He answered the door with a single duvet wrapped around his waist…

A damp autumn evening in 1982 or thereabouts. I had been apprehensive about the invitation to Caz and Rupert’s party, but this was unexpected. Rupert appeared to have been – or to still be – asleep. He squinted out at the dead leaves swirling in drizzle and lamplight and shivered. He seemed to be trying to either hitch the duvet up or secure it. I looked away, rather hastily. I was a married woman. And then I looked back. The duvet was still in place.

Caz and Rupert lived in the big house opposite us, in a village far from here. It was the posh house, with tall Victorian chimneys and a walled garden. Lady Something-or-Other had lived in it, until she died. Lady Something-or-Other had been nothing much in herself – just some sort of typist – but she had married Lord Something-or-Other and thereafter developed delusions of grandeur. She lived till about a hundred and became a terribly dangerous driver, crashing into shops, mounting pavements and so forth, but she kept bribing some private doctor to certify her competent.

When she finally expired the village breathed a respectful sigh of relief, but then Caz and Rupert moved in. Caz was fat and slothful. She did not care about clothes and made me feel somehow square and buttoned-up every time she looked at me. Rupert – who might or might not have been married to Caz – was charming, but bonkers. They did not appear have children, but they did have Daddy.

Daddy was old, courteous and rich, and tended to open the front door in a red velvet smoking jacket with gold frogging. It was he who had bought Lady Something-or-Other’s house for them and kept them afloat, financially, since neither of them did much work. Technically I think Rupert stripped pine furniture in chemicals, on a bit of waste land at the far end of a railway station. He never seemed to actually go there, though. He was always at home, lying on the sofa.

Except sometimes in the middle of the night he would be riding the massive sit-on lawnmower Daddy had bought him, round and round the massive lawn, in circles. He preferred circles. You couldn’t see them from the road because of the high wall. He also used to dig in the flower border with chopsticks. He told me that  himself, during the party. There was to be no escape from the party.

Rupert led us inside. His feet were bare and grubby. There was all sorts of broken glass on the uncarpeted floor. I watched as his feet magically managed to avoid being cut to ribbons by it. He never looked down once. Inside it was very dark. It was crammed with people about Rupert and Caz’s (indeterminate) age, plus Daddy in his smoking jacket, urbane and imperturbable as always.

There was a record-player with records being put on it and ripped off it at intervals. “Help yourself to drinks,” Rupert said, relieving us of the six pack of beer and bottle of whisky we had brought. He gestured towards the kitchen sink where there were a lot of empty bottles and no full ones. People were drinking out of blue glass glasses, which turned all their drinks the same witchy green colour. But whatever there had been to drink was long gone. We spent all evening drink-less, wandering, or rather blundering around, bumping into unwashed bodies, crunching on broken glass.

At some point the police arrived, because of the noise. “Send Daddy”, someone yelled. Daddy answered the door, urbane and charming. “Can I help you, officers?” he asked, smiling, brushing a few specks of cigar smoke off the red velvet jacket.

The thing that has stuck in my mind about that party all this time, is this. Not the social awfulness of it. Not the bizarre interestingness of it. Not the weirdness of it, either. It was the complete reversal of roles between Ex and I. At home he was – well, anal. I didn’t dare leave an apple core on the windowsill for so much as a second because he would start nagging me about it. The place for apple cores was in the bin, in the kitchen. I didn’t dare put a piece of coal on the fire that he had built in the grate, because I would be doing it wrongly or unnecessarily. Even if he was down in his shed, and I sneaked a piece of coal on, he could tell, from the quality of the smoke coming from our chimney, what I had done. He made a nervous wreck of me, really.

But in my mind I consoled myself that I was the misplaced hippie chick, the free-spirited wild wanderer, temporarily captured by this up-tight monster. In fantasising thus, to make myself feel less than totally defeated, I was conveniently overlooking several items I knew about my husband’s past – like that he had played blues guitar around the folk clubs with somebody called Chips, during which time they had had no permanent abode but had slept on people’s floors and peed on the unwashed dishes in various filthy sinks.

