Yellowbelly

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Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

As I get older, things bother me. Not things that have any right to bother me. Irrational things. Inconsequential things. They prey on my mind until somehow I manage to nag some sense into them. I am a yellowbelly (actually yellerbelly if you’re from these parts). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it does not imply cowardice – although, God knows, I can run away with the best of them – it simply means that I come from Lincolnshire and this morning I started to wonder why the good folk of Lincolnshire are so called. I have done my usual diligent research (five minutes on Google), but there are so many possible answers, most of them improbable, some of them mad, that even I, desperate for closure, cannot settle on one that has even a scintilla of common sense about it. They all have such basic flaws in rationale that I began to believe that I could never know the answer, but then I thought, what the heck, I’ll run them all past you and see what you think. At the very least, it can keep you awake as well…

So, the first theory I came across was The Frog Theory. It is said that in the days of undrained fenland, a species of frog (or possibly newt, or eel dependent upon whom you believe) found in the Lincolnshire Fens had a yellow belly. Right, so, for a start, I believe that even I would be able to tell a frog from a newt, yellow belly or no yellow belly. And as for an eel, well, it’s a fish isn’t it? No legs: surely a giveaway. I’m pretty certain that anybody able to get close enough to ascertain that the beastie had a yellow belly would have been able to discern whether what they were looking at was a possible Parisian delicacy, a cockney takeaway or something to stop them building a housing estate. Anyway, I’m sure there were brown bellied frogs, newts, eels and probably all manner of other subaqueous species living in the flooded fenlands at the time. We are not called brownbellies, so I’m ruling that nonsense out.

Then there is the proposition that we are so-called because the Lincolnshire Regiment wore green uniforms with yellow facings. I’m not sure what a ‘facing’ is, but I’m guessing it’s not the belly, so that, too, seems a little dubious. However, I then read that the officers of the Lincolnshire Regiment wore yellow waistcoats during the American War of Independence so that they could be easily seen by their troops – whilst remaining invisible to enemy snipers presumably. Now this all seems much more plausible, until you read that officially Lincolnshire Regiment officers have never worn yellow waistcoats. The troops did, however, have yellow fastenings on their tunics which were called ‘frogs’ (or possibly newts or eels?). Not convincing is it?

Next up, we have whole tranche of theories that concern Lincolnshire farmers. Apparently, being poor, many Lincolnshire farmers subsisted on belly pork, which they left to hang for long periods, whereupon, apparently, it turned yellow. Could be true, but, honestly is that enough for us to be called yellowbellies. A pint of milk left out for long enough goes a most fetching shade of green. I’m guessing quite a lot of fenland farmers did that as well, but we’re not called greenbellies are we? Sorry, no. I’m ruling that one out too, although there is plenty more farming apocrypha to go yet, some of which is, thankfully, more plausible than our association with reasty pig fat. Apparently the backs of farm workers who stripped in the sun turned brown whilst their bellies turned yellow. Yellow? Really? I suggest they might need to see a doctor. I suggest they might need to stop drinking. It is also said that these same workers used opium to counteract the malaria that was rife in the fens at this time. Opium, evidently, turns the belly yellow. OK, I can believe that: it also turns the sky green and the grass blue. It strikes me that, if the entire county workforce was smacked out on opium because of the malaria, we would not be known as yellowbellies. ‘Ghastly shade of yellow all over’ possibly. But not just the belly. It doesn’t add up, does it? More likely, I suppose, is the theory that the farmers got yellow bellies whilst tending and harvesting mustard crops. I can accept that theory, except that they also probably got dungy boots from tending the cows and we’re not known as shittyfeet are we? (Are we?) Other claims are that the sheep grazing in the fields of mustard got yellow bellies and even that farmers smeared yellow paint on the undercarriages of the rams in order to see which ewes had been ‘covered’. Both of these I can accept, but neither of them explains why Lincolnshire people became known as yellowbellies, unless they… No, I won’t even consider that!

Some claim that the mail stagecoaches that ran between Lincoln and London had yellow undersides, whilst others claim that the coach drivers wore yellow waistcoats. In either case, the story goes that upon their arrival, the cheerful cockneys, pausing for a moment from sewing pearly buttons onto their hats and chatting to their old cock linnets, cried out in unison ‘Here come the Lincolnshire Yellowbellies’ before, presumably, singing a song about their old bamboo and stuffing their children up the chimney. In truth, the kind of indifference with which London folk tend to treat northerners would actually, I fear, have led to us being known has ‘What?’, ‘Who?’ or ‘I never even seen ‘em Guv’ rather than yellowbellies. I’m not buying that one.

