Uneasy Sits the Passenger

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I am a very occasional taxi user.  The taxi journeys that I do take are largely limited to holiday transfers when my usual reserve has been left at home, and drunken solo journeys home when all constraint has been buried under a polystyrene tray filled with chips and gravy.  If I go anywhere beyond walking distance I will generally drive myself or be chauffeured by my wife.  We take ill-tempered turns at being teetotal for the evening.  There is no rancour between us on the silent, sighing journey home, just a latent brooding antipathy that lingers deep into the following day.

Unfamiliarity, though, always leads to uncertainty and, in this particular instance, a sea of taxi dilemmas.  From the start I am havering.  If I am en-taxi with my wife, I join her in the back of the cab, but if I am alone is it good form to join the driver in the front, or is it taboo?  I do not know.  I know that when you are alone in a taxi conversation must be made with the driver, and hollering over their shoulder is not always easy.  Realising that he/she is replying whilst staring fixedly into the rear-view mirror is a little discomforting.  And anyway, what should I say?  How do I stop myself from asking, ‘So, what time did you start?’  ‘Are you working all night?’  ‘What time do you finish?’  If I am drunk I struggle to sound sober, if I am sober I struggle to sound coherent.  I would like to have something that resembles, at least, an adult conversation with the person beside me; to not be the person that asks neither about health, family or enjoyment, but questions only the length of a working day.  ‘So, what did you do before you started driving taxis for a living?’ is usually what finds its way out of my gibbering mouth.  ‘What’s your favourite car?’  ‘Would you sooner be a polar bear or a penguin?’

I once travelled home from a boozy meal with two friends, both of whom left the taxi before me.  I was the most sober of the three of us – possibly of the four of us – and was in the front seat alongside what I quickly realised was a very odd lady driver indeed.  She patted my leg.  ‘I know a quick way to your village,’ she said making a sound, I swear, like someone drinking Chianti and eating fava beans.  ‘I know these country roads like the back of my hand.’   I noticed she was wearing gloves.  ‘I know all the shortcuts, I found them on a Top Secret Ministry of Defence map,’ she continued before speeding into what turned out to be the not-very-long drive to somebody’s front door.  ‘Ah,’ she said ‘I think this must be new.’  She reversed unsteadily, and I jumped out to help nurse her back onto the road.  It transpired that her maps were, in fact, a 1930’s pencil sketch of the nearby airfield made by her grandfather who ‘laid the runway’ and besides, she didn’t normally work in the evening, because her night vision was not what it used to be.  She generally stayed in town these days.  ‘It’s lighter.  Normally I just go from pub to pub.’  I guided her to my home, best I could, getting us onto lit main roads at the earliest possible opportunity.  When we arrived outside my house, she thanked me and I gave her the fare plus a tip, although I couldn’t help but think that she should have been tipping me.  I couldn’t help worrying whether she would find her own way back to town.  Perhaps I should have gone with her…

And the tip.  I always tip a taxi driver – even though it sometimes seems embarrassing to do so – but my daughters never do, arguing that nobody ever tips them for doing their jobs.  ‘Keep the change’ is such an easy option, but sometimes the change is just too much and you have to wait for the driver to carry out the over-elaborate hunt for seven pounds in five pence coins, before you can count fifty pence back into the still open palm whilst he/she sighs cheese and onion crisps into your face.

It is never until you get to your front door that you realise that your keys are in your coat pocket on the back seat of the cab along with your phone, the photograph of the driver’s ID and the name of the company you have used, and you wish that you’d come home two hours earlier whilst your wife was still awake enough to drive you, knowing that you would have no worries at all about whether you should speak to the driver or not.

Almost certainly not.


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I can’t find my slippers.  I know that I had them yesterday.  I always wear them in the evening.  They are perpetually conjoined with my slouching, night-time feet.  So, where have they gone?  I have to be honest, I thought that if I sniffed hard enough I might find them: a lifetime coupled with my naked pods – a lifetime for them, obviously, not for me, even I don’t keep footwear that long – has left them a little funky.  If I had a dog, I’m pretty sure it would be very attached to them, but I don’t.  I have flies, but they are too busy with the kitchen window to bother about slippers.  I’m not sure what’s on the glass that is more seductive to a fly than the scent of my feet, but whatever it is, I’m going to clean it off right away…

…I’m back.  The windows are sparkling, but the flies remain.  I hoped that once I’d cleaned the glass, they might schlep off in search of a tasty slipper, but they have not.  Clearly I cannot put my faith in flies.  Anyway, as I’d got the gear out, I thought that I might as well clean the rest of the windows as well.  I thought it would take my mind off my errant mules.  (Although the notion has just flashed across my mind that my wife might deliberately have hidden the slippers, knowing that it might lead to a pan-residence window-cleaning session, but I finally dismissed the idea when I realised that the missing-slipper scenario normally leads only to a brisk session of cushion lifting.  She could not have known.  Could she?)  What it actually took my mind off to was ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ and Clint’s ‘riled up mule’, and further onto the question of ‘what, exactly, is a mule?’* followed by ‘so why are shoes without backs also called mules?’ and thus back to my slippers and the mysterious disappearance thereof.

