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.





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.


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 demolition

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.

A Double Sunset. Or, Trees in the Downpipe.

Being something of a voyage of discovery into the savage beating heart of Sussex coastal and country life.

I took my usual bicycle ride along the coast this afternoon, having enjoyed a bit of a part-time week this week. My daughter who helps me run the shop was extremely poorly for the previous few weeks with her digestive disorder and mystery spinal pains which defy all attempts at diagnosis, so as she’s a bit better right now she’s doing five days this week and I did two. So my weekend began on Tuesday night. Wednesday was spent with two of the grandchildren, Jacob and Harry, at the zoo. No animals were harmed. But the boys are both under two, so there’s plenty of time for devastation of captive wildlife and some gratuitous maiming yet, don’t you worry.

So yes, the bicycle ride. I only did an eight mile one today, as tomorrow I have plans for going well into double figures up by the river and then back along the coastal bit again. On the return leg, just after four o’clock, the sun was sinking over to port, and I paused to watch the golden red disc melt into the trees on the crest of the hill on the far side of the river valley, but three miles away. How narrow are our everyday horizons? Pretty bloody narrow most days, I can tell you. A slight chill caressed my naked limbs, for today was warm enough to go out in polo shirt, chino shorts and canvas sandals, and so I headed along the gravelled track for home, almost but not quite shivering in the fading light. And bugger me, but if when I’d come up the hill to the street where I live, the sun had passed behind the hill and was visible above the shadowed landscape again, slowly setting somewhere over Brighton, or possibly Bognor, a handful of leagues away to the South West. I may have discovered the first step on the pathway to a sustainable and non-destructive method of time travel. More research needed, possibly.

The other afternoon, Tuesday it was, Mathew the Fretful one was perspiring and breathing heavily. He’d limped painfully into my shop, white of brow, wan and rather worried looking. So nobody thought anything was out of the ordinary. I certainly didn’t, until he spoke.

“I hope I’ve got away with that Graham”, he gasped as I placed his tea in front of him, unbidden, and unappreciated too, I suppose.

“Got away with what, Mathew?” I asked, unconcerned. This is the man who spends an evening and the following day in a state of desperate, blind panic if he notices a rusty bolt or a paperclip on the pavement and doesn’t pick it it up immediately a, to hopefully find the rightful owner to whose unresponsive yet probably attractively hairy bosom he wishes to return said piece of litter and more importantly b, to avert the inevitable disastrous and traumatic episode which would doubtless ensue if some innocent passer-by were to stumble over the offending article, no doubt causing multiple fractures, copious bleeding and Mathew having to ask some other innocent passer-by if they would really mind calling an ambulance because Mathew just doesn’t cope well when stuff happens. Any stuff.

“I touched a child out in the street, but I don’t think the mother noticed”. Fuck me, but he looked worried. “One of the masters at my school who went on to become a Bishop was sent to prison for touching children. I don’t understand. He never behaved out of the ordinary towards me. But it was just before my first breakdown. I’m still somewhat confused about some of the things that happened in my life at that time.” You’re telling me, Mathew me old mate. Clarification was needed.

“Mathew,” I said, “clarification is needed. When you say you touched a child, would I be right in assuming that you brushed past a child out there? Or the hem of your coat passed within touching distance of an infant as you walked unsteadily past? Something like that?”

He looked down at his tea. He explained, partly voluntarily and partly under gentle interrogation by my good self, that a young mum was pushing a toddler in a baby buggy along the high street and as he walked past them, Mathew thought he’d felt his carrier bag containing his freshly collected collection of pharmacy-only medications sweep along the side of the buggy. There was no damage to his carrier bag. There were no signs or sounds of impact. The child had made not even a whimper. The young mum had not taken her eyes off of the screen of her mobile device. I assured him that physical contact had most likely been avoided and he was most unlikely to find himself up before the beak any time soon. As nothing had happened, Mathew, really it hadn’t. And I’m sure Mathew’s suffered this particular near-life changing trauma before. Cycles within cycles, repetitions and repeats light our way through the gloom.

