A very Happy Christmas to all my readers & followers!
Thank you so much for all your comments & support over the year.
Thank you so much for all your comments & support over the year.
It was early and still dark, the rain smattering dismally against the back door.
‘What d’you think, Lola? Feeling brave?’
She wasn’t. She was staring at me with a shocked expression, like she didn’t know whether to follow me outside or stay where she was and bark for help.
It certainly did feel like I had an unfair advantage, standing there, zipping my coat up to my chin, pulling on my hat. I mean – all she had was the fur she’d gone to bed in.
So I got out her winter coat and gave it a shake.
It’s a heavy, cozy, well-padded thing, with a strap that passes under her waist, two poppers at the chest, and a furry collar that turns back at the neck and makes her look like a lumberjack. A very sad-eyed lumberjack. A lumberjack who needs a great deal of patient encouragement to even THINK about trees.
We took the usual route. I thought maybe we should vary it more, but then – there’s a value in repetition. You get to key-in to the subtle changes, and it’s surprising how many of those there are in any given moment. It’s a bit like a monk walking round cloisters saying their prayers. I’m sure they get a big kick out of seasonal changes to the brick.
Anyway, the thing I needed more than variety was speed – not only because the weather was so bad, but because I wanted to get back, warm up and start writing. I hadn’t written much that week, what with work and life and everything. I needed to get down and do something. (I admit it. Writing is now a habit – or worse, an addiction. I’ve passed through the ‘this is amazing’ phase, and moved into the ‘I feel terrible if I don’t write something, anything, even a limerick’. I have to write just to feel well. But there are worse things, I suppose. I could be into triathlon.)
At the edge of the woods Lola stopped. There’s a stile there for humans and a gap under the wire for dogs. Normally Lola dives through it, but she knew her ridiculous lumberjack collar would snag on it, so she waited till I held up the wire for her. She made a fuss of wiggling under, like a tourist just about drunk enough to try the limbo dance.
But on into the woods, the rain eased and we started to get into the walk a little more. It was still too wet to think about photographs, so instead I tried to focus on the here and now of it, the sound of the rain through the leaves, the suck of the mud at my boots, the snug of my hands in my pockets. Lola was away in the undergrowth somewhere, snuffling around, making the best of it.
I got distracted thinking up a limerick about Trump.
There once was a president called Trump
Bent as a bell-ringer’s hump…
We covered quite a bit of ground, me trying to finish the limerick, Lola exploring.
I stopped to take some pictures of raindrops hanging under a gate, but maybe I’d taken too many of that. Maybe I needed to think of some other angle.
Jenny and her pug, Cecil appeared along the path. Jenny had on the full Barbour-armour, prodding for mines with a Norwegian walking stick; Cecil was squashed so tightly into his fleecy coat it made his eyes stick out like black swimming goggles. He was happy to see Lola, though. They circled and sniffed each other politely, two models checking out their outfits.
‘Isn’t this weather completely VILE?’ said Jenny, pushing back her hair to get a better look at me. ‘I can’t take much more. But y’know – saying that – no doubt it’ll snow tomorrow…’
We chat for a while then carry on.
…he raged and he tossed
whenever he lost….
I stopped to look at the group of funnel mushrooms I’d photographed the other day. One of them had a wild apple landed in the cup of it, and I’d put up a picture of it saying ‘serving suggestion’. Now I thought maybe I’d better take the apple out. I mean – sure, it fell in there naturally, so I’d be interfering in the natural run of things. But then, it mightn’t do the mushroom any good to have an apple rotting in the middle of it, and if I was in a position to make it’s short life a little better – why not? Especially as I’d taken the picture. I owed it a payment of sorts. So I picked the apple out of the funnel, and felt a little better for it, even though that group of mushrooms were already looking the worse for wear, what with the slugs and the deer and everything. Still -my conscience was clear.
We carried on walking.
I could not get the last line of the limerick. It had to rhyme with Trump, and I was hung up on the idea of ‘rump’, but couldn’t think what. Did he fall on his rump? I liked the idea of him Tweeting out of his rump, because I’d read about him harassing the US Ambassador to Ukraine (or ex-US Ambassador to Ukraine) on Twitter during the impeachment hearing, and it seemed like maybe that was a fruitful line to take.
We came to the edge of the wood again, the circuit done. I was ready for some coffee.
Lola was through the fence already, waiting for me in the field beyond, the bottom of Broken Tree Hill.
She managed it that time I thought.
And it was only then I realised she’d lost the coat.
‘Where’s your coat, Lola?’ I said, turning round on the spot, expecting – HOPING – it might be lying right there, and we wouldn’t have to retrace our steps. There was no sign of it.
‘C’mon then!’ I said, heading back into the woods.
Lola stared at me, with the same incredulous expression she’d used on me in the kitchen. Looked up the hill, as if she was wanted me to understand that her food was in that direction. Then gave up, and – reluctantly – tagged along.
