Can one stockpile a carrot?

According to Sky News – yes, I do occasionally take sneaky-peek at Sky News, when the BBC won’t be looking – there is set to be a revival in Salsify. At Sky News they all professed never to have heard of Salsify, but then they’re all about fifteen and no one of about fifteen has ever heard of anything. I knew the word, and that it was a vegetable of some sort, but had never actually seen one.

On Sky News they showed a picture of Salsify, and one of the fifteen year olds pronounced that it looked like “a carrot with a nervous system”. He presumed that one would need “to shave” all those nobbles and whiskery bits off, in the process of preparation. A lady fifteen-year-old then suggested that he might mean “to peel”, whereupon he replied that he had not done domestic science at school and did not know the jargon. I love all this witty banter: an early morning distraction from cat boxes, washing up and delivery of post office parcels.

I gather Salsify is good for you. I doubt if I will try it, though, as I have a problem with fruit and vegetables that feel unpleasant. Kiwi fruit is good for you too, but I have never been tempted to handle one. Ugh, hairy!

I am becoming quite the social media person, in a second-hand sort of way. According to the BBC news app, a poor young lady (is everybody young?) by the name of Justyna Kowalczyk has been Twitter-stormed or trolled or whatever for revealing (why do people reveal things at all?) that she has started stockpiling in case of a no-deal crashing-out type Brexit in the spring. Personally, I would be only too glad if we could crash out, and only wish we had crashed out a couple of years ago and been done with the Froggie Bounders – we’d have been all sorted and back to normal by now.

The idea is that we may run short of certain things because, in particular, food imports to this country operate on a just-in-time basis. So if there are delays at the border as a result of inadequate, incompetent, incomplete or (as we are beginning to suspect) no preparations at all for the crashing-out scenario – we will find ourselves short of imported food items, and without facilities for storing them in any case.

My thought on this is that, rather than bleating and whingeing and issuing dire warnings to the Government, businesses should long since have set about returning to the sensible system we used to have, where we stored a lot of food, spare parts, medicines or whatever in warehouses, just in case. Now, it appears, there aren’t even any warehouses.

So actually I am with Justyna on stockpiling. I do wonder why, though, she has chosen to stockpile, in her plastic box under the sink – tonic water, French marmalade and extra shampoo. She is terrified that “we may not be able to shop as normal.” Welcome to the club, Justyna. She has obviously never been poor. Or maybe it’s just the airy-fairy foolishness of youth.

I mean, I am not one of these hardcore Preppers, like you have in America. I must admit, though nuclear bombs may rain down on any of us at any moment, or vile pandemics sweep the globe – I think it would be better to find a way to die quickly in those circumstances. I am not a survivor. If the atom bomb was on it’s way, I would hope to be right underneath it when it landed. If a pandemic, I would volunteer as a nurse and hope to catch it quickly.

However, I have in the past “prepped” in a small way each autumn for hard winters. And if you are on your own it makes sense to stock up, because if you were to be snowed in, or go down with the flu, or slip on the ice and break a leg, there would be no one else to go to the supermarket for you. It would be so much easier to have a few cardboard boxes full of tins.

I reviewed my “emergency” list just now, and find that I have put on it stuff like:

  • catfood
  • cat litter
  • porridge
  • tea and coffee
  • powdered milk
  • crackers
  • honey
  • tinned fruit and custard
  • tinned beans, curry, pasta and similar
  • soap
  • pasta
  • rice
  • powdered mashed potato
  • tinned vegetables

I notice some sites are suggesting stockpiling fresh carrots and eggs. How would that work? You only have to look at a carrot and it wilts. And eggs – eggs go sneakily nasty and suddenly – pouff!

The thing is, Justyna, you can live without extra shampoo. One bottle of shampoo, even if you wash your hair every day, will last for ages. Also, soap, or even plain warm water, will work as well; you can live without marmalade, French or otherwise. What might tide you over for a while are the deadly dull things, the basics.

Of course, after the apocalypse (or when spring comes, as I have found before) you are left with boxes of stuff you don’t really want to eat, but then you can be thankful that the apocalypse is over, and skip back to the supermarket to stock up on tonic water, anti-wrinkle cream, gateau and bottles of prosecco. Whatever that is.

What would you stockpile, if disaster was imminent?untitled

She…

SHE picked up a pair of sunglasses from the path. Mummy wouldn’t let go of her other hand so she had to pull them both down there. The sunglasses were red and made of plastic, reflecting the winter sun twice over. They were child’s sunglasses: just her size. She put them on. “Leave them, they’ll be filthy,” her mother said, but it was too late.