“And anyway, Mathew, it’s Tuesday. Why are you here? I thought Gina came and wafted ethereally around your house with a vacuum cleaner and a tin of Pledge on Tuesday afternoons, ghostly blonde, bespectacled and palely interesting? She’s not blown you out already has she?” Mathew’s recently acquired the services of a lady to help him keep the house cleanish. It’s probably an impossible task.

“Yes she’s there now, but I thought I’d better avoid her today. I had rather an unusual request to ask of her, but I thought better of it. Perhaps I will next week.”

“You dirty fucker, I’d have a few unusual requests to put to Gina if she came round my house too. One of us would probably stagger out of the house screaming and broken if she agreed to it, and it most likely wouldn’t be her,” I didn’t say. What I said was “Reeeally Mathew? Tell me more, do!”

“Well, I think a seagull or a squirrel has possibly dropped a seed or a nut into the guttering above my kitchen window, and the downpipe by the door isn’t emptying very well any more so I think there could be a tree or a shrub growing inside it. I was going to ask Gina if she could stand by the ladder while I climbed up to attempt to clear it. Then if I should fall there would be somebody to call for an ambulance. Nobody would see me thereotherwise, as the kitchen is at the back of the house. I could lay there injured for days.” He sighed. I sighed louder. “But I thought it would be an imposition. It’s not what she would normally expect to be asked to do. So I just thought I’d be better coming out today and leaving her to it.”

“Yes Mathew you’re probably right.” What else could I have said? What the fuck else could anyone have said?

I put a very healthy DVD order into Amazon today, of films I haven’t watched for years. Decades in most cases. But films I have a hankering to watch again on the chilly winter nights which loom ahead. I’ve ordered ‘Jean de Floret’ and ‘Manon des Sources’ twin pack, ‘La Gloire de ma Pére’ and ‘Le Chateau de Ma Mére’ twin pack also,’Diva’, ‘Suburra’, ‘Malena’ and ‘Let the Right One In’. The Yves Roberts ones are my favourites, they’re films to deeply submerge into and feel how a different life could be if we were someone else born at another time. Marvellous stuff. I could have so easily ordered another dozen or so, but they can wait. I’m dead fucking cultured, I am. You can tell, can’t you?


Nearly November

And I haven’t been here in nearly a year, I think. It’s a cloudy Sunday morning with a steaming cafetiere by my elbow, angry Roger Waters is singing about a hotel room overlooking the Rhine, and I’m actually trying to write a post on my phone. What to say?

I’ve put Jürgen and Molly, the rabbits, up on the lawn in their runs and they are eyeing each other, one fearfully and the other with hostility, across the small stretch of grass which separates them. He’s been chopped but she’s not been spayed yet, and if she gets near him she tries to hump his face; the last time they were loose together he ripped her skin open while trying to get her crotch out of his face and we made Sztefan the vet a very rich man in return for some purple stitches and a small bottle of antiseptic wash. But they’re sweet animals.

Problem 1 with writing on a phone: predictive text assumes that plurals should be possessives so I have to keep going back to delete apostrophes. Damn you Samsung,  my heart still belongs to Nokia.

I still have my shop with its endless parade of fascinating, infuriating and wonderful people and constant minor crises.  I had to shut for a day the other week for the installation of a new walk in freezer room to replace the old one, and there were scenes of tearfulness and disbelief. It’s good to know that some people see you as the only reason for coming into town. I was told that my shop is the rock that holds the High Street down, I was called the Anchor of the town centre. I hope the word was anchor, anyway.  Ooh er missus.

I am going to Berlin for a week in November,  my first time in Germany since 1973 when I spent a month in a small village in the South Harz mountains on a school exchange. I remember the food, the people and the schnapps with much fondness and look forward to it. Anita has an uncle living in the city so we will be paying a surprise visit there. All good.

