3: Send in the clowns

Continued from 2: Supping with the Devil (technically, posted on 6/7 – you might need to use the Search box)

It should have been funny, and it kind of was, looking back. Looking back, I can recall the struggles and contradictions of that afternoon as Mum and I listened to these two monolithic men droning on at one another about politics or whatever, beneath the ’70s artex ceiling and ghastly pine wall-covering, giant mugs of tea at the ready: exhilaration, a rather spiteful kind of satisfaction, sadness, anxiety and loss. Part of me knew that Ex had got to win, another part couldn’t bear for Dad to lose. Ridiculously, now, I am reminded of battling silverback gorillas and David Attenborough. (Who can picture a gorilla without David, whispering reverentially close by?) And I recall that last scene in The Railway Children – Daddy, my Daddy!

After twenty-three years or so I screwed up the courage to tell Ex I was leaving. He seemed unmoved, relieved as much as anything. Not long after that the lady I usually refer to as My Replacement came along – well, she’d been ‘along’ for quite some time, I just hadn’t really realised. That was probably the most painful bit.

On one particularly memorable occasion , which I now think of as my Send In The Clowns moment, I had driven across to the small town where Ex still lived. I had an appointment to get my hair cut at my old hairdressers. I had not anticipated that there would be a carnival procession going on, and so had to park some way out of town and walk back in. As I was walking along the road I realised that he – and she – were walking towards me in the far distance, hand in hand. I suppose they must have been out watching the carnival. There was no convenient side-road or alleyway to swerve into, and in any case they had already seen me. I just had to pin on a gruesome attempt at a smile and keep walking forwards on the pavement, one foot in front of the other – and so did they, of course. I found myself feeling sorry for them at the same time as I was feeling sorry for me. It seemed to take years, and he couldn’t exactly drop her hand. I can’t remember another thing about that day. That one memory was enough to last me for ever!

Although most of me knows that leaving, even in middle age, was the right decision, some disconsolate little remnant continues to prowl around my house on sleepless nights mewling Where are you? Why did you stop looking after me? Why didn’t you come and find me?  Didn’t you love me? And I realise it is not just the lost wife crying, but the lost child looking for her father.

daddy

 

In the 1980s Canadian Sister, also ADD-ish, married a man who looked not so very different from Dad. He was very definite in his opinions, very clever, very competent, would brook no arguments, etc., etc., but they remained married until his death earlier this year. Now she rages at him, in his urn on the mantelpiece. He was supposed to be her shield and protector, and in return she knew she must do what she was told and never argue; she went where he wanted to go, watched whatever he wanted to watch on TV; pretended not to be embarrassed when he was rude to shopkeepers and Indian waiters, resisting the urge to apologise on his behalf. That was the clear bargain struck on a cold May day in a black old Northern church all those years ago, and he reneged on it by going and getting cancer.

I have been wondering what conclusion to draw, what ‘advice’, with the benefit of hindsight, I would give to my parents, or any new parents of an unconventional child. Of course I have no right to advise. If I had been able to have children or my own I’m sure I’d have got it just as wrong, and probably more so.

The fashionable motto is that all you really need to be is a Good Enough parent. I would extend that a bit – I think you can be a pretty bad parent and your child will still stand a chance or surviving, more or less, if only she can get what she needs from alternative sources. Which is an argument for old-fashioned rural communal parenting as opposed to the nuclear family, in which any evils are concentrated, hidden and likely to be perpetuated.

I was saved by Nan and Grandad who, by the most enormous stroke of luck, lived at the other end of our street. Nan walked along to see Mum most days, and I spent every Sunday from about the age of three along with Nan and Grandad. To start with this was because Mum and Dad were engaged in building their own house, with Grandad’s help, whilst expecting my sister at any moment. After that it just became a tradition.

