Keep Calm And Carry On

This phrase – famous from mugs, biscuit tins tea towels and whatever – was invented by the British Government in 1939 just before the start of the Second World War. It was a motivational poster intended to carry the British populace through such horrors as the Blitz, and to remind them that the British were famous for their Stiff Upper Lip. I can’t imagine what a Stiff Upper Lip looks like, in practice, can you? How did they communicate, with all that stiffness going on?

For some reason, in spite of the Blitz actually Happening and turning out to be Even Worse than Anybody Could Have Imagined, the poster was hardly used.

I was thinking it’s a bit like that now. Still no motivational poster, while we wait, with a growing sense of Foreboding, for those superpower idiots to stumble into bombing and nuking – or maybe horribly gassing and poisoning – the hell out of one another, presumably in and around what’s left of Syria. And in the meantime a military grade nerve agent, apparently capable of wiping out the entire population of the UK, is used on a former Russian spy and his daughter on the quiet streets of – of all places – Salisbury. Until now, nothing of note ever happened in Salisbury. People who don’t live there are not even sure where it is. It was just getting on with things, minding its own business.

But we are the British. We possess Stiff Upper Lips. We Keep Calm and Carry On. Apparently. But it seems to me that that is what ordinary people, everywhere, tend to do. Mostly.

My Mum had what they then called a Nervous Breakdown, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time I wasn’t aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and only aware of my Mum’s Nervous Breakdown because it involved what seemed to me like Years of lying on the sofa taking aspirins every four hours, and Nan coming along the road to do Mum’s housework after she had done her own, and me getting ignored and understanding that this was all My Fault. Indeed, my father told me it was My Fault. Mine and my sister’s, for fighting so much.

The thing Mum was most worried about, she told me later, was the Atomic Bomb. The Atomic Bomb was about to fall on all of us, any day now, and we would be just like the people in Hiroshima, reduced to piles of smoking ash, black shadows on walls or irradiated to death. Now we all live with that, don’t we? It’s got old and tired, and we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns over it. Indeed, we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns. We get Tired and Emotional, or we suffer from Exhaustion and have to book ourselves into some Clinic or other, for Cognitive Therapy.

All over the world, we carry on; we wash the dishes and put out the rubbish; we feed our pets and fill in our tax returns; we grumble because the bus hasn’t turned up – again; we wonder whether we should mow the lawn, or is it too wet still? There is nothing whatsoever we can do about the Bigger Picture: having no power to do anything else we focus on our postage-stamp lives and hope that somehow or other Armageddon will give us a miss.

Yesterday – apropos of nothing, or something, not sure – I took Fifi to the vet to get her claws clipped. For months she had been hooking up on one bit of furniture or another. It was time. But Fifi didn’t think so. Fifi is a tiny tabby, old and kind of frizzy looking, but on the nurse’s table she turned into a Wild Beast. It took two nurses to hold her, plus the application of a teensy-tiny muzzle that covered her whole face so she couldn’t see and being wrapped in a thick blanket. The nurses wrestled with poor Fifi, whose snarls and spitting could be clearly heard in the waiting room, and finally the claws were clipped. “If only you could have just Kept Calm, Fifi,” said one of the nurses, “it would all have been over with in a few seconds.”

But cats, unlike humans, are not programmed to Keep Calm And Carry On.

keep calm 2

Headless Chicken Strikes Again

If I were asked to describe the personality trait I am most ashamed of and least likely to own up to – it would be a tendency to panic in all but life-threatening circumstances. I think most of us, faced with imminent, actual death, produce some hormone or other to keep us unnaturally calm. For example many years ago I drove into a ditch on my way to work; I was braking on a muddy road to avoid a low-flying blackbird. I remember I was playing a Mozart cassette at the time. Never been able to listen to Mozart since.

It is true what they say about everything slowing down. That graceful sail into the ditch seemed to last a lifetime. Some men came along and hauled me up the side of the ditch, still in my “work” high heels, clutching my handbag. The reaction set in only an hour or so later, when I got home and my ex-husband refused even to put the kettle on for a cup of tea while I phoned the insurance company on the basis that he was a bit busy right now.

