Pooka, my (relatively) loyal (as gizmos go) iPhone, is getting ready to check out permanently and go to that big Silicon Valley in the sky where she can play with all the Sinclairs and Altairs in the perfectly atmospherically controlled Elysian Fields equivalent geekily overseen by the demiurge of technology.* I’m still hoping to get twenty years out of Wolfgang, I guess four or five years is pretty good for a mobile phone. SIIIIIIIGH. The first sign of trouble is that she began jumping lines while I was texting which is therefore my own fault for getting sucked into texting in the first place. ARRRRRGH. YOU KNOW THE WORLD WAS FULL OF INTEREST AND DELIGHT BEFORE THERE WAS TEXTING.** But the real moment of shock, horror and brutal recognition of having arrived at the Point of No Return was when I discovered MY BELL RINGING APP WAS FRIED.***
I can no longer remember why I got flummoxed into an iPhone rather than some other mobile phone. I’m sure there was a good† reason.†† However I want no more steep learning curves in my life††† so if I’m replacing Pooka I’m going to replace her with another iPhone, okay? Meanwhile because EVERYTHING! has to be BIGGER!! And BRIGHTER!!! and WHIZZIER!!!! and FLASHIER!!!!!! . . . the frelling iPhone 6 has two models: the just-larger-enough to not squash in the little pink bag that Pooka fits in and hangs around my neck‡ and the frelling ginormous sub-tablet sized. I decided I should actually see these critters before I asked Raphael to order one. If the slightly-too-large one is TOTALLY IMPOSSIBLE the earlier Pooka-sized edition is still available, it just doesn’t have all the upgradey bits that are probably mostly worth having, and I have a certain resistance to spending several hundred pounds on something that isn’t as good as something that is only slightly more insanely expensive and which latter is also less likely to go seriously passé and customer-support-free before it’s ready for the polished-aluminium Elysian Fields. And with all this FRELLING TEXTING I’m now doing the tiny iPhone keyboard is driving me NUTS‡‡ and I thought it might just be worth having a look at the keyboard on the Ginormous Sub-Tablet.
Niall, ahem, texted me, asking if I was going ringing at Crabbiton tonight? I guess, I replied, my fingers a blur of anguish and misspelling, but I’m thinking of going slightly the long way to have a look in at Doorknob and Beastly’s electronics department: their web site says they have iPhone 6s and there’s a D and B on the Crabbiton side of Mauncester. Since we’ve started carpooling I offered to pick him up: he could look at cameras or longswords or something while I was muttering over iPhones.
We arrived at our local Doorknob and Beastly and a nice young man said, oh, we don’t have mobile phones here.‡‡‡ You have to go to the store in Drabness. Drabness? I said, and laughed hollowly. Drabness is Super Mall City: it makes Disney World look like your small local county fair, with the lead-line pony class and the grapefruit-arranging contest. Also you have to go on the motorway to go to Drabness. I don’t drive on motorways.§ Never mind, I said. But we’re going to be early at Crabbiton.
No, no, said Niall, Drabness is like ten minutes on the motorway from here. We can do it easily. NO WE CAN’T, I said. He turned to the nice young man. The Super Mall City end is this side, isn’t it? Ten minutes from here? Fifteen maybe? Yes, said the nice young man. It’s just straight down the motorway and you take the Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here exit and it’s right there, it’s dead simple. NOOOOOOOO, I said, considering falling to my knees and begging for my life. They discussed the particulars of where, exactly, weaving among Thunder Mountain, the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain, we were going to find Doorknob and Beastly and then Niall shooed me out of the store saying loudly over my feverish quacking that it would be easy and he could tell me EXACTLY what to do.
We got on the motorway (under Niall’s strict direction). With me still clucking and cheeping.
And two minutes later we ran into THE BIGGEST TRAFFIC JAM IN THE HISTORY OF BRITISH ROAD HAVOC. Of course there were no available exits. That would be so obvious. Mind you it was almost worth it, sitting there breathing 1,000,000,000,000 internal combustion engines’ combined exhaust and watching all the SUVs play chicken with each other pointlessly swapping lanes, while listening to Niall apologising for getting me into this. ALMOST.
