Old man on a rusty bicycle

He must have lived in the village, but nobody knew where and nobody  much cared. I used to imagine him in one of those final, tumbledown cottages with fields beyond, at the point where nature takes over; where men sit out on their front steps in shirtsleeves to read the newspaper and their women sit on kitchen chairs and shell peas into chipped enamel bowls.

He was rarely seen. As dusk fell, just occasionally, you might spot him. He’d usually be wheeling the bike because he couldn’t get onto it for “stuff” insecurely lashed to either side and dangling from the handlebars. Anything people had left out  for him –  spades, lawnmowers, brooms – contraptions their owners had lost interest in or forgotten how to use.  Occasionally he would be riding – and then he would be wobbling. He was the slowest old-man-bicycle-rider I have ever seen. People were grateful to him insofar as they noticed him at all. And what he did with his gleanings? Maybe made fantastical sculptures out of them. More likely he sold them to the gypsies.

We have gypsies here too.  They may not be gypsies at all, of course, but whatever they are and wherever they come from, they collect scrap metal that people have left out for them. They have a pickup truck, a white one. They are polite. If they see you they’ll ask, “All right if I take this, darlin’?’ Otherwise they just fling it in the back of the pick-up and reverse.

This morning I put some stuff out for the neighbours. My brother-in-law, now slowly dying in Canada, was a generous man. Whenever he and my sister came over and stayed with me he would go out and buy a mountain of stuff – nearly always stuff I couldn’t use. Sometimes it was food – giant bags of rice, five years’ supply of spaghetti – but since he loved DIY superstores anyway, it would often be stuff for my little, ancient car. Engine oil. Car wax. Screen wash. Filters. Over the years the hefty plastic bottles have accumulated on the giant workbench left behind by the house’s previous owner (complete with monster  vice). They have remained unopened and gathering a film of garage-grime because I can’t use them. When I get my car serviced, the mechanics include all that. Sometimes I can’t even remember where the handle is to open the bonnet. It used to worry me. Which would peeve him more on his annual visit – the same Aladdin’s Cave of  car supplies, unopened, or the infeasible disappearance of the whole lot in twelve months?

Brother-in-law won’t be  coming to England again, I fear, and I’ll be moving house – exactly when I don’t know yet – but to a smaller place, probably lacking a garage or even a driveway. It’s possible the car will be the next casualty of my personal financial squeeze in any case. So today I put all the bottles outside the front wall, with a handwritten FREE sign . I don’t expect them to vanish today – unless I take the car out for  an unnecessary couple of hours leaving the coast clear for my thrifty, but invisible, neighbours. But most of them will have vanished by morning.

I was thinking about travelling light, and how people give me things, and how I tend to accumulate stuff and yet more stuff in spite of regular throwing-out sessions and trips to the tip. How insecure it makes me feel, to  give away anything that might conceivably come in useful. Poverty does that, and it’s a hard habit to break – you find yourself sticking the remaining sliver of soap to the new bar, upending the washing-up liquid bottle in a mug to drain the last few drops, hoarding supplies of ancient underwear in case you miraculous lose weight! But how heavy all this “stuff” is, and how it drags at me.

Ultimately, it must all go. Everything we own will one day end up in  a junk shop or somebody else’s living room – or mangled into new shapes. We own nothing, really. Nothing but our birthday suits.

And I was thinking about that story I wrote, Lafferty’s Last Swan. My little (well, littler than me) sister proof-read it for me some years ago, along with a lot of other stories. She’s not much into my writing, I think, but she specifically mentioned that one. She thought it had something. Reading it back, I think it has something too – a message for it’s author.

Excess baggage is a symptom of something we are missing on the inside – a fear that we won’t be accepted for what we are, as if our selves are not enough. We bring too much of our past experience, the clutter of our emotions. These things get in the way and keep us from getting close to others. Then we are left with the task of having to find someone else to carry it, whether it is our luggage or our loneliness.

Mary Morris

I GET NO KICK FROM CHAMPAGNE…

Apart from the Big Bad Nasties – cigarettes, heroin, and alcohol – what are you addicted to? Apparently we’re all addicted to something.

