‘Twixt the Pillow and the Ceiling…

I would have left her with very little else to see. That’s what I told her anyway. I’d been recounting the tale of my recent trip to Berlin in reply to the queries of a woman I know called Sue. That’s what I’ll call her here, anyway. Mainly because that’s her given.

You see, back in March I took my oldest grandson Geo to the German capital for a boys’ long weekend. He’s fourteen and has a deep fascination for twentieth century European history, meat-based diets, wheat beer and interesting European females. Not necessarily in that order. We spent a couple of days visiting various sites, museums and memorials, at some of which he bought a chunk of the Berlin Wall, a set of Russian tank commander’s goggles, a Soviet fur hat and, naturally, a gas mask, which involved a rather tense stand-off during our purchase negotiations. We (he) saved ourselves 40 Euros on the deal, so the verbal abuse we (I) suffered was worthwhile. He wanted the gas mark for “my vlogs, innit Grandad”. I didn’t ask him to elaborate. Geo discovered Curry Wurst and Berliner Kindl, both to his delight, Schnapps, mostly to mine, and he was both impressed and embarrassed at his grandfather’s ability to flirt with a German waitress in her native language. He’s also developed a recent interest in photography, and made some pretty damned good images while we were there.

So there we are. I was telling Sue about our adventures and she said she’d like to come with me next time I go. Joking, like. And I replied, equally in jest, that it would be a wasted trip if she wanted to do any sightseeing because she wouldn’t see anything other than the two items I mentioned in the title above. She had that sort of eye-narrowing look appearing on her face and I realised I’d overstepped the mark a little bit.

She said “we’ll make that a date then shall we?” Ooh er. I don’t know how I’ll get that one past the protective bosom of my family, I’m sure…Best not try.

Not a lot else has happened that you want to hear about, really.

You may remember Granny Gollum who once upon a time featured in these pages with vicious regularity. For many years she and her family were barred from entering my shop, after a period of sustained nastiness. Well I still see them about in town, and decided it would add much credit to my Karma balance if I did something nice for once. So I thought I’d bring her back from Berlin a jar of the Senf (Mittelscharf) mustard for which I know she has a particular fondness. But I forgot. I was meant to bring a few jars home for us too. I forgot that as well. So I went straight onto Amazon the morning after we got home and ordered a load, along with some other delightful continental condiments and sauces.

Two hours after I placed the order, the house phone rang. It was an Amazon seller, asking if I was the person who’d ordered a selection of German and Dutch foodstuffs. I admitted that I was, and he said that if I was going to be in for the morning he’d drop it off at my house. He lives less than four miles from my hovel! He came around and we had a lovely chat and exchanged emails, phone numbers etc and I promised to place endless more orders with him. Exciting and serendipitous stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

It’s spring. Walking to work this morning was like making my way through an avian orgy. Wood pigeons, Herring gulls and cancer doves were all shagging on roof tops, walls and the handrail above the underpass leading to the swimming pool. Feathers, beaks and sperm everywhere. They have no shame, but are blessed with a wonderful sense of balance. Probably a good way to go through life.

 

 

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Babylon Blisters

The weather forecast had promised a day of cloudy skies and showers today. We got a stiff wind blowing in off the sea, unbroken blue skies and clear golden sunshine, which for some strange reason encouraged me to spend my day off listening to my Very Best of Steely Dan double cd, when I wasn’t on a fifteen mile bike ride and clearing away small piles of post-winter debris from the garden. There’s little to beat a good cycle alongside the estuary, with the salty gusts sweeping across from the bay and the sun in your eyes. There wasn’t today anyway, so I made the most of it. Summer draws closer. So with thighs a-throb and splinters of dead wood stinging a tender patch of skin between the roots of thumb and forefinger, I set to to make a pleasant dinner for me and my little Squaw Juanita to enjoy when she got back from her monthly visit to her ma and step-pa. They had been discussing the future, and had decided that they were going to be buried together when the time comes, leaving my father-in-law alone in his double grave which the mother-in-law purchased on his death thirty five years ago. Unless Juanita’s brother can be persuaded to take her place in the double, seeing as he’s a bit of a skinflint and he’ll probably see it as a good way to save a bit of cash. She came home quite fraught.

This is why I don’t go on these family visits. It’s far easier to visit my folks. I just wander down the hill to the old church graveyard and stand by my brother’s grave wherein we lifted a few turves and sprinkled my parents’ ashes in after their respective cremations, and absorb the ineffable calmness of the place. Ivy, box trees, and spring bulbs poking through the grass. Low Spring sunshine dappling through the branches of the overhanging trees and dead Winter twigs crackling under the feet. It’s a tonic for the soul.

So, I’d decided on a pasta type thing for dinner. Mainly because I’ve had a fair amount of fish lately. I sliced a couple of chicken breasts thinly across the grain and set them to rest in a dish with extra virgin olive oil and a crushed clove of the garlic and a couple of dozen twists of black pepper, then set a pan of conchiglie to boil. While that was cooking I finely chopped and softened in more oil an onion and another crushed clove of garlic along with a generous pinch of crushed dried chilli flakes, followed by a glass of malbec which I reduced for five minutes. The pasta was cooked so I left it cooling under a trickle of cold water. We’re not on a meter yet, so old habits persist. Then I sauteed the chicken bits in a HOT PAN with a splash of yet more olive oil.  The HOT PAN is vital, as it seals the juice in the chicken and imparts a lovely golden hue, after which it can be rested on a plate. Which I did. Meanwhile, I added a carton of chopped tomatoes to the onion pan and simmered it a while along with a handful of fresh basil leaves. I also made a pint of thinnish bechamel into which I stirred a couple of ounces of strong cheddar. Now for the construction!

