I seem to be knitting a dog blanket

Yesterday evening, whilst watching TV and trying to decide What Just Happened at Westminster, I happened to look down at my hands and realised I was knitting a dog blanket. The thing is, I have nineteen cats but no dogs, so why am I knitting a dog blanket?

It’s quite a nice blanket consisting of twenty-five multicoloured squares – ten plain, five with small doggie paws on, five with medium doggie paws and five with huge doggie paws – but the fact remains, I do not have a dog.

I have observed this, with my decision-making process. Other people seem to identify a need or a problem, work out a strategy to deal with it, then implement that strategy. So it’s kind of cause and effect. I don’t do that, mostly. I find myself doing things, am mystified as to why I am doing them, and then try to work out why I might have decided to do them.

So, it now occurs to me that I am knitting the dog blanket for Queenie, my almost-Godmother’s almost-dog, for Christmas. Queenie is old, and has been quite ill this year. She doesn’t quite belong to Godmother, who also isn’t technically, officially my godmother. But she ought to be.

Queenie is a small, white nondescript pooch, possibly a Scottie or a Jack Russell or combination of both – I’m not good on dog breeds. She belongs to the overweight, elderly alcoholic woman who lives over the road from Godmother. Godmother regularly responds to slurred phone calls demanding rescue from the foot of the stairs, which the lady is unable to climb due to her day-long wine consumption.

Queenie has to return to the alcoholic lady for one hour a day, but Godmother, who is in her eighties, takes care of Queenie’s daily walks in the park, vastly expensive veterinary care and general need for love and affection.

So Godmother is my guardian angel, Queenie’s owner’s guardian angel, and also of course Queenie’s. I can’t say how much it has comforted me, throughout my life, to know that angels do walk the earth, and that one of them, miraculously, assigned herself to me.

So, the dog blanket is for Queenie. And of course, I knew that all along.

Didn’t I?
NB: Please see my reply to Belladonna’s comment below for further details and a link to the pattern, which was originally connected with an appeal by Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

The Battle Of Shapely Diamond

The above is not my Shapely Diamond Dishcloth, by the way. The above example is considerably worse than mine – which is pretty bad, but at least kind of straight around the edges and a nice pale gold colour – and this is heartening.

I seem to have discovered dishcloths. Dishcloths, the use and knitting of, seem to be very popular in America and Canada, less so here. Here, we buy those blue J-cloths in packets of 25 and throw them away as we use them. Dishcloths have to be washed and used again, but they are eco-friendly, sustainable and all that. In America and Canada, I gather, you can buy medium cotton yarn in every supermarket. Here, you have a job even to find knitting wool on sale nowadays, let alone cotton. You have to get if off the internet.

Canadian Sister got me into dishcloths, which she was being forced to manufacture by the Seniors group she belongs to, on the grounds that dishcloths will sell whereas lime-green and purple crocheted elephants probably won’t. I must admit, for the longest time, as they say in Canada, I imagined a dishcloth to be something off-whiteish and holey. Maybe rather slimy; the sort of item I vaguely remembered lurking around Nan’s kitchen sink. People actually buy those?

However, I have since discovered that dishcloth cotton comes in many bright colours, including interesting many-hued varieties called ombres. Furthermore, they work. They are really good at washing dishes. And, as Canadian Sister pointed out, although they are technically dishcloths, what they are, in fact, are samplers of many different and exotic knitting stitches. They are an opportunity to transform yourself into an Advanced Knitter without too much wastage of wool, an opportunity to express your creativity and show off your skills.

So there is more to a knitted dishcloth than meets the eye.

Once bitten by the dishcloth-knitting bug, as is always the case with my rapidly passing obsessions, I just had to buy a book on it. The book is called Kitchen Bright Dishcloths and features pictures of perfect, unwobbly, square-rather-than-unexpectedly-rectangular dishcloths. Perfect dishcloths. One cat vomited over it, projectile-ly, almost immediately, and another cat decorated it with claw-marks overnight but hey – they were just expressing their creativity. The patterns are still readable.

