Death is a bastard. It is cruel and uncompromising. Even when it is kind of expected... when someone has been ill for a long time, for example, and is visibly fading... when the scythe falls, it is just as shocking as that awful knock at the door, when you open it to find the grim-faced police officer standing there and you know, just know, that something terrible has happened.
That happened to me once. Out of the blue, my mother died in her sleep alone in her house in Liverpool. I wasn't unprepared. I had had one of my psychic turns and knew something was up and I'd rung the gardener who had a key, my sister being away in France on holiday, and asked him to go round. I was in bed with terrible flu at the time, but I hauled my shivering body onto a train - on a Sunday, with engineering works that doubled the usual 2 1/2 hour journey - and arrived to find that she had indeed died and that the police had taken her to the police morgue and I wasn't allowed to see her, even though I battered on their door every day for a week, by which time I had laryngitis to add to my woes.
It wasn't until I had arrived back home a good week later that I got the knock on the door. I shall never forget the relieved smile on the wpc's face when I told her I already knew. Though why the Liverpool police had sent someone when I had already been in there with the death certificate from Mum's GP, I really don't know. I suppose the order had been given out before I had even got on a train. But as to why it had taken a week...
They talk about matters of life and death. I am OK with the former but shit at the latter. Faced with the death of someone close, I can't control my emotions. Like my mother before me, I get all Mediterranean, weep and wail and tear my hair and collapse onto the bed, unable to summon the stiff upper lip. My dad was the complete opposite. I was a teenager hovering in the hallway wondering if it was a boyfriend on the phone for me when my dad got there first. I heard him say, "Oh, When? Oh well."
He replaced the receiver, gave a small sigh, turned to me and said, "Your grandmother's dead." No tears, no emotion. As I gaped, he said, "No point in getting upset. Life must go on," and that was that. Subject closed. When I mentioned it to my mother later, she said, "It's his cold Scandinavian blood. They are very practical, the Swedes. They don't show their emotions." A complete lie, of course. My Scandinavian friends are just as emotional as anyone else. It was just him. The only time I ever saw him lose his cool was when I got pregnant without being married. But that's another story.
A few months ago, I attended a Death Cafe, I don't know if you've heard of them, but here is a link if you're interested: http://deathcafe.com/
Basically, a group of people, meet in a public place - in my case it was a room above Cafe Rouge in Hampstead - and talk about death, sitting around tables, each of which is headed by a 'facilitator', who asks questions, prompts people and generally guides the discussion and offers information on things such as green burials. I had to brace myself to go along with a friend who was keen to attend. It meant that, for a couple of hours, I would have to overcome my phobia about anything to do with death.
As a kid, I couldn't bare seeing a dead animal; a sheep's skeleton on the Welsh moors, a fledgling fallen from its nest, lying stiff on the patio. If that song about 'your thigh bone's connected to your knee bone' came on the radio, I would clap my hands over my ears and yell "La-la-la" until it was finished. My worst nightmares were about dying myself, or finding corpses. I couldn't even watch medical programmes, I was so squeamish.
At the meeting, the first thing we were asked is why we had come. To my horror, two of the women at my table said they had terminal illnesses. I immediately felt like a fraud. I didn't know why I was there. I had come along to accompany a friend, but I couldn't say that. In the end, I told the truth, that I was afraid of death and anything to do with the dying process, and that I had lost people I loved and found it hard to deal with my feelings. There. It was out in the open. And once I'd voiced it, I realised it was something I was going to have to work at, work with, because at my age I am bound to lose more and more people. I am going to have to break through my own taboo.
I do think Death Cafes are a good idea. It's easy to speak about almost anything but death. It seems the longer our life-span as a species, the worse we are at dealing with our inevitable end. Death is the worm in the apple of life. In previous centuries, when people often didn't live beyond forty and women died giving birth to their eleventh baby having already lost at least five, death was a fact of life; it was all around, an almost daily occurrence. But now, with so many pleasurable things to entertain us and so many more years to enjoy them in, we selfishly want to cling to life at all costs.
Death has replaced sex as an obscenity. We feel doctors and hospitals should be punished for letting our loved ones die, even when their quality of life is next to nil. We do not go gentle into that good night (thank you, Dylan Thomas, for writing out your anti-death rage). In fact, we discuss it so little that when it comes to dealing with the practicalities surrounding the death of someone close, we can find ourselves at a loss, as we have no experience of it. And that is where the Death Cafe comes in, with its ability to educate and inform and provide a safe space in which to discuss the kinds of practicalities that were once common knowledge.
Today, we had a call from the husband of a friend, to say his wife, who I love to bits, suffered a massive stroke this morning and is in a coma. As she already weighs less than 5 stone, due to another minor stroke that affected the part of the brain that controls appetite, they don't hold out any hope. My eyes are filling as I write this. My partner intends to go to the hospital tomorrow, some distance away. He has his satnav out and is planning the route. I know he's going to ask me if I want to come. But I don't. I want to remember her laughing and dancing in our garden this time last year, cracking jokes and swigging white wine spritzers.
