I toyed with the idea of calling this past Scaredy Granny’s Big Day Out, but that wouldn’t have allowed for more days out. Also, readers might not have got the fiendishly clever film reference or worse, might have got it and been unimpressed. There she goes again, with her tedious plays-on-words…
I just had to get out, somewhere, in the car even if I didn’t enjoy it. After two and a half – or is it three? – years out I had to go.
As a first woefully unambitious toe in the water I drove into Town and parked in Tesco’s car park. Tesco’s car park is free for the first three hours. You can watch people coming and going to your heart’s content. There are toilets. Sandwiches. All manner of useful stuff.
I locked up and went for a short walk down the High Street. All the usual characters – those who have nowhere else to be in the middle of a Friday morning – those who can go nowhere else because they don’t even have the bus fare – those whose imagination does not stretch to anywhere else. The High Street is their world. The wind was cold but the sun was warm, a strange and not entirely pleasant combination. Later the sky would come over black and the wind would win out over the sun.
I bought two long, loose cotton dresses, imagining myself, I suppose, floating around the house in midsummer, elegantly simple. Very few customers were sleepwalking around acres of retail space dotted with hopeful dress-rails. The girls behind the counter looked stunned that I had actually bought something – anything. Times are hard. Goodness knows what got into me. I think I just wanted an excuse to head back to the car.
I passed a shabby little shop. There was a faint air of Harry Potter about it. In the window a notice “NO HOODIES”. At once I pictured a gaggle of uninhabited hoodies skittering around the shop stuffing bags of sweeties up their empty sleeves and zipping up their empty fronts over stolen magazines.
I saw a large, blonde woman, more or less exploding out of a skimpy, stretchy black outfit, balanced on platform soles. Her skin had been sprayed an unbelievably dark shade of mahogany. She trailed a cigarette in one hand and was conversing with an avid-faced, smallish, balding man in jeans. Could this be a prostitute? I wondered. She looked like a pantomime version of the ones on TV, and was stood outside the sleeziest of all the many pubs in the High Street. Coming back, I noticed she was still there but I realised she was actually advertising her wares, as proprietress of the tiny tanning salon next door. A flesh-and-blood billboard.
And finally, back in my car, I watched a magpie walking. Magpies are my favourite birds, elegant in the air but not the best of walkers, strutting and reeling about like drunken sailors. But the thing with magpies is, they don’t care that they are awkward walkers. They love every single thing about themselves. Magpies are the coolest.
Where next? Well, if I can make it to Tesco’s car park, the world’s more or less my oyster.
I ran out of steam writing yesterday’s post. Probably just as well. When I first started on WordPress – and didn’t know any better – I used to write whole essays about stuff like French Romantic Poetry and The Meaning Of Life. Then I realised, there is a kind of natural limit with blog posts somewhere around 1,000 words. Beyond that nearly everybody – me included – gets bored and stops reading. Sometimes they will even stop at the sight of a too-long post, suffering from verbal sea-sickness. Usefully, after years of precis (sorry, still no accents) at school and attempting to write short stories for magazines I have an internal egg-timer for words. I can ‘set’ myself at the outset to produce 1,000, 2,000, 2,500, 3,000 or whatever and I do, give or take 100. It’s no more difficult than deciding to wake at 6 without the alarm.
The “third item” on the list – where I ran out of steam – was coffee with my neighbour on her patio, with her monstrous Great Dane. In fact, and strangely, her garden is all patio, like a series of stages of different heights. The plastic or resin variety you don’t have to maintain. I partly envy her, since I am having to pay someone to come and tackle my lawns once a month — but it is rather a sea of plastic.
So we sat there, under a kind of extended plastic pergola – still with our jackets on – drinking coffee and eating chocolate biscuits. Chocolate biscuits can make being anywhere worthwhile. And she told me about her horrible illnesses, and I told her about mine. And we decided which of the other neighbours we liked and disliked. We decided that a couple who recently had their quite young dog put to sleep because it had “developed a touch of rheumatism” had gone from the Like to Dislike, or at any rate Dodgy.
I tried not to start “meandering”, conversationally, but unfortunately I always do. As soon I begin to tire I lose my grip, tumbling from topic to topic, forever distracted by some new and irrelevant thought. I am fairly sure I have ADHD, but nobody’s going to waste resources to “diagnose” me at this late stage.
This is one of the reasons I avoid “coffee on the patio” and other such invitations – because they exhaust me and – unfortunately – others. I can hear myself beginning to lose the conversational plot, but there’s no way can I stop. It’s easier when I’m talking to my sisters and a couple of my oldest friends – they’re use to me, and patient. I can relax with them. The rambling tends to calm down, slow down, and make more sense. Conversely, with them, I can very occasionally allow myself to take verbal flight – into a wildly elaborate story, reminiscence or joke – and we all end up laughing. If only I could fly like that all the time.
I once lived opposite a childless, middle-aged couple on a housing estate. They were well-off – prosperous, even – but seemed to have no friends. At all. The husband was very kind to me when I needed to buy a new car and – for the first and only time in my life – was able to buy a new one. He got all the brochures for me. He went through everything. He came along to the showrooms. He took over and bargained with a slick salesman who would have made mincemeat of me.
But there was an ulterior motive, I discovered. He was “collecting” me as a friend/ companion/ distraction for his wife. She was a nice woman but – unbearable. She would start talking as soon as she got you trapped in one of her expensive armchairs, feet sunk into the overgrown carpet, and she just couldn’t stop. She would always get to the point eventually – how she managed keep it in her head I don’t know – but that “eventually” could be hours later. All this time I, as the audience, would be struggling to keep track of all these backwaters and bywaters of her thought. It was like drowning or suffocating. Her husband, meanwhile, would have escaped to his den in the attic, where he constructed plywood aeroplanes or something similar. I was the babysitter.
It wasn’t – strangely – till some years later that the penny dropped – he’d selected me because I was, essentially, the same. He had been married to an ADHD woman for twenty or so years. He recognised me. No wonder he was so helpful over the car.
Whilst this is a terrible disadvantage in “social interactions” it is – in some way I can’t quite analyse – how I can write. The creativity and the disability are completely entangled. You can probably sense the “rambling” element in my posts – but I can edit those to minimise the “exhausting” effect. I can edit minimally – so still retaining my own “voice” – or, if necessary, maximally. So if I had to write, say, a letter applying for a job or an essay explaining a scientific process I could do so. I would splurge the “ramble ” first – or better still start with a spider-diagram – then edit, edit, edit and edit again. You can edit writing but you can’t edit speech. At least, I can’t.
Anyway, gonna make myself a cup of coffee – and give you a well-earned rest.
“Five miles meandering with a mazy motion Through wood and dale the sacred river ran Then reached the caverns measureless to man And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean”
You’d think the passing of so many years might have added a certain resilience and polish to a person, but no. I still dread having to ‘deal with folk’.
I do try to water down the real-time time stress/subsequent despairing analysis of my most recent failures by scheduling no more than one social interaction per day, but it doesn’t always work out.
Yesterday I had not one to endure but three:
yet another early morning blood test at the local hospital;
an MOT (Ministry Of Transport annual road-worthiness) test on my car at a scary, stinky little garage in the next village;
and finally, a texted invitation from a neighbour to coffee on her patio – just me, her and the largest, drooling -est dog in the universe.
To put these three in order of decreasing horror: 1) MOT at stinky garage 2) neighbour on patio, 3) blood test. I do stuff like that all the time – pointless lists and classifications; mental geometry representing my feelings and opinions about things – at the moment I seem to be particularly obsessed with a kind of circular, tail-biting spectrum, and a cube with one fixed and one expandable side…
The blood test:
So, the only really annoying thing about the blood test was that it was at eight o’clock in the morning so I needed to get up really really early and scoot through at least some of the housework before leaving.
