Things I’ll never do again

You’re supposed to write a list for this one.

Come on, think, think! There must be a whole lot of things you’ll never do again – or would that be a whole lot of things you never did in the first place and now it’s too late.

I’ll never again…

Go shopping in Oxford Street. No money. Never any money. Air pollution and far too many people.

Paddle at the seaside. I’d like to think I would, and no physical reason not to. But if I did – ah, if I did it might all come back, the wash of the little waves, the smell of seaweed, the way pebbles change colour under water – and I might never leave…

Visit the house I grew up in and find it anything but empty – no Mum, knitting in the living room; beavering away up the top of the garden and not hearing the doorbell; making a huge fuss of a bony, toothless cat that’s just trying to get some shut-eye; standing confused in the kitchen, wondering why she’s in there or listening to her voices coming in from outside through the cupboards.

Fly in an aeroplane. Nowhere to go. And who wants to risk weird people diverting you to Cyprus on a whim?

Write a really brilliant poem and think, at the end of it, that’s what I’m alive for. Poetry is like mathematics – a game for the young. Though skill remains; the muse deserts us all.

Write a novel. I wrote a novel, once. It was one of those Mills & Boons. I thought someone might pay me to write soft porn, which would free me up for my own version of War & Peace. Mills & Boon were very kind. Quite a long rejection slip, with suggestions for improvement; a recommendation not to rewrite this one but to start afresh. I gather if they really hate you, you just get a little square slip: No Thanks. But, to be honest, I haven’t got it in me to write long stuff. As my ancient friend Michel de Montaigne once put it:

…I am a sworn foe to constraint, assiduity, and perseverance; and that nothing is so foreign to my style as an extended narrative.

Walk all round the British Isles. Not that I ever did, but I planned to, once.

Buy a car – well, I suppose you can never say never. I live in hopes of an elderly and as yet undiscovered Australian uncle leaving me pots and pots of gold – but he’d have to be pretty ancient to be my uncle – in which case he’d be dead by now. My car and I will see each other out – she with her mended windscreen, a big gouge out of the dashboard, various bits like headrests gone missing and several red and orange lights permanently flashing. Me with… Well, me with. She’ll fall to bits one day – or like Mum I’ll forget how to drive her. The roads I once knew so well will overnight turn into spaghetti to match my brain, and that will be that for us both.

NaPoWriMo 5/4/16: Ashford in November

It’s our town now. In the face of a wet wind

We tack from lighted shop to lighted shop

Or sit and smoke, staring from burger bars.

Our tea’s too hot; it’s steaming up the windows,

Our shopping bags are stashed beneath the tables

And it’s our town now.

 

It’s our town now. In the Municipal Park

Only the man with the overcoat remains.

This is where it rains, this is somewhere trains

Shoot through, and rubbish skips round corners;

This is where we wonder

Whether to queue for the Post Office now or later.

And it’s our town now.

 

It’s our town now. It’s not LA or London,

It’s not a tourist attraction

And it’s not where we would have wanted once to be;

But it is where We are We

And it’s our town now.

Witches’ Knickers and Other Weirdness

I suppose this one’s a bit of a cheat. After all, I did promise a whole month-ful of articles and/or short stories on a richly ghosty-halloweeny theme, and all I can come up with (let’s face it, we all have our scraping-the-barrel days) is Witches’ Knickers. I heard a lady use this expression in TV yesterday morning, and it moderately amused me. It was an Irish phrase, originally, for those plastic bags that get caught in the branches of trees and go on waggling about there for all eternity. And the reason the lady was on TV was to comment sagely upon – you guessed it – plastic bags.

As from yesterday, England joined Wales and Scotland in charging 5p for every supermarket bag used, except that England has made it more complicated by factoring in all manner of confusing Exceptions To The Rule. In case you are interested per se in English plastic bags, here a useful link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34438030

My own thoughts are:

