4: Imagine

Continued from 3: Send in the clowns

I was also saved by my imagination and, if you like, the weird alternative-brain thing itself. That was – and is – by far the strongest form of defence, less costly than human relationships, far more flexible/portable than a husband. I always had the ability to tune right out, and this happened automatically whenever I began to get bored or things got rough. When things got very rough indeed I used to practice Silent Singing, most often The Sun Has Got His Hat On. I had my own way of distributing my consciousness between several places at once. I disappeared into books and stories, daydreams and plans. Inside my head was something like the Holodeck on the Spaceship Enterprise – the entire range of alternate universes on demand – and I spent many aeons away on my holidays on distant planets.

Later I started writing poems and stories. I found out how I felt through the poems and learned how I worked and what I thought through the stories. Together they became my Voice. I didn’t fret greatly that little I wrote was ever likely to get published – that wasn’t why I wrote. Much later I came to understand that a poem written (or a song sung, a painting painted, a love loved, an experience experienced) is engraved on the fabric of the universe, and will never be lost. You may have forgotten all the words or lost the old envelope it was scribbled on, but the poem is still there: all is taken in by the All That Is, which is constantly Becoming, in us and through us.

My parents were pretty bad until I left home. Almost as soon as I did they became pretty good. They did what they could to support me through the trials of what passed for my ‘adult’ life, though I never ceased to bewilder and exasperate them. I relied heavily on them for company as Ex seemed to be drifting further and further away, and when I found myself divorced, as a middle-aged ‘teenager’, basically – I had to learn how to change a light bulb and get petrol – I was glad of their support. I think they loved me. If only they could have told me so when I was young enough for it to have made a difference.

I would say to parents: even if you don’t understand what’s ‘wrong’ with your child – even if there is no medical word for it yet – even if (he or) she seems uncomfortably different to you or anybody else you have ever met – even if she is neither what you wanted nor what you anticipated – try to accept and love – or at least appear to love – what you did get. It works both ways. Your child has absolutely no choice but accept and love you, even as you shout abuse and raise your hand to strike.

When you are many years dead, do you really want your now elderly child to remember in technicolour what it felt like when you slammed her head into a door, trumping any good memories – like the day you taught her to swim; those Stanley Holloway monologues that made her laugh; the communal singing in the car?

If one approach fails, try and think of another. Watch and listen to your new child, as you would a new and exotic pet: work out what she needs. If you can’t work that out, talk to other people and be willing to ask for help. Be kind. Be gentle. Be creative. Think about what you are doing.

A plague on all your Houses

Do you ever suddenly realise – now – something that ought to have been perfectly obvious at the time but wasn’t – because you were a child?

The other night I was lying in the bath, re-reading passages from Stephen King’s On Writing and simultaneously trying to fend off the three-legged cat, who was trying to eat the hairband I had scrunched my hair up in, and about to fall into the hot water. He has no sense, which may be why he ended up at the age of 2 or thereabouts with a leg missing…

And as I was lying in the bath etc., etc I suddenly thought:

When I was at Junior School we had things called House Points.

I can remember my father, who thought he was funny but actually tended to – not be, making a huge fuss about House Points. He thought they were hilarious. Take two house points, he used to say, though mostly to my younger sisters. I never seemed to deserve even one house point.

I recalled, suddenly, a big whiteboard thing on the left-hand wall of my classroom, and how it had been divided into colours – red, green, yellow and blue. When you did something clever, like get 10 out of 10 for maths, or were nauseatingly, toady-ingly obedient to the teacher’s demands, you got given a stick-on star, either in ‘your’ colour or in silver or, rarely, in gold. And you marched proudly up to the whiteboard in front of the whole class and stuck your star on.

And when you did sports, you collected a canvas band in ‘your’ colour and were forced to run about and jump over things on behalf of it. Though strappingly built and tall for my age, I had absolutely no stamina and would become crippled with the Stitch after running a couple of yards, but all teachers persisted in the delusion that strapping and tall must equal athletic. So I rarely won stars for my team. And I was really bad at maths, which was the best thing for getting stars in, so I never got any stars for that…

My allotted colour was blue, and blue was Wolf. Yellow was Sydney, Red was Chatham and Green was Darwin, and these were all Famous People, though we were never told why. Later I would discover that Darwin was the chap with the long straggly beard who invented Natural Selection and horrified Victorians by suggesting we had descended gradually from apes rather than being invented all on one day by God. Wolf, I think, may have been some sort of General who did something or other military in Canada. Chatham I suspect may have been a politician or Prime Minister, possibly Pitt the Younger. Sydney – no idea.

And then I thought:

Why were they called House Points?

And then I thought:

Oh, of course, our allotted colours and names (Blue/Wolf) were our houses, so the different coloured stars we got were house points. Duh! So it was a bit like Harry Potter and Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, except much, much duller.

It’s funny how memory works. From my first day at Infant School to my last day at Junior I knew both the Christian name and Surname of my fellow Infants, or Juniors, by heart. I can hear them now – Peter-Wheeler, Andrew-Begley, Lynda-Smith – and this is because every morning we had the calling of the Register, the names being read out in alphabetical order so that you could shout Present, or Here Miss, or whatever, and Miss could make a tick next to your name, with her fountain pen.

Now, I tend to recall the Christian names of a few close friends most of the time, although even those tend to escape me at odd moments, infuriatingly, usually when tired or distracted. You have this annoying situation where you can see someone’s face, know exactly where you first met them and whether you liked them or not, maybe recall huge swathes of their family history, but their name won’t swim to the surface.

Or you get this weird thing where information crops up, but not the information you want or need. So, I see a woman on the other side of the room, I know I worked with her once and where, I know what I thought of her and exactly what job she did – but not her name. I do, however, know that she had a daughter called Bethany, because she talked about her all the time but would pronounce it Beffany – my Beffany – and that this Beffany was some kind of wondrous prodigy…

The thing is, I don’t need to know this, any more than I needed to know why house points were called house points, or who Chatham was, or Sydney. And as for Beffany, I never met Beffany, thank goodness, and never will. Why does my brain waste so much energy on all this redundant stuff? Why can’t it conserve it’s limited energy and focus on useful stuff?