Having dodged a hundred or so school buses and the great clumps of milling, sneering schoolchildren waiting for them, and reached the hospital car park, still deep in icy shadow, I discovered the doors did not open until precisely eight o’clock – so no option but to be late, and in the meantime to sit in my car shivering and trying to decide whether I was in a black mask mood or a pink mask mood today. Black, I recently discovered, causes Rottweiler-alike dogs to snarl and stare fixedly at me.
‘Bless! It’s because she can’t read your facial expressions,’ said the vet’s receptionist helpfully. Very slowly I peeled the mask off and concealed it in my pocket. Rottweiler-alike snarled even louder, searching for exactly the right spot on my neck to sink her wonky, overshot canines into.
‘Ahhhh, she’s a sweetie really,’ said the receptionist. The owner shuffled sideways, discreetly interposing herself between Sweetie and me.
I just thought, is it sensible after all these years still to be driving an eighty mile round trip to a garage in your old home town just because you kind of feel safe there and detest “breaking in” new places? When last time the garage hands there didn’t even recognise you?
So I booked in at the garage one village along. I’d been there once before, for a new tyre. How hard could it be?
Turned out the MOTs were done by one of his many brothers ‘over the back’ ie down another, very narrow rural road. Turned out ‘over the back’ was a kind of collection of sheds with a tiny forecourt stuffed to bursting with cars. You could sit in the road and signal right. You couldn’t actually go right
I attempted to edge the car in closer to the kerb so traffic could get past me. After what seemed like an eternity of backwards/forwards wheel-wrestling I was still in the middle of the road and blocking the traffic. Plus, I had an audience of garage hands in oily overalls. They were sitting on the ground against the wall eating their lunch. There were at least five of these sun-bronzed yokels, all with impressive muscles and whatnot. They weren’t exactly laughing at me but…finding my lack of car-handling skills more interesting than their sandwiches.
Eventually I struggled out of the car, grabbed my handbag and tottered up to them.
“I’ve…come for my MOT, ” I stuttered. “But I can’t get in and I’m…panicking.” Sometimes the miserable truth just blurts itself out, doesn’t it?
“Don’t you worry, m’dear, we’ll sort it all out. Give us the keys, take a seat in the office. Forty-five minutes or thereabouts.”
Gosh, that office did smell – a strange blend of exhaust fumes, rubber matting, oil and something sweet and chemical – maybe hand-gel. Oh, and talcum powder. But it was shady and quiet in there. All I had to do was pretend to be reading “City Of Bones”, inhale only through the mouth and soon – I’d be able to escape.
Biggest dog in the universe:
I’ve run out of steam, and space. Will have to postpone giant drooling dog and coffee on neighbour’s patio.
Sometimes you just have to start writing and hope for the best.
I’ve taken to reading back over the occasional old post – way before Covid – and cannot escape the conclusion that I was a much better writer then. And what an interesting life I was leading, in comparison! Why, once I even went to a meeting of the Over 50s club and was forced to play Bingo by all these big scary ladies in flowery dresses and cardigans, even though I had no idea what I was doing – and even though vegetarian I ate a small piece of ham because, frankly, I was scared of the inquisition if I didn’t.
Once a very old man at a bus stop told me the meaning of life, but I couldn’t hear what he said because his voice was so soft and the traffic so loud. “My journey ends here,” he said, as the bus slowed down, “but yours continues”. It sounded terribly meaningful and guardian-angel-ish but maybe he was just stating a fact.
It’s been kind-of-sunny, kind-of-chilly here today. Got all my washing dry – but that chill wind – I just couldn’t see me “sitting out” with my cup of coffee and the current paperback (The Beekeeper of Aleppo, in case you are wondering).
No such qualms afflicted my neighbours, who were out in monstrous force – as always over any Bank Holiday – in bikinis and whatnot, enjoying their expensively frothy outdoor-bath-for-grown-ups-with-more-money-than-sense, and shrieking a lot. Last night was bellowing a lot and chasing one another up and down the stairs – “tinnies” of lager in hand, no doubt. Today it’s splashing and shrieking a lot.
Why are they not cold? How can they be sitting there in biikinis and whatnot, slathered in Factor whatever, filling their outdoor ashtrays when it’s so chilly? Not that I’m spying on them from my upstairs windows, of course. Just happened to spot them in passing.
It reminds me of all those Bank Holidays on the beach when I was a child. Mum and Dad had at one point a striped canvas wind-break with poles at intervals for manly hammering into the sand. But the beach was inevitably composed of giant pebbles so the wind-break would blow over, constantly.
We’d arrange ourselves to the leeward of it, scrunch our necks down into our anoraks and try to convince ourselves that we were Not Uncomfortable At All. In fact, we were Having Fun. And when it began to spit with rain – as it always did – we’d just fish out the plastic macs.
Talking of The Beekeeper of Aleppo, which we weren’t exactly – it seems we are planning to send “migrants arriving by illegal routes” (there don’t actually seem to be any legal ones any more) to Rwanda. Rwanda! Even if it is just a cynical distraction from Partygate – now the whole world thinks we are the kind of people who will, once mountains of red tape have been surmounted and endless delays endured, welcome poor mummies and babies from war-torn Ukraine – but if you are kind of – dare I say it – browner of skin, and not a poor mummy and baby combo – will issue you with a one-way ticket to Rwanda! I thought we were an ageing population, depleted by Covid and needed younger people to work? And even if it never comes to pass – even if it is yet another Dead Cat Bounce – what is the world going to think of us? Right now I feel ashamed.
I have been shopping for beanie hats – not buying, so far, just selecting. With any luck I won’t need them. By beanie hat I mean a reversible cotton sun hat with a smallish brim, but that’s because I’m English. I get the feeling – from Amazon, from Google, from Pexels – that a “beanie hat” in America is what we would refer to as a “woolly hat” or “bobble hat”. Just to get it out of the way, I should also mention that in Scotland – particularly the Highlands – a woolly hat is known as a “bonnet” whereas in England a “bonnet” is not a woolly hat but one of those elaborate flappy cotton items with frills and long strings that Quakers and possibly the Amish used to wear. Why is language so complicated?
It’s been a difficult week. After managing on no treatment for quite a few years, my specialist finally recommended that I started on the dreaded “tablets”. I was terrified, partly because I loathe and am deeply suspicious of any sort of tablets and historically have mostly failed to find the courage to take any prescribed medicine. Oh, I buy it, I take it home, look at it for a bit – and then don’t take it. It gets relegated to a cupboard somewhere. But these – well, it was a toss-up, really, between feeling increasing like death warmed up because of the illness, or facing my terrors.
Especially having read the six-page list of nuclear-sounding warnings and possible side-effects (with probabilities – 1 in 10, 1 in 100, 1 in 1000 etc) lovingly up-szed for me by my specialist’s secretary. It went from mild – headache, bit of a rash, slight nausea – to apocalyptic – spontaneous abortion, foetal abnormalities (not that that’s relevant to me) sudden suicidal depression, kidney and liver failure and – occasionally – instant death. And I had to take six of them, all together on the same day.
I don’t know – there have been some lonely mornings in my life, but forcing myself to get a mug of water and swallow those six little tablets, alone in my kitchen – and the only person who knew I was doing so being currently asleep on the other side of the world – was about the loneliest. It needed more courage than I felt I could summon up.
“You should have told [English Sister] said Canadian Sister, later. But how would that have helped? She lives half an hour’s drive away. She never normally rings or sees me. The one time she drove over in case I needed rescuing (Canadian Sister panicked) she thought it over for a good six hours first. And when she got here she wouldn’t cross the threshold on account of her cat-phobia. And if anybody knew in advance, I felt, or was worrying about me or (worse still) with me, a whole additional layer of horror would have come into being. I have the phone numbers of two kindly female neighbours stored in my phone. In an emergency, I decided, a text to either one of them would be more useful.
