Monday, June 18, 2007

Fruit of the Day

Here is a ceramic bowl filled with fruit salad. We had it yesterday as part of a meal with my daughter, stepson and a couple of friends from London. It speaks for itself really, but for the record: mango, pineapple, nectarine, banana, blueberries, grapes; meringues and cream on the side. At the moment I feel as though I could live on this – the signs are therefore auspicious. For the last few weeks I haven’t really fancied the idea of anything other than toast and marmite.

At this point I’m not sure there is anything else that needs to be said – nothing, at any rate, that I would care to identify. It's on the tip of my fingers to say that I may be gone some time but that sounds a bit arctic and final. I quite like the image of Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, closing thumb and forefinger before pushing them out into a salute: Be seeing you!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Reviewing the Situation

Shingles seem to be winning at the moment. I had no idea – how can one with a name like Shingles? It sounded so musical and benign, a nursery book kind of a word or Brighton beach, surely no worse than having, say, the Sniffles, and just a bit of a rash? I heard people refer to it as painful but was never close enough to anyone who had it to know what that might mean.

When awake the best thing is to keep distracting myself, but one is limited by not being able to focus for very long and being tired. I can only lie down and sleep for an hour or two before pain kicks in and the only thing to do is get up. I have been given carte blanche by the doctor to take as many prescription painkillers as I want but they don’t really stop the pain – apparently nothing does with this (apart from drugs with side-effects I can’t tolerate), you just have to sit it out and hope it goes away sooner rather than later. Having M.E. does of course add a further dimension to the picture. It may be time for some therapeutic self-pity, but that, like the pills, doesn't really hit the spot . I have, for the moment, given up not smoking. It is, as Lou Reed once said, “a health measure.” In his case, it stood between him and a heroin habit. In my case, it just makes everything feel better to say that at least I can punctuate the day (and night) with a cigarette here and there.

I have, though, been considering the Doppelganger character. I said she had to go but she is still hovering around, which is a bit of a liberty considering I haven’t even written about her that much. Though she pretends to be me, she isn’t at all. For a start, she has never smoked, though she may have had the odd puff of home-grown marijuana in her teens. The real difference between us is that she is essentially English whereas I am the daughter of refugees (it’s a long story) and have never felt myself to be that. She is wisteria, damp gingerbread, pressed flowers and sagging curtain hems. I don’t mean to sound disparaging, she just is.

It is of course possible that I am a figment of her imagination but, not being a writer, she won’t know what to do with me, whereas I can do whatever I want. She might take herself off to see a counsellor and between them both they will finish me off or I will be in some way absorbed by her so that she and I become one, a more rounded, integrated sort of person, but essentially tame. I won’t let that happen. But wait:

“What does it mean,” says the counsellor, “that this shadow side of yourself is someone who refuses to be tame?”
“I suppose,” she will dutifully respond, “that it’s the part of me I never really wanted to look at or admit to.” The counsellor smiles encouragingly.
“And what do you think she would be saying right now if she were here?” Doppelganger blushes, discreetly so no-one would notice, but she can feel the heat in her cheeks and the back of her neck.
“I suppose she’d swear a lot.” (Damn right I would, sweetheart).
“Yes?” says the counsellor.
“And actually, she’d probably –” but she won’t say it of course, it would be rude, so I will say it for her. She’d put the money down and say thanks, but no thanks, like the hip gunslinger that I am and she can never be. Ok – it’s not what I would actually do, but I’d be completely conscious of wanting to, which she isn’t. Or is she? Bugger. Are we merging already?
“And what does she look like, the shadow?” says counsellor, still on the track to balance and integration.
“Well – ” she hesitates. (Don’t say it, just don’t). “She looks a bit like me, really.” Fuck.

But she wouldn’t wear a cast-off grey hoodie, would she? Especially not one with a Weirdfish logo that teenagers wear, no, she really wouldn’t. She has an embroidered cotton handkerchief in her hands that she twists and twists as she talks, and she smooths the folds on her crushed cotton skirt.

Other than this, she talks about her children and her unfulfilled ambitions (which were what?) and the shadow that follows her, the sense that there is something just around the corner waiting to reveal itself because she is a (what did they used to call them?) – a “Sensitive” – a clairvoyant (which is not the same as reading the signs, so don’t think it), only she doesn’t know it yet, and the counsellor (who is nothing like Ms Melancholy) may well be sneaking a look at her watch wondering if the hour is up yet and whether it isn’t time for her to go.

Perhaps she will catch shingles.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Something is Illuminated (but I may be mistaken)

Somebody has to do it I suppose, the night watch, but I am hoping this is going to be a temporary run. Knives in the head is not a good feeling to wake up to, well nothing much is at three in the morning. Then, when I’m properly awake, it’s the usual routine: tea, toast, cigarette, trip over cat, read, brood, have illuminating thoughts which I should really write down and turn into a book. I suspect, though, that the Illuminating Thoughts of a Temporary Insomniac might turn out to be the kind of thing that you think is quite brilliant when you are in the process of writing and high on something – and when you take a sober look at it the next morning you find that all you have done is write your name or I love Marmite over and over.

