Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.

Like a bird on a wire

When the song first came out I wept, picturing the bird (aka Leonard Cohen) trapped in a snare, a loop of wire pulled tight around its leg. In those days we didn’t know so much American. I learned later that what we would call a telegraph line Americans would call a wire, and so the bird was probably just perched on it, ready to fly away.

The lineman in Wichita Lineman, then, should have been obvious to a Brit but he wasn’t. He was something ultra-romantic, science fictional almost, a wandering, lonely creature performing some unimaginable task for The County (what was The County?) – not one of those blokes that climbs up poles to fix the electrics.

Of course, I wept at the bird in its imaginary snare, flapping and flapping its tiny wings in a desperate, futile to escape because the bird, aka Leonard Cohen, was also aka me.

I was always two people. One of me was lonely, wild and free. One of me had known even as a child making messy daisy-and-buttercup chains on her grandmother’s lawn, that one day she would take off. As time went on I read the colour supplements my father discarded from the weekend papers. I pored over the photos of remote temples and marketplaces and traveller accounts of exotic destinations.  I was that traveller. One day very, very soon that would be me on the road to Marrakech in my long hippie skirt and my cheesecloth blouse, a fraying backpack containing all that I had in the world; feet blistered, sandals dusty and worn.

The other me knew it couldn’t go, knew even as a child that it was tethered to a family in which it had no place, engaged in a lifelong struggle of trying but failing to earn that place. The other me knew it needed the mirror they formed, because without that mirror it would vanish. I was only what they showed me; away from them I had no substance: I was a ghost.

And so I enrolled in a teacher training college only a short ride away from home. I took my Mum to a film show there once; she wasn’t impressed. I plodded away at that course for three years, trying to be interested in tessellations, Cuisenaire rods and lesson-planning whilst my friend Anji – she of the wispy, piled up hairdo and the Indian father; she of the many-page letters in green ink and that great circular artistic script; she of the long white raincoat and cool sunglasses; she of the unmistakeably gay boyfriend she was always hoping wasn’t entirely absolutely gay and one day might be startled into kissing her  – Anji went to France with a girlfriend. They worked as waitresses for a while until her friend stole a tablecloth and they were dismissed. She slept under lorries with lorry drivers. It was all in the letters, until they stopped.

But I have found that at least some of those fantasy Me’s do appear, eventually. But it’s like they get watered down and de-romanticised. So, at one point I imagined myself a mysterious Englishwoman living out her final days in a cliff-top village in Brittany or Normandy or somewhere. And here I am, not exactly in France and not exactly mysterious but certainly alone and in a village with a cliff-top.

I imagined myself a hippie traveller, someone who never put down roots, someone who passed through places and had brief conversation with exotic, world-weary strangers. And there I was yesterday, catching buses after years of car-driving, alighting from one train, searching for the next and being talked to (or mostly at) by a series of eccentrics of my own and other generations.

At a bus stop a group of us tried to understand the murder of so many children by a terrorist scarcely older than they were.

On the bus I learned about sunflower seeds.

In a train a young man with learning difficulties spent a long time explaining to me that the train I was on was indeed the right train, and how to tell, in future, if it wasn’t (‘It won’t be at this platform’).

At a station I discovered the Station Master’s name was Estelle and she was the sole member of staff so she had to sweep the platform in the intervals between trains. Also that the station had no loo and the nearest one was Burger King over the road.

In another train I watched a sober old man trying to calm and distract a very drunk young man so that he wouldn’t bellow the F-word aloud in a railway carriage.

I sipped on warm bottled water and ate granola bars in instalments.

I sat behind a boy with a brutally shaven neck and the top of his head crisply waved and dyed bright orange.

I saw many exotic tattoos exposed in hot sunlight and realised how difficult it was to get twins in a buggy off a bus (you have to climb down backwards).

I sat on what might have been an artwork or merely a dysfunctional bench to wait for my friends outside Marks and Spencer.

Hejira, finally.

Playing Elvis to the Buttercups

There’s something very sad about a rusty car; sadder than a tiny teddy bear growing soggy in the gutter; sadder even than a child’s cheap bracelet glittering in the hedge. To me, things are people and I grieve for them in their lost, forgotten and discarded endings.

I think maybe the sadness of a rusty car is that a car is made to shine and made to move. Its great purpose in life is to whizz round corners, to gleam in the sunlight. It is speed made manifest, distance, travel. A car is A to B. It is not A, year after year after forgotten year, whilst its tyres deflate and the weeds grow up around it and mice make a home in its upholstery. It is not this view, this rain, this snow, this burning sun. It was meant to be there, always there, eating up the miles, heading for the horizon. It was never meant to be here. I suppose I see me in rusting cars. I see the future vanishing, without me.

