56. Invisibility Cloak

“It’s sad but it’s true how society says her life is already over.”

’22’ by Lily Allen

I know you’d rather not see me. I’m an inconvenience, pushing up your council tax bills to pay for my two lots-of-fifteen-minutes-a-day-care, whilst I swan around all alone in my half-million pound house that cost less than three months of your salary to buy. I bed block the NHS because there is no-one to look after me but I’m too fit to go into a nursing home. I’m the shuffling old woman, wearing a big coat and hat in summer, pushing her shopping trolley, taking an irritatingly long time to sit down on the bus. I’m grateful to get a seat. Not everyone will give them up these days. They all look at me with pity and horror. They’ll never be like me.

I was the woman who peacefully protested in the street for the right to vote.

I was the woman who was locked up in prison for a month without charge, kept in isolation, restrained and force-fed twice a day.

I was the woman who was a trained nurse and kept the night watch during the war. I put out fires, pulled people from the rubble, delivered babies in air raid shelters, told young soldiers that everything would be alright, whilst holding their hands as they breathed their last.

I was the woman responsible for the breakdown of society.

I was the woman who fell when the guns began firing and escaped by crawling under a pile of bodies, pretending to be dead.

I was the woman who wrote and painted under a male pseudonym to be taken seriously.

I was the woman who gave a man back his job when he returned from fighting.

I was the woman who sold her body to put food on the table for her children because her husband had drunk it all away.

I was the woman who fought for contraceptives and the right to choose.

I was the woman who was expected to remove all hair from her eyebrows downwards.

I was the woman who had to get her husband’s permission to spend her own money.

I was the woman who let herself go because I aged entirely appropriately.

I was the woman who had to undergo a virginity check before I was allowed to join the army.

I was the woman who had to leave her job upon marriage, because it was the law. I never had any national insurance contributions credited, because I stayed at home being a good wife and mother. My ex-husband had a very generous final-salary pension, but I was entitled to a pittance.

I was the woman who was publicly shamed for doing something consensual with a politician. He kept his job. I changed my identity.

I was the woman inventor whose name has been dropped from history.

I was the woman who should be ashamed for ruining a rapists life because I put him in jail for one mistake.

I was the first person to win this award three times, but ignored by the media in favour of the first man to win it three times.

I was the woman who was paid less than a man for doing the same job.

I was the woman who promised to obey so needs to shut the fuck up when told.

I was the woman who was expected to nurture and care for her man and not provoke him into hitting her.

I was your manic pixie dream cool girl muse. Unless I have an opinion. Then I’m annoying.

I was the woman who was on a calorie controlled diet her entire adult life.

I was the woman whose natural bodily functions were dismissed as emotional rather than physical. I was told and made to feel that having period pains, being pregnant or menopausal was me deliberately making life inconvenient for other people.

I was the woman who was no longer considered desirable due to the changes to her body after it had made and fed three children.

I was the woman who refused to be ignored, talked over or have credit for her contributions stolen by men in meetings, so was labelled difficult to work with and an awkward bitch.

I was the woman who was blamed for being a bad mother because my son killed someone.

I was the woman who went back to work after two weeks maternity leave to be told I was heartless for leaving my child.

I was the woman who went back to work after one year of maternity leave to be told I shouldn’t expect my old job back and I had to start at the bottom again, because I’d been away for so long.

I was the woman who was expected to have a temper because I had red hair.

I was the woman who was a life model for over thirty years. One of my nudes is in Tate Britain.

I was Shakespeare’s sister.

I was the girl in the band.

I was the female football manager, pilot, doctor, athlete, explorer, who was told time and time again the only reason I couldn’t do it because I was a woman.

I was the woman who was told time and time again that the only reason I got the job was because I was a woman and they had quotas to fill.

I was the woman whose value was solely based on her looks. After I had my “last fuckable day” (Amy Schumer) I was expected to dissolve and disappear.

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47. And I Feel Fine

*This post contains descriptions of killing animals for food.

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I am the child of a pair of post-war natural preppers. Survivalists. Hunters, farmers, make-do-and-menders, be grateful for what you have got, eat it or go without. Keep calm and carry on is their outlook on life.

My mother grew up on a farm and went to an agricultural school. She can raise, kill, cook animals. Nose to tail. Nothing is wasted. Seasonal vegetables, preserves, chutney, quilts, saved string, hand knitted jumpers, mended clothes. Honey and beeswax. Bread and yoghurt. Smoked meat and bulk meals. It’s where I get my maker’s streak from.

