a virus by any other name

Naming a virus has always been tricky. People want something they can talk about easily, not a long string of letters and numbers. Like saying Red Car rather than reeling off a whole licence plate. Storms do better. They get homey names, like Brendan or Hugh. Accessible, friendly names. The kind of names you can relate to whilst they tear the roof off your shed. But I’m sure even Brendan – mad as he is – would baulk at having a haemorrhagic disease named after him. (Hugh, on the other hand….)

The trouble is, if the name gets left to the media, things quickly get bent out of shape, politically-speaking.

Take Spanish Flu, for example. It wasn’t actually Spanish. It was just that after WWI, most countries suppressed news of the virus because they worried it would damage morale. Spain had been neutral, though, and had a more independent media. In fact, ironically, the Spanish people initially called it French flu, because they thought that’s where it had come from.

It’s not even as easy as naming a virus after a place. The people who live there might object to being associated with a dreadful disease (ask Hugh). This was tried for a while, though. For example, Ebola was named after a nearby river (although it wasn’t actually the NEAREST river; the Congo had already been taken); the Marburg virus was named after Marburg, in Germany, and my favourite (name, not disease) coxsackievirus, commemorating the small town on the Hudson river, upstate New York, where the virologist collected his first fecal specimens. (I  very much doubt there’s a statue in the market square.)

I’m sure virologists get twitchy when they read the news. They’re painfully and pedantically conscious of the tendency to confuse the virus with the general group it comes from, or the disease it causes. In the current pandemic, people talk about coronavirus (which is actually the virus’ family name, covering everything from SARS to the common cold) or Covid-19 (short for coronavirus disease 2019 – 2019 being the year it was identified). The actual name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2 (short for Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2). All of which is a bit much to handle when all you want to say is that you’re feeling a bit Derek.

Those same virologists would probably put the paper down, take a breath, and turn wistfully in the general direction of London – home since 1966 to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. I don’t know what the building looks like (even though I could easily Google it), but I’m guessing it’s a gigantic, green, geodesic dome covered in spikes. Either way, I’m sure it’ll have a good supply of hand sanitizers on the way in and out.

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space wars & skeleton bones

We were a family of two adults and seven kids in a small, three bedroom house. It was such a tight fit you had to lean against the front door to close it, like an overstuffed suitcase. And the pressure of that – the fairness or otherwise of who got what and why – really showed itself in the fights we had over space.

Take the walls. Me and my two brothers shared a room. One wall was taken up by the windows that overlooked the front garden, which left the wall space above each bed free for our posters. Which was clearly demarcated, so it should have been fine.

I was about eleven when my eldest brother Pete was studying to go to medical school. He had one huge chart above his bed, a waxed cotton banner with an annotated human skeleton on the left and the musculature / vasculature on the right. I liked it. It gave me a kick to lie there and be reminded what we were like under our blankets, under our skin. Like those medieval tombs, where the knight sleeping on the top has a wormy skeleton carved underneath, to remind everyone that you can’t be a knight all your life, that you’d better make your peace with God and party while you can. And anyway, it was cooler than my sisters’ David Cassidy posters.

Mick, in the bed to my right, was into Astronomy. He had star charts and photos of the moon landing. He said he was going to be an astronaut, but I couldn’t see it. Not with his eyes. He’d be squinting at the console somewhere over the Sea of Tranquility, push the wrong button and they’d all fly out of the hatch. Mick was also into war gaming at that time. Now and again he’d recreate a famous battle on a large sheet of ply he’d covered in chicken wire and plasticine. Sometimes we’d let him set it all up on the table under the window, which was a concession in the space wars, but sometimes you had to give a little to get a little.

My wall was covered in a mural of motorbike pictures I’d cut out of Superbike magazine and Motorcycle News. It was pretty extensive. I was as proud of it as the army surplus jacket with the Harley Davidson patch on the back I wore to my Saturday morning market job .

One night, I went up to bed and found that someone had ripped the front wheel off one of my Laverda Jotas. I thought it was Mick, exacting revenge because he thought I’d been playing with his tanks and screwing up the Battle of El Alamein. So in the spirit of tit-for-tat we followed ruthlessly at that time, I tore off a chart he had on the wall – Stars of the Northern Hemisphere – and threw it in the bin. Then forgot all about it. The next day when I came home from school, I found he’d ripped down about half of all my pictures. And I was so blinded with rage I tore ALL his posters off the wall – Neil Armstrong, Patrick Moore, the lot – then found a big sheet of paper, wrote the word CUNT across it in black marker, and stuck that up instead. He came into the room, saw it, punched me full in the mouth. I went downstairs crying to mum. She came upstairs and swept all his tanks and soldiers onto the floor, which was how the North African campaign ended, in our family, at least.

