lift them up again

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

I know a girl who likes to rescue things.  She can see the loveliness in a walloped-out armchair, an orphaned teacup, a badly-folded rumple of musty curtain. Her glowing kitchen has borne witness to the rescue of exotic marble lamp-stands, miscounted tangles of crochet, burning Christmas cakes.

Her hands are soft and always poised for kindness.  They pour tea and pat shoulders.  They pick up and stroke one-eyed hens that reek and fight.  They offer warm biscuits, wordless shrugs of blanket.

Her eyes, soft smiling buttons, are this week raw and aching.  Her little dog, rescued from hell and given twelve unexpected years, has died.

For over a decade, she clicked faithfully behind during night feeds, first steps, full years of growing a family, stoically submitting to being dressed like a character from Beatrix Potter, chased and threatened during uncontrollable barking fits with words as empty and light as swansdown, ridden, kissed to death, ignored in favour of other, more broken creatures.  Her loyalty was legendary.

She was a tiny dog who leaves a hole that all the tea and blankets cannot fill.  Sometimes, love so blurs our lives, that it becomes impossible to see who is rescuing and who is being rescued.

A uniquely portable magic

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

My first school in 1911. 
Not much different 60 years later.

When I started school, I could already read.  Apparently I rustled at the Northern Socialist's Guardian clamouring to know 'what is the letter shaped like a hammer?' and so, for the sake of peace, there began one of the enduring passions of my life.

My first school was in a lofty Victorian building; chilly echoing cloakrooms with ineffectually scalding clanging radiators, wire baskets for outdoor shoes and pitted wooden benches that squeaked alarmingly on bare thighs. The blackboards pulled down from an iron rod and emitted great chalky sighs as they fell.

I was taken to meet the Headmistress.  Her office was up narrow echoing stairs and it took forever to climb up there.  She was absolutely tiny, like me, her legs dangled from her chair. Of all the odd things to happen, we had exactly the same name.  She had a wooden plaque on the desk which had our name on it.  I read it, picked it up and showed my parents, gleefully, that she had made me a block with my name on it. Excellent; I loved presents.

She barked at me to put it down.  I remember her being very angry.  It transpired that she was a big pusher of the loony 1960s ITA 'reading' scheme which consisted of teaching children how to be utterly shit at reading by telling them 'foks' meant 'fox.'  So my being able to read already put rather a spoke in her plans. My teacher used to smuggle proper books in for me that I would hide in corners and devour. While she was mangling the brains of my poor classmates, I travelled far, adventuring in the company of fantastic new friends.

Outside daily assembly, I only met the Headmistress alone again once. I was sent to her because I had come in very late from break and, unrepentant, insisted that I had been playing a game with some other children.  She told me she had been watching from her lofty window, that the playground had been empty and I was a wanton liar. In retrospect, I think we were probably both right.

Bugger, bugger, bugger.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Hurry UU__UU__P
Get over yourself!
In fact,

A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.
- Carl Sagan

Especially pertinent today, when those voices simultaneously roar incomprehensibly and whisper indistinctly and I can no longer tell if I hear them or if it is the noise of my longing to capture them, to tame the sounds and storms and stories, and I feel mocked.

I'm taking the dog out.  That, without fail, makes everything better.

Mere guests in the sky

Friday, 14 March 2014

Nob off, there's a bit of coffee and walnut cake left 
and at least two date slices. 
I will beat you or die trying. 

Like so many lovely things in my life, I came to running through stubbornness and a drunken bet. Someone snorted rudely when I was invited to do the Great South Run, so I bought shoes, hired a trainer and spent many hours swearing, sweating, sobbing and stuffing myself with porridge.  I won the bet, though.

That was almost seven years ago.  I no longer drink or smoke or hate nylon, and my feet are like something from National Geographic.  I'm not noticeably skinny, either, since I refuse to give up cake.

I try and slog off every morning, wearing huge headphones that make my children shrivel with shame. Titchy ears, rivers of sweat and the need to mouth the words theatrically cause the discrete earbuds to slither out at every step.  So I must wear the comedy ones. I avoid running past the school bus stop at all costs, for very obvious reasons.  I listen to funny stuff, uplifting stuff, surreal stuff and scary stuff and never quite know what's coming.  I sweat spectacularly, and have that fair skin that turns crimson at any effort more than a languid tinkle for the butler; I look a fright.

