Pleasurable Dread

The Prison Warders are moving to their villa/caravan in France by instalments. Sometime in the last three days they must have whispered off to the continent yet again in their current version of the Black Mariah. I no longer hear their chocolate-coloured labradoodle barking on the patio, or the squeak of her squeaky toy, or the sound of their toilet flushing behind the party wall at midnight and the chink of one of them throwing their toothbrush back into the glass. I quite miss them, though not their heavy metal music radio session from 11 to 2 every day.

And so – I can mosey down the garden in my dressing-gown to feed the birds as soon as it gets light with no need to fear the Prison Warders’ prying eyes. Of course there are other prying eyes but then I also have my imaginary Cloak of Invisibility and my old person’s Don’t Much Care Any More. It’s not that I’m lazy about getting dressed, it’s just that things happen in the wrong order. I get up in the dark and cold, more or less wrestled out of bed by innumerable hungry cats, and I mean to get dressed but then I find myself feeding them, washing up, watching (with daily increasing horror) the morning News, drinking instant coffee, sending back WordsWithFriends… and at 10 the dressing-gown may still be on.

Today is a day Carol the Weather Lady has been going on about since last Sunday. Yes, it’s Very Cold Thursday. The winds have changed and we may expect to be drawing in icy blue air from the continent, which is ravaged with cold, and that icy air, coupled with the Wind Chill Factor, will mean it feels like minus something-or-other.

I made my plans accordingly. I would not venture out on Very Cold Thursday. I would stay in and do – all my usual stuff. Pleasurable Dread. The British weather – it’s an ongoing horror show; either plummeting temperatures bound to kill off all the old folk and those with weak chests, and harmless infants in their cribs – or unbearably soaring temperatures meaning we will all be forced to open windows, paddle around in an embarrassed-but-desperate sort of way in municipal fountains or lie prostrate in parks praying for the rain to return.

But I have to feed the birds. My instinct to care for harmless sparrows, pheasants, cats, hedgehogs, worms and even rats by far exceeds any fleeting concern I may have for my fellow mutant apes. So, in a concession to Very Cold Thursday I put a coat on over my dressing gown and trudge up and down the garden several times (not enough hands) bearing jugs of seed and water and plates of anything I can find for the birdies, including those ghastly mealworms. Yes, it is cold but I am surprised to find I am not dying of it, even in my dressing gown and carpet slippers. A winter without central heating must have toughened me up.

Overnight Kitten, who is around 105 in human years, has finally given in and moved herself back to the heater; in fact her ancient, gnarled little legs are jammed right under the heater. She has the whole of the spare room to herself since she refuses either to leave it or allow any other cat in. She has her own heater, food station and dirt-box, and a choice several beds. She exists in magnificent isolation but still she isn’t happy. Pleasurable Dread – I go in to see her every morning, steeling myself for the worst, that stiff little furry corpse in the corner – and always she is still alive and squawking, staggering out of her basket and falling over several times on her way to see me, demanding her sachet of Felix.

Pleasurable Dread: every evening now I watch a news magazine programme called 100 Days. Two correspondents anchor the programme jointly, one in Washington and one in London. How do they achieve this? Who knows? Something to do with satellites. Anyway, 100 Days is following the new President’s critical first one hundred days in office, plus Brexit and the whole fiasco around triggering Article 50 and actually getting on with leaving. I wish I could not-watch it but I seem to be addicted. I have even foregone an ancient re-run of Stargate Atlantis on Pick in order to do so. And with every day that I watch 100 Days, as one lot of rampant sociopathic insanity (on the American side) and legal obfuscation, havering, incompetence and delay (on the British side) crowds in upon another, Pleasurable Dread edges closer towards Horror.

I am afraid. I am very afraid.

Life Apparently Is All Ha Ha Hee Hee

Some while back I wrote about my neighbour’s threatened Big 6 – 0 birthday party, and how yet more rustic Hobbit signs had appeared in her garden to accompany the map of The Shire on the back end of her garage. NB: I spotted another one this afternoon – it’s half way down the left boundary fence and reads Half-Blood Headquarters or some such. Thanks to Artistic Daughter the whole garden has recently become appalling mixture of Hobbit and Harry Potter, with a preponderance of Hobbit. I would guess this is something to do with number 12 Grimmauld Place, home of the wizarding House of Black, later taken over by…

Which now seems to have disappeared from London to rematerialize half way down my neighbour’s fence.

