Springing

Now that the days are stretching out a bit and the evenings are warming it’s becoming more acceptable to sit up at the patio at the top of the garden into the sunset.
I built it as an enclosed little retreat, and the shrubs I planted along one and a half sides of it have matured to a height and density where you are now sheltered from any breeze which is less than a brisk wind and across from the entrance are an apple tree, an olive tree and a tamarisk, now puffed up with its pink clouds of flowers on arching branches. Soon to be irritating dried husks all over the place. It’s a good place for barbecues and beer or just to sit quietly with a drink and a book in the sun. It’s bordered on two sides by a quite low retaining wall of wooden sleepers holding back a raised bank of slate topped earth where you find pots of sun baked herbs and stuff, then another low wall where I’ve hung some old horseshoes that I decorated and enamelled and a huge paella pan on which I painted an owl, moon and star design in black, silver and the palest Mediterranean blue. Behind that the land continues rising, there’s a high wooden fence then the garden of the house behind, empty since Mad Margaret died over a year ago.

And then yesterday I found that one of the sleepers which form the back supporting wall had rotted into its heart. I soon dug out the crumbling mess and poured in almost a full can of resin to harden and protect the surrounding wood. Love that resin! Smells like teenage carrier bags. After filling the hole with a quickly shaped plug of chestnut and some epoxy filler I decided it would all be improved if I clad the retaining wall of sleepers with decking boards and painted it with some of the willow green I’d just finished doing the gardening shed with, topped with the seagrass green I’d used on the herb shed halfway down the garden.

Since the local B&Q reopened it has been a hell of queueing home improvers, supervised and marshalled and chivvied around the newly reorganised carpark by insufferably chirpy staff members so I’m avoiding it until sanity resumes and I can shop there in my usual state of what the less enlightened see as sullen misanthropy.

I’ve been getting all of my paint, tools & materiel from a local trade supplier where all you do is order & pay online, wait for a text to say your order’s ready, then wander along through the light industrial, storage and distribution units of the small industrial estate in the valley and collect your order. Sometimes it’s a chubby bearded lad, sometimes a chatty but not overfamiliar lady of my age, occasionally a sweet young girl in her twenties. All polite. All friendly. All helpful. But none of them are cursed with the compulsive ambition to cheer up every poor fool they see. So good.

But the fuckers don’t sell decking, I refuse to be treated like a five year old in B&Q’s carpark, the local garden centre’s still closed and the only timber merchant within five miles thinks a small order involves the produce of nothing less than half the New Forest. So. 
Good old internet. I have a delivery due from another company next week, and work will begin. I like this lifestyle. Hanging around at home, knocking stuff together, painting it, cooking home made kofte & shish kebabs on the barbecue when the weather allows, it’s how life should be.


Something’s bound to come along and pour piss on it though: just you wait and see.

In A Piece

Now, life has taken a strange but useful turn. My daughter is currently not suffering at all with her Crohn’s, most likely because her consultant thought giving her a break from most of her medication would be worth trying. So she’s insisted on running my shop with two of the hardier girls while I’ve furloughed three others, I privately slip a little cash occasionally to one Saturday girl and I let the Saturday boy go as would have happened anyway. So the world is my oyster, in a way. Not in the meaning of struggling for an age with a sharp short blade, gashing my palm and ending up with a shell filled with pulsing, virus-infested snot. Not that type of oyster at all. The other type. The metaphorical type.

Disappointments first. I had booked a trip to Prague, me and Anita taking our two oldest grandchildren to that beautiful city for a week over Easter, but that came down to a cancellation and a very swift collection of refunds. There will be another time.

My slightly older than me wife retired for a month at the end of March, due to go back part-time in May so I’d planned to begin a long needed refurbishment of the house over the spring and summer. Materials and equipment were stored in the middle outhouse, a rough mental order of works had formed and I had put myself on a regime of flatbreads, dips and salads to complement the deepening skin colour.

Then the virus struck the nation. Not me. Fit as, I am. Rach.A.El took on the shop’s daily running, takeaway and delivery only, no cafe side for the duration naturally, so I phoned Scaffie.

He was well happy. He’d laid off the lads but was willing to singlehandedly scaffold my three storey semi over a couple of days. When the structure was up, through a miasma of sweat and fumes, he advised me not to rush it. “I ain’t in a hurry to take it down again cock, take yer time” he advised me.

