Pix

She had been sitting all alone in the window seat of this Lake District hostelry for what felt like an hour, though a quick glance at the screen of ‘her’ mobile phone showed it to be ten minutes. Alone, apart from the silent TV crew and their cameras. It was they who had brought her here in the second-to-last of a convoy of shiny people-carriers.

They wouldn’t even let her keep her handbag. It was in one of the people-carriers. She had never lost touch with her handbag before and felt naked and afraid without it. She had this prop, this mobile phone with her only because it was ‘salient’. Salient! She wanted her bag. What if it got stolen?

She had been ushered in here, on film of course, by the Host, Anchor, Chief Lady Bullshitter or however they might be describing her today. She was to be filmed waiting, preferably in extreme anxiety, for the Person she had been waiting for all her life, and who was about to walk through the door.

Person seemed to be taking their time, although they did like to build the suspense. The crew were getting restless. She could have taken a bite out of their boredom, it was so thick. Boredom with her plain, middle-aged self; with the faux cosiness of this inn – glass shelving, flock wallpaper, horse-brasses – and with the whole concept of engineering a collision between long-lost relatives and seeing what happened.

The worst part was that she was supposed to cry. Howl the place down, they told her, don’t hold back. The viewers will be living it with you, every step of the way. She just didn’t think she was going to be able to cry to order, for the entertainment of the world and his wife. She was accustomed to crying alone, and mostly in silence.

It was like standing on the edge of a cliff, waiting to be shoved off. It was necessary to occupy the time somehow so she began listing words and phrases to describe the Lady Bullshitter: unctuous, expensively-coiffed, super-fit, patronising, vivacious, bubbly, smarmy. Hateful.

No doubt they were filming her hands, twisting and twisting this electronic gadget. If only she’d thought to bring her pink cardigan. That was in a people-carrier too. Possibly not the same one as her handbag. She had been scattered to the winds, she felt. Forcibly redistributed. They’d placed her in this draughty window-seat so that she would be framed – and improved – by the wonderful Lake District scenery. Her upper arms had goose-flesh.

The phone was salient because it contained something the TV people referred to as a gallery or ‘pix’, which meant a collection of electronic photographs.  She hated the sound of pix. It was not the sort of word she would have said. When your Person arrives, they said, you will be able to show them pix of your extended family that they have never seen. Tearful, shared reminiscences. Lovely!

She’d never been interested in taking photos, even when it was proper cameras not telephones. If a picture isn’t vivid enough to stick in your head of its own accord, she thought, what’s the point of sticking it in an album? There had been nothing much to take photos of anyway. She’d lived a dull life and stayed single. No husband, children, dog, cat, budgie – rarely a friend, even.

Their researcher had been aghast when she told him this. But you must have some pix, darling. They’re part of our script.

There’s a script?

Well, story-boarding. Can’t have just any old thing happening, now can we? And we haven’t done a reminiscing-over-pix segment this series so it has to be you and your Person. Lighten up a little, darling. You’re the star of the show.

They had emailed-blitzed all her distant relatives asking for family snaps and ‘bio’. Once the pix arrived they had transferred them to the mobile phone which was, for the purposes of filming, her mobile phone. She had never once met any of them. The TV people had rehearsed and rehearsed her until she knew the bio behind those pix off by heart: who this grainy, black-and-white man was to her; whose pudgy, pink-faced baby this was; who this infant with the plastic trike and the chocolate-smudged face belonged to. She loathed them all on sight, the bastards.

The crew hadn’t met Person in the actual flesh. The plan was to whisk them from the airport up the motorway, in one final people-carrier, last minute. The travel budget for this series was blown, apparently, so it all had to be done via Skype, whatever that was. Where exactly were they flying in from? She got the impression it was a long way away – New Zealand, maybe, or Canada? How did Person get there? And why hadn’t they stuck around to do what they were supposed to do instead of skedaddling off abroad?

The crew lifted their cameras from her restless hands, retraining them on the door. It had glass panels and they could evidently see someone lurking behind it. Person! The door creaked as they pushed their way through. The phone dropped to the table with a clatter, creating a minor problem for the sound recordist. So this was it. Ah well, it would soon be over. Then she’d retrieve her handbag and go home. They could both go home.

A thin little man walked into the room, and stopped. Turning his head from side to side, he still couldn’t seem to locate her. Then she saw the white cane. So much for story-boarding. Hah!

Dad?

The man gasped and reached out in the direction of her voice. She hurried towards him and straight into his arms. Holding on tight and burying her face in his shoulder, she denied the whole world the entertainment of her tears.

Unlicensed To Chill

The careers advice at school consisted of one short interview in an office off the main entry hall, with a bored, irritated female “sent from somewhere”. I remember shyly confiding in her – not unreasonably I thought since I was getting good marks in A level English – that I would like to be a newspaper reporter. She shook her head and passed me pamphlets on the Women’s Army. One of the perils of being tall and built like a brick outhouse, thanks to your father, is that people can only picture you charging around some jungle like Camouflage, that heroic and – as it turns out – somewhat ghostly marine.

And her face at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale…

Oh dear, earworm time.

But given the uninspired naffness of this blog title, perhaps the Career Cow was right after all. Too old for a career now, in any case.

But not quite old enough, as yet, to have my free TV licence whipped away from me because neither the Government – that shameful shambles – and the BBC – that parcel of pillocks – are willing to fund it any longer. As from 2020 all pensioners not in receipt of Pension Credit will just have to carry on paying their £12.85 a month until they drop. Up till now, if you succeeded in clawing your way to your 75th birthday you were allowed to watch TV for free. It was the one thing most of us had to look forward to about getting old. Dementia, possibly – galloping arthritis, possibly – chronic constipation, unreachable toenails, being patronised by everybody, whatever – but at 75

I won’t have to pay for my TV licence. Yay !!!**!!!

In one sense I am lucky. I am some way off 75 so would have been having to pay for some years anyway. However, my friend Daisy and beloved Godmother already have the free TV licence. As of next year, those will be snatched away. I wonder whether they are going to drag 100 year old pensioners through the courts because, being a bit wafty or not having access to “online” they didn’t get the email explaining this and therefore failed to start paying. I believe the fine for watching without a licence is £100. You can’t be imprisoned for failing to purchase a TV licence but if you fail to pay the £100, you can be. Imagine prisons filled with bewildered geriatrics. At least they can probably watch TV in there.

