Talk, Talk…

Someone introduced me to somebody else recently. Now, who was it? Oh yes, my village friend (I am trying to resist using quotation marks here). We were up at the hospital, drinking that particularly sour brand of coffee perpetrated by the elderly ladies in the Volunteer Shop, whilst waiting for the basement canteen to open for business.

This friend of hers came up – friends of hers are always coming up – and my ‘friend’  introduced me. I did what I thought was the perfectly usual smile and the Hi there! and my ‘friend’ said “Don’t mind her, she’s Quiet”. In what sense, I wondered, did she imagine I was quiet?

It is true that I spend days – sometimes weeks – on my own, in my house with no one to talk to apart from the cats and the radio. After twenty-three years or so, I am used to silence. Sometimes I sing, but it comes out flat. Sometimes I recite poetry to myself. If I am angry about something or other I can have heated arguments with myself, out loud, playing both the parts. But mostly I am silent. In my head, long conversations continue – academic debates; love letters to those long lost, or not so long lost; chats with God, or the Universe or whatever might be Out There. Sometimes I get a word or a phrase stuck in my head and play it over and over to myself, like music. Sometimes, in silence, and without aid of pencil and paper, I write.

I had a great aunt once – Auntie Daisy. Auntie Daisy was stick thin, wore black, had once been a teacher. She was what people then called an Old Maid. It amused her to sign herself Tante Marguerite in birthday cards, which mystified us all since we hadn’t yet started learning French. Coughed up juicy five shilling postal orders every Christmas. I was a greedy child.

And I was a silent child. I had this trick – I could make myself invisible to adults. I would sit there with my hands neatly clasped in my lap, earnestly studying the pattern on the curtain or a tiny speck on the skirting-board, waiting for them to forget I was there. Then I listened in. I learned quite a lot of things that way. I learned, for example, that once Auntie Daisy started talking you Couldn’t Get A Word In Edgewise. I also learned that Once She Got Her Feet Under Your Table There Was No Getting Rid Of Her.

Poor Auntie Daisy. She lived on her own, like I do, and she suffered from the same syndrome – Intermittent Motormouth or Spinster’s Gabble, ie she had no one to talk to most of the time, but occasionally, unpredictably, finding herself in company and with an audience, started talking and simply could not stop.

Daisy could talk for England and so, when the mood comes upon me, can I. People tend to laugh – perhaps because they expect me to be po-faced and miserable and suddenly here I am, cracking jokes, telling endless long-winded stories, forgetting what I was saying, remembering, starting up again…

But it must be so tiring to be on the receiving end of. I can hear myself talking when I get like that, and it exhausts me. I am sending out a silent SOS – Please Shut Me Up Now. But nobody ever does. Eventually I run down of my own accord, like a clockwork robot.

I have had a whole couple of days like that. Yesterday I met English Sister at the Home and we travelled up in the stinky old lift to visit Mum. The smell in that place just hits you. Mum doesn’t speak, really, any more, just looks at us, kind of puzzled. Her white hair – always so short and carefully permed – has long since grown out and grown long. Now they gather a little wispy bunch of it up on top of her head to keep it out of her eyes. She looks like a ninety year old schoolchild. So, we sat there with her, but talked amongst ourselves. The Manageress came in. She says she thinks Mum must still know we are something to do with her – vaguely familiar, otherwise she would have attacked us, violently. Good to know.

Afterwards we drove off in our separate cars, to meet up again at the garden centre café for coffee and more chat. By this time I was in full flow. My sister, I happened to know, voted for the other side in the 2016 referendum. She and her whole family are quite passionate, politically, about the thing I voted against. I assumed she must know that, since our Canadian Sister tends to tell everyone absolutely everything. Unfortunately it began to be obvious from what she was saying that she didn’t. Oh God, I thought, now we are going to have That Conversation. So I took a deep breath and told her how I had voted.

You did WHAT!! she shrieked. How COULD you? The café was quite crowded but it suddenly went quite quiet.

Don’t hate me, I whispered. She has only just re-adopted me.

But anyway, we managed it. We dipped our toes into You Know What. We disagreed, but politely. We wandered off towards something we could agree on – the utter ghastliness of President Trump. We wandered back to the scary muddle the Government had made of the whole Brexit process – something else we could agree on – and our worries about rationing. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves disagreeing about Boris Johnson, so veered off in the direction of climate change. She said she was glad she would not now have grandchildren, her son being gay and her daughter being too frail to risk a pregnancy. Maybe, she said, the world would hold together long enough for them to be all right, but beyond that… For the first time I thought, maybe it was a good thing I couldn’t have children. Maybe in my infertility I was being kind of prescient and noble, unwittingly.

