My word, you do look queer!

My father loved Stanley Holloway’s monologues, and would recite ‘The Lion And Albert’ at the drop of a hat:

Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller;
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in!” 

The one I was reminded of today is of a man who thinks he is feeling better after an illness, only to be told by everyone he happens to bump into how very, very bad he looks.

I’ve been very poorly but now I feel prime,
I’ve been out today for the very first time.
I felt like a lad as I walked down the road,
Then I met Old Jones and he said, ‘Well I’m blowed!’
My word, you do look queer!
My word, you do look queer!

Sadly, the meanings of some words do change over time.

Well, I celebrated the 1st of October in style by indulging in one of my quarterly (ish) hospital check-ups, audits or assessments – they call them something different each time. Friends and relations have a nasty habit of sending me good luck texts in advance of these, or putting on that sad, sympathetic face.

‘You’ll be so worried, but I’m sure it will turn out OK’.

‘Don’t let the nerves get to you. Think of something nice while you’re waiting.’

‘I’m keeping my fingers crossed.’

‘Thinking of you… xxx xxx’

By the time you’ve received a whole lot of these anxious, condolence-type good wishes you do begin to wonder if they all know something you don’t. Should you be more worried? Maybe you should be chewing your fingernails or tearing your hair out in little clumps?

Actually, I don’t worry so much about the appointments. The initial diagnostic sequence of events was a bit of a shock to the system, but now it’s just wait around for ages then get told a lot of numbers you don’t entirely understand by a dishevelled, distracted young lady who is reading them off a computer screen, generally indicating that not much has changed since last time you met. Then you go home.

Two things really stress me out, the twenty-two mile drive to the hospital through the morning rush hour, and finding the one remaining space in the hospital car park. I set off at seven this morning for a nine-thirty appointment, having been up since three-thirty feeding and mucking out the cats. Nose to tail traffic. Headlights, more headlights. Rain on the windscreen. Listening to local radio as I drive. The helicopter has spotted long, long queues on the very road I am on, and have no option to get off. By the time I get there my hands are stiff from gripping the steering wheel in fierce concentration. My eyes are beginning to hurt. Since I gave up the TV I haven’t needed to wear my glasses, except for driving.

The reason I opt for the earliest possible appointment is to stand a chance of finding that elusive space. The hospital is huge, reached only via a maze of tiny street lined with pigging little sooty-looking houses, like something out of Dickens. There is nowhere to park in these pigging little streets and indeed every one of them for miles around is double yellow lined, just in case you might be tempted to try. Even early in the morning the queue just to get in to the hospital stretches out into these streets. It stretches round the corner and through the traffic lights and back up the preceding road. The lights change, but nothing can actually move, because of that queue.

And once inside the gates there is another queue, to get to the car park barriers. Above one’s head giant red signs inform you how many spaces there are, theoretically, remaining. These signs bear no relation to the actual number of spaces.

You have to draw up next to the barrier, wind down your window and press a button hoping that a ticket will, eventually, slide out and the In barrier go up. Sometimes it doesn’t slide out. You can be pressing that button every few seconds for five minutes or so. No ticket. This is because the machine believes there are No Spaces Left. Effectively, you are waiting for one person to come out the hospital, amble to their car and leave.

Then suddenly you get your ticket, which you have to grasp between your teeth whilst accelerating madly and fumbling with the button to wind up the window at the same time. If you’re too slow the ghastly yellow thing might come crashing down again – chop the car in half. Or maybe you.

And then when you get in there are no actual spaces only theoretical spaces and cars circling, and circling. And once in it’s like the Hotel California – even if there is no space, you can’t leave. Not without having spent several hours in the hospital first, and then inserting your little cardboard card in another machine, which will not, of course, pay any attention to your bank card when you attempt to ‘contactless’ it…

No, the appointment is the least of my worries.

The pig that walked away

He was unpredictable, my Dad. Most of the time I was afraid of his footsteps, homecoming; the sudden vicious swoop of his right hand; the stinging slaps; the turn of the key in some lock, with me on one side and him on the other. But I was even more afraid of the hectoring, the badgering, the elaborate sarcasm and the winding up. I had no defence to those.

He had a way with words, my Dad: he didn’t have to stop and think about them, they just came out. That’s where I got it from, this little gift, this way with words. He used them sometimes to write, more often to bully. I use them most often to write but I too, on the half-handful of occasions when rage has got the better of me, have unleashed that river of abuse at some cringeing offender and have failed to stop, when enough would have been enough. I felt that same joy, you see, the same joy he did. If you’re capable of doing something that well, however much you hate yourself, you long to let it rip. It’s a beautiful verbal violence; it’s like magic all bottled up and fizzing; you’ve become the box Pandora foolishly opened; you are what she unleashed upon the world.

But he wasn’t always Bad Daddy, and he did love us. He even loved me though I didn’t know that until he was far too old to tell me and I was far too old for it to matter much any more. I have happy memories of him too, and now that he is gone, I miss him more and more.

I prefer to recall his endless stock of “ditties”, and how he loved to sing foolish songs and recite nonsensical verses. Words for words’ sake, for their sound as much as their meaning: he was my first teacher in this regard. His material was drawn from a variety of sources, all before my time – music-hall, popular music, the military, in which he had so recently been an unwilling conscript. Nellie The Elephant was one of his favourites. We all used to sing that one:

Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk and waved goodbye to the circus…

Elephants also featured in a little poem:

A wonderful bird is the elephant/ It flits from bough to bough / It makes its nest in a rhubarb tree/ And whistles like a cow.

Then there were the peas and honey:

I eat my peas with honey/ I’ve done so all my life/ It makes the peas taste funny/ But it keeps them on the knife.

There was Jemima’s Uncle, forever swimming in circles:

Oh Jemima, look at your Uncle Jim/ He’s in the duckpond learning how to swim/ First he does the back-stroke and then he does the side/ And now he’s under the water swimming against the tide.

There was the monologue about the Little Yellow God:

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu/ There’s a little marble cross below the town/ There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew/ And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

There was Stanley Holloway’s lugubrious tale of The Lion and Albert:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool/ That’s noted for fresh air and fun/ And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom/ Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was young Albert/ All dressed in his best; quite a swell/ With a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle/ The finest that Woolworth’s could sell…

There’s the song about the pudding:

All of a sudden a blooming great pudding came flying through the air/ It missed me Ma and hit me Pa/ And knocked him off his chair.

But our joint favourite was the poem about the pig that walked away:

One evening in October/ When I was about one-third sober/ And was taking home a load with manly pride/ My poor feet began to stutter/ So I lay down in the gutter/ And a pig came up and lay down by my side. Then we sang “It’s All Fair Weather”/ And “Good Fellows Get Together”/ Till a lady passing by was heard to say/ She says, “You can tell a man who boozes/ By the company he chooses”/ And the pig got up and slowly walked away.

I remember visiting Dad in hospital for what turned out to be the last time, and making myself take his hand. My hands are a mirror-image of his, as it happens – veins and knobbles in the same places, odd flattened fingertips, even the same size. I had never voluntarily touched him before.

“Warm,” he said. “Warm.”