A Hazy Shade of Winter

I recently went to see the movie ‘Quartet’ with three of my girlfriends. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about aging. What we lose and what we gain. In this case the characters live in a beautiful English house. Large rooms decorated in expensive wallpapers and golden fabrics. It wasn’t dark with faulty plumbing. Art works graced the walls.

The house itself is Cliveden. The exterior anyway, I’m not sure if the interior is as I haven’t visited it. But some aging Poms (of which I am one) will remember the scandal in the early sixties, or at least the nineties film about it, when John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War met Christine Keeler at a house party at Cliveden. Christine was, among other things, accused of having an affair with a Russian Spy. Heady stuff. So much more steamy and exotic than John Major’s affair with Edwina Curry.

Scarily you can take the ‘Profumo Affair Break’ at Cliveden. You get to experience a mini-break Bridget Jones style, in a beautiful house, at the same time as finding out all the ins and outs of the scandal.

But I digress, which is probably the point. I’m talking about aging and what it does to our minds and bodies. Our attention wanders, we lose our thread, we find the remote control in the fridge. When we gather in groups we no longer discuss sex or successes. We compare medications and illnesses but just as competitively as we had previously discussed who was doing what to whom and who’d got a promotion, a new car, a filo-fax. Yes, I am that old. A friend of a friend recently received one of those pill boxes with days of the week on it from her husband. On Valentines Day.

I no longer climb mountains, not that I did that very often. I could usually be found at the ‘Bottom of the Mountain’ café, even in my thirties. But now I am not too sure-footed. The last time I walked in Noosa National Park I tripped over a tree root and did a wonderful impression of Norman Wisdom, arms flailing, legs stumbling forwards. And trampolining is out. If I was a horse I would be shot. And finish up in a frozen meal somewhere no doubt. To be eaten on a tray in front of the telly, by an old lady watching murder mysteries. Oh the irony.

Grey hairs, creaky hips, frequent visits to the doctors. And to the toilet. Failing eyesight or having to walk back a couple of metres to read the bus timetable. Next it’ll be magnifying glasses to do the crossword and cleaning your pipe out with the blunt end of pencil. In the words of Bette Davis, ‘Old age ain’t no place for sissies’.

And yet it does have its advantages. I can drink all the tea I like, as long as I check out the quickest route to the ladies. Afternoon naps, sometimes taken in the mornings. Finally nobody gives me a hard time about staying home on a Saturday night. Remember the old proverb:-
Old age though despised, is coveted by all.

The alternative is unthinkable. I heard the news today that an old friend, young in years, had died. A more gregarious, life loving person you could not meet. And although I hadn’t seen him in years, geography being what it is, I will miss his funny posts on facebook. There’s a new angel with a naughty face and red wings. This one’s for Richard.

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NOT A BAD MOTHER

I love my family. I marvel how I managed to produce two delightful people, my children, Dan and Amy, with my husband of course. My lovely, hardworking, generous husband. But, and it’s a big one, sometimes I want a moment to myself. It might be a quiet coffee on the terrace over looking our sun drenched back yard or after the rain when the colours sparkle like jewels. Or when I put the dinner on and I have a spare ten minutes while dinner simmers or marinades.

“Mum, can you read a story?” Amy, tall and sandy-haired, like her father.

“Amy, I’m having a moment.”

“I’ll get Dan?”

I sigh and guilt gets the better of me. They won’t always want to me to read them a story, my inner-mother bleats. “Yes, get Dan.” And the time labeled mine drifts into the evening breeze.

Later as the house is blanketed in hush, I lie on my back staring at a ceiling I cannot see but know is there. At last, this is my time.

“Cath, you awake?”
And because I cannot pretend, because I am an honest woman, I reply, “Yes,” very sweetly.

It wasn’t always like this. Before Dan and Amy when Bill was away on courses I hated those silences. I filled them with noise: television, music, radios. My life had no stitching without this incessant babbling or crooning. I don’t recognise that woman now.

