There have been some really good words about recently – new words that is. Not new meanings for old words, but actual new words born into the world. There are some words I’d be happy to see replaced however. Y’know, a bit like a spring clean. Clearing out the dictionary. For example, normal. It’s judgemental for one thing, and exclusive. If you are not ‘normal’ you are deemed to be ab-normal ergo not good enough. A carrot farmer was sighing this unhappy truth to me last autumn. He had abnormal carrots. But they’re just carrots, I said. Not straight enough, he said. Green leafy bit (that gets cut off and never seen by anyone else) deemed not green or leafy enough. By whom? Carrot Judge? Seemed a strange state of affairs. All the world’s languages (current estimate 7,000!) are chock full with tongue-twisting and diverse lexicons so you’d think that we could do without certain words. No-one would notice, surely?
Recently, a friend was laughing hysterically at an on-line photograph of a cat and the text beneath. I interrupted his chortling to ask him where the word meme came from.
“The internet,” he said.
“But what does it mean?” I asked.
“Doesn’t mean anything. It’s just funny.”
“It must have come from somewhere,” I persisted.
He gave me a look that said how stupid are you? which I chose to ignore. So, other than to admire pictures of pretty kitties, I too took to the internet and had a little search. I was very surprised to find that the word meme is a very old word indeed, it’s roots belonging to those ancient Greeks. The online Oxford English Dictionary currently defines the word thus:
an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.
That’ll be the pre-internet definition then, courtesy of one Mr R Dawkins.
an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.
So, when I pointed out to my colleague that the word meme was not born in the early 2000’s it was fair to say he was so engulfed by disbelief he had to take the rest of the day off.
There’s a meme in there somewhere.
We looked at her, horrified, and she looked at us like a snake would look at a mouse before eating it alive..
She cast her gaze downward and we followed suit. All around were the presents that had been saved up for, carefully chosen and fastidiously hidden, just to make our Christmas Day special.
“Take a good look,” she said quietly, “because you won’t be seeing them again.”
We packed them away in silence, tears pricking my eyes each time I retrieved a toy I really wanted but knew I wouldn’t be getting. The ruptured plaster and torn paper was noted, our mother gently touching it in that scarily silent way parents do to indicate the size of trouble you were in. The silence sounded like Big Trouble.
We made our way into the living room. The Christmas tree lay on its side, its fairy askew and showing off her knickers. The Very Old what I now know to be Victorian glass baubles that had been my great-grandmother’s lay in shattered shards across the carpet like a broken rainbow; the lights were dead and there was a faint whiff of something strange in the air. Mrs Tibbs sat by the window, staring out.
She looked really odd.
But then, when a cat chews the flex of Christmas tree lights and electrocutes herself, she’s going to look a bit odd, isn’t she?
White whiskers – those that were left – were black and curly, and her fur had a tough melted feel about it. The vet was good enough to see her that very night – Christmas eve night (imagine the cost!) – and despite shock and a burnt tongue, Mrs Tibbs survived.
Christmas day came and went unnoticed and for the first time ever we were marched down to the church service at our village church where I sang my little heart out and my brother put a half-chewed toffee in Jennifer White’s hair just for fun.
By the evening however, our mother’s rage had ebbed, our father was pretty well sedated and something resembling reluctant calm had fallen: mum gave us each a present.
“From Father Christmas,” she said. I took the present unenthusiastically. I had always been told not to tell lies, and here was my mother lying to me about Father Christmas. Straight up. An In-Your-Face Adult Lie.
She smiled wanly.
“It seems he came after all,” she said. “I’ll go and check on Mrs Tibbs,” she continued, leaving us to unwrap our gifts.
“Heh heh heh! Told you it was mum and dad,” my brother sniggered, and lifting one buttock, farted loudly.
Christmases came and went, and as I grew up I promised myself that if I ever had children of my own, I would a) apologise that they had my brother for an uncle, and b) never ever ever ever ever ever ever lie to them about Father Christmas. How hard could it be?