Anyway, I’m still here, several days later. I had one “queasy” day but apparently you can take vitamin B9 on six of the seven days to help with that. So far I am not dead, suicidal, bright yellow, swollen-ankled/wristed, covered in hives, migraine-ous etcetera. Also, so far, all my hair is firmly attached to my head – well, it’s only a 1 in 10. But I thought as it was 1 in 10 it might be an idea to be prepared and research head coverings. I decided I couldn’t hack a turban. Elegant though the are – I’m not. I’m scruffy. More of a beanie sort of person.
I also watched a YouTube video on how to shave your own head – and decided that if it had to be done it was going to be done by the chatty, maskless hairdresser in town, germs or no germs. Those clippers are so big! By the way, during the first lockdown I watched Domhnall Sweeney on “An Lot” (“The Croft” in Gaelic). “An Lot” is/was based on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. All the hairdressers being closed Sweeney decided to shave his own head, with the help of a rusty, malfunctioning electric sheep-shearer and a bit of mirror, sat on a wooden chair outside. It was painful to watch, and he got a fit of the giggles half way through. He decided to leave it as a Mohican to start with, to show his father.
I also watched a number of videos obviously aimed at balding men – when is it time to give up and shave your head? etc. They suggested growing a beard or handlebar moustache to counteract the egg-headedness, neither of which are options for me.
And of course I watched that clip from The Oscars when Will Smith rushed up on stage and smacked that comic chap for insulting his wife Jada, who suffers from Alopecia. I looked at her and realised that the key to rocking bald and female was to be young, with nice eyes and an excellent basic bone-structure. I can see that I would simply look like Mrs Potato-Head. Wrinkly Mrs Potato-Head, and that would be that. Best keep fingers crossed it doesn’t fall out, and if it does, order them thar beanies! On Prime.
Something seems to have gone wrong with the Gallery – it will only let me upload my own photos. I don’t happen to have any pix of ships passing, either by day or by night, so here is an arty thing I made out in the garden last year or the year before. Some sort of vegetation, I think, with many filters and special effects applied. It’s going to be a pain if I’ve got to take my own photos or – worse still – draw stuff in future. It’ll be all stick men and women and stick boats, in that case.
Anyway, launching straight into my scribbled notes:
I’d forgotten just how fraught interactions with men can be, when you’re young. I just watched the first episode of “Fleabag” again and – gosh, so complicated. It gets easier as you get older, even if you’re “single” (as my sister will insist on putting it – implying a kind of desperation to be “double” again).
At least, it gets different. You reach a kind of tipping-point – a sad but inevitable life event which might take months to unfold, a single day, even a single hour. On the one side of it you are still – if only in your own mind – potential mate/mating material. On the other side you are not, and never, ever will be again. You are a once-was, a wilted blossom; you are surplus to requirements. It’s not nice, but after a while it does make life simpler.
Life gets more peaceful once you are “past it”. Men stop appraising you, assessing you, mostly even seeing you. If they do happen to glance in your direction their faces have mercifully lost that scary wolfish look. They are back to being human beings again. Interactions with them become scarcer, briefer, but more “collectable” in an odd sort of way.
So, Driver Sergei, as predicted by text message, hammers on the glass in my front door with the corner of his mobile phone. There, on doorstep, he has deposited the usual giant cardboard box containing – as we both know -2 x 30l bags of wood-based cat litter. He is laughing whilst taking the usual “proof of delivery” photo – the giant parcel, the half-open door, one of my feet.
“Hallooooo” he says, still laughing. I suspect “Hallooooo” is his only word of English, or the only one he will admit to.
“Thank you,” I call, but he is already half way up the drive, heading for his van, still laughing. I wait till he is gone before beginning on the terrible wrestling match to manoeuvre a 60l parcel over the doorstep and far enough into the hallway so that I can close the front door behind it, and all before any cats decide to bolt. I suspect Driver Sergei knows that I do this.
The Tesco man arrives. I have fallen asleep on the sofa-that-is-not-a-sofa (something I am always doing nowadays) and am taken by surprise. Usually I keep intermittent watch from behind the living-room curtains. As soon as the front of the Tesco van hoves into view I struggle into my coat, grab my stash of bags-for-life and go out to meet him.
Tesco Man has completed the Customer Service Module (unlike Driver Sergei) but is less mysterious/exotic. He stacks the big boxes of Felix on the step end on, making them easier for me to pick up when the time comes.
“Why do I order everything in such large sizes?” I ask, knowing full well.
“Because it is better value for money to buy in bulk,” he explains.
“Oh, that must be why.”
Charlie is outside, over the road, trying to mend his car again. It is a very old car and Charlie has no money, unless he’s some sort of secret Silas Marner with a box of gold coins under the floorboards. He sees me – damn, I think he’s seen me – and half raises his hand, then drops it again. I do the same, though I haven’t got my glasses on and what I am actually half-waving at in the same hopeless kind of way, is a blurred blob. Hopefully it is Charlie and not some stranger, randomly fixing his car for him. Charlie is very, very lonely. It kinds of flows across all that distance, from one side of the street to another, a liquid, silent scream. You get the radar for it. But no.
There was a tree in the middle of the park, shedding white blossom. All around it, a kind of moon made of blossom. It certainly was very pretty. The Council had outdone themselves (for once) – this year: geometrical beds of multi-coloured pansies, and those fat, pink-tipped daisies Councils seem to favour. It was the first park I had sat in for two-and-a-quarter years, and my favourite park. So many memories of when I worked in that town – solitary lunch-hours spent on these very benches, sharing my Marks & Spencer sandwiches with the wasps; reading, writing poems and not wanting to go back to the office.
As we settled ourselves on a circular bench, clutching our take-away coffees, ridiculously far apart and each pointing in a different direction since this was the first time we had met for over two years and none of us wanted to be the reason one or both of the others “caught it”, a young Japanese couple came along. The girl began the series of strange poses a girl might make whilst being photographed amidst the falling blossom and all of us, instinctively, looked away – or at least did our best to appear to be looking away. Whilst doing so I wondered, slightly, why two Japanese people would come all the way from Japan, a land famed for its Spring blossom, to pose in England beneath the only blossom tree for miles around, albeit in a county once famous for its cherry orchards. But I suppose, why not?
As to the looking away – or seeming to be looking away – this actually has a name. It’s called negative politeness and is an anthropological behaviour Britain shares with Japan, possibly because both are small, crowded islands. If you are interested in this, I would refer you to page 147 ff of Kate Fox’s Watching The English, which is a great book, if somewhat uncomfortable for an English person to read. Basically, negative politeness focusses on other people’s need not to be intruded or imposed upon. Positive politeness, on the other hand, concerns itself with other people’s need for inclusion and social approval. All societies practice both types of politeness, but Americans tend to favour the warm, inclusive positive mode whereas the English (and the Japanese) favour reserve – and the granting of apparent invisibility to strangers. These different modes can cause misunderstandings – Americans, for example, being disappointed or nonplussed by British ‘aloofness’ and the British, for example, being frightened or feeling attacked by American ‘friendliness’.
So, there I was with my two old friends, who I haven’t seen in the flesh for two-and-a-quarter years. It was good to see them, although I think we would have continued being friends even if we had never been able to see each other again. It was strange trying to converse on a bench built round a tree, over one’s shoulder. Strange also to feel that I was the one they were more nervous of, as if I might be bringing the Plague from distant, and no doubt ultra-infectious parts. I mean, I was the one who had just managed to get my fourth vaccination (my left arm feels like a pin-cushion) and had checked and tested negative only the day before. I was the one who had spent the last two-and-a-quarter years indoors, forced to shield because of underlying illness. I was the one who had just driven forty-odd miles, having not attempted more than ten for the last two-and-a-quarter years, and was now exhausted by the stress of it all. In fact I have stayed exhausted all week. It doesn’t take much, nowadays.