The party itself, which at least one of my readers urged me to please attend in order to report back on it, has been happening at last, but now seems to be over. It was something of a damp squib. I didn’t get to go since her earlier invitation was not repeated (I locked myself in at lunchtime as a precaution) however I saw the guest arriving and heard the rest of it.

Around lunchtime, the usual signifiers of a party hereabouts – unfamiliar cars abandoned all over the road including one right outside my house, taking up half of my parking space and half of the Prison Warders’ parking space, though the Prison Warders are in France at the moment, or at least rumoured to be, so it won’t bother them.

Out of the abandoned vehicle came a whole lot of really elderly folks, some with Zimmer frames, some supported by relatives. I am guessing that one of them must have been Frail Old Uncle From Far Away, of whom I have heard tell.

And then more cars and more people.

And then somebody (Splendidly Bewhiskered Son, I think) on a shiny motorbike which he parked on her drive opposite my front door where it sat making made unsettling scarlet patterns through the frosted glass panel.

And then, believe it or not, a removal lorry bringing what looked like the new occupants of Down The End Next To The Field. They wended their way in forwards, sat in the cab for a while outside their new abode, possibly bewildered or just thinking it was too wet to start moving furniture today, reversed back and vanished. No doubt they will to try again tomorrow when everybody’s trying to get a lie-in.

After that the music started up down the bottom of Neighbour’s garden. A bit tinny, much of it blown away by the wind – I forgot to mention the black clouds, semi-gale and intermittent gusts of rain – but recognisably Seventies, Bruce Springsteen in fact; and all the oldies were singing along. This depressed me because a) I used to sing along to Bruce Springsteen too, until I stopped myself and b) on a recent visit to the Home where Mum now lives, one of the carers advised me that they periodically update the background music to recall the youth of the current intake. They were only up to the late Fifties. I imagine myself, being wheeled into a Home and being greeted by a tinny and long-forgotten Springsteen, or perhaps some James Taylor.

I couldn’t use my spy window because they were all sitting directly underneath it, under the patio trellis-thing, despite the rain. I wondered if she had made a big bowl of Ribena punch and left it on the kitchen table with stacks of plastic cups. Whatever it was, they became very jolly very quickly. In fact they laughed louder and louder every time a new gust blew in to chill and soak them still further.

And there she was, right on cue. There’s always one at every party, the woman who laughs like a drain.

Har-har-HAR!! Har-har-HAR!!

Every time she did it she triggered a soft storm of giggles all around her.

And then more tinkling laughs, and hysterical Artistic Daughterly shrieks mingled with elderly/ motor-bike riding masculine Ho-hos.

And so on for hours.

I couldn’t concentrate on the television, couldn’t concentrate to read a book. Incessant Har-hars and Tee-hees were driving me mad. Finally I retreated to bed, though it was still early. I lay there fully dressed under the duvet watching the sky turn from afternoon storm-grey to star-strewn night navy. Little Arf came and claimed his precarious night perch between myself and the edge of the bed. The Gingery Gentleman continued to snore on my right. He smells of peppery dust, always, as if he has just arisen from the tomb. One of the fluffy ones mountaineered onto my chest to impede my breathing. And all the time with the Har-har-HAR and the Hee-hee-HEE next door.

I drifted off for a while, dreaming of spaceships and solicitors’ offices. When I awoke they had gone, and there was still time to go down and watch The Papers. And Neighbour’s 6 – 0 at last, which means she cannot possibly be 6 – 0 ever again.

(Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee: a novel by Meera Syal, 1999)

The Big 6 – 0 comes to Drippin’ Dell

So I looked out of my side window, the one at the top of the stairs and the only one that allows me a glimpse into my neighbour’s garden. She’s the one with supersize Polish dog that looks like the Hound of the Baskervilles, but is actually quite a pussycat. Her name is Ajska. The dog, that is. I tend register the animals’ names and forget the humans.

It’s been raining – hasn’t rained for months. Everything is wearing a necklace of unfallen raindrops.