Now this is a house within which things do, quite routinely, go missing – mobile phones, keys, TV remotes, snatches of conversation, ‘don’t forget’ instructions – but by and large they turn up again, albeit, at times, accompanied by considerable acrimony.  I have now searched everywhere that my slippers might, logically, turn up and I am now preparing to investigate the places where they might just turn up in an illogical universe: the fridge, the oven, the washing machine, the cupboard that houses all of the VHS tapes, the DVD’s, various optical leads, instruction booklets and – so that’s where it got to – the base to the old kettle.  The slippers will, sooner or later, turn up, possibly with secretly bred offspring.  (Have you ever considered that there might be male and female slippers?)  If not, I will have to buy new ones to lose.  Let’s face it, nobody enjoys a new slipper.  Nobody feels fully at home in an unsoiled moccasin.  Slippers only become the thing to wear when they are worn: it is not until they become disreputable that they become desirable.

I’ll go and check the bin…

*It is, apparently, the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.  The offspring of a female donkey and a male horse is a hinny.  I would not recommend trying to put either of them on your foot.

Me, Myself, I…

In reality I am physically unaltered: exactly in the form that nature, in all its bloody-mindedness, intended me to be, but in my imagination I have pimped myself so much, that I am no longer certain which parts of me were factory fitted.  I have tried to improve myself so often that I have no idea what is the original me.  I try to become what I think I should become, but somehow I always remain the same old model with just a slightly increased capacity for uncertainty and more doubt than a born-again agnostic at a Mormon wedding.  If I were to write a new life for myself it would not be the life that I have now, but it would feature exactly the same people, in exactly the same relationships.  I would never want to change most of those around me – changing socks stresses me out – and those I do want to change are not the kind to listen.  The only thing to be truly different, I suppose, in this alter-life of mine would be me.  The circumstances in which my unaltered phalanx of friends and family would exist would be changed only because I would be different: altogether more successful; less willing to do exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time; less likely to take a course of action that a more rational mind might conclude could almost have been designed to make things worse; less likely to find myself standing, emotionally naked in the midst of all of those I hold most dear, with nothing but a sense of indignation and the kind of rash that you only ever get when you’ve run out of cream.

The alternative me would, by the by, be somewhat more wealthy than the actual me.  Not that wealth necessarily equates to happiness but, let’s be honest, we all assume that it does limit anxiety.  The worry of working out how to hang on to what you’ve got, must surely be somewhat less pressing than the worry of how to get it when you don’t have it, particularly when there’s somebody very large and very ugly on the other side of the door waiting to take it off you.  Money is not the root of all evil, but it does provide a very convenient route to it.  If I had it, I would use it wisely, for the benefit of myself, my family and the wider community.  And to buy chocolate.

This wealth, of course, would come to me not by good fortune, but entirely through my own efforts.  My demi-century-worth of assorted scribbling would not have been consigned, largely unread, to a locked desk drawer (actually several large tea chests in the attic and more Flash Drives than you can shake a memory stick at) but would have been read, accepted, produced, published etc etc.  My alternative self, it goes without saying, is infinitely more talented than I, has more teeth and a sense of humour that women swoon over – as opposed to breath that has the same effect.

Obviously alternative me, as written by me, would be everything that actual me wishes to be, but with the kind of good-humoured, charitable soul to which I dare not aspire… and, if I’m completely honest, I’m beginning to resent him already.  In truth, I have an uneasy feeling that however carefully I attempt to re-write this new man he will end up being uncomfortably like the old me, so I’ll probably leave him where he is and attempt, instead, to make the best of me.  It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it…

Having My Cake

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I’ve never been able to quite understand why, when a cake is cut into equal portions, I always manage to get the smallest one.  It has to be a matter of perception, right?  When I was a child, my brother and I had to share most things – it was just the way it was – so my mum had a rule: one of us got to cut the portions, the other one got to choose.  I was the eldest so, naturally enough, I got the knife, and no matter how hard I tried to make the segments exactly equal, my brother always got to choose the biggest one.  (Unless, of course, I was portioning tinned sardines when, not unreasonably, my brother would choose to take none on the grounds that I had ruined them, and I would be left with the task of finding somewhere to hide the whole can of fishy mush.  Something which I managed so successfully that we never had any visitors for about six years.)  It is very much a sign of age that, when somebody offers a slice of cake, you may say ‘Could I have a slightly smaller piece please?’  (That is ‘you may say’, of course, because I would never say such a thing.)  Those words would never pass the lips of anybody under the age of sixteen.

