Mrs D Williams, Highfields

I always say “Yes” when the assistant in the shoe shop asks if I’d like the box that my new shoes came in. Over the years a collection of shoe boxes has appeared on a shelf in my wardrobe, dusty and seldom opened except to slide in the occasional card or envelope. Most contain letters, postcards, Christmas cards and other handwritten bits and pieces from a time when people still wrote real letters. A sudden bout of nostalgia – or influenza – and I take down one of the boxes to trawl through the contents like an archaeologist sifting through layers of silt. The deeper I get into a box, the more often I find letters and cards from people I have forgotten. Postcards or thin sheets of airmail notepaper sent from no-longer exotic holiday resorts, often written in ink with indecipherable signatures.

Recently I found a thin bundle of hand-written letters in dark blue ink at the bottom of one my shoe boxes, together with a few small sheets of paper typed with a pale blue typewriter ribbon. The letters were written in a strong, cultivated hand, clearly signed by Mrs D. Williams of 42, Gopsall Street, Highfields, Leicester, and dated 1967.

I was a Social Science student at the University of Leicester from 1964 to 1967. The university was located near Victoria Park in a number of low, grey wooden pavilions which had previously housed the local mental hospital. In his welcoming speech, Professor Ronald Meek pointed out in his booming Scots voice that there were still bars on the windows, but now to keep people out instead of in. This was meant to reflect on the popularity of the new university, but this being 1964 we were not convinced.

I had forgotten Mrs Williams, but sifting through her letters and writings took me back to my years in Leicester, and an incident which took place early one morning in my first week there. Crossing a side road I avoided the rush-hour traffic to take a short cut though Victoria Park. The autumn grass was still wet, but I forgot the dew on my gym shoes when I heard a sudden loud squeal of tyres to my right. Looking up I saw a cream and maroon double-decker bus leaning over as it swerved through the nearby roundabout. A woman who was standing on the open platform at the back of the bus lost her grip and was slung off into the road like a sack of coal. The uniformed bus conductor, a thin, sallow faced Pakistani with black stripy hair, turned his back. Nobody else reacted as the bus hurtled on towards the city centre. Fortunately there was no car or lorry directly behind the bus. After a moment’s hesitation I started to run towards the woman, who had rolled over into the gutter but was slowly getting to her feet, brushing off her clothes. She was middle-aged, West Indian with bushy hair tied up in a bright patterned scarf, wearing a green dress, beige cardigan and flat, comfortable shoes. The woman was probably on her way home from working as a cleaner or housekeeper at one of the large houses in the nearby leafy residential area. Seeing me approaching, she quickly grabbed her brown shopping bag from the road and limped off. I stopped and watched until she disappeared down a side street into the nearby housing area, Highfields.

Highfields, “High Fields”,  originally an area of farm land outside the city, became a residential district from the 1850’s onwards. Little development took place during the twentieth century so the Victorian suburb looked very much as it would have done in the nineteenth century, with Victorian townhouses,  today often subdivided into flats, and redbrick terraced housing.

Highfields was badly bombed during the Second World War and after the war became less desirable, as the trend to suburban living encouraged many residents to move to the outskirts of the city. Highfields became instead an area of lodging houses and poor quality rented accommodation, which attracted a succession of migrants to make their homes there. Highfields is an extremely multicultural area, with large ethnic minorities. In the post-war period the first incomers were Irish together with ex-servicemen and workers from the Caribbean and migrants from South Asia.

Over the years Highfields has been subjected to numerous waves of migration including Indian, Jewish, Irish, Polish, Somali, Pakistani, and Caribbean populations. Recently the area has attracted a large number of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Today Highfields is home to the Leicester’s synagogue, an African-Caribbean Centre, various Christian churches and many mosques, madrassas and Islamic community centres, which reflect the numerous ethnic groups who live there.

Highfields was a place I occasionally visited, usually to see fellow students who had found cheap lodgings there. I felt uncomfortable on the streets of Highfields: unfamiliar languages and peoples, West Indian greengrocers with strange fruits and vegetables, Indian restaurants with strong spices, an Indian cinema and pub, Pakistani corner shops. The narrow cobbled alleys were used as parking for flashy old American cruisers with growling V8’s, decorated with flags and equipped with loud speakers pumping out unfamiliar rhythms. Earlier Highfields had a reputation as a red-light district where crime was rife, often drug-related. This reputation still tainted the area in the 1960’s.

One familiar sight on the streets of Highfields was the uniformed bus drivers and conductors employed by the local city council, mainly from India and Pakistan. The local newspaper, the Leicester Mercury, wrote of increasing tensions in Highfields in connection with the India-Pakistan war in 1965. The city bus service tried to avoid using mixed crews on the buses, after incidents between Indian and Pakistani employees. Photographs of Indian women in saris queueing patiently to donate their gold trinkets to the war effort were published side-by-side with team photographs of the Highfields School hockey team, where twelve of thirteen members wore turbans and answered to the name Singh.

What has all this to do with Mrs Williams? And who was Mrs Williams?

I first met Mrs Williams at her home in Highfields in 1967 when I was working with volunteers who did painting and decorating for people in poor housing conditions. Their names were suggested by the local social welfare department and materials were donated by local shops and businesses. Not the latest wallpaper styles or shades of paint, but clean and bright.  A visit was agreed via Mrs Williams’ home help, Elizabeth, who introduced herself as Lizzie. Mrs Williams was more formal and always addressed her as Elizabeth.

Mrs W, as Lizzie referred to her, sat in a large armchair draped in a mohair plaid when we arrived, wearing a long dress and slippers. We guessed she was about seventy years old, but her face looked older from living in the sun. On our first visit she told us her life story, in a well-spoken upper-middle class English with a very slight South African flavour. She had lived for many years with her husband in South Africa, who was an estate manager. On a visit to England, he had died suddenly. She lost the house in South Africa and was then more or less penniless, but survived on a small pension in her house in Highfields, with the help of Elizabeth. Mrs W spoke to Elizabeth in the manner customarily used for servants in South Africa. Elizabeth didn’t seem to take offence, a slightly raised eyebrow and little smile put it down to a difference in class and upbringing.

Mrs W was always sprucely turned out, in long, pre-war tailored blouses or dresses, outfits infinitely more suited to an evening G&T in the lodge overlooking the estate than a seedy brick terraced house in Highfield. Her half-long, thick grey hair, almost reaching the double row of pearls which usually completed her outfit, was always freshly brushed.

In contrast, the house was in a bad state, almost derelict, back yard full of rubbish. Mrs Williams only used the ground floor, heated by a small coal fire and a one-bar electric heater. Like many older British houses it was unhealthy – damp, cold and draughty. This didn’t bother Mrs Williams and she definitely didn’t want us doing any painting and decorating. She regarded us more as companions and friends, allies in discussing her latest ideas and writings.

While Lizzie busied herself about the house with the daily chores, Mrs W devoted her energy to campaigning: animal rights, capital punishment, anti-vivsection (animals used for medical research), Thalidomide and immigration. Daily she wrote long letters to the newspapers on these topics, hammering away on an old typewriter with a worn, blue ribbon. On some of these issues her position was very clear; she was for animal rights and anti-vivisection, warned against Thalidomide but seemed less clear on humane forms of capital punishment and limits to immigration, at least as far as “darkies” as she called them were concerned.

Lizzie’s final responsibility of the day was to stick stamps on Mrs W’s daily production of letters and drop them in the red and black pillar box on the corner of Highfields Road, in good time before the five o’clock collection.

Mrs Williams found time to write personal letters too, written in sweeping long-hand, using a fountain pen which it was Lizzie’s job to keep filled with dark blue ink. Mrs W wrote about everyday matters, expressing concern that we worked too hard for our finals or didn’t get enough sleep. She was also very generous in suggesting unorthodox cures for ailments such as arthritis (for my mother) or other afflictions.

