Cakes and Wine

It was after the war had ended. A time of black cars with mechanical indicators like tiny orange wings that popped out, or sometimes failed to, at the turn of a corner; a time of belisha-beacons and zebra crossings and war memorials with the names of my great uncles inscribed on them. And a time for visiting the graveyard.

I went there often with Nan, not only to visit the slaughtered uncles but to have a word with Sarah, her long-lost mother. Up against the church wall there was a little shed. It contained little trowels and forks, and a collection of vases and jam-jars in case you were in need. Next to it was a standpipe, ending in a tap, for watering.

One afternoon, we were surprised at the tap by the vicar. His name was the Reverend Silas something and he had a very large pointy nose. A black gown flapped out behind him like wings, which somehow went with the nose. He came out of nowhere and swept by the pair of us as if we were invisible. I flattened myself against the flint wall. Nan all but curtsied.

They say that a very few individuals are obnoxious to bees. It might be their bodily odour, an alcohol taint on their breath, their leather or wool clothing, their clumsiness, the loudness of their approach, their fear, their aggression, their anger. Whatever it is, the bees smell it and take umbridge. Looking back it seems not at all surprising that the Reverend Silas should have been one of these.

All of my stories came from Nan, and in due course she told me the story of Reverend Silas and the bees.

Well, as you know my dear, when a beekeeper dies it is most important to invite the bees to his funeral. I didn’t know, but I loved that she thus connected me to the rural past I longed for but hadn’t had. There should be cakes and wine.

For the bees? Do they eat and drink them?

It’s the gesture that counts, my dear. They require our respect.

How do they know when their beekeeper has died?

Someone will go and tell them.

Do they speak English?

They speak another language.

But then – how? I was at the stage of asking too many questions.

Anyway, old Silas – she wasn’t scared to call him that now he was no longer with us – was asked by the daughter to invite the bees to the funeral, at the same time as he made the announcement. She even gave him the words he ought to say. It made him hopping mad – as if people didn’t laugh at him enough already, what with his nose. And he happened to have been stung by bees a lot of times in the past. He was one of those ones – you know.

I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to interrupt again.

So the bees were not invited. The daughter went up to the hives and tried to explain. She told them how her father loved them, and it was just the vicar being the vicar, like. Begged them not to take offence.

But they did?

Well, it’s a bit of a coincidence otherwise.

So they had the funeral and his nearest and dearest turned up along with half the village, all in their Sunday Best. So many hats – like a flower-patch it was. That in itself was a worry.

You were there?

Of course I was. As I said, half the village –

All seemed to go well, in spite of the nervous glances. There was a few bees inside the church, like – perched on ledges, crawling about in the corners – but not more than you might expect on a summer’s day; got in through the holes in the stained-glass, probably. During the war, of course –

Nan, what happened to the vicar?

Well as I say there was a bit of buzzing. Not angry-sounding, like; just talking amongst theirselves, as you might say. The church service finished and out we all traipsed into the graveyard, following the coffin. The grave was already dug and the gravedigger was leaning on his spade, ready.

They lowered it in, all solemn, and the vicar started on with his usual stuff, Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes, droning through that pointy nose, and then the bees came, like, trillions of them. A lot, anyway, in a swarm.

Everybody scattered, hats and all. Gravedigger leapt for the hedge. Only the Reverend Silas didn’t move. Maybe he was petrified with fear, or too proud to. He stood his ground, and the bees settled on every single part of him. He was a swarm in himself, my dear. They stung him and stung him and stung him. Swelled up like a balloon, he did.

Did he pop?

No, he didn’t exactly pop, he just fell down dead. And serves him jolly well right, my dear; you must always invite the bees.

Haunted By Davids

Haunted by Davids

I observed fairly early on that the names of everyday boys and men, and those of the men in the romantic short stories in Nan’s old Woman’s Realms belonged to two different subsets of men’s names. Boys in my class, for instance, tended to be called John, James, Robert, William, Michael, David, Richard, Thomas, Charles or Gary. I remember one Andrew – but he was quite exotic – and one Paul – but of course he was Polish. What we didn’t have were any Dirks, Aidens, Bryces, Calebs, Dantes or Micahs.

I guessed, correctly, that a plain big lumpy girl like me was never going to snare herself a Micah. But I was haunted by Davids, for some reason. Everywhere I went, throughout my life there a David would “happen to be”. For some reason all Davids seemed to like me, whereas no other-named kind of man did.

