Dad the Impaler

420084UTC - 9 Responses

Since it looks as though Daddy is no longer going to update the blog, I have taken it upon myself to attempt a revival of this once mildly popular webpage. According to him, his absence – if you could stretch your credulity that far, given what a gobshite he is – comes from “not having anything to say”, except perhaps to relate a disquieting episode in which he emerged from an ill-equipped public toilet in Rhyl, North Wales, looking conspicuous by the absence of one of his shirtsleeves. “Heroism comes in many guises”, he said to Mummy after concluding his story, and went on nodding to himself with the solemnity of one who has suddenly understood the wisdom of his own words.

Daddy, whose hopes of buying a house in Italy were at one point as high as the midday sun, has watched them describe a descending arc across the sky before setting behind a korma-coloured mountain of soggy nappies. As a result, most of his days are now spent moping around the place. Disturbingly, I have often caught him eyeing me with that intrigued look a creative and adventurous cook would cast upon a previously unconsidered ingredient. Luckily, there is Mummy, who is the one bright light in this otherwise gloomy harbour, though not without blame either as evidenced by a particularly perplexing dance she frequently performs to Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring which she has on a loop.

Come to think of it, there is a good deal about these two that is very unsettling. I have now been observing them for the best part of nine weeks and I have to say their parenting skills – not least their ability to provide me with any acceptable form of entertainment – leaves plenty to be desired. For instance, is it absolutely necessary to hover above my Moses basket first thing in the morning with their mouths hanging open like Count Dracula and his dishevelled lady-friend in what I can only hope is a dreadfully misguided attempt to elicit a smile from me? Far from encouraging me to smile back, it makes me want to shriek with fear. A horror show, is what it is.

Then there is the unending stream of visitors who seem to congregate around the place these days. Overnight, the flat has become the stamping ground for a gaggle of women of a certain age and ample breastage who, without exception, wear tops cut much lower than it would have been seemly for someone half their age. (It is my contention that just as a horse’s age can be determined from a quick glance at its knashers, so too can a woman’s age be revealed – or at least educatedly guessed at – by the expansion of her décolletage.) The acreage of exposed leathery skin is then liberally doused with the sickliest perfumes that can be bought at Superdrug without a prescription, on the off-chance that they might one day bump into George Clooney. Of course, if that day ever comes, Georgey boy is in for the motorboating session of his life; in the meantime, however, the dubious privilege of smelling like potpourri remains all mine.

As you can probably imagine, all this has taken its toll on someone so young. I’m not ashamed to confess occasionally daydreaming about the possibility of a terrible mix-up at the maternity ward, and that in time someone will realise their monstrous error and reunite me with my real parents. But even I can see that the odds are stacked against it, as I apparently bear more than a passing resemblance to Daddy. My only hope now comes from the occasional mention of a Nigerian toilet attendant at Spearmint Rhino, though I suspect this to be one of Daddy’s ‘jokes’. I am employing the quotes here because although he makes a lot of these jokes, I am yet to see anyone laugh at any of them, and this particular one tends to cause Mummy to purse her lips further than usual.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, I have written to the Jeremy Kyle show about this matter as I believe all possible avenues should be explored. In the end, it may well be that Peter Cushing and his wild-haired girlfriend here really are my parents and that I’m stuck with them for the duration.

Outside, the world looks an exciting place where people can enter TV talent contests or play online bingo; in here th… ah, there goes the doorbell again. The scent of patchouli oil from the previous visitor still clings to my skin like the tentacles of an octopus with separation issues, but one ploughs on with already characteristic stoicism. Daddy is probably right: heroism does indeed come in many guises.

In praise of… our armed forces

10200710UTC - 27 Responses

I don’t know if you heard, but there is a campaign this week which is encouraging us to show our appreciation for all the hard work that our armed forces have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are being asked by one of the campaign organisers to create a logo for a t-shirt, anything that takes our fancy, and send it to them. The intention is to improve our soldiers’ morale and fill their hearts with warm and loving feelings towards humanity when they realise how appreciated they really are. We should then post the t-shirts to them at the same time, thereby creating one of those Hollywood moments at the end of the film when the poignant music plays while the weary soldiers, having witnessed every kind of atrocity known to mankind, open their packages at the same time. For that extra touch of emotion, they could drape one of the guys who didn’t make it with one of these t-shirts.

An admirable idea, I’m sure you’ll agree. But that was yesterday and since I missed the deadline for sending the t-shirt, I decided to write this post instead because I just couldn’t pass this opportunity to express my feelings of gratitude.

It must be a source of great distress to our brave boys and girls that the latte-swigging, Guardian-reading lefties scoff and roll their eyes whenever an idea as noble as this is suggested. What our soldiers would like is for a bit of appreciation from the British public; you know, perhaps nothing quite as OTT as what the American soldiers get back home; the red carpet treatment would suffice. They do, after all, lay their lives on the line for us, and as Demi Moore once famously said: “They stand on that wall and say ‘nothing will happen to you, not on my watch’” (assuming there are no friendly fire incidents). Stirring stuff indeed. Mr Kipling, as well as making exceedingly good cakes, wrote a bit of kaki-nosed poetry in his spare time too. He called this phenomenon “mocking those who guard you while you sleep”.

Oh and how they mock. What those tree-hugging, sandal-wearing beardy-weirdies don’t realise is that when those impressionable young people joined up, it had nothing to do with the recruitment ads on TV which implied that joining the army is a lot of fun really; all that climbing up and skiing down mountains, “playing” with a lot of hi-tech kit, or even learning to drive through an unlit wooded area instead of joy-riding around the backstreets of Southshields. Nor, as they point out between gulps of fruit tea and mouthfuls of muesli, did they join because of later ads which suggested that being in the army would make them a lot more attractive to the opposite sex. You know the sort of thing: in them, female officers could expect leering men in bars to become completely incapacitated, and sometimes even soil themselves, in anticipation of the kinky sex that lay ahead, after introducing themselves as Captain Dimwit and Lieutenant Spongebrains. Equally, male officers could expect women to become so up-for-it once they listened to the two bragging pilots discussing who was better at landing helicopters in a storm, that a simple tap on the shoulder would automatically cause their knickers to fall down around their ankles.

