‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

When I came across this story it was attributed to James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson, purporting to be something the great man himself had confided.

The story goes that Samuel Johnson’s father took him out for a day’s fishing, and this was the first and only time it happened. Samuel was so very happy that day, he wrote in his diary that he had had the Best Day Ever. Many years later he came across his late father’s diary and couldn’t resist looking up the entry for that day. His father had written:

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

This little story had an immediate effect on me. I found myself back there, in that dusty loft or study or whatever, inhabiting the body of the young Samuel Johnson, feeling his sadness.

I suppose you automatically relate these things to your own experiences. I was linking the Samuel Johnson story to a tiny conversation I had with my mother, maybe ten years ago. We didn’t really realise then that she had dementia: one of the first things to go in her case was empathy – oh yes, and tact – but then the two are intertwined. It seemed safe enough, at this great distance in time, to say that I always assumed my youngest sister had been her favourite. I expect I was hoping she would say ‘Oh no, my dear, we loved all three of you the same.’

‘Yes, she was’, she said, ‘and your middle sister was your Dad’s favourite, always’. Why did she have to add that always? Salt in the wound.

This sort of thing is not supposed to matter as you get older, but of course it does. It just seemed to me that the equation didn’t balance, it was one short. There needed to have been three parents – one to favour each of my sisters and one to love only me. It occurs to me now that this could be one of the ground rules for Brave New World – precisely as many parents in a family as there are children.

Fishing around the internet a bit more (oh dear, a pun) I discovered the same fishing story was said to have happened to virtually every father-and-son combination including some 19th Century political chap called Charles Frances Adams and his son Brook Adams. I also found short stories purported to have been entirely imagined by not-very-good amateur writers. I think it may be one of those urban myths that everybody ‘remembers’ or swears to be true, or ‘knows someone who knows someone who knew the person it happened to’.

I was trying to think of some others. There used to be one about a poodle accidentally cooked in a microwave oven, and one about a man with a bloodstained axe lying low in the back of the car whose mad visage suddenly rears up and appears in the rear view mirror. The classic is the one about the hitchhiker, picked up on some dusty highway and then mysteriously vanishing, often while the car is still moving.

I also found some modern day computer-based ones. There are a whole lot of translations computers are supposed to have made of sayings and book titles. For example:

Angry Raisins (Grapes of Wrath)
Blind & Insane (Out of Sight, Out of Mind)
The Vodka was Good, but the Meat was Rotten (The Spirit is Willing, but the Flesh is Weak)

I suppose the thing is a good story is a good story, and why let it go to waste? Embellish it, change the names, pass it on and take the whole credit for it, why not? I expect that’s how the human race has been functioning since ever it first began to talk.

My uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall

Canadian sister phones. I thought maybe once her husband had died she would stop phoning me, that I would be cast aside like some moth-eaten fur coat etc etc. This has not happened – just now she phones me at all odd times. Before she could only phone me when he was asleep. And then he would wake up. Always. I could hear the creaking of the bedroom door upstairs in their house, right across the Atlantic. Sometimes I heard it before she heard it. I could hear the change in her tone of voice. The worried note creeping in, the sudden summing up, the hasty goodbye.

She is all at sea without him, and yet, I note, she is surviving. She says she has just spent the two longest evenings of her life, alone in the house. ‘What do single people do in the evenings?’ she asks me. ‘Well, I say, hobbies tend to expand to fill the time available for doing them…’ I am aware that I am paraphrasing someone. ‘What did you do of an evening when he was still alive, and well?’

‘Mostly he was outside in his workshop. If he came inside I might knit while he watched TV.’

I resist saying that this seems to me as much like being alone as being alone. I remember when I was married, all those years ago. Being always alone, even when not.

‘You can call me any time,’ I say. ‘After all, nobody else does. I mean, it’s not like you’re interrupting a huge queue of my fans, all eagerly trying to contact me…’

‘Nobody?’

She sounds shocked. I would have lied, if necessary. I would have told her the above story so that she didn’t feel she was being in any way a nuisance phoning me at all hours, because at the moment I am one of her few fixed points in a radically shifting universe. I am good at making up tales on the spur of the moment. Sometimes I don’t realise they’re tales, till after.

And sometimes I don’t realise they’re true, till after.

