The Diet

Two bananas, three times a day, with milk in a small bottle, the size once delivered to schools. That was the first one, to keep a classmate company. We were war babies, with heavy bones from our mothers’ extra rations and disgusting dollops of cod liver oil – but we wanted to be sylph-like and tread lightly in the world. Still can’t bear bananas.

Single in the city, I shared a flat with a girl who went to Weightwatchers and measured out her allowance of peas in a spoon, then another who lived on eggs for a week, then fish. A sweet-toothed friend spent a fortune on the Cabbage Diet and mysterious injections in Harley Street. My: Why don’t you eat a bit less? didn’t go down too well.

I was never seriously upholstered,but didn’t like being pear-shaped or taking up too much space and collected pictures of Wallis Simpson, all string-bean style.

We didn’t cook much – too busy counting calories – but men found us interesting. One was a practising macrobiotic. We sat on the floor and chewed each grain of rice a hundred times. It was exhausting. When he went to India to find himself, my usual pattern resumed at once: eating too much or too little. Sipped a slimshake one day, fed a cheese habit the next….A broken heart once killed my appetite for weeks.  I left unfinished plates of food all over Europe, but the fridge was never empty, the cupboard never bare. I didn’t know what true love – or hunger – really were.

In the 1930s,  in a life before the big shop and a cafe on every corner, the Durham miners on my family tree just ate on instinct, to stay alive and strong enough to work. Food was fuel.

Decades down the line, that vital equation seemed to lose its logic. Modern food was faster and easier all right, but there were hidden dangers.  Now the mother of two boys – or eating machines – books about the South Beach, Atkins, Fibre and Blood-Type diets stayed on the shelf.  I worried instead about vitamins, flavour-enhancers and pesticides. There were bugs in eggs; carrots could turn you orange!  Sugar was a devil in disguise. Eat a burger, become a mad cow in twenty years…

Now, living and eating alone in another century brings other disaster scenarios. A biscuit-related injury could happen anywhere –  but if I choke on a chicken bone, no one around to thump my back. I’ll lie there undiscovered, getting even thinner and emptier than Wallis…A natural squirrel, I’m fond of nuts, but they pose a serious risk to veneered teeth, so safer to stick to soup and try to like sardines.

Then again,  shopping for one’s so simple, cooking an as-and-when affair, washing up a one-minute wonder. I’m free to fast a few days a month, to help me hang on to any remaining marbles and live as long as the Queen.  It’s the 5-2 diet. As seductive as only a set of rules and numbers can be, with a dash of science.  If it works for genetically engineered mice…

Food – and the fat – are all around us, everywhere we go, while tins and packets pile up in a food bank basket. In the midst of too much or too little, a simple meal shared at a table remains a reminder that nothing tastes as good as friendship and conversation. Life is still too short to stuff a mushroom or the cavity of a bird.  And far far too short not to see the crumb-free beauty in a bagel.

 

The Signature

I was once a King – or rather, married to one.  Wearing a long purple velvet coat and a single daffodil, I picked up a ballpoint pen and wrote a new surname in a Town Hall register. A spike of a word. It was 1971. I thought it was the Law, that you had to take your husband’s name.

Mr King was a fine and mathematical man who wore vegetarian shoes and went on many Marches – against the Bomb, the Hunt and tinned fruit from South Africa. A man of absolute opinions with an imprecise wife uncertain of anything much.

We divorced – by post – two years later. Such a relief to return to the longer, silkier scrawl. Christian name: the one I first learned to write, letter by letter, the one I’ve always lived in. Middle name: Mary. Third name, of Dutch and rural origins: the name of my father.

Another wedding and change of surname, passed in time to the children, so after a second – longer – divorce, I kept it. A short dash linked it to the one I was born with. The names, at least, forever joined together. A bit of a mouthful, a double-barrel, but rarely spoken or written in full. To be found on the inside cover of a new book, across the odd cheque and at the bottom of the last page of the Will at the front of the top drawer of the filing cabinet upstairs.

***

A few weeks ago, I went in search of another name, hidden high in my local cathedral, in papers usually kept under lock and key. I’m a volunteer there, so a request to see it was granted. The muniments room is at the top of a spiral stone staircase, the steps steep, worn and narrow – the climb a challenge for the older knee….up and up, round and round, until the Keeper of the old books, deeds and documents opened a nail-studded door and took me to a table.

