I set fire to my hair the other night. Oops.
It was very exciting for a second or two. I smelled that unmistakable frying-hair smell at the same time as I felt something odd happening on the top of my head—at the same time as Ruby, across the restaurant table from me, screamed, and we were descended on by several staff—at the same time as I jerked upright and away from the innocent candle sitting in its little dish next to the salt and pepper and a random flower in a vase. I managed to burn my hand too by slapping at my hair while grabbing my heavy linen napkin* and whacking it down over my head a scant inch or two in front of Ruby diving across the table with hers.**
So I have a tiny frizzly patch on the crown of my head. My hair hasn’t been itself since menopause*** and while frizzle is never a good look I haven’t had a good hair day in about a decade and there is no effect† for it to ruin.
Don’t do bereavement, everyone. It sucks on so many levels. I’ve broken so much china I’m tempted to buy evil planet-destroying off-gassing melamine and get it over with. Apparently I’m branching out into self-arson.
Ruby was here nearly a week.†† We hung out. We talked and talked and talked and talked AND TALKED AND TALKED. We got through a surprising amount of therapeutic champagne.††† We had high tea at a tea shop that understands proper British high tea. Scones, clotted cream, the lot. It’s surprising how few self-described tea shops do any more. We made a special excursion to Winchester Cathedral because of the shop where you can get EVERYTHING branded with the Winchester Cathedral logo: tea mugs, tea towels, tea bags, candles, pencils, note pads . . . chocolate. Ruby had to go home with gifts, after all. I bought a Winchester Cathedral eraser. It’s shaped like a book and it’s PINK.‡ We went round to Niall’s and made her ring handbells.‡‡ We slogged across a lot of soggy Hampshire countryside with an assortment of hellcritters. She’s another of my oldest and dearest friends.‡‡‡ And it was GREAT having her here.§ Except for the part about her going away again. Sigh. . . . .
* * *
* It had never occurred to me before that restaurants provide heavy linen napkins just in case any of their customers are recently bereaved idiots who may set fire to themselves. If I’d done this at home I’d have had to hit myself with a hellhound.
** Staff were presumably approaching with a fire hose or possibly an order for committal to the nearest residential facility. Fortunately they restrained themselves.
*** SOME DAY I MUST change that mini icon photo of me with short hair that appears everywhere. I had short hair for about a year and a half when menopause made so much of it fall out I was seriously thinking about wigs. But I couldn’t stand being fussed over having it cut every month or so UGGGGGGGH and after a while I just stopped having it cut which meant it . . . er . . . grew long again. I’ve never had a lot of hair but it has just enough wiggle—I won’t dignify this by calling it curl—that it looks thicker than it is. If I had any pride now I’d keep it short, but enough of it grew back in, still slightly wiggly, when I stopped having it cut that I’ve let it be long again, which it had been since my sophomore year of high school. AND AT LEAST THIS MEANS NO ONE BUT ME IS MESSING WITH IT.
† Note however I had gone bolshie earlier in the evening when we were dressing up for our night out. I wore my black denim mini.^ Yes. I’m sixty-three years old. Sue me. With heavy black tights I don’t even scare the horses. Over Sixties of the World Still Wearing Miniskirts, UNITE. Cross dressers welcome. So long as you respect the heavy black tights obligation to society.
^ With the fabulous black and white rhinestone belt Peter gave me. Sigh.
†† I meant to write the official Three Houses blog before she arrived but various things got in the way, things like all the frelling emergencies that have been waiting, till you’re distracted by the final illness and death of your brutally, constantly, stunned-ly missed husband, to rain down on your head like—er—flaming arrows. The letter from the water board, for example, informing me that they have PROOF that I’m Niagara flipping Falls and are charging me accordingly^ and the letter from another brisk and competent branch of local government telling me that the loft conversion at Third House was never properly inspected—HOW MANY YEARS AGO WAS THAT AND THEY’RE ONLY JUST NOTICING?????—and they want all the paperwork I haven’t seen since I wrote the final cheque to the builders LIKE I CAN FIND ANYTHING RIGHT NOW, plus things like the ginormous wodge of paperwork from Her Majesty’s Customs, Revenue and Red Hot Poker^^ Service that arrived a few days ago and starts off saying ‘I am so sorry for the loss of your husband and I understand that there is a lot going on for you right now, including the six-inch-thick stack of paperwork included with this letter which must be filled out in triplicate in the next forty-eight hours or I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog(s) too.’
