looking for salvation on Broken Tree Hill

It was a shock to go over Broken Tree Hill this morning and see just how broken it was.

There was litter scattered all around, beer and wine bottles, plastic cups, cigarette papers, cans of every description – Malibu and coke, vodka and ginger beer, diet coke – snack packets of popcorn, crisps, biscuits, and weirdly, some tomatoes; a tube of Lipsyl, two bottle openers (one of them a gift from Halliburton corps, so I’m guessing one of their parents has something to do with the oil business), wet wipes, little grip-seal bags with pictures of marijuana leaves or smiley faces on the front, and on and on in a depressing vista of trash, quite clearly demarcated, though, like the impact lines radiating from a meteor crater. The only upside was the carrier bags that were blowing around, too. At least I had something to clear it all up with.

It was all pretty depressing. It seemed to confirm – in that immediate and overwhelming way that anecdotal evidence sometimes has – that human beings are careless and selfish and self-obsessed, a suicidal species of virus, quite happy to sacrifice the very ground they walk on for the sake of a few hours of pleasure.

I knew I couldn’t affect their attitude. Even if I could snap my fingers, magic them all back here to clear up, I’m sure they’d refuse (once they’d gotten over the crazy trip). Which made me feel doubly mad. The only thing I could do to make me feel better was clean up myself, even though it felt like I was enabling their behaviour, and even though I knew it wouldn’t stop them doing it all again. The world was doomed, and here I was tidying up round the edges.

But even though it was a small gesture, it did make me feel better – very much better, actually. I carried four full shopping bags of trash back up the lane, just as the church bells over the way started to ring. I’m not religious, but it was great to hear them. Because someone had cast those bells, and hung them in a tower, so other people could tug on a rope and sound out a message of hope and solidarity. Because let’s face it – there’s plenty of trash in the world, poor behaviours – evil behaviours, sometimes. And you do what you can to address them, but mostly what you do is look inwards and address them in yourself, and look for the hope there.

Viktor Frankl said: The salvation of Man is through love and in love.

That’s what I aspire to. Cleaning up on Broken Tree Hill might not mean all that much, but it’s a start.

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up close & personal

When everything was on the checkout conveyor belt, I dropped the basket in the stack at the end, taking a second to rearrange the handles so they could all sit evenly. The store was strangely empty for the time of day, so I could afford to take my time. When I was done I put a divider down and waited to go forward.

I think the elderly woman in front of me knew the checkout assistant from way back. They were busy chatting, and only stopped when it was obvious I was ready to pay. The elderly woman fetched her purse out – an ancient, over-stuffed thing – put it upright on the counter, and started rootling around in it, pulling out keys, passes, a photograph (which I could tell she wanted to show to the assistant, because she looked at it, looked at the assistant, looked at me – then slowly put it to one side), eventually leaning in so close to the purse it looked like if she didn’t find what she was after she was quite prepared to climb in. The checkout assistant looked across at me and mouthed Sorry. I smiled and shrugged.

At last, with a theatrical, over-the-head flourish, the elderly woman pulled out a wad of vouchers, scattering a few. I picked them up and handed them to her. She thanked me, then spent five minutes laying them out on the counter and slowly going through them. It transpired that some were out of date, some were for things she hadn’t bought, and some were inadmissible because she hadn’t spent enough. It was all pretty complicated. The checkout assistant swiped the ones that were good, gave back the ones that weren’t.

Meanwhile, another customer had turned up – a short, squarish woman in her late forties, wearing a tight, sherbet lemon top and a white plastic clip-on visor. I nodded to say hi and also to make a gesture along the lines of You might want to choose another line; this might take a while, but she didn’t meet my eye (the visor was certainly good for that). Instead, she hauled her basket up onto the shelf at the end, and then letting out a big sigh, marched up the aisle and pushed the divider forward, bulldozing my shopping.

Now, I’m pretty relaxed about people touching my shopping (not that she’d actually touched it; I probably wouldn’t have been quite so blase if she’d picked up my pack of  rolls, cradled them and started chuckling). It was just that I fundamentally couldn’t understand why she’d done it.

I mean, there was plenty of space on the belt. (For the record, all she had were four ready meals for one, two packs of sandwiches, a pack of four extra creamy fruit yogurts and a copy of the Daily Mail). She could have put double that on the belt and still had room for a mop and bucket. And of course, once she’d made such a point of pushing all my things forward like that, she was obliged to put her things as close up as she could, too.

