The Blanket Has Landed

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bare teddy bear must be in want of a scarf, and so I have begun knitting him one in green speckled Aran. Blanket, that is. Something of a stretch, metaphorically, from Neil Armstrong to Jane Austen.

Blanket landed this afternoon from somewhere mysterious in Scotland, via Ebay and the Royal Mail. He didn’t cost much (I can’t afford bears that cost much) and was described as “All right as long as he is sitting down, like many of us”. I was half afraid to unbox him in case one of his legs should fall off. It didn’t, but his head seems quite likely to unless he is delicately handled, which he will be. If you didn’t know he was a bear you might think he was a lamb because he has very large floppy ears and a kind of sheep-like expression. But making that leap of faith and assuming he is a bear…

Poor Blanket, propped up among cushions in the corner of my sofa, who was in Scotland a day or so ago, then plunged into the suffocating bubble-wrapped darkness and encased in shoe-box cardboard, emerging suddenly at the far end of This Sceptred Isle, amongst a heap of cats. His expression has not changed, of course, but what must he be feeling?

His is described as Probably a wartime blanket bear. Apparently people made teddy bears out of blankets during the last war, due to a shortage of materials. There seems little doubt that he is wartime, but I query whether he is hand-fashioned out of blanket, or was made by some loving wartime Mummy for her little girl (or boy).

He is certainly made out of something vaguely blanket-like, not the usual golden furry stuff, but I wouldn’t say it was blanket. I had a coat made out of blanket, post war, and boy did it itch. I remember being taken for tottering toddler walks wearing this bright brown, be-toggled monstrosity, and being unbearably itchy everywhere the coat touched, which seemed virtually everywhere. And my mother had a dressing gown made out of blanket. A grey blanket with green woollen daisies embroidered, and green blanket stitch all round the edges. Must have taken her, or Nan, ages to make it. It weighed a ton, but was possibly not as itchy as my little coat. Nothing could have been as itchy as that.

And then there are his joints. They seem to be kind of professional, and interior. It is perhaps thanks to these joints, now badly worn, that Blanket is still, if tenuously, attached to his head and his four limbs. They don’t seem the sort of joints a housewife would have used.

So, not a forgery but a mystery, and likely always to remain so.

I seem to have gone a bit overboard on the bears. The original idea was to buy a couple of battered old bears on Ebay to model the bear scarves which I am knitting and which I thought to sell for a teensy-tiny profit. The trouble is, it’s difficult to resist. I seem to have accumulated quite a few 98p etc bears over a short period of time. Once you’ve rescued one you are kind of compelled to rescue them all, every last battered, lost and suffering one in the world. Which is of course why I have nineteen cats.

Not for the first time I wonder about the connection in my head between cats and bears. I first noticed it many years ago, in the first years of my marriage, when I had a whole series of nightmares about suffering cats – cats that I had forgotten about and escaped through the window, cats that lived in the arm of my armchair (don’t ask me – cats inhabit armchairs in my dreams) and got too near the fire and suffocated; cats that I seemed to have poisoned and was now observing as they died; cats that followed me across zebra crossings and through busy cities amongst the rushing traffic and were in imminent danger, and yet I did nothing.

It seemed to me at first that cats were an obvious symbol for babies, and it was probably something to do with thwarted maternal instinct, etc etc. But later I came to think it was sadder and more visceral than that, and that cats were an outlet for physical affection, a lonely child’s something to love. Hence the suffering cats when I married entirely the wrong man in that respect. I decided this after another dream, when kittens falling to earth on parachutes changed mid-dream to teddy bears, and came to rest in a cornfield, between the furrows. Of course there’s something about furrows and fertility…

Ah, as with my poor rickety, sheep-like Blanket, the truth will never be known, and nobody but me cares about either.

My mother gave my teddy to Oxfam and I never forgave her, but that’s another story.

Talking of metaphor, people seem to be unable to detect it nowadays. Either that or it suits them better to take some sort of manufactured umbrage. One Labour politician pleads with the leader of the Labour party to “call off the dogs” when yet another Labour MP is threatened with deselection for not following the party line. His deputy then takes grave offence because his esteemed Comrades have been insultingly referred to as “dogs”. Hunting metaphor, dear boy. Metaphor, not actual dogs.