  • Why don’t they ban them altogether? My cats get their heads through the handles then run about the house like mad things, half throttled and unable to shake them off, so that I now have to cut through the handles of, or tie a bow in, any plastic bag that enters the house, including any that visitors have carelessly left lying about. This sometimes annoys the visitors. Quite apart from spooking cats, plastic harms wildlife and will ultimately harm us. Over time, in the oceans, they dissolve into a cloud of little plasticky globules, which then get eaten by the fishy inhabitants of the oceans, which go on to get eaten by us. It is not yet known how bad all this dietary plastic is for us. The thing is, the plastic bag is a new(ish) phenomenon anyway, one that we can manage without, and always could have. Believe it or not, plastic or single-use bags hadn’t even been invented when I was small.
  • When I was a child I used to go shopping with my Nan. She took with her either her string bag – a multicoloured item that started off small and scrunchy but kind of elongated the more she put in it – or some other sort of permanent shopping bag. She kept it on the hook on the door underneath her coat.
  • We walked up to the shop, which took about twenty minutes. If we asked for tea the grocer would take a metal measuring scoop and shoot it into a cone of paper, which he had made just by twisting it in on itself – something like the cone chips or popcorn might come in now. When the cone was full he would twist the top closed. Coffee, sugar – virtually anything could be scooped into a paper twist. When we got home, Nan would refill her own jar – marked Coffee, Sugar, Tea or whatever – from the paper twist. If we asked for ham it was sliced in front of us, sandwiched between two sheets of greaseproof and slid into a white paper bag. Sweets also came in paper bags, tipped out of big glass jars. Plastic bags are ugly, dangerous, and with one tiny change to our habits we can manage without them.
  • Life has changed, of course, and the majority of shoppers (being careful not to specify women) aren’t “housewives” as my Nan was. We have less time for our shopping and, now that there are supermarkets, we tend not to shop daily but to drive somewhere for a weekly, fortnightly or even monthly shop, which means carrying away a lot of stuff at once. Nan’s string bag wouldn’t be adequate.
  • However, we could still manage without either plastic bags or plastic packaging. Plastic packaging is less about containing the food than about attracting you to it and convincing you to buy it. Plastic bags are less about convenient carrying than about free advertising for the shop they came from.
  • On the rare occasions when I actually do a main shop in a supermarket as opposed to ordering online, I’d be satisfied with paper bags for small items, and it wouldn’t be that difficult to remember to take along two, three or four of the ten or so giant, unwieldy, indestructible Bags For Life that are currently having babies under my kitchen sink.
  • Is 5p of itself going to put anyone off buying a plastic bag? If a person is given one plastic bag for every £10 worth of shopping, and spends £100 on their supermarket visit, that’s ten plastic bags – 50 pence. It seems to me that if you are lucky enough to be able to afford £100 all in one go, 50p is neither hither not thither. What can you get for 50p?
  • The charge itself isn’t going to make a difference, unless you are very poor, in which case you will be recycling and repurposing everything already out of sheer necessity. If there is a decline in plastic bag use and pollution from now on it will be down to a more subtle combination of factors: social stigma – which in Britain means being made to feel conspicuous, which means being embarrassed, which is awful  – and being identified as a member of a lower social class, which in Britain is mortifying. Look, she’s one of those lower class people who still have plastic bags. Similar to being one of those common old slappers who smoke or one of those uneducated plebs, chavs or whatever the current word is – who drop litter in the street or fail to fasten their seat-belts when they get in the car.

Goodness, what a rant! And do I even care about plastic bags? Apparently, temporarily, I do – or did. Maybe I’m cross about something else and the plastic bags are gonna get it in the neck. Or would, if they had necks.

Maybe a cup of coffee and a sandwich might help to rid me entirely of witches knickers and environmental concerns. Perhaps half a wasted hour watching Loose Women on TV. Caffeine, calories and chatter, then on to that short story.

Just tell me it’s not the end of the line

The Greasy Café is where we go most Sundays, Mum and I. We go there because you don’t have to walk far if it’s raining, or if Mum’s feet are bad, as they are at the moment. And it’s near mini-Tesco’s, in case of a Ryvita and currant-cake famine. Actually, the things we end up buying in Tesco’s seem to have little to do with what Mum has in her store cupboard or even what she likes – they are more likely to be what her internal elves instruct her to buy, and in whatever strange quantities they stipulate – four currant-cakes when once home she will say she doesn’t like cake, a single yoghurt when she eats at least two a day, meat cat food when the cat prefers fish, no bananas when she has no bananas. I have learned not to argue, on the basis that it will do no good in any event, and any food in her cupboard is better than none at all. I am not sure whether she remembers to eat it, or what she eats, but she seems to stay around the same weight so she must be eating something.