It was a completely different walk. The first time round I’d been drifting along, thinking about this and that, the Trump limerick, the sound of the rain, the shape and colour of the leaves, thoughts and feelings scattering round me as randomly as the rain. Now every fine feeling was subordinated to the mission. I was too busy, scanning the woods for a dark green lurcher-lumberjack coat, marching rather than walking. I remembered a snatch of something from ‘The Pearl’ by Steinbeck, how he talked about the pearl fishermen having the Song of the Pearl that Might Be in their heads as they dived for pearls.
Maybe I should try that? Maybe I should try singing The Song of the Coat I Might Find.
Lola was up ahead now. It was like I was seeing two dogs – the real one, rootling around in the undergrowth, and the imprint of her, a lighter, lurcher ghost, trying to show me the precise moment she snagged on a branch and shucked herself free of the coat.
We followed the same route – to badger corner, the sweet chestnut log pile, monument beech, the shack, owl stump, the meeting place, pet cemetery, funnel copse. I’d just reached the path that descends there when I saw a guy in camo and a whistle round his neck striding towards me, preceded by a hyper-alert gun dog.
‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen a dog’s coat, have you?’ I said.
‘Is that what it is? I thought it was one of those baby carriers. Y’know. A papoose. Yeah – I hung it on a tree a little way down. You can’t miss it.’
I thanked him and carried on.
I saw it before it before Lola, although that didn’t stop her running up to it and standing there proudly as if it was she who’d found it all along.
‘Good girl!’ I said. ‘C’mon – let’s get home for breakfast.’
There once was a president called Trump
Who was bent as a bell-ringer’s hump
He raged and he tossed
whenever he lost
and Tweets flew out of his rump
‘Anytime anything goes missing I know it’s mum. It’s like the other day. I couldn’t find my purse anywhere, even though I’d only just put it down. So I went to the bottom of the stairs and I shouted Mum! Give it a rest! And when I turned round, there it was, in the middle of the table. I mean – it drives me nuts! But on the other hand, it’s nice to know she’s still around, d’you know what I mean?’
‘Absolutely! It’s like my Uncle Dave. Dead Uncle Dave. He was always such a laugh when he was alive, a real practical joker. And since he’s gone it’s only got worse. You can tell when he’s in one of his moods, because nothing’s where you left it, things in odd places. So I’ll save Dave! Will you stop that now! And he does. Mostly.’
‘Well – I was driving home one night. And I usually take this bend pretty fast. But this one time I heard this voice in my head saying: Slow down Karen. So I did – and there was a cow standing right in the middle of the road. And if I’d carried on like I was, I would’ve been killed.’
I want to add a ghost story of my own but really I don’t have one.
My Dad was convinced he saw a ghost when he lived in an old tenement block in London. He passed an old woman on the stairs, said hello, she ignored him, he carried on, and when he turned round again she’d gone. She didn’t vanish or anything. Just wasn’t there. (So – maybe she was just visiting someone in the block, Dad? No – she was definitely a ghost. And later on – I’m not kidding – turns out, an old woman had died in the block, some years before.)
Hardly M R James. More like Sid James.
Mum had one. She said she woke up one night and saw her friend Fred standing at the end of the bed looking sad, and she knew immediately he’d died and come to say goodbye. Which was verified later by the fact he’d appeared at exactly the hour he died. Presumably when the paramedics were tidying up.
I like ghost stories, and I’m as easily spooked as the next person. But there are a few things that have always bothered me about ghosts. So at the risk of sounding pedantic & a right ol’ seance-pooper, here there are (in no particular spectral order):
Of course, all these objections get brushed aside with a Shakespearean ‘there are more things in heaven & earth, Horatio…’ Which is true. There’s Dark Matter, Quark strings, Quorn – you name it, I’ve no idea. And anyway, ‘an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. Also true, but I think after all this time the burden of proof must have shifted the other way. Not that anyone cares. We’re too invested. As people we orientate ourselves in the world by telling stories. It’s a fundamental trait, like smiling, or sneezing. Confirmation Bias is a tart way of saying we like to tie things up in a way that makes sense to us, and gives us comfort – even if that comfort feels more like a delicious thrill. Because you have to think the subtext to many of these stories is the belief that the soul or spirit is something that exists independently of the body, and carries on in some form or other when we die – even if it’s only to hide your purse.
We’re family, after all.
I was over the far side of the woods today when I found an old plastic drinks bottle. It was really annoying. Even though I knew I couldn’t just leave it there, I wasn’t particularly happy about carrying it all the way back. So to make it less of a chore, I thought I’d treat it like the bottle was somebody famous, being interviewed & photographed for a celebrity magazine.
– o O o –
Life’s hectic. You just get handed round. Everyone wants you and it’s hard to say no, y’know? Sometimes it gets too much. You feel like blowing your cap, tearing off your labels and your price tags and shouting ‘I’m just a bottle! Leave me alone!’
Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do. It gives me a real fizz. But I’m no different to any other soft drinks container. I crave the normal things. Lying around doing nothing. Listening to the birds. The rain. Listening to ME! It’s so important to drop out, now and again. To leave all that baggage behind, get away from the hype and the fuss. All the additives. Sometimes I’ve just got to get back to nature or I’ll lose my bubble.
