Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lily the Pink 

Taking a spot of walkies at lunchtime to get out and clear my head, I passed by my favourite-flowerbed-in-the-vicinity-of-work and saw some Granny's Bonnets bobbing in the wind. It really took me back. I remember my Granny pointing out Granny's Bonnets to me, and thinking 'how appropriate'. Except I never saw my Granny in a bonnet, not even in old pictures. I imagine her Granny called them Granny's Bonnets too, and maybe then it fitted more - so that would make them my Granny's Granny's Granny's Bonnets. Yeah. That works.

As I walked on, I started thinking about other flowers I remembered from my childhood, and suddenly felt all dreamy nostalgia. I remembered pinks, with their spiky leaves, the blooms all little and er pink. I remember getting down and breathing in nosefuls of their scent. They were in the border of the flowerbed, a row of them, and they were my particular delight. Carnations were their grown up sisters, and I loved them too, with their frothy petals and bizarre stork-leg stems.

I always felt a bit undecided about foxgloves - I adored the shape of the flowers and the way they hung, revealing pattern and decoration on the inside while the outside was plainer and less intriguing. But fox gloves? Really? I'd not met a fox close up but I was pretty certain that it would have to be quite a teeny one to even try to get his paws into the flowers. And why would he even try? And yes, OK, he wouldn't have fingers and a thumb but there would be some division within the paw, like a dog or something, so they didn't even qualify as gloves because it would totally be a mitten. And it could kill you. Best observed from a distance, where you wouldn't get any harmful effects, and where you might - if quiet - see a fox trot past, pausing momentarily to slide a paw in just to see if it fitted.

The real treat for me was snapdragons. I would pluck one of the flowers from its stem, hold it gently around the middle between finger and thumb, and squeeze. A moderate pressure would open its jaw and by means of alternating pressure and no pressure, one could achieve a most satisfactory talking motion, perfect for pretending you had a tiny dragon in your hands, or just for having someone to talk to. RAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRR! Yep, just like that.

Sweet Peas fascinated me, and I'd peer closely at the bamboo supports to see the tendrils curling so elegantly. The flower buds reminded me of butterflies perched with closed wings, and the flowers themselves, a gorgeous pastelly mixture, were little paragons of perfection of form and scent. They were still interesting after the flower had gone, the seed pod fresh and green and growing daily, with its discernible cargo safely cradled.

Lily of the Valley I always thought got a bad press. We had a clump in a corner by a low wall, and there were always dire warnings of it running out of control. I didn't see the harm in this, as I loved the delicate little bell flowers and the incredible scent they produced. I always seemed to get Lily of the Valley bath salts at Christmas (you remember the ones pressed into little cubes, with a foil wrapper and a paper sleeve sporting a picture of the poor plant which had been macerated for your pleasure?).

Aubretia was very popular in the dim and distant when I was small. We had millions of it in the front garden, mostly adorning the front wall. I forgave it its boring aspect and lack of memorable scent as it excelled in disguising the wall and looked a bit like wall hair. I seem to remember the woodlice rather liked it in there.

Pansies I've always had a soft spot for, with their little worried faces. I used to wonder what they were so concerned about, but I suppose when you've got other plants out there being all exuberant, someone's got to take things seriously.

The best ones of all were, I think, lupins. With their two-tone flowers, tapering shape, and mysterious hairy seed pods, they were always a treat to look at. But to see them at their best, you had either to volunteer to do the watering, or to rush out to see them after the rain, because then the leaves would be covered with tiny sparkling gems, and in the middle of the leaf clusters would be nestling a perfect diamond of water, all surface tension and glisten and deceiving tangibility. If you just touched it so gently, it would stay solid, and be yours. But I never could manage it, and there would just be some wet leaves where a diamond had been sitting...

Friday, June 24, 2011

I bin smoovin' the cat 

I haven't really. I don't have one any more. But today I've been thinking about regional accents, and the one dearest to me is of course Bristolian. There's a place down here that makes T-Shirts with phrases on them which warm the hearts of those born and bred in the areal, and which make Tallboy pull such a puzzled face that you can almost see the question mark materialising above his head.

'I bin smoovin' the cat' is a favourite, as are 'Pick 'ee out the stingerz', 'Cheers Drive!', and the incomparable 'Muh!! I wants a go on the slider!'. When I see these, I can hear the voices of my childhood speaking the words, and get a bit of a fuzzy smile feeling. I'm sure that a few years ago I saw the 'Cheers Drive!' one in Polish, as a nod to the Polish drivers who were recruited en masse to keep the public transport running to time.

It was My Polish Colleague who started me on the regional accentuation today. He has been asking, in passing, random citizenship test questions for the past few weeks. He's mugging up, you see. Many of the questions are things to which I don't believe most residents in the UK would know the answer. Could you say what proportion of the population in 2001 was Bangladeshi? He has to know the Census breakdown by heart, and answer multiple choices on it. There are also helpful questions which test your knowledge of bin collections and whether the postman is responsible for ensuring that your rubbish is removed in a timely fashion. The Mayor, My Polish Colleague earnestly assures me, is not the person to whom you should go for contraception. I'm glad this was covered - there could have been the most embarrassing mix-up otherwise.

I have to admit at this point that I've just been googling the citizenship test to check if I've been having my leg pulled. I haven't. I also have to admit that I just took a test, one of the many practice ones available. I'm not sure how true-to-life it was. But I failed it...

Today, I wasn't asked random questions. But I did pass by My Polish Colleague, who was sat opposite My Hungarian Colleague.

'Dzien dobry!'

'Jó reggelt!'

MPC's attention was drawn back to a question he was reading. 'In which area of the UK,' he read out, 'would you hear Cockney spoken?'

'Oh, I know this!' said MHC, and pondered for a moment. 'Liverpool!'

'No!' (and this little word contained a smattering or so of triumph) 'It's London! In Liverpool they speak, er, Scows.'

He looked up at me, brow furrowed. 'In T...ine...side, they speak Guh, ummm, Guh...'


'Yes, I can never work out how you say that word. Geordie!'