On it stood a book rest covered with a black cloth. On the cloth lay a slim volume with a heavy title: Orders for the Regulation of the Prince’s Household. 1641. Wearing white gloves, the librarian began to turn the vellum pages, the skin with the sheen that can only come from much handling down the ages.

The book itself is a dry affair and hard to read: a series of ‘items’ or ‘instructions’ as to the governance of the Prince’s suite of apartments or ‘Chambers’. A gentleman of the Bedchamber must enter at 8 ‘of the clock’; only persons of high rank may have admittance to the Privy or Presence Chambers. There is no glimpse here of the swarthy boy, 11 at the time, slow by all accounts to shape his letters, even on ruled lines, who loved to ride and hunt with his father. But it’s not the contents of the book I’m interested in. It’s the name that appears above the text.

**

The papers are put before the King. A small man, with a pointed beard – and a lifelong stammer – lace at his neck and wrist. Next to the papers, a dish of brown oak gall ink and a quill fashioned from a flight feather, the nib freshly cut. This is no Treaty or Petition from the People, no challenge to his Divine Authority….nor is it a Death Warrant, though he’s signed enough of those. So it is his will and pleasure to approve each order and put his name at the top of the page, as is the custom. A  light scrape on the calm surface, then again…The letters rise and fall, but evenly, surely.  Charles R.

A year later, the Civil War will begin.

It is such a simple signature. Unlike Elizabeth’s, this is no decorative drawing, with underlinings, flourishes, garlands of fancy loops.

*

When the librarian turned away to close a window,  I touched the name with an ungloved hand, then the words below it – and felt a shock, through and through. If it was a step back in time, it was a very short one. A moment at most – just wide enough for the Past – if that’s what or who it was – to touch me back.  Then the white gloves returned, firmly closed the book and took it away.

***

The moment with the book in the library reminded me of another, with a picture at an exhibition.

A gallery in London, 2001, as soon as the doors open, before the crowds, because I want to see a 17th century painting – Dutch, dearly beloved – unsurrounded.  I cross a room or two and there it is and my heart stops.  A single, sturdy figure is standing before a kitchen table, intent on what she is doing. A maidservant pouring milk, forever.

That moment, too, soon passed – but I can feel it now, the shared stillness – strange greeting – and the man who studied her still breathes – through a picture. Unsigned, undated and perfect.

 

The Uniform

Reach for the jeans, then a vest. Then a top to go over the vest. A jacket, a scarf. Ankle boots, shoulder bag. It’s what I wear, most days of the week. Comfort, with a bit of style. Well, that’s the idea.

Seven easy pieces. A few choices to make: bootcut or straight, spring or autumn colours, the animal print or the polka dot….Yesterday’s socks?  There’s no hurry. It’s just another pensionista getting decent for the day.

But it’s cold out there and I’m about to break a Rule  –  to open the front door with bare hands.

It’s 1950 something.   A woman in black is standing on a platform, high above an Assembly of girls in brown dresses – all small and very new to the school. She doesn’t actually look like a woman, but she must be because she’s a Mother. Her voice is shrill, bigger than she is. We’re going to learn how to be a Lady.

A Lady’s petticoat would never show. Her fingernails would always pass inspection and she’d always wear gloves, in all temperatures. She would treat everyone equally, even the cleaners. There were a lot of Rules. Being a Lady wasn’t going to be easy, but you had to be one. The alternative was to be a terrible person called a Vulgarian, who ate in the street. Or one of Them.

They were nuns who’d taken the veil and hid their hair. They swept down the corridors on invisible feet, their skirts making a swishing sound over the polished floors. They never undressed completely, not even in the bath – or so the whisper went – but surely a Lady had to be clean?  Were the nuns ladies?

The Boarders might know, but they ignored us. Most of them were posher, older, with parents who could easily afford the rising fees.

The next Biology lesson was going to be about Reproduction. Drawing frog spawn was a bit boring – like Latin – but this was going to be about the Birds and the Bees. The Facts of Life!   Like me, my best friend had no father or brother, so men and boys were an alien race called the Opposite Sex.  We didn’t know any.  Visiting priests in hoods who thundered about Sin and counselled Confession, didn’t count.