So, today I have had a very stressful day. Stress exhausts me, so I tend only ever to schedule one stressful or unpleasant event per day, but today I thought, why not get them all over with at once, for once? So I set off, early, stopping off at the post office in the next village to post Canadian Sister a belated birthday present. Two books. The cost of the airmail is greater than the combined cost of the books. But that was OK, and I managed to get myself out of the tiny car park, with the parking spaces all at the wrong angles.

I went on to the Tip, in Town. I managed to get my car in and not have to sit drumming my fingers on the dash for three-quarters of an hour down the stinky alleyway that leads to it. I managed to heave out the six monstrously heavy black sacks full of used cat litter, pretending to be innocent household waste. I managed to lug four of them, one at a time, up the slippery metal steps to the skip and, with a muscle-wrenching effort, heave them over the rim of the skip. Then – that rare event – one of the men in high-vis yellow came to my rescue, and made off with my two remaining sacks – in the direction of the skip labelled Garden Waste.

‘Did yer want the bags back?’

‘Er, no…’

I knew I should have yelled after him, ‘Excuse me, my man, but I believe you may be under a misapprehension. That is in fact Non-Recyclable Household Waste’ (cat poo).

But I didn’t. I reversed, rather smartly, and exited.

And then I did a rather long and illogical detour to the petrol station, where an elderly idiot with a white moustache rather like the current transient US Secretary of State’s, nearly took my wing-mirror off in his selfish efforts not to let me get to the pump I needed, which was not the same pump he needed.

Ah, I thought, things are reverting to the usual dire pattern. I swore voluminously at him, but from inside my car so that he could see perfectly well that I was swearing voluminously, but we could both, upon exiting our cars, pretend it wasn’t aimed at him.

And then I drove over to visit my mother in the Home. This was number four (?) of Things I Don’t Want To Do Today But Am Going To Do Anyway. But Mum was asleep, with the curtains drawn. All the other residents were up. She looked dreadfully like a corpse so I tiptoed in and checked that she was still breathing. Then I went and found the Nurse – not in the Nurses Station (that was occupied by Someone Who Didn’t Even Work There) but in a cupboard. He said Mum was OK, but had been left to sleep in after one of her night-time rampages. I have never seen one of these rampages, and find them difficult to imagine, but apparently she shouts at other residents, and they shout back. She was never like this. Anything not to draw attention to herself, to stay in the background.

When I get home the Nurse will phone me again to say that after I left she wrestled another resident to the ground (where she happened to be lying) and was having a fight with them.

‘I wonder,’ I said, if it’s all the things they suppress during their lifetimes, when they are them, that suddenly start escaping when this happens?

The Nurse did not seem all that interested in my intellectual speculations.

After the Home I drove down to Ashford, thinking to stock up on black bin sacks in my favourite former supermarket, then drive home. Gridlocked.  When I finally inched my way there – instantly to be blocked in by a giant black-windowed vehicle that was going to make reversing out a nightmare – the woman behind the till tried to explain what was causing the gridlock. It’s the closure of the A2070 she said. I could not remember which of the many road around Ashford the A2070 was and hence, when trying to escape from Ashford some time later, got caught in two further lots of gridlock because I guessed wrong and headed straight for it rather than away from it.

You see that’s the trouble. Road diversions are signposted by men, and usually men who have GPS in their cars. I am a woman, and I do not have GPS. I do not understand Diversion signs and I navigate the sensible way, by Landmarks, not Numbers. If they had put up a sign saying Motorway Junction Absolutely And Completely Closed, well then I wouldn’t have gone that way, would I? I’d have wended my way up the back roads to Smelly Farm Corner and turned right towards The Place Where There Is A Pub I Once Walked Along The Grass Verge To With The Boyfriend With The Pointy Nose. Of course I would have got stuck in another lot of gridlock, but a smaller and more ultimately hopeful lot.

And how are you? my sister asks, eventually. It’s early morning in Alberta. She hasn’t already had a whole day of Utter Ghastliness.