In Highfields Mrs W saw herself as the last outpost of civilisation, surrounded by various threats which were personified by the many immigrant groups who made up her neighbours. In some way she was proud to be the only white English person left in the multi-ethnic Highfields, but at the same time decidedly paranoid.  Old, frail, alone and alienated, she felt threatened when local kids threw stones into her yard and shouted insults. She was on speaking terms with her Indian neighbours, tried to get help from them with the gang of children, but did not trust them. Once, on my way out, she slipped me the following note on a small folded-up piece of paper:

“If no answer at front door please try the back door, because neighbours are not all reliable & on occasion have sent people away saying I was not here!!!”

Mrs Williams’ other fear was the authorities, who she knew were provoked by her controversial views  and were planning to silence her. She was convinced that they were a danger to her, and told us on one occasion  that she had in fact been kidnapped. She described in detail with a wavering voice how she had been rolled up in a red blanket and unceremoniously bundled into an ambulance and driven away.

Perhaps that is what happened to her in the end. Reading her old letters, I see in front of me Mrs Williams sitting, well-dressed, in her near-derelict house in Highfields, surrounded by a multitude of ethnic groups whom she saw as frightening and hostile. She was the last outpost of white Britain, trying to keep up a semblance of civilisation in her campaigns – Thalidomide, immigration, capital punishment and  animal welfare. She battled on, brandishing the Union Jack, alone except for her faithful servant, home-help Lizzie.

 

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An Offer They Could Refuse

Early one very warm July morning I had the train carriage to myself. July is the preferred holiday month in Sweden, when the country is abandoned by the natives and handed over to the tourists. I was on my way to work, a report to be delivered on the sadistic deadline of August 1st.

My office was in the concrete jungle that is downtown Stockholm. Already by eight o’clock in the morning the air was wobbling like warm jelly as I approached the grey 1970’s office block where I was to spend the day. I let myself in and climbed the steps to the first floor.  The only window in my cubicle office faced onto a brutal brown nine-storey hotel building. It was just six metres away, between us the pedestrian way which plays a central role in my working day.

I switched on the computer and went to fetch some coffee. The long ghostly corridors were empty. Was I all alone in the building? Then I noticed the early queue of patients outside the cut-price Polish dental clinic which shared our building. Somehow that felt reassuring.

As the morning progressed, things hotted up: the computer started complaining and slowed down, I took off a layer of clothing and the ventilation system finally groaned to a halt. I opened the window, which proved to be mere symbolic: the air stood still. Outside I could hear the noise of hundreds of sandal-clad feet shuffling along the pedestrian way, their occupants in outsize shorts and loud shirts already tiring. They were “doing Stockholm”, on their way from the shopping emporiums to the Royal Castle, and picturesque Old Town. The stream of tourists moved like a flow of steaming lava, negotiating the souvenir shops and cheap eateries which barred their way like an obstacle course.

I tried working with the window open. After half a page I noticed that my typing had assumed a rhythm of its own, reflected in the red lines which had appeared on the screen. Unconsciously my brain had picked up a foreign rhythm. Leaning out of window I found the source, a tall young gentleman with Dreadlocks hammering rhythmically on a bongo drum. In the distance I could also hear an accordion/trumpet set playing the same Rumanian camp-fire folk song over and over. One block further south somebody with an amplified electric guitar was imitating blues riffs.

The choice was either to live with it, or close the window and die from heatstroke. Faced with this choice I considered relocating to the quieter side of the building, but my computer was bolted to the desk to put off potential burglars. On my way to get some more coffee, I had an idea.  I would pay the bongo drummer to move away, out of hearing. Brilliant, I thought! In the coffee room I met a couple of colleagues and pitched the idea at them, an experiment. Like most ideas that come from someone else, they didn’t like it. The usual objections were raised: “Why should we solve your problem?” “How much would it cost?” “Who pays?” meaning not us! “What happens if the drummer takes the money and stays put?” “Why not call the law?”

I never did try paying somebody to desist from anti-social behaviour. Instead, with the help of music of my own choosing, I battled on and finished my report in time. Then I changed jobs and forgot all about it. That is, until recently when I read a newspaper article* about a place where my idea is being tested in real life.

The place is Macao, a former Portuguese colony, now a special administrative region within the People’s Republic of China, across the bay from Hong Kong, which has a similar semi-independent status.

Macao, with 650 000 inhabitants, is noted for one thing – gambling. The casinos attract over 400 000 visitors each year, most from mainland China and generate most of the income of the local state administration.

A problem facing the authorities in Macao is the prevalence of drug addicts which disturbs the tourists and gamblers and could lead to a downturn in the number of visitors and thus the revenues of Macao.

For the past three years the solution tested is completely in line with my idea. The local welfare authority pays drug addicts to stop stealing from tourists and sleeping rough, to study, to return used needles and to stop sharing needles. Clean packs of needles are provided free of charge. Every day the authority does a clean-up of used needles from known haunts of the addicts.

There are standard rewards. First needle returned gives a cup of coffee, second needle a bowl of noodle soup, third needle dinner. A monthly payment of 500 dollars is given to all addicts if they desist from stealing, more if they decide to study. Like all citizens of Macao, the addicts also receive an annual check for 1000 dollars from the gambling profits.

The results are impressive. Drug addicts no longer share needles and there have been no new HIV-cases in the past three years.  And the gambling industry in Macao generates enough revenue to care for all drug addicts, while protecting the industry’s own interests.

One issue not mentioned in the article is how addicts who do not deliver are dealt with? Are the incentives an offer they cannot refuse? The gambling industry of course is noted for packing some muscle.

Interest in the idea of replacing sanctions with incentives is growing. Listening to Swedish radio recently I heard a politician who suggested the government buy weapons from gun-runners in the Balkan region to stem the flow of guns to criminal gangs in Sweden. Interesting thought, but a mite desperate and a wholly unrealistic solution to the growing problem of gang shootings.

Sometimes I regret that I did not pursue my experiment that one hot July in Stockholm. For a reasonable fee I could have offered the buskers an incentive to move a block or two. The bongo-drummer, who was just outside my window, would no doubt have demanded a higher rate to move away. Of course, this was an offer they could refuse!

* Henrik Brandão Jönsson wrote about the situation in Macao for Dagens Nyheter, Stockholm, on January 1st 2018.

Down By The River

The lift shuddered to a halt at the end of its journey from the fourth floor. A moment’s hesitation before the twin doors opened with a metallic clang and Harry trundled out, pushing a green wheelbarrow loaded with garden tools. “Morning Mrs Riley“ he said cheerfully to the lady standing waiting, desperately trying to silence a yapping off-white dog on a leash. The threat of eviction was standing over her, and waking the other residents at this early hour was not going to improve matters. “You’re early Harry”, she replied, “up with the lark”.  “No rest for the wicked, as mother used to say” answered Harry and headed for the front door.

Harry was a wiry man, not very tall, with hairy arms and large worker’s hands. A battered old trilby of nondescript colour clamped on an almost hairless head, checked lumberjack shirt, and baggy overalls tucked into grey woollen socks and green Wellies was his working outfit. A colourful cotton scarf for wiping his brow hung from a back pocket. Some said he could double as a scarecrow, but that didn’t bother Harry.

He had moved into the apartment block a year ago after a painful but inevitable divorce. His ex-wife Mary complained that Harry loved the large garden which surrounded their detached house more than he loved her. Finally she had had enough and found someone else. For Harry it was traumatic; not losing Mary or the house, but losing his garden. For the best part of twenty years the annual round of digging, spreading manure, planting, pruning, weeding and harvesting had ruled his life. Still it did come as a bit of a surprise when Mary slapped the legal papers on the kitchen table in front of him, instead of the dinner he was expecting.

It was as though part of him died that day, leaving a big empty space. To pass the time he spent mornings and evenings wandering around parks, allotments, lanes, fields – anywhere he could enjoy the company of plants, bushes and trees. He even sneaked around outside the old house, to mourn his old garden. It was grossly neglected. At times he blamed Mary and her new husband, but realised that without loving care nature would gradually reclaim all the land.