As I went back to my side of the room to do battle with SQL, which might as well be a foreign language sometimes, I mused about this test, and how much knowledge one must acquire to pass it, and how glad I was not to have to do it myself. You'll have to excuse me now though - I need to go on the waste collection website to complain about my postman not taking my bin again this week.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

This is the room 

I tread the same path, follow the same vector to the same side of the same sofa in the same room. There's a dip on my side of the sofa from the last person to have sat there, my only contact with them as they left unseen, just as I entered. I imagine from the way your chair is positioned that most people choose to sit here on the right. The door is behind your chair and I'm glad the room is arranged as it is. I feel safer seeing the door behind you, knowing it is safely shut and that no one will come in. This is all the world for the next fifty minutes, just this room, and you, and me. To my right is the little bin where my scrunched up snotty tearful tissues will go. Further away along that wall is the fireplace and mantelpiece. Beyond that the table and chair in the corner of the room. I notice these least of all. Your chair is opposite me, and to your right is the wooden chest on which the boxes of tissues, your diary and the torch live. There are shells too, in a wicker bowl. And juggling balls. I am very rusty juggling-wise, but sometimes I imagine picking them up and tossing them into the air.

On the walls are lamps and images. The lamps are quarter spheres attached to the wall, sending a glow mostly upwards and a little downwards. There's a calendar between the door and the table down at the far end of the room, and a flowery picture above the fireplace, but the image which inexorably tugs at my attention is on the left wall, above the wooden chest. It's really three pictures, or three sections of a picture, one above the other and all within the same plain wooden frame. It's easier to look at that picture than it is to look anywhere else. For a long time I saw the mirroring of my depression in that picture, the last orange rays of a setting sun powerless to fend off the encroaching darkness - the sky is purple in the middle picture, inky in the top. After quite some time, during one session I looked at the familiar image and was astonished to find that it was a totally different picture. I saw the first rays of the sunrise starting to pierce the early morning, chasing away the darkness and turning the night from inky to purple. It was a new day and the darkness soon would fade. This image is a barometer for me - the instant knowing if it is setting or rising a telling indication of where I am in my head. At the moment, in spite of everything, it's still rising for me.

At times, I have approached this room with apprehension, knowing that waiting for me there are wrenching effort and obliterating emotion. At other times, I am eager to unburden myself and seek relief and lightness to leave with me. Sometimes I know exactly what I need to talk about, I marshal the things in a list in my brain and make sure to tick them all off. Sometimes it's just a vague sense of something, but that's OK because we can draw it out. And sometimes I've no idea, and then you ask me about something from last time or the time before, or we talk about something surprising and new.

When the emotions and memories and feelings are whirling around in my head, it can be hard to make them spill out. Even though I know these things are better expressed than bottled up, my articulation deserts me. It's impossible to gather it all up and turn it into words one after the other. Sometimes the things I'm thinking streak across my brain, burning up in the atmosphere and defying their communication with anyone. When I'm trying to find the words to bring what's in my head out into the room, sometimes I stop breathing. It's like I am keeping it all in, come hell or high water. Then I notice it, or sometimes I don't and you remind me, and I breathe again and somehow the words come.

There are times when there are already tissues in the bin, and I am reminded just like with the sofa dint that someone was there before me. Where did their pain go? Is it wrapped up in the discarded tissues? Is that where mine goes? Does it go into you? How do you avoid being pressed to the floor by the weight of it? Does it seep into the walls, the floor, the ceiling? The room doesn't feel like it's full of pain and distress. Maybe that's what the fireplace is for, all the badness and sadness flows up the chimney to be diluted and dispersed by the air and the sky and the wind.

Today I had something horrible and frightening to share. In my distraction, I brought my lunch box up to the room along with my work bag. I followed you to the room then we did the going in dance where you stop and gesture for me to go in. I walk to my spot on the sofa and put my things down, then sit and settle. You close the door and come to sit in your chair. The horrible and frightening stuff is still there. Talking about it didn't make it go away. It won't go away. But I mostly wasn't tongue-tied and I mostly remembered to breathe and some of my pain and fear and distress has gone from me. At the end, we do the going out dance, where you open the door and stand just outside it. You tell me to take care and raise your hand to me as if to touch my arm, but don't quite make contact. I say goodbye. Walking down the big staircase I feel lighter and breathe easier.

The sun is still rising.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Recursive script 

As I'd had to unlock the mortice lock, I knew I was the first one home from work. But as I opened the front door and spotted the fresh mail on the foot of the stairs, it became apparent that someone had been there already that evening. It couldn't have been Tallboy, who was going straight to apheresis from work, so that meant the Sun had snuck in for some nefarious purpose while on a Dad week.

Sure enough, dumped on the sofa was a bag he'd borrowed, and balanced on top a small handwritten note:

'I came round.
Tried to use printer but out of ink,
The Sun'

Well yes, the 'out of ink' error had popped up a few days before, but as neither Tallboy nor I had wanted to print anything, there was no urgency about the situation. Clearly the Sun had visited to print out some homework, his father's printer being once again (still?) hors de combat, and he had been thwarted by a magenta deficiency at our end.

I knew there was a cartridge somewhere and after a few minutes spent fossicking up and down the house, I emerged from the loftice with a triumphant box in my hand. OK, so a careful disrobing of the bags and tags, removal of the old one (careful, no drippage), insertion and acceptance by the printer. Then the head clean, ka-shum ka-shum ka-shum, and a final shuddering to a halt, ready and alert like a retriever willing you to throw something so that they can impress by fetching it back.

*brrrrring brrrrrring*


Hello, it's your mother.

Oh. 'Ullo.

I've sorted the printer.


So if you want to email me your homework, I can print it out for you.


You know, the homework you tried to print earlier.

I don't need to print any homework.

Well, you tried to use the printer round at mine earlier, didn't you?

Oh yes. I wanted to print out the note...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Frying tonight 

Tootles and I raced each other to Bath. I lead by three or four cars out of town, but by the time we were south of the M4, he's right there behind me. A snap decision to take a right and attempt a zoom down the short cut, and there he is passing me on the left down the dogleg, radiating smugness. Eight cars back in the queue of other short-cut-attempting muppets at the end, I scan the passing vehicles until at last Tootles pootles past, his face turned my way to check that he'd beaten me. Bugger.

