Saturday, 21 December 2019

Doing It Properly by Ruth Downie - A Story Inspired By A Song

Read the Story
Guess the Song
here's a clue...

Pebbles, Stones, Nature, Rock, Calm

It was silver, but it was obviously a hearse. The big windows gave a fine view of the coffin and the flower display on top: crimson roses, Mum’s favourite.  We followed behind in the funeral car. The only person we passed was a young woman struggling to push a twin buggy up the hill. If she noticed the hearse, she didn’t stop. I didn’t blame her: if she had, she’d have lost all momentum.

Red Rose, Red Rose Bouquet, Valentine'S

My sisters were talking to the driver. I leaned my head against the car window. Two other voices drifted into memory. One was the friend from long ago whose ambition as a new mother was to be able to “push the buggy uphill without sticking my bum out”. The second was Mum.
“People don’t show respect these days, do they? Men used to take off their hats and stand to watch the hearse go by.”
I’d said, “Not many men wear hats these days.”
“You know what I mean.”
She’d been right: I did know what she meant. A lot of things weren’t as good as they used to be. The park, for example.
Mum had - we now have - a faded photo of us and our cousins eating sandwiches on a park bench. Behind us are flowerbeds arranged with military precision. I suppose most of the council’s gardeners had done National Service and understood the meaning of discipline. Now, the keeping of the parks had been handed over to the cheapest private contractor. As Mum observed, there were weeds. There were also patches that hadn’t been mown for weeks. Having read the notice on the gate, I explained, “They’re for wildflowers.”
“Well it looks a terrible mess,” she said. And I had to admit that, compared to Mum’s lawn at home - weeded, fertilised, rolled, spiked and precision-trimmed, it did. Mum’s was a Proper Lawn.

Tulip, Flower, Plant, Bulbous, Blossom

There are people who are born with the desire to Do Things Properly, but for many of us I suspect it comes with age. As the number of things you can still manage to do diminishes, the urge to do them Properly becomes a passion. This is my only explanation for mother’s insistence on ironing socks and underwear. Sometimes I wonder if this apparently futile practice stemmed from the suffering of her father’s generation in the trenches: under attack not only from the German army but also from the lice that teemed in their clothes and could only be exterminated by a hot wash and the ferocious ironing of seams. Almost a hundred years later, this practical expression of love had become a sort of moral duty. It was a chore which brought complaints of exhaustion and frustration - “I’ve got so much ironing to do!” - but my response  of  “Well don’t iron the underwear, then!” was no help at all to a woman who clearly saw proper ironing as a measure of her own worth: not only as a housekeeper, but as a human being.
Running parallel to the urge to Do Things Properly is the urge to Keep Things Under Control. The reason, no doubt, why the unlawned areas of Mum’s garden were a desert of concrete and gravel punctuated by wild explosions of colour in pots that could be reached without too much bending down. The regular attentions of a paid gardener meant that weeds were allowed no purchase. Snails, too, were shown no mercy. Torn between a desire to keep Mum happy and a desire to preserve the planet, I had once tried, “They say slug pellets aren’t very good for wildlife.”
“Oh, I don’t use them much,” she replied, scattering more heaps of blue in the undergrowth. Because, I now realise, pressing ahead was easier than arguing. Because each generation has to put up with young smartarses telling them what’s good for them. Remember when we were all told that if we had to have a car, diesel was the way to go? Now we’ve been told the opposite. Remember when we were told that butter was bad for us, and then told that it wasn’t?

