But I want to be a POET!!!

Nobody trained my parents. I mean, parents are supposed to provide Guidance, right? But nobody seems to have told my parents that. In any case, we were working class and so weren’t actually going to have careers, right? People like Us had jobs, if we were lucky. And we hung on to our precious jobs, because They might not give us other jobs, if we were to lose them. People like Us accepted we’d have to barter most of our short little lives for money.

I remember only one conversation with my parents about careers. It was when we had to choose our O Level subjects. The school sent a form, with tick-boxes. At some point during this conversation – heated and tearful, like all our conversations – one of them asked Well what do you want to do with your life? And I remember wailing

But I want to be a POET!!!”

And them making that suppressed snorting noise that parents make, and telling me no one ever made any money out of being a POET and I should pick something sensible like being a TYPIST!!!

But really, I was right. What I wanted to be was what I actually was. I WAS a poet. But really, they were right. Nobody ever made any money out of it.

Shortly thereafter I taught myself to touch-type on two different mechanical typewriters – the sort that have ribbons that are one half black and one half red, for some reason and that you never really do learn to change when they run out. I was fast and accurate on the letter keys, slower and less accurate on the numbers (I abhorred numbers) and eventually I got myself a job, in fact a series of jobs, being a typist.

I continued to scribble poems in my spare time. I was a good poet, if I says so myself, as shouldn’t. And of course I had visions of my gem-like offerings twinkling from the pages of the Sunday Supplement Magazines. In my head, I was lined up for an interview with someone like Melvyn Bragg on some sort of TV Book Programme. There I was, hair swept up in some much longer and slightly birds-nesty hairdo, eccentric-yet-stylish in fringed shawls and Laura Ashley prints, lounging in some black leather armchair by a roaring fire, being effortlessly intelligent and witty for all the world to see. I was revered, my genius rewarded.

In the meantime, I carried on typing, really fast, and my hands grew gnarly and thin from all that hammering of the keys. People tended to ask me if I played the piano, because I definitely had piano-player’s hands. Long, long fingers, flexible, prehensile, splayed at the ends. Nails cut – or bitten – short. I carried on typing year after year. My hands began to hurt, suddenly, when I went to open a door or reached out for something. That damage never went away.

So – the sad story of a poet manqué.

I am no longer good at poems. My muse slunk off into the desert early on, as the muses of poets have a tendency to do, burnt out or bone idle. However, in the last few weeks has occurred to me that what I am still good at is Short. I can write Short Stuff. Anything up to a thousand words, it just sort of flows, occasionally veritably cascades out of me. Anything over a thousand words and things rapidly go wrong. I’m like one of those little clockwork puppies. Wind me up and I buzz around busily and turn the occasional somersault, all furry and appealing. Then the clockwork stops and there’s me stranded, mid table-top.

With an effort I cranked up my imagination again – clouds of dust from the ears – and started jotting down flash fiction ideas in notebooks. At first it was one idea a day: now I can’t stop them. Soaking in the bath, in the middle of washing up, or half way through a phone conversation or a really good film and – blast it, another four or five ideas. So many pesky ideas I couldn’t actually get started on writing them, till today. Today I have written one, and it didn’t take me any longer than a blog post.

But then, it isn’t any longer than a blog post. So – Yay!

“Words That Stung”

Yes, it’s come to this: in desperation I have printed off a list of Interesting Personal Essay Ideas. Sigh! And this was on there – the title, not the wasp, or wapsie as Canadian sister used to say when little, several millennia ago. I know why the current lack of inspiration: things have been happening in my life as usual, but for various reasons nothing I can actually write about here. This always stymies me, since my usual method is simply to ask myself What am I obsessing about/ ruminating over/ pondering/ remembering right this minute? And however unlikely the subject is, I sit down and ‘splurge’ about that.

I usually avoid internet lists of essay titles. They mostly seem to be aimed at schoolchildren and involve school, teenage crushes, dreams and plans for the future, lurve or parents – none of which I have, in any useful sense. Note of gloom creeping in here – buck up, do, you old misery!

Words That Stung – hmmm, we all have some of those, don’t we? And how not to turn a feeble attempt at an entertaining Monday Morning Post into All The Nasty Things People Have Ever Said To Me. Let’s just select a few, then over to you for your examples.

There was the time my mother told me I had to keep my face still when we were out shopping, because some lady had said What a pity your little girl has St Vitus Dance, or words to that effect. My mother explained that St Vitus’ Dance was when your face kept twitching, kind of grotesquely. I wonder who St Vitus was? Somebody who danced, obviously. Will have to look him up.