I only had one basket of shopping; so did she. Which meant we ended up standing shoulder to shoulder, in a store that was virtually empty.

The elderly woman couldn’t remember her pin, and the checkout assistant was trying to guess what it might be based on what she knew of the woman, her age, house number and so on.

I looked to my left and tried to catch my neighbour’s eye again, but she’d taken a magazine from the rack and was busy snapping through it, her visor twitching from left to right and back again, sighing as she went, like each picture was utterly failing to deliver on any of the delicious scandals splashed across the cover.

‘There! So sorry to have kept you!’ the checkout assistant said, so unexpectedly it made me jump. I could only think in her desperation she’d decided to settle the old woman’s bill herself. She’d made a surprising amount of ground already; I saw her waddling determindely, bad-hippedly, balanced with a bag in each hand towards the exit.
‘Do you need help packing?’ the assistant said.
‘No thanks! I’m good,’ I said, moving down.
The visor woman came with me. Just in case.

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of birds and buds

Every time I see Friendly Bald Guy With Two Rescues I want to ask his name, and each time I don’t it makes it harder. Why, I don’t know. I expect he feels the same, every time he sees Smaller Guy Of Similar Age With One Rescue. (Real names would be so much easier. Although guys can be problematic. There are only so many Robs and Jims and Daves and Petes you can meet before they start blurring into one amorphous check shirt and cargo shorts).

Today doesn’t help.

I’m standing on a path in the middle of the woods, head tipped back, listening to a bird singing high above me in an ash tree. I’ve no idea what sort of bird it is. The variety of its song is so astonishing, so flamboyant, you could tell me it was a Bird of Paradise and I’d believe you. The bird produces short bursts of piercingly beautiful song, pausing just long enough to catch a response from deeper in the wood, then launches itself into another, virtuoso phrase.

I think Lola’s still with me, so it’s a surprise when I look back down to find FBG’s two dogs sitting at my feet, their heads tipped back like mine. At the same moment, FBG comes striding along the path.
‘Hi!’ he says, tugging out his ear buds. (I think there may have been a slight, name-sized gap just after the hi, but if there was, he generously covered it with a smile).
‘I was just listening to this amazing bird’ I say. ‘No idea what it is.’
‘You put me to shame,’ he says. ‘I should be listening to nature rather than this podcast.’
‘Nah!’ I say, backtracking on the bird. ‘Podcasts are great, too.’

We stand like that for a while, a little awkwardly, either side of the path. Lola has reappeared, thrilled to find that the bird-watching episode has segued into something altogether more interesting. The three dogs chase after each other through the undergrowth, whilst FBG and me do that tentative, exploratory conversational thing, teasing out any correspondences. (They’d been away in Norfolk / Norfolk! I was brought up round there / Were you? Where? / Wisbech – on the border / I know Wisbech! I was further over, Norwich way / I know Norwich – I saw Jim Bowen in Mother Goose …). But for all the progress we make and everything we find out about each other, it still doesn’t stretch to a name. Later on, after he’s screwed his earbuds back in, called the dogs away and walked off down the path, it strikes me how much sweeter and more efficient the bird’s method of communication is than ours.

*

An hour later I’m slogging up Broken Tree Hill. I’ve taken more pictures of the pines at the top of this hill than anything else – so much so that when I tweet the pictures and come to write the caption, it autofills on the first letter. Anyway, today I’ve come armed with a bin bag, because the other day I’d been annoyed to find a scattering of drinks cans and fast food wrappers, and I thought after all the pictures I’d taken I owed it to the place to tidy up a little. I’ve just started litter picking when FBG appears at the bottom of the hill, his two dogs racing towards me. He pulls out his ear buds, waves – and then hesitates. And I really want to sing a burst of notes along the lines of: Hey! It’s not what it looks like. I’m not normally this conscientious. You’ve just caught me on an odd kind of day. But of course all I do is wave, too – forgetting that I’m still holding the bag, which he probably interprets as Look at me, busy litter picking. He shakes his ear buds, as if to say: And here I am, still listening to my podcast, then screws them back into place, and carries on up the hill.

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death and the art of hedge trimming

I kneel down to start weeding whilst Jason gets out the hedge trimmer. He looks pretty macho in wrap around shades, khaki singlet and combat shorts, whapping back the starter cord on the trimmer.

