Category Archives: Murmurs

Aiglets

Whenever the dreaded oeuvre gets too much for me, I rug myself up and mosey my way towards Knocklofty. But the other morning I discovered that pixies had enjoyed a field day with my boots. The laces were pulled out, and when I went to rethread them I found that they had frayed and I could not get the laces through the holes.

I heard a growl forming in my throat but then, perhaps it was the way I was bent over, I remembered one midwinter when I was a nipper, quite a small one, three-and-a-half or a little more. It was a late afternoon, or at least it seemed to be but it may have been only half-past three – dusk at any rate. I was sitting on the hearth rug next to a blazing fire. My Grandpapa was ensconced in an armchair, bending forward to guide me through the knotty muddle of shoes and laces I was grappling with.

It was a tricky business. The shoes and laces were brown, the flames flickered and distorted and Grandpapa’s head, delicately haloed by the single standard lamp behind him, cast a shadow over the proceedings.

Grandpapa taught me two new words: aiglets and eyelets. He even wrote me a little verse about aiglets and eyelets and eaglets and eyries; something about eaglets and aiglets finding their way home to their eyries and eyelets. It was better, Grandpapa said, especially if you were a half-blind mole rather than a sharp-eyed eagle – to feel your way into lacing and tying. Indeed, aiglets and eyelets might have been designed with us in mind. You could hold the bound end of the lace, the aiglet, in your paw, and poke about on your shoe until it led you and the lace to and through the eyelet.

Now aiglets don’t often come up in conversation and the word had almost atrophied until another mid-winter’s day, darker even than the one before. I was living in a rackety old burrow in London – sharing digs with a mob of other young moles, hearts empassioned with politics and causes. There was no electricity and so for warmth and light we sat around the gas cooker in the kitchen, our back paws resting on the flap of the oven. Our conversations ranged far and wide, and on this particular afternoon we were discussing Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin which all gone to see the night before.

And someone said, I can’t remember who, that some of Eisenstein’s films had ended up in a shoelace factory and were turned into aiglets. We stared at the shadowy outlines of our shoe-encased paws and wondered what other films might be walking the streets: Mikaberidze’s 1929 film My Grandmother banned for lampooning Soviet bureaucracy, perhaps, or Yudin’s Four Hearts, too frivolous to be a true portrayal of the blood and muscle of Soviet life. Battleship Potemkin itself was banned in France, Germany and Finland. Did reels of it end up in shoelace factories in Paris, Berlin and Helsinki? And would we one day be called upon to remove the aiglets from our shoelaces so that rare and lost films could be cobbled together again?

Was it true about the aiglets? Was it a raconteur getting the better of himself on that cold afternoon. True or false, I can never eye an aiglet without thinking of hidden content nor, ever since reading that the Birmingham by-pass was built using two and a half million pulped Mills & Boon books, can I stop wondering what words might lie under my feet.

Now, preparing my boots for their venture out, I have bound the frayed lace ends with prosaic plain tape, but still I am using Grandpapa’s technique of feeling the improvised aiglets into the eyelets and thinking of how this binding up of loose ends and feeling one’s way towards a specific destination might be rather a good way to feel my way beyond the knottedness of the oeuvre.

Sirens

I heard it yesterday at dusk. A haunting call, a female voice, sometimes two, maybe more – different pitches: long, drawn out notes, soft at first, gaining strength, then thinning again, moving in and out of earshot: hard to tell where it was coming from. A lure to the midwinter.

The moon is full, walking on Knocklofty it casts shadows that mislead, cutting off the light of the path ahead, opening up vistas that would draw me into the bush, have me tripping on roots, stumbling through trees, rolling down unexpected dips, ending up in ditches.

Dreams are stronger, stranger at this time of year. I feel both more bound to the earth and drawn to the stars. Movements, just out of sight, draw my attention from the matter at hand but disappear as I turn my head.

