Telephone calls

Talk to Me - cream telephone

I’ve never liked the telephone. I prefer to see peoples’ faces, to read them, to watch them. She didn’t like them either. She’d never call us. We would have to call her. Those Sunday morning calls; stomach sinking waiting for her to shuffle her way to the phone. I’d listen intently an intonation in her voice. A clue, any clue as to her state of mind. At the end there was just the sound of her crying. No words. Just the weeping.

She is going too. She doesn’t cry but yesterday when I called she was still in bed. I’m so sleepy, she said. My eyes keep falling shut. She hadn’t even got out of bed for breakfast. Try, please try, I want to say. Try to be normal, don’t give in. Rage. Fight. It is too much. Let her be. Let it come if it must. She has had enough. Her voice has become small. I say I am coming soon. We will go to The Grand for lunch. That will be nice, she says. I’m tired now. We will talk another day. Yes. We will.

I have become a befriender. To befriend. I telephone strangers. I listen. One pours forth such a catalogue of woes, another is brave in the face of illness. Disjointed voices. I try to find a foothold. To be of use. Is it enough just to listen? Help me, she wrote. How can I? How can I?

Three days of long journeys to conduct interviews. To listen to stories. I am proposing the making of a film. The germs of an idea that begins to take hold, to take shape. Four women. Such brave, articulate women. I am humbled by their stories – somewhat akin to mine. I recognise the shame, the fear, the loss of self and the slow re-building of something like courage. Let it happen. Let it come about, somehow.

At home the wind rages. Rain pricking hard against my face. Walks of endurance. Cold and wet. My leg is injured. Referred pain from the sciatic nerve. I walk through it, feeling every step. An iron hand grips my buttock and groin. The discomfort makes me crabby. Let it be, let me walk a while in the shoes of others who are in constant pain. Just to know it. I take my speed, my strength, my strides for granted.

Yesterday, the wind was master. Dustbins lolled in the gutters. Seabirds congregated on the promenade, lifting as one like a sail as I approached. White air jetsam floating, held, caught in the wind like confetti. A slow marvel. I walked under them, momentarily crowned by the fluttering white. The sea baptised me with spray – lashing far along the prom. Just to the hut, no further. I’ve had enough. For today.

We began the film ‘Dark Matter’ last night. I didn’t know what to expect. Why had I chosen it? Not sure. Its story centres upon a group of Chinese students studying Astrophysics in the US. The main character is so captivating in his earnestness. He writes letters home – dear Babba, Mamma – enclosing food and dollar bills. They return the favour sending food parcels. He and his fellow students are always eating. Encouraged to mix they attend a church service stuffing their pockets with cakes and biscuits. Always hungry. Take some while you can. You never know. A Pause for Thought on Radio 2 given by a rabbi who runs a centre for concentration camp survivors. We never wear uniforms, or stripes or serve thin soup, she says, so as not to trigger memories. There is always food, she says, and we pretend not to notice when they fill their pockets with it. It is a habit, she says, born out of necessity.

Food. I dream of eating meat. I remember the taste of meat, distinctly, though I have not eaten it for over 25 years. Metal in your mouth. The smell of cooking mince oozes its way into our bathroom from the flat below. It makes me feel nauseous. Too sweet. They are Slovakian. A mother, a little girl and the nanny. The nanny is a delight. Probably about my age and well-rounded of hip. Her husband is back home. How she must miss him. Her face beams with joy at the prospect of going home. She is proud to be learning English. Each day another word to try out on us. Good mournink, she says, with her slow sticky voice. New car, she said a month ago, pointing at a white bubble car. New car very nice. Yesterday, I saw her clutching a parking ticket. The little girl was with her, hair in plaits under a bright pink bobble hat. Her English is perfect and the nanny waits patiently as she answers his questions. No, she says, no school today I am unwell and Mummy says I must stay at home until I am 100% well. The nanny nods at us and ushers her upstairs. Last week an empty fresh fish tray had been left outside their door. It reeked. I thought it was Copydex. On Sundays they fry onions. It makes us laugh. Heigh ho. Heigh ho.

I went for a breast screening. My first. A little portable van in a supermarket car park. No men allowed, the receptionist said, he can wait outside. Into the cubicle, take off your bra and put your top back on. Flowery curtains, a shiny chintz and a pile of Woman magazines. I sit next to a woman flicking through one, licking her fingers as she turns the pages. In out. Very quick. The machine is cold. A plastic foot comes down on one breast pressing, squeezing it hard against the radio-active plate. Relax, she says, twisting my body to face the other way. Down it comes again. I grit my teeth, hating the loss of control. Enough. Enough now.

