birthday girl

I was asked to deliver a cake to Enid, a woman who was born on Armistice day in 1918. The nursing home had put out a general call for help on social media: Enid had never had children, and as the years had gone by her friends and family had died or moved away, so now she had no-one, and the staff were worried she wouldn’t have enough cards. Plus it was one hundred years since the ending of World War One, so it seemed the right time to take action. There was plenty of interest locally. A florist offered to provide a bouquet and a cake maker a cake. Kath collected the flowers the Saturday before, but the cake wouldn’t be ready until eleven on the Sunday, so I volunteered to collect it and take both things plus a card to the home by about midday on the day itself. I put the radio on and pulled into a layby when Big Ben struck eleven. The rain had stopped, the sun was shining brightly. I was surrounded by yellow and golden leaves and everything seemed pretty peaceful and perfect, but to be honest I was preoccupied with thinking about the pick-up and where to drop it off and the timing of everything, so I can’t say I was overly focused on the war.

The baker lived in a cottage with a yellow door, white window frames and perfect red bricks, the whole thing looking like an immaculate self-build of gingerbread and icing.
‘Why did you lock your car door?’ she said, holding the cake box with one hand underneath and one to the side. ‘You’re standing right there.’
‘Habit,’ I said.
‘Well. I’ve only just iced the decoration so don’t do anything stupid.’
‘Okay.’
‘Put it in the footwell’ she said. ‘No sudden braking.’
‘No. I’ll be careful.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s fragile.’
I told her I’d be sure to wedge it with my coat, but she wasn’t reassured.
‘Granny driving only,’ she said. ‘Easy on the corners.’
‘Of course. Do you want me to take a photo of Enid with the cake?’
‘Nah,’ she said. ‘I already got some pics.’

There were lots of detours in place because of the big Centenary Armistice commemorations going on, so I had to take a cross-country route. When I got there I found a dozen people already queuing outside the door to the home, including a cub scout in uniform holding a large card with a poppy made of crepe in the middle and Happy Birthday Enid written in glitterpen.
‘Do you know Enid?’ said the woman, straightening his cap. I thought she must be his mum.
‘No,’ I said. ‘There was something on social media. I didn’t see it. I’m just delivering some cake and flowers.’
‘That’s nice,’ she said.
Someone else asked the guy nearest the door if he’d rung.
‘Yes,’ he said, but then self-consciously rapped the large brass knocker.
‘At least it’s not raining,’ I said to the cub scout’s mum.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘We’ve been lucky.’
Eventually there was movement behind the door: an orderly in a white tunic, who frowned at us all then stood aside just sufficiently so we could file in.
‘This is for Enid’ I said.
‘You mean Mrs Westerman?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Does it have to go in the fridge?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. It’s fresh to day.’
He took it.
‘The decorations are quite fragile,’ I said, but he was already marching off down the hall and shouldering backwards through a door marked ‘Kitchen’. I stood in the hallway with the vase of flowers and the other visitors, who – I found out – had all come to see Enid as well. We didn’t know what to do and certainly didn’t want to impose. After a while someone I guessed was a manager appeared. She had a brisk and efficient smile, and collected all our cards and flowers without committing to anything overmuch.
‘Enid’s had a busy morning and she’s just gone to bed,’ she said. ‘But I’ll make sure she gets all your presents.’
‘Wish her a happy birthday from us,’ said a guy with a camera round his neck.
‘Did you want a photo?’
‘Oh – no!’ he said, stepping back, horrified. ‘She needs to rest.’
‘Fine. Well. Thank you all so much.’
And she disappeared into the kitchen, too.
We all turned to go.
A man with two snappy dogs appeared, so abruptly it seemed as if the manager must have pressed a secret button somewhere. The first dog, the one that was urgently pulling on the lead, barked and snapped at the cub scout who drew back behind his mum.
‘Don’t do that!’ shouted the man, leaning over the dog. ‘How many times have I told you?’
The dog didn’t care though, and was already pulling him on, so the man passed along the corridor, throwing apologies over his shoulder as he spun round at the far end and was dragged off deeper into the home.

