A parcel came today. Narjip, our lovely, obliging postman, came all the way down the drive with it, 400 metres off his route, and tooted the horn at the gate. A very large cardboard box! I knew what it was - the bulbs I'd ordered from Melbourne.
I put it on the dining room table, and took to the box with scissors. All so carefully wrapped. Some little green plants, secure and upright in their plastic moulds, appearing not to have minded their 4 day journey in the dark at all. And packages of heavy bulbs. Big, brown, fat jonquils and daffodils. Bearded iris with bright green shoots already sprouting from their sawdust packing. Tiny, plump crocus and feathery light-as-butterflies Bethlehem stars. Smooth, hard Dutch Iris to plant among the lavender bushes.
I could not wait until tomorrow. Got the dinner organised quickly, and went outside with the packet of mixed crocus. I knew exactly where I wanted to put them - among the little nooks and crannies and corners in the rocky 'dry creek bed' that E made for me along the front of the house.
I have now, finally, almost finished planting this particular garden bed. Many of the plants have been replaced twice, sometimes three times, giving up to the frost, the scorching afternoon sun, the relentless rabbit attacks, or just simply deciding the rocky surroundings and shallow sandy soil wasn't for them. Now at last, a garden is emerging here, lots of creeping thyme and oregano, a hibertia, a scrambling rose, the beautiful green succulent roses from my grandson's Dad's cactii collection (which I inherited), and blue convolvulus clambering about.
I planted crocus in this bed last year. The first bulbs to emerge in late winter, the vivid purples and yellows against the grey river rock and dull mulch were a thrilling surprise announcement that Spring was near. Next year, I said to myself, I will plant more.
Now it is early Autumn, and the time is here. Late afternoon, the sun still warm, but a sharpish breeze tells that the night will be cooler. I get down on my kneeler, pull the mulch away, and break the soil with the trowel. The rocks are like a shelter, a built garden place that nevertheless looks like just the kind of place my crocus might choose to start a new life, if they could. I push them carefully into the holes I make with the trowel, making sure they're the right way up, cover them over with soil, and replace the mulch.
A magpie is chortling somewhere. A large black cricket rushes away from the disturbance in the soil. Orange tinged clouds fan across the sky. The breeze stirs the old elms. Down in the dark, moist earth, something will stir in the crocus bulbs soon. I will look every day, as I pass in and out of the front door, thinking of it, and waiting for the first sign.
We don't see many movies these days, but I was determined to see The Lady in the Van. Maggie Smith is one of my all-time favourite actresses, and I have laughed and cried over Alan Bennett's writing for many years.
The shorts for the movie emphasised its comedic aspects, honing in on Maggie Smith's ridiculous, cavalier, cantankerous attitude to everything, and the witty one liners. Of course, Maggie Smith would sell any movie. Its got to the point now where she only has to raise an eyebrow to get a laugh. (Bill Nighy has a similar effect - watching the shorts of the new movie he is in, 'Dad's Army', I was in stitches every time he appeared, even though he didn't say a word, and did nothing.) I wonder if many modern Maggie Smith fans have seen 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'? - a very un-funny film, as I recall. At turned 80, she is a most amazing actress, to still have the stamina alone - turning up, learning new stuff, being a completely professional participant in a lengthy team process, going through hours of gruelling make up and wardrobe stuff day after day, being in almost every scene. Doesn't she get tired?
I have read a review of this movie that says Maggie Smith 'rescues' it. That it would be some sort of confection without her. That it has virtually no plot, and is generally lacking in substance. So why did I enjoy it so much? - apart from watching Maggie Smith?
What engaged and fascinated me was (playwright and screenwriter) Alan Bennett's exploration of the constantly shifting line between 'real life' and 'fiction.' I can't recall another movie in which the screenwriter is also the protagonist. Plenty of first person narrators, but that isn't the same thing at all. This is a movie about how you write a story.
There are two Alan Bennetts in the movie - the Alan Bennett who is having the real life experience of Miss Shepherd and her dreadful van parked in his driveway for 15 years, and the Alan Bennett who is writing about it. The 'real' story is constantly filtered through the writing. Alan Bennett the writer takes notes of the day to day occurrences between Alan Bennett and Miss Shepherd, but what does he choose to include? What 'angle' does he put on it? What story, in the end when she has died, does he want to tell?
As a writer, the process of how you use real life experience in works of fiction has teased and tormented me from the beginning, and it was intriguing to see the whole dilemma laid out here. The writer self and the self who is living real life are in constant communication, making assessments, judgements, ignoring the obvious to focus on a jewel-like detail, leaving out huge chunks of living, searching for meaning. Bennett is courageous enough to even ask how much being a writer actually influences what writers DO in real life. How far would the thing with Miss Shepherd have gone if it weren't for his writer's curiosity to see where the story went?
