In The Bleak Midwinter

(I am afraid this little story may feature the same Janice who hurled a number of jelly trifles at the music mistress in ‘Might As Well Be Hung For A Sheep’)

This story doesn’t take place in Midwinter, bleak or otherwise. Imagine late May and a long time ago. All will become clear.

She is at school. Whatever the type of gym – hockey, netball, tennis, athletics – all those torments – they get changed in the same cloakroom, in an ancient and mostly forgotten area of the school called Crimea because Florence Nightingale once nursed soldiers there, according to the headmistress. The paint is chipped and the floors are dampish concrete; the lighting isn’t up to much, the windows are high and small. All around the room are wooden benches, for sitting on whilst doing up plimsolls, and above the benches, coat hooks. The cloakroom smells of sweat, menstruation and those sticky-sweet roll-on deodorants girls favoured in the sixties.

She has forgotten her gym bag and so she can’t do gym, which means that Miss Potter will punish her. In fact, it is her mother who has forgotten it. The bag would normally by the front door, containing a pale blue ironed gym shirt, darker blue skirt-shorts, socks and plimsolls, but her mother is working up to, or possibly spiralling down from, one of her nervous breakdowns.

She is a good girl, or at least a fearful one. Her father has shouted, slapped, walloped and goaded into her a fear of all authority figures. Miss Potter is teensy-tiny whereas Janice is tall, like the shouting, slapping and walloping father – but she fears Miss Potter, who is grizzle-haired, gruffly-spoken and probably a lesbian. Miss Potter will take it as read that any gym bag forgotten had been forgotten on purpose, especially if the girl in question hates all sports, which Miss Potter knows to be the case here.

Her punishment this time is to be an unusual one. Quite often punishments involve walking round and round the sports field, still in your uniform, whilst the others are playing. You just walk round, and round for fifty minutes or so, and Potter keeps her eye on you. Another of her duties is to be in charge of the sick room and this is basically the same punishment you get for period pain – a glass of cloudy gingery stuff (briskly whisked with a glass rod, like they have in the science lab) and walking round and round the sports field, whether pouring with rain or not.

Maybe Potter is in a creative mood. “You will stay here,” she says, “and learn a hymn by heart. I will hear you recite it when I get back, and I expect you to be word perfect.” And she produces a copy of the school hymn book.

“Which hymn, Miss Potter?”

“Any hymn you choose, Janice, as long as it contains at least four verses.”

In the now-empty changing room Janice chooses In The Bleak Mid-Winter because she loves it. She offers up a little prayer of thanks to the God she already half-disbelieves in. In The Bleak Mid-Winter is not just one of those dirges penned by a Victorian vicar but a proper poem, by someone called Christina Georgina Rossetti. The name is a sonnet in itself.

She already knows the first two verses from chapel.

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow… There is something revolutionary about that line, something so pure and bright and absolutely certain of itself. This Christina is a woman who has walked in snow, who has seen the water standing hard as iron, listened to the frosty wind making moan. Janice never had any problem memorising words, and words like this –how could they fail to stick?

The hardest part is doing the reciting when Miss Potter comes back. She takes the hymn book from the girl and waits. Janice recalls how the other kids used to read in her infant school class –a kind of staccato drone, with stumbles and mispronunciation. She tries to imitate that, without laying it on too thick. Potter mustn’t catch on that she has just spent one of the happiest fifty minutes of her life being punished.

But of course, she can’t keep it up. Angels and Archangels are just too much for her. Awe creeps into her voice, the hint of a sob, even.

At What can I give him, – Give my heart she sighs, knowing the game is up.

“Next time,” says Miss Potter, “algebra.”

(flash fiction: 756 words)

Time to grow out the moustache?

Until this morning I could think of very few positives to the coronavirus situation. As I have said before, choosing to be a hermit is one thing – having hermitry, hermitage or possibly hermitonomy imposed upon one by the Government is another. I self-isolated of my own accord a week early, knowing I was “at risk”, but now I am being compelled to I am sad. Three months, a whole summer confined with a herd of cats, trying to track down cans of catfood. If the worst really comes to the worst they will have to hold their noses and tackle the Bozita. The Bozita has been in the garage for a year. Not only would they not eat it when I bought it, they wouldn’t go within a yard of it.

But this morning I woke up with an idea. Well, I was woken up, forcibly, by Martha, my self-appointed “alarm cat”. She sees it as her duty to push, jump, scratch, dribble most persistently, hour upon hour if necessary, until I drag myself out of bed. My idea?

Let the moustache grow out!!

When will there ever be a better opportunity? Three months of seeing no one except the odd delivery driver – and delivery drivers never look at you. And now, they are so anxious to get away they linger even less. As the Tesco man said, “If you admit to symptoms we will drop your shopping on the doorstep and run away.”