Nope. They are too bright and perceptive to fall for that kind of trickery. They joined because they wanted to make a difference. Like the gallant Great War soldier, guided by the romantic image of charging at an enemy machinegun turret armed only with a single-shot rifle and bayonet, they wanted to combat the forces of evil. They are also intelligent enough to understand that their superiors know best, and it is not up to them to question orders, however amoral or irrational they may appear. They comprehend at once that their commanding officers are acting on behalf of Queen and Country, and Her Majesty is, after all, the Head of the Church and as such instinctively knows God’s will.

It’s all about courage, you see – a concept which the vegetable protein-munching, raspberry frappuccino-guzzling liberals cannot grasp. It takes courage to press that red button knowing that innocent people are going to die, just like it takes balls the size of watermelons to invade a country to depose a tyrannical regime which we helped implement and supported in the first place. All that, and their faces still manage to retain their usual pallor.

It is about time that we recognised that sort of bravery in this country. For my part, I would like to say a huge thank you to those brave boys and girls out there doing their bit. Thank you for making our country richer with the extra oil. For me personally it has been a huge bonus. Being a curvaceous 25-stone person, I can now afford to fill my two-ton 4×4 with petrol and drive to McDonald’s for my daily extra large big mac, instead of having to walk the twenty-minute round trip. And for all that, I shall be eternally grateful.

Now, since I missed the chance to send the t-shirt that I designed, I thought I might post what I came up with here. I hope you like it:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

A ‘V’ for Victory, of course.

Oh and I do hope that you will forgive the placard-carrying, pink champagne-sipping socialists for their unpatriotic dissent. Forgive them for they know not what they say. It says so in the Bible. You understand, I’m sure, that the main reason for wreaking such havoc around the world is so that we can all express our opinions freely without fear of persecution.

Now praise the lord and go kill them all. And remember, it’s not rape if they’re dead.

“Oooh it’s posh in Harrogate”

920079UTC - 20 Responses

I go out for a walk in town. I descend the first floor steps, out into the courtyard and under the archway which supports the working clock tower complete with signature weathervane. Apparently it was built by a man named Samson Fox – an ancestor, it turns out, of James and Edward Fox, for those of you who only believe in the value of something if it has a celebrity connection – as a stable block for Grove House with the intention of not only lodging the future King Edward VII’s horses on his visits to Yorkshire, but also to provide them with that modern essential, the equine Turkish bath.

As I step out onto the street pavement I instinctively look over to my left towards the house which a few months ago was the focus of intense concentration by the police. They were there for a good three days, a car parked adjacent to the house with two police officers standing behind it staring intently towards the house. The rest of the street was cordoned off and the residents were told ‘not to go out’. It transpired that a man inside the house was armed and refusing to come out. The residents became prisoners in their own homes for those two days or so. Today everything seems to be back to normal, apart from a mixed group of teenagers perched on the bench drinking what looks suspiciously like lager. Over the years they went from pesky children shouting abuse at passers-by to much more threatening near-adults.

In town I visit the only two bookshops, if you count WHSmith. They seem of late to have been invaded by books with emotive covers featuring angelic looking children and bearing titles which are variations on “Please Daddy No”. In the pedestrianised Cambridge Street, Rudy, the local ‘character’, walks around shouting into a karaoke machine what sounds like a rock version of Bright Eyes, stopping occasionally to chat to teenagers. On my walk, he is the only person to look me directly in the eyes and say hello. He calls me ‘brother’, which I haven’t been able to ascertain whether it is because of the connection between our skin tones or whether this is how he addresses everyone. On sunny days, he tends to sit in the middle of the walkway cross-legged and staring into the sun.

Harrogate seems to possess that dangerous combination of sheltered provinciality and a past associated with nobility and royalty. Indeed, one often has the impression that everything in Harrogate has a royal connection: streets, pubs, hotels, squares. Perhaps for this reason, it has always struck me as a town with ideas above its station; something acquired, no doubt, through hundreds of years of royal schmoozing. In the days when its foul-tasting sulphur and iron rich water was seen as a blanket cure for any illness beyond the grasp of medicine’s rather petite hands, it became a haven for medical lost causes, not least the members of whichever royal household happened to be reigning at the time. They still come now, though no longer to drink the water. Prince Charles visits every year, apparently, on Valentine’s Day. I’ve seen him in one such occasion, coming out of Betty’s tearooms to plant a tree in the Cenotaph square under the adoring gaze of a crowd of royal groupies frantically waving their miniature Union Jacks.

Nowadays Harrogate has little more to boast about than the International Conference Centre and the Great Yorkshire Show, which plays havoc with the already heavy traffic system. But its previous history has left its citizens with a disproportional level of hubris and quaint old-fashioned values. In the cafes, demure old ladies daintily eat their sponge cakes and sip their tea, while no doubt discussing the latest royal visit and speculating on the next one. For me, Harrogate’s a rather neat metaphor for life: you shuffle between banks and shops, ignoring the significance of the war memorial, until eventually, overcome with tiredness, you end up down in the Valley Gardens for a long rest.

When I return home, I notice the teenagers have dispersed. As I reach the archway entrance, I see a girl crouched down, her back against the wall. She looks like she is in trouble and I prepare to ask if she needs help. But as I approach, I notice a stream filling in the gaps between the smooth cobbles, the source of which appears to be somewhere under her skirt. Steam rises from it like fog hovering over a river. She looks up and sees me, and although she reacts in a suitably sheepish manner, manages simply to say:

“As if…”

Under the Copper Beech

820078UTC - 21 Responses

I approach the garden with a certain amount of trepidation. The grass, which is usually trim, hasn’t been cut in a while. At the bottom of the garden there is a copper beech tree whose branches droop almost as far as the ground, creating a secluded canopied area underneath. 

