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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nobody?’

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

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

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

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

‘Did yer want the bags back?’

‘Er, no…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh… a bit tired, maybe?’

phone tap

Featured Image: London street art by Banksy

 

Saturday Night Ramble

Mum and Dad used to belong to a Cycling Club, one of whose (which’s?) many sub-activities was know as The Wednesday Wobblers. This was a group of older cyclists who met on a Wednesday and cycled unbelievably long distances in order to eat a pub meal and drink a pint of beer and wobble all the way back home again. My parents disliked the name actually, because they didn’t wobble; they were better cyclists than that. And because it had been invented by their arch enemy, Fat Pat.

And so, being now in a Club of One I thought I would engage in a Saturday Night Ramble, mainly because I haven’t written anything for some time and still can’t come up with anything coherent to say. But that never stopped me in the past. Incoherence is my middle name.

Today it was chilly, and raining on and off, but my friend and I had arranged to go to the next village down for fish and chips and so we went. Actually we almost never manage to get into the fish and chip emporium since it is always stuffed full of seaside-visiting grockles in tracksuits, hooped earrings and tattoos, and today was no exception. We always seem to time it wrong. One moment the place is empty. By the time we have crossed the road – rather slowly since my friend is disabled – the grockles have packed it and are spilling out onto the pavement.

We ended up with egg and chips at another place, almost equally packed, and a three-quarter of an hour wait for that. Then they brought only one plate of egg and chips, though I had clarified (twice, in fact) to the very slow woman at the till that we needed egg and chips twice, there being two of us, as they could clearly see, rather than one of us requiring two eggs with their chips. So I sat and watched my friend eat her chips, and her two eggs, and meanwhile got through six half-slices of bread-and-marge off a hefty white china plate. She had more or less finished by the time my egg and chips arrived. The mug of tea seemed to me to taste strongly of fish, but she said it was probably just that my mind was still in fish and chip mode.

Home again, I turned the central heating on and sat for several hours doing battle with my mobile phone. It is one of those Doro old-people phones with all possibility of doing anything dangerous strictly hidden from view so as to discourage Mother or Father from tampering with the settings and messing things up. Unfortunately I am not quite old enough for a Doro and am finding it increasingly frustrating, and patronising in its attitude. It thwarts me at every turn. It was populated with an awful lot of what I believe is collectively known as Bloatware – lots of Google stuff I had no need for, and obscure features nobody with any sort of life could possibly have need of. Add to that a small memory, an absolute refusal to use the memory card I had purchased and installed, and an insistence that I delete every single app I had ever installed in order to make room for Bloatware updates it didn’t have enough Memory to perform…

I tried swapping the SIM and the memory card to another phone, but this caused all sorts of problems. Google demanded that I sign in and kept presenting me with all those unreadable wiggly things. After an hour it was still refusing to accept that I was me, and I gave up, moved the SIM and the memory card back. Then I installed a file manager and viciously (viciously, I say) disabled or deleted every single Google bloat-thingy, every single Doro feature I had never found a use for and every single app that I couldn’t attribute a function to. That worked! Pah, I hate smartphones.

And now I am listening to music on my MP3 player to drown out the noise of the party next door. The trick is to turn the volume up just loud enough to partially distract from the thumping electronic beat and screeching pre-teens, but not quite loud enough to damage your own hearing.

Catwise, I now have another problem. One of my outdoor strays looks to have a damaged leg, but I can’t get near him. If he had just allowed himself to get tame first, I could have picked him up. All I can do is keep putting food out and hope he can manage to heal himself. Or for the universe to persuade him he really needs to trust the Giantess to take him to the vet and get fixed. So far the food is continuing to disappear, but I can’t be sure it’s him eating it, since there is Mystery Dog, another ginger tom (Sunshine), the ever-present Ratties and now a small brown mouse. The cats are glued to the back door watching the mouse’s insouciant preening of his whiskers inches from their noses, the wrong side of the double glazing.