Anyway, I will not brood on that, it will make my headache worse. This evening I have been forced to lie on the sofa in my darkened living room, playing Dire Straits to myself through an earpiece and something that was once called an MP3 player. I may be the last person in the world still using an MP3 player. This was to drown out the noise of my neighbours once again playing some kind of war game at full volume, for hours. I wonder how I am going to explain the intermittent cacophony to Canadian Sister when she comes to stay with me after Christmas, as hopefully she will. Perhaps she won’t suffer so much from it, knowing she is soon going to be able to fly off and leave it behind.

Update: by popular (well, one) request a portrait of Blanket has been added, getting to know his new little friend Whitstable. More of Whitstable later. Probably. Once coffee consumed and gigantic fish and chips and strawberry ice cream slept off.

My uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall

Canadian sister phones. I thought maybe once her husband had died she would stop phoning me, that I would be cast aside like some moth-eaten fur coat etc etc. This has not happened – just now she phones me at all odd times. Before she could only phone me when he was asleep. And then he would wake up. Always. I could hear the creaking of the bedroom door upstairs in their house, right across the Atlantic. Sometimes I heard it before she heard it. I could hear the change in her tone of voice. The worried note creeping in, the sudden summing up, the hasty goodbye.

She is all at sea without him, and yet, I note, she is surviving. She says she has just spent the two longest evenings of her life, alone in the house. ‘What do single people do in the evenings?’ she asks me. ‘Well, I say, hobbies tend to expand to fill the time available for doing them…’ I am aware that I am paraphrasing someone. ‘What did you do of an evening when he was still alive, and well?’

‘Mostly he was outside in his workshop. If he came inside I might knit while he watched TV.’

I resist saying that this seems to me as much like being alone as being alone. I remember when I was married, all those years ago. Being always alone, even when not.

‘You can call me any time,’ I say. ‘After all, nobody else does. I mean, it’s not like you’re interrupting a huge queue of my fans, all eagerly trying to contact me…’

‘Nobody?’

She sounds shocked. I would have lied, if necessary. I would have told her the above story so that she didn’t feel she was being in any way a nuisance phoning me at all hours, because at the moment I am one of her few fixed points in a radically shifting universe. I am good at making up tales on the spur of the moment. Sometimes I don’t realise they’re tales, till after.

And sometimes I don’t realise they’re true, till after.

So, today I have had a very stressful day. Stress exhausts me, so I tend only ever to schedule one stressful or unpleasant event per day, but today I thought, why not get them all over with at once, for once? So I set off, early, stopping off at the post office in the next village to post Canadian Sister a belated birthday present. Two books. The cost of the airmail is greater than the combined cost of the books. But that was OK, and I managed to get myself out of the tiny car park, with the parking spaces all at the wrong angles.

I went on to the Tip, in Town. I managed to get my car in and not have to sit drumming my fingers on the dash for three-quarters of an hour down the stinky alleyway that leads to it. I managed to heave out the six monstrously heavy black sacks full of used cat litter, pretending to be innocent household waste. I managed to lug four of them, one at a time, up the slippery metal steps to the skip and, with a muscle-wrenching effort, heave them over the rim of the skip. Then – that rare event – one of the men in high-vis yellow came to my rescue, and made off with my two remaining sacks – in the direction of the skip labelled Garden Waste.

‘Did yer want the bags back?’

‘Er, no…’

I knew I should have yelled after him, ‘Excuse me, my man, but I believe you may be under a misapprehension. That is in fact Non-Recyclable Household Waste’ (cat poo).

But I didn’t. I reversed, rather smartly, and exited.

And then I did a rather long and illogical detour to the petrol station, where an elderly idiot with a white moustache rather like the current transient US Secretary of State’s, nearly took my wing-mirror off in his selfish efforts not to let me get to the pump I needed, which was not the same pump he needed.

Ah, I thought, things are reverting to the usual dire pattern. I swore voluminously at him, but from inside my car so that he could see perfectly well that I was swearing voluminously, but we could both, upon exiting our cars, pretend it wasn’t aimed at him.