Shoot forward a few decades as I held my breath deciding between truth or lie.
“Well does he, mummy?” my six year old daughter had asked.
“Well…” I began… ’
Huffing at my reluctance, he climbed the wobbly ladder, pushed open the hatch and disappeared inside the loft..
For a long time.
“Stop it!” I squealed. Panic swamped me as I stared at the black hole. Then a strangled, alien voice wafted out of the eerie darkness.
“We are the Giant Loft Spiders and we will eat your brain…”
My irrational fear rendered me immobile. If I had known how to faint, I would have. If I could have induced immediate vomiting and unconsciousness, I would have done. However, my brother’s prank just resulted in immediate paralysis, so when he spotted our sacks of presents and hurled them both down at me with a shout of “CATCH!” I didn’t, and they flew over the banister and down the stairs, smashing and crashing all the way.
Unfortunately, Mrs Tibbs was half way up the stairs just as the sacks began their descent and she fled into the living room – and straight up the Christmas tree, rocket fashion.
The Very Old Baubles were shaken from their boughs, some tinsel, caught half over one of Mrs Tibbs’ shoulders and round a leg caused nothing but yowling alarm and speeded her ascent, until suddenly there was a tremendous bang and all the lights went out.
“We…are..coming to get…you!” hissed my brother in the darkness, one foot searching in the darkness for the top of the ladder.
Rationality now just a memory I ran straight in to the ladder nearly knocking myself out and my brother off the top. We flapped about, me crying and he loving every minute of my terror and the fact that it was dark and we had a ladder.
“What was that bang?” I asked through my weedy sobs.
My brother was just about to answer when we saw the flash of headlights through the glass front door. We peered over the banister as, momentarily, the sacks of presents were illuminated: split open, their guts strewn down the stairs, across the hall floor, some resting by the front door.
Mum and Dad were home.
“…must have gone to bed…” my mother was saying as my father, ahead of her, opened the front door and stepped inside.
I remember the crack of his head against the open door as his foot caught the large-wheeled toy car that would have been my brothers delight on Christmas Day, as it threw him backwards. I remember, vaguely, the scream my mother let out as my father’s flailing fist caught her smack in the face and the muffled thud as she fell over him, he now a crumpled, swearing lump on the hall floor.
I sat stock-still at the top of the stairs.
For once, my brother was quiet too.
Despite her injuries, our mother worriedly called our names.
“We’re alright!” my brother answered in a strange and unfamiliar voice.
“Jesus Bloody Hell!” my father was shouting.
“What the bloody hell has been going on here and why are all the bloody lights out and what the bloody hell is all this in the bloody hall, bloody hell?” he continued, ending with “Jesus! My bloody ankle!”
Our neighbour was very good that night.
He took our dad to casualty where they plastered his broken ankle, whilst me and my brother stayed at home with our mother as she reinstated the electricity.
“We’ll need a ladder to reach the fuse box,” she said without emotion.
“I’ll get it!” exclaimed my brother. I let him. With the aid of a torch, I began to pick up the presents.
So Santa really didn’t exist? I still couldn’t get my head round that one.
If she noticed, our mother didn’t say anything when my brother went upstairs to get the ladders. In a flick the house was once again bathed with light illuminating our mother’s injuries clearly. We looked at her, horrified, and she looked at us like a snake would look at a mouse before eating it alive…To be continued…
Long ago and far away, in a land called 1971, there lived a brother and sister. This is part one of a very story of what happened to them on Christmas Eve, as it was told to me.
‘The year that I was 6 and my brother 10 our parents decided that we were both old enough to be trusted with the welfare of both house and cat so they could go out for a Christmas eve drink with friends. At seven on the dot they set off into the night heading for a pub hidden somewhere in the countryside, leaving strict instructions with me and my brother to be in bed by 8 o’clock and No Fighting. Otherwise, Santa wouldn’t come.
