Mock the meat it feeds on

Friday, 13 December 2013

Overgrown Orchard
Andrew Wyeth, 1959
Metropolitan Museum of Art

"The mind I love must have wild places,
A tangled orchard where dark damsons drop in the heavy grass,
An overgrown little wood,
The chance of a snake or two,
A pool that nobody’s fathomed the depth of,
And paths threaded with flowers
Planted by the mind."

Katherine Mansfield

I bloody wish I'd written that.

time quivers slightly

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Twenty-nine years ago I left school; a graduation photo of me sitting in white robes on a dusty floor, mortarboard abandoned, Gauloise in hand, scowling into the distance, is a pretty accurate portrait of my state of mind back in 1984.

I had spent two years at that International School in Belgium trying unsuccessfully to be expelled so that I could go back to Scotland; my memories of that time are bleak.  I didn't fit in with the children of diamond merchants and arms dealers, corporate American citizens or French aristocrats.  I did a bit of acting but I mainly remember counting the days until I went to University, sitting alone watching experimental plays and feeling equally misunderstood, internalising a lot of anger, angst and black coffee and hanging out with local musicians, pretending to adore Moroccan drum music.

So when The Pretty One talked me into a school reunion, just a coffee, in London, nice people, it will be fun, I was completely prepared to bolt after ten minutes of squirmy, resentful small talk.

Of course, none of us are seventeen any longer.  We've got battle scars: death, divorce, loss of country and sanity.  We've got badges too: lots of beautiful children, unexpected careers, personal happiness in the teeth of grim societal opposition.  Almost thirty years is, it seems, plenty of time to grow up, to soften and forgive, and to open our eyes to the good things that happen instead of dwelling on the bad.

I would like to pretend that, on the train home, I let go of three decades of resentment and ire.  I am working on that, and it is happening, but this is a place for ugly truths.

I'm afraid I beamed with pride that a dozen people remember like yesterday, the sight of me outside Study Hall locked in battle with the Head, cigarette smoke and expletives thickening the air, refusing loudly and publicly to conform.  It was a recurring image for much of the reunion, he and I eyeball to eyeball, neither giving an inch, furious words, contraband vodka and threats, tears and shrugs. I have just found that long-suffering teacher on Facebook and composed a brief panegyric on his patience and compassion.

It would have been easier to expel me.

I keep blowin' down the road

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

'Sorry, Jean, I can't get a fucking signal so no, I don't know how far it is to the bloody pub.'
'Yes, and my stockings have chafed something rotten.'
'Jilly, I hope you've got a charger in that massive backpack, you prim old tart; if we miss the X-Factor results, I'll swing for someone.'

This year, I needed more local walks, and being bone idle, thought it would be useful to wander along behind a random group of old folk in bobble hats, secretly recording the route on my whizzy app and then smugly take family, dog and visitors to unexplored parts of this beautiful bit of coast I call home.

I joined the Ramblers.

I did wonder quite how gentle a stroll it would be when I wandered up to my first walk to be publicly admonished for wearing trainers and not carrying waterproofs.  It was at the height of this recent tropical summer, but apparently we are like the Scouts and need to be prepared for absolutely everything.

When we broke for lunch, I secretly pulled a Diet Coke out of my pocket and watched as they unwrapped sandwiches in paper, for all the world like Enid Blyton people; one old darling had stolen a teaspoon from the cafe at the supermarket because they wanted over two pounds for a wrap, whatever the Dickens that was, so he'd gone for a reduced-out-of-date tin of sardines for his bait. They called him all sorts over that piece of parsimony. He smirked in the sun and ate his sardines with the contraband cutlery and enormous relish.  With extreme care, the rest folded their waxed paper and banana skins back into Tupperware, and shared tartan thermoses and malt cake.

I am pretty fit, but I have to say I was struggling to make conversation by the end of an extremely brisk ten miles.

Nest time I showed up in proper boots with a rucksack and cake.  They softened perceptibly.  There was an influx of youth on the roads because of our Festival and they told me great stories about the times they all went in the 1960s - 'we had two kinds of drugs, beer and booze.' 'We had a damn sight more than that, Martin, we just never gave you any.'