If you go down to the woods today…

Outside Mum’s window the sky is iron grey. The chill strikes even through my winter coat, my thickest scarf, the extra cardigans. I am wearing so many layers today I resemble a padded black cube, with legs. Mum seems to be suggesting a picnic. Recently she has become convinced that, whoever we are, we must be entertained. She struggles to explain her plans, the arrangements she is mentally making. If she could walk, she seems to be saying, we could put her into the front seat of a car. We could go out, and sit on the grass and eat our picnic. At least, that’s what I imagine she is saying. I seem to need something nobody else does – to impose a narrative on the anxious, incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness stuff that actually comes out. Godmother is more down to earth: ‘Too cold for a picnic today, but they’ll be bringing your fish and chips soon’.

‘I think the fish must be swimming here’, she mutters. ‘Where is it?’

Godmother simply tells the truth. ‘Is my Mum still alive?’ Mum asks me, suddenly. I turn to Godmother, silently asking for help, the loss of Nan suddenly flooding back in.

‘No. She died a long time ago,’ says Godmother.

Mum considers this. ‘Is my Dad alive?’

‘No, he’s dead too.’

‘Him?’ She points at her brother’s photo – there he is in 1949 in tropical uniform,  film-star handsome. Cyprus, maybe.

He’s still alive,’ says Godmother, seeing me nodding.

‘But very old now,’ I add. (And never bothered to visit you for the last twenty-five years, I think, though you waited and waited and always believed he would.)

‘And him?’ She points at Dad’s picture, the one of him in his seventies, in that veterans’ cycle race, leaning into the curve of a corner as he goes whizzing by.

‘That’s my Dad,’ I say, foolishly. ‘Your husband.’

She looks puzzled. ‘Is he still alive?’

‘No, he’s dead too,’ says Godmother. ‘Shall I go and make you a fresh cup of tea?’

Mum nods vigorously, then starts to look dubious.

‘Go quick,’ I say, ‘before it turns into a no.’

Mum points at Gordon Ramsay on the television, being beastly to someone because their restaurant isn’t up to scratch. Something about him – maybe the red, constantly-mobile face – seems to have caught her attention. At least she doesn’t ask me if he’s still alive.

picnic

At the Over 50s lunch a lady called Daphne has taken charge of me. She is helping me with my Bingo.

‘No,’ she tuts. ‘Turn that sheet upside down then you won’t be tempted to put anything on it. Look, I’m turning the blue sheet upside down. You don’t need it yet. Out of sight, out of mind. No – you’ve just done the line but you’ve still got the house – don’t go throwing the whole book away!’

Truth to tell, I am exaggerating my helplessness a bit because it’s so unexpectedly nice to be nagged. I had forgotten what that was like, the way Mums talk to you.

We all have to sit in the same seats, every time, even though it’s a huge great pub. This I discovered earlier, when I sat in the wrong one. ‘Oh no. You’ll have to move along one.’

‘I just didn’t really want to sit under that potted tree. The leaves are sort of sharp and dangle down your neck…’

‘Well we’ll move the table out a bit, keep you more or less away from the tree. But that’s your seat now. Don’t give Her a chance to have a go at you. Once She starts…’

Gosh, I think. It’s like being back at school. Have I really reached this age only to be forced to sit for several hours in a corner seat half obscured by a potted tree of vicious temperament because somebody tells me to?

An old man two seats down (exactly where he was last month) tells a very off-colour joke involving falling into a bucket, with some tits. He laughs uproariously, mouth wide open.

‘Don’t you get started on those jokes of yours, Cecil. There’s a young lady present.’ It take me a minute to realise they mean me.

picnic

Back at the home, Mum’s asking, over and over again, ‘But what about me? What do you want me to do? What shall I do now?’

Oh Mum, I think. Ask me if I went and cut my own fringe again, because it’s all up one side and down the other. Offer to make me an appointment with your own hairdresser round the corner. ‘That one you were in the same class at junior school with’.

Tell me off for sneaking pieces into your jigsaw puzzle behind your back.

Ask me if I’m putting on weight and suggest that it’s plastering all those great chunks of butter on my toast that does it.

Tell me you’re worried about me and my raggle-taggle lifestyle. Tell me I’ve always been a worry to you, really.

Tell me you’d like me to get you a new book in that historical series, but the paperback, mind you, not the hardback: mess up the look of your bookshelves, hardbacks do.

Tell me you’d think I’d have something better to do with my time than play Bingo with a lot of old farts in a pub in the back of beyond somewhere.

Tell me anything, anything at all. I’m listening so hard now.

The meaning of life passes me by – again

So, I was sat there at the bus stop opposite the station having, as nearly always, just missed the bus home. There is a gap, after lunch, of one and a half hours. I had hit that gap.

I had been waiting there for over an hour already. Other buses came and went, and various other people came and waited – and went, on all the buses that arrived that were sadly not my bus. There was just me and this very, very old man. I was sat in the shelter, such as it is, with the narrow hard seats that slope forwards (on purpose, to discourage sleeping tramps, according to Bertie). He was sat behind me and to the side, on a low bench. The low bench is much more comfortable, though difficult to arise out of if you have been sitting in it for any length of time.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the very, very old man wished to talk to me. He was doing that fidgety, glancing in my direction and then glancing away thing that people do. So I went over and sat down next to him. He told me his sight was really bad and he couldn’t make out the numbers of the buses.

Was I by any chance waiting for the same bus that he was waiting for?

I was.

Would I be so kind as to tell him when that bus arrived?

I would.

He had a very soft voice, and unfortunately in the range that I find most difficult to hear. I tried to disregard the noise from a constant stream of traffic, and watched his lips. He told me that he was ninety… something. And now, strangely, that is nearly almost all I can remember of our conversation. I realised he was an educated man. We seemed to be talking about philosophy, and the meaning of life… and all that. I remember struggling to answer him in a way that would make it appear that I had heard… clearly. I wanted to hear. I could tell that what he was saying was really interesting. It came to me that we were kindred spirits of some kind, and that he was meant to be here today, sitting on this bench, and that he had an important message for me.