One crispy winters’ day he came across an abandoned piece of land down by the river. Harry guessed it ran to a couple of acres, left over when the new bypass was built about half a mile away. It was a bit out of the way, nearest neighbour a floodlit round-the-clock petrol station. The plot sloped to the south, skirted by a narrow footpath which meandered along with the river bank. The river was about 500 yards wide at the most, a shallow tidal river which was reduced to a narrow channel when the water was sucked out into the Irish Sea. A putrid smell of muddy sediment and rotting seaweed crept over the river bank when the tide was out. Then the returning tide brought with it the fresh salty smell of the sea, and banks of mist which rolled slowly over the low-lying, neighbouring  fields.  Harry occasionally met dog owners down there, who passed the time of day. And in the distance he saw a gang of youths on bikes bound for the petrol station. In all it was not a popular place.

The plot was enclosed on two sides by a thick wall of overgrown bushes and trees, which provided some shelter from the wind. Thin young saplings were already marching across the plot like an invading army. Harry knew that if nothing was done they would take over completely in a few years. The rest of the land was choked with tall dried grass and weeds,  seeds rustling in the slight breeze coming off the river. Rubbish dumped by fly-tippers was lurking in the undergrowth nearest the footpath, lying in wait for unsuspecting visitors.

To most it was probably just an overgrown, derelict site hardly meriting a glance. To Harry it had potential as a new garden. He started making daily visits to the plot. It had become almost an obsession. Harry felt his hands twitching, longing to feel the black, rich soil between his fingers again, to slice through the sods with the sharp edge of his spade, to reveal juicy fat worms wriggling in the daylight.

Back in the apartment Harry started planning “his” new garden. The excitement kept him awake, writing a mental list of what needed doing. Soon he had a clear picture in his head what it would look like – not unlike his old garden.

Harry was a methodical soul. He got out his black notebook and a sheet of squared paper. All morning he sat at the kitchen table, scribbling and pencilling in rose bushes, vegetable patches, furrows for potatoes, fruit bushes and flower beds for perennials. By lunchtime he was exhausted. He had to have another look. A quick sandwich and mug of hot tea, and he was off. It was hardly a quarter of an hour’s walk away but Harry automatically lengthened his stride, eager to check out his plans. He realised that he would have to be careful, not attract too much attention. Hopefully he could work early mornings and late evenings if the street lights along the bypass provided enough light.

In a sober moment he started to have second thoughts about the new garden. Who owned the land? What would the council say if they found out? Could he do all the work by himself? And how much would all the plants and bushes cost? He brushed these misgivings aside when he sat down with his plans for the garden, now that he had a clearer picture of what needed doing, and where to start. To get anywhere with the land he was going to need his garden tools. Hopefully they were still locked away in the old shed, unless Mary had got rid of them. Harry hadn’t spoken to her for six months. He decided to call their son David, which he did occasionally, to find out the lay of the land. David always appeared very busy so they never spoke for long. The usual topics were quickly rattled off: work, wife, kids, school, car, holidays and the rest. Harry usually stood up when he spoke on the phone, a habit from the time when telephones were installed in the hall with a short cord. It suited him, kept calls short.

“Hello David, Dad here” said Harry, as though David wouldn’t recognise his voice.

“You still alive then?” which was David’s way of saying that it was a long time since Harry had called.

“Just hanging in there, not literally of course,” was Harry’s weak attempt at being funny.

“Any contact with Mum these days?” he asked, trying not to appear too interested.

“Not much. Too busy with the new man” said David, disinterested.

“Still live in the old house do they?”

“Think so, off travelling most of the time. Spain next week think she said”.

“Long as she’s happy, David.” said Harry with an end-of-conversation voice.

After a painful silence David sighed and hung up with a “See you Dad.”

Relieved, Harry shuffled over to his favourite armchair, in fact his only armchair, to mull over which tools he would need. Luckily he still had the key to the old garden shed. Mary hated the place so most likely nothing had been touched since he moved out. He sank into the soft, worn leather and closed his eyes, pictured himself standing there in the shed, surrounded by shining tools. He dozed off, the earthy smell of peat, soil and manure taking him back to the shed. This was where Harry belonged, a safe house, his den, where he could hide from the demands of the outside world.

It was still dark when Harry woke. He made an early breakfast, planning a dawn raid on his own garden shed, before sun-up. He dressed for the job; old jeans, a grey plaid shirt, and an outsize black hoodie over a dark green cap and finally his old hiking boots. He found the key to the shed at the back of the cutlery drawer. Closing the door quietly behind him, he tiptoed down the four flights of stairs, afraid to wake the neighbours by using the lift. Harry’s heart was beating faster than was healthy, as though he was about to rob a bank. Outside the morning mist was still lying thick, so he was not likely to meet anyone. Still it was a good half hour’s walk to the old house through a large estate of older detached houses. Fortunately the street lights were weak and far between.

Approaching the old house, something moving about twenty yards ahead caught Harry’s attention. Stray cat perhaps. He ignored it and strode on. Suddenly a torch full in the face dazzled him. Instinctively he held up an arm to shield his eyes, hearing a dog growl and a woman cry out: ”Oh my God, who’s there?” Harry instantly recognised the sharp voice. It was Jean, a former neighbour. She lived in a small white cottage at the end of the lane. “Hullo Jean” muttered Harry, as though walking around far after midnight dressed in a hoodie was the most natural thing in the world. “Oh, that you Harry? Near scared the wits out o’ me, you did”. “Dog woke me, needed to go out. Bit scary what with the mist an’ all”.

Jean was deceptively mousy-looking, auburn hair going on grey in a loose pony-tail, rosy cheeks, oversized glasses, usually seen wearing a thick home-made woollen cardigan, black leggings and red anorak. Sensible outdoor shoes, soil coloured. Always seen with a reluctant, yapping Cairn terrier in tow and pockets bulging with dog bags. Harry had never really spoken to her before.

“Haven’t seen you around for a while, Harry.”

“No, not been near the place for ages,” said Harry, “couldn’t sleep.”

“Keep us company for a bit then?” asked Jean.

“Mmmm, why not”, said Harry after some initial hesitation. He couldn’t really explain what he was up to that late at night.

They walked along in silence, following the dog’s nose as it hunted for traces of other canines. The mist was lifting slowly, and soon they came up to the red picket fence which enclosed Harry’s old garden.

“Not been looked after since you left, Harry,” said Jean, “a shame really to let it run down.”

“Starting a new garden” said Harry, without thinking.

“Oh, where’s that then?” asked Jean.

“Bit of land near the by-pass.”

“Whatye’ doing here then, inspiration?”

“Here to collect my old gardening tools.”

“Middle o’ the night, wearing a hoodie!” said Jean laughing, “doing a break in then?”

“Something like that. It is my stuff after all, just collecting it.”

“I can keep a lookout if you like, Harry”, said Jean sounding rather amused.

“OK, would you?”

Jean realised then that Harry was serious.

The house was in darkness except for two dim outdoor lights. Harry slipped in through the gates and followed the familiar path to the garden shed. Jean hung around outside the fence, trying hard to look like an innocent dog walker.

Harry was nervous and fumbled as he pushed the key in the lock, afraid he might have to break in. Fortunately the lock opened with a familiar grating sound and the door swung open. He stepped inside but didn’t dare switch on the light, just stood there breathing in the familiar smell . With a small torch he found the tools hanging from their shiny metal hooks along the walls, arranged as though on display in a garden centre. Smaller tools were arranged on rough wooden shelves along one wall. Harry had made a mental list of what he was going to take, but hesitated when it came to loading his trusty green wheelbarrow.  Hearing Jean’s impatient dog barking in the distance, he had to get  a move on: digging spade, heavy garden fork, scythe, whetstone, pruning shears, a rake, furrow iron, pair of gloves and rubber boots. He pushed the heavy wheelbarrow towards the door, stopping only to apply a little oil to the creaky wheel – something he had long been meaning to do – before locking up the shed again. He made his way slowly through the garden gate to where Jean was still waiting, stifling a yawn. “Got all you need then?” she asked.

