green beans & other crises

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



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

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

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

That’s the version I was taught, anyway.


bad karma park

The motorway hasn’t been too bad, so we have plenty of time to pull into a service station for a coffee and something to eat. The car park is pretty full with an ill-tempered vibe. People are wandering uncertainly in dazed groups, like newly-hatched chicks, stumbling towards the food halls. We do the same.

There are the usual concessions set around the edges of a cavernous central eating area. We take our coffees and toasties and diligently work our way through them. On the tables around us: a woman bottle-feeding a restless, red-faced kid who looks about twelve; an elderly man in a shiny jacket and trousers, green braces at full stretch, and his wife, presumably, with ice blue hair; an Asian woman and her son, both swiping their phones, occasionally looking up, taking a sip of Coke, smiling at each other, then continuing with their phones; and across the way, a stubble headed man in a bulging white sports shirt shouting into his phone, something about twelve hundred for the job, but that’s before the twenty per cent, so you’re looking at eight-eighty, mate…..
‘Do you want this Americano?’ green braces man says to me, holding it up.
‘No thanks. I’ve already got one.’
‘Nobody wants it,’ he says. ‘I can’t give it away.’
‘Why’ve you got an extra Americano?’
‘It’s chaos up there. Absolute chaos. The girl didn’t tell me her mate had already brought the drinks over, so I ended up getting two.’
‘Can’t you get a refund?’
‘No. That’d mean queuing again. I’m not that desperate. Ah well.’
His wife doesn’t turn round.
‘Chaos’ I hear him say to her. ‘Absolute chaos.’

When we’re done the girls wander off to look at the magazines and books in Smiths; I go back to the car.

It’s half past twelve. The sun is angling straight in the window on my side, so I swing the sun visor round to block it off a little. I’m just settling down to check my Twitter feed when a man comes up to the car and taps on the visor.
‘Hello?’ he says. ‘D’you mind if I ask you something?’
‘No. Not at all,’ I say, pushing the sun visor back round again.
It’s a thin-faced, middle-aged white guy – a monk, I’d guess, by his saffron-coloured robes, a red bindi spot above round metal glasses, a beaded bag on his shoulder, a small, hard-backed book in his hands. He’s smiling, and stroking the book.
‘What d’you think about Life and Existence?’ he says.
‘I’m sorry to bother you whilst you are resting, but I just wanted to bring something to your attention. Have you heard of the Bhagavad Gita?’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I think…’
‘It is the word of the Lord Krishna, the one true God we believe in. Allow me to show you the contents….’
He presents the book, opens it, and starts sliding his index finger slowly down the chapter headings. Most of it seems to be Indian names and so on, but words like reincarnation, yoga and vegetarianism catch my attention. I want to tell him that I’ve recently given up eating meat, but his voice has the soft and mildly sedating quality of a salesman, so I end up simply following the finger.
‘Would you like a copy?’ he says, suddenly closing the book and handing it to me through the window.
‘It’s very interesting,’ I say, turning it over a couple of times, and then handing it back to him. ‘And thank you for showing it to me. But I think – today – I won’t. If that’s okay.’
‘Or a donation?’ he says. ‘Just a few pounds. To help us in our work.’
‘I’m sorry but I don’t think I will. Thanks again for talking to me.’
He smiles as he drops the book back in his bag, puts his hands together and nods over them, straightens, says ‘Have a nice day!’ then turns his attention to an occupied car two spaces to my right.

A moment or two later, and there’s uproar and great laughter from the car.
‘Because I am a muslim!’ the driver says.
They seem to get on pretty well, though. Lots of shouting and emphatically expressed words. In fact, Hare Krishna guy is so engaged with them he almost climbs in through the window, and silly as it sounds, I can’t help feeling a little jealous. Eventually it comes to an end, though.
‘See you in paradise, my friend!’ says the driver.
Hare Krishna guy waves to him, re-shoulders his bag, and strides off across the car park, his sandals slapping on the baked tarmac.


day of the thal

You see them on kitchen shelves and fancy units everywhere. A regular, sideways spread of broad, fleshy green leaves, the obvious but slightly unbelievable kind of leaf a robot would synthesise if it wanted to look like a plant: two by two by two, this then this then this. And then, veering up and around the leaves, looking more like something that carries fibre optics than sap, secured by a sequence of round metal ties to functional green canes, the flower stalks, rising and eventually splitting into smaller stalks, that split again in a regular pattern, and culminate in racks of identical flowers, three petals in a triangle in the back, two either side, and something like a screaming mouth in the middle, two prongs for teeth, a spotted uvula at the back. In white, puce and pink.

This is Phalaenopsis, the moth orchid. Phal, to the trade. And it’s been the UK’s most popular houseplant since Monstera Deliciosa.

You can buy them at the supermarket, in a variety of containers, from mini metal buckets in various pastel shades to oddly-shaped vases in smoky green glass. Or not buy them – they’ll appear on your shelves anyway. You can water them, or not, they don’t care. They manage pretty well. All they really need to thrive is any place in the house with a good view of the action.