“Through there”, she says pointing to the tree. I make my way in gingerly, pushing the branches aside with one hand and holding the spade with the other. The earth here is dry, unaffected it would seem by the recent diluvial weather. I examine the body: in surprisingly good condition considering it has probably been here for a week, when he was first reported missing. 

I half-heartedly begin to dig but this is not the kind of work that accommodates half-heartedness, and the arid ground refuses to yield. Why now, I think aggrieved by recent events. His stubbornness and refusal to respond to reason is quite exasperating. For someone who spent his entire life regularly exercising and eating healthily, why would he give up so easily? 

“I am my own doctor”, he had said, clearly irritated by our concerned badgering. People in their sixties, even their seventies, are not considered old anymore, and yet at the first sign of trouble he expects the worst. Confronted with the headlights of a potential death sentence delivered by a doctor decades his junior, he becomes paralysed by fear. 

“Doctors are young and would have no interest in treating someone my age. If I went into hospital, I probably wouldn’t come out alive”, he had said looking emaciated like a prisoner of war. His distrust of doctors seems to stem from his belief that they are directly responsible for his wife’s death nearly fourteen years ago, when she had slipped into a hepatic coma. The doctors, having given up on her, withheld food and water, which, although counterintuitive since the liver is an organ capable of regeneration, is apparently standard practice in England. 

I look up at her through the leaves. She is standing on the concrete path that surrounds the house, arms anxiously folded across her chest. I didn’t know her when her mother died. Despite her unflagging cheerfulness, I have often noticed a well concealed sadness in her eyes and an almost imperceptible quiver of the lips, disguised by a solemn look of remembrance, particularly whilst relating a recurring dream: in it her mother is still alive, having made a full recovery from her coma, and life has once again returned to normal. But her narrative ends there. She doesn’t speak of the pain that each time she awakes to realise it was only a dream must cause her. Now expecting her first child, our first child, this. I stab at the soil with renewed vigour, bitten again by the untimeliness of events. 

The hole looks deep enough (how deep is deep enough?) and I gently scoop the animal up. He is lying on his side in a languid stretch and disconcertingly has his eyes open, staring unseeingly ahead. It must have been one of those cases often told in cat-lore in which the poor animal, sensing his time was up, decided to make his way to a secluded spot to accept his fate. Apparently he was around fifteen years old. Had he shown signs of illness, I wonder? Even if he had, it is unlikely his owner would have taken him to a vet, no doubt worried that they might put the animal to sleep. 

My job here is done and I walk back across the long grass to where she is standing. In the distance the accusing whirr of a lawnmower is cranked into life as we leave the garden in a silent embrace.

The Grand Old Lady of the Adriatic

820078UTC - 17 Responses

Full of tricks, this old girl. Even before you arrive, you are already bound by her demands and caprices. They shall only reach me by boat, she determined, evidently understanding the romantic appeal conveyed by this simple trick. She also insists that you approach her from a certain angle, the light catching her just so during what is a vulnerable moment in the traveller’s suggestible heart. There she sits, devastatingly beautiful, in a pose that is at once demure and provocative, the cityscape equivalent of the Mona Lisa.

She is dressed in the finery designed for her with the natural rhythms of daily life; style and colour coordination cunningly interwoven for maximum visual effect. As well as the long liquid emerald necklace carelessly draped over her body, she is adorned with the treasures created by her many artistic sons. And thus she bloomed like a flower ready for the bees, and after surveying her reflection on the green waters of the Venetian Lagoon and approving of what she saw, she declared: Let them come. And come they did in their droves.

Throughout the centuries, she has ensured that she mingled with the right sort of people: traders and noblemen, powerful families and the clergy. All those years spent in the company of illustrious patrons have given her a charismatic air of intrigue. But all that was a long time ago, in the days when the delicate flower of youth still coloured her soft cheeks. In more recent years, she has had to make do with a different brand of visitor, in unsightly shorts and baseball caps bearing sports logos charging through her streets in a manner which closely resembles a stampede of bulls, digital cameras dangling from their lanyards. But it doesn’t matter to this once high class lady of the night; perhaps not realising that, if anything, her appeal has only increased with age, she decided not to be too picky about the sort of people she receives into her arms – as long as they are capable of keeping her in the manner to which she is accustomed.

And I, who despite being able to see through her array of searing stares and studied gestures of seduction, am no less susceptible to her charms than any other punter. Of course, I fall for the old girl – we all do. I readily surrender my heart and my wallet, throwing money at her with the abandon of a sailor docking at some port after months at sea. But beware: in the morning, still heady with her scent and dishevelled from the previous night’s excesses, and with the insides of your pockets turned out, do not expect her to return your amorous advances – this flighty girl, having hollowed her pound of flesh out of your chest, will have moved on to her next conquest.

Exhausted from all the exertions and expense of getting to know this grand old lady better, I stop on the Rialto Bridge for a contemplative cigarette. I stare out over her liquid emerald necklace, at the tourists trundling back and forth and the bustling industriousness of the Canal, and the pathos of this beautiful old tart hits me. Yesterday I was ready to surrender all my worldly goods and move in with her without a thought for where my next meal would come from. Today I am just another washed-out shipwreck, thinking of a way to avoid the boat that is poised to whisk me away.

I peer behind me at a down-and-out who is sitting on the steps of the bridge. He sits with downcast eyes, smoothing his hair with the last bit of pride that is left in him. Propped up against him is a sign with a message in Italian: no home, no family. please help. Clearly another soul loved and rejected by this fickle lady, hollow-chested and unable to let go. The city is littered with them, and I am suddenly seized by a rush of empathy for the poor bastard. I know how you feel, old chap, I know how you feel

Georgie Boy and Stevie Boy

720077UTC - 20 Responses

The White House. The 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush, meets Steve Hadley, National Security Adviser.