Finally our bus arrived. He sat next to me and carried on talking, softly. At one point I realised he was reciting Desiderata to me in that soft, kind voice. He knew it, and other poems, by heart. He said when he understood his sight was failing he had begun to memorise poems that were important to him. He said he worked to keep his memory sharp by reciting as many as possible of these poems daily. We discussed the origin of Desiderata, agreeing that it had not been found been nailed to the door of Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692 as was claimed in the 1970s, but that this didn’t matter in the least.

And then, whether by reason of my own physical weariness and anxiety to be home (it had been a long and stressful day) or because the bus was negotiating a series of hills and narrow, twisty roads, causing an increase in background noise, I could not hear him at all. Out of politeness, desperately, I continued to watch his old lips, still reciting and philosophising, still asking questions which I could not hear to answer, and could not lip read either.

As we reached his stop, he suddenly became audible again.  “Well,” he said, “here my journey ends. And yours continues.”

Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.

There was a little girl, who had a little curl…

I never told this little story before. It’s a Very Sad Little Story.

When I was about two years old I was sitting at the kitchen table with my Mum. She had her wooden sewing box there on the table – the same wooden sewing box I recently rescued from the doomed bungalow – and from it she withdrew a fold of tissue paper containing one of my baby curls. Apparently I was blonde, for a short while. By the time the blonde curl was produced, however, my hair had turned a common or garden dark brown, and stayed that way till I started to go grey.

And my mother hands me the tissue paper and the curl to play with, or possibly just examine, but there’s not much difference when you’re two years old. And then she went off somewhere and I ruined the curl. I can remember my sadness and horror as the perfect blonde curl – something the workings of which I did not understand, never having previously seen or conceived of a disembodied curl – messed itself up and disintegrated in my pudgy little hands. I remember the sadness, particularly, and the full dawning knowledge that I had done a Wrong Thing.

And I had done a Wrong Thing. Mum’s reaction when she came back and found me, what was left of the curl in my outstretched hands, was similar to mine, only louder, and with tears.

I have never forgotten that, and I have never, ever stopped feeling guilty. It seemed to set the tone for the rest of my childhood, somehow. I was not a Proper Child. I Did Things Wrong.

Looking back on it now, I would say to Mum exactly what Nan said to Mum at the time (because Nan was there, just not in the kitchen). I would say, what made you think it wouldn’t get messed up? Whatever were you thinking?

But ever since then, if I have ever needed an excuse to hate myself, to revile myself for even coming into existence and having the temerity to set foot on this earth which would have been far better off without me… etc, etc, you know the drill… the curl comes first to mind. I mourn it still and long to somehow reverse life, like an old film, and put it back together again.

Well, this was meant to be another Totally Random Thursday but so far it has been all about a curl.

So what about this? I just (sort of) cut my hair using a method demonstrated by someone called Gloria Glam or Glamorous Gloria, I can’t remember which, on YouTube. Gloria Glam is without doubt the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen, and the most glam. My face in the mirror, with my hair bunched into a kind of cuckold’s horn on the front of my head, looked nothing like hers. Having brushed it forwards and done that – hers so thick and glossy, mine so thin and grey, you then bunch it again, and move the elastic thingy down. And then you cut it straight across like a horse’s tail. And then – and here’s the scary bit – you kind of jab upwards into it with the scissors. And what results is a kind of long layer cut. I must say it looks OK, if slightly eccentric. And I had to do something. My hair was getting so long it was streeeeeetching the elastic pony-tail band collection and the whole ghastly grey mane had a tendency to fling itself apart in public, including at a train station ticket office, once.

After that, the fringe was just a doddle.

I just did my budget. This is something I force myself to do every six months, just because it seems like something my mother would approve of if compos mentis (mother, again, and guilt) but in fact it makes no difference at all to the finances apart from forcing you to confront the fact that like dear old Mr Micawber you are still spending too much, and rapidly running out of options for cutting anything. Except perhaps your own hair.

Finally, Oxford Street. I just watched half a repeat of a documentary programme going ‘behind the scenes’ at London’s most famous shopping street, showing how everything kind of works. This week the focus was on rubbish. They interviewed the man who supervised the overnight cleaning squad – a joyous man, who could not help smiling as he said – over and over again, in fact – that he would like the pavements of Oxford Street to be clean enough for people to walk barefooted on. And in fact some – mostly ladies – were walking barefoot. A long night’s dancing, no doubt, and high heels.

And then there was a young couple celebrating the one-year anniversary of their first meeting, in Oxford Street. They had asked to be taken down the sewers under Oxford Street as an extra special treat because they shared a nerdish fascination with a phenomenon known as fatbergs. I promise I won’t describe one of these and its contents in detail, but basically it’s like arteries getting clogged up with cholesterol. Fat clings to the walls and forms a kind of narrowing or berg to which more fat then appends. And after a while the valiant sewer men climb down there in their white plastic suits with their special shovels and chip it all off so that London is not overwhelmed by its own fatty deposits. Apparently in 2015 they cleared a berg the size of a London bus that was causing the sewer to collapse inward from the sheer weight of it…

When the young couple emerged from the manhole they seemed blissfully happy. It was so romantic, they said, as they peeled off their white suits and handed them back to the sewer men. But it was so nice to breathe fresh air again. And off they went, hand in hand, hopefully to take a shower.

And then I got to wondering whether Oxford Street actually did lead to Oxford. I mean, if you just couldn’t get enough fresh air after the sewers and needed to just keep on walking – for weeks and weeks, maybe, would Oxford ever be on the menu?

Turns out it would be. Oxford Street is technically, though signposts don’t mention it, part of the A40 which goes all the way to Wales, via Oxford. If you just kept going you would end up in a delightful little place  in North Wales called Fishguard. It looks like this:

Boats in harbour Lower Fishguard Pembrokeshire South Towns and Villages

So now you know. 🙂

One Long Frog

‘First swallow your frog’ used to be one of my favourite mottoes. In other words, at the beginning of each day tackle that one task you want to do about as much as swallowing a live frog. However, it seems to me that the older you get the more frogs seem to string themselves together until some days seem to be One Long Frog.

