Wednesday 18

it’s the end of the world as we know it

Suddenly there’s a strange light beyond the office windows, like someone climbed up two storeys when I was on the phone and stuck sheets of yellow plastic across the glass.
‘Storm coming,’ says Helen, standing over there, peering out. And she’s right – but not any storm I’ve seen before, something quieter and more abstract.
‘Apocalyptic,’ she says.
‘I’ve still got a visit to make.’
‘Good luck.’

Down in the car park, I see one of the groundsmen walking towards me. Even though I’ve worked in the old hospital two years now, I still don’t know his name. He always seems so grumpy, plodding along carrying or pushing something, always with an expression as burdensome as his load.
‘Looking pretty stormy!’ I say, as I unlock my car.
‘You’re the third person to tell me that,’ he says.
I find his rooted cynicism helps, though. Here we have this strange and unsettling weather feature, but to the groundsman it’s all just one more thing to piss him off. I bet if we met at the edge of the world, everything and everyone in flames, a terrifying vortex swirling open and dragging the very universe into its maw, he’d be there, plodding along the rim of it all, waving his hand at the Apocalypse: ‘Tossers’.

IMG_4192

By the time I reach the patient’s address, the sky has taken on a brooding, ochreous tinge, the sun burning through it all with a liquid fire. Birds are prematurely hurrying back to their roosts. The street lamps are coming on. The whole thing feels more like an eclipse, like we’re moving towards Totality.

On the sea front, people are stopping in threes and fours, drawn out of their cars to take pictures.

When I go up the steps to the front door of the block where my patient lives, there’s a smart middle-aged couple with shopping bags and suitcases waiting there. The woman is on the phone to someone; the guy looks up and down the street. I’m guessing they’re Airbnb people, suddenly confronted with the difference between the web description and the thing itself – a discrepancy made worse by the brooding and generally unwholesome atmosphere of the storm.
‘Do you know Dean?’ the woman says to me, hanging up. ‘We’ve been trying to get into the penthouse flat.’
‘No. I’m a nursing assistant come to see a patient. In the basement.’
‘Oh,’ she says, and shares a look with her partner. Patient? Basement? That wasn’t in the overview. They couldn’t look more alarmed if I’d taken out a tin of paint and began swiping a big red cross on the door.
The partner of my patient appears after a few buzzes on the intercom. A slouching, middle-aged man with a prickly chin and a a squint-eyed leer, he looks like Popeye ten years into retirement and suffering the effects of all those lost ‘spinach’ years. He’s still in his pyjamas even though it’s late afternoon, and he stands on the threshold, scratching the side of his belly distractedly, and frowning.
‘What d’yee want?’ he says, distributing a furious eye amongs the three of us, then glancing up at the sky.
‘Jaysus feckin’ chris will yee look at tha,’’ he says.
And, of course, we all do.

the dentally damned

I suppose I’ve reached an age when I can’t expect a trip to the dentist without needing some kind of remedial work, largely because of all the crappy fillings I had when I was younger. In the seventies, things were different. Dentists were a rowdy, lawless bunch, The Cavity in the Wall gang, hanging out of their windows, touting for trade, drilling you full of amalgam if you dared to walk past, whistling.

We had a terrible dentist then, Mr Parkin, a slick-haired, sleepy-eyed psychopath who treated cavities as playrooms. Put your hand up if it hurts and I’ll stop he used to say. But of course, when you put your hand up, he wouldn’t. Almost done… he’d trill above the grinding and crunching of the bit. Which is why I kicked him in the nuts once. It didn’t seem to bother him, though. Probably because he’d had those filled, too. He had a picture stuck to the ceiling above the chair. To distract you from your agony. The Garden of Earthly Delights by Heironymous Bosch.

So it’s taken me a few years to be able to go into a dentist’s without feeling faint.

I have to say it helps that our local practice is housed in a converted church, with a certain residual prayerfulness about the rafters. The receptionists act a bit like nuns, too, speaking in confessional whispers, moving slowly and precisely. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear them chanting when they review what treatment sessions I need to get booked. It’s all pretty spiritual.