The lesson began with a prayer. The nun in front of us drew a lot of diagrams on the blackboard – all about the self-pollination of peas –  then, with a starched expression, went on to the mating habits of  – rabbits. Then she swept out of the classroom, clutching her crucifix….

But what about the Bits and Bobs?  What was a Lady to do?  What about the gloves?

We turned to our  English teacher, who looked miserable most of the time, but she was Married to a Martian and must know a Fact or two about Life….She warned us that boys got ‘more excited’ than girls and that  we mustn’t kiss one until we were Engaged. Then she read us a romantic poem – about seeds being sown in fields – and told us to learn it for homework.

Our favourite nun, the fairest of them all, full of grace, a white coif framing a face neither young nor old, smiled at us kindly, as if she heard the questions we could not ask. Sometimes, a tendril of hair would escape the coif, as if making a bid for freedom. Love, she said, was a Mystery.  She wasn’t wrong.

A nun, then, wore a tunic over a long black robe with deep pockets, confined with a belt. It looked strange – like a shroud or a tent –  but there was a dignity to what they wore, day after day, year after year. An elegance, even, to the absence of ornament.  Each one dressed in common with her Sisters, but the Habit –  plain and simple – was the only sameness about them.  Some were patient; others knew their power over us and used it. Some were troubled; others seemed at peace.  A few seemed to have a light inside them, as if possessed of a shining secret.

Like men, they were only people. And each one, alone in the cool cell of the morning, slipped the full dark folds over her head, then her body  – in the inescapable intimacy of clothes against the skin.  And if after the last bell and call to a mass or a prayer, one or two danced with doubt in the night and longed to cast it all off – the whole thing –  and run free –  God only knows.

It doesn’t matter now, so much Life later, but I had a seed inside, a secret of my own, which didn’t shine.

The school has grand iron gates.  There are copper beech trees in the grounds and a grotto where the keen girls pray.  I’m lucky to be here, but I’m a Day Girl and not a Catholic, so I don’t quite fit in.  I like the Chapel though, especially the painted statues and the smell of incense.

I am 11 and have a new uniform which does not fit me.  It’s a sludgy-brown dress like a sack, longer at the front than at the back. The sack comes with a mock tie on a piece of elastic. The blazer is striped like a deckchair and I feel loud in it. The summer hat is a boater. When it gets damp, the straw crown rises to a point and has to be flattened with a pile of books. Later, I get another hat, made of velour with a ribbon round it, which I lose. 

Afraid to tell my mother, who’s made Great Sacrifices to send me to the school, I steal another girl’s hat from the cloakroom. The prefects on patrol do not notice. I trim the brim to make the hat look like the lost one.  My mother does not notice.

I can’t catch or throw for toffee and soon develop a horror of hockey sticks, so I ‘forget’ my plimsolls a lot and the games teacher hates me.

In RE, I ask questions about the Bible and words that sound important, like Faith and Purgatory, and am rewarded with lovely holy pictures, so I ask many more.  Mary in a crown, on a cloud…or a saint looking soulfully at a flower.  One of the nuns gets excited and tells me I’m destined for a different kind of wedding, to be a Bride of Christ. This means my hair will be cut off and that black will be the only colour. Horrified, I start to keep my mouth shut –

My best place is the library, with its wooden-panelled walls and shelves of books. It’s quiet and safe in there – but to reach it, I have to get to the end of a very long corridor and pass under a painting of the Sacred Heart, high on the wall above me.

It’s Him. He’s pointing to the bright red organ in his gaping chest. The bleeding  heart has a golden light around it and on autumn evenings, it glows.   Jesus definitely knows the Truth about the hat.

 

The Loaf

The bread’s gone missing. When it’s not sitting on the acacia board, waiting for action, it’s chilling on the middle shelf of the fridge, in its very own drawstring ‘fresher for longer’ linen bag, super-seeded, with several slices left.  But it isn’t.

I don’t remember finishing it or throwing bits of it to the birds and my last visitor left two weeks ago, so I can’t blame her.  Things generally stay where they’re put – it’s one of the pleasant and hygienic aspects of living alone……

Check the other shelves in the fridge, then the freezer. Maybe I made the slices into sandwiches for a travel lunch or two or transformed them into toast. Find several other items I’d forgotten I’d ever bought – seafood sauce, stock cubes – but no sign of the bread. Open a few cupboards – impressed by the number of herbal teas -even peek in the recycling bin.