“Most”.

“This new garden of yours, Harry, is it a secret?”

“Nah, just something to keep me busy, time on my hands now” said Harry, a bit cagey. He didn’t want visitors who might attract the wrong kind of attention.

“Let me know if you need an accomplice again then”, said Jean, laughing nervously.

“I’ll get in touch, Jean”, said Harry marching off, “night!”

It was early spring before Harry started clearing the land. The mornings were still nippy. Sometimes night frost glistened from the tall grass swaying in the light breeze.  Some early trees and bushes were already displaying swollen buds. Harry started with the thickets of bushes and small trees which bordered the plot. Using a sturdy stick he forced his way through the jungle of brambles and wild roses. Hawthorns with vicious thorns stood in the front ranks. They would have to go. The undergrowth of weeds and nettles needed clearing. Deeper into the thicket he found tall, overgrown lilacs with bare trunks, a few buds and leaves at the top. Looking up he could see old sycamores wrapped up in strings of ivy like a helter-skelter, yews with branches splaying in all directions, a sombre scraggy pine or two and some one-time majestic oaks. The only way to attack this would be to start from the footpath and work his way into the thickets, he thought.

Harry began with the saplings. He enjoyed bending them over using his thick gloves, gripping close to the ground with the jaws of the pruning shears and gently squeezing the handles. The blades cutting through the bark and pulp made a crunching sound when the young saplings finally gave way. He could do this all day. For the  trees he had a bow saw, then his scythe to silently slice through last years’ grass and weeds, wet from the early morning dew. It took two mornings to clear the lot.

The next day Harry planned to start clearing rubbish from the plot so that he could start digging. He slept poorly again, waking while it was still dark. After an early breakfast he tried calling Mary to talk about reclaiming his fruit bushes. In passing he was going to mention his visit to the shed. He only got to her answering service, and declined the offer to leave a message.

He summoned the lift and heard it creaking as it reluctantly climbed to the fourth floor. The narrow doors opened with a hiss. Harry was waiting with his wheelbarrow already loaded for the morning’s expedition, pleased to see that the tools were in good shape. Down, it took him a few minutes to extricate the wheelbarrow .  “What’s going on here then?” he heard a woman’s voice exclaim, feigning complaint. “Not that woman again”, said Harry to himself, “on sentry duty here is she?” With her guarding the place he realised it would not be easy to sneak out unnoticed. “Morning Mrs Riley”, he replied a bit too friendly, “soon be out of your way. Off to my new allotment.”

“Can see that. Whatye’ gonna’ grow then?” she teased.

“You wait and see, Mrs Riley, just you wait and see.”

“Keep you out of mischief then I suppose”, she said over her shoulder as she squeezed past his wheelbarrow into the lift.

Harry didn’t bother to reply. Outside the street smelt fresh after an early heavy shower which had rinsed the dust from the pavements. He set off at a good pace down the street with his wheelbarrow. Not many people about this early, which suited Harry. By the pathway approaching the river, Harry found himself in a solid bank of mist floating in from the sea. The plot was almost invisible. First he tried to manhandle the wheelbarrow across the rough ground, but it was too heavy and the ground too uneven. In the end he gave up and parked the tools by the edge of the thicket. With spade on his shoulder Harry marched slowly across the plot, testing the ground here and there before deciding where to start digging. He preferred to dig from left to right, one row at a time. Leaning the spade slightly towards him, he rested his left boot on the footrest, took a deep breath and, shifting his weight over onto his left leg, made the first cut. There was some resistance from the thick layer of grass which covered the ground. He gradually let his full weight bear down on the spade and felt it slice into the soil below. A quick turn and lift followed by a smooth swing with the back of the spade to break up the soil. The soil crumbled, released at last by his spade from the suffocating layer of grass. Harry enjoyed the well-oiled routine, muscles honed after many seasons of digging. He bent down and picked up a handful of damp, black soil, rubbing it between his fingers. Greasy to  the touch and smelling of rotten vegetation and full of squirming worms, brutally lifted from the safety of their dark underground tunnels.

Head down, he carried on methodically turning over the soil until he reached the end of the first row. He looked up, stretched his back, walked slowly to the other end, inspected his work, and then started on the next row. His mouth felt dry, but he carried on digging until his back ached from turning over the heavy sods. Straightening up, he noticed that the mist had already lifted.

A disturbing feeling hit Harry as he stood there surveying the morning’s work; he was not alone, someone was watching him. He looked around slowly and saw a figure lurking by the bushes near the footpath. A man stepped into the thicket when Harry looked in his direction. He was tall, charity shop clothing, military jacket and orange bob hat on top of a mop of black, longish wavy hair. Harry thought the man nodded, but it was no one he recognised. Time to call it a day anyway, so he loaded his tools onto the wheelbarrow and made his way home.

The next morning Harry arrived later after a slow breakfast, to find half the plot already turned over. In one corner he saw Jean with her dog and the stranger from yesterday huddling over some mugs. “Hello Harry, thought we’d lend you a hand” said Jean. “This here is Les.” The stranger nodded: “Taken on quite a job here mate. Not been turned over for I don’t know how long.”

Harry tried to appear friendly, but he was worried where it was all leading to. Jean noticed that Harry kept looking around him, and seemed wary of Les. “Well I’ll leave you to it. Dog needs his walk” she said, pulling the leash and making a quick escape.

Harry and Les worked together for a couple of hours, mostly in silence, and by lunchtime they were done for the day. Harry could see that Les was a good worker. Turns out he used to have an allotment. “Must be off now” said Les. “Thanks for the help,” said Harry, in the friendliest voice he could muster as Jean appeared to see how they were getting on.

“I’m not happy about this Jean. Glad for the help and all, but it’s going to attract too much attention. Word soon gets around in a place like this.”

“Don’t worry Harry. It’s been derelict for years. Too low and too close to the river for building, and out of the way for most” said Jean, trying to cheer him up. “Fancy a cuppa’? It’s not far and you could leave your wheelbarrow in the garden.”

Harry gave in, collected his tools and tagged along. He parked the wheelbarrow in Jean’s garden and then sat in the kitchen while she brewed up.

“What’s next step?” she asked. “Soon be time for planting”.

“Need to get potatoes down, earlies,” said Harry, “best way of getting the soil in shape first season.”

“We’ll need manure, lots of it, and set potatoes too,” said Jean, knowledgeable.

“Like to get bushes down too before it gets too warm, currants, gooseberries and the rest”, said Harry,

“That’ll cost a bit!”

“Plenty in the old garden, and they’re all mine for the taking!”

“Have to get your skates on then. For Sale signs came up last week. Didn’t you know?”

Harry ’s mouth went all dry when he heard this and his voice failed him. He didn’t know the house was up for sale,so lifted his tea mug to avoid answering Jean’s question. He thought she was asking too much about his plans for the garden. They sat there quiet for several minutes. Finally Jean broke the silence with a giggle:

”We could do a few more night raids, Harry. I can stand guard.”

“What if we get caught digging up bushes in the middle of the night?”

“Well, they are all yours, aren’t they! I’m up for it, if you are.”

“I’ll think about it Jean. Don’t want to get you into trouble. Must be off now, enough done for today.”

“You can leave the barrow here if you like. It’ll be safe, save you pushing it back and to.”  He hesitated at first but then it was late and he was tired. Reluctantly he agreed, leaving Jean sitting at the kitchen table, a smile on her face: ”Thanks Jean. See you soon.”

Harry’s plan was a row of bushes a yard or so in from the footpath, to shelter the potatoes and vegetable plots from passers-by. Of course bushes took years to get established, but in his old garden he had plenty of mature bushes that would do. He decided to raid the garden again, but first had to plan where to put the bushes. Early next morning he started to dig a row of holes, deep enough to accommodate the large root clumps. It took all morning. Then he made his way home for lunch and an afternoon nap. It would take time to dig up the big old bushes, so it would be a few nights’ work. He didn’t want Les and Jean hanging around there. Eating lunch at the kitchen table, he noticed heavy grey clouds in the distance. That’s it, he would make the first raid that night, hoping the wet ground would make it be easier to get the bushes up.