I didn’t even like Davids, at least not in a marrying way. Davids sounded as if they ought to be round-shouldered and work in shoe shops, bringing out boxes of shoes to shoehorn onto your ungrateful feet; or perhaps behind the desk at the library, pathetically eager to help you locate obscure non-fictions in the card-index system or to point you in the direction of French dictionaries.

And so I married a man with another ordinary-ish man’s name. I didn’t particularly like it, but it was attached to him so I married it. Over the next twenty-two years or so I came to feel that I might have been better off with a David after all. Coincidentally, Devon Aunt chose to name all her rescue cats David. One stray, furry David after another, for thirty years or so.

Apple Peel and Cherry Pips

Halloween used to be a good time to find out the name of your future mate. At Halloween, it was said, a girl might see his face reflected dimly in a mirror – maybe standing behind you. I wonder if clothed or unclothed… Then there was the game with the apple core. You peeled an apple, being sure to keep the peel in a single piece, and tossed the peel over your shoulder, where it would – or might – form the initial of your husband to be.

Alternatively you could line up hazelnuts along a hot grate, giving each hazelnut the name of a prospective husband. Then you would recite:

If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die!

A variation – such of the nuts as cracked would be the fickle suitors.

Or you could place your shoes in the form of a letter ‘T’ (representing Thor’s hammer) and say

Hoping this night my true love to see, I place my shoes in the form of a “T”.

And then there were the cherry stones, which you placed around the rim of your plate as you ate them. My Nan actually taught me this one:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.

Nan preserved cherries in the summer from the cherry tree in the garden and we ate them in the winter, from thick glass jars arrayed on shelves around the top of the living room, just underneath the ceiling. But what I couldn’t understand was how one Sunday I was going to marry a Thief and the next a Rich Man, and so ad infinitum, all winter long. And if I didn’t like what appeared I could always eat another cherry.

Apparently there was also Silk, Satin, Muslin, Rags. That was what you would be married in. But Nan didn’t teach me that.

The Green Oil Lamp

I have only ever been to a fortune teller twice in my life. The second one asked me if I was married to a long-distance lorry driver, as she sensed my husband seemed to be absent a lot. I wanted to tell her that you didn’t need a long-distance lorry to seem to be absent a lot. A shed at the bottom of the garden would do just as well.

The first fortune teller had been the vicar’s wife, in a small but elaborate tent, masquerading as Gypsy Rose Something Or Other. I was quite young, and it was at a fête in the grounds of the local “big house”. I remember I had just failed to get the metal ring along yards of wiggly electrified loops, and was looking for something else to do. And thinking back – yes, I was dressed as Florence Nightingale in a longish skirt and a white apron, and clutching a green oil lamp.

I had been in for the fancy dress competition because Mum told me I must, and I hadn’t had any more success with that than the metal ring and the electrified snake. The green oil lamp occupied one entire small hand, and it was greasy and smelled of paraffin. I wanted to put it down somewhere and forget about it but I couldn’t, because Mum had told me I mustn’t.

The vicar’s wife looked at me despairingly from beneath her curtain-ring fringed headscarf. Then she waved her hands about and around her crystal ball. You will have four children and, um, an operation when you are forty, she pronounced, and snatched my penny or tuppence from the hand that wasn’t holding the oil lamp.

I waited for those four children with an odd superstitious confidence, considering I knew it was only the vicar’s wife; and I felt quite aggrieved when not only did the promised four offspring not arrive, but none did. And I do believe I rather dreaded that operation, which also did not happen – or at least not when it was supposed to.

There’s a rockabilly party on Saturday night…

Readers may recall – though probably not – that I recently gave up my TV licence as a protest against the Government/BBC’s plans to remove free TV licenses from the over 75s next year. Annoyingly, the BBC mentioned on their radio news programme this morning that TV viewing figures are falling drastically, especially among the young. I imagined I was rebelliously depriving myself of something for the sake of a principle – now I discover I was conforming to some mindless Younger Generation.

Staring mournfully at the gap where the TV set used to be, I realise I used to use it to switch off, ie to become part of the mindless Older GenerationNow I am finding being at home all day quite hard work – all that thinking about stuff – all that What should I be getting on with now? TV was an excuse to sit still and do nothing. Or knitting.

