Under The Black Flag

Coffee spoons aren’t the only thing you can measure out your life with: there’s shopping trolleys, for instance.

I had a lot of men, but only two that mattered. The first I called my anchor, the second became my sail. I suppose I was a romantic, for I pictured my life as a voyage in a paper boat across an endless ocean. Or I might have the boat itself: one of those origami things my grandfather failed to teach me. I was either bowling along in a stiff breeze, becalmed in some weed-infested sea-within-a-sea, or sinking.

My anchor was a controlling kind of man. In those days a controlling man was a manly man, as long as he didn’t actually break your arm or black your eye. I loved my manly man, but he would keep taking things out of the shopping trolley. I would put something in and he would take it right back out again.

We went food shopping on Thursdays, in his car. At first this was a novelty. My mother had been in charge of the shopping and I’d never been to a supermarket before. Up and down the aisles we went, he with purpose, I with increasing gloom. I would see something I thought we needed; coffee, perhaps, or cheese. He would frown down at it and, without comment, put it back on the shelf. It wasn’t long before I stopped putting things in the basket.

I remained in charge of pushing the trolley, but I didn’t even do that right. I sensed he felt I was dawdling and daydreaming, which I was, mostly of not being married. I steered it crooked. “Goodness knows what sort of driver you’ll make if you ever manage to pass the test.”

We rented a third-floor flat; a grubby, shabby collection of rooms with a hole in the kitchen wall that you could have fallen through if you tried hard enough. Sometimes I wanted to try. We shovelled up the carpet and its rotten underlay. There was a scattering of tiny, multicoloured sweets mixed in with it, I remember. He shoved the mouse-infested furniture down one end and covered it in blankets. I grew a tomato plant in a pot on the balcony but I had planted the seed in August, which was far too late. The tomatoes stuck at green.

An Aquarian and a Virgo: an unpromising combination.

I was twenty-one and he was thirty.

My sail came along later, and for his sake I cut loose from my anchor. At intervals I wished I hadn’t because the sail, inevitably, was to turn out badly too. He and I were so alike, like mirror images: an Aquarian and an Aquarian, a disastrous collision of star signs. We lived in a place on the seafront – back to rented. The salt spray quickly started to rust my third-hand car.

We also went the supermarket for our groceries, but not necessarily on Thursdays, just when we got round to thinking about it. We had a trolley each and sailed up and down the aisle, side by side, in the whoosh of a following wind. I was not accustomed to fun. I had never scooted a trolley before, or allowed myself to giggle in the company of a man. People gave us looks but it was exhilarating, being young at last.

I was thirty-nine and he was forty.

Apparently I should have found myself an Aries, a Gemini, a Libra or a Sagittarius. It’s too late now.

Now I am so old that I cannot tell you how old I am. If I visit the supermarket at all, I go alone. Mostly I order stuff online and it gets delivered after dark by a man in a uniform who’s anxious to get home to his family. When I do go, I’m grateful for the trolley to lean on. Some days this hip’s so bad, it saves me limping.

I navigate the person-littered aisles with quiet skill, being a much better driver than my anchor once predicted. I place in my trolley what I choose to place in it, but I can’t afford much. I don’t attempt the sailing thing because I can’t. I wouldn’t even if I could because they might lock me away somewhere. Old women are always being locked away; fed with plastic spoons, showered by strangers, slid from bed to chair and back again on a board.

Sail under a black flag, that’s my motto. Don’t let the buggers catch you.

(flash fiction: 753 words)

Strange Days

Well, I fell asleep on the sofa. Then I woke up and the radio was playing The Boxer, over and over again, with different people saying what it had meant to them. Apparently The Boxer was Leonard Nimoy’s favourite song and when he was on his deathbed a grandson found it on his mobile phone and played it to him. This made me sad. Leonard Nimoy – or rather Mr Spock – was my favourite.

Then I tidied up and came to bed. Then I realised I couldn’t sleep so I got up again and started writing. Why is it easier to fall asleep on a cold winter’s night such as this in the corner of an uncomfortable faux-leather sofa than in a nice, soft bed with a big, thick duvet?

Nowadays I divide my nights between the two. That seems to work well enough. Two o’clock in the morning may find me back on the sofa, drinking a cup of tea in the dark with the World Service burbling away, low volume. So as not to wake the neighbours up, who plague whole days with their noise.

I have lost my Neighbours’ Names list. You’d think I’d have them off by heart after seven years, wouldn’t you? Yes, it had all their names on, plus their house numbers, plus the names of all their pet dogs and cats so that I could include all of them on the Christmas cards. I have forgotten the names of Next Door, who make all the noise, maybe because I dislike them. So I addressed their envelope “To All @…. ”

Strange days. My sister-in-law finally managed to catch me on the landline. I’ve managed to dodge her for – oh, probably several years. At the end of an hour’s conversation – mostly hers – my God, she can rabbit – she asked me if I knew that Ex had finally married My Replacement, because he was advised to by his financial advisor.

“No,” I said. I could hear myself sounding calm, sensible and quite un-hurt. “When was this?”

“Back in the summer. None of us got invited, they just sent us a slice of manky old cake.”

I hadn’t even got the slice of manky old cake. He hadn’t even rung me. He’d probably never have rung me.

“Oh my God,” she said, “I’m so sorry. I thought you’d know. You’re not upset are you? I mean, I know he’s my brother but, you know, I think we can agree you had a lucky escape.”

“Not upset,” I lied, “but thank you for telling me.”

“You’ll be all right won’t you? I feel bad now.”

“Yes, of course I’ll be all right. It might take me a day or two to process it.”

Process it! I sound like a psychotherapist. It rakes up all the Dad stuff. All the Ex stuff, since Ex, I long ago realised, was but a continuation of the conflict with Dad. All that love, all that violence; all that ancient grief; all that unresolved everything. It puts the full-stop to a forty-six year-long sentence; it gives away my title to someone else; it wipes me out, it negates me; it puts me beyond hope of making my peace with Dad. I can’t actually conjure up my own face inside my head any more. Process it!

(But of course, I will.)mirror6

Well, tomorrow will be another strange day. High winds forecast, and a General Election. I postal-voted weeks ago, and thank goodness I did because windy weather and me don’t mix. I know they worry about voters not turning out in bad weather, which is why Elections are traditionally held in the summer (and almost always on a Thursday, for some reason). I think people will turn out if they feel strongly enough – and I think they do, this time. The December wind will blow them out of their warm, shabby little houses and down the hill to the village hall. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. Mayhem, maybe.

Another sleepless night tomorrow. It will definitely be the uncomfortable sofa-corner then, huddled in a blanket, covered in cats. As I’ve got rid of the TV I shall be tuning to Radio 4. Coverage starts at a quarter to ten, fifteen minutes before the polling stations close. And then the counting starts. This is far more exciting to me than Christmas, but then I’m a politics dweeb.

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…

 

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.

Lukewarm

“You are so capable,” I remember saying.

I remember exactly where I sat when I said it, that tatty armchair by the gas fire that had the middle bar missing. That was my seat. The other seat was your seat. A small black and white TV on the carpet – miles away, it seemed. It was around that time, twenty-one or twenty-two, when I began to suspect I needed glasses.

It was cold in that room because the ceilings were so high. What heat there was from the broken gas fire went straight up and lingered way above our heads, an invisible, ineffective fug. Our flat was on the third floor. It had once been servants’ quarters.

