until she goes away again?

I have to worry about all those things before I set out, whilst I am driving along and all the time I am at each of those stops along the way. That’s what anxiety is like. Someone once described it as Fear Spread Thin. I prefer to think of it, in related terms, like Marmite: a little goes a very long way.

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(Swarovski crystal embossed Marmite Jar, £2000 apparently. Why?)

But I went, and I accomplished all those tasks in four long hours of out-of-the-house-ness, and nothing very terrible went wrong. The only thing was that bus-driver gesticulating at me and doing those stupid-old-woman grimaces and shrugs through his giant windscreen because rather than confidently zooming out of the gap he had left for me into a fast-moving stream of traffic, I edged nervously out into the fast-moving stream of traffic.

So, on one side of the scales all three tasks completed without injury, humiliation or descent into madness: on the other side, baboon-faced and no doubt baboon-bottomed bus driver who deserves to get home tonight and find his wife has gone to Bingo and left him a tin of that slimy macaroni cheese (the even worse cheap version that is vaguely grey when it emerges from the tin, not even synthetic yellow) and a half-stale loaf of bread to make himself some toast to put it on.

Aha! – one side – the other side – therefore – a fork.

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