*

When Pete came home from Guy’s that first term he brought a skeleton with him, which seemed to make sense. I thought it would be like the comedy skeleton in the student doctor’s room in Rising Damp. Instead, it was stowed inside a compact wooden box, the kind of thing you might keep a nautical instrument in, or maybe a french horn. It was too big to go under his bed, so it went under mine instead.
‘You don’t mind, do you?’ he said, shoving it in.
I shrugged, trying to look cool. I was terrified, though. A skeleton? Under my bed?
‘Yeah. Whatever.’

That night, I dared myself to take out the box and look through it by torchlight.

I was nervous, but in the end it was a strangely flat kind of exhumation. Instead of taking a shovel into a graveyard, all I had to do was hang over the side of the bed, slide the box out, and then haul it up onto the covers. The box had an easy-flip, brass catch top and bottom. The bones inside felt like old plastic toys, surprisingly light and dry, all jumbled up. The skull took up most of the box. In fact, it looked a little like a box itself, the top of the cranium neatly sawn through, the bony lid loosely held in place with two brass clasps where the ears would have been. I put the skull carefully to one side.

The bones of the hand were wired together. I tipped my head back, rest it on my face for a minute, then put it with the skull and carried on rifling through the box, like a mechanic looking for a wrench.

The spine was incredible, like a weighty, articulated snake. I couldn’t believe I had such a thing in me. It just didn’t seem possible.

I turned to the skull. Rest it on my knees. Shone my torch into the sockets, then took off the top and looked inside. Felt the smooth inner surfaces, the grooves and notches, the little holes like burrows where the nerves and blood vessels had snuck in and out. It felt oddly intimate, like breaking into a house when the people had left. This was what life was all about, I thought. This was the actual control room, where the soul of this person used to live, where they looked out on the world. And after all that – all those hopes and plans and dreams – what had it come to? A dry teaching aid in the hands of a kid with a Pifco torch.

I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I put the bones back in their box. This wasn’t a toy. This was the mortal remains of a real person, someone like me, who climbed trees and played football, who could sing the entire opening credits of Hong Kong Phooey. Someone who lived a while, thought about stuff, did or didn’t do stuff. Watched their eldest brother go off to university, come home a couple of times, then never again. Wore a combat jacket with a Harley Davidson patch.

I shut off the light.
Went to sleep.
It took a while.

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the trouble with old triffids

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 12.09.53 PMThe Day of the Triffids, 1962, dir. Steve Sekely.

Now, a Sci-Fi horror film that’s almost sixty years old deserves cutting a little slack. These days we’ve got CGI, green screen, motion capture and all those other things I know absolutely nothing about. But setting aside the limitations of technology and special effects, and the difficulty of seeing a film without the baggage and preconceptions of a thousand other films I’ve seen, still – I think it’s fair to say that The Day of the Triffids is pretty terrible.

It’s a fun watch, though. Here’s how it goes, in case you’re not sufficiently motivated or medicated to bother:

  1. There’s a male voiceover at the beginning. He talks very authoritatively about carnivorous plants (‘or eating plants’ he adds, helpfully). He mentions the Venus flytrap, and we get a close up of a rubber version where the jaws clap together like toothy castanets. ‘How these plants digest their prey has yet to be explained…’ (Erm – I think it’s juices, mate.) Then he mentions the hero of the story, Triffidus Celestus, brought to earth on … da-da-daaaaah … The Day of the Triffids.’ Cut to an endless credit roll of actors I’ve never heard of, except maybe Howard Keel, who was either a singer, or on Dallas, or both.
  2. The meteor shower is nice to look at (which I suppose was half the problem). Splodges of colour, whites, yellows and reds, and a noise like someone drawing curtains on a rail, open and shut. Cut to a nightwatchman at Kew Gardens. You can tell he’s a nightwatchman because he has a torch, a flask of tea and a hard boiled egg. He goes into the Palm House for lunch. A triffid plant detaches itself from one of the beds and starts sneaking up him. Despite being a nightwatchman – whose main function is to watch, FFS – he can’t bear to turn round and see what’s making all those alarming squelching noises. When he does, he sees something that he and the hyperactive orchestra find absolutely terrifying but which actually looks ridiculous – an ‘orrible, great big wobbly thing with hairy tentacles waving about on levers and a rotten tulip expression on its maw. It looks about as dangerous as a drunk waddling up to the mic on karaoke night. The triffid eats the watchman more neatly than the watchman ate his egg. Triffids 1, Humans 0.
  3. We meet the hero, Howard, sitting up in a hospital bed (private room, natch), with what looks like pants on his head, his ears sticking out at the side like satellite dishes. He’s had an operation on his eyes, so he can’t see ‘the light show of the century’ – the meteorite shower that will blind everyone on earth and have them all walking around with their arms straight out in front of them, tripping over suitcases, trying to fly planes and so on. But back to the room. Howard’s talking to the doctor, a man in a three piece suit with creases sharper than his manner, and a nurse, who helps Howard light his cigarette, and then puts it out the moment the doctor leaves the room. She also lowers the head-end by cranking a handle at the foot end, which isn’t very dignified, but she does her best.
  4. When Howard wakes up next morning the hospital is quiet. He’s suspicious. Where’s the nurse with his cigarette? He presses the call button, which doesn’t work. Then he takes the pants off his head and – after a blurry moment the cameraman obviously enjoyed – sees that the hospital is trashed. He meets the doctor, who is talking very, very calmly and staring without blinking (much as he was before). He gets Howard to test his eyes with a torch. ‘The optic nerve is gone’ he says, then after warning Howard (and the audience) that ‘you’ll see things you wished you hadn’t’, throws himself out of the window.
  5. Turns out, the doctor’s right. London, post-apocalypse, is strewn with badly parked cars and extras wandering around with their hands straight out in front in the approved way, or feeling their way along railings, coming to a corner, meeting other people feeling in the other direction, making their apologies, tripping over suitcases, and so on. Like London today, then, only with less litter and no congestion charge.
  6. Howard has very noisy shoes – the kind with clips on. He’s basically pretty military in bearing. He wears a cap, too, which rounds the look off nicely. When he removes the cap, his hair is slicked down so hard it makes Action Man’s head look wild.
  7. Howard goes to the railway station, where everyone is blind but still hopefully waiting for a train, which is quite authentically British, I suppose. There’s a man at the ticket office who’s come in to work despite being blind. An old woman falls backwards over a suitcase. Howard helps her up, then goes out onto the platform. Seconds later, a train hurtles in and crashes in a spectacularly cheap and off-camera kinda way. Cut to lots of people screaming and falling out of the doors with their hands straight out in front of them. One of the extras, a middle aged man in a middle aged suit, is staggering towards the camera carrying a teddy bear, which is a tender little detail, and no doubt got the extra fired. There’s a girl in a school uniform, fake pigtails and fake smile, who jumps down out of a carriage and is almost immediately identified as being sighted (why she didn’t watch the meteor show like everyone else we’re not told – but I’m guessing a ketamine addiction). Anyway, a rough sort grabs her. Howard intervenes and takes her with him instead, but he’s got a cap, solid hair and noisy shoes so that’s okay. The girl explains she’s run away from boarding school, her parents are dead and so she’s pretty much a free agent. They jump in a car and go off to France, for some reason.
  8. Cut to a lighthouse. A scientist and his wife. They’ve gone to live there for six months because the scientist can’t get his shit together and finish his study of sting rays or something. He drinks and is very, very grumpy. The boat is late and he’s running out of whisky. Meanwhile, his wife wanders around looking sad and gorgeous and does a lot of mournful peering into goop-filled beakers. She wishes their marriage was better. They stand together at the top of the lighthouse. He looks out to sea with his binoculars and all he sees is sea. It doesn’t improve his mood. The radio announcer comes on with an urgent message. (I’m guessing the announcer is actually Steve, the director, but that’s only a guess. As the film goes on and the announcer makes more announcements, it’s a feature that he says everything twice. I suppose they want to make it sound more urgent, but actually the announcements are never that difficult, so it ends up having the opposite effect). The message goes something like: Everyone’s been blinded by the meteor shower, and now giant, man-eating plants are wandering about. So watch out, and keep listening for more encouraging messages like this one. I repeat…). The scientist looks around for whisky.