There was the time Canadian Sister and I entered a children’s writing competition in the local newspaper (Uncle Mac’s Corner). The title was something like Why My Mummy Is The Best In The World. I wrote it really, but sister provided some enthusiastic input. She was probably too young to write at that stage. I was so proud when it appeared in Uncle Mac’s Corner the next day, and expected Mummy to be pleased (chocolate cup cakes for a week, I imagined) but she wasn’t.

Instead she launched into a – to me, at seven or so – inexplicable and hysterical rant, to the effect that I sent that to the newspaper, secretly, for all to see and laugh at, and I could write all that but I could never tell her to her face. It was true that I had never told her to her face. It had never occurred to me because what kid goes up to their Mum and says all that sugary, embarrassing stuff? And anyway writing was my telling, my speaking, my confiding – was then and has remained so.

And then I had to walk to school, with my face all red and puffy, hiccupping, and get teased and stared at all day for the mess I was in. I maybe understood a bit better when I got older, but I never forgave her.

There was the time – no, I can’t tell you that one. Or…that one, either.

And then there was the time a supervisor told me the ‘bosses’ regarded me as some kind of slightly addled old hippy – nice, but vague – or words to that effect. I wasn’t actually nice, and I wasn’t actually vague, and if only I had been a hippy.

There was the time a visiting financial advisor remarked that of course the root of all my problems was a) insufficient income and b) all those cats. The sensible thing, he said, will be to dispose of all, or most of, these stray cats. I wondered whether he had children, and how many of them he would dispose of in times of financial stress, and which of them he would choose.

There was the time the doctor told me my bad back would get better if I lost some of the excess weight when actually I was just bundled up in an old winter raincoat with the belt bunched up funny round the waist (à la little Meghan’s posh white coat in her official engagement photo, but nobody said she could do with shedding a few pounds because it happened to be a chilly day and her belt was tied sort of funny!)

On similar lines, and talking of fat, these Stinging Words are not mine, but were related to me by a colleague. She said she had gone to the doctor one Winter’s day wearing a puffy anorak with her woolly gloves poked into the pocket, and he had asked her how far along her pregnancy was – when she wasn’t. Mind you, she was a bit chunky.

And one from my sister, when she and her husband were trying unsuccessfully for a baby, who kept receiving pamphlets in Air Mail letters from her mother-in-law, about female infertility. Her husband had been trying to intercept the post on his way out to work, to fish out any pamphlets before my sister saw them. But that’s not so much a Stinging Word as a Stinging Action or a Stinging Assumption.

Have any Stinging Words (not too painful to share at this distance in time) remained indelibly seared into your memory over the years?

Kiss it better

Canadian sister and I were talking, transatlantic fashion, about how much we missed Mum. Mum’s in a home, and she does not know us. I visited her today and she asked, in a rare half sentence, where The Daughters were. I am guessing that in her mind The Daughters are not the lumpy, grey old badgers that come to visit her but spotty, insolent teenagers or pigtailed infants.

The television was on loud. People being pompous about food, drizzling this jus or that jus on this or that. We agreed that we both particularly hated cooking programmes.

Finding her propped up in the armchair, my Adopted Godmother (or Godmother Elect) and I lowered ourselves onto Mum’s squishy orthopaedic bed with our feet on the squashy blue plastic ‘in case of falls’ mattress. Every time one or other of us moved, or stood up to make Mum a cup of tea or find her a jacket, both bed and fall mattress gave a fart and a chorus of desperate sighs. It was how we felt.

Last night Canadian sister told me how she felt when she learned her husband of forty years had cancer. She said she wanted to tell Mum, straight away. She knew Mum couldn’t do anything about it but she had to tell her all the same. But she couldn’t tell her. Mum was past understanding anything anyone said. She had tiptoed off without bothering to say goodbye, it felt like.

I told her something I had not realised until I said it, that although Mum had spent most of her life annoying me in one way or another I often longed to talk to Old Mum about New Mum. If only she would come back just for one day so that I could ask her what to do, even though there is nothing at all to be done.

When you lose your parents it’s weird. It’s not like you become a grown-up, suddenly. Here you are, still a five year old inside the elderly carapace you hardly recognise in the mirror, but now you’re abandoned, cast back upon your own inadequate five year old resources. All the bad and sad stuff that has always been inside you, all that stuff that will probably get better someday all the while Mum and Dad are in the world – suddenly they aren’t in the world, in any meaningful way. And then all the bad and sad stuff starts to creep and snuffle its way out. Unchecked. Unbalanced. No one to kiss it better.