Despite what you see in the adverts I’m actually an introvert. I need my alone time or I get a little flat. Start acting all cokey.
You want to know my favourite thing? Sometimes I put a spiky wig on and just hang out on a log. See what happens. See who blows by. You’d be surprised. Once you’ve shrugged off all those labels – y’know? – all the marketing razzmatazz – we’re all the same. We’re all just plastic, yeah?
I love these mushrooms. You like these mushrooms? Are they mushrooms? Or toadstools? What’s the difference? What’s in a label, anyway? Things are things. It rains, they grow. They die. Shit happens. Two things I want to do with my life before I get recycled. One is to go back to school so I can learn about the natural world, the REAL word. So I could point at these weird, funnelly little things and say: Here they are! The – I don’t know – the Spongy Breakfast Bowls or whatever. That’s what I love about mushrooms. They’ve got such funny names. Scary names, some of them. Old Horrible Smelly Skull. Stinking Goat’s Bits. I don’t know. I just made them up. I’ve got such an imagination. People think I’m mad but it’s just ideas and you shouldn’t be scared of them.
One thing I’ve really gotta do is write a kid’s book. I could do one based on mushrooms. It’d be like this funny little mushroom family, living in an old log or something. And the dad would be all like: Hey little Billy Mushroom. Where d’you think YOU’RE going? And Billy mushroom would be all like: Oh, I don’t know, dad – an ADVENTURE, I guess! And then he’d be off having it! Something with a crow, maybe. I like crows. They’re quite goth, aren’t they? I’ve already sketched some designs for a lunchbox and a pencil case. You know – the tie-ins. I’ve got a talent for it. That and colouring.
I’m quite a natural country kind of person when it comes down to it. Some people get anxious when they think of badgers and foxes and things, but I don’t – I feel properly at home in the woods. More than that – it’s like my religion. For me, a walk in the woods is like a walk in a cathedral. Where the trees are the arches, yeah? And the falling leaves are like the leaves of the holy bible drifting down from heaven. And the dog walkers are the priests, and the birds are the choir. That’s definitely going in the book. It’s pretty much writing itself. That’s another thing the woods are good for – thinking out new ideas. My only problem is remembering them all!
My best mate’s a lucozade bottle. She’s quite sporty – not like me! We hang out together a lot. Just sit together in silence, mostly. She knows what it’s like. Left on the shelf, you think it’s all over, snatched off, shaken up. Tossed aside. We’ve seen some times, Lucie and me. But that’s the thing about friends. You don’t have to prove anything, pretend to be something you’re not.
Sometimes it’s enough to just sit in a tree and breathe.
I’m walking Lola over the woods in the pouring rain, and I’ve stopped to collect some chestnuts, when I hear a sudden, peremptory pheep! – and then I see them, Molly and her GSP, Elliot, watching me from the path. I wave my bag as if to say Hello! and Look what I’ve got! in one go, feeling a little guilty for some reason. Molly raises her stick, Elliot, his nose.
I walk over.
Lola runs in the other direction.
Molly is about sixty. She has the kind of vigorous but off-kilter demeanour of someone who doesn’t know the war’s over. She’s wearing a khaki field cap, green waterproof cape and leggings, green walking boots, and she’s standing to attention with the thumb of her right hand through the V of her hazel walking stick. Elliot is sitting bolt upright next to her, appraising me with his golden eyes. I feel the urge to salute, but instead I say: ‘Hi Molly! Don’t worry. I’m leaving some for the badgers.’
‘Nonsense! There’s plenty for everyone,’ she says. ‘You’re welcome to them.’ Then adds, for the record: ‘Not that it’s any concern of mine, of course.’
Elliot can see Lola nosing around in the undergrowth a little way off. He follows her progress with professional interest, and gives a haughty little sniff.
‘I’ll tell you what I had the other day,’ she says, producing a handkerchief from deep inside the cape and blowing her nose so suddenly and violently it’s as if she’d whipped out a double-barrelled shotgun and fired it over my head. ‘Cobnuts!’ she says at last.
‘Cobnuts? Is that hazelnuts?’
‘Yes, yes!’ she says, stuffing the handkerchief back under the cape. ‘It’s been a good year. They’re not the dried rubbish you get in the shops. They’re a bit fiddly to open – got a splinter under my thumbnail and it hurt like the devil – but goodness me! So delicious!’
‘I’d love to try some.’
‘Well you can’t,’ she says. ‘The leaves have all fallen ‘orf and there’s none to be had.’
‘Oh. Maybe next year.’
She shakes her head.
‘Won’t be the same,’ she says, sadly. ‘This was a vintage year.’
The rain eases a little and we both look around.
‘There’s an awful lot of die-back in the woods,’ she says. ‘Have you noticed?’
‘Yes. Particularly in that far corner.’
‘You see – they’re just not managed as well as they used to be. Ash isn’t good for anything more than firewood, and besides, the volunteers have neither the skills nor the equipment. You can’t just cut it down and hope for the best, you know?’