Take the other day, for instance: mammogram; long wait to see a doctor about a persistent cough; chest x-ray. And I only had tooth x-rays the day before. Won’t I be radioactive? Or are mammograms some other sort of wave and/or particle? Long bus journey there. Long bus journey back.

And tomorrow? One Long Frog. Long bus journey to see my elderly lady. Well, I like seeing my elderly lady and she likes seeing me, but listening-and-prompting for an hour is surprisingly hard work – like job interviews – something I was good at. Good at the interview, rubbish at the job, usually.

After elderly lady? Remove scratchy ‘visitor’ dingly-dangly thing with awful photo from around neck. Speedwalk to bus stop. Catch next bus into town instead of home. No doubt will get the Smelly Person again. I never realised human beings were smelly until I started caching buses. In town, catch next train. Then another train. Then walk to Mum’s bungalow to meet a person called Peter from a removal firm. Person called Peter is going to pack up a whole bunch of Ex’s paintings and prints and drive them and me back home. Thank goodness. At least I haven’t got to brave the school bus, this time.

While he’s making the Works of Art damp- and rodent-proof – for who knows how long they will now be languishing in my garage? – I have to pack up Nan’s blue tea set. That’s the only thing I’m ‘rescuing’ before the house is cleared – by someone called Gavin, or was it Steven? – and Mum’s lifetime possessions, and all my lifetime memories, get driven off and distributed around the local charity shops.

To be honest, I don’t know which is worse – seeing Ex’s painting again and being reminded of Ex – because the paintings are the person – or seeing Mum’s house half empty, and that garden – her life’s passion and obsession – merely mown. Just sort of kept under control until the new owners or, as seems more likely, the bulldozers move in.

I always promised myself I wouldn’t go back, after that last traumatic/humiliating day/night when Mum was marched off to hospital, sandwiched between two burly ambulance-men. ‘Worst part of my job, this is’ one of them told me. But there’s no avoiding it. I’ve had my orders.

However, I remind myself of what happened with Nan and Grandad’s bungalow, in the same street. After they died Mum insisted I went along there with her. I was young(ish) then and had never seen a cleared house before. Nothing of Nan and Grandad remained: empty rooms smelling of linseed oil where someone had been fixing the windows. That house meant so much to me and it had never, ever, occurred to me that one day its whole shabby-familiar insides, together with Nan and Grandad, could just be gone. I hated Mum for taking me along there. I hated her businesslike mood.

‘Don’t you miss Nan?’ I asked her.

‘Oh, I’ve shed a tear or two, when I’ve been on my own.’

Shed a tear or two. Is that what you say about your own mother? But I knew what she was doing: brushing it under the carpet, setting it aside, saving it for later when I wasn’t there. Self defence.

That night I dreamed myself back in that house. I was standing in the empty kitchen and Grandad hurried past. I tried to talk to him but he couldn’t seem to see me. It was as if I was the ghost. And outside a sea of daisies pushed their way up through the lawn in that clever, punning way that subconscious daisies have.

For a long time I couldn’t see anything else but that empty, linseed-smelling house. It overlaid every childhood memory. My past had been removed. But gradually, over the years, the house as I had known it returned. I realised I could revisit it at any stage in its history, and myself in any stage of mine. All its past incarnations were still there, and so were mine.

And so I hope that gradually, after tomorrow’s final visit to Mum’s house, the colours of the past and all those lost versions of me will start to surface again. Finality and emptiness will be just one version.

White plastic popper-beads and a red hat

I have noticed that my posts become increasingly like the white plastic popper bead necklace I had when I was a child, and which broke all over the floor during a game of spin-the-collection-plate at the Sunday School Christmas Party because some stupid boy (probably Peter Stelmazuk) yanked on them to see how they were held together. I get one thought, and that leads on to another, and that another and occasionally if I’m lucky the end thought joins back up to the first one.

I used to know a woman who spoke like I write. Unfortunately she lived opposite me on the new estate that Ex referred to scathingly as Brookside. She was one of those women who having discovered you stuck to you like a veritable limpet and wouldn’t stop talking. I used to get invited over to their house, which was hugely much bigger than mine, with a conservatory, a lovely (if bijou) garden with a water-feature, and those massive, expensive armchairs with electric controls that lift the back, the seat, the arms, the footrest and whatever other moving parts it has up and down so as to ensure your absolute comfort whilst consuming white wine or nibbling on canapés of an evening.

Her husband used to go upstairs to his study as soon as I arrived, either to construct model aeroplanes or to further his bid to become a local councillor so as to have speed bumps inserted into Brookside’s smooth new speed-bumpless circular road, which the local hooligans used as a racetrack, using the car park of the equally new and monstrously big Tesco store as their starting point. He was exhausted being married to this woman and, after only twenty minutes in her company, I was exhausted too. Unfortunately, I never got away with less than a whole evening.

She would talk non-stop, seamlessly segueing from one irrelevancy to another, whilst I tried desperately to keep all the threads together and understand the connection between them. I would watch her mouth moving and moving and moving, fascinated and horrified, wondering when – and how she was ever going to get to the point. Her conversation was like one of those fractal leaves, you know? Endlessly branching, branching and branching. And the thing was, you couldn’t tune out and daydream because every now and then she would stop and ask a question, but never about the branch of the fractal she was currently on, always about something several branches back. I couldn’t abide her, but abide her I did for several years. I felt sorry for her because she had no friends. I knew what it was like to be impossible and unlikeable and not understand why. I suspected she and I had an uncomfortable something in common, but at that time I didn’t know what.

She used to take me shopping in Canterbury. She would drag me round one department store after another, looking for a red hat or similar must-have object. She would never buy anything. In each store, instead of looking for the must-have object she would approach the first sales assistant she spotted on the ground floor and demand to know where the red hats were. She would fail to memorise the instructions and ask the poor woman – who was actually selling make up or perfume rather than hats – for it all to be repeated. Then she would drag me up and down escalators in search of red hats, because of course despite the repetitions of detailed instructions she had instantly forgotten where the red hats were.

