And as for Schrödinger…

Since I’ve been blogging I’ve realised something: I’m really, really square. See – I don’t even know what the current word for ‘square’ is, except that the very concept of squareness went out in the ‘60s. Or possibly the ‘50s. No doubt somebody will enlighten me.

There are so many things I don’t know. Yesterday I learned from a reader that there is an American author called Bukowski. Everybody on the internet seems to know all about Bukowski. For goodness sake, the poor man’s dead already and I’ve only just discovered he was alive. I ordered one of his books, entitled Women. I gather he liked women – women and alcohol. You know that ‘Look Inside’ arrow on Amazon? I looked inside. Yup, he definitely liked women. Still, I think, if I could get a quarter of the way through Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1971 (that hideous Tralala scene forced my exit from Last Exit) I can cope with Bukowski in 2016.

Nothing much shocks me now, in novels, except a dead dog. I’m afraid I love animals much more than people. People? Pah! I’m a cat lady, as my readers may know. I love cats, but not just cats – creatures in general. My mother used to repeat to all and sundry, a story about me. No, this is not the one she told the Mental Health Team psychiatrist (her psychiatrist, I hasten to add) about my having been an Unsatisfactory Infant. Apparently I just sat on her lap regarding her with a kind of fishy stare instead of – I don’t know, and don’t remember – what are babies supposed to do? Obviously, I failed my Being a Baby exam.

This story concerned a later encounter with a wasp. We had stopped at a roadside van/café and Dad bought us each a polystyrene mug of tea – probably tea rather than coffee, thinking back on it. Coffee was thought of as an overly-sophisticated American import in those days – certainly not suitable for children. Tea was safe enough. A wasp landed in my tea and I instantly emptied the whole mug onto the grass verge so that the wasp could escape. This was an eccentric thing to do, I gather. Afterwards I wondered about that. What would a normal person – a person who had passed their Being a Baby and subsequently their Being a Human Being exam with flying colours – what would they have done in those circumstances? A wasp is a wonder; a tiny, beautiful microcosm of the universe. Would they have taken pleasure in watching one die a slow and painful death in boiling liquid? Would they then have fished out its tiny, stripy corpse and drunk that liquid? That’s why I care more about creatures than people.

Even fictional ones. I read a literary novel a few years back – one of those ‘money’s worth’ ones with the five hundred or so chapters. I can’t remember the title or author now – female, Zadie Smith or someone of her ilk. I was fine with the listlessly failing marriage of couple concerned, their half-hearted adulteries in the afternoon and so forth. But then their little white dog got hit by a car and, enervated by all the adultery and failing-marriagery, they neglected to take their pet to be checked by the vet. They just assumed – in some minimally-alluded-to way – that he would get over his injuries in a day or so. He looked OK, more or less. But doggie died. To be fair, they did then feel quite bad, each of them, in their self-absorbed, bewildered, adulterous fashion. To be doubly fair, I would guess the authoress had deliberately set out to make this scene a shocker, and in that she succeeded. It was admirably crafted… but how could she have borne to write it?

They should have jumped off a fictional cliff hand in hand, or shot each other point blank with some handy, fictional blunderbuss. As far as I was concerned nothing could compensate for what that pair of numbskulls did to that poor, fictional dog. I shut the book with four hundred or so chapters left to go and didn’t open it again. Neither did I buy another of her novels. There’s no getting past a dead dog.

Similarly, if I read a book in which a cat appears to be taking centre stage – if the human characters, and particularly the heroine, seem rather fond of it; if it has a name; if it has an endearingly eccentric personality, and particularly if happens to be in a detective novel – I stop reading at once. The cat always gets it. Second to last chapter – poisoned milk, found floating face down in the water butt, or whatever happens to add a last sadistic twist to the plot. I can’t even approach a doomed cat.

And as for Schrödinger – that man had such a lot to answer for. I know it was a thought experiment but… not only is the hypothetical thought-moggie trapped in its hypothetical though-box in perpetuity with neither hypothetical thought-food nor hypothetical thought-water for succour, but that hypothetical thought-cat stands a 50:50 chance of being hypothetically gassed or poisoned or something by some hypothetical random decaying atom or circulating electron or something.

I hate him.