I saw another one today and suddenly the truth struck me.

Phalaenopsis, the most advanced biotech monitoring system the world has ever seen, quietly and efficiently monitoring earthly business, and transmitting it back to the mother plant on Mars. That one’s a truly gigantic specimen, exploding out of a chintzy red volcano (where – it’s true – there’s very little water, but Phal has adapted to this over the millennia, and it manages pretty well).

The data is stacking up, sheeple. Phal is content. It knows that soon we’ll have Mars on Earth. And then truly will Phal will have dominion.

Long live Phal.


running out of time

I remember my old boss Justin describing a significant moment in his life.

He’d been quite successful up to that point. An entrepreneur in the fullest sense of the word, inventing things, selling things, getting by. He’d started a wholefood shop and delivery business, and for a while it all jogged along pretty well. But things started to get tough for one reason or another. His home was at risk. He had to work twice as hard just to keep his head above water. The stress of it all began to bite, and uncharacteristically for Justin, he buckled, losing that bright and slightly crazy optimism that had always buoyed him up. He began to daydream about regular hours, getting a job, having someone else take the strain. He’d always imagined he might like it in the army, attracted by the esprit de corps, perhaps, the foreign travel, discipline, routine spiced with adventure. He liked running and climbing and getting dirty. He started to think he’d missed his calling.
So at forty years old he marched himself into the nearest recruitment office, shook the sargent’s hand and sat down.
‘Where do I sign?’ he said.
The sargent shook his head.
‘I don’t follow.’
‘Sign up? Enlist? I’ve come to join the army.’
‘Sorry mate. You’re too old.’
‘Too old?’
‘You could always join the reserves. But unless you’re a doctor or something – I take it you’re not?’
‘No. I’ve thought about being a doctor….’
‘Then – sorry.’
‘So let me get this perfectly straight. What you are telling me is that I will never, EVER be able to enlist in the army?’
‘As things stand – correct.’
‘Not ever. No.’
‘For the rest of my life? All of it? I can never be a soldier? That avenue is completely closed to me now?’
I can picture the sargent tensing slightly, glancing past Justin, gauging exits, strategies. Standing up to end the interview.
‘I’m afraid so. But thank you for your interest.’

‘That was the first time I’d ever really had to accept my own mortality,’ Justin said, handing me another box of yogurt-coated raisins to stack. ‘The finality of it all was completely shattering. I mean – there was nothing I could do about it! I could never be a soldier! That was it!’
‘Yeah. Well. I’ll never be an astronaut.’
‘It’s not the same thing.’
‘Because that’s the first time you’ve ever said anything about being an astronaut. Whereas I’ve always thought I might join the army.’
‘Really? I had no idea.’
‘There’s a lot you don’t know about me.’
‘What about Margaret? Did she know?’
‘Know what?’
‘Know that you’ve always wanted to be a soldier?’
‘Of course. Half my family were in the military.’
‘But they were conscripted. Along with most of the rest of the population.’
‘At least they were young enough. I’d have ended up in the Home Guard. Bastards.’
He slammed the van door shut and then leaning back on it, took out his tobacco pouch and rolled himself a cigarette.
‘He may have had ten years on me, but I was a helluva lot fitter.’
‘I think you had a narrow escape. I can’t imagine you as a soldier.’
‘Why? What d’you mean?’
‘I don’t know. You’re too much of an independent spirit.’
‘Independent spirit!’ he said, flicking the match away and blowing out a great cloud of smoke. ‘Shagged-out spirit, maybe. Anyway. What the hell. I’m thinking of opening a jazz club. And if I do, he’s not coming in….’



lola, baxter, suki & the shadow

I’m taking photos of a bricked-up window when a woman calls out to me from higher up the path.
I say! she says, then Hello? You there with the camera. Is your dog alright with puppies?
I turn to look.
It’s a woman in her late middle-age, dressed like a countess, lacquered hair and Alice band, navy-blue twinset, the cardigan draped over the shoulders and fixed by a button, the only concession to the walk being a pair of blindingly white court shoes. Her left arm’s crooked up for balance, presumably, the right extended straight out in front, attached to the lead of a porcine little pug, madly scrabbling its paws in its eagerness to make time. I know that pugs’ eyes bulge, but these seem particularly alarming. I put it down to the effort it’s making pulling the woman along.
‘She’s fine!’ I say, hoping to God it’s true. Lola doesn’t seem bothered, though. The pug makes a bunch of strangled yippy noises, describing a perfect arc in the dirt, but Lola lopes by safely out of reach with barely a glance.
‘What about cats?’ the woman says as she draws nearer.
‘Cats? Well – she lives with one. They get along. Why?’
‘Suki follows me when I go out.’
I can see a large, marmalade cat sitting on its haunches in the middle of the path, such an air of self-possession I wouldn’t be surprised if it produced a pair of field glasses and called in an airstrike by walkie talkie.
‘She’s so cute!’ I say.
‘She isn’t. Sometimes she turns and goes back. Sometimes she disappears. For weeks.’
I nod, like – yes – this is definitely something to bear in mind with cats.
‘She’ll be alright with her, y’think?’
‘I think so.’
In fact, Lola hasn’t even seen the cat. I’m not surprised. Last week she walked right past an adult deer over the woods: didn’t even look up. And once, when an entire herd of black and whites fell into line behind me all the way across the field, Lola walked calmly in front, like she expected exactly this to happen all along, and was actually a little disappointed.
I bend down to offer my hand to the pug, which it takes as an invitation to climb all over me.
‘Don’t encourage him,’ says the woman. ‘He’s already much too excited about these things. C’mon, Baxter…’

