Where is Your Threshold?

At a party last January a fellow guest, on asking if I was retired wanted to know how I ‘filled my days’. Fill my days? I found this question startling, for my concern is not ‘filling days’ but rather, how to cling on to each day ‘Carpe Diem’ fashion when there are to be less and less of them.

But it is true that many fear retirement for the boredom that may ensue. Most ‘take up’ activities, golf, good works or learning something. You hear stories of failing marriages as couples get under each other’s feet when precipitated into close proximity for so much of the time.

The Offspring are fond of recalling well-known phrases and sayings from their childhood that seem to have been uttered by their mother with monotonous regularity. Among these is ‘I wish I had time to be bored’-my retort to any complaints regarding ennui they may have had. And I did wish it. With a full-time teaching post, two small children and a house to renovate I did fantasise about having the time to play solitaire, file my nails or watch the gloss drying on the skirting boards.

The fact is, as a generation I think we were taught as children to tolerate boredom. I have early memories of rising on Sunday mornings, polishing my shoes and traipsing down through the village with my brothers to Sunday School. I realise now, of course that this was no more than a cunning ruse on the part of my parents, who felt no need to accompany us, to snatch a sneaky child-free hour or two. Sunday School was deadly dull and set the bar for Church, which ensued when we became too old for Bible stories in the vestry.

Church services were a masterclass in boredom. What was there to do, once you’d scrutinised your fellow worshippers, found the hymns in the book, fiddled with the tassels on the hassock, shredded the sweet wrapper in your pocket?

School assemblies came close and were exacerbated by the excruciating discomfort of sitting for aeons on a cold, hard floor. But the boredom they provided amounted to a theme park ride compared to the crushing tedium that was ‘Speech Day’-thankfully only once a year, but a feast for connoisseurs of monotony.

School lessons themselves seemed to have been planned with boredom in mind. A gowned teacher would appear in the room, at which we would stand up; they would mount a small podium and sit, at which we would sit. They would open a file and read ‘notes’ from it, demanding that we, the unhappy, captive addressees would write it all down in our ‘rough’ books. What an impressive frittering of time it all was! Compare this method to teaching strategies of today, where teachers must compete with screens, swing from chandeliers, use fancy dress or formulate elaborate scenes to grab children’s attention!

That today’s preoccupation with saving children from boredom is laudable is in no doubt-nevertheless I, personally have never found the occupation of time to be a problem, so maybe it was all that early training?

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A Matter of Time [part 1]

Frith steps out into the grey, depressing familiarity of the patch she still thinks of as a garden at a time she knows is morning from her ancient alarm clock. She glances up into the hazy fog as she does each day, to assess the extent to which a semblance of light may be penetrating. This morning, within the billowing folds of damp cloud a sulphurous, bilious glow hovers like a searchlight beam, providing little in the way of illumination and no warmth, although Frith allows a small thread of encouragement to weave into the start of her day.

Along the cinder pathway fresh layers of fine dust display the prints of the girl’s boots as she moves towards a network of raised beds rising like ghostly islands in the gloom. She pauses by the first rectangular slab, a dark oblong mound constrained by timber planks, crumbling a little now from prolonged exposure to damp and housing what would have been a robust crop of potato plants. Frith adjusts the filter masking her nose and mouth before bending to inspect the nearest plant. A few dark, brittle leaves have struggled to the surface of the dusty heap of soil. She peers at them, unsurprised by their insidious coating and searches for any sign of a flower. They will need to be earthed up again, she decides, grimacing at the idea of the task; digging into the tainted earth will produce a storm of silver powder pluming up and coating all in its descent, including herself.

She walks to the apple tree, a spectral giant in the mist hung with fringes of dull spores and remembers her grandmother describing summer afternoons as a child lying in the shade of it with a book or clambering to the top to teeter on a spindly branch and marvel at the view across the sunlit valley. She shivers, conscious of the oppressive silence that hangs over the garden like the fog. On the tree’s lower branches one or two tiny, misshapen fruits cling in a valiant effort to perpetuate.

Beyond the tree, by the low stone wall that once marked the boundary with a neighbouring property there is a brave, rebellious clump of brambles making a stand against the suffocating effects of fungal invasion, producing fierce, protective thorns and exuberant, wet foliage tinged with hints of green amongst the smoky coating. Frith allows herself to hope for blackberries later on, in the time that used to be called autumn when there were seasons marking changes in climate; months when days were warm, hot even, and periods of fierce cold when the land lay dormant.

The greenhouse is barely visible at the end of the monochrome garden until Frith is near enough to touch its damp and slimy surface. She pulls the door open and steps inside. The tender plants here have not escaped the blight and she surveys the spindly pepper bushes, brittle stalks smothered in grey and moves slowly on towards the end of the small structure where she’s been nursing the tomato seedlings. She stops; holds her breath.