The world she walked through now was the colour of storms. The glasses were the most glamorous thing she had ever owned. Her brown coat itched and itched.

pink glasses SHE picked up the rolling milk-bottles. Her friends, or at least the group she walked in the wake of, turned and laughed at her. “Leave them!” But she couldn’t leave them. They were somebody’s milk-bottles that had been on somebody’s high doorstep, waiting for the milkman to collect. Without appearing to speed up, they left her behind. She heard their laughter in the distance. They were taking about her. The streetlight was orange, reflecting in the puddles.

SHE picked up the college prospectus, recalling that glorious smell of new ink and shiny paper. It had slid off the bed and onto the floor as her father railed at her. “I could cut the ground from underneath your feet,” he shouted. She went to college in the end, but that was immaterial. It was what he had said to her and the venom with which he had said it.

“I could cut… …the ground… from underneath… …your feet.”

SHE picked up her handbag from the consulting room floor. Why had she brought such a heavy one? How could she need all this stuff? “There’s always adoption,” the specialist said, but there wasn’t. It had already been discussed.

“I don’t want some other man’s brat,” he had said. “It might be a serial killer.”

SHE picked up her mother’s walking stick from the supermarket floor, wondering what germs might have come up with it. Her mother was jabbering, as usual, and standing right in front of the cereal display. “Sorry,” she said, to the man trying to reach round them for a packet of Weetabix, “She’s getting in your way.”

“You’re both getting in my way,” said the man.

brokenglasses

SHE felt around with her left hand for her spectacles, but met with grit and broken glass. “Oh, leave that, leave that dearie, you’ll cut yourself.” She was on a damp pavement, surrounded by very tall people. She tried to get up, but they pushed her down again. Gently, by the shoulders. “Try to keep still, dearie,” said the same woman’s voice, “Ambulance is on its way.”

How far down she was, from the voice, as if on the forest floor, and high trees, and no light getting through.

“Am I going to die?” she sobbed.

“Am I going to die?”

 

Featured Image (milk bottle Banksy)

When they get to the part where he’s breakin’ her heart…

Sorry, I’m distracted at the moment. House hunting. Practical stuff and writing don’t mix, for me.

So, tomorrow I’m going by train to a seaside town on the far side of the county, and then I’m going to walk across said seaside town to a part of it I’ve never visited before, to view a couple of houses. I am hoping against hope that one of them will turn out to be “the one” as I hate house-hunting with a passion. It is the most draining and solitary business, when all you want is to be feeding cats and writing – to be traipsing here, there and everywhere – to be trying to find places – to be waiting outside houses for estate agents – to be carted round house after house after house. Stone-cladding? Interesting… Oh, I see, quirky layout… I’ll mind the step then… ‘statement’ purple wallpaper with large red flowers? Colourful. When can I go home?

Except of course that it’s not home any more. It’s under offer and somebody – a rather nice man, actually – is keen to move in. Got to get the old skates on. No writing. No wafting about thinking beautiful thoughts. Phone calls, phone calls, phone calls. Houses, houses,  houses. More houses. All of them… nasty.

But tomorrow’s town brings back memories. It was where I lived for the first four years after I married Mr Wrong. We moved straight into a rented flat. No honeymoon. The best man gave us a lift from the church and handed us his wedding gift (two giant bath towels) as we got out of the car. He was probably embarrassed to be with us at that point, and glad to be rid. Off home to his Mum.

And that evening we went for a walk. We walked through the town and held hands – something I don’t remember us ever doing again – and we stood at some sort of wrought iron fence at the end of a cobbled street and looked down over the harbour; out over  fishing boats to the sea. And I was filled with a sense of destiny and fulfilment – sounds weird now – but I felt safe. I was married. We were married. That was my future sorted.

When I think back, that was our only happy day – the very first one. The following twenty-two years –  not so good.

However, I have always kept a fondness for the town. It suited me even if he didn’t. I liked its faded splendour, its shabby grandeur, the fairy lights looped through the trees, the lift going down to the beach from the cliff top; ranks of monstrous Victorian hotels; the art shop where he bought his supplies and the little old man in the fawn raincoat who ran it; the middle-aged shops; the pottery galleries; the library with its wide, brass-railed staircase and unread books; the drunkards after dark; the sea air; the pebbly beach; baby seagulls on the rooftops, brown-speckled and carolling; the grimness of November there; the bombed-out church; the way you could sit on a bench in the town centre and watch the world go by.