How soon it became winter that year. We married late in the August, a boiling hot day, so hot that my Nan, in her navy blue suit, almost fainted. But by the November winter had set in, dreich and damp.

I remember having no money to speak of but walking down to the shops for something to do; something to get me away from you, already. I stood and stared into shop windows at various desirable objects and imagined buying them. I went home and wrote a poem with one and a half good lines in it – ‘And my green ghost stands behind me/ Spending money’. ‘Poem in November,’ it was called. No idea what happened to it.

“You are so capable,” I said, in that cold armchair, on the day I suddenly found I simply couldn’t move for misery.

“You don’t let me cook, you don’t let me clean. You watch me all the time so that you will be able to put right what I am just about to do wrong. We go to the supermarket and you remove from our shopping trolley every single item I put into it, substituting your own choice. You make me feel useless.”

“You know, what you need,” you said “is a hobby, or a purpose in life. Some sort of challenge or crusade. Keep your mind active. Stop this sort of thing keep happening.”

“Tell me one thing I can do, that you can’t,” I said. “Anything at all that I can do even fractionally better than you.”

You thought for a while. I could see you were uncomfortable. The silence stretched on and on, like our future together.

“I’ve noticed you always answer letters promptly,” you said at last.

Lukewarm

On Another’s Sorrow

Sometimes you witness something so sad, and yet so ordinary. You want to describe it and yet it defies description. Maybe you shouldn’t even try; and yet it won’t go away until you do.

Today I went shopping. At least, I had been into town ‘on business’ – how important that sounds – and dropped off at the supermarket on the way back for a sandwich and half an hour’s sit/unwind/read in the car before setting off for home.

Often, in car parks, you witness or overhear little dramas. People take it for granted that the parked cars all around them are empty, as mostly they are. In supermarket car-parks people come and go fairly rapidly, and supermarkets tend to bring the worst out in adults as well as children. I remember them having the same effect on me, in the days when I still had somebody to be unpleasant to.

Anyway, I was sitting there, ploughing through yet another chapter of my book on Mindfulness. Obviously not being all that Mindful because the shouting kept distracting me. Several cars down a woman with straight grey hair was berating a young-ish man in a wheelchair. I watched them through my open window, and through three or four other sets of closed windows, so it wasn’t terribly clear. None if it was terribly clear.

She had the rear passenger door open and kept bobbing in and out of the car. Every time she bobbed out again, she shouted at him some more as he sat there in his chair.

Don’t try to help. See what you’ve done now, you’ve spilled it! Look at this mess!

But he didn’t look. He couldn’t have done, really, his chair was parked too far back. He just sat there not looking at her with his head bowed.

She seemed to be taking ages over everything in a kind of petulance, dragging it out as if to prolong the agony of the punishment for whatever it was he had done.

None of your business I told myself sternly, returning my attention to my book. But she was still shouting.

When I looked again he was in the passenger seat, still staring straight ahead. No sign of the wheelchair. She was round the other side, still bobbing into the car and bobbing out again, and shouting. Then she was round the back of the car with the hatchback up, and shouting. She really is making a meal of this, I thought. It was a hot morning but the windows of their car were rolled up.

The keys – just give me the keys! She shouted. And then I do believe she locked him in. I heard that little electronic noise central locking makes.

Then she went off somewhere, pushing their empty trolley, very slowly and leaning on it, kind-of one-armed and oddly. I wondered if she was his mother. I began to wonder if there wasn’t actually something more wrong with her than there was with him. I wondered if she had been drinking and whether she was going to be safe to drive. The sensible thing would be to set off for home right now, before she could come back and decide to jam a bad-tempered foot on her accelerator and broadside my car on the way out. But I didn’t.

I expected her to park the empty trolley and return, but instead she was gone for ages, presumably back into the supermarket to buy a replacement for whatever had been spilled or broken. I looked through the line of car windows again and saw that the young man was crying. Or at least, it looked as if he was.

I don’t often bother to pray but I found myself praying, momentarily, or at least asking on his behalf. It was for some sort of blanket to go around him; some sort of shield against that woman’s loud bitterness; some comfort against the odds.

I remembered when my marriage to Ex was failing – all those half-silent, half-aloud arguments we had in public places – in pubs, in supermarkets, in the street. When it gets past a certain point you are so inward-looking, so consumed by the struggle it’s as if you’re invisible. I remember having this pointed out to me once. A man in a pub – a man I liked and whose good opinion I would have wanted – turned to me abruptly and said ‘You two – don’t force us all to take part in your disputes. Save them for behind closed doors.’

We should have done, but I don’t know whether we did. Good advice is sometimes impossible to take.

I just hope he got that blanket, the man in the wheelchair. I hope he got that shield.

(On Another’s Sorrow: Songs of Innocence: William Blake)

A Lady Wot Lops

Being a married woman did have its advantages. It was a bit like owning a Rottweiler.

My husband was stern, and brave. I am not sure whether he was stern and brave because he was naturally stern and brave or stern and brave because he was always absolutely and entirely sure that he was Right. He was also clear-thinking and decisive. He did not panic. I used to think, if you were to be cast away on a desert island, he’d be the one to be cast away with. He’d know what to do.

I once had a painful, persistent eye problem, serially misdiagnosed by our hopeless local doctor. One afternoon, when I could no longer bear the light from the window even with my eyes tight shut and my hands over them, he bundled me into the car, drove me forty miles to the nearest eye hospital and made a loud and thorough nuisance of himself in demanding that a specialist come and sort it out, immediately. Apparently, if he hadn’t been so bloody-minded I would have lost the sight in one eye.

It was a bit hit-and-miss, though. Like Rottweilers. On one occasion we were recklessly overtaken by a man in a potato-lorry.  My husband caught up with him in a lay-by and addressed a few stern words to him, whereupon the potato man, who turned out to be a lot wider and stockier than anticipated, threatened to cream him. Over the bonnet. I believe the verb ‘to cream is’, or at the time was, a variant on the verb ‘to marmelize’ except that what is left of you afterwards is not so much orange and chunky as white and thinly-smeared.

Husband was also a boon when energetic, practical stuff needed doing. I am not exactly lazy but I can’t get worked up about power-tools and widgets. The other week I recall I was forced to mention rawlplugs in one of my posts. A lady should not need to know what a rawlplug is. They are uninteresting objects and made of red plastic, which makes them unpleasant to behold.

Similarly, a lady should not be required to wield a pair of loppers. Loppers are man-things, a bit like a giant and very sharp beak on a pair of telescopic arms, for cutting off high branches. Normally the very thought of lopping would have sent me to the sofa with an extra-sugary bowl of Weetabix to watch Loose Women or Countdown until the urge to do so had passed over.

Unfortunately the climbing roses down the side of the garage had grown to way above my head. They were the size of small trees and whipping about shamingly in the wind. Worse, the giant rose bushes had become overgrown with passion-flower, including a bumper crop of overripe orange fruits with disgusting blood-red seeds (I marmelized several). Not only that, there were brambles. Every garden on this hillside is infested with brambles, and not just the ordinary kind; these are brambles on steroids – stems as big as your wrist, each thorn the length of a baby’s finger. But sharper, and more painful when they ping back and hit you in the face. As I discovered.

So I invested in a pair of loppers. The only way I could afford them was because I got paid for one of my many abortive attempts at employment. This one had lasted two weeks and generated sufficient funds to justify the purchase of a stout pair of Taiwanese loppers.

They’ll see me out, I told myself comfortingly. This is something you find yourself saying as you get older. “They’ll see me out” means the object is substantial – a good-quality steel kitchen-knife, say – and you are likely to be dead before it wears out, meaning you’ll never ever have to buy another one.

