It was my birthday last weekend. I was fifty four years old. Some of my family came round and we had a very nice meal. My little squaw, the lovely Juanita, bought me a new bike, a nice silver and grey Carerra.  It has disc brakes and twenty one gears, and as you might expect, I’ve used every single one of the sorry fuckers. I don’t use the term squaw in any derogatory sense, you know. I’ve never told you this before but one 32nd part of her DNA is derived from a native Canadian ancestor on her father’s side. We’re so multicultural and diverse in my family, I’m sure you can sense the sheer vibrancy of it all through the screen on which you’re reading this. Her youngest brother, who’s my age all but a couple of months, looks like I would have imagined Hiawatha to have appeared in his prime. He still can only grow patchy facial hair, whereas I am fully hirsute. And strangely, when we were at school, many people thought that Nick was in fact my brother. I didn’t know my future bride at the time. I don’t have anything to do with her other brother. Circles within circles and all that. This is all a bit disjointed, isn’t it?

The other evening I was sitting alone up at the top of the garden under the apples and plums, catching the last of the evening sun and enjoying a still and silent half bottle of the Glenfiddich. I was entertaining inner visions of the end of civilisation, picturing a grey cold world laid waste by sheer tiresomeness, if such a word exists. The colour was draining out of everything around me as the sun sank below the hills to the west, between here and Brighton, illuminating the clouds above  in shades of salmon and tangerine, but greying out the bushes and shrubs around my top patio, and it reflected all that I was thinking in a strange kind of way.

But. You want to know what was the most pressing thought that I had on the occasion of my 54th, and upon which I was still brooding this particular evening, like a marshmallow in a microwave oven?  I realised that this is the birthday when you finally stop wishing and hoping that you might still not have reached the halfway point yet. The thought didn’t even occur this year. The knowledge comes crashing in on you that all is now dereliction, decay and a slow decline. I can be a right cheery fucker sometimes, when I set my mind to it. But it’s true. Statistics dictate that I’ve lived more of my life than there still is to come.

I went online to book a week away alone early next summer to cheer myself up. A week on my favourite Ionian island is available in May for less than £200. But I still haven’t committed myself. All is uncertain, all is in flux. I’m listening to Dusty Springfield singing in French right now. Life just gets better, doesn’t it?


Yo’ Chersanths are sho’ perky!

I was wandering aimlessly around the local supermarket. When I say ‘aimlessly’ I must admit to lying to you. I had an aim, which was to buy stuff, but I was following no schedule, I had no list. I truly was listless. I was strolling around the aisles at random, hoping that some tempting piece of foodstuff would shriek out at me from the shelf to buy it. I was killing time, and my weapon of choice was ennui.

And lo, all of a sudden, as I took a leisurely short cut down past the self medication and feminine hygiene area, I chanced upon my old customer and long term casual acquaintance, Fretful Mathew. He looked to be torn between the indigestion remedies and the Imodium.

“Ha! Do you have a problem in the bowels, Mathew?” I inquired.

“Oh, hello Graham. Yes, I’m very worried, my digestion isn’t what it should be” he explained, though I shouldn’t think the poor fucker’s digestion has ever been what you or I might describe as robust.

“It’s probably the worrying that does it. You worry, you squit, you worry some more, the squits get worse, and you end up getting sucked down into a vicious cycle of sitting on the pan, raging at the universe with your strides crumpled up around your ankles, with your elbows gradually becoming embedded in your naked thighs and you’re slowly dehydrating and losing valuable salts, hydrolites and other indispensable bodily matter. I’ve seen it happen before Mathew. I had a cat once that was a born worrier, but the worse symptom she ever showed was that she fell in love with the base of  my wife’s divan bed and shredded it to ribbons. As her worrying deteriorated the bowel problem started so I kept her in a bucket. It saved us a fortune in cat litter and shredded furniture. So I hope you’ve got a nice iron framed bed.” I like occasionally to turn the tables on Fretful Mathew. It achieves nothing but it gives me the nearest thing to something to smile about that I’m likely to get in this town.

Mathew turned to me with a face like a stillborn kitten in an Easter egg.

“It’s really not that bad Graham. I’m just a bit loose. I drank rather a lot of vodka last night because they kept me waiting for my dinner at the pub and I don’t like to wait for my food without a drink. Do you think that Imodium would be too drastic? It’s just to stiffen things up today. I’m sure I’ll feel better tomorrow.” I must confess, it’s not every day that I get asked for medical advice. I thought hard upon my reply.