I never mean to spy but it gets a bit lonely inside this plain brick box with the twelve delinquent cats. Occasionally it’s tempting to look out – or in this case down – to see if anything at all is going on. Usually it isn’t. What you see most of round here are ambulances, white vans and sparrows. Humans are a bonus.

And when I looked down out of my side window I noted with that at least one more sign had appeared overnight. Rustic signs – oval slices of strange-shaped tree, wobbly-hand-lettered. This latest one said:

No Admittance Except On Party Business

My first thought was that Neighbour must have been one of those Corbynistas all along and was now preparing to host the annual Corbyn Party Conference in her front room/kitchen-diner. Oh my God, I thought, they’ll be singing the Red Flag with their hands clenched passionately to their breasts, or coming round collecting funds in a king-size bucket like the Firemen at Christmas.

My second thought was, no, this is something to do with the Artistic Daughter and – perish the thought – the Big 6 – 0 must have come round at last. She mentioned some months back that she was approaching (coy smile) a Big Birthday. She’s too faded for the Big 5 – 0 but not crumpled enough for the Big 7 – 0 so it wasn’t hard to guess.

She also mentioned that she would be having a birthday party – whenever it was – I didn’t catch the date – and I was welcome to come to it. She was saying that, of course, because the party was likely to be drunken and noisy and you have to invite your neighbours to neutralise them. She would have known perfectly well from last New Year’s Eve when I was forced to sit in her front room with only three other people and a mountain of food and make very, very small talk for hours – I believe at one point I was feigning interest in the correct technique for loading and tarping-up a lorry – that in me she had found the polar opposite of the Life and Soul of the Party.

Of course, I said what you always say in these circumstances. Oh… that would be nice. Yeees… maybe… probably… see how it goes… Since then I have been hoping that the birthday party would either be forgotten or might take place during one of my rare absences. Obviously not.

She did tell me about her Artistic Daughter’s cute design for the garden. Artistic Daughter had been away in Australia with her boyfriend for six months; they were now back with Mum for a while, at a post-colonial loose end. So they set to and did all sorts of stuff to the garden. There was a lot of sawing, smoking, laughing, music, swearing and whatever.

Apparently there is a now map of Mordor – or was it The Shire? – painted on the back end of the garage, in fact I can see the top edge of it over those bright new fence panels. (Where’s all the money coming from, for fence panels and serial DIY?) Apparently there are rabbits, runes, riddles and mystic messages everywhere. It all sounds perfectly dreadful.

And worse, an inaccuracy has arisen. An anomaly. It’s just unbearable.

From my spy-window I can just about see a rustic signpost with cutesy little hobbit signs pointing in all directions. One of them, of course, says The Shire, but another – and this is what really gets my goat – another says Diagon Alley. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Diagon Alley…

No prophecy at all, just sadness

Yesterday I watched David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street, being calm and dignified in the face of overwhelming political defeat. This was something my generation grew up with and took as read – that an Englishman would be generous in victory and gracious in defeat. That was ‘only cricket’. I can’t say I’m a fan of Westminster, politicians, the establishment or the political élite but he managed that particularly sad situation just as you – or we, in earlier times – might have expected an Englishman to do.

So whatever happened to the rest of us?

Last night I watched a young, white woman drown out an elderly academic during what was supposed to be an interesting political discussion on the results of the Referendum. He was an old, white man, she shouted, and that was why he felt entitled to talk over her and steal her air time. I suppose technically she won since she got all this in before the interviewer could moderate her. Yes, she succeeded in being sexist, ageist, racist and cruel in a single sentence and stunned the elderly academic into silence. He had been trying to say that in a democracy we each have one vote. Where did this sense of entitlement come from? Did she think maybe that people under forty should have two votes, and those over forty none?

This morning I went out in the car for a while. When I came back my neighbour was out in the front garden. He and his wife are retired prison warders and since retiring they have been spending more and more time at the house they are building in France: they had returned just in time to vote.

They and I have history. When I first moved to this area I was told – by another neighbour – a horrible story about the male prison warder. It may or may not have been true, but at the time I believed it. There was so much ghastly detail attached; how could I not give it credence? I was told that he killed one of a neighbour’s cats with an air rifle, because he didn’t like cats and it came into his garden. I was told he got rid of the creature’s body in the Council’s green bin and then laughed about it, boasting of what he had done.