I can’t say I actually enjoyed lopping, though no doubt the exercise was good for me. It was really hard work. Not only do you have to cut through these big thick prickly stems, which you have to find first, tracing them upwards, visually, to the rose-stem or bramble waving defiantly above your head. Not only that, but once cut they won’t come down. No sir, they just stay there, doomed to wither but ensnared in layer upon layer of rotting passion fruit. So you have to get a hook – luckily the previous people had left behind a hook, whose purpose had hitherto been a mystery to me – and engage in an undignified tug of war with all this super-long cut stuff to try to free it.

So, before the mid-day sun made working outside dangerous for a person of my advancing years and pale complexion, I had built up two giant heaps of brambles/roses/passion-flower/birds-nests. This evening or tomorrow morning I have to go out there with the secateurs (another thing a lady should not be required to trouble herself with) cut it all into more manageable bits and stuff it into numerous plastic garden bags and bins. And then, oh joy of joys, I have to drive it all to the tip.

A man-place!

Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?

My English teacher introduced me to spider diagrams and I took to them like a duck to water. I could immediately see the point of them and used them for everything thereafter, including exams. Maybe it’s different now but in those days there were no spare sheets of paper allowed for ‘workings out’ – it was part of the test, to show how you reached your conclusions.

Thus, in maths exams, it was OK for your exam paper to be measled with tiny sums (in my case 2 x 6 x 9 x 15 = ? = ? = ?) as long as the real answer was apparent. You could draw rings round all those frantic sums or strike through them, but your sadly defective thought-processes would still be clear for the examiner to see.

Similarly with essays – you could do a spider diagram on the left hand side, strike it through, then write the essay proper on the right. In this case, the examiner would be mightily impressed by one’s complexity of thought and creative super-abundance – or so I hoped.

spider 1.jpg

And then I realised I didn’t need them. It was probably when I left school for a short-lived first job in the local library, where I was bored to tears writing out cardboard library tickets, failing to get the notices straight on the notice board, failing to look suitably busy when not and watching out of the staffroom window as young policemen giggled and hosed each other down instead of ploddingly washing their panda-cars at the back of the police-station. I was suffering from essay-withdrawal-symptoms, which must be quite a rarity among seventeen year-olds, and began to write even though I didn’t have to. A revolutionary concept. Can’t remember what I wrote, but I must have been desperate.

One day it just dawned on me that I didn’t need, and probably never had needed, the actual spider diagram because – and this is hard to explain – the inside of my head was a spider diagram. I just naturally thought sideways, and off in all directions. And there was more to it. It wasn’t just me thinking outwards from the centre (with a spider diagram you start with one ringed word in the centre) it was stuff careering inwards towards me, from all directions. This was scary, and still is. Once it starts doing that you are no longer in control. It’s creating you.

So, it sends you a bit barmy. With all that going on – stuff spider-ing out, stuff rushing in – something’s got to give. You can end up odd and vague.

And what made me think of this? Well, I have three dictionaries of quotations – it should be two, two of everything – maybe I’ll have to give one away… Anyway, I was reading one of my three dictionaries of quotations in the bath, as of course you do, and the words of author G K Chesterton’s telegram to his wife in London squelched up to me in the steam:

AM IN MARKET HARBOROUGH. WHERE OUGHT I TO BE?

Now, if you’re English – unless you live in Market Harborough – you’ll know why this is funny but probably won’t be able to explain it. Market Harborough is one of those unmemorable Midland towns – everybody’s sort of heard of it but nobody knows exactly where it is and nobody would set out to visit it on purpose. So if you’re there, you must be lost.

I myself have been to Market Harborough – I think. Also Corby and Kettering – I think. Ex used to live there, before me. Ex was nine years older than me so he had a whole other life, in the Midlands, which I’m afraid I failed to be sufficiently curious about. He used to run not one but two music clubs – one Folk and one Blues. He booked all the musicians, designed all the posters, played and sang. And he shared a stage with John Renbourn. We had every album John Renbourn had ever made, and played them evening after evening in front of a log fire, surrounded by cats, drinking cheap cider from the supermarket until, dizzy and half-asleep, we were temporarily able to talk to one another. Even now I can hear in my head every next track. I should have been fascinated, and I was, when I grew up. Something that didn’t happen until long after we had divorced, when I couldn’t go back and ask him about it.

renbourn

John Renbourn sketched by James Gurney

We went to visit his friend from this former life – a lugubrious Scotsman, witty in his own way, descended from one of the many Scotsmen who found their way south, following work to the Corby steelworks.  In the meantime he had married and produced two little girls in quick succession. We stayed one night at his mother’s house. I helped her dry the dishes. She had mislaid her teeth. They appeared under the last upturned cup. That night I dreamt of a lengthy funeral procession in that very house. They were coming through the walls.

We spent the rest of our stay in the Scotsman’s house on an estate. How gleefully they abandoned their horrid/delightful offspring to their new ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’. I remember these chubby little girls and the speed with which they charged up and down the passageway, the hardness and painfulness of those little skulls as they collided every time with one’s shins. They were sleeping with their parents so that we could have their bedroom; two very tall, childless and increasingly stressed visitors on two very small and badly-sprung mattresses, with thin red hospital blankets to cover them. I remember the little dears crying out in their flat Midlands accents as, all day and seemingly all night, they ran up and down that passageway: Mooomy, Mooomy!

I haven’t thought of those girls until now. Their mother was to die in her thirties, their father a decade or so after. John Renbourn, too, is dead. How strange life is. How connected.

How unconnected.

Crinkle-cut chips and other mishaps

It wasn’t till many years later that I began to understand how much I must have irritated my mother-in-law. She only bore with me, I suspect, because I had been the one to take her gifted, gruff, eccentric son off her hands. He was twenty-eight when I met him and nearly thirty by the time we married. At that point I still believed he was a catch but she must have felt he was approaching some sort of sell-by date.

All the same, whenever we arrived on her doorstep, though punctual and expected, we would be greeted with a disappointed and slightly huffy “Oh – it’s you.” The conversation tended to be punctuated with south-ist exclamations like “Damn southerners – all swank”. Not looking at me, of course.

There were a number of misdemeanours – firstly, the crinkle-cut chips. My parents in law moved a lot and every house they moved to was better than any other house they had ever inhabited, the neighbours more upper-crust and highly-educated… for six months or so at least, till the magic wore off and the bitching-over-the-garden-fence started.

MIL, extolling the virtues of the latest neighbourhood, informed me that it even had an Asda that sold crinkle-cut chips. To which my innocent reply was: What’s an Asda? I was guessing some kind of machine or kitchen gadget.

And I failed twice over, in never having heard of crinkle-cut chips. My mother, when she wanted to make chips, sliced up some potatoes and fried them in the chip pan. It had never occurred to me that you could get them ready sliced in packets. To this day I can’t see why a chip with wavy sides would taste any different to, or contain any more nourishment than, a chip with plain sides.

On my first visit to… one of their houses, the one with the rabbit… On the way down I sat on an ice lolly some kid had left on the train seat and didn’t realise till I stood up: yellow bell-bottoms, pink ice lolly, soggy bottom; not exactly a cool entrance. And then I got locked in the loo and had to call out of the window for help – trying to call quietly and politely I recall – and be rescued, which involved a great deal of laughter at my expense and the pushing of a little key under the door.