I remember my mother in our garden in Liverpool, dancing and singing. I remember her stunning blue eyes, her wavy hair. I don't want to remember her as she lay in the funeral parlour looking nothing like she did in life. I remember my dad making his awful puns as we sat eating the Sunday roast. I remember the lively, happy times.
I think I need to learn to separate the body from the spirit. To think of the life that was in that person rather than the body that the life has left; the energy they gave out, and the love. I need to stop thinking of a corpse as creepy. It is just a covering that a person discards when their soul is set free, like discarding an old coat. Flad's little furry coat is buried in the garden. It's not him, just the outer garment that encased his spirit. Life, energy, love... the beautiful eyes, the dance... they are to be remembered and celebrated. And if I cry, if I wail, if I get drunk, if I miss them so much that it hurts, it's my way of showing how much I loved that person, that animal, that bundle of energy and personality wrapped up in skin.
1. You clear a patch of lawn, turn your back and next time
you look, you find a capricious breeze has covered it in fresh leaves. (Hold
your curses, this is but baby steps as far as leaf-raking goes.)
2. Just as you are releasing a load of leaves into the
garden waste bag, one side will flop inwards and they’ll land back on the grass
again. (Okay, mild swear word is permitted.)
3. Never attempt to clear leaves off the rake by hand as
it’s guaranteed that you’ll have scraped up some poo. (Fill in your own
4. You build up a goodly leaf heap, pause in your raking for
a rest and find your dog or toddler joyfully jumping in it and kicking leaves
all over the place. (Adopt Joyce Grenfell tones as you shout, “Don’t do that!”)
5. You accidentally step on the rake. This could result in
two things. A) Whilst your stiff boot sole prevents injury to your foot, the
rake handle whacks you in the face, giving you a black eye and lump on your
head the size of Snowdon. B) A trip to A&E
for prong-extraction and tetanus shot. (Much swearing is now permitted.)
6. It starts to rain. You stop raking, promising to finish
the job tomorrow. You wake to find foxes have played hide and seek in the leaf
bag and ripped it to shreds and every leaf is now happily lying on its back in
the grass laughing at you. You sigh, reach for a beer and then it snows and you
know you won’t have to look at a leaf again for a very long time. Three cheers
for Mother Nature!
7. You finish the job, drag yourself wearily in, looking
forward to a restorative hot bath and drink, then spouse says smugly, “I have a
gizmo in the garage that could have made the job much easier for you, if you’d
only asked.” (Murder is now permitted.)
Thirty years ago, my very first book was published. It was
called Sweet Temptation and was
written under the pen-name of Caroline Standish. I hadn’t spent long agonising
over that title. The publisher wanted something that sounded passionate and sexy
and this was the first one I suggested. However, thinking about it now, I can
see that it has no relevance at all to a historical romance set in the 1820s. I have renamed the revamped version The Earl’s Captive,
which is much more relevant to the storyline and it should be up on Kindle
Titles go through phases. In 18th century Britain,
the fashion was to name a book after the hero or heroine, hence Clarissa (Samuel Richardson), Tom Jones (Henry Fielding) and Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe). In the
last few years, there has been a fashion for long titles that almost tumble off
the cover: The Curious Incident of the
Dog In the Nighttime; After the
Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings and Flew Away (Joyce Carol
Oates). However, this is nothing new. I remember my shock, back in 1976, at seeing the
unwieldy title, If You Meet Buddha On The
Road, Kill Him (Sheldon Kopp). Of course, I read it just because all my
friends had their noses stuck in it, and it was debated avidly after a few
drags of wacky baccy. Well, it was the Seventies!
What is the purpose in choosing such long titles? Were they
picked for shock value alone, to make the random browser intrigued enough to
pick the book off the shelf? When I see a lengthy title, my innate book title
prejudice kicks in and I think, ‘If the title is so over-wordy, I bet the
contents will be, too,’ and I am instantly put off. Or I decide that the author
is showing off.
There have been titles I’ve hated so much that I nearly
didn’t read the book, even though the reviews were good. One example is Gone Girl, which struck me as being so
ungrammatical that I expected the content to be lazily written. It wasn’t, of
course, it was just my title prejudice at work at work again.
I have just been scanning recent book releases (once, it was
only records and the odd animal that were ‘released’) and the fashion seems to
be for descriptive titles that reflect the contents. There’s Vanessa Curtis’s
amazing, heart-wrenching The Earth Is
Singing; Bill Bryson’s The Road to
Little Dribbling, which I can’t wait to start; Peter James’s The House on Cold Hill; Kate Morton’s The Lake House; Bernard Cornwell’s Warriors of the Storm. Good, strong,
unpretentious titles that lure you in by their very simplicity.
I wonder what will come next, in 2016? Titles containing
foreign words and phrases? Kathy Reichs has already set this trend with Déjà Dead and Death du Jour. Literary quotes? Psychobabble titles? Computer-term
titles? Ooh, The Keyboard Killer! I
feel a plot coming on.
I have been in quite a few terrifying situations at various times in my life. I have been threatened with a knife twice; been at gunpoint once; been stuck on a steep, high mountain side with no handholds and my feet sliding away beneath me; had an attack of vertigo when I was almost at the top of a tall ladder; been in a descending plane when it had a near miss with another that chose to amble across the runway just as we had almost touched down...
