Stuck

I am without momentum, stuck, unmoving on my plateau of grief. I’ve read a lot, talked a little, and my understanding is that this is all perfectly normal and everyone processes and progresses in their own way, in their own time.

I do wonder though, as I find myself flooded again, if this level of sadness is standard and whether the waters will subside soon? Every day I maintain my routines, I walk the dog, I go to work, all wrapped in this heavy blanket of sorrow. Some days it’s hard going, more like a waterlogged duvet, other days it’s lighter, billowing in the breeze, almost lifting off my shoulders, but it never tugs entirely free.

I miss my Dad.

A Valentine

No tender caress, no fluttering touch
This is love laid bare, brutal and base
Ripped hearts, torn roses amid blood and thorns
Nothing gentle in this fierce embrace

No soft given kiss, no sweet spoken word
Behind both are teeth piercing the skin
Broken, flayed open by Cupid’s blunt barbs
Love must conquer, must vanquish, must win

Duvet Day

In retrospect it should have been one. A long, drab day of unending drizzle, traffic delays and tedium, the monotony only alleviated by an occasional minor disaster or two, I should definitely have stayed in bed that morning.

I’d arranged to borrow the company credit card to buy what I needed for the club I was running that evening. In between meetings I had a 20 minute window in which I could zip to the supermarket and get the job done. Easy.  I grabbed a basket, quickly gathered all the items on the list and triumphantly unloaded everything onto the conveyor belt with 10 minutes still to spare. What a winner! The cashier bleeped everything through and then, and only then, I realised I didn’t know the PIN. Maybe, I thought, the gods of fortune will smile upon me and I won’t need it because I can do the contactless thing with it.

I could not do the contactless thing with it.

After vainly tapping my card on the machine display for longer than comfortable while being watched by other shoppers in the 10 items or less queue I was forced to ask the cashier to cancel my transaction as I didn’t know my PIN.

“What?” snapped the cashier, unsmiling.

I was a little taken aback. I thought she might be a bit nicer about the situation but perhaps she was also having a bad day. I repeated my request.

“Could you cancel this?” I waved an arm apologetically toward my bag of shopping. “Sorry,” I said. “This isn’t my usual card. I need to phone the office and ask them for the PIN.”

The cashier sighed. “You’ll have to leave the shopping here.”

“I understand that.”

“You can’t take it with you.”

“I know, I’m not going anywhere. I just need to make a phone call.”

“I’ll have to get a member of staff to take the shopping off you.”

She buzzed her buzzer and the supervisor came over, all smiles. “How can I help?” she asked.

“She can’t pay.”

“I can pay!” I waggled the card in irrefutable evidence. “I just need the PIN.”

One short phone call later I duly punched in 4 magic numbers and exited with my carrier bag full of everything you need to make Bonfire Cup Cakes and trudged through the drizzle back to the office.

I recounted my story to anyone not fast enough to get away as I unpacked the shopping and repacked my laptop and forms ready for a home visit. The referral was from someone already on the system so I’d noted the address and they’d confirmed by text that they should be home from work by 5pm.

After negotiating the road closures, diversions and jams that proliferate around the city I finally arrived at the address I’d printed off the database, in a village a few miles away. I couldn’t see a car in the drive so it didn’t bode well but I got out and knocked on the door anyway. No answer. I went back to my own car and waited for a few minutes. Traffic was bad, after all. Perhaps they were held up somewhere. After 20 minutes I sent a text: Are you stuck in traffic or am I outside the wrong house?

A reply duly arrived: I’m home! I’ve been here since 4.45.

Upon clarifying where here actually was it turns out that they’d completed a house exchange some time ago and the address on our system hadn’t been updated. The address I needed now was back in the heart of the city, which I’d just left.

After processing this information I had a moment of intense creativity, where I spontaneously composed a short piece of spoken verse about the day I’d had, which was both evocative and powerfully emotional. It could have won awards. Sadly, or fortuitously, depending on your point of view, no one else was there to hear it so I just turned the car around and drove back into town.

I promised myself, once I’d finished, I would go straight home and not touch anything,  buy anything, talk to anyone or try anything more complex than opening the fridge. Some days are not to be messed with.

What I did in the summer holidays, part 1

I am lucky enough to have a high fun factor included in my current job. It’s actually part of my job description. The young people I work with may not always have many opportunities for fun so my remit is to ensure they get a break from their responsibilities and enjoy some time out. This is why my  car is permanently rammed full of board games, tennis racquets, balls, arts and crafts supplies, cookery equipment and other sundry items. Glitter and glue sticks collect in every crevice while felt tip pens cascade from the glove box should you be foolish enough to open it.