Thinking of Christmas, our granddaughter Jess has been reading about Anne Frank so I decided that it would be nice to take her to Amsterdam to see the Anne Frank house museum, so half term in February will be a good time for that. Christmas morning she’ll open a small present of a berlitz Amsterdam guidebook with a date inscribed inside the front cover. Good old easyJet city breaks. Where would we be without them?

So that’s my life, such as it is, at the moment. An island of banality in the flow of eventfulness that is human experience.

I’ve long been a fan of the writings of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor, and have always admired the tolerance displayed by his wife Joan. Her biography was published recently and I have for the first time seen a photograph of her as a young woman. Have you ever seen a photo of someone that actually made your heart leap? I have now. Just saying, as they say.

Today for dinner I’m making something with pork loin steaks. I don’t know what yet. I was given some lovely ripe figs yesterday so I’ll be making a honey-soaked fig and franzipan tart with them. A beacon of certainty in the mist of indecision, that’s my fig tart.

Problem 2 with samsung predictive text: it turned figs to dogs and mist  to most, and that was in just one sentence. So if any words above just don’t seem right, blame my phone it doesn’t know what I’m trying to write.


Wooden Boxes

Ah, it was a week for funerals. On the Monday afternoon, my friend Johnnie the Fox was buried. It was a fine winter afternoon, and I walked out of town to the cemetery, along the path between the river and the sloping hills. Johnnie had died at the beginning of December, but the funeral wasn’t until the end of January. For whatever reason. However, I was the last to enter the little chapel as the service began, and the local vicar looked up and raised his eyebrows in recognition as I slipped into one of the bench seats running along the side of the room, where I could spend the next half hour or so watching the coffin.

My heart felt a certain gladness to see that there were at least a couple of dozen mourners there, as apart from two or three cousins and his daughter, whose ma had taken her away to the West Country as a toddler, he had no living relatives. Carly the daughter was there, grown to a lovely tall woman with John’s stunning blue eyes and fine fair hair. The service went quickly, luckily there were no hymns to be sung, but a couple of pieces of music were played and we said a few prayers, inside and out loud.

Then we all walked up the hill to the grave which had been set aside and paid for years before, his parents on one side and the paternal gramps on the other, overlooking the river and the valley, the poplar trees which will cast a long green shadow over John on summer evenings to come standing tall and grey at the edge of the field nearby, naked apart from a partial winter coat of ivy twisting up the trunks. A brief continuation of the service, a few nice comments about the dear departed and the surroundings in which he would spend forever, and the coffin was lowered into the chalk. Years ago I met John at the cemetery when I was there to visit a grave, and he’d been there lying on his plot, trying it out for size. Oh how we’d chuckled.

So, John settled nicely into the ground, I had a few words with Carly, then with Jo, the current lady friend and Maurice her dad, who had played hockey in his youth with some of my uncles and aunts, and then M the vicar, who wasn’t surprised to see me there as he’d come to the conclusion that I seemed to either know or be related to everyone who’s died round here lately, which sometimes seems to be true. Maybe he secretly thinks I’m nowt but a funeral junkie, a middle aged Harold looking for a Maud of my own.

Then Maurice grabbed me. “A word, please Graham” he whispered and ushered me along the path to a silent spot.

“You know about some of John’s bequest to you don’t you?” I did. John had left me his music, he told me he would years ago. There’s lots of it to listen my way through. Which is what I told Maurice.

“Well. There’s more, as you can imagine. We’ve had valuers in, and you can have either the cash value, which is a rather handy amount, or you can have the actual items. But we’re happy to send the items to auction. If you prefer. Obviously, it’s up to you. Probably not what you might want in the house. You do know what I’m talking about, don’t you?” he asked, probably because there was a look on my face that indicated that I didn’t have a clue what the fuck he was talking about.

“Sorry Maurice, I don’t have a clue what the…what you’re talking about?” I said. He sighed.

