Twelfth Night

Soon after she left us, it began to snow. From now on my life would be all snow, and all falling. My husband cleared our driveway then dug a diagonal path across the lawn, starting at the back door and ending at his shed. The snow didn’t ease or stop as it normally would have; it crept up the glass in our patio doors; it piled up on our windowsills; icicles oozed down from the guttering.

It had been so very dark inside our house, and for so long. Twelfth night: the sixth of January, the day people in other houses would be taking down their decorations.

I had not crossed the threshold since it happened. I was frozen already: why would I want to be colder? But Twelfth Night made me realise I must. I couldn’t spend the rest of my days indoors. My maiden voyage would be this: I would exit by the back door, navigate the icy patio, cross the lawn diagonally via my husband’s snow-path, stand outside his shed for a minute then come back.

I wrapped my scarf around my face, covering my nose. Birds’ feet patterned the snow. What does it feel like to weigh so little? When – or if – Jesus walked on water, did he feel like one of God’s beloved sparrows, hopping about on snow?

The snow my husband shovelled aside this morning was already in the process freezing, forming a rough wall at the level of my elbows. Fresh snow was already settling on the cleared path between the walls, so I made footsteps.

Then I saw it – a small, honey-coloured arm poking out of the broken snow. In his narrow focus on the task in hand my husband must have overlooked it. He is a different man nowadays: something has been subtracted from us both.

There was no hand to grasp, only a familiar, frayed, mended, frayed-again paw. I eased the body out of the snow with care, afraid that the arm would sever itself in my hands. Touching it took me back. I was sitting by a lilac bush in my mother-in-law’s garden, with a needle and strong thread, an off-cut of yellow felt pinned to the thinning fur fabric. How warm it had been that day and how rich the scent of the lilac. Jessica must have been there that day, but somehow I couldn’t see her.

The bear had never had a name. He was just Bear. Did he know his owner had gone away? Could a stuffed bear sense that sort of thing? I stowed him inside my coat while I completed my journey to the shed. I held him close to my breast as I waited the minute or two I had promised myself to wait. We took a few quiet breaths together before setting off back to the kitchen. When I took off my coat, the jumper I wore beneath it was soaked and icy.

I washed him in soapy water, rinsed him in plain but warm. I wrapped him in a towel as if he were a child, folding the cloth carefully around his threadbare neck to keep out the draught.

I sat him in her little chair by the kitchen range.

I gave the chair a bit of a push, and it rocked as it used to do.

I sat down and cried and cried.

When he dried out, I wrapped him in a patchwork shawl and hid him in her room. I sat him on the bed with her favourite picture book. Sometimes, for variety, I propped him up in the window seat so that he could look out at the garden. Every now and then I would sit beside him, and together we watched the patterns black branches made against a grey sky. Sometimes he sat on my lap, while I knitted him a scarf. Jessica had liked pink, so I knitted her bear’s new scarf in many shades of pink.

Together we sat and waited for the spring.

(flash fiction: 671 words)

In the Belly of the Beast

Suddenly a dramatic-sounding title for a post pops into your head but you have no idea where it popped from.

Apparently it was a book written by American prisoner John Henry Abbot about the awfulness of the prison system. Published in 1981 it was a great success and he got parole. But almost immediately he killed a waiter in a restaurant row and was re-arrested. Committed suicide in 2002. Why are we all so bent on destroying ourselves and everything around us, I wonder?

Well the Beast in this context is a Siberian storm dubbed by weathermen (and ladies) The Beast From The East. Normally our UK weather comes from the west and is wet. We get all America’s half-spent hurricanes but, despite our romantic belief in the many White Christmases of yore, being able to skate on the frozen River Thames etc., rarely snow. And it’s March, the first day of meteorological spring!

So I am stuck at home with a bad back and nineteen cats as the snow whirls and swirls around. The back step is thick with ice but I can’t get to the garage to get the shovel to clear it because the back step is thick with ice…

Cat food tins are stacked against the living room wall. I ordered extra for them but forgot about me so am snacking on weird combinations of salted peanuts and porridge, and toasting that stale bread. There is that tin of Complan…

I have given up putting food out for Mystery Dog and the assorted stray cats, since three mornings running it’s been untouched, frozen solid in the bowls. No sign of furry footprints. I wonder where, and how, they all are and how many will come back to me after the snow melts.