You mix the tomato sauce into the pasta and stir in the cooked chicken and a tub of drained mozzarella balls and use it to fill the base of a good sized baking dish, then sprinkle a bag of grated mozzarella (which you found in the back of the freezer on Sunday when you were looking for the bag of mussels you knew you’d put there a couple of weeks ago) over it. Then you gently spread the cheese sauce over it, followed by a whole large mozzarella ball which you shred over the surface by hand. Cover the whole surface with ground black pepper and dried chilli flakes, basil and oregano. Don’t put it in the oven yet, but let it stand for an hour or so before baking it for half an hour. Eat it happy, and listen to good music. Your taste buds will thank you.

 

 

 

Blimey. Squdookle. So recent yet it seems so long ago. Thank you, Joss.

Weevils, waffles & weading.

There was Jane, sighing and close to tears as usual.

“You know I’ve had to move house again? People think it’s me, Graham. But it isn’t. You know it isn’t. I always get on with people. I try to anyway.” I must have a face that attracts the weak and the vulnerable. Or something like that.

“Well Jane I just don’t know what to say. What happened at the bungalow?” The last time I saw her Jane had moved into a lovely new bungalow because she thought a man who lived upstairs from her at the block of flats where she’d been living was stalking her. Because he said hello when he noticed she was following him round Lidl because she thought he looked like he might be shoplifting.

“Oh, I spent a few months in a park home after the bungalow, but there was a man with a dog….” and she was on the brink of tears again. All welling up and snotty dribble everywhere, most unattractive if you ask me. It’s not Jane’s best look, simply her usual one.

I didn’t ask about the man with the dog…or what might or might not have happened at the bungalow. She was already telling me about her latest disaster, in the latest second floor three roomed flat.

“I kept finding weevils, everywhere. In my bed, in my cupboards, in my clothes, everywhere. Not nice Graham”. I nodded my agreement and sympathy.

“Did you fumigate, Jane? It sounds like you needed to.” Well what would you have asked her in the circumstances?

But she hadn’t fumigated. She’d called the pest department at the council. They’d told her, apparently, that it was all the fault of the man upstairs who fed pigeons on his balcony. The pigeon feed attracted the weevils. But weevils aren’t a health hazard so if she didn’t like it she’d have to move.  That’s what she said the man from the council told her, and who am I to disbelieve Jane? So she’s looking to move again. The local estate agents put the kettle on and send the boy out for cakes and biscuits when they see her coming. And possibly browse through a holiday brochure or something similar.

 

And so it was that Juanita and I took our granddaughter to Amsterdam for a long weekend in the middle of February, the cruelest, shortest month. It’s a fair old city is Amsterdam. Or an old, fair city. It’s lovely anyway. We stayed a little way out of the city centre but the hotel was on the tram and bus routes so all was good. We did the canal cruise twice, the round city bus tour, and spent a morning on Damrak, taking in the Body Worlds exhibition and some delicious vries and  fritessoss. Not at the same time. We took her to the Anne Frank House, which was the main reason for the trip, and also passed an afternoon at the Van Gogh Museum, which was probably more my treat than theirs. Food, including waffles, was good, drink was good, so all was good. I like good. Next stop Berlin in a couple of weeks time.

One afternoon last week my dear friend Fretful Mathew was deploying his favourite distraction technique in a futile attempt to prevent me kicking him out and closing the shop on time. He was trying to convince me that he’d read an interesting article about a 1970s female newsreader but he simply couldn’t remember her name. She had dark hair. I rattled off the names of all the newreaders of the time whose names I could remember. Richard Baker. He had dark hair. No. Robert Dougall. No. He had little hair. Kenneth Kendall. No. Not a woman. Moira Stuart? No. Selina Scott? Too blond. Anna Ford? He blushed. No, not her. Why blush, Mathew? Something to do with a proposition. You should be so lucky. I didn’t mention Hugh Burnett. He had a great voice. A dynamic voice. But he wasn’t a brunette. Mathew was looking desperate.

I eventually bundled him out of the door with a warning that if the name came to him in the small hours he was not, repeat not, to telephone me in a state of rapture with the good news.

He came into the shop the following afternoon for his tea and cake. Half way through his Danish pastry he smiled. I was preparing to take shelter when he told me he’d remembered the name.

“Name, Mathew?” I queried, my face blooming with confusion.

“Yes, the female 1970’s newsreader.” He was almost triumphant.

“What female 1970’s newsreader are you talking about Mathew?”

“Jan Leeming!” He said.

“Jan who?” Asked I.

“Jan Leeming! That’s who we were trying to remember yesterday!”

“We were? I thought she was more 80s than 70s. But never mind. More tea Mathew?”

Trim

So here I am, listening to an old Nerina Pallot record ‘Fires’ that I’d forgotten I had. It just goes to show that wonderful memories can be found lurking in the open, if only you can be bothered to look. I was a bit bored and on a whim rummaged through the disc collection. And there she was. So I’m listening to her again. Good stuff.

I was sitting in the barber’s the other day and Richie was buzzing at a breathless pace across the nape of my neck. “Plug yerself in, Richie baby!” I howled, mainly to confuse poor Olly who was awaiting his turn in the chair. Bobby the senile Dachsund looked at me with despair and disdain. Dogs ain’t what they used to be. That one isn’t, anyway. Olly looked up, and spoke. He always calls me “Doctor”. I don’t know why. I have been called many things, some sacred, some profane but mostly mundane. But Olly calls me “Doctor”.

“Here Doctor, did I tell you I got a promotion?” I haven’t seen him for three months. How shit can his memory be?

“Last time I saw you, Oll, you’d quit the bins. Where are you working now? And why are you still dressed as a bin man? Does it turn on the old ladies?” Olly shares Richie’s penchant for shagging decrepit old ladies. I really mean old. And I really mean decrepit. Worryingly there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of willing takers.

