Losing the plot

Six weeks ago I was in Japan, loving it so much I thought I could teach English there if I ran low on funds. I also have plans for Iceland, Cuba, India, Sri Lanka….

On Wednesday 2nd Nov, my horizons narrow. It’s a beautiful autumn day. Trees glow, low sun brushes everything gold. I drive to Epping Forest for a walk. The forest is almost luminous on this shining day. Most trees still have most leaves, but there’s already a crisp carpet of brown, red and yellow on the forest floor. Shuffling through is as fun now as it was in childhood, but we walk fast: it’s only 10am and the temperature is invigorating.

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Connaught Water, Epping Forest. Photo by Nikkii Barnett.

It’s the end of the year but the springtime of my ideas: the novel to which I’ve been doggedly adding 1000 words a day for the past month is taking good shape. Striking details and major plot threads form in my mind as I pace along the paths. Part of me can’t wait to get home and start putting them down – black for phrases to be added to my draft, red for ideas to be developed later.

Under the coating of leaves my foot hits a stump and over I swoop in an arc too fast to correct. My chin and nose make contact with the wooden edge of a footbridge and I’m sitting dazed on the floor with blood pouring from my mouth and nostrils. People pass tissues, but my shaking hands drop them on the dirt and others are soaked immediately. A lady with a pushchair offers baby wipes which sting my mouth clean. Somebody strokes my back, moaning “Oh Lord, oh my dear Lord“.

Behind me: “You’ll be on soup for the next few days, Jessica!” and “I knew a woman who fell that way and cracked a rib.” (OH Lord, oh my dear Lo…ord.) A third: “You need to sit in a long hot bath.” I love long hot baths but I think if I sat in one now I might faint and never get out.

I’m pulled to my feet and it feels more normal to be vertical. As I walk shakily along I only want to look at the ground. I’m aware of people staring but if I concentrate on small talk with my kind companion – who turns out to have been battling serious illness, bless her – then I’ll get back to the car park for the next decision.

Meanwhile I think, if I could get ice on this now….oh goodness what does my face look like..have I broken my nose? is that tooth in the right place? have I bitten through my lip? Blood drips on the top I bought at Tokyo airport (why am I wearing that?) I drive home followed by a volunteer, cautious as on my test.

I make hot sweet tea but can’t fit my lips round the mug. The wine sleeve I find in the freezer and hold against my face warms too fast (no wonder the Chablis is never cold enough). I try a huge packet of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel and the immediate numbness is a swipe of relief. I want to be left alone to mourn my face, the ruin of my day and all those ideas for the novel that seem to have trickled away with the lost blood. I lie with another old towel to protect the new cushions of the new sofa in the sunlit bay window in blissful agony enjoying the quiet hiatus.

B. arrives. He can’t believe our local hospital.What a maze of potholed paths, temporary huts, hulking arches, the derelict nurses home sulking in a corner. It was boarded up at least ten years ago. Somewhere in the mess is A & E, though it’s not where it was last time I visited, with my teenage son after he was mugged, and that location was different to the time before, when as a toddler he stuck a bead up his nose.

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At poor beleaguered Whipps Cross pedestrians have to watch their footing and the buildings have always looked sinister. But the staff delivered my children safely and have always come through in an emergency, despite funding that always goes elsewhere, reports of submerged morale, closure threats that ebb and flow and an ever increasing  patient pool.

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The nurses’ home

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At reception they say: “Gosh, you’ve made a mess of yourself!” which is gratifying as it means we’re not time wasters.I’m number 297; it’s midday and crowded. Most people are patient (sorry) and quiet. A couple with a two year old give her juice and crisps which she spills on the floor. She gathers them up with care and returns them to the packet. She is noisy, through boredom. They look at their phones and erupt about the wait: “For fuck’s sake!”

I’m called in. “How are you?” Well, obviously, I’ve been better. I’ll need stitches, preceded by the same injections given before Botox. Now I know for sure I’ll never have Botox: they’re as unpleasant as I was warned they’d be. I grip the metal bar of the couch and squirm and the surgeon who is kind but brisk says, Well done, well done.