I also discounted a visit we once made to the local jewellery “fence”, unexpectedly an acquaintance of Ex’s, who was living in a seafront flat. He opened the door with a more-or-less naked girl on either side, and a strong smell of pot gusted out. Ex did not seem in the least fazed by this, but I was.  I was the timid, conventional one. He had boundless confidence and nine-years greater life experience. I had gone straight from a suburban bungalow to the altar. On the outside I was twenty-one, on the inside sixteen still.

And even now, when the logic or otherwise of this role reversal can hardly matter, I still can’t comprehend it. But the point at which Rupert appeared at his front door, naked but for a duvet, was the point at which I lost hope, seeing clearly for the first time how “stuck” I really was, and how difficult it was going to be to ever get away.

Caught in the zeitgeist’s vapour trail

I am just old enough to have been pervaded with and forever infected by hippiedom – with that far out philosophy, with those general interests, with that taste for eccentric, narrow-hipped, wild-haired men – but not quite old enough to have really been a part of it. Also, not American. That would have helped. There were so many cool things hippies could do that I, somehow, couldn’t. The zeitgeist caught me, briefly, in its vapour trail as it swept on and on, and out of sight.

Out of sight, man…

Of course it’s possible that I would have been a hippie-equivalent wherever I happened to tumble into the time continuum this time around. A (nasty-ish, female) someone told me once that other people thought of me as Nice, But A Bit of A Drippy Hippie.

O wad some Power the Giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!

Thanks, but no thanks, Giftie.

However, recently they seem to have been coming back in full force, those thwarted far out hippie dreams, and I have happened across a really good book – sad in places, funny in others – called The Hippie Handbook* by Chelsea Cain. Chelsea grew up in a hippie commune centred around an old white farmhouse in Iowa, meaning she is now ideally qualified to remind us of lost hippie skills and the whole atmosphere of those far off days.

I actually bought the book to learn how to tie-dye a new white sheet and turn it into a long skirt – not a good idea as it turns out because new white sheets are full of starchy stuff that won’t take the dye. But along the way discovered a whole lot of other bits and pieces I either never learned or have long since forgotten:

  • How to Anthropomorphize Inanimate Objects
  • How to Amble
  • How to Howl at the Moon
  • How to Milk a Goat
  • How to Build a Compost Pile
  • How to Do a Sun Salutation
  • How and When to Flash a Peace Sign

and much, much more. It’s a slight book – I finished reading it in a few hours – but it was so much fun.

You see I had this plan, maybe to somehow make enough stuff of some sort to take a stall at the monthly Artisan Market on the mainland. Could I pass as an Artisan? Probably not, but maybe… Not having a car any longer would be something of a problem. Would have to be a mountain of small things I could fit into Mum’s old shopping trolley…

As I write this I am conscious of sounding increasing like that gormless Neil from The Young Ones:

Look at all that washing UP!

So, now I could not only tie-dye a tee shirt – or a sock – or something – but I could milk a goat if I had one, or macramé a belt! I’m going to have a go at a macramé belt straight away! Would they go down well at the Artisan Market, do you think? Possibly not, but I’m going to macramé some anyway. Macramé – the new…whatever. Maybe I should try it out with garden string first, just in case…

* In the course of writing this I discovered that there is also a WikiHow entry for How To Be a Hippie, so I have linked it. Who does those dreadful drawings, I wonder?

By the way I have also discovered the BBCs original knitting pattern for Dr Who’s scarf! I used to wear something very similar over a long black winter coat in my almost-hippie days. Maybe I’ll make one of those as well…

Like a bird on a wire

When the song first came out I wept, picturing the bird (aka Leonard Cohen) trapped in a snare, a loop of wire pulled tight around its leg. In those days we didn’t know so much American. I learned later that what we would call a telegraph line Americans would call a wire, and so the bird was probably just perched on it, ready to fly away.

The lineman in Wichita Lineman, then, should have been obvious to a Brit but he wasn’t. He was something ultra-romantic, science fictional almost, a wandering, lonely creature performing some unimaginable task for The County (what was The County?) – not one of those blokes that climbs up poles to fix the electrics.

Of course, I wept at the bird in its imaginary snare, flapping and flapping its tiny wings in a desperate, futile to escape because the bird, aka Leonard Cohen, was also aka me.

