Sunday, 5 June 2022

Holding back a green tide

It sometimes feels like that, our garden; keeping stuff at bay enough that us humans can create space to move around within the vegetation. But we did comprehend (vaguely) how much work it would be on viewing the house on a roasting August day in 2020 . . . no, we probably didn't but, well, what's the odd challenge in life? Apparently, according to the estate agent, after the offer had been accepted, several French viewers had stared like frightened rabbits at the sheer enormity of it all and had politely declined, presumably moving on to purchase somewhat tamer properties.




So here we are, guardians of a patch of the Earth's crust, and over the months since the house purchase it has felt increasingly like that as the changing climate becomes more and more obvious, highlighted by unusual weather patterns, less rain, earlier heat, vegetable growers noticing less pollinators, etc. I've started observing the rampaging vegetation now as a sometimes tiring but wonderful thing, our bit of land as a safety zone for our fellow earth dwellers; a sort of payback for our own albeit smallish (hopefully) contribution to the climate state. Not everyone regards their garden thus; a friend of ours on viewing our wilderness, nodded, eyebrow lifted a little and announced that she also likes biodiversity and has devoted two whole square meters to it within their own half hectare.  


We received a leaflet a couple of months ago from a biodiversity organisation on how to adapt ones garden for climate change. I rang them back and said that we were doing okay but maybe they would like to glance at the surrounding 'farmer's' very successful attempt at soil destruction, hedge crushing, etc. 

An enthusiastic man appeared a few days later, did the tour of our land, agreed we were doing all the right things apart from a bit more water capture, but then added that too much might upset the building's foundations so we're undecided on that suggestion... Re the farmer next-door, a Gallic shrug was the response and a following assurance that the messages of climate disaster were gradually filtering through the farming community. I hope so, as most of the fields appear devoid of any life and the local strawberry producer has been importing boxes of bees into his poly tunnels in order for the fruit to be pollinated. 

The man rang back a week later and asked if we and more importantly our land would host a group of people interested in making changes to their own gardens. I agreed, the date set for next weekend, and will now sally forth, ultra-mulch everything, weed enough that folk can wander, and maybe pot up a few baby trees that have appeared in what we consider to not be in the right places to pass on to the potential re-wilders.

We had a delightful couple of Dutch B and B guests stay recently who were avid birders and observers of insect life. The reports of what they found in our compound were proof that leaving things alone as much as possible is the direction to head in. 

The birds they mentioned and most of which I have noted too: Red and green woodpeckers, black caps, jays, hoopoes, blackbirds, thrushes, wrens, three kinds of tit, kingfishers, bullfinches, goldfinches, herons, egrets, magpies, redwings, wagtails, golden orioles, cuckoos, lapwings, tree creepers; something they only knew the name of in Dutch but got very excited about, and of course, many, many sparrows- currently nesting in the roof insulation as we attempt to finish the roof space in the gîte . . . 



As for the insect population, I think even on our piece of nature-friendly land there are less bees and other insects than even last year. On our veg-buying visit to our organic vegetable farmer friend half a mile away, he gestured towards the large rapeseed fields that border some of his land and said that the bees hasten there in spring when the flowers come out and are then poisoned by the crop spray. He's left his own cabbage and Brussel sprout plants to seed so that there will at least be some uncontaminated brassica flowers but it is a small drop in an ocean of dead-zone soil. 

However, on a positive note: insects I have observed:

Honey bees, bumble bees, inc the orange bottom variety, big black bees, many types of hover fly, ladybirds, shield bugs, gendarmes (red and black insects) mayflies, lots of aphids! dragonflies, wasps, few hornets (phew) grasshoppers, crickets, not too many mosquitos (yet!) beetles of many sorts, butterflies - red admirals, peacock, common blue, marsh fritillary, marbled white, cabbage white, meadow brown, painted lady, and others I have yet to recognise.

School subject highest on any list, I reckon. Forget economics and Maths beyond a certain level and start re-wilding/gardening/wildlife observation/making the most of a balcony, window box, shared flat's garden; in short, enthusing kids rather than just scaring the life out of them re the fast encroaching changes on our only home - despite what Mr Musk says.




Sunday, 22 May 2022

Do you know what God's greatest gift to mankind is?

A question posed to me by a man I gave money to on the Avenue de Belleville yesterday. He had leaned forward from his perch on a bench where he was surrounded by his worldly possessions of a few carrier bags, hands raised, open faced. I had replied, somewhat unnerved, expecting an impromptu sermon on that airless late morning.