I work in a busy office. My job has shrunk in importance since I had children while Bill has been promoted to Head of Year at the school where he works. I’m no longer in the city, making deals, finding companies to negotiate, one larger one swallowing up the smaller. A merger, as two minds fuse together. Or two bodies, like a marriage.

Now I work for a small company, Opulent Realty, who sell high-end resort units to the rich and infamous. Possibly to the CEOs of the merger corporations I used to deal with. I tackle the legal end of things. It’s still a merger of type to me. Rich people swallowing up areas of land and property, property that the locals couldn’t afford after a lifetime of living here. I try not to be bitter or cynical. I’m an interloper too, and I need the cash.

What of my merger? My marriage to Bill. Conjugal, co-joined, partners in life. When he gets home from work his day is done. He pours himself a gin and tonic and waits for me to arrive, chasing my tail, the kids in tow after I’d picked them up from their daycare mum. I send them up to their rooms for music practice whilst I start dinner, in my suit, chopping vegetables, searing meat and preparing rice or couscous. I juggle with pots and pans, whisks and basters. At times I feel that’s exactly what I do. Throwing one pan higher than the rest, turning around and catching it, perhaps between my teeth. The crowd calls out for more.

Bill sits in his chair, The Australian in one hand and his glass in the other. His sandy hair falls across his eyes, his face smiles. I’m waiting for the day when he asks me to re-fill his glass, whilst I’m up. I think it crosses his mind, I’ve seen him look up hopefully and then look down again.
I heard a joke the other day. A son asks his mother why brides wear white. “To show purity,” his mother replies. He doesn’t understand what this means but his mother is busy so he asks his dad who answers, “all kitchen appliances are white, son.”

Not, I have decided, a funny joke and hopefully not an accurate one but it makes you think, we daughters of feminists, when a joke like that is still in circulation.

My mother had it all but she never had a moment to herself. Out every night for yoga or classes at uni, in the name of freedom. She didn’t seem free to me. I think time means freedom. Time to get lost in, the time we had as adolescents which even then I suspected might be as good as it got. I yearn for quiet, save for the sound of nature.

I press the blender button to make a puree to bake the meat in. Mechanical whirring, these kitchen appliances were invented to give us more time not make us slaves to them. We take them apart and wash them up, scrubbing laboriously at some small metallic part you can’t quite reach.

“Mum, I need help to make a costume for our play.”

“When is it, darling?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Ah. And what part are you playing, Dan?”

“An octopus, Mum.” That radiant smile, the belief that mum can do anything.

“Er, right, let’s see. We’ll need newspapers and green paint.”

After dinner the three of us, Dan, Amy and myself, make papier mache whilst Bill watches the news. The English teacher who seldom helps with our children’s homework although he is better qualified. While I see the symbolism between the octopus and me, the working mother, with all those arms in the air.

“Wasn’t there an interview with that writer you like on tonight?”

I use my forearm to wipe glue from my face. “Not to worry, I’m sure they’ll repeat it.”

Once the kids are in bed, I pour a glass of wine and join Bill on the sofa.

“It’s nice to see you relaxing.”

“You could get involved now and again, Bill.”

“But you’re so good at it.” He drapes his arm round my shoulders and kisses the top of my head. I want to retort that I just get on with it but Bill’s moved on, laughing at a comedian on the television and I’m too tired to make a fuss.

The next morning as we’re rushing out the door Dan shrieks, “One of my tentacles has fallen off,” his freckled face shiny with tears.

“Seven-tentacled octopuses are very rare.”

Dan stares at me, tyring to decide whether I’m lying or not. I hold my breath.

“I’m a special octopus!” As my grinning child heads for the car wearing his costume, his mother prays that the other tentacles will hold.

Amy looks at me in exasperation, winding chewing gum around her fingers. “That was so lame.”

“Shush. Your brother’s happy.”