Nan and Grandad had a huge garden with a cherry blossom tree, a swing suspended from an apple tree, a lawn full of daisies and buttercups, and all sorts of flowers and vegetables. They also had a smelly old golden Labrador, a roaring fire in winter, stacks of Woman’s Weekly and Carpenter & Joiner magazines, a bookcase full of pre-War hardback books, an etymological dictionary (my favourite) and a tiny black and white TV set.

Nan cooked great Sunday dinners. She washed my hair and I sat in front of the fire to dry it. I was included in whatever she was doing. We put down newspaper and polished a mountain of brass with Brasso and blackening yellow dusters; we picked mint for the mint sauce – she chopped it fine then I stirred it in a little pot with sugar and vinegar. We sat on the back step shelling peas into an enamel bowl whilst staring up at the sky.

Over the course of the years she told me about the recent War, and the War before that. She told me about my Great Grandmother Sarah and her own many sisters. She told me the facts of life, taught me how to darn a sock and sew on a button. She chatted to me unselfconsciously as if I was just another grown-up, or she was just another child. On those Sundays with Nan I was a relaxed, ‘normal’ human being, but as soon as I returned to the other end of the road I became once again the freaky “Prima Donna” or “You Little Bitch”.

In writing this it has occurred to me that Nan had the advantage of having finished bringing up Mum – who had many of the same traits as me – considerably more pronounced, some of them – less than six years before, since Mum married at nineteen. Mum hadn’t had that advantage.

See 4: Imagine

Cows with no legs; a church with no congregation; radioactive singing frogs

In their latter years Mum and Dad ‘did’ the same holiday year after year: they went to Middle Farm. Middle Farm was in the middle of a long and sinuous lane between two villages, and in the middle of the Marsh. They packed the car with practised ease. Mum had a list and she ticked things off. In earlier years they took the bicycles, strapped to the back of the car. Dad never went anywhere without his bike. But later… later there was no point in the bike. He just sort of sat.

They usually went September or October. It was a bit cheaper end of season but the sun still shone, at least once the mist had burnt off the fields. We – ie the three separate sisters, our partners, husbands – or later not – Godmother, cycling chums and other increasingly ancient persons – were invited down there for days, or an afternoon. Mum kept a schedule, I think, and ticked people off with relief.

It was dullish, but it made a change of scene. Mum and Dad didn’t see much of the farm, nor were they really interested in doing so. Not for them the borrowed wellies, lending a hand to muck out the pigs and all that rural stuff. They were happy enough to potter down through the farm, to the bridge over the ditch that marked one of its boundaries, and to sing the praises of Cecilia, the farmer’s wife. Cecilia was the person they saw, since she ran the chalet business.

Three chalets, later four, in a row, in a field next to the winding road. Sheep in a vast field behind, and a branch railway line, a long way in the distance, chugging down to Rye. During the day you hardly noticed the trains. At night, though, they came through lit up and spectacular, and were a point of interest, something to exclaim over. My parents always exclaimed over them. I expect Mum kept a list of trains too, and ticked them off.

Cecilia irritated me. She was kind of glam and ‘anyone for tennis’. Indeterminate age, long, somehow expensively blonde hair casually caught up. Always bouncing off to the gym, suitably attired. Trim figure – Dad liked that. Dubiously posh accent. Mum liked that. Painted. OK paintings but not brilliant. Several hanging (casually) on the walls of the chalet. Different ones each year. Prices on the back. High prices, for what they were.

But – good, clean accommodation, pleasant surroundings, value for money.

We would go for walks, on our allotted visits. Apart from the walk to the boundary there were three ‘proper’ walks, and Mum had the casting vote. The first was very long and eventually took you, sore-footed, into a village with a pub where you could get a cooked meal and a cup of tea to fortify you for the the very long walk back. I dreaded that one.

There was the one to the church in the middle of the field, for which you had to collect the key – a big rusty iron object – at a cottage some way down the road. We went there once in later autumn. There were cows in the field – sheep, cow and rabbit droppings to crunch over – but you couldn’t seen the cows’ leg for the mist. Half-cows. Inside there were a party of Scottish bell-ringers, on a holiday of their own. Their mission: to ring all the bells in all the churches on the Marsh. They rang them while we were there. But the church itself, rather like a film set. No feeling of people – real people – ever having been there. Just musty. Meaningless. Enclosed.

