Party On, Gran!

The usual Christmas card came from an old friend, many miles away. It contained the usual folded-in-four, once-a-year letter. I’m not sure how old Jen is now but she must be ancient, considering she was a great deal older than me when we typed together for a while, in that tiny, exhaust-fume filled basement next to the ring road – bars on the windows; stiflingly crammed with sweating female bodies and those massive old word processors and printers. She tells me that her husband and his mother are on different floors of the same hospice – rooms above and below one another – and that she walks uphill for twenty minutes or so several times a week to visit them both. Neither of them know who she is.

One sentence from her letter has stuck in my mind – “I am afraid my world has become rather narrow”. Poor Jen, it was always narrow, though she wasn’t one to complain – a narrow, if cheerful, upbringing, narrow horizons, narrow expectations, narrow opportunities – and now it is narrower still.

Yesterday I went to the free Christmas Dinner the Parish Council put on every year. This place gradually seeps into your bones. You find yourself beginning to acquire the local cunning, which basically boils down to a series of mottoes such as:

  • Pay no more than 50p for anything.
  • Get the 9.30 bus so that you can use your bus pass. Argue piously with the driver if he says it’s 29 minutes past. By the time you have finished arguing it will be 30 minutes past. And then you can use your bus pass.
  • Leggings go with everything, and they are very cheap.
  • Tee shirts go with leggings, and they are also cheap.
  • Get your hair (beautifully) cut and (unpredictably) coloured by college students. They are very cheap.

Everyone goes to the Christmas Dinner, and every tiny parish has one. You have to fill in a form from the Post Office requesting a place. You have to be old, and local. There are a series of Christmas Dinners on different days in one of the three possibly “venues”. Sometimes the same venue hosts different parishes on different days of the month. It’s complex. But free. And actually, quite good. At least there’s plenty of it, even sprouts, even those tough-ish roast potatoes that remind you of school – even if a rainstorm is swirling outside, the car park is a sea of mud, your baby elephant sized paper hat is falling down over your ears and you are being forced to listen to mega-amplified Sixties classics sung by a man with sideburns in a shiny suit.

saw him, hiding behind the amplifier, wolfing it down before he began. A plate of Christmas Dinner must be part of the fee.

Poor chap, he worked really, really hard, but they made the mistake of calling the raffle (30 sumptuous prizes, including a box of biscuits-for-cheese) moments before he got up to tune his guitar (new strings, he was having problems with them). Immediately afterwards all the oldies started struggling into their coats and hats to go home. Mr Guitar Man was left, mid-afternoon, trying to ginger up a three parts empty hall, the few remaining oldies in the middle with their elephant hats, full of Xmas Pud and clapping sporadically, and a few schoolgirls (still in uniform) propping up the bar. Presumably they were related to the proprietors rather than hardened drinkers.

And oh, he sang Driving Home For Christmas. Extremely tunefully, but very loud. How I loathe that song. And Another Brick In the Wall by Pink Floyd, which I used to like but only for about three and a half minutes back in the Seventies. Very, very loud. And that Ride, Sally, Ride one. What’s that all about? Wasn’t that the Fifties?

And this – by way of attempting to bite one’s tail, post-wise, serpent-wise – is what really worries me. But I don’t think I can explain it. Oh well, I’ll have a bash.

It’s what my first-paragraph friend said about the narrowing of one’s world. I see it happening to me, of course, and yet, oddly, not. I see the advantages of being sucked in and submerged, the comfort and blanketing ease that narrowness brings – old age, no money, working class. Belonging. You see, that is what I have never, ever experienced, and part of me wishes only to be absorbed into it, never to have to think ‘outside the box’ again. Never again to be forced to sit on some hard, chilly seat and observe. I didn’t want to write this, because I observed it.

All the while I was sitting in the corner on that hard, chilly seat and knew however much I was clapping and smiling and chinking glasses and wishing people Happy Christmas at the socially appropriate (also observed) times, playing with the debris from the Christmas crackers, wishing I’d got one of those tiny spinning tops instead of a tiny yellow car – I was making mental notes, and I couldn’t stop. And I knew that I would never be able to, however lonely it was.

Watching my friend (of this paragraph) struggling to her feet to clap and sing along to Driving Home For Christmas; watching her propping her telescopic walking stick out of sight and hobbling onto the dance floor to do a kind of dignified, shuffling Sixties dance in the middle of the floor with another woman; observing her dancing, her with her floaty, surprisingly-coloured-by-students hairdo, wearing a blouse so large, twinkly and besequinned it was like a little constellation all of itself, I so wished I could do that, be like that. And yet I didn’t, and I couldn’t. I would rather the floor had opened and swallowed me whole than venture forth to dance. The other half of me was wondering how soon it could think of an excuse to go home and feed the cats.

