What I can’t seem to make people understand is this. My childhood was idyllic. And no, this is not some kind of inverse false memory, sugar-coating the insufferable, I am not in denial, and I am not speaking out of loyalty. Well, the last perhaps a little. But it WAS idyllic, and I still feel sorry for children who don’t have that kind of childhood. I’m not necessarily saying it was right, but it was idyllic.
I grew up in a world with waterfalls and wildflower meadows and fluttering snowflakes and sparkling sunbeams. There were always cute, mischievous kittens and faithful, funny puppies to play with, and someone to read us stories, and sing us songs. I can’t recall a voice being raised in anger, or someone saying something that was mean. As we grew a little older we looked forward to going to school, and to singing in the choir, and to going on hikes through the countryside. We could climb hills that challenged us but without ever being in any danger, and swim in seas that were unpolluted, looking at little boats bobbing in the distance.
I have two main counsellors, Marion and Samuel. I’ve only recently learnt the phrase “good cop, bad cop” (we did have police, but they were our friends and helpers, and crime was one of those words that we just didn’t mention because it was irrelevant) and I think it’s very over-simplistic for the situation, but I suppose if I had to I would say that Samuel likes playing good cop and Marion casts herself as bad cop. I think even Marion realised she had overstepped the mark when she exclaimed, “Dear God, Helen, it sounds like North Korea!” I have had a lot of learning to do (though I still sometimes think I would have managed perfectly well without it) but wasn’t sure what she meant, so I looked it up on the Internet (which is what they call their own version of Maginfo) and wished she had been there because with one of these new, strange emotions I am discovering (and I still don’t know if I think that’s a good thing or not) I would have angrily exclaimed, “It was absolutely nothing like North Korea!”
The trouble was, it would only have made her smile one of those smiles that are more fake than anything I ever saw before I came here, and say, “Now we’re making progress”.
At first I vastly preferred Samuel because he was gentle and softly-spoken and more what I was used to. But now I find it grates on me when he says in that quiet, “seeing your point of view” voice that “I can quite see there are things there that are splendid, and I wouldn’t mind going there for a holiday myself, to be honest. But it didn’t give you any chance to grow.”
Well, I thought that was a slightly ridiculous statement. If anything I’m slightly above average height. I heard him on the phone the other day when he’d forgotten to quite close the door of his office before I was due for an appointment. And I’ve realised that while I don’t have any kind of supernatural powers, my hearing is a bit sharper than most folks have here – perhaps because I’m used for listening out for small, sweet noises of nature. “Yes, I’m seeing Helen in a couple of minutes. You’re right. She’s a tricky one to know how to deal with. I’m as sure as you ever can be that she hasn’t been abused or traumatised in any way. And though there are obviously massive gaps in her knowledge, she’s highly intelligent, too. But she has been living in this weird parallel universe, and I can’t seem to make her realise that.”
For the first time in my life, I wanted to shout. I wanted to hammer on his door and shout, “That’s not some weird parallel universe! That’s my home, you condescending twit!” Condescending and twit are both words that have recently entered my vocabulary, and though I often wish they’d never had to, they’re useful ones to know and have a satisfying sound. But it would NOT have had a satisfying outcome as he would have considered it progress.
Yesterday we had a conversation that went round in circles about dates and the calendar. I was beginning to think that at last I was getting through to him on this, and that he had finally grasped that no, it wasn’t like other religions that had their own calendar to mark their own festivals and traditions (and I wasn’t disappointed – he dutifully added “as, of course, is entirely right in a multi-cultural society) but still, even if they were quite fundamentalist in their beliefs, had long since come to terms with arranging most of their lives round the “usual” calendar, as he called it.
He had indicated what we might be talking about at the previous meeting, though in that casual way of his, that I trusted for at least a month, and I decided it was best to be forearmed. I spent a very interesting, if puzzling, afternoon on the Internet, and was ready for him when he looked very wise and as if he’d had what I’ve discovered folk here call a “light bulb” moment (he’d quite possibly been looking at some of the same websites I had) and said, “Ah, I’m beginning to understand now! It was – along the lines of the French Revolutionary calendar!” I let him explain what I already knew, and then he looked at me with an expression that reminded me of my puppy Pippa, though not nearly as appealing, somehow melding with those pictures I’ve seen of Albert Einstein. “I suppose you could say it was something along those lines,” I said, and the “puppy” half of the expression took precedence. But it showed that we weren’t really speaking the same language. He took it to mean agreement, maybe reluctant, but a “breakthrough”. What he didn’t understand is that when we say “I suppose you could say it was something along those lines” then it means that we can’t see a way of agreeing, not at the moment, and it’s unfortunate, and not helping anyone, but the best thing to do is to make a gracious retreat and change the subject. To have good manners, and not “fray the fabric”. I used that expression the other day and he said, “That’s an interesting idiom, Helen!” I could see that he meant it, and didn’t disillusion him by pointing out that if we had ever been so rude as to accuse another of using clichés, then that phrase may have been cause to do it.