“Nah, Doctor,” he chuckled, “I’m doing the street bins now. I quit the lorries. Now I’ve got my own little truck and I do the street bins.” He looked mightily pleased with himself. I was thinking of the scene in The Maltese Falcon where Bogie slaps Wilmer and says “when you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it!” but my hands were restrained by Richie’s cape and my own iron self-discipline. So Olly escaped a good slapping.

“Fuck me Olly, I really can’t keep up with you. Not that I’d particularly want to. All the best with it anyway…” and he started to launch into a description of the perceived benefits of emptying the street bins. The bins around the local care homes are probably pristine, I thought, but really couldn’t be arsed to move the conversation along any further. And Richie had finished with me anyway, with a final flourish of his trimmer along the leading edges of my ears. No blood. Ten quid well spent.

I had to get to the dentist next for my annual check up. Aisleen spent a minute checking my teeth and gums, and fifteen minutes chatting about holidays, surgery inspections, silk vs. cotton in regard to underwear and other stuff. I got the impression from her breath that she’d been chewing cardamom seeds. Much more pleasant than when she spent eighteen months on the Brussels Sprout diet. I left her surgery with a slight limp to the right and a feeling that that had been twenty five quid even better spent.

So then I bumped into the lovely Gillian as we both did an unsuspecting 180 degree turn into each other by the salad display in the supermarket. We haven’t seen each other for a couple of years; she was and will forever be my favourite person of all time who isn’t my wife and I was occasionally her very favourite person who isn’t her husband. So she has led me to believe, anyway. But they moved away when she took early retirement and we didn’t keep in touch. And here we now were, surrounded by bags of prepared leaves and various other green yellow and red salad vegetables and fruits and the world around us faded away to a curious distance as we caught up. She was wearing her customary maroon woollen stockings, straight grey skirt and flat shoes, which look on Gillian I find quite unaccountably exciting. It’s lovely to be able to talk to someone who’s on the same wavelength; it turns out we’ve just finished reading books by the same author. Gill’s eyes are like little pools of hazel light, glowing and bright and her voice feels like the lightest touch of the feathers from the wing of an angel against your ears. Am I just a little in love with her? What do you think, reader of mine? But her husband was waiting outside in the car park and I had a basket to fill with dairy consumables, so after another hug and a brief kiss or two, we parted with a promise to keep in touch this time. You need friends like Gillian. I do anyway.

I went for my regular evening bike ride along the coast that night and it decided to rain when I was eight miles out, along with the wind increasing to an onshore gale stinging the face with lashings of sea water and small flying grains of flinty sand. My front light battery died shortly after that. The bastard. The estuary path runs alongside the main coast road, separated from it only by a six foot wide verge of coarse grass, dead rabbits and shattered hubcaps and the only lights, apart from the steady distant morse code of the lighthouse across the bay, are the glaring headlights of the cars hurtling towards you at eye level, blinding and terrifying through the rapidly rising storm. It makes you feel especially conscious of both the excitement and the fragility of existence at times like that, and I was quite pleased to arrive back at the safety of home even if I had forgotten to fasten the back gate and the tempest had shattered it against the wall, separating a cross piece from an upright beam. I fixed the fucker though. I always have a bucket full of steel strapping plates and zinc covered two inch screws on permanent standby in the outhouse.

I made me a huge bowl of Spaghetti Putanesca to cheer myself up once I was dry and dressed. Anchovies! Always have anchovies as part of your diet children, they are truly food from heaven. I only ever eat them when my wife’s not about though because she has an unfathomable and quite unreasonable dislike for the poor little fellows. My little Juanita was at work that night however, and remains unaware of the dramas of the day even now.

So that’s pretty much all that the new year has brought so far. Some good, some not so, but all real, all intense.

And Nerina Pallot’s still playing!

Good night, dear readers.

 

 

Yeah yeah yeah

So that was Christmas. It was alright, I’ve known worse. I’ve known better too. We closed the shop at 2 o’clock on Saturday and I got home somewhere about four, leaving it all ready for stripping out and repainting the kitchen this week. I know how to enjoy the festive season. We had to get the drinks in and a few last minute bits of food shopping too, so that was the early evening accounted for. I saw they had the bluray disc of Atomic Blonde in the supermarket so I slipped it into the trolley.

All I knew about the film is that it’s set in cold-war era Berlin and it stars Charlize Theron. I usually enjoy spy movies, I also enjoy most films set in continental European cities, and all I can say about Charlize Theron is that if I were a woman I would be strongly tempted to become a lesbian. Extremely so. Especially if I found out that she was one too. But then I’d probably make my way to Los Angeles, find out where her favourite cafe is and start hanging around there, hoping to bump into her accidentally on numerous occasions. I reckon the situation would quickly deteriorate into accusations of stalking and counter accusations of blatant incitement, then the inevitable restraining orders, hate-mail and quite unjustified internet trolling followed by a short but extremely uncomfortable residence in prison, where I’d most likely become Big Shaqui’ta’s dirty little bitch, and then a brutal deportation. That would cause the self loathing to kick in, and then I’d go and do something really stupid. Like getting a tattoo of Charlize Theron’s face on my chest with my nipples where her eyes should be and a bottomless abyss of paranoia and suspicion in my navel. Thinking about it I don’t reckon I want to become a lesbian after all. It doesn’t sound that much fun really, does it? Quite grim, actually.

So I was quite looking forward to watching the movie with a glass or two of gimlet or maybe Gin & Tonic. My new favourite drinks.

If you haven’t watched the film, I won’t spoil it for you by disclosing the plot, praising the screenplay with its realistic dialogue or admiring the period detail. Mainly because there weren’t any. What a pile of shite. I know it’s only meant to be entertainment, not a documentary, but it wasn’t. I’ve seen telly adverts for payday loan companies that were more entertaining and convincing.  Yeah, I’m the 21st century’s Barry Norman. I watched the old Beatles’ movie ‘Hard Day’s Night’ today. That’s a great film. Probably because the 1960s London landscape was the background to my childhood, and the songs were what I grew up to. And didn’t those boys dress sharp before hippiedom came along to drag them down!

