making it back

The Telegraph is too big for Martha. It’s like watching a duvet blown into a small tree.

‘I don’t know why I read it,’ she says, finally giving up, bundling it into an approximate mess and dumping it on the sofa next to her. ‘It’s not like I understand what they’re on about.’
‘You’re not alone in that, Martha.’
‘Wha’ d’ya say?’
‘I say I’m with you on that!’
‘Good!’ she says, but I know she hasn’t heard. I’d love to talk to her about politics and what she thinks of the world, but Martha’s so deaf now you have to put your lips to her ear and shout. And even then the best you’ll get is a smile and a chuckle and a knowing kind of ye-es. Any important questions or requests you have to write on a pad. Maybe there’s some telepathic component to all this, though, because after all the smiles and nods and eyebrows and complicated mimes, I always come away thinking I’ve had the liveliest conversation.

Martha’s been on our books for a while now. Initially we were called in by the doctor to keep an eye on her after a recent chest infection. But then she knocked her leg somehow – probably going downstairs to fetch The Telegraph – and it morphed into wound care. I’ll be sorry when she’s finally discharged, though. She’s such good company. A hundred years old now, she segues naturally from story to story without any prompting, like Time is a screen she can see through when the light falls in a certain way.

‘We were married seventy years,’ she says as I kneel on the floor dressing her leg. ‘Seventy years! Mind you – I didn’t see him the first three. I almost didn’t see him at all. He was in the RAF. A navigator. In a Blenheim bomber. Terrible planes. Dreadful. I think the Germans liked them, though. For target practice. How poor Tommy got through it all I don’t know. One night they were hit very bad – very bad – and they almost ditched in the Bay of Biscay. But the pilot kept ‘em going and they made it back somehow. Skipping over the waves like a stone, Tommy said. Skipping over the waves like a stone.’

the nightmare continues

Brexit.

Sounds like an energy biscuit. Except this one’s the opposite, the kind you’d eat to bring you back down. Frosted with Diazepam.

As I write, the government have voted to extend Article 50, and ask the EU if we can delay our exit. Which is like being on the rack and asking the guy in the leather apron for a few more turns of the wheel, because – you know – it really is helping with our joint problems…)

For the record, I’m a Remainer. Or Remoaner as we were rebranded. Presumably on the basis that we had the absolute GALL and plain BAD SPORTSMANSHIP to complain about the amount of misinformation that was put out at the time of the referendum, and to point out that maybe such a complex and important move should be worthy of a little more balanced thinking. I mean, you wouldn’t put in an offer to buy a house that was advertised as charming, plucky, full of character, great views – only to read the survey and find out it’s built of Play-Doh, on a fault line, near a reactor, overlooking some abandoned docks – and NOT feel a little scratchy.

Still – a vote is a vote.mrsmay

‘Let’s get this done’ croaks Mrs May, leaning in, reassuring as a fancy dress nurse with an ID badge drawn in crayon.

Part of me wishes it would just go ahead. Maybe it’ll be okay. Maybe we can trust the ERG, the DUP and any of the other reactionary crazies who would love nothing more than to make this country a Land of Hope and Glory theme park, where the log flume is actually a giant Churchillian cigar rushing headlong down a cataract of laundered money, and the golden horses of the carousel are restricted to the kids from public schools; where the canteens are filled with cheap chlorinated chicken and beef burgers oozing with Five Mile Island dressing; where the Queen lives in a glittering tent waiting to tell the fortune of anyone the park inspectors happen to push through her flaps, and the Hall of Mirrors is a miniature Houses of Parliament, where everyone constantly changes shape.

The only hope is that some ragged revolutionary force will storm the gates, push over the Monopoly banker character that says: You Have To Be THIS Wealthy To Enjoy our Rides! , overpower the Facebook sponsored security guards, and then run around unzipping all the minimum wagers trapped in the character costumes, the Frowning Shakespeares, the Laughing Policemen, the Private Doctors, The Trumps.

Then what?

