Sharing with my sister

She rings me more or les every other evening now, from her kitchen on the far side of Canada, where it is early morning. I have actually never seen her kitchen but I imagine it big and airy, but for some reason rather chilly, with chunky, cluttered work-surfaces and one of those giant American fridges stuffed with joints of meat; lots of brother-in-law’s half-finished DIY projects; things dismantled that will never put back together again.

Outside I visualise a neat, large lawn and other houses similar in design to hers, set at different angles, a kind of giant, Canadian-flavoured Lego construction. I imagine squirrels in trees, vague trees, and looping along the fence panels like the ones I saw when I visited her in Ontario that one time, a quarter of a century ago. Now she is in Alberta, where it is colder. Still kind of Canada but more so. In spring I imagine her garden as a fenced square, kind of big and kind of sterile and kind of green. I imagine a large shed, because I happen to know there is one. I can’t imagine flowers.

Does she think of it as a Yard, I wonder, or is she still English enough for it to be a Garden? I imagine an identical fenced square covered in thick snow in Winter, with the driveway laboriously dug out and snow blown off the road and into the gardens by the snow-blowers. We do not have snow-blowers over here, at least not that I’ve seen. What we have is blocked roads, until the ice chooses to melt of its own accord.

I cannot imagine her state, or her city. Sometimes I type the name of the city into the internet and hit ‘images’ but the images are not enough to reconstruct a city, with that unique, intangible atmosphere each city has; its back-alleys, its park benches, its ponds and trees and shops, its traffic intersections, its threatening corners. I cannot imagine it after dark; I cannot see the inhabitants scurrying along the sidewalks to work in the morning; I cannot hear the noise of its traffic or breathe the air. Photographs are just looking through somebody else’s eyes.

I cannot visualise my sister, most of the time. I haven’t seen her for so long. I look at my face in the mirror and see what has happened to it over the last three years. I try to imagine what will have happened to hers. Has she put on weight, or lost it? Is her hair still tied back, or has she cut it? All I can see is her face when she was four years old and I was seven, when we were having that photograph taken, uncomfortably perched on the back of Mum and Dad’s settee. A round, innocent face.  A big smile whereas I’m looking anxious. She still had her baby teeth; my front teeth were missing altogether. Eyes lighter than mine. Ridiculous ribbon bow on top, same as me. Those ribbons were a kind of dusky pink and cream, with a knurled pattern down the edge.

And now I hear her weeping in this distant kitchen I can’t properly imagine, morning after morning, evening after evening, and try to think of something helpful to say about being confined in a house with a furious, imminently dying husband, who refuses all assistance. She is appealing to me because I am her older sister and she has no one else, but really, if there was anyone else…

I have not experienced this myself. I find it difficult to visualise what she is seeing when she looks at him, though she tries to describe it to me. I cannot visualise worse than the way he looked before, but I can hear the shock and revulsion in her voice. She says it is like being trapped in a horror movie, all day and all night. I think of times I have lost sick or elderly cats, and had no choice but to be with them as they died. I find even this little collection of indelible images difficult to bear, and time makes them no easier. How is she going to cope with remembering this?

I cannot get over there, and apparently no one else can either. One of her neighbours has arranged for a boy to come in mow the lawns and sort out all the overgrown stuff. I picture him quietly working day after day, restoring some order, at least to the Outside. The sight of him seems to calm her too, and the brief expeditions to the bank to get money to pay him. Normal life is still happening, at least Outside.

This bit I can I understand. I remember after a very, very bad time in my life, which also felt like living in a nightmare, making an appointment and going to the hairdresser. I remember looking at my face in the mirror and seeing only some nightmare creature, but the hairdresser was a young girl and she chattered away, seeming to see nothing at all odd in the mirror. She was actually talking to me as if I was a normal person. It was like I really existed, after all. That sunny afternoon, the face in the mirror, the face behind, the quiet snip, snip of the scissors, little wedges of damp, snipped hair falling into my lap, somehow made all the difference.

And so I listen, and I say the same things I said the day before last, and two days before that, and two days before that. I say them over and over. I try to persuade her to get help, ask for carers to come in, doctors, nurses, anyone but she needs his permission. I tell her she needs to take over now, now has become the time. Eventually she is going to have to start thinking things out for herself and acting without permission. But they only had one model for being married, and now it isn’t working. And anyway what do I know about anything? Empty words, no substance behind them.