SH: Mr President, I have some good news and some bad news.

GWB: Okay, give me the good news first.

SH: Sir, our analysts have looked at the situation in Iraq and concluded that if things continue as they are, the people will end up eating shit.

GWB: I asked for the good news first, Steve. Gee!

SH: That is the good news, sir; the bad news is that some experts have already pointed out that there won’t be enough shit to go around.

GWB: No problem. We’ll send them some of our own shit, American shit, the best shit in the world. Hell, we could even have a Shit for Oil Programme, kill two terrorists with one shot, as it were… Anything else?

SH: Well, I have also been consulting members of the senate and the news is that the Republicans are revolting.

GWB: You’re telling me… I myself only joined because of daddy.

SH: I mean on Iraq. They want troops withdrawn as soon as possible.

GWB: I don’t get these people. Since this conflict began probably as many innocent people have died as would have under Sadam anyway, give or take a few hundred thousand.

SH: Give or take… No, sir, the main concern they cite is the possible loss of votes for the party.

GWB (exasperated): If only we could find a strong leader for Iraq, Steve, someone able to keep Sunnis and Shias alike in check.

SH: Someone like Sadam, perhaps?

GWB: Yeah! Where’s Sadam when you need him?

SH: We executed him, sir.

GWB: Couldn’t one of our scientists bring him back to life? What sort of decomposition state would he be in now?

SH: Uh, I don’t think our science is that advanced yet, sir.

GWB: What about re-animation through some kind of electric shock therapy? Worked with Yeltsin.

SH: I think one of the requirements is that the ‘patient’ is at least breathing for it to work, sir. And anyhow, the public wouldn’t buy it. Witnesses filmed his execution with their cellular phones, remember?

GWB: Maybe we could say we executed one of his stooges by mistake. Things get confused in war, Steve.

SH (incredulous): Yes, Mr President.

GWB (wistful): I miss the good ol’ days when Daddy was president… Back then we could do anything we liked and no one cared. Hell, we even carpet-bombed Panama without too much hassle from the media. Now you can’t break wind without the New York Times sniffing the air.

SH: Technology has shrunk the planet, sir. Everyone agrees it’s a good thing.

GWB (not listening): Tell you the truth, Steve, I never was very fond of those Iraqis.

Steve gets up to leave.

GWB: You’re a smart man, Steve. You have all these degrees and you even know when to insert an apostrophe in ‘its’. Can you answer me this one question?

SH: Sir?

GWB: Just how did our oil end up under Iraqi soil?

SH: …

Wimbledon, rain and other interruptions

720077UTC - 30 Responses

I am watching a Wimbledon tennis match on television, grateful that for once the rain has stayed away, when she walks in, her usual energetic self, an English jumping bean caught in a hurricane, and, as usual, still buzzing from quotidian office events. She is one of the few people I’ve ever come across who appears physically reinvigorated through work. 

“Good day?” I ask. 

She gives me a cheerful “Uhu” before embarking on her habitual meticulous description of it, who said what to whom, jokes told, problems remedied – including, sadly, dull technical detail. I have become an expert at filtering out the unnecessary bits, switching off then on again at appropriate moments, responding accordingly.  

Engrossed with the tennis, I make polite listening noises while keeping my eyes on the television. Roger Federer is in imperious form, the epitome of elegance, dishing out a master class to his wretched opponent. Sometimes he gives the impression of superhuman invulnerability, a messiah with a tennis racquet in his hand. One can’t help but feel that if Jesus himself had opted for a career on the ATP tour instead of saving the ungrateful bastards, he would play exactly like Federer. 

“… but you know I didn’t think anything of it…”, she is saying. 

“Yeah.” 

“Well, I thought I’d run a check, just in case…” 

Federer now makes an impossible cross-court shot look like the most natural thing in the world. He appears to be operating in a different space-time continuum from us mere mortals, finding time to ensure his shots are not only perfectly timed and placed, but that they are executed with casual elegance. 

“… It was actually the first time I used the kit…”, she is saying. 

It’s the change-over break, and the camera hovers, then settles on a shot of Virginia Wade in the crowd prodding a top molar with her little finger then eating whatever she managed to dig out. 

“Ughh”, I groan. 

She stops talking mid-sentence, then says coldly, “You don’t seem interested in what I’m telling you”. 

“I am! Please continue”, I say, without looking away from the TV, then back at her when no further sound is emitted. Clearly sulking now. But it will have to wait, Federer is in the middle of a fantastic rally, this time seemingly incapable of finding a clean winner or forcing an error from his opponent, who looks like a man rescued from a drowning accident, his hair plastered to his face with sweat. Federer’s headband, on the other hand, looks obsolete, an affectation. 

Still silence. I glance back at her. An accusatory stare now. 

“What’s wrong?”, I ask. 

“Nothing, I hope. I just thought you’d be a little more thrilled at the prospect of becoming a father for the first time”, she says in a husky monotone. 

I look back at the TV slack-jawed, now barely able to take in what I’m looking at: the rally has finally come to an end, and the big champion, the man seemingly able to predict where his opponent’s shots are going to land before they are even played, looks stunned too as a clean winner fizzes past his nose.

Flight of the Bumblebee

520075UTC - 24 Responses

The van cabin is overrun with insects. The yellow Dayglo jacket I wear while working on my cameras attracts all sorts of bugs, who seem to think they’ve discovered a giant flower. Bees, wasps, daddy-long-legs, arachnids and assorted minor bugs cling to the jacket, and when I go back inside the van, they come with me.

A spider has been living in the top right corner of the windscreen for the good part of a year now. Self-satisfied and sadistic (it knows I don’t kill spiders), it grows fatter every day, quickly rushing out of its mysterious hiding place to expertly wrap yet another hapless victim in its sticky thread. I roll my eyes disapprovingly and grimace in disgust. The spider winks at me conspiratorially, in acknowledgement of our unspoken agreement of mutual interest, before disappearing again.