So, it will be strange going back. A journey into the past. I will walk past our old third-floor flat and look up at the balcony where I tried and failed to grow tomatoes in a pot, at the fairy lights in the trees, and I will remember the music that swirled around us; our hippie past already lost to us, though we didn’t realise it at the time. Our youth was close at our heels in that seaside town. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll catch the echo of it.

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

Take a line from a song that you love or connect with. Turn that line into the title of your post.

Now you’re going to laugh at me. But when I heard that song coming over the radio in Mum’s kitchen in 1967 – can it really have been that long ago – I was transfixed. That was what I wanted. That was what I had to have. I had to be in San Francisco. I had to be lean and flower-clad. I had to have a long skirt and dusty sandals, and beads. And bells. According to Scott McKenzie, people were in motion, all across the nation. They were on their way to San Francisco, and that became my Garden of Eden. Even now, listening to that song, I cry. Not always, mind you. Sometimes I just think – that was a bit cheesy. And now it’s so dated. Whoever talks of love-ins now? Whoever would trouble to prance around in a field waving daisies, or paint flowers on a mini?

Would I really have dropped acid, ripped off my cheesecloth shirt and swayed around to psychedelic music? No. I was never a hippie. I was schoolgirl. By the time I became a student, hippies had faded like the flowers they wore in their hair. They were a joke. And have remained one. Who wants to be called an ageing hippie?

The Beatles were the height of my musical experience. I wouldn’t have known the name of one underground group. I wore my school uniform most of the time. My hair was cut in a practical helmet shape, at my Mum’s insistence. I had spots and no social skills. I was aware that San Francisco was somewhere in America but not where in America. I had never flown in an aeroplane. I had no money for the fare. A train trip to Devon to visit my aunt and uncle was the furthest I had ever been on my own, and that totally stressed me out. I was too young. I was afraid. But yet I yearned for San Francisco, which I envisaged as 0ne big field of flowers. Maybe a tent or two. A few dusty sidewalks with tangle-bearded, blissed-out people lolloping about on them.

Prior to that I had thought London was the answer. London was where I would go, as soon as I was able. I might be a misfit in suburbia but in London I would find People Like Me. It took me many, many years to realise that People Like Me are relatively few and far between, and scattered randomly throughout the country and across the globe. There would have been no comforting concentration of kindred spirits in the capital city.

Recently, I was reading about the end of life. I know – bit of a jump. Sorry. I read this fascinating thing – that when they ‘begin their dying’ old people often talk of going on a journey. They might ask whether their flight is booked, or request railway schedules or tide-tables. They might ask when the taxi is coming to collect them, or say they are soon going on holiday, or planning to meet up with a (long dead) loved one. Strangely, the planned journey is always to some other place on this earth – no flying up to meet the angels. This made me sad, but then I thought – how wonderful that there is that defence mechanism, so that they aren’t consumed with fear. And who knows, maybe it’s true in some mystical, metaphysical way: a kind of psychic metaphor.

And that lead me to think about that other journey – the one young people feel compelled to make. It’s just as much of a draw – the journey outward into the world – as that journey homeward, back to the source, becomes. I longed for San Francisco but did nothing about it. Bolder souls go on gap years or back-pack to remote parts of the world in search of something. I suspect they never find the actual something: the journey is the something, that going out, that longing for a Lost Eden.

On the news recently was a young British woman who took her toddler to Syria, but returned a few months later. She is now serving a six year jail sentence and her child, presumably, will see very little of her. And then I wondered whether this longing for the Earthly Paradise, or Eden, might not be the explanation for so many young people being drawn to join terrorist armies. Maybe Syria – or some equivalent war zone – has become their Lost Eden. They yearn for it with a young person’s passion, although the reality bears no more resemblance to Eden than San Francisco would have done, had I had the nerve or the means to go there. We can all have dream places, and we can long for them so much that we go off in search of them. Maybe we are not so different after all.

We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

(Joni Mitchell)

 

 

 

 

Before I get my gorgeous wings

WE WERE fifty-something, Janet and I, and under no illusion. Our figures had migrated southwards and outwards and our morning faces surprised us, as if someone had slipped a Halloween mask over the top of them in the night. Rules are rules, however, and single and fifty-something equals no one to dance with. And so on Tuesday evenings at the Railway Club adjacent to Elmford Junction, we sat, or stood, at the side of the room, watching other people dance. Outside it was always black, and usually tipping it down. Even in here, just below the perfume and perspiration, there was a trace of the cold, dank oiliness of trains.