I am very much of the ‘Are you leaving that?’ generation.  Anything left on a plate (unless it was green, of course) was fair game to anybody around the table who had already finished what they had been given.  It was definitely not advisable to take a short rest during meals: one break for a contented sigh and by the time you looked down your last sausage would be long gone.  We were not encouraged to rush meals – that was definitely frowned upon – but we did need to keep our wits about us at all times.  I was not around for the end of rationing – it ended in 1954 – but I was no stranger to privation.  Waste was definitely not tolerated and children were right down the pecking order – with women – so you took whatever you were offered.  A slice of bread soaked in gravy often took the place of the meat – which only stretched far enough to feed the men who ‘put it on the table’ – at Sunday lunch.  There was loads of veg – every back garden was full of it – but nobody ate just veg did they?  It was always meat and two veg (at least one of them, sometimes both, being the ubiquitous spud) or three for the overtly rich.  They were definitely the Harrison & Starr of the gravy dinner world.  If I’m honest I can still to this day eat just about anything if you put enough gravy on it.

And gravy dinner – Sunday Lunch – brought with it the only pudding of the week: occasionally jelly, but more often cake and, if we were lucky and the cake was on its second week, custard.  I remember that a decent sized cake could take quite some time to transit from moist, to just about palatable, to palatable with tinned (evaporated) milk, to needs custard.  I didn’t care.  I could (and can) eat cake in any manner it is offered to me and, as I am now a mature adult, in any portion size I am given.  Although it doesn’t mean that I don’t still envy the person with the biggest slice. 

Sex and the Ovaltine Generation

It is a fact of life that some things become less important as you get older, and one of them is sex.  Look, it’s ok, you wouldn’t turn it down if it was on offer, but would you give up a cup of tea and a slice of cake for it?  It’s such a lot of fuss.  All that… preparation… and always the nagging suspicion that you’re not doing something quite right.  It’s fantastic when it works out well for both of you, but let’s face it, so is Sudoku.  The temptation to retain at least some items of clothing grows daily – at least a cardigan and slippers in this house – and as mobility becomes more of an issue, it only really works anyway if you’re both laying on your back and staring at the ceiling.  There is a growing realisation that a night together on a sheepskin rug in front of a roaring fire would just lead to slumber and the distinct possibility of a cocoa incident.  Some things become less urgent and sex is simply one amongst many that takes second place to coffee and a Wagon Wheel*.

Age does bring some form of ‘body confidence’, a recognition that ‘it is what it is’, but seldom the desire to flaunt what now looks like sixteen stones of bleached tripe in front of anybody new.  Certain conversations are never welcomed in the midst of bedtime activities: “Ooh, that’s a strange shape, isn’t it?  Does it hurt?”; “Do you mind me asking, is that your breast or mine?”; “It’s no problem, I often do that when I bend my legs as well,” so it becomes imperative that any ‘companion’ is fully acquainted with what to expect before you accidentally switch the light on with your elbow and startle the cat.

One of the great advantages of long-term attachment is the absence of terminal embarrassment.  How long is it before a partner becomes au fait with all of your physical peculiarities and emotional peccadilloes?  I suppose it depends upon how many you have, but after a while it becomes increasingly difficult to surprise them any more.  I have attempted to shock my own partner by leaping out on her, stark naked, when she least expected it, but she merely looked me up and down coolly and said ‘Are you going to get the doctor to look at that.’  Her mother though was far more startled.

Ambition is another thing that takes the fall as you age.  My grandson is not going to be a racing driver, he is going to be the greatest racing driver ever.  He is not going to be a pilot, he is going to be the test-pilot for the fastest jet ever built.  He is not going to run further and faster than me, he is going to run faster and further than anybody ever.  I retain ambitions, but they no longer involve anybody else.  I will run, not faster or further than anybody else, but I will run.  I will be a successful writer in that I will successfully write and should nobody else ever read what I have written, well, at least I liked it.  I have ambitions for myself, but they no longer impact on anybody else.  Nobody is ever going to be threatened by my presence; nobody’s prowess is ever going to be challenged.

There are things, of course, that become more important with age.  Comfort begins to outweigh fashion.  Velcro shoes, elasticated waistbands, zip-up cardigans, all designed for easy dressing rather than easy removal.  Nobody over sixty ever wears buttons because top button never, ever aligns with top button-hole.  The doorway to torment stands ajar for those with a button fly in a public toilet.  It’s not that you want to look like a dork, it’s just that you know that you will, so you might as well do so comfortably.  It’s a thin line we walk between dressing inappropriately young and inexcusably old.  Nobody wants to be the man who looks just like his dad – well, maybe in some parts of Norfolk that can’t be avoided – we all want to look younger than our parents’ generation.  There is a sudden and unpredictable point at which dressing in fashionable clothes simply makes it looks as if you’re trying too hard: when your whole appearance screams ‘desperate old man on the pull’.  Walk into any pub in the country and you will be able to spot the middle-aged man waiting for his Tinder date by the fact that his clothes are ten years too young for him and his haircut is designed for the age he has claimed to be.