The last one in the book – for good reason – is called Shapely Diamond – and it is a beast of a pattern, 65 lines long and every line different. I am operating at a disadvantage, also, in having to learn American/Canadian knitting terms. One I puzzled over for ages was yarn over (in this country, wool forward). My sister managed a transatlantic phone tutorial in the various kinds of yarn over and make one – with neither of us able to see what the other was describing. We don’t have Skype, or Facetime or whatever. Lucky we have known each other a long, long time and are sort of psychic.

Anyway, I thought I would attempt Shapely Diamond just once. If you can manage that, I thought, you can manage anything. It was going quite well, and I had got past the half-way point with no major glitches. This is going to be a two-day dishcloth, I thought, and made the foolish mistake of going to bed. Next morning I picked it up again, but something had gone wrong. Somehow, many rows back, there had materialised – an Error. My diamond no longer looked exactly diamond-shaped. There was a wobbly step in it.

But, I thought, it’s only a dishcloth after all. No one’s going to see the thing, it’s just going to be washing dishes. And after all, as Leonard Cohen says, there is a crack in everything (that’s how the light gets in). And after all, you have never in your life successfully managed to unravel a pattern like this, for an unknown number of rows, and a) pick up all those weird loopy yarn overs and k2tbl’s – and b) find out which row of the monstrous 65 row pattern you had landed back on.

However, I found myself unravelling, and counting the rows as I unravelled. Eight rows. And I found myself picking up the yarn overs and the k2tbl‘s and crossing off the last eight rows from my checklist and (take a deep breath) starting again at that row, which might or might not have been the right one. And it worked! I had saved my Shapely Diamond. Not that the end result is in any way worth all that time and effort but at least I haven’t got to look at the thing for ever after and think there’s a mistake in it.

My life seems to be made up of fairly big disasters interspersed with (as in the example above) minuscule successes. Today the Jehovah’s Witness ladies came round. They seem to like me. I came out and closed the door behind me, so as not to let all nineteen cats escape. They told me about their cats. I feigned interest, and in the little leaflets about Family Life and God Knows The Future Even If You Don’t. And they showed me a verse from the Bible, and read it to me. I noticed they left most of a whole sub-clause out in the reading (a tiresome relic of having once been a legal secretary) and was so busy digesting this that I forgot to take any notice of the verse itself.

I think the Jehovah ladies thought I would have discovered Jesus by now. Instead I appear to have discovered dishcloths, but it’s a start.

And then I drove away the Jehovah ladies, more by accident than design, but another of those minuscule triumphs – by boring them to death about the six boxes of little shiny magazines that had just arrived and how, this very afternoon, I would need to stuff every one of the little shiny magazines with a navy blue flier with a picture of a bright yellow octopus on it, and then tomorrow I would have to load up my car with the little shiny magazines, take them into town and poke them through the first of seven or eight days’ worth of recalcitrant and badly-designed letterboxes; how I would have to face a succession of rabid Alsatians determined to remove my fingers, and weave my way through one overgrown nettle-and rubbish-infested front garden after another…

I can be very, very boring, I know, and once I start on one of my very, very boring jags I can’t seem to stop. (Ex was like this, too, it must be an Asperger’s thing). I mean, I can hear myself being very, very boring but somehow my mouth won’t stop talking, in fact the more panic-stricken I get about being very, very boring the more Mouth redoubles its efforts… like a kind of survival mechanism.

They backed off up my driveway and left me still talking, and clutching the two wilting Jesus magazines, and surrounded by boxes of little shiny other magazines, and navy blue fliers with bright yellow octopii upon them…

Another disaster, I suppose. Or another tiny triumph.

Saturday… again!

I was thinking it might be time for another of those rambling roundups of random events. Why not?