If it’s in the washing machine or deep in a drawer or under the sink, it’s the beginning of the End. Never mind the loaf, it’s my mind that’s gone astray.

Then again, I know I’m catching a train to town tomorrow, and why. I can complete a corner of a crossword and keep clean and tidy most of the time. No slippers in the street. I don’t leave cakes out in the rain, though I did put a pack of mushrooms out in the sun the other day, to absorb more vitamin D…

Read somewhere that if you call up an image of the missing article, it can hasten its retrieval. An image duly arrives – but it doesn’t help, because it’s the wrong loaf.

This one’s an artisan affair with knobs on, fig and walnut, wholegrain – seen in a local bakery on June 24th.  A well-heeled, slightly nervous-looking woman was pointing to it. ‘Do you fancy this, Chloe, for a change?’  A younger one radiated rage. ‘Does it really matter, Mum, after what you’ve done?’  One of those family fall-outs  from the Brexit vote….

Read somewhere else that losing or mislaying things is good for the soul: lessons in letting go and non-attachment to the material world – but I haven’t evolved that far and there’s so much to be said for hanging on –

This is getting silly. It’s only half a loaf, after all. Just one of those domestic  migrations with invisible tracks – like socks or specs. An unaccountable absence. Lucky to have a loaf to lose. My mother is still standing in our council kitchen, frowning at the food left on my plate. Have I quite forgotten the starving millions..? as another teenage diet bites the dust.

Stop looking. Buy some bagels. Put the kettle on and take out the milk. At least that’s where I’ve left it. Make a cup of coffee, like a normal person.

A few days later, I reach into one of the vegetable drawers at the bottom of the fridge, for another linen bag, with a picture of onions on it. The cloth feels softer, squarer than usual. And inside it is – the prodigal loaf!  The end of all my exploring….

Unfortunately, the onions have vanished.

 

 

 

 

 

The Project

Outside, a strange man on a machine is digging up my garden. Shifting the earth – scoop after scoop – then dumping it – till a huge brown pile forms against the fence, like a dinosaur dung heap. Suddenly, the machine shudders and stops. The man gets off and frowns, as if he’s found something.

What lies beneath? Not a body, surely. The previous owners of the property were a bit odd – mirrors everywhere – but seemed happy enough. But a bone or two?  The remains of another king!  Treasure was found in a field not far away: a hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver. A few Roman coins would do. But the fragment at his feet is only a common lump of concrete.

Another man is spraying paint on the lawn – neon yellow lines, to mark out shapes and boundaries, according to the Plan.

These men are ‘stripping out the site’: slicing plaster from brick, pulling out the picket fence, levering up the old broken slabs and dragging them away, filling a skip….Watch it all from the window, in shock and awe.

By the end of the first day, the garden has gone. The earth-moving excavator, cement-mixer and an upturned wheelbarrow are parked neatly on a wasteland, side by side, like tanks. Rain overnight turns the naked ground into mud.

Next day, a vast quantity of white stuff is spread on the mud – hardcore, they call it – then compacted by Darren on a different machine. Then he plugs in the mixer for the mortar. A dull whirring sound,  like tinnitus. Then he tramps, scowling, into the kitchen, in search of a tap.

The sprayer crouches in black wellies and studies some pipes and the damp-proof course. This is Andy and his favourite subject is drainage, followed by foundations. He tells me the new patio will tilt away from the house. Not that you’ll notice, he adds hastily. I’ll mix a layer of sand into the subsoil, then…. My ‘just no puddles, please!’  seems to disappoint him.

More ground is broken. I’ve lost control of my borders!  My poor lawn!  High anxiety. Huge mistake?  I’m spending a fortune to have my very first garden torn apart.  ‘Remember’ – in a faint squeak – ‘don’t throw any good earth away!’  The vandals nod, then one tears an old timber panel from its base, while the other starts to wrestle with a manhole cover…

The resident birds are bemused, don’t know what to make of it all. They flap about for a bit then sit on the roof, at a safe distance.