 

That’s what I’ve become: a bug cultivator and spider accomplice. I take care not to kill anything while setting up my cameras, delicately avoiding the orb-weavers, waiting for a passing ant before setting the equipment down on the ground, coaxing greenflies out of harm’s way. The other day, I was horrified to discover I accidentally trod on a butterfly, damaging its wings while its useless body twitched helplessly. Last week I was almost grief-stricken when I inadvertently squashed my van’s resident ladybird after winding the window shut.

 

But it wasn’t always so. As all boys worth their salt, and reassuringly displaying the cruelty that uniquely characterises our species, my brother and I took great pride in the sophistication and inventiveness of our methods for killing insects. A favourite was to set fire to saúva ants (large black ants with a hard bulbous body and a very painful bite) using only a magnifying glass and the hot Brazilian midday sun. We marvelled at the spectacular way in which they burst into flames with a fizzing rasp, like the striking of a match. There may have been countless victims before we were spotted by our father, who wasn’t impressed.

“If you haven’t given it life, what gives you the right to take it away?”, he asked, quite reasonably but with fire in his eyes.The remark hit home, and from then on we resolved to make amends by providing crickets with helicopter rides: a maximum of two crickets (for extra leg room and comfort) would be placed in the see-through cockpit of the toy helicopter followed by a swift tug of the fishing line wrapped around the base on which the helicopter sat, rotating the propellers and sending it skyward. It’s the least we could do.

 

Last night, arriving home late, I noticed a dead bumblebee on the otherwise bare dining table. It lay on its back motionless with its satin black and Dayglo furriness and powerful short legs facing the ceiling. I tentatively give it a tap to ascertain it is dead. Nothing, completely stiff. Tired, I leave the room and forget about it.This morning I sit down to eat breakfast and as I place the cereal bowl on the table I notice with distaste the bumblebee is still there, now under a patch of sunlight. I resolve to deal with it after breakfast.I put some yoghurt on the cereal and then drizzle it with honey, and since it is impossible to transfer honey from its jar onto another utensil without dripping it, some of it ends up on the table, a good six inches away from the dead bumblebee. Right on cue, it begins to twitch. I flip it onto its legs but all it can do is raise them pathetically without going anywhere. I push it closer to the honey and it locks its sucker onto it. Its wings vibrate, suddenly kicked into life again, like Popeye after eating a can of spinach. Fascinated, I watch it for a few seconds, then go into the bedroom and fumble around the drawers. When I return brandishing a magnifying glass I am just in time to watch it fly out of the window.

Trowell Services

520075UTC - 42 Responses

I am on my way home after setting up cameras in Long Eaton near Nottingham. The fuel gauge hovers tantalisingly between just-enough-to-get-me-home and not-quite-enough. Trowell Services is a mile away and I resolve to stop as I also need to pay the loos a visit.

I have been avoiding Trowell Services since a peculiar incident which took place there a couple of years ago. It was around 3 a.m. when I went in and the station was deserted, a grotesque Mary Celeste with inedible food and unpalatable prices. That day I could have served myself with the most expensive revolting food money can buy for free as the place looked literally abandoned. “No doubt asleep on the floor behind the counter”, I reasoned to myself as I made my way to the toilets.

Standing facing the urinals, there was a deathly silence broken by a sudden shuffling sound. I turned and looked towards the cubicles. All doors were open apart from the one furthest away. My gaze automatically dropped to the gap under the cubicles and there came that shuffling sound again followed by a mop of blond frizzy hair sliding under the partition into the neighbouring cubicle. I stood motionless for a second as the mop then, exorcist-like, slowly rotated to look me directly in the eyes. Had I not been weeing already, it is quite probable I would have done so at this point. Even so, as I ran from the toilets, I didn’t care whether or not I had quite finished what I had gone in to do.

Now facing the same urinal I did that night, I glance over my left shoulder at the cubicle once again, and it then becomes clear I must have imagined the whole scene: the partition gaps are not wide enough to fit a head through it. Could I really have been hallucinating?

Presently at the pump, I hold the trigger until it clicks to signify the tank is full. I thrash it about to clear any fuel left in the nozzle and as I draw it out a stream of diesel dribbles down my expensive Diesel jeans. I look up and notice I am being observed by a woman with blonde frizzy hair who is using the other side of my pump. She smiles half amused, half flirting.

“No matter how much you shake it, some always ends up down your trousers”, I say.

“Your flies are open”, she says.

Dissolved

420074UTC - 27 Responses

bridge parapet
bungeeless jump
sodden love letter
slowly unclenched
unsent
afloat

Uncle Edvard

320073UTC - 15 Responses

We have of late in our household become rather self-conscious about the food we eat, more precisely about the faceless animals which after a miserable life, get slaughtered in some grotesque abattoir and end up on our plate. Well, we have been conscious of it for quite some time now: eating meat and feeling guilty about it.

It was with these guilty thoughts in mind that we agreed recently to cut out meat from our menu and try and replace it with soya protein meals. But I have to admit this arrangement hasn’t been going too well, and a couple of weeks into it, the prospect of eating another battered tofu escalope has weakened my resolve somewhat. I decided to say nothing on the subject, opting instead to suffer in silence.

I am thus lost in thought, quietly brooding on this matter when the phone rings.

‘Hello?’, I answer. A heavy pause follows, which suggests either a stalker or an assassin – possibly both. Then I hear the voice of a little girl.

‘Helloooo’, she coos sweetly, in a pitch nature has devised for melting the hearts of hard-boiled old grumps like me.

‘Helloooo’, I coo back. ‘Who’s this?’, I say, in an unusually pleasant tone to a caller who clearly didn’t intend to speak to me. She lets out a little delighted giggle, as if me claiming not to know who she is was a regular teasing game we play.

‘You know who it is… It’s me, Charlotte’, she says.