“Well thinking hard about this Mathew, I have to say that I would avoid the Imodium. I’m not saying that I don’t trust it. I’m not saying that it’s not money well spent, especially if you’re short of clean underwear and public conveniences are fewer and farther between than they’ve ever been, but I can’t help feeling that if my bowels were sloshing and the sphincter was straining for action and I took something like that and halted nature in its true course, I’d feel like I’d cheated myself out of a good shit. And I just couldn’t live with myself in those circumstances. That’s  my opinion, anyway.”

“Thank you Graham, thank you.” And he tuned away and started inspecting the ovulation indicator kits in his confusion and his shame.

Later, I was back in the shop. I’m working constant six day weeks still, due to my daughter Rachael who’s my second in command being medically indisposed. So I’m at work all day every fucking day, and my patience is growing stretched. Marilyn’s mum was sitting at the table next to the corner table where the staff sit for their breaks. It was my turn to have a coffee break. I looked at Marilyn’s mum, and a cold chill gripped my heart. She was smiling. It doesn’t look right when Marilyn’s mum smiles. I have seen many human faces. I have seen many people smile. But there’s this strange cultural dissonance that occurs when I see a smile appear on Marilyn’s mum’s face. It’s not a face that was born to smile. It’s just simply wrong.

Marilyn’s mum isn’t really a monster, whatever impression I may give here. She’s a very small woman though, short, skinny and with a strange, scowling little brown head, which in the wrong light reminds me somewhat of a small hard nugget of turd dangling on a tampon string.

I sat, reluctantly, at the table with my coffee. There were three newspapers there. I turned them over so the sports pages were uppermost. I must have read somewhere like fifteen thousand newspapers over the years. I’ve never read a single article on the sports pages. That probably means, dear reader, that I’ve bought, paid for and thrown away unread, enough newsprint to make a papier mache bridge to the moon and back twice over. That’s not including an air supply, naturally. It would be a very narrow, very thin bridge. But in the weightless conditions that obtain in outer space, that isn’t really a problem. Can we get on? Marilyn’s mum pounced.

“Marilyn’s got a meeting at work today. She’s probably going to be made redundant. They probably all are in her office. That means she’ll probably be needing a man to support her. A man with a nice little business. A business like your cafe” And her face distorted into that horrible thing like a smile again. She was trying to seduce me on behalf of her cross-eyed but otherwise quite hot daughter , the saucy bitch!

“Ah. That’s a shame. Oh, excuse me. I have to serve a customer.” Said I as I saw Mathew come through the door. I got to the counter just as Alysse was serving him.

“I meant to ask you earlier, Mathew, what happened about the mouse in your kitchen? Did you get hold of a plumber at the weekend? That’ll have cost you if you did, won’t it?”

He looked wearily at me.

“Oh, hello again Graham. Yes, I think it’s still there. There’s an unpleasant smell in my kitchen. But I don’t think I should call out a plumber until I’ve removed the hammer from my back door. It might be awkward.”

A while ago, I asked my accountant to make discreet enquiries of some of his other clients with a view to preparing a way towards selling my shop. I may go up the road for another little chat with him soon. If he’s not in I may just sit on the pavement outside his office. Sobbing.


Fretful Mathew was fretting.

“I wish I hadn’t posted it now,” he told me. “I spent all morning typing the letter, I tore it up at least three times and started over and over again. It still isn’t right, but I put it in an envelope and posted it anyway, and now they tell me in the post office that I can’t get it back to correct it. I really wish I hadn’t posted it now.”

“Ah well Mathew, it’s only a letter, it’s not the end of the world is it?” He looked sufficiently worried to suggest that it was indeed close to being the end of the world.

“Yes, I suppose so. I can always type a replacement and send it and tell the recipient to ignore the first letter but the fact remains that they will have already read the first letter and it really doesn’t give the right impression and I’m sure that having read it first they’ll remember what it says even while they’re reading the second letter which I hope will say what I have to say much better than the first letter did and…”

“Did you say a large pot of tea?” I broke in. It’s a standard conversational defence mechanism of mine. It prevents me from leaping over the counter and beating Mathew to a bloody heap of twitching, pulsating nervousness right there in the middle of the fucking shop because the poor fucker feels obliged, out of sheer human decency, to answer whatever question I throw at him.