I have learned wonderful useful things; the names of wildflowers and the calls of birds; the fiercely fought invisible battles between the Footpath Society and landowners; how to mend parts of a Morris Minor with unravelled barbed wire; how to avoid paying for car-parking within a fifty mile radius of my home; the dignity and bravery of the elderly and recently bereaved who are determined not to die of unhappiness and loneliness; the astonishment of laughing myself sick at unspeakably profane jokes told by a twinkly and apple-cheeked old lady.

It's the last ramble until the New Year tomorrow; fifteen miles of gloriously dank December dun. I hope they'll all still be there in January as I have grown to love them all very dearly.  Apart from the one who asked me how old my grandchildren were, the blind old bat.

Since you asked, Mildred

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

I'm farting about looking at potential designs for the cover of the book that I have out together of the ten short stories I've been writing that I'm furiously procrastinating about publishing that might show me up to be the interloper who cannot write that has crept in, uninvited, and squats under the table, wrapped in a hanging corner of the cloth, licking ruby smears of jam from her palms and hoping against hope that nobody will notice, which frankly is insane because otherwise who will know, who will read and who will say if there is any point?

To the incredible kind anonymous person who emails me weekly, this is your update.

I am editing the final couple of stories.

I will publish the collection on Kindle.

I will not bottle out, you will be reading them by the end of the year.

I bloody hope you like them after all this.

Otherwise, it is exam time. The bots have regressed and demand spoon-feeding of obscure historical facts, incomprehensible physics formulae to calculate the loss of heat through PVC windows (the horror!), tiny bite-sized Bakewell tarts and floppy, exhausted turns round the field as the dog wonders who is the most pathetic member of the family.

Edward has discovered a TV programme about men who live on a mountain and track leopards and make stuff out of old crap.  He alone keeps the fires of sanity burning.

You're all well out of it.

Tennis party

Friday, 18 October 2013

It would be difficult to get away from the tennis party.  As ever, spinster acolytes flocked about the tea urn, awaiting her widower father.  He would look to Claire to repel the most ardent. The dusty, bony ladies in their yellowing tennis dresses had long jockeyed in a genteel fashion to become the Doctor's second wife. He had other plans. Claire's discrete orchestration of his habits suited him well. His pre-lunch tipples, the visits to the plump and accommodating lady in Ballymore, the hand resting a moment too long on the thighs of the young wives - all given a veneer of respectability by Claire's continuing presence in the gloomy old house.

Julian was late. She remembered the powerful arabesque of his tennis serve and her cheeks warmed. When Julian had pulled her towards the rhododendrons last Sunday, she had felt faint with longing and terror. He would write to Father, reassuring him of his intentions towards Claire. The subaltern's paltry pay didn't matter with her little nest egg from Mother.  A small cottage that would flourish warmly under her experienced husbandry and oh! The milky, mewling babies that would surely follow. Farewell to the dark cold house, to the streams of sick and impoverished patients, to turning a blind eye to Father's indiscretions. She would be free, happy and loved.

She had seen the postman creaking up the drive on his ancient bicycle, Julian's letter must surely have been in that battered leather bag. Father would have read it by now; Cook always announced the arrival of the post by banging on his study door and propping the usual handful of dull envelopes on the shelf in the hall.

Indoors, it was chilly after the brave April sun. Claire crept to the shelf. Empty. Heart thundering, she chewed at a nail. The study door opened suddenly and Father's tennis shoes squeaked across the parquet. He stopped close to her, thrumming the strings of his racquet with his thumb.

Claire took a huge breath. 'Father, there was a letter. Julian...'

“Julian is an impudent boy. I have telephoned to him and explained that he has misunderstood your intentions and your duty to me precludes your ever taking a husband.” His serpentine hiss chilled her. “I have told him that your inheritance remains under my control as long as I choose. I have also explained the tragic medical reasons that you are unable to bear children. He won't bother you any more. Please tell Cook to bring the seed cake. I expect you at tea shortly.”

The empty shelf blurred and swam as she folded silently, slowly to the floor.

Forgotten and remembered

Thursday, 17 October 2013

“Is that a picture of you, Mum? It fell out of your Macbeth. I borrowed it 'cos I've lost mine. Oh God, you look like Boris Johnson.  How old were you?”  Toby's voice cracked with an adolescent horror that she had ever had a life that didn't include him.  She took the photo and turned it over. Her intricate purple teenage handwriting marked the date, May 11th, but not the year. 