‘Oh hello, Charlotte, and who do you suspect me to be?’

Another giggle.

‘Stop it! You’re my uncle.’ 

A sudden life-flashing-before-my-eyes moment takes place in which I try to recall if any of my brothers have fathered a child named Charlotte. One of them does have an overactive gland, but it’s only a thyroid.

‘Charlotte, I think you’ve dialled th…’, but she interrupts me, ‘No, listen uncle, when you come for lunch later, if you come at eleven we’ll be taking the dog for a walk before lunch, and you can bring Amy too if you like. Mummy is cooking roast lamb.’

‘No, you see, I erm… Roast lamb, you say?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Mint sauce too?’ 

‘Yeah, lots.’  

‘Charlotte, sweetie, uncle’s memory is terrible lately. What’s the address again?’

The Smoking Creature From the Black Lagoon

320073UTC - 26 Responses

‘I have a present for you’, she trills brightly, and with a flourish places a small plastic bag on my upturned palms. ‘I think it’s time, don’t you?’, she says smiling.

I take it out of the bag. It’s a book in a glossy white cover with even glossier salient writing. The title makes my heart sink: ‘QUIT SMOKING TODAY without gaining weight’. Beneath the writing is a picture of the author, peering smugly at me behind designer frame spectacles. His arms are crossed challengingly, lips slightly pursed which could be interpreted as either a faint smile of encouragement or the admonishing and disdainful look reserved for the inferior, the addicted.

I recognise him as Paul McKenna, the hypnotist, and the image of otherwise ordinary folk on all-fours lifting a leg and barking like dogs on a stage for the benefit of a TV audience immediately pops into my head. Attached to the back cover is a hypnosis CD. I look up at her pretending not to understand. Like the author, she has her arms crossed too, but more defiantly, a look which tells me this is a non-negotiable deal.

‘I don’t need a book to quit smoking! I’ve done it before without it. All I need are nicotine patches’, I say, and can’t hide the childish pleading tone from my voice. ‘I got some of them too. Two weeks’ worth to get you going’, she says and tosses the boxes in my direction. She spins on her heels and leaves the room.

‘Fine! But if I turn into a big elephant it’s your fault!’, I shout pathetically towards the hallway, but she’s pretending not to listen. The cat gives me a dirty look and follows her out, letting me know in which side of the political divide he stands.

A pretty ungracious response then to what is clearly an act of love and concern for my wellbeing, and I know it. The nicotine talking, I console myself. What is it about addictive substances which places a little devil firmly on our shoulder and immediately promotes him to chief PR advisor? In no time he has taken us over, dictating his own agenda, turning us into his PR people. Yes, I have become the servant of that devil, the creature from the black lagoon, shuffling words and cut-throat razors and hiding the rusty blade up my sleeve.

The left side of my brain races to all exit points, frantically searching for adequate excuses to keep feeding my addiction, while the right side knows I have no concrete argument against it. Nothing that would stand up in court, anyway.

I picture the courtroom. Speaking for the prosecution is none other than the unctuous P. McKenna QC himself:

‘My lord, the defendant claims that quitting his beloved cigarettes is an impossibility at present, on account of it interfering with the thinking processes involved in the writing of his blog’, the last word uttered with half-shut eyes and the mouth of someone who has just found a pubic hair in his sandwich.

‘A blog? And what, exactly, is a blog?’, enquires the judge in puzzlement.

‘It appears, my lord, to be a curious modern phenomenon, in which ordinary members of the public regularly publish their daily thoughts into an online journal.’

‘It sounds dangerous’, says the judge, suddenly interested. ‘What sort of things do they write about?’

‘In the case of the defendant, my lord, mostly gibberish. But generally it can be anything at all, ranging from rantings on the Iraq conflict to their pet’s favourite food’, says the well-informed P. McKenna QC.

‘In that case’, says the judge reaching for the black cap, ‘given the aggravating circumstances which you describe, I have no option but to sentence the defendant to a life without cigarettes. Take him down.’

I look at the book dismally. Damn you, Paul McKenna. Couldn’t you have written a book which hypnotises people into ignoring my unsociable habit instead? I check my packet of cigarettes: only one left. I light it, grimly.

Mesopotamian Lament

220072UTC - 6 Responses

Last week we were all slaughtered
Me, you, the toddler and the dog
Innocence lost without ever knowing the truth
But when you whispered breathlessly through my tears
That everything was going to be OK
Didn’t you realise that I believed you?
Please say where I should now dispose of
The warm hope that each sunrise brought
And which I kept for sustenance for the shivery dark nights
Our love, our memories, our simple dreams
Converted in a millisecond into a neat statistic
A meaningless number for the once passionate morning reader

To be digested along with the latest celebrity-endorsed diet

Brighton Pier

220072UTC - 10 Responses

If you ever make good your promise to take your girlfriend for a stroll around the rather cool city of Brighton, seeing as she’s never been, you may find yourself before long standing outside the Brighton Pavilion. While marvelling at the architecture and its incongruous juxtaposition with the buildings that surround it, you may then start impressing her with your historical knowledge of the Regency period. Later, after a long walk on the pebbly beach, it’s very likely that you may venture as far as the end of the pier. May I then humbly suggest that you refrain from embarking on any of the various fairground rides available there, especially the deceptively named ‘Booster’ ride?

Any notions you may at this point form in your head about coming across as cool and tough in front of your ‘chicken’ girlfriend by taking your seat with a benevolent air of carelessness will quickly be dispelled the moment the apparatus is cranked into action.

You may find your girlfriend unimpressed by the sudden change in your voice from its regular gruffness to that of a 9-year-old choir boy. In between her guffaws of laughter from the safety of the ground (audible even from the Booster’s apogee), she may become mildly alarmed by your desperate pleas for ‘someone to stop the fucking thing’, and will more than likely be a little disgusted by the copious amounts of dribble which accompany such pleas, uttered in your newly found falsetto voice.

