don’t worry about the chocolate

The car was getting low so I went to the local garage to fill up. It’s a busy, do-everything kind of place. Not only can you buy fuel, groceries, beer, wine, newspapers, magazines, but there’s an MOT, exhaust and tyre workshop right next door, too. They also run an internet shopping returns business. If you buy something online and it doesn’t fit, you can print off a ticket and they’ll take care of the rest. There’s always a lot of people at the garage, wandering in and out of the shop, pushing tyres across the forecourt. A lot of hanging around chatting and so on. With the railway station just opposite, it has a wild west, frontiers kind of atmosphere. The kind of place where if you saw a bison pull up you’d just think ‘Oh, so they’re doing that, now.’

Like everywhere else these past weeks, though, the garage is eerily quiet. I’m the only one at the pumps, and for the first time ever the workshop doors are shut. I take the parcel from the backseat and go to pay. There’s a sign at the door: Coronavirus Emergency: One customer at a time – but as I’m the only one around, I go straight in. There’s a big line on the floor and a decal of a pair of boots, so I stand on that, say hello, and wait for the woman at the counter to call me over, which she does, immediately, with a big laugh and a theatrical wave of her hand.

I haven’t seen her before. She’s a riot of colour, purple eyeshadow, scarlet lipstick and enormous, fried yellow hair roped in place by a headband. Her face slants down to the left, so I’m guessing she had a stroke at some time. She’s as vibrantly positive as her makeup, though, and we swap the usual conversational stuff with more of a buzz than normal.

I pay for the fuel, then hand over the parcel.

‘Have some chocolate,’ she says, waving to the tiers of bars and snacks to the right.
‘That’s kind, but I’ve eaten so much of that stuff lately I think I’ll explode.’
She laughs.
‘Nice way to go.’
She fusses around with the parcel, flipping it over, turning it around, flattening the label, almost hitting it with the scanner.
‘There’s a problem with your barcode,’ she says.
‘It’s a jacket,’ I say. ‘That’s all I know.’
‘I don’t care what it is, honey. I jus’ need to know where it’s going.’
She stops, and looks into the air for a second.
Eventually she says, in a distracted way: ‘That’s it! The nineteenth of March, 2018.’
‘Erm – I think it’s the second of April. Twenty twenty.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘Not today. I mean the day I dreamed all this.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘All this,’ she says, waving the barcode checker at the window. ‘The pandemic.’
‘Oh! Wow! What happened in your dream?’
‘I saw it all. The virus. The way it snuck in. The way it spread among everybody. I saw how people were at the beginning, how they laughed about it, then got more serious, then started panic buying. How they helped each other, then got angry, started climbing over each other to get what they needed.’
‘That’s amazing.’
‘All of it. I saw it all. And you know what? There were two things they were fighting for. One of them was water…’
‘And the other was chocolate.’
‘No,’ she says, widening her eyes at me. ‘But I tell you what. This store here? Picked clean. There weren’t nothing left. And when the store was empty, d’you know what they started to eat? You know, don’t you? You know what they turned to?’

There’s a woman just finishing at the pump outside, getting ready to come inside and pay. I don’t want to be standing two metres away from the counter talking about cannibalism when she comes in, so I try to move the conversation along.
‘Worrying times,’ I say, blandly.
‘They certainly are,’ she says. ‘Ah! Now! The barcode’s gone through!’
‘Great!’
She tosses it behind her into a sack.
I can’t resist asking her one more thing about her dream before I go.
‘What happened afterwards?’ I say. ‘But if it’s bad, don’t tell me.’
She shrugs.
‘What d’you think happened?’ she says. ‘And where d’you think everybody went when they needed comfort? Yep. You got it. That’s right. The church.’
She puts the barcode reader aside, and tightens her hairband.
‘You have a nice day,’ she says. ‘And don’t worry about the chocolate.’

shark attack

There are worse things to worry about in the world. You don’t need me to list them. Log-on to any newspaper, any day of the week, and see how long it is before you sigh, swipe, and check for the hundredth time that day if you’d had any likes on that picture of your dog in sunglasses.