Proper ballroom dancers have silver shoes, with silver heels of a particular ballroom shape and straps that loop under the foot or up around the ankle. You can buy them on various websites, but they cost money. Neither Janet nor I had money so we waited, in our flat, black office shoes, twitching discreetly to Shania Twain singing ‘That don’ impressa me much.’

We secretly longed to be shimmering, whirling, gliding in and out of the light beneath the Christmas decorations that should have been taken down weeks ago, oh how we did; but we were careful to keep our faces blank, or faintly amused-looking. Nobody must know about this secret lust of ours. At most, if Shania became too much for us, we could practice the steps on our own, mirroring the couples.

‘Back left side close side. Forward right forward left side close side.’

I am short-sighted even with my glasses on, and so it wasn’t until week three that I could be sure that the print on the far wall as one of Joseph’s. Seven years older than me, my brother Joseph is an artist. He was popular in the late seventies and early eighties, especially with steam fans, because many of his pictures are of steam trains.

An old woman in black is walking towards the end of the platform of an otherwise deserted railway platform. She seems to carry with her an aura of coal steam, night mist, and the beginnings of frostfall. She appears to be shawled, or hooded, and as she disappears into the edge of the frame you cannot make out her face. Behind her, almost incidentally, stands a train in green and gold livery, half obscuring the station sign. You can almost hear that metal creature panting to be away, eager for more important places.

Janet and I did at least have Clive for the first couple of weeks. We shared him equally between us. Clive must have been forty-something. He always arrived on his own. He didn’t wear a ring but there clung to him shreds of that hangdog, domesticated aura married men never entirely manage to shake off. We decided the poor devil was divorced.

‘In ballroom, ladies,’ Robbie the Instructor informed us, ‘the gentleman still rules the roost. Your partner can insert a lockstep at any time and if he chooses to insert a lockstep you will do a lockstep.’ It was my turn to have him, so Clive and I laboured around the floor, from the Light End to the Dark End and back again, watching our feet with fierce concentration. Clive was also breathing hard and counting. Though he didn’t seem to have much personality he was a vigorous taker of corners, and each wrenching turn made me feel like a GroBag. I could see myself being dumped in the boot of someone’s car and the hatch slammed down on me.

Clive had another drawback as far as I was concerned, which was that he hadn’t yet mastered the lockstep, and so was unable to exercise his masculine right to insert one. I, on the other hand, had mastered the lockstep in week one and would have loved to show it off.

This week Clive hadn’t turned up at all, and it seemed unlikely that he ever would again, which meant that Janet and I were likely to be wallflowers until Easter. Robbie the Instructor sashayed over to us once or twice to treat us to a twirl, but of course that didn’t count. Robbie wiggled an awful lot, like a professional, in fact. Narrow-hipped, clad all in black, he possessed an enormous set of perfectly white teeth. He loved to dance and he loved his teeth. Unfortunately, after you had been watching him for a while everything else about him seemed to fade. You were left with just those perfect teeth, jiving or waltzing or whatever.

‘Do you think they’re real?’

‘They must be. I mean, you wouldn’t actually set out to construct a set like that.’

‘Perhaps they’re his special Dancing Teeth?’

‘He’ll keep them in a box, tied with a red ribbon, and only bring them out for Tuesdays.’

Through the glass panel door you could see through into the Railway Club bar where silent off-duty railwaymen stared into their beer.

‘Do you think our Clive was a railwayman,’ Janet remarked. ‘I mean, he could have been sitting out there in the bar one evening, wondering about the froth.’

‘Whether it circles anti-clockwise in Australia?’

‘Yes. And then, maybe he glanced up, observed the couples going round and round in here and thought –’

‘That might be more fun than this!’

‘Exactly.’

‘It isn’t, though, is it?’

The music started up again. They had decided to spring a jive on us. And that was when they finally condescended to get up, the couple I’d christened the Birds of Paradise.

They’d been here since the start of the evening but it seemed they felt themselves to be more ornamental than participatory. One, a dirty blonde with a somewhat doughy face, was tapping things into her mobile. Her face was lit by the yellow glow from the screen, and she was having to squint a bit because their table was at the Dark End. Her friend, of a similar basic shape but sleeker, with bigger breasts, was more effectively harnessed, wearing tight black trousers and the right sort of heels; she had silver highlights in her long, mousy hair, and a silver belt looped around her hips. Tacky, it was, but effective.