^ Yes. I’m metered. Life in town. I remind myself that Peter has a point about being walking distance of the shops and that I need to shut up and deal. But I am not Niagara Falls. Unless the hellterror has learnt to turn the taps on when I’m not at home. I wouldn’t put it past her.
^^ There seems to be a slightly fiery theme to this post. Hmmm.
††† I said therapeutic and I meant THERAPEUTIC. Yes.^
^ And it was the BEGINNING of the evening when I set fire to my hair. I was still ABSOLUTELY SOBER. Which I admit is not comforting, but not much is at the moment. Comforting, I mean.
‡ I went into Idle Browse Mode the way you do in a shop when you’re there mostly for the person you’re with, and I saw something—I don’t even remember what it was any more—and thought, oh, that’ll amuse Peter!, and I had my hand out to pick it up when I remembered. . . .
‡‡ Hee hee hee hee. Well, she liked Niall’s brownies.
‡‡‡ Oldest is relative. She’s younger than I am. But the friendship is old.
§ I took her to the monks last Saturday. Even by the monks’ standards last Saturday was AMAZINGLY COLD. AMAZINGLY. She got in Wolfgang^ afterward looking like someone who had been found under an ice floe in Antarctica having lost all hope of being found before the ice worms got her. She’s now very impressed with my commitment to my faith.^^ And she’s known for decades that I’m in the top category of dangerously nutso so no surprises there.
^ Who has a new bumper. I was carless for a week, RIGHT BEFORE RUBY ARRIVED+, after he SPECTACULARLY failed his road test—more oops—like I didn’t know he was going to, since Her Majesty’s Division of Road Rage has no sense of humour or practical reality and was going to object to the bumper tied on with wire. And they did object, or at least the bloke with the clipboard did. IT WORKS FINE, TIED ON WITH WIRE. I think I told you some creepazoid slammed into me in the hospital car park early last autumn and my only thin wispy comfort (although comfort is not the word here either) was the thought that they were probably as crazy and frantic and clueless as I was myself at that point.
But the bumper, unfortunately, was only the beginning. And they wouldn’t let me have him back till they’d mended him. And it wasn’t till they finally DID let me have him back and the mechanic was going through the list with me that I realised it was all little stupid crap. Expensive little stupid crap, but still little and stupid. WOLFGANG LIVES.++
+ Hellhounds and I walked out to Warm Upford the evening before the morning I was picking Ruby up at 11:30, to fetch the car I needed to pick her up with. We didn’t know till the day before that if the final obscure replacement parts would arrive in time. And I hate suspense.
++ He’s also officially 20 years old this year. I know I tend to exaggerate& about things but calling him my 20-year-old car for the last couple of years hasn’t been exaggerating. I’ve just been rounding up.&&
& ::hums a little tune::
&& Warning: I’ve started saying that I was with Peter for a quarter century. That’s less of a round-up than you think: we missed our 24th wedding anniversary by a few days under a fortnight. But if you count from the end of July—the famous weekend in Maine—and which we tended to count from, he died five months after our 24th.#
# I said to Alfrick at some point~ when I was at the abbey weeping wildly~~ that while I had told Peter I wanted our 25th wedding anniversary together~~~ if I wasn’t going to have that, 23 years (and eleven and a half months) was somehow more interesting than 24 years. Alfrick said immediately, of course. Twenty-three is a prime number. —Which is what Peter would have said. And agreed with.
~ I don’t think I’ve told you this before. But when I say that my memory, always pretty dire, is into the seriously frightening category@, believe me.
@ I broke yet another plate a day or two ago. Maybe I’m manifesting some three-dimensional metaphor about having a broken cash flow? Or maybe I’m just trying to cut down on the amount of STUFF I need to deal with?% I feel there are better ways to perform this latter function.
% And the little/Daughter of Third/Gwendolyn house’s name is the Lodge. Niall, who if he weren’t a polite reserved British bloke would fall down laughing every time I refer to the difficulties and disadvantages of owning THREE houses, especially about having no money and getting really bad deals when you try to trade bricks or light fixtures for dog food=, said a week or two ago, so what does that make it? The gate house, the lodge? YES. THE LODGE. IT IS THE LODGE HOUSE. It does, after all, front on the main road; the cottage is tucked away up the cul de sac behind.