Sheepishly our little group retraced our steps back to the front door.
‘Isn’t there a button you push?’ said the guy who had originally been at the front to come in but was now standing right at the back. Maybe he was glad it was someone else’s turn to get the door stuff wrong.
‘There’s a pad,’ I said. ‘You need a code.’
We waited a while longer – so long I wondered if we really did need a code.
There was a fish tank right there and we stood and watched the fish for a while.
‘Look at the lovely tank’ said the mum to the cub scout. ‘All the lovely fish.’
A little while longer and the guy in the white tunic appeared again. He didn’t say anything, just came to the front and jabbed at the buttons whilst shielding them with his hand.
‘Ah hah!’ I said ‘Now I know!’P1120320
He frowned at me.
‘Know what?’
‘The secret code.’
‘You’re not supposed to know,’ he said.
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘I didn’t really see.’
‘Okay then.’
He opened the door and held it whilst we all filed out.
‘It’s no wonder she’s exhausted,’ said the mum, buttoning her coat and straightening in the fresh air as her son sprinted off across the car park. ‘All this attention.’

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halloween checkout jokes

The checkout girl started telling me Halloween jokes just after she told me a rival supermarket was selling the same two tubs of sweets for eight pounds instead of the five pounds each I’d just laid out for.
‘Why are ghosts so bad at lying?’ she said.
‘Erm…’
‘Because you can see right through them!’
‘That’s a good one.’
‘What does a witch use to keep her hair up?’
‘I don’t know. What does a …’
‘Scarespray!’
‘Yeah!’
She didn’t give me time to think of the answer, which is fair enough. I tried to think of one I could say myself, but all I could think of was the one about the skeleton who goes into a bar and asks for a pint of beer and a mop. It didn’t feel quite right, though, and anyway, the girl was laying out the jokes faster than she was scanning the items, which was pretty damn fast, and I didn’t stand a chance. I wasn’t sure if this wasn’t something they’d been asked to do or not, but she was so enthusiastic I thought maybe she would’ve done it anyway. I got my wallet ready with the reward card and the tokens.
‘Why didn’t the skeleton go to the ball?’ she said, swiping the card.
It was one I knew, so I said ‘Because he had no body to go with!’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s right.’
She handed me back my card, and stared at the machine that printed out the receipts and vouchers, and looked so sad I felt guilty.
‘Know anymore?’ I said.
She glanced up at me, then said: ‘What does a skeleton like to eat?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Spooketti!’
I pointed at her, smiled in a faux-cheesy way, and said Goulish.
‘Oh’ she said. ‘Yes. That would have been better.’
I didn’t really understand, until I’d packed the trolley and moved away, and only then did I realise that she thought I’d said Goulash.
Which would’ve been pretty slick, if I’d actually meant it.

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jim! jim!

I’m in danger of being thrown out of book group.

Not just thrown out, but ceremonially unbound, de-leafed, dust-jacketed, redacted, tossed on the remaindered pile, pulped.

Reason being, I tend not to like the books. Not even the ones I choose. (I mean – I’m a fan of John Steinbeck. He’s written some of my favourite books ever. But East of Eden? Yeuch. C’mon!)

The latest one is Absalom, Absalom! (So good they named it twice). Faulkner’s masterpiece. ‘The best novel yet written by an American’ (according to Faulkner). And sure – it looks good on paper. A civil war saga told from several viewpoints, each one as unreliable as the other. I think the idea is that you patiently peel away all the narrative layers and achieve understanding amongst the wreckage. Something like that. Which is fine, until you set to work, and find yourself overcome by layer fatigue. I’ve never read a book with such narcoleptic power. It didn’t matter how sharp I felt when I sat down, in just a couple of pages I was yawning and wondering what snacks we had in the cupboard. The febrile drama of the whole thing only made it worse. It was completely numbing, like finding yourself trapped next to one of the main characters on the bus, monologuing without end, requiring no input from you whatsoever, or any sign that you’re interested, or even alive. You’d have to pretend to faint to escape. And even then they’d insist on going with you in the ambulance.

