No-one wants to be here, on the Bi-Annual Patient Handling course today. No-one. And – to be fair – the Trust probably don’t want us here, either. I’m sure if they could cover their legal obligations some other way, by hiring someone in a crop-duster to swoop in low every once in a while to spray the county with liquefied rules and regs, or maybe introduce it into the water like fluoride, they undoubtedly would. But as neither of those things are currently an option, here we are on a business park on the furthest, most westerly edge of the county – so far west, I wouldn’t be surprised to see cars and buses plummeting off the edge of the world, beeping their horns, revving helplessly, as they tumbled away into infinity.

Nothing so wonderful. Here we sit in a brave and chippy semicircle, introducing ourselves.

Our tutor Pawel is as upbeat as we are cynical. He says ‘Hello’ very emphatically when it’s our turn to speak, leaning forwards and pyramiding his hands beneath his nose, like this is the most fascinating bunch of people it’s ever been his pleasure to meet. And when each of us is done speaking our sad little bio, he says ‘Welcome’ very sincerely, almost tenderly, acknowledging our bravery and honesty, and then moves on to the next.

He’s dressed in a dark blue polo shirt, combat trousers and black boots, the partisan captain of an evangelical Occupational Health outreach unit, a visionary zeal about him that his Polish accent somehow intensifies.

Pawel can hardly wait for the introductions to finish before he strides about the room. Even the housekeeping at the beginning reads more like the opening of a thriller.

‘And God forbid there should ever be a FIRE! – Don’t worry, my friends! I’m not planning for this to happen! But if there IS A FIRE! – You should all follow me through the main offices here, and I will lead you to SAFETY in the corner of the parking lot…’

We start the training. Pawel pegs out a line of awful statistics about back pain and so on, the costs to the service, the cost to the practitioners, and then moves onto all the techniques that will protect us from this. We take it in turns to be the patient, effortlessly moved up and down the hospital bed, from chair to chair, from floor to chair, from chair to floor to chair, each time Pawel snapping his red nylon slide sheet like a magician, stuffing it into tiny gaps, whipping it out again. Frictionless movement. Painless transfers. Safety. Comfort. ERGONOMICS.

‘Do you SEE it?’ he says after every procedure. ‘Do you SEE it?’


a clean decision

At the barber’s for a haircut. Luckily there’s only one person ahead of me, a large, silver haired man with huge red ears and a booming voice.
‘Oh yes, I was a referee for fifty years,’ he says.
‘It’s not something I could do,’ says the barber, gently combing the strands around, snipping the ends. ‘I don’t have the temperament.’
‘Nonsense!’ says the man. ‘Although I’ll admit you do have to have a measure of control. The players can become quite – how shall I put it? – excited about your decisions, and you have to exercise a certain amount of diplomacy and common sense.’
‘I bet you do,’ says the barber.
‘Take swearing, for instance. Now – I fully understand that in the rough and tumble of play you can forget where you are and say this or that and turn the air blue. But I was always very clear. And when the captains came together to toss the coin, I would say to them: You know me, gentlemen. I am perfectly fine with a little rough language now and again, but if there’s one word directed straight at me it’ll be out with the red card and off you go. I earned quite a reputation.’
‘I bet you did’ says the barber. ‘How much off the top?’
‘Oh – do what you can with the bald patch. I’m not expecting miracles.’
‘Right you are.’
‘I remember one particular match. It was a local derby, very heated. Quite a bit of needle between the players. Towards the end one of them went in for a particularly positive tackle and his opponent took a tumble. But it was clear to me that he’d played the ball and not the player, and as such there had been no infringement of the rules. The next thing I knew the captain came running up and he said Where’s our penalty, ref? So I explained to him why it didn’t warrant one, and signalled for play to continue. Unfortunately the poor chap couldn’t help himself. You’re a fucking idiot he said, straight to my face.’
‘He didn’t!’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘What did you do?’
‘Well – what d’you think I did? I said to him: Oh? So I’m a fucking idiot, am I? Well – d’you know what this is? That’s right! It’s a red card. And d’you know why I’m showing it to you? Because you are out of this game, mister! I bid you good day!’
‘What’s that?’
‘Eyebrows. D’you want me to do your eyebrows?’
‘Oh. Yes. Well. Could you? They’re getting a bit wild.’


lola, the robot & the ball

It was only a matter of time.