And glitter, I am tempted by glitter, give into the temptation. Such deviation from the task in hand would never have afflicted Great Uncle Mole, nor my Mama. Aren’t we from the same stock? I may have the exterior of a mole but sometimes I wonder whether I am a changeling. No matter how much I hone my intentions towards the oevre, my eyes pick up on the glitter and my paws uncouple themselves from my brain. I know I overfill my days, know that I have not yet evolved the capacity to run on parallel time, or clone myself, or speed up, but show me another course, something to learn, and I’m gone.

I watch myself slithering away from what’s difficult, shedding responsibilities, wanting to be led into play.

The siren calls began at dusk on the night of the full moon before the winter solstice; they are amplephied through 450 loud speakers attached to buildings and towers in the city and broadcast from a circling helicopter through a public address system used for tsunami warnings. They will touch something within me as the sun rises and as it sets again, lure me and lead me astray.

Across the world in Switzerland, my brother is drumming, drawing other drummers to him, rumbling a beat that that vibrates in the belly, comes from the earth, and like the sirens, broadcasts through the air.

It is my sister who draws my attention to the equipoise, and holds it in her paws,
drawing our worlds together.

Bicycle

I was sitting on my stoop, making the most of the late autumn sun. A short sharp cool breeze on my pelt awakened in me a pleasurable memory that lay just out of reach. I think the memory was eluding me because my pinched posterior, wedged as it was between the doorjamb and a dark chestnut box, kept bringing me back to the here and now. But it was the box that had tickled the memory, I was sure; something that made my paws tingle as I riffled through its contents.

A large label inserted into a brass frame on the front proclaimed ‘Germany’ in appropriately Gothic script. The box was one of sixteen that contained Great Uncle Mole’s map collection and had once been neatly stacked into a tower in his study. Now they resided in my cellar in a low rise arrangement; they required an Atlas of a mole to lift more than one at a time, and that Atlas was not, and never would be, me.

On this particular day I was looking for maps of the Hamburg docks, pre-war, post bombings and after reconstruction, but my paws had been pausing over something else.

Then I heard it, quite faint – but unmistakable: the ring of a bicycle bell.

And then it was back, air whooshing towards me, eyes watering, the hills, dales, hedges, woods – the horizon ahead staying the same but the peripheral horizons whizzing past; the glorious freedom of propelling myself on two wheels.

I now got an inkling which of the fifty or so maps in the box my paws had been hankering after. They knew without reference to the carefully tabulated subdivisions where it would be – which was fortunate because although I could remember idea of the map, I hadn’t the foggiest recollection of what part of Germany it covered.

Dresden/Prague, as it turned out. The map was produced by the Mittelbach Verlag, 1900. But what I remember is that I was eight. And although it was months after my birthday when I arrived at Great Uncle Mole’s that summer, there was a bicycle waiting for me, almost still wet from the red paint Uncle Ratty had coated it with.

And they were planning an outing.

Now, when Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty planned an outing they really planned it. That day when I arrived, the old map of Dresden was spread out on the chart cabinet next to Great Uncle Mole’s drafting table. It had belonged to his Papa, he told me, and that indominatible mole had cycled the length and breadth of Mitteleuropa before the Great War changed its boundaries. And what, he asked, could I see on the map that was different from any other map I had seen. Now, I was still a novice as far as maps were concerned but I could see straight away that it was covered with read triangles. ‘Profiles’, Great Uncle Mole told me. ‘They have marked the gradients.’ He was applying the same method to a local map on his drafting table. My task, would be to work out a route with the easiest gradients. Our destination was fixed: Stoke Poges.

We set out just as the dawn chorus welled up and before there was any traffic. Uncle Ratty told me that he and Great Uncle Mole were on bicycles when they first met. They finished hub to hub in the Mercury race organised by the Royal Mail on its Telegraph Messenger Boys’ Annual Outing and Picnic in that dark year of 1916.

It took us over three hours to reach St Giles. Neither Great Uncle Mole nor Ratty were great ones for church and I was surprised (and a little disappointed) when I discovered this was our destination. But we leaned our bicycles against its ancient stone walls and wandered inside on wobbly, pedal-weary hindlegs. Our object was a stained glass window depicting a cherub blowing a trumpet, as cherubs do. But this particular cherub was also riding a bicycle.

