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.

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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.

Stories

Tell me your stories,

I’ve nowhere to be.

Tell me your stories again.

I want to hear about when you were young,

Talk of the “Way back when …”

 

Tell me your stories,

As long as you like.

Tell me of people now gone.

They bring a beautiful smile to your face,

Keep talking; just carry on.

 

Tell me your stories,

Beginning to end,

Whether I’ve heard them before.

Don’t let the present intrude on the past.

Sit down and tell me some more.

 

Tell me your stories

I want them to be

Totally set in my mind.

Then I can hear them all over again

After you’ve left me behind.

Growing Up

Such a long road to walk for such short legs,

We’d stop to read the numbers on the doors;

Testing you on your counting as we strolled,

My big hand wrapped completely around yours.

 

We’d play the games that spring up at such times:

‘Twenty Questions!’, ‘I-Spy’ or we’d chat

About the things we’d do once school was done,

About your thoughts on life: on this or that.

 

But now, your hand’s at least as big as mine,

And you are taller by an inch or two.

So, soon you’ll leave to start another life

And part of mine will finish when you do.

My Mother’s House

My mother’s house is packed with books
The paper garden of my thought.
Mysteries, crime, adventure tales,
Poetic tomes, the facts of war.

I know them like a loved friend’s face,
Their covers and each lettered line.
I know the stains, the tears, the wear,
The marks that take me back in time.

So long ago I picked them up,
Devoured each chapter, phrase and word,
Cocooned within that special place,
My private and imagined world.

Quite deaf to any outside sound,
Unknowing of the turn of tide.
Entranced by other people’s words,
Inspiring me to try to write.

Those stories now are written large,
A part of me, beyond all doubt.
My story too is written there,
On pages in my mother’s house.

The Day Before Christmas (Apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)

‘Twas the day before Christmas, when all through the land
The nerves of the masses were stretched like a band
After finding once more that they’d left things so late,
That there’s really no chance that their day would be great.

The children are praying for Playstation 4
But the shops are all empty, the signs say ‘No more’.
For Johnny a CD, for Tilly a dress
A keyboard between them so it costs a bit less.

When on the TV there appears ‘La Nigella’
For a change it’s got nothing to do with her fella.
She’s stuffing a turkey with handfuls of cake,
And boasting how easy it all was to bake.

She’s roasting potatoes in a gallon of lard
And telling us all that this feast isn’t hard.
While there in your kitchen, you reflect with a pout,
There’s nothing prepared, not so much as a sprout.

You meant to be organised, get started quickly,
But the effort of trying just made you feel sickly.
Until with a tremor you noticed the date,
And were forced to admit that you’d left it too late!

“Now Tesco! Now, Asda! Now, Aldi and Lidl!
You’ve queued up for hours, you’re bursting to widdle!
You don’t have a turkey or stuffing or spuds!
They’ve sold out of chestnuts, there are no Christmas puds!”

As you scramble for apples, satsumas and nuts
You get the most terrible pain in the guts.
It’s not out of hunger, it’s even more shocking
You’ve yet to find gifts that will fit in a stocking.

And then, in a moment, you get an idea
So you dive in the car and zoom off to Ikea.
You stock up on Daim bars and napkins in red,
And cushions with elks on to place on the bed.

You load up on pencils and paper tape measures,
Brown paper and string like they’re all buried treasures.
There are lampshades and glassware and Lufsig and Mala.
And a yellow felt creature called Vlad the Impala.

You try not to picture the children’s sad looks
As they open their stockings and find photo hooks.
But you don’t have much choice, you resolve to be fiendish
Point out to the children that Lapland is Swedish.

At least you remembered to buy some mince pies!
Though the kids say they hate them ‘cause they’re made out of flies.
And there’s half a Swiss roll that the kids haven’t seen
And some frozen puff pastry and a full squirty cream.

As you tuck in the children you make the old threat
“If you don’t go to sleep then you know what you’ll get!
Father Christmas won’t call and then you will be sad.
It’ll be your own faults, don’t blame me or your dad!”

Then you sit in the lounge feeling shattered, not merry!
Just wondering if you should drink all the sherry.
And you turn on the Christmas lights, draped on the tree
Fall asleep to the Christmas edition of Glee.

You wake in the morning at quarter to four
As the kids come and empty their stuff on the floor.
“Just look what we got in our stockings!” they yap
And you beg for some peace “Please let mum have a nap!”

Once you’re up and about, though the presents are scrappy.
The children are playing and reasonably happy.
As you start to relax, there’s a knock at the door.
You forgot you’d invited your mother-in-law.