But – these things are often better in retrospect. Now I have the white blossom to remember, and the cool Spring sunshine. I am not sorry I met up with my two old friends, and no doubt we will meet again the next time one of us has a birthday, which will be July. I wonder what my favourite park will be looking like then, and under which trees, and where in the world, that Japanese couple will be photographing each other?
I know – so ungrateful. I can remember my parents telling me how grateful I ought to be, because after all they had given me the gift of life (of course, they hadn’t actually enjoyed engendering me) and subsequently sacrificed the best years of both of theirs.
But, I lived my life, and it wasn’t all bad. You’d think you’d forget most of it, and in a way you do. But in a way you don’t – at least I don’t. Memories come back to haunt me in rotation, like a kind of randomised slide-show, dropping in unannounced demanding tea and biscuits while I am doing the washing-up, knitting, feeding the cats.
Suddenly I am standing on a street corner in a distant town and somebody quite unsuitable is about to kiss me.
Or I am in a school hall in my new blue uniform, seated, socks and shoes off. The games mistress is working her way down the line, inspecting feet, peering between toes.
Or I am sitting on a riverbank, a lot further from home than I ought to have been, my bicycle abandoned in the yellow grass. Somebody else – another girl – is with me. I remember the river, the grass, the bicycle, the sense of too-far-awayness, not the companion. That’s fairly typical.
Or I am in the school playground and everybody is laughing. Somebody has pinned a note to my back. I am supposed to have noticed straight away, but I am not a noticing teenager. When at last I find it I sense am supposed to react in a particular sort of way, but I don’t. I just examine it. The note itself and the motive for pinning it to my back, are both a mystery.
This kind of film show does help to pass the time, I suppose, and it keeps the little grey cells in practice. But it can also be distressing. Then of course there’s news from the outside world – perhaps the less said about that the better.
I consider ways of escape – or escape-ism. It’s not that easy to distract yourself when you are on your own, not that well, past a certain age. The days are long, increasingly so.
I have been watching television, and catching up on all the films I never got to see at the time – I even started watching Robocop the other day, thinking it might be Arnold Schwarzenegger (I have a soft spot for Arnie) but it wasn’t. I suppose I’ll have to finish it now. At least he can’t get his arms blown off and left as a twitching pile of offal twice. But I’m slowly running out of things to watch. Of course, every now and then something good comes up – like series 4 of Killing Eve, or the next Friday episode of Picard – though what’s happened to his voice? Just got old, I suppose. But my ‘watching’ box seems to be emptying out, day by day.
Increasingly I supplement watching with listening – podcasts. I have years and years of excellent science, psychology and music podcasts to work my way through. But the very numerousness of them is off-putting. And do I really need to know all about Oxygen, Mercury – in fact the whole gamut of Elements? Do I really care about Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, or what it”s like to have synaesthesia? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
I did consider alcohol. I mean, that’s supposed to be the great escape, isn’t it? The trouble is, I haven’t really got an addictive personality. A neighbour of my Godmother’s actually drank herself to death after her husband died. It took her approximately ten years. She got grossly fat and kept being sectioned, coming out and hitting the sherry again. She was a great nuisance – not least to poor Godmother, who kept having to go across and rescue her from the foot of the stairs, and eventually adopted her little dog, or else the poor thing would have starved.
The nearest I got to that was drinking two bottles of wine in one day – bought from the local supermarket along with a box of tea-bags so as not to look too desperate. That was when I was at my most “broken-heartedest”. It did not impress the breaker of the heart, who found the bottles in the rubbish next day, and I felt terribly ill. Never again, I realised. And nowadays I can feel at least fairly ill most mornings without going to the expense of alcohol.
Which leaves travel – endless solitary wanderings – a genuinely attractive option but not with a house full of dependent moggies – or reading. So reading it will have to be. I did try googling “list absorbing books”, thinking to immerse myself in a great series of fairy lands, outer space, Victorian England etc. But that was a bit of a waste of time. I’d already read a lot of the recommended books (another peril of living long) and the reviews of all the others were utterly contradictory.
Goodreads in particular is useless. One person posts a fatuous, misspelled review and five hundred others pile in to congratulate the first one on his or her wonderful insight (or wunderful unsoight) and generosity in bestowing it. They all hated that book, it appears, and for exactly the same reasons. It seems to me that the average age of a Goodreads reader is fifteen; average intelligence approximately the same.
I recently read Piranesi by Suzanna Clarke, which nobody on Goodreads seemed to like. I loved it, and have now started on her collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu. I’m also reading – on Kindle – because I rarely read one novel at a time – Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers. What I need is a good series of novels – nothing so satisfying as collecting them, one at a time…
My family seems to have been dogged by ponds of one kind or another. If a pond can be said to dog.
My father used to sing a song – one of many music hall-type ‘ditties’ he would treat us to. It was called ‘Oh, Jemima…’ and it went like this:
Oh, Jemima, look at your Uncle Jim – He’s in the duckpond learning how to swim. First he does the backstroke and then he does the side And now he’s under the water swimming against the tide!
I am greatly in awe of people who can dream up nonsense poetry. I don’t have the gene for it myself. I mean, how does someone even begin to imagine Uncle Jim?
The next pond was the pond that Fat Pat drove her loathsome little car into. Everything about Fat Pat was loathsome, according to Mum.
Mum and Dad used to produce the magazine for their cycling club, and it was really good. I mean, it had been incredibly dull before they got to be Editors – incredibly dull – all about wheel-sprockets and race timetables. But Dad could write and produced a lot of funny stuff, which cyclists love. And he encouraged people to send in their cartoons, their memories, their personal stories.
Mum was good at actually producing the magazine. She had a dodgy second-hand photocopier and a long-arm stapler and spent hours slaving away in the spare room – copying, collating, stapling. She had a neat and tidy mind. She loved the repetition of it, the having-to-be-organised.
Then Fat Pat and Mr Fat Pat somehow bulldozed their way onto the committee and (according to Mum, anyway) everything Mum and Dad subsequently suggested they voted down on principle. They coveted the newly-improved club magazine, and eventually got their fat paws on it. Dad stopped doing his writing, Mum stopped doing her photocopying – the dodgy photocopier got repossessed – and the club magazine shrank back to a three-page thing about wheel-sprockets and race timetables.
Mum did not have many good days, I’m afraid. She lived with a kind of low-grade anxiety and depression all her life. But the day Fat Pat drove her car into her own duckpond was one of the happiest of her life. I suspect Mum wished the pond had been deeper, vaster, full of venomous water-worms that would have stripped the flesh from Fat Pat’s very bones…
Unfortunately, someone fished her out. But still…
I even have my own pond immersion experience.
Ex sold the marital home and moved to a pretty little village (of course) and bought a pretty big cottage down a winding, secret, overgrown lane out in the middle of nowhere. The place was a bit tumble-down but he had absolutely all the skills to renovate it. And it was surrounded by acres and acres of orchards. And it had a pond. In other words, just the sort of place I would have loved to move into. Except (of course) he didn’t move into it with me, he moved into it with My Replacement. Grrr…
My Replacement was always a kind of nemesis for me. I never actually hated the woman but something always seem to go physically wrong – in the real world – every time I caught sight of her. Before he and she got together (well, before I knew they had already/would eventually get together) I was walking along the High Street and caught sight of her coming towards me. She had a kitten – a beautiful little fluffy creature – stuffed down her ample front somehow. So entranced was I with this kitten that I missed the edge of the pavement altogether, turned my ankle and almost broke it. I had to hop home with gritted teeth hoping she hadn’t actually noticed (though of course, she had). The ankle swelled up like a football.
Later in the long saga of her and Ex and me, I was invited to visit them at the above-described enviable country cottage. I parked outside the gate but Ex insisted I go back to the car and drive it right down to the house, and even though I didn’t want to and couldn’t see why, I did, because I always did what Ex told me. It was impossible not to.
When it was time to go I needed to reverse back, up this narrow gravel driveway that I hadn’t wanted to drive down in the first place, and there they were standing by their front door, their blasted arms draped affectionately around each other’s shoulders etc, waving. Grrr….