She held out her hand, unspeaking, for the creased paperback. She riffled the soft pages; a blur of pencilled notes, cartoons; the guilty scorch on the back cover - a cigarette? A candle or joss stick?

“I must have been your age. That was the year I did my O'levels.” She took the picture, the book and her glass of wine, over to the window seat. 

The girl in the photo had a shock of crimped, snow-coloured hair and a slash of kohl ringed each crinkly, laughing eye. She was perched on a style in the Sussex countryside, many miles and a million lifetimes away from her expensively monastic Shepherd's Bush kitchen.

The day came back in snapshots. The fluttering jade ruffle of her ripped skirt, skewered on the barbed wire, their shouts of laughter carrying across the sunny fields. She remembered the scratch of tartan rug on bare legs, the deep smoky tang of German cheese, pale wine and sweet-tasting kisses. The bellowing farmer.  Their breathless laughter as they dropped forks, a bronze pump, a Specials tape, a chain of squashed daisies, in the mad dash for the safety of the woods.

Outside her London front door, a taxi rumbled to a stop. 

‘Mum!” Toby's voice betrayed the familiar anxiety and dread. “He's here.”


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The rubber brick
Dense, ebony
slowly submerges
your ears echo with hollow shrieks, rebounding
On entry
you silently stream effervescence
from your nose, your mouth
your rose-printed cotton pyjamas
a chilling embrace

Recapture the brick
Lodge it fast between your ribs
Carried for decades
Its unyielding, impenetrable heft
Eyes smart
A burden of gravid bleakness
In every breath

Now rip out this slab
With all your might
Heave aloft and watch it
Plummet, ripple, sink
With hypnagogic elegance, it settles, far below
And sit
Kick your legs in the shallows and ponder
With what grace you will fill that space

They are the charming gardeners

Monday, 30 September 2013

My godmother adored Elvis Presley.  So much so that she went into labour in 1960, watching GI Blues in a cinema in Lavender Hill and refused to go to hospital until the absolute last minute. She bit a scarf to keep the shouts to a minimum.

She was a very particular lady, and bought her jam home in a taxi from Fortnum and Mason. She hid it at the back of the boiler, and fed her great brood of children the home-made stuff. I saw her once, licking her raspberry nectar with a pointed tongue from a heavy silver teaspoon in the empty kitchen. I remember her husking bark of a laugh and the waxy gardenia-scented imprint she left on my cheek.

She died far too young, in the cruel way that life sometimes just picks the best, most perfect flowers early. She had known she would die for a long time, and before she did, bought charms to add to my bracelet; one every year until I was eighteen. I was allowed to take them out every year on my birthday, for a few carefully-supervised moments.

I could never afford to get them properly soldered on a chain, and anyway I preferred a clashing armful of modern silver.

I found the velvet bag of them when I moved house earlier this year. It was an odd moment; I hadn't seen them for over two decades, yet they were as familiar to me as the shape of my hands.  I arranged each golden charm on the pale aqua surface of my dressing table.

It was a story both told and imagined; the tiny prancing horse was easy - I was mad about riding as a child.  The saucepan, secretly sneered at by my teenage self, had become the most potent symbol of my quotidien existence as a mother, wife and general greedy guts. The exotic Aladdin's lamp foreshadowed my many years in Arabia. A crumpled 1960s pound note that never quite fitted back into the golden disc, my rather slapdash approach to finance; a dog, for a child who adored cats and became a woman devoted slavishly to a Weimaraner; a book; a wellington boot. A lipstick, a hairbrush. A bull, a lion, a bell.

I hardly knew her, but I looked at the story told in gold and felt that she knew me.

She knew how to make a good joke, though. She died on August 16th 1977, the day we flew off the the West Indies to lead a rather different life. The day that Elvis died.