And you don’t need me to tell you that life goes on, regardless. There’s no fairness to it. One person obsesses about ear hair, another gets batoned in a street riot. In the same street.

So – bearing that in mind – let me tell you about this terrible hoovering tragedy I suffered today.

It was all going so well. I’d pretty much finished downstairs and was ready to start the stairs. I like the hoover we’ve got. Of course, it’s not actually a hoover. Hoovers never are. This one’s got a much snappier name – the Shark. It’s sleek, snappy. An upright with more attachments than a Space Marine. I love it. I came to the bottom of the stairs with absolute confidence. Unsnapped the handheld carpet device. Decoupled the cylinder from the floor head. Began my ascent.

The cord is just long enough to let me reach the top step. Then I throw the tube forwards to act as a kind of anchor, balancing the cylinder well enough to let me go back downstairs, unplug and bring all the attachments upstairs to start the cleansing operation there.

This time, though, the cylinder was full of dust. And the thing about the Shark is – it’s bagless. Which I like. It means you can lift away the dust container, take it to the bin, flip a catch, and empty the whole thing. Thank you, Shark. I’ll do that.

Sidenote: Sometimes you get sudden, unexpected and terrifying insights into the chaos that underlies your life. Things you’ve taken for granted that turn out to be laden with hazard. Things you’ve done a hundred times safely that reveal themselves to have been fraught with danger the whole time. Like walking down the street and one day finding out it’s built over an abandoned tin mine (and the pavement is made of old biscuits).shark hoover

You see, the lift-away body of the Shark comprises two halves: the dust chamber and the body it snaps into. What I didn’t realise is that there’s a dust filter sitting inside the body. When the dust chamber is released and lifted away to be emptied, this dust filter sits loosely in the body. There’s nothing to hold it in. Nothing at all. So when I accidentally trod on the cable on my way back down the stairs, and the Shark body toppled over and crashed down the stairs after me, the dust filter was thrown clear, bouncing down on every stair, scattering explosions of dust everywhere, on the treads, the walls, the skirting boards….

I caught it at the bottom, in one final cloud of dust, covering me as completely as if I’d stood underneath a dust silo, given the thumbs-up, and someone somewhere pulled a chain.

There are worse things. Of course, at that moment, I couldn’t think what.

 

Where’d that dog go?

stan head on ownJust a quick note to say sorry for taking down the blog pages about Stanley the lurcher!

I did it because I wanted to give them their own space, so it’ll be easier to read them in order. It also gives me a chance to re-write them a bit, which is just as well…

You’ll find them on the top menu under ‘The Lurcher Diaries’.

Thanks for reading!

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new year’s thimble

Coming back from a dog walk the other day we saw a guy kneeling in the field securing the legs of a tripod. It looked like he was setting up for a long-distance camera shot – maybe of the crows that squabble in the oaks around there – but when we got closer we saw that the tripod was actually a long, thin spade stuck in the earth, and propped up against it, a metal detector.

The guy straightened, waved, and walked over. Despite his headphones, combat trousers and Caterpillar boots, he had a strangely out-of-time look about him, like a Viking who’d come back in disguise to find the treasure he buried.

His name was Janusz. We chatted about the area, what we knew about it, the places it might be good to look. I told him about all the fragments of old glass and pottery that get washed out in the far corner. Maybe there was a midden there or something. I told him about a field I thought was the remains of a medieval village over the back behind the church.
‘It had all these strange bumps in it I thought were the huts. But then I found out it was a golf course in the 1920s.’
Janusz laughed.
‘There is an old pond over there, though. It was dug in the middle ages, one of the hammer ponds they used when they smelted iron for cannon balls.’
‘Really?’ he said. ‘Hmm. Well – last year I found a beaten coin that way. About 1520. That was nice. Not much today though. I dug this up…’
He put a tiny brass thimble in my palm. It was fragile, dull, squashed out of true, filled with earth.
Have it,’ he said. ‘No idea how old it is.’
I felt the weight of it, held it up to the light.
‘Thanks, Janusz’ I said. ‘Thanks very much.’