= ESPECIALLY the light fixtures at Third House that I never got round to replacing. Remember the plastic baronial hall candelabra? Brrrrrrrrrr.
~~ The real purpose of a spiritual adviser is to provide the box of tissues since the advisee will have already used all of hers up. There have been meetings with Alfrick recently when I got through most of a loo roll. The abbey tissue boxes are ridiculously small. Yo, Central Ecclesiastical Supply Co Ltd, LARGER TISSUE BOXES.
~~~ It’s not like I’m not going to remember, next 3 January, even if I meanwhile have been kidnapped by some beefcake pasha out of an early Mozart opera. I’ll remember, and Peter won’t be there.
^^ So am I. I am generally speaking the modern first world’s coldest human.+ I am cold all the time except briefly during heat waves when I’m too hot. Ruby is not in my league. But she does live in New York City++, Town of Large Overheated Buildings, and it amused me a lot the way she clung to the Aga.
+ I’m known colloquially at the monks’ as The Blanket Lady.
++ One of the reasons I am not planning to move back to the States#, aside from the fact that Hampshire is home and that only moving out of Third House is already making me feel like I’m trying to obliterate Peter, is because the highest population density of my old friends is in New York City and I don’t want to live in a big city again.
# I am carefully not saying ‘I will never move back to the States, I can’t IMAGINE moving back to the States again’ because that kind of thing attracts undesirable attention. Turning Christian maybe should wipe out your commitment to negotiating with fate and subcontractor gremlins, but it probably won’t. My own feeling about this is that God is essentially unknowable so why take chances about where the lines are? There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio etc.
MY APPLE TREE FELL DOWN. FELL. DOWN.
This would be the apple tree (I only have one: it’s a very small garden) that grows—or anyway grew, I am still hoping still restorably grows*—against the flapdoodling wall that fell down with an almighty roar at 2 am two? three? years ago. And in the former instance, even when I went out to have a look around I didn’t see anything amiss . . . it was dark and there was an apple tree between the faint kitchen-door light and the fallen-down wall. The apple tree, so far as I am aware, made no sound at all in the falling. It was still standing this morning at (mumble mumble mumble) when I let the hellmob out for the last time and when dawn was (ahem) beginning to make her presence felt (ahem) and I would have SEEN if there was an apple tree lying across the courtyard. There was not.
When I staggered downstairs again some time later I was vaguely aware that there seemed to be less courtyard than usual and more sky . . . but I was busy tying off a vein and getting ready to shoot up my first hit of caffeine** and it wasn’t till a little later (after the caffeine had gone around poking my neurons with a small but pointy stick) that it finally registered THERE IS LESS COURTYARD AND MORE SKY OUT THERE. WAIT. WHAT.
So I went out and looked. In the pouring rain. Just by the way. Briefly accompanied by Chaos, who was equally offended by the rain and the encroaching foliage, both of which of course he expected me to make go away.
. . . Oh. Oh dear. OH BLINKETY BLINKETY BLINKETY. ALSO ARRRRRGH. AND BOO-HOO THAT’S MY TREE.
I’d stopped worrying about my tree’s roots when it had produced not one but two good harvests of lovely apples after The Year of the Wall (okay so it must be coming up three years). It’s even got a nice sturdy prop as cut and fitted by the inestimable Atlas to hold it up because it does get rather splendidly carried away by the whole Apple Production thing. I can still see the prop . . . it came down with the tree. Siiiiiigh. And I had noticed that the branches were hanging pretty low . . . but they do, this time of year. The gazillion apples still on it now were due to start getting ripe in less than a month, and for six weeks or two months if I was lucky, I’d be eating two or four or for maybe a mad week mid-season six apples off my tree nearly every day. ***
And this is only the beginning. I can’t actually ascertain the extent of the damage because this suddenly-gigantic† tree is blocking all access. It has subsided gently, face forward, into the courtyard . . . and I can’t get around it. The garden generally is a trifle . . . erm . . . jungly, and the path round the back of it is now obliterated by Tree. The obvious way to get behind the tree ought to be through the greenhouse. Except that the top bolt on the greenhouse only opens from the inside. Which I can’t get to because there is this tree now occupying the space.†† Generously. Comprehensively. I don’t want to think about what’s been crushed to oblivion underneath it in that corner. Several painstakingly staked and trussed-up dahlias, for example. And possibly several roses. The irony is that I’d just about got that corner sorted out and was bracing myself to venture past the apple tree to the back path where the triffids lurk. The shrub roses I can replace if I have to but the tree also has a fabulous Dreaming Spires climbing up through it which I do not want to lose. Dreaming Spires is a classic but getting hard to find and the rumour is she’s losing her vigour. Mine took a few years to get going but she was MAGNIFICENT this year and hearty as anything with thumb-circumference stems . . . one of which I noticed, trailing in the courtyard as she now is, was coming into a fabulous second flush of flowers. WAAAAAAAAAH.