In the living room the Christmas tree sparkled as its little lights flashed on and off illuminating the Very Old Glass Baubles that adorned the tree. A few presents sat temptingly beneath.
As did Mrs Tibbs, our tabby cat. Her eyes, also like glass baubles, reflected the flickering lights and she refused to come out from beneath the tinsel-laden boughs.
About ten seconds after our parents had left my brother was restless. I would have been happy to go to bed at 8 o’clock as instructed, but he being that bit older than me he found being alone in the house on Christmas eve a fascinating delight and an opportunity that may not come even once a year. His fidgety excitement soon had us heading for disaster.
Trying to coax Mrs Tibbs out from under the tree, she backed away, bumping the tree lightly as she went. It rocked gently. The Very Old Glass Baubles swayed ever so slightly and the tinsel glittered.
“C’mon. We’re going to play hide and seek,” announced my brother.
The last time we did that he’d persuaded me to hide in the garage in a trunk that was full of nails and saws and he’d left me there to go and play football with his friends until tea-time.
He sensed my apprehension.
“C’mon, it’ll be fun. We won’t hide though,” he said, and scurried upstairs.
What sort of hide and seek involved not hiding?
Tentatively, I followed. I could hear banging and shuffling, the dragging of things about, and doors opening and closing. A shaft of light came from our parent’s bedroom.
“What are you doing?” I whispered, dismayed.
“They hide, we seek!”
I stepped into our parent’s room where my brother was searching high and low.
“For the Christmas Presents!!” he said, in his exasperated older sibling voice.
“But Father Christmas brings those!” I said, horrified.
“Wake up Thicko” he instructed. “Mum and Dad bring them!”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“That’s not true!” I said. I couldn’t possibly be true – really it couldn’t! Santa brought our presents! He flew through the air with his sleigh and his gang of reindeer delivering presents to all us good children in the world.
“Don’t be so stupid!” scoffed my brother.
As my young brain absorbed and digested this absolutely terrible news, I watched as he continued hunting. There were none to be found.
“See! It’s not mummy and daddy! It’s Father Christmas!” I declared, worried, relieved, and on the edge of tears.
He muttered something about getting a ladder and pushed past me. Lamely, I followed him down stairs as he made his way to the garage.
Struggling back in with some step-ladders he told me the grab one end and we staggered back upstairs with them, taking a few chunks of plaster out of the wall and tearing the new Vymura wall paper. I stopped to look at the damage.
“Now look what you’ve done!” he declared.
We dragged the ladders along the landing until we came to rest below the loft hatch. We looked up.
“Yes!” he said with glee. “You can go first because you’re smaller.”
Terror gripped me as I remembered the Loft Spiders – they’re bigger than ordinary spiders because they live in the dark and they have teeth. I knew this was true because my brother had told me. I couldn’t go up there!
Huffing at my reluctance, he climbed the wobbly ladder, pushed open the hatch and disappeared inside the loft….’
To be continued…
This Sunday myself and other lovers of ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night are convening at The White Lion pub in Henley in Arden to thrill ourselves senseless with a live lit evening of horror and ghost stories. If you’re in the area, float on by – it’s free entry and it’s a haunted pub; what’s not to like? And if I snap any pictures of phantoms and weirdness, you’ll see them here. My collection of photos of ghostly apparitions seems to be growing, the first one taken during my trip to the wonderful Finland, and some more recently snapped at The Savoy theatre in Monmouth. Freaky stuff.
Anyway, returning to our evolutionary roots of fire-gazing and story-telling, Sunday at The White Lion is bound to be creepy evening – in a good way – organised by editor and author Pat Spence.
I’ll be reading my ghost story, Channel One Six from my updated Collection of Unsettling Short Stories, which will also be on sale. If you fancy a fun yet spooky night, come along to the White Lion.