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.

NaPoWriMo 5/4/16: Ashford in November

It’s our town now. In the face of a wet wind

We tack from lighted shop to lighted shop

Or sit and smoke, staring from burger bars.

Our tea’s too hot; it’s steaming up the windows,

Our shopping bags are stashed beneath the tables

And it’s our town now.

 

It’s our town now. In the Municipal Park

Only the man with the overcoat remains.

This is where it rains, this is somewhere trains

Shoot through, and rubbish skips round corners;

This is where we wonder

Whether to queue for the Post Office now or later.

And it’s our town now.

 

It’s our town now. It’s not LA or London,

It’s not a tourist attraction

And it’s not where we would have wanted once to be;

But it is where We are We

And it’s our town now.

The Hunger

ESSINGFORD LANE, an unremarkable, snaking, interminable byway connecting one sprawling outskirt of Elmford to another, marked the point at which the ugliness of the town began to blend with the shabbiness of the surrounding countryside. Tonight cars were edging down the lane; their occupants, those who were looking, caught glimpses of high banks alternating with sullen fields, and here and there a forgettable cluster of houses outlined against a starry sky. Most were not looking, and did not even notice that the lane had crossed a motorway. Their minds were on the pleasures to come.

A sharp turn into a concealed entrance, the unlit drive showing white in their headlights. Although in reality it was only a few hundred yards long this stretch of gravel always seemed to go on for ever, cutting a diagonal line through undulating lawn on either side. The lawn and the dark unevenness of it could somehow be sensed even in darkness, although in reality it was only a few hundred yards. At the end of the driveway they felt nervous, or maybe just eager, as humans have always been, to exchange cold and the dark for warmth and comfort.

They half parked, half abandoned their cars around the prefabricated wooden building known as Elmford Sports & Social Club, heading for that row of bright rectangles and the first few strains of music.

The curtains had not yet been drawn. The DJ’s light machine was revolving in readiness although no one was actually dancing yet. One boy and one girl sat behind a table just inside the door, the boy with a cash box to give change for £10 notes, the girl with a machine to swipe people’s membership cards as they were offered.

They might be planning on spending all night doing pseudo-Latin dances, but there was something reassuringly English about the draughtiness, the twirly pattern of coloured lights measling everyone’s faces, the black plastic cards, the cash box, the routine and the predictability of everything.

As always, men hovered around the bar hugging their drinks, chatting; and as always women clattered over to the tables in their silver heels, keeping their jackets on, for it was February, which ties with November for Nastiest Month of the Year, and the room had not yet warmed up. Later, when the dancing became intense, they would be glad they had worn those thin summer skirts and sleeveless t-shirts, but for the moment, with the night damp still hanging in the air and condensation trickling down the window panes, forming little pools on the windowsills, they shivered.

OUTSIDE, THAT which was always there drew nearer. It began to coalesce, creating a shape from the darkness of which it was a particular element. It registered everything, the flashes of red, indigo and yellow, the loud insistent music, the occasional burst of laughter, but these things meant no more to it than thunder or lightning, screaming, or stars. Its primitive senses were exclusively attuned to human flesh, and it could smell that now. Neither pleasure nor anticipation arose in That which was always there, merely a consciousness of hunger and the knowledge that it would soon be satisfied.

ANNA SMITH sat at a little table near the stage where, in a minute, two of the Crew, one male and one female, would demonstrate tonight’s three beginner moves, in a manner that somehow succeeded in combining extreme vivacity with the utmost boredom. Anna was thirty-seven and only too painfully aware that she was not good looking. She had let her figure slip. It was so hard to keep oneself together; when looking after an invalid there was a tendency to eat for comfort. Her clothes, though clean and pressed, were years out of date. They were wrong, somehow. She sensed this but didn’t quite know how to make them right.

But that was the thing with Ceroc. Whatever your age or appearance there were members of the opposite, and unfortunately sometimes members of the same, sex to dance with and the illusion, if only for an hour or two, that one was having some sort of fun. And she was having fun, of a sort. She was enjoying the music and the lights. At Ceroc she could pretend that she was seventeen again; and on top of that she had taken a bit of a shine to one of the Taxi Dancers, whose name was Kevin.

She knew his name because it was obligatory to introduce yourself to each of your partners in turn as you moved down the line. Taxis were part of the crew, all of whom black t-shirts with Ceroc slogans on the back. They were very, very, as her pupils would have put it, cool. Their function was to dance with lonely ladies like her and be charming about it, basically to make sure that they had a good time and would return to cough up another £7.50 next week.

‘This Time Seven Ladies Down.’

‘This Time Four Ladies Down.’