As the only parent in the office I often get called upon for extra duties. The fathers don’t get asked, they’re not the ones who take days off when their children are sick or help with homework on week nights. I often feel like a hamster in stilettos running round my wheel. If a cake is required to celebrate someone’s birthday, it’s me who’s asked to bake it. As if I am an earth mother who bakes and cooks, makes underwater creature outfits at a moments notice, who is also a manager who churns out legal documents for satisfied customers but can still find time to pop round to Zoe’s when she not feeling well, with a card from the office, signed by everybody, even Cliff the security man.

I remember what it’s like to dash home, have a quick shower, put on my make-up using the rear view mirror when the traffic slowed. Going to meet friends at a bar in town or a blind date with someone called Simon. Actually that was a disaster. Simon’s mate had got his wires crossed. He wasn’t expecting a stumpy size 14 who couldn’t get up on the bar stool without a leg-up from a very disappointed Simon.

On Thursdays I work a half day in lieu of Saturday mornings. A lot of my negotiations happen on a Saturday, the only time the Captains of Industry or Women of Substance have time to getaway. Usually on these Thursday afternoons I grocery shop or collect dry cleaning. Once in a while I’ll pop into the bottle shop and stock-up on wine and gin. I have five hours to myself.

Five whole hours. Five whole hours I’m starting to think that I may be wasting. Surely there must be something I could do for me? Time on the beach with a cheap novel? Visiting art galleries or shops filled with over-priced objet d’art. What if I rented a room in one of the resorts? I could spend some time on my own, no distractions, lie on plumped up pillows in a colour coordinated room. Close my eyes and let my mind fly. I could meditate or imagine myself floating in a boat on a river. Light a scented candle and bask in solitude.

Thursday at twelve I left the office and arrived at Saltair Resorts & Appartments at 12.20pm.

“Good afternoon, Madam.” A sunny blonde with bright red lipstick smiled widely at me.

“I’d like to rent a room for the afternoon.”

Skye, her name badge reads, she looked at me raising an eyebrow.

How I longed to say, ‘It’s for me and my young lover to go at it like rabbits.’ “For work…I…I’m a writer. I’m a writer and I need my solitude.”

She gave me an exorbitant figure which I assumed included the young lover. I paid and she passed me a key. Only they’re not keys these days, they’re cards. Cards which flash red and green in the lock and sometimes give out a weak beeping noise.

The room resembled an over-decorated prison cell. Pastel coloured art-works of flowering meadows and a still life involving a watering can and a pair of gardening gloves. The view was over the roof of the shopping centre.

I took my candle from its tissue paper wrapping, I’d even remembered to buy matches. I put the votive glass down on one of the bedside tables and lit it. I climbed onto the bed and let out a big sigh. I lay on plumped up pillows in the soundless room. No buzzing or whirring machinery, no constant chatter. Just me in a room with nothing to think about. Bliss.

And for a few moments I drowned in that bliss. The clock radio on the bedside cabinet declared the time to 12:40, rudely in red. Four hours until I had to make the journey to pick up Dan and Amy. I looked up at the ceiling. It was laid with tiles that looked like carpet but you could tell they weren’t. They must have a name, probably something with eco in it, Tileco or Eco-Tiles. How ridiculous. I didn’t spend all that money to stare at a ceiling and play guess the name of the ceiling tile.

12:45. I close my eyes and I’m lying on the boat, floating while I drag one hand in the water. It feels cool to the touch. Do I have a cushion under me? I think I must do otherwise I would be too uncomfortable. I pretend to open my eyes and watch a fictitious sky dotted with the clouds as if from a child’s picture book. All is peace and tranquility. Now what? I mean solitude is all very well but what happens next? Nature abhors a vacuum, right?

Damn and blast. It’s me, isn’t it? Something is wrong with me. My eyes are wide open, the room is still neat and decorated in pale peaceful lavender. Why then do I want to scream?

12:53. I should try crossing my legs and chanting. Joining two fingers in each hand in a circle and draping them on my knees. Ooooommmmm. Oooooommmm.

