Fuerteventura

So, it’s nearly three months since we got back from our week in the winter sun.

I keep checking out the place where we stayed on tripadvisor. It shocks me that so many people, few of them from this end of the country, I’m relieved to discover, are impressed by grubby unswept rooms, basic factory canteen quality food with menu choices that get predictable on day two of seven, and a town on a Spanish island with nothing Spanish about it other than the language. And we won’t even mention the bar which doubled as the children’s entertainment centre. Oh, we mentioned it. It was the only bar there. You want an evening drink whilst a group of gobby parents are cheering on their vile children in a dance off at ten in the evening while the Birdy Song’s blasting at 110 dB? It wasn’t my idea of entertainment. It shocks me even more that there are people from places like Derbyshire and Yorkshire who go back two or three times a year for fifteen, or twenty years.

I’m committed to cutting down on the swearing but Fuck! how bad are these people’s lives, how shite is their everyday diet, that they are happy to pay good money to go to places like that and then post four or five star reviews for the world to see? It wasn’t that it was a bad hotel, it simply wasn’t very good. I doubt that we’ll go all inclusive anywhere ever again.

The fear. One morning at breakfast they temporarily ran out of the admittedly tasty bacon substitute, which I enjoyed every morning draped over a couple of churros with grilled tomatoes on the side and a heap of scrambled eggs. The continental choices just didn’t look appetising. And breakfast was the only hotel meal I looked forward to. I was stuck next to an obese tattooed Scotsman, who turned to me and hissed “ae gwannae tsset a doowaen awe waaart!” through a spittle flecked gap in the row of black stubs which passed for teeth. I couldn’t tell if it meant he was about to slaughter me or simply maim me in a horrible fashion in revenge for having teeth which weren’t ruined.

He kind of smiled as he said it, I didn’t have a clue what he meant but I nearly shit my pants when his equally obese but thankfully slightly more hairy wife came up and started talking to him and spraying spittle over me. I think she was talking to him anyway. Her eyes weren’t both looking in the same direction. What did they want? I was never to know, for the ersatz bacon appeared then, so I took my chance and grabbed some and ran back to my table, hoping never tae see my new acquaintances again.

Other than the crushing disappointment of a holiday almost wasted, life is good. I suppose it wasn’t really so bad after all, we explored round the island and parts were beautiful. And we found a lovely Portuguese restaurant in town, for the evenings when we really couldn’t face looking at more trays of chicken in sauce, fish in sauce or beef in sauce. Or the people who were grateful to eat it. Yes, it was the food that did it.

 

Advertisements

Funny how the time goes.

I haven’t been here for a couple of months. Every time I have something to write about, someone I know and love goes and dies, or gets admitted to hospital, and the time just goes by in a meaningless blur of hospital visits, funerals and gloomy evenings wondering who’ll be next.

The funeral I went to this week was that of a dear friend K who I’ve known since I was eight years old, she worked in the corner shop, I went to school with two of her children, and then she worked in my shop for twenty years. Almost like a second mum, she was. When she mentioned the possibility of her putative retirement a few years ago, I jokingly persuaded her to stay with me, on the grounds that a funeral wreath would a far more economical proposition for me than a retirement do. And so it came to be. It was so sad. Lots of tearful hugs with her husband, son, beautiful daughters and granddaughters, who’ve come to feel like my own family.

Another friend who died a month ago or so was an ex-Kriegsmarine and Hitlerjugend member, G., who came to live in England as a POW in 1945 after slipping out of the Russians’ grasp in the Baltic theatre and throwing himself at the Royal Navy. We had many interesting convos, and I always grabbed some photos of Eastern European cities for him on my travels, as requested by him as souveniers of places he’d passed through in  the 1940s. His widow came in to see me last week, thanked me for being a friend to G and then told me she has had to start having counselling because of some old photos and documents of his that she’d found. She wouldn’t go into any detail, but I know that G had maintained some old associations with a few of his military  comrades. Maybe something to do with that.

One thing  that all this death and the associated ceremonies has decided for me is that I will not have any hymns mumbled and mouthed at my funeral whenever that happy occasion comes. Nobody seems to know any of the old hymns anymore, I suppose because they’re probably deemed to be inappropriate in schools and the churches are doing their best to alienate people. So at mine, I’ll have a mixtape prepared, they can listen, they can bop, they can tap their feet and hum along. But no-one will be obliged to pretend to sing songs that they don’t know.

Mathew the Fretful came into the shop the day after K’s funeral. He apologised for his absence.