And then I drove over to visit my mother in the Home. This was number four (?) of Things I Don’t Want To Do Today But Am Going To Do Anyway. But Mum was asleep, with the curtains drawn. All the other residents were up. She looked dreadfully like a corpse so I tiptoed in and checked that she was still breathing. Then I went and found the Nurse – not in the Nurses Station (that was occupied by Someone Who Didn’t Even Work There) but in a cupboard. He said Mum was OK, but had been left to sleep in after one of her night-time rampages. I have never seen one of these rampages, and find them difficult to imagine, but apparently she shouts at other residents, and they shout back. She was never like this. Anything not to draw attention to herself, to stay in the background.

When I get home the Nurse will phone me again to say that after I left she wrestled another resident to the ground (where she happened to be lying) and was having a fight with them.

‘I wonder,’ I said, if it’s all the things they suppress during their lifetimes, when they are them, that suddenly start escaping when this happens?

The Nurse did not seem all that interested in my intellectual speculations.

After the Home I drove down to Ashford, thinking to stock up on black bin sacks in my favourite former supermarket, then drive home. Gridlocked.  When I finally inched my way there – instantly to be blocked in by a giant black-windowed vehicle that was going to make reversing out a nightmare – the woman behind the till tried to explain what was causing the gridlock. It’s the closure of the A2070 she said. I could not remember which of the many road around Ashford the A2070 was and hence, when trying to escape from Ashford some time later, got caught in two further lots of gridlock because I guessed wrong and headed straight for it rather than away from it.

You see that’s the trouble. Road diversions are signposted by men, and usually men who have GPS in their cars. I am a woman, and I do not have GPS. I do not understand Diversion signs and I navigate the sensible way, by Landmarks, not Numbers. If they had put up a sign saying Motorway Junction Absolutely And Completely Closed, well then I wouldn’t have gone that way, would I? I’d have wended my way up the back roads to Smelly Farm Corner and turned right towards The Place Where There Is A Pub I Once Walked Along The Grass Verge To With The Boyfriend With The Pointy Nose. Of course I would have got stuck in another lot of gridlock, but a smaller and more ultimately hopeful lot.

And how are you? my sister asks, eventually. It’s early morning in Alberta. She hasn’t already had a whole day of Utter Ghastliness.

‘Oh… a bit tired, maybe?’

phone tap

Featured Image: London street art by Banksy

 

Patchwork by post

Well, just to make a change – this is the beginnings of Canadian sister’s Christmas present. Shh! Don’t tell her. (Luckily she doesn’t read my blog so we’re safe enough.) The idea is to make a cushion cover, from the pattern below, plus a simple bag for the inner part of the cushion, and – one or two other bits – and then post the same to Canada. I shall have to get my skates on, though. To get anything bulkier than a letter to Canada by post you need to post it several decades in advance, or so it always seems:

IMG_20171101_085856

Somewhat blurry, but I can’t face a second battle of wills with the computer. Maybe I will take another set of photos, as the project progresses, assuming it does progress. This is the first one I’ve made and it’s a bit trial and error, geometrically/mathematically. There are two possible arrangements for the prism (or ‘little house’, if you prefer). The other one looks quite interesting.

Canadian sister is going through a really bad time at the moment. Brother-in-law is now onto his Plan B chemotherapy, Plan A having failed after a couple of years. He has also just retired so he’s at home all day, so things are now really tense. She’s talking about taking up an option for counselling. People always tell you to be strong, unfailingly cheerful etc., for the sake of the other person, who needs your support. But how noble can you manage to be when you’ve been married, childless and deeply dependent for thirty-seven years or so and when, aside from your dying husband, you are alone in a ‘foreign’ country? You would need to have had a completely different life leading up to this point. You would need to have always been a different kind of woman.

There is nothing I can do. If only I could fly over to Canada, like the Stork, scoop her up in some sort of human fishing net and trawl her back to England. I can’t even make her want to come back – later – afterwards. Maybe Canada feels like home, now. The other day it occurred to me that the family she left behind in 1980 is not really here any more. Dad is long dead, Mum would be unlikely to recognise her; English Sister is here but gone all odd and mostly incommunicado. I’m here, of course but, three years the elder and a lifetime duller and wearier, would I that much of a draw?

But I know she likes crafting, and that is her form of meditation. I know she could probably make this cushion better than me, and that she will probably look at it and say ‘her light rows are not light enough’ or ‘she needed a zinger here or there’. Canadian sister is very fond of her zingers. And I thought I would include a photocopy of the pattern, and a duplicate template (quilters’ plastic) and another set of pieces. With the job half done, I think, she might be tempted make up a matching cover, or try the alternative design or even supplement the pieces with a whole lot of Canadian ‘zingers’ and make several cushions.