So, that is one reason why I have now given up my TV licence. Solidarity with all those unknown oldies who are about to have an already depressing existence made just a tad more depressing. Either they can carry on coughing up £12.85 a month (which will no doubt increase) ad infinitem, or they can do as I just did – chuck the TV, remote control and all that wiring into a cardboard box and banish it to the garage.

(Almost immediately after that my garage was flooded in a freak thunderstorm. I’m not sure the TV would even work now.)

No more live TV and no more catch-up or live TV on BBC iPlayer. (That’s the bigger loss.) No more Charlie and Naga perched on a hideous red sofa chirping out the news every morning. No more weather forecasters with unpronounceable names forecasting gales and flooding. No more interminable weeks of Wimbledon. No more late night panels of journalists pontificating or shouting each other down over Brexit.

The other reason I gave up is logical, but in a female sort of way. It was one of those lightbulb moments: if, to continue watching live TV, I am henceforth doomed to pay £12.85 a month by direct debit until they stuff me into my coffin – why am I actually paying it now? I mean, I really can’t afford it. I can’t afford anything. I have had to give up buying 1p second hand books from Amazon, for goodness sake, because they add on £2-something for postage.

Why am I paying £154-ish per annum to this BBC, who are about to snatch free licences from my elderly friends? Why should I let them pocket a chunk of my meagre State Pension, damn them? They pay a former footballer called Gary something-or-other – who already makes a packet out of advertising potato crisps – trillions per annum just for presenting a sports programme that no woman could ever bear to watch. Why not sack him for a start, Mr Pointless Football Pundit? And his female equivalent high-earner Claudia Winkelman, who is famous for having a too-long fringe and making kooky unfunny jokes on Strictly Come Dancing. Bin her. Bring back free licences.

And the final straw came when some twenty or thirty-something late night journalist, whose opinions I had always been interested to hear, up to that point, blurted out something to this effect:

Old people are nearly all rolling in money anyway, unlike us millennials. They don’t deserve free licences. And after all, they can just go out and buy a subscription to Netflix….

The difficulty with this is, many people in the over 75 age group do not have a computer of any sort. And even if you can afford to buy one at that age you are going to need a smartarse grandchild or computer chappie to set it up and teach you how to use it. It is not easy learning to use a computer later in life. I know, I was forced to teach myself the whole lot by trial and error, being childless and so not having access to a smartarse grandchild. Also, how many old people know what Netflix – or even what an app is? How can they afford to subscribe to Netflix if they can’t afford the licence fee? Can you even watch live TV on Netflix? My research says not, but some Millennial will no doubt correct me.

The Millennial’s co-late-night-journalist sat and gazed at her silent and slack-jawed when she came out with that one. I don’t think he could believe she had actually said it.

Anyway, rant over (phew!). I am actually finding it’s OK-ish without TV. I have deleted  BBC iPlayer from my tablet so that I can’t click on it accidentally, thus incurring a £100 fine or communal prison television surrounded by murderers, rapists and drug-dealers. I have three radio sets, set on Radio 4, 4 Extra and – miscellaneous music stations. I look up the daily schedules on one app (thus saving myself the expense of buying the Radio Times), the weather on another and news headlines and in-depth articles on another. Sorted! as they say around here.

Powered by leprechauns

I believe there must be a leprechaun inside my smartphone. Well, not even a very smart phone – a phone that in reality does all the stuff normal smartphones do, but disguises the fact so as not to spook the elderly. A deafening musical cadence every time you switch the thing on or off tells everyone else in the railway carriage that you must be extremely hard of hearing, and menus in big letters, with simple alternative words for things, ensure that anyone under eighty will be confused. I spent the first three months wondering where they had hidden the ‘Text’ function before realising that

‘What do you want to do…?

Send…?

Send what…?

A Message?’

actually meant Text. Godmother has the same phone (but Godmother is six months older than my mother) which does at least mean that I can help her when her leprechaun is playing up. I managed to get hers off Aeroplane Mode last week. It had been stuck like that for months.

The phone’s inner leprechaun is obviously quite bright. On my last journey to meet Godmother/visit Mum together, I got to the station, bought my ticket and whilst waiting for the train checked my screen (I’ve just got my head round Roaming). He told me the name of a station and informed me that the station was ‘functioning’ – which was a relief, since I was already standing on the platform, senior rail ticket in hand. He also told me when my next train was due. This I also knew as there are only two trains an hour, and indeed only one platform, terminating in a pile of weedy rubble, whether you are Outgoing or Inbound.

However, my leprechaun does tend to slip out for a pint of Guinness occasionally. In Godmother’s car, an hour and a half and quite a few miles away, he informed me I was in England. This was a relief too. If ever I was taken up into a spaceship by aliens, experimented on and dropped randomly back to earth with my Old Person’s Smartphone I would at least know that I was in Africa, say, or Mongolia.

I thought about it. If he doesn’t know what town I’m in, at this moment in time, how can he proclaim with such confidence that I’m in England? And then I thought, ah, he’s applying logic, as computerised thingies are known to do. He has worked out that the town I was in, before he went out for the pint of Guinness, is such a long way from the borders of either Scotland, Wales or Ireland that I wouldn’t have had time by any known means of transport to have traversed one of said borders. Ergo, since I had been in England, I must still be in England. I was lost in admiration.

A cousin of the smartphone leprechaun lives in my television and informs me at intervals that a Weak or No Signal is being received. He actually knows, somehow, that the cats have just pulled the aerial out of the socket.

Another particularly malevolent cousin lives in my desktop computer. Every day he attempts to send me a massive Update to Internet Explorer, which he tells me will take longer than usual, but is a pressing matter, absolutely vital. Every time I allow him to do this my desktop computer chunters away for a while, then dies. “Bluescreens”, as they say in internet chatrooms. It is then very difficult to revive my computer. Much turning it off at the wall and turning it back on again. Desktop leprechaun then tells me the Update has failed and he is restoring my previous version of Internet Explorer. I cannot afford to pay the Computer Man £120 to fix this Illogicality for me, any more than I could afford to pay the plumber to stop water constantly rippling into my loo from the cistern – until I had to spend all one day bailing into a bucket.

The next day the desktop leprechaun sends me an even tetchier message. “Let’s cross this one off your list… Come on now, you know it makes sense…” I tick “Remind Me Tomorrow” as there seems to be no option for “Bog Off”.

leprechaun

Everybody’s talking at me…

So far I have been looking for things to ‘snap’ around the house, but it’s been one of those days and I just couldn’t locate any Talking Heads, Jabbering Clowns etc to go with my title.