Perhaps it was more a velocipede, that invention of the enterprising radical, Baron Karl von Drais who built his contraption in the the wake of the Mt Tambara volcano eruption when the world chilled, snow fell all summer, crops failed and there were no more horses to ride.

It was a rite of passage for a small mole. Suddenly, trudging on ones hindlegs, seemed drearily slow. The bicycle expanded my horizons, my sense of independence, mole and bicycle merged into a single, fleet being.

As I grew older I clustered with other teenage moles and their bicycles and we schemed and plotted outings and parties and daredevil acrobatics.Our eyes had begun to rove by then. Freewheeling with one paw hanging onto the back of a tram was not enough excitement; we had our sights on things with engines. We hankered after Velosolexes.

Now I am a walking mole again. I like the time it takes , the gift of that space between setting off point and destination – but, oh dear, there are times when some whoosh of air on my snout – some memory, almost physical in intensity, makes my eyes water and brings a longing for the freedom of the velocipede.

Neighbourhood

I was padding around my neighbourhood the other day, going some messages, as Uncle Ratty’s Scottish Aunt Agatha would say. The phrase to me evokes one’s own familiar locality, a network of inter-relationships, of picking up and delivering, moseying between places on foot and greeting or chatting to anyone coming the other way. My messages, took me down the hill a little to drop off a note about borrowing a car, a few steps more to cancel a massage and a few steps more to thank a friend for a meal. It meant strolling across the road and chatting to a chum who was working in her garden, waving at people in the café, idling into the post office to buy flowers and stamps and to post two cards for friends beyond the message orbit. And here I was given a banana because they had noticed that days before I had left one on the counter. The next little stretch sloped downhill and veered leftwards towards the creek and led to the recipient of said flowers, and a cup of tea and a hug; then a steep climb through a back yard – with a wallaby beside me – to slip a card of congratulations under the door.

And back to my burrow.

When does this sense of neighbourhood begin? I am a creature of habit, a homebody, a nester by inclination, but I have moved twenty-six times:
lived in three different countries, five cities and countless villages, hamlets, isolated spots. I have shaped myself into attics and cellars, shared rooms, shared burrows, solitary burrows, big burrows, small burrows and a humpy in a clearing in a forest. I have lived on hillsides and near the sea, I have lived next to a bombsite, next to a railway station, next to a farm, next to a brothel, next to an apple shed, next to a tennis court, and between a locksmith and a courthouse.

When does the sense of not just in but next to start? In my fleeting places – places I am merely visiting for a week or two – I am not adventurer. I like to pinpoint one or two retreats, a shop perhaps, a café, not more. These I visit repeatedly, making them my neighbourhood. In big cities and burrows shared with others, it was the public spaces that became familiar – the shopkeepers I spoke to: fish and chip shops, grocers, laundromats and the pub. But sharing burrows, although easing one’s sense of belonging, can diminish one’s antennae for neighbourhood. Moles living together often flock together and the self-sufficiency of our bandedness can pre-empt us from getting to know those around us.

Once upon a time moles never moved far from their original burrows. When I think of Great Uncle Mole I get a sense of what that kind of embeddedness feels like. I never visited him anywhere but the one burrow. It had belonged to his forbears before him. Quite apart from the mental ancestral charts he maintained of all his neighbours, Great Uncle Mole’s knowledge of his surroundings reached deep into the earth, extended itself around and into the trees, the hills, the seasons.

In Switzerland there are different words in the official language of belonging. As well as Geburtsort (place of birth) and Wohnungsort (place of residence) a mole has a designated Heimatort, a home, which is deemed to be the birthplace of the parent whose name it has taken. It gives, or intends to give, the nipper a deeper rootedness than its place of birth might. When I was small most Swiss stayed close to their roots and the three identifications of Geburts-,Wohnungs-, and Heimatsort were one and the same, but the British were gallivanters, my molekin in particular, and my place of birth, residence, and Heimatort were dotted in three, or was it four, countries. The concept of Heimatort was the most confusing of all. Mine was Karachi; – but how to identify it further? Was it in India, where Karachi was when my Papa was born, or Pakistan where it is now?

