Every Sodding Thing

Andrew O’Hagan

‘In a way he was like the country he lived in, everything came too easily to him.’ Mrs McFarlane told me she heard someone say this in a movie. There was nothing in the movie that wasn’t just rubbish, she said. But the afternoon she heard those people talking on the screen it made her upset and she said it was bad for her to get upset.

It was all to do with the Living Channel. (A nightmare if you ask me: a television station devoted to making people feel crap about their domestic circumstances.) The Living Channel came on in the morning and everybody was suddenly enthusiastic about fancy cakes and the latest in babies’ names. Mrs McFarlane’s son Angus got the dish put up as an early Christmas present – a gift of gab – and ever since that day the wallpaper had seemed wrong, the dishwasher out of date, and Mrs McFarlane’s face made up of wrinkles, the kind of wrinkles, she now suspected, which required the special properties of a miracle cream invented by some guy at Nasa whose face got burned in an accident. Lying in her bed at night she could see the dish jutting out from the side of her building. She could see the sky out there.

Her bed came from the Kays catalogue and the lamp was from a thing called Innovations. It had a timer that turned the lamp off after half an hour. It merely clicked: the bedroom went dark and she said she fell asleep thinking about the bloke with the sore face who had made a million dollars from seaweed cream. There were televisions through the wall; she could hear them blaring as she drifted off. Sometimes she dreamed of the sound of wind coming through the keyhole, or another noise, a sonar pulse, like you heard in old movies about what happened to the submarines during the war. All the connections in her life were a bit like this, baffling, half-loony, tried and tested, a bit furious, but good company as she lay in her bed.

Mrs McFarlane was 82 and she travelled up and down the stairs in a Stannah Stairlift. I only came round to check she was all right and give her a covered dinner and a bag of magazines. While I was there she would tell me everything that happened in her life. She told me about the Living Channel and the film she watched. She said she had thoughts about the man from Nasa and the special face cream. She talked all the time about noises through the walls and dirty children who knocked on her window at all hours and ran away laughing.

‘You’ve a lovely cow’s lick,’ she said to me. ‘People used to try and brush them out but I’d say show them off, they’re lovely.’

‘You’re a frightful fidget, Mrs McFarlane,’ I said. ‘Watch yourself with that cup, it’s boiling hot.’

‘I don’t feel the hot of things now,’ she said, ‘not like I used to. It used to be I wouldn’t have thanked you for a cup of something hot. Every time it touched the mouth it would scald the tongue off me. I just drank water out the tap, which they now say is good for the skin, but then it was only water, and no better or worse than anything else. Except tea. I won’t take tea. Hot drinks can burn your insides if you’re not careful.’

‘Take it easy,’ I said. ‘Anything in the magazines?’

‘Go into that drawer will you and get me a handkerchief. Third one along, that’s the one. They’re all clean.’ Mrs McFarlane had chests of drawers all over the house. It was all proper wood. Every drawer was stuffed with tablecloths and skirts she never wore. More than one of the drawers in her bedroom was kept for handkerchiefs.

‘There’s never anything in them magazines,’ she said, ‘except holidays. I like the holiday ones, with Spain and that. You can go to Spain now as if it was Scarborough. For the price of the bus fare and a flask of something nice I’m telling you. They all go to Spain now as if it was nothing. They all love Spain.’

‘Not just Spain,’ I said. ‘Some people go to New York just to visit the shops of a weekend.’

‘They should be shot down with slings,’ said Mrs McFarlane. ‘You don’t get anywhere by just flying about the place. My Angus went to Southend to buy me a telephone table and I said: “Angus,” I said, “you can get that out the catalogue, you’ve no business driving the van to Southend.” You can even ring the free number and you don’t need a stamp or fuss of any kind. The catalogue brings the thing to the door and they even put it in for you, upstairs and everything.’

‘You wouldn’t say no to a bit of Spain, though, would you?’ I said.

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