Oh, my Grace I got no hidin’ place (2)

The psychiatrist is telling me a whole list of stuff that I’ll be expected to report to all concerned by email afterwards. Something about organic based secondary psychosis. Interesting words – especially as I thought she’d got dementia. Well, she has got dementia. This seems to be on top. What is an organic psychosis? Is it something like carrots grown without fertiliser, or bread made of special brown flour like you get in delicatessens? It’s something to do with her hearing loss and long-term refusal to wear her hearing aids. It’s something like people get in intensive care when they’ve been in there a long time. Solitary confinement would do the same, probably.

We need to get Mother’s ears re-tested, he says. New hearing aids might make all the difference. They need to be tried first.

How are we going to get her out of the house and to the hospital? Hit her over the head with a hefty vase and whisk her away whilst still unconscious? How are we going to keep any new hearing aids in her actual ears when she refuses to wear the ones she’s got, and keeps hiding them? How am I going to explain to her why she needs to wear the new hearing aids without reminding her that I can’t actually hear her chorus of sinister voices? She knows such a lot of blindingly obvious things – about the neighbours, about the people standing in the garden, and those who are coming from Gravesend to syphon off her water supply, about the poison in the tapwater – that I seem to be unaware of. She’s recently consigned me to the Dark Side for failing to agree, categorically, that all this stuff is real. If there’s such a place as Double Dark Side – that’s where I’ll be.

And the aids still won’t be in the ears.

It becomes like that dog in the cartoon. Think bubbles and Blah Blah Blah; one’s own name cropping up at intervals. I want to be at home with the Mogglies. I want right now to have already safely negotiated that scary bit of the A249 where you have to filter into a line thundering lorries at such an acute angle that you have to lean right forward to see in your wing mirror, then jam your foot on the accelerator and shoot out fast, usually to a chorus of horn-honking, and be back at home, picking up thirteen empty cat-dishes and refilling them with Felix, changing their water bowls. They will be getting hungry by now. Thought I’d be back much earlier. I miss them. It’s like thirteen elastic bands – after an hour or so away from them I start needing to get back.

Go home and cuddle a cat, my sister advised earlier in the week, at the conclusion of another multicoloured, stressful meeting, one in which we both took part. How does she happen to know that about me? How could she hit on that very thing, yet not know when she is hurting my feelings or making me angry? What is it about me that’s so rawly transparent to other people one minute, so impenetrably opaque the next?

The same way as Mum remembers (and of course tells the psychiatrist) that when she passes on I have my eye on one of the two miniature landscapes Ex once painted for her and my Dad. It’s perfectly true. I never, ever told her this yet somehow she remembers. You can be sitting there dry-eyed and she says Now I’ve made you cry. And she has – just not on the outside. How does she know things like that and yet not how to eat a piece of currant cake or to change that blasted blue jumper?

What’s that she’s got down it now? Some sort of dark orange sauce. Must be one of the microwave meals the carers have started doing for her now. Before, she only ate yoghurt and Ryvita. Those made less obvious marks.

Is there any way of persuading her to have a wash and change her clothes? I seem to be enquiring, suddenly. The roomful of multicoloured people all stop talking at once and stare at me.

That must have been a Wrong Thing. How was it Wrong this time? Probably they were talking about something else and I interrupted them apropos of nothing, which seems to be my speciality. I would have come in from left field somewhere – wherever I was – with this utter irrelevancy.

It’s just that – I hate her to be dirty, I hear myself saying. My voice is now fading into the wallpaper. They stare at me for yet another, separate moment, then continue with the multicoloured Blah, Blah, Blah from before my interruption. Really, I can’t bear that blue jumper. I imagine how such a filthy old thing would feel against your skin – sticky.

We believe in enablement rather that prescription, the social worker says, noticing I’m getting my Away With The Fairies atmosphere again. I look at her, anxiously. She decides she must be using words that are too long. She thinks for a moment. How to make it simpler for this Primary Carer…

We don’t believe in lecturing old people about changing their clothes, more encouraging them. Gently.

Encouraging? A month’s worth of my gentle encouragement has resulted in what? That same blue jumper. At what point will someone peel that disgusting old woolly item off my mother, throw it in the dustbin, preferably double-bagged in black plastic, encourage her into a warm bath – one with actual soap – and encourage a clean jumper onto her? Is that never going to happen?

I need to focus, but the more I try the less I can. Why won’t people write things down as they speak, or give me space to do so? How must their memories work if they can assimilate and store all this guff in real time? I am in a room full of aliens – all but one. I recognised him straight off. He sits at the back by the mirror on a low, cube-shaped footstool – something my mother would still refer to as a pouffe if she hadn’t lost the word. Watching, not saying much. Every now and then he catches my eye and smiles. What are they like, this lot? He’s saying.

