Don’t ask me why, because I don’t have the answer, but yesterday as I ran, this song kept looping around in my head. Not, in case you should wonder, because I was happy, but because, I think, I had just heard it in a radio advert and I was in a state of bewilderment. You see, I know that Maria (in The Sound of Music) is a nun, but come on: bright copper kettles? Really? What is so exciting about a bright copper kettle? At least with a brown paper package tied up with string there is intrigue, jeopardy even: what is in there – a bomb, or an unexpected bottle of Scotch? A bomb would definitely not be in my list of favourite things, but I get the uncertainty, the anticipation thing. I just don’t understand why anybody would consider a copper kettle, bright or otherwise, to be a favourite thing? Surely, even in a convent, there must be more alluring objects of desire. ‘I tell you what, Sister Maria, why don’t you just pop along and make me a nice cup of tea? The kettle is ever so bright – and copper too, by the way.’ How dull does a life have to be?
Anyway, as I know very little about the desirability of apple strudel (crisp or otherwise) and even less about Schnitzel with noodles, I devoted the rest of the run to devising my own lyrics (I didn’t mess with the chorus, which seems perfectly serviceable to me – nobody cares for dog bites or bee stings, do they?) I hope Rogers and Hammerstein will forgive me (or at least not sue…)
A fresh gin and tonic with ice and a slice in,
A hot veggie chilli with plenty of spice in,
A huge bar of Galaxy (chocolate of kings),
These are a few of my favourite things.
Bright yellow pimples on other folk’s noses,
Those who fall over while striking their poses,
Drunken hen-parties with pink angel wings,
These are a few of my favourite things.
The smell in the kitchen when pizza is cooking
The mess you can make when there’s nobody looking,
Bananas and custard and conkers on strings
These are a few of my favourite things.
When the dog bites
When the bee stings
And I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I don’t feel so bad…
The feeling you get when the guests have departed,
The smile on the face of a baby that’s farted,
The news that the old folk can play on the swings,
These are a few of my favourite things.
Repeat chorus etc etc etc.
There, that’s better. Now I don’t feel so bad…
For clarity’s sake, I think I probably should point out (for the aficionados amongst you) that I am aware I have added an extra verse at the end. It was a long run. Lord knows what will stick in my head the next time I venture out, but if it’s anything to do with lonely goatherds, I may have to reappraise my entire life…
You know the scenario: there’s an unidentified rattle in the car. It’s not much of a rattle, but it’s enough to distract you. It wasn’t there before and you don’t know where it’s coming from. You ask your passenger if they can see what’s rattling and they say, ‘What rattle? I can’t hear a rattle,’ at which point the rattle takes on a new determination and you say, ‘There! Just then! You must have heard it.’ But your passenger just sucks her teeth and says, ‘No’ and you know that the sound is going to drive you crazy before you reach your destination. So, you ask your passenger to check in their door pocket, to check in the glove compartment, to check under the seat, all to no avail. The rattle persists, as does their deafness to it and your distraction by it, until at last, driven to the point of despair, you arrive at journey’s end only to discover that the noise is coming from an actual child’s rattle in the passenger’s handbag. You know how it goes, right?
The tiniest deviation from the norm, that impinges upon the collective consciousness not one jot, but which drives you and you alone up the bleedin’ wall, becomes the catalyst for major change: the pointless argument; the tossing out of one’s toys; the changing of one’s car… And before you ask me, no, I haven’t – although I do have a rattle in my car that nobody else seems able to hear and I am actually just beginning to wonder if it really is all inside my head – whether the nuts really are working loose…
Since the dawn of lockdown we have held a family Zoom get-together and quiz each weekend. Of late, to mix things up, we have also played games and tackled Escape Rooms. I have discovered that, whilst I can solve the individual puzzles that guide us through to escape, I have no idea whatsoever of where we are, where we have been, nor where we are going. Is that normal, do you think?
I have no trouble in answering the kind of questions asked by consultant geriatricians. I can name every Prime Minister since, you know, big man, wide shoulders, funny laugh, used to sail yachts or something I think… I always know what year it is (although not, I admit, necessarily the day). My memory has always been eccentric – razor-sharp on music and sit-coms, absent on bin days – so that’s not a worry. Although I have read somewhere – I think, I can never be sure – that the absence of worry is, in itself, a worry.