Then we found the red hats, and one particular red hat she really loved. Then we would leave the shop in search of a cash machine because she had not got any cash out before going shopping. This would take some time. Then neither of us would be able to remember where the particular red hat was, so would spend the rest of the morning trying to relocate it. Then she would disappear into changing rooms and leave me standing in the middle of the store. Hours later, still standing there, I would wonder if she had simply gone home. I would ask shop assistants if they had happened to see her. None of them ever had.

I moved house but she came to visit me, turning up in her husband’s bright yellow sports car and skewing it across two of my new neighbours’ parking spaces. She was not a good driver though it was a good car. The best air-conditioning I had ever experienced, and it smelt of new leather and great expense. She also phoned, at great length. I had ‘caller display’ put on and took to not answering it when her number showed up. I felt bad about that.

Now, I remember where this was going. Sooner or later we will get on to the Youth Club, the out-of-tune piano and a single battered copy of The Midwich Cuckoos. And somewhere in the mix will be a queasy, beatific portrait of Jesus surrounded by unlikely children of all races, suffering them to come to him. And then there will be my newly-found Certificate of Baptism and my dear Godmother who is not, in fact, my godmother at all as it transpires.

I think it will have to be another post.

Maybe even two.

poppers

Lucy: I Am Everywhere

‘Lucy’ was one of many films I would have liked to see when they were new, but had to wait till they appeared on TV. And last night, at last, it did appear and I actually sat down and watched it, all the way through from start to finish. Like, amazing!

Mostly I get to see films on TV in snatches and completely out of sequence, and subsequently piece them together in my mind. That’s half the fun – imagining the missing segments, then finding out segment by segment that they were not the way I imagined them – or were. That way you get several films for the price of one, or rather for the price of an annual television licence. (And if I can survive long enough into old age even that will be free.)

My most watched-in-fragments film by far is The Fifth Element, which seems to haunt Freeview. Whichever channel you flick to, there it is. And I am still noticing new things it. Second would be Avatar. I love Avatar. I seem to be drawn to anything sci-fi or fantasy – unusual in a lady of my age, but it can’t be helped. On the other hand I loathe soaps. I’ve never managed to watch any episode East Enders, Coronation Street or Emmerdale for more than five minutes without being driven to switch over by the gloom, the grating accents, the hysteria, the bellowing and the inch-thick makeup.

And I do like Scarlett Johansson. If God gives me a choice next time round to look less like a giant racing-cyclist’s daughter I will ask to look more like Scarlett. Much more. The world would be one’s oyster with a face like that. And she can convey something like terror, for instance, with nothing more than an impassive face and a rapid flickering of the eyes. This is a contained reaction – terror as you and I would like to imagine we would manifest it, if about to be operated on and have a huge plastic wrap of some brain-enhancing blue crystal substance concealed amongst our intestines against our will. Terror without the screeching, the gibbering and the uncontrollable widdling.

Much as I like watching films I do not much enjoy going to the cinema, at least alone. Cinemas are dark. They are full of people who kick the back of your seat, try to grope you (well, not so much of that nowadays) continue using their mobile phones, eat, chat and dump their inconvenient children next to you. Yes, I once had a pair of parents pointing their horrible, fidgety, snot-nosed children to come and hem me in at the end of a side aisle, whilst they repaired to another part of the cinema completely. I have never known a pair of children to get up, go out to the loo, come back, sit down, get up… and so forth, so many times in succession.

No doubt I could learn how to stream films but that would mean committing myself to sitting down and watching them and – apart from the odd exception like ‘Lucy’ – that is something the inherited Mum side of me won’t let me do. Mum used to claim that it was Grandad, her father, making it impossible for her to sit down, stay put and concentrate on anything for more than two minutes, or rather her internalised, reproving father figure.

Grandad only lived along the road and had become, for Mum, a kind of troll-under-the-bridge bogeyman. After Nan died he was lonely, desperate to be useful and had a tendency to materialise at our back  (kitchen) door with an overlarge panful of peeled potatoes mid-morning (‘He will dig the eyes out – they’re full of craters!’). According to Mum if he caught her sitting down with a cup of tea he would ask her if she hadn’t anything better she could be getting on with.

As a know-it-all teenager I once pointed out to her that Grandad was merely an excuse to rationalise her naturally jumpy, hyperactive nature but she wasn’t into self-analysis. I on the other hand was gradually analysing myself away to some sort of vanishing point at which the real, spontaneous, basic me could no longer be accessed. The ‘real’ me seemed to have retreated to some kind of fantasy garden to which I had mislaid the key. And perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to fantasy and sci-fi. Roaming these fantastical other worlds I am hoping against hope one day to meet up with me.

everywhere 3

 

He was only expecting a manicure

Could forgetfulness be some kind of germ – catching, transmittable, etc? I only ask because… because….

Well, as you know my mother’s got dementia. I’m not at all sure she knows who I am now – if she looks up at all when I go in, it is with a vague sort of puzzlement. I might be anybody, from cleaner to carer to relative to friend. The important thing is, can I reach her water jug? Can I untangle her sheets?

And of course, you start to check yourself – daily, hourly, by the minute. Why didn’t that fact spring to mind? Why was there that slight hesitation over someone’s name? Have I just done something peculiar? Would I know if I had?

The other night the new lady came round from next door. She introduced herself. After she’d gone I went straight through to the kitchen, scribbled “Claire” on a slip of paper and taped it to the fridge. Gotcha!

Next night she came round again. We were talking about a workman who might be needed to do a repair on her house. “He does know you want to see him,” I assured her. “I told him that your name was Claire.”

“Ros,” she said.

At least it’s not just me. Yesterday one of my elderly neighbours very kindly offered to help me with my many cats if ever the need arose. “I’ve written my number on a piece of paper,” she said. “You have only to call me and I’ll come straight over.”

“That’s so kind of you,” I said, “but aren’t you allergic to cats?”

“No,” she said. “I love little moggies.”