It’s a sad fact of life that as some of us live longer, more of us find ourselves alone and looking for new partners with whom to totter off into the void.  Dating does not come easily as you get older.  First date conversations could make a worktop anxious.  We’ve all spent too long being ourselves to start pretending we’re somebody else: “Oh yes, I love to read” (the directions on a microwave meal for one); “I’m a great walker” (the off-licence is just around the corner); “I enjoy an odd glass of fine wine” (and many a gallon of Tesco Finest strong cider); “Oh yes, these are all my own teeth” (my father left them to me in his will).  Telling the truth is not really what it is all about, is it?  And there’s so much to misunderstand. “Do I want a ‘physical’ relationship?  Well, I’ll arm-wrestle you if you like.”  “Of course I believe in female equality.  Shall we go to yours for a coffee?  Mine’s like a shit-hole since the wife died.” “What do I know about the clitoris?  Well, I think they make Allsorts out of it?”

In the end, it’s just as well that sex has become less of a priority and the time is right to ask the important question, “Do you like Countdown?”  Sooner or later, you will get the right answer and it will be time to get the Hobnobs out.  And if she asks you to stay the night, you can always hide her glasses…

*A chocolate-covered marshmallow and biscuit confection that, ironically, everybody believes used to be much bigger than it is now.


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Beneath my desk as I write this post is a large lidded bucket which is spewing out sufficient CO² to make me personally responsible for the depletion of several feet at least of the Morteratsch glacier and will possibly result in a severe ticking off from Greta Thunberg.  According to everything I read carbon dioxide is an odourless gas, but as whatever is bubbling its way out of my bucket smells like the kind of sock you find at the bottom of a child’s sports bag three months after the end of term, and is covered by the kind of living blanket you find on the elderly jam sandwich tucked away at the back of a bedroom drawer, I have severe doubts.  I am supposed to be brewing beer, but it is obvious to me that something has died in the bucket.  I dare not lift the lid – whatever is growing in there, it is clearly desperate to get out.

My daughter bought me the kit and all associated paraphernalia for Christmas.  She clearly felt that I had time on my hands that needed to be filled.  Like almost everybody of my age, I used to brew most of what I drank back in the day when I had very little money and alcohol cost a lot of it.  I have produced many a glass of wine with a fine, rich and creamy head; many a pint of beer with all the aesthetic appeal of Spring Vegetable Soup, and I’ve drunk them all.  The main difference with the current brew is that I am embracing the challenge, not because I have to, but because I want to.  I have drunk sufficient quantities of ‘craft’ beers over the years to lead me to believe that I can, myself, produce something perfectly acceptable (e.g. not strictly poisonous).  I’ve looked at a lot of paintings over the years and I feel sure that I could do that too, if I just had access to a decent brush.  I’ve read enough awful novels to feel confident in my ability to write one of those.  My head is full of songs that I know would be best-sellers if they ever made it out into the world – or at least into The Eurovision Song Contest (b group).  If other people are able to do things, I find it hard to understand why I can’t do them too.

I’m a believer.  I believed when I started writing this poor benighted blog that I could make a decent fist of it.  I believed that more people would want to read it rather than just tick ‘Like’ and try to sell me vitamins.  I believed that many more would read it than ever did.  It is a crazy affliction: to be fully – and painfully – aware of your own limitations, whilst still believing that you might, somehow, overcome them.  When ‘just about acceptable’ is an aspiration, then not reaching it is painful.  I’m not looking to climb Everest – I get a nose-bleed on a high kerb – but I wouldn’t mind standing atop a knoll for a little while.

I once produced a gooseberry ‘champagne’ of breathtaking beauty, and a greengage chardonnay that could have stripped the enamel off a toilet bowl.  The ingredients were similar, the methodology identical, the results, it would appear, not something over which I had any control.  I don’t recall putting any more effort into one than the other.  Managing ‘effort’, if I’m honest, has never been my greatest forte: generally things either come easily, or they frustrate the hell out of me, and the things that frustrate me the most are the very things that make me resolve even harder to succeed.  It is only after I have discovered that I am unable to do something, that I become really determined to do it.

Consequently, I have spent many, many hours over the last three-and-a-bit years working on this blog.  Hard as it is to imagine, I put a lot of effort into each and every post I make, and the disappointment of the realisation that I have fewer readers than Vladimir Putin has rational brain cells is, at times, crushing.  Whilst I understand and accept that the goal is not to have thousands of readers, well… the thing is that it is really, isn’t it?  The joy may well be in the writing, but the point is in people reading it.  This blog has become the equivalent of playing ‘The Toilet Tent’ at Glastonbury and I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.  It is time, I think, to take a bit of a break, to finish The Play, to record some scripts to see how they sound… 

Okay, so I know that I have done this before.  Last year I was writing four posts a week and it was taking over my life.  (You should try walking around Marks & Sparks, looking at the rows of pants and wondering ‘Can I get a post out of this?’  I even considered getting arrested for shop-lifting, just in case I could find something amusing to say about the experience.)  So I stopped, briefly, and then commenced this more manageable two-times-a-week routine.  I can handle this with time to spare each week.  My problem is that, instead of finding something ‘profitable’ to do with my spare time, I simply write more posts.  I can be frighteningly prolific – some form of literary diarrhoea – and I tend to have so many posts ‘in hand’ that I will probably have had a good four weeks off by the time that you loyal two dozen read this, and I will be raring to go again.  I will already have revisited all of the things I have been unable to finish, finding no doubt that those that I can finish are not worth the effort and those that are worth the effort, I am still unable to finish.