Patchwork cushions. The best a sister can do.

IMG_20171101_085804.jpg

 

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.

From my bookcase: Less Than Angels: Barbara Pym

Thought I’d go for something less scary this time, so ‘Less Than Angels’ by Barbara Pym, 1955. It’s quite a while since I read this book and so I’ll crib from the back cover:

Catherine Oliphant is a writer and lives with handsome anthropologist Tom Mallow. Their relationship runs into trouble when he begins a romance with Deirdre Swann, so Catherine turns her attention to the reclusive anthropologist Alaric Lydgate, who has a fondness for wearing African masks. Added to this love tangle are the activities of Deirdre’s fellow students and their attempts to win the competition for a research grant.

The course of true love or academia never did run smooth.

I remember thoroughly enjoying this book.  The African mask thing: the wonderfully-named Alaric Lydgate, who wears the masks (in the privacy of his back garden, if I remember) is a true eccentric, seen in snatches through the eyes of his very ‘normal’ neighbours. A troubled man, but things turn out all right for him in the end. Pym’s knowledge of Africa and anthropology came from seventeen years working at the International African Institute in London, from 1946. She was the assistant editor for the scholarly journal Africa. I think she felt herself to be a kind of anthropologist – observing the ‘tribal customs’ of suburban post-war Britain with a quiet fascination, from the outside.

Two things about Barbara Pym.

First: she is much underrated and only now being rediscovered. She has been described (by Alexander McCall Smith of No 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame) as a modern Jane Austen, and you can see it there – the very small canvas – a gathering of essentially good or well-meaning, if rather restrained, muddled and emotionally inexpert – characters – English, in other words – and the overall female tone to the book.

This is not to say that her stories are dull, or bland. She can be witty, and very sharp. Her characters may not indulge in explicit sex (this was 1955, after all) but it is there in the background. Barbara Pym herself had quite a number of love affairs, though these  seem to have ended in unhappiness. She was at one point involved with a much younger man, as is Catherine Oliphant in the book. Barbara Pym was reticent about her private life and inner world but you might see a partial self-portrait in Catherine.

One of the things I like about the book is the sense that men and women in those days actually did expect to ‘court’ one another, and were hoping for romance even if they did not always find it – or find it with the person the expected to find it with – followed by marriage and children. These were – how would you put it – quieter times, and kinder.

Second: when you have read one Barbara Pym book you are almost certain to want to read them all. That’s another reason I can’t recall the plot in detail – because at the time I was working through the whole of her oeuvre (such a pretentious word, whyever did I use it?) one after another. Every now and then I put my books back into alphabetical order and am always surprised and pleased at the sight of all those colourful long-lost Pym paperbacks sitting neatly in a row. Sad, yes.

Barbara Pym’s books tend to contain lots of little bits of poetry – her characters, being academics, tend to toss quotes back and forth quite naturally. This leaves you with the delightful task (if interested enough, as I always am) of discovering where the stray lines came from. To give you a head start, at the end of Chapter 4 a character refers to a sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti beginning: When do I see the most, beloved one? I notice I have even glued the sonnet into the back cover:

Lovesight, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

When do I see thee most, beloved one?

When in the light the spirits of mine eyes

Before thy face, their alter, solemnize

The worship of that Love through thee made known?

Or when in the dusk hours, (we two alone)

Close-kissed and eloquent of still replies

Thy twilight-hidden glimmering visage lies,

And my soul only sees thy soul its own?

O love – my love! if I no more should see Thyself,

Nor on the earth the shadow of thee,

Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,

How then should sound upon Life’s darkening slope

The groundwhirl of the perished leaves of Hope

The wind of Death’s imperishable wing?

I used to feel guilty about ‘customising’ my paperbacks but nowadays book customisation is all the rage – a sub-category of scrapbooking, apparently – and anyway, to slightly paraphrase Lesley Gore (1963-ish) and many others:

It’s my paperback and I’ll glue if I want to…

 

No voice at the world’s tribunals

I always wondered about this business of taking up space. One person feels he is entitled to all the space in the world. Another, like a wild cat unwillingly rescued, spends her life continually try to squeeze herself into the smallest possible space, longing for invisibility. I suppose I’d be one of those – a wild cat unwillingly rescued by human society.