Dissolve cut from the fires of the burning fairground to the not-so-distant future…

Climate change will be the one, unavoidable subject of public discourse. It’ll either be raining too heavily or blowing too violently or blazing too intensely for anyone to think about anything else. There’ll be factions calling for greater cooperation between people and states, factions insisting on a tighter, more protectionist approach, and then another, mysterious, more watchful faction – the one with the money, hubris, tech and military backing – who’ll have thought for a long time that the best thing to do is to pull out completely, in something big and splashy, called The Ark©, and they’ll be quietly studying star maps spread out on brushed steel tables, circling in red some other poor planets we can screw up.

Spacexit. (What a ride).

sig

morag’s bad dream

Jack’s directions to the block are a strange mixture of precise and vague.
‘We’re the one with the flapping green canopy,’ he says. ‘The last brick building on the right as you head up from the sea. No – wait a minute. What am I saying? Second to last. But hang on – there are lots of brick buildings between us and the top road. But anyway. Flapping green canopy. Look for that.’

He’s right about the canopy. I can only think that all the recent bad weather has partially torn it from its fixings. I locate Jack and Morag’s flat among the forty or so others, press the buzzer, and wait – for so long I wonder if it’s working. Just before I press it again a voice crackles on the speaker.
‘Hello, Jack,’ I say, leaning in, struggling to be heard over the wind and the canopy. ‘It’s Jim. From the hospital.’
‘Right you are, Jim. Come on up.’
He buzzes the door and I push through.

Just as I turn to close it I see a woman walking up the path. She’s zippered to the chin in a metallic blue anorak with just her face showing from the hood of it, carrying a cat patterned shopping bag in one hand and a Cornish pasty in the other. I hold the door for her and wait. She doesn’t acknowledge me at all, just walks and eats, walks and eats, dividing her attention equally between the pasty and the pavement. She’s so methodical about the whole thing she reminds me of a cartoon robot, analysing a sample of human food whilst she makes her way back to the mothership.
‘There you go!’ I say, as she plods through the door. ‘I can see you’ve got your hands full.’
She walks past me without making the slightest acknowledgement – so ruthlessly I imagine she would have simply smashed through the door if I hadn’t been standing there to open it – scattering pastry crumbs as she heads for the lift, which happens to be  ready waiting. By the time I’ve picked all my bags up, both robot pasty woman and lift have gone.

I walk up.

Jack looks exactly as he sounds: pressed trousers, green cardigan, small check shirt and tie, silvery hair flowing backwards like the ripples in a crinkle cut chip.
‘Found us alright?’ he says, silently closing the door. ‘Morag’s in the sitting room. Last door on the left. Sorry – my left. As you look at the window.’

You would absolutely match them if they were playing cards. Morag is a watchful, bird-like woman, perfectly turned out in a silk blouse and tartan skirt, with crinkly hair that goes side to side rather than straight back.
‘Who is it, Jack…?’ she says, gripping the arms of the armchair.
‘Just a nurse from the hospital, darling,’ he says. ‘No need to be alarmed.’
She turns her clear blue eyes on me and waits to see what I’ll do.

‘So – how are you feeling, Morag?’
‘How am I feeling?’
‘Yes. In yourself.’
She frowns at me, as if that’s the most extraordinary thing anyone’s ever asked her.
‘I know you’ve had quite a day of it,’ I say.
‘Have I?’
‘Well – coming home from the hospital. After a long stay. Must be nice to be home.’
She shakes her head, sharing her bewilderment between me and Jack.
‘It’s alright, darling,’ he says. ‘Nothing to worry about. You’re home now.’
‘I am, aren’t I?’
‘Yes. And it’s lovely to have you back.’
Jack smiles at me with a level of control as perfect as his hair.
‘I’ve been sent by the hospital just to make sure you have everything you need, Morag,’ I say. ‘And to see what we can to do help. By way of equipment, physiotherapy, nursing – anything really. We want to make sure you’re safe, that’s all.’
‘I have everything, thank you,’ she says, with great caution.