“The guns. He’s left you the guns. You understand me?” I did. John was a what you might call an enthusiast. One day in the late seventies when we worked together, I had walked into the porters’ room of the hospital where we worked, swigging back a can of Heineken with one in my apron pocket for John, and he was standing holding a .303 rifle pointed at the door, I suddenly went deaf and the can exploded in my hand. I eventually saw the joke and nicked some filler from the maintenance stores to cover up the damage to the door frame. When the building was demolished in the early nineties, I wondered if we’d see a story in the local paper about wartime relics found embedded in the woodwork, but no, the demolition company must have just gone in and smashed the place up. Vandals. John thought the whole thing hilarious. But in later years when he started hearing voices and the paranoia became a bit overwhelming for him we gave the rifle and half a box of ammo a decent burial at sea, to spend eternity as a seabed curiosity for lobsters, crabs and dogfish to ponder over, in their own fishy and crustacean ways.

So there’s more. And it/they is/are my inheritance  from my old mate. I told Maurice that it would go against the spirit of Johnnie the Fox’s wishes if I were to soil his memory by cashing in on his enthusiasms. So I’ll have the gun(s) to add to my small collection. Thanks John. Trouble is, you have to go farther and farther away over the hills to find somewhere secluded enough to blast away at unsuspecting tin cans and innocent tree trunks without worrying people unduly.

The next day a regular lady customer who only ever comes into the shop late in the afternoons came in at ten in the morning for a cup of tea, left, came back at twelve for lunch, left, and returned again at three for a hot chocolate. “Lin, what’s going on?” I asked. Three visits in one day is a record.

She told me she’d spent all day at the funeral parlour, sitting in vigil over her dead brother in law.

“Maggie’s husband?” I asked. I vaguely know her sister Maggie. As sisters go, they’re not close. I always thought they hated each other.

“Yerrrs, Alan. He’s died. We didn’t have much to do with each other while he was alive, so I’m making up for it now. The funeral is on Thursday. I’m not going. You know Maggie…..and me. So I’m saying my goodbyes now.” Makes sense to me. And she always says yerrrs instead of yes.

“Why don’t you go to the funeral?” I asked. “Mend some bridges with your sister, it’s the ideal opportunity, is a funeral. Emotions are heightened, Maggie will be at her most vulnerable, it’s the perfect time to exploit the tragedy of the moment and try to get close again?” She shook her head.

“No. Maybe another time.”

Ah well. I was only trying to be helpful. John. I’m only dancing.

Jackie’s Lock

So there I was, enjoying an average January day in the shop. My shop. January and February tend to be a bit quieter than the rest of the year so there’s more of a scent of mild relaxation in the air, a little more casualness to proceedings. Mad Jackie came in with one of her young lady friends and changed things.

She kissed me on the cheek and barked at me to return the greeting.

“Both cheeks dear, both cheeks!” Jackie is Scottish, 83 years old and hovers around the five foot two mark in her slippered feet. She enjoys the company of younger people of an artistic and creative bent. What she sees in me, I really could not tell you.

“I’d like to buy you lunch dear,” she told me. “Here, what would you like? Where shall we go?” She’s a bit on the deaf side, so she tends to amplify her voice. Not quite to the level of a bellow, but her diction is clear and the words carry. She may have performed on the stage in her younger days. Her house and garden are a work of art, almost an intimate museum of eccentricity. Her front room, among many other wonderful things, boasts an entire wall consisting of Victorian domestic dioramas set behind a series of glass screens, and a large range of wall cupboards boasting hand painted panels in the style of Edward Burnes-Jones, featuring erotically exotic angels barely covering their parts with wisps of almost mist on a background of 24 carat gold leaf forestry. Painted by her friend Camille, she told me once, presuming that I knew who Camille is. I didn’t then and I still don’t. They’re beautiful though. The whole effect is quite stunning. I love to visit, but I couldn’t live there, the sensory overload would give me the shivers, and Jackie’s voice would deafen me.