One time when I was a child, I remember saying I didn’t want to collect the eggs because there was a particular goose that kept trying to get me. My aunt reassured me that it wouldn’t be pecking me anymore. We had goose for that evening meal, but it never occurred to me that it was the same one…

My father grew up dirt poor and often went hungry. Last one up didn’t get shoes that day. Everyone who was in the house at meal times got fed, whether you were in that family or not. If you missed the meal, you could have bread and apples. Grammar school wasn’t an option. The uniform was too expensive.

He can make anything out of bits of wood. Tell the time by the sun. Dig and plant the garden, long after others have given up with fatigue. I’ve seen him ride horses bareback, herd sheep, feed baby rabbits with an eye dropper of milk and swim half a length underwater without coming up for breath.

The sense of community, compassion and sharing culture featured strongly in his upbringing, which I am grateful to have inherited. Job options were to go down the pit or join the army.

Going for a walk whilst camping, we would collect everything we needed for a feast. Foraged greens, nettles or pine needles for a hot drink, watercress, tiny crayfish, mushrooms, elderflowers, dandelion leaves and petals. I’ve eaten grubby maggots and zingy citrus ants.

Later in the summer, free, brown-limbed, in that very particular golden afternoon light, came the real treats of scrumped apples, plums, cherries, cobnuts, chestnuts and blackberries. Then the weird and wonderful pumpkins, that always looked better than they tasted.

My attempts at trying to grind tiny amounts of grain from grasses always failed.  I think I was trying to make some sort of cracker or biscuit. Whilst I was trying not to lose my efforts to the wind, I failed to notice the creation of a rope from the plaited grass stalks, miraculously strong enough to take a person’s weight. Dad’s hands red and sore from twisting.

The humanity of dispatching a rabbit kindly with a few moves was not lost on me. Dangle the rabbit and hold its back legs, push the head back. Pull. Two minutes later, a clean pelt in a single piece with perfectly butchered, jointed game ready for the pot. Innards used as fish bait. Prepare your meal during the day so you’ve got time to cook it properly, bury the pot under the fire, so animals don’t dig it up. Rub an upside-down can on a rock until you see bubbles of liquid. The top levers right off.

We did once find a small stash of canned food with a knife and a little tobacco tin of interesting bits and bobs (fish hooks, half a candle, beef stock cubes, nylon thread, a piece of flint, matches, needles, aspirin, and a single cigarette) wrapped in a tarpaulin in the woods. We left it, because it wasn’t ours, but if this was the real deal, then we would have definitely taken it. I’d like to hope that we would have left them something, but then who knows until you’re actually in the survivalist mindset? When there’s no law, what do you do? What would other people do?

My parents have incredible stories from the early eighties, when the threat of a nuclear war was very real. Preparing for the possibility. Protocol and structure. Systems organised. Plans made. We tried inventing our own 24-hour ration packs as the official ones were pretty disgusting.

I read a book written by a family friend, about how to track people, whilst staying hidden yourself. The fascinating descriptive consequences on his body of living off the same foodstuffs for too long. Competitive games of being holed up in pitch black darkness for days, with no way of knowing the time except through hunger, with the winner being the one who timed their stay to the closest predicted minute.

Resilience. Getting through this. Mind over matter. Positive attitude. Grit. Dry socks. Hot drink. Sleep. Repeat. I’m still not sure if dowsing for water works.

These things have definitely influenced my life. I’ve sometimes trudged though snow in my Sorel boots and Fjällräven parka to work on days when other colleagues ring in saying they can’t get in because of the weather. I buy food for homeless people. No-one who visits my house ever goes home hungry.

As a child I never realised that the end was not definitely nigh and it’s left me with constant low-level anxiety and a continuing obsession with the apocalypse. Many years of rumination followed, but once I had rationalised that I would probably die early on, I felt strangely relieved.

Odd as it may seem to spend hours locked in enthusiastic debate with one’s parents about recent films and TV shows depicting the aftermath, it is something we all enjoy doing as a family, so will continue to baffle others with our tales of conspiracy theories. Just saying the words, “What would Sarah Connor do?” can spark a whole afternoon’s conversation.