I suppose that on the tiniest skim of the surface veneer there is “something along those lines” even in Samuel speak. But there are a million more differences. And no, of course I could not enumerate them, but I’m picking up the habit people have here of using massive numbers loosely. The difference that matters least is that our calendar only had eight divisions. That’s purely arbitrary and of no especial significance. The thing is about the French Revolutionary calendar; even when it was in full force, and officially imposed, most people simply never used it in their everyday life. It was an artificial construct, and short-lived. True, you can still find timepieces that use it, or even that use both, and I believe they’re worth a fortune, and some of the months’ names live on in things as diverse as a way of cooking seafood and a novel by a gentleman called Emile Zola. In our world, there simply WAS no other calendar. It wasn’t an offence, or a social gaffe, even to refer to another one, it just wasn’t there to refer to.
There are more superficial similarities, I suppose, in the naming of the months (though we didn’t call them months that often). The weather and the elements and the natural world were invoked. But in our world there were only good and sweet and welcome things - Glittertime, Glowtime, Freshtime, Mellowtime - just plucking out the words seems to make them resonate in my mind. And if rain fell, unexpectedly, perhaps, but was needed, we would say things like, “Freshtime has come in Glowtime,” and marvel at it and accept it. We knew we were looked after and knew we looked after each other. There was no fog, though we all loved the magical mist that filled mornings, especially in Glowtime, with colour and enigma and a touch of coolness.
They are keen to boast about the wonders of their Internet here (though they are aware of what they call its “dark side” - so why don’t they just get rid of it?) but I still hesitate to entirely trust it, though I am obliged to use it in order to convince them I am making “progress” - and yes, out of a certain curiosity. But it’s still absurd - they give space and credence to people who believe that the world is flat (when even the tiniest child knows it is a precious and perfect sphere) and to cults who say the world will end tomorrow even though they appear to have been saying that about every day for decades or even centuries. We would never allow such nonsense and such gloominess, so Marion has no need to put her superior face on and talk in that considerate and condescending way of hers.
The one thing that I thought we might have in common was being animal lovers, though of course I cannot imagine how or why anyone would not be. But it seems some people here feel that way. She has a picture on her desk of her kitten Kitty (which I don’t think is the world’s most original name, but there’s no point to saying something unkind when it serves no purpose!). And to be frank Kitty is - well, the strangest looking kitten I have ever seen. She is far too big - most ungainly! I know this for a fact because she is pictured beside a gate, and gates seem to be pretty much the same size here. But it’s not only that - I don’t want to say she is ugly, because nature is beautiful thing, but - well, one thing we do know is how to be polite, and that was exactly what I meant when I said, “She’s a very big kitten, Marion!”
She gave me one of her strange looks. Only once, so far as I can recall, has she said, “You never cease to surprise me,” but her “never cease to surprise me” LOOK is another matter. I’m learning quickly, and often know what to avoid, but this time I couldn’t for the life of me see what I’d said “wrong”.
“Why do you call her a kitten, Helen?” she asked.
“Because - that’s what she is!”
“No, that’s what she WAS.”
“I have always had a kitten, and that is what she IS.” Now her expression was getting more complex. She was possibly “pleased” I was arguing (or would make out she was), wary about one of those conversations that go round in circles, and anticipating something that was going to be awkward.
“But - when your kittens grow up, Helen …..” She paused, and after a couple of seconds asked me to look at a picture on her computer.
“What’s that?” she asked. Well, I was feeling as if I were in infant school, but replied patiently, “That’s a puppy.”
“No, Helen - it’s a dog. This is going to be a bit upsetting for you, I’m afraid, and - I may as well admit, its upsetting for me. Kittens and puppies grow up, you know. Like us. I wouldn’t call you a baby, would I?”
You might as well, sometimes, I thought, but only said, “That’s not the same thing.”
“It - is, you know. And you know we grow old and -”
“And go to the stars,” I said, using our usual phrase.
“If that is your belief system, then of course I respect it but - oh dear, this really is rather complicated. “ I didn’t think it complicated at all, but the trouble is, I can’t get it out of my mind. I have this horrid feeling that there is another conversation coming and that I am not going to like it, and that no matter how much I say I (to myself, of course!) that I don’t really believe it, part of me will. Or at any rate, not be able to get it out of my head.
I have been spared their ministrations today, and pretty much for the last week, as it seems to be their version of Feasttime, and they certainly give gifts and decorate their houses and offices, which, again, is familiar and not familiar. Some of the more pious celebrate a birth - and I do seem to recall that something of the kind was in the book we had at junior school called, “Good People and Good Examples”. I like some of the music they play.
But this concept of ending everything and beginning everything is alien to me, and as for this business with Resolutions, we were taught to be good and to mean well all year round. And even Samuel makes light of the idea of breaking them, though he says he is going to do something called “Dry January” - which I must not forget is one of their months.
Even though it’s an alien thing to me, I suppose if I were to make one of their resolutions, it would be to accept, at least for a while, that things are as they are. That doesn’t mean I’m ever going to forget our ways, or stop working out how to get back home. But I’ll even try to start using their strange, confusing dates, and the like. Bide my time.
But not tonight. Tonight I want nothing to do with their weird, stodgy, superficial calendar and their fixation with endings and beginnings and curious habit of almost glorifying in promises they know they’re not going to keep.
Tonight I am going to curl up on my mattress, and close my eyes, and will myself into a place where the glories of glowtime and sparkletime are combined, just as they sometimes are, and the magic mist is making rainbows in the waterfall, and there are no large, sad, puppies and kittens.
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crazy good very well written
Thank you so much, Advit!
Engagingly different, and written so well.
Thank you so much for your kind words, Pamela!