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.’
‘Never?’
‘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.’
‘Why?’
‘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….’

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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.’

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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.

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the bsd gene

It’s not that I have no sense of direction. I definitely have a sense of direction. It’s just – it doesn’t seem to work round here.

And by round here, I mean Planet Earth.

I get lost coming back from the shops. Driving’s worse. Even with Satnav. Despite the stern make a u-turns, I can’t resist taking lefts or rights instinctively – almost as if some unseen force has leaned in through the window and grabbed the wheel.

And given the strength of that feeling, how wretched is it that it’s always, always wrong?

I suppose I should take comfort from the fact it’s probably genetic, as much a part of me as my short legs or big-footed laugh. I bet a few hundred thousand years ago, a Neanderthal guy looked out of the cave and said something like: I’m just going outside for a bit – and wasn’t seen again for three moons.
I thought you were just going outside for a bit?
– I was
We thought you’d been eaten by a sabre-tooth
– No. I mean – I saw one, but it didn’t seem that bothered.
So what happened?
– I got lost
Lost? How could you get lost? You stepped outside…
– There were these rocks that looked like faces... (blushes / scratches his head / laughs in a big-footed way that makes the ears of a nearby sabre tooth prick up).

Or the Napoleonic Wars. Ordinary Seaman Clayton, said something like: I’ll just nip ashore and give ‘em a hand with them barrels – and wasn’t seen again till Waterloo.
You stand before this Court Martial accused of desertion, sir. How d’you plead?
– Not guilty yer honour.
Not guilty? How so?
– I got lost, sir
Lost? The deuce! Lost, d’y’say? You walked to the end of a gangplank, man! Barely half a cable. You got lost?
– Yessir. I became disorientated.
What nonsense! What on earth by?
– Well, there was this seagull waggling his feet…

Funnily enough, I used to think working by the sea would help. You’d think a hundred and eighty degrees of water might improve the odds. Turns out it has the opposite effect, intensifying the confusion.

The other day I had a patient assessment in a residential care home, one of those endlessly sprawling conversions with corridors, passageways, rooms and offices sprouting randomly one from the other like some nightmarish burrow, excavated around the roots of a giant tree. Anyway, the auxiliary who showed me through bustled along by scent more than anything, I think, her eyes squeezed shut, vigorously wiping her hands on a Birds of the Garden tea towel.
‘When you go, go by that exit there,’ she said, nodding blindly but firmly to a door back of a hair salon. Three ancient women were sitting under static hair dryers that looked like upturned jet engines and just as noisy. The women stared back at me, magazines poised.
‘Hello’ I said, waving. They carried on staring, so I turned my attention to the door, frowning and nodding at it in the kind of mime that was supposed to demonstrate to anyone who cared to see that here was a man marking out his territory, making a mental plan of it all, figuring out the whys and the ways. Of course, the three wise women saw straight through it. They laughed, divining my fatal flaw.
‘Don’t get lost!’ the nearest one said, raising a crooked finger. ‘Or you’ll end up like us’
‘I wouldn’t mind!’ I said.

They laughed longest at that.

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last stop before the motorway

We start back early, skipping breakfast to beat the traffic. A couple of hours later and we’re desperate to stretch our legs and get a coffee. Unfortunately I miss the slip road for the service station we planned to use, the next one doesn’t have a sit-down area, the one after that is closed for refurbishment – and then eventually we see a sign: Last stop before the motorway.  I take it.

It’s like driving back in time fifty years.

Despite the hot weather and the heavy traffic, the parking lot is almost empty, apart from a BMW parked in the furthest corner. It looks like it’s been there some time, covered in leaf tack and bird shit.

The cafe itself is a long, low, prefab, with glass on three sides, panelled wood beneath the windows, a glass door with yellowing squares of plastic on the panes and a handwritten sign saying push. The interior is regularly laid out in canteen style, formica tables and curve-backed wooden chairs, a toast rack on each table to hold the menu cards and hide the ketchup, brown sauce and sugar cruet. There are strings of plastic Union Jack bunting curling across the ceiling. A radio plays quietly behind the counter, which has a curved glass display mostly empty apart from a couple of plates of dark squares under cling film. Beside the counter is an ice cream freezer. A waiter is leaning against the freezer with his arms folded and his mouth open. He has a mass of scribbled hair and crenellated teeth, looking exactly like the kind of waiter a child would draw with crayons.
‘Eating in?’ he says.
‘Yes, please.’
‘Take a seat.’
The only other people in the restaurant are – presumably – the couple with the BMW.