  9. Howard and the girl have pulled up at a luxurious convent where the everyone’s blind – natch – except the husband and wife who run the place (we’re not told why they didn’t watch the meteor shower, but the man looks permanently stunned, so that’s some kind of clue, I suppose). They want Howard to stay and help them look after all the blind nuns and so on, who are trailing round the house doing a very tentative conga. Howard is sympathetic but firm. They’re all going to die, he says. *Shrug*. The radio comes on. Important information it says. The triffids are everywhere and eating shit. Stay in the house. I repeat. Stay in the house. ‘See what I mean?’ says Howard (he probably doesn’t say that, but I can’t be arsed to google the script. Watching the film was bad enough. Reading it might be fatal)
  10. Howard and the stunned husband drive off into the French countryside, for some reason. Supplies, maybe? Anyway, they find a huge crater with lots of baby triffids, seeds blowing all around. ‘That’s how they spread!’ says Howard, showing the same level of horticultural knowledge as the announcer at the beginning of the flick. Bigger triffids lunge after them. Howard takes a shot at one. It runs like you do when the phone rings and you’re still wet from the shower. Turns out – guns are no use. The stunned husband trips and fractures his contract. Howard slings him over his shoulder, which turns out to be a good move, as the triffids fling something deadly and the stunned husband gets it instead of Howard. There’s a tender moment when Howard lies him on the ground, toes him with his clippy shoes and then hurries on. Meanwhile, back at the convent, a bunch of drunken extras have taken over, dancing to Jazz and swigging from empty bottles. Howard rescues the stunned husband’s wife (let’s call her Sheila) by pretending to dance with her, then hundreds of triffids gatecrash the party, so Howard and Sheila and little KK escape in the prison van.
  11. The lighthouse scientist and his glam / morose wife are being attacked by a triffid. He pokes at it with an improvised harpoon whilst his wife bites her knuckle and screams a lot. Turns out the triffid has very poor tendril-stamen coordination, so it’s not that difficult to cut it to pieces. (You have to think – if the night watchman at Kew had shown a little more gumption – and maybe not stuffed himself so full of egg – he might’ve stood a chance. He could’ve clouted it with his tea flask and done a runner. But then again he’s a Night watchman. Not a Fight watchman.) The scientist dissects the triffid. Apparently if they learn more about it they might stand a better chance of killing it, which seems fair. He scoops out a great deal of goop, which his wife collects in another beaker. Then they go upstairs to sleep (which is obviously part of a longer and less tractable problem). Meanwhile, the triffid reanimates – slithers up the spiral staircase – an obvious hand in a decorated sock – the wife screams, bites her knuckle. The scientist wakes up, battles the sock on the stairs, and wins again, somehow, I’m not sure. They barricade the front door with planks, nails and a hammer that the scientist orders his wife to fetch. I’m not sure if the scientist is aware of just how close he comes to being brained with the hammer. She could always blame it on the triffid.
  12. Howard, Sheila & KK end up in Spain, somehow, travelling across country in what looks like a joke ice cream van. How or why they go to Spain is not explained, but Waze is still years off, so fair play. They arrive at the villa of a couple who act like mannequins operated by tiny motors. Turns out the wife was always blind, and the husband is learning as he goes along. They’re both very happy to see them (er-hem). The wife is pregnant, about to give birth even though there’s no bump whatsoever. Sheila is happy to have a go delivering it. I’ve got every confidence in Sheila. Her hair is even slicker than Howard’s, which explains their obvious chemistry. Meanwhile, Millions of triffids are massing outside the villa. Howard knocks up an electric fence, but when that fails, he finds a fuel truck and sprays them all with fire. The triffids look particularly woebegone at this point, a whole line of them, in flames, wilting at the wire. A bit like Glastonbury, but hotter.
  13. The triffids have regrouped at the lighthouse, and a load of them gloop their way up the spiral stairs towards the scientist and his screaming wife. As a last ditch effort he sprays them all with seawater from a hose, which immediately turns them into something that looks like a healthy kale & kiwi smoothie. ‘Three fifths of the earth’s surface is covered by seawater, so we should be alright there,’ says the scientist. His wife hugs him, even though her shoes are ruined.
  14. Howard leads the triffids away from the villa by driving ahead of them in the ice cream van, which is so poignant I almost weep. At the last moment he dives out of the van and I think the triffids just carry on after it optimistically holding out for a 99, until they all plunge over the cliff ( you don’t see that, mercifully). A few minutes later Howard is diving off the cliff himself,  after recklessly flinging his cap away. He’s keen to make a rendezvous with the submarine that’s evacuating people like him and leaving in five minutes (As the announcer announced on the radio, if you were listening. Twice.)
  15. Cut to the closing scene. Howard, Sheila and KK going into church. Howard takes his cap off (Who rescued his cap from the sea? Who?) The announcer says something about the battle having been won… man’s ingenuity, the benefits of salty water yaddah yaddah.

And that’s it. Day of the Triffids.
It felt considerably longer than a day.

My daughters both pointed out that you’d never guess Psycho was made two years earlier – which is such a great & interesting thing to say, it made me think all this film watching might really be paying off.

 

 

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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