A Lilith of what you fancy (does you good)

Succumb‘ is not a fruitful prompt for someone my age. I mean, it’s not likely to be ‘the insistent advances of handsome millionaire actor George Clooney’, is it? More like viral pneumonia, or rheumatoid arthritis. All I could think of was Succubus.

When I was at school we ‘did’ Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. I wanted to like Chaucer, really I did, but it was difficult with the textbook we were given. There was Chaucer and his Olde English (well, technically Middle English) on one side of the page and a translation on the opposite side. All well and good, but we were ‘doing’ the Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Wife of Bath was – as I guessed but could not discover how, from the translation – a somewhat saucy baggage. I remember learning that she had a gap between her two front teeth and that in the middle ages a gap-toothed lady was regarded as very saucy. I am not a medieval man, so I have no idea why this should be. Maybe it was the symbolism.

It doesn’t seem to work the other way round…

thomas

The trouble was, every time Nanny Translator got to a saucy bit she substituted an ellipsis (…). I would have entirely forgotten the word swynke by nowand probably Chaucer and the Wife of Bath too – as in

As help me God, I laughe when I thynke / How piteously a-night I made him swynke

had it not been for the fact that swynke was represented on the translation page by those tantalising three dots and the teacher flatly refused to even hint what it might mean. Our teenage imaginations went into overdrive. What could swynke-ing be, for goodness sake? And how was she making him do it?

Actually it just means work very hard, though by a-night we know she isn’t referring to heaving heavy sacks of coal or peeling potatoes.

However… (ellipsis) why was I going on about Chaucer? Oh yes, it was via Chaucer that I learned of the existence, in medieval legend, of a demon known as the succubus. There are incubi and succubi. Incubi are male demons that prey on women, and succubi are female demons that prey on men. Particularly monks. They appear in dreams and tempt their victims to do all sorts of sinful and salacious stuff.

Succcubus and succumb are related, loosely. From the Latin and then the French succomber – sub (under) + cumbere (to lie down). To succumb is to yield to a superior force or strength, or to be overpowered by a desire. It is also to be brought to an end (as in death) by destructive or disruptive forces. Since the evil succubus would exhaust or even kill her dreaming victim by feeding on his dream ‘energy’ you can see the connection, and if you google ‘succubus’ and click on Images you will get all sorts of lurid artistic re-imaginings of what she might have looked like.

You know how you suddenly realise an author has been cleverer than you realised – that pleasant little moment when the penny drops? J K Rowling is particularly good a this. For example, Sirius Black in Harry Potter, who tends to turn into a large black dog at intervals, has the name of the dog star, Sirius. And Diagon Alley is diagonally.

Well, I thought I had one of those with the character Lilith from Cheers and Frasier. Lilith is Frasier’s ex-wife, who simultaneously haunts, fascinates and drains him:

Six months ago I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating… So I ended the marriage once and for all, packed up my things, and moved back here to my home town of Seattle.

(1993 pilot episode of Frasier, “The Good Son”)

Ah, I thought. Lilith from Jewish mythology was in fact a succubus – a night-hag or night-monster. How clever they have been, those screenwriters, in choosing exactly the right name for Frasier’s scary, vampiric (but nonetheless amusing) ex-wife.

But then they went and let me down, those screenwriters. Researching further I discovered that Rob Sternin and Prudence Frasier had simply wanted a name that embodied sternness, like a Dickensian… headmistress in a high-necked blouse and tight bun. The Biblical badass didn’t factor in.

Well…well… bah! Why didn’t it? It jolly well should have.

I’m quite put out about it.

Humbug!

Prize Plum

Something I have never understood about writing, or maybe I mean writers, is how the act of writing, or even the sudden rush of inspiration that precedes the act of writing, can make the world seem more or less all right for a minute or two.

You see, I’ve always been tormented by the following thought: that there is no point at all in doing anything, really. Every now and then it strikes me quite forcibly that whatever we do is utterly pointless since we are going to die. Why put any energy at all into doing anything, when for all the difference it makes one might as well curl up in a resentful ball on the living room carpet and simply wait for time to pass until inevitably the living room carpet and one become one i.e. so much indistinguishable dust?

I suppose this is a philosophical dilemma, and no doubt somebody gloomy and incomprehensible like Schopenhauer or Kant has already disposed of it. Or possibly Sartre…didn’t he and his Existentialists say something to the effect that life is totally meaningless and therefore we must create our own meaning? You see, that’s the problem, for me. I can’t randomly, artificially invent a purpose for my existence or a meaning for life in general. Either there is one or there isn’t. Part of me thinks that the only logical response to finding oneself alive for no obvious reason would be Bertrand Russell’s ‘unyielding despair’.

But unyielding despair is unpleasant and one is forced to distract oneself from it as much as possible. The only thing that distracts me is writing, and there it is.

It may be that each of us is gifted one consolation – one thing with the magical power to make everything right, for a tiny while. But this is so odd because of all the things you might be doing to distract yourself from the gloomy inevitability and pointlessness of human existence, writing is about the most useless. What is writing compared to, say, volunteering to help children in war-torn countries? What is sitting around with pencil and paper and, fitfully, making stuff up compared to cooking Sunday lunch for your extended family or painting one wall of the bathroom in Prize Plum? (Which goes well with Magnolia, as the wrinkly-and-probably-famous chap in the advert says.)

plum.png

However, it seems to be the case that when the faint outline of a story materialises inside my head, when I write a single sentence, cross out one word and substitute another – for those few seconds all has become right with the world. It and I – whatever It is, and whether It exists at all – are in synch. I have a purpose. I am alive.

