One Long Frog

‘First swallow your frog’ used to be one of my favourite mottoes. In other words, at the beginning of each day tackle that one task you want to do about as much as swallowing a live frog. However, it seems to me that the older you get the more frogs seem to string themselves together until some days seem to be One Long Frog.

Take the other day, for instance: mammogram; long wait to see a doctor about a persistent cough; chest x-ray. And I only had tooth x-rays the day before. Won’t I be radioactive? Or are mammograms some other sort of wave and/or particle? Long bus journey there. Long bus journey back.

And tomorrow? One Long Frog. Long bus journey to see my elderly lady. Well, I like seeing my elderly lady and she likes seeing me, but listening-and-prompting for an hour is surprisingly hard work – like job interviews – something I was good at. Good at the interview, rubbish at the job, usually.

After elderly lady? Remove scratchy ‘visitor’ dingly-dangly thing with awful photo from around neck. Speedwalk to bus stop. Catch next bus into town instead of home. No doubt will get the Smelly Person again. I never realised human beings were smelly until I started caching buses. In town, catch next train. Then another train. Then walk to Mum’s bungalow to meet a person called Peter from a removal firm. Person called Peter is going to pack up a whole bunch of Ex’s paintings and prints and drive them and me back home. Thank goodness. At least I haven’t got to brave the school bus, this time.

While he’s making the Works of Art damp- and rodent-proof – for who knows how long they will now be languishing in my garage? – I have to pack up Nan’s blue tea set. That’s the only thing I’m ‘rescuing’ before the house is cleared – by someone called Gavin, or was it Steven? – and Mum’s lifetime possessions, and all my lifetime memories, get driven off and distributed around the local charity shops.

To be honest, I don’t know which is worse – seeing Ex’s painting again and being reminded of Ex – because the paintings are the person – or seeing Mum’s house half empty, and that garden – her life’s passion and obsession – merely mown. Just sort of kept under control until the new owners or, as seems more likely, the bulldozers move in.

I always promised myself I wouldn’t go back, after that last traumatic/humiliating day/night when Mum was marched off to hospital, sandwiched between two burly ambulance-men. ‘Worst part of my job, this is’ one of them told me. But there’s no avoiding it. I’ve had my orders.

However, I remind myself of what happened with Nan and Grandad’s bungalow, in the same street. After they died Mum insisted I went along there with her. I was young(ish) then and had never seen a cleared house before. Nothing of Nan and Grandad remained: empty rooms smelling of linseed oil where someone had been fixing the windows. That house meant so much to me and it had never, ever, occurred to me that one day its whole shabby-familiar insides, together with Nan and Grandad, could just be gone. I hated Mum for taking me along there. I hated her businesslike mood.

‘Don’t you miss Nan?’ I asked her.

‘Oh, I’ve shed a tear or two, when I’ve been on my own.’

Shed a tear or two. Is that what you say about your own mother? But I knew what she was doing: brushing it under the carpet, setting it aside, saving it for later when I wasn’t there. Self defence.

That night I dreamed myself back in that house. I was standing in the empty kitchen and Grandad hurried past. I tried to talk to him but he couldn’t seem to see me. It was as if I was the ghost. And outside a sea of daisies pushed their way up through the lawn in that clever, punning way that subconscious daisies have.

For a long time I couldn’t see anything else but that empty, linseed-smelling house. It overlaid every childhood memory. My past had been removed. But gradually, over the years, the house as I had known it returned. I realised I could revisit it at any stage in its history, and myself in any stage of mine. All its past incarnations were still there, and so were mine.

And so I hope that gradually, after tomorrow’s final visit to Mum’s house, the colours of the past and all those lost versions of me will start to surface again. Finality and emptiness will be just one version.

Prize Plum

Something I have never understood about writing, or maybe I mean writers, is how the act of writing, or even the sudden rush of inspiration that precedes the act of writing, can make the world seem more or less all right for a minute or two.

You see, I’ve always been tormented by the following thought: that there is no point at all in doing anything, really. Every now and then it strikes me quite forcibly that whatever we do is utterly pointless since we are going to die. Why put any energy at all into doing anything, when for all the difference it makes one might as well curl up in a resentful ball on the living room carpet and simply wait for time to pass until inevitably the living room carpet and one become one i.e. so much indistinguishable dust?