There have been others, some even worse. Some so bad, I don't even want to talk about them. But, despite my terror, my fear for my life on each of these occasions, I have never, ever, been 'scared stiff'.
I suppose the expression was invented to describe a sensation of being frozen to the spot like a rabbit in headlights; of being so terrified that you turn instantly into a pillar of salt, an Anthony Gormley statue or a relief figure on the Elgin Marbles. Perhaps this happens to some people. Not me. Rather than being scared stiff, I am scared wobbly.
Yes, whenever I am truly terrified - when, walking home in the dark, I hear footsteps stealthily approaching behind me, or sounds outside my ground floor bedroom window at night - I am instantly transformed into one of our ancestors from millions of years ago, before bones developed, when we were still amoebae. I become a thing of jelly. I quiver. My leg bones turn into slugs. My heart flutters with the speed of a hummingbird's wings. I am utterly useless, but I am not stiff. Especially not my bottom lip!
Hang on... Did I say 'utterly useless'? That's wrong. In moments of sheer terror, one faculty has never deserted me and that is the power of speech. When I was dragged up an alleyway at knife point back in 1966 as I was walking home from a nightclub at 3 am, full of supreme confidence that my very youthfulness would protect me from danger (and still with enough energy to walk four miles), my tongue was my saviour.
Remembering something my mother told me when she was on the point of being murdered (be patient, all will be revealed in my memoir!), I started speaking to the young man who had seized my arm and was pointing the knife blade at me. I talked... and went on talking in a low, hypnotic tone, telling him he didn't really want to harm me and he knew what would happen to him if he did, until eventually the hand holding the knife dropped and I seized my chance and ran back down the alley to the main road. My tongue saved me from the gun threat, too. That's another long story and that, too, will be in the memoir.
Let's hope that if I ever get scared wobbly again, I'll still have the wit to use that ultimate weapon - words. When in a tight spot, talk, talk, talk. Or even sing!
As I get older, I get angrier. More quickly and about more things. Such as:
* Ten-foot teenage schoolboys barging ahead of me onto the bus.
* Clothes shops that have special sections for oldies, stocked with ghastly pastel-coloured jumpers knitted in the kind of nylon yarn that gives your hair the mad scientist look when you pull the sweater over your head and which, rather than being soft to caress our delicate, ageing flesh, are set-your-teeth-on-edge hard and synthetic. They always plonk them next to a rack of polyester trousers in dark navy or e.coli brown, or a row of skirts in shiny nylon festooned with flowers in funereal shades of heliotrope and sludgy green. You know the sort. You, too, must have seen them and shuddered and, like me, scurried on to the Manta Ray or Wallis section, where you let out your breath in a relieved 'Whew!'
* Coffee shops where the barista chats to the much younger person standing behind you in the queue, whilst she mixes your coffee on autopilot and takes your money without even looking at you. Add to that the food sections in coffee bars which feature a row of vomit-coloured egg mayo and cucumber sarnies when you craved the cheese and pickle one that was snatched from under your nose by a long-armed student standing behind you. Also add the barista who looks scathingly at you when you order a cappucino because she was just dying to show off her mastery of the pumpkin spiced latte.
* Recipes that sound delicious and get you rushing excitedly around assembling contents, until you reach the point in the ingredients list that halts you like a horse stalling at the last fence after a clear round. Merguez? Tagliarini? Mesclun? No, I didn't have any grated blue unicorn hoof lying around in the cupboard, either.
* Days that are too wet. Too windy, Too hot. Too cold. Make that Weather, in its entirety.
* The wasp that sees me coming and sets out to annoy me, buzzing round me, invading my personal space with its whirring wings and threatening sting. It's no accident those annoying striped flying beasts are all males. The females recline in the nest with all six feet up, waiting for their servants to bring them nectar - which reminds me of a certain type of woman who makes me almost angrier than wasps do.
* The nurse at my GP surgery who gave me a shingles jab, telling me I'd only need the one as it would last for life - then I Googled it and found out it lasted five years. That really brought me down. It made me wonder if she knew something I didn't!
* Financial institutions that won't give me a loan or a mortgage because I am 'too old'.
* Travel insurance firms who double the price you were paying at 59, because at 60 you're suddenly twice as likely to have a heart attack whilst sipping your pina colada in Marbs.
* All those special weekend and holiday deals which, when you read the small print, are for two people only. Am I never supposed to go away again because I don't have a friend or lover to accompany me? I have rung travel companies, begging and pleading, offering to pay more, but they have been implacable: the deal is only for two. Why? Grrrrr!
* Scratchy labels in clothing. One of my pet peeves. I can't count the number of items I've damaged while trying to cut off the stupid label that has made the back of my neck red and itchy.
* Cyclists on the pavement. Almost always male and not all youngsters. The other day as I strolled to the shops, I was nearly mashed by six mountain bike wheels, pedalled by a bulky dad and his two sons of about ten and twelve. Talk about setting a bad example. Pavements are for pedestrians, get it? If I'd had a walking stick, I'd have given them a poke in the spokes.