Now, one rather more credible tale is that of female street market traders who had two pockets in the front of their aprons; one for copper and silver and the other for gold. After a busy day of trading, a merchant may well have a pocket full of gold: a yellow belly. Problem is, nothing actually ties this to Lincolnshire. I’ve seen Eastenders. Surely it’s more likely to be somebody selling fruit and veg down there isn’t it? How likely were Lincolnshire market traders to take sovereigns, when a groat would probably buy enough suppurating pig to see you through to Easter, sufficient opium to render you oblivious to the myriad discomforts associated with malaria and possibly a saffron-hued amphibian for the kids. I’m not sure about this.

So, I am now left with two possible explanations; the first of them the most likely. It would appear that the counties of England were divided into administrative areas known as Wapentakes. One such Wapentake in Lincolnshire was Elloe, known colloquially as Elloe Bellie (Bel being an old Saxon term for low-lying). Now that sounds reasonable doesn’t it? I’m prepared to bet that this is the most likely explanation – although it’s not much fun is it? So, before you have to make my mind up for me, I will leave you with my favourite explanation; implausible on so many levels that it probably requires an elevator. It would appear that a Lincolnshire lady had a canary that died. She replaced it with a yellow-bellied frog in the belief that, being yellow, it would sing like a canary, which she implored it to do, saying ‘Now sing yellow belly’. And it probably would have done too, had it not turned out to be an eel…

Lincolnshire Syndrome: A typical malaise affecting those who live in secluded rural areas such as Lincolnshire, England. Symptoms include lack of urban awareness; an aversity to progress; general social/racial ignorance and crucially the inability to accept that such areas are generally shit.  Urban Dictionary

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A Little Fiction – No Matter

blue and red galaxy artwork
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The ectoplasmic cloud swirled gently around the room. At its centre pulsed two indistinct orbs, one of pink and one of blue, both of which were quite unlike anything you could find in the Dulux catalogue. As the cloud drifted around it coalesced slightly, resolving itself into two separate nebula that swirled lazily around the pastel orbs. Between them was a world of silence – not because they were unable to communicate verbally, not even because communication between them took place on a plane that transcended the verbal realm (the language they used was actually, to the human ear, slightly reminiscent of somebody inhaling a jelly fish) – they were silent because the blue globe had just returned home from his works ‘do’ some two hundred years after it had finished. (Perhaps I should explain here that the lifespan of the blobs was something approaching fifty thousand Earth years. Furthermore, the planet upon which they currently bobbed, circled its sun five hundred times every Earth year. Time passed very differently – especially if you were waiting for the pizza delivery.)
“Look,” said the cyan sphere at length, desperate to break the silence. With an audible grunt the pink nucleus pulled her aurora around her so tightly that it almost became solid. If she had a back, she would have turned it.
“Look,” continued Blue. “It was two hundred years, not millennia. I just got lost on the way back. You know what it’s like – can’t tell one constellation from another after a while. They all look the same, bleedin’ planets: round, brown, spinning… mostly. Before you know where you are, you don’t know where you are.”
“Particularly when you’ve hung a few large ones on,” spat out Pink, with a vengeance that made her drizzle slightly. “Who were you with between leaving the party and fetching up here two centuries behind schedule?”
“With?” Queried blue. “With? I’m a wosname… amorphous cloud, barely visible at my core and I trail away God knows how far into the ether at my perimeter. I don’t know. I could have been with anyone. That is part of the nature of being vast.”
“Doesn’t stop you getting home on time,” said Pink.
“Look, O.K. I’ll level with you. I needed some space. You know what it’s like, trying to squeeze yourself into a physical void of finite volume.”
“Of course I bloody do. I was stuck in here for two thousand years last night on my own whilst you were out partying. I’ve got the kind of omni-directional cramp that only an ectomorph can know.”
“Why don’t you go out and get some fresh air?”
“Fresh air?” cried Pink as ice crystals instantly formed throughout her being. “Fresh air? Have you forgotten where we are? Space is a vacuum. There is no air, fresh or otherwise around here… Mind you, if you were any kind of a blob, you’d find me some. In the past you’d have popped across to that little blue and green planet… what’s it called? Never mind, it doesn’t matter. You’d have gone there and brought me some back.”
“It’s two billion light years away…”
“And in the opposite direction to the pub.”
“Right then,” said Blue. “Right then. If that’s what you want, I’ll go. You want fresh air, I’ll bring you fresh air. Don’t wait up, I may be some time.”
“Particularly if you get lost again,” said Pink.
Blue snorted derisively, sending out a pulsar that engulfed a neighbouring solar system (the third planet of which was, ironically, in an Earth-like orbit and brimming with fresh air). “Right!” And, slamming the door behind him he sped off into the vast emptiness, leaving behind him a trail of vapour that would, one day, give birth to life on a million planets. All was quiet.
“Blimey,” said the room, at last. “That was close. I thought he’d never go…”

A Little Fiction – The Custodian of Time

A Little Fiction – You’ve Got A Geriatric Friend In Me

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

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Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

I am of an age when I wish for little from life other than it doesn’t end too soon. That it doesn’t end in pain and anguish. That I merely wake up one morning to discover that I haven’t actually woken up at all. The reality of mortality becomes ever more defined. The need to lay plans for what will happen after I have gone, somehow becomes more pressing. I have not yet started saving in order to ensure that my children do not have to cough up for the dubious pleasure of watching me transcend this mortal coil and ascend upon the wings of super-heated ether into the clouds, but I have started to make a few plans.