He twitched, fretfully.

“Er, yes please. A large one. Is that alright? Did I tell you I have to call out a plumber?” He hadn’t.

“No Mathew, you haven’t told me that. Do you have a leak problem, or is it a cistern difficulty you’d be suffering from again?” As I said these words I was internalising the lyrics of ‘Proud Mary’. I fucking love that song. It was as much as I could do to stop shimmying my shoulders while I was talking to Mathew. Rolling on the river, indeed. Big wheels keep on turning.

“No, it’s my cat.” Fuck me, but it would be, wouldn’t it? You always call out a plumber when your cat’s got a problem, don’t you? And yet, I had a horrible feeling that, as always with Fretful Mathew and his strife and torment filled existence, there would be a perfectly reasonable explanation. There inevitably, always is.

“Your cat, Mathew?” I could verbalise no further. I made a gesture of desperate incomprehension. Using almost my entire body, dear singular reader. My whole fucking existence was screwed up into a posture that said “wha….?”

“Yes. My little cat brought a mouse into the house.” I loved hearing Fretful Mathew say that. It came out as “…mice into the hice”. Loved it. Not quite as good as ‘Proud Mary keeps on burning” and all that that suggests, but pretty fucking good all the same. “She played with it for a while, then it crept behind the sink and I think it’s died there. If I can’t get a plumber to remove a few pipes, I’m sure it will start to smell awfully.”

I could have asked him why he didn’t remove the mouse from the cat and set it free immediately before it became too horribly mutilated to survive into any form of meaningful and rewarding old age. But he probably feels too intimidated by his little cat to do such a thing.  I could have asked him why he doesn’t monitor the cat’s comings and goings and prevent it bringing its wildlife victims into the house in the first place. I could have told him that a decomposing rat would smell immeasurably worse. That’s a smell to turn your fucking stomach, honest to God.

But I was close to spiritual death. Mathew had been on top form today and I was wilting. All I could think of to say was “behind the sink? It crept behind the sink? And you need a plumber?” Weakly.

“Yes,” he replied, “I think I need a few washers replacing here and there, but the plumber will need to take out some pipes to remove the mouse, because I’m sure it limped behind the sink to die”. The fucker gave me a sickly smile, as if to say ‘cats! what can you do, eh?’

“I think I know how the mouse feels, Mathew,” I said.

On the River

Sunday just gone I had a day out in London with my oldest grandson George, who’s ten. It was his birthday back in July, when I promised him a day out, just the two of us, but life’s been so damned intense this year that the second Sunday in September was the first chance we got to go. He chose London. He wanted to see Buckingham Palace, he wanted to go to the Imperial War Museum, he wanted to go on a boat ride up the Thames, and he wanted a Pizza lunch.

Oh, to be an age when such things would satisfy. I looked forward to the day, and then there we were. All of a sudden Saturday evening had become Sunday morning. We went to a local hotel for a good breakfast which was free on account of the fact that the manager’s a bit soft then headed for the railway station to catch the 9.04 to Victoria. I’d already ascertained that the IWM is not currently looking its best because of a redevelopment for next year’s centenary of the Great War, the one where my grandfather got gassed, so I told George that we probably should visit next year. He agreed. I just hope that George will not be so blase about the fact if ever I get attacked with phosgene. My grandad survived until 1971, but his circulation was never the same. They kept amputating bits of him, from the ground up.

So, upon arriving at Victoria, we strolled up the road to the palace, which pleased George. We took a few photos and then checked out the Victoria memorial. Nice lions, was the general verdict. I told him that I’d once read that there were about 10,000 statues and representations of lions in London. He wasn’t as impressed as I’d been. We walked back to Victoria along Constitution Hill. George’s bladder was beginning to rebel against the bottle of Dr Pepper that he’d drunk on the train journey. I explained that he’d have to wait until we got back to the station and he was less than happy. The poor boy was beginning to suffer quite badly and his posture and gait were becoming affected, so as soon as we got to one of the small green parks near Grosvenor Place I told him to hide under a bush and pee for England while I stood guard. A huge sigh of relief from under the bush was followed by a small steaming rivulet. ‘Grandad, that was close’ he said as I brushed small pieces of bush debris from his hair.