Neither girl smiled. Suspended in their formal embrace, one looking to the left and one to the right, they waited for the down-beat.

‘Do you think they, you know, are?’ asked Janet. Somehow I didn’t think they, you know, were. Usually you get some sort of atmosphere from lesbian ladies, just as you do from gay men; you might call it a plus-something from the women and a minus something from the men. Rather, they produced in me one of my visions, akin to the GroBag, boot-slamming one, but astonishingly detailed. I saw them together in some front room on Pittleigh Estate, sofas and chairs pushed aside, practising and practising their dance moves on Sunday afternoons.

It would be one of the semis, I thought, a Council house. There would be a CD-player sitting in the crook of a pushed-aside armchair, and the curtains would not have been drawn. Outside, dusk would be blanketing the overflowing wheelie-bins, the dog dirt smeared on the pavement, the fireweed forcing its way up through the cracks in the paving slabs.

The beat at last arrived, and they started to dance. The fat one failed to be elegant; she could hardly have been so, the shape she was, and in her supermarket jeans, but she was fast and accurate. At exactly the right moment her hand reached out to guide the other girl round or twirl her under. She danced without any apparent physical effort, wearing exactly the same expression as she’d been wearing for the yellow texting.

The sleek one, however: you couldn’t look away. She was transformed by the act dancing, translucent, transcendent. With movements sure and sharp, she flamed, she flickered, pointing and un-pointing her feet in their silver shoes. She made scrolls and curlicues with her arms; furling and unfurling her hands; she described a cat’s claw, a peacock’s fan, a cockatoo’s crest. How elegant and avian she was, how fiery and how cold.

These are odd words to use, but I can’t think of any others: she inspired me, somehow. She reminded me of the birds you see in those watercolours by long-extinct artists, faded hoopoes and pelicans, parrots, lyre birds and bower birds: stylised; birds and yet not birds, just as what this pair were doing was ballroom and yet not ballroom.

Around the room, conversations sputtered and died. The perambulating couples faltered, missed steps and quietly collided. At last the music stopped and the Birds of Paradise sat down. The fat one reached for her mobile to recommence her texting, the sleek one tossed her silver highlights over her shoulders and perched on the edge of her chair, straight-backed, like an automaton deactivated.

Janet had felt it too. ‘I wanted to applaud,’ she sighed.

A brief silence hung between us as we separately considered, and rejected, the obvious solution to our problem. For the Birds of Paradise it had been a triumph but for Janet and me it would have been embarrassing, no more than sad.

Janet was my best friend and yet I could not have begun to tell her how I was grieving, having seen that display. Something had sprung to life in me as I watched those girls, and whatever that was, it was dying now.

Maybe it was hope. Maybe it was the dream everyone whips up for themselves when they are young, that great, glorious, wedding cake of a future they are going to have. Then the bits with the cream in get eaten by other people; one or two bits at the edges get knocked off and other bits go mouldy. In the end there’s nothing left on your plate but marzipan crumbs and a currant or two. I was never going to point my toes in silver shoes or furl and unfurl my fingernails, just so. I had missed my moment to sashay and shimmer, drawing all eyes to myself.

Joseph has never particularly rated that painting, though in fact it was one of his best, which was of course why it was turned into prints and continues to sell well even now. And he never would tell me who the old woman was on the platform, what exactly she meant. He has probably long since forgotten the actual painting of that painting. I suspect the mysterious old woman was just a happy accident, a stray blob of paint he sort of decided to turn into something. Joseph is such a practical man; never an Artist with a capital A, and never much into symbolism. He told me once that painting is as much a craft as an art.

I visited him only yesterday at the Florence Nightingale. So very, very clean it all was; all that laundered whiteness, all those tubes. Poor Joseph. In his dying I suspect he is pining for the last of the steam trains, for the grease and grime and chaos he sketched during every spare moment of his youth, and which he spent the remainder of his years translating into oils. How he must despise this interminable process of fading away in the Florence, an alien fallen to earth, a tattered old misogynist going Un-gently Into That Good Night.

In the briefest of pauses between Shania Twain and Englebert Humperdinck I imagined I heard across all those accidental, random, messed up, squandered and totally meaningless years of Joseph’s, Janet’s and mine, the high, weird voice of Joni Mitchell singing that song about Richard; Richard, who had once been a dreamer:

‘Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away.’

Maybe after all there would be some kind of a rising. If only that could be so. Then we might have them, all of us.

Our gorgeous wings.