The Cats Protection lady is still going to come and see me, but her companion is not. We have arranged this between us. He took a fancy to me and mowed my lawn. Then he told me I was Not Very Practical and obviously needed Taking In Hand and a Real Man To Look After Me. Then he grabbed me in the kitchen and started sending unspeakably suggestive texts all evening, every evening. Yuk! I find it amazing that now, when I am old and toothless (well, not completely toothless) – weirdo men seem to be coming out of the woodwork, attired in big boots, khaki shorts and hearing aids, or too tight overcoats that smell strongly of mothballs. Whereas when I was younger and at least willowy and acceptable-looking I couldn’t seem to get a boyfriend for love nor money. And oh, old men are so disgusting. They just never seem to lose the conviction that any single woman must be just gasping – gasping – for their slobbering embraces. He brought me unwanted food, and secreted it in my fridge, in cupboards etc., when I wasn’t looking. I have been throwing it out as I find it. This morning yet another dryish sultana loaf fell out of the cupboard…

Ow, think I’m going to have to turn the MP3 down. Perhaps they’ve stopped, next door…

Yes, a few minutes break before…

Ah, but there they go again. And it’s that idiot with the paint pot singing “I can hear it coming in the wind tonight”. They always get onto that one sooner or later.

And now Ed Sheeran… beautiful and sweet… we were just kids when we fell in love…

Keep Calm And Carry On

This phrase – famous from mugs, biscuit tins tea towels and whatever – was invented by the British Government in 1939 just before the start of the Second World War. It was a motivational poster intended to carry the British populace through such horrors as the Blitz, and to remind them that the British were famous for their Stiff Upper Lip. I can’t imagine what a Stiff Upper Lip looks like, in practice, can you? How did they communicate, with all that stiffness going on?

For some reason, in spite of the Blitz actually Happening and turning out to be Even Worse than Anybody Could Have Imagined, the poster was hardly used.

I was thinking it’s a bit like that now. Still no motivational poster, while we wait, with a growing sense of Foreboding, for those superpower idiots to stumble into bombing and nuking – or maybe horribly gassing and poisoning – the hell out of one another, presumably in and around what’s left of Syria. And in the meantime a military grade nerve agent, apparently capable of wiping out the entire population of the UK, is used on a former Russian spy and his daughter on the quiet streets of – of all places – Salisbury. Until now, nothing of note ever happened in Salisbury. People who don’t live there are not even sure where it is. It was just getting on with things, minding its own business.

But we are the British. We possess Stiff Upper Lips. We Keep Calm and Carry On. Apparently. But it seems to me that that is what ordinary people, everywhere, tend to do. Mostly.

My Mum had what they then called a Nervous Breakdown, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time I wasn’t aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and only aware of my Mum’s Nervous Breakdown because it involved what seemed to me like Years of lying on the sofa taking aspirins every four hours, and Nan coming along the road to do Mum’s housework after she had done her own, and me getting ignored and understanding that this was all My Fault. Indeed, my father told me it was My Fault. Mine and my sister’s, for fighting so much.

The thing Mum was most worried about, she told me later, was the Atomic Bomb. The Atomic Bomb was about to fall on all of us, any day now, and we would be just like the people in Hiroshima, reduced to piles of smoking ash, black shadows on walls or irradiated to death. Now we all live with that, don’t we? It’s got old and tired, and we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns over it. Indeed, we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns. We get Tired and Emotional, or we suffer from Exhaustion and have to book ourselves into some Clinic or other, for Cognitive Therapy.

All over the world, we carry on; we wash the dishes and put out the rubbish; we feed our pets and fill in our tax returns; we grumble because the bus hasn’t turned up – again; we wonder whether we should mow the lawn, or is it too wet still? There is nothing whatsoever we can do about the Bigger Picture: having no power to do anything else we focus on our postage-stamp lives and hope that somehow or other Armageddon will give us a miss.

Yesterday – apropos of nothing, or something, not sure – I took Fifi to the vet to get her claws clipped. For months she had been hooking up on one bit of furniture or another. It was time. But Fifi didn’t think so. Fifi is a tiny tabby, old and kind of frizzy looking, but on the nurse’s table she turned into a Wild Beast. It took two nurses to hold her, plus the application of a teensy-tiny muzzle that covered her whole face so she couldn’t see and being wrapped in a thick blanket. The nurses wrestled with poor Fifi, whose snarls and spitting could be clearly heard in the waiting room, and finally the claws were clipped. “If only you could have just Kept Calm, Fifi,” said one of the nurses, “it would all have been over with in a few seconds.”