". . . Probably not."

"It is the smile."

He had beamed, demonstrating his own particular wide, toothy smile. 

"Bien sur," I had replied, fluttering something in response to his hand on heart gesture. The phrase stuck in my mind the rest of the day and still seems to be there this morning, my face muscles being given a gentle prod away from their tendency to sag into a downward trajectory if left to gravity's influence. 

Not one usually for tourist information I had noted somewhere that looked like a slice of Hackney on a site of 'insolite' (quirky, unusual) Paris places and we had taken a long amble from our hotel to Pere Lachaise cemetery including the proposed graffiti embellished street. The said road was actually quite short and not as stuffed with artists and alternative eateries/second hand clothes emporiums, etc, as I had imagined but the whole area was fascinating especially the enormous food market that extends nearly the whole length of the main avenue. As we arrived the vendors were starting to pack up from their early start,  reloading the line of graffiti-covered delivery lorries. I stood for a while watching the chaos as people scrambled to get the useable goods stashed and the mountains of debris cleared away, and could only vaguely imagine the amount of food that comes into the city everyday, displayed in markets and shops, eaten at home or on foot, and cooked in the hundreds of Parisian restaurants. 


In comparison to Belleville's colourful mayhem, Pere Lachaise cemetery is peaceful and almost silent, its alleyways between the tombs shaded by trees, the light tinted green, almost as if being in a forest glade. We sought out Chopin's grave and Mark stood a while in respectful silence while I mused on the appearance of the less tended tombs with their rusted doors and remnants of plant offerings. At the summit of the hill, clipped lawns invite lounging but it is not permitted. A series of benches however offer a resting point, surprisingly high-up view over the city and observation of the resident crow population.



Paris is renowned for its brisk and haughty restaurant staff but during the two days we only encountered one café owner whose indifference to his clientele was spectacular - huffing when I requested a black tea after he had slung a mint tea sachet onto the table to accompany the teapot of tepid water and snatching the ten euro bill from Mark's hand without so much as a merci, Monsieur. All other eateries we experienced seemed to be run by and worked in by friendly and efficient people. 
Michelin or similar was never going to be on our menu but we did have a few good brasserie experiences, notably a bistro on Belleville avenue which offered a hearty menu for 15 euros. I don't buy anything much on a city trip, preferring to spend money on sitting about in cafés and observing the locals, or tourists in the more guidebook quartiers. Arriving from a hamlet in the middle of farmland, the sensory overload of a huge city is overwhelming, nowhere more than around the Louvre where the crowds throng, selfie sticks in hand, following flag-holding guides or posing in front of the glass pyramid in carefully chosen clothing. There is no café there for crowd-observing but we sat on the steps dazed from sound, colour and movement.  


My purchase of the trip was a small silk scarve in a frip shop (second hand clothing), if the budget had been somewhat more elastic I could have bought a resin, two foot high, leopard skin-painted Micky Mouse statue which graced a podium in Samaratime, a department store which makes Gallery Lafayette seem tawdry in comparison. The small golden price tag next to the mouse stated, 3,600 euros. We gawped. For about five minutes. All my stored up, what is the world coming to sauntered forth, more so as I noted other similarly useless objects: Mickey's partner mouse for another 3,600; why not have the pair? a crystal pot with golden teddy bear head lid for a cool 1,000; champagne approved by Lady Gaga for 650 a bottle; a diamond encrusted stuffed anteater attired in pink flares - I jest, but there could have been one, possibly was if we had looked around a little longer but fifteen minutes was ample.


3600 euros


or, 7,50 euros (each!) on Belleville Avenue


Lifelong London obsessive, I found, sadly, on my last visit that a lot of strange and quirky little streets and shops seemed to have been transformed into dull places of chain shops/coffee hangouts. Paris appears to have retained more individuality, maybe due to less overseas property investment . . . I'm in no way any sort of economist but eleven years or whatever it is, centuries perhaps? (feels like it), of Tory so-called government haven't helped the cultural landscape of London. 
The choice of non-chain cafés in Paris is boggling, most of them complete with their white-aproned waiters, little round metal tables and the ubiquitous rattan or faux-rattan chairs. We chose one after a long, hot walk around one of the Eastern arrondissements, and I allowed myself an evil Coke. This happens probably twice or three times a year. It has to be in an interesting eatery with a good sketch-able view and the bottle has to be very cold. That first gulp . . . worth waiting for.