I would like balloons in the crem, although I know they won’t allow that. I would like to be carried in to Roy Harper – When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease which, I feel, strikes just the right note and, perhaps more importantly, gives the pallbearers adequate time to grapple me onto the conveyor belt and behind the curtain. When I told my best friend he said, ‘That’s all very well, but you haven’t played cricket in thirty years’ and that is all very true, but, you know, even a corpse can aspire. If you have never heard this song, I urge you not to wait until my funeral to break your duck. (Of course you’ll all be there.) It’s a wonderful song with a full-on brass band and the most poignant yet joyful lyric you will ever hear.

I intend to exit to Blue Oyster Cult – Don’t Fear the Reaper which, as well as being a great song is both apposite and strangely uplifting. (I did, originally, say that I wanted Deep Purple – Burn which my wife pointed out is neither.)

I have been to so many funerals where somebody who obviously did not know the deceased has been asked to read a sterile eulogy, that I am quite tempted to write my own before I go. I’ve even toyed with recording it myself, but I think it might be a little freaky, so I’ll have to let somebody else do it. But who? It is perhaps asking too much of a close family member and I don’t know anybody even vaguely famous. Nobody even wants to think that somebody older than themselves will be able to read their eulogy: everybody plans to live longer than everybody else of their own age. It will probably have to be the celebrant – I could always rehearse him/her I suppose. (I must make a note to book early.) The eulogy will not focus too much on my earthly achievements – that would be both immodest and very, very short – it will quietly gloss over my many shortcomings (for details of which, you will have to consult my wife and children) but will concentrate on my assorted foibles and peccadilloes – I am awash with those. They are, perhaps, more ‘sit’ than ‘com’, but there is something to work on. I’m sure there’s a laugh or two to find in there somewhere. It will be a mixture of navel-gazing, observation, obfuscation, waffle and downright exaggeration (ah, you see where I’m going?) and it will provide a short diversion from the maudlin task at hand.

I’m always unsure as to how I would like to be viewed by posterity. What would I like people to say about me in a hundred years time? ‘Doesn’t he look good for his age,’ probably. I hope my grandchildren remember me with the same kind of fondness with which I remember my own grandparents. I’d like them to chuckle when they think about me and agree that I was ‘an old bugger at times’. And if they have a bookful of embarrassing photographs of me to pass around afterwards – well, my capacity to blush will have long passed. And I hope that, as I will then be well past my centenary and ‘as sharp as a tack until the day he died’, it will be a jolly affair and that the memories I leave behind will all be fond ones. Thus passes the glory of the world…

I used to hate weddings – all those old dears poking me in the stomach and saying, ‘You’re next.’ But they stopped all that when I started doing the same to them at funerals. Gail Flynn

Just In Case…

clear drinking glass near in blue tape measure and apple fruit
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I have started my annual review of health issues: it’s the kind of thing you can get done at the doctors, but with more coffee and less sighing. It started because of my neurosis regarding body odour. I shower so often that I have actually shrunk by an inch since my youth (I know that it is actually age, but I’d sooner blame water). I constantly monitor any area that left unattended has the potential to become unsavoury. I sometimes sniff my clothing. I have given my wife and my children strict instructions to notify me immediately if I ever smell in any way noxious. I have instructed them to lock me in the bathroom and burn my clothes.

I constantly check my mental acuity by… by… well, anyway, I constantly check it. I keep myself as fit as not doing any physical exercise allows. And I check my mental acuity. I still have times when I only know what day it is by checking my pill packets, but I am fortunate that I retain the capacity and desire to learn. And I check my mental acuity… Anyway, in the hope that it may offer some succour to those of you who feel that you suffer the symptoms of ageing alone, I share with you here the results of my latest ‘stock take’. If you too experience any, or all, of my symptoms, we can both take comfort from that. If you suffer from none of them, you can be as smug as you like, but please keep it to yourself.