And so the horror of our radically opposed political views was diluted – as Godmother summed it up today (oh, and that was another long, exhausting motormouth session). My sister and I, both passionately convinced, both furious – she with my unbelievably stupid friends and I with her unbelievably stupid family – did at least agree on our fury. We agreed that we could both bear to listen to it no longer, and turned off the radio the minute the subject came up. She said her children did too. I said I had taken to listening to music all day rather than turn on the news.

It does seem to me that that is what we will have to do, all of us, afterwards. We will have to shriek in horror at the betrayal each of us has perpetrated upon the other; we will have to whisper in supplication. And then will have to sit around for hours in cafés and talk, preferably whilst eating half-melted chocolate eclairs and getting sugar all round our mouths, and so much chocolate on our fingers that it is beyond licking off politely. We will have to talk about it, fishing delicately around for the few items we can agree on, diluting the pain and the awkwardness with mugs of tea . Try and see the funny side.

I think I may need to lie down for the rest of the weekend.

My bathwater is staring at me…

So, I finished running my bath and looked down and lo and behold, little pairs of bubble eyes were circulating, and staring at me. Only for a moment, mind you. Then sanity returned. Please do not let me start hearing voices talking to me from my kitchen cupboards next. Please do not let the bubbles develop little sharp teeth and start snapping at me…

Been there, seen that all before.

But really I think I am just very tired. I am not used to being very tired, either. All my life I have been able to do a normal day’s stuff and recover without even thinking about it. Now it takes me two days to get over a long bus journey.

Went to see Mum yesterday. Fortunately Godmother’s little dog has had a stay of execution and Godmother and her trusty little red car are back online, so I didn’t have to do the epic three-bus solo journey, only the much easier one bus, two train and one car journey. I gave Mum a calendar of American Birds, hanging it on her wall with the garden string (and yes, even small pair of scissors) I had taken over specially. Once a Brownie always a Brownie. Mum made that Emu face. Godmother went to make her a fresh cup of tea (we have both recently memorised the key code for the kitchen).

‘Is that better?’ she foolishly asked, as Mum took a sip from her newly-steaming plastic beaker. Emu face again.

For those who are wondering what an Emu face is, not being old enough or British, I would guess it’s something like a ‘Meh’ face only a tad more ominous. This is it:

emu

Then she started growling, a lot, and baring her teeth. A carer came running.

“It’s all right,” we said, waving cheerily. “It’s only Mum having a bit of a growl.”

Thing is, all this stuff takes it out of you. And it doesn’t go away when you go home. That whole visit stays with you and excerpts from it coming back, like cucumber. Memory burps.

And then there was the reverse journey – car, train, train again and bus. And the hour-and-a-bit wait at the bus stop, alone. And the bus arriving being a single decker, and already stuffed with holidaymakers returning to their chalets, though this was only the second stop.

And the more and more people getting crammed in and nobody ever getting out.

And the pain in my knees (I was sitting over one of the back wheels, and I have long legs) as they continually graunched against the back of the seat in front.

And the little girl in that seat, who kept turning round to bellow at her Mama in Spanish through my face, leaning heavily on the seat back at the same time. I desperately needed to stand up and stretch my legs, but I would have lost my seat and been stood hanging on to a pole round sharp bends with a bad hip for the next forty minutes.

And then, having escaped the bus, the fifteen minute uphill climb home. For the first time ever I had to actually stop, like some old lady, and catch my breath for some moments before continuing. My head was swimming although that might have been the several Mars Bars en route, plus the half a bar of chocolate Godmother produced in the car, and which we shared between us! Also, I was loaded down with second hand copies of the Woman’s Weekly. Godmother passes hers on to me and I do enjoy them, even though she’s always done the crossword, but a whole supermarket bag-full is heavy.

And then I got home and next door decided to have one of their Friday parties. Turn Up The Volume It’s Friday. I was going to have a bath but I went to bed instead, grubby, knowing that I could sleep through a lot of loud music, shouting and thundering about,  but not sit through it. Hence the bath this morning, and the bubbles. And those little swirling eyes in the water…

Still on the subject of public transport: Bertie At The Bus Stop tells me he can easily eat 19 potatoes at one sitting. He loves potatoes. Obviously. He went on some kind of summer camp once and ate up all the potatoes in the bowl, thinking they were all meant for him. Next day, he told me, they wouldn’t let him into the dining room until after everyone else had gone in. He didn’t know why.