When it’s my day off I’ll take Lola on her walk about the same time each morning. And because we’re regular we tend to meet the same people. I quite often see the elderly woman and her Jack Russell on the way back from the woods. She’s particularly distinctive, in a large, shovel-style hat and long quilted coat, bent forwards at the waist, carrying a tennis racket behind her, marching along in such a chaotic but determined way that from a distance the tennis racket looks like a key in the back of a giant clockwork robot. Now and again she’ll stop to pick up a squeaky yellow ball, and then using the tennis racket it whack it half way across the park for the Jack Russell to tear after. I try to anticipate seeing them, because Lola has an embarrassing habit of stealing other dogs’ toys and then running round and round in a celebratory lap that only gets bigger and faster the more you try to stop it. In fact, the only way I’ve found to get the ball back is to pretend I’ve found something even more interesting. (And I love Lola very much, but even I would have to admit that this is one powerful argument against the idea that Lola is a Very Intelligent Dog, because surely if she were, she wouldn’t keep falling for it).

Anyway – today I wasn’t quick enough. Before I could think to do anything, Lola had run straight across the park, intercepted the ball, and started lapping us all, squeaking the ball every time she passed, like a sprinter marking split-times. I waved and mimed an extravagant apology to the old woman, whilst moving into position to try the ‘Look what I’ve got’ trick again. The old woman ignored me, though. She was too busy making things worse by marching in a furiously ineffectual pattern, waving her tennis racket and hollering. Meanwhile, her Jack Russell had retreated to the path, where it sat with its muzzle on its paws looking thoroughly depressed, like its worst fears had been realised, and nothing would ever be the same again.

‘Don’t worry! I’ll get your ball back!’ I shouted.

It wasn’t easy. Every time Lola looked as if, maybe, this time, against all the odds, I might actually have something of genuine interest, the old woman would make ground on her, and set her off squeaking again.

Suddenly the old woman changed her trajectory, marching straight for me, either because she thought she’d have more luck whacking Lola if she stood next to me, or because she thought she might start whacking me, and bring Lola over that way. But when the old woman came within earshot it was obvious she was too out of breath to say or do anything, so I seized my chance.

‘Lola! Wow! Look at this! Unbelievable…!’ I said, bending down and pretending to find something incredible in the grass.

It worked. I could hear the squeaks getting louder.
I looked up.
Lola had stopped just beyond the distance she and I both knew I could cover in a standing leap, had dropped the ball onto the grass in front of her, and was standing there, panting and smiling at me, as if to say: Okay. What? What have you got?
Pathetically, I held out a leaf.
‘Here you are, Lola! Good girl! Look at this! Wow! Good girl!’
Incredibly, she inched a little closer.
Well. That’s just a leaf, isn’t it?
I sniffed the leaf and held it up to the light.
‘Fantastic! This is amazing!’
She came a little closer. Glanced back at the ball. A little closer.
Fatally close.
I leapt forward, grabbed her collar, clipped on the lead. Gave her a hug and a pat. Retrieved the ball and held it up for the old woman to see.
‘Don’t – whatever you do – throw it!’ she gasped.


birthday girl

I was asked to deliver a cake to Enid, a woman who was born on Armistice day in 1918. The nursing home had put out a general call for help on social media: Enid had never had children, and as the years had gone by her friends and family had died or moved away, so now she had no-one, and the staff were worried she wouldn’t have enough cards. Plus it was one hundred years since the ending of World War One, so it seemed the right time to take action. There was plenty of interest locally. A florist offered to provide a bouquet and a cake maker a cake. Kath collected the flowers the Saturday before, but the cake wouldn’t be ready until eleven on the Sunday, so I volunteered to collect it and take both things plus a card to the home by about midday on the day itself. I put the radio on and pulled into a layby when Big Ben struck eleven. The rain had stopped, the sun was shining brightly. I was surrounded by yellow and golden leaves and everything seemed pretty peaceful and perfect, but to be honest I was preoccupied with thinking about the pick-up and where to drop it off and the timing of everything, so I can’t say I was overly focused on the war.

The baker lived in a cottage with a yellow door, white window frames and perfect red bricks, the whole thing looking like an immaculate self-build of gingerbread and icing.
‘Why did you lock your car door?’ she said, holding the cake box with one hand underneath and one to the side. ‘You’re standing right there.’
‘Habit,’ I said.
‘Well. I’ve only just iced the decoration so don’t do anything stupid.’
‘Put it in the footwell’ she said. ‘No sudden braking.’
‘No. I’ll be careful.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s fragile.’
I told her I’d be sure to wedge it with my coat, but she wasn’t reassured.
‘Granny driving only,’ she said. ‘Easy on the corners.’
‘Of course. Do you want me to take a photo of Enid with the cake?’
‘Nah,’ she said. ‘I already got some pics.’