At least I got the 1,000,000,000 microscopic pansy seedlings potted into a tray yesterday (potting up requires greenhouse access) mere minutes after they arrived in the post. This is not the way things usually go around here. Better yet they are sitting in their tray beyond crash circumference.
Meanwhile it’s still raining. No doubt washing away what remained of the ground holding the tree up. I’m not going to try to do anything till it STOPS RAINING.†††
Note that it is still raining today. –ed.
* * *
Well clearly I had to tell the not-quite-ex blog about my apple tree. I still don’t mean to let it—the blog or the tree—become entirely ex but I admit both are looking a little buffeted by fate at the minute.
The problem with getting enmeshed in volunteering for charitable organisations is that they are by definition short-staffed and perhaps especially when God Told You To it can be difficult to differentiate between default guilt‡ and the Voice of God. ‡‡ So there’s that. Also Niall’s answer to all matters of low morale is More Bell Ringing. I still haven’t been back to Forza but he and I are now regulars at Crabbiton‡‡‡ and lately Niall, whom we all know is relentless and furthermore can smell weakness, suggested brightly that we add the tower at Tir nan Og to the list so most weeks we do. And then there are handbells. Do you remember Titus, our one-handed handbell ringer? He is CHALLENGING to ring with because handbells go such a lick and your poor overheating brain has to try to decipher a whole new set of signals from two bells in one hand. I got pressed into service this month because all his regular regulars are away on holiday, except Niall, and Titus has now apparently decided I’m fun to watch—I’m not a good handbell ringer, okay? And there aren’t many mediocre ringers who are willing to make fools of themselves ringing with him—and so Pressure Is Being Brought To Bear that I should continue amusing him on a weekly basis. Niall, of course, always has diary space to squeeze in more handbells.
If I agree it will be because Titus’ wife Andromache makes fabulous cakes for the tea break, and when I’m not in gluten-free purgatory, tucking into one of hers is almost worth looking like a twit with bells in my hands. Also, it’s nice to see Haro again. I think he frelling REMEMBERS me as a dog nutter. Maybe it’s just the way my jeans smell of the hellmob. He’s all grown up but he still wants to play tug-of-war and have his belly rubbed.
And with Admetus still mysteriously willing to do the driving, Peter’s and my cultural event calendar is revolutionised. I told you about EVERYMAN. We saw two live-streaming Glyndebourne operas AT A TOTALLY UNFINDABLE BY RATIONAL THIS-WORLD MEANS LIKE MAPS AND STREET SIGNS cinema, which labyrinthine adventure(s) could have been a blog post in themselves: Mozart’s ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO and Britten’s THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA.
I will pretty much watch/listen to anything that has anything to do with Mozart although a LOT of his operas make me eat the scenery not in a good way—MAGIC PATRIARCHAL THUG FLUTE? COSI MISOGYNIST FAN TUTTE? Yes I know the blokes don’t come off well either but I think the women are portrayed more meanly. DON EWWWWW ANNA EWWWWWW ELVIRA EWWWWWW GIOVANNI? Also EWWWW OTTAVIO. But, you know, the music . . .
I think I’ve only seen SERAGLIO staged once and . . . was not impressed. There are a plentiful sufficiency of major plot problems: the comedy and the non-comedy collide rather than mesh; and Constanze is supposed to have some difficulty resisting the pasha’s beguilements and—this is the cranky modern feminist thing of course, but still—I’m all Hello? Twelve wives already? He may want you today but next week he’ll be on to number fourteen. Think about it. It’s not like you have friends at court. —Also one minute he’s saying, darling I will wait for you forever and the next minute he’s having a tantrum and saying DO ME NOW OR DIE. Poor impulse control. Not surprising in a man who can add wives at whim.
