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The last letter

  Sat 2nd January 2021

I got off work on Tuesday, remembering not to tell anyone where I was going, stowing my luggage under the desk, ready for a 4.30pm flit to Lancaster. My erroneously-issued and now out of date rail pass added another £170 to the thousands it has saved me.

Back in Lancaster I was clasped back into the bosom of my family, a warm and comforting place, full of wine, women and the occasional song. Long hugs from my thin daughters.

On Christmas Eve my mum rang to say that her sister had been told she's got breast cancer, and that my disabled brother had tested positive for corona. He was immediately placed under a needlessly harsh form of room arrest in his home. They wouldn't let him make or receive phone calls because they won't let him touch the phone.

As you might know, I've been writing one-sidedly to Wendy's dad for about three years, him being too infirm to reply. The letter I had with me to give to Wendy will never be read: on Boxing Day she me rang to say that he'd died on Christmas Day.

Later that day, my mum rang again to say that my brother went into an epileptic fit that wouldn't stop -- Wendy told me it's called status epilepticus -- and was hospitalised for a couple of days. He's out now and my mum has been able to ring him. He has been congratulating the "lovely porridge" served him during his stay. The staff still won't let him have the phone; a care worker holds it at two metres' distance so they both have to shout their conversation publicly.


Sunday evening, at Kitty's, I am watching her face as she unwraps her present. She used to live in Blackpool, and I had bought her a poster, one in a cautionary series advising against British seaside resorts.

"Oh..."she says, doubtfully. "Oh, erm...who's the artist?" "No idea love." "Oh well. I wonder who the artist is."

I'm puzzled by her reaction, until she shows me a gloomy C19th portrait of a tired-looking man dressed in black resting his head on his hand.


On Monday I met up with Wendy for a walk with the dog. We sat on a bench with a table next to a Christmas tree decorated with merrily colourful bulbs, where we drank port and smoked dope. She gave me the best present of all -- the last book that her dad had read whilst he was still able to read, Sweet Thursday by Steinbeck, with a dedication from the two of them to me.

She read me the obituary that her brother has prepared for the local papers, about his roistering life, financially supported by his career in a smokier and more alcoholic journalism than we have today; and the first paragraph of Cannery Row[1], which she'll read at his funeral on Thursday. "These were his people," she said.

We then went round to Kitty's, who, in a typically simple, kind act, had made us all soup. I wasn't sure about to what degree of talking about her dad, or wanting us to be merry, that Wendy wanted, but it was more important that we were just there, chatting, Wendy holding it back but still taking part.

Kitty made a comment about Wendy looking "beautiful", which means completely different things for a man and a woman. I jumped in to wrest the word from the sexless sisterhood's interpretation, and reminded her that she is stunningly beautiful, in the proper sense of that verb.

I came back via Leeds, where I spent a freezing cold twenty minutes in a churchyard with my old uni pal. I was hoping he'd allow me into their house, but we stood on the heatsink flags instead. I had an expensive coffee I didn't want.

At Leeds station, I made the decision to have a shave. I have never felt glad to wear a face mask until then, since the cheap plastic razor left me with several cuts, and the inside of the mask is now all bloody.

Walking home, I suddenly realised that I'd left my holdall on the train. Everything else can be replaced, but not Bill's book. I'm very much hoping it finds its way back to the lost property office in Bristol. I've done this before -- readers with long memories will remember the time I joined my family to travel to Brittany on our hols, and arrived with only the clothes I was wearing. The rest were last seen on a luggage rack on a train, and were never returned.


[1]
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink,
a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia,
a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin
and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement
and weedy lots and junk-heaps, sardine canneries of corru-
gated iron, honky-tonks, restaurants and whore-houses, and
little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flop-houses. Its
inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps,
gamblers, and sons of bitches," by which he meant Every-
body. Had the man looked through another peep-hole he
might have said : "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy
men," and he would have meant the same thing.

9 comments »

9 comments

Comment from: Scarlet [Visitor]

It’s been a grim ‘ol Christmas - I think you’ve captured it’s spirit. Sorry for your loss, and sorry to read about your poor brother and his lack of phone.

I like the poster!!
All the best for 2021.

Sx

Sat 2nd January 2021 @ 14:22 Reply to this comment
Comment from: [Member]

Yeah I just hope people won’t adopt this attitude of fear as a permanent feature in their lives. Some people seem to quite like being anti-social. Still, that’s up to them.