But I don't care. It's like having a power hose coruscate the brain.  Everything is blasted into perspective; plots and worries iron themselves out; I have all the arguments I need, winning every one with elegant, stiletto-like remarks that leave my imaginary opponents (ancient school enemies, berks on the radio, the electricity board) beaten into shocked awe. I examine my life and give thanks for its imperfect colour and chaos. Very occasionally, the chatter becomes silence, and I feel an almighty peace.

When I heave, gasping, through the door, I turn on the coffee and wait for that glorious tingle to make its euphoric way into my mouth so that I grin like a child on Christmas Eve for a good 20 minutes.  It's the best time of day.  If you ever want me to agree to anything, catch me in that window - I'll sew on buttons, agree to drive a carload of children, meet your unrealistic deadlines.  I'm a maleable, lolling, sweat-soaked pussycat. 20 minutes, that's your lot.

Wasted with Waugh

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Darling Freddie, how too too ghastly.  Make sure Mummy doesn't fob you orf with any non-U drugs.  Get morphine and cocaine and ketamine and a gin fizz and tell the Ritz to send you oysters and plovers eggs.  Put it all on my account.

I had a lump-that-was-nothing removed a long time ago.  It was my first taste of general anaesthetic, and bloody hell, I loved it.  A lugubrious South African, covered in freckles and with an incomprehensible accent, held my hand and recited an incantation.  I floated away, trailing a vapour of disconnected numbers and felt my hand slip from his as I ascended to the heavens.

I had been reading the correspondence of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. For those Nancy-lovers among us, its more fabulously spiteful social commentary; bristling with in-jokes and shot through with her misguided loyalty to the bastard Colonel that would never marry her.

My next memory is of lying in a high-sided bed, through whose slats I could see another patient.  I was aware of a voice berating Nancy and begging her to dump that sod Palewski, to stop giving money to her pointless soak of a husband, and to write at least seven more books set in Paris.

When the nurses in the corner shouted 'Please, be quiet!' for perhaps the tenth time, it dawned finally that it was me talking, that I was not chatting with Nancy Mitford, but lying in a cot with my arse on show, holding hands with the lady next to me.  I whispered "so sorry." She asked me, "Are we alive?"  That stumped me and I drifted happily about between worlds until the South African appeared to take me upstairs for more counting games and to check I knew my own name.

Last week, Freddie hurt his arm in training.  He sat covered in mud, blood and glory as we eavesdropped in horror on the lady in the next cubicle, describing how difficult it was to go to the loo with all those blisters.

I have spent many hours at A&E with various muddy lads over the years, and fully expected them to strap up a nasty sprain and send us home.  Instead, as soon as they saw the X-ray, they talked about operating that night, about allergies and weight and the options of pinning and plates and all sorts of scary stuff. Eventually, they plastered him up and we have to go back every few days for the next few weeks for consultations and more X-rays and time off school, and using special software instead of a pen, and having all the girls argue about carrying his lunch tray.

There's a still a chance they will operate. he told me this afternoon, from under a pile of discarded socks, football magazines and empty cereal bowls, that apparently you can end up quite bonkers after a general anaesthetic, and how brilliant it feels to get so spectacularly wrecked just lying on a bed.  "Nonsense," I said with my poker-faced-hypocrite Mummy face on. "There's nothing wonderful or dangerous about it.  You won't know a thing."

Photograph: Thurston Hopkins/Getty


Friday, 7 March 2014

I recognised that burnished chuckle before I saw Amanda.  It had such a perfect veneer of warmth and authenticity that any fool could hear it was fake.  It echoed roundly against the chilly flat tiles, drowned out the constant roars and shrieks that rose and fell as the door to the swimming pool flapped wetly open.

I had been slumped on the bench for what felt like an eternity, willing my stolid body to get up, undress, pull on a costume, move through the warm foetid puddles of the changing room and out into the huge bright pool area.  I knew that once I was in the water, the muffled roar would soothe rather than scare; I would finally be weightless; the metallic song of bubbles would drown the jangling dissonance of my desperation.

I pulled a huge damp breath into my defeated body.  I willed myself to cling to the tattered rags of decency that flapped, like smoke-blackened pennant after a blitzkrieg.  The battle that had raged in my own body, leaving me bloody, empty and barren. I steeled myself to see her baby. I would never see mine, there would never be a single one, and that knowledge crushed me in a flat, endless pain.  I set my jaw against the howl of anguish that burned at the base of my throat.

