Home Life

It’s here again.   Morning darkness engaged in battle with a weakening sun and winning, little by little; the sycamore branch that scratches at my window in the gale, peevishly demanding the return of its clothes.  A dog with ears pinned back against the roar, a helpless waste bin, lid flapping in panic, bowling by.  I’ve missed it, the winter, but in ways somewhat different this year.  Why?  What has changed?

“Is she here?”   A querulous voice – somewhere above my head, in the general direction of the curtains.

I say:  “No.  She won’t be up for an hour yet.”

“Ah.”  My focus is drawn to a tiny leg emerging from amongst the drapes, and the rest of the spider follows, eye-stalks anxiously twitching hither and thither as if she mistrusts my reassurance.  All seems clear – as indeed it is – but she is wary, and pauses.  “You don’t know.  You don’t know what she can be like.”  

“My wife?  I thought I knew her pretty well.”   After all, it’s been much more than thirty years since we shared our first spider together.

“It was the vacuum, last week.   Nine of us, she took.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“She brings it out specially.  They’re still in the dust bag.  They don’t die, you know.  Go to the downstairs cupboard – you can hear them crying for help.  Cruel, that is.  Cruel.”

“I’m sorry, I’ll empty the bag later.  Anyway, you’re in the clear now.  Where are you going, exactly?”

“The skirting.  The one next to the kitchen.  Good house in there.  Warm.”   The spider suddenly makes a sprint down the curtain to the edge of my desk, stops.  “Still clear?”

“Yes.”

“Much obliged!”  She races across my desktop, disappearing over the end within a scarce breath, to reappear on the woollen carpeted floor.  “You haven’t seen my husband, have you?  I know I left him somewhere, but I can’t think…”

“Didn’t you have an argument?”

“Did we?”

“You see, I think you may have eaten him.”

“Eaten him?  Are you sure?  That was awfully careless of me.  You’ve still got the carpet.  Have you thought of replacing it, maybe with some wooden flooring, or something?  Wading through all this wool is just exhausting!”

“We like the carpet.”

“Well I don’t.  My feet get caught all the time.  Dreadful.”

“Why don’t you run round the skirting?”

She pauses, number two leg poised in a moment of indecision.  

“Good idea!”   Two rapid sprints ensue, the first across my cloying turf of carpet, the next along the skirting rim to a crack in the corner, a gap almost too small to imagine.  She is gone.

The silence that follows is not silent, but punctuated by the background buffeting of the wind; a rhythm of gusts like waves on a beach; four gentle, one fierce.  I settle back in my chair to contemplate my arachnid encounter, and the sea washes over me, nudging me gently up the beach into the warm sand of sleep.

“Did I hear a spider?”  A voice, dark, deep and rasping, jerks me awake.    A nervous glance around the room yields nothing.  “I said – look, it was a perfectly civil question, wannit- was that a spider?”

Why do I suddenly feel so defensive.  “Who wants to know?”

“Never mind who wants to know.  Answer the question.  Was that a…”

“Yes!”  I snap back at the voice.  “You want to eat her, don’t you?”

This provokes an evil chuckle.  “Not particular, really.  Not exactly haute cuisine, if you take my meaning.  A bit dry, usually.”

“Well, she’s gone now.  You’ve missed her.  Anyway, if you don’t want to eat her, what do you want with her?”

“Oh, I’ll eat her, all right.  I eat anything.”

“Okay.  If I see her again, I’ll be sure to warn ..tell her you were looking for her.  Who shall I say?”

“Tell her Benjamin.  Benjamin wanted to see her.”

From the first to the last of this conversation, Benjamin has been invisible, and though I scrutinize every inch of my room, he remains so.  Perhaps I hear, above the wind, the faintest scratching from somewhere far below.  Otherwise, nothing.  

Henceforth, sleep will evade me. Reluctantly I concede to wakefulness and set about the business of morning, so I rise from my chair, and remembering my obligation to the spider, negotiate landing and stairs to the narrow little cupboard where the vacuum cleaner is stored.  I pause, listening, by the opened cupboard door.  Why?  Do I really expect to hear those plaintive cries?  Is there some sound, however small, that makes me doubt my hearing or my mind?  Whatever my excuse, I elect to take the vacuum cleaner dust bag straight to an outdoor bin, so I extricate the machine from amidst a forest of brushes and mops.  It is a clamorous business and it causes offence.

Do you mind?”   The demand is high-pitched but strident. “I said, DO YOU MIND?”

Another disembodied voice, this time from the recesses at the back of the cupboard.  “What?”  I respond, irritably.  “What’s your problem?”  I blink owlishly into the darkness.   