Then there was the coffee. MIL’s coffee and tea were exactly alike – whitey-brown, transparent, a slight fizz on the top and lacking in any kind of taste. Came the fateful day when I plumped for the wrong one and thanked her for coffee which turned out to be tea. Why did I even have to mention coffee or tea? Why couldn’t I have just nodded when she handed me the mug of brown fizzy whatever-it-was?

I was young for my age, naïve and socially unskilled. His family – the female side of it at least – were exactly the opposite: non-stop communicators. Truth to tell I couldn’t understand most of what MIL was saying most of the time, especially when she speeded up. It was that Liverpool accent she pretended she didn’t have – so fast – a torrent of words. Even if I succeeded in sussing out one of her sentences I was unlikely to cotton on to the underlying significance. Hence the Asda/crinkle-cut chips debacle. I was supposed to be impressed but had deliberately failed to be.

The worst thing was the announcement that we were eating Ex’s little sister’s pet rabbit for Sunday lunch. This was before Ex and I were married – at which point we were just staying at each other’s parents’ houses on alternate weekends. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years now, but I wasn’t in those far off days.

There were these slices tough dark meat, with some splotches of gravy scattered about it, and half way through the meal Ex’s father announced that this was in fact little sister’s bunny-rabbit. I think this was aimed at little sister rather than me – to toughen her up, make her face food facts – maybe as an exercise of masculine or paternal power – I don’t know. It was cruel – to rabbit and child. She was thirteen, I was nineteen. She stopped eating and started crying; I put down my knife and fork and sat blank-faced and speechless wanting to spit out the current mouthful. Ex, an animal-lover for all his faults, was angry too. It didn’t seem to have occurred to either parent that more than one person would be upset.

I could go on: the great Christmas debate between MIL and a visiting Liverpool Auntie about the presence (or not) of dog-dirt on the pavements outside; the seven year silent Cold War that began in mid-sentence as we walked in

“… and yes, you Stole my Goldfish…”

Ehh, what’s up, doc?

I have moved house quite a few times now, and always single-handed. I used to enjoy moving. It was a chance to throw away surplus stuff, sort stuff out – and then the more leisurely process of finding a home for one’s accumulated equipment and ‘treasures’ in the new house. I was amazed, the first time, to find that I could. I had had years of being told – or at least it being implied – that I couldn’t organise a bun-fight in a bakery.

On one particular house move two of my husband’s friends, a man and a woman, turned up unexpectedly. Well, he knew they were coming, I didn’t. We were only moving round the corner so a van was involved, but no hired removal men.

The three of them then proceeded to carry all our joint possessions out and load them into the van, driving off and returning half an hour later for the next load, leaving me alone in a rapidly-emptying house. I asked what I could do to help; they ignored me. It was all very efficient, but I wondered what my husband had considered so defective about me that I couldn’t even lift the other end of the mattress or carry a box down the stairs. I was younger, taller and probably stronger than the woman who was doing all this manual labour on my behalf. Would it have been so impossible for my husband and me to accomplish a bit of box-packing and heavy lifting together for one day?

My first solo house move was away from him. It was a sad day. Worse, it involved two trips so there were two lots of marriage-ending horror in one day. I remember him telling me I hadn’t ‘burnished’ the parcel tape onto the cardboard boxes properly. I remember him giving me a brief, awkward hug – the first ever – but not actually asking me to stay. On the second trip I had to get petrol at a petrol station. I had never got my own petrol before – it was ‘one of my phobias’. However, the car couldn’t care less about my phobias, so in I drove and made a terrible mess of unfamiliar petrol pumps and whatnot. I didn’t realise it was a lot easier if you parked with the petrol cap towards the pumps, never having noticed the petrol cap before.

On all subsequent moves I knew I had the skills. I was a worrier, therefore a careful organiser. I was a logical thinker, and could see the ‘pattern’ of what I was going to have to accomplish. It was just like arranging visits to the Power Station, I realised. You had to get everything in place beforehand – enough people, the right people, all knowing what they needed to do. You had to ‘rehearse’ the day and imagine what might go wrong. You had to have some sort of contingency plan in place in case they did go wrong.

It all took a huge amount of energy, but I had that energy. I had files, and filed all the solicitors’ and other miscellaneous paperwork in those files, with dividers, and Postit notes. I even used to think about where I was going. Where are the nearest supermarkets, how far to the vet’s, where is the nearest recycling centre? I had a section for that too. I arranged cattery accommodation for an ever-growing number of cats and made sure those cats were up to date on their vaccinations.

My boxes were labelled with room numbers according to what they contained, and the removal men were given a photocopied plan of the new house, so they would know which box went in which room. I had notified all the services people in advance, arranged for a new telephone number and for the broadband to be moved. I read all the meters and phoned the gas, electric and water people from my car before I left, to give them my closing readings.

This time it seems harder. Physical energy seems to drain from you as you get older. There have been times, in these past few weeks, when I have longed for a controlling husband and hordes of unexpected distant acquaintances to arrive and take everything out of my hands. I’m packing a box or two a day. I move stuff around, emptying some rooms and filling others – one small piece of the jigsaw, then another. It will all be done in time, just more slowly.

Unfortunately I find slowness, this ‘bit at a time’ method really frustrating. I’m a ‘magic wand’ kind of person: I see the task in its entirety and I want it done now and out of the way. I find it almost impossible to leave things unfinished, which of course you have to do with something as complex as a house move. I know why things have to be left ‘dangling’: each item is contingent upon another item – they have to be done in the most logical order otherwise you find yourself undoing work, repeating work, doubling work.

bugs drawing

I can see this pathway. But it will keep unrolling itself in my mind, shifting, adapting. It infuriates me not to have already done it. Not to have already done everything interferes with my writing. It stops me reading. It stops me resting. I seem to be using up a lot of energy just restraining myself from working three days flat out and finishing it all, without even a moving date.

I rather wish I could just, you know, be the sort of laid-back, Bugs Bunny sort of person who could leave everything till the last minute, work till 4 in the morning with the radio on loud (bother the neighbours); throwing stuff into any old cardboard box at random; whizzing twisted (and heinously unburnished) bits of parcel tape across the top, not bothering to label anything; then fall asleep on the sofa for a couple of hours and stagger out into the kitchen only to discover there’s neither kettle nor mug. Oh well, a splash of water from the tap. I thought I’d taken all the cats to the cattery. So what’s this one doing still here and eyeing the empty cat cupboard expectantly?

It would probably work just as well.

Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?

It doesn’t seem to be fashionable – or perhaps I mean politically correct – anymore, for a lady to long for a hero. I suppose we threw that particular baby out with the feminist bathwater, along with expecting doors to be opened for us rather than slammed in our faces, and for seats to be given up for us on an omnibus.

In The Female Eunuch Germaine Greer makes passing mention of a husband – her only husband. She was married to him – I’m sure she said for a week. I don’t have a copy of the book now – I must get another – but seem to recall that his irresistible attraction had been something to do with that comfortingly tweedy masculine shoulder against which to bury one’s head.

I just checked it out. She was married in 1968 to an English graduate who was working as a builder. Perhaps it had given him broad shoulders and a suntan – that always helps. In true ’60s style they met outside a pub in the Portobello Road and, after a brief courtship, got married using a ring from a pawnshop. According to Wikipedia it only lasted ‘a few weeks’ and Ms Greer spent their wedding night in an armchair because her husband was drunk and would not allow her into bed.