I wanted to tell him how much it meant to me. How it was my birthday, and my Dad’s the day before that. How this time of year always felt freighted with meaning. I wanted to tell him about how Dad bought a metal detector once, back in the seventies, from the back of a Hobbies magazine. It was a clumsy, boxy thing, bakelite dials, wires sticking out of it. A horrible piece of crap someone might solder together from an old twin-tub and a radio. I used to go with Dad out on the Fen sometimes, looking for coins. I wonder what people must have thought if they saw us from the road: a man and his son, slogging through the peaty soil, stopping every now and again to chop frantically at the earth with trowels. A hopeless, fruitless quest. Half the time I think the buzz it gave off was a con, something random they built into it, just enough to keep the suckers moving. We’d have had more chance finding King John’s treasure with a hazel twig. Still – it meant something, out there on the Fen with my Dad, searching.
‘Thanks for the thimble!’ I said.
‘Hey! You’re welcome!’ said Janusz. ‘Happy New Year!’

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Advent Ascent

 

A very Happy Christmas to all my readers & followers!

Thank you so much for all your comments & support over the year.

Here’s to 2020…!

The Song of the Coat I Might Find.

It was early and still dark, the rain smattering dismally against the back door. 

‘What d’you think, Lola? Feeling brave?’

She wasn’t. She was staring at me with a shocked expression, like she didn’t know whether to follow me outside or stay where she was and bark for help.

It certainly did feel like I had an unfair advantage, standing there, zipping my coat up to my chin, pulling on my hat. I mean – all she had was the fur she’d gone to bed in.

So I got out her winter coat and gave it a shake.

It’s a heavy, cozy, well-padded thing, with a strap that passes under her waist, two poppers at the chest, and a furry collar that turns back at the neck and makes her look like a lumberjack. A very sad-eyed lumberjack. A lumberjack who needs a great deal of patient encouragement to even THINK about trees.

We took the usual route. I thought maybe we should vary it more, but then – there’s a value in repetition. You get to key-in to the subtle changes, and it’s surprising how many of those there are in any given moment. It’s a bit like a monk walking round cloisters saying their prayers. I’m sure they get a big kick out of seasonal changes to the brick. 

Anyway, the thing I needed more than variety was speed – not only because the weather was so bad, but because I wanted to get back, warm up and start writing. I hadn’t written much that week, what with work and life and everything. I needed to get down and do something. (I admit it. Writing is now a habit – or worse, an addiction. I’ve passed through the ‘this is amazing’ phase, and moved into the ‘I feel terrible if I don’t write something, anything, even a limerick’. I have to write just to feel well. But there are worse things, I suppose. I could be into triathlon.)

At the edge of the woods Lola stopped. There’s a stile there for humans and a gap under the wire for dogs. Normally Lola dives through it, but she knew her ridiculous lumberjack collar would snag on it, so she waited till I held up the wire for her. She made a fuss of wiggling under, like a tourist just about drunk enough to try the limbo dance. 

But on into the woods, the rain eased and we started to get into the walk a little more. It was still too wet to think about photographs, so instead I tried to focus on the here and now of it, the sound of the rain through the leaves, the suck of the mud at my boots, the snug of my hands in my pockets. Lola was away in the undergrowth somewhere, snuffling around, making the best of it. 

I got distracted thinking up a limerick about Trump. 

There once was a president called Trump
Bent as a bell-ringer’s hump…

We covered quite a bit of ground, me trying to finish the limerick, Lola exploring.

I stopped to take some pictures of raindrops hanging under a gate, but maybe I’d taken too many of that. Maybe I needed to think of some other angle.

Jenny and her pug, Cecil appeared along the path. Jenny had on the full Barbour-armour, prodding for mines with a Norwegian walking stick; Cecil was squashed so tightly into his fleecy coat it made his eyes stick out like black swimming goggles. He was happy to see Lola, though. They circled and sniffed each other politely, two models checking out their outfits.