I have developed a series of just in case checks: keys, wallet, flies… that pass through me like a series of tics every time I leave the house. I never forego the opportunity to take a toilet break. You never know when the next one might come along. If ever I am asked to estimate the length of a journey, I always do so on the assumption that it will be ‘a bad run’ rather than a good one. ‘Google predicts two hours for a good journey, so that’s three for a bad one, better allow four, just in case…’

I have become aware that wherever I go, whatever I do, I have a ragged accumulation of bits and pieces that I take with me ‘just in case’. In case of what? I don’t know really, if I did, I probably wouldn’t need to take them. I have a £1 umbrella, just in case it rains, when I will be the first to send the little decapitated canopy Frisbee-ing along the road at the slightest breath of wind. I used to carry a Mars bar in case of extreme hunger, but I kept eating it, so that had to stop. When I go on holiday, wherever I go, always the same routine: pants and socks for fourteen days – check. Extra pair of pants and socks just in case – check. Foreign currency – check. English currency in case I lose foreign currency – check. Credit card in case I lose both – check. Passport – check. If I could claim dual nationality, I would, just so I could have a second passport. Sometimes I feel that it would be safer to just stay in the house – but you never know when it might burn down.

One of my main problems (and God knows, the list is a long one) is that of temperature control. In the winter I find myself encased in so many layers of clothing that I resemble a perambulatory onion. One brief look in the mirror would, once upon a time, have sent me scuttling back to the bedroom to change into something (in all senses) cooler, but now it just provokes me to think ‘Meh! I’ll stay warm’ and carry on regardless. In the summer I overheat like a Morris Minor on a trip to the seaside. I find myself in a constant search for shade (which I usually find in a bar). I wear a strange, frayed straw hat that looks as though it might have been discarded by Worzel Gummidge after he lost his John Wayne head. I have one of those little battery-powered fans and, worst of all, I don’t care.

I still find myself referring to ‘old people’ as if I am not one of them. I notice that so many things about me have changed with the passing years. I seldom impulse buy anything, just in case I change my mind. I think about it for a few days before I go back to find they’ve all gone and I live the rest of my life in regret. I have witnessed the horror in the eyes of people who find themselves wallet-less having already put everything through the supermarket checkout. I never even enter a shop until I have checked that I have at least two means of paying. I am the king of ‘leaving my card in the key pad’. I have been chased through the supermarket car park by checkout staff more often than a hyper-active shoplifter. I have developed a disturbing tendency to pause at the bottom of escalators; I talk myself through the instructions at the ATM; I have conversations with the people on the TV. I rarely enquire after the family of acquaintances I might meet unexpectedly just in case they are not who I think they are, and their entire family has, in fact, recently been wiped out by a meteor strike. I have developed ‘vague’ into an art form. I can carry on a conversation for hours without once using anybody’s name. I burn with the knowledge that every time I get cocky and address the milkman by his Christian name, I am, in fact talking to my granddaughter’s headmistress.

My whole life has evolved so that I am governed by the precautions I take to guard against the myriad possibilities of happenstance: things that just could (but almost certainly will not) possibly happen. I live my life protecting myself from things that never happen, but for which I am ever prepared. And if not – well, my funeral’s paid for and I have clean socks in my pocket… just in case.

Growing old is compulsory.  Growing up is optional.  Bob Monkhouse.

The Haphazardly Poetical – Things That Can Be Broken

Poetry
Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

This started life as a simple list on a scrap of paper that I found on my desk. I have no idea why I made it. I picked it up with the intention of shredding it when I noticed the rhymes. I pulled it into some sort of order and, with very little taradiddle, it all just fell into place.

Things That Can Be Broken
Grandma’s very best bone china,
Priceless antique silk recliners’
Windows, bike chains, ice and bread,
Reeds and mirrors, silken thread.

Dreams and silence, runs of luck,
Fasts and banks and news and ducks.
This frail cast of flesh and bone,
The touchscreen on a mobile phone.

A cardboard covered pack of beer,
A Tower of Blackpool souvenir.
The sum of whole that’s formed by parts,
Human spirit, promises,
Hearts…

Possible Hobby #3 – Home Brewing

close up photo of two people toasting with red wine
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As we get older, many of us begin to look for new hobbies with which to occupy the time not taken up with Eastenders, X-Factor and the making of soup from yesterday’s assorted leftovers and, as the government seeks to raise the revenue gained from the sale of alcohol to such a point that one would need a very stiff drink indeed before even considering the purchase of one, many are turning to home brewing.

Home brewing is an absorbing and enjoyable hobby. Drinking home-brew is not. Never-the-less, thousands of otherwise sane and reasonable people spend many hours each week mashing fruit, adding yeast and standing back whilst it turns itself into something green and combustible. In this modern age of home-production, recycling and composting, it has become the green hobby of choice. There are literally hundreds of books on the market offering help and advice to the would-be brewer. Unfortunately, they all leave out the single most important piece of advice – don’t bother.

STARTING OUT – If you have purchased the standard range of books and followed all the advice, then you will have more glass vessels, plastic tubing, jars of chemicals and empty bottles than you can shake a stick at. The first thing you need to do is to throw everything into a cupboard and lock the door. Leave them there for at least a month while you try to think of a more sensible hobby; perhaps rope-less bungie-jumping. If, after a suitable pause for thought, you decide that you really can’t resist the lure of cheap and delicious wines, then go to the supermarket.

