Category Archives: Episodes from Life

Underground Octopus

Every visit to our country place, located by a small lake, starts with a routine inspection of the property to check what, if anything, has happened during our absence. Before leaving, I always rake over the sand by the shore, so that any new foot prints would show. I do admit that looking for signs of intruders by checking the sandy shore for foot prints could be regarded as somewhat obsessive – even paranoid – but innocent.

Another important ritual involves fetching a garden fork from the tool shed and, where the green slope meets the sandy beach, driving the fork vertically into the ground. I move step by step, from left to right, lean on the fork and prod the ground to feel if there is any resistance which may indicate the presence of tree roots. Why, you may ask, is this necessary? It is, but to answer your question, we must go back to a series of events which started over seven years ago.

At that time there was no beach to speak of, just a waterlogged area of tall grass, reeds and gravel washed up from the lake. The only thing that thrived there was an enormous old weeping willow. Over the years the tree had spread its branches so much that it in effect had occupied the shore and blocked our access to the lake. Whenever we tried to catch a glimpse of the setting sun over the lake, that darned tree was always in the way.

One day, seven years ago, I had just got tired of looking at an enormous tree. It had to go. The decision was made.

Full of enthusiasm, l fetched my ladder and a large bow saw to attack the tree. I started at the top, or rather as high up as I dare climb. The thinner branches were the first to go. That was easy, I thought, no problem, even though the saw was a bit rusty and not very sharp. The tree responded by releasing a flow of sticky sap where I started to saw. This clogged up the teeth on the saw. It took me an exhausting weekend to get through all the thinner branches. All that was left was the tree trunk, over three feet across with bark like rough vertical ribs. About six feet above the ground the trunk divided into three thick boughs, now deprived of their branches and leaves. The naked tree was about 25 feet tall in all, the three boughs stretching up into the sky like outstretched arms.

Pleased with myself, I asked M to come and look at the result.

She glanced at the enormous pile of branches, sighed, and in that down-to-earth voice of hers, said:

“Curb your enthusiasm. It’ll grow lots of new shoots where you’ve sawn off the branches. Be worse than before.”

No more was said. We drove home.

Three weeks later I was back, aching muscles forgotten and determined to beat that tree. M was right of course – new shoots had pushed their way through the bark where I had sawn off branches. No problem, I said to myself, this time I am going for the big one, the trunk.

My strategy was clear. First a V-shaped cut in the direction I wanted the trunk to fall, then a single deeper cut lower down on the opposite side. I had a new sharp blade for the saw and a motley collection of axes and wedges, some rather ancient. I started about three feet above the waterlogged ground, just below where the trunk split into three massive boughs. The ground was waterlogged and very soon I was standing with mud half way up my rubber boots. But I persevered.

By lunchtime I had cut out the V-shaped wedge to ensure that the tree would fall away from the shore and end up safely in the field above. At least in theory.

I struggled all afternoon to get through the trunk, bending lower to get a horizontal cut but without ending up in the mud. The saw kept getting stuck in the dense core of the tree and I had to hammer in wedges to pull it out again. Then I needed to hammer in more wedges to release the first wedges.

From time to time I leaned against the trunk, giving it a good shove with my shoulder and listening for the first sign of splitting wood. After two hours or so, knocking in two thinner wedges, I heard a dull groan from the trunk. Was it giving up the battle at last?  I leaned my right shoulder against the trunk again and pushed with all my weight in the direction where it was to fall. Nothing happened. I tried a series of short sharp pushes and then it started to wobble gently back and forth. Now I’ve got it going, I thought, and with a new sense of urgency started pushing the trunk back and forth. Suddenly a loud crack and it was falling. I had planned to shout “Timber” like a Canadian lumberjack, but realised it was falling in the wrong direction. I tried to jump out of the way but my rubber boots had sunk down into the mud and were stuck. Fighting against the suction, I fell over on my back, landing in the field but leaving my boots behind. The tree fell in the other direction, across the shore and into the reeds, with an enormous crash.

M came running down when she heard the noise.

“You survived?” she asked.

“Fell the wrong way, the bugger!”

“Trees can do that!” she said. “Tea’s on.”

I pulled my boots out of the mud, collected my tools and went looking for some dry clothes.