The provision of fun times is also why I could be found, on one of the hottest, stickiest days of the year, driving a fully-loaded sixteen-seater minibus (with no air conditioning that I could discern) to a visitor attraction that had very kindly offered us free admission.

The morning had started early for me, collecting the bus from our local community transport office and familiarising myself with its controls. This entailed stalling it at every junction until I got used to the handbrake being so low down on the right hand side, inconveniently wedged between the driver’s seat and the door, and the gear stick being so high up on the dashboard. I’m unsure who, other than an orangutan, could drive that bus comfortably.

Nevertheless I reached the pick-up point bang on time to collect my young passengers. I offered up a quick thank you to the gods of technology for the gift of texts, meaning I’d been able to remind everyone the night before to turn up on the right day, at the right time, with the right footwear and yes, they would need a packed lunch. For once I only had one family in the wrong car park on the wrong side of town, which is pretty good going for us, and fortunately we were headed in that direction anyway.

The journey itself went smoothly enough (apart from junctions, where there was still a chance of the occasional stall) and soon we were parked up and disembarking at our destination. This was not quite as straightforward as it sounds as despite assurances from the group that they had everything they needed with them we still had to turn back several times as individuals suddenly remembered they’d left their bag/drink/money on the bus.

“Hello,” I greeted the young girl in the ticket office once we made it that far, “we’re the group you’re expecting,” and I went on to give my name and our booking details.

“Ah yes,” she replied “and how are you paying today?”

“We’re not paying, we’ve got free admission.”

The girl looked at the booking form. “It says 2 adults free,” she said, “but you’ll have to pay for the children.”

“No,” I said, “it’s all been arranged. Look, your form says 13 kids, 2 adults, free, that means all of us.”

“No, it just says the 2 adults are free.”

A short debate then ensued, while the queue of other visitors waiting to get in lengthened steadily behind us and my group entertained themselves with the leaflet display.

“It’s all in the email,” I explained for the tenth time, “which I haven’t printed out and brought with me but I can show you now if you give me the wifi password.”

“I’ll have to phone the manager.”

“OK, but in the meantime couldn’t you just let us in and we’ll be out of the way? You’ve got all our contact details on the form, you can invoice us if we do have to pay and just waive it if it turns out we don’t.”

“Well I’m phoning the manager now so if you could all just wait here…”

This was particularly exasperating for me, given my background in visitor services and customer care.  In addition I was very hot, had driven miles in an uncooperative bus, and the group were beginning to exhaust the entertainment value of the leaflet display. It was only a matter of time before the serious whingeing began and I really didn’t think the kids should have to hear me.

Thankfully we didn’t have to wait much longer.

“I’m so sorry, yes you are all free. Would you like a leaflet?”

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The most uncannily apt illustration I could find – thanks, South Park! 

Galanthus and gall

I have spent the last 5 years working in the health and social care sector, during which time I’ve met people living in the most challenging of circumstances, dealing with money worries, illness, disability, loneliness, addiction, depression and myriad other issues. Despite their situations I have been impressed with the resilience and optimism many of these families display and have met some amazing people who have taught me a great deal. Better still, I have never been harangued or threatened by any of them, which is in marked contrast to my time spent working for the National Trust, which you would expect to offer an altogether more civilised perspective on the world.

The reason this is on my mind is down to the time of year. As I drove to work the other morning my eye was drawn to the drifts of snowdrops blanketing the grounds as I left the estate. It was impossible to remain unmoved by such  a dazzling floral display in the bleak midst of winter.

“Bloody snowdrops,” I thought. I’ve never felt the same way about them since the ill-fated Snowdrop Tea event held at a nearby Georgian mansion many years ago when I was employed as their Admin Assistant. Back then the property was closed over the winter months but the decision was made to open for a one-off event where visitors could take a tour of the landscaped grounds with the gardener, enjoy the many exciting varieties of snowdrops on show, and finish their afternoon with a splendid selection of tea, sandwiches and cakes in the restaurant. Due to my own inexperience I had submitted a press release about this forthcoming event to the local paper which entirely failed to mention that pre-booking was essential as there were only limited spaces available for the tour and tea. I never made that mistake again.

As it was a Sunday in February no senior management were on duty so myself and the conservation assistant headed down to the ticket office and directed those who had pre-booked tickets to the assembly point for their guided tour. Unfortunately we were soon presented with the problem of how to manage those visitors who had arrived without booking first but who really, really wanted to look at snowdrops. Despite the fact they had driven past thousands of them growing on the verges of the lanes approaching the property their lust for small white winter flowers remained unsatiated.