                                           first cold coke and lemon of the year after a long walk


Certainly not a chain shop. No window display, no indication of what was being made or repaired but the owner or assistant was intently busy making or repairing something


a fine Parisian mural


...and a fine mur vegetal created by Patrick Blanc in 2013. Growing strong and housing many birds and insects Second arrondissement


Just as the buildings and streets of Paris are photogenic, so are its inhabitants. My small camera is currently broken I made do with the phone but somehow asking people if I can take their picture on my phone seems weirder than with a camera so I took a few surreptitious snaps instead. Next time I will be properly equipped as there were so many opportunities missed


                                Unbelievably cool taxi driver with coffee cup balanced on his BMW
 
The last afternoon concluded with cake and tea in the sort of salon du thé in which I felt I should apologise for my pavement-worn shoes (and self) but it was worth it for the strawberry millefeuille and tea served in  wonderfully heavy old silver hotel ware; and the evening, a coup - getting into the opera to see Strauss's Elektra on a 15 euro ticket which was transformed into a 150 euro place in the parterre by a benevolent usher.






Good morning, Paris


from our very salubrious 6th floor hotel room (luckily with lift)



And good evening








 

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Another life

Strange, sitting in bed with the window open on a far-too-hot-for-May morning with a zillion birds tweeting, to recall a certain day way back in mid 80s London. I'm including these few paragraphs from an early novel, Going out in the Midday Sun, in my latest book as an illustration of the decade's excess when it came to food advertising budgets (and probably everything else); I imagine they are now somewhat less extravagant, or maybe not . . . 

I'm meandering into non-fiction territory with the new book, at the moment entitled, Celebrating the Inconsequential inspired partly by a very long walk which I described a few posts back. We'll see where it goes. So far I'm enjoying a new literary departure very much, when I get a chance to write in between trying to keep our garden/bird and insect sanctuary alive in this alarming heat.



On a Monday in 1986, a stylist is late for an office furniture shoot.

 

    Randy Fisher's photographic studio sat in a Kings Cross backstreet. The client and slimy Marvin, the art director, were due there at 9am. It was 9am.

    Holly had the knowledge as well as any cabbie, but all the snarl-ups were well in place plus a few extras, including a lorry unloading toilets into a new loft complex in Leonard Street. The driver, attired in baggy shell suit, a fag drooping from his lips, wore an unhurried air as people leaned from their car windows yelling and gesticulating; the air was thick with honking and swearing. 

    Holly found her notebook and added a phrase to her anti-styling song, humming another slice of the tune. Calm: there was no point getting worked up. If she did, she would be lying in the back of the car under a blanket with a firework-display migraine by the end of the afternoon.

    She arrived at the studio at 9.15 and climbed the iron staircase, nerves jangling. Randy's new assistant Marcus opened the door and mouthed: "Watch out, Marvin's already had three coffees." Randy was up a ladder fiddling with the large-format camera, the height revealing cowboy boots under too-tight white jeans The Eagles were on the sound system and the client was leafing through a book of models.

    Marvin kissed Holly lecherously and lightly groped her backside. Coffee breath and stale cigarette smoke enveloped her: Marvin, the huge beaky bird of prey, shaking from his diet of fags and intravenous black coffee with five sugars drip. 

    "Hi darling, you're late . . . we'll have to spank you."

    "Yes, sorry. Traffic." But he was already gone, sucking up to the client.

    "Holly our Stylist — Roger Hillway from Streamline products."

    "Hi."

    "Hi."

    "Did you find everything Holly?" said Marvin, looking even more beaky than usual. 

    "Yes – selection of smart office wear dresses, new Mac computer, phone, and . . . the donkey head." 

    "Good, good," said Marvin, rubbing his hands. "Well, we've chosen the model." A round of snorting laughter emanated from the three men. "She'll be here at 10.30, should be done by 12.00. While we're waiting for the lab to process the film, we thought we might all go out for lunch."

    Charlene arrived, blonde and busty. The outfit was chosen, the props arranged, lights placed. No need for makeup as Charlene was to wear the donkey head. 

    "But you could have just used me," Holly was about to say, but realised Charlene and her breasts were the reason for lunch.