But enough of the rusty gloom. Something very strange has just happened. The rusty car in Krusher’s front garden has been taken away. A low-loader came, two days running. Its strenuous efforts to execute a three-point turn into various unsuitable driveways were worth the risk of a peer round the edges of the net curtains. The first day it got sent away: maybe Krusher couldn’t quite bring himself to let his beloved go. The second day the wreck got loaded onto the low-loader – they had to use the crane – whilst Krusher circled around, wringing his pasty hands, zipping and unzipping his windcheater. It was a torment to him, this final goodbye, the sight of those two bare forever gashes in the mud of his front lawn.

The car was there when I moved in, abandoned at an illogical angle as if someone had just screeched in home one boozy 1980s night, maybe a few pints worse for the wear, and left it where it happened to end up, not even bothering to lock it. ‘Shtraighten it up in the morning, maybe.’ And there it sat forever after, already orange going more orange, its go-faster stripes barely distinguishable from their background. There it sat, annoying all the neighbours, decade after decade.

Something had happened to Krusher. Something had gone wrong with him which meant he could no longer drive his car. He was in a lot of pain. It was his back, some said. His lungs, others said, or maybe it was his heart. On morphine for the pain, someone said. Sits up all night playing on the computer, someone else said. Can’t sleep for it. Krusher became small and bitter and wispy. He shrunk, but then don’t we all? Krusher, you might say, was krushed, but his car was not. They suffered together, he indoors in the dark illuminated only by the lonely blue flash of his computer screen, it outdoors come wind and storm.

It’s strange the things we grow to love, supposedly inanimate objects we just can’t let go of, that have become an integral part of us. Sometimes, driving along, I pat my little car’s steering wheel. “Good girl,” I whisper. “I had you from new and I’ll look after you, don’t you worry. Whatever it costs we’re going to see each other out.” Each time I renew my secret vows to her and put aside those treacherous, ever-present fantasies of a massive olive green four-by-four, a capacious white van or even a slick black Cadillac for cruising down quiet spring lanes or under the lush green canopies of summer trees, playing Elvis to the buttercups or Motown classics to the cows.

Following the White Rabbit

Apparently there are now mugs advising one to KEEP CALM AND FOLLOW THE WHITE RABBIT. I rather like all these Keep Calms though they’re a bit old hat now.

Follow the White Rabbit – I was assuming Alice in Wonderland but I gather – and this is the beauty of blogging, you find out so many totally irrelevant things – that it may also have some sort of drugs connotation, but also may refer to a scene in The Matrix (I thought I’d seen all the Matrix’s but I can’t remember this scene) where Neo is advised to follow said Rabbit and shortly thereafter is visited by a lady with a rabbit tattoo on her right shoulder. I must watch those films again… but since I can’t afford to go to the cinema, or indeed anywhere I don’t have to in my little motor car, I will have to wait until they appear on one or other of the Freeview channels. Which they will. They’re almost as regular as The Sound of Music. That was on again this Christmas and for once I actually watched it – again. And I hate it. I loathe those goody-goody children in their matching frocks and silly dungarees. I loathe Julie Andrews and I loathe Christopher Plummer… who, I have just discovered, is exactly the same age as my mother. Assuming still alive. Christopher Plummer, I mean, not my mother. I know she’s still alive.

I must have been really bored.

This prompt, Keeping up with the Joneses (or Jones’ as they insist on putting it – no one ever kept up with a Jones’) is asking me to tell you about one luxury item I wish I could afford, in as much detail as I can. I am meant to paint a picture for you.

I’m never going to manage that. I’ve never been any good at selecting one just item out of many. That would involve a decision. I’ve never been any good at decisions. The best I can do is a list.

This is the first time in a long time I have allowed myself to think about what I might want. That’s the worst of poverty – not the lack of stuff but the gradual loss of motive for daydreaming. You get to the point where you cannot want. It’s a bit like sex. I can admire Daniel Craig – his chiselled good looks, his splendid physique, those icy blue eyes – but is there even the remotest chance that he would admire me in return? No. Therefore I cannot fantasise about him.

(Every time Daniel Craig’s name is mentioned I think of Kate Bottley, a vicar who watches TV with her husband and a dog on Gogglebox, wearing enormous fluffy slippers. Kate Bottley, not the dog. She once remarked that she knew there was a Benevolent God since He had created Daniel Craig).