There were lots of detours in place because of the big Centenary Armistice commemorations going on, so I had to take a cross-country route. When I got there I found a dozen people already queuing outside the door to the home, including a cub scout in uniform holding a large card with a poppy made of crepe in the middle and Happy Birthday Enid written in glitterpen.
‘Do you know Enid?’ said the woman, straightening his cap. I thought she must be his mum.
‘No,’ I said. ‘There was something on social media. I didn’t see it. I’m just delivering some cake and flowers.’
‘That’s nice,’ she said.
Someone else asked the guy nearest the door if he’d rung.
‘Yes,’ he said, but then self-consciously rapped the large brass knocker.
‘At least it’s not raining,’ I said to the cub scout’s mum.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘We’ve been lucky.’
Eventually there was movement behind the door: an orderly in a white tunic, who frowned at us all then stood aside just sufficiently so we could file in.
‘This is for Enid’ I said.
‘You mean Mrs Westerman?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Does it have to go in the fridge?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. It’s fresh to day.’
He took it.
‘The decorations are quite fragile,’ I said, but he was already marching off down the hall and shouldering backwards through a door marked ‘Kitchen’. I stood in the hallway with the vase of flowers and the other visitors, who – I found out – had all come to see Enid as well. We didn’t know what to do and certainly didn’t want to impose. After a while someone I guessed was a manager appeared. She had a brisk and efficient smile, and collected all our cards and flowers without committing to anything overmuch.
‘Enid’s had a busy morning and she’s just gone to bed,’ she said. ‘But I’ll make sure she gets all your presents.’
‘Wish her a happy birthday from us,’ said a guy with a camera round his neck.
‘Did you want a photo?’
‘Oh – no!’ he said, stepping back, horrified. ‘She needs to rest.’
‘Fine. Well. Thank you all so much.’
And she disappeared into the kitchen, too.
We all turned to go.
A man with two snappy dogs appeared, so abruptly it seemed as if the manager must have pressed a secret button somewhere. The first dog, the one that was urgently pulling on the lead, barked and snapped at the cub scout who drew back behind his mum.
‘Don’t do that!’ shouted the man, leaning over the dog. ‘How many times have I told you?’
The dog didn’t care though, and was already pulling him on, so the man passed along the corridor, throwing apologies over his shoulder as he spun round at the far end and was dragged off deeper into the home.

Sheepishly our little group retraced our steps back to the front door.
‘Isn’t there a button you push?’ said the guy who had originally been at the front to come in but was now standing right at the back. Maybe he was glad it was someone else’s turn to get the door stuff wrong.
‘There’s a pad,’ I said. ‘You need a code.’
We waited a while longer – so long I wondered if we really did need a code.
There was a fish tank right there and we stood and watched the fish for a while.
‘Look at the lovely tank’ said the mum to the cub scout. ‘All the lovely fish.’
A little while longer and the guy in the white tunic appeared again. He didn’t say anything, just came to the front and jabbed at the buttons whilst shielding them with his hand.
‘Ah hah!’ I said ‘Now I know!’P1120320
He frowned at me.
‘Know what?’
‘The secret code.’
‘You’re not supposed to know,’ he said.
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘I didn’t really see.’
‘Okay then.’
He opened the door and held it whilst we all filed out.
‘It’s no wonder she’s exhausted,’ said the mum, buttoning her coat and straightening in the fresh air as her son sprinted off across the car park. ‘All this attention.’



halloween checkout jokes

The checkout girl started telling me Halloween jokes just after she told me a rival supermarket was selling the same two tubs of sweets for eight pounds instead of the five pounds each I’d just laid out for.
‘Why are ghosts so bad at lying?’ she said.
‘Because you can see right through them!’
‘That’s a good one.’
‘What does a witch use to keep her hair up?’
‘I don’t know. What does a …’
She didn’t give me time to think of the answer, which is fair enough. I tried to think of one I could say myself, but all I could think of was the one about the skeleton who goes into a bar and asks for a pint of beer and a mop. It didn’t feel quite right, though, and anyway, the girl was laying out the jokes faster than she was scanning the items, which was pretty damn fast, and I didn’t stand a chance. I wasn’t sure if this wasn’t something they’d been asked to do or not, but she was so enthusiastic I thought maybe she would’ve done it anyway. I got my wallet ready with the reward card and the tokens.
‘Why didn’t the skeleton go to the ball?’ she said, swiping the card.
It was one I knew, so I said ‘Because he had no body to go with!’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s right.’
She handed me back my card, and stared at the machine that printed out the receipts and vouchers, and looked so sad I felt guilty.
‘Know anymore?’ I said.
She glanced up at me, then said: ‘What does a skeleton like to eat?’
‘I don’t know.’
I pointed at her, smiled in a faux-cheesy way, and said Goulish.
‘Oh’ she said. ‘Yes. That would have been better.’
I didn’t really understand, until I’d packed the trolley and moved away, and only then did I realise that she thought I’d said Goulash.
Which would’ve been pretty slick, if I’d actually meant it.


jim! jim!

I’m in danger of being thrown out of book group.

Not just thrown out, but ceremonially unbound, de-leafed, dust-jacketed, redacted, tossed on the remaindered pile, pulped.

