Thank God For Cup-A-Soup

It’s a long time since I wrote anything and the bit of WordPress that I can see when I type stuff seems to have turned a loathsome shade of magenta-cum-chestnut. Nothing stays the same, does it? Turn your back and…

I only retuned the TV at Christmas, in readiness for Canadian Sister’s visit. Retuning a TV is a Man Job as far as I’m concerned, but since there was no Man I was forced to puzzle it out. Well, I thought – that’s that sorted for another few years, but no. This week my Freeview channels have started vanishing again. Already! So I had to detach the instructions I taped to the back of the TV last time. My eyes seem to have gone to pieces in the last few weeks. I can’t read any writing on the TV now from the sofa, but, I think, if I stagger forward and perch on the coffee table

On the coffee table I make the unwelcome discovery that things are equally out of focus from there, merely larger. I settle for larger and, squinting, start to follow my own instruction. I had to cancel my optician’s appointment because of the chest infection my Sister gave me. Not even an exotic Canadian chest infection but something she picked up in Stockport.

So her visit, much looked forward to, did not go entirely to plan. My sister’s visits never go entirely to plan but this time, since so much has happened in between, and she has lost her husband in the meantime, I suppose I was fondly imagining that everything would be back to normal, ie back to the way it was when we were teenagers, not that either of us were exactly normal then. But of course, it wasn’t. Much water under the bridge.

I mustn’t catch this, I was thinking, in between trips to the fridge to find her ice-cold yoghurts or trips to the kettle to make her honey and lemon drinks. I simply mustn’t allow myself catch this, I thought, as I marvelled again at how giant shreds of damp and germy paper tissue could have spread themselves over such a wide area of carpet and sofa, in spite of the Tesco bag supplied for their depositing. The Tesco bag kept disappearing. It went upstairs every few hours and then did not come back down again. But of course I catch everything nowadays, and once I’ve got it I can’t get rid of it. By the Wednesday evening I had the Throat.

There wasn’t much we could do, what with her being sick and me being sick and my friend from down the village – who had scared us both with a long hypothetical and never-to-actually-be-disclosed list of activities, all of which would involve her – being sick as well. So we sat at home and watched TV.

Poor Sister. What they don’t tell you is now cruel a dying spouse can be. Apparently, among other things, he told her that all she had ever done was sit at home and watch TV. I wonder why dying people need to be so brutal, however frightened they are of death, knowing that their words will echo on down the years until all that people will remember is not forty years of Who You Were but two weeks of What You Said.

So we watched TV. Turns out we both ‘fans’ (possibly not the right word) of Whiny Lady, who has long, perfectly coiffed red hair and lives on a cowboy ranch. Day after day, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, we had been tuning in to Whiny Lady, learning how she prepares Yummy Meals months in advance and saves them all in Tupperware containers in her vast freezer, and how she loves to cook up vast plates of Mexican style meat from all the huge, handsome cowboy men and beautiful, healthy cowboy children in her life, and how she loves her Mom, and her Mom in law, and her Father in law, and how she cooks up huge, wonderful chocolate Thingys for them…

As we watched, and choked and sneezed, and the soggy remnants of paper tissue rained down upon my sofa and living room carpet and cats, we tried to analyse what exactly was the fascination here. Sister has been somewhat more adventurous in the kitchen than I – when permitted in the kitchen, which wasn’t often – but not necessarily more successful. My cookery is more like Do I Have Anything That Might Fit Between Two Pieces Of Bread? Hers is more of an ongoing scientific experiment. At least now she can conjure up slightly wonky Buddha candles in her kitchen – something that also used to be on the verboten list.

We analysed what it was about our daily doses Whiny Woman that absorbed our attention. Sister decided it was lifestyle porn, ie we didn’t so much want to be able to cook like her but to have all those wonderful husbands and check-shirted sons and daughters and supportive relatives, and a great big kitchen separate from the Ranch in its own Lodge, and the bunch of flowers on the ledge and all those tops. Whiny Woman wears a different wonderful top over her cowgirl jeans to cook in every day. Does she store them a walk-in wardrobe the size of Texas? Does she throw them away after a single use? Are they supplied to her by manufacturers of wonderful tops? How does she fry up all that pork and beef and chicken and grits (grits?) and never attract a spot of grease?