The Female Eunuch actually came out in 1970 but in my provincial backwater I didn’t stumble across it until some years later: in W H Smith’s actually – fascinated and horrified in equal measure by a truly, shockingly, hideous cover – see below. I remember covering said item using brown paper and sellotape so that my parents wouldn’t be tempted to confiscate/immolate/jettison it. (My mother had form with book-throwing.)

female eunuch

I was twenty-one at the time and married as I was reading it. What a fool! If only I’d found it six months earlier I might have gathered my wits and relocated to Auchtermuchtie or possibly Muckanaghederdauhaulia, County Galway. And I married exactly that heroic sort of man – the comfortingly tweedy masculine shoulder, and so forth. He was even working on a building site and had the temporary broad shoulders/suntan.

What is it in us, though, that still pines for a hero? Even now when subjected – as one all too frequently is – to Bonnie Tyler’s cheesy 1980s bellow-fest Holding out for a Hero – I get that same little shiver. I know exactly what she means. Don’t you, other ladies?

Or if not a Hero, at least a Gentleman.

According to one website, these are the 23 behaviours of a Gentleman:

  1. He opens the door for a lady
  2. He walks closest to the curb
  3. He makes reservations (what does that mean – for a restaurant?)
  4. He gives her his jacket
  5. He is punctual
  6. He rises when she enters a room
  7. He gives compliments sincerely and often
  8. He helps her to be seated
  9. He gives up his seat
  10. He helps a lady on with her coat
  11. He says “please” and “thank you”
  12. He minds his table manners
  13. He is never rude to servers, bartenders or anyone else for that matter
  14. He pays
  15. He gets her safely to her door
  16. He listens
  17. He keeps his word and a secret
  18. He never hits a woman
  19. He shows initiative
  20. He pays attention to detail
  21. He asks her family’s blessing before proposing
  22. He is a jack of all trades – knows how to do things – the guy people look to in an emergency
  23. He goes out of his way to let her know he cares, every single day

Goodness, I’d forgotten about most of those. Ex scored well on 5, 18, 19 and 20 and ultra-highly on 22. I used to think that if we were ever to get stranded on one of those tiny cartoon desert islands together, with only a palm tree and a ball of string he of all men would have been able to whip up a watertight raft and guide us, using only the sun and stars, to South America or Finland or somewhere.

Perhaps what it all boils down to is that a Gentleman – or a Lady – earns that description by putting the other person at their ease. If you feel relaxed, happy and altogether better about yourself after an hour or two in someone’s company, you can probably award them Gentleman/Lady status.

However, no need to marry them.

And at least finish reading The Female Eunuch first.

due south

And another picture of Paul Gross, and, because there can never be enough, yet another:

paul gross 2

Things fall apart

When our marriage had entered the beginning of its end, my husband asked me this: If Bruce Springsteen came knocking at our front door one day, would you go off with him? It came out of the blue, and I hesitated.

You know how you know you just made the wrong call, but by then it’s too late? I should have told him the truth – that if Bruce Springsteen knocked at our front door I would have hidden behind the hat-stand. I couldn’t have coped with a Bruce Springsteen – or any man even approaching that rolled-sleeved, muscular gorgeousness. No matter that his singing might draw from me tears of yearning on occasions, I didn’t want to actually meet him.

I should have told my husband I loved him, only wanted love back from him. I should have told him I would rather overhear him singing Knocking on Heaven’s Door – quietly to himself, in that growly familiar voice, hunched over his second-best guitar – than be carted off by some lantern-jawed musical hunk. That was what he really wanted to know, but the penny failed to drop. The pause was seconds too long; he never gave me another chance.

I don’t know why I told you that, except sometimes, as you get older, there are things you find you need to say out loud – or just put into words.

And it was kind of leading into my real subject, which is whether I actually even have a home town any more.

Yesterday I drove through the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a home town – the place I lived from age three to twenty-one. Over the years I’ve been back there countless times, mostly to visit Mum on a Sunday; more frequently over the past couple of years as Mum got less and less predictable, more out of control with dementia, more disaster-prone. There were the evening phone calls from carers, saying she wouldn’t let them in – or in, but with Mum screeching in the background; calls from friends saying she had turned up on their doorsteps in the evening, frightened of something she couldn’t put into words; reports of her crossing busy roads on hour-long walks with the shopping trolley, looking neither left nor right.

Once upon a time ‘home town’ had been associated with a time to be a child – not necessarily a happy child but a child nonetheless – playing in the Rec, swinging on the swings, collecting leaves in sacks for Bonfire Night, walking to school on gloomy, rainy days; watching ants on the pavement; snow heaped and mud-spattered in the streets at Christmas. Now it was taken over – home town meant yet another problem, yet another thing that needed fixing that she couldn’t fix, yet another pile of junk mail and bills on the table that she wanted me to explain; noticing she’d been wearing the same blue jumper every Sunday for over a month; having her order me to leave because I queried some outrageous, illogical explanation for something quite obvious. Home town became a sinking feeling, and drowned out childhood.

And now Mum’s gone – not dead, just gone – and her house will need to be sold to pay the bills for her care home. She was the centre, by default, of the family. She was the reason we saw each other at all, most of the time, the reason we talked, emailed, consulted, arranged, reported, made plans. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold – as in the Yeats poem. Going back yesterday I felt that.

I avoided the street where, for the time being, my mother’s house still sits. Who knows how it may be transformed in six months time, with a new owner. Maybe it will have been  knocked down and a row of town-houses built on the plot. Popular with commuters – no garden to bother about.

I drove straight to the shopping centre, and wandered around. Small, ugly shops; strutting pigeons, litter; well-frequented bookmakers and poorly-frequented bookshop. Too much traffic and too many human beings. I mooched round Demelza’s and found what I was looking for – a second-hand kitchen pine table; breakfast for one, mostly. On impulse I bought another thing – an eccentric shelf unit/cupboard arrangement. Fatally, I felt sorry for it.

Stray cats and old furniture, why do I pity them?

Even the man behind the desk didn’t know what to put on the delivery sheet. We laughed and settled on Wooden Thing; he put the stock number next to it in brackets. I stocked up on headache tablets in the chemists, yoghurts and porridge at the mini-market. And then I went home: which isn’t my mother’s house, or what used to be my home town. It isn’t even the house I’m living in now, since I’ll soon be moving away – back to the town where my husband once asked me about Bruce Springsteen, now I come to think about it. It will be strange, but maybe it will start being home again after a while. Same town, familiar shops and streets and places to go for walks; a different house, one street up from where we used to live; a husband long since gone; a ‘me’ replaced.

I won’t go back. Hometown’s been vaporised, and home… even home’s becoming something of a mirage.

New Slippers

It was always going to be stressful, first Sunday visiting Mum in her new “forever home”. Routine is restful; I hate new places. New places are… bound to cause me to wake up with One of my Heads, which feel like hangovers only without the pleasures of alcohol. My eyes feel, as they always do with these Heads, sensitive to light as if they were about to pop out any moment and land in my lap. I put on the black over-glasses – the ones that make other drivers hoot at me, assuming I’m driving sightless – and set forth alone one of the fastest and nastiest stretches of road known to woman. In my capacious bag – paper hankies (she never seems to have one), white-boards and special pens for communication and… a splendid new pair of slippers.

We did buy her slippers for the hospital when she was sectioned, but those disappeared as we handed them in through the door. She spent the whole six or so weeks in the same grubby pink trainers she had been admitted in. This time we have hopes of them staying with her. The home is more civilised.