‘But Mathew, fret not, you hardly knew her. You’d have known nobody else there apart from me and the girls from the shop, and I think I can safely say that we’d have been fucked if any of us were going to be holding your hand and pointing out the grieving relatives for you all fucking day’. I said. Or words to that effect.

‘But I would have liked to have gone. I didn’t sleep the night before, so I felt dreadful’. He sighed.

‘Ah, Mathew, I didn’t realise that you knew her that well or that her loss would affect you so. Sorry.’ I felt almost guilty.

‘No, it’s not that. My little cat wanted to spend the night coming and going, and she hasn’t worked out how to use the catflap yet, and I don’t like to prop it open because it might get windy and blow the boiler out, so I sat up all night to let her in and out. All night. I’m still tired now.’

This is the man who takes a fifteen mile train journey once a month to a particular shop as recommended by the vet, to buy special cat biscuits which relieve the cat’s symptoms of interstitial cystitis. How the fuck do you know that your cat’s got cystitis? I find this very concerning. But I’ll not fret on it, nor lose a night’s sleep.

So that’s life at the moment. I go on my bicycle rides every couple of nights, with only seventy three miles to go to reach my target of a thousand for the year. My but it’s blustery and chill going along the coast on these November evenings.

I recently booked a weeks holiday for myself and my lovely wife Juanita for February. Fuerteventura. Never been there before. It’s my first ever all-inclusive holiday, and after booking it I was reading some reviews. Arse about visage as usual. There were mentions of entertainment. As in laid on entertainment. I screwed my face up. I turned to Juanita.

“It says here there’s Entertainment. I’m not going to get involved in Entertainment. I don’t go on holiday for fucking Entertainment. I go for foreign food and to relax. And the other stuff of course, but Entertainment? What’s that all about?”

She fixed me with a look that could only be a particular expression of adoration.

“It’s a holiday. You don’t have to go to the entertainment. Just enjoy it.” She’s good at stating the blindingly obvious, is Juanita.

Black Fly is just starting, I love turning it up loud and the following track, So Sad, so I’m going to leave you now. Night night.

 

 

August

The month is nearly over, but I’ll tell you what’s happened so far.

I decided at the end of July that I needed to purge my soul by buggering off by myself for a week, so I booked a cheap last minute week on Rhodes for the second week of August. Go me. As I finished sorting out the details, my sister called to tell me that we’d lost yet another relative to cancer. This time it was our cousin, a beautiful girl a year older than me, who we’d grown up with in North London in the sixties, and then when we moved down here to the coast, she and our aunt used to come and spend long summer holidays with us. We had very happy times and some of my best memories of childhood feature the stuff we all used to get up to. So the evil one has taken another of us.

It’s a bit of a theme this year. In January we had a week in Prague and I had a text while there that a cousin up in Liverpool had died of a brain tumour, then in Prague again in April and I heard my uncle had died of leukaemia, and when I was on my way to Corfu in June my sister messaged that Jane our cousin had taken a turn for the worse, and as I sort out my trip to Rhodes I hear that she’s gone. Why is my holiday schedule thinning out my family so thoroughly I wonder?

So, it was in a somewhat sombre mood that I took off for a week in the sun. It was a good week though, in a wee little fishing village that goes by the name of Stegna, on the North East coast of the island, a couple of miles up the road from the lovely little village of Haraki where I stayed last year. I was the only person staying in a small block of studio apartments next door to a seafood taverna which was hidden twenty paces up a side alley from the seafront. Most days were spent to a routine of morning and evening swimming and lounging sessions on the beach, a couple of hours at a time, interspersed with idle strolls along the length of the ville. Occasionally I would wander out into the hinterlands of the village, but really couldn’t be arsed to go on any longer treks.

There was one morning bus a day to Rhodes town, which I caught one day, and had a good day in the capital, visiting the street of the Knights and then wandering the still ancient and dusty echoing streets of La Juderia to find myself in the Kahal Shalom Synagogue, where I sat wearing my little white silk kippah hoping to look devout, and then visited the museum in the old womens’ prayer rooms. then I returned to the Nea Agora to indulge in some of the food and drink that I find so irresistible. I bought Anita a lovely silver and blue opal necklace there. I had a swim in the sea as soon as I got back to Stegna that day too. I mostly lived on seafood of all description – molluscs, bivalves and scaled vertebrates, Mythos beer and fruit juice. The odd bit of meat crept into my diet, along with the gorgeous grilled Mediterranean vegetables. One thing I particularly liked about the village was the fact that I didn’t hear any English voices there, other than on two or three occasions. It’s a destination mostly for Greeks, pert Italians seeking all-over tans and long limbed Germans.