* The conversational talents of hairdressers. It has taken me years to find a stylist who can actually talk about anything beyond, "Going anywhere nice for your holidays?" My current one talks about music, politics, books, films, psychology, restaurants, Ireland, Italy... She can pick up a conversational ball and run with it and score a goal by doing a fantastic job on my hair. Although it takes me an hour and a half to get to the salon, I shan't be going elsewhere in a hurry. I just hope my super stylist and colouring queen won't get lured elsewhere, or get married and preggers. Not for another five years, anyway. After that, if the practice nurse was right, it won't matter and they can all carry on queue-jumping, wearing nylon cardis, flapping wasps away and gagging on egg mayo and cucumber sarnies.
I have just read an article in the Sunday Times property section in which Rupert Sweeting, head of Knight Frank Country Sales, said that only about 5-10% of vendors include the house contents when they sell their home, walking out with just their clothes and personal possessions. The new owners are obviously pleased to inherit the copper warming pans, carved four-posters, rusty suits of armour (I'd be peeping inside for skeletons - what a great place to hide the victim of an old murder!), oil portraits of obscure 18th Century merchants and china tea services that may or may not have belonged to Duke Didgery of Greater Dodging.
Country piles can contain all manner of interesting collectables, but what about town and city properties? Do vendors get asked, as a condition of sale, to leave behind the non-fitted wardrobe and the horrid brown sofa? I can confirm that they certainly do.
Of course, the buy-to-let brigade might be only too happy to buy up a house or flat and all its contents, as it will save them a few bob when it comes to kitting it out for tenants - providing they all have those labels proclaiming their fire-retardant properties still attached. (I don't know if you saw the recent TV programme on the subject of house fires, but even these labels can be faked. Terrifying thought.)
But how about people who are buying a property to actually live in - a pretty rare occurrence in London at present, so it seems, when investors outnumber genuine home-hunters by at least three to one, judging by my attendance at those ghastly Open House events over the past couple of years. If you keep your ears wagging, you will soon sort out the BTLs from the OOs (owner-occupiers). Of course, some are buying a place for their progeny to occupy whilst studying at a local college, after which they will let it on the open market. Then there are those who already have a place in the country and are looking for a Monday-Friday city pad. There seem to be few people like me, who want to get their belongings out of the storage unit or, in my case right now, garden shed, and create a proper home.
At every viewing, the men in brown suits are hovering. OK, sometimes it might be a dusty grey sweatshirt but you can guarantee it will be worn over trousers that are some shade of brown, ranging from beige to Brazil nut. They hang back from the rest of the viewers and they don't speak much. Often, they take a tape measure out of pockets that are bulging with phones and wallets stuffed with notes - for this type always carries out his business via cash in hand - and proceed to measure the rooms, although the printed details already state the dimensions in feet and metres.
I know what these guys are about. They are trying to calculate where they can put up partition walls in order to cram in the maximum number of beds and tenants. Then they get out their phones, switch on the calculator and do rapid sums to see if the projected profit would make this flat or house a worthwhile addition to their portfolio. They will then sneak up to the agent and offer to line his personal pocket if he will let them have it for £20k less than the asking price. The BTL brown suits tare one extra element amongst the multitude of huge hurdles, the worst one being people with lots more money than myself who offer £20 over the asking price, that makes buying property, in London especially, so hazardous, difficult and disappointing.
But back to my original theme, that of the strange things buyers ask sellers to leave behind. I have bought and sold eleven properties. My first was a first floor maisonette in Ealing, West London. The buyers, a pair of middle-aged newly-weds, told me they would buy it if I would leave behind all the curtains, light fittings and shades, wardrobes, cooker and fridge, the piano, one of the beds and in particular - their eyes glowing with covetousness - the sofa.
Now, this being the first property I had ever owned, I hadn't developed great taste. In fact, you could say that my choice of decor was hideous. I bought the flat in 1979. The '70s were without doubt the era of brown. Especially brown with orange and yellow flowers, a hangover from '60s psychedelia (thank heavens I was too young and poor to buy a flat then!). I had toffee-coloured carpets, I had painted the walls myself in a shade that resembled brown Windsor soup (or, to be utterly accurate, watery diarrhoea) and all the woodwork was glossed in a shade called Banana. Yellow, in other words. I seem to remember the curtains were brown with orange flowers. There was a cheap wooden table parked at the end furthest from the electric fire and resplendent in the middle of the carpet was a dark brown corner unit in shiny Dralon.
Remember Dralon? If you do, the words 'static' and 'slippery' spring to mind. Dralon was a fabric you sat on then slid off. It was stuff that, having sat on it for a while, you could then stroke the cat and see the poor mog's fur stand on end. This seating unit was curved and massive, and pretty useless because, being curved, you couldn't sleep an overnight guest on it unless they liked to sleep bent like - well, a banana. But this couple had fallen in love with the cow-pat-coloured Dralon monstrosity and that was the chief condition of their offer: no Dralon, no deal.
So I sold it to them, thanking my lucky stars that I hadn't had the trouble and cost of moving it, as it would certainly not have fitted into my next property, which was a poky, but freehold, cottage a bit further west in Northfields. A few weeks after the couple had moved in, I had a phone fall from them. Did I know the flat had woodworm? Of course I didn't. I had lagged the loft myself with rolls of fibreglass, using a nylon scarf as a face mask, and hadn't spotted single bore-hole in the rafters.