However. In the first place this one was beautifully sung—from Glyndebourne, better had be—but the acting was of a, er, surprisingly high calibre as well. If you suspended your disbelief with adequate earnestness you could find the comic bits funny. But the revelation was the pasha. It’s a non-singing role. I hate non-singing roles in opera. There are operas where falling into spoken dialogue works pretty well—CARMEN comes to mind§—but non-speaking roles even if whoever isn’t on stage that much bring the whole show to a crashing, sucking-black-hole stop for this opera fanatic. And the pasha is one of the worst. So when Mr Pasha came on stage and he’s a blatant piece of beefcake I’m trying not to spit and throw things at the screen§§ but SPARE. ME. ARRRRRRGH.
But . . . this particular fellow is a, you know, real actor. He has presence. He has authority. Even without his shirt. I still don’t see the attraction of someone with twelve wives already even if he does strip well, but as a fulfilment of that role, Mr Beefcake is ace.§§§ And in the last act when Konstanza and her dull stick of a boyfriend and their two servants are trying to escape and the pasha catches them and there’s the awkward discovery that the dull stick of a boyfriend’s dad is the pasha’s worst enemy . . . The pasha pretty much has to do the ‘miser leans against wall and becomes generous’ cliché to let them go because the libretto says he lets them go. But Mr Beefcake brings it off. He brings it off. He does say that he isn’t going to be the disgusting creep that his worst enemy is, but he invests that declaration so you believe it. And when he says to Konstanze, I hope you will never regret your choice . . . I know his dad, my back hair stood up and briefly and for the first time I thought so, maybe twelve wives isn’t an insurmountable obstacle.
I’ve heard THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA before, but I’ve never seen it staged. It’s a powerful, and very rough experience; Britten and his librettist pull no punches about what’s happening, and about the emotional reality of his characters, so that you are helplessly right there with them as heavy, inexorable fate crunches over them. Especially over Lucretia, who kills herself, because she cannot bear the shame of what has happened to her. In my careless modern-feminist way the story has always made me sad and angry: she was raped. It’s not her shame. Only in a society where women only matter for their genitalia is suicide the victim’s inevitable outcome, blah blah blah. It’s not that simple here however. I should have had more faith in Britten even if I know zip about his librettist#—although I’m curious about the British zeitgeist Britten was writing for, just-post-WWII, when there was still not enough of anything—including money for the staging of new operas—and the men were coming home and throwing women out of the jobs they had been doing in many cases very competently thank you while all the men were out blowing up other men, and during which Britten had mostly been in America which was not looked on charitably by many of the British. Also he was gay in an era that didn’t readily accept gays. All kinds of tensions in the local atmosphere to build a difficult, morally ambiguous opera out of.
It was again beautifully sung; also the role of Lucretia was written for Kathleen Ferrier so there are some thrilling low notes. Not enough contraltos in opera. Say I. I thought this staging sucked, however; I don’t care that it was Fiona Shaw and everyone speaks in hushed reverent tones about her taking the drama back to the bare bones or whatever the frell. It was dark and ugly and stupid and I’m tired of fake stage dirt.## But the singing was not just superb but convincing### —convincing in that holding on despairingly with both hands way of people at, and over, the edge. We came out of the cinema shaken~ which is what you want from this piece. If you don’t want to be shaken, don’t see this opera.
And this Thursday we’re going to see . . . Prokofiev’s WAR AND PEACE? Berlioz’ LES TROYENS?
No. Pixar’s INSIDE OUT.
* * *
* It produces VERY GOOD APPLES
** Ahhhhhhh. Mmmmmmmm.
*** I am not kidding that I am an apple junkie.
† Apple trees can be pretty huge. This one isn’t, till it falls over in a little garden. I don’t know if it is naturally not huge or if it’s on ‘dwarfing rootstock’ as they say, but it’s still a good ten feet tall. And ten feet wide. And bushy. And covered in apples.
†† When I told Peter this he laughed. I am going to hide his favourite mug and steal the fuse out of the toaster plug^ before I leave tonight. Oh, and back at the cottage bury my landline mobile in the pile of (CLEAN) hellmob-bed blankets^^ and turn Pooka off.^^^
Okay, I forgot to do this. Opportunity wasted. Sigh. –ed.
^ Reminder to Americans: Britain has vicious, bloodthirsty, megastrength electricity. Therefore all your appliances have GIGANTIC plugs with individual fuses in them.