Apparently Faulkner was influenced by Joyce. That doesn’t surprise me, having tried and failed to read Ulysses. I don’t know if they ever met, but I think they would have got on. Either that, or cancelled each other out, like two literary black holes colliding, disappearing into a prose singularity that swallows narratives whole, twists them up and splurges them out into an eternal parade of string people sitting on porches or horses smoking cigars, sipping whisky and bitching about Gettysburg.

Anyway. I’m just hoping everyone else is having the same trouble as me. My fear is they all completely love it, the immersive experience, the overwhelming, supersaturating drama of it. And pity me for my inability to engage with the passion and the poetry. And then vote to have me thrown out on my raggedy beginning-middle-and-end ass.

But at least I know what I’m going to choose next.

Farewell My Lovely.

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bad penmanship

I was busy checking out my stuff at the supermarket when I noticed the woman next to me had dropped her pen. She was wearing a baggy combat jacket, and I guessed that when she pulled an extra bag out of the pockets the pen came with it. I thought she’d probably see the pen lying there, so I didn’t say anything to begin with. But she was so preoccupied, both with the packing and with her conversation with the checkout guy. They were talking about Pompeii. Or at least, some place that got wrecked by a volcano. And not recently, otherwise I they probably wouldn’t be talking about it so lightly and happily. I thought the pen woman had recently gone there, or was planning on going, or checkout guy had gone there sometime recently, or possibly even grown up there – or at least, nearby. Anyway, the woman was too engrossed to notice the pen on the floor. It looked like quite a nice pen, so in the end I went over, picked it up and gave it to her.
‘Oh!’ she said. ‘How did that get there? Well! Thank you very much!’
And she showed the checkout guy the pen, and he nodded with his eyebrows raised, as if to say well – another disaster averted.

I went back to my packing, which was piling up, because the guy on my till was due to finish or on steroids or something because he just kept it all coming at an alarming rate.

Anyway – I couldn’t help glancing at the woman, just at the moment she went to put the pen back in her pocket. She missed. The pen fell on the floor.

Which put me in a dilemma. Do I pick it up again or not?
These were the options:

1. If I picked it up again, she’d be embarrassed that exactly the same thing had happened, and in that case, maybe a lost pen was the lesser of two evils. But it was a nice pen.
2. She’d wonder if I’d pulled some kind of stunt, and would look at me as if she expected the same thing to happen a number of times before she left the store.
3. She’d wonder why I was paying so much attention to her and her pen.

Any of these options would almost inevitably lead to more of a ‘thing’. And I didn’t want a ‘thing’, I was on a mission to get the shopping, get back home and get writing, so I wouldn’t feel my day off had been wasted. I’d already had to go to the vets to get flea treatment for the dog and cat. The last thing I wanted was anything else to slow me down and distract me. (Ironic, then, that I ended up writing about the pen incident instead, but hey – that’s the way it goes. The essence of displacement activity. Writing about dropped pens at the checkout is more inviting than finishing a novel. Maybe I should just accept it – mission aborted: this novel will never be done. I’m horribly aware of its deficiencies. And my characters are getting mutinous. They spend way too much time sitting around smoking, flipping through magazines, waiting for me to come sit at the keyboard and write them some more goddamned stuff to do. But I can’t help it. I’m easily distracted. Maybe I should try cultivating the writing habit equivalent of my checkout guy – shovelling the words through in a great, undifferentiated heap. I bet he’d finish a novel in a week. And earn vouchers off the next one).

But fate took over, as it often does in these situations. The woman stepped on the pen. Even above the general chaos of the supermarket, there was an audible crunch.

‘Oh shit I don’t believe it!’ she said, picking it up and then brandishing the broken pen in the air. ‘I don’t deserve good pens!’

I hurried away.

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patrick’s fracture

Okay. It’s true. I towed Patrick into a ditch and he broke his arm.

Forty years ago, actually. But some things take a long time to heal.