"Where was the woodworm?" I asked nervously, wondering if the staircase had collapsed and Mr Buyer was phoning from the depths of his plaster-cast.
"In the cupboard on the landing," he said accusingly. "My wife opened the door and the whole thing collapsed in a heap of dust."
"I'm really sorry," I said, shaking with suppressed laughter. "I never used that cupboard so I didn't know." I hoped the woodworm had wiggled their way into the frame of the sofa... and did they ever encounter the resident ghost, the small brown and white terrier that often appeared in the living room?
I don't think I left anything behind in the Northfields property, apart from a propensity for the drain running under the kitchen floor to block from time to time, sending a whale-spout of water up to the ceiling. I suspected it was being affected by the roots of the weeping willow in the garden, but I never said anything as it was up to their surveyor to think of things like that, wasn't it?
In 2000, I bought an end-of-terrace ex-council house in Muswell Hill with a magnificent paved and terraced garden, complete with fish-less pond. I put it up for sale 18 months later as it was at the foot of a very steep hill, up which you had to climb to reach shops and bus routes and I'd done some painful damage to the ligaments in my left ankle. A young single mum made an offer and the conditions of sale were that I included the fridge-freezer and blinds, three rugs I'd lugged back from Turkey and everything in the garden including the watering can. I was happy to oblige.
When it comes to moving house, plants can provide a sticking point. Some people like to take their favourite pots and plants with them when they move, but I have always been happy to leave them behind (as well as pianos - I have abandoned three). You can always plant another clematis or a rosemary bush. I sold a Kentish Town flat with every pot and plant on the terrace included. And my last pair of buyers, in East Finchley, wanted the wardrobe, a chest of drawers and the kitchen table, but not the beds, even though I offered them. When somebody doesn't want something, it makes you question your taste. What was wrong with my lovely pine bed frame which I had painstakingly drag-painted white, to create a calm, Zen look in the white-walled bedroom?
I sometimes wonder how long it took them to discover something else I had left behind - a redundant, rusty TV aerial sagging from the chimney, which creaked like a haunted house door every time the wind blew. I asked numerous firms to remove it for me, but nobody would, so I hope they didn't blame me for their sleepless nights. At least they couldn't blame my beds!
I wrote this on May 19th and never got round to posting it. I thought I had, but have just found it in Draft form. Here's what I wrote, over a month ago now. Hankies at the ready...
Last night, we had to get our beloved, adorable Flad put to sleep. This has been one of the worst days of my life. I keep looking for him in all his favourite spots in the garden. I think I see him under the table, but it's only my partner's slippers. In reality, he is buried in his favourite late afternoon sunning spot, next to the rose bush planted by my partner which bears the name of his late wife, who died of breast cancer the year before I met him. An unkind person said to me that I had no right to be so upset because it was 'only a cat'. So I want to tell Flad's story and show how he won my heart. I still have his fur on my clothes.
It's time I resumed normal service now. Things have been pretty shitty since Flad passed away. You know how grief goes. One minute you're OK, and have been for several days, then some little thing acts as a trigger and whoosh! You're overwhelmed by a tidal wave of misery, a seventh wave that swooshes over you from behind, breaking over your head, swamping you, leaving you gasping and spluttering, battered and shaken and trying to catch your breath and keep your balance.
A moth at the window was all it took. A large one, at dusk, beating its wings against the glass of the patio doors. My mind flashed back to when we first saw Flad, leaping at the glass, catching moths and eating them. He wasn't more than seven months old. Half-grown, pot-bellied with what I first thought were kittens, but when we noticed he was male (though minus his bits) we realised the distended belly was a mixture of starvation and worms. He had been living wild, under a hedge we think, sneaking out to steal the scraps we threw out for the foxes. Poor little thing.
He was terrified of humans but my partner gradually tamed him by crouching on the grass and holding out tempting morsels that a starving kitten couldn't resist. We started leaving out a saucer of cat food and within weeks of getting proper food, his belly slimmed and his coat grew glossy and he was a different cat entirely.
We already had two adult cats, also black and white, so Flad was an add-on. Originally, I christened him Felix but his brow was a peculiar shape, giving his face a flattened look as if he'd been squashed in the birth canal - you know how some babies are born with odd-shaped heads that soon go back to normal? As Flad filled out, his face became more rounded but by then it was too late. I had called him Flathead one day and my partner seized on this name with great glee, and it stuck, though it was gradually shortened to Flad.
"He's never coming in. He's an outdoor cat," decided my partner, Mr Grumpy, even though Flad had mastered the cat flap by now, after watching BC (Bastard Cat) and Trollop to see how they did it. (Bastard, Trollop and Flathead... yes, I know!) One morning, I was first up and saw a strange sight through the glass of the side door. "What on earth's that?" I asked Mr Grumpy. It looked like two furry ears and a tail. Flad was sitting nearby, looking pleased with himself.