The real life story is a 'vehicle' also for an exploration of the writer's self. Bennett constantly questions his motives and feelings about Miss Shepherd, and invites the audience to do the same. 'I am not a carer!' he almost shouts at the social worker. 'I am not caring, I don't care!" It is funny, but also deeply puzzling. What is caring, if not this? Who does care, if not Bennett? He denies any relationship with Miss Shepherd, and yet he does all the things that a very good friend, if not even a son, would do. The writer carefully contrasts his relationship with his actual mother, who he puts into a nursing home, with his not-a-relationship with Miss Shepherd, and asks by what means you can judge how much anyone cares for some one else. He judges himself harshly. 'You're just timid,' his writer self concludes, when he questions why he has made no real attempt to move Miss Shepherd on. But timidity and tolerance are shown as two superimposed faces. How much does motive matter in the end anyway? asks the writer.
There is much guilt and self recrimination in Bennett the writer's view of himself. He rings his mother infrequently, does not want her to visit, does not show affection to or even ever touch Miss Shepherd, except in a moment of atypical rage when he manhandles her. 'I'm just raw material', says his mother, and I flinched at the writer's honesty at showing us this.
The ending of the movie, which might otherwise be seen as frivolous and over-the-top, is a perfect and perfectly logical conclusion to the story of how to write a story. Miss Shepherd appears in the graveyard after her funeral, as large as life, and meets the young motor cyclist who she inadvertently killed in a crash years before. This incident had been the trigger for her becoming homeless and identity-less - she was in fact a woman on the run from the police, and haunted by guilt about what she had done. But the writer exonerates her with a stroke of his pen - 'it wasn't your fault,' the young man says, 'I ran into you.' There is nothing to forgive, and they wander off chatting happily arm in arm. But why not have her completely exonerated by God as well? the writer asks. One in the eye for Catholicism, the punishing practice of which has done Miss Shepherd no good at all over the years, and the writer has her suddenly ascending to a gloriously opening Heaven, to be received by a genial, generous and open-hearted God.
It is what writers do. If you can arrange the facts of a woman's life, unchronologically, selectively, and always with a judicious eye to telling the story YOU want to tell about it, why not also engineer a fairy tale ending - the one Miss Shepherd herself would have wanted? It works in the film because it is as funny and incongruous and unexpected as everything we have been shown of the life of The Lady in the Van.
Real life rarely evolves in the form of a satisfying plot. Making sense of it usually involves mental acrobatics of some sort. Whether or not we are writers, we are forever sorting and rearranging the facts to form the narrative of our lives that we want to tell. The Lady in the Van provides a fine and witty example of how this is done.
In the dark of the night, I woke up very suddenly. From a deep dreaming sleep, to wide awake in an instant. I knew what had woken me - not a noise, or a bad dream, but a question. It was a fully formed question, although not one I had ever asked myself before, and it seemed urgent. It was this: How is it possible that I only ever saw my grandmother once?
I lay half in a panic in the dark, dredging up every scrap of memory and every bit of information about my grandmother. There wasn't much. This was my father's mother - my other grandmother died when I was a baby. My father was an only child, so there were no uncles and aunts or cousins on his side of the family, and his father had died before I was born. So the only family he had, that I knew about, was my grandmother, living on her own about five miles away on the other side of the Potteries.
Try as I might, I can only remember seeing my grandmother once in the ten years from my birth to the time we emigrated to New Zealand. The occasion was this: my mother took my sister and I over to see her for a 'fitting.' My grandmother was a seamstress, and she was making my sister and I winter coats. And as soon as I start to remember this, I hits me with the force of a revelation that this was a ruse on the part of my grandmother to get to see us. For all I know, she might have made up many schemes and plots over those ten years to get to see her two little granddaughters, but this is the only one I remember ever worked.
We take the bus to the other side of Hanley. It must have been a Saturday morning, as we don't have school, and my father is at work. There is a strangeness to the whole thing, we've never done this before.
'Where are we going?' I'm sure I said.
'To see your grandmother,' my mother would have replied.
'I didn't know we had a grandmother. I thought Grandma died when I was a baby.'
'This is your father's mother, not mine.'
'Well, why are we going to see her now?'
'Because she is making you both coats for winter, apparently, and they're an expensive item and not to be sneezed at.' I have made up this rather waspish tone of my mother's, but I'm sure its pretty accurate. If she had liked her mother in law, I surely would have had a relationship with her of some kind.
We walk down a long road of old brick terrace houses. When we get to Grandmother's front door, my mother says, 'Behave yourselves now, your Grandmother is not well.'
The material of my half made coat is green, and coarse. It prickles my skin. It has a waist, and flares out. Its full of pins.
My mother says, 'Stand still!' She was always saying this. I was no novice to having clothes fitted, my mother sewed all my dresses and knitted cardigans and jumpers, even bathing costumes! But she had never attempted a coat.
My grandmother is fat, at least, this is what my sister and I say afterwards. She is fat, and her house smells. What does it smell of? Small dark rooms, and things that haven't been moved for years, and grease used over and over again, and of course, loneliness.