I was always two people. One of me was lonely, wild and free. One of me had known even as a child making messy daisy-and-buttercup chains on her grandmother’s lawn, that one day she would take off. As time went on I read the colour supplements my father discarded from the weekend papers. I pored over the photos of remote temples and marketplaces and traveller accounts of exotic destinations.  I was that traveller. One day very, very soon that would be me on the road to Marrakech in my long hippie skirt and my cheesecloth blouse, a fraying backpack containing all that I had in the world; feet blistered, sandals dusty and worn.

The other me knew it couldn’t go, knew even as a child that it was tethered to a family in which it had no place, engaged in a lifelong struggle of trying but failing to earn that place. The other me knew it needed the mirror they formed, because without that mirror it would vanish. I was only what they showed me; away from them I had no substance: I was a ghost.

And so I enrolled in a teacher training college only a short ride away from home. I took my Mum to a film show there once; she wasn’t impressed. I plodded away at that course for three years, trying to be interested in tessellations, Cuisenaire rods and lesson-planning whilst my friend Anji – she of the wispy, piled up hairdo and the Indian father; she of the many-page letters in green ink and that great circular artistic script; she of the long white raincoat and cool sunglasses; she of the unmistakeably gay boyfriend she was always hoping wasn’t entirely absolutely gay and one day might be startled into kissing her  – Anji went to France with a girlfriend. They worked as waitresses for a while until her friend stole a tablecloth and they were dismissed. She slept under lorries with lorry drivers. It was all in the letters, until they stopped.

But I have found that at least some of those fantasy Me’s do appear, eventually. But it’s like they get watered down and de-romanticised. So, at one point I imagined myself a mysterious Englishwoman living out her final days in a cliff-top village in Brittany or Normandy or somewhere. And here I am, not exactly in France and not exactly mysterious but certainly alone and in a village with a cliff-top.

I imagined myself a hippie traveller, someone who never put down roots, someone who passed through places and had brief conversation with exotic, world-weary strangers. And there I was yesterday, catching buses after years of car-driving, alighting from one train, searching for the next and being talked to (or mostly at) by a series of eccentrics of my own and other generations.

At a bus stop a group of us tried to understand the murder of so many children by a terrorist scarcely older than they were.

On the bus I learned about sunflower seeds.

In a train a young man with learning difficulties spent a long time explaining to me that the train I was on was indeed the right train, and how to tell, in future, if it wasn’t (‘It won’t be at this platform’).

At a station I discovered the Station Master’s name was Estelle and she was the sole member of staff so she had to sweep the platform in the intervals between trains. Also that the station had no loo and the nearest one was Burger King over the road.

In another train I watched a sober old man trying to calm and distract a very drunk young man so that he wouldn’t bellow the F-word aloud in a railway carriage.

I sipped on warm bottled water and ate granola bars in instalments.

I sat behind a boy with a brutally shaven neck and the top of his head crisply waved and dyed bright orange.

I saw many exotic tattoos exposed in hot sunlight and realised how difficult it was to get twins in a buggy off a bus (you have to climb down backwards).

I sat on what might have been an artwork or merely a dysfunctional bench to wait for my friends outside Marks and Spencer.

Hejira, finally.

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

Take a line from a song that you love or connect with. Turn that line into the title of your post.

Now you’re going to laugh at me. But when I heard that song coming over the radio in Mum’s kitchen in 1967 – can it really have been that long ago – I was transfixed. That was what I wanted. That was what I had to have. I had to be in San Francisco. I had to be lean and flower-clad. I had to have a long skirt and dusty sandals, and beads. And bells. According to Scott McKenzie, people were in motion, all across the nation. They were on their way to San Francisco, and that became my Garden of Eden. Even now, listening to that song, I cry. Not always, mind you. Sometimes I just think – that was a bit cheesy. And now it’s so dated. Whoever talks of love-ins now? Whoever would trouble to prance around in a field waving daisies, or paint flowers on a mini?

Would I really have dropped acid, ripped off my cheesecloth shirt and swayed around to psychedelic music? No. I was never a hippie. I was schoolgirl. By the time I became a student, hippies had faded like the flowers they wore in their hair. They were a joke. And have remained one. Who wants to be called an ageing hippie?