Eat sweet cereal for glucose, she says. Then sleep. Don’t clean your teeth. Use a salt water rinse even if it stings. Oh, you’d better have a tetanus jab. I stand as though I’ve been punished in a corner of the empty room waiting for the nurse with the jab. I’m so cold I can’t control my shivers. See your dentist, they say. As we leave, about 2pm,  they call number 430.

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A & E

Thursday. I haven’t looked in the mirror yet. The ends of my hair are stuck together with blood but I don’t try washing it. I make tea and drink it lukewarm through a straw. I’m still cold. The dentist says I’m lucky – no nerve damage, no tooth damage and I could easily have cracked my jaw. I hide at home for the rest of the day dozing and watching Andy Murray’s downs and ups in Paris.

Friday. I sell my ticket for “The Nose” at Covent Garden. I have my own nose story, it’s pale grey and swollen. I pass time meandering round facebook and the internet. Somebody posts she can’t get down to writing her blog post and I challenge us both to finish one by 5pm. Getting it done feels like a step back to normality.

Saturday. I wash my hair! I clean my teeth! I’m tired and triumphant but it’s still only 10am. A nurse friend comes for coffee and advises Vaseline which makes my dry cracked mouth much better. My nose and cheekbones are yellow. B. takes me to South London for a change of scene and I watch a firework display from his top window. We eat very tender boeuf bourguignon and I try a small glass of wine. The food is delicious but the numbness the wine brings doesn’t feel right. I fear doing something clumsy to my stitches without noticing.

whipps-medicationSunday. A walk round the streets, hood pulled low. How awful if anyone thinks B.’s done this to me. On return my skin feels taut but he says it’s just the cold wind. A high point of Sunday is coming home on the Woolwich Ferry, not the horrible Blackwall Tunnel. We sit in the queue and contemplate the lights over the Thames. It’s a far cry from our night walk along the river in Kyoto. I sneeze several times and am perversely disappointed to find it doesn’t result in bleeding or particular pain.

Monday. My French pupil comes, a retired gentleman with a house in France. He doesn’t realise I have stitches until I tell him, so the wound must be looking better. But after teaching I lie on the sunlit sofa under a blanket and sleep for two hours. My nose is dark grey today but the bruise is smaller. In the local shop I don’t make eye contact with anyone. I’m ashamed of my battered face and cross with the beautiful autumn forest for betraying me when I just wanted exercise and fresh air. When did I last look at my novel?

Tuesday. My nose and left cheek are yellow again but the black gash on my lips is smaller.  I return unharmed from a daring long walk for a newspaper.Outside the world is worrying: Trump? Not Trump, surely. I decide to see if I can remember the ideas I had for the novel, and open the file for the first time for a week. But I’ve lost the plot, somewhere in the forest among the blood and the golden leaves.

Wednesday. Stop press: plot retrieved courtesy of Donald Trump. The horror of his triumph sends me back to the novel, because in it I’ve put people from different races, religions and belief systems living, learning and working together. Someone said this morning the only thing to do now is, each in our own way, to speak out against his values. What’s Trump done for me? Well, he’s directed me back to the outside world and he’s made me realise there are more serious matters than my face. Which in any case is almost back to normal now, thanks to the efficiency of the staff of poor old Whipps Cross hospital and the dentist. Thank you, NHS, and thanks to those decent politicians who created it.

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The proud Victorian arches are still beautiful in a sinister way.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

Plus ca change…

So pleasing when a neat link arises between one’s own work (last week’s post about books that made me European), and something rather grander (the recent news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature).

If the Nobel Committee asked me which songwriters deserved a prize for both literature and peace, I’d say the French (and Belgian) ones. George Brassens, Jacques Brel, Barbara...and which interpreters of them deserved something too, for reaching out and breaking down barriers: Piaf, Juliette Gréco singing the words of Brassens, Aragon, Queneau – and Brel again, who crops up everywhere. The work of these songwriters/poets/singers foretold the work of Dylan decades earlier with just as much brio, panache, joie de vivre and on occasion angst (why are none of those English words?) and, dare I say, it more tunefully too.  Let’s have a look at a few gems of poetry, simple philosophy, politics and music.