I was trying to think what mine are. It’s actually difficult to make a list. There’s something about addictions that makes you not want to make a list, as if they’re actually willing you not to look at them, even conspiring with one another. Omertà, a conspiracy of silence. Just gloss over me, one murmurs. Me? Little old me? Whispers another. Haven’t you got more important things to think about? queries a third.

Need a definition here, since we tend bandy words about like tennis balls. For instance I could say I’m addicted to Jimmy Choo shoes and mean all sorts of things. I could mean, I really, really like these beautiful shoes and if I had the money I would buy lots and lots and lots of them. I could mean, or at least be intending to convey, Unlike you, I’m rich! What I probably don’t mean is If I can’t buy another pair of Jimmy Choo shoes within the next hour I am going to die. I will do anything to obtain another pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, whether it involves stealing, lying…

Addiction: the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.

Hmm… severe trauma. On this basis, maybe I’m not truly addicted to anything. As I have become older and older I have also become poorer and poorer. This is in part misfortune, in part my inadequacy as a human being lacking in any sort of money-making gene/instinct. So, over the years I have been cutting down and cutting out – as you do. Nowadays when some desirable item appears on TV, say, or in a magazine, I no longer desire it, simply because there is no point in desiring it. Jimmy Choo… who? I haven’t smoked since my early twenties, and never used drugs. I used to like the odd glass of wine, and even bought the odd bottle of wine. At Christmas I might have treated myself to a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, more for sweet, seductive the taste than the alcohol content. Nowadays Bailey’s, like make-up, hairdos, handbags, new shoes and new clothes is but a distant dream.

But apart from that, is there anything, the loss of which might provoke a fit of the screaming ab-dabs? (I have no idea what ab-dabs are, by the way – equivalent to throwing the toys out of the pram or throwing a monstrous wobbly – it would be interesting to compile a worldwide list of these expressions.)

My central heating just packed up. I can’t actually afford to get it fixed but I will because the cats mustn’t be allowed to get chilly. Outside my window it’s dank and foggy…and muddy…and murky. However, stiff-upper-lip, call the plumber, put on another jumper. Could be January or February, but it’s only November. I don’t suppose I’ll freeze to death before this evening. No, physical comfort is not one of my addictions.

Then there’s the computer. I do rely on this a lot, and have become quite fond of it. For someone living in a remote area it’s a lifeline. Without it I would have to drive for miles and spend hours trailing round supermarkets, then cart the whole lot back and unload it. Supermarket shopping seems to get heavier and heavier as I get older. But then everything does. But it’s the cats, you see – they must have a good stock of food in case of blizzards, floods and whatever – and those giant boxes of Felix weigh a ton. And then there are the biscuits – giant green ‘cattery-sized’ bags from the farm shop. And the litter – 30 litre sacks. Ordered online it’s expensive but at least someone else does the lifting. Wait a few days, a courier of some kind turns up, groaning under the weight of them. All I have to do is sign the little plastic gadget and lug them round the back in the wheelbarrow. Still just about up to that.

A few days ago my computer went away to the Magic Shop to have Windows 10 installed on it. I certainly did miss it. I missed being able to check my emails and get into my blog, for a start. All those ‘likes’ I might be receiving. All those comments people might be making. It could have been my biggest two days ever for viewings (it wasn’t, but it might have been) and I wouldn’t have known. If the computer had just been taken away from me, never to return – yes, I would find it very inconvenient. I would have to reorganise my life. Apart from anything else I’m not going to be able to drive forever, and living this far from civilisation without either a car or a computer would be all but impossible.

I suppose eventually either my little car will become frail and bewildered, or I will, but at the moment we’re each other’s biggest allies. Come on, my dear I whisper, patting her steering-wheel as we tackle a particularly steep hill, you can do it. If in some wistful daydream I find myself replacing her with a capacious van or an all-terrain vehicle (the best options round here) I gasp, and apologise unreservedly. Don’t worry – we’re going to look after each other, we’ll see each other out. She reads my thoughts, you see, and it wouldn’t do to hurt her feelings. It’s true I would be lost without a car but I’d manage. I’d set about moving house for a start. To somewhere with a train station. Hate buses. But it would have to be big enough for the cats. If it was just me, a flat would do. But there’s the cats. And what if one of them needed to go to the vet? You can’t take a cat to the vet on a bus nowadays – at least I don’t think so. And they’d be bound to pee or poo or something, and everyone would give us those sideways, snotty-nosed looks… And what if the little furry darling were to die on the bus because it took so long to get there?