My mother has landed in the conversation again, with the usual giant splash, drowning out all and sundry. I’ve got a very, very dry mouth, she shouts, over and over again, making a noise like trying to peel a giant tongue off the roof of a giant mouth. I hate it when she does that noise: it makes my flesh crawl. Shall we go and make a cup of tea? my lifeline asks her. Come on, let’s go to the kitchen. Show me how you make a cup of tea. And off they go together to the kitchen.

Without the heckling the conversation should be easier to follow, but somehow it isn’t. Now that my one and only piece of floating driftwood is gone, alien waters rise swiftly and cover my head.

  • When darkness fell, excitement kissed the crowd
  • And made them wild
  • In an atmosphere of freaky holiday
  • When the spotlight hit the boy
  • And the crowd began to cheer
  • He flew away
  • Oh, my Grace
  • I got no hidin’ place
  • Oh, my Grace
  • I got no hidin’ place
  • Oh, my Grace
  • I got no hidin’ place
  • Oh, my Grace
  • I got no hidin’ place
  • Oh, my Grace
  • I got no hidin’ place

Oh, my Grace I got no hidin’ place (1)

When you were a baby, my mother informs me, in front of a living-room full of multi-coloured doctors, nurses and psychiatrists, you’d sit on my lap – just like this – staring at me – and you wouldn’t let me cuddle you. You were a strange baby.

Maybe you were a strange baby too, I mutter. How do you know? I find myself apologising to the social worker. I’m sorry. I don’t remember anything much before I was three. I don’t know what I did.

Don’t worry, it’s the psychosis talking, says the social worker. But it isn’t. Mum’s been telling everybody that same thing for the last four hundred years.

How many years has Mother been deaf? one of them asks me. I have no idea. Approximately, then? He’s getting impatient, I can feel it in his voice. Other clients to see. Running behind schedule. But even approximately, I don’t know. I don’t remember time that way at all – don’t record dates. I know when things were quite recent, quite a long time ago or a very long time ago – mostly. I can sometimes locate events in time by the scenery. Which room of which house was I in? Was anyone else there with me? Was I still married then? Then I attempt to do the math, but that usually founders since I have no parameters, no start and finish dates to subtract from one another.

I remember how I felt on many different occasions. I remember pain, puzzlement or happiness. I see odd, associated items – an orange balloon trapped beneath a ceiling with polystyrene tiles; a stretch of rails going off into the distance on an icy winter’s day, and me thinking If you followed those rails far enough you might get to Canada; I remember bats in the dusk, moving up and down amongst the trees, like puppets on a string. I don’t remember whether something was five years ago, or ten. I don’t know whether something was a week ago or six. I remember, vividly, but I don’t remember like that. If I remembered like a proper person I wouldn’t be able to write a poem. I wouldn’t be able to dance the Argentine tango in my head and feel that sky-blue dress swirling against my long, suntanned legs, know how that man’s arms feel supporting my weight, smell the garlic on him – or know what the rain’s saying, or what it’s like to fly.

Recently I’ve been trying to ring fence my sense of self; trying to protect what’s left of me from the encroaching tide of her – extricate my inner ‘map’ – of a lifetime’s oddity and different brain-wiring which makes sense within itself – from the carnival scene in front of me: an old lady with a grown-out white perm and food stains all over a blue jumper she first donned a month ago (maybe two, maybe five) and refuses to change out of because “they” won’t let her; an old lady who wobbles when she stand ups and doesn’t wash the teacups properly so they’re all stained. A person who tells you her washing machine must be scrapped because she hasn’t switched it over to “drain” and refuses to believe it is fixed even though all the dirty water’s gone, because only one person can fix it, and that person hasn’t been here yet.

Someone who shouts a lot, and isn’t helping.

You’ve got this ear-whistle thing too, she reminds me. I remember. In ten years time they’ll be telling you about the mud on the windows and the slugs under the foundations. Then you’ll know. Then you’ll know what I’m telling you. But I know already, or at least can imagine. If only I didn’t, and couldn’t.

Why do you have to be so relentlessly depressing? I think. Can I ever have loved you? Why are you jabbing your horrible uncut fingernails at me? Why are you so exhausting? And why won’t you change that jumper? The carers are going to have to remove it with kitchen scissors, I think. Like the ambulancemen do with the trousers of people with broken legs. All the while, the multicoloured psychiatrists are talking. All the while Blah, Blah, Blah.