‘Isn’t this weather completely VILE?’ said Jenny, pushing back her hair to get a better look at me. ‘I can’t take much more. But y’know – saying that – no doubt it’ll snow tomorrow…’

We chat for a while then carry on.

…he raged and he tossed
whenever he lost….

I stopped to look at the group of funnel mushrooms I’d photographed the other day. One of them had a wild apple landed in the cup of it, and I’d put up a picture of it saying ‘serving suggestion’. Now I thought maybe I’d better take the apple out. I mean – sure, it fell in there naturally, so I’d be interfering in the natural run of things. But then, it mightn’t do the mushroom any good to have an apple rotting in the middle of it, and if I was in a position to make it’s short life a little better – why not? Especially as I’d taken the picture. I owed it a payment of sorts. So I picked the apple out of the funnel, and felt a little better for it, even though that group of mushrooms were already looking the worse for wear, what with the slugs and the deer and everything. Still -my conscience was clear. 

We carried on walking. 

I could not get the last line of the limerick. It had to rhyme with Trump, and I was hung up on the idea of ‘rump’, but couldn’t think what. Did he fall on his rump? I liked the idea of him Tweeting out of his rump, because I’d read about him harassing the US Ambassador to Ukraine (or ex-US Ambassador to Ukraine) on Twitter during the impeachment hearing, and it seemed like maybe that was a fruitful line to take. 

We came to the edge of the wood again, the circuit done. I was ready for some coffee.

Lola was through the fence already, waiting for me in the field beyond, the bottom of Broken Tree Hill. 

She managed it that time I thought. 

And it was only then I realised she’d lost the coat. 

‘Where’s your coat, Lola?’ I said, turning round on the spot, expecting – HOPING – it might be lying right there, and we wouldn’t have to retrace our steps. There was no sign of it. 

‘C’mon then!’ I said, heading back into the woods. 

Lola stared at me, with the same incredulous expression she’d used on me in the kitchen. Looked up the hill, as if she was wanted me to understand that her food was in that direction. Then gave up, and – reluctantly – tagged along.

It was a completely different walk. The first time round I’d been drifting along, thinking about this and that, the Trump limerick, the sound of the rain, the shape and colour of the leaves, thoughts and feelings scattering round me as randomly as the rain. Now every fine feeling was subordinated to the mission. I was too busy, scanning the woods for a dark green lurcher-lumberjack coat, marching rather than walking. I remembered a snatch of something from ‘The Pearl’ by Steinbeck, how he talked about the pearl fishermen having the Song of the Pearl that Might Be in their heads as they dived for pearls. 

Maybe I should try that? Maybe I should try singing The Song of the Coat I Might Find. 

Lola was up ahead now. It was like I was seeing two dogs – the real one, rootling around in the undergrowth, and the imprint of her, a lighter, lurcher ghost, trying to show me the precise moment she snagged on a branch and shucked herself free of the coat. 

We followed the same route – to badger corner, the sweet chestnut log pile, monument beech, the shack, owl stump, the meeting place, pet cemetery, funnel copse. I’d just reached the path that descends there when I saw a guy in camo and a whistle round his neck striding towards me, preceded by a hyper-alert gun dog. 

‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen a dog’s coat, have you?’ I said.

‘Is that what it is? I thought it was one of those baby carriers. Y’know. A papoose. Yeah – I hung it on a tree a little way down. You can’t miss it.’

I thanked him and carried on. 

I saw it before it before Lola, although that didn’t stop her running up to it and standing there proudly as if it was she who’d found it all along. 

‘Good girl!’ I said. ‘C’mon – let’s get home for breakfast.’

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There once was a president called Trump
Who was bent as a bell-ringer’s hump
He raged and he tossed
whenever he lost
and Tweets flew out of his rump

 

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things that go ‘whatever’ in the night

P1180449‘Anytime anything goes missing I know it’s mum. It’s like the other day. I couldn’t find my purse anywhere, even though I’d only just put it down. So I went to the bottom of the stairs and I shouted Mum! Give it a rest! And when I turned round, there it was, in the middle of the table. I mean – it drives me nuts! But on the other hand, it’s nice to know she’s still around, d’you know what I mean?’