I suppose, the thing is, if you tow someone into a ditch, and you stand at the top looking down at them, all tangled in their bike, and they’re complaining about how they’ve broken their arm, and you say mate – are you crazy? you can’t have broken your arm, if you’d broken your arm you’d know about it, and they say well I do know about it, thank you, and you say c’mon, stop making such a fuss, and you climb down to grab their hand, and they yelp, and you grab their other hand, and you drag them out, and you walk the rest of the way making awkward conversation, and they spend the rest of the afternoon moaning about how they’ve broken their arm, and shouldn’t they go to hospital and everything, and everyone says honestly, it’s not broken mate, and then they turn up to school the next day wearing a cast – well – you might feel bad about it, too.

The thing was, we were skipping school. Triple PE. Patrick had gone on ahead, because I had a moped and he was on his bike, and anyway, he was used to skipping school and didn’t worry too much about the When and the Where of it. We were aiming to meet at Gavin’s place to drink beer, smoke fags and listen to Bowie. Gavin lived in a bungalow out on the Fens. His dad ran a ditching company (had probably excavated the ditch I towed Patrick into, come to think of it). I was terrified of Gavin’s dad. He was like a bear. Made of granite. Without the humanity. But the good news was that Gavin’s dad was out for a few days on a contract, and it was only Gavin’s mum and sister in the house, and I got on with them fine. His parents were an odd couple. As if the bear had suddenly woken up married to a social worker, who always spoke in the kind of voice that made it sound like she was perpetually in another room. I was always glad to see his mum, because she had obviously formed the impression years ago that I was oddly hilarious, and she’d laugh at the slightest thing. For example, if she asked if I was hungry and wanted anything to eat, and I said no I’m fine I had some toast before I came out, she’d squeeze her eyes shut and shake her head and say toast! helplessly, because it was the most bizarre thing she’d ever heard. But it was gratifying, nonetheless, because I never felt like I had to think what to say, and maybe that was the idea. Gavin’s sister was great, too, funny and smart, and her boyfriend was the most glamorous rocker in town. He had long black hair and a pointy beard like a musketeer or Charles II or someone, except in a leather jacket  riding a Norton Commando. It was disconcerting when he smiled, though, because his teeth were completely fucked, blackened stumps, all-angles. But as long as he just nodded and sneered, he was immaculate.

We had the house to ourselves that particular afternoon, though, the afternoon that Patrick broke his arm.

I’d been racing over the Fens to get there, tucked into the handlebars, making myself as aerodynamic as possible, throttle wrapped back, making about thirty miles an hour and two hundred decibels. And then I saw Patrick up ahead, doing that emphatic bobbing motion with his head, backwards and forwards as he pedalled, his sports bag balanced on the crossbar between the saddle and the handlebar.
I drew level.
‘Want a tow?’
He shook his head.
‘You go on ahead,’ he said.
‘Seriously! We’ll get there a lot quicker.’
‘No I’m fine. You go. Go on. Go.’
‘Grab hold of my arm!’
‘Seriously?’
‘C’mon, Patrick! Let’s do it…’
So reluctantly he grabbed hold of my arm, and I built up speed again. But then a slow, oscillating wobble of his front wheel grew wilder and more alarming, his bag dropped off the crossbar, snagged the pedals, the bike flipped, Patrick screamed and went cartwheeling into the ditch.

Luckily it wasn’t filled with water. Although, if it had have been, maybe he wouldn’t have broken his arm.

Not that I thought he had.