A week later, appetite whetted by my success with the tree trunk, I decided I had to get rid of the enormous stump that was left. Then I could see us sitting here in our beach chairs, looking out over the lake and drinking a cold beer.

Pulling on my wellies again and taking my expensive ergonomic spade from its hook in the shed, I marched off down to the shore to complete the job. The tree stump stood there in a grey pond. Nothing to it but to dig up the mud, free the tree roots and pull up the stump, or so I thought.

 I started digging a trench around the stump, lifting up spadeloads of a black putrid mass, releasing a rotten methane smell as the decomposing organic matter came up out of the water.  Luckily there was a fresh breeze from the lake. Then I continued to the next layer – heavy thick grey clay. The more I dug, the quicker the hole filled up with water from the lake. I discovered while digging that the old tree had an enormous network of roots which fanned out in the direction of the lake, reaching out under the shore to reach the water. Three of the main roots were as thick as my arm. After all my excavations, the stump and exposed roots were coated in wet mud. In the fading afternoon light it looked like a giant octopus with underground arms.

Home again I gave some serious thought to what I was doing. I could just leave the mess and forget about it, but there was no turning back.

M: “You can’t leave it like that, a muddy lake. It could swallow one of the grandchildren! Or the neighbour’s cat.”

Options available included a stick of dynamite, chain saw or the neighbouring farmer’s tractor. It could have been quite fun, despite the collateral damage, but no! That autumn I did build a traditional bonfire on top of the stump in a half-hearted attempt to get rid of it, but the wood just smouldered for a few days and ended up blacker and harder than before. An evil looking black octopus. Before winter set in I cleared some smaller trees and bushes further along the shore, to have something to show for all my work.

The next summer we were in luck. The level of the lake was lower than normal and the land closest to the lake had dried out. The octopus was still there, no longer sitting in a pool of mud. Instead the tree stump was stranded in a dry hollow, roots exposed where they joined on. My first thought was: Climate change! But no, there was a more down to earth explanation. The water in the lake flowed downstream via a narrow creek which eventually took it all the way to the Baltic Sea. The creek had been blocked by some industrious beavers. Local farmers shot the beavers, demolished their dam and lodge, the creek started running again and the water level in the lake went down.

So, back to work. I got out my saw and quickly cut off the roots from the tree stump, making it possible to lever the stump out of its hole and roll it into the nearby woods. The head and body of the octopus were gone.

To recover from this sweaty job I got out a beach chair and beer, looked out over the lake satisfied with a job well done. M joined me.

“You aren’t planning to leave the roots are you?” she asked,

“Well, maybe….. It’s a lot of work …. They can stay there underground can’t they?””

“Up to you, but lots of new willows will shoot up from the roots in the spring.”

“Mmmmm” I murmured.

It took almost two whole days because the roots had spread all the way under the shore and down to the lake. Some were ten to fifteen feet long when I got them up. I collected them all in a big pile on the shore, reaching out like the arms of a dead octopus washed up on the shore.

The Neighbours Are Upset

It was my first day back in the village after more than a year away at uni. I was 18 years old.  Mum thought I should make myself useful by returning the old lawnmower to my Nan. It was her way of getting me from under her feet. Nan lived on a small council estate just off the main village street, with her grown daughter and son, my Aunt Nellie and Uncle Ike.

The mower was rusty, not having been near an oil can for the best part of a decade. It was too heavy to carry, so I decided to push the reluctant creature the back way through the estate. I thought it would also attract less attention than using the main street. Which turned out to be a big mistake.

Nan’s estate was part of a larger swath of houses built cheaply by the local council after the war, to provide homes for victims of the war from down in the town. Uniform semis built in greyish brick and roofing tiles had brick chimneys and tiled fireplaces for burning the local coal. Small windows slotted into metal window frames let in what little daylight managed to penetrate the polluted skies. Each house had a small garden to hang washing. The houses were arranged in winding streets named after trees, Alder Avenue or Sycamore Crescent, in an attempt to raise their status a notch. A few one-storey bungalows for pensioners rounded off the estate. Inside the houses were regarded as modern with a bathroom, indoor lavatory, back boiler and gas stove. The kitchen walls were plastered, just brick, coated with a thick layer of green oil paint.