We spent Christmas eve at my oldest daughter Anna’s, and her husband Ali* made us all a slow cooked Lebanese lamb dish with herby salad, carrot and yogurt dip and piles of flatbread. It was gorgeous, especially washed down with lashings of fizzy white wine. Jess 11 the granddaughter was well choked (in a state of extreme excitement and happiness) to realise we’re taking her to Amsterdam in February for her present and George 14 the oldest has convinced me that the only suitable birthday treat for him will be if I take him to Berlin in the Spring for a boys only weekend. I was persuaded by his reasoning. Alfie 7 and Stan 5 were very happy too. So all good there. We spent the afternoon  playing games and the evening watching George do his singing and then Me Myself & Irene and a couple of episodes of Bottom. All classy stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

We had a quiet Christmas day. Rach.a.El had her face buried in her phone as usual and my son Joe is back home with us having broken up with his woman after three years. He spent most of the day in his room looking tearful and lost. Anita worries about him. My other daughter Sarah phoned, she was a bit subdued because her two oldest boys had to spend the day with their wastrel lying shite of a father, and she was having a quiet day with David, husband no.2, who’s a much better dad to the boys, and their youngest two. They are all staying with us over New Year. All of them. What have I done? I know what I’ve done. I’ve got a huge fucking dinner to cook on New Year’s Day.

So that could have been better and it could have been worse. We ate well though, and were well hydrated.

So here we are today. Earlier today Anna’s first husband, Geo’s dad, came around ours with his second wife and Geo’s little half brother. They live up north in Surrey. The branches of the family tree are many and quite entangled. My little Juanita is back at work tonight so I’m going to watch a film on the telly. Nikita or Leon. I’m going to flip a coin.

I hope both of you, my lovely readers, had a good Christmas, despite the adversities that life seems to delight in chucking at us sometimes, and hope we all have a much better 2018.

Night night. X

 

 

*Ali. He’s not Lebanese in case you were wondering. The food was. His name isn’t. It’s short for Alastair. He’s not Scottish either. In case you were wondering about that too.

Glitter Pies and Floating

I sat at the table for a whole evening, first pruning and then adding to the Christmas card list. So many departures, so many new friends and arrivals. The balance is out though, I have less cards to write and send this year than last. Maybe I’ve simply forgotten some people. Maybe not.

Anyways, by the end of the evening, having listened to Patti Smith’s Horses, Television’s Marquee Moon, R&LT’s Shoot Out The Lights and finally Zappa’s Hot Rats I was replete with mid to late 1970s music, my pile of cards was written, addressed and stamped where necessary, and I had wrapped and labelled all the books I’ve got for the grandchildren. Except for Harry, but he’s only nine months old. He eats books. The other seven read them, or at least make a bloody good show of looking through them. Anita gets all the toys, clothes and stuff. I get each of them a book, carefully chosen. I had a strange shimmer around the lower half of my field of vision. As, you may think, it all should be.

I went to get a coffee, and glancing in the hall mirror I saw a distorted vision of Gump. Not Forrest, but the small elven type person played by David Bennent in Legend which, apart from its main male star, I always think of as a good bit of 1980s escapism. The Tin Drum’s another film he’s in which I would recommend. That was made by Volker Schloendorf, in case you want to know. The sparkly stuff. It was the glitter from the cards. It had settled in a lightly sprinkled nimbus of stardust upon my cheeks, trying hard to lend me an angelic cast, but failing miserably.

I’ve had a letter from HMRC sitting unopened on the desk here in my little office for the last week. I took the bull by the pizzle and opened it today. It was my very first Self Assessment Statement, as I’ve so far been able to avoid their clutches, but they changed the rules last year and they’re now getting income tax as well as Corporation Tax and Vat out of me. I’m so excited. They only want the cost of a long 4* weekend for two in Rome from me this year. So that’s out of the question. Sorry, I’d have asked you along otherwise.

 

I’ve started the Christmas food at home already. Every year I make pork and stilton hand raised pies for us at home, my sister and her family and a few friends. The first job is get 1lb each of pork belly, pork shoulder and smoked bacon or gammon, derind all the pieces of meat and cut them all into small cubes. This I did last week, and froze it all down, hand turned and mixed. When they’re defrosted and seasoned on Wednesday, I shall make the hot water pastry, then in the pastry cases layer meat, grated stilton and cheddar, then more meat before covering, baking and filling with lovely pork jelly. For smaller pies I just mix the cheese lightly in with the meat. I also make some vegetable pies with hot oil pastry, filling with layers of wilted spinach with nutmeg, sliced potatoes, sliced onions, handfuls of grated cheddar, more sliced potatoes and topping it with tomatoes cooked down to a paste with garlic, shallots and basil. It’s all good. My vegetarian niece particularly loves the second one, surprise. We got a goose for Christmas dinner this year, my favourite meat.

 

Have you ever had recurring dreams? I’ve had one occasionally for the last thirty years or so. In them, I’m walking across the bridge over the nearby river, or sometimes along a Brighton street to where I went to college oh so many years ago, when I find my legs getting harder and harder to move, as though I’m wading through treacle or probably something just as viscous but less tasty. In the dreams my legs always end up in pain, I never get to my usually important destination, and I always wake up in a strange state of anxiety, which I can bloody well assure you is not my usual mood.

The other night I had the same old dream again, but I think it’s resolved itself. Don’t you feel happy for me? I was walking along London Road in Brighton but found myself on the hills above Sheepcot Valley, and turned a corner into somewhere that looked like Whitehawke but couldn’t have been because people weren’t throwing things at me. My legs were in agony and it was like I had concrete blocks tied to my heels. A person was following me along an alley, and every time I turned to see who he was my very small rucksack blocked my view. Eventually I span round as a body and it was a bearded youth. He asked why I was walking so slowly and I told him about my feet and the dreams and the anxiety, and he told me that I knew what I had to do then, didn’t I?