A truck from Tippers turns up and offloads packs of stone in front of the house. Slabs of natural sandstone in shades of cream and pink, called Raj Buff, imported from India. For the random paving. The tumble blocks arrive, for the edging. A stack of wooden sleepers, like logs, soon lies near them, for the raised beds. The postman has an interesting journey towards the letterbox.

On the third day, deep holes are drilled into the backyard and a trench dug into the gravel drive. Stone is sawn, shaped and ground, filling the air with a fine, pale dust, as if from a desert. Escape – over a plank – to Aldi, but daren’t be off-site for long, in case something’s fixed in place that can’t be changed. Like the new wall very nearly built too close to the gas meter…

When I get back, Andy looks excited. Would I like to see the drain? An invitation hard to refuse. He wants me to appreciate an important pipe before it’s tidied underground and slabbed over for ever…

The Boss pops in to check on the Project’s Progress. A local family firm: Garden Solutions since 1988. We consult the Plan – an agreed design, covering the front, back and side of the house. The Boss thinks big. His first ‘landscape proposal’ was far too fancy for my humble plot, a mini version of Versailles, with fountain, pond,pergola. ‘Keep it simple, please, Arthur!’  Nice clean lines. Within budget.

But as the days become a week, then another, the Plan seems to grow all by itself, like the grass.The new seating area at the bottom of the garden deserves a path to the new patio at the top. The new patio is at a lower level than the old one, so a new step or two would make sense…

Arthur is happy – You’ve got room for a rockery! – and talks of Progress Payments, but  I’m in a State. Phone a new friend, for sympathy. ‘I’m having work done.’ She’s all attention. ‘You mean, a face-lift?’  When I explain, a bit crushed, she soon loses interest. For this, she’s downgraded at once, to ‘acquaintance’. My son in the south is serene. Think of it like an adventure, Mum.

The men go on turning up too early in the morning. Darren, tea with two sugars, Andy, coffee with three. The downstairs loo has always been covered with large footprints.

Some pieces of stone, I notice, are more ridged than riven, more rustic than Raj. Must be more assertive.  ‘Substandard. They’ll have to go!’  Darren looks grim, but removes them. It’s still a twilight time – that strange lull between new and old, before and after, but one of these days all the the dirty work slips into rough magic – and the Plan comes to life.

Posts are set into the holes in the yard, ready for the brand new side-gate. The trench is now paved over, so the bins can be wheeled out in style. Fresh turf at the back keeps the scene green and pleasant.The curve carved in the grass is now the connecting path – a line of beauty. Planting my feet on firmer ground. The random paving gleams in the evening – a pale sea of stone.

Andy has one more surprise. He’s played with a few bricks and created a splashback and surround for the main outflow. His own design. This, I’m paying for?  But make an effort. ‘It’s amazing!  A feature drain!’  He smiles.

The new Garden Order is not quite complete. There’s an empty space behind the widened border, waiting for one of the most hopeful things a human being can buy. Something living, natural treasure.  A tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Room

The door is open, but I am afraid to pass through it. Painted white, it belongs to a room on the fifth floor at the end of a long corridor. Inside, the patient’s name is written on the wall behind the metal bed. There’s a TV suspended above the blanket. A private bathroom and toilet. The view from the window is of another wing of the new hospital.

Touch his cheek and take his hand – the face and arm of the tall man met fifteen years ago. He cannot move or eat unaided but he can speak, on and off, through all the drugs, can even make me laugh, as he always could.  We talk of our travels, of happy parts of the past. The afternoon passes into evening. The ward is very quiet, except for the occasional rumble of a trolley. Promise to return. As I leave, a nurse appears with breathing apparatus and starts to close the blue curtains around the bed.

Retrace my steps – the visitor who can walk away – then descend in a large lift called Schindler, as if it matters. It’s dark now, nearing the end of Monday. From the first of three trains back, the lights of Liverpool shine in the distance.

Late on Wednesday, put a chair next to the phone, then sit and wait for the call to tell me what I already know.

Two weeks later, head north again, to Wigan. The hotel booked online wanted to know if my two night stay was for ‘business’ or ‘pleasure’. Left it blank.

Another lift to a higher floor. There’s no key to this room either; insert a rectangle of plastic into a slot and wait for a little green light to signal sesame. We stayed in places like this all over the country, so the room is familiar. Spotless white towels, open shelves, pinch-proof hangers. A view of a car park. A wide unframed picture of trees that could be clouds. The coverlet on the bed promises ‘a good night’s sleep, guaranteed.’ Lay out a few personal effects: toiletries in the ensuite, leopard on the pillow, then fill the kettle.