But who needs God when you have lidocaine?

The dentists at this practice have always been good, stabbing up my gums so effectively that when they eventually set to work, up to their arms and elbows in my mouth like scrubbed mechanics in the bonnet of a car, it’s like it’s happening to someone else, and I can either look over their shoulder and offer advice, or sit in the corner and flip through Hello! magazine instead. (Which I did in the waiting room before I went in, by the way. I read an article about the wife of an international shoe plutocrat. The photoshoot was on their luxury yacht, and I must admit felt a bit sorry for her. The shoetocrat wasn’t there, probably away having his conscience laundered, so she was on her own in that gigantic, sterile, curiously empty ship, holding two fluffy white bichon frises in her arms, either on the deck, in the games room, by the hot tub or in the gym, and no-one else was there to take the dogs off her or give her a drink or a massage or anything, not even the Captain.)

My current dentist is the best yet. She’s a tall Egyptian woman with sad eyes and a laconic manner. There’s a weariness about her that I find curiously reasurring, as if she’s spent many years dealing in teeth, and still isn’t any nearer to extracting anything like a resilient, workable philosophy.

For example, at one point she took some x-rays of my mouth. When they were ready she tugged down her face mask and turned to me.
‘Are you interested to see this?’ she said, pointing to a dark smudge beneath the hard white of a crown, upper left second molar.
‘Interested and horrified in equal measure.’
She laughed.
‘This is decay,’ she said, tapping the screen. ‘I will need to re-crown the tooth. I will do this by chopping the old crown in half, clearing out the decay, filling it, then making a new crown to go on top. What do you say to that?’
‘Is there an alternative?’
‘No. There is no alternative. You do nothing, one day the tooth shatter into pieces.’
‘Will it be difficult?’
‘For me – no. For you…’ She trails off, and shrugs.
‘Okay. So my next question is – how much?’
‘On NHS, approximately two hundred and forty pounds.’
‘Does that include VAT?’
She laughs again – which is great. You should always try to make the dentist laugh. If they like you, they might give you more lidocaine.
‘No VAT,’ she says. ‘We don’t charge VAT on teeth.’
‘I suppose that’s some good news, then.’
‘It is something.’
‘Okay, then. Let’s do it.’
‘Okay.’
Whilst she finished writing the ticket out, I ask her if I’m the worst mouth she’s seen today.
‘You? No,’ she says, shaking her head. ‘One man, he came in here, and he sat down, and he said I haven’t been to the dentist ever. Ever. In my whole life. And now I have pain here, here, here and here.’
She stares at me with those sad eyes.
‘Where to start with this?’ she says. ‘Where to start? I am dentist, not miracle worker.’

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Tuesday 10

On the dog walk this morning I take a route I haven’t used in a while, down an expensive private road on the edge of the village. It’s a different experience along here – grand, detached houses in an odd variety of styles: cod-Tudor, faux-medieval, everything set back behind walls and tall hedges, everything, especially the gates, on a bigger scale than normal. Even the grass verges are wide enough to grow a crop. It seems to be demonstrating a simple economic equation: more money equals more space, needing it in the same way that flowers need sunshine and water, a basic necessity to thrive. Financial potential of this magnitude couldn’t possibly exist in anything smaller.

At the end of the street is a plot of land that’s been in dispute for years. A local pre-school had been using it as a place to play in the summer, but mostly it’s been idle, having its grass mown  in synchrony with the neighbouring cemetery. For years the passage of time has been marked only by the  by the rise and fall of sunlight over the bell tower of the Norman church, and the Hang Seng Index.

I’m used to the expansive views up and down the road. The exotic house names. The teams of gardeners working on the roses. But there’s something else today, something different about the place. It takes a while to realise what it is, but the further I walk the clearer it gets. Today there’s a tall, green hoarding up around the disputed plot at the end. 

I go up to the hoarding to peer through the viewing holes, to see what’s going on. Touching the heavy chain that secures the gates works like the touching of a strand in a spider’s web, because seconds later a sleight and anxious woman is standing by my side.