The rendered upper walls were coated with a variety of algal growths, lichens and mosses, which needed chemicals, scrapers, stiff brushes and gallons of high pressure water to remove before I could apply two coats of Sandtex’s finest dove grey ultra smooth fifteen year guaranteed exterior paint. The roof had a thick coat of seagull-shit fertlised moss covering it, which took two full days with a hoe, scraper, brooms and brushes to clear. Repairs needed were minimal but the moss filled a council garden waste bin. The leadwork on the bay windows and the porch roof is gleaming with fresh blacking. The gutters, downpipes and other pipework have been scrubbed, de-rusted and repainted in soft gloss MSP, black as night. I added a little glyph and the date in tiny Roman numerals in bronze enamel to the top of the foul-air vent. The windows and frames now shine and glisten. I even treated the newly cleaned and resealed frames to a treatment of car polish, it’s supposed to help retain the whiteness for a while, and who doesn’t need that?
So three weeks on, the top two levels of scaffolding have now been removed and Scaffie will be back at the end of the week to remove the rest. I feel an inner peace after all the solitude. The place was offending me with its air of neglect but now it has blossomed. I’ve painted two sheds to match the house, and two outbuildings higher up in the garden are next. All will come together. My wife has taken advantage of my newfound leisure time and chosen colour schemes for the two bedrooms in need of redecoration.

I simply need things to do. I may phone Fretful Mathew later today, check up on the isolated old fucker. All good. Stay well.

It’s the apples.

I felt a grumbling sensation in the upper reaches of my digestive system, which, along with the fact that I had only eaten a chicken sandwich today and that was seven hours earlier, told me that I really should think about eating something. My dear wife had eaten some food earlier as she had to go to work so that meant I could have whatever I fancied. Within reason, without nudging and winking in duplicate. I told her I’d definitely cook some new potatoes, Charlottes dripping in butter. She’d have some cold tomorrow minus the cholesterol. I quite fancied an omelette but not with new potatoes as is, I’d have to slice them and give them a saute with shredded shallots but maybe I didn’t fancy an omelette that much anyway.

I did myself a frito misto with some tomato salad and flatbread yesterday, I got home to hear that my acquaintance Ron had died from too much smoking and the news had the strange effect of giving me a craving for seafood. Or maybe I fancied squid & prawns anyway and the surprise of hearing that a sixty four year old delinquent with a rancid circulatory system had finally given up his ghost simply sent my neurons firing out of turn for a few seconds and the connection was entirely bogus. Stuff like that happens you know.

There are loads of peppers to use up, I was informed. A bit accusatory you may have thought. I do like to buy, prepare and eat all sorts of peppers. My favourites are these pale green romano types, I love them pricked and grilled in olive oil with lashings of salt pepper and oregano and when they collapse and small blackened patches appear, a spoonful or two of white balsamic vinegar transforms them into a feast. But the only place to get them around here is the Lebanese shop in Brighton so they’re not a daily part of my life.

I dug around and ended up with an earthenware dish containing shredded shallot and garlic and a red, a green and a yellow bell pepper, each cut lengthways into ten or so slices, the usual drenching of oil salt and pepper, topped with a block of feta and a handful of rigani. Half an hour in the oven and it was mine all mine.

Ron would have thought it was shit. But Ron didn’t have to eat it.

I had it with a glass of my homemade blackberry gin which I made in September with Lidl’s cheapie gin and a couple of pounds of blackberries, the picking of which left me with still visible scars on my admittedly shapely, otherwise unblemished calves. The taste is worth the bloodshed though. I’ll make a lot more this autumn. I grew a beard last autumn too, entirely independently of making blackberry gin. It was quite spontaneous based on a burning sensation that got worse with every shave.

“Why the fuck did you do that?” sneered Richie my barber. “I tell everyone who grows one, it ages you ten years. You got white hair, it adds fifteen or twenty in your case. You want me to shave it off?”

“No Rich, I’ll leave it a while, I can’t look twenty seven for ever.” He called me a cunt and contented himself with trimming, shaping and tapering it, paying close attention to the bits where it merges with the hair on the head. “Be easier if you were bald” he chuckled. “Be easier if I didn’t have a head” I said, while thinking I’ll go into town for my next haircut. He didn’t charge extra for the beard. I wouldn’t have paid anyway.

We’re going out for a curry tonight, are my wife and myself. Hair and beard neat, bowels purged with fruit and alcohol and freshly showered, I shall be the perfect dinner companion. Just hope I don’t spatter my front with deep red sauce. I’ll wear a dark shirt, just in case.

Bus Ride Home.

The weather’s been good, so when I’ve not been working, house improving and struggling to sort out electricity bills, credit card apps and being the victim of financial impersonation – the bastards didn’t get anything but it leaves you feeling vulnerable and soiled – I’ve been spending time drinking and snacking while reading at the top of the garden, riding the bike and plunging into the cooling sea for swimming and frolics. We had my oldest daughter’s dog to stay for a couple of weeks too, so lots of early morning and late evening strolls around the neighbourhood equipped with copious amounts of poo bags and bum wipes. Yes, she insists that he has a delicate sphincter and needs to be thoroughly cleansed after each movement. I took them, I brought the pack home, but fuck me, I wasn’t going to be seen wiping a dog’s arse in public. There are some pretty hot dog walking women around here. Do I want them to think I wipe a guest dog’s backside every time it shits? No. I don’t even want them to picture me wiping my own arse. Though I do it, naturally. No clinker on me, girls!

Last Sunday I took my customary bus ride into Brighton, to revisit the scenes of ancient misdemeanors, as well as to stock up with delicacies at the Lebanese shop, browse the summer shirts and snack at the Greekatessen. Σουβλακι κοτοπουλο και πατατες!