We decided to have a spin around the underground while deciding where to go next. We were sitting by the doors on the District Line tube to Blackfriars when an elderly couple got on at Westminster. The man peered at George, who immediately told him ‘I’m allowed to sit here, I’ve got mild learning difficulties’. The man and his wife walked past, bemused. I asked George why he’d said that.

“You shouldn’t lie, Chicken Jawj! What learning difficulties have you got? You haven’t!”

“Yes I have,” he replied. “I like to sit by doors.”

“Enough of that, young man” I told him.

After surfing the tube for a while, we decided to have a trip down the river to Greenwich, so we went to the Westminster pier and queued for thirty minutes for the boat cruise. The Thames is a very brown river. I’d told George that I wanted to sit up on the open top deck where I could get some photos of the city from the river, but he won the argument and we sat in the warm and dry, under cover. George smirked as he ate an ice cream. As a baby and a toddler, he was a skinny, runty creature not much given to eating. Now, although still quite skinny, he constantly shovels food down his throat, and I struggled to keep up. We got to Greenwich and spent a couple of hours a-wandering and exploring the Cutty Sark. A good day out. We went down the steps and walked under the river through the foot tunnel, which I had never known to exist until we found it that day by accident. We climbed the 87 steps up to the north bank of the Thames, took a couple of photos of the Cutty Sark across the river, then walked back again to the south bank. It’s all quite a good antidote to the ongoing intensity of everyday life. The ride back up river to Westminster was relaxing. I had a coffee, George had a can of coke, a packet of crisps, some oreos he’d secreted about his person and another ice cream. ‘Hungry, Chicken Jawj?’ asked I. He nodded.

He wanted burger for lunch now, not the Pizza he’d originally asked for. It was George’s day out, so a burger is what we had. It’s all calories, and we both needed them. The afternoon was getting on. We decided on Trafalgar Square as a good place to see before going home, so we jumped the tube for Charing Cross. We agreed to visit the National Gallery as well, but then found that it closed at six, and it was by now less than a quarter of an hour short of that time. So, we’ll have to go again to see the gallery another day. We got to Trafalgar Square and George asked me to take his photo pretending to feed one of the lions at the base of Nelson’s Column.

A small, loud and confused group of homosexualists had commandeered the plinth on the side facing the National Gallery, waving rainbow banners, a Solidarnosc flag and shouting a lot. The crowds of tourists, to their credit, largely ignored them. You couldn’t really tell what they were shouting about anyway. George asked what the red and white Polish flag was all about. I was tempted to give him a quick resume of the struggle of the Gdansk shipyard workers in the 1980’s, and in order to explain the wider context, about how socialism inevitably exploits, corrodes and betrays the working classes and how the whole of Eastern Europe was crushed for decades under the worst possible political system ever devised, but I thought no, he’ll learn soon enough. So I told him they were all just a bunch of tosseres. He nodded, sagely. We went round to the back of Nelson’s column where he scrambled up the granite monolith so I could get some good photos of him with his hand then his head in the Lion’s jaw. Then I took a photo of him looking dreamily into the distance.

When he climbed down he skinned his shin on the granite step.

“Grandad! I think I’ve broken my leg!” he exaggerated, loudly and through tears. He’d barely broken the skin. A couple of people turned to look.

“What are you lookin at?” George asked them. “Haven’t you seen someone get disabled before?” I lifted him down, spat on my finger and wiped away the almost non-existent blood. He soon recovered.

On the train back home, a woman sat opposite us. She was in her seventies and was wearing a couple of thousand pounds worth of clothes and jewellery that would have made a person without her constant scowl and with twenty less years probably look quite hot.  She just looked desperate. She had a loud, tasteless Moschino bag on the seat next to her, and she refused to move it despite the carriage being full. George kept asking me why she wouldn’t move her bag when people asked. I had no rational answer, so I told him she was a witch. He then told me that she kept looking at him and mumbling. I told him no matter, ignore the provocation and read his book. He kept glowering at her. She kept mumbling. As the train pulled into Haywards Heath the witch unzipped her bag. A horrible little ginger dog stuck its head out and blinked. The witch bent over and kissed it.

“Grandad! How cu-u-ute. The witch kissed a squirrel!” said George, as the entire carriage, as though on command, went suddenly and bone chillingly silent. I just looked out of the window and pretended to be somewhere else.