I have a great capacity for the standing and staring thing – usually into space, usually because I’ve lost my keys. Or in a supermarket because I’ve misplaced the cereal aisle. None of that has ever changed, so that’s a good thing isn’t it?
The tendency for little things, insignificant things, to disturb my equilibrium is, however, a different kettle of fish. (Who’d put fish in a kettle anyway*? It must play merry hell with the PG Tips.) My ability to be knocked off stride by very little is unrivalled in the western world. A changed dental appointment can bother me for weeks. An unidentified caller on my phone sets me spinning in a neurotic spiral of paranoia, seldom seen since the days of The Prisoner on TV. I have GCHQ on speed dial.
I have just read a report on the BBC website (Knowing how the universe will end is freeing) that states that, at some indeterminate future time, the universe will end in either ‘heat death’, ‘big rip’ or ‘vacuum decay’, none of which sound like the kind of thing you would want to be around for. My first problem is with ‘indeterminate’ which could, presumably, be today. My second problem is with this infinite universe of ours. If it is no longer there, where is it? I don’t see how infinite nothing can be a thing. Maybe that’s the point. Could infinite nothing be sucked into a black hole (in which case the black hole would still exist) or would the black hole be sucked into nothing (in which case nothing would still exist). My understanding is that the universe started off as nothing, so presumably, if it became nothing again, it would still be there and therefore – do try and keep up at the back – not nothing. In any case, surely an infinite nothing would have to end somewhere and somewhere can’t be nowhere, can it? And if you’d sooner not think about it, well so would I, but if I stop worrying about the death of the universe, I start to think about this bloody rattling again – and you know where that gets us…
*Below is a fish kettle – just in case you think I am more stupid than I look.
Vivien checked her hair and make-up in the bathroom mirror: nothing special, but nothing glaringly out of place. The wisps of grey that flowed through the waves of her hair, like oil on the surface of a running stream, were highlighted in the harsh glare of the lights that surrounded the mirror but, she was pleased to note, no thicker than they had appeared the night before. She was wearing her evening make-up; what her mother always referred to as ‘war-paint’: eye-shadow was just a shade darker than she wore during the day, her cheeks a shade rosier, her lips redder, fuller and altogether shinier. She smiled at her reflection, ‘Not too shabby,’ she muttered quietly ‘Not too shabby at all,’ and she turned to open the door, a delicate ghost of perfume trailing behind her as she left.
In the lounge of her tidy little flat, her guest sat silently on one side of the two-seater settee, leaving just enough room for her to settle beside him, but instead of doing so, she bustled. ‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ she said. ‘I’m sure you’d like tea. I have some iced rings in the cupboard. I so like an iced ring with a cup of tea, don’t you? Yes, we’ll have some iced rings too.’ She hummed happily to herself as she laid a tray with biscuits, cups, milk and sugar, and patiently warmed the teapot before pouring the boiling water over the tea and carrying the tray to the small table in front of the settee.
‘Are you a milk first man, or a tea first man, Mr Pettigrew? I always put the milk in first…’ Without waiting for a reply, she carefully poured a small amount of milk into each china cup and poured the tea, spilling a little onto the table. ‘Oh, I’ll get a cloth,’ she dashed towards the sink. ‘We don’t want that dripping down onto your shoes, do we?’ She fussed around, wiping the table, topping up his cup although he drank nothing, sipping her own tea and eating iced rings for two; spinning like the dynamo on a free-wheeling bicycle, creating more energy than she used. She chatted lightly, intimately, smoothing her hair from time to time as she caught her reflection in the mirror; straightening her clothes, brightening her smile.
Throughout it all, Lawrence Pettigrew said nothing. He reminded Vivien of the strong, silent men she remembered from the films of her youth. He reminded her of her father in the photo her mother kept in her purse; a young man before he went off to fight. Before he came back as the empty shell he had become. Before then… Her guest’s reticence did not disturb her, she simply took it upon herself to fill in the silence with her own happy chatter, asking questions that required no answers, telling stories that called for no response. She was happy just to be in company and Mr Pettigrew who, whilst by no means demonstrative, was at least making no big show of wanting to leave. Vivien was, she thought without irony, as happy as Larry.
Eventually she settled beside him on the sofa and, with little hesitation or resistance, rested her head on his shoulder. It was soft, warm and yielding. She sighed gently and a small bead of saliva escaped her lips and landed on his cheek like a kiss. She tutted quietly and wiped it from his face with the edge of her sleeve; watching as his smile slowly decayed from a warm and friendly openness, to a strangely asymmetrical leer that spread across his cheek. She moistened her lips with her tongue and yawned with an exaggerated spread of her arms. ‘Well, I think it’s time for me to go to bed now,’ she said. ‘You look very drawn.’