By the time I've duelled with the traffic on the approach to Bath and finally parked up in the car park on other side of town, he has already had a shower and is lounging, so he reports over the phone, in his dressing gown. We arrange to meet in half an hour at the Mad Panda Shop. I arrive there a bit early, and as it's still open, go in for the first time. Madness abounds, although not just in the form of Pandas. Manoeuvring myself and my two bags carefully between the busy shelves, I astonish myself by quite liking a couple of things. In fact, I'm just looking rather fondly at an overpriced clock when I catch sight of Tootles outside, and scuttle out guiltily.

We head for the restaurant, and seeing me laden with my bags but knowing my delight in being thus burdened when accompanied by a gentleman who then looks beastly to all around, he ponders aloud: 'Not much point in offering to carry one of your bags, is there?' My delight in martyrous self-burdening is only surpassed by my delight in being contrary, so I hand him a bag instantly. I choose the knot-wrap bag which has a strange low centre of gravity and needs to be held in a certain way to avoid the contents bumping your shins. He gets the hang of it eventually.

We join the throng at the Forum and squeeze upstairs, where we exchange our tickets for a copy of Mr Fry's book each. We are offered the option of a pre-signed volume, or a virgin one to present afterwards to the Great Man for signature. Tootles decides he really can't be arsed to wait around in a queue for a billion hours, so goes for the signed one. Having tweeted Mr Fry the day before, asking whether there was any chance of a hug, I went for the unsigned one, committing myself to an indeterminate wait. 'I'm not going to wait with you, you know,' said Tootles in a comradely manner.

Waiting for Tootles to come back from the loo, balancing both bags and both books, I am approached by a young man who asks me where I got the books from. Indicating with my head (well it was that or my leg) I tell him: 'Over there on that huge table under the enormous piles of books.' Inexplicably, he fails to punch me.

Stephen Fry talks for an hour and a half, and it seems like only a few minutes. He is effortless, sharp, fluent, entertaining and wonderful. Bastard. He's even unfazed when his microphone gives out, booming instead to the rafters. During the first half, I am mesmerised by the appearance of something dangly peeping out from behind his left jacket front. Is it his radio mike pouch, I wonder. Is it deliberate, I muse. It protrudes further and further until he notices it, and curses his peripatetic scarf. Tucked back in, it isn't long before it peeks out again, finally tossed in a disgraced heap on the table. At the end, we applaud for as short a time as feels decent, then dash downstairs to join the queue for signing.

It's a hell of a squeeze, some people giving up on decent behaviour, muttering insouciantly 'oh look, here's the end of the queue' and pushing in like evil queue jumping gits. I start to simmer, and cast Paddington squared stares which are expertly avoided. These people have done this before. Tootles doesn't last long in the crush before he makes his excuses and leaves with his pre-signed copy, heading for the pub. I soldier on on my own, using my knot-wrap with finesse to prevent the manky bugger who has been pushing himself up against me from passing me down the inside.

Once back inside the auditorium, I see that the queues stretch down each aisle - instant decision agony. I plump for what turns out to be the slowest moving queue, and have the pleasure of queueing for the next hour with the most boring man on the planet behind me. He talks loudly and at length on a range of subjects, most of which involve his brilliance at one thing or another. Hoping to be surrounded by Fry-like wit, I am sadly disappointed. Tootles, now ensconced in the pub, sustains me by text. Mr Boring behind confides (to his companion and half the bloody queue) that he is feeling warm but can't remove his pullover as his t-shirt sports the caption 'Your lips are moving but all I can hear is "blah blah blah"' and he feels that approaching Mr F with such a sentiment would be rather unworthy. I share this nugget with Tootles, who assumes the t-shirt must have been a gift.

At long last, I approach the steps up on to the stage. Looking behind me, I can see that the only aisle with people still queueing down it is mine. It's like some special sixth sense I have. If I choose one, then at the last minute change my mind and make for another, then that's the one that will be slowest. So there's no point in even trying to cheat it. It's just something I have to live with...

Approaching the signing table, I bring up Twitter on my phone so I can show him my hug-requesting tweet. He takes my book and looks at the yellow sticky inside for the dedication name. 'Weev?' he queries. Yep. In my haste, I forget to tell him what it's short for. 'Er, I tweeted you yesterday,' I start. He makes a sound and a face, both indicative of what I already know. 'Yes, I bet you get millions. Here's what I said: "I wonder if I might have a hug in Bath tomorrow night?"'

'Oh bless you,' he replies, standing up and spreading out his arms. 'Of course.'

I flew home on wings of recent huggedness and nearly didn't even mind the dozy buggers doing 30 all the way home in front of me.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

100 not out 

This lunchtime, My Polish Colleague and I took our usual walk to Tesco Inferno. Our conversation covered the usual wide mix of subjects, including the fact that Polish people don't have the concept of a roof in quite the same way as we Brits perceive it. Or maybe it's just me...

We looked in the Estate Agent's window and he pointed out two properties. 'Why,' he enquired, 'is this one so much more than this one?' He had indicated first an old terraced cottage, and second a modern semi. 'Well, that one is much older,' I pointed out. 'Yes, so why would anyone buy it? It might fall down soon!' The cottage was only a few dozen yards past the Estate Agent and we looked closely as we passed it. He gestured upwards: 'That looks like it would fall off!' 'What?' I wondered, peering and seeing nothing wrong. 'Up there!' he pointed to the top of the building, 'It's not straight! The ummmm , you know, up there!'

I tried to follow the attitude of his raised arm. 'Chimneys?' I ventured. 'No!' 'Er, the roof?' 'No! It's the bit all on top, made up of lots of little bits.' 'Ah, tiles!' 'Not really, what is it called the bit where they are all forming a covering, the name for that bit?' 'Well, I'd call that the roof.' 'No, but isn't that the bit you see from the inside?' 'Nope, the covering of a house, all the components, the timbers and slates and tiles and all of it, that's the roof - whether you're inside or outside.' In Poland, apparently, there's a word for the stuff that forms the lid of a house that you can see from the inside, and there's another word for the externally visible bit.

