The second law of thermodynamics states that the universe is tending towards a state of unbridled atrophy and yet, all around me, I see order being imposed. New streets with their traffic-controlled vehicles, two coloured malls, boxy factories, flower beds in X arrangements with pink paths bisecting them, litter bins at regular intervals, the new flats all with white curtains because a by-law says to use colour lowers the tone of the place…. Where have the fields I used to play in as a girl gone? The wild flowers have all been replaced by primulas evenly spaced in rows. Progress. I sometimes wonder where all that entropy is building up. At the back of my sister´s wardrobe probably. And why so much symmetry? A thousand year old oak is a far cry from symmetrical and we find it beautiful but when we build we find it so difficult to get away from the “front door in the middle, window on either side, chimney pot in the middle of the roof” drawings we did when we were five. And I´m no better. Can´t walk by a squinty picture without “righting” it. I´m doing my best though. Not in a flat, I am not bound by white curtains so in my new place I went out on a limb with my bedroom curtains. No longer a slave to “one and a half to two times the width of the window in fabric” rufflette tape curtains, I have embraced the new trend to have “flat” curtains. They look like panels. And I have turned things on their head by making the hem curved into a gothic arch. Okay, so still symmetrical, but then I topped it off with a rakish asymmetrical swag in a contrasting colour. Both fabrics out the remnants bin. It cost next to nothing. Mind you, I´m not altogether convinced that I have pulled it off but it is a talking point when friends come round. And I rag rolled the walls. Terribly messy while you´re doing it but it looks good. I never was into wallpaper with its carefully repeating pattern that your eye somehow always seeks out. A friend of mine once sent me a photo. It was of a living room with blue walls with a floral pattern, blue carpet in another floral pattern and a three piece suite in a third blue floral pattern. At the head of the room was a Welsh dresser with, of course, blue and white china, and three large photographs – one of Roddy graduating, one of Roddy meeting the Duke of Edinburgh and one of Roddy meeting the Pope. On the back Roddy had written “My mum”. A smashing woman apparently, but rather a strain to live with. Come to think of it, one of my first decorating attempts was with rotational symmetry. Very daring. We´d been given a chair by friends of ours who got it from the Social and I stripped it, stained it and upholstered it in patchwork I made from Laura Ashley remnants my sister had bought and never used. Cost almost nothing. I thought rotational symmetry would be subtler than the usual reflectional and it was. Most people thought it was random, but I knew the pattern was there. Now it´s all the rage to upholster with patchwork but thirty odd years ago it was very original, or odd depending on your point of view.
Sometimes it feels like it´s all one huge jigsaw puzzle and I´m trying to fit in and help the pattern. I have a distant cousin who had four children, one of whom was blind, deaf, dumb, paralysed and had fits thanks to a pregnancy toxoplasmosis. Trish said her whole day was a jigsaw puzzle where she had a set number of things to do in a set order, in a set way and in a set time and no room to go sideways or the day would collapse in a mess. The kid died in the end, otherwise I think Trish would have. I´m not like that. My constraints are of a more, dare I say it, neurotic nature. Not that I´m neurotic. Well, only slightly and not nearly as neurotic as several I could name. Plus, some of my strange habits or compulsions are merely tricks I do to keep things running smoothly. For example, I lock the car door with the key, not pressing down the button on the door. This is because, before I acquired the habit, I locked myself out time and again. Same goes with the house. I stand in the open doorway and open the keys compartment of my handbag and check, visually because you can´t do it just by feel, that I have my keys, even if I have just put them into my handbag two minutes before. I can´t trust myself to get it right without these little disciplines. And the counting, well I suppose that´s just left over from when I was little and had just learnt to count and I counted everything, and, well, it never really stopped. And what´s wrong with knowing how many stairs there are up to the bathroom in your friend´s house, or how many palings along the fence going down to the station? It does no-one any harm. I´ve stopped myself counting the arrows on the curves on the roads, at least when I´m driving. And I suppose I got to counting in groups of four from the music. It´s a very comfortable rhythm and makes the counting easier. Sometimes when I´ve been distracted I can mentally go back over whatever it was that wanted counting and feel how many groups of sixteen and four there were and how many odd ones at the end and then I know the number. And there´s nothing wrong with being clean. It´s not as if I polish the coal. Yes, I´m neat and tidy. Big deal. Sharing a room with my sister one of us had to be and it´s not taken to extremes. I don´t think I have one of those houses where visitors feel uncomfortable because it´s like a hospital. Yes, I have easy clean surfaces and no ornaments because it makes my life easier. And when all your things are organised in cupboards, say in boxes with labels on the outside, you can find everything straight away. No hassle. It all came about so I wouldn´t lose things. It´s common sense really. No mental illness. Of course I did get a bit low that couple of times, but anyone would have, given the circumstances and I weathered it out, didn´t I?
Talking of patterns and fits (I´m a mental grasshopper even if I seem disciplined in other ways) I recently got a “fit” to something that had been lurking in the back of my brain for forty odd years. You know when something happens and you realise you´re not getting it? You´re missing some information or you´re too young to make sense of it all? And it niggles at the back of your brain? Well, more than forty years ago I remember us all being at my Granny´s and, as usual she´d laid on a big spread complete with cock-a-leekie soup and I was coming out of the tiny kitchen with the soup plates and I was told not to bring one for my Granny because she didn´t eat soup. It was strange. Cutting down on spuds or not liking Brussel sprouts, okay, but to refuse soup, all soup? It didn´t make sense. I made a comment about how strange it was when she made such great soups and I can´t say I thought no more about it, but I never did work it out. Well, just a few months ago I met my cousin Elaine, first time in about twenty years, and as usual we didn´t have very much to say to each other except for she came out with the fact that our great grandmother, Granny´s mother, had died in the poorhouse. Plus she was adopted so it turned out we weren´t related to Rob Roy after all. It took a few months before the penny dropped. Granny was in the poorhouse too, with her mother, being fed soup and bread day in, day out. And that day in the kitchen suddenly made sense.