    The courier came for the film, they all got in a taxi and were at the door of 'School Dinners' by 1pm.

    Holly groaned internally at the sight of the restaurant. She had gone there once before with a crowd of advertising executives and had hoped never to return. They were shown downstairs into the cavernous space and presented with menus by a gazelle-like young woman dressed in blazer, stockings, suspenders and painfully high stilettos. The client and Marvin perused the wine list, occasionally stopping to mentally undress Charlene, while Randy flashed his new mobile phone: "Yeah, sure I can fit that in this week, what's the budget? Not bad . . . on the way to getting the Porsche, eh! See you on Thursday then — ciao." 

    Holly glanced around the room at the tables of overfed businessmen on expense accounts and wondered how the world had got into such a state. She requested the day's special after a brief glance at the menu and excused herself to have a few quiet moments in the loo away from Marvin, who had started to rub a foot up and down her leg. 

 The loo was already occupied with women checking their makeup. Holly made do with a perfunctory glance at herself in the reflective steel hand dryer: short blonde hair, disarrayed from the rushed start to the day, winter pale skin. 

    The large brown eyes stared back while her mind wandered: What are you doing here? Why did you spend four years doing an art degree then to work in this superficial world? —must phone mum — wonder what Sam is doing now . . . do I miss him? No, but . . . Her thoughts were interrupted by a blast of Robert Palmer singing 'Addicted To Love' as the door opened and two more women swayed in to the crowded room, one of them bumping into Holly. "Oops sorry . . . d'you think he's going to ask me out then?"

    "Why wait — grab him! I would . . . if I wasn't already attached — here try this, it's new by Givenchy, Organza."

    "Oooh, that's just what I need, an Organza . . ." 

    Holly left and weaved her way back around the crowded tables. "Oh, there you are — we were beginning to wonder what you were doing in there," grinned Marvin, nudging the client.    

    "Champagne all round," Randy announced to a waitress in a gymslip. 

    "Would you like a caning with it?" She produced a long thin cane and whipped it across her stocking encased thigh, thwack! Today's special is sausage and dumplings," she added, pouting, lips glossy red.

    "Waahay!" shouted Marvin. "Yeah, bring it on!"

    From a long way off, Holly saw herself sitting on the cliff edge near Durdle Door in Dorset — a warm breeze, nodding pink scabious, the cry of wheeling gulls. She had to get off this hamster wheel: wake, rush, buy crap for stupid ads, sit in traffic, home, sofa, crash, eat, sleep.

    Randy’s elbow nudged her. "Top up? How's the sausage . . . phwoooaah!"

    At last the bill came: three hundred and fifty quid, to be hidden in the final invoice. 

    Taxi back, film back, no re-shoot. Holly packed the props, slipped out from the studio and found a car-shaped space where the car had been.

 



 


Tuesday, 3 May 2022

A bird can make a day

In my case they always do. However complex the day or low the mood the sighting of birds, or even just one lifts my spirits. I'm not a bird spotter, more a bird admirer; someone who is constantly fascinated that birds exist all around us, a free and marvellous show of movement, colour and incredible sound. 

Birds of the past week: a flotilla of tiny ducklings, legs paddling frantically as they attempted to keep up with the mother duck on the little river near our house.

The yearly visitation of the exotic Hoopoes, hopping across the lawn, beaks stabbing at worms to then take off with their wonderful floppy striped wings and land again in the silver birches, their odd calls echoing around the garden: hoopoepoepoe.

A pair of Lapwings circling and dancing above a newly planted cornfield, their strange electronic sounding peeps and whistles startling in the early morning silence. 

Cuckoos: absent last year, or at least I never heard one. This year we have about six within the different copses of trees surrounding our house, the cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo a sort of call and response opera embellished by the chattering sparrow commune of our laurel hedge.

The Golden Oriole. What a song - strange and beautiful liquidy sound. However much I have peered upwards into the tree tops I've never actually seen the bird, surprising as it is bright yellow - not really golden, but perhaps Yellow Oriole wouldn't sound so poetic. 

King of singers: the Nightingale. Our birder friend Johnathan would probably snarl slightly at my mentioning of these songsters as he considers their singing so robust that it drowns out all other birds but who could not be entranced by the the complex and magical sounds this little brown bird can produce.