So, laden down without and within, I made my way to the stop and boarded a bus for home. Enjoy the silence, the peace, the isolation.

A very basic mobile phone was thrust into my face.

“How do you put this on loudspeaker? I don’t know how it works”…A woman had sat herself next to me. I wanted to be alone. But I’m genetically compelled to help people.

“I don’t know either”, I said. I glanced across. She had dead, unblinking eyes and a nose which on a larger scale could be used for launching skiers into the bitter Alpine air. If it was somewhere closer to Switzerland than the South coast of England. A nose you wouldn’t want to be downwind of on a breezy day if its owner had a runny cold. The nostrils almost looked cloudward.

“Could you look at it? I’ve got to phone my friend, I’m supposed to meet her at a park, I don’t know why I can’t meet her at her house, I know where her house is, I don’t know where the park is, I can’t even remember what the park is called. What parks are there in Peacehaven?” Fuck me, no, I spasmed inwardly. It’s the return of the bus loony. When I was intermittently at college in the late seventies slash early eighties, I was inevitably the bus loony magnet. It’s like they sniff me out at eighty paces and get drawn to me. And talk at me. The sorry fuckers.

“So many problems!” I said. As the phone was resolutely held a mere few inches from my blameless face, I buckled and took it. Looked through the very limited menu and told her that she’d probably have to phone her friend and possibly, just possibly, an option for loudspeaker would appear.

“Can you phone her then? Her name’s Sherrie.” I was going to be lucky to get out of this one unscathed, I knew. So, a now broken man, I entered the Names list and couldn’t find a Sherrie, then went into reverse and found a Cherree. I bet that’s not how it appears on her birth certificate. I pressed “call” and handed the phone back.

“Okay, there you go, see ya,” I said, indicating an empty seat across the aisle with my eyes, more in hope than expectation. She was glued to the fucking seat though. More chance of her moving than the shit stains on my daughter’s dog’s arse.

“Sherrie? Is that you?” then turning to me she said “answerphone” and looked panicky. She had the presence of mind to speak into the phone and I thought I could hear electric circuits six miles away winceing. On the left hand side of the inch square screen was the legend “h’sfree” so I impulsively jabbed at the button below.

“There,” I said. “Loudspeaker. That’s how you do it.” She didn’t thank me. She finished her conversation with the answerphone. Now it was my turn again.

“I don’t know why I can’t go to her house” she repeated. I fucking know why she doesn’t want you there and I’ve only just met you, I thought, bitterly. And I don’t want you sitting next to me on a bus talking to me. “What park do you think she means? What parks are there?”

“There’s the Dell, then Epinay, Chatsworth, Piddinghoe, no it’s the Big Park now, and another one I think…” her phone rang. I wondered why I was not getting off at the next stop and waiting for another bus. One without Dawna on it.

“Sherrie? Sherrie? It’s Dawna (that’s how she said it) I’m on the bus now. I’ll see you soon, would it be easier if…don’t get stressed Sherrie, no, don’t cry, I’ll see you soon ok bye” God’s honest truth I’d be fucking crying too if I was Sherrie. Or Cherree.

“So what park should I meet her at?” She had turned and fixed me with the cold stare of confusion and despair.

I asked her where in town her friend lived and she told me. It must be the Big Park I thought. That would be nearest. Also easier to avoid someone there if you had second thoughts about a rendezvous. Though I wouldn’t even have first thoughts about rendezvousing with Dawna. Fuck me no. So I suggested she go to that park.

“So what stop do I need for that one then?” Why me? How fucking evil must I have been to deserve this?

“It’ll either be Piddinghoe, Mayfield or Seaview. Maybe Slindon? One of the Aves. If the bus stops at any of them. I’m sure it must. Somewhere near here anyway. If you sit over the other side of the bus you’ll see. And you’ll see the big roadside sign pointing the way to the Big Park. You just get off, walk along a bit and take any left turn and you can’t miss it, if you get lost I’m sure there will be someone about to point the way…” I felt mentally lame, like there was a caliper where my moral fibre should be.

“Walk along a bit? What way? Do you think I’ll get lost? I thought you said you knew how to get there? I’m not good if I get lost” And you wouldnt be much of a fucking prize to find, either, I reflected inwardly. She said it so accusingly that I actually felt a bit guilty, a touch inadequate. Then. The most appalling stench suddenly filled the air and I gagged.

“Do you know if there’s a stomach upset going around?” she asked without a hint of embarrassment. I was heaving silently, and said “no, not so far as I know but it could be getting closer”, and then felt a sudden flood of relief and joy as I realised where we were.

“There’s your stop, Mayfield. Just ring the bell and get off, hurry! Take any left turn, it’s not far!” I had become The Gabbler.