The Beatles were the height of my musical experience. I wouldn’t have known the name of one underground group. I wore my school uniform most of the time. My hair was cut in a practical helmet shape, at my Mum’s insistence. I had spots and no social skills. I was aware that San Francisco was somewhere in America but not where in America. I had never flown in an aeroplane. I had no money for the fare. A train trip to Devon to visit my aunt and uncle was the furthest I had ever been on my own, and that totally stressed me out. I was too young. I was afraid. But yet I yearned for San Francisco, which I envisaged as 0ne big field of flowers. Maybe a tent or two. A few dusty sidewalks with tangle-bearded, blissed-out people lolloping about on them.

Prior to that I had thought London was the answer. London was where I would go, as soon as I was able. I might be a misfit in suburbia but in London I would find People Like Me. It took me many, many years to realise that People Like Me are relatively few and far between, and scattered randomly throughout the country and across the globe. There would have been no comforting concentration of kindred spirits in the capital city.

Recently, I was reading about the end of life. I know – bit of a jump. Sorry. I read this fascinating thing – that when they ‘begin their dying’ old people often talk of going on a journey. They might ask whether their flight is booked, or request railway schedules or tide-tables. They might ask when the taxi is coming to collect them, or say they are soon going on holiday, or planning to meet up with a (long dead) loved one. Strangely, the planned journey is always to some other place on this earth – no flying up to meet the angels. This made me sad, but then I thought – how wonderful that there is that defence mechanism, so that they aren’t consumed with fear. And who knows, maybe it’s true in some mystical, metaphysical way: a kind of psychic metaphor.

And that lead me to think about that other journey – the one young people feel compelled to make. It’s just as much of a draw – the journey outward into the world – as that journey homeward, back to the source, becomes. I longed for San Francisco but did nothing about it. Bolder souls go on gap years or back-pack to remote parts of the world in search of something. I suspect they never find the actual something: the journey is the something, that going out, that longing for a Lost Eden.

On the news recently was a young British woman who took her toddler to Syria, but returned a few months later. She is now serving a six year jail sentence and her child, presumably, will see very little of her. And then I wondered whether this longing for the Earthly Paradise, or Eden, might not be the explanation for so many young people being drawn to join terrorist armies. Maybe Syria – or some equivalent war zone – has become their Lost Eden. They yearn for it with a young person’s passion, although the reality bears no more resemblance to Eden than San Francisco would have done, had I had the nerve or the means to go there. We can all have dream places, and we can long for them so much that we go off in search of them. Maybe we are not so different after all.

We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

(Joni Mitchell)

 

 

 

 

WITCH-FAMILIARS AND STORM-RAISERS

I reached out absent-mindedly towards my green filing tray – the one with the hundreds of scraps of paper – ideas for all those totally awesome and stupendous future blog posts. But my hand landed upon a sleeping tabby, and something about her sleepingness was saying Wake me if you dare!

So I picked up instead a book I’ve been meaning to examine in more detail for some time now. It’s a huge, weighty, falling-to-bitsy book with a detached spine and no dust-jacket, published in 1973 by the Reader’s Digest Association: Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. Various authors, artists and contributors.

I have been sleuthing around for this particular treasure for some time because I suspect it may be the book given to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull by his American manager one long-ago rural hippie Christmas, and which subsequently inspired the weird, atmospheric collection of songs that became Songs from the Wood (1977). It’s impossible to know for certain since the CD booklet notes – as might be expected from a 70s prog-rock band – are somewhat artsy-fartsy and airy-fairy – but I believe it may well be. I know – I’m a little old sad person. Things like that interest me.

It’s possible that Ian Anderson never so much as dipped a pointy nose into this volume or followed its tiny text with a pointy fingernail, or stood on one leg and played the flute in the same room as one of its cousins – but I like it in any case. It’s inspiring: a treasure trove of the weird and the arcane – of history, legend, rumour and tall tales. And lots of lovely pictures. You could build an entire writing career around this one volume, if you happened to have a whole writing career in front of you. Unfortunately, I don’t.

So, I turn to the index and find a creased orange postit-note pencilled Cats. References I had earmarked for just such an emergency – when a tabbycat snores in the post-tray.