We did get there. Eventually. And I’M the one found Doorknob and Beastly.§§ Just by the way. And the Ginormous Sub-Tablet iPhone 6’s keyboard is not worth carrying—or figuring out how to carry—around something the size of a frelling DVD box.§§§ And the little one does fit into Pooka’s little pink bag . . . but it won’t, as soon as I get a cover for it. I’ll worry about that LATER.
We even made it to Crabbiton half an hour before the end of practise.
* * *
* I’m fine with—no, I’m positively looking forward to—going down under a large many-legged wave of furry things when I finally make it through the pearly gates some moment when St Peter is looking the other way. I’m not sure I’m joyously anticipating greeting all the technology that has gone before. In which case I probably shouldn’t give it names and genders: this behaviour probably leads it to believe we’re supposed to be friends. WELL YES WE ARE. SUPPOSED TO BE. FRIENDS. Arrrrrrrrrgh.
** Too frelling late now: the genie is not only out of the bottle, she’s turned it into a flower-pot and is growing a fine healthy crop of deadly nightshade.
*** Life was going to be so much simpler if I was just going to kind of sidle away from bell ringing without ever quite giving it up officially. Like maybe if Niall moved to Zurich and Wild Robert to Ottawa. These people who have taught you to ring somehow seem to think, okay, you ring. I know you ring. SO RING. WHAT DO YOU MEAN, KNITTING? OR TIRED AND DEMORALISED? I SAID RING.
†† Which is probably immortalised on the blog. I DON’T WANT TO KNOW.
††† I may tell you about . . . um . . . well, maybe not tonight.
‡ I totally do not get the penchant for carrying your iPhone in your pocket. The little fold-up non-iPhone mobiles, sure, if that’s how you want to frictionize holes in your pockets: I tend to the Large Wodge of Keys method myself but to each his/her own. But an iPhone—even a little old one like Pooka—is MUCH TOO LARGE. I keep reading these reviews that report, bristling with multiple dudgeon from the highest possible of horses, that their iPhones have bent. Usually I think that modern paraphernalia is criminally tacky and built to disintegrate on contact so you have to buy another one immediately, but in the case of people who keep their iPhones in their pockets I THINK THEY DESERVE BENT IPHONES. If you have the thing lying next to you on the table or counter or the bookshelf by your bed^ you will not only be aware of it doing its little vibration tango^^ but even turned off it burrs at you.
^ or the back of the loo while you take your bath: I know, for someone who is still at least 85% Luddite I’m a trifle neuromancer about my iPhone, but if I say if Peter ever actually DOES phone me when he’s had a fall rather than soldiering on alone and bleeding all over the carpet, I want to get that phone call.
^^ And on the top of the loo cistern it positively rattles like a small pink rectangular castanet
‡‡ WHY ARE THERE NO ARROW KEYS SO YOU CAN MOVE AROUND MORE PRECISELY THAN THE SCREEN WILL READ YOUR BIG FAT FINGERS? ESPECIALLY WHEN THE PREDICTIVE FACILITY IS CORRECTING YOU IN A MORE THAN USUALLY INFURIATING WAY? WHY ARE THERE NO ARROW KEYS?
‡‡‡ YOUR FRELLING WEB SITE SAYS YOU DO. It’s a national chain, right? So you look narrowly at the listings for both your shop and your desired item, looking for any warning about ‘not all outlets have all listed merchandise’ or similar . . . or a phone number for your local shop rather than the random national 800 number that will leave you on hold for half an hour while playing Vivaldi’s the Four Seasons on six kazoos and an eggbeater very loudly in your ear. I used to like Vivaldi’s the Four Seasons.
§ Highways. The forty-eight lane kind where the slow lane is going 80 mph and the fast lane is in orbit.