As fate would have it, I started writing this blog yesterday to then receive a B and B booking from two ardent bird spotters drawn to our site which mentions that we are part of the LPO (like RSPB). Our guests set out this morning with binoculars and were immediately in rapture after sighting, apparently a very rare bird in the garden which has yellow eyebrows - or maybe I misheard. Anyway, binoculars must be obtained, and birdlife more seriously catalogued. 


Sunday, 10 April 2022

Walking without dog

Or anyone else.

I needed a break from the building works and general life stuff and booked the cheapest titchy air B and B on the peninsular of a bit of west costal France. Deciding against the car I took a train - or rather three trains from our local station to Le Croisic.

Arriving in a gale with horizontal drizzle I had started to wonder if I should have stayed at home snuggled up in front of the fire chain-drinking tea but I strode out and took in the sights of this small, drenched Breton town. The gale became more pronounced (tempete Diego) so I retreated to my studio room, ate a tin of cassoulet and watched the most appalling French program called Mask Singer in which a has-been celeb is encased in a disguise, in this case a glittery ladybird costume, and the panel of other celebs have to guess who it is. This all punctuated by never ending strings of ads for cheese, double glazing, skin care products, holidays, etc, etc.  We haven't had TV for a while and I was totally shocked at how much worse it has become, or at least that channel. Or, I may have fallen asleep and dreamt it all.



                                                    Bit of 20s/30s sandwiched between 60s and 70s

The next day blossomed into clear sky, no wind, and sun. I took a train to a bigger town along the coast - La Baule Escoublac, intrigued by the name, and alighted into somewhere not unlike ultra-fashionable Arcachon, stuffed with expensive boutiques, people dressed in Gucci puffa jackets walking tiny dogs, and stunning architecture - from the 20s when seasiding became the new thing to do for the wealthy classes. I mingled in the crowds feeling a little out of place in my Emmaus parker and walking boots, drank tea overlooking the magnificent sandy bay and then walked - a very long way. Really long. Not having the car was quite a revelation - I'll just walk over to that tip of the coast, then just cross overland to the other side. It was surprisingly easy, my feet responding well to the unusual pacing with no stopping for the dog to sniff at unspeakable things. I did miss the dog however, and to be fair, I did miss my exploring companions - Mark and or Ezra - to be able to share sights, sounds and tea stops; but it was also so good to walk alone; to not plan, to backtrack and take deviations without consulting the other person - or dog.




                                                             Hotels of Baule Escoublac





Batz-sur-Mer



Kervalet. 

Walking, is of course one of the best was to really be in the present, especially alone. Utter relaxation for the mind. No thinking about what I should have done or should be tackling; just observation of everything; listening: gulls, conversations, breeze in the pine trees. No thoughts other than what I might eat later, not even that.

After about twenty five kilometres I got back to my lodgings, bathed my shocked feet and then went out to eat a large supper, including a huge caramel pancake which I later regretted at about two in the morning. I was  the most incredible day and I feel very much as if I am still there pacing the sand, mind empty other than the pleasure of that moment.




Wednesday, 30 March 2022

A dog's life

When I went down to the kitchen this morning, blurry from a bad sleep, I stared for a moment at the empty second sofa, normally occupied by a brindle beige dog shape. Of course, the reason for the bad sleep . . . dog no longer, dog now buried in the garden; our lovely old dog Gala, passed on.


Gala has been with us for about nine years, adopted from a Spanish Greyhound association whose members valiantly spend their waking hours trying to save these elegant and loving creatures from their living-death lives as hunting dogs. She bore the marks of a hunter's contempt, knife scars, a damaged back, and perpetual haunting fear of men. Over the years this gradually faded although it was always still present, a branded terror on her brain circuitry.

She was a model greyhound: happy to walk for hours to then collapse onto her favourite sofa; a gourmand - hogging the food, top dog to Bali who would wait around to lick the bowls after Gala had deemed to have finished. A later love of her life was water in any form: streams, sea, lakes . . . she would stride forth into the wetness while Bali would stand watching and quaking at such an insane idea. She also learned to play at an advanced stage of life, as if the natural playfulness had never been experienced as a younger dog, not surprising if one happens to visit one of the Galgos sites to learn more of these dogs . . .



How I miss her doe eyes, her silent smiles, her down-soft coat.

A tree will be bought today to mark the spot where she now rests. 

Goodbye our special friend.     