It reminds me of one of the school mums who wears a sarong to pick up her child. Dan took me to one side and begged me never to do this. Sarong woman’s child is called Elderflower or Paprika, something awful. The mum has a flowing mane of golden frizz which leads to me to think of her armpits. She’s a stranger to deodorants.

By 1:05 I’m in tears. The thing I have longed for, which almost defines me as a mother, is time. Time and peace and quiet. Now I have it I find it boring. Does that mean I have spent years with my children, wishing I was somewhere else, for no reason? Does that make me a bad mother?

I sob loud and messy for five minutes. My body is consumed with jerks and jangles. When I eventually stop my body hums from the intensity but it feels good. I had expected to have come undone by the grief, grief for lost time, lost moments, moments when I didn’t give of myself completely.

I leave the room at 1:30 and drop the keys at reception. Skye looked at my face. I realised my eyes must be red and my cheeks blotchy. “They don’t all have happy endings.” I grin at her.

Home is quiet except for next door doing a spot of hammering and a baby crying somewhere. I phone Bill.

“No, there’s nothing wrong. Please could you pick up the kids today?”

I take out a take-away menu from the kitchen drawer, pour a glass of wine and sit in Bill’s chair, my feet on the ottoman. So that’s what it feels like.

YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT

Is it just me? Or does anyone else have arguments in their head?

Last week one of my prescriptions was out of date when I handed it over at the chemists. I’ve been going there for the same medication for five years but because this script was an insy-bit out of date and I had to go see my doctor to get a new one.

“Really?” I said. Leaning back slightly as if the shock of such news had blasted my upper torso into a new shape, kinda like a backwards question mark as it happens. I muttered obscenities under my breath, not directed at the woman serving me of course. Just to the air around her. I left the shop still cussing with vigor, not too loudly, but enough for people to nod in agreement on the nature of my unfulfilled prescription.

Later that day while I was pegging clothes on the Hills Hoist war broke out between my ears.

“I detest bureaucracy, you – Chemist Woman. I demand my script now.”

“I’m sorry Mrs Swearing but I cannot do that. We have procedures to follow.”

“Do you realise if I go without this script I will (a) vomit on you, (b) run around knocking everything off the carefully stacked shelves, or (c) put two fingers up to my eye, line up your head between them and squeeze the air. (This always gets them).

“All the same you have to have a current script, Swearing Woman.”

I snatch my useless script back from her claws and point in a jabbing motion. “You, you Chemist Woman have no compassion. Good day!”

With that I would swivel and leave the shop swinging my arms in a sawing motion.

THE END

It is just me. Isn’t it.

Sometimes I have the arguments I should have had ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. I’m re-playing the scene when a boss was overbearing, a friend of a friend looked down her nose at me or when my sister refused to play Monopoly in 1974. Well, that was a bit more than twenty years ago.

I become another person. My voice takes on the persona of a queen, a duchess or when things get a little heated, a villain from an Enid Blyton story (working class, smoking and wearing trousers). I am always victorious. It’s always me who leaves the scene with the last word. A witty reply which has men in wigs covering their mouths with silk handkerchiefs. My head is held high in the manner of Marie Antoinette, Princess Anne or even Edina Monsoon, without the terrible dress sense.

I popped back into the chemist the following day with a suitable prescription. Chemist Woman stood next to me while I checked out the ‘buy 2 get 1 free offer’ on nail varnishes. And I muttered quietly, “I’m ever so sorry about yesterday.”

Chemist Woman smiles, was there a glint of triumph in her eyes? “That’s alright.” She nods sagely, smiles knowingly.

But when she’d run of ear-drops this morning I swear I heard a tremble in her voice as she told me they were out until this afternoon’s delivery. “That’s okay.” I tittered musically. “I’ll come back then.” A quick smile, a raised eyebrow then I sashayed from the store.

Always leave them wanting more.

MRS PRESTON

This is one of my earliest stories. It’s never won anything but I feel great affection for it.