§§ It wasn’t even that large. Two acres tops. Okay maybe three.
§§§ Anybody wanting to carry this sucker around in a pocket is going to have to buy a whole new wardrobe. With Kevlar pockets.
HERO won the Newbery thirty years ago. Thirty. How scary is that.
Anyway some silly person thought it might be amusing to interview me on the subject. Fortunately they sent me a list of questions which enabled me to choose questions I could, you know, answer. The Tor list a few weeks ago was way too full of pop-culture questions I couldn’t answer; this one was full of state-of-the-YA-book-world questions and I HAVE NO CLUE. I read what I read when I read it, because I saw it on the library shelf, because another unsteady crag of books at the cottage overbalanced and cannoned across the room and I had an ‘oooh, shiny’ reaction, because someone recommended it/sent me a copy, because the Kindle ebook was too cheap to ignore. At the moment I’m reading a Barbara Hambly I seem to have missed (cannoning crag), catching up on the Dana Stabenows that have come out since I wandered away from murder mysteries about a decade ago (you have to pass through the mystery section at the library to get to the F&SF section), OUTPOST which is a post-apocalyptic thriller by new writer Adam Baker (I DON’T READ POST-APOCALYPTIC THRILLERS but I picked it up off the library shelf and liked the first few pages—especially that a male thriller writer should start his first novel writing sympathetically about a fat woman) and QUIET by Susan Cain, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking** (cheap Kindle, but I was going to read it anyway)***. I’ve just finished SCULPTOR by Scott McCloud (amazing graphic novel, an early copy arrived unsolicited in the post, THANK YOU First Second Books) and have started THE HOMEOPATHIC TREATMENT OF DEPRESSION, ANXIETY, BIPOLAR DISORDER AND OTHER MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS by two homeopaths I’ve been reading for years, and am about halfway through HOMEOPATHY FOR TODAY’S WORLD by another homeopath I’ve been reading for years. Not a YA in sight. Not this week. Ask me next week. I’m trying to remember the last YA I read—Jacqueline Wilson’s MY SISTER JODIE, possibly, but she’s not even YA: she’s kids. She’s real stuff, real life for kids, and I love her for it. †
Anyway. Don’t ask me about any state of any book world, because I won’t know. But here’s an interview with me on the subject of winning a Newbery and, you know, writing stories and stuff.
* * *
* Alcestis’ funeral went off very well, I think. The speakers knew what they were doing, and Alcestis had an interesting life and so no struggling for material was necessary. There were even some good laughs. There were photos of her all over the walls which I couldn’t bear to look at—Admetus has promised me a private showing some time—and the day was clear and lovely and not too cold, and the track down to the tree she’d chosen to be buried under was not too muddy. She’d said she’d chosen it for the view, and it has a good view: but I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that everything about the funeral was to her plans and instructions; I could hear her saying that she’d chosen that tree and this view.
There was a Land Rover to take anyone who didn’t want to struggle with the footing—and the hill—and that included Peter. The car followed us down to the gravesite, but preceded us going back up again, which meant I went frelling HARING up the blasted hill so Peter didn’t have to sit around in the empty café wondering if I’d fallen into a ravine or something. I should have just gone in the car too.
** I ranked 18 out of 20 again on the standard introvert test: the only questions I have to answer ‘no’ to are, do my friends find me self-effacing and laid back? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA and, would I rather die than do public speaking? No. It’s not that big a deal. Which I’ve told you before always makes me feel like someone else is living in my body with me. This personality should not be able to do public speaking but it/we can.
*** It’s even better than I’d hoped. The problem with the current fashion in popular science is that certain of the tropes MAKE ME NUTS, like the way everyone the author interviews has to have their clothing and their twinkling eyes described. Cut to the chase. I usually object to the author writing him/herself into the story constantly too but in this case it works a treat because Cain is writing as an introvert in an extrovert-preferring world. I was reading an article in TIME recently^ about the internet-fueled explosion of grass-roots sharing, bartering, selling. One of the fastest growers in this market is car pooling and the author remarks blandly and cluelessly that of course commuting in company is preferable because driving by yourself is SO BORING. There speaks the unthinking extrovert. Driving is bad enough without having to make frelling conversation.