Did I do the right thing in saying no? Follow your instincts. Listen. I did. I did. You won’t need to stress and strain, he’d said. Such a long time ago. Steven Speed. I was twenty-eight. He forgot to take the money, running after me. I like your trousers, he’d said. A soigne presence, she’d said. Back then. Back then. All I can do is my best. Try to be true, to be honest. It wasn’t for me. The money would’ve been nice but it wasn’t for me. So be it. So be it. Enough, now. Amen.



Lowther group photo

Yesterday, early evening. A young man walks along the pavement beneath our kitchen window. He is carrying a large cardboard box. Slowly the box breaks open and a small kitten escapes. It scrabbles up a high wall, slinks under a fence, pauses and then scurries into an area of trees and undergrowth. The man stops walking. Standing completely still he stares after the kitten, the box still in his hands.

Why was he carrying a kitten in a box? Had he just bought it? Was it a present for someone else? The kitten was petrified. Their was clearly no relationship between the two of them. I waited to see if he would dash up to the path that lies just beneath the little wooded area to see if he could find it. But no, nothing. He just walked away.

Later, on the radio news bulletin, a dog owner defends her hiring of a helicopter to search out her missing dog. She’s a member of the family, she said, wouldn’t you do all you could to find a family member? She will be lost and scared and hungry. I will do what I can to get her back.

All night long I thought I heard mewing. My heart breaking at the sound.

This morning, another kitten, a tortoiseshell, dashes across the main road.


Driving back from Birmingham he tells me to look out for the lorry. Are you awake, he asks. We’re nearly there. There, he says, see it? And I do. First a clutch of police vans around a line of mangled barriers. The blinking of orange lights in the gloom. Then the row of tyres, upended in the air. It’s in the canal, like an enormous beetle, unable to right itself. You can barely see the cab, just the tyres. Are they still turning? It’s sunk deep into the water. It’s a shock to see such a beast, defeated. Sunk. Drowning in the mud. And then it is gone. We pass. My head craning. Was he hurt? What a shock. Was it ice? He must have skidded right across the two lanes. Too fast. Too fast.


Might he be set free soon? His lovely gentle face, laughing with his children on the front of The Independent. I have thought of you. They say, he says, that the punishment will have stopped. No more lashes. I pray that it is so. I have thought of you. Is it enough?



House Wife (2) 2008 med

Congratulations, it said. In bold letters.  I let it go. I opened the window and let the wind take it. Here. Here is my success, share it, share it with me. I remember being scared of balloons as a child. They seemed so fragile. At any moment they could go pop. I hated those games where they were pushed and squeezed against bodies – those squeaky sounds, the anticipation of the loud bang. I would hold tight to the string. Watch out, don’t let it go. The wind will catch it. And now it has. What a feeling. What a feeling of freedom. Devil may care. He may. The scraps of a plastic kite, caught in the wires of the promenade light still flaps in the wind. A curious juddering sound.

I made it. It takes time to digest success. I am suspicious of it. Is it mine? Really mine? I need to stand still with it. To stand still within it. Other challenges will come soon enough. All too soon, but for now – be still with it. It is enough.

A restless week. Journeying. The lull after hard work. An emptiness lacking focus. Necessary, I think for any creative process, though dull and lumbering.

Having my hair cut. Finally. All the way to Oswestry. Made impatient, cross by having to wait. Not good. Breathe, Ellen. Be kind. She was charming. A winning smile. And fastidious, I like that. A bright, sunny girl. A flowing, inconsequential chattering. Or was it? We talked of singing, of fathers, of divorce, of stalking, of boyfriends. All hers. That’s OK. The listening, the stepping-in to another’s life calms me. Calms me out of the disturbance of mine.

Watching War Horse. It is taking us some time. Too tired for too much. I dream of horses, of battlefields. What horrors – even between the schmaltz. None partisan. The horse, so noble, so acquiescent. And then yesterday, an urgent booking for Newsnight. The guest, urbane and articulate. A white silk scarf around his neck. What horrors he spoke of. Every Friday they will deliver 50 lashes. Didn’t you know, he asked me afterwards? No. What do we do with such knowledge? We are helpless. He thinks not. I lay in bed thinking of him. What can I do? How can I help you? In the film a granddaughter accuses her grandfather of being a coward because he didn’t stand up to the German soldiers when they looted his farm for food. In response he tells of French carrier pigeons having to fly over battlefields to find their way home. Think of it, he says to her, think of having to fly over such carnage, such horror and still keeping flying. Think of it. That is bravery. Keeping flying, keeping going because you have to get home. I wish him, that blogger in Saudia Arabia, home. Safely home.