But, before that we go to the Greasy Café. We always have to have the same thing – two Choice One. The frothy coffees are free. It’s really a breakfast meal – two slices of toast, one underdone tomato cut into quarters, two potato cakes and a mountain of rubbery scrambled egg, which I suspect starts off as yellow powder in an industrial-size tub. The café is run by Cypriots, a husband and wife team, with occasional weekend waiters or waitresses. Every other week Mum asks me in a deaf person’s whisper where I think they come from, and whether they are Indians, and I pretend not to hear since they are only a foot or so away. If there is a waiter he will learn how handsome he is – could have been a model. If there is a waitress she will learn how slim she is – surprising with all this food around. People are enormous nowadays. Great wobbly things. Look at his stomach! And why do the women wear those long dresses?

The café owners know us well. We walk in and they wave at us, he from the kitchen and she from behind the till. The usual?

Are you going to give them our order? I don’t think they’ve seen us.

They know our order. They’ll be along in a minute with the coffee.

But she hasn’t come to the table with her notebook.

They know our order. We always have the same.

I don’t think they’ve seen us.

They know our order. They’ll be along in a minute…

And then we sink into silence and wait, because Mum doesn’t like to wear her hearing aids, and can’t hear me. And anyway, we have nothing much to say, having got through any ‘business’ over mugs of tea before we came out. I have a notebook and biro in my bag in case of emergencies.

We’ve been waiting for half an hour. Are they very busy?

The café is empty apart from us, the Cypriot owners and a couple of middle aged men commenting the sports pages of the newspaper. They are always here. Seem to be friends of the boss. And outside, there are the vapers – a strange-looking couple who sit at one of the outside tables in all weathers, vaping. Lady boss takes coffee out to them at intervals.

It’s only been ten minutes. She’ll be here with the coffee shortly.

Do they know we’re here? She didn’t come to the table with her notebook.

Outside is the shopping precinct. It was built long after I left, on the land which used to belong to Mum’s school. They demolished Mum’s school. The playground is now a bookmakers, and a Wilco store. Behind that there is a pet shop where Mum sometimes buys cat-biscuits because she feels sorry for them, and a bookshop which I am not allowed to go into because Mum doesn’t do browsing, and a charity shop side window. I make sure to be facing the window, and every Sunday I look out at clumps of fat people going past, the women in the long frocks my mother so dislikes, the children in hoodies, on skateboards, the men with their big bellies in long shorts and tattoos. I am just too far away to read the titles of the second hand hardback books stacked in the bookshop window, but in any case I have been in there on my own and know he overcharges. And I know they’ll be unweildy histories of naval battles in the Second World War, and indexes of all the films ever made, and craft books showing you how to make floral covers for paper tissue boxes, or Easter Bunny peg-bags. And in the charity shop, the same three dresses – a red one, a very short blue one and a longer, beige-coloured one. Always the same three, in some tiny size. Obviously there are not enough small women around here. Oh yes, and a handbag. A battered brown handbag, very large, with black clasps. A homeless handbag.

Our coffees arrive. There is a spoon each to spoon off the froth.

I’ve got three bags of sugar.

Oh, I’ve got two this time.

But I don’t need three bags of sugar.

Put them in your handbag for later, then.

It’s not the done thing. And they might need them for other people.

Leave them on the table, then.

But why have I got three and you’ve got two?

I don’t know. Sometimes I get three and you get two. Sometimes we both get two…

Do they know we’re here? She hasn’t been over…

Our two Choice Ones arrive. I shall be feeling queasy all afternoon. I am thinking, I’ve got a bit of a headache. The toast isn’t too bad, though. I’ll leave half the egg.

This is better than the beans, isn’t it? The one with the beans we used to have. So many beans they used to spill off the edge of the plate. And they made the plate wobble. I could never keep my plate still. Yours never seemed to wobble. Why did I always get the wobbly plate?

I don’t know. Maybe it was a wobbly table.

There’s a dead fly on this table.

It’s just a mark. Look, I’ll poke it – it doesn’t move.

It looks like a dead fly.

But it doesn’t move.

It won’t move if it’s dead.

There is no fly. Look, it’s a mark on the table.

This is better than the beans, isn’t it?

They’ve turned on the radio. Music, to soothe a savage breast.

It’s very noisy in here. What’s that noise all of a sudden?

But I am floating away on a tide of music, and none of it matters any more, not the three same dresses and the homeless handbag, not the unreachable books or the fat people, or the hooded children on their skateboards, not the people in wheelchairs, the people smoking, the tattooed men, the grey clouds overhead, the likelihood of rain, Tesco still to come…

I drew a broken heart

Right on your window pane

Waited for your reply

Here in the pouring rain

Just breathe against the glass

Leave me some kind of sign

I know the hurt won’t pass, yeah

Just tell me it’s not the end of the line…