(Change the title, then, why don’t you?

Too tired!)

It’s been one of those days. One of those days when, after days of blessed silence, broken only by hisses and miaows and the occasional politician blathering on about Brexit, I have been forced to delve deep into my pitiful pot of sociability and talk to people. And all day! It’s too much.

It started with the fridge. The fridge is less than a year old and you might think it would leave me alone, but no. The milk I poured onto my cereal was warm. Everything in the fridge-bit and the freezer-bit was warm. Everything was soggy. I was due to leave the house at quarter to nine so at half past eight I had to have a long conversation with a young woman in a call centre, who sold me yet another lot of fridge insurance (I just cancelled the previous lot but it was the only way I could escape) and promised me an engineer next Wednesday. Five or six day without a fridge. I missed the bus, of course.

Which meant I found myself catching the same bus as Bertie and, not only that, sharing the subsequent train since he was on his way up to London and then down towards the West Country. Bertie is a nice chap but extremely hard work, listening to. And he now wants to know whether I am married. Why? Maybe he’s just curious. Innocently curious.

He is worried about his train connections, and about whether he will be able to book in to his usual hotel room when he gets down there; also whether he will be able to find some flowers to buy (he has to buy some flowers). I am worried about my fridge and what is happening to all those strawberry yoghurts and bottles of milk I didn’t have time to dispose of before running for the later bus. They will have to fester till I get home.

And then there is the conversation with Godmother in the car. Godmother is a piece of cake compared to either Bertie or the woman at the electrical appliances call centre, but I am running out of steam. I am also having to explain why I am so late.

Then there is the conversation with Mum, although today she seems more interested in New Homes By The Seaside, and paddling two pieces of bread around in a bowl of green soup. Godmother and I speculate as to why the soup is always exactly this shade of green, and whether it might be pea, or some sort of pea and mushroom mix.

Another conversation with Godmother on the way back to the station. Exhausted slump in a train, then another train. Half an hour at the bus stop. Teenager on the bench beside me suddenly looks up from his mobile phone and begins to talk to me. There must be something wrong with him, I think. The only people who talk to me at bus stops are people with something wrong with them.

He shows me his app, for the buses, which reveals that our bus is currently passing the fire station just down the road, but it has to go past us and go off somewhere else before coming back, so there’s at least another fifteen minutes to wait. He tells me about the sort of music he likes, which he says has a lot of beat and people shouting or talking over the top. Sounds like what Next Door play. He asks me what sort of music I like. I say I listen to Heart, thinking that might be trendy. He says Heart isn’t really modern music. He explains the online game he likes to play, and how you can wear costumes, or join the police, or wield a sword – anything you like – and how he has friends all over the world, playing the same game at the same time. I tell him of my adventures with the little boat in that dementia game, Sea Hero Quest. He thinks he has heard of that.

He asks me if I have got Netflix and what I watch TV programmes on. He tells me that the pattern is changing and young people watch on all sorts of devices. I already knew this, but I nod, wondering if he might be practising his chatting up techniques on a safe old lady before venturing into the world of Real Girls. He looks no more than fifteen, and I suspect he is shy. He’s practising. Good for him.

He asks me what people did before television. His mother has told him that people played card games and such. I tell him that I can only vaguely remember the world before television, since we got one when I was seven or thereabouts, but I remembered my grandparents playing card games. And talking. Talking? He seems interested in that. He asks me if television was really black and white once upon a time, and had there really only been two channels like his mother said?

At home I dispose of all the runny yoghurts and soggy loaves of bread from the fridge. I recycle the plastic pots. I tip away four pints of warm, suspicious-smelling milk. I fish out anything else that doesn’t look as if it’s going to last till Wednesday.

I remember that I am supposed to be ringing that lady from yesterday’s bus journey, the one who thought I might be interested in outings to Southend to eat fish and chips, in a mini-bus with other people our age, collected from my door and returned, after. Trips to the theatre; get-togethers (with optional fish-and-chip suppers) in pubs and so much more. I have her telephone number on a scrap of paper and I have promised to ring her. Yesterday.

I am slightly interested, I suppose, thinking about all that potential subject matter for the blog, and also the possibility that the company of other humans might do me good. But I can’t face it tonight.

Not another conversation. Just not tonight.

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Lucy: I Am Everywhere

‘Lucy’ was one of many films I would have liked to see when they were new, but had to wait till they appeared on TV. And last night, at last, it did appear and I actually sat down and watched it, all the way through from start to finish. Like, amazing!

Mostly I get to see films on TV in snatches and completely out of sequence, and subsequently piece them together in my mind. That’s half the fun – imagining the missing segments, then finding out segment by segment that they were not the way I imagined them – or were. That way you get several films for the price of one, or rather for the price of an annual television licence. (And if I can survive long enough into old age even that will be free.)

My most watched-in-fragments film by far is The Fifth Element, which seems to haunt Freeview. Whichever channel you flick to, there it is. And I am still noticing new things it. Second would be Avatar. I love Avatar. I seem to be drawn to anything sci-fi or fantasy – unusual in a lady of my age, but it can’t be helped. On the other hand I loathe soaps. I’ve never managed to watch any episode East Enders, Coronation Street or Emmerdale for more than five minutes without being driven to switch over by the gloom, the grating accents, the hysteria, the bellowing and the inch-thick makeup.

And I do like Scarlett Johansson. If God gives me a choice next time round to look less like a giant racing-cyclist’s daughter I will ask to look more like Scarlett. Much more. The world would be one’s oyster with a face like that. And she can convey something like terror, for instance, with nothing more than an impassive face and a rapid flickering of the eyes. This is a contained reaction – terror as you and I would like to imagine we would manifest it, if about to be operated on and have a huge plastic wrap of some brain-enhancing blue crystal substance concealed amongst our intestines against our will. Terror without the screeching, the gibbering and the uncontrollable widdling.

Much as I like watching films I do not much enjoy going to the cinema, at least alone. Cinemas are dark. They are full of people who kick the back of your seat, try to grope you (well, not so much of that nowadays) continue using their mobile phones, eat, chat and dump their inconvenient children next to you. Yes, I once had a pair of parents pointing their horrible, fidgety, snot-nosed children to come and hem me in at the end of a side aisle, whilst they repaired to another part of the cinema completely. I have never known a pair of children to get up, go out to the loo, come back, sit down, get up… and so forth, so many times in succession.