The evening before my return home saw the peak of the Perseid meteorite shower so I spent a couple of hours on the roof terrace with a bottle of Mythos or two, stretched out on a couple of creaking wicker chairs, enjoying the spectacle of shooting stars hurtling through the clear black skies, some simple white streaks, and some fizzing big ones, trailing showers of golden and silver sparks in their wake but all doomed to extinction fifty miles up. I had lovely night flights to Rhodes and back but one of the good things about solo holidays is that sometimes you get two or three seats to yourself on the plane and I was lucky enough for that to happen both ways, so was able to stretch out and get some facsimile of a doze. The plane flew through a thunderstorm over the channel, so I was happy to land back at dear old Gatwick, even though all was grey and damp after the heat and shimmering light of the Aegean. Here’s to next year.

Then yesterday it was Jane’s funeral, in a rain soaked village which looked like it had been lifted from a picture postcard  showing some rural idyll in 1935, but was actually near Winchester in 2015. I went with my sister and one of my brothers. We were struck but hardly surprised by how many friends our cousin had, and also by how few of our family are left alive on my mum’s side. I met one of few remaining cousins on the distaff side for the first time in fifty years. Last time we met I was a scrawny five or six year old and he was a tall gangly beanpole, just about to start secondary school. Now he’s turned into my grandad who died in 1972. Lots of love shone through all the tears and it was a sad but very fond farewell to a beautiful person.

It will be September soon.

Wilf’s Funeral

One of my uncles was cremated yesterday. He was dead. Leukemia. My sister told me the news when I was in Prague the other week; the text took eleven hours to come to my phone. Bad news travels slowly.

These are the main occasions for family gatherings now, as my parents’ immediate families are all getting well into their seventies and eighties. Still it’s always nice to catch up with the innumerable uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces and various other clan members, see who’s had more children, who’s living where, who’s likely to be next. You know.

I went with my cousin Shazza and her parents, one of my dad’s many brothers and his wife. We went in convoy with Shazza’s husband and a large part of the South Wales branch of the family following us. Those of us in our faction met up at a Garden Centre cafe atop a bleak hill overlooking the channel on one side and the municipal burial grounds on the other. It was race day too, so the tang of horse sweat and bookies’ aftershave scented the late morning air.

Family bonds were confirmed over coffee and tea, new family members welcomed and old friendships rekindled. After half an hour or so we made our way down the hill to the crematorium and gathered outside, meeting up with the rest of the family. Hundreds of us. Friends too. Uncle Wilf, as the celebrant was later to admit in the course of his elegy, wasn’t the most devoted husband or father in the world, and saw more of his drinking pals than he did his children, all of whom were there. Mags, the divorced widow was there too, but she was always part of the family landscape long before they married, and to many of us is as good as a blood relative anyway.

The bulk of his drinking pals were there too, along with Gus & Hazel, the landlord and landlady of his local, who could well have been the saddest to see him go, for reasons of their own. Wandering around the clientele of the Albino Stag, shaking hands, hugging and cracking jokes of long familiarity as seemed appropriate to each I was asked by a few nervous looking locals if ‘my girl’ was going to attend. No, she wasn’t. ‘My girl’, my oldest daughter, is in the police, and a few outstanding warrants could have been executed if she’d been there, was the worry, I think. She never mixes business with grief or pleasure though, my girl.

When we trooped into the chapel I Have a Dream by ABBA was playing. I think ABBA songs should be mandatory at funerals, personally. It was a humanist ceremony. Auntie Mags sat facing the coffin red faced and slightly tearful, and we all chuckled as Wilf was described quite accurately as, among other things, a human disaster area. His life was nicely precised in thirty minutes, enlivened by two Queen songs, which I don’t care much for, but it was Wilf’s funeral not mine so I’m not about to complain.

My dad was desperate for a pee towards the end, so I escorted him out to the lavs out the back. Then I had to turn all the taps on because he was howling that he couldn’t go after all. It worked.

Then we went back to the pub for a drink. All good. Bye Wilf.

Praha the third

So we went to Prague again last week. Because it’s there. Because it’s only a short flight away. Because I just have to get away sometimes.

We spent some time wandering over to Letna park and climbed the hill to the metronome, and sat around on a bench, enjoying the Spring sunshine and a cold beer. Then we crossed back over the Vltava and I had a huge kolbasa in a roll at the Old Town Square. And a drink. Then in the afternoon we went over to Wenceslas Square to do a bit of shopping. Among other things I am now the proud owner of a small kettle with a Continental plug attached. Imagine, dear reader, no longer will I have to waste a plug adapter on boiling water in her English travel kettle for one of Juanita’s interminable cups of tea when neither of us can be arsed to go down to hotel lobbies or tea stations for an in-room beverage. The luxury! The sophistication!