‘Absolutely! It’s like my Uncle Dave. Dead Uncle Dave. He was always such a laugh when he was alive, a real practical joker. And since he’s gone it’s only got worse. You can tell when he’s in one of his moods, because nothing’s where you left it, things in odd places. So I’ll save Dave! Will you stop that now! And he does. Mostly.’

‘Well – I was driving home one night. And I usually take this bend pretty fast. But this one time I heard this voice in my head saying: Slow down Karen. So I did – and there was a cow standing right in the middle of the road. And if I’d carried on like I was, I would’ve been killed.’

I want to add a ghost story of my own but really I don’t have one.

My Dad was convinced he saw a ghost when he lived in an old tenement block in London. He passed an old woman on the stairs, said hello, she ignored him, he carried on, and when he turned round again she’d gone. She didn’t vanish or anything. Just wasn’t there. (So – maybe she was just visiting someone in the block, Dad? No – she was definitely a ghost. And later on – I’m not kidding – turns out, an old woman had died in the block, some years before.)

Hardly M R James. More like Sid James.

Mum had one. She said she woke up one night and saw her friend Fred standing at the end of the bed looking sad, and she knew immediately he’d died and come to say goodbye. Which was verified later by the fact he’d appeared at exactly the hour he died. Presumably when the paramedics were tidying up.

I like ghost stories, and I’m as easily spooked as the next person. But there are a few things that have always bothered me about ghosts. So at the risk of sounding pedantic & a right ol’ seance-pooper, here there are (in no particular spectral order):

  1. When do you actually acquire a spirit? Is it at the point of fertilisation? In which case, do the egg and the sperm carry a little bit each?
  2. Why aren’t ghosts naked? If a ghost is some kind of projection, the living essence of someone, why does that include jeans and trainers?
  3. You have to think that coming back as a ghost is difficult, otherwise we’d be absolutely rammed. So given that it IS such hard work, why do ghosts waste so much time doing obscure stuff, like hiding someone’s purse then putting it back, or being clippy on a stairwell? Why, if they’ve managed to fight their way back to the world of the living, don’t they just go on TV and talk about their experience? I’d certainly watch.
  4. A lot of ghostly phenomena just seems profoundly unfair. I mean, a person gets murdered, which is bad enough. But then they’re doomed to hang around some gloomy spot, replaying the circumstance for tens if not hundreds of years. Ah, you say. That’s where the priest comes in, running down the cellar steps with his / her bottle of holy water, snap-together crucifix and EVP recorder. But if a priest can do this kinda thing because they’re a representative of God – where’s God? Why do they need a middle man / woman? If God’s all about love & justice &c, why don’t they intervene and do what’s palpably right – and liberate the tormented spirit? Ah – but now we’re in the domain of free will. Really? It doesn’t sound as if the poor ghost had much say in the matter. Something bad happened to them and boom – sorry mate – I don’t make the rules.
  5. Since 1964, The James Randi Educational Foundation has been offering money to anyone who can demonstrate psychic or ghostly phenomena under laboratory conditions. Lots of psychics and mediums have come forward, no-one has managed it, and the pot stands unclaimed at one million dollars.
  6. Most people die in hospitals, so they must be the most crowded places on earth. Which they are, of course, but let’s not get political.

Of course, all these objections get brushed aside with a Shakespearean ‘there are more things in heaven & earth, Horatio…’ Which is true. There’s Dark Matter, Quark strings, Quorn – you name it, I’ve no idea. And anyway, ‘an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. Also true, but I think after all this time the burden of proof must have shifted the other way. Not that anyone cares. We’re too invested. As people we orientate ourselves in the world by telling stories. It’s a fundamental trait, like smiling, or sneezing. Confirmation Bias is a tart way of saying we like to tie things up in a way that makes sense to us, and gives us comfort – even if that comfort feels more like a delicious thrill. Because you have to think the subtext to many of these stories is the belief that the soul or spirit is something that exists independently of the body, and carries on in some form or other when we die – even if it’s only to hide your purse.

We’re family, after all.

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