Our conversation drifted onto other topics, and I told him of my plans for Weevil Jnr's birthday cake. It occurred to me that I didn't know what were the birthday customs in Poland, and enquired if you had parties and cake and so on. 'Oh yes,' he said. 'You have your family round and there is a cake and food.' 'And is there,' I wondered, 'a special birthday song?' 'Yes, there is!' and with a smile he broke into song. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, I remembered: 'Sto lat, sto lat...' I had read somewhere that the name of the land of Sto Lat on the Discworld was also a Polish birthday greeting. 'Erm, "I wish you one hundred years"?' I faltered as the memory banks kicked into operation. 'Yeah, sort of,' he smiled again.

We walked on in silence for a few moments. I mused about this very specific birthday greeting. 'What do you sing when it's someone's hundred and first birthday?' I asked him. His turn to muse. 'I suppose we would sing "I wish you two hundred years" instead.' 'OK then, what if it's their ninety-ninth birthday?' This was trickier, and the musing commensurately longer. We agreed that wishing a 99 year old a hundred years was probably OK; many a slip 'tween cup and lip and all that, and it was a reasonable target.

Finally, I played my trump card. 'Right! What if it's their hundredth birthday?' More musing. Somehow, the two hundred years seemed a bit too much of a leap. But could you really wish them a hundred only? A cunning look crept across his face as he formulated the answer. 'You sing "I wish you a hundred years", then you say "hooray, you made it!", and then you shoot them!'

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Quelle surprise 

'A large soya latte with a shot of syrup, please.'

'And which syrup do you want?'

Ah. Well. The thing is, I love them all. I don't have a favourite. I just want one. If I choose one, I will agonise over that choice as I drink. Would I have preferred a different one? Am I really in the mood for this one? Is there one I haven't tried which I would have liked better? Argh.

All, however, is not lost. About a year ago I hit on the perfect answer to my twice-monthly-or-so coffee conundrum.

'Surprise-me syrup.' *big smile*

This gets quite a range of responses, although they all start off the same: a puzzled pause, a mental replaying of the last exchange, and a smile of comprehension. Mostly, there is an enjoyment of the silliness and a ready entering into the spirit of it - sometimes the person taking the order will make the choice, sometimes they will direct the coffee-maker to choose. I make sure to look away from the syrup bottles so that the first sip is a revelation.

On a few occasions, the burden of choice has proved intolerable for the poor unfortunate who is dealing with me. In York, the young lady turned to a colleague and pleaded 'You make this one, I just can't do it!'. At other times, it's turned into a game. In Taunton, the older guy who was training two young women leapt upon the idea and insisted that the syrup be added secretly, demanding with a smile as he passed it over that I identify it. It was hazelnut, by the way. And very nice it was too.

As an added bonus, the 'surprise me' policy works very well with tea. I'm not entirely sure how many types of tea I have - 'about three shelves' worth' is the closest I can come to quantifying - and sometimes I am overwhelmed with the choice. 'Tea, darling?' Tallboy will say. 'Oh, yes please!' 'What would you like?' 'Surprise me.' Having a cup of Earl Grey served by a suddenly naked husband was quite a surprise, I suppose. I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen in Costa...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Recipe for a hotel breakfast 

1. Make sure you come down for breakfast just when everyone else does. That way you get to know people really well in the lift.

2. You'll get plenty of exercise too, as you are forced to select a table at the furthest extremity of the cathedral-sized breakfast room.

3. If you wish to entertain yourself, you can look for soya milk. Then you can give up, and have apple juice on your cornflakes instead. The first day. You may find it easier just not to bother on subsequent occasions.

4. On the first day, you will join the shuffling queue at the mouth of the conveyor belt toaster affair. It will finally be your turn to place your bread on the fiery track then hang around in the heat protectively, in case someone else grabs them when they are spat out at the bottom.

5. On the second day, you will spot the other one round the corner which nobody else seems to use. Result.

6. On the third day you will realise that since parallel processing is much faster than serial, inserting your breads together in portrait orientation rather than consecutively in landscape will afford a processing time saving of at least two seconds.

7. You may be tempted to have scrambled egg on toast. This will almost certainly be a mistake.

8. If you care to, you could undertake a comparison exercise throughout the week. On no two days will the colour and consistency of the scrambled eggs be similar, let alone identical.

9. You may find yourself drawn to the baked beans. This will followed quite quickly by a repulsion. Stirring the crusty dry bits in might help to make things look a bit more palatable.

10. On the way back to your table, you might consider that stirring the horrible bits in means that you get far more of them in your spoonful than if you had, say, carefully spooned the top layer off into a corner of the dish and helped yourself to the uncrusted goodness below.

11. Every morning you will choose to sit at a table next to a sneezer or a cougher.

12. The one time you get to sit close enough to see and hear the plasma TV on the wall, it will be displaying CBeebies and not the Breakfast News.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Spongeball Peskypants 

We have a new kitten at Weevil Mansions. We'd realised that Pesky was tending rather to the senior side at fifteen, and she had got to the point where she was spending all day inside resting after a hard night's sleeping on her luxurious bean bag. When she got up she was clearly stiff around the hips, and had taken to bunny hopping down the stairs in what might at first have appeared a fit of youthful playfulness but which instead indicated the pain caused to her by descending in a more conventional manner.

In consultation with the V.E.T., it was agreed that she was an old girl and that arthritis was an unsurprising consequence of her years. Looking at her age, her condition and her heart murmur, it was clear than a full diagnosis involving an X-Ray (and therefore a general anaesthetic) was out of the question. So it was time to make A Decision.

This is where the new kitten comes in. Papers exuberantly fringed by playful claws, charging round the house after assorted playthings, animation, chirrups and head on one side. Needs feeding all hours of the day and night, nose into everything, squirting unseen through closing doors into quiet bedrooms then yowling for egress, and generally bringing mayhem and life and smiles to the house. It's amazing what a couple of cc of feline ibuprofen will do...

Now, I do not begrudge in the slightest the monthly outlay on the drug which has ensprightened her so astonishingly. But I do find myself a little cheesed off by other disbursements entailed by her new condition. Her red mousey with the bell and no ears had lain discarded and dusty for years but has been pressed into service one again, with no outlay. Good start. In a fit of excitement, I have to confess that I splurged a little in the cat toy section of the local hardware shop and purchased assorted toys, cats for the edification of. It transpired that purple fluffy things with a pull cord which vibrated and jiggled engagingly left her cold, as did plastic balls with bells inside and strange whip-like objects which rejoiced in the name of 'Cat Dancers' - but I did hit the jackpot with a bag of brightly coloured sponge balls which bounced and rolled beautifully, were just the right texture for clawing and biting and generally won the Pesky seal of approval.