 

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green beans & other crises

The checkout guy has only just sat down at the till. I nod as I pass by to check if he’s open; he grimaces as he hangs his fleece on the back of the chair, which isn’t a definitive no, so I start unloading.
‘I can’t believe my luck,’ I tell him. ‘This never happens to me.’
‘Yeah?’ he says. ‘Well it always happens to me. Is it six yet?’
‘No. I think it’s only about half past four.’
The nightmare continues.’
I finish unloading the trolley.
‘So! How’s your day been?’ I say, setting out the divider and moving on with my bags ready.
‘Long’ he says. ‘Very long. And I just had a very unsatisfactory meeting with my manager. I say meeting,’ he says, holding a packet of green beans in front of him, staring down at them as if they’re implicated but he can’t figure out how. ‘It was more a conversation at the bottom of a stairwell, really.’
He passes me the beans. I pack them.
‘Sorry to hear that,’ I say.
‘Do you ever get those conversations where you walk away at the end and think
what the hell was that all about?’
‘Frequently.’
He swipes a few more things through.
‘What do you do, then?’ he asks.
‘I work in community health.’
‘Ah! So you’ve seen it, then.’
‘I suppose so.’
Community health’ he says, trying out the words for size. ‘Like it, d’you?’
‘It’s alright. Keeps me in beans. To be honest, I’m looking around.’
He snorts.
‘Well don’t look around here. That’ll be twenty six pounds and ninety eight pence.’
Just at that moment a woman at the neighbouring till reaches over and taps me on the arm. It’s Jenna, a parent I used to know when the girls were at primary school. I haven’t seen her for a while, and to be honest it’s a miracle I remember her name – I think because I just say it quickly and don’t have time to panic. I offer to pack for her but she says no, she’s got a system. We swap quick summary stories about what the kids are up to, and then say goodbye – to the checkout guy, too. I walk away feeling pretty smug. I bet he’s thinking there goes the community health guy, chatting to everyone, buying green beans and everything. But then again – probably not. I bet he’s just thinking how the hell he’ll get through the next hour and twenty five minutes before he can be walking out the door, too.

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rabbitman

In a cottage in a wood
A little old man at the window stood
Saw a rabbit running by
Knocking at the door.
‘Help me, help me, help me,’ he said
‘Before the hunter shoots me dead!’
‘Little rabbit come inside,
Happy we shall be.’

Sounds like an elevator pitch for a horror movie. Especially when you do the actions:

  1. In a cottage in a wood
    Describe the outline of the cottage with your two index fingers. A simple design, just a square, really. But isn’t it too simple? The kind of simple you struggle to understand in retrospect, after the horror’s passed, just a scrap of blue & white POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS left round a tree. How did we miss it? For God’s sake – it was there all along, people. In plain sight.
  2. A little old man at the window stood.
    Lower your arms and hunch over a little, old man style. Isolated. In your own world. Waiting.
  3. Saw a rabbit running by / Knocking at the door.
    Raise your hands in front of you like two little paws, in a bounding motion, then segue immediately into a knocking mime. You’re a rabbit, goddamit. Running. Running in a nightmare. From some unspeakable thing.
  4. ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ he said
    Stretch your hands up into the air and then back down again three times. Is this the rabbit crying for help? Or the old man mimicking its terror? You decide.
  5. ‘Before the hunter shoots me dead!’
    Mime a shotgun, blasting away three times in a controlled spread-pattern.
  6. ‘Little rabbit come inside’
    Extend one index finger and indicate for the rabbit to approach. This is where you start to think: Keep on running, little rabbit! For God’s sake! Keep running!
  7. ‘Happy we shall be.’
    Nod & smile & slowly stroke your left hand with your right. It’s no good. The rabbit goes inside. Stands looking around the interior – the whole thing rabbit-themed. Cutlery, teapot, tablecloth. There’s an oil painting on the wall of an old woman dressed as a rabbit. The old man goes out back to ‘pop the kettle on’. Comes back wearing a rabbit head with crooked yellow teeth and maglites for eyes. Cut to the hunter. He’s actually a special forces cop. Out of breath, puffing into his shoulder mic. Sorry. I lost him. Repeat. I lost the target. He swears. It starts to rain. He takes his cap off, tips his head back. Closes his eyes to feel the cooling wetness on his face. Suddenly a bunch of crows launch themselves out of a nearby tree, making a terrifying noise. The cop wipes his face with the back of his shirt sleeve, puts his cap back on, levers a shell into the chamber. Moves on.

That’s the version I was taught, anyway.

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