I was trying to make an inventory of all the things I have done today, but find that most of it I have forgotten. Or have I? Leaving out things like washing up, drying up, watching five minutes of Phil and Kirstie not managing to find a house in the Cotswolds to suit someone with shedloads of money; hearing yet another analysis of President You-Know- Who’s scant chances of denuclearise Kim Jong Un whilst simultaneously prompting Iran to reunclearise when it hadn’t been (nuclearising) for quite a while…

Among other things I have:

  • Done three lots of washing and two lots of tumble drying. Because it’s Saturday and because it’s grey and spitty outside.
  • Removed cat from ironing basket and folded said tumble-dried washing in the hope of ironing it sometime.
  • Stuffed three knitted Captain Cat-Battler mice with British Standard something-or-other stuffing and a catnip sachet. (Fought off drooling own moggies.)
  • Cut out a stack of dull squares for patchwork money-making enterprise.
  • Put three more items up on eBay. There are only so many ways to photograph an electric hot-plate with a mobile phone and make it look attractive.
  • Eaten four Activia yoghurts. Will probably have diarrhoea tomorrow, but who cares.

Tonight, the Eurovision Song Contest. We will of course come bottom, or maybe thirty-second. We have the most successful pop music industry in Europe and nobody votes for us. Although perhaps they might vote for us a bit more this year, out of sympathy for the Russians practising their extermination techniques in one of our remoter cities.

Noticed that my neighbour has demolished his decking this morning and stacked all the wet wood at the end of what was once but is no longer a rather nicely kept garden. Now he just has the framework. The jury is still out as to whether this might be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. Most things to do with my neighbours are Bad, like the black fridge-freezer they fly-tipped in the road outside their own house four weeks ago, thus making it semi-impassable for everyone. I was just celebrating the arrival of the Special Bin Men yesterday to remove it (thank you, bin men, even if it did take a nail-biting three-quarters of an hour for you to find room for it in your special fly-tip-collecting truck). I was just celebrating and today… he demolishes the decking. In the rain.

It depends, really. It is a Temporary Good Thing because all the while there is just a framework of wooden struts out there, with pretty dangerous gaps, they are not likely to be holding any of their loud drinking, smoking, swearing and guffawing parties beneath/around their ugly garden umbrella and chair set, and staring drunkenly down into my kitchen.

It might turn out to be a Bad Thing a) if he damages my fence panels, not knowing or caring that they are my fence panels and not his fence panels (I would guess Land Registry Plans and T-marks are probably beyond him) and I can’t afford to replace them. Neither do I stand any chance of persuading him to replace them, if he damages them. Or b) if he has plans to replace the old decking with even higher new decking, meaning they will probably be able to spy on me down the chimney as well. Maybe from Outer Space. Oh no, that’ll be when they get the drone.

I hate neighbours. Well, not all neighbours, just the ones who trash their gardens, play mega-loud music at all hours and dump black fridges out in the road.

Good News, possibly. My Stalker has been read the riot act via some secret aspect of Facebook, apparently. I don’t really understand (or care) how Facebook works. He has promised, apparently, via the Dark Side, that he will not attempt to contact me again by any means. He has apologised, apparently. But my friend says not to get too hopeful that I have seen the last of him. She predicts his next move will be to write a long letter of apology, inviting me to reply, or possibly stop by his house to discuss the situation in more detail, which as far as he is concerned will not count as “contacting”.

This is entirely possible. I mean when, out of desperation you are forced to resort to Plain English and text someone “Do not write, do not send photos, do not text and do not come to my house” – and the next day you receive a five page email referring to “your curt text”, the email being headed “Not a letter, not a photo, not a text…” anything is possible. You block his email address, of course… but is he likely to stop?

He has been told that I will go to the police if he doesn’t, but I currently have as much faith in them as I do in him, or the neighbour’s competence to demolish his decking without seriously damaging something.

Yesterday (whizz – it’s now yesterday!) above friend and I drove down to the next village for a coffee and to exchange information about this and that. We ended up in one the amusement arcade cafés drinking indifferent coffee from white china mugs and not able to hear ourselves speak over the noise of all the whizzing and whirring machines and rides. There were no customers, except us, just the Noise. Early Season, late afternoon I suppose. And I thought, how strange this is, how All Things Come Round In The End. I have always despised and feared amusement arcades and here I am, hardly noticing that I am sat in one. All that working-class seaside stuff. Kiss Me Quick hats, candy-floss, tattoos… We bought a couple of pink and white ice creams to finish off and pottered down to look at would have been the sea, if it hadn’t been so far out as to be practically invisible.