There were glimmers of neighbourhood in the various places I lived as small nipper: a weighing machine outside a chemists, a belisha beacon and a zebra crossing, a small bridge leading to allotments, and a roundabout mysteriously called the Ace of Spades. But we stayed nowhere long enough for a real sense of neighbourhood. Indeed, it was only the burrows of my grandparents that seemed to grant any sense of stability – I was unaware at the time that it was only as older moles they had settled after nomadic lives.

We moved to a new place in a new country and with a new language just as I was reaching the age of exploration (of self and neighbourhood). Why was I here?What does anything mean? My Mama sought refuge in landscape and sent me on botanical excursions. I listened to the moles about me, wondering whether they were greeting me or calling me names, learned to find my way home, stumbled over the words to ask for bread in the corner shop, began to learn the names of those who shared our six-family burrow. Gradually I became known as Frau so-and-so’s nipper, visited the old paper-maker up the road, was invited in by a painter near the cross-roads. After a while the neighbourhood became my own. I knew nippers who lived at the orphanage, on the farm, in the new flats.

That neighbourhood is imprinted on my molemind both as it was at the beginning and how it is now.

Although I am a solitary sort of a mole, I have always been happiest if there are others close at hand. Places I have lived far from neighbours have palled – I can appreaciate their beauty but not feel it in my moleheart. Bern and Hobart are not dissimilar in size. In both cases I have lived not in the city but in a neighbourhood within walking distance of it. You might think I that the first experience predisposed me to seek out and feel at home in the second.
But that isn’t the case. When I first moved here I felt its lack of a visible neighbourhood. I felt the linearity and length of the road on which it sits rather than the heart of the blocks that the cross-streets create. It has taken years and years of walking its pavements, the slowness of walking that allows a mole to drink in the smells and moods of a place, allows a mole to greet the fellows it meets; the repeated greetings, then the greeting that extend to chats, and the chats to conversations and sometimes even to friendship.

I have been here for over two decades now and so seen nippers born and grow and and move on. I have grown older with others – I know the place and am known in this place in the way my dear Mama and Papa were known in the village that became an outskirt of Bern, the one I still know in my bones and where they lived for fifty years before they died.

One Evening in Bern

How strange it can be when past and future, instead of receding in either direction as they should, collide in the present.

I was standing in my street here in this remote, southern outpost, farewelling the latest Sprössling, the youngest molelet, when I became faintly aware of French being spoken and when I turned round I saw a chap I had last seen seven years ago, on the other side of the world, in the parental burrow in Bern.

I felt a sort of whoosh of heart and soul as I waved simultaneously at my future departing and my past arriving. It was odd, uncomfortable and somehow momentous.

Had you been a fly on the wall of the Bern burrow that evening seven years ago you might have noted the sparse furnishings and the many boxes. In a room that had once been my Papa’s study you would have seen a figure bent over a small city of stamp albums. Flitting to another room you would have seen three siblings, two of them sitting at the one remaining table eating boiled eggs with soldiers.

The third, had just arrived; he jingled the keys to the cellar and proposed bringing up a bottle of our late Papa’s dwindling wine collection.

The figure bent over the albums unwound himself at last and joined us. He lived in France but commuted daily to the Universal Postal Union in Bern. He was a collector of stamps and any ephemera to do with trees and he told us that, alas, the collection that had belonged to our late Mama was worth very little. However, he said as he sniffed the vintage St Emilion Chateau Cheval Blanc – this was formidable.

He spoke no Bärndütsch and between us we siblings struggled to string more than three words together in French, so our conversation, as I remember, was animated with great paw-waving and exaggerated facial expressions.

And this is the way we met again the other day, each as discombobulated as the other, here on the street where I now live.

For years I straddled the two hemispheres, and in those years leading up to that evening in Bern, although my body was in Tasmania, my mind was constantly mapping over there, as I imagined myself into the thoughts and needs of my Mama, mapped the locations around her, spoke Bärndütsch to tradies, advisors, doctors.

After my parents had gone, when the burrow in Bern had been ceded to its next inhabitant and I had returned home, I became aware of a lessening of the pull of there, a growing peace with here. But still there was an unease in my paws, the soil was not quite right, the trees were odd, the sun too bright.