Sunday, 20 March 2022

Derivation

Okay. Enough. I've sent out submissions to I don't know how many literary agents, crafted the letters, honed the synopsises, synopi? described my publishing history; been endlessly encouraged by friends and family but it seems what I wish to write doesn't appeal to agents; satirical glances at where we are now and what could happen in the, to my mind at least, tumultuous and dark future are not wanted. At least by unknown writers; fine if you are madame Atwood . . . absolutely no jealously here. ;0)

I'm putting aside the four manuscripts of this genre for now and temporarily ceasing Outcrier - another bleak but humorous slice of a possible future world, and doing something I said I wouldn't do - writing a novel to attempt to fit into a genre that could be more acceptable. But already it's escaped the genre I had started out with so, I'll keep going and see where it ends up. No mention of a rumbling, dark future, keeping it fairly light with a black humour edge. 

Post-apocalyptic London is where my writing heart beats strongest (see novel link to the right) and I still have hope that the follow up to Londonia will get an airing, but for a while I'll try something else. Why not? It's an interesting experiment to step outside the box ones mind has constructed.

Extract from current book with working title: I first became aware of my intermittent unusualness after Dad drove the Cortina into chip shop window.



Eva, a fifty-something year old, self invented psychoanalyst sits in her garret flat somewhere in North London. 

                                                                            ***   

I sit at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around a mug of herbal tea, radio 4 nattering in the background and the shadows of late summer leaves dappling the 1950s wallpaper I have somehow got used to. 


When I first shown the garret by the fifteen-year old estate agent who pointed out its merit of convenient proximity to the tube but was stuck for much else to say I felt my life falling away, that it had come to this. But actually, what do we need above shelter, warmth, food, a few treasured possessions? A few more friends would be nice. I think I may be turning into a hermit-ess. Or a bloke to re-discover sex with? Or, a woman? My thoughts of what it would be like to caress someone else’s breasts are interrupted as the intercom rasps reminding me that I haven’t prepared for Geoff Brenton’s visit at all. I was probably avoiding it anyway.

I lift the handset, say hello, and his clipped voice answers. “Geoff here.”

Out on the landing I listen to his footsteps clumping on the bare wood stairs. He nods as he arrives, a slight beading of sweat on his forehead under a lock of hair that has escaped its greased companions.

“Good afternoon, Geoff.” I stand back, avoiding a handshake. “Did you find a parking space okay?”

He jerks his head towards the little window at the end of the landing. “Eventually, in Clark street. It’s getting worse, isn’t it.”

I don’t possess a car so take little notice of parking issues other than people’s complaining about it.

“Bus?”

He looks at me as if I have suggested crawling on hands and knees the distance from wherever he lives in Holloway. “The seats are disgusting on buses.”

We enter my lodgings and I wonder if he mentally disinfects everything as he steps over the threshold. Quite encouraging really; whatever I am doing must be of overwhelming use for him to put up with my surroundings. 

“Would you like to sit on the sofa, or you can lie down if you prefer.”

I am not an actual psychoanalyst and I think many of them concur that the lying down thing is rather outdated but I offer it anyway.

“Can we sit at the table again?”

“Of course.”

We sit. I offer a drink. He declines. His eyes roam around the room for a while. “You know, my parents had the same wallpaper. I’m sure of it.”

“Oh?”

“In the spare room.” He drags out the last two words as if he fears them. 

I decide this is interesting. “Was it an overflow room for possessions, or a guest room?”

“. . . They called it the naughty room. Me or Gill would be put in there if we’d been bad.”

“For a short while – just to make you reflect for a few minutes?”

“Hours. Sometimes a day, or a night. I’d have to pee out of the window. Once I crapped in a mug as I didn’t know what else to do, and I wiped my arse on a sock.”

The bus seats and other phobias begin to take shape a little. In the first and second sessions Geoff had only skirted around what I had suspected were deeper issues. We’re well away from topsoil this time.

“Did that result in more punishment?”

He drums three fingers on the table top before inspecting them and wiping away on a neatly folded square of kitchen roll whatever microbes he fears will be present.

“I thought Father was going to kill me. Gill and Mother were both screaming at him to stop.” He smiles suddenly as if a switch has been flipped somewhere within him. “I took flowers to the woman I was telling you about.”

Startled by this sudden change of direction I dredge back last week; Geoff sitting opposite me, his face slightly flushed as he described somebody in the accounting department.

“Did she appreciate the gesture?” I ask.