What is he saying? (Why don’t I care?) Why doesn’t he write it down, for God’s sake? Am I supposed to just know what a Respite Placement is? Is that a home? Is it a hospital? Is it, like, a foster family for mad old mummys?

What is wrong with my brain? Why can other people manage stuff like this? What must they be thinking of me? I did an intelligence test once – scored above average, if not exactly MENSA material. Now I can see them all looking me up and down: this whole professional team, expertly, instantly assessing my shabby, distracted old self and thinking to themselves – this is one of the Client’s Primary Carers? Why is it that being patronised instantly transforms you into a patronisable person?

In my head I am executing an Argentine tango between the pillars of some city promenade. I am that woman in the blue linen dress and my toes point and my hips swing, and my partner is a man with a slicked-back ponytail, co-respondent shoes and several days growth of stubble. I can hear that beautiful music. I can’t stop hearing it. I can’t stop dancing in my head. I can choose to wear his body, or hers. I can wear both of them at once and become the whole dance. The more I try to drag myself back to reality the louder the music becomes, the bluer the dress, the warmer the day, the more absorbing the steps. A turn here, an elegant backward dip …

Secrets and lies

I’ve lived a long time, though not nearly as long as my mother who this afternoon informed me (for the umpteenth time) and her doctor (for the first but probably not the last time) that she was nearly a hundred and had been through four World Wars. Also that her ancient cat had been eating the giant slugs that live and multiply under the house, and the slugs are growing inside her. Also that… oh, I could write several thousand words of Also that’s. None of it is true, of course.

All my life I seem to have attracted secrets and lies of one sort or another. I must be the human equivalent of the pots of marmalade-and-water people used to put out to drown wasps in the summertime – paper over the top held with an elastic band, and holes punched in it. Once in, the wasps swam around desperately for what seemed like hours, slowly, slowly drowning. It was considered a kind of picnic entertainment. I think the War must have coarsened people.

Me, I’m post-War, so I let wasps out. I let everything out – birds, ants, flies, butterflies, spiders; they all get shunted onto slips of paper, caught in wine glasses, cradled in paper tissues or gently encouraged towards the gap at the window’s edge. My mother (when she still remembered things) once reminded me of an incident from my youth. On one of our Sunday drive-abouts in the car, she, Dad and I had stopped at a roadside café, where there were picnic tables. My Dad bought us one of those polystyrene cups of coffee each and we were sitting at the tables with them.

‘A wasp landed in yours,’ she said, ‘and do you know what, you tipped the whole cup of coffee away into the grass just to save the wasp!’ And I’m thinking – you mean, you wouldn’t have? You’d have watched him drown to death in steaming hot liquid?

But where was I? Lost the plot again. Oh yes, secrets and lies. You sometimes end up thinking in a demented kind of way when you’ve spent an afternoon trying to decode the conversation someone who has it – and then it lingers!

Secrets, for example. Shall I tell you the saddest secret anybody ever told me? As a young teenager I would walk up the road every day to catch the train to school with one of my classmates. Another of my classmates came from a different direction and tended to walk up the road on the opposite side, not speaking to us. Both had what sounded to me like German surnames. This didn’t strike me as strange. Our particular small town was full of Polish people – perhaps soldiers who had fought with us then stayed, imported their families or married local girls. So I just assumed there had been a few German people stranded too.

Then one day these two girls had a fight – a verbal fight, but a violent one. They chased each other up the road, screaming abuse from one pavement to the other. I remember their high-pitched voices echoing off the shop windows, off the walls, it seemed.

Afterwards I asked the one I usually walked with, what was that all about? She was obviously shaken, still. She looked around her carefully and, when she could be absolutely sure no one could hear, whispered ‘I’m Jewish.’ I was mystified. It sounded like some sort of disease. When I got home I asked my parents what exactly Jewish was, and why someone should be so ashamed of being it.

Now for a lie.