Nan’s house was on the edge of the estate, bounded on one by the main village street and on the other by a deep cutting which housed the railway line to Liverpool. Having used up all the local trees, the council plumped for place names. Nan lived in Gloucester Road, off Lancaster Road. It was a quiet street where the houses hid behind both fences and thick privet hedges, to mark their respective territory. The people on the estate were low-income workers who cycled to the chemical plants of the nearby town, leaving their wives at home with the kids, shopping and housework. Several of my schoolmates grew up there.

I set off, pretending it was the most natural thing in the world to push a clattering lawnmower along the uneven slabs of the stone pavement. As I turned into Nan’s street, several heads appeared at upstairs windows, attracted by the din. I quickened my step to get it over with, but the old mower protested loudly. Suddenly a new noise joined in, dogs barking from behind me and getting closer. Turning, I saw two dogs rushing towards me from one of the gardens opposite Nan. I tried desperately to get the mower between me and the attackers, but it was not easy to manoeuvre. Too late, the dogs struck. They both jumped up, growling ferociously. A scruffy black and white sheepdog went for my trouser leg. The material ripped and the dog’s teeth raked the back of my leg. The other one, a mongrel, several shades of brown, sank his front teeth into my right thigh. I shouted as I tried to swing the lawnmower at the dogs like a giant rusty club. It was heavy, but I managed to give the sheepdog a bit of a swipe across the head. But it still didn’t let go of my trouser leg.

Suddenly I hear: “Get back in ‘ere!” from one of the houses. The dogs bolted home like frightened rabbits into their holes, and with some relief I heard a door slam. I stood there all alone. The whole street was silent, no one to be seen. I lifted the mower from where it lay upside down and dragged it the last few yards, leaving it in Nan’s back garden. I didn’t knock, not wanting to worry her or get her worked up about the neighbours. She was a fighter, not to be messed about and noted for her sharp tongue.

I sneaked out of the garden and closed the squeaky gate quietly behind me. My heart was still thumping against my ribs like a base drum. I looked down at my trousers and legs to survey the damage. Fresh blood was trickling down my legs from the bite marks, and both trousers legs were torn. I rubbed my legs with what remained of my trouser legs and limped off towards the village street. What now I thought? Mad dogs? Rabies? Tetanus jab? Doctor?

Instead of returning home, I got the idea of going to see the village doctor. He lived in a large detached house surrounded by an acre of garden and protected from the village street by a high brick wall. There was no gate, which felt welcoming,  so I marched boldly up the gravel driveway. Another mistake.

The only way to reach the front door was via a gate in a low brown wooden fence. A fat basset hound was lying down hiding behind the fence, awaiting his chance to ambush callers, tradesmen and unwanted patients. The hound knew that I would have to open the gate and get past him to reach the doorbell. Already bitten twice, in my desperation to avoid rabies I thought I was in some way immune or protected, that he would feel sorry for me.  He got up and looked at me with a rather superior expression. He was after all the doctor’s dog. I took a deep breath, opened the gate and instantly he was on me, barking and baring his saliva-dripping teeth. I felt them puncturing what was left of my trousers and just as I was going to do a runner, the solid oak front door opened wide and a cultivated female voice enquired,

“Can I help you?” A well-preserved middle-aged woman of class was standing there. It was the doctor’s wife. “Quiet Morris”, she said firmly, and the dog shot inside.

“Sorry to disturb you, but I need a tetanus jab, just been bitten by a couple of dogs on the estate. Is the doctor possibly at home?“

“I’m afraid he’s is not at the moment”, she replied in a voice modulated by many years of elocution lessons.

“Your dog bit me too” I said, “look here,” pointing to my bloody trousers.

“Yes, Morris does that. Try the clinic in the town. I’m sure they will be able to help you.” she said in a rather condescending manner, and firmly closed the front door. It had an expensive sounding thud which echoed around the garden. I hurried away, leaving the gate open on purpose and hoping that Morris would escape and get run over.

In the village street I joined the throng of housewives and pensioners at the bus stop.  A red double decker bus was due to take them the town centre and the local market. Standing at the bus stop I discretely surveyed my torn and blood-stained trousers. Several of the other passengers stared, or so I imagined, but no one said anything. Hopefully that meant they didn’t recognise me. They probably knew Mum from the local church and women’s club. Let them gossip, I thought. I don’t live here anymore.