Selecting clothes for Mum seems to be one of the few remaining tasks I’m trusted with, and I do quite enjoy it. I found these on Amazon – raspberry coloured with those Velcro tabs across the top for easy fastening (and adjustment). I made sure to get them a bit on the big side, and wide-fit, because her feet are swollen. I never, in my life, imagined I would be pleased about purchasing raspberry slippers. Didn’t I once want to be a poet?

Boiling hot day. I rendezvous with Godmother Betty at the garden centre and hop into her much nicer – and cleaner – car. Take the black over-glasses since eyes still throbbing. My function now is to show Betty – who is slightly older than my mother – where exactly the home is. We drive past it, of course.

‘They’ve gone and moved it,’ says Betty, kindly, simultaneously executing a spectacular U-turn involving the entrance to the A20 and a lot of steering-wheel twizzling. I wouldn’t have undertaken it. ‘We were lucky there!’ she remarks.

slippers3.jpg

Headache or not, when we go in I feel it again – that sense of relief, of it’s being the right place. It’s kind of posh and airy, and it doesn’t smell (much) of wee. The sun streams in. The staff are actually talking to the residents. Old people are sitting about with cups of tea, or asleep. All the doors are open to the garden and old people sit about in the sunshine, not saying much but…

All those weeks of saying she would be all right, if she could just go outside. The mental ward door was locked and there was no going outside. Even the windows only opened a little way. ‘If only I could go one step outside,’ she would say, ‘it would all go.’ Her voices get quieter in the outside world. And now of course there’s the tablets. All those weeks of imploring, and now she prefers to sit in the circular common room, in the shade. Outside seems to have lost its attraction, as so many things do once attainable.

She is asleep, and it’s not easy to wake her up in a gentle way. I make several attempts, tapping her arm, stroking her hand. Her head is sunk to her chest. She is wearing one of my old Tesco tee shirts and some trousers that were somebody else’s in the mental ward, but seem to have travelled with her.

She doesn’t look like Mum any more. Every time I see her she seems to have migrated into a different body. A carer comes along and wakes up another old lady using the simplest of techniques “Boo!” That seems to work. “It’s your birthday,” she tells the old lady.

“I wondered when it was.”

“Yes, your son is here to see you.”

“My son?”

I pass Mum one of the raspberry slippers, hoping she’ll try it on. She looks as if she might drop it. They do smell a bit rubbery, being new, and she has a good sense of smell. Perhaps she dislikes the smell. She passes it back to me.

It is not going to be one of our days for conversation. I try a few things on the white-board. Do you like it here? Are you settling in? Her lips move as she reads. Having read, she falls asleep again. The son arrives for the other old lady, bearing flowers and some square gift in purple shiny paper.

And then I notice there’s another occupant, an old man in a hat, dozing. I compare his slippers to Mum’s and yes, I’ve got the right sort. Every old person I see has exactly this sort of slipper. A small sense of achievement. My eyes hurt. I’d take aspirin but the only liquid around for swallowing is Mum’s half glass of orange squash, and I’m not sure what’s in it. They can give covert medication if necessary. The old man dozes on, and so does Mum. Betty and I sit and talk about the wildfires in Canada. My sister lives in Edmonton and on the map… My sister tells me Fort McMurray is a four hour drive away, but still. That’s only, like, Norfolk and the fire is moving so fast…

We admire the light fitting, which is a spectacular kind of huge glitter-ball thing, only artistic. We imagine at night it must reflect pretty patterns on the ceiling. I picture them waltzing beneath it, these elderly men and women. Maybe they sleep all day and dance all night. And then the wife of the man in the hat comes in. She has been out in the sunshine, waiting in vain for him.

She kicks his slippered foot with her slippered foot. It’s a vicious kick and wakes him more efficiently even than “Boo!”

“Whaaaa…?”

“You just left me out there. You left me sitting alone. Where have you been?”

“In here, I’ve been in here…I’ve been asleep…”

“I am so fed up with you…”

She turns to sweep out. Being married doesn’t change, even in old folks homes.

“Sixty-one years,” she spits across at us. “Sixty-one years I’ve had him!”

slippers2

slippers2

 

Golden Apple Earrings

“Pretty,” he said, brushing the golden apples absently.

I kissed him – but not the way I did before –

Being pierced through the heart by the one who gave them to me.

Never play word-games with Christians, they’re superstitious,

Truly believing in Serpents and Souls and Apples,

In sunlight stippling Eden’s long-ago leaves

And Jehovah’s moon asleep in the fork of the Tree.

Between my husband’s heart and mine stretches a silver chain;

I left him easily enough, but it pulls and pulls sometimes.

The links that make our chain are dainty fine:

A break in any one and the pain may end me.

“I am the serpent in your Eden,” I said

– so much throw-away imagery –

But my lover stared at me and stepped away.

moon

earrings

View from the bottom

Nowadays, there would be no point in sitting on the edge of the pavement outside Appledore railway station weeping, having just bleated into a phone box phone ‘I need you to come and fetch me. I’ve got a migraine’. Nowadays it would be a case of finding a convenient patch of damp nettles to lie down in with tightly closed eyes for the next eight hours. When you’ve got a migraine, nettle-sting-pain doesn’t even register.

My Knight in Greasy Overalls, predictably, demurred. He was in the middle of some particularly interesting bit of model engineering which he just needed to finish. Normally, that would have been it. It would have been the nettles for me. This time, however – a measure of how utterly ill and stressed out I felt – I remember blaring – I’ve just had a dreadful, dreadful, dreadful day. I feel like Death-Warmed-Up. COME AND GET ME RIGHT NOW!!!  And to be fair, he did.  Triple volume was about the only thing that worked, and then only on rare occasions.

This was 1986 and the migraine was a result of a whole day spent in somewhere utterly hideous in the Midlands called Telford being forcibly shown round the printing works/HQ of a publication called Power News. I had gone there on the train. It was my prize, for being the joint winner of a CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board – now called something else) essay contest. The other winner was someone called Martin Ecclestone. His essay was dreadfully dull and was called There’s no better time to rethink. I made myself read it, out of politeness. My essay was called View from the bottom, and how I expected to keep my job having written it, I don’t know. I must have been even dafter then than I am now.

So there I am, in a crispy, brown-edged copy of Power News looking… could that be me? I notice her fringe is too long and has started to part company in the middle. Also that although she has nice eyes, even then she couldn’t produce an un-freakish smile for the camera. No, there it is – mouth up one side and down the other. What  a strange-shaped face she has! She still has the mole, I notice. The one almost, but not quite, in the middle of the forehead. The mole she once claimed, in the infant school playground, to be a mark of her status as an Indian Princess – and was believed by Peter Wheeler. Poor little Peter Wheeler, she liked him.

And now, of course, being the arch-planner and strategist that I am, I have left myself no room in this post – nor time, since I am due to set forth and drive to a distant meeting re house-purchase in three-quarters of an hour, to type out the actual essay. However, I will type it out when I come back.

You shall then compare my jolly, chirpy, weird 1980s writing with my current seasoned output. And then, being a technological whizz, I will attempt to link that post to this post. That is unless I’m curled up in a patch of nettles miles away from home, being rained on or sniffed at by badgers, with yet another migraine.

When they get to the part where he’s breakin’ her heart…

Sorry, I’m distracted at the moment. House hunting. Practical stuff and writing don’t mix, for me.