Upon learning that the tour was full one apoplectic gentleman and his wife took up positions either side of the path from the car park to the ticket office and accosted other visitors as they arrived, regaling them with outrage at our failure to accommodate them and urging them to join their impromptu protest. Eventually those lucky few with tickets already booked had to shoulder their way through a picket line of angry middle-aged, middle-classed, Barbour-clad activists. It was on a par with the time I was accused of being worse than Hitler for refusing to unlock the gates restricting access to the lake during nesting season for the resident herons. “I fought a war for people like you,” said the disappointed patriarch of this particular family, shaking his head sadly at my failure to show my appreciation of not having to speak German by unlocking the gate and flicking the Vs at the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

“I am a member!” would come next, the inevitable cry, the top trump card, the reason for any unreasonable request. In some cases “I am a life member!” would  be deployed as proof positive that rules applying to lesser mortals are simply inapplicable when one has such irrefutable entitlement and a small piece of card with a picture of an acorn on it.

We did our best to defuse the snowdrop situation, my colleague and I, but it was a long time before the mob disbanded. Even then they went home and wrote angry letters of complaint. It taught me valuable lessons in managing expectations.  The legacy it has left is the knowledge that while the popular media likes to portray less affluent sectors of society as being uncouth and aggressive the worst behaviour I have ever encountered has been from those perceived as privileged. To this day a dribbly spout on a teapot can give me trauma-filled comment card flashbacks. There is a lot of anger beneath those waxed jackets, a lot of barely suppressed rage in a Range Rover.

bertie in snowdrops

Bertie, the then-Property Manager’s cat, who would savage staff and visitors alike in a blur of  teeth and claws, posing peacefully among the must-see-or-we-riot snowdrops. I did see the snowdrops; they were all right but not worth the aggro.

I hate my hearing aids.

There. I’ve said it.

I have two hearing aids, both supplied by my local NHS audiology department. Despite prolonged attempts at coexistence with these small, technological marvels I have yet to find a way to tolerate their presence in my ears for more than a few hours. The indiscriminate amplification of all sound is a torment. The earpieces irritate my skin and cause unbearable itching. I feel more deaf wearing them than when I am not.

The advice is to stick with it but the people who give this advice are not usually the ones having to endure an actively unpleasant experience for negligible benefits. I’ve found that my deafness can be more of a problem for others than it is for me. “Have you got your hearing aids in?” they ask as I misunderstand or fail to respond for the nth time. I can understand their frustration. The problem is, putting in my hearing aids aren’t a cure for deafness, which is a common misconception. They can’t restore what is missing. I still have to concentrate hard to make sense of the data I’m receiving. Yet, in the spirit of cooperation, I do put them in, suffer for a bit, then ditch them as soon as I am alone again, with a sigh of relief. They now rank alongside shoes, tights and bras as the first items to discard as soon as I get in the front door after a long day at work.

I’d love to know how other hearing aid users manage to maintain a happy, long term relationship with their devices. I may have to go on the Jeremy Kyle Show with mine.

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Is she or isn’t she? Big hair means no one knowing you’re not wearing your hearing aids. Until you fail to respond to questions, sirens, alarms etc.

Not So Secret Diaries

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1980 – 1985  – You can faintly see the indentation that reads Five Year Diary. The gilt lettering has been entirely worn away.

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Before the Big Red Notebook, in either its hardback or online version, I kept a succession of diaries, triggered by the Christmas gift of a Five Year Diary in 1980. I dutifully began to write in it at the end of every day and maintained this habit for nearly two decades.

I recently rediscovered my stash of diaries when clearing out a bedside set of drawers in a hunt for sellotape and marvelled at how diligently I’d recorded a brief, often staggeringly dull, synopsis of my daily life right up until 1997.

Given that the space available in a five year diary for each entry is extremely limited I confess my jottings are never going to rival Pepys as a historical record but they do give me just enough material to spark my own chain of memories as I read these bullet points from my past.

Looking back at what I was doing on this day in previous years reveals time spent with friends and family – some still part of my life, some not – a shocking amount of time spent in bed (my teenage years were lived nocturnally whenever possible) and the knowledge that I never did lose weight in time for the summer. Any summer.

Excerpts like this one, when my daughter would have been 11 months old, make me smile. If only there’d been space to record exactly what made it such a happy day. If there had been Facebook, Twitter or Instagram then would I remember any more clearly now?

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December 28th 1989

 

The Day or Two of the Dead. Couple of Months, Tops.