When I was at infants school the yo-yo was all the rage. I had been given an orange and yellow one for Christmas and was very pleased with it. I liked the colour combination – like sweeties – I liked the magical way you could flick the string and the yo-yo went up and down (easily pleased) and most of all I liked the fact that I could walk around the playground looking pleasantly occupied – having fun in my solitary, weird-kid way – which meant teachers would be less likely to swoop on me and place me in the middle of terrifying rings of children engaged in some game or other. As soon as the teacher’s eye was off them, the rings of children would expel me, or I would wriggle out and run off. Then one lunch hour I got hauled by the collar to see the headmistress, who told me another girl had accused me of stealing her orange and yellow yo-yo. I think I made a big, terrible fuss. She’s not having my yo-yo. My Daddy bought it for me for a present, it’s mine and so ad infinitum. They had probably expected a stuttering, shame-faced admission and what they got was a major hissy fit. They let me go, but traumatised, scarred for life.

Oh yes, credulous teachers. Oh yes, evil-lying-little-girl whose orange and yellow yo-yo my yo-yo was not, I’ve got your numbers. It’s all written down in my little black book.

Unfrangling my Franglais

I always said I wouldn’t do brain training. I knew instinctively that it wouldn’t work for me. After all these years of knitting my own education – school wasn’t terribly useful – I know how I learn and I know how I think; I know what I am going to remember without even trying and what I am going to forget no matter how hard I try. Basically if I’m interested I’ll remember, if I’m not interested I won’t. I have a short little span of attention as Paul Simon once sang, and dull stuff will bypass the Leeetle Grey Cells altogether. This is the reason I have such a problem with instructions, and how I end up building bookcases and slotting pet-carriers together by trial and error, and not realising there is such a thing as a condenser at the bottom of my tumble-drier, requiring to be cleaned out at 30 day intervals, until my washing starts coming out wetter than it went in. At that point I dig out the instruction leaflet, and read (only) the paragraph that refers to troubleshooting and soggy washing.

However, yesterday I broke my own rule. I spotted this thing on Google – Discover Your Brain Age in Five Minutes and – inevitably – clicked on it. And was faced with a raft of daft games, and tiny time limits for completing them in. So I had a go, but my old failing – an inability to focus on instructions – kicked in again. And then the anxiety started up. Once that kicks in, no thinking at all takes place. What do you mean? I heard myself pleading with the computer. What do you want me to DO? What ARE all these little zoomy-about things?

That was the one I really fell down on, the Zoomy-Abouts. Never having played computer games I just sat there watching these silly little gold football things popping up in rapid succession all over the screen becoming more and more terrified. Yes, but what am I supposed to DO? It took me most of the game to work out that I was supposed to ‘catch’ them with the mouse, and then I only caught one because they were far too fast. That scored me a brain age of 96. But never mind, said the computer, that was only one game. It merely contributes to the total score. I did quite well on the anagrams – that got me a 25 – and not too badly on some of the others, and in the end my Brain Age turned out to be two years less than my actual age. If I’d realised what I was supposed to do with the Zoomy-Abouts I flatter myself it might have been considerably less. Oh yes!

Hoping to repair my damaged self-esteem I looked up the results of the experiment the BBC has been running on the efficacy of online brain-training for older persons, i.e. they split the ancient ones into several groups and gave some of them one type of exercise, some another, some another. There was also a control group, who did no exercises. The data-analysts came to conclusion that brain-training had no effect at all on memory – or at least no greater effect than three weeks surfing the internet. Since I surf the internet every day, as part of – this sort of thing – I was pleased. To say the least.

You see – trying not to get too serious here – as I have mentioned in other posts, my Mum has dementia. I didn’t mention my Dad had it too, but he died before it got to the diagnosis stage – and at that point he had Mum to look after him. As far as we know, they are the only two in the family. My Mum is refusing even to allow a diagnosis, and has now gone well beyond the stage where it is possible to reason with her about anything. So we are left with an old lady who won’t wash her hair or go to the hairdresser, who can no longer make sense of the notes we write for her (she is deaf and won’t wear her hearing aids), who is convinced that all the equipment in the kitchen is broken, who hears voices, who can’t fit her key in the front door without a dozen failed attempts, who can’t remember how to pay for her shopping, who has to be brought food on our visits and lives the rest of the time on Ryvita and yoghurts; who won’t allow carers or, indeed, anyone apart from us to cross her threshold. The list goes on.

The three of us – my youngest sister, godmother (six months older than my mother) and I – are just about managing the situation, most of the time at the moment.  We lurch from crisis to crisis and, since it seems nobody will do anything and nothing can be done without Mum’s consent, we are waiting for the inevitable crisis with a capital C to take place. In a way, you have to admire her for her steely determination. But only in a way.