The first reference to moggies is this one, on page 44:

Witches were once said to disguise themselves as cats, and many people refused to talk near a cat, for fear that a witch would learn their secrets.

Cats were regarded as the most common of witch-familiars. Puss would advise his mistress and run malicious errands for her. Their lives were thought to be so intertwined that if the cat was wounded the witch would be wounded in a similar fashion.

Cats, unlike dogs and horses, are said to be fond of ghosts, purring whenever they meet them. Cats can predict the wind or even, some say, raise it by clawing at carpets and curtains. When a cat washes its ears or sneezes, rain is sure to come, and if a cat sneezes near a bride on her wedding morning she will have a happy marriage.

Black cats are mostly believed to be lucky, although in Yorkshire (they always have to be different in Yorkshire) it is lucky to own one but unlucky to happen upon one by accident. White cats, unlike white horses, are usually said to bring bad luck.

Then of course there is the Cheshire Cat. Lewis Carroll’s Alice met a version of him in Wonderland. It had the ability to melt away into invisibility leaving only its grin behind. However, the common saying “to grin like a Cheshire Cat” was around long before Carroll picked up on it. Some say that Cheshire cheese used to be decorated with the head of a cat, others that the expression comes from the open-mouthed wolf-heads on the arms of the 11th Century Earl of Chester.

There is the story of the Doctor’s Devils. Gustavus Katterfelto, an 18th Century conjuror and quack who toured England dispensing worthless flu cures at five shillings a bottle. He made a grand entrance to each town in an antique horse-drawn carriage with two ‘negro servants’ in coloured livery parading through the streets and blowing trumpets. He kept two black cats with him at all times. These were known as the Doctor’s Devils although, sensibly, Gustavus always denied that they were of diabolical origin.

Witches were supposed to ride to their Sabbats on broomsticks, and in illustrations are often shown with a cat perched on front or back of the broomstick. However, the Cornwath witches, executed in 1664, claimed to have ridden upon ‘cats, cockerels and bundles of straw’.

At the first major English trial for witchcraft, in Chelmsford in the year 1566, Agnes Waterhouse, her daughter Joan and Elizabeth Francis, all from Hatford Peverell, were accused of each possessing in turn a black cat named Satan. Cat Satan was said to talk in a strange, hollow voice and occasionally assume the shape of a toad or a black dog. For each of his services to her Agnes was said to have paid him a drop of her blood: her face was said to be marked by spots where Cat Satan had sucked blood from it. She then apparently gave Satan to the other two defendants, for whom he was said to have spoilt butter and cheese (decked out for the occasion in an ape’s head and a pair of horns with a silver whistle about his neck), drowned a neighbour’s cows and bewitched a man to death.

How foolish and dangerous we all were, and how close even now to such beliefs. All those foolish, innocent girls and women killed. And I try not to imagine what must have happened through the witch-finding years, to those cats that just happened to have been born the wrong colour, at the wrong time, fed by the wrong woman in the wrong village or condemned by a sinister name.

Sort of purple and hazy

You know those anxiety dreams where you just miss the bus, or the train? Story of my life.

I just missed out on a lot of things. I just missed out on the War. I just missed out on rock and roll, I just missed out on being a hippie and I just missed out on all that New Age mumbo-jumbo: all the stuff I would have been interested in, all the stuff I really needed to know. Just my luck.

The War – I was born a few years too late. I arrived, and was instantly labelled a Baby Boomer, and the minute they give you a label you cease to be anything else. Worldwide, around eighty million human beings may have been lost between 1939 and 1945 during ‘the deadliest military conflict in history’. This estimate includes not just soldiers but civilians, those who died from war-related disease and famine and the prisoners of war who died in captivity. Post-war, young marrieds everywhere did their patriotic duty, whether they were aware of it or not, labouring (literally) to restore the balance. The result was a tidal wave of babies, a lumpy, unmanageable and now increasingly unpopular ‘bulge’ in the population stats, destined to become the hippies of the sixties and seventies. Through no fault of their own they are now, or will shortly be, clogging up our monstrous, overspent, inefficient National Health Service and forcing the younger generation to work harder and harder in order to generate enough taxes to keep everything going.