He burst out laughing. "It's a squirrel's arsehole!" Indeed it was. Two back legs, a tail and an, er... well, you know. Flad had eaten the rest. That night we had a peaceful night's sleep as the squirrel that had got into the inaccessible part of the attic had ceased to disturb us. Flad must have been lying in wait as Mr Squirrel shimmied down the creeper for his breakfast, straight into an open feline mouth.
"He's earned his keep," said Mr G. "I think he can come in, now." And so suddenly, there were three black and white cats on the sofa at night and no room for us at all.
Flad on the left, always the clown, and neat, tidy little Trollop
Bear with me, please. It's been such a miserable week that I couldn't write a word. But I promise I'll be back soon with The Story of Flad and I'll try not to ruin my keyboard by splashing too many tears onto it.
When I was in my twenties, I naively supposed that, once you'd got over a few bumps and knocks, life started to get better and went on that way, blossoming into a soft, perfumed bed of roses by the time you were ready to drift painlessly into the after-world.
Wrong. And how! Which is why I now feel that, rather than landing on a bed of roses in my later years, I have sunk up to my neck in a steaming dung heap! I could cry myself to sleep every night bemoaning the wrong choices I made, the opportunities I turned down, the times I've let people down, the huge amount of money I've wasted through buying clothes to cheer myself up when I've been sad.
Some people can look inside themselves and draw on reserves of strength and courage. Rather than being made of stern, stiff-upper-lip grit, my soul, psyche or whatever is more like a leaky bucket from which the courage seeps as the regret expands. Oh, stuff the similes. I have a sieve for a soul. A sponge for a backbone. A tea-strainer for a spirit. I am not the type from whom burning-building-rescues and Amazon treks are made. When the shit hits the fan, you'll find me cowering behind the sofa, whimpering plaintively, clutching a packet of chocolate digestives, my universal panacea for panic and uncertain futures. I have eaten two today already.
Recently, life has squished me deeper into the smelly stuff. Twice in the last month I have had to ring for an ambulance because Mr Grumpy has suffered TIA's, or mini-strokes. The last occasion was particularly scary because he went blind in one eye, couldn't feel the floor beneath his feet and his left arm went numb. Fortunately, he recovered later in the day, but there is always the worry that a major event is waiting in the wings. (Pass me another chocolate biscuit.)
The other rotten thing that's happened is that poor old Flad is rapidly going downhill. He's thin, weak and has started having 'accidents', so I went out today and staggered back with a bag of cat litter, a litter tray and a scoop. I have suggested shutting Flad in a room by himself at night, so that Charlie, who is a big bully, will leave him alone. We also don't want Charlie to start using the tray. But Mr Grumpy has overruled me and insists Flad should be allowed to carry on sleeping on the sofa "because that's where he likes sleeping." And he won't allow me to close the door in case Flad wants to go out at night. The fact that our poor, doddery old mog is too stiff and weak to use the cat flap hasn't occurred to him.
I give up. I'm too sad to get on with writing my books. I feel in limbo. When we first met Flad, he was a few months old and living wild in the garden, eating the scraps we threw out for the foxes. This was in July 1997, three months after Mr Grumpy and I got together. From being a nervous feral who didn't purr till he was four, he blossomed into a beautiful, gentle, lovely animal who captured my heart. Seeing him decline not only tears me in two, it throws a parallel light on my relationship.
I shall say no more. Another biscuit, please. No - give me the whole damn packet.
Today we had a power cut. Everything went off. I couldn't use the landline and without my computer, I was pacing the garden with nothing to do except a bit of weeding. Having no electricity made me feel helpless. I had my mobile phone, of course, and used that to ring a couple of non-local friends and have a moan. One kindly looked at a website that tells you about power cuts, but there was no mention of one in Uxbridge.
Up and down the road, burglar alarms were shrilling. Mr Grumpy was out. It was 2.15 pm. 'What on earth am I going to do with myself?' I wondered. Then up spoke the voice of my conscience. 'Go to the gym!' it ordered. 'You know you need to. You've put on 12 lbs since before Christmas, your blood pressure is up and you're not walking your 10,000 steps a day.'
I acceded to its demands, put on a pair of black leggings, found a suitable t-shirt and off I went. To my surprise, my swipe card still worked. With great embarrassment, I found myself having to ask where the female locker room was, as I had forgotten. When I got to the ladies-only gym (the mixed one is upstairs and no way am I ever going to display my crinkled old flab before the disgusted eyes of all the muscle-bound studs groaning and grunting as they lift gut-busting weights), I found there was only one other person there, a young woman pedalling away on an exercise bike whilst reading a paperback. Way to go!
I did 20 minutes on the treadmill, then 5 minutes each on exercise bikes and air walker, and then I did some leg presses. 'That will shut you up for a while, Conscience!' I thought smugly.
I needed to get the ring I wear every day repaired, as a stone had dropped out, so I visited a couple of repair places until I found someone who told me to bring it in next week. I passed the dress stall in the market and found myself buying a £10 sun dress in poisonous purple and putrid green (why, oh why?) and then... here comes the big confession... my trainers tugged me into the M&S coffee shop where I counted out the coins I had in my purse (I'd left my wallet and cards at home, in case they got nicked at the gym) and discovered I had just enough for a cappuccino and... oh no!... a thick wodge of carrot cake, for which I have a great weakness.