And then I remember that Ex has a gentle side as well as the more evident bombastic, endlessly-opinionated side. I remember he possessed a miraculous knack for reassurance, a matter-of-fact, earthy acceptance of How Things Are. And so I email him and ask if he will do me a favour, and eventually he does phone her, and it seems to have helped, at least a little. Now she has two people she can talk to, albeit miles apart from one another and thousands of miles across the sea. Now she has two listeners, and two voices on the end of the phone, one male and one female, and it looks as if she has asked for help, though it hasn’t yet arrived.

I hope that this will be over soon, and the sun will be permitted to shine in that unimaginable Canadian garden, and the squirrels can resume their dancing, and the birds can start their singing.

Below and above: Mary and Martha, sister cats.

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Couldn’t we just skip spring?

I never liked spring. Spring is an uncomfortable time of year and every year older I get the more uncomfortable I get with it. I’ve never quite been able to pin down why this is.

April is the cruellest month… as the poet Ezra Pound put it. And the reason he gives for this?

…breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.

I seem to remember from my distant ‘Eng Lit’ past that lilacs are synonymous with lust, or at least they were around the time this poem was written. Lilacs flaunt their sinful, lustful little stalks in TS Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady too, come to think of it:

Now that lilacs are in bloom

She has a bowl of lilacs in her room

And twists on in her fingers while she talks,

“Ah my friend, you do not know, you do not know

What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;

(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)

“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,

And youth is cruel, and has no remorse

And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”

Could that be it? The further away from lust you grow, in body and in time, the more distasteful reminders of it become? I was watching a pair of pigeons out on the back lawn this afternoon. She was waltzing about looking for sunflower seeds overlooked by the sparrows, he scuttling behind her in that weird bobbing courtship dance they do – obsequious, desperate. I am here, your Feathered Majesty, and only too willing to serve…

I caught myself thinking, Pack it up you two, or get a room.

I suppose it reminds you how very old you have become when every tree is suddenly, horribly out in overblown, luxuriant blossom – so pink, so white, so bridal!

And then there’s the weather. I went to visit my old lady today – not Mum, the other one – and standing at her front door shivering as the chilly wind blew in and the laburnum blossom danced and pranced on her lawn she seemed quite upset by it all. It should be warm, we both knew it. Either good and warm or good and cold but not this ghastly can’t make up its mind, middle of the road changeability. We couldn’t be doing with it, either of us.

At least we’re into May now. That’s April disposed of. Bad things always seem to have happened to me in April, and the lowest sloughs of despond. I remember one awful walk alone in April. I had forced myself to go out because I knew I would go mad if I didn’t. My shoes were worn out. The sky was the colour of old saucepans. Passing motorists had dropped cigarette packets beside the road, the tinfoil catching the afternoon light, and someone had tossed out an old music cassette (remember those?) with brown tape streaming off into the grass of the verge.

Everything seemed odd, the wrong colour, polluted. Down the side of the hill, in the distance, horses were bending their heads to eat the wet spring grass in a field. There was something horrific about it, something wrong. I suppose it wasn’t the worst day of my life – the very worst ones seem to merge and sink out of sight – but this particular one took root in my memory.

Spring always affects me like that. I was a winter baby. Give me icy roads every time, and that kind of damp cold that gets into your bones. Give me blizzards and an early, cosy nightfall. Failing that let me have lazy summer heat when the roads are empty at noon and nobody stirs, or autumn and the sudden death of the leaves, the first few gales.

Couldn’t we just skip spring?

NaPoWriMo 4/4/16: The Soft Shoe Shuffle

Here is the lady whose teeth are always lost.

They’re wheeling her in through the door in a scarf and nightie.

Did they take her outside in April dressed like that?

But she seems joyous: she’s seen real flowers this morning;

Not the crêpe-made sort set down amid cotton-wool sheep

And a splash of cobalt blue.

When I get older, losing my hair… she sings, in passing,

And I’m catching that evil glimmer in her eye.

Many years from now… I hear someone-like-me reply.

The mouth folds in for a smile, a purse lacking coins.

Will you still be sending me a valentine…

Outside I don’t do singing; I do in here, it seems.

Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

old woman

I don’t dance either: she’ll have me doing the soft-shoe-shuffle next

And I really don’t want to fit into this land of dreams.

Three Black Dogs

I have not always been grateful for my sisters, I must admit. I was the first and most important and then they had to come along. The Canadian one, who was English at the time, stole my woolly bear, I remember. When I was twelve she blurted out to Kevin Brewer, a sixteen year old leather-jacketed blond-quiffed motorbike rider who went to the same youth club as me – that I had just used some white stuff to bleach my moustache. (I hasten to add, not a great whiskery handlebar moustache or anything grotesque – I’m just, you know, a brunette… well, now I’m more of a grey-with-brunette-undertones).