I nod as if I do.
‘So what do you end up with?’ says Molly. ‘A lot of rotten trees just waiting to fall on top of you. It’s getting increasingly dangerous to walk in these woods. You wouldn’t get much warning. You’d hear a great big crack, then you’d have seconds to decide which way to run. Seconds! And you might not get it right.’
‘I suppose if it’s windy you’ve just got to be mindful of the hazards,’ I say. ‘Not walk under any rotten trees. Or any with big limbs. Like oak. Or beech. I suppose you do what you can to mitigate the risk.’
‘Hmm,’ says Molly. ‘Well – you know – there was a large oak went over a few months ago, and there was no accounting for it. It wasn’t exposed. Good firm ground. Tucked away in a sheltered spot. And yet – over it went! But then – you never know what’s going on under your feet, do you?’
She gives the ground a speculative poke with her stick. I look down at it. Elliot looks down, too, and even leans in to sniff. Molly blows her whistle. Me and Elliot look straight back up again.
‘Enjoy your chestnuts!’ says Molly, and they wheel about, and march off together down the path, side by side, perfectly in step.
I was out on a dog walk, hanging around that corner of the woods where the badgers live (or some of the badgers, I should say. In fact, I’ve only ever seen one, hurrying home like someone weighed down with shopping bags, late for an appointment). I was impressed by the amount of work the badgers had been putting in, major excavations by the look of it, a great tract of sandy soil kicked out from one of the burrows, along with all the leaves and twigs they’d been using as bedding. It looked pretty deep. I thought if this was anything to go by, we were in for a hard winter.
I’d just rejoined the main path when I saw Jenny striding along, her pug Cecil waddling out in front. I waved, and waited. Cecil reached me first, checking me over in that abrupt, flat-faced way he has, a border guard demanding my papers.
‘Oh for goodness sake!’ says Jenny, waving him away. ‘Leave the poor man alone!’
‘How are you, Jenny?’
‘I’m fine, thank you,’ she says. ‘I only wish I could say the same for Cecil.’
‘Why? What’s wrong?’
‘What isn’t wrong, more to the point. He’s on antibiotics. For his ears. And now he’s completely off his food. He’s just not interested. I’ve tried everything – even his favourite, raw mince.’
‘Nothing. Not a sniff.’
‘Sorry to hear it.’
I look down at Cecil. I’ve never seen such a healthy-looking dog. Sleek lines, muscular back. I can imagine him in the Olympics, shoving a javelin through the air, or wrestling another pug flat on its back.
‘He’s wasting away,’ says Jenny. ‘Poor thing!’
Cecil is bored by all the attention. He starts eating some grass, with great relish, his slobbery tongue slapping at the leaves.
‘Cecil no!’ yells Jenny, hauling him away. ‘For goodness sake! You’ll kill yourself at this rate!’
He huffs indignantly, then waddles further ahead to eat the grass there, in peace.
‘He slept with me last night,’ says Jenny, dragging her hair back, making a mime of putting it into a non-existent scrunchie, then releasing it to spring forwards into exactly the same position. ‘It’s so unlike him. I didn’t mind, though. It meant I could keep an eye on him. Anyway. How are you?’
‘Yeah. I’m fine. I was just looking at the badgers. They’re digging deep. I wonder if it’s going to be a hard winter.’
‘Badgers’ says Jenny, glancing over her shoulder with a shudder. ‘I don’t think Cecil is all that good with badgers.’
A day off at last.
It’s pouring with rain, though, so the early morning dog walk is delayed. Instead I have a cup of coffee and take a gentle stroll around Twitter & Instagram, taking the air with my virtual boots and my virtual dogs and my tablet cocked on my arm, before I put the cup in the sink and turn myself reluctantly towards the stairs, ready to go up and write.
The rain has stopped, though. I can take Lola out after all. Lola doesn’t seem that keen, but it’s good to get it over with. Maybe it’ll freshen me up and help get my thoughts in order.
Turns out, Lola was right. The break in the weather is actually the eye of the hurricane. It’s exhilarating, in an annihilating kind of way, but we both get thoroughly soaked. I stand at the kitchen sink wringing water out of my pants.
It takes a while to dry off. Whilst I’m doing that, I notice the extractor fan over the oven is really greasy and horrible. I think it needs cleaning right away. It takes a lot of scrubbing, but after an hour I have to say it looks pretty incredible. I did a good job there. And so finally, with nothing else to do or say about it, I drag my bare and sorry carcass upstairs to the bedroom, and the monk-like wooden chair and table where I write. Lola follows me, throwing herself down on the rug to steam while I flip the laptop lid, rest my hands on the keys, and prepare.
Facing me above the desk is a cork board I hung in a faraway and more innocent time when I was at grave risk of buying something like that. My plan was to cover it with things that might resonate with whatever project I was working on: photos, pictures, cuttings from magazines. I could pin up a sequence of cards to map out the structure of the book. Needless to say, the board is still bare, just the drawing Jess made of a little purple ghost I use for my avatar, a friendship band, a Sergeant Pepper pin, a Jack Skellington pin, a pen pin with the word ‘mightier’ down the middle, a business card with a typewriter motif (not mine), and the label that fell off the cat carrier (see fig 1.)