Much as I love my Mum, I wouldn’t wish this vile condition on anyone. She is vigorous and healthy for her age but she’s frightened and bewildered, losing touch with herself; and we have already lost her. She wouldn’t have wanted it this way. And I find it so difficult to be patient, though I suppose I am patient in effect. I need things to make sense. I need things to be logical. I can’t bear it when they don’t, and aren’t. It’s so difficult not to snap, sigh or contradict; not to try to explain or risk upsetting her by unravelling the mental tangles, the false conclusions, the tall stories and the paranoia. I can hear myself screaming inside my head Oh for God’s sake don’t be so STUPID!  But I don’t scream it – nobody would.

Instead I remind myself that she’s going backwards, from a grown-up to – eventually –  a baby. By now I estimate she’s somewhere around five years old and no one would get impatient with a five year old for behaving in the exasperating way five year olds tend to do. The thing is, it’s cute when a five year old has a meltdown or says something utterly ridiculous – especially if you’ve had a five year old yourself, which I haven’t. I’m having to learn child-care at an age when I would rather be free to do my own thing – at last. It’s not cute in an old person, its ghastly. With five year olds there’s the future. You can think, what will my child become? And how quickly they are becoming. There’s no becoming for a five year old octogenarian, just more and more of the same, followed by worse.

There – I went and got all bleak in spite of my good intentions. So – hence the brain games research. As my Canadian sister said recently, now we are all afraid. There’s this sinister shadow over our separate lives – the two of us in England, the one in Canada, under the same cloud. Any tiny example of absent-mindedness – like the other week I found the honey jar in the fridge instead of the cupboard, and I was the only one who could have put it there – any longer-than-usual delay in recalling a word or phrase – and all three of us will be thinking – is it me? Is it my turn next?

But who in their right mind would want to do brain-training anyway? Much more absorbing to write and research these daily (or almost) posts. I love those daily moments when, just when I think there can be nothing of interest left to write about, a new post starts to write itself in my head. Quick, grab a pencil, make a few notes before it evaporates. (Like those straw hats you used to get at the seaside: Kiss Me Quick Before I’m Sick.) I love those moments when you find you have written down something you didn’t realise you knew, or thought, or in a way that is unexpectedly poetic, and you wonder Where did that spring from?

I also found something else, in my (brain-enhancing) surfings yesterday. It’s this thing from Harvard Medical School. This is the link:

It struck me that this was good, plain advice and probably all anyone can do to protect themselves, at least until someone finds a cure or more is known about the disease. Two of their ‘Six Simple Steps’ struck me in particular. One is Keep Learning. It occurred to me to take up French again, for a start. I did A (Advanced) Level French at school and have a good memory for language – but school was a long time ago. I have found myself dropping silly bits of French into this blog – almost as if the French is still in there and wanting to be used. I do rather relish the odd bit of Franglais, but suspect it annoys genuine French people and I oughtn’t to do it. So, I am waiting for some books from Amazon – a sort of re-teach yourself French book and three Maigret detective novels.

I thought I’d tackle the Maigrets with the help of my giant French Dictionary (at present propping up the mirror along with Chambers Dictionary and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and occasionally crashed onto the floor by that pale ginger streak of a cat Henry on one of his skittish evening strolls around the upper levels of the living room – bookcase, bookcase, mantelpiece – knock off dictionary – bookcase, bookcase, windowsill, bookcase, sofa top – land on Mummy’s head… ow!). I did try this at one point with a German dictionary and Harry Potter Und der Stein der Weisen, but my German was too bad and it was too easy to hazard guesses at meanings, having once read the book in English.

The second Harvard piece of advice was Believe In Yourself. They say not to accept the negative stereotypes connected with ageing and memory, not to joke about ‘senior moments’, not to excuse yourself from thinking hard and pushing yourself to learn. I do believe we are to some extent what we decide to be – and maybe instead of even thinking about dementia at this point I should be deciding to become Something New and Wonderful!

  • A man walks down the street
  • He says why am I short of attention
  • Got a short little span of attention
  • And wo my nights are so long
  • Where’s my wife and family
  • What if I die here
  • Who’ll be my role-model
  • Now that my role-model is
  • Gone Gone

From: Call Me Al by Paul Simon

In the darkness on the edge of town

Some things you remember are just too dark to write about. But they stick in the back of your brain. Templates are formed from them. And always after that your life is patterned. Your chance of freewheeling gone.