I suppose that mud is treacherous?

Only in some places.

There is a dog on the beach. There are not supposed to be dogs between May and October or whatever. We decide the owner must be classifying his dog as a Small Horse or maybe a Dog-Like Ferret.

For a second or two, in the late afternoon sunshine, with the ice-cream melting, the sea gone out, green weed on the rocks, the amusement arcade still clearly audible, it felt like being on holiday. I almost felt, if I had a brightly-coloured plastic bucket-and-spade I might build a sandcastle. If there had been sand and not mud. It seems strange to live in a place that feels so unlike being on holiday most of the time. People pay good money to stay here while residents would pay good money not to have to.

kiss me quick

Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle. Horse. Sideways.

I have been vaguely considering the idea of a ‘feature’ day – like Wordless Wednesday when people just post a photo of something or other. So it occurred to me to trial a Totally Random Thursday.

It’s either that or another of Mum’s Old Recipes.

I was feeding the five thousand (cats) just now – impossible to settle down write anything until their insistent twice-daily needs have been met – and it occurred to me how many black or black and white cats I am now surrounded by. It occurs to me that I will soon have reached the scary stage – particularly scary for someone whose mother has dementia – of not being able to recall which name goes with which cat. And then if one of them needs to go to the vet? Will it need to be – ‘Hello, this is Rosie, or possibly Shadow, or then again Arthur, although of course it might be Hector… And he or she needs his or her claws clipping’.

I have a two page Cat List taped to the fridge, neatly typed with each cat’s name, origin/source, probable age, physical description and microchip number if applicable. Not a former legal secretary for nothing. The ostensible purpose of this list is – if I am some day spotted through the window collapsed on the carpet, dead and half-eaten by mice and the RSPCA break in to rescue my horde of cats, they may stand an outside chance of identifying and re-homing some of them.

I constantly rehearse their names and descriptions in my head, making a kind of game of it. At the moment, if it’s quite frail and bony and doesn’t weigh very much it’s Rosie; if it’s got a tiny brown patch under its chin, a tiny white bit on one paw, snapped-off looking front teeth and weighs a ton it’s Little Arf; if it’s plump and soft and barges its way to the food first and in no nonsense fashion it’s Winnie; if it’s tiny and affectionate, with a long face like the Sphynx and slightly scary teeth like a bat or mini-Dracula when she yawns it’s Shadow. And if it has long legs, a pointy nose and hates me it’s probably Pandy from the cat sanctuary.

It occurs to me to wonder why I frighten some people, including most children. Looking at myself in the mirror I look just normal – a bit lumpy, like any oldish person. Harmless. But babies scream at the sight of me in supermarkets. Probably a good thing I wasn’t able to have any, thereby dooming some innocent infant to a life of perpetual apprehension.

Bertie-on-the-bus seems afraid of me too, though that doesn’t stop him talking to me (relentlessly). I’d be quite happy to follow the British on-the-train formula of staring out of the window for as long as possibly, until your neck actually begins to hurt from the effort of not meeting anyone else’s eyes, even accidentally, and appearing very interested in cows, fields and suchlike, but this rule does not apply to rural buses. You have to talk.

Bertie and I have a kind of communication disjunction. I know people like me tend to have this anyway, but Bertie is an especially tricky one. First, he tells you something, but not very much. He is going to his meeting at the Council, he confides. He has mentioned this meeting at the Council several times before and I have not followed it up. I wonder now if he is hoping I’ll ask him about it.

‘Do you work at the Council then, Bertie?’ I venture.

He looks sideways at me, suspiciously. I may be a secret agent.

‘No’, he says, after a very long pause.

‘Did you get to your dentist appointment the other day?’ he asks after a while.

