Ask a Silly Question

“Give me a topic to write about.”

Was my throwaway request.

The subject she suggested –

Well, I never would have guessed.

She didn’t say “The birds and bees,”,

“The flowers.” or “The fishes.”

No “Family!”, no “Long lost love.”

Nor yet “Your secret wishes.”

No, being Niamh, she came up with

A topic I’d find complex,

So difficult a subject that

I’d know not what to write next.

Now, with an hour left of the day

When I must get this ode done,

I sit here and I scratch my head

Afraid I’ll fail to write one.

For ‘soya milk’, her great idea,

Presents no inspiration,

If anything, it’s given me

A sense of deep frustration.

What can I say about this milk?

It’s vaguely white, it’s runny.

And that’s where I run out of things –

Which really isn’t funny.

So, thank you for that bright idea,

You plucked from in your head.

I think next time I’d better ask

Somebody else instead.

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An Unfortunate Incident in the Bathroom

I’m going to tell you about a thing that happened.  It’s a bit embarrassing and might be considered oversharing.  So be it.  Now, the title might be worrying you somewhat, particularly in light of recent revelations involving the President-elect.  Don’t worry; it’s not that kind of story.  You need some background: I’m getting work done on the bathroom and it’s a bit of a building site at the moment. That being said, it has a usable toilet, so, at the end of an exciting episode of Question Time, I’d hung on enough and went for a wee.  Be warned, this is only the first part of the oversharing.

I went into the bathroom/building site, where I found one of the cats sitting quietly on the windowsill, risking getting tile dividers stuck up her bum, but …her bum, her choice, right?  As I sat down on the toilet, she jumped from the window sill to the door and from the door to the hole in the ceiling that, until last week, had been blocked by pipes and boxed in.  Instinctively, I jumped up and grabbed the disappearing cat by a leg.

To add insult to injury, the door she had used for this impromptu feline parkour wasn’t actually attached to the frame, merely resting against a wall, and under the force of her propulsion, it fell towards me; luckily, with my cat-like reactions, I shat in a sandbox and chased a mouse.  Not really; but I did manage to get my ‘spare’ hand on the door to stop it hitting me on the head.

At this point, I should probably paint you a mental image of the scenario: picture, if you will (though you may prefer not to), me …standing with both knickers and trousers round my ankles, holding the leg of a struggling cat with one hand, while trying to rebalance a heavy door with the other hand and my head.  Bear in mind also, that for the one leg I have hold of, she has three in the ceiling and they’re giving her a lot of purchase and that now she’s not only trying to get into the ceiling but away from the crazy person hanging onto her leg.  The outcome was looking pretty grim.  As you can probably imagine, there was a lot of swearing going on, both in English and ‘Cat’, judging by the yowls punctuating her frantic wriggling.

Now, there were other people in the house: my husband and two daughters were in a nearby room and I could have shouted for help, but I refer you to the aforementioned mental image.  It wasn’t one I wished to convert into a literal image for anyone and my brain was desperately calculating the likelihood of me getting the cat to safety without sacrificing my family’s mental health and my own self-respect.  Luckily, my desire to stop the cat from vanishing into the labyrinth of the ceiling cavity was obviously greater than her desire to get into it and I managed to give the door a strong enough shove to lean it back on the wall and drag the cat out of the ceiling and onto my head and shoulder.  I’ll have scars, both literal and figurative.

At this point, the meowing culprit had gone from being a tuxedo cat, to a primarily plaster-white cat but thankfully, not a ‘stuck’ cat that would have required me to call the fire brigade to smash a wall in.  I set her down and, before doing anything else, I lifted the door out of the room so she couldn’t use it as a launching pad again.  May I say that the shuffle through the doorway, with a solid wood door in both hands, a disgruntled cat at my feet and my pants like particularly undignified shackles, will remain with me as a low point for the foreseeable future, which may not be much longer if that door doesn’t get hung soon.

Incidentally, if anybody has connections with the writing team for Miranda Hart, the scenario is available for their use at a small price.  Enough money to buy a dog, would be good. This would never have happened with a dog.