“Ah, I’ve just had my lunch Jackie, thanks all the same. I’ll entertain you to lunch here though. Take a seat.” So she did, with her companion, and they ordered some food and drink. Jackie was waving her housekeys at me.

“I’ve locked myself out. I want you to take these dear, and see if you can open my door. If the keys don’t work for you, do whatever you can to get in. I know you will gain entry dear.” She turned to the rest of the shop and repeated her faith in my ability to break into her house. I asked her if she’d tried both locks. She has a deadlock and a Yale. She had. I asked her if she’d tried the locksmiths down by the bridge. They were out, she told me.

“I’ve never been a burglar, Jackie. Why do you think I’ll be able to break in? I hate the sound of breaking glass, especially when I’m lonely. So I’ll not force entry, I’ll tell you that now.” I told her.

“Oh, that’s alright dear,” she said, “you’ll get in. I know you’ll be able to. You see, I have faith in you.” And she resumed her convo with the girl she’d come into the shop with. I was obviously dismissed. Her house is a mere five or six minute walk from the shop, so taking her keys and a can of 3-in-1 lubricant, just in case, I set off along the road. The deadlock was working, but the Yale key was sticking halfway in. As I have found so many times before, resistance was soon breached by a quick squirt of lube and a bit of gentle rocking from side to side accompanied by a few sweetly encouraging words. I took the key out and gave a hefty blast of 3-in-1 into the hole; this gave completely trouble-free access for easy penetration and I gave the key a few confirmatory turns, withdrawals and re-entries. All worked well. Jackie’s cat, a Chocolate Siamese called Jasper on account of his eyes, was sitting on her bottom step, and eyed me suspiciously.

I locked up and returned to the shop with the keys, the lubricant and the good news. As well as a deep sense of relief at not having had to use violence to get into the house. Jackie had finished her snack and her Earl Grey, and insisted on my accompanying her and the girl back to the house. Everybody we passed was told how wonderful, clever and helpful I was. I don’t think anyone believed it much. One woman even laughed in Jackie’s face and cracked a joke about me thinking I’m royalty. Silly bitch. Back at Jackie’s house, the girl slipped upstairs while Jackie made a huge fuss about how clever I was at breaking into her house without smashing a window. She wouldn’t have it that it was simply a bit of grit or dust in the key-chute. She offered me some chocolates from a bowl on the side to say thank you. Her house is maintained at furnace heat, and the kids-size chocolate bars had obviously been sitting in the bowl on the side above the radiator since before Christmas. They looked a bit amoebic en masse, so I politely declined.

“You can’t go empty handed dear,” she said, and forced four Christmas crackers upon me. “There. Take those. You might find a bottle opener in one of them. And take that, too,” she said, handing me a bottle of Pinot Grigio which she must have had waiting in the shadows. Bless her.

Jackie. A queen among women. They don’t make them like her anymore.

They’re watching…

I love this time of year. Christmas, I mean. There’s food, there’s drink, there’s that lovely, cosy glow when you smugly listen to people who sit in your busy little high street coffee shop slash retail bakery all day, buying tea and coffee and complaining that they have still got so much to do to get ready for the big day, which after all only lasts for the standard twenty four hours and you’ve got everything in for it yourself because you’re just so effing organised. Anally so, it might be said by some. But above and beyond all that there’s the fact that as proprietor of said busy little high street coffee shop slash retail bakery you get treated to lots of festive snogs and hugs from lots of your local hotties. And some of their grans, it must in all fairness be said. But still, it’s all good. I would not keep an umbrella furled in a downpour, nor reject still beer in a drought.

The girls from the dog grooming parlour had just left and I was tweaking a hair from something that was probably more than 60% Airedale from between my incisors when the phone rang. It was Diamonds, the local plumber. He does all the plumbing work in the shop, and I once asked him to fit a new mixer tap in the kitchen at home. He could only come while I was at work, and Anita was alone at home. I got home from the shop that evening to find her sitting with a cup of tea, shaking her head sadly.