‘Oh well, it was the hygienist actually. She was new – Swedish or something – and just brutal. It was so painful. And since April they’ve put their prices up…’

Now he is staring out of the window, examining the cows.

‘So you did get to the dentist.’

We spot one of his friends at an upcoming bus stop. Bertie has friends all round the route. He knows all their names and their routines, and what days to expect them. He does not know my name, however, and refers to me to other passengers as ‘she’ or ‘her.’ I thought of telling him my name – what harm could come of it? – but decided not to in case he mistakenly concluded I was Making Advances. Bertie, I think, is terrified of women for just that reason: they might Make Advances.

The upcoming friend is the big man with the metal crutches – giant tripping hazards that seem to take up the whole bus – and the endless collection of eccentric tee shirts.

‘He doesn’t really need to put his hand out for the bus,’ I murmur. ‘You could hardly miss him.’ Today he is wearing an acid yellow shirt with broad, grass green horizontal stripes. He looks like the Wasp from Outer Space.

‘No, he does like his tee shirts,’ says Bertie. And then, surprisingly: ‘I knitted a jumper that colour once.’

‘Do you knit, Bertie?’ For once my interest is genuinely piqued. I want to tell him that I knit too and what a relaxing hobby it is, especially on long winter evenings…

He gives me that secret agent look again.

‘I knitted it with my mother.’ Of course he did. I want to ask him more, scenting an actual story here, and one which I will enjoy, but he has turned his attention to the friend with the monster crutches in the yellow and green.

‘I was just telling her…’

I sit in a living room with my elderly Visitee and she goes through her diary with me, reading out her appointments for several weeks to come, with the cleaner, the man who comes to clean out her pond, various specialists etc. I remember these same appointments from last week. My coffee is going cold but I continue to nod and smile in the right places. She tells me again about all the different shops there used to be in Town and we compare our systems for filing household documents. I eat a chocolate biscuit, quickly as it melts in my hand. This one is quite soft. Usually she keeps them in the fridge. In the background, the carriage clock ticks. I quite like this kind of conversation. It reminds me of Mum.

On the bus going back the only empty seat is next to Woman With No Teeth. Now this is a real problem, because I am slightly deaf. Normally it isn’t a problem and I am not conscious of the extent to which I am I am actually lip-reading. But Woman With No Teeth – she just doesn’t make the right mouth-shapes, or rather she makes a whole series of puckery, wrinkly mouth-shapes but these refuse to tie up with any known word. I wonder if it is just the teeth or whether she also has a cleft palate. Either way, I can’t understand her. Today it sounded a bit like this:

‘Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle. Horse. Sideways.’

I try a smile and a sage nod, surmising that as we have just passed two horses being ridden along the side of a narrow road she may be talking about some traffic incident involving horses.

‘Horses are so strong,’ I venture. ‘You have to drive past them really slowly.’

She gives me the secret agent look and begins again:

‘Orem ipsum dolor sit amet. Caravan. Rain.’

Ah, only another twenty minutes.

The Chuckit List

I’ve never really had a Bucket List. I can’t imagine me climbing Mount Everest, bungee-ing from the Eiffel Tower or orbiting the earth in a spacecraft simply for the sake of saying I’d finally done it. I mean, who am I going to say ‘I dunnit’ to? Are the overworked National Health nurses likely to be listening? A passing cleaner, perhaps? Maybe that giant spider in the corner wondering if what’s left of me might make a good meal.

But I have slowly been developing a Chuckit List. I won’t go into the whole thing now because it’s still coalescing. Suffice to say that when finished it will be a list of all those little skills I never had the time or patience to master before; those skills I never quite used but never quite lost either; those projects I started, maybe more than once, lost patience with and Chucked. I now find myself with time and not much else, and the thing about Chuckits is they’re cheap and time-consuming.

One of the Chuckits is to recover my French. I ‘did’ French at school for ‘A’ level and was quite good at it, then. I’ve never needed to use it since and would be horrified if expected to communicate with any kind of foreigner in anything but nice, safe old English. However, I seem to have retained a lot of it, at least for translation purposes. Books don’t sneer – or worse still, shrug at you when you get it wrong. French people do.