We sat in an open air cafe for strudel and cappuccinos, in the centre strip of Wenceslas Square and I was having eyes made at me and I was watching a street man getting threatened with a taser by a couple of young policemen. it was all happening around my little bubble of quiet and calm reserve.

When we went for dinner at the Devil’s restaurant that evening, I asked the waiter what the ‘Venison Mixture’ on the menu involved. “Oh, a little venison, a little wild boar, and a little rabbit”, he told me. So I ordered it, guessing it would be a casserole type dish swimming in rich meaty juices. After our soup starters, the main course was delivered to the table. Anita had a lovely stroganoff. On my plate was a portion sized venison steak, two slabs of tender, melting roast wild boar, and the rear quarter of a roasted rabbit. Plus a mound of roasted potatoes. “Do they want me to die huge?” I wondered, as I tucked in. I had no intention, nor even hope, of leaving an empty clean plate. Half an hour later the freshly bread wiped plate gleamed bare before me. Anita looked at me aghast. “You ate the lot. You ate the bloody lot. You bloody pig”. Strange, the terms of affection we use after a lifetime together. The bottle of Moravian Chardonnay helped it down.

On Sunday morning we took the metro out to Jiriho z Podebrad in Vinohrady. I can find it but I can’t say it in any way that a local would recognise it. I wanted to visit the church of the sacred heart there, and also to go up to the observation deck on the television tower. The church is a huge brick built cavern from the early thirties with a massive cubist clocktower in the shape of a modernist gravestone, and it was full to bursting with eager communion takers. In the most atheist country in Europe. There’s a thing. I sat a while and admired the decor and the timber bracing of the ceiling far above. I’m sensitive like that. Anita waited outside on a bench by a small stone fountain in the warm sunshine.

Then we walked together up Milesovska into Zizkov and ascended to the observation deck of the tower and spent an hour or so in the pods three hundred feet above the ground. The views are worth the journey. There’s a one-room hotel in the tower, on the next level up, along with a restaurant and bar. We had a cappuccino in the cafe, then after a stroll around the neighbourhood, took the metro back into town and had our ritual arm in arm stroll over the Charles Bridge and around Mala Strana and Hradcany. Bit of shopping, stopping for a drink, the time goes by.

That afternoon Juanita stayed in the hotel while I went for a long walk to the Palackeno bridge, crossed over to Smichov in the West and walked back along the riverside to Charles bridge and back to the hotel by a long winded route. Just to soak up the local vibes.

Back at the hotel I felt a little hungry so we decided to go to the Town Square for a chicken skewer. On the way, along Hartmanska as we passed a pub, I smelt the most wonderful smell as a waiter brought out a platter of kolbasa, bread, raw onions, gherkins and mustards and horseradish to a man sitting at an outside table.

“Do you know what I’m thinking?” I asked my wife. She sighed and shrugged. “I was watching your face when you saw that food. Have that, then we won’t need a big dinner tonight” she said more in hope than with any sense of reality. So we sat at the pavement table which was not occupied and each had the platter, laughingly listed on the menu as a “Sausage Snack” with a large delicious beer each. It’s what makes life worth living. We eventually made our way to the Town Square and spent an hour or so watching people. Then we sat outside the Bethlehem Chapel and had ice cream cones while not thinking about Jan Hus.

Five years ago on our first visit to Prague we ate at a restaurant called the Stoleti. Seven hours after our pavement snack we found ourselves in the Stoleti again. As is my habit, I’ll tell you what we had. I had a beef broth followed by pork in a pepper sauce with creamy smooth mashed potatoes, and Anita started with baked Camembert with cranberries and went on to have a steak stuffed with feta, accompanied by celeriac in cheese sauce. We had a dish of grilled vegetables to share. We had a bottle of czech wine too. Then she had a dish of straciatella ice cream with caramel sauce and nuts while I had a whipped cream cold rice pudding with chopped fruit and apricot sauce. Then coffee.

Last proper meal till Tuesday, I joked.

We flew home on Monday evening, but as the hotel was fully booked we weren’t able to keep the room on past eleven o’clock Monday morning so we lodged our suitcase in the luggage room and went for a walk up to the castle to watch the changing of the guard. There was a cafe at the castle, where I had potato pancakes topped with sauerkraut and sliced sausage. And a beer. When we got back to the hotel Anita decided she was going to sit out the rest of the day in the lobby. I went on a Cerny hunt.