“Problem?  Oh, problem!    No, no problem!  No problem I just got the kids down, and you come stamping in here throwing everything around.  As if I haven’t got enough to do, finding more paper, gathering flour from under that stupid bread-making thing of yours.  Why do you do that to wheat, anyway?  It tastes much better on the husk.”

“Wait a minute!  More paper?  Just what are you doing back there?  Who are you, anyway?”  (And why am I whispering?) 

The old carpet sweeper that stands at attention behind the gas meter quivers slightly as a minute creature appears from behind it; and having appeared, sits up on its hinder legs, whiskers a-quiver.

“Goodness, you know us, dear, don’t you?  Grandfather brought my mother and I to stay with you last November.  We always come here for our winter holidays.”

“You’re a blessed wood mouse!”

“There is no need to get personal!”

Oh, yes there is!  You’re here again!  It’s the same every autumn.  You spend summer in the dry stone wall at the bottom of the vegetable garden, don’t you?  I’ve seen you there.  Then as soon as the weather gets cold you come in the house, thousands of you!”

The wood mouse (for so she is) shifts herself uncomfortably.  “Not exactly thousands, dear.”

“Well, hundreds, then.”

“We are quite a large family, it’s true.”

“Yes, and a very intrusive one.  I don’t know how many of you died under the bathroom floor last Christmas, but the stench of rotting mouse stayed with us for months!”

“If you are referring to dear departed Uncle Vernon…”

“That’s the fella!”

“And poor, dear, Grandma Maisie…”

“Stank the place out!”

“That’s an unkind way to speak of the dead.  It’s quite upsetting!”  The woodmouse wiped her whiskers sorrowfully.  “Uncle Vernon, tragically he got himself stuck under one of your hot pipes.  It was awful!  Don’t think me ungrateful, because we so enjoy your gifts of pierced cheese, but pushing those big wooden sleds is so difficult; it got too close to your central heating armature?  Uncle couldn’t remove your gift from the spike, you see?  He was pinned there.”

I catch up.  “Pierced cheese?  On a spike?  I’m not feeding you, you disgusting little creature; I’m exterminating you – or trying to.  I wondered what happened to those traps!”

Sniffling, the wood mouse musters as much offended dignity as she can fit into her pin-points of eyes.  “Well, once more I must rebuke you.  Anyone would think we were house mice.   We are country creatures, with sensibilities, you know.  I won’t hold it against you, though, dear.  I am aware I am a guest here.”

So unexpectedly I almost jump out of my skin, Benjamin’s scraping tones grind out from the darkness.  “Traps, eh!  You’re a trapper!  You’re a trapper, mate.  Thanks for the warning, yeah?   Thanks for the warning.  Oh, and Mildred…”  He seems to be addressing the mouse…”I’ll be seeing you, sweetheart, won’t I?  Dunno why I bovver, you’re not worth two bites, are yer?”

“That’s Benjamin.” The mouse informs me, helpfully.  “Don’t take any notice of him, dear.  He soon goes away.”

“What is he?  Come to think of it, where is he?  I can never make out quite where he comes from.”

“Benjy?  He’s a rat.  He’s outside, by those dreadful plasticky waste containers?   That’s how Grandma Maisie became ill; she got her teeth gummed up trying to chew through one of them.”

“She should have stuck to acorns.”  I say unsympathetically. “Benjy doesn’t sound like he’s outside…”

My remark delights Mildred, who hops from foot to foot in passable imitation of a Cha-Cha-Cha.    “Yes, oh, yes!  He’s found a way of speaking through the drains, so it sounds as if he’s absolutely everywhere.  Simply terrif!    But don’t worry, dear, he can’t get in:  he’s too fat.  We come in through the kitchen airbrick, you see.  Benjy can’t squeeze through there.  So he has to talk to us from outside.  I think he must get terribly cold, sometimes.”

“He probably works out by chewing through our bin.”  I suggest sardonically.  “He’s quite scary, isn’t he?”

“Benjy?  He likes to show off his muscles a bit, but he’s an old softie.  His wife’s quite nice, actually.  I met her at a church social…”

Thoroughly bemused, I take the vacuum cleaner out into the light, and with a parting word or two after the fashion of ‘I must get on’ I close the cupboard door.  The dust bag’s contents, stirred and shaken by a mischievous gust of wind, I mostly empty into a waste bin in the yard, leaving me to wonder how the tiny migrants it contained will manage in their new lives, or if, now liberated, they will simply return to vex my wife a second time.   I watch anxiously for a quick shadow that might be Benjamin’s, but he doesn’t show himself.  Out of respect for Mildred’s unseen sleeping ‘kids’ I leave the cleaner out on the kitchen floor.  I rather hope my wife will return it to the cupboard later, on my behalf.