When we were children, if we fell over and cut our knees she would wash and bandage them for us. “Mummy kiss it better,” she would say, and the magic always seemed work. It occurred to us that it’s not important whether or not a parent – or anyone else – has any actual power to help you. It only matters that you can tell them. It’s just somebody being there to listen.

I suddenly remembered a time when my parents were both alive but old and, as the unmarried daughter, I seemed to have to go around everywhere with them. We went to a museum once. Admittedly it was raining and all three of us arrived at the reception desk in dripping rain-hoods, looking like drowned rats. ‘Three Seniors?’ the woman enquired with not even a trace of face-saving irony. Dad even bought me a walking stick exactly like his though I didn’t (and still don’t) need one.  How depressing I found that museum visit. How I wish I could turn back the clock and relive it now, torrential rain, walking stick, stupid receptionist and all.

Don’t, and you cringe alone

One of the side-effects of moving house is that you come across all sorts of… stuff. In my case, all sorts of old writing stuff. I’ve found boxes of what used to be known as Little Magazines. There were a lot of them before the internet really took hold – before publishing software, even. They were short-lived publications, usually A5, on cheap paper and were put together by dedicated people – or one solitary dedicated person – in back bedrooms or student common-rooms using nothing more sophisticated than a typewriter, glue, a bit of arty cut-and-paste, a photocopier and a long-arm stapler.

My parents did something similar for years. They weren’t arty or literary in any way, but they were the joint Secretary of a cycling club. In the suburban bungalow they had built themselves (my Mum eight months pregnant with my sister, clambering up ladders with hods full of roofing tiles, apparently – no wonder my sister turned out so strapping) what had once been my bedroom  became home to a ghastly second-hand photocopier, which my mother spent more time trying to repair than actually using – and a very small desk with her manual typewriter on it. The Silverette it was called. It was a bright, eggy yellow so maybe it would have been better named The Goldette. Or even The Buttercup. I have the small desk now – it’s right here beside me. Unfortunately Buttercup has gone to the big scrapheap in the sky.

silverette

In the cupboard under the welsh-dresser were reams and reams of cheap photocopier paper – precisely stacked – my mother wasn’t one for ragged edges. My deliberately-engineered Hobbit-ish toppling towers of dusty paperbacks were anathema to her.

There were industrial-sized boxes of staples. There were bottles of Gloy paper glue – the gloopy, white sort. The thinner, brown sort of Gloy was, for some reason, reserved for postage – sticking on stamps that had lost their sticky, attaching little Snowmen and Father Christmases to brown paper parcels, that kind of thing. For most of the week, it seemed, at one point, Mum was immured in her “office” with this… commotion going on as the photocopier attempted to shake itself to bits. (Even that wasn’t as bad as one of her previous obsessions – the knitting machine which used to destroy everyone’s television watching concentration as she slammed the handle-thing back and forth over the rows of hooks.)

It was a good magazine, if you were a cyclist. When Mum and Dad finally got forced off the cycling club committee by the Evil one known as Fat Pat – who was later to accidentally drive her car into a pond, much to my mother’s delight – and her lily-livered but equally Evil husband Eric – Fat Pat lost no time in commandeering the club magazine. It shrank to about a quarter of its size and everyone stopped subscribing to it – no doubt because Dad had been writing a good eighty percent of the content (“yarns” he called them) under one fanciful pseudonym or another, and editing the remaining twenty percent of rambling and incoherent submissions from other club members into readable shape. He must have discovered something I later rediscovered through audio typing legal dictation: people with no ‘ear’ for words rarely if ever notice that you have subtly amended their stuff. They simply assume they were cleverer than they thought.

So, amongst a cardboard boxful of such Little Magazines in which I Got Something Published – in the early days when I naïvely imagined them to be the route to literary fame and fortune – I discovered one called Buddhism Now, June 1991. In it is an article I had called  ‘Landscape’. Not terribly imaginative. This was when I was going through my Reincarnation and Zen phase. My soon-to-be-ex-husband described this phase as When She Got Religion. I’ve scanned the first few paragraphs and yes – it’s making me cringe already.

However, no doubt I will type it out and post it in due course. As Ella Wheeler Wilcox would have written, had she been perusing Buddhism Now:

Post and the world cringes with you;

Don’t, and you cringe alone.