It’s certainly a day for meeting posh dog walkers.

Cut to: a tall, stooped figure in a tweed gilet and corduroy trousers, standing at the edge of the woods leaning on a rustic walking stick, one hand draped over the other, watching a stately black labrador sniffing around in the long grass. The man has a wide, thin-lipped mouth that barely moves when he talks, and the slightly fuddled demeanour of someone who’d woken up, dressed and made five miles before he knew what was going on.
‘Nice reprieve from the hot weather,’ he says when I draw level. ‘Not that I’m complaining, of course. One just needs time to aclimatise to these things.’
I agree with him and stand there a moment, catching my breath after the climb. Lola goes over to the labrador. They swap cards.
‘Good boy, Shadow,’ says the man, then raises his chin and stares off across the field.
‘Where are the brown cows, d’you think?’
‘Over that far side. Lying down under the trees.’
‘Ah!’ he says. ‘Good! Not that Shadow is troubled by them overmuch. Or they he’
‘No. He looks pretty solid.’
‘The black and whites are the worst,’ the man says. ‘Have you met those chaps?’
‘Absolutely! On the back field. They’re so inquisitive.’
‘Yes. They fell into line and followed us the other day. I think they thought I was going to milk them.’
He takes off his cap, scratches his head, replaces the cap.
‘I shouldn’t think there’s much to it, though. Do you?’
‘Probably not. You’d just have to watch the legs.’
‘Yes! I think I’d be a little twitchy in the old trouser department if someone started fiddling around with my udders.’


wild swimming

Taking the path through the new estate – the right of way that was a condition of the granting of planning permission a few years ago – you’ll pass by an overgrown, waterless pond, pressed into the ground like the footprint of a giant who, in a blind panic, tried to leap over it all but couldn’t quite make it. There’s a pole by the pond with a lifebelt and a sign that says: Beware. Deep water on occasions. Every time I see it I feel like taking a photo and then captioning it with Christmas? Birthdays? or something. I never do, though. It’d be a lame joke, and anyway, I suppose I simply want to ignore the whole thing and get through the estate as quickly as possible. There’s something so joyless about that belt and sign, or worse – anti-joy – actively negating any sense of exploration or change or contact with the earth. It’s not just that there’s never any water in the pond, no doubt because of the desultory way they built it, but based on the remotest chance that after a particularly heavy bout of weather there may be a little residual water with the trash in the bottom, here’s a belt to throw in after you if you climb over the rail to investigate. (And by the way, if anything happens, we’re covered).

It reminds me of that time I was at college. There was a mill pond across the way, and I used to sneak in there to go swimming, despite the signs. One day I was just toweling myself off on the bank when a severe looking guy stopped by.
‘I hope you haven’t been swimming’ he said.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I was naked and soaked. What else would I have been doing? But I thought it was easier just to be honest.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Why?’
‘You’re not allowed. This is private property. If you drowned you could sue.’
‘If I drowned I’d be dead.’
‘You know what I mean. Didn’t you see the signs?’
‘But I’m not doing any harm.’
‘What d’you want us to do? Put a fence round everything?‘
‘I’m only swimming.’
‘We’ll have to put a fence round the whole bloody country at this rate. Is that what you want?’
‘We’re an island. That’s a lot of fence.’
‘You leave us no choice. Now get dressed and clear off. And if I see you over here again I’ll inform your superiors.’

I suppose that lifebelt pole sums up the disquiet I feel when I cut through the estate. The place has a fake, toytown feel, beyond the raw brick and newness of it all. There are tags on the plants in the planters, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see tags on the houses, too, arranged as they are so conspicuously in size and price order, from the starter two-bed to the executive brand with the double garage, portico and balcony. Glum workmen in day-glo jackets walk behind slow-moving trucks doing what, exactly? Positioning life-sized models of people, according to the time of day.

The only thing that buoys me up (deep water on occasions) is the giant oak tree the planners decided to leave in the middle of it all, islanded on a regular patch of chequerboard grass that I suppose is meant to look like a village green. The oak doesn’t care about any of this. It spreads its colossal arms to the heavens, biding its time, waiting on the rain.