‘I was watching Final Destination 5 last night’ he shouts, even though I’m right there. ‘So watch out! I hope you didn’t escape from a plane crash or something?’

Which sounds like it’d be better for both of us if I hadn’t. But I know what he means. I’ve seen the first one. Good, clean, gory fun. A bid odd, though, when you think about it (which you’re obviously not meant to). This Final Destination Death figure is like some grumpy, nerdy guy who gets ticked off when people don’t go when they’re supposed to. So he spends an inordinate amount of time (I’m guessing he has plenty) fussing around with complicated, infernal Mousetrap on Acid style plots to get back at them. I imagine when he gets home he probably slips off his black cape to reveal a tatty t-shirt – The Ramones, maybe – or Scooby Doo in the arms of Shaggy – grabs a Diet Coke (ironic: he’s all bones), and throws himself down at his desktop to troll forums on Natural Burial and hack the CIA.

Jason’s trimmer makes a blubbing kind of coughing noise, throws out a great cloud of blue smoke, judders, stalls.
‘I’ve only had it five years,’ he says.
‘It’s sulking ‘cos you’re making it work the weekend’
‘Yeah? Well if I’m working the trimmer’s working’
‘I used to have an old motorbike like that. How much time did I waste leaping on the kickstart? I tried everything. Every little dodge. Black magic. Goats. Nothing. So I sold it and got a Yamaha instead. You could leave that bike under a hedge for a year and it’d still start first go.’
‘Yeah?’ says Jason, then takes a good hold of the starter cord and adopts a heroic posture. ‘Speaking of hedges…’

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the truth about the beard

‘One of the patients gave you a nice compliment. Well – I think it’s a compliment. Maybe a double-edged compliment.’
‘What patient? What compliment?’
‘The woman whose husband’s diagnosed with mixed dementia.’
‘Oh, I know. She’s lovely. They’re both lovely. Although he really shouldn’t be driving. I always feel like taking his keys off him…’ I mime tossing them over my shoulder. ‘So go on, then. What did she say?’
‘Are you sure you’re ready for this?’
‘I’m sure.’
‘Okay. Well. She said how nice and kind you were. She said you were very gentle, and she said you made her feel a lot better.’
‘You’re making me blush.’
‘Yeah. And she said That’s the thing about the gays, they’re always so sensitive.
Amy leans in and narrows her eyes.
‘You don’t mind do you?’
‘Me? No! Why would I? Anyway, I’m used to it. Although maybe I should work on my gruff manly skills. Hey! I’m Jim. I’ll be taking care of you today. Look at my tattoos…
‘I said you were married with kids.’
‘And what did she say?’
‘She said Is he?

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sofa dreaming

It’s only a furniture store in a nearby town. You’d think we’d asked the satnav to take us to The Magic Faraway Tree.

Take a….right and then take a ….left and then … make a u-turn….and then…. god…. I don’t know….over there? What do you want from me?…I’m just a machine…

Paul, the furniture salesman doesn’t seem to believe he’s really there, either. He keeps rubbing his face, vigorously, particularly the eyes.

‘And this is the snuggle chair,’ he says, gesturing to a cute little sofa like it’s a family member, taking the perspex sign away and reciting a litany of features.
‘Don’t you get embarrassed saying snuggle chair?’ says Kath.
‘No,’ he says. ‘You get used to it.’

Paul talks us through the options. Sets us up with a ledger of swatches, and we spend the next twenty years trying to imagine whether mint tartan will clash with tangerine orange, or whether a pattern of leaves and flowers will be too overwhelming.
‘Earth tones,’ says Paul, tapping an abstract leaf pattern. ‘You can’t go wrong with earth tones.’

Another more elderly couple is wandering round the store. The man says: ‘I’m actually feeling quite low in energy now. Perhaps we should come back later.’

I imagine his wife driving him home and hooking him up to the mains. Or maybe they’ve got an attachment in the car.

‘You can always mix it up with some cushions,’ says Paul, pressing his palms hard into his eyes.

I don’t blame him. I couldn’t work in a place like this. I’m pretty sleepy at the best of times, but this – this is all too padded, too comfortable. I’d spend the entire shift asleep on that ottoman. Next to that giant glass strawberry. There must be a factory somewhere making giant glass strawberries. That might be alright.