No doubt I could learn how to stream films but that would mean committing myself to sitting down and watching them and – apart from the odd exception like ‘Lucy’ – that is something the inherited Mum side of me won’t let me do. Mum used to claim that it was Grandad, her father, making it impossible for her to sit down, stay put and concentrate on anything for more than two minutes, or rather her internalised, reproving father figure.

Grandad only lived along the road and had become, for Mum, a kind of troll-under-the-bridge bogeyman. After Nan died he was lonely, desperate to be useful and had a tendency to materialise at our back  (kitchen) door with an overlarge panful of peeled potatoes mid-morning (‘He will dig the eyes out – they’re full of craters!’). According to Mum if he caught her sitting down with a cup of tea he would ask her if she hadn’t anything better she could be getting on with.

As a know-it-all teenager I once pointed out to her that Grandad was merely an excuse to rationalise her naturally jumpy, hyperactive nature but she wasn’t into self-analysis. I on the other hand was gradually analysing myself away to some sort of vanishing point at which the real, spontaneous, basic me could no longer be accessed. The ‘real’ me seemed to have retreated to some kind of fantasy garden to which I had mislaid the key. And perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to fantasy and sci-fi. Roaming these fantastical other worlds I am hoping against hope one day to meet up with me.

everywhere 3

 

Is there a very thin man inside my TV set?

I still don’t know how my TV works. Do you? Basically, I don’t know how most household items work unless they happen to be held together with nuts, bolts, screws or elastic bands and don’t require electricity to function. And basically I’m not interested enough to find out. I prefer things that I can take apart and put together – things where you can see what’s what.

I gather from WikiLeaks that the FBI may now be able to spy on me from my TV. Apparently there are microphones inside Samsung television sets – and naturally I have a Samsung television set – that can be recording the most intimate details of one’s private life whilst appearing to be safely turned off. Reactions have been mixed. One man has vowed only to watch TV in the nude from now on.

The only thing is, it says smart TVs. Now, I’m not sure my Samsung TV is all that smart. The thing seems to have trouble even managing its pixels. A good strong wind or a torrential downpour outside and it takes to pixilating wildly. If the bad weather continues it become one big pixel and no picture. Then I have to try all the usual recipes for getting electronic devices to work – first I talk to it, gently but reprovingly; then I screw all its little pointy plugs back in at the back, several times over; then I waggle its wires and inspect the bits stuffed into the waste paper basket (yes, my wires are in a waste paper basket) that one of the cats once peed on. Have those sections dissolved any more since last time I looked at them? Finally, I do what everyone the world over does – I turn it off and turn it on again. Of course it might still be listening? The rainstorm pixel-storm might just be a ruse to make me think it was turned off or a cover for FBI agents or Russians tuning in:

Hey, Hank, it’s the dame with the knitting and the Sudoku set or

Ach, Yuri – dat babushka vid all the felines…

I was trying to think whether I had got anything at all in my house that might be classed as “smart”. There’s the fridge of course. It’s fairly new but it doesn’t seem to talk to anything, just sits there – whitely, despondently – gurgling to itself at intervals. It certainly doesn’t hold conversations with the oven, which just sits there – rustily, sulkily – refusing to communicate with anybody.

I tried to clean the interior of the oven a while back, with a substance recommended on the internet – probably bicarbonate of soda, that’s what the internet usually recommends. It foamed up, dribbled out and, eventually, rusted. Not that I cook much anyway. I did manage one of my signature vegetable hotpots in it yesterday, and that tasted OK. There’s the toaster, of course, but most of the time it lurks inside one of my kitchen cupboards. I do place my ear to the door at intervals but so far haven’t heard it tapping, or a muffled toaster-y voice demanding to be let out.

As for tech, I have a mobile phone but it’s not the smart kind – devious perhaps – forever hiding the address book and relocating the place where you can update the clock. It and I do not get on.

I have a desktop computer – indeed, and here I am sitting in front of it – but somehow I doubt that it is looking back at me. It’s been rebuilt so many times by despairing Mr Computer Fixits that any eavesdropping device the FBI may have put in is likely to have been destroyed several times over.

There is the tablet, of course, the Kindle Fire. Now that may indeed be smart. Certainly it’s got apps on it: does merely having apps make something smart? I wonder if they will ever get round to installing apps into children – bypass all that schoolwork, just download Pythagoras’ Theorem, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Shakespeare’s Sonnets….?

In any case I can’t see why anybody would be in the least interested in listening in to me and my twelve moggies. I mean, they’d surely die of boredom since most of the time it would be silence; maybe the odd shuffling of paper, a cough, the slurping of tea, a chorus of plaintive meows around feeding time. Reluctantly, I had to rule myself out as a potential candidate for Gogglebox on that very basis.

I do enjoy Gogglebox, though like everything else it becomes almighty tedious after the first few series. Gogglebox consists entirely of couples and families slumped around on sofas throughout the realm, being filmed as they are watching TV whilst eating sandwiches and salted peanuts, attempting to remove large dogs from their line of vision, screaming, gasping, chortling, arguing and exchanging barbed marital witticisms.

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Giles and Mary, Gogglebox

I did think I would like to be on it, but it’s difficult to be entertaining, even unintentionally, when you live on your own. Whether it’s a baby bird teetering on the edge of its nest high up in some mountain eyrie, a turtle being chased by hundreds of snakes and just about making it over the sand dunes to the water’s edge, some politician saying something mind-bogglingly stupid or someone falling over and revealing their bespangled knickers whilst meant to be ballroom dancing – what can you say, when you’re on your own in the room? It’s hardly worth an “Oh!”

I was looking at the TV just now – not the front, the back. It’s very narrow. When we got our first television set it seemed to take up most of the living room. It was the size of a sideboard. In those days it was quite possible to credit what your parents told you – that there was a little man who lived in the TV, and he was what made it work. I really believed that. I used to worry about him. Wasn’t it stuffy and dark in there? Didn’t he ever get tired of wrestling with the vertical hold? How did he eat? How did he pee? Did he have a special bottle?

Now of course I have put away such childish misconceptions: if the FBI or the Russians are indeed lurking inside my TV set with microphones or secret cameras, all I can say is they must be very thin men (or ladies) indeed.

Angel Delight

The story behind the story?