He tells me his freezer-in-the-shed went off sometime during that power cut, and failed to restart itself automatically when the electrics came back on. He only noticed hours later because the garden fountain had stopped working. I asked him whether the food would be safe to eat, having once defrosted. It was clear that this was a new idea to him. He thought that once in a freezer food would last forever and that occasional lengthy defrosting would make no difference, as long as the freezer eventually got turned back on.

“They” provided him with the freezer but “They” obviously hadn’t taken the time to explain to him in any detail how it worked.

“Well,” he said, thinking it over, “I could always cook it all overnight. I could stay up all night cooking and put it in my fridge and then I could eat it all the next day, like a big feast…

Poor Bertie, he needs his Old Mum but she isn’t here any more. I know the feeling, and I know I can’t do anything. People have their own lives and you can’t take on everybody’s problems, especially when you have a history of well-meaning attempts at helping that did no good. I can’t magically make Bertie less simple-minded or raise his Old Mum from the dead. Sometimes, maybe, it’s enough to listen to their stories – told on purpose or – as in Bertie’s case – in innocence or by accident. Perhaps, on that day, that was what you happened to be at the bus stop for.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Mystery Sister Tea Brack

I’ve called it that because it’s in one of the sisters’ handwriting but I can’t decide which. They both went through a cramped, backward-slanting gothic phase, as in fact did Mum (she was briefly learning calligraphy from a retired drama-school headmistress who lived down the road). Since the cost is given in ‘s’ and ‘d’ it must be pre the 1971 decimalisation.

TEA BRACK – dated 5th August, no year

  • Cost: about 4s 2d
  • Approximate preparation time: 15 mins (plus overnight standing)
  • Cooking time: 2 hours

Ingredients:

  • 8 ozs (ounces) sultanas, cleaned
  • 8 ozs currants, cleaned
  • 8 ozs soft brown sugar
  • 1/2 pint medium-strength cold tea (plenty of that swilling around in the UK)
  • 1 lb (pound) self-raising flour
  • 4 tablespoons milk

Method:

  • Put fruit, sugar and tea in a bowl. Soak overnight
  • Next day, turn on oven: set at moderate, 375º F, Mark 5 (gas)
  • Grease a round 8 in (inch) tin; line base with greaseproof paper and grease the paper
  • Sift the flour into bowl of fruit. Add milk and beat
  • Turn into prepared tin. Bake in centre of pre-heated oven for 2 hours.
  • Cool on a rack

I’ve sorted it out and bullet-pointed it to make it less cramped-looking on the page, and easier to follow.

Enjoy 🙂

PS: if you’re wondering where the word ‘brack’ comes from, it’s a short form of barm brack, an Irish recipe upon which there are many variations (including this one). In Irish gaelic it’s bairín breac. So now you know.

shamrock.jpg

Visiting Granny Harrison: a ghost story

Nan is always doing things behind Mum’s back. She’s frightened of Mum because she’s naughty. Mum’s never naughty; she doesn’t smoke Players cigarettes from a silver case and doesn’t drink Emva Cream sherry in the mornings, and she doesn’t sing though sometimes she whistles Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag because Dad taught it to her and In A Monastery Garden which is on her Ronnie Ronalde whistling record, which I do not like the sound of at all and will not walk with her when she’s doing. Nan likes to sing, especially after her Emva Cream sherry. She sings I Like You Very Much which is by Carmen Miranda, a lady who wears a lot of fruit on her head; and Chase Me, Charlie which is about a lady who loses the leg of her drawers. Nan says drawers is the old word for knickers. She says knickers used to be pink and have legs right down to your knees, and you drew them up around your waist with a tape, which is why they were called drawers. I asked her once how the lady managed to lose a leg of them, and she said it was all Charlie’s fault.

carmen miranda 2.png

So it does not surprise me when Nan takes me up to have a chat with Granny Harrison in Saint Margaret’s graveyard instead of popping in at the Co-op to get Cream of Tartar and a couple of ounces of tea like she told Mum. Granny Harrison is Nan’s Mum, who died before I was born. I think it was when one of the Wars was on. I don’t know which one.

It is the middle of August and the sun beats down hard on the top of my head. It’s a long, uphill walk from Gallipoli Street to Saint Margaret’s. Grit has got inside my sandals, and it’s like walking on broken bits of eggshell. I want to empty them out and brush off the soles of my feet but once glance at Nan’s hurrying back makes me think again. She doesn’t want to stop. So I hobble along behind her and look forward to the overgrown churchyard grass and a chance to sit down and sort myself out.