Image for AXIS

We often see her on the promenade. She sits on the bench by the flag of Australia, staring out to sea. The other day she was sitting on the ‘Perygyl’. A diminutive soul, her feet barely touch the ground. She is neat, dapper. Her hat is a black, sparkly spandex. She tells us her name. I’m Welsh, she says, but I married a Breton. Her surname sounds like ‘pipette’. Her tiny face, turning to us like a flower to the sun, bursts with a smile, with life. I’m older than you, she says to him, I’m 93. She is delighted at this, giggling to herself. She tells us she lives in a home. Just up the road. There are only three of us left, she says. I don’t want to be a burden to my family. They feed us well, too much sometimes. I like to walk, she says. I walk all the time. She walks well, leaning only slightly on her stick. Amazing. I am amazed by her. What does she think of when she stares out to sea?

The mornings are still so dark. January and the return of the students. The other morning there was a car outside Alexandra Hall. Parked up, its headlights cutting through the black. They shone, stark on a bench. A girl, made up, goth-like, in heavy black make-up, is sitting, arms crossed in a sulk. She stares at me, rude and young.

Our tree has gone. Packed up in its box. Back in storage. Till next year. Someone had put up a small nativity scene in the Indian restaurant. It was sweet. A ceramic Mary, Joseph and a little crib. They stood, a little precariously on a gold cloth. The single sheep, cow and dog were outsize, wrong, but poignant nevertheless. The owner tells us he still has to buy his kids Christmas presents and that he is invited to Christmas parties by his neighbours. They come to us for Eid, he says. It’s neighbourly, he says. They had a party of 70 for New Year. I don’t know what’s happening, he says, laughing.

It’s done. It took it out of me. Pendulums, she called them. Fitting all that longing into too tight boxes. I did my best. My best is good enough.

You and he, Mair said, you and he, that’s what counts. Make the most of each other, while you can, she says, still beaming. Yes. We will. I will. I will






A metal letterbox halfway along South Marine Terrace flaps in the wind. Rat-a-tat-rat-a-tat. Pay attention. It is not yet 6 am. Pay attention.

Later, a brown bread roll is thrown out from a window below our kitchen. I see it make a perfect arc before bouncing onto the road. Four rooks glide down to meet it. The first one spearing it with its beak. They are hungry. The birds are hungry. I hear their chatter throughout the day.

It was good to dress up. To go out to dinner. To stay at a hotel. Christmas had been too quiet. A quiet melancholy overtook me. It was good to dress up. He would’ve enjoyed it. His favourite place, I think. Six of us. The man with the sloping face. We’d never met. Whisky made him sardonic, sharp. I wasn’t sure how to respond. Later, I kissed his face goodbye. His lips left a wetness on his cheek. Where you good friends? I miss you. We raised a glass in your honour. The next day we visited your grave. Well, not a grave as such. A plot. A plot for your pot. No stone yet, just a wooden marker. It is a lovely spot for your plot. High up. An iron gate. A stone wall surrounding it, keeping it safe. Are you cold? Are you at peace? I hope so. A contented man. A life spent waiting for retirement. You relished it. The simple pleasures of safety, comfort and company. I miss you. You smiled around your eyes. The ruthlessness went. And that wave. A twisting sort of movement. He does it now. Funny that.

A new year. Good. I like it. A new start. A blank page ready for opportunity. And it will come. It always does. Adventures. May there be many. It wasn’t the Christmas I hoped for but there was a kind of peace. And there was he – always. We took a candle to her grave. Their grave. Their plot. We lit it but leaving it so made him anxious. It isn’t the tradition here, not like over there. Hundreds of orange lights lustrous against the snow. A remembrance – a coming alive with flame. A resurging of ancestors.

She remembered their names, was sad that they have all gone. Christmas alone for her, for so many. Though she is not strictly alone, in that home. I reach out to her through the phone. She is tired. To tired to talk for long.


Welsh bollocks he calls it. It makes him angry. I think I understand. I want to lighten it, make him laugh. I love making him laugh. A CD amongst the collection. In the studio. On the front a picture of a 1970s choir. A female choir in knee-length frocks and high hairdos. The title prompting a double-take. I must remember to tell him. ‘S4C Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack’.

Happy New Year. I wish you peace. x