I have no doubt whatsoever that I will be back, just as soon as I write something and think ‘that would be ideal for the blog’ but, for now, that is not the plan.  By the time you read this, my beer will be in the bottles.  I may even have sampled some.  I have a second episode of Frankie & Benny (who are an absolute joy to write) with which I will, for now finish, as it seems to me to be as good a way as any of saying ‘adieu’…

Driving On

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When I was a kid, I wanted to be older… This is not what I expected. (Anon)

If I’m honest, I expected to feel a lot older than I do by now.  Most of the time I feel exactly as I have for years.  One of the few times when I can really put my finger on a creeping sense of age is when I am faced with a long drive, particularly at night, or ‘in weather’.  As a young man I vividly remember listening to old people talking about the difficulties of driving at night and thinking ‘Get a grip!  You’ve got headlights,’ but now I see headlights – other vehicle’s headlights – as the enemy.  I am absolutely fine driving in the dark – as long as I am in the only vehicle doing so – although there is a creeping sense of shame nagging away at the back of my mind that I might be allowing the rationale of ‘Oh, there’s somebody coming towards me: I’ll just slow down a little bit,’ to take hold.  So far, I steadfastly refuse to be cowed by the inability to see, but I can feel my confidence ebbing away along with my ability to chew toffee or to open a packet of peanuts without spilling the entire contents all over the floor.

I’m not certain whether it is a change in the nature of headlights or of my eyes, but the glare of an approaching vehicle – particularly in the rain – seems to flood my entire field of vision.  It is like that moment of alien abduction in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (I sense that I might just have lost everybody under 50 years of age with that reference.  It’s a film.  Look it up!): everything else is engulfed in the blazing white glare that consumes all notion of light and shade.  All that remains is a blinding light and the faint suspicion that Twinkle is playing on the radio…

My whole being is absorbed in the battle to stop myself from joining the ranks of elderly yo-yo drivers who speed up (sometimes to over thirty miles per hour) every time the road is clear and stamp on the brake every time there is something (anything) coming towards them.  I have a nagging suspicion that it might be a battle I am losing.

How do I tackle it?  Well, like all cowards, I turn my back on it.  It is so much easier to face things when you don’t acknowledge them.  It is so much easier to tackle a problem by avoiding it than facing it.  I would sooner sleep on a park bench than tackle unfamiliar roads in the dark of night and I would, almost certainly choose to walk rather than drive like an old man.

I must admit at this point, that I have never really been a ‘car person’.  A car, to me, has always been a means of getting from A to B (via Z if my wife is navigating), but never the reason for it.  I cannot conceive of ever deriving any pleasure from ‘going for a drive’.  I drive only when I’ve got somewhere to go: somewhere I need to be.  When arriving at my destination is all that matters.  If I want to enjoy ‘getting there’, I go by bike, or I walk.  Age does preclude me from roller-skating, scootering, pogo-sticking and skipping, but it should not.  I aim to address this – and I will – just as soon as the weather improves.  My grandson does not approve of my using his skateboard or scooter.  He thinks I might break.  He could just be right – we’ll see.

I appreciate the car whenever the weather is… well, British.  Rain, wind, hail, sleet, snow – all far better viewed from the driver’s seat than the bicycle seat.

And I look after the car because I dread the thought of breaking down.  (I mean, of course, I dread the thought of the car breaking down.  Although now I come to think of it…)  To sit and wait for several hours until an overalled somebody turns up in a little green van, covered in reflective stripes, with the sole intention of making me feel inadequate by starting the car within seconds using nothing but a ‘surely you knew how to do that’ shrug…  I have never felt ‘as one’ with a car (It’s a bloody car!) but I do, generally, know when it is not running properly, and I know the basics of what to do in those circumstances.  (Phone somebody who is at one with the car.)  I could not tell you if the engine sounds anything but normal, because I never hear it.  I never travel anywhere without music playing.  Whenever I hear the car engine, all that goes through my mind is ‘What’s wrong with the radio?’

I have fully embraced SatNav – it doesn’t seem to stop me getting lost, but it does at least give me some idea of where I did it and, occasionally, it helps me get back to where I should have been before I wasn’t (Huh?) – and I have now partially accepted hands-free, although, generally, I have to stop the car to do it.  Whilst the internal combustion engine is a complete mystery to me, I am pretty much au fait with the inner-machinations of my brain and so I tend to ignore most other ‘driver aids’ which, in my own instance, would generally result in nothing other than tempting me to let my mind wander further than it really should – look!  Rabbits!  I cannot adopt the automatic gearbox as I know that it would thrust my brain into neutral.  I have no need for parking aids as I never leave the car in a space that could not fit the QEII.