My love of all things zombie began by chance, as I idly flicked through the TV channels late one night. This didn’t take long, it being the 80s and only having 4 channels to flick through, but to my great good fortune Dawn of the Dead was being shown on one of them. My thumb instantly froze over the remote control as I gazed in fascination at my first screen encounter with the living dead. The scenes featuring zombies riding escalators and falling over on the ice rink, all to wildly inappropriate shopping mall muzak, became instant favourites. It’s a blend of humour, horror, pathos and social commentary that I find  irresistible.

dawn of the dead

Since then I have watched a great many zombie films and TV series, read zombie fiction, been the recipient of many Z-themed gifts and have even created my own, knitting the undead in a burst of woolly creativity. It’s fair to say zombies are one of my interests.

I made this. Truly, I am gifted.

I made this. Truly, I am gifted.

That said, my enthusiasm is not indiscriminate. There are a couple of zombie deal breakers for me. The first is that I am firmly of the belief that zombies, much like myself, do not run. They are dead. Their muscles are rotting. They don’t consume carbs, energy drinks or performance enhancing drugs. Sprinting seems highly unlikely. They should shamble and stumble, lurch and moan in the grip of the terrible life hangover they are undoubtedly experiencing. The slow, relentless inevitability of their approach is what the zombie, as a metaphor for death, is all about. You can dodge and weave, outrun it for a while but eventually it will get you. Super speedy zombies are like sparkly vampires, a modern twist on an old classic which takes a genuinely creepy premise and transforms it into a pile of laughable wank.

The other issue that occurs to me is that a zombie outbreak simply wouldn’t last very long, especially if it occurred in the summer months. We may be into season 6 of the Walking Dead but I’m not convinced it would last so long in actuality. Certainly not long enough to grow a luxuriant beard and build a new world. A key fact most zombie fiction ignores is that nature is amazingly efficient at recycling dead stuff. Insect activity, carrion-eating birds, hungry dogs, would all make short work of an exposed carcass. My cat will start to tentatively eat my face if I nod off on the sofa for more than 5 minutes so there’s no way a zombie could wander the land unmolested by scavengers. Zombies are a self-limiting problem, eventually they’ll decompose. Obviously if the apocalypse happens during a cold snap you may have to stock up on more canned goods and keep the door locked until spring, but if you live in a region with wolves or bears you’re laughing.

I may have to redress the balance and write my own short short story featuring slow moving zombies and an afternoon at the safari park.

Whales. Bigger than zombies, just as eaten by polar bears. And seagulls. Up your game, zombie fiction writers!

Beached whales. Bigger than zombies, eaten by polar bears. And seagulls. Up your game, zombie fiction writers!

A Life in Cats, Chapter 2, That Difficult Second Act

Tiddles was a hard act to follow. I grant you that. Any cat would have struggled to match her levels of loveability. A vicious bundle of fur and razor-wire was always going to be more of a challenge to cherish.

She was cute enough when I first got her, but she was a tiny, tiny kitten at that stage and not yet weaned. At the time I lived next door to my Great Aunt, sister to my irrepressible Gibraltan Gran, and she had an unsentimental attitude to animals. She kept bantams in her garden, so she always had a plentiful supply of eggs. Occasionally she would slaughter one for the cooking pot, and I well remember her not wasting any useful part of that bird, showing me the semi-formed eggs in their various stages of development inside the oviduct, holding them aloft like a mutant bunch of orange grapes, then scraping them into a bowl to use later for cakes or omelettes. It was very educational. She also had a cat, which lived entirely outdoors, kept solely for pest control purposes. Semi-feral, it had never been neutered and one day Great Aunt Vicky called me over to her shed, to show me the miracle of nature which had just occurred. There, on a bale of straw, was proud mother cat and one tiny tabby kitten.

Sadly, a few days later we discovered the mother cat had been knocked over by a car and killed. Great Aunt Vicky, pragmatic as ever, gave me the kitten on the understanding that it was probably going to die, it was far too young to make it without its mum. Undeterred I immediately retrieved my Tiny Tears baby doll bottle and started giving routine feeds. The loss of Tiddles had hit me hard so I was determined to save this kitten if I could. She was so small she fit entirely into the palm of my hand, her tail was a stubby triangle, yet she consumed her milk from the doll’s bottle greedily and positively thrived. She grew bigger, stronger and even Great Aunt Vicky had to concede she was a survivor.