I had a massive crush on Kevin Brewer. I used to sit at the bottom of his garden and pine for him hour upon hour until his mother complained to my mother and my mother, irritated, told me not to.  So imagine how pleased I was with my English-at-the-time sister. Not that I ever had any chance with Kevin Brewer. What I finally got a date it was with a bespectacled weed call John-something-or-other. We went for a walk along the sea wall and I was terrified. He told me afterwards he had been dared to ask me out – by Kevin Brewer.

However – gosh, that was as long digression – this evening I was glad of my Canadian sister. She phones me quite a lot at the moment because my brother-in-law has terminal cancer and she is on her own out there. She is even more on her own because he is fed up with her crying all over the place when he just wants to carry on as normal – a different approach. So she was feeling low this morning (it’s morning in Alberta when it’s evening here) and she called me, and we chatted round in circles as usual. We talked about counselling and short-term projects – small goals, easier to cope with. I didn’t know how to reach out across the Atlantic and lift her mood but quite by accident – as you shall see – I did.

In the meantime I had been having one of my Black Dog days. It was something to do with the necessity of spending a whole day being driven round properties with a guy called Gavin on Tuesday – the thought of which was already exhausting me – and the prospect of visiting Mum in the mental hospital on Easter Day. I don’t talk about Black Doggie much – he is manageable. I’ve seen what clinical depression does to people (this is my third lot of psych ward visiting) and my occasional Grim Day is nothing in comparison.

So, I got in the car, in a chilly wind (Storm Kate – don’t they sound nice with names? – is due to hit the South East at midnight). I stopped off at the one-and-only-shop to buy a box of chocolate fingers for Mum, since it’s Easter Sunday. When I got there she didn’t want them. Black Doggie was with her too. Two Black Doggies in one room. She had a headache. I persuaded the nurse to give her some paracetamol. The old lady who sings to me, sang to me again. She eyed the chocolate fingers.

‘I often share my things with your Mum. I expect your Mum would want me to have a chocolate finger. Or two. If she could speak.’ Her eyes never left the box and the tantalising chocolate-finger picture on the packaging. I gave her two. Had to ask the nurse for help getting into the cellophane. He gave me that look, like – shall I reserve you a chair in the Recreation Room now? On the way out I gave her the rest of the packet. ‘That was kind of you,’ said the nurse. ‘It’s not easy, is it? This time?’

So Mum and I sat and held hands, and I lent her my comb because she said hers had disappeared. She had someone else’s trousers on. I told her to keep the comb, but she gave it back. I wrote notes for her. She looked at them and handed them back to me. ‘I’m never getting out of here.’

‘Yes, you are. Soon. It’s a hospital. They can’t keep you for ever.’

‘I don’t believe it. What use am I? The doctors should give me something to get rid of me. What use am I, in here?’ Outside, there were daffodils, and birds flying about. In here, on the wall, was a frieze of spring made of coloured paper and cotton wool, like you see in the classrooms at infants’ school.

So, really, three Black Doggies – the Canadian one, mine and the one sat next to my Mum in the mental ward.

But then my sister phoned and she told me she was thinking of learning shorthand, as one of those short-term projects to cheer herself up. It wasn’t that she needed shorthand, she said, but she liked the shapes it made. She could see it on the wall – like a poem, maybe – and visitors would ask, ‘What do all those squiggles mean?’ And I said that was a weird coincidence – I had only five minutes before ordered a second-hand book on Gregg shorthand, having been reminded of it by an old post on this blog. Mum had had a book on Gregg shorthand – turned out we both remembered it.

And somehow the weirdness, that we should have both thought of learning shorthand, at the same time, all those thousands of miles apart across windswept oceans, lifted her mood. Mine too. She asked me to order the same book for her. We would learn it together, she said, and she would write me letters in Gregg shorthand, and I would write her Gregg shorthand letters back, and she would make artwork using Gregg shorthand, or write a diary that her husband couldn’t read, or…

Once, when we were teenagers, sat in that stuffy suburban living room with our parents and other visiting family, the same funny thing occurred to us both at the same time. It wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t anything anyone had said it was just – an invisible amusement. I caught her eye and she caught mine. I started giggling, and she started giggling. And of course no one else had any idea what we were giggling about – and even we weren’t entirely sure –  which made it funnier still.

It was ten minutes before we could stop, by which time we had the hiccups.