I would not like anyone to think that I am, in my natural state, a grotesquely bearded lady. As far as I remember – back to when I was twelve or thirteen – the moustache was really only what you might expect to appear on a brown-haired English girl. But in those days – we’re talking Sixties, before Women’s Lib – neither facial not armpit hair was acceptable. Girls aimed to look like Twiggy – vacant, pale, pure and skinny. If it was an eyelash, you loaded it with mascara, liberally lubricated with spit. If it was in an armpit, you shaved it. If it was under your nose you bleached, tweezed, shaved, waxed, chemically removed – in fact bazooka’d it in any way you could.

We had a French girl at our school once, on an exchange visit. She was incredibly glamorous, we felt, until we all went to play tennis after school. My God, the girl was hiding a dead hamster under either arm. The horror of it! Poor girl. I hope she took no notice of our titters.

So – three months – maybe more – of not zapping the moustache. It occurs to me that since I am going grey – well pepper-and-salt, anyway – maybe el bigote will come out a soft, wispy grey. If it turns out anything like the above, though, it’s a goner.

Just as an aside. One of my two distant friends phoned me up last night, to check that I was all right. She says she will call me once a week from now on, just to touch base. The awfulness and wonderfulness of this is – that this is the same friend who has struggled all her life with bouts of clinical depression. I have witnessed – from the outside – the horrors she has gone through. I have visited her in a hospital ward, surrounded by mad people. I have found her sobbing behind her computer in the office we shared. I never, really, had any idea what to do for the best. Yet she was the one who called me.

I eat my peas with honey…

Buddy – I’d find it really difficult to refer anyone or anything as my buddy, since it’s an American-English word and would kind of stick in the back of my throat. I know what it means, of course, and I know it probably came from British-English in the first place. I believe coalminers in Wales, Oop North and so forth used once to refer to their working partners as ‘butty’ since underground they would be working, literally, butt to butt.

Unfortunately,

a) there aren’t many miners or mines left, since Mrs Thatcher disposed of them;

b) ‘butty’ now means, in British-English, a kind of sandwich – because of the butter. One favourite Oop North, at least in the time of the Beatles, used to be the chip butty, which was a sandwich made with butter (of course) and chips. Except I think chips are called French fries in America – as well as over here, when the eating establishment is trying to make chips sound slightly more upper class, or – as they used to say in the fifties, when Nancy Mitford ruled the social scene – ‘U’. One was either ‘U’ (upper class) or ‘non-U’ (non-upper class) you see. Technically ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ usage is one of Britain’s many, many, many subtle sociolects, or social dialects.

Language is a minefield.

If you were middle class around the same time – and by way of kicking the metaphorical cat, as it were – you might have described a working-class person as ‘milk first’. This was social shorthand: a milk-first person was so very common that she knew no better than to put milk in her teacup and then pour tea on top of it, when it manifestly ought to be the other way round.

A middle-class person would take it for granted that a working-class person would shovel up his peas on the inside of the fork and gobble them down; instead of squashing two or three of them at a time on the back of a fork, anchored there by whatever suitably squashy substance happened to be on his plate.

With so many rules to adhere to mealtimes must have lasted forever. However, that was the point. If you were wealthy you had forever, since time and money are rough equivalents. If you were wealthy you weren’t going to be ravenous by the time the next meal came round: money also equals food as and when required, always, and no hard physical work to burn it off. It’s an attitude that lingers today in cordon bleu restaurants, where a couple of artfully-arranged rocket leaves and a teaspoonful of ‘jus’ are considered exquisitely filling and well worth the huge bill that will land on your table once you have consumed them.

You might think ‘fifties ‘U’/non ‘U’snobbery was aimed at the working classes, but you would be wrong. It was aimed by the upper classes squarely at the middle classes – those who aspired to become, or be accepted as, upper class. And who stood no chance whatsoever.

The upper classes have nothing much to fear from the working classes. These two groups will often use the same word for things – simple, plain, traditional words. The upper class have no anxiety as to their status. The accent says all that needs to be said, so one can call a spade a spade. No need to simper about a relative having passed on or passed over or even (does anyone say this nowadays?) gone beyond the veil – when in fact they have died.

Here, for your delectation and delight, is a list of what you were and were not supposed to say in the 1950s. Faint echoes of ‘common’ or ‘posh’ do still attach to some of the terms. I put them in bold, but they’re personal choices and I may, by now, be wrong. Most of them have simply become antiquated and died the death: anybody referring to radio as a ‘the wireless’ nowadays would either be very old or cultivating some sort of ironic literary fogeyish-ness. I know of no one nowadays who would refer to jam as ‘preserve’ or vegetables as ‘greens’ – but who knows.