The soil, the trees, the sun still hover beyond my grasp but since the arrival of the smallest molelet, the one I was farewelling when my past came hurtling towards me, I have come to feel an embeddedness that had eluded me for most of my life.

X-Rays

The other day I had to have an X-ray. I had been wrestling for several days with the dreaded oeuvre, unable to see the wood from the trees and I have to admit that it was rather a relief to be required to be in a certain place at a certain time to do a particular thing.

When I was a nipper I remember once seeing an alphabet chart on which X was not for xylophone (this was usually a given, like Z for zebra), but X-ray. The sound of the word tickled my fancy but I had absolutely no idea what it was. I must have been staying with Great Uncle Mole at the time because, collector that he was, he went scurrying off to the library to consult his card collection. He returned with a Corona cigar box filled with what looked like cigarette cards. No he told me, although they were the same size these were not-cigarette-cards. Great Uncle Mole was meticulous in his filing and knew exactly what he was looking for. Under C for ‘Chocolat Carpentier’, he mumbled, and drew out a little subset of images of lurid medical procedures. How these whetted one’s appetite for chocolate I can’t imagine. My favourite image was of a woman receiving a blood transfusion from a goat – but what he wanted to show me was a picture of a man standing next to a table with a contraption on it. He was for the most part clothed but a framed slice of his upper body was just a rib cage. There was another man in the room. I was too young to read but Great Uncle Mole told me that was Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen who had invented the X-ray.

I can’t have been much older when one of the best treats was the annual trek to the shoe shop in Bern. There was a special machine a bit like a pulpit that you stepped up to and slid your hindpaw through a curtained slot. At the top were sort of viewing frames like those that allow you to see through periscopes in submarines. There were three of these: one for the sales creature, one for Mama and one for me. And looking down I could see all the bones in my paw. The Swiss went in for these scientific fitting machines in a big way and had at least five times as many per capita as England where they were made.

But for us nippers these pedoscopes were pure entertainment, as X-rays had been in the 1890s when they had just been invented and did the rounds of fairgrounds; another wonder of the modern age like the moving images and the disembodied voices of Marconi’s wireless. The new technology even became part of the repertoire of films like The X-Rays (1897) which disconcerted bashful beings and encouraged unscrupulous companies to advertise X-ray proof linings so that their modesty might be protected.

I was enchanted by this seeing inside myself until one midsummer I was taken to the apartment of an elderly friend in the old town where, from her drawing room windows, if we peered through the geraniums onto the Münsterplatz, we would have a perfect view of a rare performance of the Totentanz. It was dusk and, to the background of much drumming, skeletons in black-hooded cloaks danced about and felled one dignitary after another with their great scythes.

I may not have that quite right as I had my eyes scrunched shut for much of the time. It scared me half to death. In fact Death suddenly became a real thing, the stuff of nightmares, and the thought of my hind paw as seen in the pedoscope now felt as foreboding as it had for poor Frau Röntgen when she saw her hand on the first X-ray photograph ever taken.

When did it change again? When did I begin seeing skeletons as the wonderful structures they are, the foundation of our skipping, dancing, burrowing selves?

The simplicity of it.

And now time to return to the oeuvre, to peer at it, through it, find its skeleton.

Victory Loops

Once, a very long time ago – before I was even born, Uncle Ratty took his life into his paws and went for a jaunt in Sir Toad’s biplane. It nearly killed Great Uncle Mole. I know this, because the adventure was one of Uncle Ratty’s favourite stories (and had I not met the elderly Sir Toad, I might have suspected him of embellishment), but if ever he told me about it we had to be sure Great Uncle Mole was nowhere within earshot.

Toad piloted with more panache than skill. The higher the risk the more he revelled in it. He had no concept of tomorrow; caution bored him witless. Although a virtual novice he went in for victory loops and fancy spins, half rolls and crazy eights – he flew within a whisker of steeples and terrified cattle as he all but shaved their coats.