And of course, I reversed into the pond. I wibbled and wobbled so violently on my backwards trajectory that I ended up stuck in the deep, black mud at the edge of their blasted pond. And then he came stomping up and humorously ejected me from my own car and reversed it out of the mud at the edge of his pond, which I would never have reversed into if he hadn’t insisted I come right down to the house. And all the while she was watching. Grr…
The lawn-mowing-man has been for the first time. We don’t converse. Rather, we communicate via a brown envelope left in the cat-kennel, which contains money before he arrives and does not contain money afterwards. He scribbles the date of next month’s appointment on it. This time he also scribbled a quote, which I had asked him for, to turf over a square-ish patch of former jungle behind the garage. The quote was approximately three-and-a-half times bigger than I, in my foolish winter-long fantasies, had imagined. Clutching the envelope, I retreated indoors for a cup of tea-bag tea, some Custard Creams and a think.
Of course it may be my fault. I had no idea what turf cost and maybe should have factored in more for that. Alternatively, and which I suspect is more likely, he doesn’t actually want the job. They do that when they don’t want a job, don’t they? But why don’t people just say no, sorry, too busy? He has just come back from a long holiday in Tenerife. Tenerife! No wonder he can afford sun-soaked beaches, stripey canvas hammocks and long, cold drinks with umbrellas in – if all his quotes are that big.
Another possibility is that he regards my garden as jinxed. He seems to have endless trouble with his high-end equipment whilst in it. When he came last year to clear then-patch of jungle behind the garage, he broke his favouriite (super-lightweight, long–arm as he explained more than once) strimmer. He rang home for his less-favourite strimmer to be driven over to him and promptly strimmed through the flex on it and spent ages sitting on my back step splicing electrical wiring together. For months afterwards I was finding little bits of blue and brown plastic tubing everywhere.
Which leaves me with a problem – a square of gradually returning jungle that I’m just not up to dealing with myself. Otherwise I would be mowing my own lawns rather than employing lawn-mowing-man.. I could just “Let It Go, Let It Go…” but I’m thinking maybe a compromise: invest in a decent-ish strimmer. That surely wouldn’t involve too much bending, wheezing and coughing – just plug it in and Make Like Rambo (ish). Lay waste to that jungle every couple of weeks or half the jungle one week, the other half the next. How hard could it be? I calculate I could buy nine mid-range heavy-duty strimmers in succession for the amount of his quote.
Sorry, I know lawns are dull. It’s all happening on TV – here, as usual, nothing.
It’s OK to sleep differently! After all those years of feeling guilty, weird and defective for not wanting to sleep at sensible times like sensible people, I finally realised.
Since the advent of street lighting, indoor electric lighting and office/factory hours it has been fashionable to sleep monophasically. People are awake during daylight hours, carry on with their lives during the evening and go to bed at their preferred time – 10, o’clock, 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock. Anything else tends to be thought of as insomnia, and people who don’t or can’t follow the standard pattern are imagined to be pale and haggard creatures with big black circles under their eyes. No doubt they spend the night watching dreadful films, ruining themselves with online casino gambling or slogging through piles of ironing.. They certainly aren’t going to be up to putting in a good day’s work.
It wasn’t till I Googled ‘unusual sleep patterns’ that I discovered one or two things.
Throughout history, up to the beginning of the 20th Century in fact, it was expected that people might sleep polyphasically. Had I lived in the middle ages, my own sleep pattern would have been the norm. In those days people went to bed when it got dark – mostly because candles were expensive and the only source of light. They might sleep for 2 – 3 hours, wake for another 2 – 3, then sleep again. Even today, when laboratory subjects are put on a restricted light regime, and once they have caught up on the enormous ‘sleep debt’ that most of us have accumulated, this is the pattern they tend to settle into.
But what on earth did people do with those odd hours in the middle of the night, between ‘First Sleep’ and ‘Second Sleep’? It seems they used them sensibly. Often people stayed in bed, or in their bedrooms, but spent the time in prayer or contemplation. Sometimes they would read, or write. Consider a popular French song, often used to teach the guitar, Au Clair de la Lune. As usual, all the poetry is lost in translation, but here it is:
By the light of the moon, my friend Pierrot Lend me your pen for to write a word. My candle is dead, I have no light left. Open up your door, for the love of God.
Because another thing people might do during these ‘between’ hours was to visit with friends and neighbours who were similarly wakeful.
Another thing that people might use that time for was – you knew I was going to get round to this, didn’t you? – making babies. Particularly the working-classes, apparently, who had a high birth-rate.
There are many other varieties of polyphasic sleep – some people divide the night up into four, for instance.
There are also what you might call the ‘Mrs Thatcher” regimes. Mrs Thatcher was a British Prime Minister who claimed, at least, only to require two – or was it four? – hours of sleep a night. It was all part of her image as the Iron Lady, of course. One could imagine her, far into the night, fiercely plotting political strategies and perusing state papers. This is more a sort of ‘power napping’ and involves smaller amounts of sleep in all – not something that attracts me, but then I’ve never been much good with rules, self-discipline and such.
Apparently these are known as
Everyman – 3.5 hours core sleep + 3 x 20 minute naps throughout the day.
Dymaxion – 4 x 30 minute naps throughout the day (2 hours sleep in total!)
Uberman – 6 to 8 equidistant sleeps of 20 minutes each.
Perhaps it is useful to do this if you are in a high-pressured job like Mrs T’s – and as long as you can sleep, instantly, in broad daylight and when it tells you to on your timetable. Otherwise it seems easier just to go with what comes naturally.
I tend to be like the cats nowadays. When I get bored, I sleep. If I don’t feel well, I sleep. When I wake up, I have cup of tea and get on with something. This only turns into ‘insomnia’ when you start stressing about it and frantically trying to sleep. Don’t try. Go with the flow.
At one point I considered becoming fully nocturnal – a sort of Owl Woman. The idea quite appealed to me, there was something witchy and romantic about it. I have very noisy neighbours and for quite a while after they moved in my life was not worth living. I need quiet. I am a quiet sort of person. Indeed, that may be part of the reason why they make so much noise – they can’t hear me through the ultra-thin walls of our semi-detached, so they assume I can’t hear them – even when they are throwing gigantic drinks parties till two in the morning, Alexa supplying them with an endless stream of high-volume eighties and nineties hits, dogs barking, people banging on the walls, mega-arguments that spill out into the back (and occasionally front) garden. Etcetera.
So if they decided to throw one of these parties – which tended to start with a swarm of cars cluttering up our road around six in the evening, doors banging, etc – I would retreat to bed. I discovered if I did this before they started to wind me up, I could sleep quite easily, even though it was still daylight. I’d wake up at two, or three, and all would be silent again as they slept, cultivating their hangovers. I could catch up on the News on i-player, drink tea and occasionally even rough out one of these posts. Turning day permanently into night and night into day did seem to be an option, for coping with it. I would adapt.
Ultimately, though, fully nocturnal wasn’t practical. During the day there are deliveries, people tend to ring up, appointments have to be attended. Also, you do need some sunlight. It would be pretty gloomy living your whole life under electric light, the windows just squares of blackness of various sizes, with occasionally a moon. And of course you’re consuming more light and heat than you need to, especially in winter.
I realise this may be more difficult if you have children, or have to stick to some kind of rigid shift system for work, but the main thing is not to conform to monophasic sleeping from sheer lack of imagination. As far as possible, given your circumstances and the seasons, heat and daylight patterns of the country you live in – do your own thing.
Slowly, silently, now the moon Walks the night in her silver shoon. This way and that she peers and sees Silver fruit upon silver trees…
I have a bird-table. Much as I love to watch the birds from my kitchen window, I don’t go to too much expense. Once you get obsessed by various natty designs of plastic feeder, giant bags of peanuts, those overpriced half-cocoanut things etc., half the housekeeping seems to go on them.