Without a word of thanks or apology for the twenty minutes of distress she had caused me, the woman made her way to the front of the bus. In the seat in front of mine was a lovely tall black woman dressed in an orange and purple top and tight black jeans. She looked like a hot walking advert for Premier Inns and/or Sainsburys. She turned and gave me a beautiful pitying smile, then stood and followed the bus loony off the bus. Her way was blocked by the woman arguing with the driver about whether this was the best stop to get off at to meet Sherrie. Or Cherree. I’d given up caring. I was just thinking how nice it would have been to share the journey with someone else, and how nice that in a few minutes I’d be in another town and it would all be no more than a memory, safely behind me.

 

 

Mathew’s Saturday Thrill…

…I think he’s feeling rather ill. The girls and I were on a mission. We close at 2.30 on a Saturday on account of Saturday afternoons being a bit rubbish in the town. The market stalls are usually closed up and gone by two, Richie’s shutters are heading pavement-wards at about the same time and the convenience store over the road becomes a magnet for the local bennies looking for cheap alcohol and a lech at the, for them, unobtainable girls behind the counter.

So it was five minutes to two, I’d cleaned the kitchen and the shop was undergoing a scrub down, like it always does on a Saturday so it’s all pristine and hygienic for Monday morning. I’d just been accosted by Pete, a local lad who wanted to pass on his best wishes to my daughter the policewoman who arrested him the other week and took him out of the volatile area that is his relationship with his girl, and sat him in a cell overnight while he sobered up. By most accounts he was in far more danger than she was and he wanted to let her know how grateful he was. Very. I promised I’d accede to his request, also to give my Hanna the good news that Pete’s moving back in with his lady and they’re going to give it another try. I can already picture the weary sigh that this news will bring forth when I let my oldest know.

Anyway. Mathew came in and sat down with his tea, a pastie and a bakewell tart. I turned off the boiler, very visibly and just as audibly so as to make it clear as a crystalline piece of extremely transparent mineral that he was not getting a second pot of tea today.

“I’m sorry I’m late, I didn’t sleep, the cat kept waking me up through the night, she wanted to play, I find it terribly uncomfortable when she’s in one of her playful moods. And then I sat down with a cup of tea this morning and fell asleep. So I’m late coming to you Graham.” He expected sympathy. I told him that it’s summer and the cat would come to no harm if he chucked her out at night, especially considering the number of outbuildings he has available and at the creature’s disposal. He winced, blanched, and returned silently to his tea, the only customer in the shop as the girls and I rushed around clearing, wrapping, disposing, cleaning and drying all manner of things in our desire to finish. I was briefly distracted by me old mate Wend who popped in for her Saturday afternoon hug and smutty exchange of good wishes and stuff, but soon straightened up after she’d gone and after only a couple of moments wistfully gazing after her I quickly got back to the matter at hand.

Mathew sat quietly. After about fifteen minutes he had finished and stood up.

“I’m sorry if I’ve been silent today Graham. It’s my ear…”

“Not your cat?” I asked.

“No my ear. When I sat down with my cup of tea at home earlier, I had the television on and I heard a strange noise…”

“Jan Leeming?” I asked. Me and Mathew have history re. Jan Leeming.

“No, so I turned my television off and the noise was still there. Then it stopped. Then I noticed I had a funny sensation in my ear. I usually have my ears syringed every four years. It’s only two years since I had them done last, and do you know, I think they need syringing again…”  I did briefly consider asking if a spider had popped out of his ear clutching a couple of silk wrapped wax-mites, but decided against it. There is enough pain and suffering in my life as it is.

“Have you finished Mathew? Hopefully you’ll get an appointment very soon. Well thanks very much and I’ll see you on Monday, thank you, goodbye,” as I gently manhandled him out of the door without actually making physical contact and turned the key in the lock all in one smooth movement.  The poor sorry fucker actually turned to me and gave a slightly bewildered apologetic smile and mouthed the words “thank you” through the plate glass door.

I turned to the girls.

“Right. Hands up who gives a fuck about Mathew’s cat, his television or his ears.” They kept their heads and hands pointedly down and got on with what they were doing.

“Good girls. And who thinks I was unkind to Mathew just now?” Neither Caitlin nor Kaylee said a word. They both smirked and shook their heads.

“I thought that would be your reaction. Well I was very unkind. He has a fragile psyche and I may have caused him untold spiritual damage. But I shan’t apologise, and if we get finished here in less than twenty minutes you shall both get paid and you can both keep your jobs.” The rest of the shift flew by.

Once, a few years ago now Granny Gollum, a local green toothed harridan, said to me, “you know Graham some people around here really hate you but I reckon you must be a fucking marvellous boss.” I think she may have been right.

 

 

Late evening addendum. I was just soaking in a hot bath scented with some cherry flavoured bath milk from the local discount supermarket and thinking of that last paragraph above. After I’d finished thinking about me old mate Wend for a little while. Granny Gollum was right you know. But of the eleven people who hate me I reckon 94% are blokey blokes who can only talk about football, cars, what they earn and either how much their houses must be worth or what utter bastards their landlords are. I wish I knew who the other 6% are and more importantly, what I’ve done to offend?

