#33 Monsters and minnows

Swinton Bike Insurance are offering a prize-draw:

Swinton prize drawHere’s my entry:

Exmoor – monsters and minnows

A sudden bout of vomiting (my partner’s son’s) meant our planned tour of Southern Ireland was scuppered, so we sulked for a few days before settling on Exmoor. We decided to spoil ourselves to make up for the disappointment and booked this place:

https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/960222

I had to learn a polka for a friend’s wedding in a few days, so I had to pack my accordion. The VFR had little trouble, but we were pretty cosy with two side-panniers, a top-box, the accordion bungied in front of the top-box, J- my partner- and me. Tight!

All I’d known of Exmoor before then was Butlins. This time, there were no yellow-coats, just seething fields of heavy corn, ancient woods and hidden valleys. The VFR is a heavy bike but, as we joined the B3188, it plunged easily into the sinuous, tree-tunnelled fringes of Exmoor.

We stayed at Yarde, soon discovering the landscape is dense with holloways, high hills and quick-running streams. Owls accompanied our later-than-planned pub walk to Stogumber with their plaintive calls.

I had been nervous about taking the VFR, J and myself up Porlock Hill. Wikipedia states that it is `a very steep hill with gradients of up to 1 in 4 and hairpin bends.’ It is the steepest A-road in the country. I’d asked several locals if motorbikes went up- they all seemed confident that they did. Thing is, I’m not tall (5’7″) and the combination of heavy bike, pillion, 1:4 gradient and hairpin bends seemed challenging. There is a get-out, a toll road for less intrepid travellers. That decided it.

There is an ominous sign replete with dire warnings at the beginning of the hill.

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We cruised past, it mattered not. J and I don’t use a motorbike intercom system, so I doubt whether she was aware of how psyched I was. Every sensory nerve was firing, a steady mantra of `low gear… use clutch… perfect line…’ looped in my head. The gradient suddenly tilted upward and we were committed, there was no way I could even attempt a U-turn now. The V-four engine pulled smoothly in 2nd as the first hairpin scrolled toward us. Then, somehow, it disappeared behind us with barely a conscious manoeuvre. Following the racing line (though not at racing speed) with a deep lean to the left, the second hairpin passed without incident. Unseen, inside my helmet, I gave a slight `woop’ and grinned, then pulled back on the throttle.

We parked further on at County Gate, a National Trust car-park with massive views

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trekked along the coast there and did some painting. On the way back, as the sunset gave way to a chilly evening, we decided to hook a right off the A39 onto the New Road which flows smoothly down into the Doone Valley.

We were both gradually overwhelmed by the weathered, simple beauty of what the road revealed. It is not easy biking- tiny lanes, loose gravel and blind bridges- but it was a valley of unceasing allure. The Oare Water ambles darkly along the valley floor under stone arch bridges, fish darting into shadow. Faded, Georgian manor houses hide just beyond sight amid rambling gardens of rhododendron. A fox and his vixen froze at out passing, then padded away in opposite directions. We parked up and stood by the river, breathing deeply and feeling like we had stumbled backward in time. Apart from the cooling motorbike, there was no outward sign of modern technology for miles.

Reluctantly, we left. It was late twilight, we were hungry. The road wound its way back toward the A39, then perversely morphed into a far more challenging series of hairpins amid steepness than Porlock Hill. Somehow, despite my tiredness, I managed to ride us safely upward but there was no avoiding riding up the wrong side of this capricious lane.

Our getaway on Exmoor ended too soon. We had come here to soothe the regret of missing Ireland yet, we hadn’t spoken of Ireland once. The polka was learned, stresses purged, new roads embedded deep in our memories and pledges made to return on the motorbike to this happily underpopulated corner of Somerset.

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#32 Ron Howarth

I couldn’t read the signal. A man driving towards me flashed his headlights repeatedly, wound down the window and proffered his fist toward me. Something wrong with my bike? Someone who recognised me? No, a police speed-trap I’d already sped through. My dull mind half remembers that I could have been doing 44mph in an arbitrary 20mph zone. Great.