The children ran towards the brow of the hill, each desperate to be the first to spot the gleaming strip of silver betwix the pebbles and the angry grey sky of the Essex coastline.  Rust coloured pebbles guaranteed to cut.  Their feet shod in the plastic sandals I had bought back from the market, firmly strapped to their feet.  The kids would have been happy to fling themselves down upon the first free patch of stones.  Their father, however, had other ideas.  He would walk in search of virgin territory, uninhabited by that most hated of all things, other-people’s-children.       

“Margaret, there is one thing I cannot abide.”

We always took our holidays in term time to avoid contamination.  Armed with rug, buckets, spades, the picnic hamper and the most essential of items; windbreak and a mallet.  As the chill breeze whipped across the shore of Old Blighty, we would be snug, huddled in a group to conserve warmth.  Cardigans buttoned-up over our bathers and still the sound of teeth chatter was deafening.

            I packed sandwiches, tomato if I had them in, paste if I didn’t.  The sandwiches, wrapped in the bread bag had that distinctive smell of plastic and white bread.  Bread soggy with tomato juice tasted like a meal fit for Gods on our day at the beach.

            We arrived by train, filling our nostrils with sea-air.  My husband didn’t get a license until his fortieth year.

            “Too many accidents, Margaret.” 

            He would repeat his now famous mantra, whilst I pushed a double pushchair and struggled to maintain a grip on two other sets of grubby, little hands. 

            “Quite so, Nigel.”  I would reply through gritted teeth.

            We lived in a pleasant red brick suburban house not unlike all the others in our street.  Decorated in the mushrooms and mustards of the 1970’s with a tasteful archway gracing the living room.  Double-bricked and tiled against the elements.  Home, a strange place for the children with no friends allowed back to play.  Not since Carol’s friend Jane had walked in on Nigel dressing.

            The poor child wandered about looking for the bathroom.  Carol, unhelpfully, had left her to it.  She tried the first door on the right at the top of the stairs.  The room although dark, light enough to register the father-like shape in his underpants.  She froze.  The two hapless figures stood there, in horror.  Neither moving for some minutes.  Father shouted.  Out in the garden as I was at the time, pegging clothes on the line, I heard him as clear as if he stood next to me, which thankfully he wasn’t.

            “Get out!  You sniveling child.  How dare you enter my room?”

            And that was that.  No more friends home, not even in the holidays.  Father forbade it.

            “Nosiness, Margaret.  Curiousity is a curse with some children.”

            I shrugged and went about my work.  My hands always busy; kneading bread, washing plates, chopping vegetables or pummeling the wet clothes on the laundry slab.  My hands, red with the sores of work and with being in water constantly.  I liked to wear stockings but had stopped.  I only had to run my hands along the length of silk for them to snag and tear.  I really minded what had happened to my hands.  What marriage and children had done to their soft, silky whiteness.

            “Washing machine?”  Father bellowed.  “What do we need a washing machine for?  The devil’s work those new machines.  Leaving time for idle hands.”

            My lip curled then surrendered to it’s wobble as I fought back bitter tears.  The children went on playing games in the garden, avoiding the sterile air of the house.  Sterility brought on I admit by my constant cleaning and re-arranging.  I felt if I worked for long enough I could erase the very fabric of my life.  Rub it out until it became nothing, void, a big black empty hole.

            Nigel laid a patio at the back of the house.  Said simply like that makes it sound like a straightforward task.  It wasn’t.  You’d have thought he was constructing the Globe theatre or the EiffelTower.  If only he took the time over me as he had over those slabs of pink and yellow concrete.  He wouldn’t let anyone help.  Not even nice Mr Robson from number 14 who offered, most kindly, I thought.  When eventually it was completed I would serve meals out there and of an evening we would sit and drink Mateus Rose.  Nigel surveying the back garden and his precious patio, master of all he surveyed.    

            “Margaret, this is what life is about, eh?”

            I wouldn’t have time to answer of course.  There was always something else he required.

            “Have we got any of those salty crackers left, Margaret?”

            And I would bustle off to get him another cushion, top up his wine or move the position of the sun slightly to the left.