I’ve been managing quite well with my collection of radios, each tuned to a different station – not being much of a re-tuner of DAB radios. I have one stuck on Radio 4, for the News and Woman’s Hour. I sampled The Archers (‘an everyday story of countryfolk’), in the hope that, being older now, I would suddenly be able to stand to listen to it.

I still hated it, apart from one episode when a character called Hayley was going round frantically demanding money from fellow villagers in order to solve her mortgage shortfall problem – telling them she was entitled to it. She was being so annoying and so manifestly and counter-productively foolish in her approach, and all in a fake rural accent, that I just wanted to slap her. I suppose I was gripped, but not enough to make me tune in to the next episode.

One of my other radios is tuned to something called Mellow Magic. I have always resisted anything with the word mellow in it, along with the words heart-warming and epic – but I tried it and was hooked. Basically they play all the songs you remember quite a few of the words to, that whisk you back to your past.

Another radio is tuned to Scala, which advertises itself a classical music station with a modern twist. I use this as background music for reading. I used to use Spotify for this, but was always worried that by listening online I might be using up a lot of data, whatever that is.

Most of the time it’s fine – film scores, sad tinkly piano music – but occasionally you are jolted back into the living room by something unexpected and truly ghastly such as the Dam-Busters March or Mars, the Bringer of War. It’s even worse when you’re trying to get to the end of a popular physics book which is proving beyond your comprehension. I used to read books that dealt with string theory, multiverses and spooky action at a distance, but I think my brain must have atrophied since then.

So, I just migrate from one radio to another. Now what I need is some kind of hooked pokey-stick, or series of long pieces of string tied to all the radio like reins – to take the place of the TV remote control.

Then there are the TED talks. Someone stands on stage somewhere in the world – Iceland, Toronto, whatever – and records a short talk about whatever they happen to know or feel strongly about. These talks are free to listen to and are useful if suddenly craving the sight of a human being moving about and gesticulating, as opposed to disembodied voices. You have to be selective – no point watching fifteen minutes of someone enlightening you on how to sell a million pink plastic water-jugs in one day.

That’s how I came to be watching a lady psychologist talking about deathbed visions. I think she worked in end-of-life care or similar. She was saying people attending at a death should not be surprised if the dying person was able to ‘see’ other people in the room, or even reached up to them. One person had regular visits from an old dog who had died many years before, and which slept curled up on a chair. The psychologist lady explained that visions would usually be tailored to the person’s cultural background, so people in different countries might see angels, or the Buddha, or the Hindu god of death. And children tended to see visions tailored to them – so one child told his parents that the children’s train had arrived at the station; it was time for him to go.

People also see dead relatives or friends, and have the sense that they have come to greet them from the after-world, and help them across. This set me to thinking – who would I want to come and meet me? At first I thought, nobody.  What dead person would be willing to go to the trouble of struggling into human form again, and go and lurk around at some windswept crossroads waiting for me to turn up? And then I thought, well it would be the ultimate poor sad me thing, wouldn’t it – turning up at the afterlife crossroads and nobody – not even the Devil – who I gather has a tendency to keep assignations at crossroads-es to collect the souls people have sold to him – could be bothered to be there to say ‘Hi’.

So I settled for Nan, who would probably be wearing her cardigan and her flowery overall; Sophie, a long-lost and much loved black and white ‘tuxedo’ cat, and Godmother. Godmother isn’t actually dead yet, but she’s ninety, so presumably she would be by that time. Unless, of course, what probate solicitors often refer to as The Under The Bus Scenario were to happen fairly shortly. I even considered Ex but then I thought no, he’d be tapping his watch saying You’re three-and-a-half-minutes late! Don’t you know that you are Low On My List of Priorities?

Who or what would you want to crowd around your deathbed, or be waiting for you at the crossroads?

rockabilly

There’s a rockabilly party on Saturday night
Are you gonna be there?
(Well I got my invite)
Gonna bring your records?
(Oh, will do) …

Mott the Hoople, Roll Away The Stone, 1974

If you go down to the woods today…

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

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

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

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

Mum considers this. ‘Is my Dad alive?’

‘No, he’s dead too.’

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

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

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

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

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

She looks puzzled. ‘Is he still alive?’

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

Mum nods vigorously, then starts to look dubious.

