When is a drill not a drill?

My sister up in Stockport has a drill! Canadian brother-in-law informs me reprovingly. She put up all the new shelves in the garage.

Some of us don’t have several garages full of Northern clutter that we need to put up new shelves for. Some of us ladies have an instinctive aversion to drills, chainsaws, Stanley knives – in fact anything that makes a noise and goes round and round or that might accidentally kill, spear or amputate us. I have never met this competent Oop North sister-in-law once removed but have taken an instant dislike to her. I imagine her stiffly permed, sensible-shoed, twin-setted, impressively-bosomed and sounding a little like Les Dawson.

However, now I must buy a drill. The plastic planters I ordered for the garden have turned up not only twice the size they appeared on Amazon but with no drainage holes. Why have they no drainage holes? How many people are there who buy a plastic planter for anything other than planting plants in?

I look at drills on Amazon. What exactly is a hammer drill? Why would a drill need to hammer? Don’t you use a hammer to hammer? What is a drill bit? What is a chuck? What is a chuck key? And what is a torque setting? With a shudder I recall Ex’s longest ever Aspie-type monologue during which, for over an hour, he explained torque to me in minute detail with particular reference to helicopter blades. I thought torque – that dreaded substance – was safely confined to helicopter blades but no – apparently drills have it too.

I don’t want a drill, but I do want holes in my plastic planters. I decide to swallow my pride and phone Ex. Occasionally he will speak to me. I telephone and get My Replacement instead. Instantly flummoxed, my mind still running on DIY equipment, I make a mess of that too. Er, how are you? I ask, remembering that there’s an order of precedence and normal people enquire about one another before demanding advice about drill bits.

But that was wrong. She’s had cancer. It sounds like I’m eager to  hear the worst, though in fact we’ve known each other for a long time and I feel somewhat less animosity towards her than towards that paragon of a Northern sister-in-law. But it sounds wrong. Oh, you know, she says, sounding weak and croaky, So-so. Yes, that was wrong. Why did I phone without working out the conversation first? I can’t do spontaneous.

He’s not available just at the moment, she says. (I can almost hear her thinking, ‘Oh God, it’s another one, as if he wasn’t bad enough’.) He’s sharpening the chain-saw and if he stops…

Oh no, I say, please don’t interrupt him in the middle of his sharpening…

It’s just that if he stops in the middle he’ll have to start again from the beginning and then he’ll be…

Angry, I say.

Yes, she says. Someone has given him an apple orchard and he’s cutting it down.

Turns out the orchard is many acres of apple trees. The farmer is getting out of the apple business and has donated the many acres of apple trees, though not the many acres, to Ex provided he will cut them down. The work will apparently take five weeks and I can imagine Ex, well into his seventies now, out in the midday sun madly cutting down apple trees with the vim and vigour of a twenty year old. Do be careful, I say, when I finally get to speak to him. Is that fatal heart attack worth it for a lifetime of free firewood, I wonder. But Ex has a logic of his own, absolute and unfathomable.

I need a drill for drilling holes in plastic planters, I say. Can you tell me what sort to get?

He starts off then and half an hour later he’s still going, about the price of drills in Aldi  – Aldi? I thought they were a supermarket – as opposed to the price of drills in Tool Station or Screwfix. I need a step drill, apparently, which adjusts from 4mm up to 20mm. Will I need to make holes bigger than 20mm?

I have no idea what 20mm looks like? Frantically I reach for the tape measure. It’s in inches.

So a step drill – what is that exactly?

It’s a step drill, of course. It drills in steps.

So a step drill is an actual drill?

No, a step drill is a bit you put in a drill.

So why is a step drill called a drill and a drill called a drill too? (Now I can hear myself annoying him, just like I always did.)

And you need to set the torque to a low setting…

Torque! He’s lost me. Nothing more goes in.