It occurred to me that the most entertaining way to re-learn French was to start reading French novels with the help of a giant dictionary. So I collected a handful of novels that looked fairly easy, and ‘gripping’ enough to keep the attention of an Anglophone with the attention span of a gnat. At the moment I’m working my way through Les vacances de Maigret. Fortunately I’ve never read Maigret in translation so the plot is new, and I’m genuinely looking forward to finding out Whodunit. So far, nobody’s Dun anything. Maigret’s walked into a slightly creepy convent (or am I just imagining it?) feeling melancholy and preoccupied. But it’s early days yet.

maigret 2.jpg

I’m writing out the translation as I go. The thing with French is, though – and that’s also what makes it so interesting – you (or at least, I) oftentimes can’t resolve it accurately into English. From the French you seem to get a clear picture of what Commissioner Maigret is seeing, but how to say it in English when it’s like nothing you’d ever need English for? For example:

Dans un bureau vitré, tout clair, tout net, percé d’un guichet, une soeur à cornette, assize devant un register, lui souriait et disait:

–          Bonjour, monsieur 6…

Now, what I picture as I read is a little office in some way sectioned out of the entrance hall of a convent. It’s as if the whole office is made of glass but vitré may just mean there’s a big window. And the window is pierced with a kind of grille, which makes me think of those little inset windows in banks and building societies, behind which the bored tellers sit, safe from attack by mutant customers etc. The office is filled with light, and it’s very clean. Behind the glass but in front of some sort of register sits a sister (nun-type sister) wearing one of those elaborate, draped white hats nuns wear or used to wear in France, kind of pointed, like an ice-cream cornet. She smiles at him and says:

–          Good day, Mr 6…

But how do you put that, succinctly, in English?

Anyway, it keeps me out of mischief.

Number 2 on the Chuckit List (I promise, no more than two) is knitting in the round. I’ve always avoided attempting such complicated items as gloves and socks, partly because it’s cheaper and easier to buy them than to buy the wool, and the pattern, and the needles and spend months trying to figure out how to turn the heel or achieve more than four fingers. However, I have decided to knit a balaclava.

Why a balaclava, you ask? Or, what is a balaclava?

Well, a balaclava is an unflattering helmet with a hole for the face. The idea is that it keeps head, cheeks and neck warm all in one garment. Wearing it, you look like a woolly cyborg, but never mind, you’re toasty. Women knitted mountains of them during the First World War to send off to troops on the front line. Mostly in France. Ha – a semi-circular post.

So, it will keep me warm and enable me to economise on heating but, and more importantly, it is a very complicated item to knit and requires two attempts at circular knitting, with a section of straight (i.e. two-needle) knitting in between.

I’ve just managed three rather wobbly ‘rounds’, having spent some time this morning watching a YouTube video of an über-soothing American lady with plump, comforting hands (the rest of her stayed anonymous) demonstrating how to join the two ends, which needle the stitch-marker should always be on and – most importantly – how to remedy an unwanted twist. The unwanted twist is the thing to avoid at all costs. If you get one you end up with a woolly version of the Mobius strip, only it’s taken you hours to make, whereas one of those twisted strips of paper takes seconds.

It’s a learning experience: if a fully-fashioned balaclava comes out of it I shall be most surprised. And so will the Post Lady if I forget to take it off when answering the front door. Though since the Post Lady turned up in a range of eccentric velour Christmas hats last year – one with rabbit-ears, I recall – worn with her post-lady hat on top, and blue-dyed hair – she may not bat an eyelid.

Prayers, Pipe-smoke and the Problem Page

I have a bit of a soft spot for Woman’s Realm. Not that I buy it. Oh no, that would be… a no-no. Mostly I get a heap of them, back-dated, in a Tesco bag. It’s a bit like one of those drug-dealer exchanges on motorway slip-roads. Betty passes them over to me in the car park of Mum’s care home. We meet up there before the Visit, cars parked neatly side by side, both of us dreading the Going In and longing for the Coming Out. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Not wanting to go in? I feel a bit better because Betty feels the same. I email her in advance.