She measures the hem from the floor. My legs are bare and cold. My Grandmother's head bobs about below me, grey curls drifting rather wildly about her shoulders. She has a grey cardigan on.
'Oh dearie, its all higgledy piggledy!' she says, 'I'll have to go round again.'
'For goodness sake Stephanie, stand still,' says my mother, ' or we'll be here all day.'
Could she have been so cruel? Yes, because she couldn't have my Grandmother thinking there was going to be a repeat visit.
Afterwards, my Grandmother makes tea. We stand and watch her while she bustles about with a big green teapot and a tea cosy. We sit at the kitchen table, perched on the edge of the chairs. There are some yellow, sticky, soft things to eat.
'I thought the children would like these,' my Grandmother says, passing the plate.
'No thank you,' I say, remembering my manners.
Perhaps I have made up the memory of my father coming home with the finished coats one night. I do remember that we wore them. I didn't like wearing mine, because the material prickled my skin.
I have no way now of solving the riddle of why it was like this. My mother was an independent, reserved person, who didn't like interference, Perhaps she had an early experience of her mother in law that made her decide - never again! But if so, why didn't my father take us to see his mother? Did he even go to see her himself? I don't know.
There's a thin light spreading across the top of the mountain to the east. Its five o'clock, and my head aches with questions, and a yearning sadness.
I have one other clear memory about my Grandmother. A year after we went to New Zealand, I saw my father crying. Not open, loud sobs, but his eyes overflowed silently, and his cheeks shone with tears. He was lying on the couch in the sun room, and he'd been reading a letter, which he held crushed in his hand. My mother told me to come out of the room, and hush.
'Your Daddy has just had a letter from a solicitor,' she said, in a whisper, 'to say that his mother has died.'
On the Antiques Roadshow, people are always saying, 'Oh, this was passed to me by my Grandmother,' or 'my Grandmother gave it to me many years ago.' There is nothing in my house that came from my Grandmother, nothing at all.
The green coat, of course, was left behind when we left England. I never wanted it, until now.
As each new stage of life rolls round, I recognise the same period in my parents' lives, and I see it with fresh eyes, and understand my parents better.
Right now, I'm remembering how my Dad used to complain all the time about his aches and pains. He took to groaning and sighing loudly when he had to get up from his chair. He'd heave himself up, bent double, face furrowed, rubbing his legs for intolerable minutes on end. You couldn't look, it was so irritating. You never asked, 'What's the matter?' or you'd get a long, sorrowful account of each ache and pain, its history, and most particularly, its mystery. What could have caused it? And why did nothing he ever did seem to help?
Mum had no patience with it at all. Sometimes she'd ask him to go for a walk with her as they'd always used to do, but he'd shake his head and say his legs hurt too much, or just that he was 'full of aches and pains.' She really didn't believe in his aches and pains, she thought he was putting it on, although now I don't know why she - or we - thought that. If it was a play for sympathy, it was spectacularly unsuccessful.
I'm remembering about this now because of the arrival in my life of the same stage -the stiffening of muscles and tendons, the soreness of feet, the consciousness of moving carefully, the general slowing down of everything. My right leg aches, (femoral artery being irritated by old back injury? ligament damage? - there are varying opinions); I have an intermittent shooting pain in my left arm, (old bike accident); my fingers and toes seem to have lost their flexibility and become stiff and sore, (arthritis?); and my lower back pain has returned after years in remission (bending double with garden shears snipping edges for a couple of hours). You move more slowly, because something hurts, or you're afraid if you not careful, it will.
But there are only so many times you can tell people about it. With most, probably once. Your aches and pains are a very, very boring subject for other people. Adult children in particular want you to be upright, mobile and conscious, and showing minimal signs of mortality. As with my father years ago, people can be impatient about what's causing the problem, and what you're doing about it. There's an implication that there must be a remedy, you can't keep on complaining about the same thing. But the remedies have very little efficacy, because the cause really is just getting older. Things are simply starting to wear out.
Once, I could walk really fast, leaving everyone behind, long, sturdy strides, firm, solid steps. I could walk for miles and not get sore feet or aching legs. I could climb mountains. I could pick up children, and not only carry them on my hip, but pack a lunch box at the same time. I could push a shopping trolley through a car park without endangering life. I could ride a bicycle, paint a ceiling, and jump - literally - in and out of a car.
Now, I can garden for several hours at a stretch. I can walk down to the river, and back up the hill. I can sit on the floor and play games with the children. I can cook dinner for fourteen people. I can write, shop for birthday presents, and sew a quilt.
In his last years, my father seemed to get a new lease on life. He bought himself a brand new car, made new friends, and learnt to shop and cook for himself. He took to exploring the country roads around the city, and investigating old pubs. He complained very little. Perhaps he had learnt to live with the aches and pains. Or perhaps he just finally took my mother's advice and started counting his blessings.