I’ve now seen the Hanging Sigmund Freud and stood beneath him, the Revolving Head of Franz Kafka, and watched in awe as the light glitters and changes, seen the giant Faceless Babies, both climbing the tower and in the park by the river, where I rested my hands on the huge icy cold metal butt-ocks, and stood by the Two Naked Men Peeing into the Czech Shaped Pool. So far so good, so much still to see. David Cerny has a fascinating mind. I wouldn’t want to sleep with him though.

scorched

As I was making my way along the footpath to the doctors’ surgery I looked up and saw the loony rubbish man ahead of me, beating wantonly on the large pad which opens the door for the armless and the terminally lazy. At the sound of my derision snorting all over the bright Spring morning he turned, saw me and scowled.

I call him the loony rubbish man not because I believe him to be inadequate as a man, or because his refuse is deranged, mentally like. No. It’s because he has made it his life’s mission to pick up what he thinks of as rubbish from places he thinks of as wild and beautiful, and collect it into large collections, then dispose of it in strange places. Occasionally, very occasionally, he will find his way to the recycling yard behind the community centre, and after putting the rubbish into the correct receptacles as indicated by the very clear signs, he will then fill his bags for life from said receptacles and take the new selection of recyclables elsewhere. And on and on it goes, with innocent litter condemned to an eternity of movement in a lunatic cycle of confusion and despair.

My grief with the LRM is directly related to the fact that one of his preferred methods of rubbish collection is to storm into local eateries, such as mine, and swoop on unsuspecting and previously happy customers, demanding that they hand over foil pie cases, offering to remove half drunk coffees and teas, and generally being the type of chap who you’d be happy to see tumbling head over heels over the nearby cliff-edge, to be dashed to a supposedly premature end on the chalkbeds below.

So because of this, and also because he likes to stand by people as they’re sitting there eating and drinking, and lecturing them on the benefits of a diet consisting mainly of raw nutshells and vegetable twine , as far as I can follow his logic, I’ve banned him from my small high street retail bakery slash coffee shop. And not only that, if I see him approaching I immediately go outside and stand foursquare and sturdy in the doorway, intimidating him with a glare and a set of crossed arms. Until the fucker passes. And if I have customers sitting at the outdoor tables, I prowl meaningfully and menacingly just to let him know that I have not forgotten and I will still not let him pass. Reader, my bite is savage but my bark can be, although somewhat camp at times, worse. Grrr!

The beast beat one more time on the spazzer pad and the door reluctantly opened for him. The ragged and grimy ends of his sleeves hung over his even grimier and ragged hands as though his arms were longer than his legs and his hands had fallen victim to some horrible disease which had made them drop off. Probably just as he flushed, so they were lost forever.

Funnily enough, by the time I’d tried and failed to register my arrival at the touch screen thing which is an innovation at the surgery, then gone to the desk and checked in with little Laura manually, so to speak, the LRM was nowhere to be seen. Crouching behind a chair, scraping potentially recyclable dried body fluids out of the hard wearing contract carpet most likely. I drove him from my mind and seeing Scottish Jackie, went over and sat with her, chatting about our gardens and stuff until I was called to consulting room five.

I don’t often go to the doctor. There’s no point, usually, as I am rampantly hearty, healthy and hale as a matter of principle. But I’ve got this scabby bit of itchy dry skin on the edge of my ear which always tingles in the sun and it goes all dry and flaky at random intervals.

So after convincing myself that I’d scorched a fatal amount of cancer into my ear by my free and easy ways with the Mediterranean sun, and getting as far as making a pretty damned cohesive plan for my imminent funeral event, and sorting out this year’s travel insurance policy while I could still honestly say that I wasn’t suffering from or being investigated for any terminal condition, I thought I’d better ask the doctor to confirm the diagnosis.

Have you ever heard of Natalie Prass? I’m listening to her self titled cd right now. It’s lovely. My baby don’t understand me. Indeed.

The doctor took a look at my ear, fingered my lobe and ran his tip around the rim. I wondered if this meant we should get engaged. I smiled coyly. He asked about my sun exposure habits. I told him.  He nodded. He told me that I have an actinic keratosis. Not just any old keratosis, but the full fucking works, the actinic one. He told me to moisturise it and keep it well protected from UV rays and all should be well. I was a mess, all relief and vague disappointment banging and shouting together in a small room with a screaming  spoiled infant thrown into the mix. No funeral soon then.

Then he decided that I needed a bit of a going over as my last visit was back in 2004. He told me that my blood pressure of 163 over 110 is not a good thing, but I told him that I like high numbers. He told me I’ve got to go back for a thorough check up and to submit myself to an ambulatory six hour monitoring session and in the meantime to keep up my current level of excercise and stick as close as possible to a Mediterranean diet.