Next day, the cab to the crematorium gets me there so quickly I’m just in time for someone else’s service. The door to the chapel is still open…..Instead, retreat to the Garden of Remembrance, which has no graves. It’s a beautiful day, with birdsong and spring sun. A flash of light overhead is only  a reflection from the wing of a passing plane – not for the man who once flew a Shackleton.

Still too early, so sit in the Waiting Room, as if for a train. It’s overheated, but comfortable.A water dispenser called Eden Springs stands in the corner, facing a picture of poppies that could be red butterflies, in a field. A leaflet on a rack features a range of ‘handcrafted personal memorials’ – like paperweights or pendants – that seems to involve ‘fusing ashes into crystal’. Put it back.

The long box carried into the chapel has a cross on it, but the service itself is simple, short, non-religious, in accordance with his wishes. So it’s not long before the curtains close to screen the box from sight. I sit at the back and keep on my coat. Grey, not black, with a corsage of daffodils  – for my professor, once my partner, always my friend.

Later, raise a glass or two with others. The family thank me for coming. Will keep in touch.

Back at the Inn, the room is the same, but different – seems smaller and narrower than before, but it can’t be. The bed’s been made, the rubbish removed, the tiny tubs of milk replaced.There’s a faintly clinical smell, which soon disappears. When I leave, no trace of me will remain. Maybe a few skin cells on the carpet or a hair round a bend.

It’s a new hotel, so not many previous guests, but hundreds more will pass through this place en route to somewhere else, in continuity.  Before then, as this day ends, it is my hand that must close the purple curtains, draw down the blind –

In the morning, get my things together, which doesn’t take long. Softly, the door locks itself behind me. Then it’s time to eat, to shop in the Arcade and head down the old hill to the station.

 

 

Valentine

The young man is in a suit, his hair shiny-smooth, with an arrow-straight parting. In his hands, a bunch of red roses. The girl turning towards him wears a bouffant skirt, a headband and a radiant smile. Inside the card – my very first – a forgotten message signed with a question mark. It is nearly 1960.

I never knew who sent it. Boys were Martians to me then. Unless it was my best friend’s beautiful brother, who was kind and blind to my spots. Later – a local tragedy – he became a priest.

The card was kept in a pretty box until it disappeared. To other pieces of paper, I hold on tight. A note in French from my first true love, met and lost in Paris. An eternal flame. My father’s war-time letters, the closest I’ll ever get to him.

The guess-who greeting sent to my schoolgirl self would look strange on the shelves in the shops this month. Row upon row of cards, loudly competing for attention. The usual hearts and flowers and teddies bearing balloons. The odd cupid. Lots of birds in raptures on branches, most of them with eyes like saucers. It has to be the year of the owl. They’re everywhere. Then, next to an embroidered cushion (Love is All You Need), I see a quiet, unsoppy one. Inside, it says ‘you’re simply the best.’   I know!  Spread the love!  but the only significant other in my life who deserves a Valentine is my plumber, whose wife wouldn’t like it.

Yesterday. No red envelopes in the letter box, no miraculous message with a foreign stamp. I do get the result of my bowel screening test. Plus a leaflet from a new Italian restaurant in the town. This place is ‘passionate about pizza’, which can’t be normal.

So, feeling very February, log onto my dating site. It’s been a while; the team have ‘missed me.’ Joining it has led to a few ‘fans’ and brief ‘conversations’ but no actual dates. My picture is recent, my age the truth – probably an instant turn-off. In any case, many of the ‘profiles’ and photos on the site are frankly frightening: men in dark glasses with GSOH, who describe themselves as ‘lonely’ or ‘fun-seeking’…

Delete two ‘matches’ at once. One with a large hat and long beard (what lies beneath?)  and an ‘ageing rocker’ in search of a ‘rock chick’. I’m about to log out when a new message pops up. An invitation to lunch! This is a pleasant surprise – and an outing for the orange silk shirt -until I realise it’s from a ‘tactile’ teacher of peace and gender studies from Bangor, who can’t spell.

There is only one known antidote to all this: a large glass of pink and an early night with Jane Austen.