Luckily still have electricity. Unluckily that leprechaun in the form of a massive, undeliverable Windows update has finally succeeded in killing my desktop computer. Had been fending it off for a year but it snuck itself in in the background regardless and is now cycling endlessly: restoring your old version of Windows SQEAK oops not restoring SQEAK oops…

The ruinously expensive computer chap has had to be rescheduled for Monday, fingers crossed. He can’t get here. No buses. Our railway station was of course one of the unimportant few selected for closure. Our roads are thick with rutted snow. Dustmen didn’t arrive yesterday so the snow is littered with overflowing green bins. No sign of the postlady for days. Valiant Amazon driver did get through on Monday night (poss he would have been court martialled or something if he hadn’t) but now I noticed they are scheduling even Prime deliveries for next week sometime. Will have to ration the cat biscuits.

So, at the moment I am/we are An Island Intire Of Ourselves, and I am typing this with one fat finger on a mobile phone.

Altogether Beastly, but no doubt we will survive!

Photo: Three-Legged Cat (aka Nicholas aka Hoppity) plus unidentifiable sleeping black cat.

And Matilda Went Waltzing Away

I was shuffling about the kitchen in my ancient man’s dressing gown. (Ancient dressing gown meant for a man, that is, not a dressing gown stolen from or donated by an ancient man.) The sleeves are so long I have to turn them up several times so they don’t dangle in the washing-up water, but I don’t suppose you wanted to know that.

Outside it is pitch black. It’s what I hate the worst about winter: being in that kitchen with the big windows and the big french doors and outside it’s like… Space, The Final Frontier…

But the cats need to be fed, which includes not only all of mine but also the various black-and-white and ginger huge toms that materialise out of the darkness. Sometimes, even at 4 in the morning – yes, sometimes I can’t sleep and am up at 4 in the morning when it is just as dark as at 6 – you can see one or other of their little furry faces pressed up against the glass. Where exactly are my three personal bowls of Felix, missuss?

Of course, this requires opening and closing the kitchen doors, collecting old bowls, taking out new ones, and this gives Matilda her daily chance to do a runner, which she does today.

I called her Matilda because every evening at dusk when she was a stray she would come waltzing up the garden, a veritable painted lady, a tortoiseshell of the most lurid black, white and orange design, full of confidence, and ravenous.

Pitch black outside. Unable just to close the door on her and wait, or at least hope that she comes back I make trip after trip out into the damp, dark garden, wambling around in my carpet slippers and dangle-sleeved dressing gown whispering Pusscat? Puss Puss Puss? I am aware that the neighbours may be watching and listening, but the need to recapture Matilda trumps self-respect.

Matilda? I call, setting down a bowl of her favourite Gourmet. I spot her, at intervals – a grey shape circling round me. I make several efforts to grab her but she’s young, and fast.

Matilda? I cry, returning with my second to last mini-tin of tuna? I sit on the (rain-soaked) plastic garden seat and wait. The grey shape materialises and gets near the tuna, but not near enough. Matilda has been caught like this before.

And so it goes on. And on. Daylight dawns and I catch sight of her coming over the wall from the neighbours then sashaying off up the hill, in the opposite direction to the one she always used to arrive from. More distant, my Matilda, every time I catch sight her.

Really I am inundated, drowning in stray cats – and you’d think that I might even be quite relieved to mislay one every now and again. You’d think I could say, Well suit yourself, Matilda. That’s the way you want it, moggie, that’s the way you got it. But it doesn’t seem to work that way.

I return to the washing up, plunging my arms into the tepid water, not even bothering to roll up the dangling sleeves this time, and as I wipe away tears on damp dressing-gown I suddenly understand the story of the Prodigal Son as I never did at Sunday School and, being childless, had never really thought about since. How joyfully his father celebrated that selfish boy’s return, and he wasn’t even a tortoiseshell cat.

prodigal2

I was going to go on about the rest of my doleful Matilda-less morning, about the bit on the news about talking to potential ‘jumpers’ on railway platforms. Say anything at all, talk about the weather, anything that disrupts that train of suicidal thoughts… And my darkly sardonic thought that I would be less likely to spot a potential suicide than for a potential suicide to spot me and come running up, wanting to tell me their whole dreadful life story and, clinging to me for dear life, refuse to be rescued by anyone else

And I had planned to tell you how I was obliged to set off on the bus to pay the weekly visit to my ‘befriendee’ lady, whilst all the time that bumptious, overconfident Matilda was waltzing around in the wild, up hill and down dale, almost certainly being eaten by foxes or raped by one or other of the great lascivious toms I myself had been feeding.

I was going to convey to you how nobly and kindly I smiled as I did my befriending, maintaining eye-contact whilst eating two chocolate biscuits (it was definitely a two-chocolate-biscuit day) and forcing myself to focus on the issue of whether it would be a good idea for her to purchase a replacement television in time for Christmas, whilst all the time my poor little Matilda…

But I expect all you really want to know whether Matilda ever came back. And she did, after a lengthy walkabout, lured through an open kitchen door by the last remaining tin of tuna. Even then she was half way escaped again by the time I managed to tiptoe round and shut it behind her. She almost got her paws squashed.