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

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

picnic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

picnic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After that, the fringe was just a doddle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boats in harbour Lower Fishguard Pembrokeshire South Towns and Villages

So now you know. 🙂

One Long Frog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Don’t you miss Nan?’ I asked her.

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

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

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

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

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

Never Jam Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayers, Pipe-smoke and the Problem Page

I have a bit of a soft spot for Woman’s Realm. Not that I buy it. Oh no, that would be… a no-no. Mostly I get a heap of them, back-dated, in a Tesco bag. It’s a bit like one of those drug-dealer exchanges on motorway slip-roads. Betty passes them over to me in the car park of Mum’s care home. We meet up there before the Visit, cars parked neatly side by side, both of us dreading the Going In and longing for the Coming Out. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Not wanting to go in? I feel a bit better because Betty feels the same. I email her in advance.

Are you OK for a visit to Mum this Sunday, usual time and place?

And inevitably she emails back something like: I’m game if you are or If you can do it, I can.

I realise she is not coming to see Mum, now, but to give me the courage to see her.

Older than Mum, she has been with us both since before I was born. She knew me when I was an awkward bump. She used to look after me every Friday evening so that Mum and Dad could go out. A single lady, she told me recently she was terrified every time that Something Dreadful might happen to me whilst I was in her care and it would all be her fault. And yet she is reassurance itself.

It has always seemed to me that Betty could cope with anything. She is the very embodiment of Keep Calm and Carry On. But I sense that she is out of her depth in this nightmare of a place, and with the nightmare Mum is becoming. Too close to home, I guess, to be sat amongst those who are the same age as you or younger; in constant peril of being mistaken for an inmate and hoisted into a wheelchair or forced to drink yet more cranberry juice from a plastic cup.

Mind you, the inmates mistake me for an inmate sometimes. And other times they mistake me for the person who knows where their lost suitcase is, or the person who has come to cut their toenails, or the person who speaks fluent Italian. I made the mistake last week of trying out my few phrases of Italian on Maria, whose word-of-choice is Bella! (Mum’s is Well…)

Yole vole lavare quista camichetta? I ventured, remembering the phrase from a long-ago BBC Learning Zone programme. Non parl… speak Italian… much.

Poco? She pinches her fingers together. She has no teeth. Her chin all buts the end of her nose, like the witches in fairy-tale book illustrations.

Si, molto poco.

Bella!

La sciarpetta?

Poco.

And then a lady from the church arrives to bring her communion. We watch as the priest-lady sets out a tiny cross on a white handkerchief. It has been ironed into quarters. She takes out a prayer book, and a little silver container of communion wafers. She has just gone through the exact same service for the only other Catholic lady in another room. We listen to the prayer for the sick, and to other prayers. We listen as she says In the name of the Father… and Maria crosses herself and mumbles in nomine patris…Bella! I find the prayers soothing, though they are not intended for me. I wonder if I should start reading the Bible a bit, knowing I probably won’t.

Betty, I sense, does not find the prayers soothing, rather the opposite, and yet she is the nearest thing to a Guardian Angel I have ever known. She guarded Mum and now she’s doing what she can to guard me. But she is fidgeting and trying not to look at the door.

Well occasionally in moments of extreme stress I do buy a Woman’s Realm. Woman’s Realm is to me what chocolate – or Baileys Irish Cream – are to other women: comfort reading, because the magazine reminds me of Nan.

Every Sunday I used to go along the road to Nan and Grandad’s for Sunday Dinner and Sunday Tea. A whole day’s respite, if you counted Sunday School first, from having to keep out of my father’s way and from having to protect my mother from anything that might set off her Nerves again and have her lying on the sofa with her eyes shut, clutching a handkerchief in hands that shook and shook.

Every Sunday – well, I’ve written about it before – but while Nan was cooking our Sunday Dinner I would hang around with Grandad in the living room. He would fill his pipe with St Bruno Flake and fill the whole room with a thick fug of aromatic, if unhealthy, smoke. He would idle through pink back-copies of The Carpenter & Joiner and I would read Nan’s Woman’s Realm.

I was supposed to be reading it only for a cartoon about a family of little robins – Mummy Robin, Daddy Robin and… Other Robins, but I didn’t understand the cartoon much. What I liked to look at was the knitting patterns – lantern-jawed husband-material posed stiffly in black and white, showing off their new blackberry-stitch cardigan – babies surrounded by lacy layettes, a halo of little shawls, bonnets, cardis and bootees of infinite complexity.

fair isle.jpg

I seized my chance to create one of these challenging little lacy things – a cardigan, it was, complete with buttons and knitted buttonholes – for my youngest sister when she was expecting her first child. It didn’t go down too well. Apparently the modern baby wears the baby-grow.