Now a few years back she told me she couldn’t take in a particularly muddy, flea-ridden and unneutered stray kitten herself, though she would have loved to, since she was allergic. Started sneezing and coughing almost straight away, she did. (That’s how I got George.) Several times she’s come to the door and I’ve invited her in and she’s dithered in terror on my doorstep. “Oh no, I couldn’t. I’m allergic, you see. Start sneezing and coughing almost straight away…”

Has she forgotten the allergy or the fib? Or could I over the years somehow have fabricated an entire narrative, in several successive parts, about my neighbour and her allergy to cats? Either way, I’ve got to think of a way for her to feel useful and wanted now that she no longer has her disabled sister to care for – which I suspect is what she really needs – without letting her loose on my rambunctious and precious moggies, at least in any unsupervised capacity.

And finally, as they say on the News. Late this afternoon I telephoned the vet’s receptionist . “Could I make an appointment for Rufus to come in and have his claws clipped by the nurse?”

“Certainly,” she said. We discussed possible dates as she leafed through the diary. In the background I could hear somebody muttering “Anal glands, anal glands.”

That’s odd, I thought. Maybe there’s someone standing behind her, trying to remind her of the urgent anal glands of some other furry client.

“Yes,” she said, “Rufus can come in for his anal glands on Saturday morning.”

“Um, where are you getting anal glands from? Poor little chap, he was only expecting a manicure…

“Not anal glands?”

No, really, just his claws.”

“Oh dear! Where did I get anal glands from?”

Who knows? How did Ros metamorphose into Claire between the front door and the refrigerator? And where did my neighbour’s allergy disappear to?

It’s a mystery.

Never Jam Today

“The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.” It’s one of those things you think your Granny must have said, but no – well, she might have said it, but it comes from Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

It does remind me of my Granny, though. I remember her kitchen on jam-making days, and Nan stirring away like a Queen Mother-shaped witch at some great metal pot on the gas stove, tipping in sugar and goodness knows what. Presumably Mum must have been there, otherwise why would I have been? I never remember Mum being anywhere, even when she was.

I remember a lot of jam-jars, all hot and steamy. Presumably Nan had been collecting them in some cupboard or shed and now they had to be washed to get rid of dust and dead spiders. I remember that there was always some nervousness as to whether the jam would set, and that something had to be added to some sorts of jam to make it set. I remember the sweet, sugary smell as the contents of the saucepan were decanted into the jars, and the circles of greaseproof paper that went on the top of the jam. Would she have cut these out for herself, maybe using the neck of a jam-jar to draw round? Or perhaps you could buy packets of them at the corner shop – same place you bought pink and blue birthday candles and red candle-holders, hundreds-and-thousands; that strange green stuff, angelica; cake cases, paper doilies, chocolate sprinkles, silver dragees, marzipan.

The paper caps always pleased me, pushed over the top of the jar and pinched in with a bit of ribbon. The sticky labels pleased me most of all, because I was allowed to write those. I remember the jars lined up along a high shelf, along with bottled fruit sealed tight in sinister kilner jars, like tiny dead babies. Tasted all right with ice cream, though, and kept us going all winter.

I wonder what happened to all that time – the time women seemed to have to do stuff like that, to make preserves, polish brass and mend socks on a wooden darning mushroom. What happened to knitting jumpers, replacing buttons and sewing on square patches? What happened to pulling up carrots and digging new potatoes just before a meal? What happened to mint sauce made in a teacup with mint from the garden? What happened to damsons picked from the hedge, and playing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as you lined up the cherry pips around the edge of your plate? What happened to buttered crumpets, pipe smoke, coal fires and elderly snoring dogs?

Sometimes I think they must be still going on somewhere – that in one – or maybe all of my concurrent ‘other’ lives, and to paraphrase Rupert Brooke, there must be crumpets still for tea. And that I must be seven again, with a gap where my two front teeth should be and a crumpled ribbon slip-sliding out of my hair.  And in those other lives I am forever consuming crumpets as butter drips through those curious holes to make my fingers greasy.

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

To be a fly on the wall

I love visual puns, and I particularly enjoy the pugs below, for their endless visual circularity: flies on the wall/up the wall, pugs might fly, pigs might fly…

pugs

There seem to be no end of things you can have flying up your wallpaper nowadays, aside from the traditional three ducks of my youth. You can have actual pigs or even toucans bearing pints of Guinness, and why not?

Of course, up till fairly recently flying anything up the wall was the Worst Possible Taste but these are Post Modern or possibly even Ironic Flying Objects. So that’s OK. The only wall decoration worse than those flying ducks was The Green Lady, versions of which (or should it be whom?) appeared on living room walls in the ’60s or thereabouts. I have a horrible suspicion, now, that my parents might have had one. If so I’ve been buying a shameful memory all this time.

green-lady

Would you like to be a fly on the wall? If so, where and when?

As a child I would hear my parents arguing about me in the bedroom. I was always convinced it was about me, at any rate. It was a small bungalow and the walls were thin. Not thin enough, unfortunately. I could hear them arguing, the rise and fall of their voices, his low and angry, hers high and tearful, but never the actual words. As a child I longed to have some sort of listening device (I hadn’t heard of the wine-glass-against-the-wall trick then, and anyway my parents didn’t have wine-glasses) so that I could hear all the nasty things they were saying about me and be enraged, which would have been more comfortable than just upset. On the other hand…

…they say people who eavesdrop never hear anything good of themselves. But it’s such fun. I eavesdrop on conversations whenever and wherever I can, partly because you never know when something’s going to be the start of a short story, but also to find out what ‘normal’ people are talking about when they engage all that endless, exhausting-looking yattering.

I’ve picked up some lovely snippets. My favourite, whilst a menial sort of secretary at an agricultural college, was an arch observation between two environmental scientists: He thinks he’s an ecologist because he can do hanging baskets.  I once went to the doctors in my local village. I hadn’t been there before. It was a ‘compact and bijou’ waiting room so it wasn’t at all difficult to listen in.

He’s a very good doctor, Doctor W…

Is he?

Yes, he looked after my cousin Mildred.

Did he?

Yes (long pause) – she died, of course.

And then it was my turn to go in.