The moon was out as Harry took the familiar path to the old garden. He parked the wheelbarrow outside the fence, near the bushes, which were some distance from the house. With luck his night shift would go unnoticed. Heart beating loudly he lifted the fork and spade quietly over the fence and then recklessly decided to climb the fence.  It was not a good idea. He was out of practice climbing fences and fell down, hitting his shoulder.

Digging up the currant bushes was easier said than done. They had been standing there for years. Luckily the soil was wet and loose but it was heavy work. It took the best part of an hour to get two bushes up, one black and one red. They were even larger when he got them out of the ground. Harry was sweating and breathing heavily as he heaved them over the fence. Then he had a job getting them up into the wheelbarrow. His shoulder was aching so it took a while.

He hoped no one would notice him pushing a wheelbarrow with large currant bushes in the middle of the night.  The roots had to be  trimmed too before he could lower the bushes into their new holes, so by the time he had finished the moon had slipped behind the clouds. It was pitch black for the slow walk home. He fell into bed exhausted, still partly dressed.

Early next morning something startled Harry. He sat up stiffly and swung his arm in the direction of the alarm clock, knocking it onto the floor. The ringing didn’t stop. It took him a while to realise it was the phone. He staggered into the hall, squinting in the coloured light from the stained pane of glass above the front door. “Hullo,” he croaked, steadying himself against the wall.

“You been digging up the garden Harry?”

It was a sharp, familiar voice. Never one for niceties, Mary got straight to the point. Harry tried to swallow but his throat was too dry. He coughed instead to try to clear it. He felt hot and sweat started to appear on his forehead, like a schoolboy caught with his pockets full of sweets. Mary had that kind of effect on him.

“They’re my bushes, for a new garden. You’ll never miss them,“ he said.

“The house is for sale Harry, we don’t want you running around at night digging up the garden.”

“All right, all right! I’ll be finished this week and leave it all nice and tidy for you.”

“And don’t forget to empty that old shed too!” said Mary, before hanging up.

Harry looked at the silent phone for a minute or so before dropping it back on the cradle, then shuffled along the hall holding his shoulder, making for the shower.

Over a late breakfast Harry’s thoughts turned to the remaining bushes. Reluctantly he realised that he couldn’t move all of them himself, not with his shoulder. He had to ask Jean and Les for help. Harry thought it could wait a day or two anyway, trying to convince himself that he was still the boss, but really he needed to dig up the bushes before Mary changed her mind. There was no going back, so he went to see Jean.

“Morning Harry” said Jean,” you’re early!” standing on the step, unable to hide that she was pleased to see him.

“ Well, less folk around to see what we’re up to. Still quite a few bushes to dig up. I’ll need a bit of help I think. Mary wants it over and done with.”

“Oh, she didn’t make any trouble then?”

“The usual. Bit surprised, but the house is up for viewing next week so she’s too busy to bother about a few bushes.”

“Oh I see. Don’t need a lookout then!” she said, laughing.

“No, but I can’t dig them all up and replant them in a day. Think Les could help?”

“I’ll give him a ring. Come in Harry, the kettle’s on.”

He slipped into the kitchen, dog at his heels, thinking it best to sit down at the kitchen table. Jean was already on the phone in the hall, then disappeared for a minute or two. When she came back she had brushed her hair, and applied a fresh smudge of orange lipstick. Harry pretended not to notice. “He’ll be over in a bit” she said, pouring water into the teapot and laying out three mugs with pictures of dogs.

It was not often Harry was happy to see Les, but now he felt relieved when he saw the big man coming in through the gate, to be greeted loudly by the dog. Harry explained the problem, avoiding mention of his shoulder, and his plan: “Holes are ready so if I dig up the bushes, you could plant them, Les. About a dozen in all.  How about that?”

“Fine with me”, said Les. “I’ll take charge when you’ve got them up.”

“What about watering the bushes?” said Harry.

“Too far away to get a garden hose fixed”, offered Jean. “Perhaps we could fetch water from the river?”

“Heavy work”, said Les.

Nothing was settled about the watering. A quick cuppa from Jean and then off they set. Harry was in charge, deciding which bushes to take. This meant he had the heavy work of digging up the bushes too. Les helped him to lift them over the fence into the wheelbarrow, and then drove them off to the new garden to be replanted. It took all morning and more. Four black currants, four red, couple of gooseberries, loganberries and then a bunch of raspberry canes along the footpath. “Bit more impressive when the leaves come out” was Les’ verdict.

“Lunch”, declared Jean cheerfully, “and a clean up.”

Harry was tired after all the digging so he stayed at home for a week nursing his aching shoulder and back. He worried all the time about his fruit bushes. They should have been trimmed after planting, and watered regularly. Late Sunday afternoon he couldn’t stay away any longer. Equipped with rubber boots, watering can and pruning shears he walked slowly  down to the garden plot. Most of the bushes seemed to have survived the move, but the soil banked up around the roots had dried out. Nobody had watered them. But other things had been done while Harry was at home recovering.  The area that he and Les had dug over had been cleared of sods and raked over, manure had been spread and furrows for planting potatoes marked out. Harry felt more and more that he was losing control of his garden.

There were two sacks of set potatoes standing in the hall, waiting to be sown, and he was looking forward to working the soil for them. This was what he really enjoyed most with gardening.  He usually gave away most of what he grew. Mary would have none of it. He understood that Les and Jean had other ideas. They wanted to invite people to join in, start a community project with harvest festival and all. He felt Les and Jean were taking over his garden, deciding and fixing things without asking when he was not there.

Harry felt sad, but more important was to rescue his bushes. They really should have been cut back soon after planting to help the roots get established. It stimulated long-term growth, even though they would give a smaller harvest the coming autumn. He sighed as he got to work with his pruning shears, but after an hour or so he looked along the row of bushes with a sense of satisfaction.

The watering was more tricky. At one place the river bank was not too steep, so he could slide down and fill his watering can and then clamber up again. Harry poured water around each bush slowly, watching it being absorbed until the soil was saturated. This was a job Harry enjoyed too, but after ten trips down the river bank he called it a day.

The next few weeks he decided to leave them to it. At least that was his plan, but he couldn’t stay away. A couple of times he visited the garden, late evening or early morning so as not to meet anyone. He wasn’t happy with what he saw. A lot of work was being done, too much for Les who must have had help. The whole plot was crammed with vegetable beds, well looked after Harry grudgingly admitted, but his fruit bushes were in a sorry state from too little water. He walked home, never to return, throwing out the sacks of set potatoes in the hall and putting his tools away.

One day towards the end of August, visitors found the plot surrounded by a tall metal fence with a large sign:

A few days later a noisy orange bulldozer, bellowing fumes like an ancient dragon, tore up all the bushes and levelled the ground,  Harry read in the local rag that this was in response to an anonymous complaint made to the local council.

Afterword

A moonless night in September, a dark stooping figure appeared through the swirling mist down by the river, pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with garden tools. It was quiet, except for the regular clucking of the black water. Coming to a halt on the steepest part of the river bank, the figure gently lowered the handles of the wheelbarrow, paused and then released them. The wheelbarrow crept forward, slowly at first, and then picked up speed as it rolled down the bank into the river. It hit the water with a loud splash. By then the lone figure had disappeared, swallowed up in the mist.

 

 

No-Go Zones

There are a few places I avoid, my no-go zones. One of these is under my bed, home to three large plastic storage boxes resting on redundant rollers. I manage to forget about them most of the time. They lie there in a state of permanent hibernation. Occasionally I have been forced to roll out one of the boxes, the small wheels leaving deep tracks in the dust and fluff that has accumulated under the bed over the years. My reluctance to kneel down on the rough sisal carpet and lift the tight-fitting lids is because I know what they contain. Despite the passing of time, I have been decidedly unsuccessful in erasing the memories they bring back to life, like reading old school reports.