Like most women in those days, Mum and Nan were Housewives, totally dependent on their men for money; their role – to stay home, clean, tidy and replenish the house, do the cooking, washing-up, laundry and shopping, raise any children and Keep Young & Beautiful. This was in order that their husbands, coming home from a hard day’s work, should not – as a result of a spreading waistline, the odd curler still a-dangle, unshapely eyebrows or a lack of careful make-up – be tempted to Stray. However, I don’t think all the women in those days minded it all that much, and I can understand why. As a stay-at-home Mum you can exercise your creativity through cooking, crafts and childcare, quite apart from being able to take up hobbies, raid the library or write novels, if so inclined.

I find the idea financial dependence on a man – or anyone – pretty nearly unbearable, but that’s just me. Bit of a Wild Thing. I’m not sure what a Wild Thing is, but it sounds good. I’d rather be as poor as a church mouse (as indeed I am) than hand to a man the power to decide, arbitrarily and without any significant knowledge of grocery shopping, how much housekeeping I ‘deserve’ at the end of each week; then have to scrimp and save out of that to buy myself headscarf or a second-hand book, or see a film.  As you can tell, feminism was the one thing I wasn’t too late for.

That being said, I envy the way women in those days had at least leisure to chat, listen to the radio and generally be themselves. Had I been able to stomach the ‘kept woman’ scenario – or been able to bear children, in which case I would have had no choice – I might have written more, and sooner, but I doubt if I would have written well. I would have missed out on the lifetime of learning, loss, muddle, fear, friends, struggle, chance encounters, odd jobs, strange bedfellows – some of them very strange – weird and appalling experiences, Getting By and Making Do Somehow – I now have to write about.

I got to hear quite a lot about the War, via the conversations that went on over my head while Mum and Nan were sitting in the kitchen, knitting. It was lucky for me that they lived at either end of the same street and would meet up several times a day. Grown-ups forget about children, if the children can manage to be forgettable enough. Once – I must have been throwing a tantrum – my mother called me a Prima Donna. I had to ask her what it meant, and was actually quite pleased when she explained. It was a step up from Diffident or Unaffectionate Child, Impossible Baby to Cuddle, etc. Being Diffident etc etc did have its advantages: I overheard a lot.

I heard about having to eat horsemeat, and what you could make from a blackout curtain or parachute silk. I heard about bombed buildings, and babies sleeping undisturbed in their cots, found amid the rubble. Under the kitchen table, hugging my little scabby knees to my chest, I heard about Nan’s experiences running a NAAFI canteen in Swindon in the War, and how they put the cabbage on to boil at ten in the morning and it was like seaweed by dinner time (and she had to throw the rice pudding out). I heard about Mum being evacuated to Wales to live in a cottage with Miners, and being forced to empty the chamber pots by the grand family in a country house near Canterbury, while my uncle was given the job of filling the coal-scuttle. I heard about painting your legs with gravy-browning when you didn’t have stockings, and drawing a line up the back to look like a seam. Maybe everyone is fascinated by the decade just before they were born. I went on to read as much about it as I could, and devoured all the Mass Observation books, made up of contemporary diary entries, or ‘reports’ sent in by ordinary people.

And then I just missed out on the original wave of American folk music, blues and rock and roll. I was just too late for Elvis – or rather he was still around but I saw no point in him. I probably wouldn’t even have realised I’d missed out, except that I married a man nine years my senior. Suddenly I was listening to his records, and to him singing and playing the guitar. This was my introduction to blues, folk and classical music. And even then I didn’t fully appreciate all that I’d missed, musically, still being contaminated with The Beatles, The Stones, The Dave Clark Five, Freddy and the Dreamers and all that sort of stuff. Ironically, long after husband and I were no longer an item I began to listen to that music again on my own account, and take an interest in classical music.

And then I just missed out on being a hippie. Oh, my mother thought I was a hippie, but that was because I never evinced much of an interest in wearing make-up (particularly eyebrow-pencil) a Playtex girdle or frilly blouses, or having my hair nicely permed. But I wasn’t – not really. I was certainly a bit on the shabby side because my tiny Tech College grant meant I had to buy my couture at Oxfam, but I was a few months – maybe even a year – too late. It had all happened, somehow, it had all jingled and jangled its way off into the rainbow-coloured sunset. And I was timid. I never experimented with LSD or smoked a reefer; I never danced in the sunshine at a festival or went to San Francisco wearing flowers in my hair. But doesn’t it look fun? Why wasn’t I there, Oh, why wasn’t I?