And yes, you may even discover that after her initial amusement has turned to alarm and eventually disgust, projectile vomiting while being flung around the relentless circular motion yet again may well lead her to question her entire commitment to this particular relationship.

Mocketh not, you have been warned.

Portsmouth And The Fatally Wounded Admiral

220072UTC - 6 Responses

‘So, what will you be doing tomorrow with all that time in your hands?’, asks Sylvia, sawing off another forkful of steak. She is a naturally charismatic woman, impossible to ignore even when silent. Her Yorkshire accent is smooth around the edges, which would make her a great voice-artist for radio and TV ads. A handsome woman, she is probably in her mid- to late-forties and still managing to retain a certain endearing girlishness.

‘Oh, I will probably be employing Yuri Geller’s technique for willing away ugly wallpaper – and watching the movies channel, I suppose’, I say wistfully.

‘You really should try to see Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory. It’s right here in Portsmouth’, she says.

‘Isn’t that the ship he died in?’, I ask, raising an eyebrow.

‘Yep, that’s the one’, chirps Sylvia’s husband, David, with a mouth full of Caesar salad. David and I have been friends for many years. Almost twenty years my senior, he is a sort of father figure to me, my own family being so far away, although we get on far better than I ever did with my Brazilian father. ‘Take the tour, it’s really worth it’, he says, pointing his knife at me.

We’re on our second bottle of wine and the general feeling of bonhomie is increased with each sip. As is so often the case in modern social gatherings, the conversation inevitably turns to Big Brother.

‘It’s terribly depressing that this once great nation of Horatio Nelson has been reduced to applauding the antics of morons whose IQs struggle to get into double figures. Jade Goody is our overdue comeuppance’, I say, rather hypocritically, I thought, since I too am guilty of watching it, even if only to know what the fuss is about, you will understand.

‘I think it’s a fascinating social experiment’, says Sylvia, slightly defensively.

‘What would make it a fascinating social experiment for me’, I retort, ‘would be to throw in a few Molotov cocktails and see who lasts the longest’.

Sylvia looks a little taken aback. ‘Millions of people watch it every day. Surely it can’t be that bad?’

‘Well, millions of flies eat shit every day; it doesn’t mean it’s any good’, I say and check myself. Steady, old boy, let’s not get overexcited now. These are friends, remember?

David, who has been watching this like a tennis spectator, turns to me smiling and fires his cannonball so decisively, it would have made the good Admiral himself proud, ‘our daughter has auditioned for the next series. She’s been shortlisted and they want to see her again next week’.

Oh.

You stupid, stupid boy. Not for the first time, you walked right into it. Who are you to pass judgement when you yourself have an exceptional talent for putting your foot in your mouth anyway?

‘In that case’, I say, raising my glass in appeasement, ‘they are clearly raising the standards and I will of course vote for her, should she get in’, and swallow a big gulp of wine, but it’s too late: a bullet has already been fired into my chest and my deck is ablaze.

Whitby, Dracula and Cupid

120071UTC - 9 Responses

It is a geographical fact that no one in the UK is more than seventy miles away from the sea. As a man who feels happiest with the sea breeze on his face, I was surprised to discover this to be the precise distance from my house to the nearest coastal town, which if nothing else should at least stand me in good stead in the event of a major tsunami – provided it doesn’t happen today.

I am in the picturesque town of Whitby – of Bram Stoker’s Dracula fame. In the novel, Whitby is Dracula’s choice of residence in England.

Judging from the amount of closed curtains and the emptiness of the streets this crisp and sunny morning, it is quite possible that Dracula kept himself rather busier during his two-week stay than Bram Stoker would have us believe.

On the promenade, the only people I see at ten in the morning are dog-walkers descending the steps that lead to the beach, the sand still glistening from the ebbing tide. Whitby is a town of dog lovers, which makes sense, judging from the way they allowed Dracula to run out of his ship and into the country disguised as one. I think it is fair to assume quarantine laws were fairly lax in those days.

I notice with alarm and then awe a solitary surfer launching his board past the first breakers before throwing himself on top of it. That takes commitment. Or stupidity. The North Sea is freezing even in the hottest day of summer, and today the temperature is perishing. Anyone brave enough to venture in has to be prepared to be winched out inside a block of ice, the moment of entry recorded by the frozen expression of shock and horror on their face.

Whitby has a special place in my heart. Do you remember, Ginger, it was one of our first outings together? As I drive through the town, glancing at the places we walked around six years ago, I feel a pang of nostalgia for the days when we were still flushed with the newly discovered excitement of being near each other, like a pair of kids who got the toy they really wanted for Christmas.

The snaking hill where we parked the car; the pub with the tattooed barman who looked like a real pirate, the tarnished gold glinting from his tooth as we ordered a hot cup of tea; the short concrete pier where we got sprayed by the crashing waves; the fish and chips shop and the bench where we sat to eat, battered by gale force winds and rain – it’s all still here.

Who knows, it may have even been here that Cupid himself, while skulking around the grounds of the Abbey, on noticing the two of us climbing up the 199 steps, would have waited until we got within striking range, then slowly reached into his quiver, muttering to himself ‘stupid tourists, arms around each other without a care in the world, you never know who’s about…’

I scan the beach. No sign of the surfer anywhere. I wish you were here today…

Manchester… don’t you love it?

120071UTC - 5 Responses

I am on the M62 crossing the Pennines for the umpteenth time towards the Red Rose of Lancashire. On Radio Four, a special marmalade with a bitter £3,000 price tang is being discussed and I am in good spirits as I wonder what a three-thousand-quid marmalade would taste like.

Traffic in both directions reverentially circumnavigates the farmhouse which refused to let itself be scared away by anything as inconsequential as a major motorway heading straight for it, and I am soon at the summit. ‘England’s highest motorway at 1221 feet’, it announces proudly. The lunar-like landscape here has a thin layer of snow today, making it look like a series of melting ice cream scoops with the protruding winter-burnt heather the sprinkled nuts.