The only trouble is that there appears, somewhere in Weevil Mansions, to be a Bermuda Triangle type phenomenon which preys solely on small, brightly coloured sponge balls. In the space of two months, Pesky has been the joyful recipient of 12 of the said balls. One survives. Well, I say survives - it is unrecognisable in size, colour and texture as the glorious sphere of yellow it once was. Of the others, there is no trace. It's driving me crazy - somewhere in this house there is a cache of kitty toys in which are hiding two pounds and seventy five pence worth of spongeballs. We have searched under sofas, we have safaried under the fridge, we have poked under bureaux, all to no avail. To add insult to injury, when I went to restock I found, having surveyed carefully the breathtaking expanse of kitty tat at the hardware shop, and resurveying just to make sure, that there was no sign of the spongeballs at all, so she's going to have to make the manky ex-yellow one last, and by the look of the bits left on the carpet when she plays with it, its days are numbered. Would anyone mind inventing a spongeball detector? Please...?

Monday, November 12, 2007

View from a train 

"Morning, Mr Magpie." He flicks his tail towards me twice in what might equally be a gesture of contempt or an attempt to balance on the high metal fence on which he has chosen to alight.

It's blear o'clock on a Saturday morning, I'm settling into my seat on a train pulling out of Newport, heading for Manchester and beyond. As I waited on the platform, I watched with mounting excitement the scrolling litany of stations that lay between me and my destination. I've never travelled this line before, not seen these stations. What sights will I see, what peeks will I sneak on the way?

Nothing can beat the intimate views of life afforded by a journey on the train. Tallboy can peer over walls when we're out walking; I'm not so blessed. Views from the car are thwarted by hedges and walls. Oh, and having to concentrate on the road and stuff. OK, you get pretty views from a plane, but that's about as intimate as Google Earth without the zoom functionality. The closest is possibly the motorbike - you're up higher, and you have smell-o-vision too which adds another, not always welcome, dimension to the trip. But the concentrating on the road thing is even more of an issue on the bike, and there's no real chance to immerse yourself in your surroundings.

My musings are interrupted by my phone; the SMS alert embarrassingly loud in the otherwise quiet carriage. It's Tallboy, texting me with enormous enthusiasm to let me know that he is having a boiled egg sandwich for his breakfast.

I nestle back in my seat and watch the world go by - a row of back gardens, each the same size, but each utterly individual. Some are manicured and inch-perfect, some are wild and untidy, many are occupied by large trampolines. I see footballs, discarded bicycles, tables and chairs, wheelbarrows and washing. I wonder if the owners realise how visible they are, how on show? Yes, they can see the trains passing at the bottom of the garden, but do they even notice them any more? Do they see past the shell and consider that there are people inside looking out? My back garden is so much more private, overlooked only by Shouty Neighbours and Nice Neighbours. How would I feel if hundreds of people saw it every day?

The houses, too, fascinate me, as I see the side of them that can't be seen from the street. Over the years, owners have tried to maximise their living space, and these properties, so uniform at the front, are so diverse at the rear. Single storey rear additions, whole new wings, conservatories, sheds, lean-tos, gazebos, sheds, aviaries, sheds, and er more sheds. Such a jumble, such variety, the stamp of individuals over time.

There are industrial and commercial premises to see as well, apparently similarly oblivious to the tubes of voyeurs speeding past. The dirty back ends of buildings slide by as I look at the piles heaped up by the fence which borders the railway - pallets, tyres, bricks. From time to time there is a patch of waste ground with a hint of a former building.

Soon enough, we are back in the countryside, passing through green sheep-filled valleys. The early-morning hills are snagging the low cloud, their slopes snapshotted mid-transition from green to gold. There is still evidence of people - dog walkers, country houses, a treehouse proudly flying the Jolly Roger, mouldy caravans in the corners of fields, a police car stopped by a field gate, the officer petting the muzzle of a horse - but they become less and less frequent. Past Leominster, there is a vast mast farm, sprinkled with white dishes pointing in all directions.

At intervals, the driver sounds the train's horn, a satisfying, musical blart. I wonder what prompts this, and try to detect a pattern. I'm pretty confident he was doing it whenever we came up on a field of prone sheep - inured as they were to the passage of the train, the horn made several of them at a time rise indignantly and shake themselves.

I scan each field margin closely for any sight of BUNNIES! but see none at all. I am rewarded instead by prodigious quantities of bird life. A ramrod heron, all concentrated attention with a beak of doom. A harlequin pheasant bumbling by the hedgerow. Magpies everywhere, often in pairs, flicking their tails at me. Pigeons rising ponderously from fields of young crops, plump and pompous. A cloud of starlings ascending in unison, disturbed by the train. Two swans on the river, aware of their stately beauty and presenting their best sides to double advantage, reflected in the water. Affronted mallards emerging beneath the bridge we are crossing, looking almost too solid for flight. Small birds fluttering from cover to cover round the edges of the fields. Larger birds circling lazily higher up. Single predators following meticulous flight paths, razor precise.

I lose count of the level crossings we pass, revelling in our priority over the lesser beings on the roads. At some, no one is waiting and I have a Zen moment and think of trees falling in the forest with no one to hear them. At others, single vehicles wait for us to pass, the drivers taking the opportunity to touch up their makeup or rummage in the glove compartment. I smile grandly at them, but none of them notices. At a very few, there is a satisfyingly long queue of traffic. I am tempted to wave, but think better of it.

As we leave Ludlow, I am forced to scrabble in my bag for my mp3 player to drown out the inane chatter of the women who have joined me at my table, before my brain explodes; the remainder of my journey has a soundtrack of ELO and the Eurythmics. In my case are two sets of mittens I finished just in time. One is a pair of monkeys, with tufts of hair on their foreheads and cheeky grins; the other are blue and red with smart black spiders embroidered on them. Each pair is joined by a cord, and they will dangle engagingly from the sleeves of the four year old twins at my journey's end. I smile at the thought and sink back, Jeff Lynne in my ears, the fields unrolling before my eyes.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Tallboy's guide to hard drive recording 

1. Moan about non-Y2K compliant video recorder in front room which won't record anything set to record more than a day in advance.