As it was, Free Love entirely passed me by. I went steady with a Maths student, half-Austrian and several inches shorter than me. He went off to teacher training college and so, abortively, did I – in another town. End of.

In the common-room some Hendrix look-alike practised what sounded like pretty good riffs all day, but how would I know? In the refectory I was stridden past (I’m groping dimly for the Past Perfect Progressive, or whatever that tense is, of strode past – help me out, someone…) by skinny, long-haired art students in eccentric hats, uncompromising tee shirts, big boots and scarecrow jackets. I was filled with admiration but for some reason I couldn’t actually be one of them, and was as invisible to them as I had been to Mum and Nan under the kitchen table.

And yet I think I am a natural hippie. For me it has never gone away, a way of thinking and being that I never got to manifest at the time. The ‘eighties went, and the ‘nineties, and I began at last to hear about and – thanks to Amazon – obtain copies of books on particle physics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, Zen, mysticism – anything that caught my eye – that were being written as I was being born and labelled a Baby Boomer; when I was a child at school; a teenager failing to play table tennis with the boys at Youth Club; a student and almost a hippie; an unhappy wife. One book led to another – sometimes I read several at once – and I started to see the connections between things – the way one academic discipline morphs into another, the way New Age becomes, imperceptibly, Science – the way it all adds up – the way people far apart in time and space can be approaching the same conclusion from different directions. I also became addicted to Amazon and second-hand paperbacks, which was ruinous to my finances. The postman/lady turned up every other day with yet another cardboard package, jiffy bag or brown-paper parcel – or sometimes a stack of them held together with elastic bands. I made notes, I made connections, I wondered, I thought about Stuff. Without realising it, I was knitting my own degree.

Zanzibar the story, Zanzibar the poem

Years ago I won a short story competition with an entry entitled ‘Zanzibar’. The competition was in aid of the local comprehensive school library, so not exactly the World Cup of short story competitions, but it was judged by a Proper Lady Novelist and there were over 200 entrants. Beneath it, for interest, I’ll post a poem, Zanzibar, based on the same experience /observations.

(Pssst!) Truth to tell I won first, second and third prize in that competition, which doesn’t say much for the other 197 entries. Entries were anonymous and Proper Lady Novelist had taken it for granted that because Zanzibar was written through the eyes of a man the author must be male, and therefore couldn’t possibly be the same person who’d written at least one of the other two winning stories. This leaves one story unaccounted for, gender-wise. I just wonder how she ‘did’ her heroes when composing her heart-warming historical sagas? Perhaps her husband wrote them.

The prize was a day at her house. She’s no longer with us, but I remember she was very kind. I remember being worried that I had left the electric iron switched on, and having to phone my husband, also that I got cauliflower cheese for lunch, and we both got photographed perched on the edge of her fishpond by a journalist from the county newspaper. The article was mostly about her latest novel, just published, which was fair enough. I remember being pleased I had worn my heavy, dangly, star-shaped earrings. I had some like moons too. This must have been the eighties. I was also disappointed that in the photo I looked as if I had great rabbit teeth, like my paternal aunt, and I don’t. Really I don’t have great rabbit teeth…

ZANZIBAR: the prize-winning, but also somewhat puzzling, short story

A tannoyed announcement drifted across the gravel on a warm breeze, mixed with sparrow song and the rustling of leaves. ‘The train now approaching is the two forty-five for Hastings, Brighton, Bexhill and Zanzibar.’ The rails began to jingle as they always did when a train was on its way, followed by the metallic click of the crossing gates going down. The girl was sliding off her stool, picking up the carpet bag, throwing back her hair. ‘So long, Joe,’ she was saying. Something like that.

She was going. Misery hit him. By way of an instant antidote he began to rehearse his Last Request. He always said the same thing, very slowly and carefully so that the words didn’t fuzz. ‘Well, Joe, think I’ve got time for another?’ And when he had drunk his Last Request he would walk towards the door, also very carefully, and Joe, who was a tactful fellow, would keep his eyes on his polishing.