‘Hmm delicious!’, enthuses the Radio Four reporter, finally getting what she came for, which makes me reach for the banana I brought with me as a snack. ‘It has an edible gold leaf in it’, explains the proud marmalade maker. Now there’s a thing. All this time we’ve been misusing gold as a form of decoration when we could have been eating it instead.

Manchester looks incongruous under the sunlight. I park the van and start setting my cameras up. A man wearing a waxed green jacket and tweed walking hat stops to watch me work. He looks to be in his sixties and has a neatly trimmed white moustache and goatee which gives him an air of respectability. ‘I could do with one of those’, he says pointing at the mast, ‘for my radio antenna’. I smile and carry on. ‘Later, when you’re gone, I could bring my pickup around and take it home with me’, he adds in a conspiratorial tone. I laugh, acknowledging his offbeat sense of humour. ‘Yes, yes’, he nods enthusiastically, and gives the impression of having a schizophrenic dialogue with himself ‘that’s what I’ll do’. He shoots me an enigmatic grin and walks away.

Typical loon. Most big cities have a steady supply of them but in Manchester they seem to be far above the national rate. Last time I was here it was a man on his way to court for assault. He looked like he was still recovering from a lobotomy, speaking slowly with unblinking eyes fixed on me. ‘They told me I cut someone in the pub with a broken bottle but I don’t remember it’. I encouraged him not to be late for his court hearing, and off he went with his uncertain walk, as if the pavement was strewn with landmines.

All this talk of gold-spiked marmalade made me hungry and I went into Tesco for a sandwich before driving home. This morning, my mobile rings. It’s my boss. ‘Marcos, the guy on site says there’s no camera outside Tesco. It looks like it’s been stolen.’

Camera Shy

120071UTC - 5 Responses

Since my career as a freelance translator is still a sporadic event, some might even say an imaginary one, I have been prostituting my suspected talents by driving around the country in a white van setting up cameras at road junctions for the purpose of traffic surveys. As may be inferred even from such an obscure and evasive description, it is an occupation of devastating banality, tedium and loneliness. But that’s not the worst part.

Getting up at 3.30 a.m. and braving the elements to reach some God-awful town which could arguably only be improved with the intervention of guided missiles requires a particular kind of resolve and strength of character.

Then there is the public. There is something about a video camera in a public spot which gives the otherwise equable British public the heebie-jeebies. They come in various guises but can mostly be slotted into three main categories:

1) those who read George Orwell’s 1984 and due to their previous abuse of psychedelic drugs are no longer able to distinguish between fantasy and reality. These generally well-meaning folk tend to believe the information recorded is to be used for sinister government ends and scoff cynically when told otherwise;

2) unashamedly nosy busybodies, often belonging to a local parish council or other kind of residents’ committee (committed to keeping certain individuals out of their neighbourhood, I would imagine). With the Daily Mail neatly tucked under their arm, they demand to know why they weren’t personally informed that a camera was going to be placed within a 10-mile radius of their property. These are frequently followed shortly afterwards by their neighbour, with whom they have been at war ever since a couple of stray leaves from his unkempt hedge crossed over into the other’s property;

3) those living outside the margins of the law, anxious that their chosen clandestine way of life may suddenly become exposed. These include benefit fraudsters, dishonest spouses meant to be somewhere else, organised crime personnel, rapists, Conservative politicians, murderers, tax-dodgers, speeding motorists and petty thieves. Apologies to any I may have left out.

Sod’s Law would have it that this last category constitutes the vast majority of those keen to make my acquaintance. They stand there, legs apart, in a show of bravado designed to conceal their anxiety, and use a hostile and aggressive interrogation technique until they feel reassured that their criminal activities won’t be affected by my cameras.

Apart from when I’m in the middle of sorting out some tricky technical problem and time is of the essence, I don’t mind taking the time to explain that there is nothing sinister behind it, and to implicitly let them know that whatever illegal activity they’re engaged in, to please carry on, don’t mind me.

It’s all part of the job. No doubt, come the next Big Brother auditions, they will all be queuing up for days for a chance to live their lives in front of the cameras.

The Laptop Fairy of Darlington

11200611UTC - One Response

It’s good to be back online after the Laptop Fairy snatched my pc from a Sainsbury’s car park in Darlington. Her gift left in exchange for my state-of-the-art machine was nothing flasher than a cement-encrusted brick lying in the footwell and I don’t mind admitting to feeling a bit short-changed.

I wasn’t overly impressed by her smashing the window to get in approach either. I would have expected a little more grace and elegance from a fairy.

The glass has become a ubiquitous and omnipresent feature of the van, however many times I hoover it. I’ve even gone through the seats with an industrial strength masking tape, and just when I think I got rid of the last of the tiny shards, I get viciously surprised by another.

Later, while I waited for someone to come replace the broken glass, guarding the stable door after the horses had bolted, I watched eagle-eyed the embankment where the Darlington Laptop Fairy would have sprung from, convinced that if I looked hard enough I would see a rustling in the bushes or maybe even hear the gleeful laughter, in utter amazement that someone would be stupid enough to leave such a precious item lying in full view.

And sure enough she turned up again. An ugly and hairy knuckle-dragger of a fairy. No need to wait for this unsatisfied customer to clear off before the next swoop: she carries on her regular beats, not unlike a computer-animated bot, following the same circular path around the car park while peering into the cars and texting her accomplices after completing her reccy mission.

A word of warning to future victims of the Knuckle-Dragging Laptop Fairy of Darlington: don’t bother asking for advice from the Sainsbury’s staff. Apparently, they can’t even provide you with the local police phone number as whatever happens in the car park is not their problem!

A special request to the Ugly Knuckle-Dragging Laptop Fairy of Darlington: if you get the chance, could you send me the pictures of my holiday in Umbria and Majorca? They’re the only ones I have. No? Ah well, worth a shot.

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