I’ll put the ‘U’ word in ordinary type and the ‘non-U’ in italics next to it:

Bike or bicycle – Cycle

Dinner Jacket – Dress suit

Knave – Jack

Vegetables – Greens

Ice – Ice Cream

Scent – Perfume

They’ve got a very nice house – They have got a lovely home

Ill (in bed) – Sick (in bed)

Looking glass – Mirror

Chimneypiece – Mantelpiece

Graveyard – Cemetery

Spectacles – Glasses

False teeth – Dentures

Die – Pass on

Mad – Mental

Jam – Preserve

Napkin – Serviette

Sofa – Settee or Couch

Lavatory or loo – Toilet

Rich (Wealthy)

What? (Pardon?)

Good Health (Cheers)

Lunch – Dinner (for midday meal)

Pudding – Sweet

Drawing-room – Lounge

Writing-paper – Note-paper

How d’you do? – Pleased to meet you

Wireless – Radio

School(master), mistress – Teacher

Nowadays no one’s much bothered, but in the ‘fifties people took it very seriously. Even in the sixties. As an awkward, anxious teenager I once borrowed a book from my local library – Etiquette for Young Ladies. I remember the peas-to-be-squashed-on-the-back-of-the-fork thing, and practicing it at the kitchen table with mashed potato. Not that I ever went anywhere to be observed eating peas.

peas honey 3

There was something about the length of white gloves, I recall – short, elbow-length or really long white gloves being wearable with different kinds of ‘gown’. I never had a gown, but if I had had one I would have known which species of white glove to wear – if I’d had any white gloves.

There was stuff about getting out of a low-slung sports car like a model, so that one’s underwear didn’t show. That’s all gone out of the window now, to judge by all those paparazzi snaps of drunken starlets coming out of or going into nightclubs. Underwear of any kind would be nice. There was stuff about deportment. I remember walking round the kitchen with a short-lived stack of books on my head.

But if you are American, Australian or any other kind of non-Brit – no worries, sport – the unwritten rules, even what remains of them, do not apply to you and never have. Nobody will expect you to use one word in preference to another as long as your meaning is clear. In my experience Brits – perhaps having been an island race for so long – are intrigued and delighted by other accents and other people’s languages and eccentric turns-of-phrase and will go out of their way to communicate with a struggling visitor, just as long as he/she doesn’t appear to be potentially embarrassing, attention-attracting, knife-wielding or outright mad/mental.

If you do appear to be… any of the above… you may find yourself suddenly invisible having unwittingly strayed into Nutter on the Bus territory. But Nutters on Buses – they deserve a post of their own.

peas honey 2

Not quite meeting John Lennon

WOULD my life had been different, somehow, if John had been where he said he was going to be that day?

I subscribe to the theory that ‘life’ is more than just ‘you’re born, you live for a bit and then you sort of die’. I believe it is far more complex and that all of my – and, of course, your – lives are taking place simultaneously. At any given juncture, my life might choose to split into an alternative life. Possibly a new life splits off every single second. Ergo (not sure what that means, but it sounds right) there would be an infinitesimal number of ‘me’s’ in an infinitesimal number of universes right now. And since time is an illusion, right now is all there is in any case. I do not claim to have invented the concept of the multiverse – I merely mention that my sixth, or seventh and eighth senses continually confirm to me that some version of the multiverse is so.

In retrospect, only, I can sometimes identify those moments at which my life split, and that that moment, in 1969 or thereabouts, when I and my best friend Susan Margaret Smith trepidatiously circumnavigated Rochester Cathedral, one quarter hoping and three-quarters dreading that, as announced in the local newspapers, John Lennon would be waiting there to meet his fans, and we rounded the final corner to the main entrance and discovered (sigh!) that John Lennon was not there after all, was probably one of my splitting moments. What we did find was a spaced-out girl with flowers painted on both cheeks, handing out white carnations and mumbling something or other about peace. We took our carnations and returned to Rochester railway station, unenlightened. Had it been some weird Yoko-inspired publicity stunt? Had teenage girls been circumnavigating all forty-two Anglican and however-many Roman Catholic cathedrals in the UK on that same day, whilst all the time John and Yoko in the flesh, as it were, were holding a Bed-In in Montreal, or a press conference in Vienna? Presumably the ‘me’ who did meet John Lennon is living a subtly altered version of ‘my’ life now, in a subtly altered universe? Maybe in that universe John Lennon is still alive, and seventy-five. Unimaginable.

To be honest, much as I revered the musical brilliance and fancied the bell-bottoms off John Lennon and wished that Yoko Ono had somehow never existed (as indeed in many universes she wouldn’t have) I was relieved not to come face to face with him. I suspect that, given my lumpy awkwardness, zitfestation and crippling lack of social skills at the time I would have collapsed in a sweaty heap on the tarmac, turned a blotchier shade of fuchsia or been struck dumb and had to shuffle off sideways, snuffling, like a person being edged off stage into the wings, an invisible shepherd’s crook around her neck.

My life was more of less crap before I didn’t meet John Lennon and, with the exception of a few lucky breaks and the occasional shaft of sunlight penetrating its subterranean gloom, has remained so ever since. But maybe if I had met him I would have been catapulted onto a different path and might now be… might now be…