^ Mind you the magazine could be anything up to years old. Speaking of unsteady crags of reading material.
† Um . . . actually I do remember the last YA I read. It’s by a VERY FAMOUS WRITER and I HATED IT. IT WAS BLISTERINGLY FRELLING TERRIBLE AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHY IT WAS EVEN PUBLISHED AND I WILL NEVER READ ANOTHER BOOK BY THIS INCOMPETENT CREEP OF AN AUTHOR EVER AGAIN.
†† And there’s also this, which several more people have sent me links to since Open Road first pointed it out:
And it’s lovely, and I know I’m being a black hole of negativity but . . . she read it when she was eight? I know precocious preteens read it all over the map and that’s great, the sooner and oftener girls growing up get told that girls do things too^ the better, but EIGHT? She was precocious even as precocious goes. And this fills me with dread and trembling for a whole fresh onslaught of angry eight year olds and their teachers, parents and librarians telling me that HERO is too hard for children. Well yes, it is. It’s not for children. I got entire classrooms of kids writing me letters of protest when HERO’s Newbery was new: the Newbery does say children’s literature. I hope maybe that people reading the TIME article will go, oh, wow, well, she grew up to be a writer, so she was probably a precocious reader, and the headline does say YA novels . . . Listen, everyone, it’s really depressing getting bashed for something you wrote for any reason^^, but it’s extra depressing when you think, guys, if you’d only waited a few years. . . .
^ I’ve said this a gazillion times on the blog, but when I was a Young Writer Starting Out I assumed my generation of writers would have totally solved the Active Protagonist Gender Bias. This hasn’t happened. There are still a lot of frelling wet girls out there, including in books written recently. So we still need heroines that do their own dragon-whacking. Aerin has plenty of company . . . but not enough company. Okay, you following generations of writers. Get with the programme.^
^ Although I’m preaching to the converted on this blog. Fans of Elsie Dinsmore or Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa are not subscribers.
^^ Except sheer jerkitude. ‘I didn’t finish your stupid book because I wanted to read endless mushy romance when they stand around staring into each other’s eyes for chapters and chapters and the dragon was REALLY BORING!’ +
+ You’d be surprised. Except for the ‘mushy’ this is nearly word for word.
††† The bio is about forty years out of date. I will ask them to let me bring it up to 2015.^ And I don’t put commas before ‘too’. That’s a copyeditor following house style.
^ YAAAAY. They did. Thank you!
Today was Alcestis’ 58th birthday.
Would have been. She died a little over a week ago.
Peter and I often go out to dinner either the 3rd or the 26th of whatever month it is*; occasionally both, like this month. January is frequently a sod; serious deluges of champagne are often required in January. Last year, after Peter’s stroke in December, pretty much bathtubs full of the stuff were prescribed and dutifully consumed. And this year. . . . I’d remembered that Alcestis’ birthday was the end of January somewhere; I’d forgotten it was today till Admetus reminded me. Peter and I clinked our glasses tonight and drank to Alcestis. Who is dancing joyfully in the sunlit fields of the Lord . . . which means fuck-all to me right now.
The funeral is on Friday.
That’s the worst, of course. I miss her. Remember I said in the Not a happy new year post to make time for your friends, life is shorter than you think? It’s not like I didn’t know Alcestis’ time and life were running out all last year, but the habit of ‘oh next week is soon enough’ is hard to sodding break. I am so glad now for all of those evenings I spent knitting and chatting with her the last few months; I wouldn’t have not done it for anything, now that it’s all over—now that she’s gone. But it also makes me miss her worse. Because I’d FINALLY got in the habit of going round to see her regularly. And enjoying her company. And remembering why I liked her so much: for her dry humour, her empathy, her astonishing breadth of practical knowledge about the world; if you wanted to know something about pretty much anything, chances were that Alcestis could tell you something you could use and suggest where you might look for more. She’d been a scientist and a science teacher, and teaching came naturally to her, whether it was basic physics or how to pluck a chicken.** And yet months would go by, before she fell ill, when we’d run into each other in town and say ‘oh yes we must get together’ and then go our separate ways for more months. Why are humans so STUPID? Because I’m far from the only person who treats their friends like this. There’s always going to be time. But there isn’t.
