#51 Cycling and painting

My son and daughter were with me this weekend gone. We were supposed to be surfing down at Saunton Sands. The sparky woman at Walking on waves said the sea was as flat as a pancake, that she’d happily rearrange. Anytime in the future. No problem.

I put tagine in the slow cooker, made a picnic, packed water-colour materials and bikes in the car and drove over to Monkton Combe, by the Dundas Aqueduct.

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Even though they’d fought, and farted at each other while I’d sorted the parking ticket, my two were suitably impressed and calmed as we cycled beside the canal across the aqueduct. There’s a ledge beneath the balustrade that we all wanted to clamber over onto, but didn’t.

The air was soft, a light breeze scented with the sweetness of rotting leaves, the sun gradually breaking through dull clouds. Wood smoke hung in the air next to various narrow boats. The steeply banked woods on the opposite side were mostly sycamore, their outward facing leaves blushed carnelian. A drunk stumbled onto the path from the hedge. He clutched a can of Tennants’ Super-T and looked confused as we breezed past. The river ran parallel to us in the valley below, but in the other direction, south west to Bath.

My son led the way at first, his legs somehow pumping twice as fast as mine, front wheel twitching as he scanned for minor off-shoots from the main path to scramble over. My daughter followed, cautious eyes taking in all the details, cataloging, defining. We passed under a beautiful road bridge, Winsley hill road from Limpley Stoke towards Bradford on Avon.

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Just beyond, an elegant conservatory filled with geraniums looks down upon the canal path. The kids passed by oblivious. There were various hired narrow boats abroad on the water, some filled with lively chatter, some more morose. We branched off by the lane to Turleigh, down to the river, to picnic. Here, for half an hour, my children turned on each other again over their sandwiches, cookies and Doritos. While they traded tired insults, a dragonfly hovered nearby, a kingfisher shot upstream and several trains trundled along the elevated branch line at Freshford.

We ploughed back across a deeply grassed field and rejoined the canal path. Soon enough, we crossed our second aqueduct at Avoncliff. We descended the embankment and rode through the tunnel and up the path to The Cross Guns pub. I realised the last time I’d been here was 25 years ago. I’d signed up with the school cross-country team and, as a perverse end-of-term treat, our coach arranged that we would do a night-run along the path ending here. A single lemonade all round. Huzzah.

I don’t think it’s much changed. A traditional-style pub, all horse brasses and stone walls, fires roaring. There’s a large benched garden terraced down to the river. Nice enough on a hot day, maybe, but there was a shadowy, forlorn feel to the place today. The river is met by a minor brook here. The water is shallow and reedy, perfect for the ducks that my son fed most of his ice-cream to.

We cycled back up onto the aqueduct, returning the way we’d been, now actively searching for a subject to paint. My daughter chose the first boat we came upon, named Topsy. I unpacked our materials: a small A5 Winsor & Newton pad, three portable water colour kits, pencils, brushes, a rubber and sharpener.

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I filled our jars with water and we began.

My son focussed on mixing the right brown for the water, which he then flooded his page with. He painted a solid black boat which soon sank beneath more brown. Eventually, twenty minutes later, just before giving up, he painted another black boat with blue windows.

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I proceeded in the more traditional way of sketching first.

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The roof is partly fictional as I was sat down, and couldn’t really see it. I then spent about an hour adding colour and ended up with this.

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Not accurate, not awful.

My daughter took her time and steadily added layers of colour. Even though she was sat beside me, she painted a side-on view.

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I love her trees.

All together:

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The sun glowered at the far end of the tunnel of overhanging branches, the temperature had started to drop. We headed back. I pinched the drying paintings between my fingers, two in one hand, one in the other, steering the bike on the balls of my palms. Mistakenly, I pointed out a rabbit in a field that we’d already passed. My son turned to look, and plunged into brambles and nettles. Some tears. A cuddle.