I don’t suppose she’s likely to fall for that one again.

For Felix – with love and squalor

So I’m not moving. Yes, it’s all fallen through again. Story of my life.

Why has it all fallen through? The nail in the coffin I suppose was the central heating system packing up. A very nice man came and basically condemned the wiring that feeds the central heating boiler (don’t ask me, I’m only an electrician’s daughter…). Then the man who was buying my house sent a boiler man to do an inspection and then he wanted a large amount of discount to cover the unexpected rewire/new boiler. Understandably, but it made it not worth my while to move.

Anyway, I’m here, and facing my first winter without central heating or hot water. I say this now. I may be a tad less sanguine about it when the Gales of November Come Early or when Snowflakes Keep Falling On My Head (Oh no, that was Raindrops, wasn’t it? He was going round in circles on a bicycle and then he got shot.) At the moment, however, it’s fine. Hot outside. Quite a few kettles inside. Shower and washing machine still work. How are they still working? No idea. Expect they’re on a separate… whatsit.

For the winter I’ve got several of those big plug-in radiators. Luckily I moved them with me from house to house to house, storing them in sheds, garages and whatnot. Wipe away the cobwebs – good as new.

It means getting used to Being Here again, rather than Being There. It means appreciating what you’ve got instead of yearning for something else.

I was looking out at my garden yesterday evening – at the overgrown grass, the twisty path I foolishly thought it would be a good idea to rip up and grass over; roses, passionflower, honeysuckle and giant, vicious brambles running riot up the side of the garage, attached to a rusting bedframe. It’s way over my head now. Even at my height and standing on a chair I can’t reach them with the secateurs. All I can do is keep an eye out for brambles forced down by heavy rain and rush out there and snip them before they have a chance to recover. And yet, there’s a certain pleasure in that. In the brambles. In the snipping. In the unruliness of it all.

I noticed the neighbours’ orange bush had blossomed. They spend most of their time in France now and often miss the blossoming of the bush. It’s a moving sight, somehow – a fire of petals. I feel like Moses, witnessing something profound.

I watched the sparrows feeding on chunks of bread, not knowing, as I did, that Felix was lurking in the undergrowth. I love Felix. We have a bond. He’s not my cat, I cannot possess him; there’s no way he could be mine unless his owner should die of the Plague or meet with an unfortunate accident. (I try very hard not to think about this in case wishing makes it so.) But Felix is a beauty. Black and white, long and lean, he has the look of the wizard about him. And now, since I’m not moving, I can commune with him whenever he chooses to come into my garden. Leaving Felix would have been the hardest thing.

Even in winter, muffled up in layers of charity shop jumpers, woolly hats and the fingerless mittens I’m about to start knitting; even when there’s a gale blowing and those brambles are bent almost to the ground by the force of the wind but it’s too cold to go out and cut them; even when the sky is the colour of saucepans and great clouds race across it; even then I will know there are sparrows about, and Felix; even then I will know that the blossom is coming again.

felix

 

Midsummer Snowfall

Why did this never happen to me?

Holding thickly-mittened hands with a young (enough to be my grandson) man in perfectly edible yellow jumper, perfectly accessorised with a scarf in avocado green, only slightly made up, hair only slightly enhanced by styling products…  And they’re at a skating rink and she’s got that sweet fair-isle jumper on and that kooky hat and ah, don’t they look nice together and it’s Christmas and all…

Except it isn’t. I’ve been stuck in front of the television set in the middle of a hot, sticky afternoon watching the second half of a film of some romantic novel called Winter by Rosamunde Pilcher. Furthermore, to land on Winter, with all its Christmas frippery, I had to bypass a session on Christmas Crafts on the crafts channel. What’s going on? It’s not even July.

And why did I get stuck in front of the TV on a June afternoon? Wasn’t I half way through planning a story (sheets of green file-paper are scattered on the floor around my computer even now); the cats were due to be fed; four games of WordsWithFriends waiting for me to make my next electronic move. I had worthier things to do.

Could it have been the snow? It looked so real, so crisp, so glistening… Was it the country house with the long, gravel driveway lined with snow-loaded fir-trees and snow-capped stone statuary? Could it have been the romance? Not a lot of romance in my life – maybe I’m starting to yearn for it in my second adolescence – a kind of balancing out? Could it have been the soft-focus… everything? Could it have been the acting?