So. Sorry for the long blog silence. There’s still a lot of staring blankly into space—and several other WHAAAAAAT? unexpected crises, mostly unsuitable for a family-friendly public blog, but I will mention the evening this past week, having just been knocked sideways by one of said crises, I managed to leave my diary in Mauncester I CANNOT LIIIIIIIVE WITHOUT MY DIARY I can barely remember to breathe without checking in my diary first*** and having phoned to be sure that I had left it where I thought I had, and they said they’d keep it safe for me, I leaped into Wolfgang to drive back to fetch it . . .
. . . and Wolfgang wouldn’t start. AAAAAAAAAAAUGH. I spent most of the next DAY schlepping in to Mauncester on the frelling BUS and hiking to the far end of town TO PICK UP MY DIARY. While Wolfgang was towed off to the garage. I got him back today: hellhounds and I had a very nice walk over hill and under milkwood to Warm Upford to pick him up, with a shiny new starter motor under his bonnet.† And all that stumbling over tussocks gave me an appetite for champagne, duck confit and a big fat chocolate brownie with chocolate sauce tonight at the pub. It was a very good confit, and an excellent brownie. But the brownie wasn’t as good as Alcestis’.
* * *
The news isn’t all bad, if you will permit me to range now into the frivolous. Niall, who can smell weakness, and has his own unique ideas about cheering people up, seems to have inveigled me into RINGING FRELLING HANDBELLS AGAIN. HOW DO I GET INTO THESE THINGS.†† Furthermore I seem to have become a semi-regular fourth with a particular group, Niall, Jillian, who was starting to learn handbells shortly before I more or less stopped, and a gentleman who has not appeared on these virtual pages before, whom we will call Spenser. I’ve rung tower bells with Jillian many times—although she’s a good ringer and I’m not—I only know Spenser by reputation. The fact that he’s not only a good tower bell ringer but also an organist and therefore has developed the Extra Brain Lobes for keeping track of several manuals AND a pedal keyboard or whatever you call them means he is beautifully pre-programmed to learn frelling handbells swiftly and accurately and I will HATE HIM SOON. But right at the moment he and I are about level in the Struggle to Master Bob Major.
I’ve spent most of my handbell career thus far on six bells, mostly ringing bob minor. ‘Plain bob’ is where everyone starts. If you’ve only got three handbell ringers there are a lot of other more complex six-bell methods, but when you first make the step up to major—eight bells, four ringers—you’ll go back to plain bob. This time plain bob major. Counting to eight is hard—which you have to do, every dorgleflamming row, to keep yourself in your place in the pattern. And ‘seven’ has too many syllables in it. OnetwothreefourfivesixSEVENeight. Ruins your rhythm.†††
Jillian at the moment is our weak link. Not her fault, she’s been ringing less time than I have, Spenser is just talented, drat him, and Niall is, well, Niall. Niall conceived of the daring plan to swap Jillian out some day that isn’t our regular meeting so that Spenser and I can have the thrill [sic] of ringing with two good steady ringers and see how far we get. I could see the quarter-peal light going off in Niall’s evil little eyes‡. We were fixed for this past Wednesday, with Melinda as our fourth. Melinda would be one of my favourite ringers—despite her reprehensible excellence on handbells—if I saw more of her; she’s the one got me going to the extra tower practise at Fustian, which stopped happening some time this last year when I haven’t been ringing anyway. After Alcestis died I told Niall I am NOT trying for a quarter peal on Wednesday. Both my stamina and my focus are zero for the present and the immediate future. That’s okay, said Niall in his blandest possible manner.