I think, If I’m honest, I would be perfectly comfortable as the passenger in a self-driving car – I have been married for forty years: I have no illusions about being in charge of anything – and it’s actually quite comforting to think that in the event of an accident, the two vehicles involved could haggle over blame whilst I sit serenely taking in the scenery.  I suppose that this is one thing that old age does prepare you for: being a better passenger.  In life, sooner or later, everyone becomes a bit of a passenger and, in the end, we all just go along for the ride.

Life is like a helicopter.  I don’t know how to operate a helicopter.  (Anon)

A Trickle of Spring

Having spoken to an ex-lawyer in the pub, and in line with disclaimers carried on all TV and Radio output at the moment, I have decided to include the following warning: This item may contain jokes that some people do not find funny.

The Spring has sprung, the grass has ris,
I wonder where the birdies is.
Some people say the bird is on the wing, but that’s absurd
For I would say the wing was on the bird. (Traditional)

The air still carries the chill bite of winter, even while the sun shines down through the transient, undiluted diorama of crystal blue skies.  Birds squabble over the last few hips and berries of autumn past: males puff out painted chests whilst females – avifaunally plainer – spring clean homes of yore, or gather material with which to pitch new tents, cosy enough to raise a new generation.  One by one the new year’s flowers bloom: snowdrops, aconites, crocus, daffodils, dandelions, something sharp and spiky that lodges under the fingernail and refuses to be removed until it has had the opportunity to throb with an intensity only otherwise felt with the death of a star.  The world is suddenly abloom and there is nowhere to tread in the garden that is not ‘the wrong place’; nowhere to stand that is not on something only just emerged, or in something more recently – although insufficiently – buried.

Tiny pricks of green emerge in trees and bushes even as much bigger pricks emerge in white vans bearing aerosoled signage – D. O’Brien, Qualified tree surjon.  Hedges clipt.  All clipping’s removed and ecologically burned.  Dogs groomed – and start door-knocking and leafleting anyone who might not have seen them coming.  Now is the time to assure all of these peripatetic Samaritans that you do not need your gutters cleaning, your drive tarmacking, nor your valuables independently assessing.  Now is the time to resist the siren call of all of those who can do everything that you do not want doing, better than you cannot be bothered to do yourself.

Spring is the time when everything is on the rise (Oh, come on!) and atop the list of ‘rising things’ is the word ‘ladder’ (or, more precisely, in my case, the words ‘next-door’s ladder’, as I have studiously avoided any temptation to own my own for forty years and more now.)  Ladders are for reaching up and washing down, painting over, cleaning out and falling off.  Ladders have tiny steps only to facilitate ease of falling.  It is impossible to remain steady on these slender rungs without cramp setting in within thirty seconds.  I am master of the knock-kneed teeter, the over-stretched swipe and the grip of steel around something that should not be, but almost certainly is, moving.  Ladders are an inescapable fact of Spring and my only advice to anyone preparing to climb one in an amateur capacity is ‘don’t’: employ a professional; someone who is competent in ladder-usage and not so apt to find themselves doing it on their back from the ground with a twig up the nostril, a paint brush in the ear and a hole in the conservatory roof.  It is an unwritten Rule of Spring that wherever you land following an uncontrolled ladder descent will be in ‘full spike’.  Spring landings are never things of fragrant bud and luscious foliage, but are inevitably spiky and underpinned by cat shit.  Winter-softened flesh is easily breached.

There is an old country saying: ‘When the first cat of spring leaves a semi-digested mouse on your doorstep, it is time to remove your lawnmower from the shed and discover that plastic can actually rust – or at least look like it.’  Spring’s first cut is an unavoidable trial – you might as well get it over with whilst it is still possible to blame something else for the carnage you are about to wreak.  Step one is to open the shed door.  All shed doors exist simultaneously in both of the two possible states: a) Shrunken so far that mice, rats and, at times cats, can sneak through the gaps without touching either side and b) swollen to such an extent that it is impossible to open.  It is widely known that all shed doors exist only in the latter stage whenever you want to open them.  This is the point at which the door knob falls off.  Entrance is usually gained by forcing the door with a garden spade.  The garden spade is in the shed.  Do not worry, in this post-winter season you will be able to enter through the gap where the roof used to be before it made its way onto the floor of next-door’s ex-conservatory along with several desiccated panels of larchlap fencing and what might quite possibly once have been a stoat.