‘Is the bunting for the World Cup, d’you think?’ says Tessa, looking round.
‘Wouldn’t that be the England flag?’
‘Maybe it was for the wedding?’
‘Which one?’
‘I dunno. Queen Victoria?’

The waiter comes over.
‘Yes please,’ he says, sighing, pulling a pad from his back pocket.
‘Do you have any pastries?’
‘Pastries? What? Y’mean like a Danish?’
‘Yes.’
‘No.’
‘Oh. Anything similar?’
‘I could do you a tea cake.’
‘Yep. That’d be great.’
He writes it down, dots it with a stabbing motion, then turns his eyes on me.
‘Do you do a poached egg on toast?’
‘No.’
‘What about scrambled?’
‘We can do you a scrambled.’
‘Great. I’ll have that, please.’
‘What sort of toast? Brown or white?’
‘Brown, please.’
He looks at Kath.
‘What about you?’ he says.
‘Can I have fried eggs on toast?’
Fried eggs?’
‘Do you do fried eggs?’
‘No.’
‘I’ll have the same as Jim then.’
‘Two scrambled egg on brown toast, one toasted teacake. Butter with that?’
‘Yes please.’
Stab.
‘Drinks?’
‘Two lattes and a pot of tea, please.’

He writes it all down – or draws it, the pen moves so wildly across the paper – then lopes back to the counter. He doesn’t seem to do anything with it, so I guess the chef must be watching us through a peephole disguised as a Fab on that ice cream menu.

We stare at the passing traffic out of the window.
The BMWs check their phones.

‘You wonder about places like this, don’t you?’ says Tessa. ‘It must’ve been busy at some point, otherwise what happened to all the pastries?’
‘Maybe they’re between deliveries.’
‘Yeah. Like ten years.’
The waiter comes back with a tray of drinks, and drops it off at the end of the table for us to help ourselves. I wonder why he doesn’t pass the stuff out and take the tray away, but then again, maybe if the tray’s left on the table, we’ll be more likely to stack our empty things, and he’ll save time later. It makes sense.
‘I like it here,’ says Tessa. ‘It’s not too corporate, like all those other places.’
The waiter comes out again with our food, one plate in his right hand, one plate in his left, one balanced on the heel of his left thumb.
‘Great! / Wow! / That looks fantastic!’ we say, overlapping each other. ‘Thank you so much.’
He gives us the same blank look, then turns and heads back to the ice cream freezer, where he leans with his arms folded, and watches us eat from a distance.

‘D’you think he lives here?’
‘Where? Out back?’
‘Maybe he walks to work. Over the fields.’
‘That wouldn’t be so bad.’
‘Eggs are good.’

I go to the toilet whilst the others are finishing up. There’s a sign above the urinal: Looking for something to do? Why not try a flying lesson at our local airfield! Only £51!
Pretty good value – but maybe the advert’s out of date.
There’s a faded picture of a tiny, two seater plane, someone leaning out of the cockpit window, waving.

I think it’s the waiter.

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5 reasons not to be flat

1   At the hospital. I’m walking up the slope to the pathology lab when I pass three bricklayers building a wall. I feel sorry for them; it looks such hard work, especially in this hot sun. They’re wearing fluorescent tabards, bare chested underneath, hard hats, filthy trousers, scuffed boots. Their deeply tanned skin is covered in a fine layer of white dust, almost but not quite concealing their tattoos. The first two bricklayers are middle-aged, grizzled, grim-faced. The one higher up the slope is much younger, in his twenties, I’d guess, a silver chain round his neck, his helmet pushed back on his head, his long, sweated hair spilling out all around. Suddenly he stops, straightens, lifts his head and starts to sing:
Young hearts…run freeeee….never be hung up… hung up like my man and meeeee…duh-du-duuuhhhh
Then wiping his forehead with the back of the trowel-holding hand, he bends back down again and carries on working

2    A woman stops me in the corridor approaching the path lab. She’s brisk, focused, in a pressed blue suit with a visitor’s badge pinned to her lapel.
‘Can you tell me how to get to A and E?’ she says. ‘I’m lost’
‘Yeah. It’s not where you think it is. I mean – because the hospital’s built on a hill, A and E is actually below us. So you’ve got to go down. A bit of a warren, I know. But follow this corridor round, you’ll come to some stairs. Go down the stairs a floor and then follow the signs.’
‘Why do these places have to be such bloody labyrinths?’
‘I know! It’s so confusing. But you should be okay. Just follow it round, go down the stairs and eventually you’ll see it.‘
‘What – the minotaur?’
‘Oh? So you’ve met the consultant?’
‘No,’ she says, shaking her head and re-shouldering her bag. ‘But maybe you should call ahead and let him know I’m coming.’