A Busy Life

When people ask me what I do, I silently judge them for their nosiness before telling them I’m a copywriter.  I then explain what a copywriter is, unless they’re fans of ‘Madmen’, in which case I explain what a copywriter isn’t.  But I don’t really have the time for writing at the moment.  Just the creation of that sentence has guaranteed that the bathroom I should be cleaning will, at best, be left with a smeared mirror, while the sentence explaining about the smeared mirror has probably ensured I won’t have time to mop the floor.  If I don’t stop explaining stuff, the bathroom will be a no-go area for all those not in possession of hazmat gear.  As usual.  But the heart wants what it wants and a writer writes and meta crap like that, so I’m neglecting the list of jobs that are mounting up in order to write this.  I’m sure my expected visitors will at least be polite enough to pretend they can’t see the mess as long as they’re here and will only comment on my inadequacy once I’m out of earshot.

There are always things I should do, but don’t.  Find more work, sleep more, get more exercise, wash a dish now and then, train one of the cats to switch the kettle on … important stuff like that.  And there’s also the other list; the things I shouldn’t be doing, or shouldn’t be doing as much: eat less sugar, tweet less, yell less at political programmes, write fewer lists …  But, at the risk of accidentally plagiarising Hallmark’s output for the last century, the thing I should be concentrating on, should have always been concentrating on, is appreciating the things I have while I have them instead of worrying about what I used to have, think I should have had or wish I could get in the future.

Shortly after my dad died at the end of 2014, my mum went into a care home.  Her dementia had left her with short-term memory problems and some confusion, so visits immediately took on a Groundhog Day ambience, only on a 5-minute loop instead of a 24-hour one, and we struggled to have a conversation.  However, a life spent playing board games and doing quizzes had burnt those processes into her brain, so we could still enjoy some quality time together with the Trivial Pursuit or Ludo and little flashes of the intelligence beneath the fog would surface even as she was asking which colour pieces were hers each time it was her turn.  I’d leave when it was time for her to have dinner or for me to go and do mum things instead of daughter things and it’d be just another little interlude in a busy life.

So, when she had an accident last month and went to hospital, we lost those games and had nothing left but Groundhog Day and it was hard to take.  We were all looking forward to the day when we could get her back to the home and slip back into the routine that would let her be herself again, in some small way.  Sadly, that didn’t and won’t happen as she died in the early hours of Wednesday.  Comfortable, clean, sleeping, not alone.  We could all do a lot worse.  Since then, I’ve been cleaning, decorating, making more phone calls than I usually make in a year, eating fast food because I have no time to cook, writing when I shouldn’t be writing and, as ever, not appreciating what I have while I have it.  From now on, when people ask what I do, I’ll give them the honest answer; I fiddle while Rome burns.

A Sonnet for Liam

It’s now 16 years since my brother, Liam, died from complications connected to his MS.  He was as dark as I am fair, with brown eyes that I always envied and a wiry strength that stood him in good stead as he carried out his gardening work.  He was my big brother, yet now I’m older than him and that’s not something I can quite wrap my head around.  So this poem is for my little big brother.

 

We never looked alike in any way,

Our hair and eyes as different as could be.

But when together, we had much to say,

With common int’rests binding you and me.

The music that we liked, the books we read

Were oftentimes the same or close in style.

We’d talk of these, and many things you said

Would paint upon my face a cheerful smile.

Now that you’ve gone, a chasm stretches wide

Between contentedness and lonely strife.

An unexpected, unwelcome divide

Has brought a core of sorrow to my life.

I never could replace you with another,

My one and only missed and cherished brother.

 

The Cat Under the Stairs

He’d not long turned four when he first mentioned the cat under the stairs.  He’d taken to playing in the space, in spite of how dark it was and the fact that there always seemed to be a pile of coats that littered the floor because they wouldn’t stay on their hooks.  It was a rainy afternoon during the autumn half term, so all the children were in the house and the noise level was reaching critical mass.