Are you OK for a visit to Mum this Sunday, usual time and place?

And inevitably she emails back something like: I’m game if you are or If you can do it, I can.

I realise she is not coming to see Mum, now, but to give me the courage to see her.

Older than Mum, she has been with us both since before I was born. She knew me when I was an awkward bump. She used to look after me every Friday evening so that Mum and Dad could go out. A single lady, she told me recently she was terrified every time that Something Dreadful might happen to me whilst I was in her care and it would all be her fault. And yet she is reassurance itself.

It has always seemed to me that Betty could cope with anything. She is the very embodiment of Keep Calm and Carry On. But I sense that she is out of her depth in this nightmare of a place, and with the nightmare Mum is becoming. Too close to home, I guess, to be sat amongst those who are the same age as you or younger; in constant peril of being mistaken for an inmate and hoisted into a wheelchair or forced to drink yet more cranberry juice from a plastic cup.

Mind you, the inmates mistake me for an inmate sometimes. And other times they mistake me for the person who knows where their lost suitcase is, or the person who has come to cut their toenails, or the person who speaks fluent Italian. I made the mistake last week of trying out my few phrases of Italian on Maria, whose word-of-choice is Bella! (Mum’s is Well…)

Yole vole lavare quista camichetta? I ventured, remembering the phrase from a long-ago BBC Learning Zone programme. Non parl… speak Italian… much.

Poco? She pinches her fingers together. She has no teeth. Her chin all buts the end of her nose, like the witches in fairy-tale book illustrations.

Si, molto poco.

Bella!

La sciarpetta?

Poco.

And then a lady from the church arrives to bring her communion. We watch as the priest-lady sets out a tiny cross on a white handkerchief. It has been ironed into quarters. She takes out a prayer book, and a little silver container of communion wafers. She has just gone through the exact same service for the only other Catholic lady in another room. We listen to the prayer for the sick, and to other prayers. We listen as she says In the name of the Father… and Maria crosses herself and mumbles in nomine patris…Bella! I find the prayers soothing, though they are not intended for me. I wonder if I should start reading the Bible a bit, knowing I probably won’t.

Betty, I sense, does not find the prayers soothing, rather the opposite, and yet she is the nearest thing to a Guardian Angel I have ever known. She guarded Mum and now she’s doing what she can to guard me. But she is fidgeting and trying not to look at the door.

Well occasionally in moments of extreme stress I do buy a Woman’s Realm. Woman’s Realm is to me what chocolate – or Baileys Irish Cream – are to other women: comfort reading, because the magazine reminds me of Nan.

Every Sunday I used to go along the road to Nan and Grandad’s for Sunday Dinner and Sunday Tea. A whole day’s respite, if you counted Sunday School first, from having to keep out of my father’s way and from having to protect my mother from anything that might set off her Nerves again and have her lying on the sofa with her eyes shut, clutching a handkerchief in hands that shook and shook.

Every Sunday – well, I’ve written about it before – but while Nan was cooking our Sunday Dinner I would hang around with Grandad in the living room. He would fill his pipe with St Bruno Flake and fill the whole room with a thick fug of aromatic, if unhealthy, smoke. He would idle through pink back-copies of The Carpenter & Joiner and I would read Nan’s Woman’s Realm.

I was supposed to be reading it only for a cartoon about a family of little robins – Mummy Robin, Daddy Robin and… Other Robins, but I didn’t understand the cartoon much. What I liked to look at was the knitting patterns – lantern-jawed husband-material posed stiffly in black and white, showing off their new blackberry-stitch cardigan – babies surrounded by lacy layettes, a halo of little shawls, bonnets, cardis and bootees of infinite complexity.

fair isle.jpg

I seized my chance to create one of these challenging little lacy things – a cardigan, it was, complete with buttons and knitted buttonholes – for my youngest sister when she was expecting her first child. It didn’t go down too well. Apparently the modern baby wears the baby-grow.