The gate is old, wrought-iron and rusty. Luckily someone has fastened it back with hairy string. Saint Margaret’s is scary, its flint-made walls rise up in front of me, like Kevan the bully on the way home from school. I have to lean right back to see even a little bit of blue sky. Four uneven stone steps, a few paving stones spotted with confetti from last Saturday’s wedding, and then that big, chilly porch, so dark you can hardly see the side-benches and the black, studded door hidden inside. We tiptoe round the outside wall and into the graveyard, past the cupboard-in-the-wall where the vicar, according to Nan, keeps his watering can and spades. What she probably means is the gravedigger. Hard to imagine hollow-cheeked, hook-nosed Reverend Aldrich personally mowing, watering flowers or digging great holes in the ground.

I sit on a gravestone to sort out my sandals while Nan meanders around the gravestones, peering through mossy coverings, her lips moving as she reads one weather-worn inscription after another. I thought she would have known straight away where Granny Harrison was buried, that she would have been coming up here once a week, or once a month like the other village women to change the yellow water in the special vase and arrange fresh flowers through the metal holey bits. Like the old lady with the crooked back I now see over the way, pulling up fire-weeds and throwing them onto the heap by the stone wall. Gently, almost apologetically, she tugs at them, but they give way to her easily. Fire-weed, of course, doesn’t have much of a root. Nan tells me it’s called fire-weed because it flourishes in bomb craters, and the cooks-and-grannys in walls, between the pavement-stones. Nan hasn’t thought to bring new flowers for Granny Harrison, although there is a vase on the grave; Carmen Miranda seems to have deserted her today, as she sometimes does.

Mum says Nan suffers from very-sadness every once in a while. That’s why she goes away on the bus and we can’t go and see her. She goes to a big house called Sighlong, a long way away in the middle of a park with statues. It’s where the very-sad people go, and the people who believe they might be Jesus or Napoleon and march about wearing three-cornered hats, Mum says. And then she comes back and nobody talks to her about how she got on at Sighlong. She carries on as if she’s never been away and after a while Carmen Miranda comes back, and so do the Players Navy Cut and the Emva Cream, and Nan dances around the cherry tree in the garden with cherries draped over her ears singing eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-like-you-very-much- eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-think-you’re-grand and has no more screamy-nightmares for a while.

‘Here she is’. Nan beckons me over. We both kneel down in front of Granny Harrison’s grave, which is very overgrown and has stinging-nettles. It’s only a little gravestone, almost like the ones children have. Nan and I read the inscription together. It’s short.

  • MARY MAUDE HARRISON
  • Wife of Henry James Marten Harrison
  • 1841 – 1916
  • Resting

‘What does resting mean?’ I ask. ‘Isn’t she dead?’

‘It means she’s resting in the ground till the Last Trump,’ says Nan. ‘When the Last Trump sounds they all rise up, brush the earth and leaves and… worms and what-not off their Sunday clothes and walk towards the light.’

‘What light?’

‘There’s supposed to be a light. There’s supposed to be one, but I don’t know…’

I know not to ask any more because Nan is crying.

The old lady from over the way straightens up. It looks a bit painful, she has been bending for so long. I notice she has a veil, and black gloves. A wilting fire-weed dangles from one of them. She lets it fall, watching Nan carefully.

I want to help, but I don’t know what to do.

‘Shall I go and fetch a trowel, Nan? I expect the Vicar keeps one in his cupboard. We could do some weeding together.’

Nan doesn’t answer. Her head is bowed and her shoulders are shaking. I retreat to a safe distance, perch on a gravestone and wait, and it’s then that the old lady comes over. In fact I don’t see her come over. She’s just here. She puts one hand on Nan’s shoulder, and then rests the other one gently on the top of her head, just for a minute. Nan doesn’t seem to feel it.

And then the lady turns and walks away and I notice something quite funny. Under the lady’s stiff black jacket, with its buttons and black embroidery, her blouse is hanging out at the back, just a little, as if as if she left home in a hurry and forgot to tuck it into her the waistband of her long black skirt. It looks kind of silly, but I know I mustn’t laugh. It’s a very serious occasion.

Nan dries her tears and when we get back to my house Nan goes in for a cuppa with Mum. And Mum asks here where she has put the two ounces of tea and, come to that, the Cream of Tartar.