Oh yes, I said, I’ve simply forgotten, at which I drifted up a couple of yards into the air. Not flying, but floating. I was anxious about how to get down again, but he reassured me that I had no need to worry, everything happens when it needs to happen. I wasn’t anxious when I woke up. All very strange and interesting to me, at any rate.

 

Well there we are then. It’s finally stopped raining, which it has been doing in varying levels of intensity all day. I’m going to go downstairs and watch a film now. La Gloire de mon Pere, most likely. Because I got the dvd from Amazon, I keep getting recommendations from them for Pagnol’s novel. I have to ignore them. The dvd’s got subtitles, you see, Amazon. The book hasn’t.

If I don’t come back on here before January, which is very much in the balance, I’ll wish you a very happy Christmas now, and hope you have a happy, peaceful, contented time, which is a lot to hope for sometimes I know, but I wish it to you anyway. Because I’m optimistic and kind like that.

x

 

 

Another week

in the shop, another week further away from the explosively moist instant of creation, and another week closer to returning to dust, to be blown away on the reanimating breezes of other people’s experience and memories. As existence can be broken down so easily into these easily manageable chunks, it sometimes leads me to wonder why the business of what we laughingly call life can sometimes be so strenuously exhausting on the nerves and the patience? There’s probably no answer, but it’s a worthwhile use of your time to think about these things. Sometimes, like now, it can save you, even if only temporarily, from the distasteful business of having to do some work.

 

On Monday afternoon I was standing by the smaller of my two food display cabinets, watching blonde Haylie’s bum as she made her way back to the beauty parlour across the road, where she occasionally works and sometimes looks out and waves to me if she sees me drooling there in the window, in the general direction of her. She’s sweet. My slightly pervy reverie was interrupted, as so many of them have been, by my favourite customer who was gazing past his chin into his cup of tea. Anywhere that’s down and low. To match his mood and his self esteem respectively.

“Do you know, Graham, my boiler’s been broken since Saturday night. The house is quite cold now. I do have fireplaces, but I have no coal.” Yes, Mathew, and your garden is more heavily wooded than the New Fucking Forest. Burn that.

“Ah now that’s a great shame Mathew,” is what came out of my mouth. “Have you thought of calling out somebody who may be able to fix it?” Like a fucking engineer? Haylie’s bum has now disappeared into the parlour, but she’s sat at her station by the window and I’m quite sure she’s looking at me with lasciviousness and thoughts of eagerly shared piping hot bodily fluids on her mind.  “Mathew, I’ve very recently been exploring a theory that if you think about something hard enough, like envisage it in your mind’s eye, conjure up a realistic portrait of what you’d like to see happen, it may actually happen in real life. It hasn’t quite worked for me yet, but perhaps you could try it, maybe your boiler will fix itself?”

“No, I’ve called the maintenance company. A man’s coming out tomorrow morning, hopefully. But I’ll get the taxi to take me to the garage and collect some coal on the way home, just in case he can’t fix it.” said Mathew.

“Knowing your house and all that it contains, do you think the engineer is likely to have access to a time machine in order to get his hands on any replacement parts that may be needed? Do you Mathew?” He’s a queer cove, is Mathew. Sometimes you’ll say something light hearted and jovial, just to keep the conversation from grinding to a painful, embarrassing halt, when he’ll simply go blank on you as though he’s jumped back ten minutes into the past and nothing has passed between you.

“Could I have another cup of tea Graham, or are you going to tell me that you’ve turned the water machine off again?” he asked, without adding the bit about “even though I haven’t heard the steam hissing out and the pressure needle quite clearly indicates that the machine is still in fact on and not only that, it’s full to the brim with boiling pressurised water…” We sometimes have days like this.

***

So they were Monday’s events vis-a-vis this sorry little tale. Tuesday afternoon came, Haylie’s not working in town any more this week so she leaves the story, still blonde and with her bum intact, totally unaware that she has played any part in it at all. Mathew’s still about though. Since Monday he has been tormenting himself with doubts about whether he should get some coal. It really is that easy to agonise yourself into a social coma, if you are Mathew.

I won’t subject you to the full conversation, it’s enough for you to know that for a full three quarters of an hour I was engulfed in a stream of consciousness in full flood where every “what if”, “perhaps I should have…”, “my mother would have…” and “what if I…” were explored, repeated and crushed yet again in a landslide of self-doubt and indecision. It’s bloody painful sometimes, being the affable and approachable proprietor of a small town high street retail bakery slash coffee shop, I can tell you.

The day ended with Mathew leaving the shop, fretful and worrying, saying “maybe I should get some coal…” with a rictus grin which was presumably meant to convey a sense of “decision has been made”, but suggested that an intracranial venous infarction was imminent  Then he stopped dead in his tracks. Which weren’t very noticeable as it happens; we do keep a nice clean floor. His entire demeanour changed. Once again, the self-doubt wracked him from head to toes. “Ah. The chimney hasn’t been swept since 1987. Do you think I….”

Inwardly I was clutching his slightly frayed lapels, shrieking “WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO SAY?? WHAT DO WANT OF ME?? DON’T YOU THINK I’VE SUFFERED ENOUGH IN MY LIFE??” in a stream of spittle spraying desperation directly into his quivering eyeballs. I said ”Thanks then Mathew, I’m off tomorrow but I’ll see you on Thursday. Good night.” There is an almost bottomless, trackless and ocean dark abyss between the waking world and the one within. Sometimes I fall. Sometimes there’s a hand hold.