Breakfast, Bread, Butter, Butter, Butter

There comes a point where you get tired of being a feather for each wind that blows. You choose when to harden your opinions and you stick with them. They’ll probably come round again anyway.  Like television repeats. Which reminds me: I’m beginning to see the attraction of watching comedies where you know exactly what’s coming next. Unable to keep up with a world of galloping technology and shifting values, my parents took refuge in Dad’s Army. I plan to spend much of my dotage in the company of Father Ted.
But at what age, though, does standing firm in your views shift into being immune to logic? In seeing a problem where nobody else sees one?
“He’s there again!” Mum would declare, peering out of the front window of the bungalow.
“He keeps parking that car in front of our house!”
“Perhaps he lives here somewhere.”
“There he goes, look! He parks on our side and then he walks across to his own house.”
Mum wasn’t a driver. Naively, I thought that explaining, “If he parks on the other side he’ll block the road,” would satisfy her.
Silly me.
“There he is again! What IS he doing out there?”
I am proud of the fact that I never once said, “Minding his own business.” When I got tired of saying, “Well he’s got to park somewhere,” I usually pretended I hadn’t heard. Until…
The most useful thing I learned from years of answering phones in a Customer Service department was that people want to be taken seriously. No matter how wrong-headed you think their complaint is, it’s important to them. Attempting to trivialise it will only make things worse.  So I should have known better than to ask, “Why does it matter?”
At least I had more sense than to point out that it didn’t matter because our parents no longer had a car. This harsh reality was already too apparent and too painful. The nearest bus stop was beyond walking distance. Suggesting that a taxi might be useful when none of the family were available to offer lifts brought on the baffling, “We don’t know any taxis.”
With hindsight, I can see that replying to what Mum had actually said was not what was needed. What was needed was to guess what she actually meant. “I can give you some numbers,” was no help at all to a woman who hadn’t used a taxi in decades and didn’t want to admit that she was terrified of the unknown.

Bus, Classic, Retro, Silhouette
The community bus wasn’t a hit either. After one attempt it was rejected on the grounds that, “It goes all round the houses” - something that I’d thought was rather the point. Easier, I suppose, than admitting you didn’t want to be patronised by a special service for old people, or to put yourself in the hands of strangers, or that you were frightened of falling over while climbing up and down the steps.
Access became a struggle. The cars of friends and family were ranked not by reliability or safety or speed, but by how hard they were to get in and out of. 
 Leaving the house was a major expedition requiring rising earlier than usual to get everything done, being ready at least half an hour before departure time and then having to do a last-minute shuffle to the loo when the lift finally arrived. Invariably the loo trip was preceded by, “While you’re waiting, can you just pull back that rug in the front room? It’s walked again.”
While the parental ability to walk declined with the years, the rug remained stubbornly mobile, drifting imperceptibly towards the gas fire each time someone trod on it. Hauling it back meant contending with the remains of increasingly complicated attempts to keep it in place: the double-sided sticky tape; the curled layer of rubber netting; the stuck-on plastic panels with rows of sharp spikes that failed to grip on the carpet below. All these tributes to the power of advertising did nothing but gather fluff and make the rug lumpy, but my mother’s faith remained unshaken. They were not to be removed: they were probably doing something.
The same faith did not apply to the numerous gadgets that were bought to make life easier. There is a whole industry that thrives on selling hope to people with aging bodies, and if I ever get my hands on some of its perpetrators, I may strangle them with their own overpriced elastic stockings.
To be fair, some of the gadgets were a godsend. Railings. Remote controls. A frame with handles for the loo. Chairs that put your feet up for you at the touch of a switch. Other well-meant attempts at solving problems - the audiobook, the mobile phone with the big buttons - were graciously accepted, put in a drawer and rarely seen again. Any suggestion of a walking frame was politely rejected. Much more dignified to lean on a tea trolley to the point of destruction and then insist you want another one, just the same.
What really annoyed me was the bombardment of catalogues that sold cheap rubbish very expensively to people who couldn’t get to the shops and couldn’t figure out how to use Amazon. Especially the ones which assured Mum that just one more purchase would make her eligible to win a cheque for ten thousand pounds - sneakily captioned, “Imagine being able to give your family whatever they want!” - or a fifty-two-inch flat-screen television, or “this beautiful exclusive jewellery set”. None of these wonders ever materialised, but that didn’t seem to matter. We all want hope, don’t we? We all want something to look forward to. None of us wants to admit that things are very likely to get worse.