But cats, unlike humans, are not programmed to Keep Calm And Carry On.

keep calm 2

Send In The Clowns

Well, now they have given my mother wheels. I don’t know why they didn’t think of it sooner – or why I didn’t think of it. All those months of visiting and she’s stuck in that heavy chair in front of the TV, and she’s still managing to move it around. She can’t walk, but she heaves it, by instalments, this way and that. Sometimes she’s facing the brown plastic linen basket (an object that seems to worry her greatly), sometimes she’s half way out of the door, and setting off that under-the-carpet alarm thing so the carers have to come running and heave her back. Now – light bulb moment – they’ve removed the alarms, turned off the TV, taken away the heavy chair and put her in a lightweight wheelchair she’s off – like a road runner.

And now, with one of those sudden swerves of pace/tone/logic/emotional atmosphere for which I am famous-or-at-least-mildly-well-known:

It occurs to me that we all have within us all the ages we have ever been – from ancient crone to grown-up woman to surly teenager to vulnerable three year old child – and can switch – and in fact can’t help switching – backwards and forwards between these versions of ourselves, minute by minute, second by second. Today I woke up three years old, and needing my Mum. Well, Dad would probably have done, but he’s dead. At least Mum’s this side of the veil, pro tem.

On some rare days, friends are not enough: neither is logic enough, or courage enough, or adult conversation, either in person or over the telephone. What would be enough – what you really need – no longer really exists in this world for you. But that doesn’t stop you needing it.

Well, I was going to visit Mum anyway, and so I went, hoping that maybe Old Mum was still lurking somewhere inside that wizened old shell. Hoping against hope, really, that the Fraction of her that knew me so well before I was even born, and the Whole of her that will know me again in the next world, might be tuned in, today.

And there she was, on wheels. And I do believe it was the funniest visit I have ever had with her. Well, the only funny visit. Firstly she ran over my foot, then she spent some time experimentally backwards-and-forwardsing on her new wheels, bumping her knees against mine crying wheeeee! and brrrrroooom!

We obviously weren’t going to stay in her room this visit, dolefully watching The Simpsons together. Oh no. Off we went up the corridor, with Mum branching off at intervals to enter and inspect other people’s rooms. At one point she paused behind a carer who had just gone into a store cupboard, craning her neck around in an exaggeratedly casual way to ascertain what was in there. Only sheets and stuff, nothing to interest you! came the muffled comment from inside the cupboard.

Next minute we were in the almost deserted dining room, and Mum was helping herself to a banana from the fruit bowl on the side. She looked at it for a moment. Yer ‘as to peel it for e’r came a hoarse old voice from the corner. It was a lady waiting for a haircut. Been ‘ere all morning, she grumbled. They left my toast in the microwave and it’s gone stone cold, but I’m about to eat it anyway.

I ended up following my mother around, with an increasing amount of ‘stuff’ – a cup of tea in a white mug; a glass of that anonymous pink water the carers keep giving them, and insisted on giving Mum as well as the cup of tea; a brownish and wilting banana skin; my own bag; five unwanted grapes. We skedaddled into the Day Room and watched the traffic out of the window for a minute or two, then Mum ran over my bag. I moved it. She carefully ran over it again.

You’re…. daughter, she said suddenly. Proud of you.

And I’m proud of you too, Mum.

I stayed half an hour longer than I normally would have done. After that I could see she was getting bored with me and wondering when her Friday Fish was going to get here. I too was hungry. And the cats would need feeding. In the lobby, a teenage carer was sitting with a trolley load of croissants and sweet rolls of various sorts. Can I interest you in one of these? he enquired. For a small donation? Maybe £10?

£10?

Only joking. Most people are putting in about £1.

I put in £1.50 and selected a chocolate croissant. I picked it because it was the only one wrapped in cellophane and total strangers had no doubt been fingering the others.

And on the way home I thought – that’s just what she would have done when I was three years old, and tearful. Distraction. And a memory came to me – a long-lost occasion I know she had forgotten even before she forgot everything, because I asked her about it once and she had no idea what I meant.