‘Men, stay where you are. No, not that way, ladies!’

Every time you stopped you had to say, ‘Hello, my name is Anna’. Anna usually added, ‘And I’m new’ in case the stranger expected her to be any good at anything. Deep down, Anna realised that Kevin had almost certainly not taken a shine to her. Why would he? And it wasn’t as if he was handsome, more rugged, battered even, but he danced so well. He managed to jive, whirl and twist her around the floor as if she was light and graceful, which she knew she was not. It sounded silly but he made her feel sort of French, as if she was slim, and wearing a short flounced skirt and higher heels, maybe dangling a Gitane from languid fingers.

Kevin was lovely even if, as she suspected, with a name like Kevin he was likely to be a gas fitter or AA man in everyday life. His hands were warm and, subtly, he managed to convey the feeling that he at least didn’t dislike her, without any off-putting tinge of desperation. And she liked the feeling of being looked after; being led by a man, even though she knew she probably shouldn’t, what with Women’s Lib and everything.

She survived the Beginners class, though hot and out of breath. More Crew came and dragged the concertina doors across, dividing the hall into two unequal portions. The Intermediates were about to ‘get down with it’ in the main section, whilst those beginners who felt they needed Extra Tuition straggled to the smaller section of the bar. Better still, Kevin was on Extra Tuition tonight. What was going on inside his head, she wondered. Probably nothing except the music, as one perspiring woman after another threw herself into his arms, repeated the three move sequence – this week YoYo, Manspin and Armjive – and ricocheted off.

What did he think of her? She had so little experience with men. It was only recently, since her mother died, that she had begun to think of finding love and romance. Surely it must happen sometimes in real life too? Of course, one wouldn’t expect it to be exactly like it was in the Woman’s Realms mother had devoured one after another and which Anna had read in her turn, when they were slightly crumpled, adorned with butter-spots and the crossword had mostly, and wrongly, been done. No knight on a white charger heading her way, she suspected. But an ordinary man, a kind and gentle sort of chap, was that too much to hope for?

KEVIN HAD noticed the woman looking at him. Ann or Anya or something, it wasn’t easy to catch their names above the music. She obviously fancied the pants off him, but that was nothing new. Put on a black Crew tee-shirt and they all seemed to fall at your feet, especially the pathetic, middle aged ones. Rock on, that’s what he thought, as long as they were the right side of forty; and this one might be worth a try. She had that atmosphere about her, lonely, naïve, but up for it, yes, definitely up for it. He might give her a bit of a whirl. Let’s face it, there wasn’t much else about tonight.

He pondered the best approach. Ann or Anya seemed an old-fashioned sort. Clicking through his pick-up lines, he selected ‘Can I help you on with your coat, my dear?’ as opposed to ‘Buy you a drink, sweetheart?’ Not a complete dog, this Ann or Anya. Faint suggestion of a moustache, perhaps, and a bit on the porky side, but he was not averse to a spare tyre or two; felt you’d got your money’s worth, your pound of flesh without, of course, actually having to pay any money. That was the beauty of Ceroc, the infallible magic of the black t-shirt. Yes, Ann or Anya would do a turn for tonight; in fact, he might almost be looking forward to it.

OUTSIDE, IN the darkness, That which was always there had sensed the communal increase in body heat. Soon, very soon, its hunger would be assuaged.

ANNA HAD stationed herself by the open french doors to cool off, surrounded by piles of coats, handbags and water-bottles, abandoned on the floor and tables, and heaped on chairs. Outside she could make out the ghostly outlines of benches, the cumbersome, awkward to get into kind you found in woodland picnic spots, and some rusty, industrial-sized tin cans for people to stub out their cigarettes in. She had noticed Kevin’s scrutiny of her and felt her heart beating faster. Maybe he did see something in her after all. He was brooding, maybe, biding his time. Heroes tended to do a lot of that, didn’t they? He might even come over and speak to her before she left. Her face, already hot, became a little hotter in anticipation.

Unconsciously she took one small step back, crossing the boundary between the lighted room and the darkness beyond. Cool silence, and then Something Else, engulfed her. She gave one, small gasp.

Kevin had temporarily turned his back on Ann or Anya. There was no great rush; the woman was nicely on the hook and wouldn’t be off home just yet, time to get another beer down him. And yet when, some minutes later, he glanced across, just checking, he found that she had vanished. The french doors stood open as before, but Ann or Anya wasn’t stationed in them. However, her handbag, a brown patent one with an overlarge gilt buckle, remained on the chair next to where she had been.

Ah well, he thought, women of that age are wedded to their handbags. She’ll be back for it sooner or later.

ISN’T IT RICH? ARE WE A PEAR?