Whilst the laptop warms up, and to keep the conversation going, I ask Morag if there’s anything troubling her.
‘There is, actually.’
‘Oh yes? What’s that?’
‘I’ve been having bad dreams.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Morag. What kind of bad dreams?’
‘There are these people. Young people. And they keep wandering in and out. Sometimes they look at me. Sometimes they don’t. Sometime they walk straight past, carrying things. Pushing things. And I haven’t the faintest idea who they are or what they want.’
‘That was the hospital, darling,’ says Jack, patting her on the hand. ‘That was the hospital.’

3 from Nostradamus’ Little Book of Prophecy

I.

And on the first afternoon / a smiling man shall walk out upon the craterous face of the moon / but the atmosphere generators will have been damaged by a spoon / and consequently he will lift the visor of his helmet too soon / and lo, his head shall increaseth in size like a party balloon / and shall pop / and he shall drop / and The Big Kahuna Lunar mini-break suddenly stop / and all manner of things shall be confus-ed / and all further space vacations review-ed

and great shall be the lamentation thereof

II.

And on the afternoon of the second day (according to my organiser) / a monstrously ravenous hybrid hydra / shall crawl from the sump of the hadron collider / casting instruments and scientists aside / and flinging the heavy security doors wide / shall flex its terrible claws and stride / way out across the glittering Swiss countryside / until a bunch of generals on satellite phones / launch Operation Pile o’Bones / with a flock of fearsome UN drones / to corral the hydra in a free-fire zone / smoke it’s ass and send it home

and great shall be the lamentation thereof

III.

And on the third evening during a calm atlantic crossing / a captain will stroll from the bridge for a little light dental flossing / when he shall see a sailor down on the for’ard deck, dossing / with a crossbow on his lap for some albatrossing / and tho’ the captain will clap his hands and shout / none of his warnings will reach the limey layabout / who will suddenly shoot his bolt into the snout / of the first albatross he sees flying about / and lo, shall the Captain wail / and the luxury cruise shall fail / and the first lieutenant bail / and the second mate be swallowed by a whale / and the waiters & entertainers turn tail / and passenger complaints go off the scale / and then day after day, day after day / they shall be stuck with nor breath nor motion / as idle as a painted ship – well, you get the picture

and great shall be the lamentations thereof  IMG_0441

one hundred and two minutes

Harry’s wife Jean has everything written down. She shows me her notebook – covered in tiny block capitals: one page for the dates and times of appointments, one for the names and dosages of drugs, another for all the names and times of the various clinicians who’ve visited over the last few months, and on the inside back cover, a list of all the important phone numbers, family included, some underlined, some with asterisks.
‘You’re pretty organised,’ I tell her, handing it back.
‘You’ve got to be,’ she says, carefully putting it away on the trolley she’s set aside for meds, dressings and everything else – a hostess trolley for the home nurse.
She’s even taken care of me. I came in with a cough, excusing myself, blowing my nose – an inauspicious start.
‘Oh dear!’ she said. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m fine. It’s this cold. Still hanging on even though it’s been three weeks now.’
‘Have some of this’ she says, plucking a bottle of cough mixture out of the air, like a magician. ‘It’ll blow your socks off but it’ll stop the cough.’
She pours ten mil of the gloopy brown mixture into a plastic measuring cup and hands it to me. I hold it up to the light like a fine brandy, and then throw it back in one.
‘Wow!’ I gasp, handing back the cup. ‘That’s potent!’
She raises her eyebrows and smiles.
The cough has gone.
‘I should definitely get some of that,’ I say.
‘Maybe you should. I’ll write the name of it down for you. Do you want to see Harry now?’

Harry seems much better. He’s sitting on the sofa sawing away at a fried egg on toast.
‘Sorry to disturb your breakfast,’ I say. ‘Good to see you eating, though.’
‘Pull up a plate!’ he says, gesturing with his eggy knife.
‘You’re alright, thanks, Harry. I’ve eaten already. Besides…’ I say, smiling at Jean, ‘I don’t think I’ll be tasting much for a few hours.’
‘The mixture? Aye – it’s strong stuff is that,’ he says, directing his attention back to the egg. ‘Kill or cure.’