Sometimes I stare at the empty cork and try to see visions in the speckles of light and dark, but the truth is I don’t need cork for that. The bare wall’s just as good. I’ve had a lot of practice, being the sort to stare at nothing in particular quite happily for long periods of time. Maybe I should volunteer for a deep space trip. So long as there was a window, snacks, stationery, and a reading light for the sleeping shelf, I’d be more than happy. I wouldn’t mind a robot, too – who’d be bad-tempered but dry & hilarious. The misunderstandings we’d have, all the way to the Kuiper Belt. Oy Vey!
I take a breath to try to root myself in the moment, and in doing so realise I haven’t done my morning meditation. I launch the app, do a ten minute session, followed by some exercises, press-ups, scrunchies (crunches?), stretches, etcetera, then a shower, then a cup of tea, then lunch, and when all that’s done and cleared away, drag myself back upstairs, flip the laptop, rest my fingers on the keys, wriggle them expectantly, and prepare.
The first thing I do is review how much progress I’ve made with the book. I play with the table of contents, trying to decide whether something I intend to write should be in bold and what I have written in italics. Make the change through all the documents. Then go back and undo it. Widen the margins. Enlarge the font. Then I take a breath, rest my fingers on the keys – and immediately realise that the single most important thing I have to do is Google Cubism.
The thing is, (and I admit, there is always a thing), I want to write up a little story I remember about Fred’s dad, Alf, something that happened to him in the war, and Cubism is a part of it.
One thing I do know about Picasso was that he had a Blue Period. To be honest, I’d rather he called it a Blue Phase. Blue Period just makes me think of those sanitary towel adverts where they demonstrate the absorbency of the pad by pouring windscreen wash all over it. The fact that Picasso also had a Pink Period doesn’t help, either. His Cubism Phase came immediately after and lasted a surprisingly long time – from 1907 to 25 – although I’d guess he was producing other, non-Cubic stuff at the same time, like ceramic hats and so on. The one thing I know about Picasso was that he was prolific as hell; the only thing that could distract him was a corked bottle of wine, or maybe a bull breaking free of the studio.
In this Cubist Phase, around 1910, Picasso painted the portrait of a guy called Ambroise Vollard. Ambroise was a French gallery owner who promoted a lot of artists early on in their career – Van Gogh, Gaugin, Renoir – so he ended up being one of the most painted men in the history of French art (although judging by the portraits, not the happiest).
It’s a brilliant study. Ambroise comes across as a brooding presence, simultaneously wide awake and profoundly asleep (a condition I sympathise with). It’s more than just the effect of looking at someone through a distorting prism; it’s as if Picasso’s taken a stack of angles and changes of light and perspective, and painted them into one dimension, so that you’re looking not just at a man sitting for his portrait, but at who he was, and thinks he is, and who he’d like to be.
So what does this have to do with Alf?
Alf was the hardest man I ever met. He was a pitiless, dessicated old Cockney, exiled to the Fens, bruised and bitter. He had his schemes and his dodges, his nice little earners, one of them being to work as a rose budder for six weeks every summer. He had a scarred face, flat and uncompromising, with a nose rolled so flat the nostrils were like two finger holes jabbed in a pie crust. His eyes were cut-in, ice blue. He smoked spitty little fags, talked out of the corner of his mouth – when he talked, that is. Mostly he just worked, trampling the roses down with an East End curse, brutally efficient, getting the work done, making progress.
I was terrified of him.
The story, then.
Alf was a despatch rider in Italy during the war. One day he was following a convoy of American trucks when they were ambushed. He ended up losing control of his bike and crashing face-first into a tailboard. Luckily, there was a young American surgeon travelling with the convoy. Ever since medical school, this surgeon had been reading up about maxillo-facial reconstruction, hoping to start his own exclusive practice after the war. He took Alf on as a project, using as his guide the photo of Alf from his military identity card.
‘Are you sure it weren’t a picture of one of them Picasso paintings instead?’ someone said.
And whether Alf smiled, or sneered, or did both at the same time, it was impossible to tell.
I didn’t think driving Martha to university would be so difficult.
Emotionally, I mean. Practically – it was easy. There was me, Kath, our younger daughter Jessie, and Martha, everyone getting in the car in the usual way, the usual thing, another trip somewhere, a school performance, maybe. A sleepover. A holiday. The boot full. Sun shining. Roads clear. The satnav took us straight there. In half a mile, keep left! Which the voice delivered with such an audible smile she may as well have been saying: Great opportunities and happiness up ahead – be sure to keep left!