Mum and Canadian Sister and I are in the kitchen, eating lemon cup cakes. How old am I on this day? Eight, maybe? Twelve? And my chubby little sister says: Mum, what shall I do with the wrapper? And my mother says, How should I know? STICK IT ON THE WALL!!! And proceeds to stick her own gooey cake wrapper to the kitchen wall (tiled, luckily).

So, in a way, I found both the Old Mum and the New Mum.

(PS: I had to look up ‘rube’, the English-English equivalent of which would probably be bumpkin, or yokel. I thought Clowns was probably near enough.)

For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it. (Proverbs 8:11)

Do you speak Hat?

I’m not quite sure what this picture is – an early example of Photoshopping, perhaps.

It just occurred to me whilst doing the washing up that I speak a very specialised language to my cats. I mean, you’d think when a person lives alone, the inside of their solitary dwelling would be perfectly silent. Certainly it was like that with my Mum in her latter years. No radio, no music, no nothing – just the clock ticking. But then she was deaf. And latterly she had those Voices to listen to.

I talk all the time, and so do my cats. Most of it would sound like gibberish to a non-Hat (Human-Cat) speaker, which is why I have hitherto resisted reproducing any of it. In any case, it’s difficult. Hat is a purely verbal/physical language. There is no dictionary of Hat, there are no books in Hat, not even a shopping-list. Cats, not possessing opposable thumbs (Ah, those opposable thumbs again – you just have to rub it in, don’t you?) have problems with pencils.

opposable thumb

So, an example of Hat might be something like (deep breath)

Are you all squirmy-wormy then?
Who’s my tiddly-widdly?
Are you a little wrigglecat?
Hello, Henny-Penny!
Are you an Arfur? Is that my little Arfur?

Cats supplement their briefer and rather more sensible replies (ow! eowww! prrrrrrr…. ) with a bit of basic body language and some primitive telepathy which is nevertheless more advanced than the human version.

I remember in my Glory Days (when brain still working) doing an Open University linguistics course – fascinating! There was a language they mentioned called Motherese – also known as Infant-Directed Speech (IDS) Child-Directed Speech (CDS) and Caretaker Speech). It is the language a mother speaks to her baby, and apparently it helps the baby to develop language faster.

My cats have not yet started talking Human to me, for all my efforts to engage them in the process, but I suspect that is simply because they can’t be bothered. They probably switch to Human when I am out of the house, and refine their subjunctive verbs, adjectives, dependent clauses and dangling modifiers by discussing the rise and fall in the stock market.

I myself tend to be discreet about talking Hat, and take care not come out with any Hat phrase in company, or when I have visitors – unlike the rather lonely young woman I saw recently on The Supervet, who was happily supplying her own voice and the voice of her beloved pet, in order that the vet would fully understand what he was thinking and how he was feeling about everything. The dog had a very deep voice. Gruff, in fact.

Because if you start mixing Human with Hat – or for that matter Hog, Hudgie, Herbil or Harrot – some people will think you are Mad, or at the very least Eccentric, and will smirk behind your back. If you don’t believe me, read the All Creatures Great and Small series by James Herriot. Look out for a wealthy client by the name of Mrs Pumphrey, who owns a much loved but very spoilt Pekingese (Tricki Woo). Tricki Woo suffers from all manner of maladies, and each has its own technical term – Flopbot, Crackerdog…

cat pearl

Of sadness, shower-gel and intergalactic fire extinguishers

Here we are again…

(…Happy as can be / All good friends and / Jolly good company… as the song goes)

and it’s 2018. How did it get to be 2018 more or less without me noticing? Although I did notice a whole succession of firework displays on TV, starting with Australia – or maybe New Zealand – and wondered what all these successive fireworks-es must look like from outer space. Pretty impressive I imagine, though how a visiting Martian might interpret them. He might assume the planet was about to explode and train his all-powerful intergalactic fire-extinguishers upon us…

On my visit to the Home today I attempted to explain to Mum (goodness knows why) that it was the first day of 2018. Today I was the bringer of shower-gel and deodorant, which the carers inform me (practically every time!) that she has run out of, even though she has a constantly-replenished account with them for everyday expenses, which one might have thought would include shower-gel and deodorant. But they say the shops are not convenient for them to get to and so they ask the relatives.