Harry is an old tank soldier. He tells me about his life in the army whilst I finish writing up the notes.
‘I loved it,’ he says. ‘Signed up for five years. Made it ten. Came out for two weeks, turned round went straight back in for another ten. It’s been my life, man.’
‘You know – I remember, when I worked on patient transport there was this patient we saw a few times. He was a hundred and two or something, and he was a tank soldier in the First World War.’
‘Was he? Well – hats off. That was a tough business alright. I mean – it was never a picnic in the old Centurions. It was no Ford Fiesta, if y’know wha’ I mean? But those early tanks, they was regular death traps, man. I had a look in one once, in the museum. And I tell you what, I wouldn’t have driven it to Sainsbury’s, let alone the Somme.’

I have a sudden clear image of that old tank soldier, shutting his front door, carefully pocketing his keys, and then walking entirely freely and unaided down his front path to the waiting ambulance. I was struck then not just by how tough and wiry and cheerful he seemed, cap pulled down, a glance up at the sky, a cheery thumbs up before he grabbed the handles and pulled himself up the steps – but also by how bent forward he was, by age of course, a marked curvature of his spine, and something else, the posture and demeanour of a man who was used to squeezing himself into small spaces, resolutely getting into position for whatever lay ahead.

‘A hundred and two?’ says Harry. ‘Hats off. A hundred and two minutes and you’d a’ been doin’ well.’

hansel & gretel : mob kids

hanselGretelhansel & gretel / young, mean & successful / bent as a coupla sesame pretzels / I heard they smoked some pedo wizard down on popocatepetl / anyways / theys / scratchin’ around for the next shekel / & they find a job downtown / taking out a renowned / cake & candy gang / whose number one meringue / AKA The Witch / they tease & tumble / til’ she totally apple crumbles / spills the crack-flavoured jelly beans / and a hundred other hard-boiled / shop soiled / confectionary schemes / until the grim final scene / when they push her hat first into a rock-pulling machine / and stand there licking custard creams / as the wicked Witch gets wiped / coming out all long & thin & peppermint striped / I seen the report the coroner typed: / (in big, bold letters to avoid confusion) / DEATH BY MEANS OF EXTREME MECHANICAL EXTRUSION

my own conclusion?

stay well clear my friend, if y’know what I mean / these punks are high on tartrazine

peter & st david

It’s a long climb up but it’s worth it. Peter’s flat is meticulously neat and spare, perched like the lamp at the top of a lighthouse, high above the world on this bright, blue, early spring day. Peter keeps the place immaculately, a pierced mirror over the fireplace, a vibrant figurative painting above the sofa, well-made chairs placed just-so, an oak writing desk under the window, and on the desk, a small ceramic vase with half a dozen stems of daffodil, yellow and gold in the mid-morning sunshine.
‘I brought those,’ says Stephanie. ‘I wanted to make the place look bigger.
‘Or further away.’
‘But at least we know the desks was always going to be strong enough.’
‘Well I think they look absolutely charming, Stephanie. And nobody has to feel the slightest bit guilty about air miles.’

Stephanie is an old friend of Peter’s. She’s come round to have lunch with him before his big day tomorrow. He’s been called back in for surgery. He fell ill out walking in the street, and a scan confirmed what everyone was dreading – the return of the cancer he thought he’d beaten a couple of years before.
‘At least they didn’t tell me I was riddled,’ he says. ‘I was fully expecting that conversation – you know – the one where they tell you it’s metastasized everywhere, from your liver to your socks, and there’s nothing more they can do.’
‘Rubbish. There’s always something,’ says Stephanie. ‘You can always go barefoot.’
‘You’re right,’ he says. ‘But listen. It won’t come to that. Tomorrow I’m under the knife again, so there’s hope yet.’
‘You see – that’s the other thing,’ says Stephanie.
‘What?’
‘I didn’t want to get you a fancy bouquet because I knew you weren’t going to be around.’
‘You could’ve taken them home with you.’
‘Some friend I’d be, buying you flowers and taking them home again.’
‘Some friend you are buying me daffs.’
‘It’s St David’s day!’
‘Yes – and St David can shove them up his arse!’
‘That’s not very patriotic, is it?’
‘Who cares? I’m not Welsh.’
‘Well you won’t be at this rate’
They both laugh.