Mmmm, kebabs, said I.

Praha II

Gatwick airport on a mid January Tuesday evening was a quiet and spacious experience. You have to do your own check-in now and as well as printing your own boarding pass, you have to click on the screen to confirm that you’re not carrying explosives, acid or sharp nail clippers. It’s probably easier to lie to a human than it is to an electronic screen. Can they see through your eyes into your soul? And you have to attach the barcode strip to your own luggage. There’s a challenge.

Anyway, we and our luggage got to our hotel late in the evening, raided the mini-bar because it seemed too much like hard work to go out, and then we slept. The hotel’s in the old town opposite the main police station and tucked away down a quiet cobbled street. Our room looked out onto a winter strewn courtyard and we could see a life-sized wooden cutout Jesus on the cross across the way. Birds flirted and sang in the leafless climbing shrubs and a bent old man spent his time filling sacks with fallen leaves and piling them neatly in the corner. These are the days we inhabit.

On Wednesday morning we turned left at the Charles Bridge and wandered hand in hand along the banks of the Vltava, and when we passed the Dancing Building, we turned into Resslova and found the Cathedral of St Cyril and St Methodius, descending into the crypt where Gabcik, Kubis and the rest died after assassinating Heydrich. A very resonant and sad place, you can almost feel their final despair. It’s claustrophobic space, filled with echoes and memories. Then we went to the Manes building on the Slovansky island, or Ostrov as we should call it, but it was closed. There’s a concert hall nearby on the island, which is very attractive and yellow in the cold winter air. Swans and ducks and terns and dead branches on the river. Then we went to the church of our Lady of the Victories, with the Wax Infant Jesus Effigy, and it was a pretty impressive place to go, what with one thing and another. The Effigy is hardly what I would call a thing of beauty, but it is an object of devotion for many. That afternoon we spent some time mooching around the Old Town Square, and I drank some hot cherry wine.

For dinner we went to al Riso, just around the corner from the hotel and to start I had polenta with mushrooms and salami and Anita had Spinach soup, which turned out to be Garlic soup sprinkled with the odd shred of spinach. We both had roast veal with saffron risotto and vegetables, all washed down with the lovely czech red wine. All very good for 1440 ck. Thursday morning I went to breakfast alone as Anita was suffering, then I had a long walk around the city till lunchtime. Anita felt a wee bit better so we went up Petrin hill and admired the Loreto. I went off for a walk up through the woods where I saw a leaning tree trunk pockmarked along its entire length with woodpecker scars. Went up the Petrin tower. I didn’t quite make it to the top as the views were spectacular but my legs decided against going any more than three quarters of the way up. I have all the confidence in the world until you get down to my knees. That evening we crossed over to the Lesser Town up the hill past St Nicholas’ lovely huge towering church and ate at the U Certa, with a life sized acrylic Devil outside. Lots of little devils and Satans inside too. The food was good.Anita had spicy bean and sausage soup to start while I had ham and fresh grated horseradish. She then had lamb chops and I had a roast Duck leg with bread dumplings, which are my current food fetish. Beer to help it all down, then coffee, and all for 990 ck.

We went across Bohemia on Friday, to Kutna Hora. It’s an hour and a half drive across the plains and the scenery is mostly greenish, brownish, rural and flat. Quite beautiful. As is the quiet, scenic little town of Kutna Hora, which was once a bigger, busier city built on the wealth of the silver mines there. We went to the All Saint’s Church Ossuary which although decorated with the bones of 40,000 plague victims is curious rather than morbid, I think. Interesting place to see. As was the nearby St Barbara’s cathedral which we visited after a hearty traditional lunch of Broccoli Soup, Beef in cream sauce with cranberries and dumplings and then apple strudel. And lovely Czech beer. St Barbara’s was built on the wealth of local silver, and has some of the most beautiful stained glass windows I’ve seen. And windows, let me tell you, I’ve seen a few. The Cathedral is also the only church I’ve ever seen to possess a triple tented roof. It draws the eye upward, but is slightly out of proportion in my eyes. But I wasn’t trained as an architect or even a roof-critic, come to that, so what do I know, who am I to have an opinion? It just looks slightly wrong, is all.

A strange observation I made. You don’t see fat girls in Prague until you reach the shabbier outer suburbs. They’re all slender and graceful in the city centre. Just something I noticed.