I have heard – and indeed read about on other people’s blogs, of something called remote viewing, where it is possible to ‘see’ a place or object that is actually, physically being seen by a different person, perhaps hundreds of miles away. I have never experienced this myself, though I did engage in a kind of thought experiment with Ex, many years ago. It was around the time of Uri Geller and his spoon-bending. (Spoons always fascinated Ex, who was even less normal than me. He used to play the spoons – really, really well but so loudly and embarrassingly – when drunk on the table-cloths of Indian restaurants whilst waiting for his dinner.)

We decided to do that thing where one of you concentrates on a shape or a simple object in their mind’s eye, and the other one has to concentrate and draw it. The first person then draws what they were imagining, and you compare the pictures. We were moderately good at it – we could manage numbers, and pictures of doors, cats and so forth.  We lost interest after a while. There’s only so much door-drawing you can do.

I even read somewhere of psychics being able to travel, themselves, in an out-of-body sort of way and see what friends or contacts many hundreds of miles away were up to. I remember one lady was infuriated because she had been in a state of dishevelment or undress when she became aware of a psychic ‘visitor’ lurking in her room one night. There really ought to be some sort of Code of Conduct for Psychic Lurkers.

What I can do – possibly everyone can – is visit places in my imagination. I can visualise houses, and rooms – layouts, stairs, furnishings – from far away and long ago. I can, if bored, go on a guided tour of a house that no longer exists. I can ascend the steep stairs of my old schoolfriend’s house, a two-up-two-down terrace on a mean little street – the same stairs that I fell down once, landing on my old schoolfriend, who was mercifully quite plump. I can look out of the bedroom window (behind me a shiny turquoise quilt and an undersized dressing-table, its veneer chipped and peeling) and see her father’s black bicycle propped up against the drainpipe. They had a black cat, and the black cat used to jump out of that same bedroom window and land on the narrow saddle of that same black bike.

I can walk round Nan and Grandad’s house, and down to the bottom of the garden where the Anderson shelter had become a garden shed full of spiders, and dusty blue damsons hung heavy in the hedgerow. I can see where all the flower beds were, and the great sea of mint around the apple tree, and the bisque doll’s head my uncle (now 90) had jammed onto a twig, which grew into it. I have sometimes thought I would manage quite well in prison as long as I was allowed to be in solitary confinement. Communing with other prisoners would be hell (I would be the one who was beaten to a pulp in the shower and had most of her food pinched) but solitary confinement would be OK. I could go on my travels. I could follow favourite countryside walks I haven’t seen for years. I could have a little chat with Nan on the back step, whilst shelling peas and listening to the bees humming. I could be out in the Lodge with Grandad, watching him doing his carpentry and breathing in sawdust and glue.

And then of course there are the entirely imaginary journeys. Attending some meditation classes a while back I discovered visualisation – you know, when you picture yourself walking out over a rainbow, or in a rocking chair in a room with a quietly ticking clock or walking alongside a river, through meadows, brushing the grass as you pass…? I can do one of those any time. You just decide where you want to be to start with and your mind somehow does the rest – it even supplies the journey for you, you don’t have to make it up. Every now and then a rabbit might appear on the path, or a frog on a lilypad, or maybe, surprisingly, the sun will choose to set…

Pokémon a-go-go

This morning I spotted my first Pokémon Go players – at least I assume that’s what they were. Nobody comes up this dead end road unless they live here, or are visiting, or lost. What would be the point? Yet outside my house (yes, my house – how come the little Pokémons are outside my house?) were two young persons. How did I know they were playing Pokémon Go? Well, I can’t be sure. But they were under eighty: few people along here are under the Age of Confusion, apart from certain regulars like the Tesco delivery man, the multi-drop delivery drivers and the ambulance crew. And they were standing still. Most people around here, if they are outside at all, and on foot rather than in the old banger/all-terrain vehicle, are off somewhere. Off down the shop for ciggies. Off down the shop for streaky bacon. Off down the shop for stamps. Mostly it involves the shop. Destinations are few hereabouts.

Although of course they could be off round the seafront with dog and walking-stick. Or off round the seafront with the dog and walking-stick again. Or, on rainy days, off round the seafront with dog, walking stick and anorak, the bonnet tied tight around the face, the eyes screwed up against briny spray and gale-force, salt-laden gusts.

But these two were standing still (outside my house) squinting at a smartphone, looking puzzled, poking it with pointy bits of plastic. Very suspicious! And it was what they were wearing. They looked – exactly how I imagine a brace of nerds might look. Both of them head to toe in black, with boots and chains – sub-goth and rather self-conscious, obviously sensed they were being watched. And they were lily white – I mean those two hadn’t seen the morning light in years.

I confess I have never played Pokémon. I have never played a computer game, in fact, unless you count scrabble. I am not averse to computer games – they look like fun, sort of, but also like a colossal waste of time. I suspect they are the equivalent of train-spotting or tending the allotment for the socially challenged, or a maybe what normal family-type people would refer to as a bonding experience. I suppose playing an electronic game with one’s children would be the same as Dad trying to teach us Sevens with a pack of playing cards, or making us racing cotton-reel tanks with candle-wax, spent matches and elastic bands to drive them along. Or like me watching the wrestling with Dad on a Saturday afternoon. Oops, now it’s out – yes, at eleven or twelve I quite liked to watch big men in stripy swimming trunks sweating profusely and throwing each other about. I’m not sure what Dad liked.

What I don’t understand is – and probably someone is going to explain it to me – how can these little Pokémons be simultaneously in someone’s smartphone and in the real world? And if they are in the real world, why couldn’t I see them lurking outside my front gate or hear them squeaking, chattering, chittering or whatever Pokémons do? And if I couldn’t see them, how come teenagers are getting so carried away with Go that they are getting themselves trapped in caves so that they have to be rescued? How come they fall off their skateboards and get themselves lured to remote spots in order to be mugged by evil people?

Apparently one man crashed his car into a tree, and two others fell off a cliff whilst playing. Maybe that’s what it is with lemmings. No one seems to know why lemmings suddenly throw themselves off cliffs en masse. Pursuing Pokémons, perhaps? And what about the Gadarene Swine? Possibly not inhabited by demonic spirits after all, but Pokémons.

