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

 

Sea Hero Pest

But I memorized the map! You showed me a map and I duly memorized it. Three check-in points with 3 at the top and 2 to the left. Sail up to 1. Veer back sharply to 2. Upwards and slightly  right to 3 and then – bingo – another page of the treasure-map-or-whatever is mine! You didn’t mention navigating! You didn’t mention landmarks! I was supposed to guess that that bunch of stylised pointy trees and those mammoths-wearing-shawls were in fact landmarks?

A lot more of this exclaiming has gone on in the past couple of days, since I discovered the dementia-research game/app known as Sea Hero Quest. Apparently one of earliest the signs of dementia is a lessening of the ability to navigate, and I do remember this quite clearly with Mum. She got lost after one of her regular Sunday visits to my house. Ten minutes after leaving she was back, knocking on my door, tearful, insisting that the roads had all changed. They been taking her to Hastings, she said. Hastings was a good hour and a half’s drive away. She had just missed her usual turning.

They tell you that for every ten minutes or so you spend on your smartphone  steering your tiny electronic boat around huge electronic icebergs, you are contributing approximately thirty minutes of invaluable research data to scientists seeking a cure for dementia. Well there’s Mum, and the app was free to download, so how could I not?

To be fair it was my first ever experience of gaming. Apart from Words With Friends, that is, which doesn’t really count because it’s basically Scrabble and doesn’t involve manoeuvring anything. And I do wonder if being of the Sheldon Cooper ilk doesn’t hamper a person in unintended ways. I mean, I don’t suppose the designer of Sea Hero Quest anticipated that someone would be so busy attempting and failing to type her age into a big white box that she did not notice until her fifth try that there was a huge sliding scale underneath. The big white box served no purpose whatsoever. In which case, why have a white box? Or maybe he designed it that way. It could have been some kind of trick…

And I don’t suppose he anticipated that the lack of any but the vaguest of instructions would be much of a problem. Presumably experienced gamers are already familiar the basic conventions of gaming. But I mean, how do you even start? There are kind of lily-pad things. Am I supposed to hop from one to another in number order, or can I click on any one I want at any time? And what is that star thing? What happens if I click on a monster? And why is there a paintbrush in the water?

And then there are the memorisable maps sans landmarks. Memorising maps has never been that stressful for me: I like maps. In my younger days I managed to more-or-less memorise the route from Kent to Scotland and drive there over two days alone, in a tiny car, with nothing but a book of road maps open on the passenger seat and list of place names taped to the driver’s side window. I did get lost on the motorway, but only once, before realising that the sun was now setting in the wrong direction.

And then there is the map that appears to consist entirely of swirling fog and dry land. Perhaps for this particular game Boaty will prove to be an amphibi-boat. Just about anything might be possible in a land featuring shawl-wearing mammoths. Boaty will doubtless sprout crocodile legs and lumber across dry land in the direction of those distant red beacons. But no! When the game starts, there we are in the same icy, glacier-infested waterway.

So what was the point of that map?

Infuriatingly, at the end of one game it asks a series of questions: How did you navigate? Did you count from the beginning? Did you navigate using the landmarks? Or did you count from a landmark?

Count?? Navigate?? They never told me I was supposed to be counting or navigating.  I was just concentrating on this little wizzy item between glaciers and crashing helplessly into one after another. Should I be tapping the phone? Should I be pushing the boat forward, or maybe pulling the boat along somehow, with an ancient palsied digit? Would the phone perhaps respond to bellowed instructions, as with Alexa?

And then there were the sea monsters. The idea is that you pursue the sea monster at top speed through the glaciers, inexplicable mammoths and whatnot. I haven’t found out how to slow Boaty down as yet so we proceed at maximum notts through icy waters, with some kind of Nessie-alike creature speeding ahead. We are meant to be catching up to her and taking her photograph – with what I have no idea – except that flotillas of baby glaciers keep getting in the way.

Initially I try to avoid them by tapping to the left or the right. This works twice. Thenceforward no amount of leftward or rightward tapping makes any difference whatsoever – no corresponding evasive skipping by Boaty occurs. Ah well, I think, since the iceberg flotilla don’t seem to be damaging her, as they would surely do in real life,  I might as well just laissez faire, que-sera-sera and power on through. But this only slows you down. Eventually Nessie takes pity and stops of her own accord so that you can take her photo, for which you are rewarded with one hot-cross-bun type star and a patronising message: Try to go a little faster next time to gain more points. I was trying to slow down.

Three hours later and there I am on the sofa, in gathering darkness, hungry, surrounded by dozing cats and still apparently attempting to master Sea Hero Quest. But in fact I am not really playing. I am driving my nasty little electronic sailing vessel around in ever decreasing circles and deliberately slamming her into first one glacier and then another. Yes, I am graunching her dear, jaunty little painted sides along those serrated ice-edges.