I’d taken the fresh laundry from the dryer and as I stood holding the warm bundle in the kitchen, even above the childish din, I heard an almighty yell from upstairs; dropping everything, I ran!  In the room shared by the two younger girls was a horrible mess caused by what looked like paint but smelled like soap.  “He’s ruined everything!” wailed one, “On purpose!” chimed in another!  And I had to agree; quite a few things were definitely ruined!  Their carefully constructed Lego models and a beautiful lamp were now covered in purplish-blue gunk, which was running across the shelf and falling onto the books and toys on the shelves below.  He was standing in the corner of the room, still holding the dripping bucket that usually only saw the light of day during trips to the beach; his hands, T-shirt and some of his hair bearing the tell-tale signs of his guilt but his face the picture of innocence.  “The cat said I should do it!” he stated, quietly and unphased by the commotion still raging.  “We don’t have a cat!” I replied, baffled.  “We do!” he insisted!  “The cat under the stairs.”

Almost without fail, from that day, every misdemeanour, every indiscretion he committed – and there were very many – was blamed on the cat.  He never gave it a name, as many do with imaginary friends, nor could he describe it, even when pressed, yet referred to it as ‘he’ in conversation.  He refused to accept that the cat wasn’t real, although we reasoned with him, emptied the space so he could see there was no cat and did everything in our power to distract him and find him real human friends to play with.

On his eighth birthday, we bought a kitten; a tiny tabby speck with a sweet nature and soft fur.  He refused to name it or have anything to do with its care, claiming that the cat under the stairs didn’t like it and wanted it to go.  Indeed, the kitten seemed to take great pains to avoid the area under the stairs, walking a curious path whenever it neared the space.  Occasionally, she would hiss and bristle at the staircase.  It was unnerving, to say the least.  After only two months, the kitten slipped out unnoticed and, in spite of circulating posters, she was never returned to us.  We decided not to buy another pet.

As the years passed, the imaginary cat remained part of our lives, to the point that he would insist on adding ‘and the cat’ to cards and gift tags and we could see the knowing glances that would pass between relatives at gatherings.  He’d vanish under the stairs, from where we could hear low muttering and long pauses.  We took him to see a child psychologist, who suggested that being a lone boy among several sisters may be behind his wish to have a male companion to himself, even an imaginary one.  It seemed unlikely to me but with no other explanation forthcoming and no other real behavioural problems that couldn’t be accounted for by being the spoilt youngest child, we didn’t pursue the matter.  We simply waited for him to grow out of it.

When he was fourteen, we began to feel very squashed in the house that had been fine for two adults and five children but was less accommodating for seven adult-sized people.  As soon as we began to look for another house, he became almost inconsolable; he barely slept, he spent more and more time under the stairs, even doing homework in there, albeit of very poor quality.  We reassured him that we were only looking locally, that he would still go to the same school and see the same school friends, not that he had many.  He didn’t care; he just wanted to stay with the cat under the stairs.

Before too long, we managed to find somewhere bigger and within our price range so, after a couple of frantic months, we were standing in the new house, surrounded by boxes.  I saw him looking toward the door that formed a cupboard of the space under the stairs; I watched him as he tentatively opened the door, flicked on the light and looked inside.  A strange look passed over his face: relief?  “Is there space for your cat?” I joked, trying to lighten the mood.  “There never was a cat.” He said, looking very, very young, all of a sudden.  I felt my breath catch in my chest at this long-awaited admission.   “But he said you’d worry if I told you he was a goat.”

 

Divide

Can I build a bridge from here to there?

Piling regrets, missed chances into an arch,

Filling the gaps with careless words or deeds.

How strong would such a structure be?

 

Can I send a scout from here to there?

Testing the ground for soundness under foot,

Laying a trail where I might follow on.

How safe would such a mission be?

 

Can I send my voice from here to there?

Saying the words that hesitation stole,

Seeking an ear wherein they’ll tell their tale.

How clear would such oration be?

 

Can I call you back from there to here?

Just for a day, an hour, like those we had,

Filling the time with laughter and with love.