I narrowed it down to Implement Envy. I do not want to cook like Whiny
Woman and I know perfectly well that I’d be as miserable as sin on a cowboy ranch and couldn’t possibly cope with all that sincere and syrupy wonderfulness with relatives, but…

Oh look, she’s got a pale blue saucepan that exactly matches her top…. and that frying pay – sorry, skillet – yesterday – so heavy, so perfectly designed, so lusciously expensive and – it matched her top! And a special shiny silvery thing for draining cauliflower.

So now Sister is gone, returned with some difficulty, first on the train to Stockport via London, and then to Canada. And here I have been, at death’s door, ever since, sleeping upright in a corner of the sofa for a week and a half, night turning into day, a curious pall of unreality covering everything. You only know you’ve got a Respiratory Tract when you get an Infection of some kind. It’s the bit (apart from your head) that hurts so much when you cough that you hope to fall asleep so as not to be forced to cough for a while. It’s the bit the penicillin doesn’t seem to make any difference whatsoever to. Thank goodness for Cup-A-Soup.

Ham, Egg, Chips and Bingo

I haven’t eaten ham since 1981 or thereabouts, but I ate a bit today. After all, I am a vegetarian.

Only a small bit but… And I must say it was worth it for the chips. The chips were super. And there was no vegetarian option. I decided to continue being a vegetarian whenever possible but, on such outings, for the sake of getting on with people and not-being-a-pain-in-the-arse (which I have been, all my life) not to make a fuss.

Who should I apologise to?

I am still a bit weird, having been ill for a week. Double, simultaneous ill, in fact. Only yesterday did I begin to feel that I was moving at maybe ninety-five percent normal speed, which gave me the confidence to venture out of the house and wobble down the road to the bus stop, there to meet a lady called Jenny and someone else who was giving us a lift. My first meeting of the Over Fifties Club.

Apparently there is also an Over Sixties Club. This confused me as I couldn’t see anyone at the Over Fifties Club under seventy. Are they bitter rivals, I wondered? Like those two gangs in West Side Story? Does the Over Sixties poach members from the Over Fifties, or do the Over Fifties all also belong to the Over Sixties?

As you can tell, I’m still not quite back to normal. One of my illnesses was a kind of super-cough/bronchitis or possibly asthma thing. This has meant being unable to breathe and lie down at the same time, which in turn has meant a week of nights alternating between a moggie-infested bed upstairs and a very uncomfortable sofa downstairs, propping myself up with various arrangements of pillow and cushions and trying to sleep sitting up. I have not had much sleep and last night I don’t remember getting any sleep.

So I was not in the best mental shape to be sitting in a vast, chilly seafront pub, looking out through the frosted glass patterns at distorted images of passing cars and learning to play Bingo.

My fellow Over Fifties did not at first believe that I had never played Bingo. They played Bingo regularly, all over the place, and had their own plastic bags full of special fat pens, which are not called pens but dabbers. I said I would pass on the Bingo-book-buying this time, but watch what someone else did.

So I sat next to Jenny as she explained Bingo to me, whilst I was wishing I had worn a tee shirt under my posh top. But I couldn’t hear her over the noise of the Bingo man experimenting with his sound system. However, there was to be no escape. She did one game then I found the dabber thing plonked next to me. I was going to have to “dab” alternate sheets in her books. Rats! Again she tried to explain to me the difference between a Line and a House, and what a Bit On The Side is (apart from the obvious) and what that last sheet is for.

After a few minutes of me hunting wildly around the sheet for the numbers as the man with the mike rattled them off, someone said “Does the lady realise the numbers are arranged in columns of ten?” I hadn’t, though it was in the process of dawning on me. Knowing that made things much easier.

Then they believed I had never played Bingo before.