So the birds and I have come to an agreement: every morning they get three slices of bread, a handful of mixed dried fruit and a scoop of seed. Unfortunately the bread component is usually gone within minutes as the smaller birds – mostly starlings, sparrows and magpies – are generally mobbed by the seagulls. One seagull takes up a whole bird-table. I’ve often thought a sparrow being mobbed by a seagull must feel like a Sopwith Camel that’s accidentally landed on the Jumbo Jet airstrip.
Two regulars at my bird-table are pigeons, Howard and Hilda. I guess they are an old married couple as they arrive on the fence together, shuffle up and down the ridge-tiles of my downhill neighbour’s roof together, etc. However, once on the bird table Howard turns into a monster. He cannot abide Hilda pecking at one single seed. Hilda positions herself as far from him as she can, and they begin this ritual. Hilda pecks at the single seed, Howard pecks at her, horribly. Howard pecks at one seed, Hilda watches apprehensively, waits a bit then pecks at a second seed. Howard flies up into the air and swerves sideways at her, knocking her off the table with the bony edge of his wing. All in all, Hilda manages to get one seed for every nine of Howard’s. Yes, I counted. But Howard doesn’t get to eat nearly as many seeds as he could (before the Jumbo-Seagulls arrive) because he squanders so much time and energy pecking and flying at Hilda.
It occurred to me this morning that this isn’t very intelligent behaviour, even for a bird. Although, when you see what’s going on in the world just now, maybe Human Beings are not much brighter.
Maybe you’ve read The Wind In The Willows in which case you’ll recognise Mole’s joyful exclamation. Mole wakes up after a long winter and knows he should be spring-cleaning and whitewashing his burrow. What he actually does is push his way up to the surface and enjoy the feel of the sun on his fur.
I’ve had the same two friends for many years, though now we live an hour’s drive apart. I believe I once called them Daisy and Rose – in which case this particular one is Rose. The three of us have not been able to meet face to face since before the pandemic.
Rose has phoned me every other Monday at 7pm since the pandemic began, just to make sure I’m all right. Sometimes it’s been a bit of a chore. Neither of us are ‘phone people’ and we both have to work quite hard to keep things going for 40 minutes or so. Rose was born the same year as me, but in a different town. We were middle-aged before we met, by which time she had suffered a great deal. People felt both sorry for and afraid of her, with her sudden spirals into depression, the periodic ‘cartings off’ to an infrequently-visited ward on the top floor of the local hospital. Still, we shared an office and became friends. Thankfully, over the years she seems to have recovered.
I remember in the old days always being careful to think before I spoke. I had once come out with one of my typically over-dramatic pessimistic comments, then realised she was weeping silently behind her computer. I will never know whether I was responsible for that, or whether she had been weeping already. We learned not to mention various words – the D(epression) word, the S(uicide) word, the M(ad) word – in case they injured her. Now, though, she and I can be frank with one another. Maybe we could always have been. We can acknowledge that the world is sometimes a horrible, dangerous place. We can laugh.
So, she rang yesterday. It’s difficult – we’re old ladies, technically, and since the pandemic our separate lives have become circumscribed and dull. She tells me how she had to wait five hours in the hospital emergency department for her partner to be seen, despite him being in awful pain and supposedly ‘fast-tracked’ by his GP. I tell her I managed to get my biennial blood test appointment despite the fact that the new ‘blood line’ is only open for a few hours a day and every time you ring ‘Computer says no’ – doesn’t even give you the option of hanging on the line and listening to awful music for twenty minutes. Somebody kind and efficient called Richard actually opened my email. I didn’t think anybody in the NHS opened emails anymore. You are just supposed to send them – and then get lost.
She tells me she has been over to Tesco on the bus – her biggest adventure of the week. The last time I actually went in to a Tesco store was two years ago, or more. Tesco comes to me, stacks the groceries on the front step. Two minutes conversation.
But, at last it looks as though Rose, Daisy and I are going to meet up – later this month around the time of Daisy’s birthday. I have been shielding and Daisy has been super-nervous about ‘catching it’. But we seem to have arrived at the same point at roughly the same time – if not now, when? We’ve lived be be old(ish) and we’re still alive, it seems. But what exactly for?
Particularly since the Ukraine thing, I have asked myself – what am I hanging on to life for? Do I desperately want to be stuck on this lump of rock for the next ten or fifteen years, with World War III about to start, possibly; with the Plague never going to be entirely gone, the economy shot, the world getting hotter – floods and gales and forest-fires more frequent? They say it’ll soon be like the ’70s again, when we were all apparently warming our hands at lighted candles and the TV shut down at six o’clock. (Can’t say I remember, but apparently.) Do I really need to keep body and soul together at all costs? As the poet says:
Thou shalt not kill But need’st not strive Officiously to keep alive.
I found myself discussing all this with Rose. I was careful to reassure her I didn’t mean – you know, the S word No, she said, she understood perfectly. She felt exacly the same. So, in the immortal word of Archy the cockroach, who typed his free-verse poems by throwing himself at the typewriter keys in a newspaper office(Archy and Mehitabel – Don Marquis)
Let’s meet in a cafe, or in the park with sandwiches. Let’s bring birthday presents.
To find a vaguely suitable image for each post, my usual method is to think about the post. What one word might sum it up? Failing that, does any particular association or memory remain in my mind after writing it – lateral rather than literal? This can go a bit far. I think I wrote a post recently called “Not To Worry, Mary” which wasn’t even about a lady called Mary, but a reference to “making a mary of something”. For all I know this expression may only be current in one small corner of This Sceptred Isle. Readers in America, Canada or even north of the Watford Gap might have no clue. And the only thing that popped into my head as I hovered over the search box was
“Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go. “
So you got a picture of a lamb.
I just wanted to let you all know that I’m still here (and reading your posts) even though I haven’t been feeling up to posting for a spell. I’ve had a flare up of a hideous tummy pain thing. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does I’m usually in for a fortnight of it. So, I have been living on mugs of cold water, Slimfast ( the banana is nice, the chocolate tastes like four-year old cardboard boxes) and Paracetamol and no doubt sending my electricity bill through the roof by constantly boiling the kettle to refill my hot water bottle. I do seem to have lost some pounds though. At this rate by Summer I will be svelte enough to skip up and down the back lawn in a bikini. At least after dark.
And the Ukraine thing has really knocked me for six. I’m a news-addict but have had to give up watching more than a quick summary of the situation per day. I feel quite desperate that we are not doing anything except gasping in horror, waffling, setting up funds for this and that and saying how heroic those poor people. And yet (in theory) I understand the reasoning – not wanting to cause a Third World War.
I suppose the reaction may be because I was born shortly after the Second World War. My parents and grandparents (who had been through the First World War) seemed to talk about nothing else. I would be sitting around, the only child at that point, mostly under the table, and they forgot about me. Well, I was a forgettable child. I heard a lot of bits and pieces of stories that way. Stories of bombed roofs falling in on babies, which remained miraculously unharmed, having to eat horse-meat but not being told, etc. Maybe I would not be one-finger-typing this post so many years later had I not been so gripped by random snatches of conversation drifting down from Above The Table-Cloth.
The War seemed to consume my whole childhood. Everything related back to it except me. I had somehow failed to be in existence at the proper time. And then they started testing Atom Bombs and Mum had her nervous breakdown, allegedly because of it. War was not an event to me back then but a person. Another member of the family.
So, what can you do, with physical pain close to home and genocide taking place only two hours away by aeroplane? I have sat squashed on the sofa between multiple un-accommodating cats, alternately binge-watching the silent-but-deadly “Reacher” – if only you could just send him in to knock a few heads together violently / picturesquely – and repeats of “The Great Interior Design Challenge”. Completely useless but they keep me sane. Time to top up the hot-water bottle. And maybe another Slimfast…
For several years I’ve avoided visiting the village bus-stop – likewise the one-and-only village shop that hides behind it – in case Bertie is there. Bertie is there most days, so even when driving past I have needed to adopt a fixed gaze, as if intent on avoiding potholes.