I don’t know why, but we went back to U Certa that evening for dinner. We really didn’t need more than a light snack, but when on holiday food becomes a slight obsession for me, and Anita just tags along, faithful yet slightly disbelieving. I forced down a plate of fried battered squid rings drenched in cold sweet raisin sauce which is far nicer to eat than it is to read about, and it’s actually nicer than it deserves to be. But if a combination which I’ve never tried before appears on a menu, then I feel duty bound to try it. For you, you understand. Anita had pasta with mushrooms, then she had a loaf filled with goulash while I, of course, had Roast wild boar in a spicy rosehip suace. Then I had blueberry pancakes with cream. We drank lots of beer. On the slow, measured stroll across town back to the hotel late that night I wondered why it is that I’m not a fat bastard. I really should be you know. But I’m really not. I must have small bones or a fast metabolism. Or something. Saturday morning was spent buying souvenirs and gifts for the family, visiting the lovely Tyn Church and wandering the Square, somewhere I never tire of wandering and strolling and standing and gazing.

We went on a river cruise with dinner that night. There was a bar. We met a lovely Irish couple. We got along famously. The bar was well stocked. Neither of us remember too much detail about the evening. We enjoyed it immensely though. Joe gave me his number. I’ve lost it. I know where he works though, and we will visit Dublin one day. We will repeat the experience. Sunday morning I went for a long walk around the old town while Anita packed. She’s so much better at it than I am. A Chinese girl thought I was a local, and asked me for directions to a couple of places around the Old Town Square. Being a gent, and also because we were less than a couple of hundred yards from where she wanted to go, I walked her there. We flew home that evening, had a last lovely night at the airport hotel and came home on Monday lunchtime. I can’t think of a better way to spend a week in January. We’re going back there for a long weekend in April because Tomas told us that Spring is a good time to visit. Tomas is a local who we met. It’s booked. I’ve just got to hope that Anita can get the time off work now.

Jus de mon cloaca!

You want to know what really upsets me? It’s people who use phrases like ‘silly o’clock’ when they should say ‘early’. No, it’s not people who use phrases like that. It’s people who use that actual phrase. And it doesn’t simply upset me. It makes me want to lock them away in a small dark airtight space and gradually immerse them in sand, like I was a despotic pharaoh in ancient times disposing of slave type people who displeased me by using cuntish phrases like ‘silly o’clock’, or calling me ‘buddy’ or ‘pal’, or by shagging my lovely Pharoahina whose name was Tina.

Except she wouldn’t be called Tina. She’d be Tn. Because, clever as they were at building pyramids, sgraffiti-ing really cool two dimensional graphics into blank sheets of sandstone and mummifying the old folk (usually after death, it hardly needs saying), the ancient Egyptians never got around to developing written symbols for their vowels. Th cnts. Stll,  spps thy wr qt bsy mst f th tm, wrnt thy?

Now. How are you at choosing Christmas gifts for your loved ones? Or more importantly, for your Loved One? You know, the One you’ve committed yourself to, to whom you vowed, in a moment of slightly alcoholically hazed terror, your undying love, your honour, cherishment and that rather spiky bit about letting no man (no mention of women there, note) ever split the pair of you asunder? I’m crap at that bit. Not the resisting being split asunder part; that’s easy if you’ve got a conscience like mine.

No, the choosing meaningful presents with the intention of deepening the eternal bond between your immortal souls thing. And so it was that, faced with the thought of seeing the slow spread of dismay across my beloved’s face as she realised that I’d failed yet again in the ‘choosing a good present for her for Christmas’ department, I decided to fall back on the old favourite technique. We now go back to early October.

“Is there anything that you’d really like me to surprise you with as a Christmas present this year my love?” I asked my little bride of thirty five years standing. She does sit down sometimes, and even goes horizontal on occasion. And I was a child bridegroom, in case you’re wondering. Juanita sighed.

“Not particularly. Being with you is enough” she said. Nobody said you have to stick strictly to the actual words that have been said here, did they?

“Not a nice new set of Tupperware? Or yet another expensive gadget that you really don’t believe you’ll be able to live without but which will inevitably be consigned to the back of the garage by January 17th and given to one of the daughters for quiet disposal at a boot sale in the summer?” I asked.

“Oh, you’re so funny.” She said. It’s nice to be appreciated, and like they say, if you haven’t got looks, make them laugh and you’ll still get shagged. There are some lying bastards out there.

So I suggested the old winner, a week away. And so it is that on Tuesday next we shall be flying off to the misty plains and small hills of central Bohemia, resting and relaxing in a small pension in the gift of the Grey Sisterhood of the Poor Quivering Brides of Christ. Rising in the frosty dawn to crunch through the medieval streets to the bakery for a steaming breakfast of griddled hog and sugar crusted trudelnik. Clip-clopping the cobbled streets and plunging into the warmth of a hospitable tavern wherein crackles and hisses a warm welcoming fire of oak and ash. There will be no slow peeling off of crinkly wrapping paper or removing tacky self-adhesive gift tags from strategic points on this present, I can tell you. Unless I get really lucky.