Satisfaction Guarantee, 100 Satisfaction

Over the years several troublesome bodily parts had been removed and replaced, but the replacements were wearing out and this time, so were the bits that held them together. No number of cunning devices or medical interventions would reverse the decline. The best we could manage was distraction: regular visits and family photos and the company of the much-loved great-grandchildren, who had no notion of what it was like to get old and who didn’t care.
The great-grandchildren didn’t have much clue about funerals, either, which was a big help to the rest of us. When it was all over - hymns, cemetery, tea and cakes and reminiscing with the scatter of old friends who hadn’t yet succumbed and were still fit enough to travel - I kicked off my shoes, sat on the new rug we’d bought ourselves in Ikea, and joined in with the Duplo.

Wine, Wine Glass, Wine Bottle

     “I think,” said my sister, handing me a welcome glass of red, “It went all right.”
“As all right as funerals get,” observed my husband from behind the sofa, where he was laying train track with my great-nephew. “Can you fit that curve on the end there, Tom? Well done!”
I placed the glass beside the wood burner. “It’s a shame she wasn’t here to enjoy it,” I said. “She’d have liked seeing all her friends.”
“Another thing we couldn’t fix,” observed the voice from behind the sofa.
Watching my granddaughter’s chubby hands fitting the plastic bricks together, I tried not to think about the fact that nobody, now, would be as excited as Mum would have been to see the photos of her first day at nursery. Mum, who never missed a family birthday, wouldn’t be there any more to remind me to send cards. And why hadn’t I written it down when she explained exactly how we were related to Auntie Margaret?
I reached for the wine, and realised the edge of the new rug was perilously close to knocking the glass over. “Can you sit up with Auntie Jen for a minute, love?” I said to my granddaughter, handing her the three-brick tower she’d just created. “I just need to shift this rug back.”
Jen lifted my granddaughter onto her lap, admired the tower and then said, “Can’t you buy things to stick under rugs to stop them…?” Her voice trailed off into silence.
I looked up at her: small child on lap, stack of plastic bricks in hand.            “From a catalogue?” I answered.
She paused. “It’s started, hasn’t it?” she said.

Carpet, Red, Tying, Silk, Wool

© Ruth Downie
Did you guess the title?
Satisfaction The Rolling Stones
(Official You Tube Video)

Ruth Downie Author
Ruth Downie read far too much Jane Austen at university, and emerged with an English degree and a plan to get married and live happily ever after. As a backup she learned typing and shorthand, in the mistaken belief that people would always need secretaries and that she might be quite good at it.  Finally she escaped  into fiction and won the Fay Weldon section of the BBC’s End of Story competition in 2004.
The first book in her crime series featuring Roman Army medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla was a New York Times bestseller under the title Medicus.  It was published as Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, in the UK, where The Times recommended it as one of their  ‘Seven best thrillers for Christmas’. There are now eight novels in the series and Prima Facie, a novella, was published this year. She is currently working on the next book and she spends several weeks every summer wielding an archaeological trowel in search of inspiration.

Reviewed by Discovering Diamonds

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Thank you!
There will be another story inspired by a song tomorrow!

The Full List of Authors

2nd   M.J. Logue   First Love 
3rd   Richard Tearle Chips and Ice Cream
4th    Helen Hollick Promises, Promises
5th    Paul Marriner Memories
6th    Pam Webber One Door Closing
7th    Louise Adam Hurt Me Once
8th    Barbara Gaskell Denvil Sticks and Stones
9th    Judith Arnopp Secrets
10th  Erica Lainé  Silk Stockings
11th   Anna Belfrage Hold Me, Love Me, Leave Me? 
12th  Annie Whitehead Frozen
13th  Tony Riches Alas, My Love
14th  Clare Flynn, Zipless
15th  J.G. Harlond The Last Assignment
16th  Elizabeth St John Under The Clock
17th  Alison Morton Honoria’s Battle
18th  Jean Gill The Hunter
19th  Patricia Bracewell Daddy's Gift
20th Debbie Young It Doesn't Feel Like Christmas
21st   Ruth Downie  Doing It Properly
22nd Nicky Galliers What God Has Joined
23rd  Elizabeth Chadwick The Cloak
26th  Helen Hollick Ever After
27th   Barbara Gaskell Denvil Just The One... Or Maybe Two
28th   Deborah Swift Just Another Day
29th   Amy Maroney What The Plague Brings
30th   Cryssa Bazos River Mud