***

Thursday arrived. Wednesday was a pleasant day off, spent with the two youngest grandsons as the second oldest daughter has now returned to work dispensing medications, dressings and stuff, following her maternity leave. And last night I booked a weekend away for three in Amsterdam for February, as we’re taking our granddaughter there for her Christmas present. On Christmas day she’s going to get a Berlitz Amsterdam city guide and a cd with that song about a little mouse with clogs on, there on the stair, where on the stair? right there! recorded on it. And maybe Max Bygraves singing about Tulips. But Thursday.

Mathew had bought two bags of coal at the garage. But then took one back because he felt guilty, he told me.

“Why guilty Mathew?” I asked.

“Because I didn’t really know what I’d bought” he mumbled.

I chose not to pursue that branch of the conversation any further. Who knows where it may have led us to in the land of derangement and confusion which we have this week entered?

“So you lit a fire? Has the engineer come out to your house to fix the oil fired burner?” I assume you still don’t have mains gas, a bicycle manufactured since 1957 or a good reason not to one day recompense me for the suffering you inflict on me so regularly?” Yes, you’re right. The last two dozen words were silent. But then so much is.

Mathew laughed, bitterly.

“Yes, I lit a fire. The grate collapsed. My house could have burned down. But the coal hadn’t really caught.” I tried not to laugh too hysterically.

“Oh Mathew. I am sorry. The boiler?”

“Yes the man came. He was waiting there when I got home from here on Tuesday. It was the pump. He had to order one, it came yesterday and it’s all working now.”

“All is well then Mathew, yes?” I said, sensing that possibly, just possibly, there might be a light, however feeble, however guttering, at the end of the long dark tunnel in which we found ourselves now benighted. I looked at him. That light, dear reader, went out.

“It’s just…I just can’t help wishing that I’d asked him if I could keep the broken pump, if only to find out how it worked…” Despair, you are my own.

“But you couldn’t Mathew. Because it wasn’t working in the first place. That’s why he replaced it. It was broken, remember? It could have possibly have misled you if you’d taken it apart to see how it worked and you saw a part of a part that you assumed was a whole part but wasn’t, it could lead you astray, confuse you. Sort of?” I was rapidly  running out of the will to exist. Mathew wasn’t going to give up so easily though. In some ways he is made of stern stuff.

“Or maybe I could have kept it as a sort of souvenir of his visit, to remind me that he has mended it?”

“You simply have to sit in the warm, toasty and snug, for that to happen Mathew. You don’t need oily, broken bits of metal cluttering up the place to know that you’re warm, do you?”

But the look haunting Mathew’s broken yet curiously unlined face told me that he does. Indeed he does.

 

 

 

On an average day in my shop we see three hundred or so people come through our doors. Two hundred buy at the counter and leave, maybe a quarter or a third of those having a brief chat first with myself or one of the girls. Of the hundred or so who sit in, probably half will be alone or in a couple, and will keep their own company. Then there are those who will interact with us, the hard core regulars for whom conversation and sometimes physical contact come easy. There are a few people who cause hearts to sink and vital chores to be suddenly found elsewhere, but who do get served, all the while being held at emotional and social arms length.

And at the very top of the pyramid is Mathew. A man out on his own in so very many ways. One day I shall miss him deeply, and wish he could walk in through the door just one more time. But not today.

 

 

 

The Mirror’d Organ

“Your screws are tight, Graham,” pronounced Mathew, with that familiar blend of shyness, guilt and panic that is his own. He was fiddling with the swiveling thumbscrew fasteners which hold in place the curved glass front panels of my large confectionery display cabinet. He often does. They are a particular fetish of his. I sometimes wonder if, in the deepest recesses of his dark and mysterious mind, he secretly hopes that one day he will gather the courage to suddenly unscrew one of the fasteners and heave out one or more of the beautifully curved sheets of tempered Swedish glass, then stand briefly with it hefted manfully above his greying, slightly bowed head like an aged Hercules balancing a small fragile satellite aloft before dashing it into a hundred thousand glittering jagged shards down on the mottled earthen tiles. He would stand there, spent and sweaty, surveying the destruction he had freshly wrought before asking if perhaps I could fetch a broom from the back cupboard and let him sweep up the mess. Would I fuck! I’d eject the fucker into the cold winter street and tell him to fuck off down to the Turk’s if he thought he was getting a cup of tea today for he certainly wouldn’t be getting one from me.

“Yes, Mathew,” I agreed. “They’re tight. Tight as…Children like to fiddle with them, so I got my cross head screwdriver out and twisted them home only last night. After I finished the stock-take. But before I put up the tinsel and stuff. Do you like the decorations? As you know, I don’t like to overdo it, and I always say that less is more when it comes to Christmas.” ‘Tis true dear reader of mine, I have put up the decorations in the shop far earlier than I ever have before. Weakness of the soul.

We were possibly about to enter into a deep and meaningless discussion re. the festive season and all that it entrails, tightened screws as a means of affecting the fingertips of inquisitive children or even the effects of hardened floor tiles on hurled sheets of glass. Or vice versa. But James Frederick, a gift of blind providence in the shape of an ageing, slightly disappointed dissolute, entered the shop for his habitual coffee and croissant, and saw Mathew, standing by the cabinet looking shamefaced and not much like Hercules. Mathew that is, not James. James is a shameless poseur.

“Mathew!” He beamed and almost bellowed. He’s obviously been practicing projecting his voice. “I thought you played very well the other week!”

Mathew bent his head even further forward and studied the  slightly scuffed tips of his shoes. Or perhaps his multi creased kneecaps.

“Did you? Where? When?” He looked incredibly pale. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. It was like watching Gary Glitter in a Saigon orphanage, flanked by a couple of Vietnamese rozzers.

“Poppy day!” projected James. “In church!” He almost pronounces ‘exclamation mark!!’ at the ends of his sentences. You can almost see them suspended in the air, excited and upright, as he exclaims them. And sometimes he mutters, dark and interesting with a slight thespian lithp. You have to be there. Well you don’t, but it would save me sitting here writing it for you if you were. Wouldn’t it.