^^ You can’t TURN OFF the freaking ring on my landline phone. YOU. CAN’T. TURN. IT. OFF. WHAT THE WHAT THE WHAT THE. I believe I did some blog screaming about this when I first bought the thing. But the ring emerges from the mobile, for some reason, so the idiotic recourse is to BURY the mobile. And since I never USE the mobile—I couldn’t get the message machine I wanted WITHOUT a mobile—I have to remember to unbury it occasionally because if it runs out of juice the phone dies. IN SPITE OF THE FACT THAT THE MAIN UNIT IS PLUGGED INTO THE MAINS. Technology. Feh. The wheel was a good idea. Why couldn’t we have stopped there?
^^^ Which doesn’t work as well as it might since even turned off an iPhone will burrrrrrr at you mercilessly. I take it to bed with me just in case Peter needs me at an inopportune hour+ and the way I sleep I hear it anyway. So if Pooka goes off and the caller is identified as Peter Dickinson I guess I have to answer it . . . oh well it will be worth it. I can be too sleepy to remember what mug. And the toaster doesn’t work? Gee. That’s odd.
+ You know, like 9 or 10 am.
††† The ladder lives in the garage. I could prop it against the outside of the greenhouse . . . but I’m not at all sure the gutters are cleared for full-grown human weight, even scrawny-hag weight. I could ask my neighbour if I could put my ladder on their side of the wall . . . but I’d need frelling rappelling gear to get down the other side. Heights are not my thing.
‡ Whatever It Is It Is My Fault Because I Am Stupid and Useless and I Must Pay.
‡‡ Which seems to be saying something like I NEVER TOLD YOU YOU CAN NEVER SIT DOWN, SLEEP, OR EAT CHOCOLATE SLOWLY AND THOUGHTFULLY. BELIEVE ME, YOU WOULD KNOW IF I HAD.
‡‡‡ Where Wild Robert is MAKING ME LEARN TO CALL ANOTHER TOUCH OF GRANDSIRE DOUBLES AAAAAAAAAAAAAUGH. I’m sure I told you about learning the first, baby touch where all you really have to do is count your leads because the method work you do keeps repeating in a nice limited keep-trackable-of manner^. That was YEARS ago. I’m now being compelled, hot pincers at the ready, to learn a REAL touch where you have to make your way through the standard mazes of the wretched method yourself WHILE you’re trying to remember what to call and when to call it.
^ Although I wouldn’t think it was keep-trackable if I weren’t a handbell ringer, where slicing your brain up in pieces is de rigueur.
§ The version with recitative is later
§§ Peter is used to me. Admetus is not, and I want to keep him driving.
§§§ The one other time I’ve seen it the pasha was played for laughs which did not work at all.
# Ronald Duncan, who, according to Wiki, is also responsible for the film script of Girl on a Motorcycle, which even when I was young, horny, heavily into leather and motorcycles and moderately into mood-altering substances, I thought was one of the silliest movies ever. Mostly LUCRETIA’s libretto is a big plus—it’s intelligent, evocative and poetic. But there are a few big WHAT? moments: the whole drawn-galloping-out metaphor of Tarquinius and his, ahem, stallion^, goes on way too long in a piece this short and even as a metaphor it’s a little too off the wall about the reality of horses. Also, ‘the oatmeal slippers of sleep’? OATMEAL? As in PORRIDGE? What does oatmeal have to do with footgear or sleep?
^ Tarquinius is the rapist. You guessed that.
## See: GUILLAUME TELL. Which also had way too much metaphor-laden stage dirt.
### Okay, I had some reservations about the drama. I didn’t think the sexual tension between Lucretia and Tarquinius worked, for example, but then I also suspect Lucretia may be an impossible role. Also I was busy hating the staging. But in a moment not totally unlike the pasha saying ‘I knew his dad’ when the game suddenly changes, during the final confrontation between Lucretia and her husband when she is saying she can’t deal with it and he is saying there is no shame in her, the shame is in the lust and the taking, in Tarquinius . . . there’s a word usage that really caught my ear. Her husband says ‘what Lucretia has given can be forgiven’. Given? Forgiven? What? Anyone who can write about oatmeal slippers can’t be trusted, but I did wonder if that’s the moment when she knows she has to go through with it, kill herself.
~ Although the prospect of finding our way home from Cinema in Another Universe might have contributed to the emotional vertigo.
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.
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?