I mentioned to a passing cleaner (again, goodness knows why – just for the pleasure of speaking to someone who could understand me, I suppose) that I had brought the shower-gel, and would have brought it sooner had I not been too ill over Christmas. She said she had noticed earlier this morning that I had brought it. But I had only just arrived, and the en suite bathroom shelves had been absolutely empty.  Seeing the look of bewilderment on my face, she must have realised her mistake. “Er, you’ve just brought them, haven’t you?” I nodded.

“I expect it was another room.”

What I reckon is, it’s a scam. They’re selling whatever they can inveigle relatives into bringing in that pretend shop of theirs on the first floor – it’s so that the dementia patients can feel that they have “gone outside” or “gone to the shops and bought something”. Or worse, at boot fairs on Sundays! God preserve us.

Mum didn’t understand about 2018. She didn’t understand why I was soaking wet either even though I pointed out of the window a number of times to indicate that torrential rain was, in fact, falling. She was quite talkative though, and pointed out things on The Simpsons to me. I think she likes that they are yellow and brightly-coloured. She said several times about the colours. She said she wanted a new calendar and I promised to bring one with me next time. So perhaps she does know it’s 2018 after all.

On the way out I had a chat with a lady about my age who had been with her Mum in the room opposite. She said her mother had been in this and other care homes for eleven years, and she had been visiting all this time. She disappeared into the deluge on foot, and I made a splashy run for the car.

I don’t usually write about sadness because I suspect I don’t often allow myself to feel it. Anger, yes. Exasperation, yes. Generalised Winter Gloom, yes. But there’s something about sadness, isn’t there? It seems to bring along with it a lot of things you don’t want to know, and you have to actually know them. Canadian Sister just phoned and something she said made me realise that English Sister and I really are estranged now, at least from her point of view. And I do feel sad, because I really don’t understand why and I suppose I always thought she would be there – we would be there – if not exactly thinking along the same lines or being much alike. You just assume, don’t you, that things will go on as before, and then one by one they all seem to have tiptoed out of the room…

Even the lady I was volunteering to chat to seems to have vanished. I got a phone call to say she had been taken into hospital over Christmas, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me why, or which hospital. Nothing to be done but to send a Get Well Soon card to her home address and wait to hear, if at all.

And so I say to you, keep hold of your family. Put the work in to keeping in touch even though there doesn’t seem much point. Looking back, I wish I had spent more time trying to communicate with my family, or at least making the most of their presence while they were still around – and less time trying desperately to cling to people (hah, mostly men, to be honest) who were never going to be worth the effort and who should have been ‘excised’ (redacted?) – ruthlessly or otherwise. But there, I suppose that’s the point of growing older: you can reassess, put your past life into perspective and finally let yourself feel what you feel.

My Café Collection

The one-armed cat is asleep, a scarf draped over the still-baldy-bit where his arm until recently was. I felt he might be cold. I’m certainly cold, in spite of the central heating. Sleety snow falling outside. A long, soggy trek to the bird table to fill it up yet again. Darkness falling though it’s barely afternoon. According to the not-so-smartphone it’s 4 degrees C in my location. I notice it’s even 9 degrees C in Edmonton, where my sister is, and that’s only somewhat south of the Arctic Circle. Something’s gone wrong.

I was thinking about cafés the other day. I accidentally met Bertie in a café in town, to which I had resorted in desperation having found myself with yet another hour to fill whilst waiting for my bus home. Bertie had had the same idea, as had a number of his disabled friends. It’s an Italian café, the usual thing – formica-topped tables, cheery service, steamy coffee with free tiny biscuit wrapped in cellophane.

 I actually walked right past Bertie, startling though he is to behold – wrapped in my own thoughts, a number of scarves and a woolly hat. Till he yelled my name. If Bertie yells your name, you know it. Everybody, all along the High Street, knows it.

And so we all passed the time. There was a man from Spain – or at least he was English but he had been in Spain for quite a few years. He had come home for a ‘recce’, presumably spooked by the idea of being marooned in Spain sans pension after Brexit, the plan being to do the ‘recce’, have his car shipped over and then drive round looking for somewhere to live, back in Blighty. 

However, one cold, damp afternoon in town, drinking tea in steaming cafés, surrounded by tattoo parlours, pound stores, charity shops, seedy pubs and branches of Nationwide had begun to sew seeds of doubt in his mind. ‘Maybe I won’t get the car shipped over,’ he remarked to Bertie. Bertie started listing the library opening hours for him. Bertie likes to provide answers, if not to questions anyone has actually asked.