“She was a bit shocked, I think. In a good way – it must have been as she agreed to dinner on Friday evening.”

“Were you surprised?”

“I was. Very. Usually when I have done this before they say no.”

“Usually? On our last meeting, you said you’ve rarely attempted to ask anyone out.”

“Did I? He pauses as if rummaging through a mental filing cabinet. No . . . I’ve asked many people.”

“Tens, twenties?”

“Hundreds, possibly.”

“And she’s the first who’s agreed.”

“Correct.”

“How are you feeling about Friday?”

He sits back in the chair and reveals his horsey teeth in a rather maniacal grin. “Bloody terrified. That’s why I asked if you could fit me in rather than next week.”

“Would you like to tell me what it is you are mostly worried about.”

“What to say to her, mainly. And about what might happen . . . later on.”

“You mean after the restaurant.”

“Yes.”

“There might not necessarily be a later on.”

His expression droops a little into disappointment. “There always is in the films.”

I search for a film with which I can illustrate my point but James Bond keeps bobbing to the surface of my thoughts: cocktails, swooning women, tumbling hair. Shit. There must be hundreds of intelligent examples.

“Certainly, not always, Geoff. Let’s return to conversation you might have. Do you know much about her?”

“She drives a Ford Fiesta. It’s very clean.”

“. . . Good. You’ve spoken to her several times, I imagine.”

“Only twice. Once when her desk had been moved nearer the photocopier. Malcolm – my line manager had asked me to run off a copy of a contract. I asked her if the view was better from that side of the room, and she thought that was quite funny. And the second time was in the canteen when I spilt milk on her shoe – she was standing behind me and I lost control of my tray. Lucky I’d only picked up a milk jug and not a teapot at that point! Anyway, I quickly got a napkin crouched down and wiped away the milk from her shoe. It was while I was looking at her ankle that I thought I should ask her out.”

“Why then?”

“She has very nice ankles. And her shoes were extremely polished – high-heeled red shoes.”

“How do you find the rest of her?”

“Not bad. Not bad at all . . . good figure. It’s just her face . . .”

“Her face?”

“Rather rounder than I like, and she has very thick glasses.”

I regard the man before me and wonder what people are likely to say about his face which is unhealthy looking with a large flaccid nose and eyes that sit closely on either side of it.

“Can I ask you about your previous relationships, Geoff?”

In the first session Geoff had hardly talked until suddenly zipping into a monologue about his father’s new Mercedes; the second more about work issues and his worries over a bullish colleague.  

He loosens his tie a little. I wonder how old he is. Late thirties? Have I asked him? I’d lost the notes I’d taken after his last visit. Bad. I’ll go straight out afterwards and buy a proper book, or perhaps I should start using the laptop – however it seems to be on the way out . . . He’s still forming words, or not. It’s difficult to say. Some people reveal all within their expressions, and others, like Geoff, could be thinking about anything from dry cleaning to mass murder.

“. . . There have been three.”

“Relationships.”

“In a way.”

“Very short ones?”

“Yes. I think you might call the first one . . . seduction, by a friend of my mothers. The second was a date set up by a friend of mine in the light aircraft association that I belong to.”

“You fly?”

“No. Not really. I tried but I suffer from vertigo. The woman, Sammy, wanted to go on a hike rather than a dinner date. I think I’m more of a wanderer so she was striding ahead all the time then waiting for me to catch up. In fact, she left me at a stile and I had to catch a lift back to the carpark in a cow truck.”

“I see. And the third?”

“Internet date. But she lives in Alaska and she told me yesterday that she’s marrying another woman. It’s annoying as we’d been talking for months and I really thought she would move over here.”

“So, you’ve had one actual physical encounter with a woman.”

“Yes.” The yes is as dry as someone responding to a survey on traffic calming. I wonder whether to move back onto the subject of the woman with nice ankles, but perhaps it might be useful to find out what the seduction involved, mainly for her sake.

“When you say seduction . . . did you have full sex?”

“I think so, but it was all over so quickly and she kept shouting at me to slap her.”

“You didn’t really enjoy it, I imagine.”

“It was . . . sort of exciting. I wanted to do it again with her but she didn’t respond to my calls. And then I found out from Mother that she had moved out of London.” He looks down at the table and frowns at a circle left from a coffee cup. “You’ll have to sand that out, you know.”

I glance at the kitchen clock and realise most of his session has expired and we haven’t ventured far into the Friday night issue.