Anything to do with animal cruelty horrifies me. I can’t abide it. Until then my cats had roamed freely out of doors: that ended that night. At ten o’clock at night, with a torch, I rounded up my whole feline tribe and have never dared let them go outside since. If one of them does escape, as of course happens at intervals, I spend the many hours it takes to find them and persuade them to come back indoors in a torment of anxiety, imagining that at any moment they might get shot from a bedroom window.

And yet, over the years, though I wouldn’t say we’ve got to know each other any better, we have come to an unspoken agreement. I still don’t know if the cat-murder story is true, and probably never will know, but we talk to each other now, in passing. He asked if he could come into my garden to prune his roses from the other side of the fence. When, during a gale some time back, his roof sent a ridge tile crashing through my car windscreen, he and his wife knocked on the door, came in and paid me, unasked, for the inconvenience this had caused.

This morning we chatted about his impending move to France, and mine to the far side of the county. During the talk it became clear to me that we had voted in opposite directions in the Referendum. I carefully adjusted anything I might have said. He carefully avoided saying anything that might require me to confirm which way I had voted. We talked generally about immigration and about people’s motives for voting Leave or voting Remain in this neighbourhood. We talked about the endless legal delays and complications involved in moving house. I told him I was dreading mowing my lawn, which had grown so long recently the mower was unlikely cope with it. He laughed and said he had had to take the strimmer to his, having been away in France so long. We talked but we kept it general; we steered the conversation onto safer ground.

neighbours 3

That’s what British people do – or what they used to do. We avoid confrontation.  Along with the Japanese – another overcrowded island race – and, I gather, the indigenous peoples of Australia – we practice something called negative politeness.

There are things both parties to a conversation know, but avoid putting into words. We avoid asking the other person any question that might conceivably embarrass them – even if it wouldn’t, and they are in fact just dying to tell us what we are just dying to find out.

We proceed on the assumption that the speaker is imposing on the listener, and that this imposition should be prefaced by elaborate apologies. We go to great lengths to avoid putting the other person in an awkward position.

We tread delicately, gently alluding rather than baldly stating, mentioning the unlikely possibility of rather than directly asking for. Occasionally we become so veiled in our allusions that we give bewildered visitors the impression that we are talking in code, which of course we are, in a way.

As a nation we have many faults but we used at least to be kind – courteous to one another and to strangers, anxious above all not to give offence. What changed, I wonder, and when?

neighbours 2


Sorry to bother you, but…

So, which neighbour shall I tell you about?

Shall I tell you about the lady with the hooded anorak, the stout walking stick and the Illegal (and very rude) Scotsman? Shall I tell you about the teacher with the weak heart – the one who recently rescued a Polish lady-dog almost the same size as herself, which can be seen taking her walks at intervals, clinging breathlessly to its lead? Shall I tell you about the Man At The End, who’s on morphine for the pain – I’m not sure what pain – and stays up all night at his computer, unable to sleep? Shall I tell you about the fairy lights draped round his living room, and the moving pictures of waterfalls, the lava lamps, the thick fug of cigarettes? Shall I tell you about the elderly lady who, year after year, tottered back and forth along our unmade road to care for her badly disabled sister, who lived a few doors down? Her sister recently died. Inevitably, two of the three cats were donated to me: Charlie got the other one. Since then she has hardly been seen: it’s as if she lives a wholly interior life. Shall I tell you about the retired prison warders – a he and a she, as far as it’s possible to tell? No, I don’t think I shall. I will tell you about Charlie.

Charlie is younger than me, I think. Difficult to tell – he’s kind of saggy, and always wearing overalls. Charlie is the other cat-person in this little road. I try not to feel sorry for his cats, but it’s difficult. Inside his house it’s  just a blizzard of filth, and junk, and half-eaten food, and cat poo, and… sofas – an awful lot of sofas. He turned up at my door one day last summer with his usual Sorry to bother you, but… and asked if I would come over and hold one of his cats while he trimmed its claws. He couldn’t get anyone else to do it. In old pink shorts and a washed out tee-shirt I didn’t feel dressed for public appearances, but I went anyway.