But still, I feel moved to share: I have decided to ditch the Doppelganger woman I have been carrying around as main character in the Thing that I have been sporadically working on. I haven’t killed her off, just replaced her with someone I would rather work with who isn’t quite so much like me in the details. We had no contract so I can do what I want. Characters have no rights – well, this one hadn’t really been around long enough to assert them. I think it was the Australian writer Kate Grenville who said that you didn’t have to like your characters but you had to love them, allow for human complexity, give them respect. I don’t think that this was going to happen with Doppelganger. I say she was like me, but she was a less interesting version, to my mind; and obviously it's my mind that matters as I was writing her, not the other way round (just saying, though I will have to eat my words if I discover that she is the real author and I'm just a figment of her imagination). I liked her enough, but I was never going to love her.

This new one is a different kettle of fish. She likes, for example, shopping, and would never wear something without a name – and not just any name. Even knickers have to come in a perfumed bag from La Senza. Bigger things are Fiorucci, Chloe, Diesel, shoes by Prada. She feels it says something about her, the names she wears (don’t be expecting complexity just now – trust me, it will unfold). Some people will know where I stand with shopping. I am Pricerite and Heart Foundation and do not know anyone who cares as little about brand name as I do and means it*. My pale blue Adidas shell suit which came to me new, was one of the few branded items I have possessed, a gift in the eighties when they were briefly fashionable. I wore it for over ten years (it improved with age, took on a strange, crushed elegance) until the shiny fabric began to crumble. I become attached to my old clothes and wear them until they fall from me of their own accord. It is the reverse with her: once a garment has become part of her, loses the pristine, just-bought, never-been-touched smell of the shop she begins to itch for something else. She has deep cupboards filled with names, all neatly folded, reeking faintly of Shalimar and Donna Karan’s “Mist”. If we went for coffee together we would laugh about all this and secretly feel sorry for each other.

Anyway. These are notes for myself really, the shopping isn’t going to come into it, I’m just saying that she is different – though I am lending her a number of things from my life. The thing is I know her, we have met before. She is a character from something I was writing a few years ago and when she knocked and asked for the part I gave it to her at once because we work together well and she has not really been properly put to the test as we all must be at one time or another, if we can bear it. She seems to be asking for this and I have more confidence in her than in Doppelganger - though of course one can never be sure. The idea has been hovering for the past day or so.

When I spoke about illuminating thoughts, I didn’t necessarily mean for you, dear reader who has read this far and may be expecting something more in the way of epiphany and revelation. I’m just doing the night watch, mulling, thanks for listening. Hope your night was unbroken.

*with the possible exception of Ms Pants - who is currently profiled on Normblog.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

avoiding the cracks

Writing resolutions have been a bit scuppered. The usual reasons, plus keyboard suddenly not working yesterday and I only discovered in the evening that it simply wanted a new battery. So that’s ok. Sometimes I love machines and inanimate things for the simplicity of our relationship with them; they either do the job they were made to do or you get them fixed or throw them out and replace them. It does come to me, for a fraction of a second, that the Cybermen have a point – it is cursed inconvenient and impractical to be human. If I were Cyber I could just throw me out and get a new model. On the other hand, it wouldn’t write stories and poems and it wouldn’t, as Stepford Wife lamented before she was turned into a fully-functioning and serviceable machine,“be me.” Without my keyboard it can sometimes be difficult to get the words down because of the particular kind of muscle strength needed to write them down in the old-fashioned way, with a pen. Staring at a screen for too long, though, can do the head in. I have to skip about a bit, as you do when you jump from square to square without stepping onto the cracks. Sometimes it’s like that – and that’s the way it is. Skip hop.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Shingle Thursday

Perhaps Shingles didn’t feel I was giving it enough respect. Anyway, it seems to have kicked in a bit more now. I feel I am having the real experience. If you are going to go down with something, you may as well go down with it good and proper so as to have something interesting to talk about later on. In some respects, though, I am fine with things being boring: saw the doctor again today because of something under the eyelid. Keep an eye on it, she said cheerfully, (eye: geddit?) we don’t want you going blind. I told her that I would and agreed that no we didn’t, went to the chemist to replenish my stock of Anadin and homoeopathic stuff and wandered into the village community centre cafĂ© for some lovely home-made fish pie, then back home for an intense, head-throbbing sleep.