You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go…

Ails my dentist was standing at the counter of my shop, two slices of spinach and feta quiche tucked safely into a well wrapped takeaway box clutched in her left hand. She’d paid. Tears were brimming in her baby blues, and her jet black dyed hair was a-quivering under its 20 micron thick evenly applied coating of hair lacquer. I was holding her right hand, almost in tears myself.

“What am I going to do?” I nearly wailed. “Where will I go?” She’d come in to buy some quiche and to tell me that she’d decided to retire. Even worse, that she had already retired in a fait accompli. Without giving me even a hint of her intentions at my last visit to her back in March.

“You’ll find another dentist,” she told me.

“Not like you I won’t,” I replied. “You’ve been doing me for twenty three years now. That’s longer than a lot of marriages last. No good asking you to reconsider? Like a trial separation in reverse? Who else is going to talk to me about the stuff you talk to me about?” I felt her hand waver.

“I’m seventy years old. I can’t go on forever. It’s time for me now.” I knew she wouldn’t change her mind. But where else am I going to find a dentist who will talk me through her favourite selections of lingerie while she’s massaging my gums with a latex clad index finger and looking disinterestedly out of the window?

Anyway, later that day one of my most worrying regular customers, Fretful Mathew, reluctant batchelor of this parish, was gazing out over his cup of tea into the world outside when I remembered that he too is a patient of my dentist. I bet she doesn’t discuss the relative attractions, benefits and drawbacks of flimsy articles of intimate clothing made of cotton, lace or silk with our Mathew. I thought I’d better give him the bad news.

“What? Really? Are you sure? Oh dear. If only I’d known, I could have gone up there any time in the last month to say goodbye. But I haven’t. Oh no. Are you sure?” He was fretting even more than usual and from his demeanour and his words I guessed that he’d been worrying about making an appointment for a check up for possibly many months but hadn’t actually got around to it yet because he didn’t want to inconvenience anybody. Too fucking late now Mathew. This was all on Thursday. Mathew was very subdued yesterday, Friday.

Then today came. I got to my shop just before seven. I knew I was going to be alone until Jen got there at nine, so just got on with baking and preparing and generally getting ready for opening at eight. One of the lads from the street market came knocking at the back door to use the lav.

“Three or six?” I asked him.

“Six, definitely, it’s poking out and I can feel it right up to below my lungs,” Col answered. This indicated that he’d be pumping out a constant solid stream of steaming turd for as long as it took me to spray with water, nonchalantly dust with flour, and then decorate with carefully placed knife cuts, six 400x600mm trays of bread rolls, each tray holding fifteen small demi-baguettes before placing them in the oven and setting the timer. Full of shit, obviously. Col, not the bread or the ovens.

When he eventually emerged I was happy to tell him that he’d broken his previous record and done a nine, before reminding him that I sincerely hoped that he’d flushed, something which he frequently forgets to do, giving some people nasty frights if they go in the lav after him. He had.

I had to wait all the way through the day till shortly after one o’clock before the Fretful one arrived.

“I found this on the pavement when I got out of the taxi around the corner” he said, handing me a small bolt with no noticeable sharp edges which had possibly fallen from a vehicle at some point between 1987 and today. “Will it be safe to put it in your bin or should I take it to the public recycling centre?” I snatched it from him, having previous experience of Mathew’s terror of being responsible for a tragic accident purely because he had neglected to remove a potential source of danger that nobody else on the planet would ever be fucking aware of ever.

“I’ll bin it Mathew. Tea?” What else? The poor sorry fucker drinks nothing else.

He sat at his usual table.

“I went up to the dentist’s surgery last night. The ‘Dental Surgery’ signs are still above the door and window and I wondered if you were mistaken about Miss H retiring, but then I noticed that the brass name plate by the door has been removed. She must really have retired. Oh dear.”

“Plaque Mathew. I always called it a brass name plaque. It seemed fitting.” Mathew looked very confused. I didn’t make an issue of the fact that he had  implied that I’m a fucking liar. Because I’m nice like that. But now I have to find a dentist with whom to form a mutually tolerable relationship. And that’s not going to be easy.

My Favourite Prince Charming

It was haircut time again. Richie had actually come back to his salon on his Wednesday afternoon off just to cut my hair, as well as that of “James and his boy” neither of whom I would know or recognise even though Richie thinks I do and would. His phone rang just as he got into the rhythm of the clippers. He left off to answer the call.

“Come on, you’re taking the piss.” he said in his friendliest threatening tones. “What about your boy?” He mouthed the word “cunt” silently at me, winking the while. “Well, I can’t wait here all fucking evening. Get here if you can, I’m just cutting your old mate Graham’s hair….Graham. From over the road….Over the road from my place….Yes you do…the bakery…well, whatever, you’ve got fifteen minutes and I’m fucking off home…yeah…got a plumber coming. Yep. Bye mate”. He disconnected and said “cunt” again. I guess that must have been James.

He’d been telling me, among other things, about his latest row with Ju, his woman. I’d told him about my recent brush with diabetes and he thought I’d like to hear about Ju being diabetic.