Mr Pettigrew was unmoving, helpless to refuse, as Vivien laid him on her bed. ‘This won’t hurt at all,’ she giggled lightly. Slowly she teased the rubber band that secured his balloon head away from his pillow body, and released it with an airy indifference, allowing it to bounce away towards the door. ‘There,’ she said. ‘Let me help you out of that shirt.’ She pulled the old ‘T’ shirt from his memory-foam body with a soft care, placing it at the foot of the bed before giving his body a jolly good fluffing up and, laying her head gently against his chest, closed her eyes and drifted into a dark, dream-filled sleep…
Well, the strange thing is that I am still running and that I do now appear to have worked my way up to 5k, whilst still finding that 30 minutes marks the exact limit of my endurance. Now I am not listening to the nagging insistence of the Couch to 5kapp, time actually does seem to pass a little easier. I am able to clear my head a little. Unfortunately, as with all voids, it is always on the look-out for something to fill it. This is the sort of stuff that floods into my brain as I run. It does at least take my mind off the running.
Despite what is said in the eulogies, nobody that is both bright and beautiful has friends.
You will always feel stupid at an interview.
You will always feel fat at a Spa.
Nothing that was funny in the pub will ever be funny anywhere else.
Bathroom accidents only ever happen at somebody else’s house.
A standard shopping bag doubles in weight for every one hundred yards you carry it.
Beyond the age of sixty it is impossible to experience any kind of pain without fearing death.
If you only want half of a Buy One Get One Free offer, no-one will ever offer you the free half.
According to aerodynamicists, the bumble bee cannot fly – these people design aeroplanes!
It is not cool to wear sunglasses indoors – especially if you walk into the hat stand.
She almost certainly is too good for you.
There are no recorded instances of anyone ever eating a jam doughnut without getting it down their crotch.
You do not get better as you get older, you simply become less discerning.
The only person that ever loves a loser is the winner.
A picture is never worth a thousand words – unless it is a picture of a thousand words.
Breakfast meets Brunch where the price goes up.
Vertical stripes do not make you look taller – although they do make the ground look further away.
If you have just won at Monopoly, you can be sure that nobody likes you.
Toast is always hot until you eat it.
No Man is an island – unless you count the Isle of Man.
There is only one Willy Wonka and that Willy Wonka is Gene Wilder.
I may collect these thoughts together and publish a book, like Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, but with fewer jokes. If you want to add any thoughts of your own, please feel free.
I am sure that anyone that has been around my little corner of WP for any length of time will know that I do rather enjoy a bit of a chat on the Comments board. One or two of you may also have discovered that when real life comes a-knocking and I am at a loss for the right thing to say, my default position is to say nothing and then whittle for days about whether I have appeared uncaring. If this has happened to you, please accept my apologies. I really am not uncaring. I am vividly aware of my propensity for unwittingly putting my foot right in it; my knack of saying exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time. If my brain can be relied upon for any one thing, it is to desert me at my moment of greatest need.
Be certain that, when care and empathy is required, my brain will be the one that is sitting alone in the middle of the bathroom floor in a sea of snot and tissue – incoherent and useless. If ever I think of the right thing to say, it is always several hours after I should have said it. My child-like response to pain and anguish is humour. Wasn’t I, after all, taught that it was the best medicine? If I encounter someone in obvious distress, and I want to help them feel better (which, obviously, I do) surely the best thing I can do is to make them laugh, right? Well, actually, no. It’s a dumb thing to do, and somehow I can’t stop myself doing it. What is required are apposite words of consolation and support – but I have never been taught them. I want to say something useful – something comforting – but I don’t know what it is, so, desperate not to cause offence, I say nothing – which I realise might well cause offence. If I have failed to reply to something that you feel I should have done, then I’m truly sorry – although, given the asinine nature of some of the things that are apt to fall from my lips, you will have to believe me that it is probably for the best.
I have a dreadful habit of enquiring about the health of the dead: of course, I knew they were dead, I went to the flippin’ funeral. When people tell me that they have broken up with the love of their life, the temptation for me to tell them that I never actually liked him/her anyway can be almost overwhelming. Bridges are irrevocably burned when they get back together two weeks later. I have bitten my tongue so often that is a wonder I can even speak. Mind you, I spend so much time with my foot in my mouth, it’s a surprise I don’t have athletes gum. I am the conversational equivalent of Monty Python’s giant foot.
Now, just in case you are thinking that I must be a bad person, I’m not. At least, I don’t think that I am. Certainly nobody other than my wife has ever told me that I am. I believe that I am a good man (Mind you, I also believe in Father Christmas and the basic ‘goodness’ of mankind) but I don’t believe in great outpourings of emotion (which doesn’t mean that I don’t want to). Somehow, to my girdled mind, those who wear their hearts on their sleeves do so only to make them accessible to others: to demonstrate what a fine person they are and, occasionally, as some form of justification for the random fallout when they blow their top. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve – if I did, I would have to watch it 24/7 to make sure that it didn’t stop. As a child I was taught to suck it up so, by and large, that is what I do. My stock answer to, ‘How are you feeling?’ is ‘Fine.’
I presume that we all have a vision of ourselves, of how we believe ourselves to be. I presume, also, that few of us perceive ourselves to be ‘bad’. A huge percentage of violent crimes are committed on the basis that the victim was disrespectful – eg ‘Not my fault guvnor, he brought it on himself.’ Even Ronnie and Reggie must have had some sense of morality that they had to appease, but whilst I can fret for days over a single errant word or gesture, they could probably pacify their conscience on the grounds of, ‘We had to nail his head to the coffee table, because he was not showing us the appropriate level of respect.’ In my world, it is very easy to respect a psychopath with a handful of woodwork tools – it’s putting the requisite distance between us that requires the effort.
Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say really. If you ever wonder why I don’t reply to a comment, it is either because I don’t know what to say without putting my foot in it, or I’m being chased by a mobster with a Black & Decker…
Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence – Jorge Luis Borges
I would love my garden shed to be a den: a carpeted hideaway with a heater, a kettle and a TV, somewhere to retreat from the domestic hurly burly with a cold-box full of beer, a family bag of dry roasted something-or-other and a newspaper to cover my eyes; instead it is a fust-lined junkyard: repository for all garden and outdoor detritus. It contains, in addition to a plethora of gardening tools and associated gee gaws, numerous terracotta something-or-others, a number of non-functional solar this-and-that’s, various step ladders, a gazebo (still in box), a sand pit, sand (some of it still in the bag), a cricket bat (2 stumps, punctured ball), several warped tennis rackets, a bucketful of variously sized footballs in assorted stages of deflation, a motley selection of bent and rusting car-boot sale golf clubs and a metal boules set which requires two grown men to lift it. On a good day you can open the door without something falling on your head.
In one corner there is an old hi-fi cabinet filled with various bottles and pots which I dug up (forty five years ago, when I could still be bothered) from a Victorian dump on the fringes of a local golf course (from which I was regularly chased by an unhinged-looking man in pastel coloured chinos, carrying a fully-loaded mache niblick). The last time I ventured into the shed, to extract the lawnmower, I noticed that said cabinet had tilted at an alarming angle and all that surrounded it had, like the American administration, slumped to the right. The old shed floor was clearly sagging. I dragged out what I could to investigate and, lo and behold, I discovered that the shed floor was not sagging. In fact, the shed floor simply was not. Where it formerly was, lay a thick layer of rotted pulp and snail shells that reminded me, for some reason, of garden-party couscous – all hope of hideaway den decayed and crumbled before my eyes.
A new shed is out of the question at the moment – neither the will nor the funds are available – so remedial action was called for.
I planned the project meticulously: I bought wood, some of which might prove useful, and retrieved a bucket of nails from the back of the garage: the circular saw was readied and ‘999’ was added to speed-dial. I had a clear idea in my head of what I hoped to achieve, although no firm idea of how to achieve it nor, as it turns out, how to fit it in with everything that surrounds it. (A sensation I am familiar with every time I decide to trim my beard into ‘some kind of a shape’ and end up shaving it all down to stubble in fear of looking like Noel Edmonds.) All was set.
I checked the weather forecast on the evening before I was due to begin. All was fine. I checked again in the morning. All remained fine. I emptied the shed’s contents out onto the lawn under lowering skies and commenced the ‘reloading’ almost immediately under torrential rain. This became the pattern for the day. I managed to ram a few pieces atop the already teetering piles of junk in the garage and a few more into the greenhouse; the garden tools remained outside because my extremely remedial chemistry knowledge informs me that, by and large, they cannot possibly get more rusty, but most of the ex-contents – the electricals, the padded furniture, the parasols, the gazebos, the box of assorted wires (Oh, come on, who doesn’t have a boxful of neatly clipped-off cables in their shed?) – all had to be taken in and out (in and out, in and out) with the regularity of the tides on a planet with multiple moons. I was, though, by now fully committed and, like all faithful DIYers, once I have unsheathed the circular saw, I cannot return it to its box until I have drawn blood, so I persevered and within a mere twelve rain interrupted hours, the shed had a new floor, which, although not in the strictest of senses, part of it, was most definitely within it.
And now, the shed is dry. It is solid(ish) and once again stacked high with junk.
Tidying the garden afterwards was a job of a meagre few hours, and consisted largely of bunging everything that I couldn’t get back into the shed into the garage until such time as I can be bothered to hire a skip. Like some kind of reverse Tardis, the empty shed appeared cavernous, but would only accommodate a third of what it had previously crammed within its sagging walls – stacked in with a haphazard synchronicity that ensured that whatever I wanted, it was always at the bottom. The ex-floor is too damp to burn and, unless the mice have taken up darts, full of woodworm, so it has to go in the bin. The rest of the shed appears unaffected – a testament to all the green goo I plaster on it every year – and will therefore, I hope, remain standing for a year or two more yet. At least until I can get the carpet and the telly moved in…
Well, it actually is all over. I would love to be able to tell you that it all ended in a blaze of glory, but I cannot. It was more a splutter of indifference. My knees hurt, my ankles hurt, my hip ached, my calf is sporting something that looks like a huge swollen bruise, and my bladder has still not learned to cope with the amount of water I have to drink in order to deal with thirty minutes of mouth breathing. This morning I can hardly walk. Getting fit has reduced me to a physical wreck. I don’t think that I am well enough to be fit. I am at least thirty years older than when I started this, ten weeks ago.
My big question now is, will I continue running? I don’t know, there are a number of factors to consider:
Do I enjoy it? – No, I don’t. I can honestly say that not for a single moment whilst running have I ever thought to myself, ‘What good fun I am having’. Running is torture, so why would I want to continue?
Do I feel fitter? – No, I don’t. Currently I would struggle to locate a non-aching bone in my body. I can run for thirty minutes where ten weeks ago I would not have managed thirty seconds – but I’m still struggling to understand why I would really want to. This country no longer has sabre-toothed tigers, so there’s little point. If push comes to pull there is little of danger that I can’t stroll away from.
Do I feel thinner? – Yes I do.
Do I feel better for it? – No, I feel thinner.
So will I continue? – Almost certainly yes, unless I can find some way to stop without losing face.
I clocked my final ‘Couch to 5k’ thirty minute run at 4.85 kilometres, which is far enough away from 5k to make getting there a further challenge for me, but close enough to make in achievable. This week, step by painful step, I begin eeking out my misery towards that goal. An extra 150 metres (is that correct?) – I should get there in a matter of weeks – and then, I suppose, I will have to try and speed up a bit.
My last run was in the rain and I found it so much more comfortable than my plods in the sun. I have been considering taking water with me – but I think the extra weight will involve extra training, so I will stick with the chewing gum which I always regret after about five minutes. Spitting it out is not acceptable – I work in the High Street, I have to contend with an ice-rink of the stuff in wet weather – and, although I run past a couple of bins, my eyesight is by then so bleary that I could not trust my aim at all, so I chew until my jaw aches (I wouldn’t want to leave my face out of its share of pain) and drop the tasteless little bud into my bin a few minutes after I get home – just as soon as the palpitations stop.
One thing that the Couch to 5k regime has taught me is that when I publish three blogs a week, I do not get adequate time to read those of other bloggers, so, although I do intend to keep you aware of my progress – to 5k and beyond – I probably will not do so with quite the regularity or verbosity of the last few weeks. I hope that it means I can get to read a little more of what you all have to say and, therefore, bore you to death on the comments boards instead.
Anyway, this week ten post is really just to thank you for sticking with me through this – I’m guessing it was probably more painful for you than I – never forget, They also serve who stand and allow the little ginger bloke to whinge interminably.