‘Sorry to jump on you like this,’ she says. ‘My name’s Bunty. I live in that house there, next door to the development.

She points behind me to a long, low, be-chimneyed bungalow with casement windows, a heavy oak porch and a perfectly gravelled drive with a Mercedes parked at the apex. It’s the kind of provincially magical house Gandalf might retire to if he’d quit Hobbiton and spent the last ten years at Lloyds.

‘Lovely,’ I tell her.

‘I just wanted to ask you – have you or your dog ever walked in this field?’

I hesitate, because there’s something legalistic about the way she’s speaking and I don’t want to say anything incriminating. Eventually I decide just to be honest, and say that no, I’ve walked past it many times, but never actually gone in.

‘That’s a shame,’ she says, ‘because I’m trying to get the names of as many people as possible who’ve used the field at one time or another.  I need at least twenty to proceed, and for some stupid reason the school only counts as one.’

I tell her I think it’s a shame, what with one thing and another, but that she shouldn’t give up hope. I tell her I’ll talk to any dog walkers I meet and tell them about her petition.

Bunty launches into a long and complex description of the court proceedings so far. Who was secretly talking to who, the shocking admissions made off record, the corruption at council level, the cynical manipulation of the planning process.

‘I know some people will accuse me of nimbyism,’ she says, ‘But it won’t affect my view of the hills. It’s the principle of the thing. This is a public amenity, in a conservation area. It shouldn’t be allowed.’

I tell her I think the whole thing is disappointing, and I’m sorry it’s come to this.

‘What has everyone else in the street said about it?’ I add, helpfully.

‘That lot?’ she says, batting the air. ‘Oh – they’re happy to have another big house at the end of the street. They think it’ll keep the riff-raff out. But they’re not seeing the bigger picture. And I think that’s so important. Otherwise – who’s to stop anyone doing anything?’

She pauses to take a breath, smiling sadly, the fine lines of her face splashing out across her face like lines from the impact site of an asteroid.

She asks my name, and then the name of my dog.

‘Lovely!’ she says, shaking my hand. ‘Well – sorry to jump on you like this.’

And she’s gone.

*

It’s a relief to make it over the fields.

Lola races on ahead, whilst I take my time.

At the far corner of the field is a stile. The ground dips away sharply there, to a crossing of the stream and then on into the woods. Over the other side I think it might be good to take a few pictures of the ruined stone bridge a little further up. It’s on private land, but there’s no-one about, and the fence is down in one place, so it’s easy to sneak through and creep through the undergrowth.

It’s there that I come across the young deer.

It’s lying on its belly on the earth, breathing rapidly, its legs tucked up underneath. It’s obviously unwell, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong. It hasn’t been shot, as far as I can see; it’s legs all look intact, with no deformity; there’s no blood or vomit or anything else to suggest poisoning. The only thing I can think is that it has stunned itself by running into a tree trying to escape from something. I think it might be kinder and more humane to kill the deer quickly – but quite how I don’t know. It isn’t just that the deer is pretty substantial. I know that I don’t have either the skill or the emotional capacity to commit that kind of violence, so casually. A moment ago I was wandering around, taking sensitive shots of trees and fungi; now here I am contemplating doing something unspeakably violent to a creature that looks as cute as – well – Bambi. The best I can do is hope that the deer will recover its senses and run off. Either that or a predator with much less compunction than me will come across it and quickly put an end to its suffering.

I think about taking a picture of the deer, but that seems cruel and disrespectful, so I don’t. I forget about the bridge, and instead retrace my steps to the stream crossing, and continue on through the wood, debating with myself the tortuous ethical angles of the thing.

Half-way through the wood I meet Stan and his two greyhounds. I tell him about the deer, and what he thinks I should have done.

‘Rung its neck,’ he says.

‘How?’

He demonstrates, planting his feet either side of the thing, reaching down, pulling up and twisting, making a scccrrrrttttch noise.

‘I don’t think I could do that,’ I say.