‘Okay?’ says Paul. ‘Great. If you’d just like to come over to the desk and we’ll sort it all out for you…’

Kath is very good and tries to angle a better price, but as Paul points out, they’ve already discounted the sofa by twenty-five per cent, and head office have said enough’s enough. But he does say he’ll get the old sofa collected free of charge, as a favour, and we’re happy with that.

Mind you, we’ve had our old sofa so long maybe we should give it more of a send-off. Maybe we should pile it up with DVDs, TVs, books, guitars, clothes, bottles of wine, photos of people, and dogs, and scripts of conversations, and arguments, and laughter and – well, you get the picture. Or maybe I should just fall asleep on it as it’s being carried out of the door to the van, and they could tip me off into the flower bed at the last minute.

We don’t have to decide just yet, though. There’s a two-month wait on delivery.

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noah? i’m sorry, it’s a no

You need tyrannical tendencies to be a writer.

I don’t mean for the dull, day-to-day business of getting the words down – which in my case is fitting in writing around the day job, and revising rejection coping strategies when the slips come back. (Every time you send work off it’s like releasing a pure white dove from the ark, only to have it come back three weeks later, partially carbonised, coughing soot, tail feathers gone… you get the picture).

NOTE TO SELF: Rejection coping strategies in urgent need of revision.

No. What I mean is, you need tyrannical tendencies to write a readable plot.

For example.

Here I am, coming to the end of yet another book (better than the last one – trust me on this).

SIDE NOTE: In the past all your early crappy work would end up composting creatively in a drawer somewhere; now, the internet has made that drawer infinitely wide and accessible to everyone, all hours of the day, so there’s no shortage of opportunity to embarrass yourself before you’ve really hit your stride.

SIDE QUESTION RELATING TO SIDE NOTE: So why put it out there?

ANSWER: Because writing’s communication, and it’s lovely to have an audience, even a hostile one.

But I digress – something I’m prone to in the blog, but be reassured, not something I allow in the books.

COROLLARY TO LAST SIDE NOTE: Hmm. Maybe I should he says, doing that disgusting, kissy-kissy thing with his dove, nose-to-beak.

Anyway, this next book is set in the 1850s. It’s a picaresque tale of two brothers separated and then reconciled (I know – you can totally see that sooty dove slamming beak-first into the deck). Well. I’m at the bit where they’ve found each other again – and something needs to happen. From the brothers point of view, they’ve been through a lot, okay? Parental death, fire, transportation, forced labour, kidnap by bushrangers and so on and so on – the Kindle gives you no idea of the extent – 50% of how much, exactly? – and I know they’d be more than happy to leave it there, and find a cute little cabin together, with rabbits and alfalfa (wait, what?) and have a little peace and quiet for one goddamn minute. But nope. Here I am at the joyful moment of reconciliation, and already I’m getting scratchy. Something has to happen. This is the climax of the book. I can’t have them sitting round a camp fire reminiscing and making happy plans. So I spent the dog walk this morning thinking over all the things that could go wrong for them. Maybe a baddy from earlier on could make a surprise return. One of them could be arrested, imprisoned. And then a daring rescue. Something and then something and then pow! Pay-off. As a concession, maybe a happy ending – of sorts. (This is the 21st century; I think there’s actually a law against happy endings).

And that’s when it struck me. What a tyrant! Worse, actually. A God-like tyrant. Someone with the power to create life and manipulate the world. If there was a storm, I could totally write a whale to surface and keep the boat afloat with his nose and then run them over to some delightfully cliche island ruled by giant comedy crabs who can talk and sing and do tap and who end up venerating the sailors as gods &c &c. (Writes this down for later – along with possible joke: ‘confuses venerate with venereal’). But no. I torture my characters with appalling runs of bad luck. And for what? A good read. (A good read! Yeah, right! Again with the sooty dove, wheezing on the foc’sle whilst I spoon feed it honey and warm water, cursing whatever it is that lurks so powerfully and malignantly beyond the horizon).

I promise I’ll revisit those coping strategies just as soon as I’ve finished this post.

But anyway. That’s what you’ve got to do as a writer. You’ve got to make believable characters, and then make life difficult for them. Because although I was lying about the law, and actually you are allowed happy endings, you’ve got to earn them first. Which is probably just like life, when you think about it.

So what am I getting so antsy about?

ANSWER: I’m waiting on some doves…

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