Slightly Awkward

Well, the next of this little series of internet prompts is ‘An Awkward Social Moment’. This is going to be difficult since most of my social moments are awkward; I either blurt something out just as the room goes silent, or get the wrong end of the stick, or out of anxiety simply make a huge meal out of trying not to be awkward.

The other problem is – I don’t know about you – but I tend to erase uncomfortable moments. The more excruciatingly embarrassing they are, the less likely that I will recall them in a year’s time. My subconscious leaps in protects me. Good old subconscious.

I do remember a couple of social moments where, for once, the awkwardness wasn’t my fault. It was on one of my parents’ Sunday visits, when I was still married. They had come to our house first and then we walked round to the village pub for Sunday lunch. Unfortunately, we had just been relating to them the juicy scandal of the moment; that the handsome, grey-haired, many-years-married headmaster of the local comprehensive school had been discovered having a torrid affair with his secretary.

In the pub were a lot of giant saggy sofas. It was crowded, being Sunday lunch-time, so while we were waiting to be called in to the dining room we were forced to share one of the giant saggy sofas with another couple – a rather attractive lady and – you guessed it, a handsome, grey-haired gentleman. Poor Mum. She was a bit deaf even then and couldn’t judge how loud she was speaking; but even if she hadn’t been deaf the headmaster and his new lady-friend were so close they could hardly have avoided hearing as she relayed the whole scandal again. My husband was frantically doing that throat-slitting gesture and making “Urgh, they’re sitting right next to us…” expressions at her. She looked confused but didn’t stop talking – in fact the confusion seemed to have made it impossible for her to stop. On and on she went as I attempted to meld with the scuffed leatherette and become one with the cushions.

The second one also involved my husband – who had been my ex-husband for a while by then. My father died. Ex and my father had always got on well, so we invited Ex and My Replacement to the funeral. Appropriately, at the crematorium it was overcast, chilly and raining. Before the service began we were all clustered outside, hopping from one foot to another and blowing on cupped hands in our not-especially-warm funeral outfits. The outfits were not all black because my father had asked us not to wear mourning. So we had done our best to respect his wishes whilst not appearing in any way cheerful in various shades of grey, maroon or navy.

Other guests didn’t know about this and wouldn’t have taken any notice if they had – so they were all in black. We would so much rather have been in black as well – which was the first awkwardness – but what can you do?  Most of them were friends from my parents’ cycling days whom we hadn’t seen since childhood. Ex and My Replacement were huddled to my left, an elderly woman to my right. She was chatting away, having obviously seen me in romper suits and frilly hats, or no-front-teeth and a hair-ribbon. I had no idea who she was.

And then she asked, in a sudden, piercing voice, “Aren’t you the eldest? The one who got divorced from that dreadful Artist? Whatever happened to him, I wonder?” I could hear the dreadful Artist stifling a laugh inches from my left ear. I don’t remember how I handled that one: not well, I’m guessing.

And then, to add a kind of gloss to the occasion, as the tinny CD machine behind the velvet curtain, on some concealed console or wherever, started to play Dad’s favourite Ella Fitzgerald song, My Replacement’s mobile phone started trumpeting Colonel Bogie in the depths of her capacious handbag. First she couldn’t find it and then she couldn’t remember how to turn it off.

This did not surprise me in the least. Whenever I see that woman something bad happens. Before I even knew she was plotting to Replace me, I passed her in the High Street one day. A small ginger kitten suddenly poked it’s head out of her jacket and I half-fell off the kerb, twisting my ankle so badly it took weeks to recover. However, summoning what was left of my dignity I strode off up the High Street without looking back. Willpower alone kept the limp from kicking in until she was out of sight.

Another time I went to visit them in their new, wonderful country cottage etc., etc. It’s a long way off the road in the middle of acres of… well, you can imagine… and Ex was always very insistent that I should drive right down to the house rather than leaving my poor, scared little motor car parked safely outside their wonderfully rustic farm-type front gate. This meant a long drive down a crooked, rutted, muddy path, and then a long reverse back up the crooked, rutted, muddy path to the road. I can reverse but not terribly well. And when being watched by super-critical Ex and super-wonderful My Replacement (she built her own coal-bunker and garden shed, apparently, and dredged their pond… and she could lift a lathe with one hand..)…

Well, I managed to reverse poor, scared little motor car almost into their newly and wonderfully dredged (by Her) wonderful rustic pond complete with moorhens, bulrushes etc. I got stuck in the mud and Ex had walk up and take over and reverse my car out of their pond, and…

I won’t go on.

 graffiti5