He opened his mouth but the words didn’t come because the girl was standing right in front of him, looking into his eyes. There was no condemnation in her gaze, only friendship and a kind of recognition. It was as if the two of them had always known each other, and not just in this life, in life before life, going back and back and back. ‘Come with me,’ was all she said, in a low but perfectly clear voice. Then she was walking away, her sandals tap-tapping away on the bare floorboards.

A tidal wave of hope, anger and indecision rose in Zak’s throat. She hadn’t spoken. He’d imagined it. Girls like that just didn’t say ‘Come with me’ to men like him. She probably hadn’t been here at all; he’d imagined the whole episode. It was a cruel mirage, another trick of the drink.

They say there are certain moments when your life flashes before your eyes. In this moment Zak saw the old brick shed at the weedy, forgotten end of the sidings, hired from British Rail. He saw stacks of warped pine doors leaning against the walls waiting to be stripped, smelt the cocktail of acids he used to do the work. He looked down at the holes the stuff had eaten into his jeans, the scars it had left on his hands. He saw Andrea, his wife of fifteen long years. Sour, skinny Andrea who paid most of the bills out of the earnings from her job at the Co-op and reminded him of the fact every day. Andrea, who preferred what she called ‘Light Classical’.

He heard the train doors slamming. He heard a sort of screaming coming from somewhere inside his body, felt tears welling up in his eyes, brimming over and pouring down his cheeks. The table went down with a crash. The whiskey glass bounced once only and then broke, shards going everywhere. He aimed himself at the familiar oblongs of frosted glass in the door, not being careful now, not caring what Joe thought. Wrenching it open by its cold brass handle he ran, ran, ran towards the train.

ZANZIBAR: the poem

‘After the eighth whiskey there is no other’.

Zak’s mind plays tricks, turning all into poetry

And he’s on the border, somewhere between

A little drunk and very, and he’s very

Sad, but in a sleepy way. Seven trains a day

On this little line, where the weeds grow thick

And the sidings trail away

Into poppies and nettles,

Old cats and dusty rail.

He’s in the Station Hotel at his usual table.

Through high Victorian windows

Sunlight’s falling on the landlord’s beloved

Railway collection. Zak sees his reflection

In dented brass, watches the sunshine bathing

Brown photographs, turning the lamp-glass green,

Making the Station Master’s cap,

Already faded, fade a little more. Time shudders

To a stop – he likes this effect.

Joe behind the bar is embalmed in the act

Of polishing a glass and a train door slams, maybe now

Or an hour ago. Footsteps come across the car-park gravel

But somehow never get here.

People materialise all the same, bar-stools fill and empty.

The more he sits the less surprised he is

By this. Like the girl, who is suddenly here

With her back to him, drinking Coca Cola, a carpet bag

Forgotten at her feet. She acts like she’s been here always,

Treats Joe like a friend, and yet

He could swear he’s never set eyes on her

Before.

He needs another whiskey but he doesn’t trust his legs.

For a minute he sees her, quite clearly,

In some African market or other, gold bangles

A-glitter at her wrist. She’s throwing her hair back

And beckoning, and laughing. The sky’s so blue

It hurts to look up, and the ground’s so hot

It hurts to stand. And Zak remembers, quite clearly,

What it was to be young. Which hurts

Most of all.

Her train’s arriving and she’s sliding

Down off the stool and coming over to him. She’s

Standing right in front of him now and my God

She’s so beautiful and saying Come with me,

Just like that, but of course

She couldn’t be. And she’s gone.

And he’s trying not to think

It could have been real, simultaneously

Rehearsing his Last Request, Time for another one, Joe?

He knows Joe will look the other way as he makes it

The chair-strewn mile to the bar, and pretend not to see

How desperate he is for that golden oblivion, hear

How slurred he’s sounding. Joe’s a good bloke, Joe is.

Doors are slamming. Suddenly

Zak’s howling like a dog, the glass is shattering,

He’s up and staggering

Full tilt, longing beyond all longing

For bangles and hope, hejira

And the train to

Zanzibar.

The poem’s better, isn’t it? It’s got some of the actual pain in it. I am guessing it was written first.