I dreamed I was in the sitting room of the flat I lived in when I was thirteen, looking out of the large sash window over to Primrose Hill. The Blue Meanies, said someone behind me. It’s ok, I said, I like them. Then the estate agent rang and woke me – damnation, and I would so much like to have stayed there, listening to Sergeant Pepper on the record player. It was looking at the Youtube film that Cusp put up on her blog the other day – an excerpt from the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine - that must have done it. It hadn’t been made yet when I was thirteen, but dreams are not constrained by details. And the voice behind me, I think, belonged to a woman called Jill. She and her friend Thomasina were employed by my mother to keep me company while I had chicken pox. Connections!

Jill and Thom must have been in their late twenties. They worked for a TV company, as set designer and P.A. but were on a break. My mother and sister must have been away, the au pair too, because there were only the three of us in the flat for several weeks and Jill and Thom slept in my mother’s double bed. I had only heard the word “Lesbian” once in the context of a very curious conversation with someone a year previously who asked me whether I had ever heard of a woman getting married to another woman. Well, she told me, one of the women pretends she’s a man and they sleep in the same bed and it’s really disgusting. I pictured one of the women with a moustache and beard and then my imagination fogged out. Being a late developer and almost unbelievably innocent, I had only just cottoned on to the word sex, without really knowing what it meant.

One day, while we were all sitting on the floor watching Top of the Pops, Thom with a headache, Jill got up, knelt behind her and began to massage her neck and shoulders. Thom shut her eyes, leaned back and smiled, then turned to look up at her. It was a long time they took to look into each other’s eyes, Jill’s hands still touching her neck – and then I knew, or it was the beginning of something understood: they were lesbians and what was between them had something to do with sex as much as, and perhaps more than, the things I heard my friends whispering about.

The estate agent was ringing to tell me that the prospective buyer who has offered us much less than the asking price, is still interested and wants to re-negotiate. In the circumstances, I am finding it hard to muster enthusiasm. I am shingling and thinking about my daughter in London who has much on her plate and a cloud over her head, and Sergeant Pepper’s band who blasted the Blue Meanies, and the hills being alive “wid dee sound of muzeeeeek”.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Shinglebell Flop

These things are sent to educate us. I thought that shingles was just chicken pox-lite with an irritating rash. I did wonder about the spots that have appeared on the side of my face and forehead (surely I hadn’t been eating that much chocolate) and was baffled by the strange headaches and shooting pains that have been waking me in the night. The general malaise did, I suppose, have a different note to it, but one puts that kind of thing down to the usual M.E. picture. Something that should have alerted me is the fact that I have gone off food. No, it’s worse than that – I have gone off healthy, nourishing food and want only things like sliced white bread and really bad Chinese takeaways. It’s like being pregnant (and come to think of it I feel sick most of the time too); I remember then wanting only Mother’s Pride and fishpaste sandwiches or pie and mash from Kelly’s in Roman Road near where I lived in Bethnal Green.

I have already said that living with long-term illness is like being in another country. This kind of thing just pushes you a bit more inland, that’s all. The doctor (one who doesn’t know me) said I would have to be signed off work for at least three weeks and that I’d probably be feeling very ill. So not much changes, really. And the thing is that I can’t put my hand on my heart and say I feel so very much worse than usual. I have been in training for the last 20+ years and so it’s easier for me than for someone who has enjoyed normal health. Yet I have had the first ever expression of sympathy from my mother (“Poor you – how awful!”) which sits rather strangely, though I tried to accept it in the spirit I imagine it was given.

The difficult thing is that I won’t be able to go out to my writing and poetry-related activities. I won’t be up to it and there is, in any case, the question of passing something on to others. The thought of spending even more time on my own doesn’t worry me. I am not solitary by nature and love the fun, conversation and company of friends, the casual or significant meetings that happen with strangers, small talk, deep talk, the possibility of connection, something created, ephemeral perhaps, or ground beneath the feet, whatever. But I have over the years, of necessity, acquired a taste for solitude - or it has become a habit, a way of life. If I were suddenly able to be properly active again, I would now need long spaces on my own. Perhaps it would be different, though, if it weren’t for the fact that I live with someone whose company I love – and who I see every day – Him Outdoors, the bringer of Chinese takeaway, laughter and warmth, unswerving supporter of Arsenal FC and of Signs.

Well, I will just have to get on and write more. Mr. Moon Topples, who is recovering from a fever, has just made a vow to write two thousand words a day plus “bitchy blogposts about writing” (yes please!) and perhaps I ought to join him. But on the other hand I wouldn’t want to make a promise I might not keep.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

A Doctor For All Seasons

No, really, I will not have a word said against him. What, in any case, is not to love about a man with two hearts who faces all personal and actual demons and has, on more occasions than I can number, saved the world? The fact that he remains unreconstructed in the ersatz feminist sense of the word is only to his credit. He is constantly updated and re-generated, give the man a break. You can’t be fighting Daleks and Cybermen one moment, settled and domesticated the next. He may be dashing and sexy (I say may be, the Doctor takes many forms) but that isn’t the point. If it were the point, he would just be boring.