A heron stood motionless a few feet from the path, not threatened by us. The drunk from earlier had made barely any progress in the three hours or so since we passed before. Again, a question seemed about to form in his eyes, then dissolved. We glided back over the first aqueduct, slowly enough to discern the mottled white and black neck of another static heron. The path fell away from Brassknocker Basin marina, down towards the car, its fan heater and home.

#49 Lacock Abbey – Fortress of orthodoxy

View of Lacock Abbey from the south on a sunny summer day.

I went to Lacock yesterday with the kids, my partner and her kids.

I ended the day writing this to the National Trust complaints board:

Dear Madam/Sir,


I am writing in response to surprisingly hostile and aggressive behaviour from a member of staff at Lacock Abbey this afternoon. The incident was witnessed by my two young children, my partner and her son, as well as other visitors.


Having enjoyed the grounds, my family and I entered the abbey via the exit. This was an honest mistake, easily made, but what followed was utterly unacceptable. 


The steward in the room – Denise – strode across the room and demanded we leave. I was taken aback at the bluntness of her tone, and asked why it wasn’t acceptable to continue around the property from this point. We were told it was ‘prohibited’. I asked why, and was met with a hand being pushed into my side as Denise immediately lost her temper. 

Would she have done this if I had perhaps been one of the more genteel visitors?

I asked your employee to stop shoving me and to get out of my personal space. She backed off, with an ironic apology aimed at visitors around us.


 
I remain stunned at the fact that I have been shoved and insulted by someone who managed to summon moral indignance at being asked if it were possible to walk around the property in a different direction. 


I asked Denise if she would find it acceptable if someone invaded her personal space.
Her response? 


‘”I’m British. I live here, so I’m already in my personal space.”‘

I find this to be a particularly revealing and unpleasant conflation of hostile nationalism and interpersonal respect. 
As she has shown herself to be a singularly officious and self-righteous individual, I have no doubt that this employee will already have mounted a vehement and aggrieved defence. However, even though I have a shaved head and was wearing a pair of trainers, I have the right to be unmolested, and be treated with the same degree of courtesy as any other of your members. I happen to be British, but deplore the thought that someone from another country might be treated to this type of petty conservatism. 

That someone entrusted with dealing with the public can summon such disproportionate fury at the notion of walking the abbey in a different direction is laughable. That this person would then immediately resort to shoving, hostility and implied racism is deeply offensive, and calls into question Lacock Abbey’s judgement in employing such a person. 

I would like an apology, and assurance that this type of assault is prevented from recurring. If I do not hear from the NT, I will pursue this matter further.

#41 seaside

Strange to be by sea on sand

Sunned, yet chilled by wind while tanned,

Watching son and daughter manned by others.


Surf school seemed the slackest sort,

Though by these slackers children taught

To stride the breakers’ cold onslaught and triumph.


Moored up, but still the rise and fall,

Anchor deep, yet still that pull

Elsewhere, a pulsing constant call, my other.


Cells divide, hearts contract, blood rushes through.

Time passes, thoughts turn, waves renew.

Surfing stops, I switch bifocal view.

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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.]

#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.

#26 Nothing special

I don’t have to teach until 12:05.

I’m having a semi-productive morning but, most importantly, have time to do things calmly.
I walked to the post office to post my screenplay to a competition. The air is fresh today after yesterday’s rains, there is sun amid clouds. In the alleyway by the car-park, nettles are flourishing, pink flowers are erupting from the stone wall. There are bluebells, cow parsley.

It is good to recognise the woman behind the counter at the post office. Keynsham isn’t the most exciting town to live in, but there is something anchoring in having familiar faces around. She knew me too, and smiled at the envelope

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It was £15 to post recorded delivery, £10.15 to post unrecorded. I had £10.20 on me.

5p change.

Fingers crossed.

As I went home, an elderly man walked towards me, leaning on a shopping trolley/walker. We caught eyes, smiled, exchanged good mornings, and smiled again. I felt a little joy well up. Simple things. The wind was gentle and pools of blue sky passed overhead.