So I sat there piling back the calories I'd just worked off, while my conscience nagged me mercilessly and told me what a weak-willed wimp I was and that if I carried on this way, I'd never get back to 9 stone again. I sat on the bus home (should have walked the three miles but my foot was hurting in my new trainers) and felt bloated and guilty.
At least the electricity was back on by the time I got home and the freezer hadn't defrosted. I suppose I shall have to go to the gym again tomorrow now, to lose the carrot cake calories. There must be an equation here somewhere: Energy = Marks Carrot cake squared. Or rather, my waistline rounded.
Something went a bit wrong with my Kindle the other day. It wasn't turning on and off properly; if I turned it off, it popped back on again. Weird! So I handed it to Mr Grumpy (my partner, for anybody new on here) as he is Mr Fixit for anything mechanical.
He hummed and hawed and asked me if I had reset it lately. I told him I had (just last week and quite by accident when I hit the wrong button as I was dozing off). "Well, I'm going to do it again," he said. Then he told me I hadn't been turning it off correctly as I wasn't using the Power Off button.
Ha ha! That was my chance to score one over him, which happens as rarely as rocking-horse doo-doo. "It hasn't got one!" I said triumphantly.
"There has to be one, you just haven't found it," he said, in the tired tone of a teacher fed up with explaining something tedious to a thicko student. He turned the reader this way and that; no button. I knew there wasn't. For once, I had RTFM'd (Read The Feckin' Manual).
He gave up. By now, it had finished resetting itself. He gazed at the screen, sliding through page after page. He held it up to his face and squinted at it. "Do you know you've got eighty-five books on here?" He sounded appalled rather than astonished.
"How on earth are you going to read them all?"
"Easily." Three a week... twenty-one weeks' supply. Less if I go on holiday. And some are reference books that I'll only read when I need them, such as How to Format Your Book for Kindle. And there are one or two I may not like and will consign straight to the Cloud, to join The Miniaturist, which I couldn't get on with at all.
Eighty-five books hardly constitute a library. They would hardly fill three shelves. Languishing in Mr G's garden shed are at least twenty-five boxes of 'proper' books - books made of paper, touch-feely reads that seem almost sensuous when compared to the act of stabbing a cold, hard screen to turn the pages. One day I shall have my own place again. My own study, my own library. I will have my external library and my internal one, inside my Kindle. And, of course, the neatest, most portable one of all - the one inside my own head.
I have paraphrased the heart-rending title that appeared above the article on adoption in today's Daily Mail, in which my daughter and I had a starring role. I rushed out and bought several copies, but in fact the online version used more photos and looked better, I think.
We were asked to be on Good Morning Britain tomorrow but my daughter is down in Devon and they wanted us there at 6 am. No way! I have never been able to do early mornings. The Lorraine Show has also asked us, along with Veronica, who heads up the Movement For an Adoption Apology (MAA).
We, and many others, believe that the government, as the spokesperson for Society, did single mothers a huge disservice pre-1977, when single mums were able to get council accommodation. Prior to that, not only was there no support, either financial or with regard to housing, but we were treated like criminals. Worse, in fact. Some poor women were locked up for life in mental hospitals, branded 'moral degenerates'.
At least I escaped that fate, but I was still deemed unsuitable to bring up a child, being nothing but a 'feckless little hippy with nothing to offer a baby'. How about a mother's love? How can that be called 'nothing'?
A friend with a twisted sense of humour rang this morning and asked, in a mock-sincere voice, "Tell me, how does it feel to be almost seventy?" My reply was a common two-word expletive!
When my mum was in her mid-sixties and I was a mere 28, I asked her what it felt like to be her age and she told me, "Like a young woman trapped in an old woman's body."
Now, I know exactly what she meant and she was so right. My personality, my spirit, my humour, my like and dislikes, even my ambitions, haven't changed one bit. What has changed is my energy level, my sex drive, my optimism and my ability to carry out certain tasks without pain and joint stiffness getting in the way.
I would say that three days out of seven, I wake up feeling so aching and exhausted that there seems little point in getting out of bed. I cancel a lot of arrangements because I just don't feel well enough to enjoy them. I can no longer play the guitar as my fingers won't bend sufficiently. I am now enduring the legacy of the severe whiplash I suffered when I was 40, in the form of a stiff, painful neck which produces frequent headaches, and permanent pain mid-back and in the lumbar region.
I take supplements. Vitamin D, zinc, fish oils. I have recently added Co-enzyme Q10 in the hope of increasing my energy and decreasing my blood pressure. I read up on herbal and homoeopathic remedies, I tinker, I experiment with this and that, which was why I started this blog in the first place. I still hope that my current exhaustion is just a passing phase and that I will wake one day full of the joys of spring. After all, it has happened once this year, about three weeks ago. I got up and started whistling and singing, then stopped in my tracks and thought, 'Wow, this is what normal must feel like!' But it didn't last. Next day, I was back to poor sleep and feeling tired out once again.
I know I shouldn't write myself off because of my advancing years, though it is tempting to think I've had it! Some 70-plus-year-olds are bouncing with vitality. My sister and her husband, for instance. He, poor man, has just broken his leg in two places while skiing. He's 75 but is looking forward to being back on the slopes next season. My sister, 67 this year, walks miles in the Lake District fells every day.