It’s the same with money. After a while you ditch the desire for it. It’s a way to survive. But, for the purposes of this post, I will consider – what would I really, really want, if I suddenly got my hands on some money? Well, here’s my list:

I’d like a driveway. A long, gravel driveway with a house so far down that driveway as to be invisible from the road. I would like it to crunch as I drove down. I would like the house to be large enough for lots of cats to roam about in and wreck, but discouraging to callers. Preferably surrounded by tall, glossy-leaved laurel bushes. Nothing interesting.

I’d like a beach hut. Rented would do. I love the sea. I’d love to go down to the choppy English Channel with my flask of lukewarm tea, some cheese–and-pickle sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil and a thick blanket to wrap round my shoulders (I’m guessing it gets cold in beach houses) and I’d sit there and drink it all in. View, not the sea.

I’d like a camper van. Is that a universal name, or just British? Maybe they’re called something different in America, like caravans being trailers. I’d like a van I could stuff full of tea, cheese-and-pickle sandwiches, blankets – whatever else might be needed for a week away – and I’d like to just go, pootling around the countryside like Toad in his motor-car and parking in lay-bys. I never got to travel – well, a weekend in Paris, a week in Ontario and a few assorted works outings and day-trips to forgettable destinations such as Calais, Bruges and Le Touquet. Oh, and Scotland where like most people I didn’t get to see the Loch Ness Monster. But travel. I would like to just drift… from lay-by to lay-by… stopping to look at the view, keeping some kind of journal… And it would be sunny. Sunny, for once.

On a more practical note, I’d like a white transit van capacious enough to transit a large number of cats in a large number of large pet-carriers, should I ever decide to move. Better still, one of those vans specially adapted for transporting animals, with built-in accommodation, like the RSPCA have. Although I suppose if I already had the camper van it could double up as a transit van. No room to park two large vans and my little car. Although of course if I already had the laurel-shrouded house at the end of the crunchy driveway, that would be no problem. I could day-dream a triple garage somewhere round the back. Or just park them all on the drive.

And lastly I would like approx £500 a month from some sort of Trust Fund, which will be discovered to have been set up for me by an Uncle in Tasmania I didn’t know I had. £500 a month would mean I didn’t have to think about money, ever again. I could manage on that. We could – the multi-cat-and-person-commune. Felix for all and the occasional tub of Raspberry Ripple ice-cream for me.

So what do all my ‘wants’ have in common? F.I.P. No, not Fell In Pond – as Rudyard Kipling recorded of unlucky visitors to Batemans, his beautiful house in East Sussex, but

Freedom

Independence

Privacy

 

THE BIRD OF LIGHT (Angels & Other Occurrences 1)

At the midway point in the ancient spiral staircase, looking down into the little courtyard with the fountain, Martina paused. She liked to keep an eye on her staff, but discreetly. What was he up to now? Zak appeared to be enraptured – staring into space. For goodness sake, she thought, how difficult can it be to go in with a plastic bucket and a little shovel and remove a year’s worth of coins from a fountain, skim off a few floating leaves? Not exactly rocket science, even at his age. At once she felt guilty. Fifty-eight wasn’t that old, and what she had just thought was ageist. Fierce, when necessary, Martina did at least try to be fair to her staff, and honest with herself.

The main gates should have opened five minutes ago. Gatehouse had radioed up – punters queueing nine deep outside. Pushchairs, kiddies and cameras all over the place. It was the end of September and the start of the castle’s Autumn Flower Festival. Sunny it might be, with that low, intense sun of autumn, but it was none too warm to be standing about outside. The castle looked fantastic at this time of year – red, orange and gold leaves carpeting the lawns and lakes outside; and in every room that was open to the public, one and sometimes several huge, dramatic displays of autumn flowers and foliage supplied by all the top groups in the county. People looked forward all year to this Festival; they wanted in – and in was where she needed them to be. The castle had lost money last season – combination of a dismal British summer and the failure of the static balloon as an attraction. Unfortunately, that had been her idea. Balloons went down a storm back home in the States but for some reason people here didn’t seem to want to pay £25 for a ticket, to be tethered at treetop height, not flying anywhere. It had been a blunder, and she was desperate to make up for it. No one, as the Foundation had obliquely pointed out, was indispensable.

They were waiting for Zak, just Zak. What on earth was he staring at, sat on the edge of the fountain, bucket and shovel in hand? Oh come on Zak, she thought, don’t make me come down there and tell you off. I don’t have time.