Playing piano in the dark

Years ago I read that the Zen way to learn piano would be to sit in the dark and start to play. I sort-of understand this. I suppose the idea is that, in the correct frame of mind, you can tap into the part of you that already knows full well how to play – your portion of the universal mind, maybe. I’ve never tried it, but then I’ve never had a piano.

And today I read an article in the New Scientist about a woman with deteriorating memory, now aged a hundred and one.

‘She rarely knows where she is, and doesn’t recognise people she has met in the last few decades.’

And yet apparently she can play nearly four hundred songs by ear. She plays ragtime, show tunes, gospel and many other genres, and can also learn new songs just by listening to them.

She says she does not know how to read music; she just finds the starting note and her fingers do the rest. Although she cannot now remember having learned to read music, researchers think she would have done, at some point. Born in Tennessee in 1914, she learned to play piano and violin as a child, earned two degrees in music education and played the violin in a women’s orchestra, though she did not play much after 1946.

What it is about music that ‘sticks’ when so much else, even everyday common-sense things do not? How can a person, for example, not know that they are hungry or thirsty, whether it is day or night, and yet play the piano with almost as much skill, and as much energy as when they were younger?

As yet no one seems to know whereabouts in the brain music lives. One suggestion is that musical ability may be diffusely located – so presumably damage in one area is less likely to have a dramatic effect on it, as it might with something more localised, like speech.

I do hope this aged lady gets as much pleasure from playing the piano at one hundred and one as she did in her youth, and isn’t just doing it because it’s the only thing she can remember how to do. Supposing it wasn’t just music; supposing we were all allowed to keep a single gift to the age one hundred and one and beyond – or even a single memory, a single name and face – what would those be?

NaPoWriMo 8/4/16: In the Memorial Gardens

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

She’s lost his face but recalls that he sang, and was thin.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.

 

Or was it some other garden or century?

Too early for wasps, but the chestnuts are in their green.

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

 

Too early for wasps, too old for virginity.

Soon the paths will be white with feather-down.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.

 

The blackbird prospects for worms with a beady eye.

How pleasant to see, how nice to be or have been.

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

 

A bird in the hand is worth two in the chestnut tree.

How odd to be old when you feel like seventeen.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.

 

A sparrow that feeds from your hand can be company,

And many’s the song to be heard from singers unseen.

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.

 

Time and Motion

I’ve noticed more and more as time goes by – the past materialising and dematerialising. On every street corner, in shops long unvisited and parks half-forgotten, driving late at night or in the brightest sunlight – ghosts are starting to appear.

It’s a function of growing older. The world – or at least our world – is not that big, and we pass and repass over the same territory. There used to be a time-and-motion study for housewives, I remember. The housewife had some kind of light bulb attached and her movements – from fridge to cooker, from cooker to sink etcetera – were recorded as a trail of light. I believe that’s how cooker-sink-fridge came to be known as the kitchen work triangle. In idle moments wondered what the entire track my life would look like if I had had a lightbulb attached. What a job that would be to untangle!

Today I drove past a street corner in the same town I chugged through very slowly on the train yesterday. It’s a grimy, unremarkable corner opposite a kind of mini traffic island, and looking out onto a sea of moving cars is small, shabby taxi-cab office. It was a small, shabby taxi-cab office in 1971 too, and outside it I suddenly see me and Clive, leaning against the even-then flaking paintwork, kissing. We were at college together and rambled down through the back streets every afternoon , I to wait for a bus (outside the taxi office) and he to catch a train to the seaside. He was the only handsome man I ever went out with – dark, dapper, beautiful – and I knew, of course, that he was not for me. Indeed, he was engaged to a girl called Jean back home at the seaside, but that didn’t seem to bother either of us.

We snogged, desultorily, every evening until my bus arrived. I don’t think he even found me particularly attractive but we were together, temporarily, we were friends and I was willing, so he felt he might as well. Young people did that sort of thing in those days. Probably still do.

But it isn’t just Clive. I walk along the street I grew up on. Now I am looking down at my feet, watching out for the dropped kerbs with which it is now infested, though not quite as careful as my Mum, who was convinced she was going to fall over at any minute. But at the same time the child ‘me’ is running along the street. I pass her sometimes, sat on the edge of the pavement, her feet in the road. It has recently rained (so her dress will be getting wet, but she won’t notice) and she is watching twigs careering down the gutter towards the drain.

In two days time I will drive down the lane we lived in when we were married. I will no doubt be surprised at how much the house has changed since either of us was in it. I will remember the cat buried under the blue hydrangea. Unless they’ve dug them up – the bush, the cat, or both. I will remember how you cried for that little cat – the only time I ever saw you cry about anything. I will remember trying to take your arm, another day, and how you shook me off after a few paces, embarrassed even to be touched. I will remember hurrying down that lane to meet my lover, and how my heart was beating and the blood rushing in my ears.

As I get older I sometimes get inklings of the pattern behind things. That sounds so pretentious – and I really don’t like the word inklings – and it’s only for split seconds; nothing ever sticks. I don’t think any of us are ever allowed to discover the meaning of life – but as we progress we get these little glimpses, so that we know there might be a meaning. Sometimes it has seemed to me like a carpet we are weaving, with a pattern we can’t see because we are too close. But at the end – of each individual life, maybe, we get to see the overall pattern.

But recently – since I have been blogging (in earnest) in fact – I have begun to think that it’s more intricate and complicated even than that. It’s like the past and the present are not separated as we imagine, but linked one to the other at many points – linked and interlinked. And maybe I mean that the past – all the pasts – and the present – all the presents – exist in one plane. It is only made to seem that ‘the past is another country’. So, a life is more like a blog long worked on, and richly, richly supplied with links – links between past and present and here and there, and her and me, but also links with other people’s pasts and presents, their heres and theres.

And then I wonder, if I’m a character in the blog that is my life – who – or what version of me – is doing the blogging? What giant hands are hammering out each fresh instalment of my life at 80 wpm?