I suppose this is a philosophical dilemma, and no doubt somebody gloomy and incomprehensible like Schopenhauer or Kant has already disposed of it. Or possibly Sartre…didn’t he and his Existentialists say something to the effect that life is totally meaningless and therefore we must create our own meaning? You see, that’s the problem, for me. I can’t randomly, artificially invent a purpose for my existence or a meaning for life in general. Either there is one or there isn’t. Part of me thinks that the only logical response to finding oneself alive for no obvious reason would be Bertrand Russell’s ‘unyielding despair’.

But unyielding despair is unpleasant and one is forced to distract oneself from it as much as possible. The only thing that distracts me is writing, and there it is.

It may be that each of us is gifted one consolation – one thing with the magical power to make everything right, for a tiny while. But this is so odd because of all the things you might be doing to distract yourself from the gloomy inevitability and pointlessness of human existence, writing is about the most useless. What is writing compared to, say, volunteering to help children in war-torn countries? What is sitting around with pencil and paper and, fitfully, making stuff up compared to cooking Sunday lunch for your extended family or painting one wall of the bathroom in Prize Plum? (Which goes well with Magnolia, as the wrinkly-and-probably-famous chap in the advert says.)

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However, it seems to be the case that when the faint outline of a story materialises inside my head, when I write a single sentence, cross out one word and substitute another – for those few seconds all has become right with the world. It and I – whatever It is, and whether It exists at all – are in synch. I have a purpose. I am alive.

Unfortunately, most of my ideas come to me when I can’t write them down, and especially when driving. Wasn’t J K Rowling on a train from London to Manchester when she got the plot for the entire however-many Harry Potter books, but had nothing to write them down on? Lesson 1: never have nothing to write things down on. Either that, or have a phenomenal memory and high tolerance for stress.

So, yesterday, driving, I got an idea for a story about a cupboard – bit like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe except that there was no rear exit through the fur coats, as it were, i.e. it wasn’t your classic portal to a fanciful other world, it was more like – a place that retained memories and eventually…retained you.

And then I thought – still not being able to write it down – maybe it’s a stationery cupboard. Think of all the things that go on in office stationery cupboards. And if it was a very old building, things might have been going on in that space before it was a stationery cupboard.

And then I thought, so what does this cupboard symbolise? I mean, come on Linda, what is He trying to tell you here? What is the cupboard and why are you contemplate locking yourself in it? I should mention that my Subconscious is a He. He wears a long black coat and hides his face, communicating with me by way of stories, poems, dreams and funny little flashes of places I have never seen and selves I can’t remember being – or maybe haven’t been yet.

And after a while I thought (changing gears, negotiating tight bends and traffic lights the while) what if it wasn’t a stationery cupboard but something considerably more gruesome like one of those formaldehyde-smelling rooms scientists keep diseased organs in, or frogs with fifteen legs, or entire Victorian babies? I remembered such a room from school – it was where the lab assistants sat around looking bored, or removed your nail varnish with neat acetone. All these bottles. Yellow. Strange things floating about in them. Fascinating. What would a room like that be called, now? The Specimen Room?

(Note to self, Google this when have access to the Fire and hands not required to be on steering wheel). But – no, maybe the stationery cupboard has more scope.

But the room with the formaldehyde babies, that would be a joy to conjure up. Now, how to convey the suffocating stink of formaldehyde…

And thus am I distracted from the pointlessness of all existence for a tiny while. Maybe the living room carpet can wait for a day or two, while I write it…

 

meaningless

There’s a long, long worm a-crawling…

You know how you get earworms – bits of songs going round and round in your head that just won’t go away. My latest episode of musical torment is a song called The Boys of Summer by Don Henley of The Eagles (1984). I won’t embed a video in case it attacks you too.