My head’s been gone since visiting my upstairs-neighbour in a nursing home this morning.  It was a glorious day, earlier. The sun utterly distinct, a gold disc amidst clear autumnal blue, leaves everywhere shifting into their burning death-throes. For weeks, since visiting Ron in July at Bath RUH, I’ve been meaning to/not quite getting around to/saying that I was going to phone the hospital to see how he was faring, to make another visit. On our only visit, my daughter, J and me huddled around Ron’s bedside and exerted every muscle of concentration to listen to his barely intelligible monologue. In the forty five minutes or so that we were there, he stitched together his life story for us. Glimpses. A fleet of ghost ships passing in mist.

He’s 93. He worked on the shipyards in Scotland, as did his father. He almost became one of the Scot’s pipers. He fought in Burma. He moved to Portsmouth with his family to work on the docks, then settled in Keynsham. He didn’t have children. He met and married Marjorie late in life.

They only had fifteen years together before she died.

Ron has lived alone for over twenty years.

The cherry tree that he planted on the front lawn in memory of Marjorie became diseased, then withered and died last year. He bought another one and planted it in the hole left after the landscape gardeners had winched out the stump. It didn’t take and also died. Ron wasn’t sentimental about it.

When the ambulance came to take Ron, the whole street turned out.

Eric and Catherine, the Polish neighbours from two down.

David, the life-weary motor-biker from next-door.

Diane, the deranged woman above him.

Liesel, the kind, but unmoored woman from next door again.

My next door neighbours, Pat and Kevin, elderly and frail themselves.

Malcolm, the gloomy man from above who surreptitiously pours weedkiller from his window onto Pat’s wisteria.

No doubt Clarke, Patricia Clarke, the elderly widow who once toured America on a motorbike in the 50s watched from within the gloom of her flat.

Ron knew everyone here. He picked up the papers for some of the elderly people, did odd jobs, mowed people’s lawns. On his lawn, the grass remains thick and lush, though the border is now overgrown.

SONY DSCPat and Kevin came with me to St Theresa’s, Corston, the nursing home where Ron has been moved to. A former nunnery, it’s now corporately owned, redecorated with uplifting daffodil yellow walls, plush carpets, warm lighting. It wasn’t immediately clear where reception was, so I wondered along a corridor. A woman parked in a wheelchair lolled to one side against a wall. Her thin, grey and white streaked hair was wet and pinned up, she had probably just been to the in-house hairdresser and was now awaiting redelivery to her room. Last night, the nurse from the home had warned me that Ron was not the man I’d last seen a few weeks ago. She’d strongly urged that, if I wanted to see him, I’d better come today. A nurse took us to Ron’s room and went to get an extra chair. We left before she had time to return with it.

He was sunk down into a deep cot-bed. The blue-spotted sheet that covered him showed how shrunken he has become. He was curled into the foetal position, jaw slumped to one side, leaving his mouth agape, a dark wedge. His eyes, too, have been pulled back into his skull. They barely opened. Pat and Kevin sat and stood at the side, not speaking. I went to the foot of his bed and tried a few words.

It’s a really beautiful day outside.

The staff here seem very kind.

It’s a really nice place you’ve found yourself in.

Ron, mate, I just wanted to say that we’ve all been thinking of you.

The kids have been watering your plants on the balcony with the hose.

They stopped a few week’s ago., the plants are past it now.

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I nearly said go well when we left, a phrase I sometimes end texts to my loved ones with. Pat went to the side of his bed and said that she is going to take seeds from the flowers in his borders and, each time they flower, she will think of him. When it seemed the right time to leave, I just gripped the end of the bedstead and said

Bye, Ron. Take care.

I wanted to give his shoulder a squeeze, or hold his hand. One of the most wretched things about being alone, and old, must be no longer being touched. Slowly, simple human contact becomes a lost thing. We’re not related, he’s just my neighbour. Keep it light.

How can we cross these borders?

