When I was a small child, barely able to see over the dining table, roast potatoes and Yorkshire puddings looked like a range of hills, some jagged, some round as parliament mounds. Slices of roast beef became cooled larval plates and vegetables a compost heap, like the one my dad forked and raked into submission, until the new additions joined the mass of grey. It was only when I had climbed onto my chair that I saw how ordinary it all was, and how temptingly delicious ‘ordinary’ can be.
I recall sitting to ‘Listen With Mother’, only Mother always fled the room having seated us and was long gone before the welcome music had stopped. I remember being immediately drawn into the story as the teller’s voice led me away from the pestilential; my woolly underpants, my too tight shoes, my nails bitten to the quick and beyond, my disappointment in life. I dreaded the end music. I waited, my heart on pause, as the story slowly came to its conclusion, the teller’s voice falling back to its final chord and my underpants reminding me of to disseminate. When I heard the music heralding the Archers, or, worse, the Shipping Forecast, I knew I was doomed, for that meant bedtime and darkness and utter loneliness. Until, that is, I picked up my book and moved immediately into a story not my own, a story fashioned from smoke and stars, wild water and silent red skies, of adventures and choice and freedom.
I am the same now. I do not choose woolly underpants, nor do I bite my nails to the quick and beyond, but I do feel a clutch in my heart when Steve Wright says, It’s time to go, and plays the end music. It is all about being thrust back into the so called disappointment. At five to five I leap up to turn off the radio. I do this because, I now realise, I don’t want that same pattern to repeat itself; that slump back into ordinary; the moment when I need to lift my reluctant self back into my life, when I must leave the story or the music behind and do things like cooking or bathing whilst wondering what on earth I can do to shorten the long hours of evening.
It was the same throughout the latter years of caring. Initially, when himself was still mobile, when he still enjoyed going out for a meal (our favourite thing) or playing scrabble beside a feisty woodburner and surrounded by candles and talk of what we would do tomorrow, I had no such slump when Steve Wright said, It’s time to go. It meant nothing. It was just a wee reminder that dinner might like to be prepared and that a warming bath with scented candles awaited both of us. I didn’t even mind his derisive snort at the festival of light I had prepared around the rim of the bath. For me, it meant stories, stories flickering on the ceiling, the plash of water as I moved, the shadows like creatures from another world, all showing me hope and choice and freedom. I could barely wait to get into bed for all the reading I would do throughout the night.
Latterly, as he sickened and regressed into childhood, he wanted a supper of mulch at 4.30 and was ready for bed two hours later. Then I found little interest in cooking for one, for myself and absolutely no interest in the evening. He sat, headphones on, engaged on WhatsApp with who knows who or watching Casualty, something at which he would have scoffed away before, as mindless tripe. Now, alone, it thinks me. I connect again with the child who imagined a mountain range at eye level when it was just a plate of food to everyone else. It reminds me of the young wife and mother I once was who suddenly realised that life is ordinary. It reminds me of just a few years ago, when, pre-dementia diagnosis, I actually still believed things would change for the better, like in books but with me as the heroine.
Is the alternative, then, a slump into the ordinary? Hell NO!
To my delight, this child who saw mountains that became roast potatoes is alive and kicking within. I find her in the books I read, that curious child who longs to wander through the pages of a story. I ask myself, is this me hiding from the world? Perhaps. I ask, Am I going slowly mad, reading two books a week? Perhaps. Who will deny or confirm? Not I said the goose.
Well, that’s good enough for me. In stories, in books, in reading, I change my thinking. I learn, through novels, a new way to see an old thing. I find that ‘ordinary’ is not such a slump; but that ‘ordinary’ begs my light to shine from within and thus it lifts and lift until my ordinary is your extraordinary. Here’s my hand, I say, reaching down. I can pull you up and here’s a book. What book? you might ask? whilst grabbing my hand to avoid falling into the abyss. Oh, I reply. the one you need for now.
I read for survival and for pleasure. The well written word is more glorious to me than jewels; scratchy nickers and long empty evening, lose their power as do lost dinner dates and the ending of things. The light I find in books is endless and there is not ending in endless, for as long as people live and breathe and write, there will be stories upon stories upon stories, like a feast; like a roast dinner that looks one thing at eye level and quite another when ‘ordinary’. I have hauled my way up rocks and over mountains, through floods and deserts and only because I read books and books have always lit my way.
And as long as I live, I will keep that light on. I have ten grandchildren, and two step grandchildren and they all read and are ripe for books. That’s twelve potential families moving out into the future. Now that’s not ordinary at all.