It used to be OK, when I had Ex. Ex was pugnacious enough for both of us. Sometimes this was embarrassing, like the time he chased a man in a potato lorry who was driving too fast, and the enormous man in the potato lorry unexpectedly slammed on the brakes and got out, marched back and threatened to “cream him over the bumper”. Other times I can only be grateful for, like the time he drove me to the eye hospital after weeks of misdiagnosis and ineffectual treatment by our local doctor, and demanded that a specialist see me at once. He made a loud, almighty, alpha male-type fuss in a room full of people who probably all had referral letters and had no doubt been waiting patiently for hours. That saved my sight.

Since I have been on my own – longer now than I was with him – I have had to learn to stand my ground, sometimes. I am so not good at it. I have to be very angry to confront someone, which means, basically, that I have no control over what comes out of my mouth. It always horrifies me and there will always a be disproportionately huge cost attached.

When the new people moved in next door I made friendly conversation over the fence. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? I resigned myself to the thundering feet up the stairs, the loud Disney-type music from the child’s bedroom, the hammering, the… whatever. Families are different, I told myself. You can’t expect them to be as unobtrusive as old folk. You can’t move, so get used to it.

I tried not to hear their loud, silly conversations out on the decking. When they lit the barbeque next to my garden fence and the smell of half-cooked pork sausages began to drift across my vegetarian garden I closed the windows, discreetly, hoping they wouldn’t notice and take umbrage.

When they had a party, which they did warn me about, sort of, I plugged in the old earpieces and tried to distract myself from a garden full of football-kicking little boys with soothing music. “Don’t kick that ball on the decking,” I couldn’t help discerning over Thomas Tallis. “You know what happened last time!”

What had happened last time? Had they by any chance been snuffling around my garden while I was out, looking for a lost football?

I tried not to hear ever-increasing volume of cackling and mindless laughter that seems to go with alcohol. I tried not to wonder what the loud, screechy row just the other side of my living room wall was all about. I tried – and of course failed – to resist peering round the curtain when the woman started running round in the front garden and banging on the front windows bellowing “They’re my fam’ly, they’re my fam’ly!” Who are? Not being able to work out exactly what was going on was almost as bad as psychic exposure to other people’s second-hand upset and aggression, like being given a single torn-out page from a library book.

I tried not to be horrified as the woman and a man manhandled a bellowing boy-child out to the car, he holding an arm and she a leg, and tossed the boy unceremoniously inside, where he continued to bellow, more loudly than before.

But when the next day someone from next door parked a white van – nay, the Mother of All White Vans, in front of my driveway and blocking me in I just sort of – found myself out in the garden, demanding to see him and asking him to remove it. It didn’t sound like me. It didn’t feel like me. It felt as if “me” was away on holiday and some storybook character was confronting her neighbour, and I was writing it.

“I will in a minute,” he said.

“No,” this storybook me was heard to say. “I want you to move it now.”

He did, but remarked that I could always have come round and asked him to move it if and when I needed to go out.

Since then, although he moved the car and has not blocked me in again, it falls silent every time I go out into the garden. If one of their loud conversations is going on there is a pause, and then laughter. Since then I cannot go out into my garden, basically, until after dark or until they all happen to go out in one of their many cars and vans. Since then I tiptoe about feeding my stray cats in the dusk. I pile up rubbish bags in the corner of kitchen by the door, only creeping out with them to the dustbins when the moon has risen because I cannot stand being seen and being listened to by hostile, mocking presences.

Now, the point of this is twofold:

Not everyone is like you. Not everyone can temporarily forget about/shut off from a blocked-in car. For some of us, neurotics maybe, it means having to ‘stew’ all night, unable to sleep for worrying about the blocked-in car and wondering if it’s gone yet. Some of us are claustrophobic and instantly feel that their only escape, whether needed or not, has now been cut off.

Not everyone is a thirty-something male souped-up on testosterone and self-regard. Not all of us can stride round to a stranger’s house at 7 on a Sunday morning and chortle “Mind moving your car now, mate?” Some of us are old, some of us are female, some of us are timid and some of us are shy.  We don’t all have a grim-faced and grumpy husband in the background who might possibly decide to “cream you” if you don’t get on and move the thing.