As always, miscellaneous. Late last night I thought, ‘I do believe I will try one of those six bottles of speciality, fruity-type beer I bought myself for Christmas’. I promise I only drank one bottle, in fact I drink so rarely nowadays that I’d had to buy a bottle-opener to go with it. Anyway, it was fruity, and a bit strange, and I woke at three in the morning sharing a fur-splotched pillow with Arthur (a black cat) who was snoring. No headache just a slight sense of confusion.

The Miseries arrived with a whoosh. I started thinking about Mum in that hospital bed, not ‘mobilising’ as they had so confidently predicted, not eating, not drinking, hardly responding. I was thinking how hard it was to live with the undead, the drowning, and how at some point you had to let them sink away down and out of sight, like Kate Winslet in that film ‘Titanic’. But how do you loosen your grip on the last of  your whole-life relationships? Mum has, with the best of intentions, been driving me round the bend my whole life and yet now I find I can’t imagine life without her.

And then – with that lightning switch you can only manage at three in the morning – I found myself worrying about the new broadband router instead. Would the little brown box arrive tomorrow as scheduled? Would I be able to sort out all those little plugs and wires and get it working? No doubt it would mean yet another stressful, circular call to a surly individual, barely able to speak English in a call centre half way round the globe.

At this point I gave up and got up. Stumbling downstairs I made myself a cup of builders’ tea, wrapped the spare dressing-gown round my knees to cut out the draught from the front door and turned on the TV. Mostly it was teleshopping but I managed to find something – was it Lucy Worsley wittering on about the six wives of Henry VIII? Or maybe she was the night before. Maybe last night it was endlessly-looped repeats of the unbearable carnage in Aleppo and the temporary ceasefire gone west again. The day ahead was promising to be a very, very bad one indeed, unless I could manage to write something.

And then I thought, supposing you were to get your new broadband router, plug all the bits and pieces in and get the all those little lights flashing? Something or someone materialises on your computer screen: but very much not the something or someone you had been expecting…

ANGEL DELIGHT

Two things woke Pete – bright mid-morning sun hitting his eyelids because he had forgotten to close the curtains last night, and some stupid bastard leaning on the doorbell. He squeezed his throbbing eyes tighter shut but could not shut his ears. However long he waited the ringing would not stop. He moved slightly and fell off the sofa, landing in the cold remains of a pepperoni pizza and knocking over a half-empty beer-can full of cigarette butts. Breakfast TV had already finished. They were on to the Business Program.

‘All right, all right!’ he screamed, and then wished he hadn’t. His skull hurt, and unknown creatures whistled, shrieked and reverberated inside it like bats in a cave. How much had he drunk, for God’s sake?

The cat got in his way as he staggered towards the door. He kicked out at it with his still-booted foot, not really expecting it to connect with the animal’s scrawny frame, but it did connect and the cat cried out and fell down. How long since he had fed that thing? Pete couldn’t recall. Why had it even persisted in hanging around? It wasn’t even his. Shelley had taken the kid but not the kid’s cat when she ran off to that feminist shelter place. Looked like he’d done for it this time, anyway – it wasn’t getting up.

The front door seemed unusually far from the sofa. That sun needed a dimmer switch. There wasn’t room on the carpet for him to tread without treading something underfoot: everywhere, clothes, magazines, bottles and cold, greasy take-away food. Bile rose in his throat.

‘I will never eat again,’ he told himself. Not realising it was true.

To be continued…

Angel Delight, continued

Angel Delight, concluded

Featured Image: Black Angel Cat – Green Eyes 2: Cyra R Cancel, Florida

Some fairly substantial fairies

I was once forced to go see an Alan Bennett play entitled Kafka’s Dick. It was with my writers’ group. Why on earth had this group of fusty, elderly people – most of them, I have to say, considerably older and fustier than I – chosen for their annual outing a play about a literary gentleman’s body-part? They may of course have assumed Dick was a close friend of Kafka, that strange novelist, more famous for accidentally becoming a beetle overnight.

It was just dire – and I do appreciate Alan Bennett’s gifts. I particularly enjoyed his Talking Heads sequence on TV. There was a lot of giant scenery that didn’t seem to represent anything but kept being twizzled round; I couldn’t follow at all what was going on, and to cap it all there was this tortoise – a mechanical tortoise that seemed to be under the actors’ feet all the time. I have no idea what the significance of the tortoise might have been vis-a-vis the plot, which I also had no idea about, but I spent the whole play in a fret in case one of the actors might accidentally take a step backwards and tread on it. Metal shards and clockwork everywhere. Because if that happened I might laugh; and might not be able to stop laughing.

I was sat next to Dora, who was faded gentry. In the interval I confided in her my difficulty with plays – live plays, that is. I can read a book and be totally involved. People have to wave their hands in front of my face to bring me back – from Hogwarts, or wherever. I can watch a play on television – that’s fine too. But I fail completely when it comes to either radio plays or live performances.

Radio plays – I can just always imagine the man with the cocoanuts pretending to be the horses’ hooves; the man with the tiny door that creaks, pretending to be the full-size door of some haunted castle, and the man shuffling around in a litter tray pretending to be footsteps on a gravelled drive.

Live plays – it’s the fact that the actors are real. They look as if they’re on television, way down in the distance (we always seem to get the cheap seats right up in the rafters – and that’s another thing – vertigo) but they’re alive – I know they’re alive – and I can ‘hear’ them pretending. The acting just doesn’t work, when they’re really there. And I’m terrified someone will forget their lines and there’ll be an awkward silence, and then a little voice from somewhere below their feet, stage-whispering the words. I can’t bear it.

“It’s because you didn’t grow up going to the theatre,” Dora said, kindly. She means I’m working class, I thought. She can tell.

Unfortunately, it’s not just plays: it’s anything on a stage. Ballet – I mean, it’s beautiful, magnificent and wonderful, but it’s people in tights and tutus prancing about and… And yet on telly, I can watch a ballet till the cows come home.

As for opera. Well to be honest I can’t abide opera whichever medium it happens to be infesting. It has the same effect on me as football; an instant grab at the remote control. It’s something about the voices, all that trilling and bellowing, just can’t get into it. And yet I love classical music.

kafka

However, what I do enjoy about going to plays, is the company of my friend, N. I used to work for N but now I mostly see her once a year. Since neither of us is a natural conversationalist we tend to go to a play, which gives us something to talk about over coffee afterwards. The enjoyment is not so much in the play as in the silent, shared amusement a really badly-acted play can generate.