“When your friend Diamonds does plumbing jobs in the shop, does he sing to himself loudly? And barely in tune?”

“Very.” Replied I, “He knows every Heatwave number off by heart. He’s just not so good on tunes as he is with lyrics. Though he does tend to segue from one song into another without actually recognising the fact. It can be a bit disorienting at times. He’s a one, isn’t he?”

“And does he break off to explain to each tool exactly what he’s going to do with it?”

“Yup. And he tells the pipework exactly what angle he’s going to bend it to, what connections he’s going to use, everything. The works.”

She looked me in the eye. Trouble.

“If we ever need any plumbing done again, can you promise me that you’ll not call Diamonds in? He’s barking mad. I wanted to take his little blowtorch and cauterise his eyelids. And if he comes here again I will. You do understand, don’t you.” Note the lack of a question mark there, dear reader. If we need a plumber again I know just the fellow. He’s not Diamonds. I’ll keep Diamonds for jobs in the shop though. He’s great.

As I was saying, Diamonds was on the phone, and he wanted a word.

“Hello Graham, it’s Duiamnonds here.” I think he’s got Irish blood coursing through his vocal cords. “I’ve been tossing something over for a few days, and I think I should share it with you.”

I’m so glad I don’t have a laundry. “Go on, Di, what’s been buggering you? Ha ha.”

“Well, between you, me and the gatepost, which by the way is getting smaller every time I look at it, I have to tell you something. The other day, when I’d dropped off that Christmas card to you, did you find my new business card pasted inside it, I designed it myself, did you like it? I noticed a man across the road from you outside the Post Office…”

“Was he a postman?” I asked.

“No, I don’t know if you’ve seen him, he had a coat on.” It’s December, mind you.

“Was he large, hairy, smelly with a large wooden cross swinging on a leather lanyard round his neck and a mop of unkempt hair and a beard that looks like it might have a separate existence and what could well be his entire life in a bedraggled rucksack on his back and a wad of anti abortion propaganda in his filth begrimed hand?” I asked. A person matching that description has been making a nuisance of himself lately.

“No”, said Diamonds. “I don’t think so. Anyway, he looked a bit suspicious to me, so I decided to linger, see what he was up to. I’m not by nature a suspicious person, but he was worrying me, I don’t mind telling you, Graham. Do you know what he did? He walked over the road, and he was looking through your shop window, it looked like he was checking out what you sell, what you charge. Looking at the food you’ve got in the cabinet in your window. Then another man came and started talking to him, and I got closer to listen, and they were talking about the food in your window, and the prices you charge. It’s all a bit suspicious to me. They looked like the fellow who’s got the cafe down the road from you. Not local, if you know what I mean. Eastern, and I don’t mean Polish. If it was my cafe, I’d want to know.” He paused, the moment hung heavy in the air. What to say? I didn’t want to appear ungrateful or rude.

“Well. Thanks Diamonds. I haven’t noticed anyone particularly worrying, looking through my window lately. But you have to put up with that sort of thing when you have a shop window displaying the stuff you sell. I shall certainly keep my eyes peeled from now on though. Thanks.” I carried on thanking him profusely for being such a valuable source of intelligence and made a mental note to get the phone number of  Clive the other plumber programmed into the shop’s phone.

“I didn’t want to worry you Graham. You sound worried. But like I say, if it was my cafe, I’d really want to know.” He probably would. Diamonds almost sounded menacing. I was just glad that he didn’t burst into song. If he had I’d have gone to the sports shop and bought an American baseball bat to hook up under the counter. Or a billhook, whatever that is. It sounds like the sort of implement you could do something viciously decisive with though, wouldn’t you say? Be prepared, as they taught us in the Scouts.

Happy Christmas to you, whoever and wherever you are.