‘Oh… a bit tired, maybe?’

phone tap

Featured Image: London street art by Banksy

 

Biting my Nails with a Bunyip

Around 1955 Mum and Dad finished building their bungalow on the site of an old orchard. This particular plot of orchard land, and most of the land in our street, had once been the inheritance of a mysterious great, great aunt. As time went by she began to sell it off in separate plots to other members of the family, and they all built houses. At one time, my grandmother, her parents, my grandfather, his parents, and a second cousin all lived in our street. My grandfather married my grandmother and his brother married her sister. There were thirteen or fourteen siblings in each family, plus a number un-commented upon reverse baby adoptions, by the older generation from the younger, which complicate the family tree. Many of the brothers died in the First World War. One, Uncle Walter, was blinded. He had been an officer, but when he came back all he could do was weave stools and baskets. They taught him this skill so that he could contribute to the family income. The children used to mock him, sometimes, at the dinner table. This made my great grandmother very, very angry.

My great grandmother was often very angry, and also disaster-prone. There is a story of her in church one Sunday – a large woman in a long, black, Victorian skirt, with her children following behind her. The children were giggling because she had left her blouse untucked at the back. Worse was the story of a favourite chicken that had strayed into her kitchen while she was trying to sweep it. Enraged, she swiped at the bird’s behind with her besom broom, but instead of exiting the kitchen the poor thing fell dead on the floor. Great grandmother wept and wept. Another, less harrowing, story was the one we used to call ‘Jelly Alice?’ which involved great grandmother offering my great aunt Alice a plate of jelly during a family meal – which promptly slithered into her lap.

There were many such catchphrases. If something had gone astray it was likely to be ‘Up in Annie’s room, behind the clock.’ If you asked what was for dinner you would be told ‘Cold kippers and custard,’ or ‘Cold cabbage and lard.’ If a storm was approaching the sky would be pronounced ‘Black as yer ‘at over Will’s Mother’s.’

And there were songs. My mother lacked my grandmother’s ebullience and rarely sang, though she used to whistle, which embarrassed me. Nan, however, used to come out with snatches of unseemly ditties such as:

Chase me, Charlie, / Chase me, Charlie, / Lost the leg o’me drawers…

And Carmen Miranda’s

I, I, I, I, I, I like you very much

(which embarrassed my mother).

When I first began to notice things, in the 50’s, the adults around me seemed preoccupied with the War – remembering it, trying to forget it, but always talking about it. I lived in a forest of voices, reminiscing, way above my head. In Nan’s living room, in Mum’s kitchen, in other unplaceable rooms, there always seemed to be these stories going on. They were about having to eat horsemeat, covering your legs with gravy-browning to look like stockings, making wedding dresses out of parachute silk and dressing-gowns out of blankets; babies slept on unscathed in buildings demolished by doodlebugs – wonderful name, horrible purpose. The doodlebugs came over making this noise, and then they stopped making this noise, and then you were for it.

I was shown, at intervals, a piece of white embroidery Grandad had made on the boats going over to France during the War. He had been injured by shrapnel (indeed, when he died at ninety-four he had shrapnel still inside him, plus the double hernia he got from having to haul great guns around on the battlefield) and this was the ‘easy’ job they gave him afterwards – travelling back and forth on the transport boats, looking after the horses. His embroidery was so delicate. I could never imagine Grandad’s rough hands, with their black and broken carpenter’s fingernails, scabby with Evostick, Bostick or whatever, embroidering. I had watched him in his workshop sawing up bits of woods and hammering in nails, of which he kept a huge collection on a shelf above his bench, in rusty tobacco tins labelled with sticking plaster. I imagined the boat rocking in a cross-Channel storm, the horses spooked, salt water everywhere, and being surrounded by hundreds of other men, most of whom, like those poor, requisitioned horses, were going to be killed. How could you embroider through all that? Imagination is a curse sometimes.

I could never get enough of my family’s above-the-head stories – well, any stories – but at the same time they made me realised how insignificant I was in the greater scheme of things. I even wondered sometimes if I was becoming invisible. I used to walk along the road and think, can people see me or not? Will I become invisible if I believe I am? Sometimes I quite enjoyed playing this game, it made me feel safe to disappear, but at other times invisibility just came over me, unannounced, and I seemed to be melting into the scenery, becoming air and bushes and fences and raindrops, and I was never sure whether I would get myself back.

How was I to compete with the War, this great cuckoo’s egg of an event, which had ended only seven years before I was born? I think I was a bit of a cuckoo’s egg myself. I didn’t fit in. Nobody seemed to know what to do with me or say to me. Everything seemed to be going on over my head. Nothing happened.