There is usually an underlying reason for a particular song getting stuck in one’s head, at least I believe so. Our conscious minds are very word-orientated; Subconscious doesn’t ‘do’ words – but he does almost everything else. Famously, of course, he does dreams. Freud and co were always banging on about the messages to be found in dreams. For example, a man dreams that a white horse is charging through his house in a panic, wreaking havoc. Not long afterwards he is dead. The house symbolises the body, because your body is the ‘house’ your soul, or what you experience as you, lives in. So, that horse was not good news.

Almost any source of imagery that is not-words can be, and is, used by Subconscious to get his message across. You just have to listen to pictures. Sometimes it can be a piece of music that haunts you. Sometimes it’s flashes of imagery that don’t seem to be apropos of anything in particular. I have, for a few seconds, found myself flying. Not actually flying but seeing the world from a completely different, aerial, perspective, and not from an aeroplane.

He ‘does’ déjà vu, I suspect, and he does coincidences. Whenever you get a sense of the uncanny, a slight chill or blurring of reality, that sense of something else going on – he’s probably lingering about. However… the boys of summer.

So the actual words of Don Henley’s chorus are:

I can see you –

Your brown skin shinin’ in the sun

You got that hair slicked back and your sunglasses on, baby

I can tell you my love for you will still be strong

After the boys of summer have gone…

It’s about lost love, summer love, growing older, not going back – a mixture of all those things, perhaps.

It kept nadging at me, where does that phrase boys of summer come from? It just didn’t sound like something anyone would have made up on the spur of the moment, if you know what I mean – it was too compact. And it was ringing bells; very, very faint and annoying bells.

Weeks went by and I gave up trying not to think about it. I knew it was time to put on my Detective Hat again. I kept thinking – Shakespeare. So many phrases originate either in the Bible or one of Shakespeare’s plays – any mystery quote stands a 50/50 chance of being from either one or the other. In Cymbeline – a play with a plot so complicated that theatre managers were said to offer a reward to anyone who, having seen Cymbeline, could explain what had just happened – there is a beautiful funeral song. In Shakespeare’s time it would have been sung, but the music has been lost:

Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Here are some golden lads who, being gone (dead) need fear no more the heat of the sun. It felt like the beginning of the trail, but not all of it. It wasn’t close enough.

One red herring – somebody on a message board suggesting that Don Henley got the phrase from a book called The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, which is about the Brooklyn Dodgers – presumably a baseball team. Nope, I thought – red herring. Roger Kahn, whoever he was, got that phrase from somebody else. Like many authors before him, he had used a quote for a title, but it was a quote. It just felt like a quote.

Then somebody else suggested Dylan Thomas, and things finally began to fall into place. I read everything I could find of Dylan Thomas’ in my youth and what had been bothering me was a bat-squeak of memory. Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called I See the Boys of Summer. It’s complicated, scary, beautiful, and too long to include in full, so here’s an extract:

I see the boys of summer in their ruin

Lay the gold tithings barren,

Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils;

There in their heat the winter floods

Of frozen loves they fetch their girls,

And drown the cargoed apples in their tides.

 

These boys of light are curdlers in their folly,

Sour the boiling honey;

The jacks of frost they finger in the hives;

There in the sun the frigid threads

Of doubt and dark they feed their nerves;

The signal moon is zero in their voids.

 

I see the summer children in their mothers

Split up the brawned womb’s weathers,

Divide the night and day with fairy thumbs;

There in the deep with quartered shades

Of sun and moon they paint their dams

As sunlight paints the shelling of their heads.

Dylan Thomas – his poems are like paintings by Hieronymus Bosch or Salvador Dali – or like the intricate covers of fantasy novels. You read them and think – this makes no sense. But yet it does. And that’s what’s so powerful and terrifying, that it does.

Dylan Thomas’ father was a teacher of English Literature at a Grammar School, and taught his own son. Dylan Thomas was brought up on Shakespeare. Dylan Thomas drew on imagery from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline when writing I See the Boys of Summer. Don Henley studied poetry at university in Texas and could easily have read I See the Boys of Summer, then used the image in The Boys of Summer.

Well, thank goodness that’s all sorted out.

And I still can’t get rid of that earworm.

earthly delights

Bosch: from The Garden of Earthly Delights

Do Androids Dream of Fluorescent Sheep?