I should frelling know better by now.
You can see where this is going. We rang a couple of touches and first I and then Spenser—and bless him for not being perfect—crashed and burned. So we started over. No big; we were getting good practise with Melinda there. But then we started to steady down—Melinda is a lovely, equable, consistent, low-tension-transfer ringer.‡‡ Aaaaaaand we didn’t crash and burn. For a few minutes. For a few more minutes. For . . . that ratbag Niall is going for a quarter.
We rang a quarter. Spenser’s and my first quarter of bob major.
And that’s for Alcestis too. Makes a change from glasses of champagne. ‡‡‡
* * *
* Our wedding anniversary is 3 January; our lightning-strike meeting anniversary is 26 July.
** She was also an excellent—and self taught—knitter. She half-blinded herself knitting the Plain Dark Pullovers that are all the Standard British Male will wear, for Admetus. And the sweater I knitted^ about three-quarters of, those last evenings of knit and chat, is hanging on the back of a chair at Third House and every time I see it I catch my breath. I should finish it. I know. At some deep superstitious level I think I’m still hoping if I don’t finish it I’ll get a few more evenings with Alcestis. Sigh.
^ which is for me and is about as far from plain and dark as it is possible to get.
*** Drink champagne, yes. Eat chocolate, yes. Breathing, I may need reminding.
† He now leaps six feet off the ground when you turn the key in the little hole. BRAAAAAAANG. NEXT STOP MARS.
†† A pathetic insufficiency of counter-obstinacy. There is NOTHING ON THE PLANET as persistent as Niall in pursuit of handbell ringers. And he’s such a polite, quiet, gentle person . . . most of the time. Not about handbells. Be glad you don’t live in New Arcadia. He’d get you too.
††† One of the additional reasons I will never graduate to twelve on handbells, aside from the spectacular absence of necessary brain support, is because of having to count a row that has a three-syllable number in it. Seven is bad enough. ELEVEN? Are you frelling JOKING? I can just about manage plain hunt in the tower on twelve, because tower bells go so much slower you have half a chance to squeeze those extra syllables out. Frelling handbells go a frelling lick. Well-rung handbells sound like the louder, more musical version of someone running their thumb over the edges of a pack of cards. That’s how fast it goes.^
^ Not with me however. Handbells rung with me in the group are . . . stately. There are people who won’t ring with me because I’m too slow. Trust me, I don’t want to ring with these people anyway.
‡ If he’s part bull terrier that would explain a lot.
‡‡ There are other handbell ringers I won’t ring with because just being in the same room with them winds me up. But I suspect they feel the same about me.
‡‡‡ Okay, I should finish that sweater.
They had a little trouble with my footnotes for some reason. Do you know ANYONE ELSE who has EVER had a little trouble with my footnotes? ::hums a little tune:: They also left out the hellterror in the intro, which I will do my best to prevent her from finding out or she would hunt them down and eat . . . all their sandwiches. And their shoes. And possibly their desks and their computers. Certainly their mobile/cell phones. And their coats. And . . .
Highlighting missing footnotes in pink which saves getting HOPELESSLY ENTANGLED in explanations. And a couple of nonessentials I’ve kept in just in case there are any OCDs out there# who are worried about the accuracy of the footnote sequence.
* * *
* I like footnotes. I’m not sure I can think without footnotes any more. I never was good at joined-up thinking. . . . Yes, Tor has provided a lovely long list of questions to choose from, but way too many of them are based on a knowledge of pop culture, and my idea of pop culture is Bryn Terfel singing Sweeney Todd. I have to answer what I can.^
^ Also, that ratbag David Tennant has already pinched All Stars for his Doctor Who incarnation, so I can’t answer the one about what my Doctor Who signature costume element would be.
** I don’t remember yesterday too well, let alone blogs or interviews from years ago. I can safely guess yesterday involved dog walking^ and eating chocolate however.