2. Include in the moan the twin machine in the back room.

3. Do nothing for several years until your wife buys a hard drive/DVD recorder.

4. Decide to record the F1 Grand Prix qualifying.

5. Realise that a test run a couple of days before might be an idea.

6. Go into setup mode.

7. Fail to select your chosen channel to record from.

8. Continue to fail to select your chosen channel.

9. Have chosen channel selected for you by your wife.

10. Try to set the date.

11. Argue with the unit that today isn't the 18th.

12. Ask wife for support about the date.

12. Argue with wife that today isn't the 18th.

13. Accept it's the 18th.

14. Set it to record chosen channel in 15 minutes' time.

15. Wonder whether you need to turn unit off to set it into standby recording mode.

16. Find instructions.

17. Seek enlightenment.

18. Find glasses.

19. Switch on reading lamp.

20. Seek enlightenment again, this time with a chance of actually seeing it.

21. Mutter.

22. Delete current timer recording job.

23. Decide to record programme about toxic children rather than The Bill.

24. Choose channel, set date, set time for ten minutes hence, turn unit off.

25. Wait half an hour.

26. Play recording.

27. Realise you are watching people pretending to be police officers, not chemical-filled children.

28. Mutter. Loudly.

29. Wait until the next day.

30. Ask wife for guidance.

31. Watch in annoyance as she sets timer with about the same effort involved in scratching left ear.

32. Decide that you're not that bothered about recording the qualifying anyway. I mean it's not the actual race is it? And it'll be a busy weekend so there's not much chance of actually sitting down and watching it, so there's no point really...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Tallboy raised his hand to me the other night. I almost stopped choking in amazement. You may remember that he recently sat by and watched me choke on a piece of pineapple. This time, we were sharing a block of chocolate in front of a film. I took a swig out of my water bottle and managed to choke on it. I controlled myself enough to prevent myself performing a fountain impression but the tickle in the back of my throat persisted and I coughed and coughed, streaming at the eyes. Hunched over and occupied though I was, I detected some movement in my peripheral vision; Tallboy was readying with his hand to render me a life-saving clout to the back. I gestured that it wasn't necessary, and his state of alert subsided with my diminishing coughs.

Charitably, he pointed to the last bit of chocolate. 'You have that,' he said. 'Nah, it's all right,' I gasped between coughs. 'Leave it a minute,' he said, ' have it later.' OK, I thought, I will. After a few more swigs of water, some deep breathing and several minutes without coughing, I felt ready for my chocolate. Reaching out to pick up the last piece, my fingers met wrapping; looking down to improve my aim, I discovered the reason for my inability to touch the chocolate. It wasn't there. I turned to Tallboy. I may have yelled a little bit. His face turned from pleased-with-himself-post-chocolate-consumption to aghast and mortified. He had bloody well eaten it, without saying a word.

That piece of chocolate now ranks with the cherry pancakes I didn't have at the Little Chef we drove past because Tallboy didn't want to wake me even though I had said before dropping off in the passenger seat: 'Please can we stop at the services.' Let's say that the number of cherry pancakes I have between now and the end of my days is C. And let's say that the potential number of cherry pancakes I could have had during my life is P. However many C turns out to be (and believe me, it could be lots) C will always be P-1...

The next day, still smarting at the chocnapping, I was preparing my tea. As Tallboy, numb and dribbling, just returned from the dentist, happened to be passing, I was wielding a pitta bread. Not just any old pitta bread either, but a Tesco LARGE pitta bread. Turning to face him, I was unable to prevent myself bringing the bread round in an arc and coming to a rest against his cheek. In my defence, I must say that I had intended it to be a gentle, jocular kind of thing. But sadly it turned out like the time I intended to pretend to knee the Ex in the nuts. Possibly because I hadn't properly assessed the extra size of the bread, it slapped rather firmly against Tallboy's cheek. His look of astonishment so moved me that I had to apologise between guffaws.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Mes Vacances en France 

1. Receive summons from Dad to visit him and Wicked Stepmother in France.

2. Spend hours researching best deals/routes/modes of travel on web.

3. Book plane tickets for self, Tallboy and Sun.

4. Realise the next morning that this will clash with 3 day course at work.

5. Receive warning from Dad to expect many flying biting things, and to come prepared with creams, salves, preventatives and the like.

6. Fly to France.

7. Realise en route that since we haven't seen Dad for a few years, and since a) the Sun has grown (the little toad is now taller than I am, a fact which he brings to my attention several times a day) and b) I am now 8 and a half stone lighter, the only member of the family likely to be recognised by our reception party at the airport was Tallboy.

8. Squeeze into impossibly small back seat with WSM and the Sun for the two hour journey to chez Dad.

9. Peer out at unfamiliar French countryside.

10. Shut eyes tightly as aggressive Frenchman towing small caravan looms large in windscreen at roundabout. There is, amazingly, no collision.

11. Take turn during stop at another roundabout to pore over map and agree with WSM that we are miles off course and need an urgent 180.

12. Peer out at strangely familiar French countryside.

13. Unfold self with painful difficulty from car upon arrival at charming French residence.

14. Realise within hours that wandering the house without shoes is not a good idea, given that the apparent aim of the elderly resident cat is to play poo Russian Roulette with my feet.

15. Assist WSM in attempting to locate smelly cat poo by wandering round the house, sniffing. But not too hard.

16. Decide that to sample the real French ambience, you need to walk with Tallboy to the village boulangerie at stupid o'clock in the morning. Wake early, walk couple of miles to boulangerie along country roads containing scarily fast vehicles, salivating all the while at the thought of croissants and pains au chocolat. Arrive at boulangerie to find it shuttered and quiet. Walk the two uphill miles back, hungry and disappointed.

17. Insist on visiting the village of Largeasse.

18. Insist on having photo taken by sign in village of Largeasse.

19. Suggest mooning whilst having photo taken by sign in village of Largeasse. Receive strict interdiction from Tallboy, the Sun and Dad, almost in unison.

20. Get bitten in the small of your back by unidentified flying creature, during the night.

21. Visit Goat Farm.

22. Watch in amazement, whilst waiting for Goat Farmer, as small farm cat proudly bears immense dead rabbit almost twice its own size across the farmyard towards the barn.