PICKING THE FRUIT – Don’t! Get somebody else to do it. Ignore everything the books tell you about buying only top quality, clean and sound fruit. Rotten fruit is cheaper and it squashes easier. The blanket of mould that forms over it within a few hours can easily be destroyed with the use of a liberal handful of the chemicals from your cupboard. The resultant brown sludge lurking in the bottom of your bucket is called the must, I don’t know why, but it’s the basis of all homemade wines. If this doesn’t discourage you then nothing will.

STARTING TO BREW – The books will tell you to add sugar and yeast to the must and to syphon it into a demijohn. This is impossible. The must is as thick as jelly and sticks everywhere. If you try to suck it through a tube, you will probably give yourself a coronary. Use a ladle and a funnel and be prepared for your hands and feet to stick to everything for at least 48 hours. Presuming that you still wish to continue after this, simply bung the demijohn with an airlock and put it somewhere warm and out of sight. As the wine begins to brew, gas will begin to bubble through the airlock. The books will tell you that this gas (carbon dioxide) is odourless – it is not. When you open the cupboard door then you will know what it is to smell a marathon runner’s sock.

FACT – It doesn’t matter how much room you leave at the top of the demijohn, the wine will always bubble up through the airlock and rot the carpet.

MATURING THE WINE – When it stops making a mess, then the wine has probably stopped fermenting. Don’t bother buying a hydrometer, they are unnecessarily complicated. If it removes paint, then the wine is ready. If it leaves a sticky brown patch or glues your hands together, then it is also ready. Now is the time to syphon the wine off the lees (sludge) and into a clean demijohn. If it is clear, then there is something wrong, it is probably water – check in the cupboard for a bucket full of rotten fruit. If it is extremely murky with a fluorescent scum on top, then it is normal. Ignore the presence of insects, they are probably dead. Now is the time to cork the demijohn and hide it somewhere dark to mature.

FACT – It doesn’t matter how long you leave it, homemade wine never has long enough to mature.

BOTTLING THE WINE – When the wine is fully matured, i.e. when it is almost clear enough to see through and any submarine fragments are below half an inch in diameter, then it is time to bottle it. Don’t worry about using the right type of bottle, you will after all, be far too embarrassed to show anybody the end product anyway. A word of warning though – some plastic bottles are liable to melt when filled with corrosive liquids e.g. Dandelion Hock, so go for good strong bleach bottles. Ignore advice to label your wines with details such as type, date etc. Home brewers are notorious bores and no-one will want to know.

FACT – There are no medium home-brewed wines. They are all sweet, sweeter or hallucinogenic.

SERVING THE WINE – My advice is don’t. Your friends will probably never speak to you again – they may not be able to. If you really feel that you must serve it, then do so by making it into a punch. It is easy to blame the cloudiness on the other ingredients, such as orange juice or Vim, and the strange flavour onto sour fruit and a new herb you are trying.

Never make exaggerated claims for your wine. Do not, for instance, claim that it is ideally suited for consumption with a good, strong curry, if you actually mean that it will remove lime-scale from most porcelain surfaces.

A SHORT GLOSSARY OF HOME-BREW TERMS:
WINE – The drink of a home-brew enthusiast.
WHINE – The sound of a home-brew enthusiast.
NOSE – The smell of a home-brewed wine.
TEMPORARY BRAIN DEATH – The effect of a home-brewed wine.
ACID – Any home-brewed wine that is not sweet.
SYRUP – Any home-brewed wine that is not dry.
NORMAL – Any home-brewed wine that is not clear.
BEER – Home made wine with a head.
ALE – Home made wine with a head and bits in.

There are better things in life than alcohol, but it makes up for not having them.  Terry Pratchett