Of course the story would have thrilled any nipper but its real danger only impressed itself upon me one afternoon when Uncle Ratty and I had come in from a kite-flying expedition and, one thing leading to another, he began to regale me again with his death-defying adventure. As he flung his paws about describing the way the plane had appeared to be heading straight for the local library, nose first, there was a sudden crash from a darkish corner of the room, followed by a thump. The crash was Engineering in Ancient Greece; the thump was Great Uncle Mole from whose paws the volume had slipped as he slithered to the ground and joined it. Between us Uncle Ratty and I pulled him into his chair. His pelt already flecked with grey appeared to pale before our eyes.
I was sent to the cellar to retrieve the cognac.

Moles are most comfortable under the earth and close to home. The air is an alien element. Besides, I later discovered, poor old Great Uncle Mole had watched the plane and its antics from the from the ground, seen it flip and weave and then the finale when Sir Toad steered it straight for the river in an attempt, he later said, to fly it under the bridge. Great Uncle Mole had nursed Uncle Ratty as he recovered from a broken shoulder and three cracked ribs, but it was really he who had most suffered from the after-effects.

As if my intrinsic molehood were not enough to give me the wobbles whenever I board an aeroplane, Great Uncle Mole’s deathly visage tends to insinuate itself as soon as we bump along the runway.

But it didn’t happen when I took to the air a few days ago. For a while on this flight we were in the clouds, a space where neither what we had left nor where we were heading was visible. Above the clouds we were in a serenity of blue. And when we descended back down and the clouds gave way to a clear view of the world below I was not wobbled by the distance between myself and the comforting earth but awed by the view, as Uncle Ratty said he had been. Although he only spoke of flying as if his whole experience had been that first one with Sir Toad, I can’t believe that on that occasion he could have done anything beyond holding onto his seat and keep his internal organs intact. It must have a been on a different occasion, and certainly with a different pilot, that he had time to philosophise about being able to see the relationship between things, of being able to see Toad Hall and the forest and the snaking of the river and the railway line, the market towns and the city, and somehow being above rather than lost in what a chum of his called the kesselgarten, the hubbub on the ground.

It is so rare to get this overview. Within minutes of admiring the coast and the green hills and parched paddocks we were on the tarmac, and it came to me how very, very close to the ground we are, even on our hindlegs. And as I stood near the baggage conveyer I was reminded of how those of us who are short, and stout to boot, rarely get any line of vision at all. And how quickly on the ground we are reabsorbed into the minutiae of life.

I am back in my daily mole-self, in danger of seeing only the muddle in front of my snout. The earth is my element but something of the air lingers enticingly. Pen in paw, I think about this thing I am trying to write, lift myself a little above its individual words, see if I can imagine from the sky.

And perhaps with a victory loop or two.

On Enticing a Murmur

Sometimes a murmur comes to me almost fully formed. More often it is enticed by an overheard scrap of conversation, or a painting, or a word, or two: random words, weird words, archaic words, foreign words. Mid murmur my burrow is often strewn with open dictionaries, glossaries, lexicons, Dudens, larousses, etymologies. Or it may appear spectre-like while I am rummaging in the cellar where strange, half-remembered objects turn up in unexpected places.

At other times no murmur comes at all. There is no tickle in the snout as there might be were a sneeze to announce itself. There is no humming of the wires anticipating a telegraph or cloud that might augur rain. The murmur is nowhere within cooee. In my bleakest moments I wonder whether the murmur has wrung itself dry.

I go to my desk, sharpen my quill, grit my teeth – grind them even – with concentration. My paws are clenched with effort, a furrow of pelt has can be discerned along my scowl-line.

Please, I implore the murmur, please, please. Come ON, I urge, the ticking weight of a clock heavy on my shoulders. I fall to my knees in supplication. And when, finally, I feel as if I have exhausted all deities I struggle upright again.

Nothing. Nichts. Nada.

I pout. Blasted murmur. Where are you when I need you.

I stomp about a bit and hmmph.

Night falls. I tell myself, there must be a murmur somewhere.

Is it possible that it is not the murmur that is at fault. Maybe it had to leave the molebody to survive. Could it be that during the light, bright hot summer I have not provided the fertile ground a murmur needs in order to thrive.