There’s books, of course. I suppose I might be a book-addict – or at least might have been. I keep telling myself not to order them, especially now my eyes aren’t so good, especially now my house is so full of books I can hardly move for the things – but cardboard packages and brown-paper parcels still occasionally land with a thud on the doormat. Opening them, I think Did I really order this? Why? But if it was a choice between books and cats… if I had to give up just one of my cats to save a lifetime’s collection of paperback books – out would come the cardboard boxes and in would go the books, every last one of them.

Being anxious, and overwrought in the imagination department, I frequently find myself playing out in gory detail a scenario where a violent intruder has broken into my house. There he is, parading around my living room with his black mask and stripy shirt and a bag marked ‘Swag’. He also has a long, sharp knife, and is about to murder one of my cats. Without a moment’s hesitation I grab the nearest heavy object and murder him right back, most likely several times over. I know I have it in me. I would risk my life for any one of my moggies. I would go to prison, for any one of them. I would cheerfully put their little furry lives above that of any manky old human burglar – any manky old human being, come to that.

But addicted to anything?

No, don’t think so.

Ceci n’est pas une post on make-do-and-mend

Some time ago I published an e-book about how to live on virtually nothing.

I got several reviews for this particular book, and in fact they were all good. And in fact I didn’t write them myself. I thought I’d paste in a little section entitled How Not To Be A Superscrimper, only because one of my reviewers referred to it as à la glittery shoe-bows, which phrase pleased me greatly at the time but has stuck in my head ever since. I am hoping hereby to exorcise it:

HOW NOT TO BE A SUPERSCRIMPER

I loathe the TV programme Superscrimpers. What I hate about it is the patronising, insulting, uselessness of their suggestions. If you are really poor it will not help you to make personalised place settings out of newspapers for when your friends come round to dinner. Couldn’t you be doing something better with your time? If you are really poor you do not need to know how to make a facial scrub out of granular sugar and something else. You don’t need a facial scrub; also you could eat the sugar and probably the something-else too. You don’t need makeup, full stop. Don’t waste time and ruin saucepans trying to melt all your old lipsticks down and re-insert them into one tube.

It reminds me of being taught how to light a fire in a puddle in the Brownies. It also reminds me of the way non-vegetarians assume you require your food to be steak- or sausage-shaped even when it doesn’t contain a gram of actual meat. If you’re really poor you don’t need to make a brooch out of a button or change the look of your old shoes by sticking home-made glittery bows to them. The brooch will always look like a button in disguise and that shoe project is likely to cost you more in glue and glitter than it ever saves you. Furthermore, it will all go wrong and then you’ll have an old pair of shoes you can’t wear because they’ve got stuff smeared all over them, as opposed to an old pair of semi-worn out shoes that might have lasted you a bit longer. If you’re really poor people will know you’re poor. Don’t attempt to glitter and squirm your way back into the system that has just ejected you. Face up to the situation with dignity and humour and don’t go along with TV programmes, magazine articles or whatever that trivialise and exploit your situation for the entertainment of an audience that is almost certainly more fortunate than yourself.

Being poor really takes it out of you. Your time and energy are precious resources and in times to come you are really going to need to be energetic and resourceful. Simplify your life; rest as much as you can when you can, and focus on the basics.

The book was, naturally, based on grim personal experience. E-books were intended to be the remedy for all the grimness and the poverty, but they didn’t turn out that way. I have since given up writing e-books because nobody – or virtually nobody – downloaded mine. Well, a few adventurous souls did but my total royalties over a twelve month period might possibly have been enough to order a take-away pizza.