A Little Fiction – Grim Fairy Tales – the truth at last

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… and so, as Hansel and Grethel followed their father deeper and deeper into the forest, Hansel carefully left a trail of pebbles behind them. When their father mysteriously disappeared as darkness fell they were able to follow the glistening crystals right back to their home where father was just popping the cork from a bottle of prosecco.
“Can’t I trust you to do anything properly?” yelled mother, hastily pulling a dressing gown around her.
“I’ve no idea how they found their way back,” their father answered. “I bet that little bugger Hansel has got GPS on his smart phone. I will confiscate both of their phones tomorrow. I will smash them with a hammer. I will drop them in a lake.”
“Talk is cheap,” muttered mother darkly, disappearing up the stairs with the bottle of fizz and locking the bedroom door.
The following day, in the early afternoon, just after Hansel and Grethel had emerged from their beds, father again persuaded them to come with him into the woods.
“Why?” said Hansel. “You misplaced us both yesterday. Why would we possibly want to go with you again?”
“I will pay you,” said Father.
“How much?” they chorused.
So, after a lengthy negotiation they left home as twilight began to gather around them. Hansel had with him a tub full of miniature okra, having become vegan on Thursday, and he quietly dropped a pod every few yards as they marched deeper into the darkness. Eventually father again mysteriously disappeared having this time plied both of his offspring with some of the mushrooms they had foraged on the way and having tied them both to a tree. Presently both Hansel and Grethel were able to free themselves as, despite it all, their father was a kindly man and had not tied them too tightly. Nor had he followed mother’s instruction to “nail the little bleeders to a fence”. They were easily able to follow the trail of ladies fingers home, as not even the beasts of the woodlands would touch them. They walked in just as mother was paying the pizza delivery man. “I hope you’ve remembered I don’t like pineapple on my Hawaiian,” said Grethel.
“Bloody stroll on,” said mother. “I truly cannot rely on your father to do anything can I? Can’t you two take a hint?”
“Hint?” said Hansel.
“We’re in our sixties,” said mother. “We have supported you through university, we have supported you through your various relationship break ups, we have listened to all of your snowflake whining. Can’t you both just bugger off and get a home of your own?”
“Are you joking?” said Hansel.
“Have you seen the price of property?” said Grethel.
“Have you seen the average rent in this part of the woods?” said Hansel. “Much better we stay here and save up our money rather than paying for stuff. Now, did you get garlic dip with the pizza?”
And so Hansel and Grethel settled down to demolish a large Margarita, a medium meat-feast and a litre bottle of Frascati, whilst, hand in hand, mother and father walked deeper and deeper into the enveloping darkness of the forest, hoping, perhaps, to meet an old woman who would lock them in a cage and feed them through the bars…

***

… “But Grandma,” said Little Red Riding Hood. “What big ears you’ve got!”
“Eh?” said Grandma. “You’ll have to speak up. My hearing aid’s down at Timpson’s having the battery done. Your Grandad can’t do it on account of he keeps losing the little screw down the back of the footspa he uses to keep his suppositories warm.”
“But Grandma,” said Red Riding Hood. “What a hairy face you’ve got!”
“Yes,” said Grandma. “Your Grandad’s been using my razor for getting the furballs off the cat again. Near cut my lip off when I tried to remove the old peach-fuzz earlier.”
“And Grandma,” said Little Red. “What big teeth you’ve got!”
“Yeth,” said the old woman. “I think I must have got your Grandad’s out of the glass by mistake. He’ll be down the bingo by now, wondering why the ones he’s wearing keep falling out. There’ll be carnage if he has to yell ‘House!’ Could take somebody’s eye out.”…

***

One fine evening a young princess sat by a pool and played with a golden ball that she had been given by an appreciative golden ball manufacturer in grateful thanks for all of her selfless support and also because the king had told him to. She repeatedly tossed the golden orb into the air and caught it as it fell, but alas, as darkness fell she dropped the ball which rolled into the pond and disappeared into the twelve inches of stinking gloop that lay at its bottom. The princess was very upset at losing the ball and was just considering who to blame for its loss when a frog appeared at the water’s edge.
“Why do you cry, princess?” it asked.
“I have lost my ball in the foul-smelling gunk at the bottom of the pond,” wailed the princess. “Also, I think someone might have been spiking my drinks, judging from this conversation.”
“The foul-smelling gunk is my home,” said the frog. “But don’t worry. None taken. I’ll go and get it for you if you like.”
“Would you really?” trilled the princess. “It is worth a small fortune. My father will blow his bean if he finds out I’ve lost it.”
“Really?” said the frog as he slid into the depths.
The princess waited by the poolside for several hours, but the frog did not return to her. Eventually it dawned on her that he was not coming back and she trudged back to the palace wondering how she was going to explain the loss to her father and also how she had been detained in the garden until past midnight by a talking frog. But she need not have worried, for when she opened the door to the king’s chamber, she saw the golden ball upon a cushion by his side and, beside the ball, the frog resplendent in silken robes.
“Thank goodness,” said the princess. “You have the ball.”
“No thanks to you,” said the king. “If it had not been for this warty amphibian by my side I would now be ball-less. In gratitude I have promised him your hand in marriage.”
The princess stared at them both open-mouthed for a while before the truth dawned on her.
“Of course,” she said, hugging her father. “The frog is actually a handsome prince who has been cursed by a wicked witch. Shall I kiss him now?”
“Can do,” said the king.
And so the princess kissed the frog and absolutely nothing happened.
“It’s just a frog, isn’t it?” she said.
“Yup,” said the king. “Now go and get measured, the wedding’s on Wednesday.”
“Ribbit,” said the frog…

Fight or Flight – Confronting the Urge to Confront

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Photo by Dilyara Garifullina on Unsplash