‘Course you can he says. ‘Don’t forget how much of a problem the deer are in these woods. There’s precious little new growth going on at the moment because they eat it all. It’d be a different place if it weren’t for the deer. They need culling.’

‘I’ll leave it to you,’ I said. ‘You’ve got the technique.’

‘They’re not like sheep, though’ he says. ‘Sheep are a lot squarer and tougher.’

‘More like furniture,’ I say, helpfully.

‘I found a sheep on one of my walks up north once,’ he says. ‘Poor thing. Obviously suffering. Someone had to do something.’

‘So what did you do? Twist its neck?’

‘No. They’re too tough for that. No – I had to go find a rock.’

Monday 25

going viral

rhinovirusscopeIs a virus a living organism?

A living organism is supposed to have the following seven characteristics: Movement, Sensitivity, Respiration, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion & Nutrition.

On the face of it, a virus seems to be more passive and more dependent than that. The only thing a virus does from the list is reproduce – but it needs a living host to do it. Does that mean you couldn’t describe it as ‘living’?

If you ignored the structural differences between the two things – between single or multi-cellular organisms and the viruses that infect them – wouldn’t it be true to say that they’re both driven to do the same thing, which is to make more of themselves? In such a way that responds to changes in the genetic environment, making them more resilient and more likely to thrive?

To put it another way, maybe it doesn’t matter how you get there, so long as you get there. And on those terms, maybe the virus could be seen as the more successful organism, living or non-living, because it’s managing to ‘get there’ with far less complication?

I’ve seen viruses described as ‘organisms at the edge of life’ – which seems to acknowledge the extent of the problem apprehending these things. And virology as a science only dates from the beginning of the twentieth century, so there’s a long way to go.

None of which is helping with my cold. But as Sun Tzu once said: To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.

And if I was a virus, I’d definitely have that tattooed on my capsid.


latest poem

This one’s a riff on corporate culture, with a rap-style rhythm (which I suppose makes it a riff-rap). There’s no image with it, so I’ll just casually drop the link in here.

 

Thanks for reading!

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Thursday 07

shed head

I was thinking of writing a sequence of poems about Dad’s shed.

Okay. I know how lame that sounds. It’s not a subject that leaps up on the table with jazz hands. But honestly – there’s so much to say about that shed. It was so much more than a rickety old hut he knocked up one weekend. It became his place of retreat, his sanctuary. The one place he could be alone, and sit at his workbench with a cup of tea, and stare through the windows into the garden, and wonder how the hell he’d got there.

We’d started off in London, in a much smaller flat above a flower shop in Pimlico – which sounds ludicrously Ealing Studios, especially given the old woman who lived immediately below us, banging on the ceiling with a broom handle and running a pair of scissors down the prams in the hallway. When things got too much, Dad took a job that came with a house, at a printing works in Wisbech, Capital of the Fens, (I’m guessing when they awarded the title the only other place in the running was a cluster of apple shacks). The house was bigger than the London flat, but the kids kept coming – so relentlessly you’d think it was by some other, novel process, like vegetative budding – until we’d outgrown the new place but couldn’t afford anything else. So a three bedroomed house had to accommodate six children and two adults, and occasional visits from Grandma, sleeping on a zed-bed behind the sofa. If you imagine someone lifting the roof off, cramming us all in, then slamming the roof back on and sitting on it like the lid of an overfilled suitcase, arms and legs sticking out of the windows, you’d be close. If it wasn’t for the fact the garden backed onto woods, apple orchards and playing fields, we’d have gone completely insane.

So without anywhere else to go, the shed became Dad’s sacred retreat. And even though it was made of scavenged wood, with a door so thin if a wolf came by he wouldn’t need to huff and puff, he could force entry with one paw whilst innocently inspecting the nails on the other – in our minds it was something much more, something powerfully and spiritually aligned with the essence of Dad, as brightly as the rows of jars of odds and ends with their bolts and screws and panel pins and nails of every size, ingeniously fixed by their caps to the undersides of the shelves he’d put up, and his tools, sitting in their outlines like they’d burned their shapes onto the hardboard by sheer force of utility, and that single bulb hanging from the ceiling hook like a torturer’s light, with a rough tin shade cut from an oil can. All these things. So utterly DAD.