I need to return to my work.  I need to open drapes, raise blinds.  I need to let in the gathering day.  Instead, I stand for minutes of time, aimless; searching for something.  And though I do not rightly know what it is I seek, it nevertheless comes to me.   Miniscule movements, barely audible, high-pitched sounds, furtive scraping, gentle stirrings of the air.   All around me is life – in the reveal behind one of the kitchen worktops three silverfish are engaged in earnest conversation, below them in the damp invisible zones woodlice work, solemnly chomping at the detritus of our lives.

Across the floor a devil’s coach-horse scurries, tale half-raised and fearful of exposure, dashing for safety and the dark.  Against the window pane a small unglamorous fly is clawing pointlessly, weeping for its freedom.  Although the room is still, there is everything within it moving, a constant wheel of existence, a changing of generations, a cycle of light and darkness.

It is hard to leave, but leave it I must.  On the stair a portly black beetle struggles, pausing to salute me as I pass.  In my room I feel the carpet dragging at my feet, taking my thoughts back to my widowed spider, cosy in her skirting board home.  Soon a host of her children will tread the path their mother trod before them, and the wheel will have turned again.  I know I have a duty to lay the floor to boards, if only for their sake.

At last it has been revealed to me, the difference of the year – what is odd, what is changed.  I understand, at last, what I am.  I see my place in all the life around me, my function in this small universe and the sum of all my gifts.   Here I am no greater or higher than any of these little ones, but in fellowship with them.  They are my company on my journey into dust.   My last gift to them shall be – myself.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits:

Featured Image: The Creative Exchange, from Unsplash
Spider: Robert Palog from Pixabay
Rat: Mustafa Shehedeh from Pixabay
Devils Coach-horse: Wikipedia

Mission Creep

If I only learn one thing this year, it will be this:  in the mind of its author, a book is never perfect.

When I decided to serialize ‘Hallbury Summer’ in this blog through the Summer and Autumn, my plan was to break up the chapters of a book I had already written and published into shorter episodes. I anticipated a lighter workload than that which a completely new composition represented, enabling me to shift attention onto other things.

How wrong was I?

From the very first split of the very first chapter I was led by my compulsion to edit, altering tenses, swapping word order, re-jigging the paragraphs that, when I re-read them, no longer seemed smooth to me.  Minor things I thought would get better as the chopping down process progressed didn’t.  In fact, dear and tolerant readers, they got worse!

Now, as I spin Episode 23 into an MS Word document I find myself altering whole scenes.  I am weaving new material in and rejecting the old, to a point where I can no longer claim that the published version and the serialized version are the same book!  So when I promised at the beginning of this venture that you could take a shortcut if you wished by purchasing the Kindle book, I fear I may have (unintentionally) misled you.  There are changes; among other things, the ending will be different.

How different?  I don’t know yet!

And that’s the exciting thing, you see, because I’ve just seen the digital light.  Once upon a not-very-long-time-ago when your book went to print, that was all:  like the felled tree, the wood would no longer grow, only begin the business of dying.  The author would move on, leaving that small trail of forgotten titles rotting in his wake.

But now!  Ho, ho, now!   Now you can take it back almost at will, the book, you can return to it, breathe new life between its pages, and the story is the better for your being there, because you have brought it that much closer to perfection.  That’s what I’ve done with ‘Hallbury Summer’ – I’ve revitalised it:  in my mind at least I have raised it higher, and it is a better story thereby.

This is not to say the old book is bad – it’s not, or I don’t consider it so.  It’s different, reflecting a perspective of a few years ago, and redolent of my thinking then.  I will, however, replace its contents with the serialized version as soon as I have finished it here.

In the meantime, the original remains live on Kindle, linked here on your left if you wish to investgate!

 

 

 

The dust can take you prisoner and the concrete will not dry. Chinese connectors hurt your eyes but only Ikea makes you cry.

There is a facet of the human psyche which manifests itself at a later point in life; which is peculiar to the married state and a symptom of a deeper malady that, if diagnosed early, can save considerable damage.

The facet whereof I speak is, of course, HIM

Home Improvement Mania.

HIM attacks most partnerships early in their relationship under the guise of nest building, but only after the matured progeny have been allowed to make their final escape and the ceremony of the Changing of the Locks has taken place does the full symptomatic array erupt.  That is when, unless the condition is shared equally by both partners, serious disruption is likely to occur, and arguments developed at this stage can be terminal.