Nan looks at me, panic-stricken.

‘We went to the Rec and played on the swings,’ I say. The lie slides out of my mouth without my even needing to invent it.

‘It was so nice and sunny that we didn’t feel much like buying Cream of Tartar after all…’

Mum gives me one of her Looks.

‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I could swear you two are twins.’

‘How could we be…?’

Mum gives me another one of her Looks.

Mum and Nan make a pot of tea and carry it out on a tray, with two cups and two saucers and a glass of Barley Water for me; and they sit telling stories of olden times on two of the kitchen table chairs in the sunshine on the lawnwhile I sit at their feet making daisy-chains. I tend not to listen when they’re doing stuff like that. Or rather I do, but I’m listening to other things as well, like the bees buzzing, and the clouds whooshing by overhead. Clouds make a sound, you see, but nobody much seems to hear them. And I look at things like red ants mountaineering in the grass. And I wonder if I could get to Australia if I dug for a hundred years, and whether I would meet a Bunyip there so we could sit side by side on a log, biting our nails, and the grown-ups’ stories just wind in and out of my ears, like music. And Nan is telling Mum a story she already knows about Granny Harrison in the olden days. This is the story after the one about the favourite chicken that Granny Harrison killed by accident in the kitchen with her besom-broom and criedandcriedandcried. This is the one about the Sunday they all went to church, Granny Harrison, Nan and all her thirteen brothers and sisters, and they were walking down the aisle behind her to their own particular Harrison pew, and Auntie May noticed Granny’s shirt was hanging out at the back, and they all tried not to giggle but couldn’t help it, and Granny Harrison turned round with a face like thunder and…

MICRO-ADVENTURES OF THE CANADIAN KIND

I mean, it’s accurate, and yet it’s not. Sounds like I’m going to tell you about my fantastic holiday in Canada, crossing the whole huge place on that whole-huge-place-crossing railway they’ve got, or skiing off into the great white wilderness with tennis-racket-type-things on my feet like they wore in old films, or maybe bumping into Paul Whatsisname that wonderful Mountie-detective-type chap who looked so especially wonderful in those red flannelette Mountie-issue pyjamas…

I wish.

In fact it’s about Canada coming to me for a week or so in the form of my sister (henceforth S) and brother-in-law (henceforth BIL). I thought rather than trying to write I would try making rough notes as the week went on. I can’t write when there are other people around.  I just feel I ought to be making them cups of tea, rescuing them from cats or explaining yet again how the shower works. Constantly. Other people, even Ss and BILs,  make me anxious.

They haven’t arrived as yet. It could be any time between now and 10 o’clock this evening. Annoying ex-husband of the lady next door (bald and pointy-headed, like an egg on legs) left his car parked outside my house overnight, in what I think of as my space, though technically it isn’t, and I have been worrying all day about where S and BIL are going to park their borrowed car, and whether I ought to confront egg-on-legs in a brave and feminist manner. But then on what basis? It isn’t, technically, my parking space, just the bit of road in front of my house that feels like mine. And anyway he’d smirk at me. Men always smirk when women confront them. Why not let BIL handle any confronting that may be necessary? Men are so much better at confronting one another, in fact they enjoy it.

But now he’s moved.

But perhaps he’ll come back before they get here.

I went over to see Mum this morning, after our little falling-out last week. I don’t usually hug her (nobody hugged me, much, so I don’t know how to hug people) but I suddenly felt I ought to, so I did. And then I thought I might cry, but I didn’t. I was trying to convey this message – that I couldn’t stay long because S and BIL were due soon, but I would be bringing S over to see her tomorrow, when we could have a longer chat. But she didn’t recognise S’s name, or indeed that I had a S to have a name. I went through all three of us, in date order, explaining that I was the oldest, S was the middle one, and  S2 was the youngest. Then she was distraught. Whatever was I thinking? she asked me. I can see her. I can see her now, in her body. It was just her name I lost. Whatever has happened to me?

And then I wanted to cry again, and she wanted to cry, so we did the British thing and had a cup of tasteless tea-bag tea instead, and a lot of chocolate biscuits. And the tea got cold as we tried to think of more things to say, and couldn’t. And then I put all the capital-letter notes I had written in order, and numbered them for her. And then I reminded her I would be bringing S over tomorrow. What day is it today? she asked.

Sunday.

And what day will it be tomorrow?

Monday.

You put your hands round me, didn’t you? she said.

And then I thought, however difficult it is, I must hug her every time.