And then I came home and discovered Amazon had delivered two 300l bags of cat litter to the Lady with the Illegal Scotsman in my absence, so I had to go and get the wheelbarrow. She took one look at me wheezing and coughing palely over the laden wheelbarrow and offered to push it for me, but I couldn’t let her because she is older than me.

Then, too stuffed with illicit ham, egg and chips (and cheesecake) to need to eat anything more, I made myself some coffee and sat through the entire, extremely long speech of the Catalan Prime Minister, hoping to discover that he had been brave and declared independence from those brutal Spaniards. He had. Yay! Or had he? No one afterwards seemed to know. Damp squib or what?

Then I sat and hand-sewed a patch on the leg of my jeans. You know those jeans with the arty kind of fraying? I always wanted some and eventually, at an unsuitable age, I got a pair. Unfortunately, after they had been through the washing-machine numerous times the elegant fraying began to turn into falling-apartness. And then my big toe started getting caught in the falling-apartness every time I put the jeans on, which tore it even worse. I am wondering whether those ripped-right-across the knee jeans are not so much ultra-cool as the result of endless big-toe-catching.

I was going to do it on the sewing machine. I had to remove the white thread bobbin and wind specially a denim blue bobbin. Bobbin-winding is not easy on my sewing machine. Bobbins have a tendency to go ape for no reason. Either the cotton frantically winds itself around the metal stem that holds the bobbin in place, or the bobbin sourly turns itself into a nasty thick bobbin at the top and nasty measly bobbin at the bottom. I have been know to throw bobbins across the room.

Shows you how little sleep I have had, then. I completed this rigmarole, went to put the jean leg under the sewing machine needle and realised I couldn’t – not without unpicking whole jean leg – because a jean leg is a tube.

Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire…

This morning I wobbled downstairs (I’ve not been well) to find the cats had torn down the net curtains. Either that or I’ve got a hefty ghost who likes to swing from the curtains in the dead of night. Ah well, I thought, at least whatever this bug is it hasn’t killed me yet. Net curtains are just another thing to add to the list. The actual hook that the net curtain wire had been attached to had been pulled out of the wall, complete with rawlplug.

A rawlplug, for those ladies fortunate enough never to have needed to find out, is one of the dullest tiny objects possible. It is a plastic fixing, often red, the purpose of which is to keep a screwy-type-thing in a hole in the wall. Except, in this case, it wasn’t.

Having manoeuvred my pliers from the back a drawer that only opens half way I had a half-hearted go at pliering the screwy-thing and split remains of the red rawlplug back into the hole in the wall and reattaching the curtains. It sort of stayed there.

Until it fell out again.

Then I came over all weak and sweaty and had to sit down for half an hour. I put on the TV whilst awaiting the next surge of energy: the Bank of England had decided to put the interest rate on savings down to 0.25%; the American basketball team didn’t like the look of the accommodation at the Olympic Games so they were being accommodated on a luxury cruise liner moored in Rio de Janeiro harbour instead, surrounded by guards and fences; according to a recent survey people were taking internet detoxes – going camping for a week, or on healthy hiking expeditions and so on – because they had realised they were hooked on their tech. I kept hearing that John Lennon song:

I read the news today oh boy

Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire…

After which I removed the net curtains from the window altogether and threw them into the washing machine for safe-keeping.

After which I closed the curtains to stop passing neighbours ever looking in again, even accidentally. Problem solved.

After which one of the cats was sick on the carpet. I contemplated it for quite a while. The sick, not the cat.

After which I did quite a lot of washing including the net curtains which I had forgotten to take out.

After which I watched three-quarters of Homes Under The Hammer followed by final quarter of Stargate – the episode where their future selves all get riddled with futuristic bullets in a heroic attempt to get a bloodstained note back through the stargate to warn their past selves not to come to this particular planet (I’d seen it before).

For the third day running there were no letters.

It was somewhat dark in the living room with the curtains closed, but not unpleasant.

After which I ate a digestive biscuit and a yoghurt and then wished very much that I hadn’t.

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.