“Ah, Remembrance Sunday. Were you there?” Asked the Fretful one. He had noticeable relaxed. There was nothing to fear here, obviously. Where else can Mathew possibly play?

“Yes,” said James. “I read a poem. Something with a Latin title. Didn’t you hear me?”

“Pro Patria Mori” I interrupted. “Dulce et Decorum Est…I bet that’s what you read. Obviously left a deep impression on you, didn’t it Jim? I remember that one from English Lit classes. Mostly because it was by Wilfred Owen and my grandad’s second name was Wilfred. And he got gassed at Cambrai. Didn’t die till 1971. Hard fucker, he was. He used to chalk circles on my mum’s carpet for us to play marbles. I bet you just did limericks at school. I bet they didn’t gas you on the hippy trail to fucking Ibiza in 1969…”

“That’s the one, Graham,” said Jim, steadfastly refusing to rise to the bait, such as it was, “and we went round Europe to Stockholm. Not Ibiza.” He had to rise to it. These are the oceans of irrelevance in which we swim.

Mathew interrupted now, still looking down and muttering into his chest. “I didn’t see you there. Sorry. Somebody has taken the mirrors from the organ. I don’t know who. They were very useful. I had rather a good view of the church without turning around when they were there.  I don’t know who fitted them in the first place. There were two. One gave whoever is playing the organ a view towards the vestry.  The other showed you the front four pews. So you could usually see the entire congregation.” Congregation? You could see the entire population of the fucking ‘hoe in the front four pews.

“They were very useful. One woman who used to come in and play occasionally said that as they were fixed to some of the pipes they’d be very damaging to the organ, but when the church got a professional organ tuner in I asked him about it and he said that the mirrors shouldn’t cause any problem at all. But now they’re gone. I don’t know who took them. I trained to be an organ tuner, but the church always calls in outside help. The man who trained me had a nervous breakdown. You read a poem? I didn’t notice. Sorry, Roger.”

“James Frederick, Mathew.” I chided him. “Roger was in earlier. He wears a bright yellow working man’s jacket, Mathew, don’t you remember. You said hello to him. This is James. He read a poem in church the day you played at the Remembrance service.” And fucking well look up when I’m talking to you! I should perhaps have said.

That was today. Never a day wasted.

Berlin

Our plane was halfway to Berlin, somewhere above the brown Autumn fields and lovely red-roofed towns of Northern Holland, when the driver’s voice burst through the general hum of hipster convos and fingers tapping on glowing screens to tell us that we were on schedule and we’d be landing at Schonefeld in time for a late lunch and that the current freezing fog would have cleared to allow the sunshine in by the time we landed. He was lying. Not about the lunch, we could have got a lovely late lunch, but the fog was still cloaking the city and it was still freezing. But our bald bespectacled driver was waiting with my surname and that of someone else written on his wipe-on wipe-off A4 sheet of laminated card, just inside the arrivals hall. I made myself known to him, we waited for the other party who, like us, couldn’t be arsed to introduce themselves to Berlin’s public transport system this early in the relationship, and he took us to our hotel. Through the fog, dear reader, through the fog. And it was German fog. Despite this we had arrived three hours before the official check-in time. It must have been my charm, or perhaps my brave attempts at speaking her native tongue which persuaded the lovely receptionist to let us have a room early. Or maybe the room just happened to be ready.

 

We were staying in a side-street just off the Kurfürstendamm, in the lovely Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf locality. Why? Partly because it seemed a nice central spot from which to get out and about, partly because among others, Berthold Brecht and Marlene Dietrich had called it home, not together naturally, and also because Anita’s uncle lives in the neighbourhood. He went out to Berlin in the mid-60s to work on the post-war demolitions and stayed, working his way along and up through the construction industry to become a champion Kayak paddler and instructor, boat repairer and then an administrator in the staff pensions department of the Gesetzliche Krankenversicherung. How about that, boys and girls? Also along the way, he’s had a few wives and girlfriends. We’ve met a few, Uschi, and Petra, and Jean, I think there was a Jutka but she may be someone else who I knew from elsewhere, and quite a few others who we haven’t met. Probably because he didn’t have time to bring them to England before they buggered off and left him lonely. Anyway, he’s come to the conclusion that although he loves female company, he’s obviously not the sort of person who women can live with for long. He’s got a photo of his dead brother, Anita’s dad, lying in his coffin, taking pride of place among the hundreds of family photos dating back to the 1920s, all of which cover three walls of his front room. Another wall is shelved and filled with folders containing his family history research, most of which he seems to have memorised by means of frequent verbal repetition. He’s a lovely man really though. I simply can’t understand why they don’t stay with him for long.

We hadn’t told him we were visiting Berlin, but on our last full day we made our way to his building with the help of a map and some hope, and rang the bell. He lives in a garden flat in a lovely 1920s block complete with shaded courtyard, with a well and trees, creaking staircases and tall, imposing oaken doors adorned with engraved brass nameplates. And patched up brickwork where once upon a time angry Russians fired artillery shells at it. Luckily he was in, and we had a long, lovely day and evening with him. My, he was surprised when he realised who was ringing  on his doorbell. He apparently deals with surprises by forcing red wine on the husband of his niece, then after hours of conversation, choosing a local Chinese restaurant as the place to which he’d most like to be taken out to dinner, then taking his niece and her husband out on the town for a while, then back to their hotel for drinks and more convo and reminiscences. We eventually got him home on the night bus from the Budapestestraße, which service luckily runs throughout the small hours.