How sweet would such an instant be?

Tell Me

I see her face, her form, her bright soft hair.
But some of her is just no longer there.
“Tell me …” she says and I know every word to follow.
“Tell me …”
Two words that hide a wealth of sorrow.

A mind that once was strong and sharp as steel
Now struggles to retain much of what’s real.
“Tell me …” she asks, as though some record plays.
“Tell me …”
This is the soundtrack of her days.

So, I recite the litany of life,
That left her now a widow, not a wife.
“Tell me …” she says and so I start to tell.
“Tell me …”
Two words that loose the gates of hell.

Getting lost

Somebody told me, today, that I’m the image of my mother; apparently, they think he’ll be out of the cast by March. Don’t judge me! Unless your mother is Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron, it’s not what a woman wants to hear. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that and I have to grudgingly admit that it’s true. I have her blonde hair and her blue eyes; I should give them back really – she’s scaring the kids. We do look alike, though, and I’ve inherited other things from her: a love of reading, a memory that seems hardwired to store poetry, dates, useless facts and phone numbers, a virtual addiction to olives and big feet.

It’s harder to say what I’ve inherited from my dad. Perhaps when all my hair drops out, it’ll be easier to spot any resemblance but, looks-wise, it’s difficult to see any similarities. My squidgy nose is nothing like his Roman one and in spite of his brown eyes, a recessive blue-eyed gene obviously allowed me to take after Mammy. I also have excessively long femurs as opposed to his tiny ones that meant I’d have to push the car seat back a foot if I drove his car.

Looks aren’t everything though and I take after him in other ways: I don’t like to spend money unnecessarily, so I’ll have the washing machine in pieces year after year rather than buy another; I love a good detective programme and have shared many a happy hour with him, watching Columbo or the Rockford Files, and I have one of the most appalling senses of direction ever seen in a person who hasn’t been blindfolded and spun for an hour on the Waltzers. My brother-in-law nicknamed my dad ‘Pathfinder’ and it wasn’t a tribute. All who have ever had a lift from him have come to dread the tell-tale signs that a ‘short-cut’ was imminent: the turn down an apparently innocuous side road, the inevitable three-point turn when we would meet the dead end, followed by the attempt to retrace some or all of the turns that had led to us being hopelessly lost and, often, irretrievably late for an appointment. Similarly, I have been known to get lost in my own work building – although I must point out that this was before I worked from home – and after a drive through Aintree, I caused hilarity in the office by asking the question “What racecourse?” Yes, truly, I am ‘Daughter of Pathfinder’.

So, I know that I am in some way ‘a chip off the old block’ and this is a comfort because, earlier this month, he died. At the age of 91, after a lifetime of working hard and being daft and funny when it was right to be daft and funny and being serious when it was right to be serious and being the western world’s foremost advocate for the eating of bananas, he collapsed in the house with my mum, for whom he had long been a carer, and there was nothing anybody could do for him. After being lost with my dad or on my own so often, in many ways now, I think I’ll always be lost.

The Weird Cat

She’d been a weird cat since she’d first arrived, squeezing her way past the children’s legs one day as they came in from school. “Can we keep it?” they’d begged their mum, but she’d told them that this was somebody else’s cat and lifted it out onto the path, where it sat until the door was opened again before attempting entry once more. The girls had made posters advertising ‘FOUND CAT’, complete with a photo, but it’s hard to tell one black cat from another, especially in a grainy print. No owner had come forward and, day after day, the cat came back with little encouragement from the girls’ mum but secret treats and lots of cuddles from the youngsters. Eventually, it was tacitly accepted that she was now the family cat; a bed was bought and two bowls for food and drink. They named her Clinker and they loved her.

There was no doubt that she was getting on in years; her belly was flabby, the tip of her tail was flattened and hung at an odd angle, she had strange flecks in both eyes and she never meowed, although she often purred. The whole family made a fuss of her, but nobody pretended that she wasn’t weird. She would sit on the window sill, her back to the outside world, watching the room like a small, furry guardian. If anybody got up to leave, she would watch them until they were out of sight before resuming her original stance, rarely blinking, even more rarely sleeping. Most un-cat-like.