The rutted, sub-Passchendaele expanse of lawn will, by now, be covered in patches of frost-hardened corrugation and swamps of recently thawed gloop, and the winter-dried and rusted drive shaft of your ancient electric mower will ensure that the freshly trimmed lawn will resemble the very worst of your lockdown haircuts, but it doesn’t really matter because, as the mower will have blown every fuse in the neighbourhood and welded your consumer unit to the garage wall, nobody can see it after dark.  Although, of course, the cover of night is decreasing: daylight expands to cover a greater percentage of the grey and drizzled day.  March winds and April showers punctuate the meteorological lope towards summer.  Spring in the UK is a time when the clouds leave the sky and descend to earth, breaking just long enough to reveal the steely blue of tomorrow’s sky: to let the sunshine in; to allow the unexpected cold snap full access to buds and nethers.  Spring is the promise of tomorrow.  It is never to be trusted.  The icy-white blush of sun in an acid-clear sky is not a promise.  It is an aspiration.  It is what the world would like to be.  Each little snowdrop, crocus, aconite and daffodil is an illustration of what the world hopes to become – just as soon as the first trickle of spring finds its way to summer and the full panoply of opportunity to self-harm in the pursuit of the perfect garden is laid before me.

I can’t wait.

Oh hang on – yes I can…

After the Flood

Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash

I arrived home from work yesterday to be informed by our houseguest that our next door neighbour had knocked on our door some hours earlier because a water pipe had burst in her home and, in the panic and confusion of cascading water and plasterboard, she was unable to locate the stop tap.  I rushed around there – painfully aware that rushing no longer provided any sort of solution to her problems – to find the house locked and in darkness.  She had clearly fled the scene some hours earlier, before her rescuing hero had crested the hill, wrench in hand, some eight hours too late.  (Although, as I was unable to see water bubbling out of the chimney, I presumed she had found some way of turning it off herself before she left.)  Her house has changed quite a lot over the years, as has ours, but I was fairly confident that, save for one of her previous plumbers being some kind of ‘escape room’ fanatic, I would have – had I been present when required – been able to locate the stopcock fairly readily and thus ensure that her kitchen ceiling had not, in the company of several thousand litres of water, become her kitchen floor.  I was not.

Our own stopcock is exactly where I remembered it to be and I’m fairly certain that, in extremis, I would be able to turn it off somehow.  (Although I did not attempt to verify this as the kitchen cupboard in which it resides is full of so many chemicals that I would have felt safe to reach in there only if wearing a full hazmat suit and the kind of mask that is issued to frontline NATO infantry in combat.)  However, it turns out that in my neighbours extremis I was actually in absentia and she had had to call somebody from the neighbouring village who arrived to find that the bathroom floor had found its way through the kitchen ceiling and that the goldfish that had been so carefully nurtured in a bowl on the kitchen table, had enjoyed the most fleeting of moments of liberty before ascending to fishy-heaven on the receiving end of the 240 volts of electricity that had suddenly found itself at a loose end when the tide came in.

The fact is that when needed, I was at work and therefore in no position to whack my pants on over my trousers, don my cape and fly to the rescue of my helpless neighbour*.  In retrospect, I was more helpless than she: at least she knew what was going on.  I was in my usual state of cluelessness, made even worse by the knowledge that even if I had known what was going on, I would have remained clueless.  My dad always taught me that knowledge did not automatically equate to competence, and I’m pretty certain that he didn’t consider himself to be acquainted with anybody less competent than me.  (In his later years I would often push him round to the pub in his wheelchair and I have never witnessed anybody grip the armrests so tightly.  By the time he had finished his allotted two pints, he was ready for home and eager for almost anybody else to push him there**.)  I am seldom called upon to rescue people.  I am what is known in rescuing circles as the very last resort, however, whatever my proficiency on the wheelchair pushing front, I’m pretty certain that my neighbour would have been perfectly happy to accept my basic level of tap-turning competency in the midst of the prevailing torrent, if only I had been available to demonstrate it.  It is like riding a bike – tap turning – you never forget.

The relevant point, however, is nothing to do with my tap-turning acumen, but with the fact that I was both unavailable and unaware when I was, finally, called upon.  Not my fault of course – things so seldom are – I was doing what all normal wage-earners do: drinking tea and gossiping about everybody else that I work with.  My willingness to help, unlike my capacity to do so, was never in question: merely my availability.

I am left with mixed emotions: disappointment that I was unable to help, but relief that my ability to do so was not put to the test.  I am not at all certain that I would want to feature on the insurance claim forms as the man who couldn’t turn the tap off.  I would not like to give the assessor the opportunity to say ‘You called who?  Well, you can’t possibly expect us to cover that!’  I enjoy a genial relationship with both of my neighbours, the thought of being held responsible for exacerbating the kind of domestic deluge that could have been halted by anybody other than Mr Bean with a monkey wrench, is not one that I wish to contemplate.  Happily, I have been able to apologise for not being there when my neighbour needed me, and I’m pleased to report that it was much easier than having to apologise for wrecking her house…

*I think that I should probably point out here that an inability to find a stopcock in the midst of a crisis does not, in any way, constitute ‘helplessness’, any more than a pre-knowledge of said location equates to being a master-plumber.

**To be fair, I don’t think he ever told me that he had no faith in my wheelchair piloting skills, but, if I’m honest, I put that down to sheer terror.