I managed to clear a posterior-sized space on the greasy arm of one of the sofas and lowered myself onto it. The cat, dropped into my arms never having encountered me before, was terrified. Charlie went ahead with the claw-cutting using what looked like a pair of kitchen scissors rather than the proper gadget. I tried to imagine myself somewhere else. I tried to imagine that, like my younger sister, I had been born without a sense of smell. I tried to imagine that the terrified cat was not urinating warmly down the front of my shorts. And then urinating again, not quite so warmly. Squelching across the road, to throw all my clothes in the washing machine and myself in the shower, I was praying that none of the other neighbours happened to be looking out of their windows at this precise moment.

But usually the Sorry to bother you, but… means Big Fluffy has gone missing again. She always comes back – or always has done so far – but Charlie – who’s a bit simple –  worries just as much on each occasion. His forehead creased with worry, wringing his hands, he once again describes Big Fluffy in minute detail and reminds you she was a present from his ex-wife on his fortieth birthday. He doesn’t tell you that Big Fluffy is sticky-to-the-touch from the filth inside his house. Ex-wife moved in the man next door some years ago but still talks to Charlie over the fence.

Usually it’s after dark, when he realises Big Fluffy is missing, and everyone up and down the road becomes involved in paddling round their muddy gardens with torches, and peering into unlit garages hoping Big Fluffy will leap out and peaceful TV-watching can be resumed.

But when Big Fluffy turns up, as she always does after and hour or two, it never occurs to Charlie to tell anyone. So there you are, still squelching around the garden, barking your shins on the hedgehog hut or getting bashed by the bird-feeders, and Charlie is home, rejoicing, Big Fluffy perched stickily on his knee. Days later, everyone else is still imagining Big Fluffy howling in a ditch, her hind paw tangled in rusty wire; Big Fluffy kidnapped by gypsies, skinned by now and turned into fluffy slippers; Big Fluffy somehow surviving on condensation trickling down some spidery garage wall, her voice cracked from crying…

Do you have to be so nice to me?

I think I may have mentioned that I’ve decided to move house this year. I have moved house solo several times before and, although I found it stressful, part of me really enjoyed it. I get bored, you see. I have this capacity – what would you call it? – to plan, in detail. I used to enjoy making lists and flow-diagrams, getting the calculator out, fitting the whole horrendous procedure together like a jigsaw. I suppose it’s the flipside of being a worrier.

But this time is different. This time I have to move, and it will probably be to a smaller house. Downsizing is never easy, is it? You get used to having three bedrooms and then there’s the prospect of two – or one – and maybe not in the area you would have chosen, and maybe… Now I’m older, and that does make a difference. You wonder where the energy went, for all that extra housework, for all the smiles and the greetings and the bulging legal packs that have to be gone through, and the twenty-page questionnaires you have to fill in concerning boundaries, cavity wall insulation, and the  boiler. Do I really want the hassle of that again? One day at a time.

One day at a time is what I tell my sister on the phone, as my brother-in-law struggles with cancer. One day at a time is what I tell myself, when my mother refuses to use her commode or offers her carer soap-powder tablets as if they are chocolates. One day at a time is excellent advice in approaching any trying situation. But easier said than done. Too many other things going on, that’s the problem.

And then there’s the cats. Last time there were five, I think. I fitted the two oldest and sickest ones into my little car and booked the others in a cattery overnight. Now there are thirteen. One of the things I have to do is some discreet cat-box-juggling. I say discreet because the neighbours here – although rarely to be glimpsed – glimpse everything. They probably already know my intentions, since a pair of estate agents turned up yesterday. The man had the tell-tale clipboard – ie estate agent of Jehovah’s Witness – and the girl had a snazzy black suit (not so snazzy by the time she had sat on my sofa for half an hour and picked up a film of cat-fur) and the highest-heeled patent-leather shoes I have ever seen. “So you’ll not be wanting to look round the garden?” I heard myself enquiring. It’s just a mass of squelchy grass this time of year. She’d have sunk without trace.