As we left, Kevin said goodbye in his distinctive, retired G.P. voice and Ron’s face shifted a little. He twisted his head towards us, his mouth widened- a hollow, pained wail came out from deep within. We stood still until the sound died away. I think I looked briefly at Ron, but then down at the floor. We left him, then walked back down the corridor. We had been there less than ten minutes. As we walked, Pat mentioned that the thing most noticeably absent was his characteristic smile. She’s right, he was always smiling. He bore the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that he has lived with for years with quiet stoicism. He never complained, albeit the occasional apologetic, self-deprecating remark.

Later, when we were parking back in Keynsham, we drew alongside Ron’s nephew. We wound our windows down and held a conversation between our two cars for nearly fifteen minutes. Pat talked across me in her particular, very slow manner. Each. Word. Punc. Tuated. With. A. Full. Stop. Her words are kind, they just take a very long time to be a sentence. Kevin, her husband,  sat behind me, like one of my children, leaning toward the window and chiming in occasionally. Martin thanked us for the visit. He took my phone number. He mentioned that Ron had managed several sounds during his visists over the last few days. Each time, they sounded like help.

Now, sitting on my bed, remembering, I just hope that it wasn’t frightening, that our presence today didn’t terrify- the obvious, distanced farewell. Maybe we were only shadows, maybe there was only darkness with glimmers of recognition, muted sounds of well-meaning tones. I know now that when my time comes, if it is to be a gradual deterioration, I want, very much, for my sweetheart and my children to take me outside. Somewhere away from cars, and double-glazing, and framed prints that I didn’t choose. Away from the company of dying strangers to a field on a hill with a breeze. That would be fine. There is a view of just such a place, the tump, Kelston round-hill, from Ron’s window, as if within reach.

 

[Ron passed away later that day.]

#31 Travelling

In my mind, the dark roads had already unfurled themselves ahead of me, the broken white line flickering to my right. I had begun to lean into corners that unspooled from the dense night beyond.

So, when the journey was aborted by a stomach bug, that particular anticipated experience was severed from this time-stream. Last night’s midnight-run from here, through Wales to Pembroke Docks was left hanging like an ellipsis. To be continued…

Mastering the disappointed child-within is decorous, and necessary. As my mother would gladly attest, I’m predisposed to sulk. This last-minute cancellation of our motorbike trip to Eire is prime sulk material, I could (un)happily use up this kid-free week in a heavy funk. Yet, somehow, I won’t. The ferry can be re-booked, there are refunds on the air-b-and-bs. A bumble bee is surveying the lemon balm, and my sweet-heart’s foot is resting against me.

Next year _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

#30 Marta

Raton. Rrrrrrrrrrrraton, Spanish for mouse.

I can’t pronounce it, my lips/tongue/mouth don’t know the way of forming the sound.

Marta laughs.

Quack, miaow, woof. Animal sounds are the same in Spanish, which is useful as- right now- they form the only shared language between Marta and me.

 

Yesterday, I was so tired. The weekend I’d been anticipating for so long was over, and now it was just me and my fatigue. J and I took a train to Whitstable to visit an old friend. We ate (plenty of oysters) and drank copious amounts. We caught up,  broke bread, laughed, lounged.

There had been a malaise that fell on me towards the end of Saturday night. Gin-fuelled, undoubtedly, gradually I slumped into a wordless sinkhole, and detached from J. It hurt her. I pulled myself more-or-less together the next morning, but I was left with the consciousness of dark silt in the depths of me, threatening to billow up with the next change in current.

 

Marta is my daughter’s Spanish exchange student. I had to retrieve her from school Monday lunchtime. She was crying as we drove away, and she phoned her mum as we headed to B&Q. When we got out, the trolley I chose was unco-operative, causing Marta to chuckle. A woman from B&Q came across to help me separate a different trolley from one with which it seemed to be coupling. More chuckles. I needed some manure and shears and, as I searched for them,  I gradually managed to draw Marta out on the subject of her garden at home in Seville- quite large, no orange trees. We got the manure – caca de caballo. Smirks.