Blacklight

“What just happened?” she asked, looking at the lamp.  There was no answer.

“What just happened to the light?” she said, louder.

“Nothing.  What are you talking about?”  She looked at her husband: his head barely visible behind his laptop.

“The light did something.  It went out.  Or something went in front of it.  The room went black for a moment; didn’t you see?”  He looked up at the lamp and then at her.

“It didn’t do anything.  I would have noticed if the room had gone black.  You probably blinked or something.”

“For God’s sake, Ben, I blink all the time.  Do you think I don’t know what blinking is like?  You don’t even notice a blink!”  Frustrated, she threw the newspaper onto the couch beside her and got up.  She went over to the light and poked the bulb.  “Ow!” she breathed.  She shook the base.

“It’s gone a bit black now your fat arse is in the way!” laughed Ben.  She spun around and frowned at him.

“I’m going to bed!”  She strode to the bathroom, slammed the door and sat on the closed lid of the toilet.  She realised her hands were shaking a little.  Fury?  Fear?  Something else?  If the light didn’t do anything, perhaps she had a brain tumour.  Perhaps there was something pressing on the back of her eye, creating vision problems and making her temper short.  No.  Not the temper thing.  That was all Ben!!  No …something had got in the way of the light; he didn’t notice because he was looking at a brightly lit laptop screen.  He wouldn’t have noticed if she’d done a fan dance in front of the lamp.  He never noticed anything she did.

As the water ran into the sink, she watched her reflection blur and fade in the bathroom mirror.  She looked better in the steam.  The water was a little too hot as she stood with her hands pressed flat and her wrists smarting.  They didn’t look like her hands in the water; they looked like a stranger’s hands.

By the time Ben came up to bed, she’d been asleep for an hour, but he turned on the light, walked over to his side of the bed, turned on his lamp and yawned, “Turn that light off for me!”.  She did.  Then she lay on her side with her back to him as he opened a book and began to read.  The flowers on the wallpaper looked like giant moths in the gloom, and the shadow cast by her own body made it seem as though they were struggling to crawl from the earth, to free themselves from a two dimensional chrysalis: but failing!

When she woke, it was as though she had been shaken and for a moment she thought one of the children had come into the room.  Her head was fuzzy and her tongue so dry it clicked as she tried to swallow.  “What’s up?” she heard herself mumble before realising there was nobody there.  Her head felt so much heavier than it should, but even so, the last of their children had left 2 years before and had already been long past the age when you come looking for your mum after a bad dream.  According to the clock, it was 04:11, but it wasn’t reliable.  She felt for her phone and checked the time on that.  04:11. Holding her breath, she listened for anything that might have woken her, knowing that it wouldn’t take much: the sounds of the fridge, the central-heating turning on or off or just being old, a rattling door, nothing at all.  There was nothing to be heard, but she couldn’t get over the feeling that she had been shaken.  She shuddered and her breath came in a burst and shocked her with its loudness.  It took more than an hour for her to get back to sleep and when the alarm rang at 7, she felt as though she hadn’t slept at all.

In work, the hum of the library was a comfort for her twanging nerves.  Her back hurt as she pushed the trolley to the far end, where she would begin the ritual of replacement: checking the other books on the shelves as she went, using a sixth-sense to find out-of-place books, carelessly used by people who didn’t have respect for the knowledge stored here.

It was while she was moving a copy of ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ from ‘J’ to ‘P’ that the lights went out at the end of the stack …for a moment.  She felt so vulnerable.  She turned to one end and then to the other, then pushed her back against the shelf, her hands shaking wildly and her chest feeling so tight it could have been encircled by invisible arms.  She forced herself to walk to the end of the stack.  To where she could see other people.  It calmed her a little and she walked to the desk.

“Did you have a problem with the lights over here?”  She tried to keep her voice casual but wasn’t sure if she had managed.  Laura looked at her with a frown.

“Are you alright?  You don’t look well.  Sit down before you fall down!”  She did.  “You’re a funny colour!  Do you want a drink of water?”

“I’m alright.  I didn’t sleep well.  I just wondered if you saw the lights flicker.  They did up by the children’s stacks.  Just for a second.”

“No.  They were alright down here.”

She realised she still had ‘Peter Rabbit’ in her hand but she gave it to Laura.  She didn’t want to go back into the stacks.

As she ate her dinner that night she watched a programme about why the bees are vanishing.  She had the main light on and the lamp as well as the hall light.  She felt uneasy alone here now, and Ben had texted to say he would be going straight to the club after work.  She wished they had a dog.  Or a cat.  Or a budgie.  Something with a heartbeat, however small.  The bee programme was over and somebody was explaining how Stonehenge had been built.  And why, apparently!  She pushed a piece of cold fish across her plate with the point of her knife and realised she’d sat for an hour and had barely eaten a mouthful.  She had tasted none of it.