And then one day, he’s gone. The shed falls to ruin. And I drive over to pull it all down and throw it in a skip.

So maybe, somewhere amongst all the spiders and Pifco torches with the corroded points and the drawers filled with anonymous crap, maybe there is a poem or two to be salvaged.

But a sequence?

 

Speaking of poems about sheds

Here’s the latest:

hermes
Genesis

There’s also a new post in ‘Voices’: Daisy D.

Thanks for reading!

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Monday 28

The Mysterious Mr Manager

There’s an elderly guy I see quite often over the woods. An intriguing character, neatly dressed in a shirt and tie, windcheater and slacks, carrying a shabby leather briefcase. It’s only when you look closer you can see the grimy shine to his clothes, and the kind of tan you get from being outside in all weathers, all year round. He has an odd, politely deranged look,  like a manager who had a breakdown at the bank and ran off to live in the forest.

Earlier in the year I’d gone off the usual paths, looking for new things to photograph, and I’d come across an extemporary shelter, a tumble-down roundhouse made of scavenged rubbish bags, fallen timbers, tied together with garden string and Christmas tree lights. There was a shelf inside with a blue tin cup, a half-opened tin of pilchards, and a sleeping bag, rolled up and stashed out of the rain in a corner. It wouldn’t take much to image Mr Manager making all this, fussing with the string, tutting over the lights, then resting his head on his briefcase at night, lying awake in the dark, listening to the rustling in the undergrowth, or the pattering of the rain.

I don’t see Mr Manager all the time. When I do, he’s either sitting somewhere sunny or marching through the trees, talking to himself in that low and level way people do sometimes when their thoughts are breaking surface without them knowing. I always make a point of saying hello and waving, and although it’s taken a while, we’ve got to the point where he trusts me enough to smile and wave back.

Today when I saw him I was very tempted to go up and find out more. He was sitting on a fallen tree in one of his usual spots – a raised bank of grass overlooking the woods – and I was ambling along the bottom looking for mushrooms. I waved, and after a moment, he did, too. For a minute I thought I might walk up there and introduce myself, chat to him – about what, I wasn’t sure. Probably the weather, the time of year, the usual introductory stuff. I could ask him if he’d seen any fly agarics yet (that was one thing I was looking for today, although I have a feeling it might be too early in the season). And then in the way these things go, one thing would lead to another, and I could find out his story. Normally I wouldn’t hesitate, but something held me back. So I settled for a cheery ‘Good morning!’ and carried on.

I worried about it for a while. He could be a vulnerable adult, ‘fallen through the net’, at risk of self-neglect, dependent not just on the kindness of strangers, but on their professional conscience, their willingness to step in and make the necessary calls.

But then I pictured him sitting contentedly up on the grassy bank, sipping water from a bottle, looking around – about as happy as I was, (as far as I could tell), mooching around the young oaks at the fringe of the wood, looking for mushrooms.

And who was I kidding? It suited me better, not knowing the facts about Mr Manager. I was happier making up stories about his circumstances, happy one minute, sad the next. Which I suppose you could see as either a worrying dereliction of duty, a vote for individual self-determination, or a romantic vision of how a life could be lived, wholly outside the normal run of things, out in the woods, lying in the dark, listening to the rain.

New post in ‘Voices’

Job No: 2013
the name of the fox

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for reading!

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Monday 21

writer’s block

A plain, flat, nondescript kind of place. A desert waiting for rain, and the strange blooms you’d never have thought possible, just under the surface. Which is over-selling the scenario, no doubt. It’s just a post-final edit, post-holiday, soon to go back to work and revisit the old self-doubt kind of funk. The antidote is right here in front of me, of course – a bracing dose of shut the hell up and write. I’ve done it before; there’s no reason to think I won’t be able to do it again. All I have to do is trust my unconscious to throw some ideas on the page, and then let my internal editor knock it into shape.