Zak was looking at the Bird of Light. There was always light in the central courtyard. It was a strange place for that. When the sun was shining it reflected randomly off the leaded glass panes of the surrounding windows. Sometimes the light dazzled him (his eyes were not too good, nowadays). Sometimes the windows looked blind, like they’d grown cataracts. Cataracts of light. It had been, for him, a place of worship, yet what he was worshipping he could not have said. But suddenly, today, there was the Bird.

He had turned his back, to begin on the coins and leaves, but somehow he knew it was there. He knew something was there. Just afraid to turn round. Terribly afraid. It was watching him. Even with his back turned he could see… unusual light. Light cascading off the walls, bouncing off the cobbles. Light shining on the fountain, light crashing into other light. He couldn’t explain it. It wasn’t natural.

Turn, Zak.

It was a soft voice, but he hadn’t turned.

I am here, Zak. I have something to say to you.

He kept trying to shovel up the coins. Delusions? After all these years? How long have I been sober? Will it never let me go?

It’s good news, Zak. Please turn.

It was the ‘please’ that did it. He turned. And saw the Bird. At least that’s what it looked like. What it might have been. Except it was so tall. Could birds be tall. White wings, but they gave off light. It must be…

It’s about Beth.

And now it was replaying in his mind, the night he met Beth. It was if the Bird itself was controlling his memories.

They had met in the Station Hotel. He’d been drunk, as usual. He was rehearsing his last order. Time for another one, Joe? He was rehearsing his walk across the room to the bar which, by this time of night, felt like being on a fairground ride. So many chairs. And the chairs seemed to tilt and move. So easy to trip and then… there wouldn’t be another one. Joe would tell him he’d had enough. Joe would call him a taxi and pay for it himself. Joe was a good bloke.

But this night, there was this girl. He didn’t remember her coming in but there she was, perched on a bar stool, chatting to Joe as if they were old friends. Yet she’d never been here before, he was sure of it. She had long hair. Fair. Real fair, not dyed, that almost-mouse colour. She had dropped her carpet-bag at her feet. It was battered, that bag. She had been places.

And there was that picture again, the one he had seen before. He had seen her in some African market, or somewhere like Zanzibar. She was ahead, then she turned and smiled. Such a beautiful smile, and for him. And at her wrist there were bangles of all colours. They glittered in the sun, and the sky behind her head was so very blue, like no sky he had ever seen before. The Bird brought this back to him.

And then something strange had happened. Her train pulled in and he watched her get up to leave and he was thinking, that’s it then, she’s going, but she didn’t go, or least not at once, no, she stopped and came over to him, and she stood in front of him, looking into his eyes, and she said, My name is Beth. Come with me.

And then she was gone, and he couldn’t believe it had happened. He must be imagining. And then… Zak was up and staggering full pelt towards the door, chairs scattering in all directions as the room rocked and swerved around him. He was running across the gravel, he was heading for the platform. The whistle blew, train doors were slamming. He had to make it to that train; he had to catch her…

He had something to say to her. Good news. Such wonderful news.

She was fifteen years younger than him, but after that she never left his side. They had travelled the world for a while, then did what others do. They found a house and married, and tried for children. But the children hadn’t come.

They’d had all the tests. He’d assumed it was him, being so much older, but it wasn’t. There was something wrong with her. She’d had operations, and tablets, and tests. Nothing worked. Beth hardly ever mentioned it nowadays, but he knew it still hurt. Yes, he had wanted children by her, but she… It was something different for women, a greater grief.

It’s about Beth. Good news.

When he emerged from the courtyard he was dumb. The Bird had punished him for his disbelief. How am I to know? Zak had asked. What proof can you give me? I am getting old and Beth – she’s getting on. Forty-one next birthday. How can this happen?

His name will be John, said the bird. His name will be John. He will touch no drink. He will give you both great joy. He will be filled with light – this light. He has come to prepare the way.

The way for what? Zak was trying to say. Only no sound come out.

*

Today of all days, thought Martina, as she followed Zak in the ambulance. She guessed it must have been a stroke – something in the brain department – yet he was walking OK – in fact there was a  spring in his step. But, she thought, people don’t just suddenly forget how to speak if they’ve got nothing wrong. Maybe something less scary, like laryngitis. But it wasn’t as if he’d had a sore throat, even – not that he’d mentioned. And the man seems so ridiculously, insanely happy. Positively joyous. What sort of lunatic would be happy on their way to hospital? Poor Zak, she thought, he’s got a wife and… now she thought about it she wasn’t sure. He had never mentioned a family. But definitely a wife.

Martina reached across and laid a hand on his arm, hoping to reassure. For all his faults, she had a soft spot for Zak. He was a sweet old guy. He smiled at her – the biggest and broadest of smiles. And there was this weird kind of shining-ness about him.