The first box contains the remnants of my working life, a collection of all the official reports I produced over thirty or more years as a bureaucrat. A colleague once convinced me that I was making an important contribution to democracy and that my children would be proud of me. In fact, they didn’t care a hoot about my reports or my work, as long as there was food on the table. At first I enjoyed adding shiny new reports to the growing pile in the box under the bed. But over the years, the reports became associated with the unrewarding nature of the work. Memories of the people I had worked with faded away together with their names. The reports often left behind a sense of disturbing emptiness. I carried on regularly lifting the lid of the box to quickly slip in my latest contribution to society right to the end, but seldom with any pleasure or satisfaction. Now it is a long time since the dusty pile of reports was disturbed by any newcomers.

The second box is full of stuff that dreams are made of, of another life, and opening it would painfully remind me of unrealised ambitions. Recently I did have reason to open the box, which I did with some trepidation. The stuff was all still there; the tubes and pots of paint, some clearly dried up, the boxes of drawing pencils and charcoal, the Chinese calligraphy stone and inks, reams of hand-made paper. A huge bunch of brushes of all shapes, sizes and material, many good as new.  So soft when brushed across one’s cheek. Stuffed away underneath my gawkish attempts at being creative, together with books and programmes for art training courses. The guitar tutorials are all there too, with the song books, tuning gadgets which I hardly mastered and certificates from guitar lessons. One day, I say to myself, I will get going again – but without conviction.

The final box has a tight blue lid to keep all my secrets out of sight. I open this box so seldom that I have forgotten what secrets it holds. Over the years I have occasionally lifted a corner of the lid to surreptitiously slide in a letter, a worn moleskin notebook full of scribbles or a faded photograph. I close the lid immediately to stop the smell of incense escaping to pollute the house, concrete proof that I have been in my secret box again. I brought the incense with me from India in 1973, a present for a woman who didn’t want it, and since then it has contaminated all my secrets. Sustainable stuff, like the smell of moth balls which pervaded all the bedlinen and clothes I grew up with. A teenager who ran away from a local Hare Krishna commune after living there all her life said that she now vomits when she smells incense. Some of the memories in my incense-drenched box produce a similar sickening feeling.

The walk-in wardrobe is another no-go zone, better avoided. A more adequate name today would be climb-in wardrobe. It is a museum, or rather a chamber of horrors, devoted to displaying the surviving accoutrements of a lifestyle covering several decades. Very little has been discarded, to the dismay- or perhaps joy – of our local charity shop. The few clothes I actually wear hang just inside the door, within easy reach.

In the deep shadows at the far end of the wardrobe, an MI6-style cold war trench coat hangs together with a black leather Gestapo-issue military greatcoat. I remember wearing this at a rugby match on a very wet Saturday afternoon, standing room only. Walking home I got a shock when I saw my reflection in a shop window: a young Hitler copy, black hair plastered across the crown of my head, beard dripping with water and leather great coat no longer so great. It took a week for the coat to dry out, stiff as shoe-soles. It never recovered, but still hangs there. My reasons for buying this monstrosity in the first place are fortunately submerged in the mists of time.

All of the clothes in the wardrobe have a tale to tell, mostly events and places or people I prefer to forget. Coats, overcoats, suits – for winter and summer wear – including at least one woollen three piece pinstripe. What was I thinking of? Shirts which have long passed the vintage stage, and a rainbow collection of shiny silk ties and bulky knitted ones, dangle from a chromium tie-bar, some thin as shoelaces, others the width of an Isle of Man kipper.

Many of the garments have a characteristic odour of being worn once or twice on sweaty occasions and then hung in again. Closer inspection reveals a layer of fine grey powder on the bulging shoulders of darker overcoats and suit jackets, a sign of the times. They hang sadly on broad coat hangers like empty scarecrows waiting to be stuffed with straw. In the corner a pile of dusty, worn black leather Oxfords lie expectantly in wait for Spring funerals.

Situations when I had to dress up for a captive audience come back to haunt me; teaching in Malawi, Russia or China, lecturing to hostile congregations in Sweden, receiving foreign dignitaries and listening to all the hollow greetings and false speeches which such occasions demand. The shiny navy blue suit, pressed every day by staff at the former Vietnamese embassy, now a hotel, in Beijing. The suit still brings out a sweat on my brow when I recall those six-day weeks teaching in China. Standing in front of seventy eager students, writing down my every word, translated by Mr Chu, diligently recorded in their back-to-front symbols. At the back of the classroom, an old tape recorder slowly rotated to capture my words for posterity, while the man in charge lay snoring on a bench.

Fortunately most of the clothes are too small for me to wear, but still hang there on display as if to mock my efforts to look comfortable wearing them. There to remind me of exotic places and near-death experiences. Gradually I have moved the clothes I use out of the wardrobe, so that it becomes an exclusive no-go zone.

The one place I definitely avoid at all costs is fortunately relatively inaccessible. It can only be reached via a narrow ladder which descends with a reluctant scraping noise from a small dark hatch in the ceiling. Slowly climbing the wobbly wooden ladder, cold currents of air smelling of mould, bare wood and stables strike the senses. In the dark my fumbling hand searches for the light switch. The dim rays from a dusty thirty-year old light bulb reveal a large box-like place, with exposed steep roof beams for a ceiling and chicken netting for walls. In the middle it is possible to stand up straight. I shuffle around the narrow corridors slowly, knowing that a sudden careless step and down the hatch I go, head first. In my worst dreams I catch one of my legs on the ladder and hang there upside down like a struggling bat. I never go up there when the house is empty and limit my visits to once a year, at Christmas, to haul out the tree decorations.

The attic holds the debris of many years of family life, stowed away and largely undisturbed. Let sleeping dogs lie, if you don’t want to revive memories of long-forgotten hobbies: half-finished oil paintings, cabinet which once held a collection of bird’s eggs, pedagogic toys politely played with and then pushed aside, shoe-boxes of used postage stamps from exotic countries, two xylophones designed to develop the children’s musical abilities and a dusty old acoustic guitar with rusty strings which never got properly tuned up for the blues.

An inventory, if possible, would note worn out riding helmets, chaps, brushes, whips and other horse gear still smelling of the animals, an old rabbit cage long since abandoned, half empty notebooks with lists of French vocabulary and maths exercises in immature handwriting, bundles of letters and postcards from long-forgotten people round the world, boxes of photographic paper and chemicals left over from an earlier technical generation, ugly souvenirs from trips abroad, cradles, cots, toys and clothes already outgrown by the grandchildren. Redundant sports equipment: worn skis, bent ski sticks, skates, deflated basket balls, damp piles of textiles, mattresses, a giant Victorian-style perambulator, two worn design armchairs, on the for-sale list, and numerous sagging boxes, anonymous or with scribbled labels: kitchen, bathroom, pans, cushions, books, mixed.

Closing the hatch after my annual visit, I feel satisfied that the familiar debris will remain undisturbed until the children claim their dusty inheritance. To cry, laugh, cringe and ponder over before tipping it all in a large skip.

 

Join the Queue

As usual I was early for morning coffee with a good friend, driven by a deep-seated fear of being late. This originated from school days where a humiliating locked door and subsequent public clouting waited those who were late for morning prayers.  I took a stroll near the café where we had agreed to meet.  A pleasant oasis of human-sized three-storey brick apartment buildings from the early 1900’s sheltered inside a network of  narrow, leafy roads and small parks. It was autumn and underfoot  piles of wet leaves were waiting to upend unsuspecting commuters rushing to the nearby tube station.

Another minute’s walk and my stroll came to a sudden halt,  confronted  by a brutal four-lane urban motorway. The two lanes which lead into the heart of the city were blocked by a tailback of cars and  buses. The other two lanes were almost empty. The wide pavement seemed reserved for cyclists in tight clothes swerving around those who dared infringe on their space, trying to catch one of the overloaded red buses.