I related the story to Canadian sister over the phone. “You did the right thing,” she said. “It’s the same over here – you just don’t block people in. It’s rude.”

The thing to do, surely, is pause for a moment, engage your imagination and try to anticipate the effect your actions may have on people who are not you, and not like you. Isn’t that what all those undrawn boundaries and unspoken social rules are all about?

It is an attempt to reach others and make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find that you have no voice at the world’s tribunals, and that no one will speak for you.

Anita Brookner: Look At Me

Featured Image: Boxed In: Denice Goldschmidt

A Dutchman, a Quiche and One White Eyebrow

Ex was not an easy chap to get along with, which was why, after twenty-two years or so, I had to leave him. I loved him then and suppose I still do – in an eccentric-older-brother sort of way – although now he is getting on in years and lives with another lady (search: My Replacement). He has developed one bristly white eyebrow at which, on the increasingly rare occasions that I see him, I cannot help staring. It reminds me of Thunderbird puppets.

He is still handsome. He kept the albums but I can still recall a photo of him, in his thirties, sitting against a Yorkshire farm gate, tanned, cotton shirt unbuttoned, reading a map. We were on holiday. He had no idea at all that he was handsome, and that was one reason that I loved him. Downside: he had no real idea what I looked like. He could paint a steam engine down to the last gleaming, mirror-surfaced detail – correct livery for the year, right number of bands on the funnel and everything (that’s so important to a steam buff). He could capture stark winter trees, stormy skies and sunny meadows but he didn’t do faces – couldn’t draw me, or human figures in general.

Now, where was I going with this? Forgive me, it’s nearly midnight and I’m propped up in bed, be-shawled and scribbling, blanketed in cats and trying to convince myself the headache is getting better. Oh yes, the Dutchman and his infernal Quiche.

Wim and his partner, another Dutch gentleman whose name I never knew – red-haired, he was – came to our village and opened a delicatessen in the High Street in what had been – what had it been? – the sort of antique shop that hardly ever has any customers and only opens on Leap Year Day. It was a good delicatessen, if rather exotic for our remote English village at that time.

Ex worked from home and was in charge of the cooking – well, in charge of everything – and was relentless in his adherence to custom and routine. Every day (every single day) we had boiled potatoes, spring greens and a Third Item. He adapted to my becoming a vegetarian, owing to having moved next door to a field of fluffy lambs, by substituting a meaty Third Item with a small vegetarian quiche, in my case or, as he preferred to call it, Flan. The only place you could get this Quiche, aka Flan, was the delicatessen run by Wim and his friend.

Now, Ex was surprisingly good with gay men, mostly, I suspect, because they did not include women. And he did, surprisingly again – for a person who ran like a clockwork toy, Ex was constantly surprising me – succeed in pronouncing Wim as ‘Vim’, which was how Wim pronounced it, and making no mention of the sink scouring powder of the same name. However, he would not say Quiche and Wim/Vim would not say Flan.

I wasn’t allowed to shop, but for some reason I always seemed to have to accompany Ex on food shopping expeditions, trailing submissively in his wake like one of those indoctrinated cult members; I always felt I should be wearing dusty sandals, a white robe made from a sheet, and my hair dishevelled around my shoulders. So whenever we went to the deli to buy my vegetarian Quiche aka Flan, the conversation would go something like this:

Wim/Vim (with a faint, continental curl of the lip):  What can I get you today, sir?

Ex:  One of your small vegetarian Flans, please.

Wim/Vim:  Quiche!

Ex:  Yes, Flan.

Wim/Vim:  Quiche!!

Ex: As I said, Flan.

Had Wim/Vim been married to Ex for twenty-two years he would have realised that there was no point at all in disputing with him about anything at all, let alone Quiche. At two or three in the morning, after many repetitious hours of disputation, you would have turned into a gibbering, screeching wreck. Ex, on the other hand, would be loftily calm and if anything even more convinced of his absolute correctness in this and all things. Wim/Vim could have ‘sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs’ till the cows came home but he would never have got Ex to concede that a Flan could be a Quiche.

The deli closed long ago. Poor little Wim/Vim – I do hope that he and his gingery consort are now enjoying a prosperous and well-deserved retirement amid the windmills and tulip fields and have managed to forget all about Quiche.

Or Flan.