Thursday, July 13, 2017


Above my 1-bedroom flat on the estate there is another 1-bedroom flat, which is occupied by Jan, a sweet-natured girl of around 40, but with a terrible past. Her flat is usually quite social. For several weeks during this hot summer Jan's flat contained her untamed daughter Sophia along with grandson Lewis. (They came on a week's visit, but stayed the month.) This was in addition to the normal complement:  Jan's new bloke -- a merry, laughing soul whose name I've yet to learn --- Jan's 18-year-old son Matt, Matt's uncle, Matt's best mate, and not forgetting the pit bull terrier Yorkie, an amiable but nervous animal with a background, as Jan said to me, almost as troubled as her own.

There was a lot of noise and a lot of chaos, most of it down to Lewis, an independent four-year-old who seemed to have no prior acquaintance with concepts such as bed-time, private property or prohibitions. But despite the trials of Lewis, and despite all the usual quota of animated disagreements, it was obvious that Jan was in a good place. She even works three days a week now, and I hear her singing along to R'n'B on the computer.

Completely different to the dark-ringed ghost I first knew, trapped in a desperate relationship with a junkie who spent all her money.  All through the night they talked, and always with the same outcome: he'd got nowhere else to go. Sometimes he'd go to a hostel for a few days, but then he'd come and plead and the kind-hearted Jan would have him back.

Meanwhile, downstairs, I drift back late from the office or from evenings out, and spend an hour in the luxury of silence and solitude. I read a little Spanish poetry, play a tune on the guitar, smoke, add a note in my blog and drop exhausted into bed.

And I wonder at how they can all stand it, upstairs. The thought crosses my mind that co-habiting is, when all's said and done, an adaptation for poverty.

(You may object that it's for bringing up a family, but that's a kind of poverty too. Or at least, they tend to go together!)


‘Oh, of course,’ said Mr Dombey. ‘I desire to make it a question of wages, altogether. Now, Richards, if you nurse my bereaved child, I wish you to remember this always. You will receive a liberal stipend in return for the discharge of certain duties, in the performance of which, I wish you to see as little of your family as possible. When those duties cease to be required and rendered, and the stipend ceases to be paid, there is an end of all relations between us. Do you understand me?’
Mrs Toodle [Dombey chooses to call her "Richards"] seemed doubtful about it; and as to Toodle himself, he had evidently no doubt whatever, that he was all abroad.
‘You have children of your own,’ said Mr Dombey. ‘It is not at all in this bargain that you need become attached to my child, or that my child need become attached to you. I don’t expect or desire anything of the kind. Quite the reverse. When you go away from here, you will have concluded what is a mere matter of bargain and sale, hiring and letting: and will stay away. The child will cease to remember you; and you will cease, if you please, to remember the child.’
Mrs Toodle, with a little more colour in her cheeks than she had had before, said ‘she hoped she knew her place.’
‘I hope you do, Richards,’ said Mr Dombey. ‘I have no doubt you know it very well. Indeed it is so plain and obvious that it could hardly be otherwise. Louisa, my dear, arrange with Richards about money, and let her have it when and how she pleases. Mr what’s-your name, a word with you, if you please!’
Thus arrested on the threshold as he was following his wife out of the room, Toodle returned and confronted Mr Dombey alone. He was a strong, loose, round-shouldered, shuffling, shaggy fellow, on whom his clothes sat negligently: with a good deal of hair and whisker, deepened in its natural tint, perhaps by smoke and coal-dust: hard knotty hands: and a square forehead, as coarse in grain as the bark of an oak. A thorough contrast in all respects, to Mr Dombey, who was one of those close-shaved close-cut moneyed gentlemen who are glossy and crisp like new bank-notes, and who seem to be artificially braced and tightened as by the stimulating action of golden showerbaths.
‘You have a son, I believe?’ said Mr Dombey.
‘Four on ‘em, Sir. Four hims and a her. All alive!’
‘Why, it’s as much as you can afford to keep them!’ said Mr Dombey.
‘I couldn’t hardly afford but one thing in the world less, Sir.’
‘What is that?’
‘To lose ‘em, Sir.’

(from Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son Chapter 2)


I remember reading about certain migratory seabirds, perhaps it was Arctic Terns, who return to the same coastal rock year after year, after almost circumnavigating the globe. They pair for life, but so strong is the instinct for personal space, that when they return in spring after almost a year apart, it takes a long time for them to settle and to allow their mate near them, and during this period they repeatedly ward each other off, stabbing with their fierce bills.

Birds normally have a high stress level leading to an easily triggered flight response (the chemical in question is corticosterone). That's useful for survival at most times of year. But in order to allow them to get on with nesting and mating early in the year, the birds are able to cut their normal corticosterone production by about 50%.



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