23. Purchase goats cheese from small dingy in-farm dairy. To fill in silence as Goat Farmer lady wraps goat cheeses, point to the rabbit pate on the shelves and ask if they send the cats out to hunt the rabbits for them. Receive stony Gallic stare.

24. Assist Dad in attempting to locate smelly cat poo by wandering round the house, sniffing. Find inordinately long brown sausage carefully laid along the power extension block behind the TV. Point at it then run away.

25. Start feeling old as you need a nap every afternoon. Fail totally to be reassured by WSM declaring that it's down to the fresh air.

26. Peer closely at every wall you pass, exclaiming every time you see a lizard. Exclaim lots, really.

27. Become a regular at the local Hyper U supermarket.

28. At the cafe, pick the bacon out of your omelette; clearly when you carefully ask for one without lardons because you don't eat meat, you don't actually mean it.

29. As you are an IT professional, on holiday, fix Dad's poorly computer.

30. As Tallboy is a vacuum pump engineer, on holiday, let him take apart poorly vacuum pump and read it the last rites.

31. Find your insect bite has spread overnight.

32. Fail, along with everyone else, to inform Tallboy that the cistern in the downstairs loo is knackered. Snigger quietly as he realises the situation rather too late...

33. Buy as a souvenir a French Cheese identification book, explaining to the lady at the checkout in the bookshop that looking at them is less risky, calorifically, than ingesting them.

34. Spot many wildlifes including a myriad lizards, a battalion of bats, mad donkeys, lapins, vaches and a horse. Called Fanny.

35. Watch the Sun feed the horse, torn between amusement at her 'rude' name and fear that she would have his hand as well as the apple.

36. At the last visit to the Hyper U, incur WSM's wrath by spotting the Sun in sole control of the trolley containing everyone's shopping, making a dash for the checkout with it, and paying for the shopping in toto.

37. Watch in horror as your insect bite gets very angry and redness spreads across your buttock. Wonder at the insect juice that is causing this reaction, and consider the possibility of a limb amputation through septicaemia. Apply soothing ointment without conviction.

38. Return to the UK having consumed far too much red wine, bread and French cheese.

39. Note with concern the continued progress of the insect bite from hell.

40. Run the Race for Life two days after getting home. Need a nap after finishing it.

41. With antihistamines failing to quell the manky bite, make appointment at the surgery. Moon the practice nurse to show her the bite and associated mankiness. Sit down stunned as she informs you that it's not a bite, you have shingles.

42. Collapse in a heap for the next few weeks.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Weevil's Wildlife Watch 

Or detectoring bats the fun fun fun way...

1. Go on a bat walk with Tallboy and experience first hand the thrill of flying mammalia.

2. With Christmas on the horizon, investigate the purchase of a bat detector for Tallboy. Recoil in horror at the cost.

3. Take Methane Boy to one side on visit to Manchester Uni and suggest that he might like to craft a home-made bat detector for Tallboy's Christmas present.

4. Watch Tallboy's undisguised glee as he unwraps said bat detector on Christmas Day.

5. Watch the undisguised glee fade a little as he realised the little buggers would still be hibernating and he had no chance of trying it out for months.

6. Fast forward several months.

7. Walk back from the gym in the twilight. Suffer extreme strafeage by bats on multiple occasions on your journey home. Phone Tallboy after the first one, but find him reluctant to come out. Call him again after the third, and wait for him under the street light in the lane, wondering where the bloody bats have gone. Hear nothing through bat detector but interference.

8. Sally forth the next evening armed with a Tallboy and a bat detector.

9. Get fed up with calling it a bat detector.

10. Ponder a bit.

11. Plump for bat-dar.

12. Decide that's silly.

13. Settle on batzuma instead. Wonder why.

14. Walk down the lane of batness with Tallboy, pausing between the two lampposts most frequently frequented by the bats.

15. Look up at Tallboy, who is concentrating like an arch-concentrator, moving the batzuma through the air in many thrilling directions and listening intently to the earpiece.

16. Wonder idly if the bats are ever going to turn up.

17. Wonder even idlier if the people in the bungalow outside which we have stopped are going to phone the police to complain that the tall bloke and his female accomplice are stood outside again.

18. Join in excitement as bat-strafery commences.

19. When the show is over, decamp to other known bat haunt just round the corner.

20. Watch Tallboy, who is walking along, batzuma held proudly aloft, earpiece plugged firmly in ear, a look of expectant rapture on his face.

21. Decide that he looks like some Sci-Fi freak who is trying to contact the mothership.

22. Return home on crest of bat-fuelled excitement, listening to Tallboy's breathless plans for LEDs and anti-interference measures on the batzuma.

23. Confide to the Sun, who is lazily reclining on the sofa watching Brittas Empire DVDs that his stepfather has the air of a UFO freak when he wanders around with the batzuma.

24. Receive the hushed response, whispered confidentially: 'Do you? I thought it looks like he is wearing a hearing aid...'

Monday, April 09, 2007

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye 

It's been a funny old week. Every time I've been out of the office on an errand to fix a computer or change a cartridge or test a whiteboard, I've been looking round the classroom/office/library with new eyes, wondering if this will be the last time I'll be in this room/talk to this person/handle this printer...

On Tuesday, we escaped school at lunchtime for a little goodbye event. I invited Tigger (Baldrick's old boss), Lanky Herbert -01, Baldrick and Horace the Happy Hacker out for lunch at a little local hostelry. Since the school day was reorganised, lunchtimes are rather shorter than they used to be and a quick lunch out of school is a tight thing. As we sat waiting for our order, the clock ticked ominously. The jolly chatter and gossip took my attention away from it for a while, particularly when I got into explaining my proposed trip to Switzerland later this month. I'm going to Basel. For the day. To deliver a handknit. But still, slowly, that minute hand described an arc of doom.