  • Isn’t it rich?
  • Are we a pair?
  • Me here at last on the ground,
  • You in mid-air.
  • Send in the clowns.

Stephen Sondheim: Send in the Clowns

 Sorry about the pun. Couldn’t resist.

I’ve been thinking about doppelgangers – or doppelgänger if you want to be faithful to the original German. I mean, it is the sort of thing you think about, isn’t it? With Halloween coming up an’ all.

My first brush with these mysterious doubles took place, unusually for me, in real life rather than literature. I was in my twenties – a couple of years married – and had just started a job at a small publishing firm. This small publishing firm was at the far end of a dire industrial estate. I sometimes feel as if I have served time in every office on every dire, concreted-over, weed-and-speed-bump infested industrial estate in the South East of England.

We published two things, mainly – Book Auction Records and Art Prices Current. My official title was Editorial Assistant but all I had to do, all day long, was leaf through auction room catalogues converting catalogue entries into reference-book entries – selecting the required information and abbreviating it. This abbreviated gobbledegook then got transferred onto a white file card and filed into a filing cabinet. Our boss had a personal hygiene problem. One of the girls I worked with – a real hippie, with long blond hair done in those marvellous ripples you could achieve by plaiting and sleeping in the plaits overnight – used to file white cards at random:

Mr X should buy deodorant… Mr X niffs a bit.

I felt a bit sorry for him really, poor wee fellow.

Back to doppelgangers. One morning one of my fellow lady Editorial Assistants remarked in a knowing tone that she’d caught sight of me one lunchtime getting out of my car and going into some man’s house. This was in a road I had never heard of, in a part of the town that as far as I knew I had never visited. I had only moved into the area when I got married, from forty miles away. I told her she must be mistaken but she swore black’s blue it was me. Then someone else said they had also seen me, in another part of town. At this point I stated to worry, if only to myself. Could I have somehow visited these streets and these mystery men during some sort of sleepwalking or schizophrenic episode? When I continued to insist that I had never been there I got knowing nods and winks all round and realised it was hopeless – they were smugly convinced I was having an affair and had been visiting these unknown roads/men for some noontime nookie.

Then my husband came home one day and said the people in the newsagents round the corner from our flat had accused his wife of not coming in to collect and pay for the serialised sewing magazine she had ordered, and would he please ask his wife to pay up. He was annoyed. I was bewildered. I had certainly been into that shop once or twice but had no memory whatsoever of ordering a sewing magazine. I wasn’t even interested in sewing.

After I had protested my innocence at great and tearful length he said it was OK, but I could sense that he neither trusted nor believe me. And of course I could never set foot in that shop again. What sort of mischief was ‘other me’ up to? Was she deliberately playing tricks on me? After that I scanned the crowds for ‘me’ everywhere I went in the town but I never, ever spotted ‘me’. I came to the conclusion that ‘me’ existed purely for the purpose of being spotted by other people.

Writing this, I suddenly recall a poem I wrote there, around the same time – Remembrance Day, it was called. The poem has long since vanished. I can only remember one line, probably because it was the only line worth remembering:

While my green ghost stands behind me spending money.

Thinking about it does bring back the general atmosphere of the poem. It was written, unsurprisingly, on Remembrance Day (the eleventh day of the eleventh month) and was partly sparked off by the little wooden crosses with poppies on, arranged around a war memorial in a little park, the park being the space once occupied by the town’s main church, destroyed by a wartime bomb. There was just one small corner left standing, a kind of clock-tower. The rest was now neatly-mown grass, and a pathway, and this memorial surrounded in November by poppies and crosses, paying tribute to the dead of the two World Wars.

I remember standing around in the November drizzle staring into shop windows and wishing I had some money – any money – to spend on something. Retail therapy: I just desperately wanted to spend something, on anything, to make myself feel better. The green ghost was a kind of avaricious alter-ego. I remember being very, very unhappy in that God-forsaken seaside town that wet November, no doubt because I had married the wrong man and knew he was the wrong man even before I married him, and because there seemed to be no possible escape from the situation I had got myself into. I had thrown away my career for a lifetime of dead-end jobs and unhappy co-incarceration with a man who was wishing he hadn’t married me. In my misery, could I have somehow brought into being that ‘green ghost’, as young teenagers are said to create the poltergeists which wreak violent havoc on their behalf?

After four years we left that town and never came back, and as far as I know my double did not come after me. Is it possible she is still meandering round the old town, placing orders for things in newsagents and not returning to pay for them, visiting strange men and making sure people see her doing so? Maybe she doesn’t realise I’ve left…

… and with any luck she won’t be reading this blog.