“You know Ju, skinny bitch that she is. Was. Since they fitted her with her monitor, all she fucking does is eat. Have you seen her lately? She’s three times the size she used to be.”

What, when she was a foetus? I wondered. I saw her only the other day and she looked her usual desirably shapely self. Not skinny, not obese, just a lovely woman with stunning red hair, wavering self-esteem and deep complex relationship issues. Well, you would have too if you were part of Richie’s life.

Richie was adopting the pose he had obviously been in when discussing Ju’s perceived weight problem with her. Shoulders and legs braced, chest thrust aggressively forward and right index finger intimidatingly raised. The clippers were dangling uselessly from his left hand.

“I said to her, look Ju, someone’s gotta tell you. You’re eating like a fucking pig. You’re the size of a fucking house. You can’t hardly do your trousers up. It’s got to stop. I’m only telling you this because I don’t want to see you hurt.” He looked at me in the mirror. “Well I can’t see what’s so fucking funny about it”.

I said “oh it’s not you Rich, it’s not Ju. It’s something called irony I think. I’m not sure what they call it, but it just popped into my head and must have made me smile. Sorry. So how’s Ju at the moment?”

“Eating like a fucking hog still. She’s hardly spoken to me since Saturday. Don’t know why. There, finished. Ten please, me old mate.”

“Worth every penny Rich, you’ve made me beautiful and happy again,” as I handed over the money and made my way out of the door. I think I heard the word “cunt” as he locked up behind me. I don’t think James was as lucky as I had been.

 

Good and bad in parts.

So there I was attempting to offer my condolences to Gav, who had just come into the little old shop with his second oldest daughter to tell me that his mum had died last night. It’s been a bit of a week for it, as five friends and acquaintances have departed this mortal realm since the middle of April and I’m beginning to think I’m a bit of a Jonah, as the sole and only common denominator in all those lives has been me. But I digress, and I try not to feel too responsible. Age, alcohol and substance abuse, chronic illness and fast moving objects have played their parts severe and final, whilst I can honestly claim to be the original innocent bystander.

Gav’s girl was coquettishly raising her brows, widening her eyes and unsuccessfully attempting to suppress the odd giggle while he was explaining the unfolding drama at Jackie’s house. I’ve told you about Jackie here before. She lives(d) and died in a house which is awesome in its artfulness. Vitrines, taxidermy and artworks in the living rooms, a kitchen that would not look out of place in a Burne-Jones museum, gold leaf mosaics up the staircases, sculptural beauty in the bedrooms, and a mahogany loft containing her deceased husband’s tactile pieces, oil works and yes, even his ashes in a fluted Czech acid etched glass piece. The garden too is a miniature wonderland. Jackie once asked me to smash a window to get in as she couldn’t get her key to work; a problem solved with a squirt of 3-in-1 and no damage to the stained glass.

“The fucking psycho bitch is still in there,” Gav was spitting in reference to his awful cousin, who over the last couple of years has inveigled her way into Jackie’s affections, house and bank account. Fucking psycho bitch is the kindest description of the FPB cousin that I’ve ever heard from him. It’s actually the nicest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about her. Especially the boyfriend twenty five years her junior who she took on a Himalayan holiday and drained of bodily fluids, credit cards and all human dignity before abandoning him at Heathrow and fucking off to the Caribbean for a month with a dreadlocked thug called Denny who left her exhausted and uncomfortably chafed. It was mine and Gav’s recollection of that episode which was causing the lass to chuckle so.

“Her friend Elisia had brought her harp along, a full size fucking harp, she was playing that, the FPB cousin was wailing along out of tune with a spliff in one hand and half a pint of triple distilled Vodka in the other, and one of her drama groups were doing a dance of mourning at the foot of the bed, all to see her off. I think she eventually died just for a bit of peace and quiet. Did I tell you she cut me out of the will ten years ago? The girls will each get a nice wad of cash and the house in Brighton will be sold and they’ll get that. But it’s all the fucking parasites she’s entertained with dad’s money over the years who’ll be laughing. Bastards.” This is Gav being happy. You should see him when he’s pissed off. The house in Brighton is in a square where people don’t own houses, they own a tenth share or rent flats belonging to Russian owners of small Asiatic countries, or which comprise a large chunk of other nation’s pension funds. So Gav’s girls can look forward to a life of comfort and joy and lots of very keen admirers, thanks to their dear old Gran.

I’d thought of asking Gav if he’d mind if I went along for one last look around, take a few snapshots as mementos and a few final breaths of the arty atmos within, but then thought no, Jackie was the divine breath on which the house depended, and without her spirit the place would be dull, lustreless and too quiet. I mentioned this. Bad move.

“You haven’t been there for a few months have you? Aislee and me, we’re going there now to start putting right the FPB cousin’s damage – the fucking moron’s been painting over everything with some weird aluminium shit. It’d break your heart…”So I’m glad I didn’t. I wished them both well, and off they went with hot savoury pastries in their hands and vengeance and refurbishment in their souls.