Kerrang!

Pow!!

Stop all the clocks

Last night I surprised the hedgehog – again. I’d got used to him, or possibly her, turning up at the cat-feeding hut at around nine o’clock, when dusk fell. I’d got into the ridiculous habit of assuming nightfall to be at nine o’clock. That was the way of the world. I can be a bit vague sometimes.  It’s not forgetfulness, it’s having an artistic nature.

At six or thereabouts I snapped on the outside light to go and feed the birds – still not quite registering that it was dark – as I should have done because, hadn’t I just snapped on the light? – and the birds would all be asleep. And there was the hedgehog, or rather the hedgehog’s bottom, poking out of the cat-feeding place. Inside the cat-feeding place its snout was deep in a bowl of Whiskas. Luckily, hedgehog’s hearing is even worse than mine. I tiptoed into reverse and he/she didn’t notice me.

But it set me thinking. Are we not the only animal that regulates its daily routine with the help of a range of complex timekeeping devices? How do animals manage without them, and how would we manage if all the clocks were suddenly stopped – or abducted? I have in mind, you see, an unmanned alien spacecraft, one of those saucer-shaped items people are always saying they’ve seen. The spacecraft skims low over the earth, scanning for life-forms to beam up, dissect and study. But it makes a mistake. Because it is a metallic life-form, and all the life-forms in its entire galaxy are also metallic, it ignores biological entities and beams up instead – every single clock, watch or other timekeeping device. Suddenly, Earth is timepiece-free. If you are a writer, by the way, I give you this plot for free. I suspect it will only make a short story but you never know, you might manage to streeeeetch it into some sort of novella.

Having always more or less disregarded clocks and watches, we are now forced to consider – urgently, since the spaceship’s ‘sweep’ took only a few seconds – what we needed them for in the first place. Or did we actually need them?

Clocks of some sort have been around for a very, very, very long time – for as long as human beings found the need to measure periods of time shorter than days or lunar months. These, of course, could be observed from the sun – the coming of light in the morning and darkness at night – and the moon, going through its monthly waxing and waning cycle. So there were sundials and water-clocks and hour-glasses – those things with two bulbs separated by a narrow ‘neck’, and sand running from one to another. When the ‘sands of time’ ran out, an hour, near enough, had passed. If you needed another hour you just turned the hour-glass up the other way and the sand started flowing again. Excellent device, and aesthetically pleasing. A miniature version used to be used to time boiling eggs.

Clocks became more and more sophisticated and accurate. Human beings can’t resist improving things, and then improving them even more. It’s in our nature to tinker. These wonderful new clocks made navigation easier for ships’ captains. As time went by, people arrived on time for church with the help of a clock rather than a chiming bell. Then there were railways, and people caught their trains on time because they had clocks and watches; the trains ran on time for the same reason: the timetable had been invented. Factory workers in the newly-industrialised cities had once been summoned by a ‘knocker-up’ or ‘knocker-upper’ who scuttled past their windows, banging loudly on them. Now he was replaced by alarm clocks. People began to get anxious about time. They worried about missing their trains and being late for work. If they clocked in even a minute late at the factory door, that day they would be docked fifteen, or thirty minutes’ pay. Time controlled people. Time punished them.

So if all the clocks were stopped, or beamed up by aliens, maybe we would be happier? Chaos to start with, no doubt. People would shamble in to work whenever they felt like it – all people, not just important people. People would leave whenever they’d had enough. Or if it was a sunny afternoon and they felt like sitting in the park eating sandwiches. Hallelujah!

I think I might try it, you know. Not now, with winter approaching and even the daytime chilly and damp. As I look out of my window, now, the sky has gone that saucepan grey it mostly is in Britain, beyond September. It’s starting to rain and raindrops spatter against my window. And the wind’s in the telegraph wires, so there’s more, and worse, to come. In a minute I will draw my curtains, as the over-the-road neighbours already have. No, I shall wait for summer, for a long, inviting day when the sun is shining. I shall turn all the clocks to the wall. I shall turn off my mobile phone and resist the temptation to just check my emails or just post a quick little something on my blog. I shall leave the TV off; I shall switch off the microwave with its glowing green numbers. I shall make myself some sandwiches and a flask of tea. I shall take a book and drive out into the country. I shall not listen to my car radio because every hour it would inform me that another hour of my life had gone – somewhere. I shall listen to the birds. I shall know the time, well enough for my purposes, because the light will change, fractionally, continually. I still have that skill, from childhood. All of us have that skill – it’s just looking. I will watch the sun and know that when it is directly overhead it’s noon, as near as makes no difference. And I shall come home when I’m tired, not when my watch tells me to. Ah, it all sounds so Perfect Day. Someone on YouTube describes it as ‘beautifully depressing’