Unfortunately, most of my ideas come to me when I can’t write them down, and especially when driving. Wasn’t J K Rowling on a train from London to Manchester when she got the plot for the entire however-many Harry Potter books, but had nothing to write them down on? Lesson 1: never have nothing to write things down on. Either that, or have a phenomenal memory and high tolerance for stress.

So, yesterday, driving, I got an idea for a story about a cupboard – bit like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe except that there was no rear exit through the fur coats, as it were, i.e. it wasn’t your classic portal to a fanciful other world, it was more like – a place that retained memories and eventually…retained you.

And then I thought – still not being able to write it down – maybe it’s a stationery cupboard. Think of all the things that go on in office stationery cupboards. And if it was a very old building, things might have been going on in that space before it was a stationery cupboard.

And then I thought, so what does this cupboard symbolise? I mean, come on Linda, what is He trying to tell you here? What is the cupboard and why are you contemplate locking yourself in it? I should mention that my Subconscious is a He. He wears a long black coat and hides his face, communicating with me by way of stories, poems, dreams and funny little flashes of places I have never seen and selves I can’t remember being – or maybe haven’t been yet.

And after a while I thought (changing gears, negotiating tight bends and traffic lights the while) what if it wasn’t a stationery cupboard but something considerably more gruesome like one of those formaldehyde-smelling rooms scientists keep diseased organs in, or frogs with fifteen legs, or entire Victorian babies? I remembered such a room from school – it was where the lab assistants sat around looking bored, or removed your nail varnish with neat acetone. All these bottles. Yellow. Strange things floating about in them. Fascinating. What would a room like that be called, now? The Specimen Room?

(Note to self, Google this when have access to the Fire and hands not required to be on steering wheel). But – no, maybe the stationery cupboard has more scope.

But the room with the formaldehyde babies, that would be a joy to conjure up. Now, how to convey the suffocating stink of formaldehyde…

And thus am I distracted from the pointlessness of all existence for a tiny while. Maybe the living room carpet can wait for a day or two, while I write it…

 

meaningless

I’m just sitting watching flowers in the rain

So we found ourselves in Sheerness in September, in the rain. This always happens at some point when my Canadian sister is staying. I suppose it’s sort of quaint, or at any rate quite unlike Edmonton, and that’s why she likes it. And seeing it’s raining cats and dogs, might as well go as not. So we go, and almost immediately split up because we are both ‘lone shoppers’ by nature. S heads for her favourite clothes shop; I squelch off on a quest for a post box and a bookshop.

I find a post box, eventually, outside the main post office; there don’t seem to be any others. Of course it’s difficult to see when the rain is running down your glasses. I may have missed the other one. It is at this point that I discover the toggle on my rain-jacket hood has somehow, internally, got knotted. I can raise the hood but there is nothing I can do to keep it on my head. And foolishly I have worn a knee-length dress-tunic thing over leggings. Cheap, comfy and accommodating to any figure, leggings go with almost anything. They are  de rigeur in Sheerness and I felt in need of camouflage. Now, in the wind and the wet, the dress starts creeping up towards the hem of my jacket and I keep having to stop in shop doorways to retrieve it, without appearing to be retrieving it. Also the knees of my leggings are getting soggy. At some point I give up the search for a bookshop and instead buy a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter for £1 in a charity shop, duck into a café and order a cup of tea.

The café is full of gently-steaming old people, which is how they probably see me – oh, just another steamy old baggage. I don’t feel I can, as a single tea-drinker, commandeer a whole wobbly silver table and four chairs so I head for the wobbly silver stools looking out over the High Street. They are very high, for a steamy old person, but I manage to mount one in stages, and without embarrassment. The High Street is one car wide, and cars creep along between the scurryers, moochers and shoppers on either pavement, spraying them with water. Nobody seems to notice. So many people in track-suit bottoms with walking boots and inadequate tee shirts. So many push-chairs. So many walking appliances – zimmers, crutches, walkers – more wobbly silver stuff. So many ladies in those plastic concertina rain bonnets. My Mum used to have those for coming out the hairdressers after a perm. I gather a perm will go frizzy if the rain gets to it. Hers used to have polka dots: these don’t even have dots.

Waiting for my tea, still, I read the notes on the back cover of The Scarlet Letter and put it to one side – face down so as not to attract attention – and make a few notes for my next post. I am next to the door and every time someone opens it there is a draught, which reminds me that the knees of my leggings are wet. My hair is dripping down my neck. Opposite there is a florist’s shop. The sign in the window says Weddings & Funerals. The ampersand seems to be of some importance. Bunches of tall flowers stand in tall plastic pots on the pavement, and the rain rains relentlessly on.

My tea arrives. I like it in this café in spite of the awfulness of the tea. Or perhaps because. I am always happiest in places where nothing at all can be expected of me, other than ordering, sitting for a while, paying up and leaving. The mug is too small – cream with raised dots around the rim, and it has a saucer. The saucer is so that when you rescue your tea-bag from the mahogany liquid in which it swims you have somewhere to put it.

I make more notes, watched by a little girl who is leaning on one elbow. I pretend not to have seen her. My ‘note-taking’ writing, like the notebook that lives in my handbag, is tiny. Writing in word-and-shorthand (Word & Shorthand?) salad, I continue not to look at the child, who is perched on another of these wobbly silver stools. Her young mother stands facing the other way, talking into her mobile phone. How did J K Rowling ever manage to find herself on a train, with the idea for Harry Potter in her head and no pencil and paper? How could she ever have broken that cardinal rule of writing? But then, she wrote Harry Potter and made millions. And I didn’t, for all my notebooks.

A woman walks past, her face raw and tense against the rain. For a moment I think it is me, but no it isn’t. She is younger than me. I keep forgetting. It’s that doppelganger again.