The Doctor takes on the demons and the monsters so we don’t have to and more, he does it joyfully. Each battle is, for him, an adventure and an opportunity to overcome death in all its manifestations. “He is made of fire and ice,” said someone or other in the last episode. He also loves his enemies. Sounds familiar? No, well, I am not saying he is the messiah, but he does go out of his way to give them the benefit of the doubt and the possibility of redemption.

And he has fun; he knows stuff and he has a Tardis that can take him anywhere in time and space, he can travel without passport – as we can, dear reader, as we can (didn’t you know this was coming?) in our imaginations. You are thinking that I am one of those who is secretly building a Tardis made of stickyback plastic in my garden shed. Well, it may come to that and if it does, no blame, there are worse things to be doing – like sitting in front of the one-eyed troll watching the ghastly monster that is Big Brother (down with him, I say), having your vision of the world and its inhabitants made meaner and smaller. I choose adventures in time and space in the small-on-the-outside, big-on-the-inside Tardis of the actual and imaginary.

There was a friend my son once had who spent all summer and autumn building a spaceship in his garden. He was, to put it bluntly, considered backward, had a number of “learning disabilities” and not many children wanted to play with him. My son, being a couple of years younger than him and willing to engage in the business at hand, remembers how they built the spaceship piece by piece and how the unshakeable belief of this boy made it then and forever real. With the power of the imagination they created the ship and overcame something that would diminish us, make us smaller and less than we are. They acquired, you could say, a faculty.

Of course, it’s also in the blood. I myself made a door into Narnia for me and my sister to go through from the built-in wardrobe in our bedroom. Childish escapism, you say, but I say there are more possibilities than any of us can begin to imagine and we are braver and more wonderful than we are led to believe. And if the Doctor (who admittedly is not human, but has some of the attributes) reminds us of this – who can be against him?

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Small Hours

Times are, in life’s long sojourn, when there are good reasons to stay up until the dawn chorus and the coming of a new day’s light; I think you know what I mean. Well, eye infection, neuralgia and general anxiety disorder aren’t one of them, though strictly speaking I should say that my anxieties are of a particular rather than general nature and hardly a disorder. It’s just that at three in the morning almost everything can seem like a disorder. It is the hour of the Lord of Misrule who whispers in your ear that there is trouble ahead and things can only get worse; I think you know what I mean. So up you jump, saying bollocks to the Lord of Misrule, disturbing the cat who asks nothing but to be left sleeping on the landing outside your bedroom (or at the end of your bed, depending on what takes her fancy), you make yourself a cup of the very best Ceylon tea (unbleached bags, organic, the best), a couple of slices of wholemeal toast with butter and Marmite and, if you are really in the mood for sticking two fingers up at life, the universe and everything, you light a cigarette (preferably Marlborough Menthol, a mysterious manifestation as you are no longer a smoker) and go against house rules by smoking it indoors. Tomorrow you will apologise to Him Upstairs sleeping for the stale tobacco smell but although it is light it is not yet tomorrow. It is not today or yesterday either. Anything goes. The cat, who thinks she is your soul and probably is, blinks herself awake and pads around in the wake of your footsteps. It has thrown the routine whereby she comes and sings you awake in the morning, but whatever you do is ok by her.

In the small hours, things happen, heat up, cool down, become wonderful or terrible. Or nothing happens, and you wake up to the night side. I once worked in a hospital psychiatric unit. Night shifts were when you came up against the true soul-life of the people there, staff as well as patients, the line was sometimes thinly drawn in the witching hour when there were no schedules to structure us, no meal times, doctor’s rounds or occupational therapy. The sectioned schizophrenic who hovers around the nurses’ station is just a girl called Mary Ann who loves a boy called Ivan and waits for him to come and fetch her away from this terrible and lonely place, this life. The charge nurse is homesick for St. Lucia and steals amphetamines to keep himself awake, barbiturates to get his head down. He makes himself some porridge with syrup and shakes his head. This life. The full-time insomniacs push draughts around a chequered board and smoke (times were) in the day room where there is permanent Radio One, you can’t switch it off and we all know the advertisements by heart and join in with the jingles, and in spite and because of it all we keep each other company in the small hours where nothing happens, until something happens – a scream, an “incident,” an emergency admission, to break the night and bring on the day, and real-time kicks in.

Keeping watch in the small hours, one’s thoughts (the doors) become a bit unhinged; but once I stayed awake all night just to watch the sun come up, to catch the moment of first bird and light. It seemed to me, at that moment with the night vision still on me, nothing short of miraculous. You can’t, though, go through the day with your eyes seeing nothing but doom or glory. You’d go mad, or become a prophet, or a poet like Christopher Smart with his extraordinary Jubilate Agno. Now there’s a thought.