She came in with her mother.  I recognised her from the baby group, from another life, when I had been happy; but I would have known their relationship anyway.  Both thoroughbreds, glossy and rippling, heads tossing, nostrils flared arrogantly. The mother's hair was an uncompromisingly crisp white and Amanda's an artful tawny, but the resemblance was startling.  Their laughter was an assault.

"Well, I hope she doesn't jump out of the window once he starts crying for the mid-morning feed.  Josh threatened again to sell him to the gypsies. The horror.  Three til five he was awake.  And we've got the Bishops drinks tonight.  I am exhausted."

"They're a great agency. She'll know what to do. Have a little swim, darling and let's see if you can have a massage.  It won't matter if we're a bit late.  They'll just charge a more, but you do need a break. Babies can be a real pain sometimes.  You go ahead, I'll go and find Suki and sort out a little treat."

I sat, a petrified lump of sorrow, as Amanda changed.  The soft billows of cashmere and silk, the smooth conker-brown boots, Amanda's spare, beautiful leather jacket.  Her bag I recognised from the glossy pages I stared at sometimes in my psychiatrist's waiting room.  It was butter-soft and pale yellow.  Like spring, like a chick, a daffodil, the sun.

She left it on the bench while she went to tie up her hair in front of the mirror.  She was a careless, heartless bitch.  Leaving her bag, leaving her baby.  She didn't deserve any of it.

It took me less than a minute to stand, my body jotled into action by the shot of anger I felt.  I picked up her bag, which hugged my hip with a fluidly sensuos ripple.  I strode through reception, past her mother gesturing elegantly at the receptionists; head down and out into the pale winter sunshine.   The river was just a few steps away and I stood on the towpath, breathing the smell of decay that rose from the dirty water; the putrefaction of plants and small animals, of melancholoy, of death.

I let the pale, soft strap slide down my arm, hoisted the bag upside down and emptied the perfumed, costly contents into the swirling dun water.   With soft splashes, things fell; a blue diary, a black fountain pen, a phone, little leather bags and pouches, a sheaf of polaroids, a single pale blue mitten, as small as a pixie's hat.

I flung the bag out into the middle of the river; the current eddied there, making roiling, confused circles and swells. It swirled in the undertow for a moment then disappeared into the undertow, a brief primrose flash then nothing.


Wednesday, 5 March 2014

When she put on her wedding dress, it was clear that the zip hadn't a chance in hell of doing up. The brittle lace dug into her fleshy arms and there were fulvous patches along the hem.  She shrugged the sleeves up as far as they would go and stretched her arms up above her head.  There was a creak as she did so; the stiffened corset moved seismically inside its ancient satin bindings but stayed intact.

An image came to her of her stout old body bursting forth, flesh escaping the unyielding cage, and it made her laugh.  The sound rumbled up from deep under the rolls of ancient silk skirts.

With liver-spotted hands, she lifted the vague cloud-coloured wisps of hair that floated uncertainly about her solid shoulders, and pulled them up on top of her head.  She twisted them loosely and pushed in an ivory comb.  It was missing some teeth, fallen victim to years of dressing up; the veil long since grown brittle, torn and discarded in some long-forgotten childhood game.  In her heart, she heard the echoes of her daughters arguing about who would wear it, her own voice soothing and fluttering, helping them hold their vibrant orange locks.  Jim's hair.  Her granddaughter had the Clarkson red hair too, though hers curled in tiny silken question marks about her ears and she stamped her foot when the worn comb slithered out.

The satin slippers lay forlorn in the bent cardboard box, the tissue soft and faded.  She thought they looked like little bodies whose souls had flown. Then she thought that growing old was no excuse for thinking such morbid horseshit and it was well past time for a belt of something strong.  She kicked the box under the carved wooden bed.

On bare, swollen feet, she shuffled down the half-lit passage, holding her skirts under one arm with an unconscious grace, and made her way downstairs.

Jim stood at the bottom, holding a small red glass; her mother's set that only came out at Christmas.  He must have gone all the way up in the outside loft to find it.  It was not the sight of him in his suit, the one that had done service for his own and his daughter's weddings, as well as too many funerals to bear, that made her breath catch and her throat hurt.  It was the thought of him methodically unfolding the ladder and making his careful, unsteady way up it.  She looked away too late, the huge tear spilling down into the soft ravines of her cheek. Above the too-large knot of his tie, she saw him swallow.  His voice was gruff.

"You look beautiful. Now drink the goddam whisky and let's eat.  Happy anniversary."