^ Known in this household of three four-legged fur factories as ‘hurtling the hellmob’.
[*** See answer 3, below: this refers to frelling]
† hellmob = two whippet/deerhound crosses, one mini bull terrier
[†† Also see answer 8, below: this is about getting what you want]
††† But about getting what you need, that’s why I grew up to write about heroines.
‡ You don’t know Creeping Jane? http://mainlynorfolk.info/joseph.taylor/songs/creepingjane.html
Speaking of heroines.^
^ They could have given her a more gallant name however.
‡‡ I can so imagine Diana getting into automatic writing though. Given her sense of humour I don’t entirely envy the person chosen as channel but . . . ::waves pen hopefully over blank sheet of paper^ and looks around::
^ I suppose there’s no reason you couldn’t channel onto a computer screen but it’s so, you know, realistic. Who wants to be ordinary about Channelling from Beyond?+ I feel there should be long flowing skirts involved too. If you’re a bloke you can wear a tabard or something.
+ Especially not channelling Diana Wynne Jones, who had epic conflicts with her technology.
‡‡‡ Horses aren’t pets. And neither are dragons^. Neither is Narknon [BLUE SWORD], although I suppose Fourpaws [ROSE DAUGHTER] is—just. Majid in SHADOWS is not. In my experience Maine coon cats rarely are.
^ And Lois [DRAGONHAVEN] as a baby was a NIGHTMARE. Not ideal at all, unless you have a dangerous martyrdom complex.
§ And CHALICE and SUNSHINE are essentially Beauty and the Beast too. Oops. Well but it’s such a good story. I don’t want to give it up too soon.
* * *
# Who, me?
The friend I’ve been visiting in hospital?
It won’t be long now.
I hate this. This is a stupid system, this life thing. She’s younger than I am, by the way. And another friend—another good friend—who is also younger than I am—has just been diagnosed with . . . well. Not with blue skies and happy fluffy bunnies.
Life sucks. And then, as we know, you die.
So, that’s been my holidays.* Let’s call her Alcestis—the friend who’s dying—although in the damned myth some god or godling usually comes along at the last minute and saves her, and so far as I know my friend’s Admetus wasn’t in any danger. She’s been ill for a while, and in and out of hospital, but they’ve known for a while they aren’t going to turn this one around, it’s going to get her, and sooner rather than later. And she’s been slipping—also for a while—but the last three weeks or so the slope has suddenly got steeper. Although we knew this was going to happen too.
I’ve been through this before, of course, but it doesn’t get easier, losing people—watching them slide away from you, and you can’t do a bloody thing except sit by their bedside and breathe. Be there, stunned and clueless and disbelieving. Everyone who is trying to comfort you says, oh, being there counts! That is what you can do! I guess. But it’s throwing rose petals in the abyss. Except it’s not even rose petals. It’s dead toads or dandruff or anthrax or something.
Alcestis is in a specialist unit and it’s too far for me to drive, and I’m dependent on Admetus to give me a lift—but he’s a friend too, and they’re neighbours. I blast over there five or ten (or fifteen) minutes later than I said I’d get there, and he does the driving. I like to imagine that having someone in the car with him sometimes—he’s quite the taxi service, is our Admetus, bless him—is maybe a bit comforting, or grounding, or something. I have really NO IDEA how he’s doing. He’s a BRITISH MALE. I assume he’s still eating, although he’s got awfully thin and he wasn’t exactly portly to begin with. The unit Alcestis is in will feed a spouse or one other designated person for the big holidays, and they came round with the New Year’s Day dinner menus today while I was there doing my sitting and breathing thing—and in my case knitting: my knitting is not improving with practise—and I was looking at Admetus looking at the menu and wanted to say to the nurses ‘make sure he eats too, okay?’
It’s a nice place, as far as places where people go to die are ever nice. The nurses are kind and thoughtful and engaged: they’re all over Admetus as he comes in, and a couple of them even recognise me. There’s free tea and coffee (okay, and a donation box), and a big lounge-sitting-room-waiting-room space with comfy chairs and tables and books, and a computer with a selection of all-ages games. They keep Alcestis clean and comfortable. She’s just barely there any more and . . . drifting . . . farther . . . away.