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I enjoy blogging much more – I don’t need to sell my writing, or me, or anything; I can just be myself and give it away! It’s freedom. It feels like feeding the pigeons in Leicester Square. Except you tend to get mobbed by those pigeons and covered in foul-smelling dollops of poop, but you know what I mean. When you’re writing for money (or in my case, the vain hope of money) you’re not being yourself; you’re scrabbling around all the time, consciously or unconsciously, for something that might sell. You’re also trying to sell to an invisible audience, an imaginary host of… what? Teenagers? Kindle-owners? Intellectuals? Readers of soppy romances? People on the train into the city first thing in the morning? What might they like? Are they anything like me? Am I anything like them? I don’t know.

I have mentioned before, I think, how at one particularly low financial and creative ebb I considered writing e-books on a variety of subjects in which I had no interest whatsoever, on the premise that if I hated the subject everyone else might love it (and buy it) since all the subjects I loved everyone else had so far not loved or bought.

One evening I sat down with a horde of cats and a cup of instant coffee and made a half-serious list. Can I find it? Pause for research… yes. I’m cut-and-pasting now from a previous post called At The First Clank Of A Chain:

  • Pimples No More – a Guide to Teenage Skincare – or possibly Acnephobia????
  • Outsmart Your Supermarket – how to stop them selling you stuff without you realising they’re doing it!!
  • De-cluttering Your Home – boot fairs versus charity shops; befriend your waste disposal operative!?!
  • How to Get Someone Else to do Your Gardening!!!

It was on this evening, with the coffee and the many cats, that I faced a fact I should have faced at the outset – it wasn’t going to work. Suddenly I knew I mustn’t use that breathless, fizzy, zippy, journalistic tone of voice any more; at least, I must try not to. What’s that bit from Jurassic Park? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should? Occasionally in my blog I still catch myself attempting to pep things up, lighting all those silly sparklers at once. But then I ask myself why I’m doing it. Isn’t “me” good enough? Really, I’m a miserable old so-and-so. Yes I am, really I am – a morbid, introspective, self-critical, sad old baggage, except for moments of wild and whimsical humour – usually in the company of my two old friends – or acerbic wit – mostly aimed at the moggies or the television. I have many conversations with cats and even more with my television.

When the sparklers come out and the circus make-up goes on, I ask myself questions like this:

What are you afraid to say now? What’s too difficult to put into words? What can’t you be bothered to try to explain, even to yourself? What’s too risky? What’s too embarrassing? What might possibly hurt? What’s so dull about you and your innermost thoughts that you feel no one could possibly be interested? Why are you needing camouflage? Someone once said you need to bleed onto the page a little. Who said that? Pause for research… in fact, it was Ernest Hemingway:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Or in another version:

Writing is really very easy. Tap a vein and bleed onto the page. Everything else is just technical.

Derrick Jensen. Who might Derrick Jensen be?

But you can over-bleed. I mean, who wants to read a potted Portnoy’s Complaint everytime they open their Reader? There I go again. Sparklers. ‘A potted Portnoy’s Complaint‘. Sounds snazzy but have I ever even read Portnoy’s Complaint? Pause… trying to remember… that’s the trouble when you’re old, brain continually buffereing… yes, I think I did, or at least I think I tried to and gave up. I didn’t like Portnoy. Nassssssty creature. Similarly, I cast aside Last Exit To Brooklyn, which until a couple of minutes ago I thought was another one by Philip Roth, but it’s not. I got as far as Tralala and the rape scene, and the bit with the broomhandle and… some things are just unbearable. Clever, but unbearable.

So, the thing is to alternate light with shade. Jolly one minute, frowny the next. Sometimes when writing this blog I find myself “talking” to one or other of my two friends (I only have the two) who tell me they read my blog, and I have no reason to doubt it. Sometimes I’m chatting away to myself – the more “thinky” ones are done like that: I create a duplicate me and talk to her. Sometimes, when something needs quite a bit of prior research, I do that, then read through all my notes and printed off internet bits, then start typing and see how much of it has sunk in and what order it’s going to come out in.

Fiction is different. It’s much, much harder work – twice as much time required and twice as much energy-input. For that I try not to think about the blog at all, or about time, or about anything else. Fiction is from somewhere else, another place. Instead of being me talking to you, it’s now them talking to me or there coming to here. When you’re engaged in a writing fiction you’re forming a kind of bridge. You don’t know what’s going to walk over you or sweep through you…

You know, this was going to be a post on Ingenuity or Make-Do-And-Mend…

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