“Where are you taking her for dinner?”

“A new Italian place on the high street. I thought it might bring up the subject of travel.”

“You’ve been to Italy then.”

“No.”

“Where have you travelled?”

“I went to the Isle of Man once for a bike show. I didn’t like the ferry much though.”

“Well, it’s a good idea anyway. You can ask her where she’s been, where she might like to go . . .”

He nods slowly, eyes focusing on the wall behind me. “What do you think I should say after dessert?”

“Would you like a coffee?”

“And after that?”

“Well, by then you hopefully will have an idea as to whether you might wish to see each other again. You could talk about that – for example, I was wondering if you’ve seen that new film with Leonardo de Caprio in it . . .”

“Which film?”

“I was just using that as an illustration.”

“I don’t rate him as an actor.”

I risk a quick look at the clock again. Ten minutes to go. I’ll go out somewhere – walk amongst trees.

“If you are asking me about inviting her back to your place, I’d say be very careful not to suggest anything too sudden.”

“Do you think she might slap me?”

“Probably not but she might just feel things were moving too fast. On the other hand, she might also be interested in something more than just dinner out. Only you will be able to judge that at that point.”

“There’s another issue.”

“Oh?”

“My mother always was on at me to eat with my mouth shut.”

“Well, that certainly is very important on a date. Do you eat with your mouth open still?”

“I don’t know. That’s the problem. I forget, you see.”

“Maybe you could set up a system – such as, when you observe your fork rising towards your mouth, think shut.”

“But then I might do just that and the spaghetti would go everywhere else.”

The long hand has thankfully dragged itself to the top of the clock. I wind up the session.

“That’s true but maybe think of some other way for yourself. My brother shares the same problem and it’s difficult to share a meal without focusing on his mouth and its contents.” I gesture to the clock. “Okay. We’d better finish as I have someone else arriving shortly.”

He nods, reaches for his wallet and draws out the agreed notes. “Could I make another appointment?”

I reach for my diary and leaf through to the following week. “. . . I can do the same time if you like.”

“That works. Hopefully, I’ll have something to discuss about my date.”

He stands up and smooths the creases in his shiny grey jacket. His hands tremble very slightly. I walk to the door and hold it open for him. He holds out a hand and without thinking I take it. A second later I freeze waiting for some onslaught of images but nothing transpires. I’m just aware of his dry skin. Odd, I thought he might have had sweating palms. 

Monday, 14 March 2022

Escapism


Following on from my last post re what human survival skills we have largely lost, this channel's videos are like a drug hit for people dreaming of a pared down life far removed from the latest technological developments, news of governments propping up vicious regimes with ever more powerful weaponry, climatic meltdown, etc... 
Forget Hollywood escapism and observe this man's extraordinary building knowledge with just a few hand tools and knowledge of the natural world. 

Sunday, 13 March 2022

What we knew before





It seems increasingly clear to me that we have lost our way as a species. Back in the era when this marvellous construction was in full function there were no computers, phones, Meta, TikTok, instant pancake mix, flights to Goa, plumbed in toilets, burgers, garden centers; Spotify, mega yachts, fast fashion, supermarkets, golf, Las Vegas, Youtube, this platform I write on; cars, internet shopping, yoga mats, Netflix, surf boards, and corrupt governments. Well, there would have been the latter, sadly that's just part of human history, but surely life must have made more sense?

People grew wheat, it was taken to the mill, each house or village had a communal bread oven; bread was made and sold or traded. The wheat was grown without chemicals or motorised transport and without destroying vast tracts of land. Clothes were made by hand or basic machinery; vegetables and fruits grown by each household if they had land. People knew how to make things -  baskets, shoes, saddles, roofs, carts, churches, goat pens, pottery, lace, knitted socks, bottled fruit, candles; and how to do real survival things like killing, skinning and cooking an animal, gathering plants - and knowing what was edible or not, fishing - without half a shop full of latest rod and tackle equipment - and a thousand other vital things.

No doubt this is highly simplistic and of course life would have been hard in many ways but a five minute glance through the current news seems to prove that we have learned so little in the last few decades, and lost so much. Thank the lord of handed down crafts that there are still some folk who know how to make and repair everyday and vital things, and rejoice in doing so. Hopefully as kids reach the age now of deciding their futures, basic and real skills will once again be offered and encouraged in this rapidly changing and climatically unbalanced world.