“When the flood calls, you have no home, you have no walls.
In the thunder crash, you’re a thousand minds, within a flash.
Don’t be afraid to cry at what you see…”  Here Comes the Flood – Peter Gabriel


Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I did it when I was a child, for the shortest of times – trainspotting.  I had a book I recall, given to me by my parents who thought that ‘getting out there’ might ‘do me good’, printed with rows of numbers which, to the best of my knowledge, I was just meant to tick off every now and then.  You could go on the stations back then – a platform ticket was a penny I think – as long as you didn’t get on the trains.  You could put your tanner in the chocolate machine for excitement.  It never gave you what you wanted.  Mostly it gave you nothing at all.  And you never got your money back – no matter how hard you kicked, you never got your money back.  Better to spend it in the buffet really.  You could get a terminally watered-down orange squash and a penguin biscuit for your sixpence, but not a Fudge bar.  They were only in the chocolate machine and it wasn’t letting them go.

More often than not I spent my money on the ‘I speak your weight’ machine because I was fascinated by it, but I was so thin that it never knew that I was on.  I imagined it tutting at me – but it never gave me my money back.

Whenever a train chugged into the station I marked the number off in my little book, but I felt no excitement: just the slight rancour of a wasted life everytime I realised that it was a train I had already seen.  Sometimes I just marked a different number anyway, and I felt like a real maverick.  I began to mark numbers off at random every time a train pulled up to the platforms.  It got so that I could do a whole days spotting in the bus on the way into town.

I was aware that for most of my fellow social outcasts, Saturday morning trainspotting was a real collective deal.  They gathered in little groups and chatted about what to expect from the day.  “567431 is coming in about ten,” somebody would say and there would be a general murmur of appreciation.  I was never invited into the groups.  I stood on the edge and marked off 567431 as soon as the number was mentioned.  It was as good as.  No point in wasting the whole morning waiting to actually see it.  If it was a diesel train, then I knew what it would look like.  Instead of becoming closer to my fellow hobbyists I was aware that I was growing ever-more distant to them.  There was them and there was me and we had absolutely nothing in common but for our little books of numbers.  They had bright hooded anoraks and nylon over-trosers whilst I had faded loons and a Gratton’s catalogue tank-top.  They had waterproof rucksacks and I had a Tesco carrier bag.  They had tea and cake from the buffet whilst all I had was a sense of loathing for the solid state that wouldn’t give me my money back.  They were interested.  I was not.

I did like it when the occasional steam train thundered through though.  I lived through the very tail of the steam age and it was always a thrill to see them.  They were not the gleaming red and green leviathans of today’s tourist lines, but decaying, smoke-blackened hulks chugging their way to the knacker’s yard.  The best thing in the world was to stand on the bridge as they passed below belching lung-crippling blasts of steam and smoke into the air.  The power was palpable.  It went up through your feet, along your legs and reverberated around your chest like a firework in a can.  The steam trains were always the highlight of any day – they had names rather than numbers – but they became fewer and further between.  Mostly it was just diesels.  Powerful, but clean and bland, and to me, the trainee trainspotter, very boring.

So I began to find other things to do with my time.  I wandered from the station – no point in wasting a perfectly good penny on a platform ticket – to the town, to the castle, to the cathedral…  You could wander on your own then, and mostly I was on my own.  I loved the cold silence of old buildings and I would meander around them endlessly.  There was a little hexagonal stone building in the Cathedral grounds – which I now know is nothing more than an ornamental well-head – where it was rumoured that with the right number of circumnavigations, you could summon up the devil.  I tried every weekend, but he never came.  Shame, I could have done with the company.  Then one last wander back to the sweet shop, or best of all the joke shop, where I spent my precious accumulated 7d before crossing a few random numbers off my book and heading home for dinner. (In my world, ‘dinner’ was always taken about mid-day. Anything after 1pm was ‘tea’ and seldom involved potatoes unless chipped.)

Dinner over and Saturday afternoons throughout autumn, winter and spring were spent in our own little corner of the Sincil Bank stadium watching the Mighty Imps get trounced by whomever it was that was lucky enough to be playing them that day.  It didn’t really matter that they lost so habitually back then, I was part of the crowd and we all wanted the same thing.  The fact that we so seldom got it was of little consequence.  Two hours on the freezing terraces in the company of the same group of people every other week was what weekends were made for: stewed tea out of a steel urn, a slightly faded Garibaldi biscuit out of a crumpled paper bag and a nip from my grandad’s hipflask if I was lucky.  People around me that always seemed happy to see me and all I had to do was sing, cheer and groan as appropriate: one of the gang.  There have been ups and downs for the team in the half century and more since, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed my football more than I did back then.  From the ground at full time, the whole world it seemed traipsed as one over the two railway bridges back to the steaming buses home, and I would often spot a determined little gaggle of weather-proof anoraks on the distant station, waiting still for the 4.45 from Peterborough.  I had no desire to be with them then – even their little tartan vacuum flasks of now lukewarm Bovril were unable to ward off the clawing cold by that time, their fold-away kagoules no match for the stalking wind and biting sleet – but never-the-less, when I got home, I always crossed another number off my little book, just so that I still felt at least a little bit a part of it…