An hour and a half later, when we got to the halls of residence, there was an equally cheery guy waiting at the entrance, directing traffic. I wound down the window and we had a good chat. He told me what the system was (basically one out / one in). He didn’t have a radio on his belt like the site manager (jokes about that). Had to make do with waving his clipboard to his opposite number further down the way (jokes about that, too). Yes, he had a brolly in case it rained. Had another eight hours of this to get through, and then the same tomorrow. And so on. All pretty relaxed and orderly, whilst through the whole conversation I held down a sludgy feeling in my chest, like I was being directed to a place I really didn’t want to go to, no matter how well organised. But never mind – the guy in the distance eventually waved his clipboard, as I knew he would. A car came out. ‘On you go,’ said the cheery guy in blue. ‘Ten minutes only, please. Off load your stuff, then go and park. My colleague will give you a map to show you where.’
And that’s exactly what happened. Couldn’t have been easier.
Except – it wasn’t. It was much, much harder than I thought.
Martha’s room was fine, of course. We’d seen the pictures. Bigger than the one she has at home. Great view of the city. We helped her unpack, set up, get organised. I strung some fairy lights across the pin board over her desk. We met one of the girls she’d be sharing the kitchen with, another singer on the music course. She seemed nice.
‘Are you scared?’ she said.
‘It’s pretty daunting,’ Kath said, to cover.
‘Oh – yes! It’s totally terrifying!’ said Martha.
Later she told us she thought the girl had said ‘Are you any good?’
Once we’d unpacked, we all went down the road to a cafe (just like in The Tiger Who Came to Tea – one of the books we used to read the girls when they were little). We only had till half past three in the car park, and anyway, I didn’t want to drag out what was going to be a painful farewell. We ate our paninis and sipped our drinks and the conversation sagged under the gravitational pull of the clock. Walked back together to the campus gate. Said goodbye there, one last hug. Martha turned resolutely and went inside; we carried on – three of us, now – back to the car, and home.
The satnav sounded psychotic rather than cheerful.
I’d heard of Empty Nest Syndrome before, but I’d never given it much thought. I was too practical, too realistic. And besides, in our case we still had Jessie at home, delaying the completely windblown, snag of redundant twigs at the top of the bare tree thing for another four years, at least (thank God). But still, despite this being just the first of our children to fly the nest, it still hit hard.
I knew I had a melancholy side. I used to tear-up at the end of In the Night Garden because didn’t the whole ‘disappearing across a dark sea into a bloom of lilies’ mean that Iggle Piggle was actually dying? And even though I like to prepare for things rather than risk getting sucker-punched by the unexpected – still, this time I’d underestimated how it would affect me.
Back home, I did what anyone would do when they fell into an existential funk. I Googled it.
It brought up a stack of results, from Ted talks to chat shows to formal psychological case studies. They’re all useful, and I think from skimming them it pretty much boils down to four things you need to do to address these feelings of loss:
It’s not so much an end as a beginning. Change happens, whether you want it to or not. As the theologist and philosopher Alan Watts put it:
The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
Which doesn’t mean you won’t cry when you drop your child off at the gate, but it does mean you might find a reason to smile on the journey home.
There’s a Georgian mansion house and gardens occupying the spot where the Norman motte and bailey once was. These days, the only thing surviving of the stone castle that followed on from it are the vaults and tunnels beneath.
‘A little health and safety before I take you in,’ says the guide. ‘Can you hear me at the back? Shuffle up! No-one’s going anywhere until I’ve gone over the rules.’
I’m a little worried about mum. This is her ninetieth birthday party, after all, and although her health is pretty good generally, her right hip is beginning to give out, making her walk at a loping slant like a pantomime pirate. On the plus side, it might actually work to her advantage down there in the lopsided environment of the vaults. On the minus, she’s taking her miniature Schnauzer Amelia down with her. She won’t be dissuaded.
‘She’s sensitive to ghosts,’ she says. ‘It’ll be like taking a canary down the mines.’
‘Keep your hard hats on at all times,’ says the guide, tapping his head by way of illustration. ‘The ceiling is low and it curves in steeply either side. I estimate that each of you will bang your head four times. I’m never wrong about this.’
‘Is there a hat for Amelia?’ says Mum.
‘No,’ says the guide. ‘She’s low enough for that not to be a problem. Okay? If you’d like to follow me, then…’
And he turns and leads us down the worn stone steps, through the iron gates, and into the gloomy vaults that stretch ahead, lit by emergency lighting at spooky intervals.
Someone bumps their helmet on the lintel.
‘That’s one!’ shouts the guide.
‘He’s good’ whispers Mum.
Mum had her eightieth party at the castle, too. For some reason she didn’t go down the vaults then, which either suggests the older she gets the more risks she’s happy to take, or – more likely – that the poodle she had at that time was too elderly or sick to manage it. Everything Mum does is based on the dog of the moment. She refuses to put them in kennels, have a dog-sitter or leave them alone for a minute. Any family event, the primary concern will be the dog. It wouldn’t surprise me if she turned up at a wedding or a funeral with the dog carried in by four oiled slaves on a litter. Every dog she’s ever had has been utterly dependent with high-end requirements, existing on boiled rice and chicken, and pet soaps on the telly.