3    Portia’s sunglasses. Round, turtle-green frames, purple-tinted lenses. When she’s wearing them she reminds me of an electron microsopy image of a rapt and fabulous insect.
Happy. Smiling. Scarlet lipstick.

4    I’m chatting to Maude over the fields. She’s telling me all about her labrador Suki’s latest health problems – a flare-up of her arthritic paw. Front left. That’s why she’s on the lead, Maude says. ‘We’re just going for a stretch around the park, then it’s back home for some R&R and Andrew Marr. I’ve booked her in for lazer treatment first thing Monday, physio and massage and the rest of it. Poor thing!’
Suki is sitting at my feet staring up at me with a doleful look. You think you’ve got problems her eyes seem to say. You should try being me for a change. Meanwhile, Lola is racing round and round, showing off, demonstrating the advantages of healthy paws.
An elderly man with a collie approaches. The collie takes off after Lola, whilst the man comes over, looking furious, holding out a handful of sweet wrappers.
‘Look at this!’ he says. ‘They make such a mess!’
‘That’s Saturday for you,’ says Maude.
‘The council should give all the dog walkers grabbers,’ he says. ‘Grabbers! And sacks to put it all in!’
‘And a wage’ I say. The man frowns.
‘What d’you mean, a wage?’ he says. ‘I don’t want money. I just want a clean park.’
‘I was kidding about the money,’ I say. ‘Maybe you should put the grabber idea in the suggestion box.’
‘Hmm,’ he says, turning to go. ‘Or maybe next time I should find someone with some influence to talk to.’

5    At the pub with Kath and a couple of friends for a drink and something to eat. For some reason we all go for the same thing: beetroot burgers, humus, fries, and four pints of beer (okay – three pints of beer and one of cider). For starters, we have two portions of fried tofu in chilli sauce. We skip dessert. We have more beer, then four espressos (okay – three espressos and one cup of earl grey tea).
We get the bill.
‘Why don’t we just split it down the middle?’ I say.
They all look at me with the same expression – meaning (I’m guessing): Well – d’uh!

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bee more careful

There’s a sign nailed to one of the old oaks in the wood. Don’t interfere with the wildlife it says, right at the bottom, after a long list of other things you should bear in mind, too, like accepting personal responsibility as the woods are a dangerous place, disposing of dog waste and where the nearest bins are, keeping to the path, not picking the flowers and so on.

Don’t interfere with the wildlife.

Well. It’s a bit late for that.

I can imagine the camera pulling back – a panoramic drone-shot – David Attenborough’s resonant voice describing a landscape scarred by housing estates, roads, a landfill site, and then maybe a jump-cut to an underwater scene, to a bleached reef, a solitary carrier bag floating along upside down, like a jelly fish with handles.

I know what the sign means, though. Don’t sweat the big stuff. (To interfere with a cliche). Do what you can in your own backyard, and maybe if enough follow suit, things’ll work out.

All of which is a run-up to saying I had to apologise to a bee.

I wasn’t concentrating, you see. I was too busy thinking about the sign, and how pointless it was, because the kind of people who’d interfere with wildlife are probably not the kind of people who’d ever read a sign (they’d be much more likely to interfere with it). So I was busy thinking about that, in a self-satisfied way, about how I moved through the landscape with the utmost respect, when I blundered into some purple clover and almost stepped on a foraging bumble bee. The bee buzzed up in that furrily furious way they have, so indignant I could’ve sworn it gave me the finger before lumbering off across the meadow. And even though I said sorry, I was glad there wasn’t a helpline number on the bottom of the sign, because I was sure if there was the bumble bee would’ve straightaway called it (those leg pouches aren’t just for pollen, y’know – mobile phone, sandwiches, tiny little black & yellow thermos, and a book of wildlife poems, because I have the feeling bumble bees are quite old-school), giving a wild but surprisingly accurate description of me to whoever it is operates the switchboard and enforces these things (Ents? Sprites? Not sure).

So maybe two forms of interference, then. Intentional & unintentional. Either way, with the best will in the world, you probably can’t expect to go through life without stepping on the odd bee now and again. I’ll try to do better, and pay more attention in future. And if the bee is reading this, I am very sorry I gave you a fright, and if there’s anything I can do… (Yeah? he says, tapping one of his feet on the floor, two of his hands placed angrily on the cinch between his abdomen and thorax, Well you can stop with all this patronising anthropomorphic crap, for a start….)

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