The town boasted an accident hospital for minor injuries, which I hoped would be more welcoming than the doctor’s wife. I climbed on board as best I could, given my injuries.

“Been in the wars lad?” asked the observant bus conductor, surveying my blood trousers.

“Dogs on the estate!”

”Shoot ‘em all if I had my way! Need to get those seen to”, he said.

“On my way to accident hospital, down by the river.”

” Take you all the way son, only a shilling.”

I paid and, hoped it would shut him up, climbed upstairs to keep out of the way of the village gossips. A used white cotton handkerchief screwed up in my pocket was all I had to wipe the blood from my legs. It had dwindled to a trickle but I still got my hands covered in blood as I tried to scrub the worst mess off. The smell of blood on my hands mixed with diesel fumes from the bus was sickening. The bus took ages, stopping frequently for loud housewives to clamber on board. After the market place I had the bus to myself.

The accident hospital was a large red-brick building down by the river. I forced open the heavy wooden doors and stumbled into what turned out to be the reception. A jolly-looking nurse who presented herself as Edna stepped forward and, seeing my bloody handkerchief, exclaimed in a loud voice:

“What have we here then? Been in the wars I see.”

“Dogs,” I groaned

“How many?”

“Three in all!”

“My my! Record this week” said Edna laughing. “Follow me and we’ll have a look at your wounds.”

She led me to a small treatment room as though I was her “patient of the day”, gathering gossip to amuse colleagues during their tea break.

“Drop your trousers then, what’s left of them, and we’ll have a look at you. “

I hesitated a second or two.

“Don’t be shy now, I’ve seen legs before!”

I did as I was told and lay down on a low bench against the wall.

“Hairy! exclaimed Edna as she examined the bites.

“Yeh, it was quite scary.”

“Your legs I mean, hairy.”

Nurse Edna proceeded to swab off the dried blood and apply disinfectant on the bites and scratches. It stung sharply but I kept quiet until she had finished. Now I sported three oversize dressings held in place with gauze bandages.

“There you are, all done. Be right as rain in a few days.”

“What about a jab?” I asked.

Not deep enough lad, an’ we haven’t had rabies here since the Middle Ages. Up you jump and cover up those hairy pegs again. You can rinse off your hands in the toilet outside.”

“I’m going to report the dogs to the police.”

“Are you then! You’ll need one of these.” said Edna reaching into the desk drawer and pulling out an official-looking form. “Fill this in, name and address, and I’ll do the rest. Show it at the station.”

A big red bus was waiting for me at the stop outside the hospital. The driver had taken a stroll along the promenade for a cig. I climbed up, holding Edna’s form. It had her signature and a purple rubber stamp which said Accident Hospital. I was glad to sit alone on the bus, sights set on the police station a few stops nearer town hall square.

I had never been to a police station before. It was in a scruffy brick building next to the local billiard hall, The Black Cat, where the villains were said to hang out. The standard blue lantern with POLICE on the glass sides told me I had found the right place. Inside the heavy door, a tired looking elderly policeman with several stripes on his uniform got up slowly from his old office chair and approached the reception counter. He had grey hair and a belly which wobbled when he moved. Clearing his throat loudly, he slid the metal shutter to one side and in a rather weary voice asked:

“What can we do you for?”

“I’ve been attacked by three dogs. I want to report it,” I said, in a wavering voice. I handed over Edna’s form.

He glanced at the paper, placed it slowly on the counter and turned away to look for his glasses. He found them, with the help of a younger colleague, and then studied the form for what to me seemed a very long time.

“Sure you want to report this, lad?”

“Yes, ‘m sure” I managed to whisper.

“Where did this incident take place?” he asked in a formal sounding voice.

“The Village, on the estate.”

“Might have guessed.  Nobody down here in’e town ‘d report a dog bite! Kick the buggers, and owners too if they have any.”

“All right. Your privilege.”

He turned to face the office and growled loudly: ”Where’s that new one, got a job for ‘im.”

A young, fresh looking junior policeman appeared, hardly older than me.