The cat-box juggling – well, I’ve got a garage full of pet-carriers in various sizes. Some are big enough for Alsatian dogs, others so bijou I don’t feel happy confining one of my Beloveds to them, except in an emergency. Moving day may well be such an emergency. I think, with a bit of juggling, I can fit six pet-carriers into the car, with the back seats down. But I need to practice, and as soon as I start practicing one of the normally-invisible neighbours is almost bound to appear, delicately skirting rubble-filled potholes and muddy puddles, off on some sudden and mysterious ‘walk’. Just off to the shop to get a cabbage. Just taking Big Puppy for a walk. How are your cats? Oh, I see you are juggling cat-boxes… Anything you want to tell me? Go on, grant me an exclusive…

The idea is that I would take six with me on moving day, assuming none have died in the interim (two are very old), and put the other seven in the cattery. This will be expensive. It will also involve getting them all vaccinated – twice. Fourteen injections will be even more expensive than one night for seven in the cattery, I suspect.

And this afternoon at 2 o’clock I have another estate agent. I just dread them; dread all ‘incomers’ to tell the truth. This is my hidey-hole, my sanctuary. I’ve met him once – he seemed really nice, all smiley. And I need an estate agent: they are so good at what I’m so bad at – selling. I suppose that’s it – it’s the fact that they are nice to me. It’s so easy to be persuaded that you have made a New Best Friend, even though you know that as soon as you’ve safely signed on the dotted line of the Agency Agreement you will be passed on to an eighteen year old trainee back at the office and never hear from your New Best Friend again. I’m allergic to salesmen, and yet… if only they really liked me.



I mean, it’s accurate, and yet it’s not. Sounds like I’m going to tell you about my fantastic holiday in Canada, crossing the whole huge place on that whole-huge-place-crossing railway they’ve got, or skiing off into the great white wilderness with tennis-racket-type-things on my feet like they wore in old films, or maybe bumping into Paul Whatsisname that wonderful Mountie-detective-type chap who looked so especially wonderful in those red flannelette Mountie-issue pyjamas…

I wish.

In fact it’s about Canada coming to me for a week or so in the form of my sister (henceforth S) and brother-in-law (henceforth BIL). I thought rather than trying to write I would try making rough notes as the week went on. I can’t write when there are other people around.  I just feel I ought to be making them cups of tea, rescuing them from cats or explaining yet again how the shower works. Constantly. Other people, even Ss and BILs,  make me anxious.

They haven’t arrived as yet. It could be any time between now and 10 o’clock this evening. Annoying ex-husband of the lady next door (bald and pointy-headed, like an egg on legs) left his car parked outside my house overnight, in what I think of as my space, though technically it isn’t, and I have been worrying all day about where S and BIL are going to park their borrowed car, and whether I ought to confront egg-on-legs in a brave and feminist manner. But then on what basis? It isn’t, technically, my parking space, just the bit of road in front of my house that feels like mine. And anyway he’d smirk at me. Men always smirk when women confront them. Why not let BIL handle any confronting that may be necessary? Men are so much better at confronting one another, in fact they enjoy it.

But now he’s moved.

But perhaps he’ll come back before they get here.

I went over to see Mum this morning, after our little falling-out last week. I don’t usually hug her (nobody hugged me, much, so I don’t know how to hug people) but I suddenly felt I ought to, so I did. And then I thought I might cry, but I didn’t. I was trying to convey this message – that I couldn’t stay long because S and BIL were due soon, but I would be bringing S over to see her tomorrow, when we could have a longer chat. But she didn’t recognise S’s name, or indeed that I had a S to have a name. I went through all three of us, in date order, explaining that I was the oldest, S was the middle one, and  S2 was the youngest. Then she was distraught. Whatever was I thinking? she asked me. I can see her. I can see her now, in her body. It was just her name I lost. Whatever has happened to me?

And then I wanted to cry again, and she wanted to cry, so we did the British thing and had a cup of tasteless tea-bag tea instead, and a lot of chocolate biscuits. And the tea got cold as we tried to think of more things to say, and couldn’t. And then I put all the capital-letter notes I had written in order, and numbered them for her. And then I reminded her I would be bringing S over tomorrow. What day is it today? she asked.


And what day will it be tomorrow?


You put your hands round me, didn’t you? she said.

And then I thought, however difficult it is, I must hug her every time.