So, tomorrow I’m going by train to a seaside town on the far side of the county, and then I’m going to walk across said seaside town to a part of it I’ve never visited before, to view a couple of houses. I am hoping against hope that one of them will turn out to be “the one” as I hate house-hunting with a passion. It is the most draining and solitary business, when all you want is to be feeding cats and writing – to be traipsing here, there and everywhere – to be trying to find places – to be waiting outside houses for estate agents – to be carted round house after house after house. Stone-cladding? Interesting… Oh, I see, quirky layout… I’ll mind the step then… ‘statement’ purple wallpaper with large red flowers? Colourful. When can I go home?

Except of course that it’s not home any more. It’s under offer and somebody – a rather nice man, actually – is keen to move in. Got to get the old skates on. No writing. No wafting about thinking beautiful thoughts. Phone calls, phone calls, phone calls. Houses, houses,  houses. More houses. All of them… nasty.

But tomorrow’s town brings back memories. It was where I lived for the first four years after I married Mr Wrong. We moved straight into a rented flat. No honeymoon. The best man gave us a lift from the church and handed us his wedding gift (two giant bath towels) as we got out of the car. He was probably embarrassed to be with us at that point, and glad to be rid. Off home to his Mum.

And that evening we went for a walk. We walked through the town and held hands – something I don’t remember us ever doing again – and we stood at some sort of wrought iron fence at the end of a cobbled street and looked down over the harbour; out over  fishing boats to the sea. And I was filled with a sense of destiny and fulfilment – sounds weird now – but I felt safe. I was married. We were married. That was my future sorted.

When I think back, that was our only happy day – the very first one. The following twenty-two years –  not so good.

However, I have always kept a fondness for the town. It suited me even if he didn’t. I liked its faded splendour, its shabby grandeur, the fairy lights looped through the trees, the lift going down to the beach from the cliff top; ranks of monstrous Victorian hotels; the art shop where he bought his supplies and the little old man in the fawn raincoat who ran it; the middle-aged shops; the pottery galleries; the library with its wide, brass-railed staircase and unread books; the drunkards after dark; the sea air; the pebbly beach; baby seagulls on the rooftops, brown-speckled and carolling; the grimness of November there; the bombed-out church; the way you could sit on a bench in the town centre and watch the world go by.

So, it will be strange going back. A journey into the past. I will walk past our old third-floor flat and look up at the balcony where I tried and failed to grow tomatoes in a pot, at the fairy lights in the trees, and I will remember the music that swirled around us; our hippie past already lost to us, though we didn’t realise it at the time. Our youth was close at our heels in that seaside town. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll catch the echo of it.

The Falling Upwards of Fish

The things you laugh at – if they happen to be the same, chances are things are going well between you. But if they don’t…

Things were not going well between me and my ex-husband around the time ‘comedy duo’ Reeves and Mortimer came on the scene. That would have been… in the eighties, sometime. Something about Reeves and Mortimer got my goat – the pair of them annoyed me and they were not funny. One evening, for the umpteenth time, my husband was watching the Reeves and Mortimer show on TV and going Ho Ho Ho – he had such a lovely voice, and a particularly deep and resonant Ho Ho Ho like Santa Claus – and I was thinking, what exactly can I be missing here? And it was then I understood we wouldn’t be sitting together in this house in front of this TV for very much longer. I wasn’t angry at him for enjoying himself. It was the loneliness of watching him splitting his sides in enjoyment of something – to me – so utterly unfunny – at two people I couldn’t see the point of.

A friend of mine had a similar moment. She was sitting in a cinema with her husband, his father and one of his brothers. They all had the same nose – unusually long and sharp. She was on the end of the line, and looking back down the line of seats she saw the three of them tapping their feet and twiddling their thumbs in unison – a family tic. And at that moment she thought, I simply can’t bear this.

Which leads me, by association, to Victor Borge (1909 – 2002) Danish piano player and wit, who once remarked that:

Santa Claus had the right idea. Visit everyone once a year.

Victor Borge was one of the very few comedians who could make me laugh out loud. Even as a child, I loved the one ongoing joke – that he was always about to play the piano but rarely actually did, although when he did he was brilliant.

I found a clip of him on YouTube. Watching him now I see subtleties I missed as a child, and also parallels between the way our two minds work: perhaps it’s that whimsical – or senile – streak. Now I’m that much older I appreciate his bewilderment, his digressions, his casual losing and re-finding of the plot; the way he finds hilarity in the mundane; his upside-down way of looking at things.

Why is upside-down-ness so rare, I wonder? And why is that so necessary?

I will leave you with one last upside down thought, this time from French novelist André Gide:

Fish die belly upward, and rise to the surface. It is their way of falling.

THE BIRD OF LIGHT (Angels & Other Occurrences 1)

At the midway point in the ancient spiral staircase, looking down into the little courtyard with the fountain, Martina paused. She liked to keep an eye on her staff, but discreetly. What was he up to now? Zak appeared to be enraptured – staring into space. For goodness sake, she thought, how difficult can it be to go in with a plastic bucket and a little shovel and remove a year’s worth of coins from a fountain, skim off a few floating leaves? Not exactly rocket science, even at his age. At once she felt guilty. Fifty-eight wasn’t that old, and what she had just thought was ageist. Fierce, when necessary, Martina did at least try to be fair to her staff, and honest with herself.

The main gates should have opened five minutes ago. Gatehouse had radioed up – punters queueing nine deep outside. Pushchairs, kiddies and cameras all over the place. It was the end of September and the start of the castle’s Autumn Flower Festival. Sunny it might be, with that low, intense sun of autumn, but it was none too warm to be standing about outside. The castle looked fantastic at this time of year – red, orange and gold leaves carpeting the lawns and lakes outside; and in every room that was open to the public, one and sometimes several huge, dramatic displays of autumn flowers and foliage supplied by all the top groups in the county. People looked forward all year to this Festival; they wanted in – and in was where she needed them to be. The castle had lost money last season – combination of a dismal British summer and the failure of the static balloon as an attraction. Unfortunately, that had been her idea. Balloons went down a storm back home in the States but for some reason people here didn’t seem to want to pay £25 for a ticket, to be tethered at treetop height, not flying anywhere. It had been a blunder, and she was desperate to make up for it. No one, as the Foundation had obliquely pointed out, was indispensable.

They were waiting for Zak, just Zak. What on earth was he staring at, sat on the edge of the fountain, bucket and shovel in hand? Oh come on Zak, she thought, don’t make me come down there and tell you off. I don’t have time.

Zak was looking at the Bird of Light. There was always light in the central courtyard. It was a strange place for that. When the sun was shining it reflected randomly off the leaded glass panes of the surrounding windows. Sometimes the light dazzled him (his eyes were not too good, nowadays). Sometimes the windows looked blind, like they’d grown cataracts. Cataracts of light. It had been, for him, a place of worship, yet what he was worshipping he could not have said. But suddenly, today, there was the Bird.

He had turned his back, to begin on the coins and leaves, but somehow he knew it was there. He knew something was there. Just afraid to turn round. Terribly afraid. It was watching him. Even with his back turned he could see… unusual light. Light cascading off the walls, bouncing off the cobbles. Light shining on the fountain, light crashing into other light. He couldn’t explain it. It wasn’t natural.

Turn, Zak.

It was a soft voice, but he hadn’t turned.

I am here, Zak. I have something to say to you.

He kept trying to shovel up the coins. Delusions? After all these years? How long have I been sober? Will it never let me go?

It’s good news, Zak. Please turn.

It was the ‘please’ that did it. He turned. And saw the Bird. At least that’s what it looked like. What it might have been. Except it was so tall. Could birds be tall. White wings, but they gave off light. It must be…

It’s about Beth.