“Take this young man up to yon village and get ‘im to identify them dogs as bit him. Chop chop now.”

The young policeman smiled and showed me through a door which led to the police car park. He unlocked a small police car with turquoise and white stripes, a Panda car, used for patrolling. It didn’t feel like a real police car for chasing robbers, but probably put the wind up the locals on the estate.

“Jump in, lad. Up in the village then?”

“Yes, Gloucester Road.”

“Live there do you?”

“No, my Nan does. I’m at uni.”

“What happened?”

I explained as briefly as possible, not mentioning the visit to the doctor’s house´.

“I’m Malcolm. New on the force. Get sent on these cases. Community policing it’s called.”

“What happens now?”

“I’ll go in first and talk to the owners. Then you’ll have to identify the dogs. In these cases, if the dog bites the policeman then it’s cut and dried. Probably get a fine and restraining order.”

Malcolm, a big lad in his early twenties, perched his police hat on his head and marched off up the pathway to number 31, kicking the loose gate open in his stride. I sat in the Panda car, slumped down in the seat, waiting. Occasionally I glanced up towards the houses and noticed net curtains moving. The neighbours were getting something to talk about. After about ten minutes, Malcolm came out and fetched me.

“You’ll have to identify the dog, procedure, but it’s got a muzzle on now. Bit of a giveaway really.”

I followed Malcolm up the pathway and he ushered me into the back kitchen. The black and white sheepdog was lying in the corner, wearing a brown leather muzzle. It growled as soon as it saw me. The owner aimed a kick in the direction of the dog. It retreated into the corner, cowed and silent.

Malcolm followed procedure:

“Is this the dog that attacked you, sir?”

“Yes, I replied”, my voice wavering slightly.

“Well,” said Malcolm, turning towards the owner, “you’ll be hearing from us. And keep that muzzle on when the dog’s outside!”

“That went rather well I think,” said Malcolm, back in the the safety of the car.

“Yes, ‘suppose” was all I could say.

“Want a lift home?”

“No, not far from here, this’ll do. Thanks!”

Malcolm dropped me off on the corner of the estate and drove off, looking satisfied with his day’s work.

Back home Dad was at the kitchen sink shaving. When I came in through the back door he carried on staring into his small round shaving mirror. Mum was in the living room. I felt the tension and disapproval as I stepped inside. She had heard, through the gossip grapevine. It all poured out, as expected:

“Where have you been all this time? Look at the state of them trousers, your good ones. Fancy wearing these to take the mower. Serves you right taking it through that estate, I told you to go along the main street. It’s all over the village, calling the police and making a fuss.  Neighbours are very upset. Don’t tell your Nan, they’re right across from her.”

I didn’t have the energy to argue with her. From the back kitchen Dad must have heard Mum’s outburst. He made a beeline across living room, a characteristic disappearance act to avoid getting involved, muttering “shoot ‘em” as he disappeared into the parlour with his racing paper. It was unclear whether he meant the dogs or the owners, probably both. He had no time over for the people who lived on the estate.

I was at home for another week, a week dominated by the big silence. Nothing more was said, except “your tea’s on the table” and the like. The volume on the TV was turned up to cover up the silence.

To make matters worse I contacted a solicitor when I got back to university. I was so angry about the dog attack and my ruined trousers that I was determined to make the dog owner pay. Living on a student grant at the time I couldn’t afford new ones. The solicitor sent a letter to the owners, demanding compensation for the trousers. They sent a cheque.

Mum wrote a brief note a few days later:

Dear Eric
The neighbours are very upset with the police calling, and the letter from the solicitor.
I don’t know what’s got into you since you left home.
Love,
Mum & Dad

 

 

Non-Verbal Communication

One icy winter morning at about eleven o’clock I hurried across the stony windswept square, passing the ragged Christmas tree and solid brick church which sported a banner declaring “Hug somebody you like!” when I noticed a stocky, older man approaching. Outside the smelly ornamental public toilets he stopped and looked around, obviously confused. He was wearing a dark blue padded winter jacket, loose blue jeans, gym shoes and a bob hat which had lost the bob. I slowed down and, taking this as invitation, he came up to me, rather uncomfortably close I thought, and whispered “SFI?” in a gravelly voice. Another lost soul, I thought, and considered pointing him in the direction of the church, but repented and repeated “SFI?” He nodded and smiled. He was closer to sixty than fifty, with a dark weather-beaten face, which possibly indicated African roots, and poor front teeth. He was blinking urgently, obviously running late.