And I fell to wondering how many dingy cafés I had inhabited in this my elderly life. What would they look like strung end to end, I mused. As Bertie continued with the library list and the returning expat continued to agonise and ruminate, unheard, about the car locked in the garage behind his rented villa in drier and sunnier climes, I visualised a string of past cafés and myself wandering through them endlessly, in one door and out the other, over the whole of my life. 

Here was Lyons Tea Shop in Chatham, where I went with my mother. I must have been quite small. I remember the black tiles and the mirrors – the long, long mirrors and the way they made the room look twice as big – and the woman behind the counter slopping teas from a giant teapot over a selection of teacups on a grid, not caring if the tea went in the cups or not. And the Knickerbocker Glories – ice creams and other miraculous sweet stuff in a glass so tall you had to eat it with a long spoon, and I could only just reach…

And then the cafés I went to with Mum and Dad on their Sunday cycling club marshalling duties. Plain, workmanlike cafés with cheese sandwiches, and egg and chips, and solid white mugs, unbreakable unless you hurled them forcefully against a wall. Full of cyclists, chatty and rather sweaty, in embarrassing get-ups: not lycra in those days but plus-fours, cycle clips, saggy shorts (with special saddle-padding, as my Dad foolishly showed me once) and cycling shoes that clicked and clacked as they walked. Loud. They were always very loud.

And the cafés where I did my student courting. Romance blossoming in some tiny, trendy dive. Juke box playing the same records over and over. People going up to put money in them. Coffee machines that sent out sudden jets of steam and deafened you further. What was that romantic thing he just murmured? My long-haired, half-Austrian lothario (several inches shorter than self) in the fraying cardigan his mother had knitted for him.

And the garden centre cafés I would meet Mum and Dad in, most of the rest of my life, on Sundays. People shopping for bags of manure for their roses, for garden trowels, for just the right lawnmower. People pottering and dawdling and thoroughly enjoying themselves, as British people love to do on a Sunday. Dad sitting there with his knife and fork clasped in his ham-like hands, impatient for dinner. Mum spotting a cyclist outside the window behind my back, before I had finished the sentence, so I would have to repeat it. Then spotting another cyclist. Nothing I could say was interesting enough to hold either of their attentions for the span of a complete sentence.

And the Greek café I had to take Mum to, when we were still pretending she wasn’t yet quite mad enough to be Taken Away.  The powdered scrambled egg, the sea of baked beans, the wobbly plates, the tasteless frothy coffee. Sugar in a long tube. Ever frugal, Mum took the tubes home in her handbag, but then forgot about them.

The malicious comments she thought she heard (though deaf). The accusations to the waiting staff. The explanations that were necessary. The walking stick on the floor, constantly on the floor, getting sticky, and me having to retrieve it. Trying to get her arms into her coat when they didn’t seem to want to bend backwards, even a little bit. I drew a broken heart right on your windowpane playing faintly in the background. Too-small dresses in the charity shop opposite. The bookshop she wouldn’t let me go into when we came out…

The cafés with friends. Serviettes with the sandwiches, overworked staff, sudden bursts of baby bellowing, toddlers running up and down the aisle, plate glass windows, shoppers scuttling far beneath like one of those L S Lowrie painting. All only half-noticed. The conversation is the thing.

And then a hundred – seems more like a thousand – cafés alone. The cafés above department stores and supermarkets, long and echoing. Complicated systems for queueing up for food and self-service beverages. Draughts. Shopping bags dumped under the tables. Unnatural quiet. The cafés on train stations, warming my hands on a polystyrene cup, wondering if the lid will fit back on if the train comes…

And this one. Bertie seems to have exhausted Library Opening Hours and is staring at me, perplexed. I ought to be talking, presumably. I’ve been in one of my Absences. The man from sunny Spain is gone ahead of us to the bus stop, to catch one of the red buses (we are waiting for a blue one). But when we get to the bus stop he is nowhere to be found. Bertie is concerned. I wonder if he is simply Walking Back to Spain, just like that woman used be Walking Back To Happiness on the juke box, all those years ago…