My brother’s got a phone but they’ve taken it off him.

And all the best to you Scarlet, my Calligrapher-in-Chief in the Department of Affairs of the Co – er… Heart.

Mon 4th January 2021 @ 20:51 Reply to this comment
Comment from: kono [Visitor]

I’m sorry for your loss my friend… as you may or may not know Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers, i recently pulled out my old copy of Cannery Row and told the I-mac to read it though that was a bit silly of me as a teenage boy doesn’t give a rat’s arse about Steinbeck… it was a copy that i stole from a bookstore back when i was at Uni and was living very much hand to mouth and had a habit of stealing books i wanted to read, i could debate the moral and ethics but it’s a moot point.

That said, i know it’s not a replacement for the copy you left, which we hope finds its way back to you, which i’m hoping the literary gods smile upon you (as it’s well deserved) and send it back your way, but if it doesn’t you can send me your address, i’ll send you my copy with my dedication, i know it won’t be the same and my handwriting is atrocious but it’s the least i could do…

And that poster is fantastic!

Sat 2nd January 2021 @ 15:20 Reply to this comment
Comment from: [Member]

kono that’s so kind of you, many thanks. The original has turned up so you can hang on to it for now but I really appreciate that gesture.

We did Of Mice and Men for O Level at school. I loved it. Then I started on The Grapes of Wrath and it was beyond me. I’m looking forward to an overdue date with Steinbeck now that I’ve got a bit more patience.

Thanks again kono – very best wishes for 2021 and hope Biden can reverse some of the damage that baby has done.

Mon 4th January 2021 @ 20:54 Reply to this comment
Comment from: Some London Lass [Visitor]

Happy New Year sounds a tad trite these days but let’s keep stretching hope, eh! I’m watching the weekend’s snow slowly melt as my world wakes up to return to work, wfh or enjoy more slobtastic; I’m int latter cat e gory! Stay alive & kicking, Lad :-P Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem is apt:

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

Mon 4th January 2021 @ 07:58 Reply to this comment
Comment from: [Member]

Ferlinghetti sounds like a god-fearing finger-wagger delighted in seeing his own self-righteousness being vindicated.

I know what you mean about the wish but bolloclks to it, Happy New Year to you too, and a finger up at the last one. I envy you not going back to the strip-lit office today.

Mon 4th January 2021 @ 21:06 You are currently replying to this comment
Comment from: looby [Visitor]

Well I must say MM, you do dig them out. Including times when they’d best be left interred. It’d walk Eurovision though.

Tue 5th January 2021 @ 19:21 Reply to this comment
Comment from: kono [Visitor]

Disco Dancing in Holland… that was pure genius, i’m currently working on the whole routine, including dusting off my robot moves, to hopefully post on the interwebs someday.

Wed 6th January 2021 @ 14:11 Reply to this comment


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looby, n.; pl. loobies. A lout; an awkward, stupid, clownish person


M / 56 / Bristol, "the most beautiful, interesting and distinguished city in England" -- John Betjeman [1961, source eludes me].

"Looby is a left-wing intellectual who is obsessed with a) women's clothes and b) tits." -- Joy of Bex.

WLTM literate woman, 40-65. Must have nice tits, a PhD, and an mdma factory in the shed, although the first on its own will do in the short term.


There are plenty of bastards who drink moderately. Of course, I don't consider them to be people. They are not our comrades.
Sergei Korovin, quoted in Pavel Krusanov, The Blue Book of the Alcoholic

I am here to change my life. I am here to force myself to change my life.
Chinese man I met during Freshers Week at Lancaster University, 2008

The more democratised art becomes, the more we recognise in it our own mediocrity.
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Tell me, why is it that even when we are enjoying music, for instance, or a beautiful evening, or a conversation in agreeable company, it all seems no more than a hint of some infinite felicity existing apart somewhere, rather than actual happiness – such, I mean, as we ourselves can really possess?
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La vie poetique has its pleasures, and readings--ideally a long way from home--are one of them. I can pretend to be George Szirtes.
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Using words well is a social virtue. Use 'fortuitous' once more to mean 'fortunate' and you move an English word another step towards the dustbin. If your mistake took hold, no-one who valued clarity would be able to use the word again.
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One good thing about being a Marxist is that you don't have to pretend to like work.
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The working man is a fucking loser.
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The Comfort of Strangers

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