You know what it’s like, you fight against it with all you’re worth, but every now and then you just have to say what is on your mind. Now, don’t panic! I’m not going to assail you with my opinions. Let’s face facts here; there is nothing in the world more tedious than somebody else’s point of view, and I certainly don’t intend to inflict mine upon you. After all, what have you ever done to me? However, I’m pretty certain that you will all recognise the feeling: someone is fervently extolling an opinion that you passionately oppose. You know that there is no point in calling them out. You know that they won’t listen anyway. But there is a prickling at the back of your neck and a little voice inside your head is whispering “Tell ‘em. Go on, tell ‘em”. Best advice (in as much as anyone would want to take advice from me) is don’t. You know how it goes; you are certain of what you want to say, you understand the reasoned argument you want to make, you have even rehearsed a couple of witticisms in your head that you are prepared to drop in if the moment allows, but somehow it doesn’t come out as you intended and you just end up loudly refuting everything that the other person has to say. It will not end well. It never does. Your arguments may well be incisive and definitive, but they will count for nothing when your rival says, “What’s it got to do with you anyway, big nose?” Whatever you were told at school, nobody is ever swayed by reasoned argument. You stand a much better chance of swaying them with a bag of sweets. And, be honest, if you do definitively prove somebody wrong in front of all of their friends, are they likely to thank you for it? Are they likely to bless you for revealing to them the error of their ways? They may react in a way that you had not anticipated: they might thumb their nose at you; they might blow a raspberry; if they throw a punch, you are probably moving in the wrong circles anyway. Far worse, they will look at you tearfully and, with a slight shake of the head, move sadly away to sulk silently behind a half-opened door. (Don’t panic. The situation is not intractable, but the solution will almost certainly involve cake.)

The human body is awash with hormones that, for some reason and under certain circumstances, tell you that the time to have your say is now. Fortunately the human brain is strong and almost always has the power to overrule this primaeval urge to confront. In a life in which I have come to realise that it is generally essential to let your heart rule your head, I would say that this is the time, when you find yourself hot and agitated, when you know that you are drifting helplessly into a row, to let your head rule your heart (and apply a cool, damp cloth to the back of your neck) take a deep breath, smile serenely and walk away happy in the knowledge that the cake is still all yours…

Sometimes I hear my voice
And it’s been here, silent all these years…
‘Silent All These Years’ – Tori Amos

A Paean to the Simple Joy of Pen-Pals

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

I find myself wondering whatever happened to pen-pals? I presume that they may all have been killed by this interconnected world of ours, crushed under the wheels of Mark Zuckerberg’s little leviathan. Who needs a pen-pal when you have over a million virtual friends in bedrooms the world over?

I, like almost everyone of my age, had a pen-pal. For a short while anyway. They were arranged by the school I think. Usually French, German, or if you were for some reason particularly unpopular with the teachers, Belgian. The idea was that you wrote to one another in your native tongue so that you each had to translate what you had been sent before you replied. Eventually, if all went well, you would meet up and exchange tales of teenage derring-do in a sort of non-verbal Esperanto of signs and gestures (and we all know how good the French are at those). If he was French (we were all very carefully paired with members of our own sex I recall) he would get off with your girlfriend and when, in the fullness of time, you went to his, you would discover that his père was a Marseille docker who, in order to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible, insisted that you fed exclusively on sewage-sifting bi-valves, terrestrial gastropods and the rear limbs of amphibia for the week.

Not that I, personally, ever got that far… Generally I found it in me to scrape together a twenty word reply to my new pen-pal’s multi-page airmail missive, which I then didn’t post as the postage was almost exactly a week’s supply of Bazouka Joe bubble gum. Now, I’m not proud of my indifference, but in truth, I fear that my Euro-counterpart would have gained little from a ‘conversation’ with me that would not have served merely to deepen his cross-channel sense of distrust and puzzlement.

For the more romantic among us, the ideal method of gaining a new pen-pal relied upon the launching of a sealed bottle onto the bosom of the dun-brown waves of the English Channel. Unfortunately the chances, always slim, of it being picked up on some exotic foreign shore by someone with an innocent interest in your favourite edition of Smash Hits and a desire to swap postage stamps appears to have diminished somewhat over the years. Far more likely you will find yourself corresponding with somebody that wants to plunder your bank account rather than find out what you had for tea on Friday. In any case, I think that the whole business of lobbing a glass vessel (or even worse, a plastic one) out to sea these days would be considered, by and large, to be environmentally unacceptable. Let’s be honest, if you walked out today to find a hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore, you’d probably be more concerned about contacting David Attenborough’s agent than replying to Sting.