And now it was replaying in his mind, the night he met Beth. It was if the Bird itself was controlling his memories.

They had met in the Station Hotel. He’d been drunk, as usual. He was rehearsing his last order. Time for another one, Joe? He was rehearsing his walk across the room to the bar which, by this time of night, felt like being on a fairground ride. So many chairs. And the chairs seemed to tilt and move. So easy to trip and then… there wouldn’t be another one. Joe would tell him he’d had enough. Joe would call him a taxi and pay for it himself. Joe was a good bloke.

But this night, there was this girl. He didn’t remember her coming in but there she was, perched on a bar stool, chatting to Joe as if they were old friends. Yet she’d never been here before, he was sure of it. She had long hair. Fair. Real fair, not dyed, that almost-mouse colour. She had dropped her carpet-bag at her feet. It was battered, that bag. She had been places.

And there was that picture again, the one he had seen before. He had seen her in some African market, or somewhere like Zanzibar. She was ahead, then she turned and smiled. Such a beautiful smile, and for him. And at her wrist there were bangles of all colours. They glittered in the sun, and the sky behind her head was so very blue, like no sky he had ever seen before. The Bird brought this back to him.

And then something strange had happened. Her train pulled in and he watched her get up to leave and he was thinking, that’s it then, she’s going, but she didn’t go, or least not at once, no, she stopped and came over to him, and she stood in front of him, looking into his eyes, and she said, My name is Beth. Come with me.

And then she was gone, and he couldn’t believe it had happened. He must be imagining. And then… Zak was up and staggering full pelt towards the door, chairs scattering in all directions as the room rocked and swerved around him. He was running across the gravel, he was heading for the platform. The whistle blew, train doors were slamming. He had to make it to that train; he had to catch her…

He had something to say to her. Good news. Such wonderful news.

She was fifteen years younger than him, but after that she never left his side. They had travelled the world for a while, then did what others do. They found a house and married, and tried for children. But the children hadn’t come.

They’d had all the tests. He’d assumed it was him, being so much older, but it wasn’t. There was something wrong with her. She’d had operations, and tablets, and tests. Nothing worked. Beth hardly ever mentioned it nowadays, but he knew it still hurt. Yes, he had wanted children by her, but she… It was something different for women, a greater grief.

It’s about Beth. Good news.

When he emerged from the courtyard he was dumb. The Bird had punished him for his disbelief. How am I to know? Zak had asked. What proof can you give me? I am getting old and Beth – she’s getting on. Forty-one next birthday. How can this happen?

His name will be John, said the bird. His name will be John. He will touch no drink. He will give you both great joy. He will be filled with light – this light. He has come to prepare the way.

The way for what? Zak was trying to say. Only no sound come out.

*

Today of all days, thought Martina, as she followed Zak in the ambulance. She guessed it must have been a stroke – something in the brain department – yet he was walking OK – in fact there was a  spring in his step. But, she thought, people don’t just suddenly forget how to speak if they’ve got nothing wrong. Maybe something less scary, like laryngitis. But it wasn’t as if he’d had a sore throat, even – not that he’d mentioned. And the man seems so ridiculously, insanely happy. Positively joyous. What sort of lunatic would be happy on their way to hospital? Poor Zak, she thought, he’s got a wife and… now she thought about it she wasn’t sure. He had never mentioned a family. But definitely a wife.

Martina reached across and laid a hand on his arm, hoping to reassure. For all his faults, she had a soft spot for Zak. He was a sweet old guy. He smiled at her – the biggest and broadest of smiles. And there was this weird kind of shining-ness about him.

IMHO

In films, when people’s marriages end and they get divorced, it seems to be a short, sharp, dramatic affair. She catches him cheating with his secretary, say. Terrible, terrible rows. Bitterness and recriminations all round. Terrible, terrible divorce. Loads of screaming and shouting. Then they never see each other again and Good Riddance.

It wasn’t really like that for me. I left, after anguishing, and after twenty-two years of knowing I needed to. There wasn’t that much anger, from what I can remember, just conversations and negotiations. Long, patient, sad negotiations. A second try and a second failure. More negotiations, this time long, weary and patient. Eventually, my solicitors, his solicitors, paperwork, more weariness, more sadness.

I remember particularly the List you are forced, or at that time were forced, to make out when petitioning for divorce on grounds of unreasonable behaviour – the only option open to me. I couldn’t think how to explain it; didn’t even want to explain it, really. Twenty-two years of shared experience and shared unhappiness somehow wouldn’t resolve themselves into twenty-two neat bullet points.

Does he squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle, for example, asked the solicitor. That’s always irritating. I couldn’t remember whether he did or not, and didn’t really care. In the end I was forced to come up with this list of invented, exaggerated, petty but passable examples of his Unreasonableness. It would have been easier to make a list of my own faults.

I knew his solicitors would be posting him a copy of the List and I was thinking, that’s it. When the list arrives he will hate me. There’ll be no more popping over to his (that was formerly our) house for a pot of his over-strong tea; no more saying hello to the cats and finding out how he’s getting on. No more strange half-evenings by the fire, half at home, half not; talking, but mostly not; half safe again, half never-again-safe. Just drinking over-strong tea, not pulling the curtains and watching the garden get dark. No more running to him in a panic when I mislay my credit card wallet or don’t know what’s wrong with the car. We’ll need to stop talking to each other, which will please my solicitor who finds the whole pots-of-tea/comparing notes thing confusing. Once he gets that list…

Time went on and he still didn’t mention that List. Eventually I couldn’t bear the suspense any longer and asked him about it. Oh that, he said. It arrived weeks ago. Load of old rubbish! It was never mentioned again.

Since then we have stayed in touch, but less and less. He found someone else, sold the house that we had lived in, moved on. I ran through a few more lovers. None of them were him. I’m one of those strange people, I suppose – like baby ducks imprinted on their mother – once a wife always a wife, even when not one. Always true, after my untruthful, unfaithful, unreliable fashion. Nowadays he calls me once or twice a year. They have Skype, I gather. I think how old his voice is sounding now and no doubt he’s thinking the same about me. Probably best without the visuals!

He tells me in detail about the work they’re having done on the roof, his skirmishes with the builders; he complains of the perfidy of bank managers. I tell him very little: it used to be impossible to get a word in edgewise in any case but he listens better nowadays than he used to do. We compare elderly parents – his, mine and his partner’s – living and dead. Well, all but one dead now. And numbers of cats – ten for him right now and twelve for me. That’s one little contest I’m winning, at least for a while. Whatever ailment I have, he’ll have had the same but worse, far worse, and longer. I post him birthday and Christmas cards, usually with cats on them, which I spend some time selecting. His new lady sends me e-Christmas and e-Easter cards from them both – those things in emails that start doing stuff when you click on them, and go on interminably. I must admit I delete them. A card is not a card unless made of card. IMHO.

But I am glad to hear his voice on the phone every so often, if only to confirm that he’s still in the land of the living. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone will let me know, when one day he no longer is. I suppose they probably will. Unless, of course, it’s me that Goes Under the Bus; can’t take it for granted that being nine years younger will mean living nine years longer. In that case I wonder whether anyone will think to tell him – that I’m Under the Bus. And I sometimes wonder whether death will constitute any greater change in our relationship than divorce did, if what we now have can be called a relationship. Once connected – to anyone, in this way – come hell or high water you tend to stay connected. IMHO.