A castle-like wall of tall concrete and glass office blocks dominated the other side of the motorway, towering over the lower apartment blocks. The residents lived in eternal twilight. A long line of people snaking along the opposite pavement attracted my attention. It was a queue, an orderly queue, which seemed to emerge from the entrance to one of the office blocks. The queue must have been a couple of hundred yards long. Two uniformed security guards stood at the head of the queue, penguin-like with stiff legs and arms folded over their pouting chests.

What where they all queuing for at this time in the morning? And what was so attractive in the office building that guards were needed to stop the crowd invading the place? I could of course approach the guards and ask, but didn’t want to risk being banished to the end of the queue – or worse. Perhaps I could approach somebody in the queue, but that could be interpreted as an attempt at queue-jumping, an action not to be recommended. Anyway, I didn’t feel like risking my life by crossing the road in the rush-hour traffic.

Pulled out my cell phone and checked that I wouldn’t be late. Ten minutes to satisfy my curiosity. I glanced up at the office block, trying to find a clue to what made it so attractive. A few logo signs broke up the anonymous façade, shining like gold in the morning sun: The Tax Office, The National Insurance Board, The Migration Authority and an obscure building company answering to the name Vesta.

The Tax Office seemed an unlikely candidate for an early-morning queue, most business done on line and the wrong time of year for tax returns. A run on the National Insurance Board did not seem imminent. Most people kept away from their probing questions about ill health or disabilities which make employment out of the question. The Migration Board, on the other hand, was popular with those hoping to win the residence lottery or desperately trying to avoid being deported to misery in Afghanistan.

First the queue was just an anonymous line of people. Now I zoomed in on the individual members, starting with the lucky ones at the head of snake and then slowly following the snake all the way to the tails-end of latecomers. Some,  from their dress or colour, looked like clients of the Migration Board, but they were a clear minority. Most were standing alone, youngish, twenty something to fortyish, and with a sprinkling of clinging, young couples. Most had briefcases, bags or urban rucksacks, attributes of the working generation. They seemed to be quite happy to stand and wait. My final analysis, or guess, was that they were queueing for tickets to  put their names down for a new apartment from one of the housing sharks.

After drinking coffee and chatting for an hour or so, I went back to check on the progress of the queue. Sadly the queue had dispersed, the security guards had withdrawn and traffic was in full flow along the motorway. It was no longer possible to ask what they were queuing for and I had sadly missed my chance to join the queue.

Thinking about this on my train I recalled a story about queues in the Soviet Union, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, or possibly Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The advice given to a newcomer to Moscow was, if you see a queue, join it! So he did. It was a long queue, running around a large, high building with red-brick façade. It surprised him that most of those already queuing were women, often accompanied by young children and carrying large, undefinable bundles. The queue hardly moved. He stamped his feet to keep the circulation going. Occasionally women came trudging along the queue, holding a loaf of bread or bunch of carrots in front of them. He was curious but knew that in Moscow you don’t ask questions. After an almost stationary hour, he was beginning to doubt about the advice given to him. Perhaps they had been pulling his leg.

Then he saw a youngish woman coming along the side of the queue, struggling with a large bundle wrapped in an old sheet and with two small boys clinging to the hem of her coat, which flapped in the breeze. She looked tired and desperate. Half expecting her to stumble, he instinctively took half a step to the side, whereupon she squeezed in front of him, dragging the boys after her, and shoved a loaf of bread to him. He opened his mouth to say something, not sure what, but thought the better of it, took the bread and moved away. They needed his place in the queue better than he did. Shoving the loaf inside his jacket,  he headed for the corner of the building, following the queue to its source. It started at the high metal gates which formed the entrance to Lubjanka Prison. It was visiting day. Join the queue!

 

 

 

 

 

War Against the Hackers

Since 1991 I have been embroiled in a low-intensity war. Battles are limited to the summer months and are, for the most part, conducted underground and therefore well-concealed. Battles are fought on the set of seventeen steps which allow us to safely descend the steep, gently winding slope between our summer cottage and the lower meadow which extends to the lakeside.

The Battlefield

The steps were cut into the hard, dry clay of the slope many years ago, following the gradient and winding nature of the land. No two steps are the same; some are short and steep, others long and shallow. Thick wooden planks held in place with rough metal bars hammered into the clay mark the edge of the steps, which are covered with a layer of natural gravel. Normal, wet summers the loose gravel is held in place by a carpet of tough weeds which force their way up through the heavy clay. Grasses, clover, dandelions and other weeds here actually have a useful function. In a dry summer with few weeds to anchor the gravel, striding down the steps is an altogether more treacherous enterprise. Not to speak of running down.

Food for Hackers

Exactly where the enemy decides to strike is a mystery. Most of the time the war is an underground operation. One year the battle may be concentrated to the fourth step, another year step number ten. This year the battle was fought on, or rather under number twelve.

The give-away sign that this summer’s battle had kicked off was the appearance of small piles of fine dust where the plank sticks up from the clay. The one sure way of corroborating this is a gentle kick to the top of the plank. If it moves, we are in trouble. If it comes loose, the damage is so serious that the battle is already lost. Undisputable proof is the characteristic hacker damage in the remains of the plank. Clear evidence that the enemy has won this year’s battle.

A Battle Lost

Yes, you guessed! Ants – the usual culprits. Sometimes red, sometimes black, sometimes small, other times large, but always lots of them hacking and munching away at the wooden planks shoring up my steps.

Black Garden Ant

Most years I have to replace one plank, but some years two separate armies of ants decide to invade the steps.

What can I do about it? My choice of weapons is limited. What about ABC-warfare? So far I have tried biological weaponry – pouring large quantities of water on the steps. Ants prefer dry ground but just shook the water off and carried on the battle. A chemical weapon, sprinkling MYRR under and round the planks, was more successful but only in the short term. Long-term use and increased doses proved financially prohibitive as the ants just moved on to another plank. Hacker warfare is subject to some budget restraints.

Agent Hacker

I even considered asking the local hospital for surplus or out-of-date isotopes, but decided against it; radioactivity could lead to mutations and, in the long run, giant warrior ants.

So I am reduced to pursuing a low-grade guerrilla strategy. First, by not replacing planks until all the ants have moved on. So far I have been replacing damaged planks with new timber as soon as possible. I call this strategy “Starve the Brutes”. Second, investment in the latest generation of impregnated timber technology, designed for use in the ground or in water. Thicker, heavy duty, more potent . This strategy is designed to directly affect the hacking of the ants so that it takes them longer to masticate the wood fibres. Hopefully they become weaker and finally decide to leave for greener pastures. Combined with the chemical approach this could just tip the balance.

My Current Arsenal of Weapons

The end result appears solid enough, but appearances are deceptive. Already after one day I noticed the red forest ants had  sent a couple of scouts to check out my latest attempt at winning the war. I managed to exterminate the scouts, but have no illusions. They will be back!

New Hacker Meal

What next? I still have a few things up my sleeve. For example replacing the wooden planks with hardwood, metal plates, stone slabs or artificial composite wood, not to speak of a massive reinforced concrete staircase. Less charming, I know, but battles are there to be won. All’s fair in love and war!

 

 

 

 

A Week in the Life

Chinese Turn Away

Agitated phone call from daughter, eight o’clock Sunday evening. Buzz of voices in the background. On the train home or in a shop, I thought at the time.

“Hi”

“Where are you?”

“Chinese take away, in the queue, we won three nil. Dog’s limping, got something in his paw. Gotta go! Call you later.”

I said “Take care”, but she had already hung up. She sounded upset, spoke quickly, in whispers. I put it down to exhaustion after the football match, and worry about the dog. Or maybe it was her turn to order Chow Mein.

Monday lunchtime she phoned again, from work. She had calmed down, sounded tired.

“’Hello”

“Hi. Recovered from last night?”

“Yees. Got a kick on my knee in the match, big bruise. Dog’s still limping, probably have to take him to the vet.