We tend to go to the University theatre, where the plays are performed by drama students. The one before last was a Greek Comedy, the Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes. N muttered something about having received a telephone message from the theatre the previous day, warning her the performance might not be suitable for children. Obviously not everyone had thought to check their answerphones, because there were quite a few of the little dears in the audience, some as young as eight or ten. As to the play – my entire memory is of the enormous stuffed pink phalluses that popped up from under every short, frilly Ancient Greek male skirt at intervals. And the student-actors kept falling over – hay-bales, their own feet – any excuse to perpetrate even more comic stuffed-phallus-popping-outing.

We didn’t look at one another, but at coffee afterwards there was quite a bit of spluttering.

The one before that was the same student faculty attempting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Behind a wobbly cardboard tree, centre stage, we could see part of a largish, green-tighted thigh and a wisp or two of purple net. After a while we realised that other fairies were concealed behind other woodland furniture, pretending not to be there. As these large young ladies emerged from their leafy concealment and began to flutter about, N leant sideways in her seat and murmured –

“Some fairly substantial fairies.”

 

God bless us, every one!

It’s Christmas Eve and I’ve done all the meaningful, useful things I can think of to do – like packing most of my 2,000 books into cardboard boxes ready for the decorator who’s coming to paint the living room next week, and taking delivery of two more sacks of cat litter – What have you got in here, coal? asked the courier.  I’ve watched Ice Road Truckers – one of the old ones I’d missed – plus yet another Extraordinary Weather Events , 2015 programme (foam blowing in from the sea in Devon … a three-day plague of locusts in Mongolia … hailstones the size of frozen turkeys in Texas …) plus yet another montage of People You Had Already Forgotten About Or Never Heard Of In The First Place, Who Died In 2015. I’ve done a little heap of ironing, sighed a bit, moped about a bit and wished I didn’t have to go and see my mother tomorrow a bit. A lot.

I don’t want to be there with her on my own, chilly and subtly unwelcome – no teensy-tiny sherry, no sticky mince-pie, no tree, not a shred of tinsel. I don’t want to be perched on a green metal garden chair, just like on a Sunday – like every Sunday from here to – whatever the backwards of Eternity is – writing capital-letters notes for her to throw straight onto the floor without reading, or read aloud so badly all the sense has gone from the words.

I can’t be doing with yet another incomprehensible tantrum or yet another update on hauntings by gypsies, voices coming through the walls and plots to divert her drains several feet to the left. I don’t honestly feel like racking my brains for something sensible, sociable and different to say to the lunchtime carer when she arrives – when everyone else in the whole of the United Kingdom (apart from me and tomorrow’s unfortunate carer) is at home enjoying a Family Christmas with turkey, sprouts, stuffing and giant tins of lager, sniping at the cousins or the in-laws and playing Scrabble or Donkey Kong, whatever that might be. Or doing carol-karaoke with the TV set.

What an awful thing for a daughter to say. But she won’t remember it’s Christmas.  I’ll have to make us tea in those tea-stained mugs, and microwave us something if the carers haven’t beaten me to it. She’ll be miserable, and by the time I do leave I’ll be miserable too. It makes me sad to be spending Christmas morning examining dead leaves on an overgrown lawn, wondering why it always has to be wet or sunny for Christmas, never snowy. The same dead leaves, brown hydrangea flowers, black skeleton trees. Listening to the kitchen clock ticking louder, louder, louder in the uncommunicative mega-silence deafness and dementia impose.

I want to be on my own. She wants to be on her own. I’m wondering what the cats are wrecking in my absence. She’s plotting to take her shopping trolley for a long, illegal walk. She’s just waiting for me to go. My name has probably escaped her. So why am I there, then? Presumably because everybody else has got an excuse. And after all, it’s Christmas. Ho, ho, ho!

What else have I been up to today? Well, I’ve been surfing the net, as the young folks call it nowadays. I was a bit stuck for an idea for a post. I mean, I know what I planned to do: I was going to finally start work on Midwinter (see Midwinter Unwritten). I even typed up a summary last night.  but did I write it? No I did not. I got an idea for another post – anything to put off Midwinter – and surfed about looking for background information on that.

And then I fed the fourteen cats.

And then it got dark outside and still I hadn’t seen a single neighbour – though one did push a card through my door and make a run for it.

And then I ate a raspberry yoghurt and a bowl of cinnamon breakfast cereal.

And then I realised I’d run out of space yet again, chugging on about other stuff. I will be writing the substitute post. Maybe this evening after the washing up – one plate, one knife, one fork, one mug and fourteen melamine dishes, each with a different Disney character in the base. Or maybe tomorrow,  après Mama, except that going to see her seems to leach all the writing-ness out of me. And Midwinter. Probably.

Merry Christmas Everybody. Or Season’s Greetings or whatever you’re supposed to say to be politically correct nowadays. Or, as Tiny Tim said, waving his crooked little stick in the air:

God bless us, every one!

So yah-boo-sucks to you, Muriel Gray

Laid by an Archangel

I just had to get that phrase in, for Muriel.

My story, the one in which, to Muriel’s dismay, a lady gets laid by an Archangel – was written earlier this year. I happened to catch the repeat of one of the initial End of Story programmes on BBC2. Eight well-known authors, Ian Rankin, Sue Townsend, Fay Weldon, Marian Keyes, Joanna Harris, Shaun Hutson, Ed McBain and Alexei Sayle, had each contributed the first half of a short story. Amateur writers were being asked to get hold of a copy of the little orange and white EOS book – a kind of treasure hunt – or download the half-stories from the website, select one and send in an ending for it.

I must admit I didn’t read the small print, either on the website or in the orange and white book. Had I done so I might not have spent that warm Saturday afternoon out on my weedy little patio, scribbling, a mug of cooling tea beside me on the roof of the cat-kennel, my A4 paper and my pot of pencils (it’s a writer thing – buying pencils, and then more pencils, and then the pencils not being quite the right pencils because somehow they’re not new enough or sharp enough pencils – or maybe it’s just my private little fetish!) I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. I couldn’t resist. A half-finished story is an abomination, like a cut without a plaster or a half-eaten bar of chocolate.

I decided on the Sue Townsend story, The Angel, in which a rather sad shoe-shop manageress – in Sue’s story she doesn’t have a name, but I call her Dorothy – decides she’d rather not live to be sixty. It’s her fifty-ninth birthday and nobody knows or cares; she’s grey and fat, her husband has long since deserted her, her pension has been stolen by Robert Maxwell. That sort of stuff.