But most of the time I panic, since I have a very, very low stress threshold. Looking back, potential has not been reached, vistas have been narrowed and my whole life skewed out of shape – all in a futile attempt to avoid making a fool of myself by having a panic-type meltdown or throwing a panic-fuelled wobbly in public. And whatever I do it’s going to happen anyway, at intervals, because that’s the cockeyed way my brain happens to be wired. Old Beaker in the picture – that’s the way I feel on a good day.

This morning it was blowing a gale – the tail end of Storm Katie. Looking out of my bedroom window I saw that all the fence panels on the left-hand side had blown down in the night and landed on my garden shed. Not to panic, I thought. They are not your fence panels, they are her fence panels. Do you need the garden shed just at the moment? No. Haven’t you just accepted an offer on this house? So what does it matter if next door’s fence panels have blown over?

I drifted into my office, coffee cup in hand, and switched on the computer. What had my stats been doing overnight? Had they suddenly shot up to 3 million? Coffee cup in hand I was gazing out of the window when something flew within inches of it – followed by a small explosion. Oh no, I thought, some Eagle or other Bird of Prey has been blown off course and dashed to death on my driveway. Why an Eagle? Who knows. I pulled back the net curtains. My car windscreen was smashed. A bit of next door’s roof had zoomed into it – and there it was on the passenger seat, something the size of a house brick surrounded by an ocean of glass.

And following swiftly on from that, the thought that tomorrow I had to be at a railway station on the other side of the county by 10:30 am to meet an estate agent to be driven round to eight or nine different houses dotted about the county. To get there on public transport would mean getting up around 5 to feed the cats, catching a bus outside the one-and-only-shop around 7, catching a train, then another train, then another train and possibly – depending on the timing – another train… And the journey back, from a different town, would involve a train, another train, another train, followed by a bus (if there were any at that time of night) from a town so rough I would never normally frequent it after dark… or possibly a taxi… which would be expensive…

And then panic set in. I rambled around trying to decide what to do next – should I get dressed, make breakfast, feed the cats, make the bed, clear up that big heap of sick one of the cats had just deposited at the top of the stairs, phone the agents, look up windscreen repairs on the internet, phone my insurers, start printing off bus and train timetables and the numbers of local taxi firms, wash my hair…?

In the end I stomped round the house in tears, railing at God, the Universe, Fate and so on for Never Getting It Right, and I staggered through all of the above tasks in no particular order, and somehow made a plan, and had to take two aspirins for the headache. This afternoon the brother of the absent neighbours came round (nasty bit of work). If that had been me, he said, I wouldn’t have gone through the insurance company. I’d have waited till Sunday when my brother came home and he’d have paid for the windscreen “cash in hand with a drink on top”. So once again it’s my fault?

Well, a) I didn’t know his beastly brother was home on Sunday, b) I needed my car to be usable tomorrow – though it won’t be – not next week, and c) I don’t speak to his beastly brother or his beastly brother’s wife for that matter and I’m certainly not going round cap in hand trying to negotiate unofficial deals with them over car windscreen repairs within hours of them returning from yet another holiday in the South of France – and having them deny, as they almost certainly will, that it could have been their ridge tile which plummeted into my car. I’ve locked the giant chunk of moss-covered tile inside it, so they can’t destroy the evidence. I’ve also, with difficulty in blustery conditions and with the help of Big Puppy’s mama – she of the Illegal Scotsman – duct-taped an extra-strong bin sack over the hole in the windscreen to keep the rain out.

If today has been this wearing, what’s tomorrow going to be like? With the bus, and then the train, and then the other train, and then the other train, and then nine house viewings in several different towns, and then a train… And what am I going to eat? Can woman survive a long day of public transport on chocolate and bottled water?