I got home, made coffee and looked at the drawing my son had done yesterday

Jem's sketch

The bottom row is a series of caves going underground. Each one, apparently, has an air-lock.

I had time to email his teacher to thank her for teaching him to write. I only see him fortnightly, each time I notice an improvement in his letters.

Time to iron a shirt and get going.

#24 Falmouth

Last Tuesday week, I went mackerel fishing with my children. We went with Falmouth fishing trips from Custom House Quay in Falmouth. It was a bright, fresh day. There was one other tourist with us, a reticent, retired man from Manchester who was staying in a guest house in the town. He agreed to take our photo.

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As we pulled out of the harbour into the final run of the River Fal, we passed a huge naval vessel, the  RFA Mounts Bay

RFA Mounts Bay

It utterly dwarfed our 12 man fishing vessel. Our fisherman/guide explained that it can hold fifty tanks, or a large number of small boats which are launched at sea by partially flooding the hull. Despite being a pacifist, it’s hard not to be amazed at the scale of such a thing.

We passed St Mawes

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with its castle stacked like cake tins.

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We were soon out of the river and into the English Channel. We edged a little way west along the coast, past Pendennis Castle and were soon opposite Swanpool. Our skipper had a fish-finder and explained that the other fishing tour, which was tagging along close-by, didn’t.

Soon, we drifted a little and received a brief tutorial on how to use the rods. They were baited with tinsels.

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Mackerel are voracious sight predators and devour anything flashy that catches their eye as they speed along. There were three or four tinsels per line. The key point was that we were to shout fish on! if anything bit. Nothing did for a while and we lifted our rods quietly up and down as we’d been shown.

        Fish on!

There was a sensation of tugging at my line which I assumed was a fish. It was. I reeled the line in and hauled a glistening mackerel from the water. I landed it and our guide (whose name you may have rightly deduced I have sadly forgotten) unhooked it. Within ten minutes, I felt another pull on the line and, as the words formed in my mouth, my daughter and the man from Manchester also shouted fish on.

It is the way it goes. Nothing for a while, then a shoal passes by and bites everything it sees.

I saw my daughter land four mackerel in one go. For five minutes, we all kept pulling mackerel out almost continuously. There wasn’t time to dispatch them all straightaway, and my son leapt around the catch-container amazed, as more and more mackerel thumped about in there.

After the frenzy, our guide showed us how to dispatch a mackerel cleanly. He hooked index and middle finger just inside the fish’s gills, pushed his thumb behind the head on the spine, then pulled the head upwards and back, breaking the neck. We watched as he quickly worked through the fish. A lance-like silver sand eel flew from the jaws of one fish, much to my son’s delight. He scooped it from the deck and stroked it for a while before throwing it back into the sea.

The shoal passed and we moved south, further out to sea between several massive tankers. While our boat bobbed about on the waves, these behemoths were utterly motionless, as if fixed in concrete.

Their implacable steeliness appeared devoid of any life,

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their shadowy immensity was intimidating.

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Falmouth boasts the world’s third largest and deepest natural harbour, and is a major refuelling stop. These tankers were each waiting to be refuelled via barge.

Soon, our skipper suggested we went back to where our earlier bonanza had been. Almost as soon as we’d returned, the fish were biting again and we landed another glut of tiger-striped beauties. There were thirty in all. When the shoal sped off, we turned away from the tankers and headed back toward Falmouth.


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As we neared the quay, the fish guts were flung out for the gulls. They plunged in diving squadrons around the boat,

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then glided triumphantly as an escort of angels,

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albeit with the occasional, barely noticeable gut bloodstain.

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We thanked our captain and guide as we disembarked, then drove back to Lanner where we were staying with friends to prepare the fish for dinner and the freezer. They had already lost much of their mother-of-pearl sheen, but remained beautiful.

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