The symptoms take many forms.  For some, a tendency to watch TV programs such250 as ‘Grand Designs’, or ‘A Home in the Country’ incessantly, (even the repeats), or noticeable growth in calls from salesmen offering triple glazing, solar panels etc.,  normally brought on by clandestine visits to websites.  For others, there may be sudden irrational statements.  Look out for ‘what this garden needs is an orangery’; or ‘why haven’t we got double doors like those?’

Then there are embarrassing theatrical displays when encountering marble worktops.  In advanced cases this may involve sufferers prostrating themselves upon the cold stone whilst possibly salivating.  Be sure to carry tissues.  Finally, sketched plans will start appearing, scattered about the house.  During latter stages these are found on everything, including toilet paper.

Treatment for the condition is never easy.  Early diagnosis might avoid extreme measures, such as Architectural Therapy, an intrusive procedure that affects a cure by the complete removal of Money.    It will normally work hand in hand with a second therapy which we will call Structural Alteration.   S.A. is administered by a Builder.   The key factor to both treatments is something called an Estimate.  It is this last – kill or cure – that will provide the shock which may instantly dispel symptoms, but can equally open the trapdoors to the mania’s darkest phase, Himus Gravis.

As Carer during the progress of this condition, you will need infinite patience and independent counseling.  You can, at least, rest reassured that your relationship is secure whilst your partner is undergoing treatment.  In his or her own interest, your partner will never suggest ‘things are just not working out’, if only because of the financial mess this would create.  Nor will intimacy be an issue:  you will not cease sleeping together, for example, because there will only be one habitable bedroom.

The danger period for the relationship is in the last days of recovery.  Be prepared for the Final Account, in which the Builder is allowed to give his imagination free reign.  Avoid looking at the Estimate and the Final Account at the same time.  Remember Estimates are only ever two-thirds true, and accept that your partner’s decision to remove those two extra walls will have had a financial impact.  Arguing is fruitless and will only cause distress.

If you are able to raise enough Money and have successfully returned to work, all you have to survive is the DIY test.  Your partner, buoyant and revitalized, will explain the reasons for this – old furniture and fittings no longer ‘work’ in their new environment.  Structural Alteration has made them dirty, or damaged them in some indescribable way.  You have to Remodel.

You will be introduced to Furniture Stockades, in which you are forced to walk around in circles looking at remodeling suggestions until you find the one closest to your needs.  These places rarely provide bathrooms.  Do not make the mistake of using the ones on display.

Choice of furniture will almost always be your partner’s.  Your advice will not be images (1)needed, although your plastic should always be available.  However, Remodeling does place you in the position of an assembly expert, and here your skills, or the lack of them, will be required.  Building from cardboard carton’d MDF (sometimes humorously referred to as ‘flat pack’) into a three dimensional piece of hideousness will require patience on a level never hitherto experienced.  The ‘instructions’ make helpful suggestions:

‘The leg in front of the back when inverted is so screwed’

or

‘Pieces A may be disassembled when aligned with piece X using fixing e’,

These are rarely of material use.  As long as you build something from the bits with no more than two pieces left over you will have achieved all that can reasonably be expected of you.

Lastly, of course, there is lighting.  In vain you may protest that a single fluorescent bulb in a pretty shade is pain enough, that a gloriously over-chromed array of little glowing orbs is an unnecessary expense.   In the end you will lose.

There is a factory somewhere which assembles light units such as the one you have so expensively purchased.  It is manned entirely by pixies.  It is managed by a psychopath.  No-one human could produce electrical terminals so minute they cannot be seen other than through a microscope, and no-one sane could ask you to connect those terminals single handed whilst supporting the full quarter-hundredweight of the unit in the other hand, on top of a ladder.  And then fix it to the ceiling using two bolts provided by Fairyland Inc., whilst your partner reads out to you:  “Pieces A may be disassembled when aligned with piece X using fixing e.”

It is then, at that precise moment, that the future of your relationship will be at its greatest jeopardy.

Early diagnosis of HIM is difficult.  References may be subtle, inferences heavily disguised.  If you are so observant that you notice a slight alteration of pace as you walk past a DIY store together, or the glazing over of the eyes at the sight of a house with grossly exaggerated windows, you may be able to step in quickly enough.

Insist upon taking up a new hobby.  Fishing is good.  It can get you out of the house in all weathers, and keep you out all day.  The rods may cost a little money, but be sure not to forget a set of good waterproofs:  so when you take the check book and your credit cards with you, you can keep them dry.

What about you?  Do you know or are you close to a poor, tragic sufferer from HIM?  Do you have any ideas for treatment?