I read at least sections of those endless romantic serials, wondering why there was such a scarcity of stern, broken-hearted Highland Lairds in my part of Kent.

And, of course, I read the Problem Page. It was always at the back, so easy to find. From readers’ letters I learned, after a fashion, the facts of life. My innocent requests for the Meanings of Long Words forced Nan to explain, albeit in a whimsical and euphemistic manner, Certain Things to me that might come in useful later (though not very useful, as it turned out). I doubt if Mum would even have mentioned them.

Les Tricoteuses

Whenever things turn stressful I get the urge to knit. It doesn’t matter what – in fact the simpler the item the better. Mum and Nan were the same. Nan only seemed to stop knitting in order to peel potatoes or mop the lino, and Mum knitted so many blankets made of multi-coloured six inch squares that she ended up trying to give one away to Oxfam. But in spite of its being a particularly splendid one, and in spite of the fact that they had always advertised for blankets made of squares, Oxfam refused it. According to the woman in the shop there had been a change of policy – home-made blankets tended to be of non-standard size and didn’t stack economically in their transportation trucks. She didn’t even smile.

Mum went on knitting, year after year, stacking the useless things in a cupboard. She had given up all pretence of their being replacements for blankets that were wearing out. Woolly blankets never seem to wear out; they just stretch to twice their original length and get bobbly.

I knit in times of stress but I never end up wearing anything I knit – partly because I don’t like the look of it and partly because wool’s far too itchy. I make squares too, but tend to sew them into smaller blankets. The cats appreciate them more than Oxfam did. Every now and then I make one of those little tee-shaped stripy jumpers from the Oxfam pattern, for children in war-torn areas. Basically, you don’t need a pattern for those – you could just make them up.

Presumably knitting is a form of displacement activity. Those painting of Madame Guillotine during the French Revolution…those ladies sitting beneath with clay pipes clenched between rotten teeth, and clackety tricot needles, were maybe not so much heartless as deeply traumatised as the severed heads rolled one by one into the baskets.

knitting guillotine

Technically – she writes, as if she knew as much before she looked it up – displacement behaviour is a behaviour that appears odd/out of context. It usually happens when there is a conflict between excitement/agitation and frustration. A dog meets a high fence, say. He desperately wants to be on the other side of the fence but the fence is too high to jump. Naturally, then, he sits down and scratches his ear or bites the dog next to him. Displacement behaviour is often related to comforting activities, like grooming, scratching, drinking or eating. So, human beings scratch their heads when perplexed and a pair of fighting birds might stop and peck at the ground.

I suppose the classic would be rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Did anybody actually do that, I wonder? Was it in the film? I never saw the film. I suppose deckchair-rearranging would only be a displacement activity if you knew the ship had just hit an iceberg. If you were merely up on deck for a little stroll on a bracing afternoon and thought – those deckchairs would be so much better disposed thus – well that would make you a sad, and possibly an obsessive, person but not necessarily one engaged in displacement activity.

I also sharpen pencils; in times of great distress I have been known to sharpen whole boxes of blunt pencils, until my fingers are squashed into strange shapes at the ends, and black with graphite, and the sharpener’s running hot. Or I sit down and write a post for this blog, though it will rarely be about the thing that’s worrying me. That’s likely to come later: emotion recollected in tranquillity as Wordsworth put it. It’s a help to be absorbed in pushing words around for a couple of hours.

Ex was the only person I ever met who dealt with stress by keeping utterly still. Most of the time he would be rushing hither and thither, obsessed by what he was doing, frowning over his easel or his lathe, or his workbench – painting stuff or making stuff. At rare intervals, however, he would take what he referred to as a Lying Fallow Day. This seemed to mean slumping half on and half off of the living-room sofa, his long legs jack-knifed into an inverted V. There he would remain all day staring out of the window at the rose bushes and occasionally farting. It was as if he had deactivated himself.

squares