There has to be a lightness of ear, of touch, of ear. It won’t do to look too hard, try too hard, want too hard. For once I have set that looking, trying, wanting too hard in motion I have the tenacity, less of a mole than of a terrier. I will clutch with such desperation at an idea that when the time comes to play with it I find I have throttled it with my bare paws.

If I am not being tenacious I lurch into the opposite extreme and find myself fidgeting. Almost any kind of distraction will do: worry distractions that roam pointlessly between the sky falling in and whether I will miss the post, or mind-numbing distractions like puzzles or checking the letter-box or adjusting my chair. The only distractions that work are those expeditionary ones that flow from an engaged mind.

I have to remove the ‘I’ for a murmur to be enticed. If a patience can be cultivated, a sense of timelessness, a murmur might nibble, and once it has nibbled only gentle attentiveness will allow it to flourish.

The equinox has come, the nights are longer, the air is cooler. I can feel in my mole-bones that the time for murmuring is returning.

Smoke

Yesterday afternoon (although it may have been any afternoon, or morning, or evening; the phenomenon occurs with such quotidian regularity), I realised that I was finding it difficult to see the words on the page I was reading. It was as if something had come between me and the book; a sort of sea fog, except there was none of that salty dampness about it.

Only seconds before, it could have been longer — I did seem to have read four chapters in the interval — my snout was twitching with the aroma of a cheesy leek and potato pie.

My eyes began to smart, my throat was rough. The conductivity of the wires that connect my snout to my brain leaves a lot to be desired, but the blackening fog made reading impossible and I began to open my mind to the outside world.

It’s not just pies. I might be stirring a sauce and a thought will butterfly its way into my mind and I find I have teleported to the cellar and am reading letters from Mathilde’s Great Aunt. Or I’m running a bath and it is only when I see manuscript pages floating down the corridor that I am nudged away from a thesaurus and begin to register that once, a long time ago, I had started a process and this was the outcome.

My Mama, who was much less inclined to abandon the task in hand, had a battery of pingers that she would set to keep tabs on her various activities. There would be one ticking away for a cake in the oven, another for when one nipper had to be picked up from Kindergarten, a third for how long a larger nipper had to keep at his times tables, and a fourth for timing a telephone conversation. The days that were most dominated by pingers were those when it was our turn to use the washing machine. The laundry was in the cellar of our six family burrow and had a tightly regulated roster. The pinger on the three-weekly two-day allocations went off at 90 minute intervals.

In summer the laundry could be hung outside, but in the darkest days of winter it had to hang in the cold, windless drying rooms in the cellar. It was trickier to find a mnemonic that took in the measure of drying time. And being a foreign mole she was scrupulous about not exceeding her allocation — although she eventually took to slipping in a wash or two on Sundays which was strengstens verboten.

In her latter years, the pingers became bewildering: reminders that something needed to be remembered, but what that thing was losing itself somewhere in the ether. She devised a different system, sometimes involving the pingers, sometimes not.

If my Mama found thoughts and times and plans and decisions increasingly difficult she made up for it with an astounding visual memory, especially if that memory was geographically located. If you mentioned a stroll, undertaken once in an unfamiliar location, she could tell you about white fences, strange door handles, a holly bush, a yellow bucket and a woman singing and where they all were in relation to each other.

And so she devised a system of cards, favourites culled from birthdays and Christmases. Martini’s Angel of the Annunciation was placed on her pillow in her bedroom whenever something associated with the laundry had to be remembered. A Flemish still life, perhaps Brueghel the Elder, was placed on the steps in the kitchen as a reminder that the rubbish had to be put out. A Japanese woodcut on the chest in the hallway became the trigger that it was her turn to sweep the stairwell.

As I scrub the encrusted cinders from the saucepan of my most recent disaster, and remember a smokey, ashy meal, I wonder whether I could adopt her strategy; after all, this protracted post-disaster scrubbing eats into valuable reading time. Would I remember why I’d placed these cards in strange places? Would anywhere in my image-strewn burrow stand out from anything else?

Perhaps what I really need to do is nurture a habit of attentiveness.