Bertie has unnaturally sharp eyesight. It’s become his”job” to venture out into the road every thirty seconds or so and – man with invisible megaphone – announce when the blue double-decker rounds the corner, more than a mile away.
There must be some sort of force-field enclosing me and the Village Idiot in all his (and occasionally her) colourful incarnations. What is it about me that attracts them? Worse, what is it about them that attracts me? It has never ended well.
He talks and talks, does Bertie – windy, self-important tosh about entry-level computer courses, clever roof repairs, the electrically-operated fountain in his back garden. He gets close up to your face, treating you to last night’s beer and the two (yes, one followed by another) pub dinners he always consumes. He never wears a coat even when it snows; always the same shiny suit, which he is on the verge of bursting out of. He has this strangled, conspicuous voice. He knows the name of every single person who gets on the bus, all along the route – a whole hour’s worth – and everybody knows his.
Anything personal about yourself that you happen to let slip – as I did in the beginning, before I realised – he will instantly broadcast far and wide. People wince a little as his gaze falls upon them. He actually seems to notice this tiny wincing, but that’s as far as it goes.
I was forced to go on the bus this one time because the Council cancel your Pass if you fail to use it at least once a year. Most probably you will have died so why waste a piece of plastic? I may not always be able to drive, and way out here if you can’t drive you’re stuck. You end up paying and paying, for a second-rate – in fact third-rate – service.
The bus was full of old ladies, their masks sagging around their whiskery chins, all the better to chat and exhale a miasma of virus particles into an enclosed space. And I longed to shout Cover those Noses you Selfish Baggages. Don’t you know there’s a Plague on?
Actually, it wasn’t till the journey back that I encountered Bertie. I was queuing to climb down off the bus and spotted him ushering the new passengers on ahead of him with elaborate bows and hand-gestures – another of his self-imposed duties. But I thought fast. Keeping my mask on and my head down I managed to slink past. Luckily he was busy button-holing some other poor woman.
After Mother passed away, he told me once, more distant relatives had moved him here, from a day’s train journey away down in the West Country. “You’ll like it up there,” they assured him. “We’ve found you a nice little bungalow with a sea view. And so convenient for the bus-stop.”
I used to get through a lot of slippers and thought to save money by going around the house in just ordinary thin socks plus those holey plastic sandals known as Crocs.
I have had really cold feet all Winter and so finally, as Spring approaches, decide to invest in a pair of Snuggly Slipper Boots. ‘Snuggly’ probably sold them to me as my feet were so very cold.
But the strongest and ugliest of the toms has fallen in love with one of my Snuggly Slipper Boots and follows me around the house trying to cling to my left ankle and mate with her. I regularly entreat him to desist in such terms as ‘Gerrof yer daftie yer gonna trip me up!’ but he’s besotted.
I do like to read but now have no soft-furnishings to speak of – a long, cat-related tale, that one – and so can only read upstairs on a narrow camp-bed or downstairs in the living-room on an even narrower one with cushions propped against the wall like some old hippie in a squat. But this is super-chilly even with one’s Snuggly Slipper Boots on. The sun never gets round to the living-room.
I tried out a plastic chair in the one patch of sun in the kitchen but the plastic chair didn’t stay comfortable for long and the cats objected to my presence in it. What I really need is a deckchair…
I’ve always loved words and ‘expressions’. From when I first learned to read at Infants School I have squirreled them away, delightedly.
‘Nasturtium’ is the first one I remember – that feeling of gleeful self-satisfaction at having acquired the first rare item for my collection; the lovely orange flower picture in the book. ‘Gardener’. ‘Indigo’. I can’t remember ever having had to learn a spelling, and as far as I know I have never forgotten the meaning of a word, once discovered. Show me a long word I have never seen and I will often be able to deduce its meaning. Word-particles whizz around – I can almost see them, inside my head, like Scrabble tiles, falling into place. I ‘read’ spellings inside my head, with my eyes shut.
(If only maths could have been the same but I struggled, how I struggled. I could neither remember nor understand the point of numbers. These alien squiggles caused me such anxiety that all I wanted to do was “get them out, get them OUT!” I can manage everyday maths nowadays – given pencil and paper – but still have trouble remembering more than one pin number. As for telephone numbers – fat chance.)
So I was mortified to discover, only yesterday, that there is such a thing as Silent Disco. And indeed has been since ‘before 2005’ with a mention of something similar in a Manga comic as far back as 1960-whatever. 2005, that’s like, a really long time ago, isn’t it? 2022 take away 2005 is like, well, a really long time (-ish). And all this time there was Silent Disco…
However good you think you are at something there will always be gaps. To be Ye Complete Worde Nerd yes, you need to read, and read voraciously, all your life. The longer the life and the more books/written materials consumed the better, but also the wider the range of ‘inputs’ the better. For instance I picked up on the phenomenon of Silent Disco form a BBC news report. A young woman had been shot and killed at a Silent Disco in a back garden in London.
The shooting was a terrible thing in itself but – Silent Disco? Was that actually what it sounded like? How did they do it? Did everyone just imagine their own music? Thanks to Wikipedia I now know that there are earphones, and thanks to Google Images and YouTube I have now even seen people engaged in Silent Disco-ing.
That’s Gap number 1, for me. I grew up with books and libraries only. By the time the internet came in I was already approaching middle age. Before I became relatively at home in the internet I was even older. There’s a couple of decades (-ish) when I didn’t know how to make full use of it as a ‘source’, and all the while ‘youth culture’ was passing me by.
Gap number 2 is social/neurological. Please don’t feel unnecessarily sorry for me when I confess that even when young enough I never went to a disco, never ever danced that kind of dancing in public. A little basic ballroom, perhaps.
At school the girls used to talk about doing ‘down The Central’. Apparently that was the local hotspot, the place to be. They carefully avoided telling me what or where it was ( yes, that’s the really sad part) and I never did find out. Not that I would have been able to go on my own anyway. I was dragged along to one or two parties, weddings and such in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.
Even Ex danced (dreadfully) while I cowered in a corner watching, clutching my little glass of orange juice, deeply uncomfortable. I just can’t dance in front of people.
So, I have a big social/experience gap and a big linguistic gap corresponding to it, and that ‘s unlikely to change. However, I do still dance, sometimes, on my own. With the radio on, sometimes, I begin to feel like Hugh Grant, shimmying around Downing Street on his first day as Prime Minister in “Love, Actually”. Or those guys in “The Full Monty”, tapping their feet and executing tiny twirls to the potted music in the unemployment queue.
As you probably know, I now have two blogs, this one and Swan Singer. This is due to the kind of administrative/technical “Mary” in which I seem to specialise. But not to worry, Mary – I will make it look as if it is on purpose and henceforth post my short stories on Swan Singer and continue to post miscellaneous thoughts, memories, rambles and rants on this one.
The last bit of “flash” I posted on Swan Singer I called “An Apple For The Teacher”. I know – a whiff of the lead balloon about it, despite the fact that on the surface it was very apt – it was about a teacher being given an apple, albeit in an indirect and slightly disguised sort of way. Yes, I scented that lead balloon but went ahead and used it anyway. [Sigh!] I suppose I could have sneaked in and changed it retrospectively, but that would have been cheating and anyway – as the wood-carver happens to say at the end of the tale – it was a lesson well learned.
One very useful rule of flash fiction writing is to “let the title do the heavy lifting”. Because –
When words are severely limited, the right title can tell a good third of the story for you, and
The title is what makes you want to read it!!!
I just, on impulse, ordered an anthology of flash fiction entitled “The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down” (Meg Pokrass). Why did I do that? Because I wanted to know about the dog – if indeed there is a dog – and its upsiide-down-ness. Plus on the cover there is a picture of an upside-down string bag full of upside-down lemons. What have lemons got to do with dogs?