It´s like that time in Grandma Colquhoun´s attic after she died and my father, uncle and I were going through her things. So many inconsequential bits of bric a brac, broken kitchen implements, including a machine to turn butter back into cream, “novelties” that had had their day fifty years before and a whole stack of presents she´d received, still in their shop wrappings to “keep good”. One of them was serviettes with a message printed on them, “So nice to see you Ethel”. We didn´t know any other Ethel to give them to. What a shame she never got to enjoy all those things. (She could always have cleaned the windows with the serviettes if she didn´t like them). Well, it´s not all that stuff I´m talking about. It was the violin. I have the vaguest memories of that attic, I was only ten and I was up there just the once, but I remember where it was my uncle found the violin, and later watching him in the parlour by the window, in a jungle of aspidistra and other Amazonian species, taking the violin out the case. He stood between me and the window – yon lovely old sash ones with the stained glass art nouveau at the top. Outside it was a grey and drizzly January afternoon. The case was canvas covered and thick with years of dust with the leather hasps all cracked and when Uncle Neil took the violin out the strings were frayed and broken and the bow in tatters. The moment was charged with an emotion I couldn´t understand but it had nothing to do with my Grandma´s death. It was twenty years later when I heard the story and everything fell into place. Grandma had sent the boys to piano lessons as she herself played piano very well and it was her favourite instrument, but Neil had always wanted to play the violin. He did well at the piano, he was musical, but it was always second best for him. Now, my Grandma´s sister was childless, having miscarried her baby when told of her husband´s death in the Somme, and she always took an interest in her sister´s children, despite having a none too comfortable relationship with her sister. It was only natural. And one year she pulled out all the stops and gave Neil a violin for his birthday. My Grandma seized it and said “You´ll get it once you´ve learnt to play the piano”. The next time he saw it was that day in the attic.
My goodness, if anyone treated my Ava like that. She got structure when she was growing up, not psychological sadism. Kids like structure. She´s not musical at all but we gave her a secondhand bass guitar when she asked for it and after it lay around doing nothing for a couple of years we sold it for quite a good price. You can´t force these things. She never did care for the piano or even classical music. I try not to play Bach when she´s around. She says it makes her hair curl. I think my father was no great shakes with the piano, actually. I never knew him to play from a score. He played very rarely and always by ear. But then, he had earned his privileges. I was forbidden to not use a score or to even look down at the keyboard and there was no playing by ear for me. No fooling around and having fun. It was a serious business. And, of course, I had a set amount of time to practise each day and a set time to do it. I remember the swimming lessons too. I had to lie across a dining room chair and practise the breaststroke during the week and once a week we would go to the actual baths. I would have to practise my swimming strokes in the shallow end, in my rubber ring for the first year and then later without it. Of course, I was outstandingly bad at anything sporty so it was always two strokes and a bubble followed by the usual ritual humiliation. Every week I ended up in disgrace, sitting crying on the edge of the pool. Sometimes I was so cold I turned blue and the lifeguard would tell him to get me out and dried. And he wouldn´t give up. Five years of this weekly torture plus the straddling the dining room chair to practise when not in the water. When I was ten I was taken to free lessons at a local pool. My mother was sure I´d learn because the teacher was just like my father. At the end of the week they had us all go in the pool one at a time and a man with a clipboard put a tick or a cross by our name. I got a cross, of course. Then something magical happened. We were allowed to play and splash about in the water for half an hour, no-one forcing us to practise or anything. And I learnt to swim! Half an hour of faffing about and I got the knack. I ended up rather good actually. My mother always told people my father taught me.
Ava´s naturally good at sport although she doesn´t practise anything like as much as I think she should. She always says, “Mum, it´s just for a bit of fun. I´m not training for the Olympics”, but I think she could have got somewhere if only she´d kept at it. My Uncle Neil swam for Scotland. Now, I didn´t end up a concert pianist but with all the years of practice and discipline I can play quite well and enjoy it, even if I can´t play by ear, by memory or improvise. Maybe I was too soft on Ada. That and no back-up from Len. None whatsoever.
I know Ada could have done better academically. If the two of us hadn´t been living on just my wages she could have gone to university. She had the qualifications – I always made sure she kept up at school. She said she wanted to study business. I´m not sure how you study business actually but she said it was a good degree to get you a job afterwards. Well, she earns okay at the post office. Folks say I should have accepted maintenance from Len and let him have “access”. Access! After everything he´d done to me he was not going to see his wee girl again and that was that! I was not about to sell him “access” for pieces of silver. And we got by, didn´t we? Ada didn´t need him. I was shocked, and really upset when I found out recently that she´d got in touch with him through Facebook and met up with him and everything.
Actually, I think I will relax my grip and put up some ornaments. I have a couple of fossilized ammonites in the back of the cupboard. They´re quite big and very well preserved. I could put them on the mantelpiece. Spiral symmetry I think. Nothing too obvious at any rate.