No, it definitely wasn’t the acting. Despite the fact that the film contained at least four famous actors that I recognised from other things – in which they had been able to act – in Winter they seemed to have switched off normal acting in favour of prolonged, soft-focus, emotionally-charged, silent staring at one another. The stared at one other over grand pianos; on the snow-laden steps of the that country house; over expensive pairs of white skates; reflected in huge ormolu mirrors in London flats with lilies in the foreground; in the stable over chestnut horses; in the drawing room over the half-restored paintings… You could tell they were thinking deep and moving thoughts. But about what?

There are several schools of acting – the Shakespearian kind where everything is  enunciated at you, and charged with great import – the Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellen school, as it were. There’s the Australian soaps style where everything is either gasped or screeched at you and goes way, way up at the end of every line. And then there’s the John Wayne/Hugh Grant strategy – look and sound exactly the same whether playing a cowboy, an Irish leprechaun, a deep-sea diver or a restrained but lovelorn eighteenth century gentleman. Oh, be a trifle bandier (having just got off the horse) when being a cowboy, possibly, and allow the fringe to foppishly flop a bit (having ridden post-haste from Bath) for the eighteenth century. This was the soft-focus-looking-somewhat-wistful school.

So why didn’t I just turn it off? Well, I suppose I’m having a slightly bad day. Some days you just seem to need a too-small, saggy sofa and a romantic film. You need to dine on yoghurt, hacked-off lumps of cheese and cream crackers, and drop a lot of crumbs on the carpet. You need to shed a tear when the patriarch lies prostrate at the bottom of the slippery stone steps in his wine-coloured smoking-jacket – like a rheumaticky, white-haired snow-angel. “I always did like the snow,” he remarks with a faint but rueful chuckle, before expiring.

One of the things reviewers keep pointing out about Jean Lucey Pratt, whose diaries I reviewed in a recent post, was that she “read widely, but not well”.  And it’s true – the many, many novels she mentions in her diaries are all also-runs: long-forgotten stories written by long-forgotten novelists of the forties and fifties. I think this is a bit unfair. Better to read widely than not at all. And as a writer you can learn just as much, probably more, from a bad book as from a good one. And she enjoyed what she read. What’s wrong with that? Maybe I need to defy my inner critic and read a Rosamunde Pilcher. Then I might then understand what was happening in the film.

I just checked out the works of Rosamunde Pilcher online. Apparently Winter is only one of a suite of soft-focus romances called the Four Seasons. So there is a Spring, a Summer and an Autumn featuring the same characters. Fortunately, the others have been shown already. Winter (in June) must have been the last one. Or unfortunately.

Sigh!

pilcher 2

I mean, she does this all the time – slightly pensive, slightly sideways, anticipatory, innocent and yet… wondering

Sleeping with the Gingery Gentleman

Recently, I have been sleeping with a gingery gentleman. He’s pretty old. I mean, I’ve always tended to go for the Older Man but this one’s 89 by my calculations – ancient, even by my standards.

And it’s not as if he’s rich. I mean, if you had to, it would be at least a minor consolation to think he was going to leave you the yacht in the Mediterranean and the various villas with the solid gold bath taps and a swimming-pool in every room.

Do let me in, my deario” he quavers, querelously plucking at the duvet. “The old rheumaticks is playing up and I do so need warmth! Raise just a corner of that 10-tog monstrosity, missus, so that I may creep in and make the smaller of the two spoons.”

“I’d really rather not,” I mumble, pulling the duvet tighter around my shoulders. “There’s something about red-headed men that puts me off – Damian Lewis being the exception that proves the rule. I really don’t want those tickly whiskers getting up my nostrils when I’m trying to sleep. And besides, it’s not just the… rufusity; it’s the thin-ness. You’re little more than a skeleton on legs. I’m afraid I’ll roll over and squash you.”

“That squashing thing’s a myth,” he says. “Did you skip the last chapter of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?”

“Quite possibly,” I say. “But do please go away. It’s not just the gingery hair and the tickly whiskers and the thin-ness, it’s the incurable brown-and-watery-eye.”

“Did I ask to be afflicted with an incurable brown-and-watery-eye? Besides, you won’t be able to see it in the dark. Please, lady! Take pity on a senior citizen this cold and windswept winter’s midnight. I’m a veteran of four World Wars. Ten minutes of snuggle-time is all I ask. What harm can it do, eh? A bit of a purr, a dribble or two… it’d do wonders for the rheumatism.”

“Well OK. As long as you don’t do any widdling in situ.”

Widdling? How could you be so cruel! When have I ever widdled?”

“You mean you want a list…?”