Which brings us back round to the internet: the true home of the Voyeur and the Conman, the Predator and the Weirdo, and probably not the best of places to search for someone to help you with your French Oral. Besides, the cosy one-to-one no longer seems to exist – nothing, it would appear, is worth sharing, if not with a group. The ballpoint tête-à-tête of a pen-pal correspondence has been replaced by the megaphone yell of a political rally and, in our contemporary paperless society, the art of writing a letter on gossamer stationery to someone you have never met, who speaks a different language and wants only to know if your girlfriend is fit, has disappeared as swiftly as the thousand words you didn’t save before going to bed…

Making Up For Lost Time: a Soapy Head, a White Rabbit and a Black-hole Paradox

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My day began, as all my days begin, in the shower and it was not until after I had dressed that it became in any way different. You see, it was then, as I loaded my various pockets with pens, keys and loose change, that I realised that I had not rinsed the shampoo from my hair. A brief look in the mirror told me that much. My hair was sleek and shiny, like it had been steeped in a litre of cooking oil, with white lather gathering ahead of the comb like morons at the front of a bigot’s funeral. Anyway, at that point, I had three options as I saw it. Option one was the obvious one: ignore it – pretend that I had not noticed and simply get on with my day. The obvious choice, but rapidly dismissed. I cannot ignore stuff: stuff nags away at me until it is resolved. It becomes an obsession. The knowledge that a situation exists, deflects me from any other possible train of thought. Besides, nobody wants to spend the day with a sticky head. I could have rinsed my hair under the tap (option two) except that past experience has taught me that such an action would be fraught with possibilities. Would I belt my head on the tap again? Would I do something to my back that would require an elite squad of para-chiropractors to correct? Would I somehow misdirect the entire jet of lukewarm water onto my trouser crotch forcing me into an unplanned change of underwear and trousers or a fevered few minutes with a hairdryer, attempting to dry my groin without branding a metal zip pattern onto my wherewithal? Again… Option three became the only practical solution: undress, leap back into the shower, re-dress – a course of action I undertook with some degree of reluctance, in the certain knowledge that doing so would put me ten minutes behind schedule; a situation that I knew would persist all day.

Now, I have to stress at this point that I was never physically late for anything. I am always early, sometimes obscenely so, so although I was less early today, I was at no stage actually late. For me, however, those ten minutes are locked for the day. Mentally I am running ten minutes behind and I cannot make them up. Gaining ten minutes here or there does not compensate: I may have gained that time anyway, even if I had not started off late, in which case I remain ten minutes in arrears of what I would otherwise have been. Achieving a PB in a marathon when you started ten minutes after everybody else, does not cancel out the initial deficit to the other runners; particularly if you ran the race dressed as a fluorescent cockle or somesuch.

So, what it means, this failure to rinse the Head and Shoulders from my bonce whilst in the perfect position to do so (eg the first time I was in the shower), is a day of stress. The unrelenting pressure of continually being late – even if that is, in truth, actually just a little less early than normal. I am a martyr to my blood pressure. I have one of those little electronic gadgets so that I can monitor it at all times, although I choose not to because that just stresses me out and I am plagued by stress. When things are going badly, I am stressed. When things are going well, I am stressed in case they suddenly start to go badly. I have a pressure cooker between my ears that can whip up a full scale stew from the tiniest of worries in seconds.

I always believed that I would worry less as I got older: that, outside of the one big, major inevitability, I would have less to worry about. Wrong! I worry more. I worry more often and I worry with greater vigour. I worry about things that I should never worry about: e.g. running ten minutes behind my normal thirty minutes ahead of schedule. Of course, if you run a half hour ahead of schedule for long enough, then that itself becomes the schedule and you are no longer ahead of it. So what happens to those thirty minutes? Where do they go? I read somewhere that time itself is slowed down by a black hole. Does that mean that if I ran past one of those I might be able to get my lost time back? Perhaps I would end up turning up for things before they were even arranged. Perhaps I would be even later than when I started off the day with a soapy head – I’m not sure. It’s like trying to work out what happens to time when the clocks go back. I’ve found that the only way I can cope with the anxiety of the event is to alter all of my clocks the night before and then ignore them for a week. Of course, that means that I have to get everywhere an additional sixty minutes early, just in case I’ve got it all the wrong way round and, as I am ignoring my own timepieces, I have to rely on the radio news – and nobody should have to start the day that way.

Anyhow… having now been caught in this manner, I will respond by setting my alarm ten minutes earlier, in case it should happen again and that way I will always be ahead of the game. Except, of course, I will not. Life always fills the allotted time and if I lose ten minutes in the future to some other detergent-related incident, I will still be ten minutes behind all day and, if I’m ten minutes ahead when that occurs, well, that will be another ten minutes that I’ve lost and, sooner or later, I’m going to have lost more than I’ve got left and the stress of keeping ahead of myself will, no doubt, get me in the end. Until then, on a good day I will remember to rinse my hair in the shower and on a bad day I will scurry around like the Reverend Dodgson’s white rabbit, hoping above hope that I can manage to avoid the hole in the ground…

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall – ‘White Rabbit’ Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick)