The Running Man on Reasons Why Not

I have not been on a single run in the past week.  I have my reasons (or, as I will henceforth refer to them ‘justifications’*) for this malaise.  They are not entirely of my own making…

We need a new carpet for the lounge.  It is possible to see the migrating woodlice through the current one.  My wife has decided that if we are to have a new carpet fitted we should re-decorate before it arrives – ‘Just a lick of paint’ – and has accordingly allowed me ten days (including work days) to get this done before the fitters arrive.  The lounge, I should point out, is three rooms knocked into one and is consequently the kind of shape that you only otherwise see when you are very bad at Tetris.  So far, after a day spent disconnecting TV’s and Hi-Fi’s, and shifting furniture (Why does nothing have castors any more?) I have painted the ceilings and my wife has commenced the glossing.  I have looked at the damaged plaster work that was formerly hidden behind furniture and which I now feel obliged to repair.  I have also investigated a dip in the floor which turns out to be a small collapse where the cavity wall formerly sat between the old house and the old extension.  A builder friend came and channelled out, filled with concrete and left in good order as per, and now I have to learn to apply the leveller between the two surfaces.  I have found my trowel, which was covered in the rock-hard evidence of its last use, and have spent several hours cleaning it off.  I have also spent a number of long, dark hours discovering that I cannot plaster.  Furthermore, I have discovered that I cannot adequately clean trowels, as my newly plastered patches all have deep ravines running across them where the more intransigent lumps of dried-on concrete lingered.  I will repair them just as soon as I have managed to hammer the concrete from my spatula.

I have also spotted a number of small stains on the walls (mostly chocolate and wine if I’m honest) that need to be removed before the new paint is applied, as I know that otherwise they will leach through in seconds.  I have discovered that Sugar Soap is my weapon of choice here.  It does not work, but it is very cheap and every bit as effective as all the expensive preparations that also do not work.  I have removed all door furniture, as requested, with the minimum of injury, and have subsequently spent a forlorn hour staring at all the new electrical sockets and switches that my wife has purchased.  I have added the emergency services to my speed-dial and alerted the National Grid to expect unusual activity within the next few days.  I wouldn’t want them thinking that ET had come back to pick up his bike.  I have taken the batteries out of the smoke alarm.

This evening, having previously moved the TV away from the walls to a position that makes its survival at best ‘of concern’, I agreed to reconnect all the wires so that my wife did not have to stare at the blank screen all evening, pretending to be me after my laptop has updated unexpectedly.  So many wires, so few sockets.  I have absolutely no idea what all these devices do.  I think we are probably hard-wired into Beijing.  Anyway, after a mere few hours, she can now watch TV again, although it does somehow appear that Derek Trotter now speaks in Urdu and Rodney has had a very heavy weight placed upon his head.  Also, according to the guide, she is watching Countryfile.  The remote control flushes the toilet.

Tomorrow I will begin to paint the walls and, given my propensity towards spillage, I must agree that this is best done before the carpet arrives.  I will carefully edge each wall with a single confident stroke that resembles the coastline of Croatia before attempting to apply the paint with a roller that does not appear to be quite the same size as the cage it (almost) fits upon; marvelling at my own ability to produce the kind of striped effect only otherwise witnessed on the lawns at Buckingham Palace and the capacity of formerly flat plaster to assume the rather disturbing silhouette of Dolly Parton behind a net curtain.  It will probably dry out and, if it doesn’t, will provide the perfect position for the photo of our wedding day, which could only benefit from the altered viewing angle.

Following my day spent on the ceilings, my back is currently experiencing the kind of rigor normally associated with the guest stars on ‘Silent Witness’ and I have a twitch in my leg like a pulsar.  Never mind, the human spirit is a wonderful thing and almost as accommodating as the Scotch variety, of which I am about to partake (to safe levels obviously**) in order to treat my cold – should I ever get one.

Anyway, that is the reason I haven’t been running so far this week – and I almost certainly can’t go out tomorrow as it is forecast to rain… a bit… maybe…

*see also ‘excuses’
**I have a theory that if I weighed twice as much as I do, I could safely drink double the amount.  I have taken the batteries out of the scales.

My running diary began with ‘Couch to 5k’ here.
My last actual running thoughts were chronicled here in ‘The Running Man on Extending’.

The Writer’s Circle #16 – The Lure of Summer

Jane Herbert (horror) was the second member of the Circle to face her peers having made an attempt to write in the genre drawn, at Phil’s suggestion, from the pool of those written by every other member.  Romance could not have been more alien to her and she had the added pressure of Deidre analysing her every word but, like Phil who had preceded her, although she found the exercise challenging she also found it rewarding and, as the attention of the group turned towards her, she felt ready to read them what she had written…

“…Frost prickled on the grass, turning each separate blade into a sparkling dagger and fringing the bursting leaves of the overhanging yew trees with a lattice-work of shining, icy lace.  The morning sun reflected and glittered out from every surface, although it yet provided little warmth to the air.  Sparrows fought over the squirming bounty unearthed in newly-turned soil: the desperate comedy of survival cast along the long, long morning shadows; the only other sound the cellophane crackle of bouquet wrappings.

Desmond Demona (Des to his friends, of which there were precious few) sat on the stone-flagged floor in an isolated pool of sunlit warmth, his back against the honeyed limestone of the church tower wall, eyes closed, the black plastic cup gently steaming the scent of stewed milky tea into the air, warming his soil-stained fingers, soothing his senses, calming his soul.  He had the smell of the earth in his nostrils, he could still feel the weathered grain of the spade handle against the skin of his palms.  He was happy in his work, but he took his breaks very seriously – almost religiously.  His timing was meticulous and steady.  In rain or shine, summer heat or winter chill, swaddled in multi-layered clothing or stripped to the waist, his routine remained unvaried: thirty minutes digging followed by ten minutes rest until the job was done.

The job was digging graves and Desmond took great pride in it.  The symmetry of his excavations was revered throughout the diocese.  Even when the unexpected was encountered, in the form of old church outbuildings, clay pipes or illicitly interred beloved pets, he found a way to ensure that the box nestled level, precisely six feet below the sod.

Sometimes he was bothered by the taunts of the local kids as they went to school.  He started his day early, tailored his routine to be as far away from them as possible, but he couldn’t avoid those who chose to loiter around the graveyard during holidays.  He kept his head down and he dug and when they started to pelt him, as they occasionally did, he was always at the bottom of a hole and unable to get out quickly enough to challenge them, so he simply collected the rubbish in a bag (he liked a clean grave) with a view to rubbing their noses in it if ever he caught them.  He never did.  He knew he never would, but the promise of revenge fortified him none-the-less.

The vicar was good to Desmond, managing to find him jobs even when no-one was dying: cutting grass, cleaning headstones, tidying decaying tributes and flowers.  Occasionally he was asked to carry out some menial tasks inside the building; varnishing pews, Hoovering prayer cushions, dusting the surfaces that the vicar could not reach without standing on a chair.  Desmond always did his best – occasionally bringing his own chair from home as it was a little higher than the vicar’s and more stable – but he did not feel suited to ‘inside work’.  He liked to dig.  It was what he was good at.  He liked to feel the sun on his back.  He liked to sit in the shade of the giant yew in the summer as he napped away his thirty minute mid-day break.  For six precious weeks from late May to early July, the sun crested the tower and beat down on his little spot.  Those were his favourite weeks of the year and, although they were still some months away, he sensed them coming in the air and he looked forward to the time when he could rid himself of the cloying cold of the grave by basking in the heat of the noon-time sun.  He loved to feel the heat prickling on his darkening skin, adding definition to a body toned to perfection by a life spent digging.

At least, it was pretty close to perfection as far as the vicar was concerned.  She had been here for five years now and, if anything, she looked forward to the summer months with greater anticipation than Desmond himself.  She had tried to talk to him so many times, to draw him into conversation, but all he ever wanted to hear from her was where to dig and, if there really was no digging to do, he would hold her with his doleful eyes until she found him some tasks, preferably outside, with which to pass his day.  There were times when she had to find him jobs to do around the church itself – when people were just not dying or when the bloody kids just wouldn’t leave him alone – but she could tell that he was not happy there.  She devoted every moment she could at such times in attempting to draw some conversation from him, but she always knew that, for both their sakes, she would very soon have to find him work outside in the fresh air, where he felt able to remove his shirt – where she was able to surreptitiously observe him doing so.

But today, she watched him through the frost speckled windows of the vestry as he screwed the cup back on top of his flask and rose, fully-clothed to his feet.  He moved, she thought, like a cat.  What went on inside his head?  She realised that the paraphernalia of vicarhood hung around her like an invisible cage.  Few men ever think about vicars as suitable girl-friend material but then, truth be told, few vicars ever think about a withdrawn gravedigger as being the man to lead them up the aisle, and she was almost certain that even fewer ever see themselves quite so vividly breaking so many commandments simultaneously.  Slowly she raised the cassock above her knees and sighed contentedly as the heat of the tiny electric heater slowly caressed her legs.  For her, the summer just couldn’t come soon enough…”

The Writer’s Circle started with ‘Penny’s Poem’, here.
Last week’s Writer’s Circle ‘The Mud, the Blood and the Beer’ is here.

The Running Man on Extending

Our back garden as viewed from my office window.  Note our own extension in the bottom left, the clothes dryer that would have had to have been moved if my wife knew that I was taking the photo, and the pink shell sandpit that the kids carefully emptied out onto the patio during their last visit.

As I run around the village these days I find that almost every other house is clad in scaffolding.  The whole place looks like a series of giant Meccano sets, constructed and curated by a strutting illustrated man clad in denim overalls talking like he’s permanently attached to an invisible megaphone, somehow managing to laugh and snarl at the same time.  Half the world is extending whilst the other half is winter frog-like – in a state of stasis, like a jelly fish in the freezer.  Unmodified homes are betrayed by their lack of gunmetal grey windows and buff-coloured rendering; naked housebrick standing out like the uncouth uncle at a family gathering: the man in the green checked shirt, blue striped suit and purple nylon wig.   It can only be a matter of time until the children are warned to keep away.

I am a creature of habit and my running routes seldom vary, so I see these changes taking place.  I witness the houses evolve in my own cataractal time-lapse eye and although it is very rare to lope past a finished job thinking that it shouldn’t have been done at all, I could obviously point you at one or two that look like they’ve had a shed velcroed onto the side of the kitchen.  I never dreamt that this volume of builders even existed – the breaker’s yards by now must be completely devoid of all decrepit white vans.  Where will they all go when the lockdown finishes and people no longer want to re-sculpt the homes in which they have been trapped?  Does Brigadoon require knocking through?  Most of the houses – presumably no longer homes – are put up for sale the moment the work stops.  There must be a psychological explanation for this, but I’m buggered if I can find it – unless people find that they just cannot live without dust and noise, Absolute 90’s on the radio, a Portaloo on the front lawn and tea stains on every conceivable surface.  The houses, when finished, look great – except that they all have the forlorn appearance of ‘property for sale’ hanging, shroud-like over them.  I picture a kind of merry-go-round of upsizing and downsizing in progress with the clockwise half of the local population constantly tripping over the anti-clockwise balance.

Such homes that are not having internal walls removed and external walls skimmed are having the gardens done.  Landscape gardeners have proliferated like Cane Toads in the Australian Outback.  No garden is finished until it has been designed on a computer.  ‘Hard Landscaping’ is the horticultural mode: remove as much green as possible and cover it with shingle, bricks and the kind of wooden structures that, around here, will succumb to woodworm before the autumn.  Monty Don must be spinning in his cold-frame.  The garden has become an ersatz house extension and the flowers have paid the price.  My lawns are not great, but they are two of very few left in the village.  Most of the green oases that pepper the streets now are of the ‘astro’ variety – lawns that are swept rather than cut – but do at least add a varied palette of green shades to the surroundings that would never be seen in nature. 

I am no gardener, but I know that gardens are important, both for nature and for human well-being.  Each spring I watch the green shoots begin to forge their way through my own small patch of winter-wizened soil and debate long and hard over which to leave and which to dig up, in the certain knowledge that I will get it wrong.  Each summer I spend one of the two balmy evenings we are apt to get per year, sitting out amongst the flowers, cradling something warming in a glass.  Each autumn I chop it all down and ram it into the compost bin, whence it forms a foul-smelling brown slime that I have to sluice away in the summer.  This is the circle of life and I am sad to see it broken by grey slate and plastic lawns.  My run is becoming more monochrome by the day as the town is moved into the country – a vista of white van and black Range Rover – and my glimpses of nature (outside of strategically placed dog-turds in bio-degradable bags) rarer. 

Oh well, I’m sure that when the summer comes it will all look better.  Who knows, I might just have an extension built to watch it from…

In England we can now have up to six people, or two households, meeting in the garden.  Guests can even use the toilet!  (I must tell next-door’s cats.)  Accordingly, this week’s running diary is brought to you courtesy of a very elderly gazebo and a newly purchased patio heater.

This whole running shenanigans started here with ‘Couch to 5k’.
Last week’s Running Man ‘…on Setting Off’ is here.
You can find the next Running Man ‘…on Reasons Why Not’ here.

The Writer’s Circle #15 – The Mud, the Blood and the Beer

Penelope (Penny) Farthing had been named by her father just a matter of weeks before he walked out of the family home, never to return.  He wasn’t missing, just gone – at least that’s what her mother always said.  His absence was seldom discussed and Penny had never really felt the desire to try to find the man who had given her her name.  Whenever anybody spoke of meeting him, she always thought of ‘A Boy Named Sue’* and how unsuited she was to kicking and gouging in the mud, the blood and the beer.  Also, she always suspected that her mother knew much more than she was prepared to tell.  Penny felt, instinctively, that she had been involved in some way with his disappearance – maybe she had killed him – but she had never dared to ask.  It was her mother’s claim that she had been too timid to object when her father had registered her name, but Penny had serious doubts: her mother was many things, but never timid.

Why her father should play such a trick on his own child – a child he had never really got to know, a child he was planning to leave – Penny could never quite understand.  Certainly her mother’s late-night, post-sherry taunts that “Nobody expected you to still be single at your age,” led her to believe that her role in the whole elaborate prank was far greater than she wanted her daughter to know.  If Penny retained any desire at all to meet her father, it was so she could ask him that one thing.  “Did the old witch know what you were doing?  Was she a part of it?”  She would never be able to do so now.  The only thing that bound her to him – outside of DNA – was her mother, she held all the clues and she was no longer able to focus long enough to remember anything that she did not choose to.  An almost selective form of dementia – so typical of the bloody woman to retain all of her defences whilst rationality abandoned her.  To lose the facility to recall her own daughter’s face, but not the contempt in which she held it, it took a certain kind of mother.  It is not an easy thing, to feel nothing for your own mother, not good for your soul, but it was all Penny had left since she had spat compassion back at her.

Everyone at The Circle had noticed the change in Penny over the last few weeks.  She was just that little bit more assertive, more spiky somehow; still the little mouse, but more inclined to nip if cornered.  The unexpected appearance and subsequent disappearance of Charlie had preyed on her mind.  His failure to return, to explain, had somehow brought her father to mind with a presence that she had not felt in many years.  She would not in any way compare Charlie with her father; Charlie was a good man, she had missed him while he had been away and his return had kindled some kind of hope inside her, but both he and her father had disappeared from her life and the disappearance of the man she missed had, once again, made her curious about the man she did not.  What if he had been a good man?  She had only her mother’s word that he had not.  What if it wasn’t him that had given her that hated name at all?  Again she had only the unreliable word of the hollow woman that she visited daily, religiously, in the home.  She cursed herself for not doubting her sooner, for not pressing her for answers whilst she still had them, but she had trusted her mother, just like she had trusted Charlie when he said he was coming back, that he was getting better, and she didn’t fully understand herself, why she felt it such betrayal.  Except…  Charlie was a member of The Circle, a good man, whom she felt had, in some indefinable way had let her down.  The Circle was the closest thing that she had to a family now and, like a family, nobody else ever seemed to notice if you weren’t at your best.  Nobody noticed if you were just that inch or two out of your depth…

The consoling arm on Penny’s shoulder took her by surprise.  She opened her mouth to speak but, as hot tears swelled unheralded into her eyes, Terry put a finger to concerned lips and silently handed her a tissue.  “Wipe your eyes,” he whispered, “and as long as you don’t tell, neither shall I.”  He winked.  “After all, where would The Circle be without a little feud to keep it going?”  Penny took the tissue and smiled weakly at Terry as he retreated slowly, back to his customary place on the periphery.  “That,” thought Penny “is the problem with families: you never quite know where you are with them…”

*‘A Boy Named Sue’ by Johnny Cash

The Writer’s Circle stories started her with ‘Penny’s Poem’ here.
The previous Writer’s Circle story ‘Funeral Songs’ is here.

The Running Man on Setting Off

I was very pin-toed as a child and my mother was told that it was very unlikely that I would ever walk properly, let alone run.  (They were wrong, of course.  I realise that you know I wouldn’t have mentioned it otherwise.)  I do have a slightly unusual gait to my walk – picture a slightly camp giraffe on ice – but, although not quickly, I do run and I have played sport all of my life, even if most of my ‘upright’ time is spent in a stance that can best described as ‘a teeter’.  (I caught sight of myself in a mirror once whilst playing squash and it reminded me of ‘modern ballet’ – the kind of dance that is accompanied by music that exists only in the notes that never quite made it into formal notation; where you witness a move and wonder whether it could possibly have been intentional.  The image was so shocking that I paused for a second and wound up with a bruise the size of a fried egg on my forehead.)  At any speed above ‘dawdle’ I always give the impression of a man on a tightrope.

Since I began to run, a year ago, I have never done so without wearing supports on both knees.  It is likely that my pin-toes are to blame for the weakness in my knees, although I always blame a lifetime of playing sport, because it sounds so much more glamorous.  In fact I have a distinct memory of inadvertently attempting to fly as a child, across a space where a stone staircase should have been and crash-landing on my knees, leading to what the doctor described as ‘water on the knees’, which he treated with crepe bandages wound so tightly that my feet turned blue and my eyes bulged in my head like balloons in a microwave.  Whatever the cause, my knees operate on a basis of more or less permanent ache which, against all expectations, is lessened by running.  Early on in ‘my running journey’ I was troubled by hip pain, but I learned some stretching exercises and now the only time I get pain in my hips is after a couple of days without running.  It is my body’s way of telling me to get my arse into gear.

The start is always the hardest.  If I get up in the night – ‘if’?  who do I think I am kidding? – my stagger along the landing is a joy to behold as neither hips nor knees are prepared to bend without a substantial period of notice.  The imperative to reach the bathroom combined with the intransigence of my joints means that the midnight walk is more of a controlled fall forward.  In fact, that is the only way that I can set off on a run.  I slowly tip forward until I reach a point where the gyroscope in my head (obviously sub-standard since fitting) tells me that either I start to move my feet or ditch on my snitch.  The state of the paths around here means that either result is equally plausible.  In my head I am a cool runner, but in the eyes of the world I am an old man fighting a futile battle against gravity; I am a pin-toed Rowan Atkinson attempting to catch a crowded train as it pulls out of the station.  In reality, of course, the train has long-since left and I’ve no chance of ever getting back on board.  Just as well really, it would almost certainly be heading for the wrong station…

As always, I would refer you to the start of this running around business in ‘Couch to 5k’, here.
Should you want to know what happened last week, you can join me running ‘…on a Bicycle’, here.

N.B. At the end of a recent Running Man, I included a little footnote about my coloured pen ‘editing’ process which drew a little comment.  I think I should clarify that this is not some kind of ‘professional’ methodical process, but a desolate routine that almost invariably follows the same pattern:
1. Write piece in pen on paper.
2. Transpose onto computer and print.
3. Read through and despair.
4. Take red pen and add jokes.
5. Read through and despair.
6. Take green pen and attempt to make some sense of it.
7. Read through and despair.
8. Take black pen and correct grammar, syntax and opinion.
9. Read through and despair.
10. Feed into shredder and revert to original.

So now you know…

My running diary started with ‘Couch to 5k’ here.
Last week’s little tarradiddle ‘The Running Man on a Bicycle’ is here.
Next week’s run out ‘The Running Man on Extending’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #14 – Funeral Songs

“…I’d like loads of fuss: anguished wailing, gnashing of teeth; the whole nine yards…”  It was a typical mid-session conversation at The Circle, this time sparked by Frankie’s passing mention of having ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ as his funeral song and Phil, as usual, was having his say, although what was coming out of his mouth bore little relation to what was going on in his head.  “Can you still get those horses with big white plumes on their heads?  I’d like those.  White horses, of course.  Nothing tacky…”
“Well,” interjected Deidre, the venom in her voice just about concealed by the syrup in her smile, “I’m sure we all look await the occasion with bated breath.”
“What is bated breath?” asked Elizabeth.  “I mean, why is it ‘bated’?”
“I think,” said Billy, “it’s ‘abated’ shortened, so kind of postponed.  Your man Shakespeare again, I think.”
“Right, so if we all bate our breath whilst waiting for Phil’s funeral, it’s very likely that we’ll all get there before him.”
“I used to work for a man who loved funerals,” volunteered Louise.  “He used to go from church to church, sitting at the back, singing hymns.  He loved to sing.”
“I hate funerals,” ventured Penny.
“They certainly don’t have much to recommend them,” said Terry.
Penny stared at him hard.  “Some might,” she whispered.
“My grandad was the same,” offered Frankie, picking up the stitch that Louise had dropped.  “He loved a good funeral did my grandad – although he did, at least,  restrict himself to people he knew.  Broke his heart when he couldn’t go to my grandma’s funeral.”
“Why couldn’t he go?” asked Deidre.
“Because she wouldn’t die.”
“Ta-da!” said Phil who, unlike Deidre, had seen it coming.
“It’s weird though, isn’t it,” started Elizabeth as the laughter subsided, conscious that Deidre was about to say something that would almost certainly dampen the mood, ‘how all that tension in the church dissipates the second the first sherry is served.”
“And why sherry?” asked Jane.  “Does anybody drink sherry other than at funerals?”
“Great aunts on Christmas Eve” suggested Vanessa.
“Well, that’s a given,” said Jane.
“I had a great aunt who drank nothing but Milk Stout,” Said Billy.  “It killed her in the end.”
“Don’t tell me,” laughed Frankie.  “She was knocked over by the delivery truck.”
“No,” said Billy.  “She had cirrhosis.  As I said, she drank nothing but Milk Stout.”
“Always one of the first signs that Christmas was on its way,” said Terry “the adverts for British Sherry.”
“I prefer mine dry,” said Penny, which brought a smile to Terry’s lips.
“When I was a kid, my mum used to send me to the local offy with a pound and an empty milk bottle for a pint of draught sherry.”
“Didn’t it make your tea taste funny, Bill?” quipped Frankie, who never learned.
“It was always snowballs in our house at Christmas,” said Deidre.  “Instead of sherry, I mean.  A snowball.  Although we never had lime in it, or a cherry come to that.  Just advocaat and lemonade.  Oh, what was it called?”
“Warninks,” answered Billy.  “‘Eveninks and morninks, we all drink Warninks…’”
“I think we had Bols.”
“I bet that took some swallowing.”  Frankie was in his element.
“Yes, thank you very much for that, Francis.”  Deidre was not.
“I never knew my mum or dad to visit the pub,” Terry said.  “When my dad died – I was very young – but I remember mum put a fiver behind the bar to buy all the drinks.  The landlord ended up footing the bill, because he didn’t like to tell her it was nothing like enough.  As we left, she told him to keep any change there was.  I really didn’t like the way she winked at me…”
“I wonder why we make the association between funerals and Christmas?” asked Vanessa.
“And alcohol,” added Phil.
Vanessa nodded.  “And alcohol…  Forced bonhomie and conversations with people with whom we would rather not spend our time…”
“Family gatherings,” said Billy.  “Like carbuncles: hard to endure, but when they’ve gone, the relief is immense.”
“So what’s you funeral song then Bill?” asked Phil.
“I don’t think I’ve got one,” he answered, just a beat too quickly.
“You have,” said Phil.  “I know you have.  You must have.  Everybody has.”
“Well, my dad had ‘My Way’ and my uncle Derek had ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’…”
“A bit clichéd, don’t you think?”
“Exactly my point,” said Billy.  You either go for something ridiculously clichéd or totally bonkers.”
“I like a song by Judie Tzuke called ‘Joan of Arc’,” said Penny.  “I think I’d have that.”
“I’ll make a note,” said Frankie.
“You’ll be gone long before me,” Penny laughed, despite herself.
“Mm,” Frankie stroked his chin, “I suppose I am probably the eldest here,” he chuckled.  “Together with Deidre, of course.”
Deidre groaned, as if shot, but not wanting to ‘protest too much’, she smiled wanly.
“Would any of you come to my funeral, I wonder?” asked Terry.  “Other than Penny of course, who can’t wait to dance on my grave.”
“Well, not ‘dance’ exactly,” said Penny.
“Shame,” said Terry, “because I was thinking of having ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’ by The Nolans.”
“I hate that song,” said Penny.
“Me too,” laughed Terry, “but fortunately I won’t have to hear it.”
“I’d have ‘Magnificent’ by Elbow,” said Jane.
“That’s a great song.”
“I know, I’ll be sad to miss it.”

Sitting at the end of the bar, just on the fringes of the group, cradling his half-pint, Tom Bagshot listened intently, but did not interject: it was, after all, his first meeting and, truth be told, although it was far less intimidating than he had feared, he would be pleased if he could make it through without having to provide any input.  He nodded from time to time, laughed when everybody else laughed and quietly attempted to assemble in his mind a map of where everybody fitted in.  And then, fleetingly, he caught Frankie’s eye…
“What about you, er?…”
“Tom…”
“What about you, Tom, sherry or snowball?”
“Sherry, I think, but dry like…”
“Penny…”
“Like Penny.”
“And what about your funeral song?” asked Phil.
“Maybe ‘One World’ by John Martyn, although I do think ‘Magnificent’ is a great shout.”  He smiled at Jane and Deidre glanced at her watch.  “Well everyone,” she said, “as hard as it will be to drag ourselves away from ‘The Joy of Funerals’ I think it is time that we went back upstairs to hear what Penelope has got for us this week.”  Tom, along with the rest of the group, rose to his feet and Deidre smiled at Penny.  “Is it about birds again, dear?” she asked…

If you enjoyed this week’s Writer’s Circle meeting, it all started here with ‘Penny’s Poem‘.
Last week’s Writer’s Circle, ‘Charlie’s Diary’ is here.

The Running Man on a Bicycle

I was dragged out of my running routine by the head-cold that dictates that every step I take is accompanied by a bass drum between the ears.  I anticipated problems with breathing as I prepared to run, but not with percussion.  I could not return to the weights, as a recent snot-fuelled attempt had me sounding like a hedgehog trapped beneath the shed, so I went for the exercise bike.  However, by the time I had decided to lug it from its current resting place – in the arctic garage, between the deep freeze and the tumble dryer – the bass drum in my head had been accompanied by a hi-hat in each ear and any attempt at forward perambulation exceeding the speed of a geriatric sloth resulted in some kind of trans-cranial military tattoo.  Imagine – if you can – Cozy Powell’s ‘Dance with the Devil*’ slowed down and piped directly into the cerebral cortex**

Another dose of synchronicity: the lateness of the hour can no longer be relied upon to bring on the night – days are getting longer although, alas, no warmer – and there, just behind the exercise bike, I spotted my actual bike bike.  It seemed a whole lot more sensible to haul myself aboard that.  So, I wheeled it out, donned my helmet*** and rode away into the distance****.

I am incredibly fortunate to live in a place that means that I can be on quiet country roads within minutes of leaving my door.  Often I do not see another vehicle for miles around – although, when I do it is almost always a small hatchback (formerly mother’s and noisily driven to tears by the change of operator) piloted by someone who is clearly unfamiliar with the function of two of the three pedals, and for whom steering appears to be a pointless frivolity.  These cars, on any other day unused to the rev counter turning above vertical, are usually wheezing worse than me.  It is, though, because of this narrow country lane/automotive nutcase juxtaposition that cycling proceeds without a soundtrack and I am forced to contemplate the voices inside my head.  I fear that, especially in view of cold-constrained faculties, even the slightest diminution of my otic acumen could leave me vulnerable to ending my days as a grotesquely articulated hood ornament.

Cycle runs take me further afield – it is virtually impossible to stay upright on a bike travelling at my running pace – which does affect my ‘baggage’.  When I run, I feel that all I need to carry is some means of contacting the nearest paramedic; as a cyclist I am forced to consider the possibility of mechanical as well as physical breakdown.  I carry my little repair kit with me: ready to mend a puncture with the best of them – although not to any great advantage, I must admit, as I do not have a pump.  Back in the day, all bicycles had a pump attached to the frame and, like the strange squeaking noise from the back wheel, it accompanied you wherever you went.  In those days, I recall, the tyre could be inflated with little more than an angel’s fart; now, with tyre pressures three times greater than the car, it requires either biceps like Arnold Schwarzenegger or an electric generator.  When I head out for a trip on my cycle, my wife sits in the car with the engine running and the back seats down.

As my cold starts to lift, I will return to running, as I do not feel that cycling exercises me fully*****.  By next week I anticipate being back on my trainer-clad feet when cycling will return to the roster of recreational activities and running will, once again, become my king of pain.

*If age precludes you from doing so, you can at least view the original here.
**I have absolutely no idea of what that is.
***This is worn at my wife’s insistence.  There is an interesting psychology attached to bicycle helmets as, for some reason, motorists give you much more room when you are not wearing one.
****A very liberal use of the word ‘distance’ as I suspect that I seldom move beyond one that makes me invisible from an upstairs window of my house.
*****Naïve supposition that the worse I feel afterwards, the more ‘good’ the exercise has done me.

N.B. today I have fully surrendered to the vagaries of old-age and pressure-washed the bins!

My original ‘running’ blog ‘Couch to 5k’ can be found here.
Last week’s ‘Running Man on Being Antisocial’ is here.

The Running Man on Being Antisocial

An excess of alcohol and chocolate over the Easter break – please don’t ask me to define ‘excess’: suffice to say that my grandkids are wondering where the eggs have gone and my wife is sure that we had another bottle of gin somewhere – and the return of sub-arctic air have combined to make my first couple of post-holy week treks even more miserable than usual.  I drag myself to the door, thrust it open and shrivel away, like a plastic bag near a radiator, at the first blast of wind-borne sleet.  Who in their right mind would go out in that – particularly dressed like this?  The issue of my running attire presses on me once again after, what I assume must be a recently reconvened, post-covid running group, passed my house yesterday, all neatly ironed, in unstained hi-viz, unwrinkled running tights and not a hairband out of place.  They were chatting happily, smiling some of them, and not a single one gasping for breath.  They looked as if they had all been waiting for months for this moment: whilst you and I battled house-bound neuroses, they collected lycra.  There was a distinct lack of the secondhand about them.

I am reluctant to spend heavily on running gear because I am still unconvinced that I won’t just decide one day that running really is not for me.  (Interestingly, it really is not for me, I have decided, although I don’t know what to do about it now.)  The course and distance of my thrice-weekly lopes varies enormously, depending on how many other runners I have to avoid along the way.  I hate crossing paths with them, as I am so conscious of looking like a convict who has gone on the run without his asthma inhaler; I will not run in front of them because I dread them catching and passing me; I will not run behind them because I fear that passing motorists may think that we’re together and that I just can’t keep up.  I would love someone to offer me an explanation as to why, when I stumble into the wake of another runner, I always appear to be running comfortably faster than them, until the very point at which I move up to their shoulder, when I suffer the kind of coughing fit that tells me that I should have followed my first instinct and gone the other way, even if it meant trying to get past the elderly lady on the mobility scooter with the Chihuahua on a ten-foot lead.  I cannot run at ‘school time’: whilst I am much too long in the tooth to allow myself to be bullied by gangs of school kids, I am none-the-less haunted by the fear of silent laughter.

Most of my runs take place mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when the rest of the world is either in school, at work or on a Zoom call, in order to minimise my detours, but I continue to zig-zag my way around the empty paths and byways avoiding any kind of interaction the best I can.  It’s not that I’m antisocial, it’s just that I’m… Actually, it probably is that I’m antisocial – although if they had a club, I certainly wouldn’t join it.

(First edit red biro, second edit green felt-tip, third edit black Sharpie – a particularly bleak moment – final edit a cross-shredder and a return to what I started with.)

If you want to join the beginning of this run, you can find ‘Couch to 5k’ here.
Last week’s ‘Running Man’ post ‘…on the Time to Run’ is here.
The next ‘Running Man…’ episode ‘…on a Bicycle’ is here.

The Running Man on the Time to Run

The actual ‘running part’ of my day takes about forty minutes; the rest of the run takes considerably longer.  Firstly, I have to convince myself that I am actually going to do it.  This involves first going through all of the reasons why I should not do it: a definite twinge in the middle toe; a parcel delivery expected any time in the next few days; the possibility that it might rain; the possibility that it might not rain; a recently discovered re-run of the Phil Silvers Show on some obscure channel that I may never find again, and the necessity to gauge the current bladder status.  It all takes time.

Eventually, decision made, I start to get ready: take a drink; empty bladder; bind up knees; don running tights, vest, shorts, ‘T’ shirt.  Empty bladder.  Put on running shoes – always double-bowed.  Empty bladder.  Pop in Bluetooth headphones, grumble on for ten minutes (approx) whilst sorting out ‘connection error’ and set up GPS tracking.  Empty bladder.  Open door in order to assess need for hat and gloves.  Put on hat and gloves in certain knowledge that I will regret it within five minutes.  Exit, closing door behind me.  Open door.  Empty bladder.  Exit again.  The routine is pretty much invariable, as is the realisation that despite the knowledge that it is all habit, I will regret not visiting the loo one last time at precisely the same time as I begin to regret the woolly head-covering.

I’m told that there is a close link between the pressing need for micturition and running.  Why?  Well, nobody’s ever told me that.  I suppose it is the same link as that which lurks behind the curtain coming up at the theatre or the first chord booming around the concert venue.  However recently I last went for a wee, it was always just too long ago.  Some years ago, some friends and I went to a concert in a small, ‘intimate’ venue which meant that, for most of the evening, the artist* could see the audience.  When the mid-session interval came around, one of my friends who was clearly almost as desperate for ‘the gents’ as he was to escape ridicule, leapt over two tiers of seats and ran down the corridor shouting, ‘Emergency.  Emergency.  Coming through!’  The already assembled ‘toilet queue’ parted like The Red Sea at the behest of Moses and deferentially let him through.  Back then, I collapsed into the kind of laughter that sends well-meaning souls rushing for the defibrillator.  Today I feel his pain.

On my eventual return from running I generally have a decision to make over whether it is worth retracing my steps in order to find the glove I have somehow contrived to drop at some point along my journey.  Generally I decide that I will find it dangling from somebody’s hedge when I repeat the journey in a couple of days time, so I leave it where it is and, pausing for nothing more than twenty minutes to remove the triple-knot from my trainer laces where the double-bow used to be, head straight to the shower before the flies have the chance to settle.  Thus the forty minutes of exercise generally eats about an hour and a half from my day – which is the perfect reason not to run if I’ve only got an hour in which to do it.

*Roy Harper, whose song ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease’ is one of my ‘funeral songs’.  This may, or may not be relevant.   

Today’s episode was brought to you by a break from procrastination and a red Wilco ballpoint pen. 
Today’s top running tune was ‘There’s No Way Out Of Here’ by David Gilmour.
Today’s Thought for the Day: If Einstein was correct, a stitch in time would require a very big bobbin indeed.

You can join me at the start of my Running Odyssey here, at ‘Couch to 5k’ or
You can join me in last week’s ‘Running Man’ post, ‘…on Stopping’ here.
The next Running Man post ‘…on Being Antisocial’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #11 – Ulysses

“…You cannot deny that it’s a masterpiece.”
“I can and I do.  It is impenetrable, pretentious claptrap.  The only people that ever claim to have enjoyed it are those who have never actually tried to read it.”
It had been several weeks since James Joyce’s opus had last been the topic of debate at the Writer’s Circle, but once again Frankie found himself at odds with Penny – whose poet’s heart had been stirred by the lyricism even though, truth be told, she understood barely a word of it, and Deidre – who had read it on holiday in ‘The Lakes’ once a year for as long as she could remember, on one memorable occasion making it as far as the first couple of pages of chapter seven.
“It’s a wonder to me,” continued Frankie, “that he could drink so heavily whilst obviously having his head so firmly up his own arse.”  Like Deidre, Frankie had also attempted to read the book annually for decades, although never with the expectation of finishing it.  It was just something he did.  Like walking on glass, it was only possible to find satisfaction when it was over.  Frankie was always happy when he’d finished it.  ‘Finished’ as in given up, that is – definitely not as in getting anywhere near the end of the bloody thing.  He had no intention of ever making it to the end.  It was like any other method of self-flagellation: you had to know when to stop.