All higgledy-piggledy

If you had lived hundreds of years ago, what kind of work do you think you would have done? What job would you have wanted to do?

In case anybody wonders why I’m relying so heavily on ‘prompts’ at the moment, it’s because nothing inspiring is happening in my real life. Well, there’s the saga of Mum – but that situation is becoming so ghastly, it’s passing into the realms of the un-writable and the unreadable. It’ll pass, eventually – by its very nature it has to resolve itself within the next decade or so (decade – what am I writing? I can’t bear to think decade.) but in the meantime who wants to be depressed? Not you – and not me. No siree!

mole picnic

I suppose I might share that the postwoman turned up in a rabbit hat yesterday, with earflaps, eyes and whiskers. She must have a cupboard full of such hats which don’t, for some reason, seem to contradict her uniform. Everyone round here is a trifle strange – they do say there’s inbreeding – but not in a deliberate or amusing way. I find the hats a comfort.

I could tell you that I spotted what looks like yet another stray cat, eating the slimy remains of somebody’s takeaway from a plastic tray on the pavement. I keep putting food out in the cat-kennel (big enough, in fact, for an Alsatian, should a stray Alsatian happen along). I keep trying not to look out of the kitchen window; keep hoping not to spot another imploring furry face and mangy little body. The house is alive with cats as it is. Just getting to the kettle involves a kind of wading motion.

I could tell you that I thought of walking down to the one and only shop to get a newspaper, but it was too b***** cold. Really it’s arctic here. And yet sunny. Which somehow makes it worse. Last night the wind did its usual night-banshee thing, prowling around and tearing at the wooden fence-panels. It usually manages to demolish most of them over winter. In spring the fence-panel men come out in force, hammering and splicing; whistling gaily. Bonanza!

So, I found this prompt in a blog called The One Minute Writer, published on a rival platform which I suppose needs to be nameless – in the same way as the BBC maintains the fiction that its rival terrestrial station, ITV, is some kind of foul myth or rumour. It’s an old one – you have to trawl pretty determinedly to find an interesting one. Not like The Daily Post, where the odds of striking gold are about 50:50.

It’s vague, isn’t it? I mean, it would depend how many hundreds of years ago. Are we talking Neolithic, Medieval, Victorian? And are we talking man or woman? If we’re talking woman – well, it’s likely to be something to do with house-cleaning and child-rearing, isn’t it? Or stone-picking in some frozen field or other. Whether in a cave on a mountainside, a hovel in a cobbled street or a mansion in Berkshire. Same old, same old. Cleaning – or supervising the cleaning of others. Farm work, maybe. Babies. More babies. More still. Maybe a bit of embroidery and letter-writing. Or there’s the nunnery. So first, choose a time and a gender.

I used to think I’d like to have been a wandering minstrel, going from castle to castle and making up songs as I tramped. So, this would be Early Medieval (and male). I used to worry so about not-writing, in my teenage years, having learned that for much of time most people wouldn’t have been able to write, and that before William Caxton and the invention of the printing press, even if you had written something nobody but your close friends would have had sight of it – as a handwritten copy circulated amongst your friends. Oh no, I anguished – I could even worry hypothetically – whatever would I have done if I had been born in those days? How could I have borne to exist? But then I realised that the written word was only one form of story-telling – music and ballads and told-tales were another. I would have remembered the stories I made up as I trudged along high moorland pathways amidst gorse bushes, forded streams barefooted and slept in brambly ditches. My memory would have been sharpened and trained from infancy – everybody’s would.

And I would have liked the wandering – the open air, the lack of roots or ties. If I couldn’t be a minstrel perhaps I could be in a gypsy troupe, going from town to town to do – juggling and stuff – in the marketplace. Or, closer in time to the present day, a higgler. There is a short story by A E Coppard called The Higgler. Higgler is another version of the pedlar. It’s someone who travels around the countryside selling things door to door – household necessities, ribbons – anything he can find a market for – which he would carry in a back-pack or on a cart. In the story, a struggling higgler falls in love with Mary a girl he meets on his route. The girl’s mother offers her to him in marriage, together with a small fortune – but he wavers, becomes suspicious and loses both Mary and the money.

Now, bother all that. I’d just like the wandering around part. Seeing different places, being alone a lot of the time, living from day to day. That’s at the heart of it, maybe – not having to think beyond today – not having to plan. Having very little – no bills, no dwelling place, no ties, no responsibilities. Bit like that feeling you get in motorway service complexes – floating between lives, no history, no draggy old personality (that anyone knows about) – just existing for a while. The refuge of the roads.

Mr Toad – maybe I should have been Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows, with his motor car and his beep, beep, beep….

Mr Toad