Eight years old

Friday, 27 September 2013

I am dressed like a falling leaf
Though I am sturdy as a mushroom
Rust, burnt orange, russet corduroy
The hillocks of my scabbed and warty knees
Raised to my vermillion chin, furrowed echoes
Of the cattle-trodden sliced-up earth
Below my perch of crenelated stone
Hoary and xanthic-splashed
Hard, sharp flat wind
Tang of sea
Sweet stench of decay
My palms sting, rust-streaked, raw
Their ferrous stigmata witness that
Despite my swooping dreams
I am too solid
To fly.

a new dress is a help under all circumstances

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Earlier this year, I had tickets for the four of us to see Helen Mirren in  The Audience.  Edward called me in the afternoon and said he had banged his head rather badly and was so sorry, but could I take them back.  His head was very achy and he felt a bit sick. Luckily, the whole world wanted tickets and I sold them easily. At 6pm, Lazarus-like, he and the bots popped on their shoes and announced we were all off to the circus. They were all very pleased indeed that he felt so much better.

They all fell about giggling as the nervous new boy-on-a-unicycle took an unscripted tumble.  They hooted with glee as the glamourous bird-in-a glittery-leotard contorted above Freddie's head. They sat stock still as, to a soundtrack of surreal gypsy punk, a lady and man danced, her costumed swirling, being pulled off, whisked away, removed with an incredible sleight of hand.  There were over a dozen different dresses, spangled, satin, hooped, slinky.  It was a breathtaking thing to see, a theatrical meeting of costume, dance and humour. It was fabulous.

Luckily for them.

Last night, by the miracle that is National Theatre Broadcasting, I watched the play I had missed from the comfort of my local cinema.  It imagines some of the highlights of the weekly meetings, undertaken with her unimpeachable sense of duty since 1953, with the 12 Prime Ministers who have served under Queen Elizabeth II.

Helen's costumes are just sumptuous, and she undergoes several blink-and-you-miss-it changes of costumes on stage.  She mutates from doughty middle-age, flirting with Harold Wilson; to a reed-slim not-such-an-ingenue defying Winston Churchill; to a hoary-locked dowager falling asleep as Cameron bangs on about the Euro.  It was gorgeous British theatre; historic, correct, slightly naughty and bloody funny.

When I got home, the bots and Edward were lolling about watching cricket and vampire stuff.  I told them what an amazing actress Mirren is; about the imperceptible body language with which she shrank from Thatcher and flirted with Eden; and the amazing costume changes on stage.

Freddie sat up straight.  "Did you see her pants?" "Er, no, she was playing the Queen, for goodness sake."

He turned the cricket back up.

Nancy nests

Monday, 9 September 2013

Oi! Palewski! Touch that fucking hazelnut torte and I'll brain you 
with this Louis VX Boulle Bracket timepiece.  
I couldn't give a shit if you're de Gaulle's bitch. Got it?

Never apologise, never explain.

I believe Nancy Mitford trilled this, or something similar, during a cinq à sept with her beloved Gaston Palewski.  I imagine she did so after a bout of red-eye-inducing sobbing, after she realised the bastard was going to continue riding her literary and social coat-tails without the slightest intention of making her his wife.  No doubt he pressed his pock-marked cheek to her hot damp one and strode off down Rue Monsieur without a backward glance as she drifted helplessly into the kitchen to try and solve how the infernal oven worked.

No wonder she looked so amazing and gaunt-chic in the New Look.

Unlike Nancy, I have an adoring husband with a soft cheek, its bristles now gently greying, who gives many a backward glance.  Usually to check that my well-used kitchen is not afire.  The blistering summer has mercifully ended; the bots, even taller and more generous than ever with their opinions, have gone back to school.

We live in a new house now.  Brand new, almost.  The first place I have ever called home that is under 100 years old.  I feared the silence of no ghosts, no whispers of experiences and the palimpsests left by friends and laughter.  I worried that regularity of walls and floorboards that met would be dull.

What was I thinking? Things work; they fit; the kitchen is almost wholly made of glass, with toasty underfloor heating and it is like living in a forest.  I have painted the floors white and the walls grey and I am contemplating learning Danish.

It has been a happy, productive, busy time since I last was here. I am writing and baking cakes.  It feels less like procrastination if the end result is a complicated triple-baked affair with fruit from the cliff tops
and a crumble topping.

Unlike Nancy, I am indolent with contentment.  But I will come back here now the autumn is creeping up the garden to touch the flavescent vines and rot the plump rust-streaked figs.  As the skies grow leaden and the rain bounces hard off the deck outside the still-open kitchen doors.  As the sharpening air carries a tang of smoke.

Like Nancy, I will not apologise for long absence caused by the beautiful unfurling of the days.

Unlike Nancy, I am in love with my life.