Scraping the food into the bin, she felt as though she had somehow lost a chunk of time and wondered if she should see a doctor.  Maybe, in the morning, she could make an appointment to put her mind at rest …or not.  That’s what she’d do.  Making the decision helped her to relax a little and she decided a warm bath and an early night might start making up for lack of sleep and stress.

In the bathroom cupboard she found some bubble bath that had been a Christmas present and poured it onto the torrent of hot water, filling the bath.  The smell of strawberries filled the room and for a moment she was 7 again and sitting, surrounded by bubbles and playing with her dolls.  Washing their hair.  Making them swim.  She shook her head and straightened up, withdrawing her hand from the swirling water.  Something was pushing for attention.

“What?”  The stark, sudden question made her jump, even though it was her own voice.

She stepped into the bath; the hot water turning her leg lobster coloured in seconds.  She sat down and leant back into the crackling bubbles, relishing the borderline pain.  She closed her eyes and the dolls came back into her mind; they had been called Jenny and Lulu and she couldn’t remember what had happened to them.  They had been there all the time for years and then …where?  She was 7 again.  In the bath.  Playing.  With the dolls.  And then …then …the light had gone out.  No, not gone out …was blocked.  Mum’s friend, Joe was there.

Back in the present, she pulled her knees into her chest and began to sob.

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday is a very special day in the Christian calendar.  It’s a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, conquering death and sin and paving the way for his followers to be with him in the afterlife. So, naturally we celebrate by eating as much chocolate as humanly possible without (in most cases, at least) actually exploding and watching cheesy films from the food-induced discomfort of our cocoa  and brightly coloured tinfoil littered sofas.

Of course, we all have our own traditions. In my house we go to the Saturday night Easter vigil and this enables us to have a lie-in on Easter Sunday, which doesn’t happen on any other Sunday in the year and is much appreciated.  By those it applies to, at least, which doesn’t include me.  No. I get woken up early, by the youngest member of the family who, at 12, is pretty excited about the chocolate feast in store.  So excited that she then discharges bursts of nervous energy in my direction like North Korean missile attacks until I am forced to try and get the rest of the family out of bed.  On the day that they are trying to have their only lie-in.  Yes, as you would imagine, this makes me extremely popular.  Today, for instance, it took me an hour to get my 18-year-old to come downstairs.  I think he might have been trying to claim back the one we all lost last night.

One of the reasons that my youngest gets so excited is because of the egg-hunt.  It’s a bit different to the egg-hunts I hear of in other households. Now, this might concern some of you.  It may even give you the impression that I am somehow curtailing my brood’s childhood, but as I said, we all have our own traditions.  In my house we don’t believe in the Easter Bunny.  I’ll give you a moment to take that in.  That’s right.  I don’t tell, and have never told my children that a giant rabbit (whether visible or invisible) somehow produces chocolate eggs which it leaves lying around in hidden places.  My children are pretty interested in the environment and I’m sure this chocolate egg-laying giant rabbit would only further convince them that we need to look more carefully into GM produce.

No, our egg-hunt involves a set of clues, each one leading to the next, until eventually they lead to a stash of Easter eggs for the 4 ‘children’ (or more accurately named, ‘offspring’) of the house.  This has worked well for years.  I write 5 or 6 rhyming couplets for the purpose with varying degrees of difficulty and they decipher the clues and go on the hunt.  Well, that’s how it used to be, but one by one they have dropped out of the hunt part and now 3 of them sit on the sofa while the youngest finds their eggs.  They all help crack my code.  They’re getting a bit too good at it, to be honest.  I’m going to have to up my game: especially now that the youngest has downloaded a crossword app for her phone.  When I was her age I had to make do with the Guardian and a pencil and it didn’t do me any harm.  I digress.

I’m beginning to run out of places to hide the eggs.  They’ve been in the washing machine, the dryer, a laundry basket (when there are 6 people in the house, laundry can loom large in the psyche), under everybody’s bed, in the under-the-sink cupboard and in the oven.  That wasn’t a good idea, because it turns out that the bottom oven gets quite hot when you make toast, and apparently Easter lumps are just not as popular as you’d think.

This year saw the introduction of what may be a new tradition.   I got my chef-in-training son to be in charge of the chicken for our roast dinner.  As a confirmed veggie, that’s quite a relief.  I hate cooking food if I can’t taste a bit to test it and I’d rather not relive the food-poisoning extravaganza of 1997 (kidding).