Next day, in a DIY store that neither Screwfix nor Tool Station (which I have been unable to find on the industrial estate despite Ex and My Replacement’s detailed instructions) I am listening to a young man with a strange black earring in his ear, in the centre of which a hole so big you could thread a rope through it and lead him around. He is a strapping young man but I am careful not to appear to have noticed that. It wouldn’t be appropriate. I also try to avoid looking at his poor maimed ear, which is making me feel quite queasy.

He is disarmingly honest, this young man, if not a good salesman. Don’t buy one here, he says. The branded ones here are good, but expensive. You don’t want to be wasting your pension on a drill you’re only going to use once a year to drill holes in plastic pots.

(Pension? Rats!)

We do sell cheap ones, he says, but they’re rubbish. Never known anyone to keep one more than a few weeks before bringing them back and complaining. What you need is the lower range of one of the main brands like Silverline, Bosch or (something else) which you can get on Amazon or second-hand on Ebay. You don’t need a hammer drill just a battery-operated standard drill – starter DIY level. And you don’t need to worry about voltage or amps, whatever it say on the box.

It’s a miracle. I am understanding him!

A step drill is a bit, he says. Forget the drill word, it’s confusing. Think of it as just another bit.

Do I need more than one bit? Will I need to get one of those plastic kits full of bits?

No, he says. You just need the step bit and one smaller bit, to get the hole started. The step bit isn’t meant for starting holes, it’s for making them bigger, and we don’t sell those here in any case. Get one off Amazon.

So there it is. I’m not entirely stupid after all. It depends who’s doing the explaining.

Nuances: The concert she never went to

She had never been much good with nuances, at least not when they came from other people. Yet she herself could speak in nothing but nuances, whilst assuming that her mumbled half-truths and veiled allusions to this and that would be crystal clear to others. It was a fatal combination.

The boy travelled on her morning bus. She went to right through to the college. Maybe he worked in the town. She’d seen him again and again and thought “Why does that boy keep looking over this way?” It seemed odd. The view from the window on her side was not inspiring – certainly no better than his – industrial units, the perimeter fence of an airfield, a string of semi-detacheds strung out like teeth in the jaw of the road.

Thus it was that when the boy bent beside her one day, oddly stressed-looking, and handed her a longish rectangle of grey card, stammering, “I think you may have dropped this, Miss?” she was horrified. A stranger had spoken to her. A male one. “Oh, did I?” was all that came out. She couldn’t exactly look him in the eye.

People were getting huffy – he was holding up the queue, standing there, so he shuffled away forward, down the steps and off the bus. She caught sight of him loping off down the road, concentrating on his shoes. Trembling, she inspected what appeared to be a ticket for a concert in a local hall. This evening.

For a moment she wondered, if she were to go to the concert alone – the very thought of which filled her with dread, for she had never been anywhere like that on her own – would he be sitting in the seat next to her? Would he turn and smile at her, relieved and pleased: “Oh, there you are.”

Or had he really, actually, meant “Did you drop this?”

She had never been good with nuances. Not knowing what to think she didn’t go, but she did look out for the boy for many mornings after that.

He never got on the bus again.

(Unfortunately, a true story : ) )

On Another’s Sorrow

Sometimes you witness something so sad, and yet so ordinary. You want to describe it and yet it defies description. Maybe you shouldn’t even try; and yet it won’t go away until you do.

Today I went shopping. At least, I had been into town ‘on business’ – how important that sounds – and dropped off at the supermarket on the way back for a sandwich and half an hour’s sit/unwind/read in the car before setting off for home.

Often, in car parks, you witness or overhear little dramas. People take it for granted that the parked cars all around them are empty, as mostly they are. In supermarket car-parks people come and go fairly rapidly, and supermarkets tend to bring the worst out in adults as well as children. I remember them having the same effect on me, in the days when I still had somebody to be unpleasant to.

Anyway, I was sitting there, ploughing through yet another chapter of my book on Mindfulness. Obviously not being all that Mindful because the shouting kept distracting me. Several cars down a woman with straight grey hair was berating a young-ish man in a wheelchair. I watched them through my open window, and through three or four other sets of closed windows, so it wasn’t terribly clear. None if it was terribly clear.