You might imagine that this heartwarming story of tragedy to triumph would have forged an unbreakable bond of love between cat and human but no, not a bit of it. As she grew this little furball took every opportunity to express her gratitude through the medium of tooth and claw. She shredded her way up curtains and legs alike. She could clamp herself around an outstretched hand like an alien facehugger on John Hurt, ferociously biting while all four paws raked interesting new designs up your forearms.  Somewhat euphemistically I named her “Frisky”.  Her true cat name should have been Slasher, Bitey or Ungrateful Git Cat but I was young and optimistic that she would get through this boisterous stage and settle down into serene adulthood. There would be cuddles, songs and endless purrs, the lacerations and repeat prescriptions of TCP would be a thing of the past. Ah, the naivety of youth.

Don't be deceived. Do not attempt to pet this cat. Even eye contact is risky.

Don’t be deceived. Do not attempt to pet this cat. Even making eye contact is risky.

Frisky made it clear she pretty much loathed humans, yet was unfortunately cursed with a similarly strong aversion to being outdoors. She would venture outside the back door a few feet, look around, be upset and disappointed by the universe at large and run back inside. This was especially problematic when she would do the desperate “I’m going to be sick, quick let me out” yowl and run to the door, where I, having hurdled the coffee table and several chairs to get to her in time, would fling it open only to have her run out, immediately remember that she hated the outdoors, run back inside and promptly yak up all over the mat before I could close it again.

An agoraphobic cat, trapped indoors with people she despised, Frisky spent a lot of time sitting on the stairs, where she could quickly dart out a paw between the bannisters and give you a swift twatting as you walked past. Her violent ways only began to wane when she reached extreme old age and her failing eyesight and arthritis put an end to her stealth attacks. Finally, after a lifetime of random hit and runs, she started to slow down and spend her days quietly napping in sun spots around the house. It seemed a bit cruel to still be calling her “Frisky” in her latter days, when she could barely jump on and off the bed anymore, but her tenacious hold on life hadn’t waned since those early days sucking milk from a Tiny Tears bottle. She lived for an astounding 21 years and died at home of old age, the only time she did anything peacefully.

I admired her stubborn refusal to take to me over the decades and was reluctantly fond of the old bat, but she was no soulmate like her predecessor. If Rainbow Bridge existed she’d only be waiting for me there in order to give me a quick claw in the face before legging it to the Pearly Gates. She was consistent though, and I respected that. I could only hope my next pet would have a friendlier disposition. Anything that didn’t routinely draw blood would be fine by me.

Dragged up

Given the fact I grew up in rural Norfolk in the 70s and 80s I had a remarkably liberal time of it. I mean, OK, there wasn’t much diversity to experience in terms of different cultures, but there was a lot of freedom to enjoy. Freedom to use my imagination, freedom to learn from my own experience, freedom to explore (I’d be off on my bike from dawn til dusk in the summer holidays, my mum relying on hunger to bring me home again in those times before mobile phones were essential kit for every child). I was led to this particular train of thought after watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and realising that I first went to see a drag show when I was about 9 years old.

Yes, back in the 70s we had a big family outing to Great Yarmouth to see an end of pier show. This show to be precise:

Danny La Rue

I was transfixed. The sequins, the glamour, the big feathery headdresses! This gorgeous vision arriving on stage with a deep voiced “wotcher mates!” This self proclaimed “comic in a frock” kept my irrepressible Gibraltan granny cackling so much that he repeatedly singled her out from the audience for a bit of banter and to check on the state of her seat.

I kept the programme from that show for many years. In the middle there was a Danny centrefold, staples through his spangly midriff, beautifully made up as a Vegas-style showgirl. I gazed upon those long, fishnet-clad legs in awe, then forlornly considered my own chubby knees, bruised and battered from numerous scrapes and falls. It seemed unlikely I would ever achieve similar levels of femininity and I was right.  My knees have steadfastly refused to be anything other than battered, bruised and chubby and, ironically, on the rare occasions I wear high heels I walk like a crossdressing truck driver. It seems to bring out my inner man. Worn by me fishnets and feathers are more burly than burlesque.

Danny La Rue

Along with my steadfastly sturdy legs I also retained my fascination with drag queens. There is something intriguing in that exaggerated femininity which allows these exotic creatures a freedom of speech not generally accepted from their everyday counterparts. There’s a strange sort of alchemy which allows a man in lipstick to get away with so much more than I could, no matter how much slap I put on.

I watch today’s generation of drag queens with great interest. There’s a lot more emphasis on lip synching and less on belting out old music hall numbers like “On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep” but I wonder what else has changed? Is the world a more accepting place nowadays, with drag on mainstream TV being watched by millions, or was it more so back in the day when you’d take the whole family to watch a show at the seaside?

I’m just grateful my family were Danny La Rue fans and couldn’t stand the Black and White Minstrel Show. I was dragged up right.