Help! Sharks are attacking my Shack

I do apologise. Being British, and a Lady, I don’t normally do sensational headlines. I can’t say I think much of the rubber shark. He looks like Miss Boakes, my school music teacher, but probably sings better.

So, sharks have not really come crashing through my roof or ploughed their way through the wall – it just felt like that when on a whole lot of buy-to-let investors arrived on my doorstep yesterday lunchtime. Normally my doorstep remains unsullied from one day to the next. Only the Post Lady and the Tesco Man venture down the driveway, and they have to do so carefully because at this time of year it is an inch thick in mud. Further up the hill is some sort of stream, or spring. Water runs down the hill and over the concreted driveways of house after house, then runs down my driveway, depositing silt. Grass grows in the silt. Grass grows in the one and only surface drain. Once a year I have to go out with a bucket and rubber gloves and pull out all the grass so that the annual torrents of rainwater can drain away, down a covert pipe, behind the garden shed and into the garden of the next unfortunate person down. The mud is only one of the reasons I want to move. Maybe the sharks didn’t notice it, in their frenzy.

They were nearly all men, and they liked the garage. It’s true what they say about men, you know – they just love a garage, especially one that has – wait for it – a work-bench and a huge rusty vice in it. Is it possible that someone will buy the whole house, complete with mud-pudding driveway and resident grass, just for the rusty vice?

The cats only poo’d once, which I thought was pretty good going. Violet, the weekend estate agent lady (75 if she was a day) kept them talking in the living room about the extremely low Council Tax rates hereabouts (it’s true – because the roads are kind of unofficial and full of potholes) whilst I slipped out and effected some damage limitation with the pooper-scooper.

I have to hand it to the ancient Violet – as I would to anyone who could keep their calm in a stressful situation – something I have never been able to do – she rose to the occasion. Arriving ten minutes behind schedule, at a house she had never seen before, she found the living room full already of rabid buy-to-let landlords and People Come Down Specially From Norfolk, plus thirteen terrified cats and a gibbering, panic-stricken Seller, and hit the ground running.

Tossing her black leather gloves and fancy document wallet onto the shelf next to the fridge she began to sell my house sight unseen. And this is… as you can see… the living room. Oh, and a… cupboard under the stairs? (I nodded, imperceptibly). And this must be the kitchen. Oh, what a lot of storage units. Well, sir, you could get all your saucepans in and room to spare and oh… what a lovely view down the garden. I do believe… that is honeysuckle, in the summer? (I nodded. Conveying No, actually it’s a passion flower but just as good as honeysuckle if not better was beyond me.) And that tree at the bottom of the garden – behind the fence – that is part of the property… I believe (?)

She was magnificent. She even coped with the People In The Office not having printed her off any sealed bids forms. You can download them on the internet, gentlemen. You haven’t got the internet in Norfolk, madam? Write down your address and I will post you a form and the requisite envelope. It’s all very simple…

But towards the end of our several-hour session she was beginning to drown under the weight of crowds of men in puffy anoraks with cheesy grins and far too many teeth. I knew I had to help her so I grabbed a handful of my pre-printed Annual Service Bills and Council Tax table, and started to take groups of them out to the garage while she did the upstairs. You’re supposed to keep an eye on them, you see, in case they pinch anything. Nerves forgotten, I got almost cheerful in the end, chatting away to the invaders and making up stuff about boundaries and Wonderful Community Spirit.

You were really getting into the swing of it! Said Violet, when they had all gone. No, I won’t have a coffee. Not that I don’t like coffee but it’s not fair to… use other people’s toilets, know what I mean? She works a whole day, does three or four Open Houses one after another, and never has a cup of coffee or a tiddle? The woman’s a hero.

I can see I shall have to watch out for my job! she quipped as, black leather gloves and fancy document wallet clasped to her, she negotiated the over-high muddy doorstep and  sidestepped a clump of thistles and a pothole. Must dash, now.

It took another hour and an open tin of tuna wafted from room to room, to retrieve a trembling Little Arf from down the side of the spare-room bed.