For Penny it had been a literary rite of passage, a trial of intellect, and she had made it all the way through from start to finish – although, as Frankie was often at pains to point out, it would have made just as much sense if she’d read it from finish to start – and she loved it.  She bathed in the sound of it, the rhythm of it, the feel of it without any sense of knowing what on earth was going on.  And having achieved the feat she, sensibly, made no attempt to ever repeat it.  She realised that the sheer incomprehensibility of it would start to irk with a second reading.  If reading 1 had left her fulfilled although mystified, she felt sure that reading 2 would leave her feeling somehow inadequate – and she didn’t need a book to do that to her.  Unlike Frankie, who knew condescending twaddle when he saw it, she still believed that the meaning was there, waiting for her to find it, one day.  Although, as it was a timeless masterpiece, she decided that there was no hurry.

Louise Child, cast her eyes to the smoke-yellowed ceiling; she liked Penny, but tonight she wanted to strangle her. The writer of Modern Thrillers and one of the most obviously ‘educated’ members of the circle, seldom took part in these conversations, but today’s topic had roused something in her: a ghost from the past.  She was haunted by the memory of her High School English tutor, an unlovely and unloved man, who had coerced her into reading both ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ because it would be good for her.  “They’re not on the curriculum, Sir,” she had whined, but he was insistent: he knew that Louise was going to ‘be something’ and, a man of great vanity, despite his penchant for tweedy suits and bushy sideburns, he wanted to be the man that she eventually credited with her awakening.
“It will help your development as a reader,” he’d assured her.  “It will open your mind.”  He was wrong.  It had merely bored her out of it.  She had decided to go on to study ‘English Novels’ simply because even a lifetime of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ was preferable to ever having to consider Joyce again.  She wanted everyone to know what she thought of the blessed thing so, she seized a moment of silence and leapt headlong into it.
“Ulysses is a pantomime,” she declared with uncharacteristic conviction.  “A fairy tale.  It’s a charade.  It means nothing.  It was simply a means of getting people prepared for what was to follow: throwing words at the page and seeing what stuck.  It’s a child’s pasta collage dressed up as fine art.  It is Brian Sewell discussing roadkill, simply because the badger was struck by Damien Hirst.  It’s being too vain to care what people really think, only what they say they think…”  She stopped, suddenly aware that she was centre of attention.  It was not a position she chose to occupy.

Penny sensed her discomfort, but she also felt affronted by the strength of her opinions, so she abandoned any attempt to intervene.  As usual, she regretted her decision almost immediately, but felt, none-the-less, completely constrained by it.  To everyone’s surprise, including his own, it was Billy who first leapt to Louise’s defence.  “I’ve never read it,” he said.  “But I know exactly what she means.  It’s like being expected to like Shakespeare, but you can’t, because you know it’s nonsense.  Some brilliant one-liners, a few clever epigrams and what?  There is no plot.  Go and see it in the theatre and you get the director’s plot: you get what he or she thinks Shakespeare was banging on about, but try and work it out for yourself, just from the text and, be honest, your guess is as good as anybody else’s.  What’s the point in buying a book if you’ve got to make the plot up yourself?  Well, that’s what I think anyway…”
He looked around the Circle and, for once, he did not sense the hostility his contributions usually managed to engender.  Even Phil managed a slight nod in his direction.
“And it’s just so bloody long,” said Frankie.  “Like War & Peace.”
“Have you ever read War & Peace?” asked Phil.
“No I haven’t, it’s too bloody long.”  Laughter filled the room.  It happened from time to time and it always annoyed Deidre, who would really have quite liked a world without it.
“Are you seriously suggesting that all long novels are bad?”
“Not necessarily,” answered Frankie.  “Although I would rather like you to name me a good one.”
“What about Middlemarch?”
“Have you read it?”
“Well I…”
“No, I thought not.  Watched the TV series I expect.”
“You could count the ‘Lord of the Rings’ as a single book,” ventured Billy.
“Indeed you could,” admitted Frankie.  “It is, after all, profoundly dull without the benefit of CGI.”
Deidre glanced at her watch and decided it was probably time to call an end to the evening’s meeting.  “I think, Mr Collins, that you are probably being deliberately obtuse.  Perhaps we should call it a day and bid one another farewell for now, before anyone can be offended.”
The Circle began, haphazardly, to rise and disband.
“Ah,” said Frankie, a triumphant grin spreading from ear to ear.  “‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself.’”
“I have no idea what you mean by that,” sighed Deidre.
“Nor do I,” said Frankie.  “It’s codswallop.”
“He’s right,” offered Louise as she struggled her arm into the sleeve of her overcoat “and, as we are leaving, I would also ask you all to remember, ‘Longest way round is the shortest way home.”  She smiled at Frankie, who beamed back at her.  “Pure codswallop…”

This [Ulysses] is obviously the wave of the future, I’m glad I’m dying of tuberculosis.  Katherine Mansfield

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #10 – Phil’s Baby’ is here.