A man comes into her shop just before closing time and tries on a pair of shoes. He seems unwell; she only wants to get rid of him. But in the course of their conversation he mentions a contract killing he has witnessed, and how much such an execution would be likely to cost, for an unimportant person, in the provinces. Dorothy realises that she has the price of her own death. Not exactly a joyous beginning, but the only one I felt I could do something with.

There is a pub called The Angel in Sue’s part of the story but I decided that, rather than go for the obvious, the angel would in fact be the poor chap who bought the brogues from our heroine. Not a contract killer as she initially assumes, but Azrael, the Angel of Death, whom she has unwittingly summoned. After all, once an Archangel gets into the mix, the sky’s the limit!

If the above sounds ridiculous to you now, you should try explaining it to the unblinking eye of a TV camera, and then repeating it, take after take. By the seventh or eighth repetition it sounds like gibberish. Add to that the fact that the TV camera and other equipment is crammed into your tiny ‘galley-style’ kitchen, and crouched behind the camera are the lady director and a cameraman, their bottoms squashed against the gas cooker, instructing you to ‘include the question in your answer’ and ‘talk to the hand’ (yes, people really do say that). They dragged a blue potted hydrangea through the house to the front, where it was to lend a sort of country house air to my bijou mid-terrace. When they had gone I dragged it back again, hoovered up the trail of dirt and leaves and spent some time dismantling elaborate spirals of well-thumbed intellectual-looking paperbacks and returning them to the bookcase.

(I’m afraid that last bit was me – I just thought it’d look a bit more, you know, J K Rowling.)

I thought that was it, but no. Some weeks later I was whisked up to London in what seemed to me like a chauffeur-driven limousine – but then I can’t tell a Mini from a Mercedes. We, the six finalists, were about to be made up for the first time. As the afternoon progressed I became increasingly sweaty and beige as layer after layer of the stuff was trowelled on. My hair, so carefully tied up and smoothed, began to fall down. I looked like a bird’s nest – twigs all over the place.

The film crew were being mysterious about what was going to happen next. We tried nobbling a nice young research assistant. ‘Can’t say,’ she said, ‘more than my job’s worth.’ Eventually we were driven across London to a film studio. I imagined Hollywood, or at any rate Pebble Mill, but the studio turned out to be on an industrial estate. You might have mistaken it for a carpet warehouse, or something to do with plumbing. Inside it was black, all black. We marched in, single file, with numbers One to Six pinned to our chests. Of course I had to be number One, so whatever was going to happen would happen to me first.

The mystery was soon solved. We found ourselves being filmed, sitting in a semi-circle, in the dark, watching a film of the judges – a panel of celebrities. I regret to say that the only celebrity I actually recognised was Muriel Gray, who used to be a presenter on The Tube back in the eighties. They discussed our stories, one at a time. Mine first.

The camera people seemed to be doing close-ups on our faces. I was determined not to cry, whatever the judges said, and I didn’t. But they were so horrible – not just about my precious story but about everyone else’s in turn. And they laughed, they mocked, they crowed – or that’s how it seemed at the time. They were just so enjoying pulling our poor little efforts to pieces.

Of course, in the overall scheme of things it wasn’t important. ‘Only a game show.’ Constructive criticism, as they kept reminding us, is part of a professional author’s life. My reactions were strange, though. As the lights went up I seemed to have regressed. I was nine, or ten. I never asked to be a professional writer; I just finished a stupid story off one sunny afternoon. Why are they picking on me?

They seemed to keep harping on about one particular sentence. A fifty-nine year old woman, they said, would definitely not have said, as my heroine did:

‘And that’s how it happened, in a roundabout way, that I got laid by an Archangel, his new black brogues under the bed.’

This one sentence was to haunt me through the rest of the filming. It was pontificated on by the panel of experts in London (oh yes, there was even more excruciating stuff to come) and even disapproved of by Sue Townsend when we went to Leicester to meet her. Sue was nice; very funny and helpful in spite of not liking – well, you know.

I argued for ‘get laid by an Archangel’ all the way through. I became obsessed, paranoid even. I liked that phrase. Was I going to reach a point soon when I could no longer think, or write, ‘laid by’? Was I going to become all homemade-scones-and-knitting-patterns?

But I capitulated in the end. Ground down, defeated and afraid of being seen on national TV as an arrogant spoilsport, unable to accept the constructive criticism that all professional writers must expect, etc, I finally conceded to Sue that ‘laid by’ had to be wrong, if so many people thought so. As it happened, I needn’t have worn myself out in defence of middle-aged ladies, gutter slang, archangels, Alice Cooper or whatever it was that I was wittering on about, because the whole lot disappeared in the edit.

I didn’t win. Fortunately there wasn’t a second and third place. ‘You’re all winners,’ they said, ‘for having got this far out of over 17,000 entries.’ Rubbish. I can tell you that not winning still feels exactly like losing, even if you are one of 6 in 17,000.

Postscript:

A few days  BBC Scotland very kindly sent me a Writers & Artists Yearbook 2005 together with a copy of the original reader’s report by a lady called Paula Johnson – the report that got me onto the shortlist in the first place. And Paula Johnson – the lovely Paula Johnson – actually approved of ‘laid by an archangel’. She even quoted it to illustrate the fact that my heroine’s voice is ‘well established throughout’.

So yah-boo-sucks to you, Muriel Gray.

[An abridgement of an article about the writing of The Angel and what it was like to be a TV finalist, first published in the January/February 2005 issue of New Books Magazine. Competition entrants were asked to finish a story, the first half of which had been written by a famous author. I had chosen to write an ending to a first-half provided by the late Sue Townsend, of ‘Adrian Mole’ fame.

Only recently did I realise that, with a couple of minor adjustments, my half-story was in fact a short story in its own right. If you desperately want to read it, it’s called The Angel and it’s here. I might write it differently now, and it might be better. Then again, I probably wouldn’t, and it might not.]

 

 

Safe (2)

This is another one of those prompts, this time a non-fiction one. The actual prompt is:

The place where you felt happiest or safest…so I’ll go for safest.

Which only leads me to wonder whether I have ever felt safe anywhere, which sounds rather dramatic. Which in turn reminds me of something novelist Pamela Frankau once wrote about writing:

The number of people who have said to me since I was nineteen, ‘I imagine one can only write when one feels like it’ merely sets me wondering whether I have ever felt like it. Discipline alone makes the hand with the pen move; keeps it moving; sees to it that the snail-pace of the morning accelerates by afternoon.