It’s not as if I’m short of things that need doing. I need to be fixing the timeline problems Kath identified in The Fabulous Fears book. I need to be sending the MS out to agents, and chumming the water with a letter of introduction & a juicy plot outline. Getting more people to read it so I can get feedback and useful insight into how I might improve.

Practical things – not this desert waiting for rain BS.

Sigh.

writing & swimming

It’s like swimming in the sea. The best way is to dive in as soon as you can. You know your body will adapt, because it always has in the past.

In fact, the sensation of instant cold is so overwhelming you won’t feel it as cold but as something else, a thermal shock, neither one thing nor the other. Five minutes later, you’ll be skulling on your back, loving the clouds.

Allow it as my cool nephew would say.

Or as Joseph Conrad put it:

‘A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns…The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up…In the destructive element immerse.’

speaking of dreams

Creating something out of nothing always feels like a strange and difficult gig – but should it? We do it quite naturally.
Maisy Mouse by Lucy Cousins

For instance, last night I dreamed I was in a church graveyard where all the headstones were carved to look like characters from children’s books – Angelina Ballerina, Maisy, Hunca Munca.
‘They’re all mice!’ I said to my partner, but she was distracted by something hurrying towards us along the path.

So the lesson I take from that (apart from an urgent need for psychoanalysis), is that the only thing stopping me from being productive today is the conscious me –  which is just the workaday version of the exact-same me that effortlessly comes up with fantastic scenarios like the mouse cemetery…

So maybe what I really need is a nap.

 

new poem

chromosomes
The difference between men & women

 

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Thursday 17

Out early this morning, looking for fossils along the shoreline just west of here.

rockpoolIt takes a while to key-in to the business of looking. It feels less like a hunt and more like a meditation, a slow working down through the normal levels of thinking into something steadier, quieter, more finely tuned to the thing you’re looking for. I remember a description in The Pearl by Steinbeck where he talked about the pearl fishers hearing ‘the song of the pearl’, a distinctive note rising and falling amongst all the other natural voices they swam amongst. Not that I’m claiming to have the song of the fossil in my head. I’m only here a week. But, hey! It’s great to get up early and act as if you can carry a note.

All this is a precious and literary way of diverting attention from the fact I didn’t find anything. Which is an epic fail, considering how fossiliferous the place is. (And that’s just an excuse to use the word fossiliferous – which is quite possibly one of the most ludicrously extravagant words I know, along with concatenation, and maybe bioturbation.) It’s a beautifully dramatic stretch of coastline, though, especially after the storm last night. A real battle zone between land and sea. The forest trees cling to the meagre top soil, whilst the trees at the very edge totter and lean with their roots exposed, overlooking all the sea-worn timbers on the shore. It all feels very liminal and exposed. I could happily beachcomb here all year. Only next time it’d be nice to have Lola along, too.

I just looked up how to spell ‘beachcomb’, to see whether it was hyphenated or not. The definition Google came up with was this: Beachcombing is an activity that consists of an individual “combing” (or searching) the beach and the intertidal zone, looking for things of value, interest or utility. Which is a definition that really seems to fit. Because although I was primarily looking for fossils, I was happy to find other stuff that had been washed up, including worn bits of pottery and glass, and taking photos of things I thought looked good and that I might be able to Tweet. So – absolutely. Beachcombing. With a touch of meditation thrown in.

I didn’t see too many people out this morning. It was still pretty murky and rainy. And everyone I saw had a dog or two with them. We’d wave and say good morning (the people); hold out my hand and say helloooo! as they bounded wetly up, around and on (the dogs). I wondered if they thought I was some kind of expert (the people). Because there I was in the early morning, wearing glasses, a bag over my shoulder, crouching down amongst the rocks at the water’s edge, wearing the right kind of sandals, not caring my khaki trousers were getting wet, holding very still, gently reaching out, picking something up, lifting my glasses, looking at the thing closely, gently putting it down again. I must have looked like a Goddamn professor – when actually I had only the vaguest idea I might find some shark teeth or maybe the odd bivalve, and that about twenty or thirty million years ago this was all something like the Florida Everglades.

Happily, they left me to it.

 

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