So, verbal hooks and visual hooks – better still, both. I think the main thing is the title excites your curiosity. There’s stuff you really need to know, it whispers. Read me!
You can “knock ’em dead” with a title, or do it in a more nuanced way. I just picked up (already had it – not another Amazon excess) an anthology called “Sudden Flash Youth” (Eds: Perkins-Hazuka, Hazuka and Budman) and in it found a brill story entitled:
“My Brother at the Canadian Border” by Sholeh Wolpe – sorry, haven’t yet found acute accents on this keyboard. Now, on the surface that looks to be almost as pedestrian as “An Apple For The Teacher”, though at least isn’t a cliche. And the story is about exactly that – her – real or imaginary – brother arriving in a sports-car at the Canadian border. And facetiously declaring, when asked his destination beneath a giant “Canada” sign:
He and his college freshman companions must have been holding the map upside-down, he explains.
Just like the Upside-Down Dog this title begs a lot of questions. Why is Wolpe writing the story and not her brother? Why is her brother going to Canada? What sort of trouble is he going to get into? Borders are places of tension, always.
In a very short story Sholeh Wolpe will make you laugh, make you admire her brother’s wit, make you afraid, demonstrate what happens when teenage high-spirits collide with a total sense-of-humour bypass, bring home racial bias in a way that “just telling you about it” could never do. You keep half-expecting the poor daft boy to be shot for being clever.
So – titles – worth spending a little more time over. Slapped-wrist to self.
Well, I’m still here! More surprisingly still, the roof’s still attached and – as yet, anyway – none of the fence panels has disintegrated, which is the classic round here. The wind’s still blowing fit to bust; I can hear the power lines rattling against the roof, my letter-box is doing it’s usual random clanks and it’s pitch black outside. However, we are now out of the Red warning. The whole of England and Wales is now Amber again, till that expires at 9pm.
Looking out during the day I spotted various distant neighbours weaving about in their gardens attempting to tie wildly flapping stuff down. My cat kennel/rabbit hutch went for a bit of a wander. I waited till it got parallel to the front door and dived out and got it, otherwise it would have been out in the road by morning. Since then the cats have amused themselves playing King of the Castle with it – taking it in turns to hide inside and swipe at the occupant from above.
A section of ancient trellis has come to rest several gardens to my left and my own garden is collecting fragments of clear corrugated plastic from somebody’s lean-to or shed roof, plus margarine tubs, so somebody’s blue bin must have blown over. I think I shall leave Mr and Mrs Wheelie in the garage till Monday, just in case.
Following it on TV – the tent-like roof of the O2 Arena in London has been shredded. I went there once to a James Taylor concert with my epileptic friend. I was apprehensive that she was going to have one of her attacks from the sheer excitement of temporarily breathing the same air as Sweet Baby James, but she didn’t. Good thing too as I’m the world’s worst in an emergency, the original Headless Chicken. Also a whole church spire has lifted off and landed in the church grounds below.
Today I have written the second “third” of the next short story (for the “alt” blog) plus the Note that I always put at the end. Both in pencil so far. I watched a bit of TV, dozed off for half an hour, woke up, wrote a bit more then cast on a complicated dish-cloth. Knitting is one of those things they say are good for your brain, so I theorise the more complicated the pattern the more neurones generated.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how you can go through your whole life glibly coming out with these expressions and suddenly, one day, you get a vivid picture of what they meant. I suddenly saw sailors on some kind of ship struggling to close hatchways to stop storm water getting in and sinking them, maybe even nailing battens of wood over them. The question arises, what happens to those on deck actually doing the battening? Are they then stuck up on deck, lashed to the mast or something?
Well, we are expecting a “named storm” any minute now. Her name’s Eunice, which sounds like some elderly schoolteacher, doesn’t it? Unfortunately Eunice is forecast to be one of those “once in ten year” events, and coinciding with the highest of tides. Winds of 90 or 100 mph, possibly. We get yellow, amber or (rarely) red weather warnings here in the UK. Red means, among other things, “danger to life” and – oh joy? – we now have a Red one here in London & the South-East. There is another one down west in Wales/Devon. I just read a headline that said “200 without power in Devon” but am not sure whether that means the storm has already made land there, or somebody is speculating as to what might happen.
I woke up at about 4am – still only a little windy out – came downstairs, made a cup of coffee and scanned the weather news. When I went to sleep we were Amber and now we are Red. One of the things they were advising us to do – apart from no-brainers like stay indoors, don’t try to cross bridges in caravans and don’t even think about taking dramatic selfies on the seafront – was ‘secure loft-hatches with strong bolts’. Well, chance would be a fine thing!
My loft hatch – as you may have read in my birthday post – is broken. In fact it fell down during ‘birthday’ night I walked straight into it in the morning. That work me up! I have made phone calls trying to get a handyman to fix it and am currently waiting for one of ‘them’ – it’s a kind of repair agency specialising in older people – not repairing the older people but doing jobs for them – to phone me back. And of course they haven’t. So, I have a loft-hatch only being held aloft by wedges of file-card and Amazon boxes and I can’t imagine Eunice, if she does decide to get into my roof, is going to be very impressed by those. So I am worried about my roof.
Unfortunately I remember the 1987 hurricane, which has been the most extreme weather event of my life so far. I suppose I felt safer then because Ex was with me – I know, it’s that primitive, pre-feminist thing about feeling safer if there’s a big, strong man around – and I had this blind faith that Ex was invincible. We watched from the upper windows of our wooden – yes, 200 year-old weather-boarded, with tall, unstable chimney – house. Normally you couldn’t see the coast but on that night there were blue flashes all along it as the power went out, and even above the music of the wind there was a kind of percussion of breaking glass and smashing slates. Even when the idiot decided to venture outside and try to disentangle the neighbour’s fence from his parked car, I had no fear. Ex and his whole Liverpool-possibly-Spanish/ Kentish-possibly-Gypsy family were drawn to drama and disaster – to fires, to storms and – more the female contingent, this – to loud, ridiculous arguments during which they threw all but the kitchen sink at one another and then didn’t speak for seven years.
Soon after we were married he drove his ancient Ford Popular, with home-made cloth roof and me inside it, along the sea-front at Sandgate in a storm, just for the “rush” of it. Pebbles raining down on us, giant waves etc. And yet neither then or in 1987 did I have any real fear. The universe wouldn’t dare lay a finger on him.
And oddly enough it never has, but it’s since laid plenty of fingers on me to make up for it, which is why I’m definitely nervous now.
Have just been out to the garage to get another bag of cat litter in and it’s definitely here now. It’s windier, and it sounds nasty.
So, I am posting now in case the electrics do go off. When they’ve had storms up north recently the power has been off for 10 or 11 days, followed by another storm, and then another. Hopefully that won’t happen here. I’m half-way through a short story for the other blog but if necessary I can finish it on paper and ‘store’ it. That is one of the good things about writing – you need very little equipment to do it and it’s the sort of thing you can carry on doing by day- and candle-light. Got candles affixed to saucers. Know where the matches are. Have charged everything I can think of including — most important — my reading-light ‘torque” gadget. Cats all fed (early) and now in sleep mode. Apart from the three-legged one, who wants to sit on my laptop and be part of the typing experience. Unfortunately, because it’s the front leg, he’s not very good at changing direction…
One positive – the stray cat turned up at 5. He’s usually around anytime from 5 to 7 am. He’s all-over black so before dawn I can never see whether he’s there or not. I put the dish down, start opening sachets and there either will or will not be a faint hiss, in the darkness, and then – whoomp! the black cat has landed. Sometimes he isn’t there but the food disappears later. But this morning was a whoomp! morning so wherever he’s gone now, I know that he has a full tummy.
Ah well, I suppose it’s just a matter of sitting tight and waiting for things to start flying about.