Shortly afterwards, Pruule the fucking psycho bitch cousin herself came in, in search of coffee, sympathy and a discreet grope, like she always does.

“Darling! Coffee! I’ve had to come out! There are ‘people’ in the house! It’s just too uncomfortable!” She really does speak with exclamation marks. She went straight to a table. I took the drink over and as always, she maneuvered herself up and hugged me and I just managed to avoid the tongue but still got a slightly damp left ear. There are some people who I’m quite happy to let them lick my face. This particular sixty eight year old who wears skin tight black leatherette leggings and hair like John Cooper Clarke ain’t one of them. I listened to her tale of woe which was similar to Gav’s but naturally with a slant in a direction which could be called “the opposite”. Then a friend of hers with whom I have some history of tension and personal friction came in, asking for cappuccino.

“Large or small?” I asked.

“Medium!” he joked, thinking he was funny. It might have been worth a tired smirk a million hearings ago, but it’s worn a bit thin after forty years of hearing it and its very few variations.

I held up a cup and a mug.

“We’re not Costa. Two sizes. Seven ounce or twelve. Small or large.” I said wearily. I’m always polite. But some people just aren’t worth pretending with.

“Your large isn’t very big, is it? That’s only about half a pint!” Enough with the fucking exclamation marks in everyday speech already.

“It’s just over half, actually. And anyway, there is quite a problem locally with restricted bladder size. That’s why we offer you drinks in these two sizes. And look, your friend’s finished.” So I lost out on that sale.

The doctor phoned me today and told me that the blood test I had last Friday has revealed that I am pre-diabetic. I thought everybody was? He said to be serious about it. So as an initial reaction I am going to stop having sugar in my daily nine mugs of coffee. That’ll be two or three ounces of sugar out of my life everyday, I was astonished and embarrassed in equal measure to calculate. Fuck me, if I manage that I’ll live for ever.

 

Bunker days and the cat that wouldn’t.

So now, I just got back from another trip to Berlin, which has become my new favourite place to go for a weekend away from the soul destroying grind which is in danger of becoming everyday life. I took Geo the grandson, soon to take his GCSEs, and Josef my son. A good time was had by all, and among other things we took in the Reichstag, the Tiergarten, Panoramapunkt on Potsdamer Platz for the views, Friedrichstrasse, the Mauerpark at Bernauerstrasse, the Eastside Gallery and a brief walk past the Detlev Rohwedder building with all its monumental horror to the car park on the corner of In der Ministergarten so Geo could have his picture taken there with a Sid Vicious type snarl on his face. To crown it all Geo and I took an early Sunday morning stroll along Unter den Linden from the lovely Schlossbrucke back to the Brandenburger Tor, visiting the Lustgarten, Bebelplatz, the Neue Wache and passing the Berliner Dom, the museums and lots of building work. We met up again with my two favourite Berlin waitresses, Katje and Poppi; if they were here or I were there I’d have them both. Working in the shop. The city still holds so much more for me to make future visits, it kinda feels like home in some ways.

 

And then. Back to the world. In a coffee fuelled meeting with my landlord at an out of town cafe, neutral ground, I negotiated a year’s extension to the lease on the shop back in January rather than going for a full five or ten year renewal, as the future is shrouded in mists of uncertainty and I’ve suffered a crisis of commitment, of sorts. A way of saying who the fuck knows where we are or what we’ll be doing a year from now.

This morning my dearest friend Ian came in and we had a good long chat of the sort I so rarely enjoy now. He’s a writer, a real published writer and occasional broadcaster, and I observed that work for him often consists of sitting, thinking and weighing phrases and generally considering stuff, whereas for me it usually means running around after mad people, feeding them and watering them, and sometimes even cleaning up the noxious, disgraceful mess they leave in the lavs. But often with no thinking involved. That’s the big void in my life. Skid marks on the porcelain a-plenty but precious little opportunity for creative reflection. Hence this.

Just listened to Astronomy Domine in honour of my mate Doyley who was found dead shortly after Christmas. He was often to be found listening to the Floyd in his unguarded moments. Sad days. He died owing me £40, and the day after we heard the news, his mate Roo came in and said he knew D owed me the money, and if I could see him right for a tenner he’d make sure I got the full £50 next week. I told him no, partly because I knew he was broke with few prospects and a lying bastard to boot, but also because he didn’t look too healthy himself and I didn’t want to throw good money after bad. He shrugged and left without embarrassing himself too much.

Not long after Ian left, the shop was descended upon by a small grey haired gnome complete with tufty beard, almost unintelligible Irish accent, greasy spectacles and all his possessions in a JDSports carry all bag. He told me his name was Casanova and he came from France, all the while wearing an impossibly shiny plastic rain jacket. Fuck me I thought, life soon returns to normal. He told me he’d be sitting in the shop waiting for a friend who’d arranged to meet him at three o’clock. I served him a coffee and told him he was out of luck because I’d be closing at two today. It’s a cold wettish Saturday and I had lots to do at home.