So, for something to do, I began to dig.

In the building of their bungalow, Mum and Dad unearthed small pieces of treasure. These things remained unnoticed at their feet. No doubt they would have been too exhausted to look down after all those evenings and weekends of heavy labour. In Mum’s case, I don’t suppose she could see the ground over the bump that was shortly to turn into my little sister. She was still carrying tiles up the ladder to the roof, though.

At first I thought I would tunnel to Australia. I was a bit worried about the hot stuff in the middle but I liked the idea of emerging, upside-down, among the kangaroos and aborigines. In one of my books there was a story about a Bunyip, who sat on a log most of the time, biting his fingernails. Since I bit my fingernails (and I suspect may have taken up biting them in imitation) I hoped that when I got to Australia I would catch sight of a Bunyip, and that maybe we could sit side by side on the log, nibbling companionably. To this day I am not sure whether wombats actually exist or whether they come into the same category as unicorns and flying elephants.

Unfortunately I got no further with my little tin spade than a cool layer of sand and worms. After that I contented myself with surface workings, raking around with my fingers to find, for example, great lumps of Kentish flint sheared off at unlikely angles. It was ugly stuff but supposed to be good for building walls and lighting fires. I tried knocking two of them together but no sparks came. I tried to knock bits off and make arrowheads like the cavemen, but the flints were heavy and resistant. My mother was going through one of her depressions at the time and feared that we would all be squashed by the awful Atom Bomb, which could fall on us at any moment. I began to wonder what it would be like when the Atom Bomb fell and we all had to fend for ourselves. Could we master the Kentish flint quickly enough to make arrowheads and spears?

There were all sorts of bits of china, as if someone had broken six or seven different willow-pattern tea services out there in the orchard. There were pink bits and blue bits and occasionally – much prized – green bits. Some of them had handles on. I washed them in bowls of soapy water to bring out the patterns. I tried fitting them together but time or the weather had worn away the edges.

There were bits of clay pipes, similar to the ones you could still buy in the corner shop, for blowing bubbles. I imagined our garden full of sailors dancing jigs and carelessly dropping their pipes.

Once I found a fossil, a complete starfish imposed upon a large round stone, as if it had just come to rest there one day and fallen asleep. Another time I found a fire-damaged medal with scorched, rainbow-coloured ribbons. It had an angel on it. Grandad said it was the Angel of Mons.

The best find of all was Evenings in Paris, a small, stoppered glass bottle – dark, midnight blue. Mum helped me to open the bottle and out came the most delicious smell I had ever smelt. I kept sniffing and sniffing. The smell itself seemed to be dark blue. Thick, warm and velvety. I have since been told that Evenings in Paris was considered a cheap scent, Woolworth’s sort of stuff. Maybe it was because it was my first experience of perfume, or because smells, like tastes and textures, are more vivid to children. Oh, the appalling tinny taste of cabbage; the poisonous bitterness of rhubarb; the viscous, boiled-slug texture of rice pudding!

At infant’s school you were supposed to eat up all your dinner before you were allowed back to your lessons. I remember our attempts to smuggle gristly meat and cold, lumpy mashed-potato past the giant, white-overalled dinner-ladies on pig-bin duty. You had to heap it up under your knife and fork or turn your spoon upside down to conceal the disgusting stuff. All this teaches you is that it is sometimes necessary to deceive grown-ups. I was the most cowardly child, and haven’t got much braver since, but sometimes I get pushed into corners by people. I can remember sitting in the empty canteen until three o’clock in the afternoon with a teacher urging me to finish my rice pudding, and just looking at this plateful of stuff, with its dob of synthetic red strawberry jam in the middle, wanting to be a good girl, frightened of the consequences, but not eating it. They must have given up in the end.

The other thing people used to say was ‘Eat up your cabbage/rhubarb/rice pudding because the Starving Children in Africa would love it.’ I could never believe that they would love my rice pudding; however Starving they were, but I would have been only too happy to ladle mine into a cardboard box and post it to them.

Anyway – Evenings in Paris. I promised myself that when I grew up I would buy myself a whole bottle of it and carry it round in my pocket, always. If the Atom Bomb hadn’t dropped by then. It never did. I never did.