I read at least sections of those endless romantic serials, wondering why there was such a scarcity of stern, broken-hearted Highland Lairds in my part of Kent.

And, of course, I read the Problem Page. It was always at the back, so easy to find. From readers’ letters I learned, after a fashion, the facts of life. My innocent requests for the Meanings of Long Words forced Nan to explain, albeit in a whimsical and euphemistic manner, Certain Things to me that might come in useful later (though not very useful, as it turned out). I doubt if Mum would even have mentioned them.

Les Tricoteuses

Whenever things turn stressful I get the urge to knit. It doesn’t matter what – in fact the simpler the item the better. Mum and Nan were the same. Nan only seemed to stop knitting in order to peel potatoes or mop the lino, and Mum knitted so many blankets made of multi-coloured six inch squares that she ended up trying to give one away to Oxfam. But in spite of its being a particularly splendid one, and in spite of the fact that they had always advertised for blankets made of squares, Oxfam refused it. According to the woman in the shop there had been a change of policy – home-made blankets tended to be of non-standard size and didn’t stack economically in their transportation trucks. She didn’t even smile.

Mum went on knitting, year after year, stacking the useless things in a cupboard. She had given up all pretence of their being replacements for blankets that were wearing out. Woolly blankets never seem to wear out; they just stretch to twice their original length and get bobbly.

I knit in times of stress but I never end up wearing anything I knit – partly because I don’t like the look of it and partly because wool’s far too itchy. I make squares too, but tend to sew them into smaller blankets. The cats appreciate them more than Oxfam did. Every now and then I make one of those little tee-shaped stripy jumpers from the Oxfam pattern, for children in war-torn areas. Basically, you don’t need a pattern for those – you could just make them up.

Presumably knitting is a form of displacement activity. Those painting of Madame Guillotine during the French Revolution…those ladies sitting beneath with clay pipes clenched between rotten teeth, and clackety tricot needles, were maybe not so much heartless as deeply traumatised as the severed heads rolled one by one into the baskets.

knitting guillotine

Technically – she writes, as if she knew as much before she looked it up – displacement behaviour is a behaviour that appears odd/out of context. It usually happens when there is a conflict between excitement/agitation and frustration. A dog meets a high fence, say. He desperately wants to be on the other side of the fence but the fence is too high to jump. Naturally, then, he sits down and scratches his ear or bites the dog next to him. Displacement behaviour is often related to comforting activities, like grooming, scratching, drinking or eating. So, human beings scratch their heads when perplexed and a pair of fighting birds might stop and peck at the ground.

I suppose the classic would be rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Did anybody actually do that, I wonder? Was it in the film? I never saw the film. I suppose deckchair-rearranging would only be a displacement activity if you knew the ship had just hit an iceberg. If you were merely up on deck for a little stroll on a bracing afternoon and thought – those deckchairs would be so much better disposed thus – well that would make you a sad, and possibly an obsessive, person but not necessarily one engaged in displacement activity.

I also sharpen pencils; in times of great distress I have been known to sharpen whole boxes of blunt pencils, until my fingers are squashed into strange shapes at the ends, and black with graphite, and the sharpener’s running hot. Or I sit down and write a post for this blog, though it will rarely be about the thing that’s worrying me. That’s likely to come later: emotion recollected in tranquillity as Wordsworth put it. It’s a help to be absorbed in pushing words around for a couple of hours.

Ex was the only person I ever met who dealt with stress by keeping utterly still. Most of the time he would be rushing hither and thither, obsessed by what he was doing, frowning over his easel or his lathe, or his workbench – painting stuff or making stuff. At rare intervals, however, he would take what he referred to as a Lying Fallow Day. This seemed to mean slumping half on and half off of the living-room sofa, his long legs jack-knifed into an inverted V. There he would remain all day staring out of the window at the rose bushes and occasionally farting. It was as if he had deactivated himself.

squares

 

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course

Am I alone in thinking that God only pokes His head out when the congregation goes away? Or maybe I mean that He is there all the time, quietly, but you’re more likely to find him if you go between services, when hymns aren’t being sung; when rabbits are sunbathing among those time-smoothed, drunken gravestones; when bees buzz and crickets chirrup. I never yet sensed God in a church service, but if you go to a church alone, and don’t look for Him, or even think about Him, sometimes He seems to be there, keeping you company.