“Sounded lively at the take away yesterday.”

“You don’t know half of it.”

“Tell me.”

“When I phoned you I was standing in the queue to order. Felt someone standing close behind me. Turned round. Big bloke with blood running down his face, from a head wound. Staring at me phoning. Probably thought I was calling the police. Turned away. He made for the washroom. Looked around. Nobody reacted. He came back and looked around, face and hair wet, blood on his shirt. The people waiting turned away, and those behind the counter behaved as though everything was quite normal. Heard police sirens outside. Didn’t dare get my phone out and call them, he’d see me. Got my Chow Mein, paid and left as quick as I could, ran all the way home, made the knee worse. It was really scary. He was hiding from somebody, and nobody dared do anything.”

“Feel better now?”

“Should have phoned, just hoped someone else would do it so I didn’t have to.”

“Probably what all the others thought too. Scary place. Good you survived. How was the Chow Mein?”

“That’s not funny Dad” she said and cut me off.

 

One Lost Elk

On Tuesday morning we took the car to visit our eldest daughter’s workplace, a local ecological farm. It’s usually only about fifteen minutes away, but diversions due to road works for a new by-pass slowed us down. The diversion took us through a mixed residential and industrial area, split by a four-lane road with lots of commercial traffic.

On the way home there was a bit of a tail back, so we were chugging along at thirty km/hr. The driver in front of us seemed confused by the diversion. We groaned, then sighed with relief when he turned off at the next junction. Now I could put my foot down, it was a seventy road. Suddenly a dark shape emerged from between two of the office blocks which lined the road. Instinctively I must have let up on the gas as I focussed on a large elk calf trotting across the road about ten yards in front of us, head held high like an elegant ballet dancer. The car overtaking me in the outer lane just missed the elk, which jumped nonchalantly over the three foot high concrete barrier into the opposite lane. Unfortunately it skidded on the asphalt, but the driver of a large, blue petrol tanker slowed down in time to let the elk regain its balance and trot across the final lane, looking rather confused. Safely on the other side of the road, it was faced with a choice of Burger King, a filling station or a car park.

We looked at each other with relief at our near miss. No horns blasting, no squealing tyres. An everyday thing this time of year, when elk cows chase away last year’s offspring to make room for new young ones.

Parking the car in our garage after the day’s excitement, I noticed a disturbingly large patch of fresh oil on the concrete floor. Phoned Carl at my local garage, (official name Reliable Car Repairs), reminded him that he had fixed an oil leak only two weeks ago. He was obliging with a time the next morning, seven o’clock sharp.

 

Loo for Two

It is a twenty-minute walk from Carl’s workshop to our house. He is a very talkative mechanic so it was seven–thirty when I got away. The walk took me between office blocks housing our local Silicon Valley companies, through a large mall, across a stony square and finally an area of apartment blocks and terraced houses.

At this time of the morning the shops in the mall were closed except for coffee shops and cafes catering to commuters who had missed breakfast. Two herds of people through the mall met in a scrum outside the underground station. Every five minutes a train deposited a load of youngish ITK-people heading for their computers. They stampeded through the mall, most half-running while skillfully balancing cellphone and take-away coffee. I sheltered in the doorway of an optician until the coast was clear. Walking briskly, I passed the entrance to the station, intent on making it into the square before the next stampede. Unfortunately there was another herd of people forcing their way through the glass doors to get to the station. I was trapped. This time I had to take refuge in the doorway of a British style pub. I held my breath to avoid the sickly odour of yesterday’s beer and fags.  A sudden lull in the flow of people enabled me to squeeze through the double-doors, shoulder down as in my rugby-playing days. Safely out into the square, I leant against the nearest shop front to breathe some fresh air. It was the local dry cleaner and tailor. By now it was almost eight o’clock, and the people rushing to the station had a look of desperation in their eyes, cell phones glued to their ears. They were late for work.

I looked round the square in the way that a stranger might do.  Along one side was a red-brick and concrete 1970’s church with clock tower and church rooms. Yellow-brick buildings closed two sides of the square, on one side a school, the other a former public library and meeting hall converted into a mosque and people’s high school for Koran studies.

I noticed that the small, discrete police station next to the dry cleaners had changed opening hours. A small typed notice informed presumptive callers that passports were not issued here but you could find the police there between one and three o’clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays, public holidays excepted.

As usual the large fountain between the church and high school was out of order, now serving as a giant litter bin. My eyes came to rest on the latest addition to the facilities provided in the square, a small building adorned with the sign “WC” together with symbols for men, women and wheelchairs. Sensitively erected outside the large windows of the church hall,  the toilet block has a modern upside-down U-shaped profile, with a green/black mottled pattern designed to dissuade local graffiti artists.

The Public Convenience (Loo for Two)

It is a modern construction, all stainless steel fittings, serviced by a man in a white van who regularly hoses the place down, before putting red CLOSED stickers on the two entrances. The toilets are mainly used by the Arabic-speaking men who sell flowers, fruit and vegetables from a large stall on the square, below the steps leading up to the mosque, and the beggars who sit outside the mall entrance with their paper cups. The stall-holders have a key, which they lend to the beggars.  For others it costs five crowns.

A couple of men hanging around outside the toilets caught my attention. They were definitely not commuters; tall, longish hair, skinny, washed-out jeans, stooped and a jerky way of walking were the give-away signs of junkies. They were arguing about something, gesticulating towards the toilets. Digging in jeans pockets, one of them eventually found a coin which fitted the slot in the door, and entered quickly carrying a plastic bag. For some reason, the second junkie held the door open. Was he checking out the square? No police around. The commuters were in too much of a hurry to care. After a minute or so he slipped inside to join his companion. No one in the square reacted by calling the police, or at least no police turned up, possibly because it was not between one and three on a Tuesday or Thursday.

After about ten minutes the toilet door slowly opened and the two men staggered out, vigorously rubbing upper arms and seeming less agitated.

Van waiting. Service man inside cleaning the loo.

Hurried home for an early breakfast, wondering what the service man found when he opened the toilet doors, hosepipe at the ready.

 

Pain Heals

Friday morning I took the train into the city for my quarterly visit to the chiropractor. I’d been going there for years, sometimes more often when the old back was playing up. The clinic was in an old basement apartment; small kitchen, bathroom, two treatment rooms, waiting room and a cloakroom. He shared the clinic with a female colleague.

I was ten minutes early, so I settled down in the waiting room with a magazine, “The Big Issue”. There were two other people there, patients, also reading. One a slim, middle-aged woman, tall, blonde, sunburnt, wearing running tights, orange sneakers and two shocking pink tops, apparently just come in from her morning run. She was reading a magazine called “Healthy Living”. Across from her sat a youngish man, overweight, pasty-looking. He was reading “Scientific News”. There was soft music in the background and the walls had arty, black and white photographs of a man in a white coat manipulating the well- limbs of a half-naked patient.

No one spoke, it was an anonymous place. No reception, no names, no complaints. We just sat there silently hiding behind magazines, nursing our own personal aches and pains. Suddenly a loud wail – “AAAAAArrrrrrggggg!” – split the silence. It came  from the direction of the female chiropractor’s treatment room. Then again a female voice cried: “No No No more, it hurts, stop, stop!!”

In the waiting room it was impossible to avoid hearing these cries, but the only reaction was to sink deeper down behind our magazines. Of course, it was not the done thing to cry out in pain on the treatment table. Never heard it before in all my years of visits to chiropractors.

I soon expected to hear the reluctant patient running down the corridor, escaping from the pain of the treatment table.  But no, all was silent except for the faint scrape as magazine pages were flipped and the creak of upholstered chairs. In the distance a door opened and a weak voice cried: “Mummy, you can come now”. There was only one possible mummy in the room, the jogging lady. She sighed, made a show of finishing the article she was reading, picked up her bag and marched off along the corridor with a deliberate stride. Unfortunately I missed the finale, the reunion of mother and daughter, it being my turn to enter the torture chamber.

That was the week that was!