At five minutes past the beginning of afternoon school we were taking our last mouthfuls of lunch. It was less of an issue for Baldrick and me, as we have a longer lunchbreak than there is break at lunchtime, if you see what I mean. Horace, however, was due to be in a lesson with a member of staff who has been known to err on the eggy side. Feeling terribly responsible for his situation, I left Baldrick and the others chatting happily in the pub while I whisked Horace back to school. He accompanied me back to the office to pick up his bag, our path taking us right past the classroom he should have been in. I fretted and worried and demanded that if he got into any trouble at all, he must come and tell me and I would go and talk to his teacher and take all the blame. I beseeched him to come and see me after the lesson, assuming he still had the ability to walk, and tell me what had happened.

He put his head round the door some time later and smiled in his Happy Horace way. No problem. He had walked in ten minutes after he should have been there, apologised for his lateness, apology was accepted. Phew.

On Wednesday I took the handknit into school for a colleague to try on. Mrs Tuck is the same size as the intended recipient, and I was keen to see how it looked on a person rather than a hanger. Mrs Tuck loved the item in question and it took quite some time and effort to retrieve it from her. 'I hope your lady in Switzerland doesn't like it,' she said. 'Then you can bring it back and I'll have it.'

On Thursday, it was my goodbye meal at a local Chinese restaurant. As an added surprise bonus, Beryl (who retired last month) turned up too, along with a lovely bunch of admin and teaching colleagues. As with every other work function to date, Baldrick was my sober chauffeur for the evening, leaving me free to indulge in the odd glass or two. Once again he was an honorary veggie for the meal - these places often offer very nice veggie set meals, but only for a minimum of two people. Or one, in my case, the time we went there for the Christmas do and I managed to trough my way through two people's worth of yummy Chinese...

The morning of my last day dawned and I got ready for work with a sense of complete unreality. The next working day I would be getting ready just the same but would be heading for a new place, working with new people, doing new stuff. Today I was going to a place where I knew the network like the back of my hand, where I knew my colleagues' names and foibles, where I knew the way we did stuff. The lack of knowledge of any of this vis a vis the new place was scary.

The last drive to work, the last time passing the familiar uniforms swarming towards school, the last battle for a parking space with the pesky sixth formers parking in the staff car park, the last trudge towards the office through the screaming throng massing by the bus bays...

I barely gave Baldrick time to settle in his seat before I thrust a package in his hand. 'I suppose I should give it to you later, but I can't wait!' I grinned. 'You didn't have to,' he said, ripping open the envelope. No, I didn't, but I wanted to. Two and a half years ago he took me on, keen yes, experienced no. He taught me patiently, bore with me, shared my triumphs, failed to mock my failures. I think that deserves a thank you. He peered at the text I'd written in the card, his brow wrinkling. He held the card a little further away and re-read it. 'Er, can you not read my writing?' I wondered. 'No,' he said in a strange voice. 'I can read it. It's just that last night, you know when we went for the meal, I wasn't sure if I'd be called upon to say a few words. So I thought of a few things to say while I was in the shower.' He pointed out a whole sentence that I'd written. 'I came up with this *exact* phrase.' We stared at each other for a moment, spooked. We've often found ourselves thinking the same word at the same time, but this was a record - 11 words exactly the same...

The Twilight Zone vibe was shattered by the phone ringing and I gladly trotted over to the Learning Support department at their request. They were all sat round a table on which sat a beautifully wrapped gift and a card. For me. Their good wishes made me a bit watery and I tried to dab casually at my eyes without being too obvious. It hit me that this really was goodbye.

At break time I was shepherded over to the Staff Room by the Beak's PA. 'They're all sat there waiting for you,' she said breathlessly as she tottered across the grass in the quad in her spikes. 'I asked them if anyone had actually gone to invite you over, and they looked blank and said 'no'. Honestly!' As I entered the Staff Room, I could see that it was packed, with standing room only. All the heads turned to me as I came in, and a little channel opened up to allow me passage towards the middle of the room, closing up as I passed; a Moses moment. The Beak made a little speech and presented me with a huge card with a gazillion signatures and messages on it, and some vouchers. Then it was my turn to say something. Standing in the middle of the room, I was aware that my back was towards a quarter of my audience, so as I started talking, I began to rotate so that I could at least for a second or two be facing everyone. After a couple of rotations I began to feel a bit dizzy and decided that static was probably the way to go. I said thanks, and other such stuff, and concluded with a reminder that Baldrick was going to be rather busy, and could they please remember to... *pause while I scanned the room for a particular face* (here I should probably interject that the teacher I was about to single out thought it amusing to shout 'Turn it off and turn it back on again!' at me across the car park on a depressingly regular basis) 'Where's Mr Ivory?' The heads turned to a particular corner and a little hand was raised in semi-reluctant self-identification. 'What do they need to remember to do, Mr Ivory?' 'Er, turn it off and turn it on again?' 'Exactly!'

At lunchtime I was assailed by an avalanche of Herberts - Lanky Herbert 01 (on leave from Uni) put in an appearance, as did Java Boy (also on leave from Uni). JB brought with him a rather delish homemade Chocolate Cake and we all had a slice. Horace the Happy Hacker turned up too (on leave from his senses, possibly) with his magic tin. Opening it with a flourish, he revealed a pile of little goodbye cards, millimetres big.

The afternoon passed really quickly. I was out and about all over the school, there were loads of little jobs here and there. Everywhere I went there was a goodbye, an 'I'll miss you' and a little hug or a kiss on the cheek. When school finished, I popped over to see the German German teacher for a quick German lesson. Did I mention I'm going to Switzerland? For the day? To deliver a handknit? I can't abide being somewhere without being about to speak the language so although my host speaks impeccable English and French, I *have* to get to grips with a little German, just for my own satisfaction. And before you start imagining me wrestling Teutonic midgets, I just want to be able to say some simple but polite stuff. At the moment my vocabulary is limited to spare parts for my East German motorbikes. Auspuff anyone?

At half four, I picked up the five bags of stuff I had acquired - my cards and pressies, my purple cushion, books and other assorted crap. Leaning slightly to one side, I swept the room with a final glance, and left. Walking out to the car park, Baldrick asked me jokingly, 'So is there anything I could say to make you stay?' 'Nope!' I grinned. We paused in the middle of the car park, midway between our two vehicles. This was it, then. The last day. The last time we would walk out of school together like this. The work divorce. We smiled. And hugged. And said goodbye. As I chucked my gear into the car, my eyes were smarting. As I drove off out of the gates a plump, hot tear traced its way down each cheek...

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