She had the rear passenger door open and kept bobbing in and out of the car. Every time she bobbed out again, she shouted at him some more as he sat there in his chair.

Don’t try to help. See what you’ve done now, you’ve spilled it! Look at this mess!

But he didn’t look. He couldn’t have done, really, his chair was parked too far back. He just sat there not looking at her with his head bowed.

She seemed to be taking ages over everything in a kind of petulance, dragging it out as if to prolong the agony of the punishment for whatever it was he had done.

None of your business I told myself sternly, returning my attention to my book. But she was still shouting.

When I looked again he was in the passenger seat, still staring straight ahead. No sign of the wheelchair. She was round the other side, still bobbing into the car and bobbing out again, and shouting. Then she was round the back of the car with the hatchback up, and shouting. She really is making a meal of this, I thought. It was a hot morning but the windows of their car were rolled up.

The keys – just give me the keys! She shouted. And then I do believe she locked him in. I heard that little electronic noise central locking makes.

Then she went off somewhere, pushing their empty trolley, very slowly and leaning on it, kind-of one-armed and oddly. I wondered if she was his mother. I began to wonder if there wasn’t actually something more wrong with her than there was with him. I wondered if she had been drinking and whether she was going to be safe to drive. The sensible thing would be to set off for home right now, before she could come back and decide to jam a bad-tempered foot on her accelerator and broadside my car on the way out. But I didn’t.

I expected her to park the empty trolley and return, but instead she was gone for ages, presumably back into the supermarket to buy a replacement for whatever had been spilled or broken. I looked through the line of car windows again and saw that the young man was crying. Or at least, it looked as if he was.

I don’t often bother to pray but I found myself praying, momentarily, or at least asking on his behalf. It was for some sort of blanket to go around him; some sort of shield against that woman’s loud bitterness; some comfort against the odds.

I remembered when my marriage to Ex was failing – all those half-silent, half-aloud arguments we had in public places – in pubs, in supermarkets, in the street. When it gets past a certain point you are so inward-looking, so consumed by the struggle it’s as if you’re invisible. I remember having this pointed out to me once. A man in a pub – a man I liked and whose good opinion I would have wanted – turned to me abruptly and said ‘You two – don’t force us all to take part in your disputes. Save them for behind closed doors.’

We should have done, but I don’t know whether we did. Good advice is sometimes impossible to take.

I just hope he got that blanket, the man in the wheelchair. I hope he got that shield.

(On Another’s Sorrow: Songs of Innocence: William Blake)

The Falling Upwards of Fish

The things you laugh at – if they happen to be the same, chances are things are going well between you. But if they don’t…

Things were not going well between me and my ex-husband around the time ‘comedy duo’ Reeves and Mortimer came on the scene. That would have been… in the eighties, sometime. Something about Reeves and Mortimer got my goat – the pair of them annoyed me and they were not funny. One evening, for the umpteenth time, my husband was watching the Reeves and Mortimer show on TV and going Ho Ho Ho – he had such a lovely voice, and a particularly deep and resonant Ho Ho Ho like Santa Claus – and I was thinking, what exactly can I be missing here? And it was then I understood we wouldn’t be sitting together in this house in front of this TV for very much longer. I wasn’t angry at him for enjoying himself. It was the loneliness of watching him splitting his sides in enjoyment of something – to me – so utterly unfunny – at two people I couldn’t see the point of.

A friend of mine had a similar moment. She was sitting in a cinema with her husband, his father and one of his brothers. They all had the same nose – unusually long and sharp. She was on the end of the line, and looking back down the line of seats she saw the three of them tapping their feet and twiddling their thumbs in unison – a family tic. And at that moment she thought, I simply can’t bear this.

Which leads me, by association, to Victor Borge (1909 – 2002) Danish piano player and wit, who once remarked that:

Santa Claus had the right idea. Visit everyone once a year.

Victor Borge was one of the very few comedians who could make me laugh out loud. Even as a child, I loved the one ongoing joke – that he was always about to play the piano but rarely actually did, although when he did he was brilliant.