20. From the Mouths of Babes

So I’m round at my sisters. Michelle is a couple of years younger than me. She’s a nurse, so works shifts, and I don’t get to see her as much as I should. We’re having an early 5pm tea, with her daughter, Poppy. Their begging dog, Travis, is, as usual, as he does for every meal, sitting patiently and expectantly, head cocked, for table scraps without joy. It’s a classic children’s tea. Sausage, mash, gravy, frozen sweet corn and the obligatory ‘little trees’. I’ve never understood why broccoli is mandatory requirement for every child’s hot meal. We’ve been treated to an Aunt Bessie’s mini Yorkshire pudding each, and there’s mini Magnums for afters. I brought donuts. We’re on the red. A Malbec I think. It came from of those £10 meal deals at Marks’s. Poppy’s got Ribena in a pink plastic wine glass, so she feels grown up.

“Tell Aunty NomNom what happened today at school?” Said Michelle.

“I got told off” confessed Poppy.

“What for?” I queried.

“I said a rude word” admitted Poppy.”

“A swear word?” I enquired gently.

” Yes I said Rosie is a bitch. What’s a bitch?” She asks innocently.

“Well, it means a girl dog, but some people call ladies that if they’re being mean.” I replied.

“Like Miss Trunchbull?” Said Poppy, inquisitively.

“Exactly like Miss Trunchbull. And no-one would ever dare to call her a bitch, cos she’d swing them around by their legs and let them go flying out of the window.” I explain cheerfully.

Poppy smiles.

“What does shite mean?” she says nonchalantly. She genuinely has no idea.

“It’s just a slang word for poo. People say it when they think something’s a bit rubbish. Here, would you like me to help you?” I cut up her sausage. “You know, it’s probably not a good idea to swear if you want to be a teacher. What if you accidentally swore in front of the children? Then you’d be in big trouble with the mums and dads.” I said matter-of-factly.

“What’s the most naughtiest swear word?” She asks quizzingly.

This might be difficult. She knows I’ll always tell her straight.

I could tell her about that time her mum and I went to see ‘The Vagina Monologues’ where Rula Lenska, and two other women (who also proper theatre luvvie actors, but I’d only ever seen one of them on telly before in ‘Casualty’) over the course of the evening, said every single curse word meaning female genitals. I was never going to say “coochie coochie coo!” to a baby ever again, not that I ever recall I had said that before. It was brilliant, immersive, exhilarating show, culminating with the whole audience getting up onto their feet to chant “Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!” over and over again. Our fists punching gloriously in to the air, strangers united, laughing and encouraging each other to shout it louder and louder, so it would lose its power.

“CUNT! CUNT! CUNT!”

But I don’t, She’s seven. It’s too soon.

“I’m not allowed to say it.” I say seriously. I hope she believes me.

“Well, what’s a swear word that you are allowed to say then? And not flip or blast. I already know those. I’m seven.” She’s dead serious as she says this. I can feel her eyes concentrating on me.

I think for a second. “Tory.” I say. “If you call someone a Tory, then that means they are a horrible, evil person, who steals food from poor people. There was this wicked witch once called ‘Maggie Thatcher the milk snatcher’ who stole children’s milk. food-sugar-lighting-milk.jpgWhen me and your mum were little, we used to all get a tiny bottle of milk to drink every day at morning playtime. A bottle each, with a straw in it. The milkman used to bring crates of milk everyday to school. But Maggie Thatcher took it off us. Kids have to have water now instead. Or fruit shoot. That’s why we have to have food banks. Because of the Tories.”

“Where is she now?” Poppy looks worried.

“Oh, she’s dead now.” I said, trying to sound breezy and casual.

“Did someone cast a spell on her to kill her?” Asks Poppy, extending her arm as if she’s holding a wand.

“Nah. I think she was just really old.” I reply reassuringly.

“Daddy always puts some Weetabix and some beans into the box for the food bank when we go shopping.” Says Poppy, pleased with herself.

Michelle smiles. “Yeah, he’s a good one he is.”

“And you can’t always tell by looking either.” I say “Like you know all the baddies in Harry Potter are really proud to be in Slytherin? Well some people are actually proud to be a Tory.” I emphasised the word ‘proud’ to make what I’d just said sound like I was incredulous at how ridiculous this seemed.

“A Tory.” Repeated Poppy, smiling as if she’s been told a huge secret.