I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I worked in one of the 0ffices at Wye College for a while and spent my lunch-hours over at the church. If it was rainy I sat in that porch thing at the front, on the hard bench, and ate my sandwiches, but if it was sunny I sat at the back of the graveyard under a tree. Nearby was a new white headstone, with a teenager’s name, and a picture of a musical instrument engraved on it. The gilding was still intact. It was sad, this new, white stone at the back, among all the unreadable, moss-covered ones, but we kept each other company. The dead, like God, like a bit of company from time to time. Sometimes I would talk to my grandmother in that churchyard, even though she wasn’t buried there. In fact, I don’t think she has a proper grave. They cremated her, as was the fashion. Grandad wasn’t allowed to go to the service – or maybe he just couldn’t face it. I never did get to the bottom of that one. We came back to find him staring at the knitting she had left behind on her chair. He hadn’t moved it.

I’ve visited most of the churches on Romney Marsh. My favourite is St Thomas à Becket at Fairfield; the one I used to walk to with my parents. They used to rent a chalet in the grounds of a farm, miles away from anywhere. You couldn’t even get a mobile phone signal; there was a strong smell of garlic at certain times of year – we imagined it was wild garlic, a plant we had vaguely heard of, but a turkey farmer’s wife (poor old turkeys) told us it was something they sprayed on the potato crops to stop them getting wireworm. Frogs sang in the ditches. It is rumoured that the frogs on Romney Marsh are a rare, giant variety, unlike any others in Britain. You never get to see them, though, so it’s difficult to tell. They just serenade you, invisibly.

Fairfield Church is right out in the middle of a field. To get to it you have to borrow a giant, old-fashioned key from a house further down the lane, then walk back. You have to get in through an awkward gate or over an awkward style – I can’t remember which at the moment – and then walk out to it, along a grassy causeway. All the way, you are having to look where you are going because of all the cowpats and sheep-droppings. And even then it’s not straightforward. The door is round the back, and then when you go in – it’s tiny, with box pews and a triple-decker pulpit, and bells. It’s quiet in a way that almost makes you uneasy. It’s quiet in a knowing you are here sort of way. The church, or what’s inside it, is considering you – very carefully. But I like it because it reminds me of holidays, and Mum and Dad when they were at their happiest and easiest to get on with.

Like many places on the Marsh, at one time you could often only reach it by boat during the winter flooding. I visited it once with my then-husband and a friend of his. That was a different sort of day, in the autumn. The key had already been collected, and there were cows in the field, all round the church. A low-lying mist meant you couldn’t see the bottoms of their legs, so they looked… truncated. Ghostly. And when we opened the door we found a party of bell-ringers inside, circling round the bell-ropes. They treated us to some unexpected music, and told us they were on holiday, touring churches and ringing in every one.

I have sat about in graveyards all over the place, come to think of it. In Ashford town centre there’s a weird one, where they moved all the gravestones over to a narrow strip on the left to make way for a square little park, with diamond-shaped borders and row upon row of purple and yellow pansies. I sat in there sometimes, with my everlasting sandwiches, on one of the uncomfortable benches under the evenly-spaced trees, but my eyes were always drawn to the left, and those heaped and broken gravestones. What is the point of gravestones, I wonder, if people are going to move them? Does it matter that there is no one left to remember the person the name belonged to? Surely it only matters that they are there, in the earth, keeping us company? Circling with us under the sun. Wordsworth got it right. In that place of desecration, I would often think of his lines:

          A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
            I had no human fears:
          She seemed a thing that could not feel
            The touch of earthly years.

          No motion has she now, no force;
            She neither hears nor sees;
          Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
            With rocks, and stones, and trees.

 

Witches’ Knickers and Other Weirdness

I suppose this one’s a bit of a cheat. After all, I did promise a whole month-ful of articles and/or short stories on a richly ghosty-halloweeny theme, and all I can come up with (let’s face it, we all have our scraping-the-barrel days) is Witches’ Knickers. I heard a lady use this expression in TV yesterday morning, and it moderately amused me. It was an Irish phrase, originally, for those plastic bags that get caught in the branches of trees and go on waggling about there for all eternity. And the reason the lady was on TV was to comment sagely upon – you guessed it – plastic bags.