Clinker wasn’t very graceful for a cat either. She had an ungainly walk and would frequently fall from the furniture, righting herself as she hit the floor and continuing as though nothing had happened. The one time she displayed anything like the expected amount of feline agility was when she did the weirdest thing of all; whenever she crossed from the rug in front of the fire to head into the kitchen, she would walk in a wide arc, hugging the furniture until she reached the chair closest to the door, whereupon she would leap delicately as though she were clearing a small hurdle. The first time she’d done it, the family had laughed at her odd ways and had subsequently tried to fathom what made her do it. They’d tried moving the lamp in case a stray shadow was causing the cat’s confusion but it made no difference; over time the furniture was rearranged slightly, but she still followed roughly the same path and always ended with a little leap. It was part of her charm.

As the girls grew older, Clinker’s fur sprouted stray white hairs and she looked a little scrawny about the haunches, but she would still sit and survey the room with her almost unblinking gaze, never once facing the outside world. She enjoyed curling up in a lap, rumbling like a fur-covered Geiger counter and there was never a shortage of willing laps. All in all, it was a good life.

It was approaching winter when the burglary happened. As the family lay sleeping, their mother woke to a strange sound. Somewhere, a cat was mewing loudly and a bitter draught rattled under her bedroom door. She thought the girls might have left a window open, as they sometimes did; perhaps a local cat had climbed in, but as she opened her door to go and check, she saw a dark figure halfway up the stairs, or down – it was difficult to know which way they were heading in the gloom – and she cried out and flailed for the light switch. The burglar ran down the stairs and headed through the dining room and into the living room, making for the open back door through which he had forced an entrance.

He’d clearly spent some time in the living room, looking for valuables that didn’t exist, as every drawer of the dresser had been emptied onto the floor and the cushions from the suite had been tossed, as though someone might hide money or jewels in the furniture. The burglar stepped onto some letters and skidded a little before taking a wild step to try and right himself. He hadn’t accounted, however, for the now silent black cat prowling in the only spaces left unsullied and as his foot landed on the flattened end of her tail, she hissed and lashed out with deadly accuracy, raking her claws across his leg. He fell with a crash, catching his chin on the dresser and was already unconscious as he hit the floor. As he lay like a dead man near the kitchen door, Clinker sidled up to him and leapt in a graceful arc over the vanquished intruder, as though clearing a small hurdle.

To Dirty Washing (With profound apologies to Andrew Marvell)

Had I but world enough, and time,
My efforts I would turn to rhyme
I would sit down and think which way
To sculpt a poem every day.
I, by the chattering Mersey’s side,
Could sit with pen and watch the tide.
Of chills and winds, complain. I would
And shuffle back to flee the flood,
Of water, not of words I’d use;
The offerings of my shimmering Muse.
My verse anthology would grow
As vast as any that I know;
And readers would, with deep amaze,
Marvel at how I used my days;
Yet empty pages do attest
That my sweet Muse remains at rest;
Or else she knows not how to start,
Bold inspiration in my heart.
Most likely she must sit and wait
‘Til I surrender to my fate.

But at my back I always hear
The pile of laundry, damp and drear;
Which will not hang itself to dry
Though I should wait eternally.
And in the bedrooms, more is found,
Socks, shirts and towels, all in a mound
I gather laundry with a sigh
And wonder why it’s left to lie,
Forgotten forms to gather dust,
If left too long to form a crust:
To banish beauty from the place,
Inviting odours at a pace.

Now therefore, when my sons return
Strong words will make their ears burn,
And consequences may transpire
Involving piles of clothes and fire,
If I should chance to find them thrown,
Upon the floor; my will is stone!
Their clothes will dwindle by the day
‘Til every thread is cast away.
Let them retrain to nightly scamper
To drop their clothes into the hamper.
Then I can take my book and pen,
Commence to gather rhymes again.
Thus, though I may not be a bard,
My laundry won’t be half as hard.