Funny thing is, Amelia is much less of a monster than you’d have any right to expect. Mum says she barks all the time, but she hasn’t barked once at the party. She’s quite content to sit in the shade under the table. She even lifts a paw and when I ask her – to shake, I thought, but I think she wants me to kiss a claw, like the pope’s ring.
‘She’s a very biddable dog,’ I say.
‘She’s protective,’ says Mum. ‘She won’t be parted from me for a second.’
Amelia puts her head on one side and stares into my eyes with that odd, gruff-wise expression Schnauzers have (or Schnau-tzers as Mum pronounces it, like it’s a make of machine pistol). Arriving at the party I half expected to see Amelia’s face on the balloons and banners when we came round the corner into the garden; as it was, she was prominently displayed on Mum’s lap, receiving tribute from the guests as they arrived, accepting all their strokes and tickles with the imperious and unquestioning hauteur of a president.
‘That’s two!’ says the guide, calling out from the front.
‘He’s very good,’ says Mum.
‘Now then,’ says the guide, stopping by a particular vent off to the left and gesturing with his stick. ‘We’ve got a colony of bats in there. Please don’t disturb them with any flash photography. They’re a protected species. If they do happen to fly out, resist the urge to flap around. Just remain calm and stand perfectly still. They’ll do a couple of circuits then go back in to roost. But don’t worry,’ he carries on. ‘They’re the only animals we’ve got down here. Present company excepted. There aren’t any others, not even rats.’
‘Rats don’t like bats,’ says Mum. ‘Or is it the other way round?’
It sounds like a quote – Alice in Wonderland? – and adds to the dreamy feel of the whole thing. Mum’s holding tightly to the arm of my eldest brother as we carry on into the vaults, either because of her frailty or because she doesn’t want to lose him again. After all, no-one’s seen him for ten years or more, but against all expectations he’s turned up at the party with his daughter. No one knows why he disappeared for so long, and Mum’s party isn’t the place to ask. For now, proceeding in a shuffling crouch through these dimly lit vaults, it feels like we’ve been magically called together for one, last ceremonial journey into the underworld.
We emerge into a longer, larger hall. Off at the far end is a single plastic chair, eerily lit by the emergency lighting. In front of us is a camping table with more of the chairs. The guide sits down on one of the chairs.
‘Gather round’ he says. ‘Now – this is where the local paranormal society like to set up their equipment. As you may or may not be aware, the castle – and particularly these vaults – are some of the most haunted spots in the county. Every so often we let the paranormal society camp down here for the night with all their equipment, their EVP recorders, full spectrum cams and what have you. Myself? I don’t believe in ghosts particularly, but they seem to think there’s something going on down here. They’ve shown me pictures of a dark figure over there in that corner where the chair is. The Blob, they call it. I don’t know. It’s an interesting phenomenon, whatever it is. And the place certainly takes on a special feeling in the early hours. I’ll tell you a story. Last year the paranormals were down for one of their regular sessions. And there was this chap – nice guy, very down to earth – and he came along with his girlfriend, because although he didn’t believe in ghosts she was very into the whole thing and he wanted to show her support. So here we were, all set up, and it was about two or three in the morning, and it was time for one of our regular breaks up top. And this chap, he says “I’ll stay down here on my own”. “Oh” we say “Are you sure about that?” “Sure I’m sure” he says. “I’ll be fine. And turn out all the lights when you go.” I think it was bravado – you know. Showing off in front of his girlfriend. Anyway, we did as he asked, we all left the chamber, and the last thing I did before I came up into the garden was turn out all the lights with the master switch. Then I joined the others having a cup of tea on the veranda of the main house. Well – I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced perfect darkness? Absolute, perfect silence? It’s a strange thing, something you don’t often get. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s rarely experienced, because however dark it gets there’s always a glimmer of something, even if it’s just starlight. Anyway – about ten minutes after I shut off the lights, there was this terrible wailing scream from the vaults, and the poor chap came sprawling up the steps, staggered across the lawn, and literally threw himself at us on the veranda. When he’d calmed down enough he told us what happened. Apparently he sat there in the dark, getting used to it, feeling quite relaxed, sleepy even – when suddenly he heard a scratching noise from over in the far corner. He didn’t like it, but he dismissed it as a rat – which, as you know, we don’t get down here. The next thing was the feeling of a heavy hand on his shoulder, and someone’s face at his ear, making gritty grinding noises with their teeth. That’s when he screamed and ran – headfirst through the pitch blackness. How he didn’t knock himself cold, I don’t know. And the worst thing was, he said – the worst thing – was he could hear footsteps following close behind him. I said to him, I said “that was probably the echo of your own footsteps” “So how come they followed me across the lawn as well?” he said. And that was that.’
Mum looks down at Amelia.
‘How strange!’ she says. ‘She hasn’t barked once!’
Bonjour, mes amis. Ca va?