            As Nigel grew older he developed an obsession with leaves on the driveway.  Feverishly he would sweep away the plant debris from the concrete drive leading to the house.  Once I arrived home early to see him out there sweeping away those golden sheathes of nature to expose the ugliness of grey concrete.  I suppressed the urge to run him down.  Plough into him and his self-satisfied smile.  How I hated the way his tongue would poke out of the side of his mouth as he worked away, refusing to be beaten.

            “I can’t abide mess, Margaret.  You know that.”

            How could I not know?  At the end of the day the children and I in a mad scramble to have the house looking immaculate before he walked through the door.  We would hold our breath as he swept into the room, looked around for flagrant signs of mess, sometimes running his fingers along a surface or two until he nodded a sign of approval and everyone breathed again.

            Nigel also had a thing about socks.  A pair for each day of the week, brown for Monday, blue with white spots for Tuesday, beige with fawn zigzags for Wednesday, black and white chevrons for Thursday and the yellow and blue Argyle pattern for Friday.  If he didn’t have the right socks he didn’t know what day it was.  I tried to keep with the correct days, I really did. I scrubbed away, washing and drying socks. 

            “Now don’t forget we have Fitzgibbons from accounts and his wife for dinner this evening.”  Nigel was on his third attempt at knotting his tie.  It was a sage green knitted creation his mother had made him.  Impossible to knot but Nigel loved it.

            “But darling, that’s tomorrow night, isn’t it?”  I replied sweetly.

            “No, no.  We agreed on Thursday.”  Came the curt reply.

            “Today is Wednesday, Nigel.” 

            “No, no.  You’re quite wrong.”  Nigel looked down at his socks, the chevrons, I clasped my hand over my mouth in horror.  “Bloody hell woman, if you can’t manage to get the right socks how in God’s name do you expect me to know what day it is?”

            I would have laughed but it was my life you see.  My actual life.  Not a sitcom on the television for all it’s calamity.

            I started to imagine Nigel’s head when I chopped the vegetables for the evening meal or kneaded dough for his sodding sandwiches.  It was his head I held in my hands as I pummeled the wet laundry on the slab. 

            The Mateus rose bottle was opened earlier and earlier in the day.  I topped it up with water and food colouring in a bid to fool Nigel.  I could hardly wait to shoo the kids from the house to the school bus, eager for the oblivion the rose-coloured liquid afforded me.  Happy times.  Floating around the house in flowered housecoats, imagining how life could have been.  What I could have become.  An artist, a successful business woman, actress, daytime chat show host.  A new day, a new fantasy.

            I couldn’t keep up with the housework.  I fell behind with the socks.  Life took on a new shape.  It had less form and the stuffing was coming out of it.  Stitches bursting, material wearing thin. 

            We argued, Nigel unhappy with the disorder at home, a man who needed things neatly arranged, a place for everything kind of man.  I started to have doubts, I no longer knew where things belonged, where I belonged.  The children stayed out in the garden playing for longer.  The rows distressed them and the empty silences even more so.  I could see their little faces pinched with concern.  The evenings in shared companionship on the patio  died away.  The Mateus rose bottle now permanently empty and Nigel started to come home later from work.  He confessed that he had been seeing his secretary, Joan Leadbetter, a small, efficient woman who would be able to keep up with the sock wash.

            “I’m leaving you, Margaret.  You no longer make me happy.”

            He and Joan found a nice semi on the other side of town.  I drove past it a few times after Nigel left, a red-brick suburban house identical to ours.  I caught sight of Joan once, pegging socks on the line.  Her face set with a determined look.  Those socks weren’t going to get the better of her.  Joan is a much more solid name than Margaret, don’t you think?  A name you could depend on.

            Slowly the children followed their father in moving out.  Finally I was all alone.  I stopped kneading bread, washing plates, chopping vegetables and pummeling the wet clothes on the laundry slab.  I ate out and saved up for a washing machine.  Now I sat alone on the patio of an evening. 

            “Got any of those salty crackers, Margaret?”  I’d giggle drunkenly to myself.