2014 wasn’t the best year of our lives here at Schloss Thorn-Hymen, although there were a few good patches. Damp ones, mostly. I hope that this year will be better for us and for you.

 

scorcher

I was sitting with a coffee and Wendy a friend. She was telling me about when her mum died a while ago.

She was telling me about how the undertaker had asked if the recently deceased had shown any preference as to what clothes she would like to be despatched in. Bearing in mind the proviso that it is forbidden to be cremated whilst wearing any clothing made of PVC. Fuck me! How about that. PVC ist verboten!

“So, Wend, did he er, know your mum then? And if so, how well? To feel the need to tell you something like that? Was mum a bit of a pingu?” I had to know. I knew Wendy’s mum when she was a locally respected breeder of miniature longhaired badger hounds. When Wendy was but a toddler in fact. I cast my mind back, trying to recall if I had had ever detected an unexpected, intrusive petro-chemical smell about her or an unlikely sheen of perspiration on her brow on a cool day. There was one occasion, but a child’s paddling pool and a tub of swarfega also figured strongly in that memory, so it may have simply been a day-dream I had once after overindulging in a dispenser pack of hermesetas. Wicked things.

Wendy blushed, she often does.

“It’s not something I’m going to ask my dad about, is it? Anyway, we had her dressed in a nice country outfit. Like a tweed jacket and skirt. She looked lovely.” She always did. The phone rang.

It was Fretful Mathew.

“Hello, Graham,” he said in his best impersonation of an English Country Self Harming Depressive. “Sorry I didn’t come in yesterday, I had to play at a funeral and it over-ran. My fault, probably. It usually is.”

“What was the deceased wearing Mathew? Did you smell a smell like a brand new pacamac? Were there signs next to the grave warning people not to smoke?” I asked him. There was a confused and mournful silence on the line.

“I er, I don’t know, Graham. No, I don’t think so…er would you serve me if I came into town now? I know it’s late, it’s my fault I fell asleep in front of the television watching the news and when I woke up there was a wretched programme called Doctors on and…”

I broke in with a lie.

“Oh, I’m sorry Mathew. It’s been so quiet that I decided to close early and skip off with a young lady for an hour or so, I’ve known her an awfully long time, her name’s Wendy and her mum died and she wasn’t wearing PVC. It’s a long story.”

“If I call a taxi now I can be there in twenty minutes….”

“Sorry Mathew. I’m just closing now.”

“Er Graham, what’s PVC?” Mathew has led a sheltered life. I did in fact close up for the day shortly afterwards, but returned home to the warm and voluptuous bosom of my family rather than skipping off with Wendy for the afternoon.

 

When I walk to work in my shop in the mornings, now in darkness due to the eternal mechanics of the solar system and stuff, I cross a bridge over the river. There are usually two or three little egrets prowling the river’s edge, preying on small innocent aquatic creatures. They have very sharp bills, do egrets, so they’re very good at spearing things, as well as seeing off the much larger herring gulls, which are vile thugs. this morning, in the dim early morning semi-light, there was a grey heron standing motionless at the water’s edge. I stood and watched it for a few minutes, until it became aware of my presence and flew silently off seawards. Made my day, that did. So much so that I sat down and had a lovely coffee before doing anything. That was also partly because I’d got to work ten minutes early as well. For no good reason.

I went for a haircut when I’d finished today. Richie’s got a new woman in his life. And he’s looking to get rid of his old boat and get into sailing. He’s currently looking at a nice thirty three footer. He showed me forty seven photos of the boat he’s looking to buy. And then he showed me another seventy two photos of  various boats he’s looked at which he’s decided not to buy, but which he keeps as a reference to remind him of stuff to avoid. He explained every one of those reasons to me, why he will now avoid certain models and sizes. I once had a vague dream that I’d like to get a boat, hang around down at the river, go out on day trips, maybe build up to a longer voyage, after getting a few qualifications and the necessary experience, of course.

Thanks to today’s haircut, that dream has evaporated. Thanks, Richie me old mate. I decided I prefer it when Richie’s being loudly insulting about my ability to grow vast quantities of hair in improbable places, and even when he’s being vile and disgusting about how he thinks a holiday is only a holiday if you spend most of it performing sexual interference on willing ladies of a pensionable age.

So that’s this week’s voyage into the abyss. Chin chin.