Then Mathew came in, apologising because he was later than he’d hoped. Count yourself lucky, Mathew, there’s late and then there’s late. Know what I mean?

Against my better judgement, I asked him what had delayed him. Always a foolish act.

“My cat. She wouldn’t let me out.” You might picture a twenty stone, seven foot Siberian Tiger prowling Fretful Grange and shit your pants with fear that a man like Mathew shares living space with such a terrible beast. But no, it’s a little black and white sweetie with green eyes.

“Mathew, how did Twinkles stop you coming out? How does that happen?” I felt my soul withering.

“She wanted to be fed.” Was his brief answer, so I made him a pot of tea and hoped for silence. The cogs of the Universe were once again slotting together, engaging their teeth, turning one within the other to drive time and space ever onward to the grim inevitability which awaits.

“I’ve been trying to get the council to clear a dangerous tree. You haven’t been about much lately. I was thinking of taking a saw along the road to cut it up and take it home to use it.” He left all this hanging, as if there might be a connection somewhere, or even some sense. I didn’t ask. I didn’t explain. Instead I placed a small smooth tan coloured pebble, such as you might find on any shingle beach, on the table next to his teapot.

“I picked it up in Berlin, Mathew. To show you. It’s from a car park. Hitler died nearby. Nothing remains to mark the spot except an illustrated information board. Think on that, Mathew. Fifty million dead and nothing but an eight or nine foot square perspex covered sheet of printed board to mark the time’s passing.”

Next weekend I’m taking Sara one of my daughters and grandson Jack to London for a couple of days. We’re going to climb the Monument and cross the Tower Bridge walkway. We’ll do other stuff too, I’m sure. Then I have to go again sometime soon with my sister as she wants us to revisit the places where we grew up and started school. It will be the first time we’ve been in Finsbury together since the summer of 1967. She’ll cry, most probably. Future ghosts and all that.

 

 

 

Helpful

I finally gave in to the horrendous sight of my hair sticking out in a silver pre-afro mass of rowdy tufts. Jen is still not back in her little salon so I went over the road to Richie’s for a haircut. I think he was glad to see me back.

“Alright me old mate. You come back to me have yer? Three and a two is it? I was just about to close up for the day, things to do, bills to pay, but I’d better do you hadn’t I?”

He didn’t sound bitter at my recent defections at all, which was a relief. So now I am once again beautiful and close cropped.

I wanted to go to Brighton to get some shirts and pay a visit to Waterstones, neither of which activities are possible in my home town. It’s the place where ennui went to die. Possibly for want of a warm plaid shirt and a good read.

I asked the bus driver for a return ticket to Brighton. Because that was my plan. Go to Brighton. Visit a couple of shops. Wander along Western Road to the Lebanese supermarket, grab a handful of exotic food items. Possibly get a snack and a drink. Return home. That was my plan, it was a coherent plan and it would have sufficed. The view along the coast is nice enough, and there was nothing and nowhere else that appealed.

The driver had other plans.

“Are you sure you don’t want a Saver?”

“No. I want a return ticket please. From here to Brighton and back again. Thanks.” My needs today were simple and straightforward.

“But if you get a Saver you can get off the bus wherever you want, get back on another bus on the route and continue your journey. However often you may want to.”

“But I don’t want to. I want to go to Brighton. And then come back here. So you see to me it’s all the same thing.”

“Ah. No it isn’t the same thing you see, because if you want to do that then all you need is a return ticket. Whereas the Saver gives you flexibility. You don’t get that with a simple return. Do you want a Saver?”  In a different universe, or if I had a few variations in my DNA which could have resulted in me being a totally different representative of humanity this would all have been helpful,  possibly interesting or even vaguely relevant. But in the here and now I was heading for a Fegelein moment. Flecks of spittle were forming, I was ready to decompose and howl. I held my composure though.

“No.” I seethed, calmly and collectedly. “I don’t want (fucking) flexibility. I don’t want a (fucking) Saver. I want to go to (fucking) Brighton and then come straight (fucking) back again. On a (fucking) simple five pound return (fucking) ticket. It’s that simple.”

I got off the bus, returned home, changed my clothes and after donning my Czech fur hat and woolly gloves against the chilly North Easterly wind, went for a seven mile bicycle ride and screamed at the sea. The sea shrugged off my frustrations by breaking itself on the pebbled shore.

There were people fishing, people dog walking and simply strolling along the esplanade. All wrapped up for Autumn, all looking calm and happy on this bright but blustery day. Even the ice cream van is still turning up and parking for the day. It’s me, I thought, plunging myself into a gloom of self loathing and doubt. I see the end of times in a helpful and obliging bus driver. The poor sorry fucker only wanted me to buy a Saver ticket.

Then I went and bought a nice looking piece of brisket beef for tomorrow’s dinner. It’s marinading in some homemade beef stock with vegetables and aromatics out in the outhouse fridge right now. I’m going to look on easyjet’s website for a weekend city break for the new year. Prague or Rome. I haven’t been away for seven months and it’s beginning to tell on me.