Berlin’s a great city to visit; on our first two and a half days there we tracked up and down and around the Ku’damm, as the guide books insist we abbreviate it, through the lovely Tiergarten, where I climbed to the top  of the Siegessaüle while Anita sat in a nearby cafe and then to see the statues of Moltke looking casual and Bismarck looking shadowed and glum. There’s a lovely pond in front of the monument to Beethoven Mozart and Schubert, then an Amazon riding naked on a horse, bronze and powerful. Then out to Alexanderplatz, where I went up to the observation deck atop the Fernsehturm to admire and photograph the wonderful, if slightly mist-obscured views of the city and its surrounds, while Anita stayed below and shared coffee and cake crumbs with a hungry little sparrow in a nearby cafe. We went to the Brandenburg Gate, in daylight and at night, I went out to Friedrichstraße and Unter den Linden and Wilhelmstraße by myself, hoping to get a bit of a historical buzz, it kind of happened, but the city has so many modern layers. I wandered into the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, frozen in a state of semi ruin since 1945, then into the new church next door, a stained glass barrel in concrete and blue, where the massive golden Christ hovers above you, challenging and hopeful. There was a Mozart recital taking place just as I walked in so I sat for a while and got all reflective and my chest vibrated with the lowest notes.

Interesting, to me anyway, occurence after visiting the Holocaust Memorial, an area of ground covered with two thousand seven hundred bare concrete blocks of varying sizes, some flush with the ground, some towering up to eight or ten feet high, laid out in a regular grid. You can walk among them. I did. When we were making our way back through the city, I noticed that outside some buildings there are small brass plaques set into the cobbles of the pavements, commemorating inhabitants whose lives had been stolen in the Nazi years. I was glad I found them. It all seems to mean more if you find things in the right order where the pavements turn to memories.

Anita had to do some of the shopping thing, and I found my wallet quite often seemed to be the most convenient to use, but never mind, she got some lovely clothes and shoes and stuff.

I’ve never been a gin drinker really, until our last trip to Prague, where I tasted smoked gin, made by holding the empty glass over a smouldering sprig of rosemary, then filling it with the drink. They topped it with tonic water, a fresh sprig of rosemary and a twist of orange zest. I got the taste for it then. So in Berlin, along with the beer, which is always good, and after I had sated myself with Kirschwasser, almond flavoured Schnapps, peach Schnapps, plain Schnapps and even, God help me, lychee infused Schnapps in the Chinese restaurant where we had taken the uncle to eat, I eventually settled on Gin & Tonic as my favoured refreshment. So I had to fill up on it. It’s good, is gin, because along with grappa on Corfu, it doesn’t seem to have any hangover causing qualities. A good reason to like any drink, I think.

So, we ate well, we drank well, widely and deep, and we saw quite a bit of the city. One of my favourite ways to experience places is to indulge in the ritual of the aimless wander, punctuated by occasional refreshment stops. Another is, usually having a travel card to hand, simply to ride public transport, here mainly the U- and S-bahns, and jump out at interestingly named or decorated stations, scope out the neighbourhood and then resume the journey, eventually finding my way back to the hotel. Or wherever. But that’s just me. That’s what I spent some time doing and it was good.

There’s a lot of the city I still want to see though so we’ll have to go back one of these days. Soon.

 

The day after tomorrow, being Sunday, I’m taking one of the grandsons up to that Lambeth. Innit. He wants to go to the IWM.  City to city, wheels within wheels.

 

 

 

 

River Mist

Ooh it was a chilly start to the morning today. In the cold clear sky Venus and Jupiter were hanging together, bright and spectral, but they were just below the horizon while it was dark here, so you couldn’t see them from this disadvantage point. I wasted no time looking for the glowing planetary twins, simply wished that I could see them, which would actually have given me a cricked neck as they were due to rise behind me, probably over my left shoulder. So apart from the gloom inducing fact that the planets in conjunction would not rise until the light of the Sun would render the fuckers invisible, I would have been compelled to present them with my least flattering profile, and most likely spend the rest of the day twitching in a sinister manner. And that was just the start of the day.

Steam was rising from the river causing a narrow blanket of mist to hang low over the river, and it was low tide, so I could stand on the bridge looking down on the spectacle. Thinking of kettles of  hot water and icy pavements. There were a couple of the flock of grey herons who have taken up residence around the pond in the sheep field down the hill from my house stalking the riverbank too, awkward yet probably deadly to any small fishes they might see. I don’t think they could see any small fishes though, because they looked pretty pissed off and hungry to me. I might be biased though. Herons always look pissed off and hungry to me. And grey. There was a cormorant too, perched on a stanchion and looking down at the water without even a gleam in his eye.

As I turned the corner half way up the High Street I bumped into the lass from the grocery shop five doors down. And I swear we could be underground. She said she hadn’t recognised me in the slowly lifting gloom and ooh isn’t it chilly this morning, and then gave me a lovely hug in order to spread a bit of body heat between us. I didn’t object. My coat was unbuttoned anyway and I’m sure she recognised me in Braille. It’s a nice improvement to the start to the day.

The day was so young, I hadn’t even unlocked the shop, and so much had occurred already; what else was the day to bring? As it happens, not much really. Busy day in the shop, got home to a horde of boisterous grandchildren, eventually sent them packing, wife went to work, I did my VAT return and booked a four day Berlin Welcome Card for next week. Had a glass or two of warming spirits, wandered round the garden in the dark, thought about having another bonfire of Bay Tree and Box trimmings (there are piles of them to work my way through) in the trusty and rusty old incinerator bin, decided not to, and sat in here again with another drink again. Hot this time. That’s the precis. I’ve missed out the bits where I stop and wonder what to do next. You can imagine how boring and tedious the unexpurgated version of my day would be. And it’s still only Monday. Tomorrow evening I shall probably read a bit of Joan or watch a Bogart film on DVD. The Maltese Falcon most likely. I like that one. It’s got Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Mary Astor. You must have seen it. You jolly well should anyway. Viewing will begin at eight sharp. Or maybe a bit later. But I shan’t wait too late.

Do you like the colour scheme? I don’t know whether it’s Salmon or Peach. Something edible anyway.