And then there was the one with the frogs. This was the least onerous. No key to collect, no blisters or perspiration involved, just a square walk round narrow lanes and back again. Lanes so narrow that grass grew in cracks up the middle. Ditches on either side. The Marsh is a magical place but when you’re out in it it always gives you that same uneasy feeling, that this time you might not get back. It might be intending to…swallow you. There’s something dank about it, something ancient, cynical and not entirely welcoming, like the glint in Cecilia’s eye.

At a certain point it was obligatory to stop and listen for the song of the Marsh Frogs. These frogs were famous, and supposedly of a giant variety. They were as invisible as they were audible, so there was no way of telling – and anyway, I’m not sure any of us really knew what a normal frog was supposed to look like. When I worked at the power station, rumour had it they were radioactive, having at some point wallowed in radioactive ditch-water near the plant, and that was why they had grown so monstrously large. I doubt if it was true since the power station were always careful – paranoid, in fact – about not making stuff radioactive. Another rumour was that the frogs had been imported from a far-off land where there were Especially Big Frogs – and had escaped from some domestic pond, gaily to multiply and sing in all the ditches.

But then came the day when Dad was taken ill. We came back from that walk and found him secretly bathing his bandaged bad leg. It had been kind of leaking for a while, we knew that – something to do with the valves inside the veins disintegrating, like a series of broken ladders. But this – was a horrible sight. He had kept secret how bad it had become, not wanting to spoil Mum’s holiday. He had driven down there, somehow, but was in no fit state to drive back. He wouldn’t be persuaded to be taken to hospital, either. In the end I enlisted Ex and (inevitably) My Replacement. They didn’t live that far off. Dad had always got on with Ex and Ex had a way of imposing common sense on chaotic situations. He had never been able to bring himself to say ‘Dad’ so he breezed in with: “Now then Mr — what’s all this then?”

They had a jolly, masculine chat, the pair of them, whilst the rest of us tried very hard to not to look at that monstrous, suppurating leg; but the old Ex magic didn’t work this time. Eventually Mum packed everything up and drove the both of them home. They had only been there a couple of days. There was no refund, of course, and they never went again. Just in case. Just in case.

And that’s what life’s like, isn’t it? That is the way of Time. There is always going to be the Giant Hand, imposing a full stop at the end of our half-finished sentence. We just don’t notice that Hand till afterwards. It descends in silence and always, always, takes us by surprise.

giant frog

When is a drill not a drill?

My sister up in Stockport has a drill! Canadian brother-in-law informs me reprovingly. She put up all the new shelves in the garage.

Some of us don’t have several garages full of Northern clutter that we need to put up new shelves for. Some of us ladies have an instinctive aversion to drills, chainsaws, Stanley knives – in fact anything that makes a noise and goes round and round or that might accidentally kill, spear or amputate us. I have never met this competent Oop North sister-in-law once removed but have taken an instant dislike to her. I imagine her stiffly permed, sensible-shoed, twin-setted, impressively-bosomed and sounding a little like Les Dawson.

However, now I must buy a drill. The plastic planters I ordered for the garden have turned up not only twice the size they appeared on Amazon but with no drainage holes. Why have they no drainage holes? How many people are there who buy a plastic planter for anything other than planting plants in?

I look at drills on Amazon. What exactly is a hammer drill? Why would a drill need to hammer? Don’t you use a hammer to hammer? What is a drill bit? What is a chuck? What is a chuck key? And what is a torque setting? With a shudder I recall Ex’s longest ever Aspie-type monologue during which, for over an hour, he explained torque to me in minute detail with particular reference to helicopter blades. I thought torque – that dreaded substance – was safely confined to helicopter blades but no – apparently drills have it too.