 Note: There is copyright legislation for song lyrics 
but no copyright in names, titles or ideas

StorySong graphic by @Avalongraphics 
additional images via Pixabay accreditation not required


  1. Wise, kind and I had wet stuff in my eyes at the end. Too close to home for my liking! So well written too, from the heart. I'm sure many of us feel like this. 'There comes a point where you get tired of being a feather for each wind that blows. You choose when to harden your opinions and you stick with them. They’ll probably come round again anyway.'
    I guessed the group but not the song!

    1. Me too for 'close to home' my daughter often pulls me up short with 'You're getting like Nanny' and we laugh. My mum passed away ten years ago now and she was a _very_ difficult old lady. The passing of time has blurred the bad bits though, the laughter has remained. Thank you Ruth for writing such a delicious story!

    2. You're right - the laughter remains. I hope as many funny stories about my behaviour get passed down as do those about my mother's!

    3. Thank you Jean and Helen - I'm delighted that you enjoyed it. Relieved, too... I have to admit I was very nervous about this one, as it's way out of my usual area (Roman murder mysteries).

  2. (Losing the ability to type, if I ever had it.)
    So how long did you know my mother in law, Ruth? Obviously a long time as you have described her life perfectly and in minute detail.
    You have superpowers when it comes to observation. Only one thing was missing - the prescription bubble pack.
    I will become a grandparent next May; am now going on a mission round the house to throw out every catalogue, even the blessed IKEA one. More seriously, thank you for a nuanced and very touching story.

    1. Alison - congratulations! (on becoming a grandmother, not for chucking out the catalogues) (on the other hand.... LOL)

    2. Yes, grandparenting congratulations from me too! You will love it. Thanks for the reminder about the tablets - I'm working on my own collection already! 😂

  3. I can't believe how close you have come to describing so accurately the ageing process. Towards the end of her long) life, my dear mum was 'guilty' of sending off for catalogues, ordering things and then forgetting all about it. I love the details in this story (feather in the wind, especially) and the attitude of 'older' people towards progress that our grandchildren cannot do without! Spot on! No I didn't get the song (a classic) and, again, Helen bamboozled me by putting a picture of stones and then roses!!! I shall be thinking of this story all day and, I suspect, many more days to come!!

    1. I had a hard job to give a clue ... but not make it too easy!)

    2. Thanks for this thoughtful response, Richard - I think one of the good things about getting older is that we get a perspective on several generations' views (although of course whichever stage I'm in at the time always seems the most rational one!)

  4. What a poignant story. The universality of this is brought home in the subtle details. I lost my mum 4 years ago and this brought it all home - not the last years when she had dementia but before that when she was constantly in thrall to those postal catalogues. I loved the image of the rug making its inexorable progress across the floor, immune to all attempts to tame it. What a perfect metaphor. Great story

    1. We have the exact same 'walkabout' rug!

    2. Thank you Clare. Sorry about your Mum: four years is not long. I wasn't sure whether this story would make sense for anyone else so I am glad it did.
      Meanwhile if anyone knows how to tame a rug, please speak up! 🤣

  5. Well, that man has started parking in front of our house now! Oh, Ruth, this should be compulsory reading for all middle-aged children. As I was reading, I was mentally ticking off the traits as 'guilty' or 'not quite yet' or 'ah, my husband does this' (that got the most ticks, of course). Brilliant and very touching.

  6. Shared now on Facebook's 'Books for Older Readers' page.

    1. Thank you Jane - so glad you enjoyed it. I think we're all working through that tick list!

  7. All of us get our quirks that become set as we age, saplings are all malleable whereas a might oak is solid and unmoveable and people are the same. The quirks alter but the attitude doesn't. Beautifully written, poignant and yet filled with light, that the world turns as it should.

    1. That sapling/oak analogy is beautiful, thank you!

  8. Ooh so many mixed up emotions with this one. Very close to home - I'm almost there ...


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