Back home we set about making spag bol. Turns out, Marta is an excellent sous chef. She made quick work of the pepper, garlic and onion, though the latter drew yet more tears. I offered her a taste of tea. Slowly, without either of us really noticing, trust was being established; the sense that, although we couldn’t communicate about anything more significant than nouns or the films we liked, the tone in which we communicated, the way we  inhabited our shared space suggested that we both meant well.

Later, after my daughter came home, we took a turn around the town. Keynsham of an evening is something of a ghost town, certainly compared to the Spanish evening promenades (passegiata in Italian). What we did come across, helped draw Marta further out of her shell. Two boys sprinted downhill in the park, away from a bin they’d just set light to. We went down to Echo Bridge and presented Marta with the acoustic wonders. We jumped, clapped and shouted a cacophony of reverberations. She was delighted.  There was an old woman drinking cider by the river, whose dog (a white, cutesy teddybear fluff ball) followed us, ignoring its owner’s calls. Marta seized the initiative and the dog, and returned it. She wants to be a vet. As we walked up the hill towards home, my daughter found a broken egg at the base of a tree. Gaviota, seagull. Marta picked up the fragile shell and unravelled it as we walked on.

We got home and the girls watched a film while I filled my newly prepared pallets with topsoil (to be raised beds). By the time it was time for bed, we all knew each other a little better and I was feeling more recovered from the lapse of the weekend.

Marta had come to feel safer and more able to be herself once she felt that my daughter and I understood who she was. The ingredients had been:

  • mispronunciation
  • animal noises
  • slapstick comedy with supermarket trolleys
  • caca de caballero
  • cooking
  • echoes
  • a little white dog
  • a seagull egg

 

Last Saturday night’s existential angst was a momentary forgetting of who I was. A slow-burning chain reaction of:

  • gin
  • tiredness
  • disorientation (J and I rarely spend time with others for long periods)
  • mild envy/the acknowledgement that my friend (and his girlfriend, with whom we were staying) are home-owners and materially better off
  • lack of a sense of belonging (my friend’s mum and dad live close, he lives in a town he grew up in, always bumping in to long-established friends with whom he maintains a mostly easy, regular socialising existence)

 

Marta recovered herself gradually, by establishing an understanding between the three of us of who she was, while (simultaneously) discovering who we were. Not only that, but we cared about her well-being and actually wanted to know who she is.

Now and then, I feel unsure of who I am.

The things I do- the writing, playing the accordion, motorcycling, rambling- are partly about defining my self to myself (and those around me). It’s probably the same for all of us. Most of the time, the way seems clear- just keep doing the things you do, try your hardest, help others; smile. But from time to time, the energy required to just be can just suddenly wane and the ground beneath you falls away. Thankfully, this Saturday night, I was with one of my oldest friends and the woman I adore. I was given time to resurface and gather my senses. It’s not always the case. In the future, when the walls close in, I will try to remember how an eleven year old Spanish girl pieced herself together with the simplest of words, echoes, an egg and a little laughter.

#29 Watercolours

Side by side, we sat and painted the view out the window.

Sunday afternoon ebbed toward evening.

Shadows that outlined the frames  shifted through aqua pura greys to Bayou waters.

We had planned to cycle down to the river to paint, light rain gave us the excuse not to.

A gentle weekend. Rapture is probably best left untranslated, but there were good things to eat:

All from the same, excellent blog. Make the Snickers.

Before breakfast on Saturday, we spirit-leveled, top-soiled and repotted my horse chestnut into its new, 230l pot. There was an established ants nest among the roots. The trunk is almost as thick as my wrist. Only one leaf fell from the entire plant.

It looks very happy SONY DSC After breakfast, we read and watched the frog-poles experiment with their new legs in the pond.

We bought some food, a sugar thermometer, then had a pint at the Jolly Sailor at Saltford. We stood with our pints on the floating jetty and watched a group of sensible-looking students muster the pluck to try the rope swing that hangs from a huge ash out over the Avon. We wanted someone to fall…

The graceful one whose slight frame flew Tinkerbell-like over the water?