I just thought I was being clever, messing about with the title of the Philip K Dick novel featuring a post-apocalyptic San Francisco human who aspires to possess a real animal since most of them are dead from radiation poisoning. I never thought there were real fluorescent sheep. Real life edges ever closer to the horror story. What are we doing? And cats as well? Sacred, wonderful cats injected with jellyfish DNA. So wrong.

If you don’t believe me, here is a cat, and a baby monkey and… so, so wrong.

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Why don’t they do that to humans, huh? There’s a prison near me. Why not inject the prisoners with this glow-in-the dark stuff in case they escape? No problem picking them out from the helicopter then. Why not infants? Just imagine, if baby happened to crawl out into the garden through a back door carelessly left ajar. No problem. The thing’s fluorescent. Here, baby baby…

Anyway… I was going to write about my dreams. I expect you always wanted to hear about my dreams. No? Ah well, I’ll keep it brief. Maybe.

Do you dream the same thing over and over? Perhaps I’m the only one. I have always dreamt about cats. Not so often now, since they had to do with the emotional segment of my life and that’s more or less over. It started just before I got married. I dreamt a black cat sat on my mother’s fridge. I had poisoned the black cat. The black cat didn’t know it yet. Any minute now it would start to die. I was filled with shame, and horror. I wished I could undo what I had done.

At intervals after that, more and more cats. And I was always terribly upset about them; they were never just curled up asleep wearing top hats and false moustaches or whatever.

Once I was in America. (I have never been to America.) Dream America was a big, empty place. There seemed to be no people in it, only mile after mile of prairie. It was so big, I could sense it stretching away for more millions of miles than I, as a tiny-island Brit, could ever contemplate. I was alone in this windswept place, in an empty room, with a cat, and the window was open. I saw the window but somehow I couldn’t get round to closing it. The cat jumped through, into that endless void, and was gone. Needle in a haystack.

Once I was sitting in an armchair close to a blazing fire. In the arm of the armchair, for some reason, was a cage, and in the cage, concealed, a cat. The cat was burning, frying, because my chair was too close to the fire. But I couldn’t seem to warn myself. Myself was oblivious.

At one point a cat was following me across a zebra crossing in single file – like the Beatles outside Abbey Road. The cat had followed me for miles, surviving city traffic. From home, wherever that was.

For a long time I didn’t know what the cats were. What did they symbolise? Being an over-complicated person I got books out of the library. Cats in a dream might mean… intuition. The health of the dream cat indicates whether you are heeding or ignoring your intuition. Rely less on intellect. That would certainly have applied. For twenty-two years I went on and on, stalwartly ignoring my intuition. But the book-explanation didn’t seem enough.

And then I had another dream. I dreamed that cats wearing parachutes were descending into a ploughed field. I ran to pick up one of the cats and found it had turned into a teddy bear. And in this way Mr Subconscious showed me absolutely directly, in his own picture-making way, what library books had failed to make clear. Cats, like teddy bears (and of course the children I had not been able to conceive) were something to cuddle. They were affection received and given. Something to love.

Mr Subconscious practices that Show, don’t tell thing they’re always going on about in How To Write books and writers’ groups. He sends a picture along with an emotion and then you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt. One of these days, I hope to speak subconscious with ease.

Last night, for a change, I dreamed of fluorescent sheep. I do not think sheep are Something to Cuddle. They are certainly woolly, but I have never been too fond of sheep, having helped to catch a runaway one in a country lane. Sheep are much larger than you think, and greasy. However… these sheep were invisible. They were being herded up an abandoned railway line and the only way the shepherd could tell where they were was because he had painted a fluorescent spot on each sheep. This morning I learned from my TV that British astronaut Tim Peake is going to be conducting an experiment up there in the space station. He is going to be remotely controlling a Mars explorer robot. He has to go into a dark ‘cave’ where round (sheep-shaped) boulders are littered around, and he will have to pick up the boulders and take photos of them. No easy task, so to help him they have daubed some of the boulders with fluorescent paint. Now, am I becoming a prescient in my old age? I mean, is this the first step? Not so much train-wrecks and plane crashes as Mars explorer vessels?  Not so much far into the future as… more or less straight away?

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