 You can tell it was the 1960s. One doesn’t tend to say ‘one’ anymore, does one? And who writes with a pen? But she was right, whatever she wrote with, and even with ‘ones’ sprinkled around like fairy-dust.

I’m avoiding the subject. Safest.

I suppose I must have felt safe with Mum and Dad at times. I just wonder why I can’t remember any of those times. I mostly felt nail-bitingly anxious, particularly around my father whose moods were erratic. I was afraid of my father: of his coming home from work; of his strong-jawed face and blue-grey eyes; of his towering height; of his booming, sarcastic voice; of the things he said or was capable of saying; of the things he did or was capable of doing; of his casting his eye upon me and finding me – aggravating.

He was good with words, my Dad. He would wind me up and then verbally demolish me. And I knew I had the ability to do that too, to someone else, if I lost control. I had all his words at the tip of my tongue, that same streak of cruelty. As soon as I heard his footsteps coming round the side of house, although I plodded on methodically at whatever I had been doing, I would be cataloguing the minor and major crimes I had committed in his absence, and of which he would at any moment be informed. I schooled myself to say as little as possible when he was at home, not letting him catch my eye, but the more distant I became the more he baited me. Then one day when I was fourteen and he was trying to drag me away from the sink where I was washing my hair, I turned round and hit him back. It was a clumsy, soggy, ineffectual kind of hitting back but it shocked us both.

But years later, finding myself in a hospital A&E Department after a car accident, nauseated, confused, semi-conscious – after what felt like hours of being left bleeding on a trolley waiting for some nurse or doctor or someone to get round to doing something about me – I caught sight of Dad’s face, floating like a balloon between me and the ceiling. The hospital had telephoned my parents and they had jumped in the car and driven down to find me. And everything was all right then. I was five years old; my Daddy was here for me now, and he would look after me. Until that day I had not known how much it meant just having a father, in spite of everything, and how much I loved him. I suppose that moment was safety.

So I always felt safest when invisible, but it was difficult to be invisible because I was not that  small. Having a 6 foot 4 inch father, you’re never going to be easily stowed away. I towered over the children in my infant’s school class. At eleven, mercifully, I stopped getting any taller giving my classmates a chance to catch up. But still, I would try to hide. In hockey, for example, I would shrink into the back of the goal (where they always put me) and, staring poetically into the middle distance, jump lightly over the ball if and when it came my way, closely followed by a horde of sweaty, screeching, stick-wielding amazons. The two team captains used to argue over me in loud whispers:

It’s your turn to have her this time.

I had her last time and I’m not having her again.

But as you get older disappearing gets easier. It gets so that you can put it on like a cloak, something J K Rowling also knew. Supermarkets are good – everybody’s looking at the shelves, wondering where the baked beans have got to, trying to work out whether this packet cereal is 5p cheaper than that one, or only seems to be. And I like railway stations, particularly the out-of-the-way rural kind where there’s one train an hour and you could sit all day if you wanted to, pretending to read, listening to the crickets in the hedgerows, the birds in the trees and the faint ringing in the rails when a train is on its way. And I like motorway service stations. But that’s the thing with any kind of travelling: in between places you are in between identities – not so much no one as anyone – anyone you want to be. I believe such in-between zones are known to anthropologists as liminal spaces. And when you write – fiction, at any rate – the place you write from is another liminal space. I feel it as a kind of forest, separating this land and that land.

And then there were Nan and Grandad, balancing the scales. I spent most of every Sunday with them, and they were the best refuge any child might hope for. There I got my Sunday Dinner – an excellent feast – and my Sunday Tea, which involved a whole head of celery in a jug, thin buttered bread, shrimps from the shrimp man and toasting crumpets in front of the fire with Grandad.

There I got my hair washed, and dried it in front of the same fire.

There a fat old Labrador snored and Grandad’s pipe filled the room with choking, scented smoke.

There I read Woman’s Weekly, The Carpenter and Joiner and whatever I could dig out of the bookcase – dictionaries, Pilgrim’s Progress, outmoded novels, anthologies of children’s verse, encyclopaedias. Nan and Grandad’s was where I was whisked away to in the middle of the night while my mother was giving birth to my sister, and where I sat upright under the slippery counterpane in their spare bedroom, my feet resting on one of their stone hot water bottles (wrapped in a jumper to save is burning my feet) singing Once in Royal David’s City over and over and over. It felt Christmassy, somehow, rather than my sister’s zero birthday.

There I watched Pinky & Perky on a tiny TV with a dodgy vertical hold, and Sooty and Sweep, and the divers Armand and Michaela Denis conducting bubbly undersea investigations in black and white.

There I watched Grandad planting potatoes in the garden, pulling up carrots by their green topknots, or out in his Lodge making tables and sideboards.

There in the kitchen I was in charge of stirring the gravy for Nan while Grandad stropped his razor on the leather strap hanging from the cupboard and covered his face with foam from an enamel cup, ready for shaving. I marvelled at the complicated loops and buttons that held his trousers up and his braces down.

There I asked for, and was told, the facts of life.

There I learned to darn a sock, sew on a button, polish brass and mix mint sauce.

There I helped to make jam and bottle fruit.

There I watched the washing being boiled in the copper, hauled steaming into a tin bath on a bleached white stick, rinsed, starched and “blued” in the sink and pushed through a wrought-iron mangle.

There I examined Nan’s wide pink corsets hanging on the line, and wondered how hard it was to get the whalebones in.

There I did forward-rolls in the grass and made buttercup chains, and swung from the apple-tree swing that Grandad had made.

There I was told about foxgloves, known to some as dead man’s bells or witch’s gloves, that a poison called digitalis could be made from them, and that an Ancient Greek had once been forced to poison himself with it.

There I saw a bisque doll’s head stuck on the branch of a tree.

There I heard about the War, and how we had to eat horsemeat and paint lines up the backs of our legs to look like stocking seams, and about how a baby slept in its crib unharmed while a bomb reduced the house to rubble all round him; and about how the lady next door  collected aprons and wore them one on top of another; and about how the woman down the road lost her drawers in the High Street but kept her composure – ‘I just picked them up and put them in my bag’ – and about how that bleached blonde floosy from over the road was No Better Than She Ought To Be, went about Done Up Like a Dog’s Dinner, and all sorts of other stuff.

That, once a week, was my childhood, and once a week I was safe. It was as if I had been given more than other children, all crammed into Sunday, to make up for the rest.