This is the tale of the Brown Books. I first wrote it down for the biography module of a creative writing course at the University of Kent. Sitting there one evening in one of their black-walled basement classrooms (I was told they recycled plans for a prison complex, when designing the University of Kent) amongst a selection of Yummy Mummies with Literary Leanings, I felt ill at ease, common and awkward. I had ventured into the borderlands of the Middle Classes. I wondered how they would react, whether they might feel what I felt when it happened, but didn’t hold out a great deal of hope. The telling required more skill and subtlety than I possessed at that time. Suspect it still does.

There was a whole bookcase full of them – big, thick hardbacks covered in brown paper, the titles written in my mother’s neat hand and underscored with her trademark wavy line. She was a very neat person. She made a lot of lists, and they were neat too. She never read those books but I did. They were my private horde; somewhere for my imagination to go.

I’ve forgotten most of them now. There was one for Housewives. The pictures were poor quality, grainy black and white on shiny paper. It featured ladies with stiff hairdos and white aprons, heads bent over their needlework. It told you things like how to make a petticoat out of parachute silk. There were crochet patterns for baby layettes, with instructions for threading the ribbon through; there were sections on keeping bees, making rose-water and unblocking chickens that were egg-bound.

There was one about Gregg shorthand. I suppose she must have studied it at school, or maybe was teaching herself. I tried it. It was beyond me, but I liked those Egyptian squiggles, the whole idea of there being a language made of shapes – that a language could be made of anything you wanted – maybe sounds, maybe colours, maybe numbers. There was one called The Science of Mind At seven years old I read about the Id and the Ego, picturing the one as a statue or an angel, the other as a black burr-thing, like the ones that got caught in your clothes when you walked across the field. Id and Ego floated just above my head, casting sideways glances at one another. There were photographs in that book too. There was one of a Congenital Idiot. I was glad I hadn’t come to earth as one of those.

There was a book about tropical fish. You could make out the spots and the stripes, the fanciful fins. You had to imagine the colours. I imbibed those fish names, recited them over and over on my way to school, like a charm or amulet, to drown out the bullies in my wake…

… Angelfish, Pufferfish, Guppy, Molly, Piranha…

One afternoon I came home from school and she was kneeling on the floor by the bookcase, her print skirt flounced out around her, pulling the brown books out and packing them into a cardboard box. I remember the flare of distress, the hot flare of rage, the welling-up of tears. ‘What are you doing with them?’ I asked.

‘Jumble Sale,’ she said.

gregg shorthand

‘She’s highly strung, that child,’ a neighbour once said in my hearing, ‘a regular Prima Donna.’ Afterwards I asked my mother what a Prima Donna was. She said an opera singer which made no sense. I couldn’t sing. But rage and sorrow would certainly rise up and overwhelm, like a storm, in seconds. On the outside I was small and dull, and nobody listened. On the inside I was Old, and engaged in listening to the universe. I would hear Her screaming; feel her fists hammering, on carpet, on wood, on people – on one occasion punching through a glass window. The Old One watched the purple blood blossoming out of her wrist like a fin.

And now the Old One observed and waited as she cried, cracked and undignified, her face swelling up. She had one of those faces, the Prima Donna: cry for a minute, red balloon for days. It is for that reason that I rarely allow myself to weep nowadays.

As she bawled and hiccupped and kicked the skirting board with her brown school shoes, the Old One looked on. It won’t work, it was telling her. Be calm. Listen to the universe.

‘Let me look after them in my room,’ she screeched. ‘Let me have them. Please, Mummy, please‘ – knowing all the time they would not fit into her room, which she shared with the airing cupboard, a chest of drawers and the larger of her two sisters.

‘Please, Mummy, please.’

She was very tidy, my Mum, and quite young herself. You tend to forget how young your parents were, when you were young. I doubt if she would remember the death of the Brown Books now; indeed, she has forgotten almost everything about those early years – almost everything about everything. But I find I still can’t manage to forgive her for the Brown Books – the ignoring – the ignorance – of what lay behind the tantrum. I was one of those who came after the War. All those other sons and daughters lost – we were their replacements, saplings planted in the gaps where others had been cut down. We were bred, like piglets, and I think we were not quite real to our parents in the way that children had been real, once upon a time, in the long, sunny days before Hitler.