I don’t want a drill, but I do want holes in my plastic planters. I decide to swallow my pride and phone Ex. Occasionally he will speak to me. I telephone and get My Replacement instead. Instantly flummoxed, my mind still running on DIY equipment, I make a mess of that too. Er, how are you? I ask, remembering that there’s an order of precedence and normal people enquire about one another before demanding advice about drill bits.

But that was wrong. She’s had cancer. It sounds like I’m eager to  hear the worst, though in fact we’ve known each other for a long time and I feel somewhat less animosity towards her than towards that paragon of a Northern sister-in-law. But it sounds wrong. Oh, you know, she says, sounding weak and croaky, So-so. Yes, that was wrong. Why did I phone without working out the conversation first? I can’t do spontaneous.

He’s not available just at the moment, she says. (I can almost hear her thinking, ‘Oh God, it’s another one, as if he wasn’t bad enough’.) He’s sharpening the chain-saw and if he stops…

Oh no, I say, please don’t interrupt him in the middle of his sharpening…

It’s just that if he stops in the middle he’ll have to start again from the beginning and then he’ll be…

Angry, I say.

Yes, she says. Someone has given him an apple orchard and he’s cutting it down.

Turns out the orchard is many acres of apple trees. The farmer is getting out of the apple business and has donated the many acres of apple trees, though not the many acres, to Ex provided he will cut them down. The work will apparently take five weeks and I can imagine Ex, well into his seventies now, out in the midday sun madly cutting down apple trees with the vim and vigour of a twenty year old. Do be careful, I say, when I finally get to speak to him. Is that fatal heart attack worth it for a lifetime of free firewood, I wonder. But Ex has a logic of his own, absolute and unfathomable.

I need a drill for drilling holes in plastic planters, I say. Can you tell me what sort to get?

He starts off then and half an hour later he’s still going, about the price of drills in Aldi  – Aldi? I thought they were a supermarket – as opposed to the price of drills in Tool Station or Screwfix. I need a step drill, apparently, which adjusts from 4mm up to 20mm. Will I need to make holes bigger than 20mm?

I have no idea what 20mm looks like? Frantically I reach for the tape measure. It’s in inches.

So a step drill – what is that exactly?

It’s a step drill, of course. It drills in steps.

So a step drill is an actual drill?

No, a step drill is a bit you put in a drill.

So why is a step drill called a drill and a drill called a drill too? (Now I can hear myself annoying him, just like I always did.)

And you need to set the torque to a low setting…

Torque! He’s lost me. Nothing more goes in.

Next day, in a DIY store that neither Screwfix nor Tool Station (which I have been unable to find on the industrial estate despite Ex and My Replacement’s detailed instructions) I am listening to a young man with a strange black earring in his ear, in the centre of which a hole so big you could thread a rope through it and lead him around. He is a strapping young man but I am careful not to appear to have noticed that. It wouldn’t be appropriate. I also try to avoid looking at his poor maimed ear, which is making me feel quite queasy.

He is disarmingly honest, this young man, if not a good salesman. Don’t buy one here, he says. The branded ones here are good, but expensive. You don’t want to be wasting your pension on a drill you’re only going to use once a year to drill holes in plastic pots.

(Pension? Rats!)

We do sell cheap ones, he says, but they’re rubbish. Never known anyone to keep one more than a few weeks before bringing them back and complaining. What you need is the lower range of one of the main brands like Silverline, Bosch or (something else) which you can get on Amazon or second-hand on Ebay. You don’t need a hammer drill just a battery-operated standard drill – starter DIY level. And you don’t need to worry about voltage or amps, whatever it say on the box.

It’s a miracle. I am understanding him!

A step drill is a bit, he says. Forget the drill word, it’s confusing. Think of it as just another bit.

Do I need more than one bit? Will I need to get one of those plastic kits full of bits?

No, he says. You just need the step bit and one smaller bit, to get the hole started. The step bit isn’t meant for starting holes, it’s for making them bigger, and we don’t sell those here in any case. Get one off Amazon.

So there it is. I’m not entirely stupid after all. It depends who’s doing the explaining.