So we’ve come on holiday to Paris, staying in an Airbnb in the 18th arrondissement, about a mile or so down the road from Montmartre. Staying in these flats is always interesting. My impression is they fall into two camps: those that are bought and let specifically as holiday accommodation, and those where the family clear out for a time to make a little extra on the side. I prefer the latter, actually, although it is a weird feeling, letting yourself into someone else’s place. I keep expecting them to turn up, find us all sitting eating dinner, and scream. But it’s a homey experience, that’s for sure, friendlier, more like real life, with none of that stultifying uniformity you get in hotels. And you get a small flavour of what it must be like to live round here, shop in the local markets, drink in the bars, ride the Metro.
It’s the little details that really make it. I like the weird drawings on the wall in one of the children’s rooms, one of them a kind of cosmic pig’s head in a field of stars that look worryingly like pentagrams. I like the fact that when we were looking for matches there were children’s baby teeth in the matchbox. I like it that there’s a cupboard with a sliding door that when you open it a hundred things fall out and it takes you half an hour to put it all back. Including a zipped bag of knives. And I like it that over the dining table there’s a gangster film poster called ‘Everyone’s Going to Die’.
I know that last paragraph probably reads as if I don’t like these things, but – honestly – I do. The point is, you definitely don’t get any of this in a hotel, which tends to present its comforts with all the meticulous warmth of a crime scene.
So all in all I like the apartment. Except one thing I don’t particularly like are the electric shutters on the windows. It seems as if you’re supposed to close them at night, but to me it feels too much like being banged up in a maximum security prison. It’s airless and cheerless and a little claustrophobic. It makes me think of all those films where heavy metal shutters were needed – I Am Legend, maybe, or Forbidden Planet (I know, I know – that’s a stretch – but it’s not necessarily an indication of age. I mean, I’ve seen Nosferatu, but I’m not a hundred. And to labour the point, I’ve read The Tempest but I’m not five hundred). Point is, in Forbidden Planet (based on The Tempest, ironically), the house of Dr Morbius has these gigantic iron shutters that clang into position at night to protect them against the monsters of the ID. So I suppose what I’m saying is that sometimes you’ll book through Airbnb and find yourself going to bed in a fortress on another planet. But that’s good, because I like to get out and see other worlds. Shutters permitting.
Flea markets are great places for taking pictures. There’s something poignant about the jumble of things, collections from other people’s lives – the ceramic hand that no doubt sat waving for decades on someone’s dressing table, now waving more in a drowning kind of way, struggling for a handhold in the tsunami of Mickey Mouse phones, crocodile boot jacks, thimble collections, spinning wheels, Meccano steam pumps, Chinese silk screens, hats, corsets, coins and rings and trays of lithographic stamps, and a hundred de-framed oil paintings, some good, some bad, some so completely terrible they’ve actually dragged themselves in the direction of the bin. It’s quite overwhelming.
It was raining. A drizzling start that grew in confidence and downright malevolence until finally we were sloshing heads down and hoods-up through the puddles, dodging cataracts of water falling from the stall tarpaulins. It was pretty miserable, and I was mindful of getting my camera wet, so we diverted to a more comprehensively covered area. The displays in this section were much more discretely spaced, as if the quality of each item and the subsequent price needed the extra room to breathe and properly be itself. The stall holders were different, too, more vigilant, less friendly. They sat on antique chairs brutally flipping through antique catalogues, regularly glancing over the tops of their bifocals, like security guards in a museum. It was pretty off-putting, I must admit. There was one cabinet that really caught my eye, though. It was beautifully put together in an oddly hypnotic way, the whole display like one of those grabber cranes at the fair, except instead of toy penguins, trolls and the like there was a delicately fabulous selection of things, a phrenology head, strings of amber beads, strange dolls, ceremonial daggers. I took out my camera and started playing with the settings. I felt a tap on the shoulder. It was a tall guy in a three piece suit and a three piece face (frown, flare, sneer). He leaned over and tapped the case, and a card taped to the top that I hadn’t noticed. No Photo. A hand-drawn picture of a camera with a red line through it.
‘Ah! Pardon!’ I said, very embarrassed, putting the lens cap back on and touching him on the shoulder in a friendly way. It was like touching a mannequin. He turned away to fuss with some shawls. He was mumbling whilst he did it, and even though I wasn’t entirely sure whether he was talking to me or not, I stayed to find out. My French is very bad, but this is what I think he said:
‘I get up early. It rains. I set up my shop. And for what? A photo?’
‘Je suis desolé,’ I said. ‘Au revoir, monsieur.’
I turned to see that my wife and girls had already moved on. A long way on.
The man watched me do the same.
You need a thick skin to do street photography. Or an adaptable one, like a chameleon. Up till now I’ve been too scared, and stuck to shots of nature, architecture, stuff that doesn’t move or protest. When I have taken pictures of people I’ve always felt a little furtive, trying to look as if I’m focusing on something else, then moving the camera to catch the real subject as an afterthought. I quite like hanging around places, to see what happens, though. It’s fascinating, the subtle changes to a place over time. Still, most of those shots are distant and a little too objective. I’d like to get a more intimate perspective on life in the streets – or wherever life happens to be happening – but I think I’ll need to work on my people skills first. In hindsight, maybe I could’ve made a start with that stallholder.
Although God knows what he’d have done if I’d tried to photograph HIM.