This post will be the last outing for the unknown runner’s legs at the head of the page, but they will not be replaced by my own legs at any future point. Outraging Public Decency still, I think, carries a prison sentence and I would not be good in prison: I am allergic to woollen blankets, porridge, communal showers and dungarees with arrows on. Mind you, if I ever managed to escape, I would at least know exactly how far away I could be in thirty minutes…
We all know what it feels like to grow old, don’t we? The slow, but inevitable diminution of mental acuity and physical attributes: the deadening of the senses – sight, hearing, smell and taste, above all taste; the tendency to bruise like an over-ripe peach; to smell like an over-ripe banana; all part of the gradual, but inescapable descent into dampened gibbering. Except that it’s not really like that at all – at least not yet. I am ‘of an age’, but what lies between my ears is of quite a different age. Although I now do have a tendency to ache quite a lot, I’m not entirely certain that it isn’t just something of which I have just recently become more aware. That is, I have always ached – I just haven’t had the time to obsess about it before. Nor have I previously worried about why I am aching. These days I have to analyze everything. Everything could be a sign of something else. As long as I continue to do well on Pointless, I have always believed that I could accept my absent-mindedness as a minor peccadillo, but now I worry constantly that it might just be a sign of something altogether more sinister. Each forgotten bin day is another step down the path towards senility; each empty baked bean can in the fridge another lurch towards the vacant let. And I do get tired now – each thirty minutes beyond News at Ten, is another day spent trying to remember where I left my keys.
I feel that I am still capable of doing pretty much what I have always done, but now I anticipate the consequences, which definitely slows me down. I still feel instinctively that my grandchildren will always be safe as long as I am there, but if I stop to think about it, I now realise that it is not necessarily true, that it never was. I do know, though, that I would die trying to protect them – and that has to count for something. I would do the same for my children, of course, but they are mech stronger and fitter than me and would probably tell me to act my age.
Of course, acting your age is the first thing you stop doing as you get older. In any case, who really knows how a person of your age is supposed to act? I have friends who have acted like sixty year olds since their tenth birthdays. I also have friends who still act like they’re ten. Whatever your age, who can resist a playground swing; rolling down a grassy bank; splashing in puddles? Who can resist fishing in a seaside rock pool, or digging for buried treasure? That is acting your age.
And, as you get older, life does try to compensate by handing you some new attributes in place of the good stuff you have misplaced along the way. In place of good looks, an athletic physique, suppleness and stamina, you get the ability to understand that Midsomer Murders is not meant to be Shakespeare, and the strength to occasionally sit through a full episode without falling asleep and drooling on your slippers. You begin to realise that it really doesn’t matter if you left your mobile phone on the kitchen table in the morning, because the only people who ever contact you are trying to interest you in a discount at the crematorium. Old age is when you start to realise that, in order to set all of his fiendish traps, Dick Dastardly has to be miles ahead of the field – and you can’t help but wonder why he just doesn’t keep going… I can no longer climb a rope, but hey, I have learned not to question why I would ever want to. I have learned that dining out in a white shirt is never a good idea, unless I am going to be eating exclusively white marshmallows.
And – now I realise what age has really brought to me – suddenly I have no idea what I had on my mind as I started this piece. It is a balmy evening. I have drunk a nice bottle of red and the birds are singing (at least, I think they are, it could always be tinnitus) and the sky is the kind of blue that makes me think that if this is the best that the world has to offer then it really is more than enough. I do not know how getting older feels when you start to feel older, but I know that, at the moment, it feels like I could drink in every moment of it – with every ailing sense and physical attribute – and, if I could live forever, then I certainly would.