The part of me that recognised courage in the face of adversity, a certain inexplicable joyousness about her, also felt the horror.

No voice at the world’s tribunals

I always wondered about this business of taking up space. One person feels he is entitled to all the space in the world. Another, like a wild cat unwillingly rescued, spends her life continually try to squeeze herself into the smallest possible space, longing for invisibility. I suppose I’d be one of those – a wild cat unwillingly rescued by human society.

It used to be OK, when I had Ex. Ex was pugnacious enough for both of us. Sometimes this was embarrassing, like the time he chased a man in a potato lorry who was driving too fast, and the enormous man in the potato lorry unexpectedly slammed on the brakes and got out, marched back and threatened to “cream him over the bumper”. Other times I can only be grateful for, like the time he drove me to the eye hospital after weeks of misdiagnosis and ineffectual treatment by our local doctor, and demanded that a specialist see me at once. He made a loud, almighty, alpha male-type fuss in a room full of people who probably all had referral letters and had no doubt been waiting patiently for hours. That saved my sight.

Since I have been on my own – longer now than I was with him – I have had to learn to stand my ground, sometimes. I am so not good at it. I have to be very angry to confront someone, which means, basically, that I have no control over what comes out of my mouth. It always horrifies me and there will always a be disproportionately huge cost attached.

When the new people moved in next door I made friendly conversation over the fence. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? I resigned myself to the thundering feet up the stairs, the loud Disney-type music from the child’s bedroom, the hammering, the… whatever. Families are different, I told myself. You can’t expect them to be as unobtrusive as old folk. You can’t move, so get used to it.

I tried not to hear their loud, silly conversations out on the decking. When they lit the barbeque next to my garden fence and the smell of half-cooked pork sausages began to drift across my vegetarian garden I closed the windows, discreetly, hoping they wouldn’t notice and take umbrage.

When they had a party, which they did warn me about, sort of, I plugged in the old earpieces and tried to distract myself from a garden full of football-kicking little boys with soothing music. “Don’t kick that ball on the decking,” I couldn’t help discerning over Thomas Tallis. “You know what happened last time!”

What had happened last time? Had they by any chance been snuffling around my garden while I was out, looking for a lost football?

I tried not to hear ever-increasing volume of cackling and mindless laughter that seems to go with alcohol. I tried not to wonder what the loud, screechy row just the other side of my living room wall was all about. I tried – and of course failed – to resist peering round the curtain when the woman started running round in the front garden and banging on the front windows bellowing “They’re my fam’ly, they’re my fam’ly!” Who are? Not being able to work out exactly what was going on was almost as bad as psychic exposure to other people’s second-hand upset and aggression, like being given a single torn-out page from a library book.

I tried not to be horrified as the woman and a man manhandled a bellowing boy-child out to the car, he holding an arm and she a leg, and tossed the boy unceremoniously inside, where he continued to bellow, more loudly than before.

But when the next day someone from next door parked a white van – nay, the Mother of All White Vans, in front of my driveway and blocking me in I just sort of – found myself out in the garden, demanding to see him and asking him to remove it. It didn’t sound like me. It didn’t feel like me. It felt as if “me” was away on holiday and some storybook character was confronting her neighbour, and I was writing it.

“I will in a minute,” he said.

“No,” this storybook me was heard to say. “I want you to move it now.”

He did, but remarked that I could always have come round and asked him to move it if and when I needed to go out.

Since then, although he moved the car and has not blocked me in again, it falls silent every time I go out into the garden. If one of their loud conversations is going on there is a pause, and then laughter. Since then I cannot go out into my garden, basically, until after dark or until they all happen to go out in one of their many cars and vans. Since then I tiptoe about feeding my stray cats in the dusk. I pile up rubbish bags in the corner of kitchen by the door, only creeping out with them to the dustbins when the moon has risen because I cannot stand being seen and being listened to by hostile, mocking presences.

Now, the point of this is twofold:

Not everyone is like you. Not everyone can temporarily forget about/shut off from a blocked-in car. For some of us, neurotics maybe, it means having to ‘stew’ all night, unable to sleep for worrying about the blocked-in car and wondering if it’s gone yet. Some of us are claustrophobic and instantly feel that their only escape, whether needed or not, has now been cut off.

Not everyone is a thirty-something male souped-up on testosterone and self-regard. Not all of us can stride round to a stranger’s house at 7 on a Sunday morning and chortle “Mind moving your car now, mate?” Some of us are old, some of us are female, some of us are timid and some of us are shy.  We don’t all have a grim-faced and grumpy husband in the background who might possibly decide to “cream you” if you don’t get on and move the thing.

I related the story to Canadian sister over the phone. “You did the right thing,” she said. “It’s the same over here – you just don’t block people in. It’s rude.”

The thing to do, surely, is pause for a moment, engage your imagination and try to anticipate the effect your actions may have on people who are not you, and not like you. Isn’t that what all those undrawn boundaries and unspoken social rules are all about?

It is an attempt to reach others and make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find that you have no voice at the world’s tribunals, and that no one will speak for you.

Anita Brookner: Look At Me

Featured Image: Boxed In: Denice Goldschmidt

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…

In the kitchen at parties

I never did like parties. Parties don’t suit my miserable, self-conscious, unsociable personality – but sometimes you can’t get out of them. I’ve noticed they get less frequent and more dire in direct proportion to one’s age. I’ve also noticed that my very presence at a party seems to guarantee dismalness…dismality…dismalaciousness…

So, the last party I went to was New Year’s Eve 2014. It was at my new neighbour’s house. Her ex-husband was there and between them they had cooked, or maybe bought (difficult to tell once out of the cardboard box and displayed on a reindeer plate left over from Christmas) a mountain of vol-au-vents, little quichey things, sausages on sticks and whatever. She said come over at nine. That seemed quite a late start but at least it cut down the amount of hours I could possibly be expected to be there. As I stepped over the wonky little brick wall that divides her house from mine I rehearsed my escape story. My sister had mentioned phoning from Canada at midnight our time. I just had to be next to the phone in case she did. So difficult to get a line from places like Canada and the States on a public holiday. All the ex-pats calling home at once. Etc.

I left it till ten past nine. That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? And I figured it would be packed in there by that time and there would be less conspicuity involved. I tend to like to edge in sideways, find a seat and slither into it, and never leave that seat again unless forced to do so for a bathroom visit, throughout which I worry that ‘my’ seat won’t be there when I get back and I might have to stand.

So I knocked on the door and there was no one there, except neighbour and ex-husband in a rather startling red-walled living room; she had obviously been redecorating in the current local style – feature walls – visual indigestion. I loathe red. And there we sat. The ex-husband was conscientious about small talk. I did my best. None of us mentioned the fact that… well, that was the elephant in the room. All that food. No one to eat it. Then one other neighbour arrived with his girlfriend. He isn’t very keen on me, I think. He talked about long-distance lorry-driving a lot, and the correct way of loading a long-distance lorry, and the correct way of fastening a tarpaulin to a long-distance lorry. And eventually I remembered my sister’s imminent call, collected my coat from the knob on the end of the bannister, and went home. I felt this would be exactly the night for drinking half, if not three quarters of a bottle of Blue Nun all alone whilst watching TV till 2 in the morning and falling asleep on the sofa, but of course I had no Blue Nun so I microwaved myself some milk and put a teaspoon of honey in it.

The one before that was the Christmas before the Christmas before that. That was a lively one. Oh yes. I didn’t escape from that till one a.m. It was at another neighbour’s – the one down the end next the giant field that they seem to plough all year round, even in the middle of the night with floodlights on the tractor, when not spraying it with dung or pesticide.

The house is eccentric, being full of every sort of light imaginable. Everything lights up and moves all at once – pictures (waterfalls, etc) , fairy lights, a multitude of lava-lamps, the blue winking Christmas tree in the window, put there specially to annoy the neighbours over the road (‘Her and her Illegal Scotsman’) who were loathed and never invited; an enormous flat-screen TV with the volume up to 92 or thereabouts, which somebody kept flicking at with the remote control. I never knew a television could have so many channels and so many menus to find those channels on, or that you could watch five or six channels at once, whilst smoking packet after packet of cigarettes, dancing with children, drinking, telling jokes, and experimenting with a home karaoke kit. Forgive me, Delilah, I just couldn’t take any moooooore…

Once again, I found my chair – or rather half a small sofa – and stuck to it. The springs were wrecked and I suspected my bottom might actually be on the floor. It felt like it. People kept coming and sitting next to me, which was nice, if stressful. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about as I’m slightly deaf. Normally I don’t notice it but in any loud environment all I can hear is multi-directional loudness. I am reduced to lip-reading. Although I have become quite good at this over the years, it’s difficult when people are talking about tragic events that happened in the neighbourhood long before you arrived. At twelve-fifty a.m. mine host started to tell me for the second time that evening the tale of the old lady who had once lived next to the Illegal Scotsman.

Old lady, she was, and we didn’t realise she had died. It was them little dogs, you see. When her son found her a week later she was scratched to ribbons – scratched to ribbons, she was. It were them little dogs. He thought she’d been murdered.

Just what you want to hear when you have a vivid imagination and live alone with a multitude of cats. And for the second time in one evening. I couldn’t bear it. My head was spinning, my eyes were watering with all the smoke and I was full of chocolate mini-rolls and mince-pies. I made my polite excuses. No one else was leaving. It all went a bit silent. But we’re only just getting going…

At one o’clock in the morning! Had I been expected to stay the night?

And then there were all those other parties, stretching back into my depressing, lonely past like the white plastic poppers of a necklace I had as a child. I wore it to the Methodist Sunday School party, which was in fact not too bad. The poppers got pulled apart and scattered all over the floor by some idiot boy when we were playing spin-the-collection-plate (oh yes, we Methodists knew how to party) but there were sandwiches, and jelly with dobs of ersatz cream; there were balloons, and crackers with mottoes in them and adult-sized purple paper hats that ended up resting on our shoulders, and little dangly ‘skellingtons’. And best of all we didn’t have to wash up. The grown-ups crammed themselves into the kitchen – a corrugated iron shed attached to the Sunday School room – to do that.

And then there was the one when we were supposed to go in fancy dress. That was soon after I got married. We made our own costumes, thinking that was what you did. I went as a tree because I happened to have some brown cloth and some green cloth. I think I had an apple or two attached. I can’t remember what my husband went as. Everyone else had hired proper costumes and stared at us. It was in an expensive cottage, half way down a steep hill. The sort where everything gleams.

And there were the ones where we suddenly realised dancing had changed since we were single, and that imperceptibly we had become a couple, and dull. And the earlier one where I met my husband – and I would only drink orange juice, which was rather acidic – and somebody was smoking pot, which worried me and I wondered if I ought to inform someone – and I was wearing this long flowery dress which somehow seemed now too long, and not thick enough. And my future husband (I already knew) danced, and that was both embarrassing and endearing because he looked like a scarecrow come to life, all angles and elbows and self-conscious jiggling about. And afterwards we had to stay the night, but there was only the living room so we spent the night together on folding camp beds of different heights, him with his long, long curly hair and his grey gypsy eyes and the trousers his mother had lengthened for him with strips of appalling curtain material, I in my long flowery dress which didn’t look right, securely tucked around my ankles. Horizontally but chastely we conversed – I from aloft and he from below – and played the same three Leonard Cohen singles over and over – and I supposed we must have slept because eventually light came streaming in through the kitchen window, and it was a new day.

THE DARKNESS OF THE MUSIC OF THE NIGHT

When I moved here I thought – well, this is the middle of nowhere, the end of the earth, but at least I’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep.

It was not exactly the area I would have chosen, but it was the nearest I could afford to move to my ailing mother. This week I have been wondering how much longer I will be here. A few days back I was visiting her at home with a lady social worker and Mum airily referred to me as my friend over there. She was never much of a one for verbal flourishes, but could she have meant it in an elliptical, literary sort of way? Or had she, for that moment, forgotten my name and how we were related? These lapses are only brief; another time she will know me, but for how much longer? Not too long I suspect before it doesn’t really matter where I am; I’ll just need to turn up to visit every couple of weeks and remind her I was once her daughter.

When that time does come maybe I will up sticks and go back to where I once belonged; or go somewhere else new, where I have never belonged. Maybe at that point I’ll discover that what’s left of my gypsy spirit has trickled away and I just can’t face all over again packing my life into cardboard boxes; amassing two great lever-arch files of legal paperwork, one labelled Sale and one labelled Purchase; booking cattery places on an industrial scale and being fawned over by two separate sets of estate agents. Oh for a crystal ball and a magic wand.

Well, it certainly is dark here. We did have a street-light. It gave off a faint orange light, most of the time. The lamp-post is still here, right opposite my house, listing drunkenly to port, but the orange light no longer lights up. Opposite my house is where lorries and delivery vans are obliged to reverse, so being reversed into was something of a foregone conclusion for that poor, solitary lamp-post, but that wasn’t what stopped it working. That was the local Council on one of its economy drives. Since we lived in the middle of nowhere they didn’t think we would miss it.

Almost every night the current custodian of the famous, beautiful and psychic Felix (see FELIX BROUGHT ME A MOUSE) stumbles up and down our unmade road in pitch darkness with a torch in search of him. We have all memorised the potholes and it is possible to avoid them, even in the dark, but you have to concentrate. Firstly Neighbour whistles that anxious, repetitive cat-summoning whistle that cats automatically disregard, then he starts with the calling:

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

Felix quite often lurks in my back garden but I refuse to reveal his secrets. Felix and I have a bond.

I know what’s going to happen next. After ten minutes or so the whistling and calling resumes in my back garden. I am not supposed to notice. I am assumed to be asleep.

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

This does rather annoy me. How come I am the only person in the street whose back garden can be entered by anyone who pleases? Just like I was the only person who could be left sitting around in a waiting room at the eye hospital with both eyes full of atropine drops, unable to read a magazine or even see the time on the clock without help, until the drops wore off and had to be put in again because a lot of more important people came in.

They have a different concept of privacy round here. It’s a cultural difference. At one point I found several children clustered round my side door, laboriously reading aloud a note I had taped to it for the delivery man. My next door neighbour at that time was an Irish lady with a red jumper. She’d never knock, just somehow be outside my side door now and again. I’d pass the side door and either catch her clambering stiffly over the low garden wall that separated our two houses or she’d just be there, silently waiting for me to pass my side door on the inside, catch sight of a scarlet woolly cloud behind the glass and open up. It could have been an hour since I last passed the door.  Had she been there all that time?

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

If the worst comes to the worst Neighbour knocks on my door, wringing his hands in the darkness, distressed, pathetic, imploring, and I have to put on my fluffy slippers and go out into my own rain-soaked garden, with my own torch, in my dressing gown, to search for his cat. Felix, wherever he is, now realises the game is up; Neighbour will almost certainly have disappeared into his own house, a svelte black and white bundle under his arm, long before I get back to my living room, muddy, cross and even less likely to sleep.

Then there are the shift-workers coming home. This tends to be about 2.30 a.m. if they’re on 7 to 2. Their headlights sweep past my window, gravel swishes, rainwater exits deep potholes with a splosh, car radio gets turned off in mid-thump, car door opens, car door is slammed shut. Sometimes they give each other lifts and then there has to be the lengthy goodbye-see-you-tomorrow-all-right-mate conversation.

Then there are the doggy conversations echoing all round the hillside. These have got louder and more frequent since the coming of a giant black dog, Ayesha (Ajska) who was rescued by my next-door neighbour from another, far less kindly, neighbour. Ayesha is actually a lady of Polish origins; she has a Polish passport, even. She also has the deepest, loudest bark imaginable and is an early riser. Four o’clock in the morning:

Wooooooof!!! (It’s ME!!!)

At once a doggy dawn chorus starts up, answering her, answering one another:

Here I am! Me too!! Are you there? No, I’m here! Who are you? Are you her? No, I’m me! Who’s me? Me! You know me! Me down here. You’re down there? I’m up here! He’s over there!

Occasionally there is a party and dance music will drift up to me from open windows. That isn’t too bad – it’s free music after all, and sometimes I sing along. It’s the way the partygoers tend to get drunker and drunker and louder and louder that’s the problem. Then come the arguments and then the bottle-throwing. Everything seems to echo round here. Thunderstorms; parties; Saturday night Karaoke in the social club down the road; police car sirens; ambulance sirens; after-pub staggering home conversations, the boys cajoling, the girls shrieking in response. Once in a terrible while a girl will scream and not stop screaming. Occasionally gangs of caravan site people bump into gangs of locals on the beach and stab one other. Drowning would be a quieter, and the sea is conveniently close, but knives seem to be favourite. Shortly thereafter, the sirens. But that’s only on the worst nights.

There are pleasanter noises. Bats for instance: strictly speaking you don’t hear bats, their cries being ultrasonic, but you do kind of sense them drawing near. Somewhere around nine or nine-thirty, that’s their time. You’ll see them if you are patient: watch for a bird not moving like a bird, something black and winged that dips and swoops, abruptly changing direction. At around the same time the hedgehog is on the move. On moonlit nights, look for a patch of lawn appearing to move; a small, round, scuttling segment of darkness. At around midnight he’ll come closer in search of food. I leave a bowl of cat food out for him; sometimes Felix nabs it first but if there’s any left the hotchi-pig has it. And I always know which one of them it was. Cats will pick from the bowl, and always leave some; hedgehogs stand in the bowl, tip it up, empty it out and clatter it around with their little pointy snouts; and in the morning there is nothing left.

I once went out to change the bowl of cat food. In the darkness, I groped around for the bowl in its usual place and found the hedgehog instead. Hedgehog hearing isn’t good; my hand accidentally brushed the top of his spines. Instantly, a great clattering and scrabbling as he jumped forward and rolled himself into a ball. Sorry, I whispered, putting the new food down and creeping indoors to bed.