Sometime after that I turned to stone. My face became a kind of mask, my voice ceased to work in any meaningful way. Behind the silence and the blank expression the Old One continues to observe and proffer advice and, I suppose, to commune with the universe. Although the universe feels further and further away as time goes on, its signals fainter. And with it, behind the mask, lives a seven year old Prima Donna, still spiky and black, still screaming. Still putting her wrist through the glass.

gregg alphabet


  • Double, double toil and trouble;
  • Fire burn and caldron bubble.
  • Fillet of a fenny snake,
  • In the caldron boil and bake;
  • Eye of newt and toe of frog,
  • Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
  • Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
  • Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
  • For a charm of powerful trouble,
  • Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
  • Double, double toil and trouble;
  • Fire burn and caldron bubble.
  • Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
  • Then the charm is firm and good.

This, from Macbeth, is one of those little Shakespeare song/poems that most people recognise but few people – apart from actors – read very carefully. I say people don’t read these things very carefully because, just look at the last verse of the witches’ curse – Cool it with a baboon’s blood. Fenny snakes, blind-worms, bats, newts, dogs, lizards and howlets (owlets?) might be presumed to be freely available in Mediaeval Scotland, but where might a witch have sourced a baboon? And poor baboon! How could they? Did they murder him for the sake of a few drops of his blood and a silly curse? Or did they keep him, chained in a cave, feeding him on howlets and tapping the precious fluid as and when necessary?

Which reminds me of a boyfriend I once had – you can’t really call them boyfriends when you’re middle aged, but what else can you call them? He showed me the ornamental pond he had dug in his back garden, and something black swimming around in murky water. It’s my newt. Ha, ha ha, ha, ha ha ha, ha… He had obviously been working on this joke for some considerable time. It put me off him. That and the pointy nose.

How did I get started on curses and baboons? Oh yes I was thinking about tedious tasks. A tenuous link, I admit, but it occurred to me that the attraction of spell-making might lie not so much in the power to do harm, or exercise one’s wickedness, as in the comforting process of stirring. Just stirring. It’s the same as knitting. Why do people knit? The end result is itchy, usually unwearable, and quickly gets stretched and bobbly in the tumble-dryer. And yet we continue to knit, because it’s soothing. In my time I have made cat-blanket after cat-blanket out of six-inch garter-stitch squares. In times of stress – or distress – I tend to knit, stroke cats or iron piles of stuff that doesn’t need to be ironed. My Canadian sister, staying with me, once passed the room where I was ironing and exclaimed, ‘Did I just catch you ironing a knicker?’ And all to save my sanity. When my cat Sophie needed to be put to sleep I took her to the vets alone, I watched her die alone and came home from the vets alone – and mowed the lawn alone, and howled, and mowed the lawn a bit more, and howled a bit more. I had to break the howling up with something.

The boyfriend mentioned above – setting aside for a moment the sticking points of his minute newts and his pointy nose – had had troubles of his own from time to time. His first remedy had been to walk. He walked from one side of northern England to another following one of the Wainwright maps. And he made curries; more curries than he could ever possibly have eaten. It was his own recipe, which he knew by heart. In the corner of his kitchenette lived a teetering stack of shallow, empty margarine tubs and the transparent lids to go with them. On his down days he would fill vast numbers of margarine tubs with home-made curry, and freeze the results. The lodger was never short of something to microwave when he staggered in from the pub.

Shelling peas is another soothing thing. Sitting on the back doorstep in the sunshine, shelling a great heap of peas into a bowl; preparing any sort of vegetables, really – peeling potatoes, diagonally slicing runner beans, even cutting those daft little crosses into the stalks of Brussels sprouts. Are the crosses really necessary? Would the world come to an end if a sprout entered a saucepan uncrossed? And sharpening pencils. In the absence of inspiration: sharpen.

So I am hoping to be pleasantly soothed rather than excruciatingly bored when, on returning from the inevitably sad and stressful Sunday visit to my mother later this afternoon, I am going to have to start cutting up a ream of self-printed paper label sheets ready for my new catalogue-delivering venture. Yes, as from next Wednesday when several enormous cardboard boxes of catalogues are due to arrive via Parcel Force, the paucity of the State Retirement Pension and twelve ravenous rescue cats will have forced me to walk the streets of my village, and most probably all the other villages within drivable distance. I must remember not to wear a Red Hat (luckily I don’t possess a Red Hat) as a Red Hat is said to mean No Drawers. I suspect I’ll be safe enough out there on the streets of shame, and the exercise will do me good. Won’t it?

I hate exercise. But you need exercise. But I hate exercise. But it will be soothing. Didn’t you just say tedious tasks are soothing? But what if the books won’t balance?

What if it rains?