Unfortunately, that is the one thing that getting older teaches you will never come to pass…
Unusually, for me, this post was written in ‘one take’ and on the evening of publication – and so I ask you to please accept my abject apologies for any grammatical and syntax aberrations. This piece has festered in my head all day. This evening I typed it up with atypical speed and prepared to publish – before having my attention taken by my second ever post (‘Getting On’ from November 2018) – at which point I realised how little actually changes and, yes, that this is what it is all about…
“I have also begun to understand that advancing age is not to be feared, it is to be embraced. Embraced for its ability to allow me clearer vision than sight. Embraced for its ability to grant me the realisation that what is right for me, may not be right for anybody else, but quite frankly, that I care even less than they do. Embraced for the realisation that my appreciation of the world around me is linked, incrementally, with the paucity of time that I have left to enjoy it. Embraced because I have no choice. Embraced because it makes me happy.” Colin McQueen – Getting On
This is the second fragment from a far-away unfinished story that I played with for months before deciding that I didn’t know where to take it. Recently Dinah and Shaw have appeared in my life and I suddenly understand where everyone is going. Now all I have to do is to get them there…
…I was walking along some god-forsaken ‘B’ road, somewhere between the middle of nowhere and the middle of nowhere else. The rain was falling so hard that it was bouncing back from the road surface and having another go at making me wet. It cut through my clothes like icy spears and made its way down into my very heart and soul – and drowned them. It had already made its way into the engine of my car which was residing, hopefully beneath several feet of extremely acid rain, in a lay-by somewhere short of the middle of nowhere, whilst I was trudging, huddled and freezing, along this unlit country road searching for somewhere which, for all I knew, quite possibly did not exist. However low my previous lowest ebb, my present one was even lower and I was beginning to ponder the possibility of drowning by syphonic action. It was then that I first became aware of the car that had stopped beside me. I hadn’t heard its approach, nor had I seen its lights, yet there it was, stationary and alongside me; engine running, lights on. I didn’t wait for an invitation to open the door.
The warmth from within billowed out and enveloped me as I lowered myself into the passenger seat and closed the door behind me. My glasses steamed up instantly so that, with or without them, I was practically blind. The car began to move smoothly away as I tried to wipe away the condensation from my spectacle lenses on a sodden jacket that just made the problem worse. The heat made me feel a little light-headed and the music from the stereo seemed to increase in volume as the car accelerated.
“Persephone,” I said.
“You really do know your Wishbone,” said a voice that I vaguely recollected.
Now, I’ve never been one for putting two and two together and coming up with five, but suddenly I was into double figures. I went through my pockets, frantically trying to find something dry with which to restore my eyesight. I felt an arm reach across me and I’m ashamed to admit that I flinched. The glove compartment dropped open in front of me. “There’s a box of tissues in there,” he said. I fumbled around, expecting to come across a gun or a knife or… I don’t know what I expected to come across, but all I actually found was a box of tissues. “I keep the gun under the seat,” he said.
I was suddenly profoundly uneasy. I knew from the tone of his voice that what he had said was nothing more than a joke, a light-hearted remark, but it was as if he knew exactly what I had been thinking. I needed to see him properly. I pulled out a tissue and wiped the lenses unnecessarily hard. It crossed my mind that if I continued it might alter the prescription. I put the glasses back on. It was him. A slightly blurry him, but him none-the-less. Tall, distinguished, white-grey hair, long, but immaculately neat, the beard full, but neatly trimmed. He looked like an anorexic God, in jeans and a checked shirt.
“Where are you heading?” he asked.
“To find someone who can mend my car. It’s broken down, about two miles back I think, probably more by now. I know it’s in a lay-by, near some trees… That’s not going to help is it?” I looked through the windscreen at the rain-sodden trees hanging limply to either side of us as far as the eye could see. “I’ll have to come back this way in the morning, in the light, when it’s stopped raining. I’m sure I’ll find it then, as long as no-one’s set fire to it.”
“Don’t suppose it would burn in this,” he said.
“No, I guess not. Well then, I suppose I’ll have to find somewhere to spend the night. Can you drop me at the next town?”
“Of course,” he said and we lapsed into silence, both entranced by the swish of the wipers on the rain-spattered windscreen and the sound of the tyres on the road. “I don’t suppose you know where the next town is, do you?” he asked.
“No, I was just out for a drive really, when the rain started falling and I saw you walking. I never really pay too much attention to where I’m going. I just sort of know when I get there. Where were you going?”
“I’m not sure, I just sort of drove. I was in a temper, I suppose. I needed to cool down. It’s something I do; I just get in the car and go. I think I was driving for quite a long time, I’m not sure, the car just sort of stopped really. All the lights came on and it stopped.”
“Like you’d run out of petrol?”
“Exactly.” Light dawned somewhere in the declining grey ooze behind my eyes. “I ran out of petrol. Stupid, stupid. Why didn’t I check the fuel? I…” The car began to slow. “Why are you stopping?” I asked.
“I think we’ve arrived,” he said.
Puzzled, I looked around. The rain had eased, but everything else was as it had been for miles. Trees, trees and more trees. And a lay-by. And my car…
“Erm, thanks,” I said. “I really… That is how…?”
“It’s good that you’ve cooled down,” he said. “But I think your family might be wondering where you are.”