I found a clip of him on YouTube. Watching him now I see subtleties I missed as a child, and also parallels between the way our two minds work: perhaps it’s that whimsical – or senile – streak. Now I’m that much older I appreciate his bewilderment, his digressions, his casual losing and re-finding of the plot; the way he finds hilarity in the mundane; his upside-down way of looking at things.

Why is upside-down-ness so rare, I wonder? And why is that so necessary?

I will leave you with one last upside down thought, this time from French novelist André Gide:

Fish die belly upward, and rise to the surface. It is their way of falling.

A smooth sea never made a skilful sailor

Recently I have been spending many hours on the phone to my Canadian sister, who is losing her husband. He starts chemotherapy tomorrow which may extend the time he has left, but not indefinitely.

We are thrown into these roles, sometimes, whether we are competent or not. I am the only person she can speak to at the moment, and so I sit and listen.

She and I married very similar men and had similar relationships with them: clever, capable, dominant chaps just like our father. He gets to do all the thinking and deciding – she gets never to need to think or decide. Both benefit, as long as nothing changes too swiftly or too radically. I believe this may be what is meant by co-dependency. The only difference between us is that I chose, eventually, to break out and she succeeded in staying married.

But now things are changing for the two of them. He is too tired and sick to control her every action and she can’t even begin to think her way through this new set of problems undirected.  For example she is afraid that, having insisted on driving them both to the hospital – a long, complicated drive that terrifies her, down motorways she has always been able to avoid in the past – her husband will then be kept in overnight and she will be stranded. She is not permitted to stay overnight in the hospital. She has no credit card and has probably never had to book a hotel room for herself. She has not been able to memorise the route home. She has no sense of direction and cannot remember whether to turn left or right at the hospital gates. She has never understood how GPS works.

The thing is – all those things that worry her, worry me too. It is many years since I ventured onto the M25 and I see no point in doing so as long as there is an alternative. Yes, if one of my cats were to be – for some unthinkable reason – stranded somewhere north of the Watford Gap and the only way to rescue it was via the M25, I would set forth to circumnavigate that mind-boggling stretch of motorway. Even if I managed not to cause a fifteen-car pile-up the stress would wipe me out for a week.

But there is an alternative: anywhere on the far side of London – I take the train. That’s the thing – there is nearly always an alternative – you just have to bend your creativity towards it. So, I have suggested searching on the internet for volunteer hospital drivers – who would simply drive both of them to chemotherapy sessions and drive either her or both of them back. I have suggested asking their kindly next-door-neighbour, Mike, to give her a discreet lesson in the workings of GPS. I have suggested that she starts a notebook and writes in it any ‘how to’ information she manages to glean during this interim period so that when she is, eventually, on her own she has at least some data to hand. I have suggested packing a small bag, enough for an overnight stay in a hotel, and stowing it it in the car – just in case.

The thing with creativity is, it’s not an exclusive force. Whilst you can, if you are lucky,  direct the whole of it towards whatever floats your boat – in my case writing, in her case arts and crafts – you can, and are sometimes forced to, redirect it for a variety of other purposes. You don’t realise how powerful creativity is – and you are – until you experience that. So – something is broken and husband is no longer available to tell you what to do – you have to run through the options – could I fix this? with what might I fix it? what other sort of person might fix it? who can I ask for advice? is there any way I can avoid using it altogether? is there something else I could use instead? Nothing is insoluble.

My sister hasn’t nearly got to that stage yet, but she will. You find yourself adrift in the middle of an ocean – the big ship has sunk and no sign of a lifeboat. In theory, you could give up and let yourself sink down, down, down to Davy Jones’ locker. I am sure some people have done just that, but you’d need to be pretty passive-aggressive to do it. Most people would swim or attempt to stay afloat because like all animals they were born with a powerful urge to survive.

Life on your own is like this: you learn through making a series of mistakes but there’s no one to sigh and tap their feet at you. Sometimes it’s a painless, enjoyable process. Sometimes it’s more like being a cow in a field with a new electric fence: the electric fence is gonna teach you. Sooner or later your brain will kick into gear and the great creativity-divert will begin. Disadvantage: less energy to devote to your overwhelming interest in life. Advantage: at least, a kind of independence.