As from yesterday, England joined Wales and Scotland in charging 5p for every supermarket bag used, except that England has made it more complicated by factoring in all manner of confusing Exceptions To The Rule. In case you are interested per se in English plastic bags, here a useful link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34438030

My own thoughts are:

  • Why don’t they ban them altogether? My cats get their heads through the handles then run about the house like mad things, half throttled and unable to shake them off, so that I now have to cut through the handles of, or tie a bow in, any plastic bag that enters the house, including any that visitors have carelessly left lying about. This sometimes annoys the visitors. Quite apart from spooking cats, plastic harms wildlife and will ultimately harm us. Over time, in the oceans, they dissolve into a cloud of little plasticky globules, which then get eaten by the fishy inhabitants of the oceans, which go on to get eaten by us. It is not yet known how bad all this dietary plastic is for us. The thing is, the plastic bag is a new(ish) phenomenon anyway, one that we can manage without, and always could have. Believe it or not, plastic or single-use bags hadn’t even been invented when I was small.
  • When I was a child I used to go shopping with my Nan. She took with her either her string bag – a multicoloured item that started off small and scrunchy but kind of elongated the more she put in it – or some other sort of permanent shopping bag. She kept it on the hook on the door underneath her coat.
  • We walked up to the shop, which took about twenty minutes. If we asked for tea the grocer would take a metal measuring scoop and shoot it into a cone of paper, which he had made just by twisting it in on itself – something like the cone chips or popcorn might come in now. When the cone was full he would twist the top closed. Coffee, sugar – virtually anything could be scooped into a paper twist. When we got home, Nan would refill her own jar – marked Coffee, Sugar, Tea or whatever – from the paper twist. If we asked for ham it was sliced in front of us, sandwiched between two sheets of greaseproof and slid into a white paper bag. Sweets also came in paper bags, tipped out of big glass jars. Plastic bags are ugly, dangerous, and with one tiny change to our habits we can manage without them.
  • Life has changed, of course, and the majority of shoppers (being careful not to specify women) aren’t “housewives” as my Nan was. We have less time for our shopping and, now that there are supermarkets, we tend not to shop daily but to drive somewhere for a weekly, fortnightly or even monthly shop, which means carrying away a lot of stuff at once. Nan’s string bag wouldn’t be adequate.
  • However, we could still manage without either plastic bags or plastic packaging. Plastic packaging is less about containing the food than about attracting you to it and convincing you to buy it. Plastic bags are less about convenient carrying than about free advertising for the shop they came from.
  • On the rare occasions when I actually do a main shop in a supermarket as opposed to ordering online, I’d be satisfied with paper bags for small items, and it wouldn’t be that difficult to remember to take along two, three or four of the ten or so giant, unwieldy, indestructible Bags For Life that are currently having babies under my kitchen sink.
  • Is 5p of itself going to put anyone off buying a plastic bag? If a person is given one plastic bag for every £10 worth of shopping, and spends £100 on their supermarket visit, that’s ten plastic bags – 50 pence. It seems to me that if you are lucky enough to be able to afford £100 all in one go, 50p is neither hither not thither. What can you get for 50p?
  • The charge itself isn’t going to make a difference, unless you are very poor, in which case you will be recycling and repurposing everything already out of sheer necessity. If there is a decline in plastic bag use and pollution from now on it will be down to a more subtle combination of factors: social stigma – which in Britain means being made to feel conspicuous, which means being embarrassed, which is awful  – and being identified as a member of a lower social class, which in Britain is mortifying. Look, she’s one of those lower class people who still have plastic bags. Similar to being one of those common old slappers who smoke or one of those uneducated plebs, chavs or whatever the current word is – who drop litter in the street or fail to fasten their seat-belts when they get in the car.

Goodness, what a rant! And do I even care about plastic bags? Apparently, temporarily, I do – or did. Maybe I’m cross about something else and the plastic bags are gonna get it in the neck. Or would, if they had necks.

Maybe a cup of coffee and a sandwich might help to rid me entirely of witches knickers and environmental concerns. Perhaps half a wasted hour watching Loose Women on TV. Caffeine, calories and chatter, then on to that short story.