“I don’t have one,” I said, instantly aware that I sounded really pathetic, “but you’re right, I ought to be getting home.”
“There’s petrol in the boot,” he said.
I eased myself from the seat and went round to the back of the car. I wasn’t surprised to see the petrol can, alone in the centre of an otherwise empty boot. I carried it quickly to my car; the rain had eased, but it was still cold and wetting. I heard his car begin to pull away behind me. I wasn’t surprised. I think I had expected it.
“Hang on,” I yelled. “Your petrol can.”
His window opened slightly. “Don’t worry,” he said “I’ll get it next time I see you…”
It’s not much of a hill, but my house is at the top of it. It means that wherever I run, the second half of that run is always uphill – or else I don’t get home. It is of no relevance, I just wanted you to know.
On my last twenty-eight minute run of week 8, I kept going by convincing myself that when I reached ‘the end’, I would continue to run for another two minutes, in order to prove that I would be ok this week. When I got there, I couldn’t do it. The problem is that I currently run until the bell rings to tell me that I am half way home, at which point I turn around and retrace my steps: I know exactly where I should be when I finish and my entire focus over those final minutes is on getting there. When I cross that line, everything collapses around me – including me. At that point, I am no more likely to run a further thirty seconds than another thirty days. I am done. It’s like asking a man who has just climbed Everest to shimmy up a step-ladder from the summit and fit a new light bulb. If you aim to make the perfect apple crumble, does anybody actually expect you to put crushed nuts on top?
I ended last week in a bit of a panic. Circumstances beyond my control pushed me from a Wednesday run to a Thursday run. This meant that in order to maintain the regime, my final run of the week had to be on Saturday. On Saturday I work all day, I have a long walk to and from, and I was due to see one of my daughters and two of my grandchildren an hour after getting home. Could I fit a thirty eight minute session (including warm up and warm down) into that gap (particularly as my getting ready/psyching myself up/drinking lots of water/going for a last minute toilet break routine takes at least thirty minutes)?
Well, I did it. The stress of the situation took my mind off the normal certainty of failure and – other than the failure to tag an extra two minutes on – I managed ok. It was earlier than I normally run and the weather was very warm. In my panic to get on with it, I forgot my knee supports, my chewing gum and my water, but I reached the end without any hint of stopping along the way. It was the work of seconds to cleave my tongue from the roof of my mouth with a screwdriver after I had staggered home. This week, I have discovered that the entire duration of a run is spent in an internal discussion with myself over the advisability of ‘just stopping for a few seconds’ and I fear that at least half of it is argued out loud. People with dogs cross the road when they see me coming. People without dogs hide behind trees…
I have now completed two of my thirty minute runs. Tomorrow I will have finished ‘the course’ and a smugger person you will not be able to find. It remains to be seen whether I will be able to gather together the motivation to keep going now. I will keep you informed.
For my run, my musical ‘soundtrack’ consists largely of tracks that are five minutes long or more: during a thirty minute run I know that I should get through six songs. There are, though, one or two shorter ones lurking therein and I cannot articulate the pain I feel when one of them starts to play. It boots my meticulous planning right out of the window. I cannot adjust the timings in my head and breathe at the same time. After a short track has played, there is no way of calculating when I will enter the last five minutes of my personal hell – other than the voice of Jo Whiley telling me that I am just entering the last five minutes, of course – but the fury drives me on, so the shorter songs stay on the playlist. I haven’t yet had a run without at least one shorter track puncturing my schedule. When I do, it will surely infuriate me further.
One further thing I discovered this week. I really should not have tracks with quiet intros on the playlist. When they play, I can hear myself breathe – and that is very bad indeed. Nobody should sound like that unless they are wearing an aqualung.
Today I met some old friends whom I have not seen since before lockdown and they commented on my loss of weight. Like an idiot I told them that I have been running (I have previously told no-one outside of my family and my tiny roster of WP readers). They were utterly appalled. They could not have disapproved more if I had wee’d in their cocoa. After we parted, I kept checking over my shoulder, in case they had reported me to the police. I anticipated disinterest; disapproval on such a grand scale left me wondering whether I really was being reckless beyond the point of criminal culpability. At least I won’t be so easy to catch in a chase now.
*Devon Loch jumped the last fence of the Grand National in 1956 comfortably in front of the rest of the field. Inexplicably, it then fell attempting to jump a fence that did not exist in the finishing straight and did not finish.