In films, when people’s marriages end and they get divorced, it seems to be a short, sharp, dramatic affair. She catches him cheating with his secretary, say. Terrible, terrible rows. Bitterness and recriminations all round. Terrible, terrible divorce. Loads of screaming and shouting. Then they never see each other again and Good Riddance.

It wasn’t really like that for me. I left, after anguishing, and after twenty-two years of knowing I needed to. There wasn’t that much anger, from what I can remember, just conversations and negotiations. Long, patient, sad negotiations. A second try and a second failure. More negotiations, this time long, weary and patient. Eventually, my solicitors, his solicitors, paperwork, more weariness, more sadness.

I remember particularly the List you are forced, or at that time were forced, to make out when petitioning for divorce on grounds of unreasonable behaviour – the only option open to me. I couldn’t think how to explain it; didn’t even want to explain it, really. Twenty-two years of shared experience and shared unhappiness somehow wouldn’t resolve themselves into twenty-two neat bullet points.

Does he squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle, for example, asked the solicitor. That’s always irritating. I couldn’t remember whether he did or not, and didn’t really care. In the end I was forced to come up with this list of invented, exaggerated, petty but passable examples of his Unreasonableness. It would have been easier to make a list of my own faults.

I knew his solicitors would be posting him a copy of the List and I was thinking, that’s it. When the list arrives he will hate me. There’ll be no more popping over to his (that was formerly our) house for a pot of his over-strong tea; no more saying hello to the cats and finding out how he’s getting on. No more strange half-evenings by the fire, half at home, half not; talking, but mostly not; half safe again, half never-again-safe. Just drinking over-strong tea, not pulling the curtains and watching the garden get dark. No more running to him in a panic when I mislay my credit card wallet or don’t know what’s wrong with the car. We’ll need to stop talking to each other, which will please my solicitor who finds the whole pots-of-tea/comparing notes thing confusing. Once he gets that list…

Time went on and he still didn’t mention that List. Eventually I couldn’t bear the suspense any longer and asked him about it. Oh that, he said. It arrived weeks ago. Load of old rubbish! It was never mentioned again.

Since then we have stayed in touch, but less and less. He found someone else, sold the house that we had lived in, moved on. I ran through a few more lovers. None of them were him. I’m one of those strange people, I suppose – like baby ducks imprinted on their mother – once a wife always a wife, even when not one. Always true, after my untruthful, unfaithful, unreliable fashion. Nowadays he calls me once or twice a year. They have Skype, I gather. I think how old his voice is sounding now and no doubt he’s thinking the same about me. Probably best without the visuals!

He tells me in detail about the work they’re having done on the roof, his skirmishes with the builders; he complains of the perfidy of bank managers. I tell him very little: it used to be impossible to get a word in edgewise in any case but he listens better nowadays than he used to do. We compare elderly parents – his, mine and his partner’s – living and dead. Well, all but one dead now. And numbers of cats – ten for him right now and twelve for me. That’s one little contest I’m winning, at least for a while. Whatever ailment I have, he’ll have had the same but worse, far worse, and longer. I post him birthday and Christmas cards, usually with cats on them, which I spend some time selecting. His new lady sends me e-Christmas and e-Easter cards from them both – those things in emails that start doing stuff when you click on them, and go on interminably. I must admit I delete them. A card is not a card unless made of card. IMHO.

But I am glad to hear his voice on the phone every so often, if only to confirm that he’s still in the land of the living. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone will let me know, when one day he no longer is. I suppose they probably will. Unless, of course, it’s me that Goes Under the Bus; can’t take it for granted that being nine years younger will mean living nine years longer. In that case I wonder whether anyone will think to tell him – that I’m Under the Bus. And I sometimes wonder whether death will constitute any greater change in our relationship than divorce did, if what we now have can be called a relationship. Once connected – to anyone, in this way – come hell or high water you tend to stay connected. IMHO.