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

whose blog is worth an entire coffee-sip-filled morning

I’m going to find three pebbles, that will do it.  The gate to the beach is as ancient as I feel and needs a smart nudge with my knee to open; the paint, licked off each summer by a tongue of salty breeze, has worn to a soft sage green.  The wood shows underneath, the pale ash colour of Astrid’s hair. She is everywhere.  I have heard her laugh in the swish of the pine trees as I climbed down through the forest, feet sliding on the loamy, sandy path.  The emerald manes of the needles, swaying in clumps on the trees beside the path, are the exact shade of a pinafore I sewed for her when she was a tiny sprite of a child.

I make my careful way across the little bridge and out onto the ochre sand. At last, I feel my ankles begin to relax; they are petrified by arthritis these days and I struggle to walk where once I raced. There, by the lacy spume of the water’s edge, are the glossy black winks of the pebbles I have gathered here for decades.  I pick up three immediately; there is no luxury of choice today.  I have no time to hoist their heft in my mottled hand, no need to appraise their form, the lines and curves that make the shapes I looked for.

No, today I need three.  Talismanic number. The magic number of fairy tales; three wishes will be granted my pretty; three princes came riding; three nights for Cinderella to dance in an insubstantial blur of frangible shoe and gossamer.  The way that everything feels today, so unreal and delicate today; so fragile and insubstantial.

I will throw the pebbles one by one.  I have my mark.  There is a fire-ravaged trunk, a leftover from some teenage bacchanalia, standing stark and charcoal-black against the dirty yellow of the sand.  If I hit it once, she will be well.  If I hit it twice, she will come home and I will see for myself that she is well.  If I hit it thrice, I may ask for a miracle; that she will come home and bring a talc-scented woollen cocoon, whose heft on my shoulder will put my heart back together.

There must be no option of missing all three shots.  I lift my arm.

Honour buys no meat

Monday, 3 March 2014

Yup, she's coming. 
If she mentions that fucking book again, I'm gonna feed her into the sausage machine. 
And that's not a euphemism. 

Two of my earliest memories are of butchers' shops.

In my first memory the butcher is singing a Beatles song to my little sister who beams fatly in her pram. I am jealous because I don't have a name in a song, and I pinch her when nobody is looking. She cries, and the butcher's boy goes out and comes back with an ice-cream in a waffle cone.  I am forbidden from having a lick, and she holds it, uneaten, and melting down her little arm until it is thrown into a rubbish bin on the way home. 

In my second, my granny is telling the butcher to slice the ham more thickly because she has her granddaughter over for lunch.  I am gently coaxed to go round the side of the huge counter to be cooed over. I refuse to move and afterwards, my little paw in my granny's gloved hand, she explains that sometimes we have to do things to make other people happy, even though we don't want to do them ourselves.  

I think it was the worst piece of advice I was ever given, though my granny followed it religiously and, as a result, was adored by hundreds of people. I am happy to remain unadored and pleasing only myself.

Now I am a doughty lady of a certain age, I have a wonderful relationship with my butcher. He runs a proper sawdust-on-the-floor, blood-smelling shop with tiled walls and metal chains on the door to keep the flies out. He called me 'madam' for five years, and then I was upgraded to 'sweetheart.'  

I have learned to avoid Monday visits because it's when the deliveries come and there is still enough of the experimental teenage vegetarian in me to find the sight alarming.  There are whole carcasses and open-topped boxes of offal. there are little rabbits and braces of partridge, all tied at the neck and slung with casual morbidity, across the table in the front. They lie slumped, awaiting the honed and lethal blade that quietly transforms the bloody, dripping lumps into sanitised and picturesque cuts.

I didn't fancy seeing that today, but the chicken I had bought for the weekend was off, and I knew that I had to go and let them know.  It turns out I am more British than I realised.  I felt shy and guilty at bearing bad news and was tempted to say nothing, ever. But I took a deep breath and went in; I apologised for saying anything; he apologised and I apologised for bringing it up.  He apologised that I'd had to make the journey down the hill and miss my Sunday roast.  He was so mortified he called me 'madam' twice.  He pressed on me an enormous bag of chicken and livers and a couple of chops.  I felt awful for having to tell him, he started another round of heartfelt apologising. He was also sorry for the horrible rain we were having, and what the hell was going on in Ukraine. I felt as though I'd been in there for hours.

He insisted I took an enormous bone for the dog. I hadn't the heart to say she prefers toast and Marmite instead. I should have asked him to buy me ice-cream and sing me a Beatles song instead.