The heavier-set lad whose lower torso appeared to collude with gravity?

The hesitant, beige-wearer who dithered on the bank before half-heartedly swinging back and forth?

None fell. It was disappointing.

We had the last of the mackerel from Falmouth for dinner, then made the homemade Snickers. Make it.

On Sunday, I marked exam papers while J read. Or vice versa. Then, as the weekend threatened to begin its decline, we found our paint sets and settled to an hour or so’s looking at something SONY DSC SONY DSC

There is the chestnut.

Now the week is already Tuesday, and I am alone with a day to do some writing. Before I start, I wanted to bring the things I cherish into focus,  a deep breath drawn in.

Now to begin.

#28 The garden

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My daughter took this photograph a few night’s back. It’s useful because it is me as I am, here and now.

The bonfire that lit me is ashes, but I’m stood in the same place. It’s just started to rain, there is that sense of electricity, the scent of it has risen into the air. Although it’s nearly sundown, I’m waking up. I’ve been waiting for this moment for hours.

My daughter has just berated me for stealing her pillow. She has been tucked into bed, but opened the window and yelled, well within earshot of my Polish neighbours two doors down who are having their usual summer evening smoke and chat. The neighbours stopped their chat, I went back inside. By now, she’d found the pillow I didn’t steal, but she’s still angry. Just angry, no reason. Grudgingly, huffing, she went back to bed.

I am supposed to be doing some other writing, but gave myself a break to water my garden, which has now given way to this.

This is my horse chestnut

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It is over 5m tall, and about that many years old. I grew it from a conker from my garden back in Eynsham, Oxfordshire. J and I repotted it a week ago Sunday into a half sherry barrel that is too small. I will order a more suitable one here: huge pot

The 230l one should do the trick.

I love repotting plants.

This is one side of my row of pots

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Five lavenders, strawberry trough/lavender, rosemary, and a young birch sapling.

This is the other side of my row of pots

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Horse chestnut, two lavenders, scots pine, ash, rocket, willow, hazel, blue tub of rocket, olive, french marigolds (not sprouted), willow/lavender, mini Christmas tree, lavender…

The young ash has thrown up its first leaves of the year this week

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I’m very proud.

The plants are all in pots because I’ve moved three times in the last five years.

The plants might represent several aspects of me:

1. I made mistakes

The first of the three moves was to move myself and my daughter in with a girlfriend. It lasted three months before she found out I was flirting with someone online.

It is the worst thing I’ve ever done.

I’ve tried to reason out why- maybe it was a result of the damage done in my own divorce, the unfaithfulness of my wife. Maybe it was some need to not be instantly, entirely merged into someone else’s world. As likely is that I am not perfect, that I am capable of baseness and cruelty. It’s been three years and I’m still feeling guilty.

2. I need moments of calm

I usually water the plants after working-out in the evening. For the last four months, I’ve given up weights and adopted this programme: Medicine ball workout Maybe I’ll write about that another time, but it is good, despite the fact several of the exercises make you look like a bell-end. In between sets, I like to fill up the watering can, then get close to the plants and carefully water them.

There was a toad amongst the strawberries once

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Beautiful creatures. Orwell wrote an essay (Some thoughts on the common toad, 1946) in which he describes the toad’s eye:

…the toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the gold-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.

3. I want a future in which I can plant my trees into the ground

I keep the plants in pots because I am too selfish to leave them to whichever tenant moves in after I leave. I  love my plants, particularly the saplings, and want to sustain a mini arboretum which increases each year. Medium specimens of all my favourite trees. One day. One year, I will buy a house, or we will build our own, with some land into which I will plant the trees, the lavenders. Their roots will sink deep and they’ll flourish.

My plants will go with me wherever I go. I provide for them, they grow and provide me beauty and joy. My children too.

My hopes are the same. For them to come to fruition, I will ground their roots in endeavour, nurture their growth with clarity of purpose, honesty and humility.

 

To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.
A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to lose and a time to seek;
a time to rend and a time to sew;
a time to keep silent and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8