Reason being, I tend not to like the books. Not even the ones I choose. (I mean – I’m a fan of John Steinbeck. He’s written some of my favourite books ever. But East of Eden? Yeuch. C’mon!)

The latest one is Absalom, Absalom! (So good they named it twice). Faulkner’s masterpiece. ‘The best novel yet written by an American’ (according to Faulkner). And sure – it looks good on paper. A civil war saga told from several viewpoints, each one as unreliable as the other. I think the idea is that you patiently peel away all the narrative layers and achieve understanding amongst the wreckage. Something like that. Which is fine, until you set to work, and find yourself overcome by layer fatigue. I’ve never read a book with such narcoleptic power. It didn’t matter how sharp I felt when I sat down, in just a couple of pages I was yawning and wondering what snacks we had in the cupboard. The febrile drama of the whole thing only made it worse. It was completely numbing, like finding yourself trapped next to one of the main characters on the bus, monologuing without end, requiring no input from you whatsoever, or any sign that you’re interested, or even alive. You’d have to pretend to faint to escape. And even then they’d insist on going with you in the ambulance.

Apparently Faulkner was influenced by Joyce. That doesn’t surprise me, having tried and failed to read Ulysses. I don’t know if they ever met, but I think they would have got on. Either that, or cancelled each other out, like two literary black holes colliding, disappearing into a prose singularity that swallows narratives whole, twists them up and splurges them out into an eternal parade of string people sitting on porches or horses smoking cigars, sipping whisky and bitching about Gettysburg.

Anyway. I’m just hoping everyone else is having the same trouble as me. My fear is they all completely love it, the immersive experience, the overwhelming, supersaturating drama of it. And pity me for my inability to engage with the passion and the poetry. And then vote to have me thrown out on my raggedy beginning-middle-and-end ass.

But at least I know what I’m going to choose next.

Farewell My Lovely.


bad penmanship

I was busy checking out my stuff at the supermarket when I noticed the woman next to me had dropped her pen. She was wearing a baggy combat jacket, and I guessed that when she pulled an extra bag out of the pockets the pen came with it. I thought she’d probably see the pen lying there, so I didn’t say anything to begin with. But she was so preoccupied, both with the packing and with her conversation with the checkout guy. They were talking about Pompeii. Or at least, some place that got wrecked by a volcano. And not recently, otherwise I they probably wouldn’t be talking about it so lightly and happily. I thought the pen woman had recently gone there, or was planning on going, or checkout guy had gone there sometime recently, or possibly even grown up there – or at least, nearby. Anyway, the woman was too engrossed to notice the pen on the floor. It looked like quite a nice pen, so in the end I went over, picked it up and gave it to her.
‘Oh!’ she said. ‘How did that get there? Well! Thank you very much!’
And she showed the checkout guy the pen, and he nodded with his eyebrows raised, as if to say well – another disaster averted.

I went back to my packing, which was piling up, because the guy on my till was due to finish or on steroids or something because he just kept it all coming at an alarming rate.

Anyway – I couldn’t help glancing at the woman, just at the moment she went to put the pen back in her pocket. She missed. The pen fell on the floor.

Which put me in a dilemma. Do I pick it up again or not?
These were the options:

1. If I picked it up again, she’d be embarrassed that exactly the same thing had happened, and in that case, maybe a lost pen was the lesser of two evils. But it was a nice pen.
2. She’d wonder if I’d pulled some kind of stunt, and would look at me as if she expected the same thing to happen a number of times before she left the store.
3. She’d wonder why I was paying so much attention to her and her pen.

Any of these options would almost inevitably lead to more of a ‘thing’. And I didn’t want a ‘thing’, I was on a mission to get the shopping, get back home and get writing, so I wouldn’t feel my day off had been wasted. I’d already had to go to the vets to get flea treatment for the dog and cat. The last thing I wanted was anything else to slow me down and distract me. (Ironic, then, that I ended up writing about the pen incident instead, but hey – that’s the way it goes. The essence of displacement activity. Writing about dropped pens at the checkout is more inviting than finishing a novel. Maybe I should just accept it – mission aborted: this novel will never be done. I’m horribly aware of its deficiencies. And my characters are getting mutinous. They spend way too much time sitting around smoking, flipping through magazines, waiting for me to come sit at the keyboard and write them some more goddamned stuff to do. But I can’t help it. I’m easily distracted. Maybe I should try cultivating the writing habit equivalent of my checkout guy – shovelling the words through in a great, undifferentiated heap. I bet he’d finish a novel in a week. And earn vouchers off the next one).

But fate took over, as it often does in these situations. The woman stepped on the pen. Even above the general chaos of the supermarket, there was an audible crunch.

‘Oh shit I don’t believe it!’ she said, picking it up and then brandishing the broken pen in the air. ‘I don’t deserve good pens!’

I hurried away.