Today the doctor took Admetus aside and said that hopes/plans to be able to send Alcestis home after the holidays, when they’d be up to full staff strength again for the amount of home care she’d need, were, barring miracles, permanently shelved and that . . . the unit is set up for a spouse or partner to spend the night there: he might want to know that. He might want to consider. . . . When we got back to New Arcadia tonight he gave me the domestic fauna care drill and he’ll text me if I need to step in. There was a little austere hilarity at the outrage the capybaras, sugar gliders and wallabies are going to feel at being put abruptly on my schedule rather than Admetus’. He gets up at about 6 a.m. most mornings. I suppose I could go round and feed and do a quick sweep last thing before I go to bed. . . .
They’re rerunning the last night of the Proms on Radio 3 tonight. Last night of the Proms live was mid September, and Alcestis was still alert and walking (slowly) and interested in the world and having opinions about the books she read.
And to everyone who is reading this: make time to get together with your friends, and do stuff, or just hang out, drink tea, loan each other books. Or if geography is against you—and I know a lot about that—talk on the phone, email, text, Skype. Stay in touch.** Time is a whole lot shorter than you think.
Tonight’s glass of champagne is to you, honey, Alcestis, my old friend.
* * *
* Another thing about holidays is the way people go on them leaving their social-welfare charities short-handed. And falling prey to the common philosophy of wretchedness that if you can’t do anything for you and yours maybe you can do some damn thing for a stranger, I’ve picked up a few extra shifts here and there to the extent that I’ve had one or two lectures from older hands about taking care of myself. OH SHUT UP. Okay, yes, I know, and I appreciate the concern and understand why they’re having a word, but I’m at least conscious of what I’m doing and as soon as the holidays are over with I’ll revert to being the volunteer-organisation version of assistant bottle-washer. But whatever your flavour of belief^ or disbelief, the end of year holiday season and all the jolly consumerism, I mean family and friendship and togetherness, tend to magnify anything that’s less than fabulous in your individual life, so social services get a bit strained. The less than fabulous would include me and mine of course. But being a do gooder at least means you have somewhere to put some of the sorrow and frustration.
^ Although just by the way the tendency for Christmas to be presented in Christian churches in all its blue-skies-and-fluffy-bunnies splendour MAKES ME CRAZY. YO. THAT KID YOU’RE WORSHIPPING IS GOING TO DIE HORRIBLY IN THIRTY-THREE YEARS+ AND THERE’S A CRUCIFIX HANGING OVER THE ALTAR, YES, EVEN AT CHRISTMAS, POSSIBLY TO REMIND YOU OF THIS TINY FACTOID?? As one might say, Jesus. There’s a dark despairing edge even at Christmas, a shadow behind the joy. Welcoming this baby should break your heart, and if it doesn’t you’re not paying attention.++
+ Or about four months, depending on how you’re counting. This is only my third Easter coming up and I already want a year off.#
# I think I said that last year. Easter is hard.~
~ And it has nothing to do with fluffy bunnies, chocolate or otherwise.
++ Some of the carols get this right. When I’m experiencing a worse than usual brain failure day, the verse I can never forget is from We Three Kings: Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume/ breathes a life of gathering gloom/ Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/ Sealed in a stone-cold tomb. Elsewhere it refers to King and God and sacrifice. Um, yeah. Stay with it. And Christmases like this one for me, it’s exactly like my monk said: he died also so none of us ever has to suffer alone.
I still think it’s a total fucker of a system. When I get to heaven# I’m going to start a petition.
# And remember we all do, eventually, whatever ‘heaven’ turns out to be and whatever petitioning options there are.
** Which I’m doing a lousy job of with everyone else in my life. Because I’m too sunk in being bad company. Sigh. Do as I say, not as I do, okay?