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I heard the songs of Brassens as a child, not realising he also wrote poetry and novels. He lived in hiding for five years in Paris after escaping from a German forced labour camp.He was a true European, with a musical Italian mother who was a strict Catholic and a liberal, anti clerical French father. His songs are often jaunty and cheerful, but the lyrics are uncompromising.

Brassens wrote Chanson pour l’Auvergnat in 1954. (For copyright reasons I’ve not reprinted any of the original in this post, but given my own unpolished English summary instead. It’s easy to find both lyrics and performances online, by Brassens himself, Juliette Gréco and relatively recently Manu Dibango among others.)

This song is for you, the Auvergnat who without guile, gave me four sticks of wood, when my life felt cold. You gave me firewood when all the good chattering people had shut the door in my face, only firewood, but it warmed my body, and even now  gives a joyous flame to my soul.

He goes on to praise the hostess who gave him bread, when “there was hunger in my life” and  no one invited him in, and tells how her welcome still warms his heart. Finally the stranger/foreigner (l’étranger means both in French, how UKIP must envy that) who, watching as the police arrested him, gave him an awkward smile of encouragement rather than laughing and clapping with the watching crowd. That sweetness still burns like the sun in his soul.  When you good people die, he says in each chorus, may you go to heaven.

Some parallels here, surely, with the situation of migrants to Europe? Let us hope they meet an Auvergnat…

Piaf sang of the kindness of strangers too, in a song you will all know the tune of – daah, Dah, dah, Daah, dah DAAAHH but whose story you may not have known:

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Come in, Milord, sit down. It’s so cold outside but you’ll be comfortable here…Put your feet up!

The singer is a prostitute and her client a English aristocrat. She’s flattered that he’s come to her, she’s seen him go proudly past, a beautiful girl at his side (so beautiful it made her shiver), a silk scarf over his shoulders. Then today the girl left on a ship, threw away his love, broke his heart. How sad love is, and life itself…but you can find new chances for happiness. He’s a great lord and she’s just a woman of the streets, but she can sympathise…(as the the music slows and Piaf speaks in a shocked voice rather than singing) “but you’re crying, milord. …there, there…it’s not so bad…give me a little smile?…that’s it..bravo!“and the music speeds up, they dance,  and the man is comforted, for a while at least. This brilliant song turns social standing on its head: the poor street girl has the generosity and power to comfort the aristocrat in his moment of fragility – and yet she and we know he will probably survive longer and more comfortably than she. The songwriters were Marguerite Monnot and Joseph Mustacchi.

Thirdly, “Barbara”. She was born Monique Serf  in Paris to Jewish parents from Alsace and Odessa.
barbara-3She spent the war in flight from the Nazis, yet her song Göttingen (1965) must surely be the soundtrack to peace and reunion everywhere. She visited the German town and wrote this haunting song about how Göttingen’s parks and schoolchildren and roses were different to those in Paris, but just as beautiful; about how when there is no shared language you can still smile at each other, and about how she fears another war between France and Germany because there are people she loves in Göttingen. She recorded the song in both French and German, and it was quoted by Gerhard Schroeder at the celebrations to mark 40 years of the Elysée Treaty of Reconciliation. Do listen to it – but be warned, it will become a earworm and so it should.

I don’t mean to look only at the past (and I have nothing against Americans or Dylan!) Last week I suggested Books against Brexit and will return to that, but for now I seem to have swung towards a (better) Song for Europe. How about the wider world and the present? Fortuitously, this came onto my facebook page today. It’s good to see the tradition of moving, constructive, poetic song writing in response to power and exclusivity is still going strong: This American Life asked Sara Bareilles to imagine what President Obama might be thinking about this election. She wrote this song, which Leslie Odom Jr. sings. It’s free to download until December 3. Credits at the links given.

Songwriters: Brassens, Georges Published byLyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Monnot & Mustacchi Published byLyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group Barbara:my sheet music ©Les Editions Métropolitaines, 11 rue de Provence 75011 Paris

© Jessica Norrie 2016