My mum was very wise. She was fascinated by health and the human mind and body and would have loved to have been a doctor, but was forced to leave school and start work at 14 to support her ailing parents, she being the only child. I have just remembered a dream I had once, involving her. In it, I was crippled and in a wheelchair and she stood in front of me, telling me to get out of it and run. So I did. I stumbled and swayed and suffered pain at first, but the more I ran and the faster I got, the better I felt, until all my aches vanished away.
I think the core message was exercise. Something I haven't done much of for a long time, since my gym kept having the lockers broken into and robbed so I stopped going. There are no parks around here, no places to walk. I do a few desultory stretches at home and have put on a stone in weight since this time last year. There is a council swimming pool, but it is two buses and a long walk away, if you don't have a car. Yes, I know; excuses, excuses. But who fancies shivering at two bus stops on a cold winter's day when they are still damp from their swim?
Last Saturday night, I was at a 40th birthday party. The band was great and nothing could keep me off the dance floor. I was the oldest guest and I danced the most. Yesterday, all the pain in my back and neck had gone. Today, it's creeping and creaking back again. But I know the answer: get off my typing chair and dance. As I wrote in an old song of mine:
I was not a model child. Sometimes I ran wild until they caught me. Then at times I'd look around, hear the sounds the teachers hadn't taught: Screams of a dollar hot in the hand, Scenes I could not understand... For life is a search after gold, they tell you. If your life could be bought or be sold, they'd sell you - Don't give them a chance, dance away, don't give them a chance, dance away.
So that's what I need to do: dance away. Watch this space, to the accompaniment of Absolute Radio '70s!
I am off cat-sitting in Camden Town again on Friday and while I am there, I intend doing something about my hair. Many moons ago, it was long, flowing, hippy-like and auburn.
Gradually, it faded to ginger...
At this point, it was a lot shorter. Then I had it cut really short - well, short for me!
But I missed my flowing locks and let it grow again. Now, though, it has so much grey in it that I have to colour it, with the inevitable consequences; dryness, lack of lustre. So now, with the mighty birthday coming up, I have a strange desire to do something really drastic. Short and spiky? Or long with purple streaks? I won't know will I go to a trendy Camden salon and see what's on offer. Perhaps Mr Grumpy won't recognise me when I get back. (Mind you, he returned from the Turkish barber's yesterday with no hair at all!)
I have a birthday coming up next month. A big birthday. A completely terrifyingly huge one. I'm not looking forward to it. I don't want to be this age. It's not right. I feel wounded by it. I want it to go away and not bother me. I want it to not tell anyone, and definitely not bring me one more wrinkle or grey hair.
They talk about entering one's second childhood. The unfair thing about that is that the second one doesn't restore the wonderful skin and hair and energy and flexibility one had as a child. What's the point of having a second childhood if one can't run to the top of a grassy hill and roll down? If one can't turn a cartwheel on a whim, or leap over a park bench as I used to do without a second's thought. If one can't eat some rich, yummy concoction of cake, jelly and ice cream without wondering where the Rennies are?
I was a great jumper once. Imagining I was a horse, I would mentally rear up on my hind legs, take a run, gather my muscles and leap from one grass verge to the next, across someone's concrete driveway, all the way up the road to the park. Once or twice, I even leapt the width of a double driveway. At 13, I could jump my own height over a rope. Yet I never entered for competitions. I was hopeless at school games. But I was great at being a fantasy show-jumper. All I ever jump at now is my own shadow.
I guess if my birthday won't go away, I'll have to. Hole up in a nice hotel somewhere, all by myself with a laptop, a Kindle and a bottle of champagne and forget the birthday is happening at all. A trip to the Mediterranean would be nice. Shame my birthday is in March, though.
American poet Samuel Ullman had a lot to day about ageing. Here's a quote:
'Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.'
Philosophy notwithstanding, don't you dare send me a card with the actual number of years on it. If you do, the wrinkles may just appear on your backside after I've kicked it!
A good friend told me I should stop writing my blog as it was getting too personal and might be seen by the wrong eyes. I replied that I didn't care who read it and as it was my blog, why was I wrong to write about personal matters?
The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought that perhaps I shouldn't moan and grumble about the ups and downs of my life, as who wants to read about that? So now I am in a dilemma. Should I simply delete the whole thing? After all, it's a real mish-mash, a mixture of diary, thoughts, snippets, poems and photos. It's come a long way since the outset, when all I intended to blog about was my attempts to find cures for my various ailments.
I had thought that by experimenting with various creams, pills, potions and snake oil, I might be helping others who had dithered about which was the best herbal sleeping pill to buy, or the best ointment for their arthritis. It was going to be a medicinal trial and error log. But other things crept in and now it's a different blog entirely, that doesn't match its title.
So... what do I do? Ditch it and start another? Delete it? Leave it to waft around cyberspace forever? Since starting it, I haven't kept a diary. This blog IS my diary! Yet, at the same time, it isn't, because I feel that certain subjects - especially my relationship - are taboo.