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…

 

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The Folks That Lived On The Hill

When the light started to fade and the wind began to really howl in preparation for the night of mayhem to come the tree in the garden of Aslam House, down the hill, was perpendicular. Before daylight had properly returned next morning it was leaning to the left. So far to the left it was obvious it hadn’t just casually decided – as, who knows, trees may do during the night or when they assume nobody’s watching them – to have a bit of a lean, maybe, just rest the old roots for a moment…

No, the tree was uprooted. All that was holding it up even this much was another much smaller tree. Furthermore, it was leaning over my garden shed and, I realised – for it was a very tall tree – my garage/workshop. Ah well, there was nothing to be done. I murmured a little ‘thank you’ to Whoever for the tree actually not being in my garden and therefore not about to cost me thousands of pounds I did not possess to have it cut down. And I murmured a little ‘fingers crossed’ that the person at Aslam House would possess the pounds to get something done about it before it crushed my garden shed and garage/workshop.

I made some porridge. Outside the rain still rained and the wind still howled, but less viciously. I wasn’t expecting to hear from the mysterious owner of Aslam House at all, far less see him that same day.

I’d always liked to look down at Aslam House. Partly because of the name, which reminded me of the lion (in fact we must capitalise it – Lion – since he is at least partly a  Christ-like figure) Aslan from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It gave Aslam House a magical air. Anything might be going on in a house like that, I told myself.

Aslam House is like nothing else round here, architecturally. It’s very much older, and bigger. Its roof dips and sways in an Elizabethan fashion. It’s made of higgledy-piggledy slates rather than row after row of greyish dry-ridge tiles. It has beams – real ones not fake ones. Its windows are tiny and heavily-curtained and go right up into the attic. Sometimes, at night, I see a light in one of the upper rooms; always the same room. No blue flickering, which usually means a TV set. It has a garden, a higgledy-piggledy garden that goes all round the house. The garden has untended roses and a broken down shed without a roof. I can see that now, because now the tall tree has gone.

It has a conservatory, a fair-sized one, with a lot of furniture in it and – I can see if I screw my eyes up – some sort of coffee table, and paintings on the wall. No one is ever in there. A whole conservatory to himself but he doesn’t use it. My, how I would make use of such a conservatory, if I had one. I’d spend the whole of winter in it, warm and toasty, savouring the sight of my snow-covered roses and snow-filled, roofless shed. The birds you could watch from down there, out among the roses; the peaceful thoughts you could have surrounded by all that comfy chintzy furniture.

It occurs to me that Aslam House must have here right at the very beginning – it and the tall trees that are dotted about the hillside, interrupting people’s boundaries. How quiet it must have been back then, for The Folks That Lived on the Hill. No 1980s excrescence of a housing estate; no miles of concrete and brick, everything more or less identical to everything else; nothing much of anything between them and the sea in one direction or the great field in the other.

Turning one way they would have been able to watch the plough going up and down the great field, the men and women coming along later to harvest the wheat and stack it in  old-fashioned V-shaped stooks rather than the great net-covered bails the combine harvester will spit out nowadays.  Turning the other way they might have watched the red-sailed barges coming in, or maybe bigger ships.

I didn’t expect to see him, but later he came round. I don’t know what I had expected – pointy ears, perhaps; hairy feet or a suspicion of a mane – but he seemed an ordinary middle-aged/oldish man. He didn’t look too happy, but then who would be happy with several thousand pounds worth of tree-surgery suddenly looming?

Could you give your husband a message for me? Could you warn him not to go in his workshop or shed just yet? That tree’s about to go over and he’d best not to be in there when it does.

No husband, I replied, rather too swiftly. He looked nonplussed. It was the wrong thing to have said; I should have just gone along with it.

I suppose I was put out, though I should have been used to it by then, by that assumption every male over a certain age seems to make that there will be a husband. Women just don’t inhabit houses – or anywhere – on their own, apparently. What would a woman want with a workshop? She obviously shouldn’t have bought a house with a workshop, not being a man and having no earthly use for a workshop. What foolishness!

And to be honest I was saddened all over again by my man-less state. What was I doing on my own? What was I doing with a workshop? How did I end up sitting out winter after winter of storms, rough seas and gale-force winds alone in an ugly house in the back of beyond? How come I woke up – alone – with some great uprooted tree leaning over most of my garden? Why wasn’t there some broad-shouldered, check-shirted, corduroy-trousered somebody to go striding down the hill with a chainsaw, offering his services to his neighbour? Why wasn’t there a husband to make stuff and fix stuff out in that workshop, to store his well-used garden tools and spider-infested wellingtons in the shelf in the garden shed?

Bad luck – about your tree, I said. He shrugged: I’m beyond caring, he said. My wife died last year.

I am sorry to hear that, I said. And I was.

Now if this had been one of those Mills & Boon stories this would have been the moment for the reader to start hearing the ringing of bells, if only faintly. Ah, lonely woman, lonely man; she with an undeserved workshop and feeling a mite shaken in the aftermath of the storm; he conveniently widowed, having rose-bushes and an unused conservatory. But life is not a Mills & Boon story. I felt sorry for him, for his current hopelessness, the tree and all, but he was pretty ugly. Also, he had a large drip on the end of his nose and was either unaware of it or making no effort to wipe it away. If there’s something I find it hard to see beyond it’s a drip on an unwiped nose.

He went on his way un-romanced, did the gloomy inhabitant of Aslam House. Within a few days a bunch of local hooligans arrived to make a noisy and inexpert job of butchering the tall tree. Now all the shade has vanished from my kitchen. The sun shines in so brightly now, I can no longer see the flames on the gas cooker and have to exist on yoghurt and sandwiches until night has fallen.