With my whole arm I pointed towards the glass doors of the shopping centre across the square, telling him to go right through the building and out the other side, take off to the right and past the hotel which he would see there. He smiled and nodded, but then asked again “SFI?” and pointed to his feet. He obviously hadn’t understood. I asked “English?”, whereupon he smiled again and shook his head. I waved my arm again in the general direction of the shopping centre. He shook his head slowly for a minute or two and then, like a man revealing a secret, dragged out an envelope from an inner pocket and handed it over. It was an official looking paper, an invitation to take part in a training course for SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) at 11 o’clock at an address on the other side of the shopping centre. I knew it well, went past there often on my way to the gym.

I nodded and pointed to the paper, then used my arms again like a semaphore to indicate which way he should go. To be on the safe side I repeated this procedure a couple of times. He smiled, put the paper back in the envelope, stuffed it into his pocket and set off at a good nick towards the shopping centre. At last, I thought, he got it, pleased with my success at non-verbal communication. Then, as he approached the entrance, he veered suddenly to the left and scurried along a passageway towards the bus station. I couldn’t catch him before he disappeared around a corner, and it was too far to shout. Obviously he had not understood anything I had said. Which of course was why he needed to go to Swedish for Immigrants. There was no map or instructions how to get there.

What happened to the man? Did he get to his Swedish lessons? Did he feel as lost here in Sweden as I did living in Beijing in the early 1980’s? And what could I have done to get him there safely?

These questions squelched around in my head all day. If I had smiled and, holding hands in the African manner, accompanied him to the training centre, a walk of almost a kilometre, would he have trusted me, a white man?

 

 

 

 

 

We Are Not Alone

Over the years I have seen countless signs that our summer place is used even when we are not there, but have seldom met any of the visitors. Some years ago I did sit down by the lake for some hours late one evening, wrapped in rubberised army camouflage netting, torch and binoculars at the ready. The animals were too smart, warned off by the smell. I woke up the next day with a sore back, and the netting ended up at the dump.

Now I have tried a different strategy. Very early one Friday morning towards the end of a wet October I decided to sneak up on the place to find out who was there, and what was going on. Our little cottage is like an island, surrounded by a deep sea of heavy gravel and protected by two creaking wooden gates. Nobody can get close to the cottage without making a noise. I left the car along the dirt road about half a mile from the cottage. It was barely light and the only sound was the breeze from the lake which rustled the yellowing leaves on the tall birch trees. I pulled on my rubber boots and dark green jacket before making for the thick bushes which grew by the side of the road. I treaded carefully, taking my time. If I did meet anyone, which was most unlikely, I planned to say that I was hunting for fungi.

As I approached our site I saw that the cottage was still enveloped in a cobweb of mist, blown in from the lake. No one was in sight as I climbed over the brown four-barred fence, heart beating loudly. I slipped quietly into a compact stand of saplings: oaks, rowans, hawthorns, maples and birches, planted to provide a thick barrier against the road. I squeezed between the trees making for our compost, favourite haunt of a badger. It was hard going. My jacket was dripping wet from the leaves and swirling mist, while the vicious hawthorns clawed at my clothes.

The compost was well hidden behind a tall fir with branches which swept the ground. Good cover for the badger who regularly turned over the compost for us, digging for worms. I slipped through the wet, knee-high grass and found the compost black and  freshly turned over. It must have been here last night. Over the years the badgers, rarely seen, have established a network of meandering paths following the contours of the land. We use them too.

Behind the compost the land slopes upwards towards the mountain, an outcrop  of smooth polished rock. The mountain towers above a sloping field which makes up most of the site, and then drops steeply  thirty feet into the lake. A few years ago the badger tried to dig a den in the shallow soil cover but gave up after a couple of yards, when it came up against the thick root of a pine tree. Now badgers use the mountain as a toilet, digging shallow holes for their blackish droppings, and ploughing up the moss in search of worms and beetles. Apart from the occasional deer or two, who make their beds under the shelter of the fir trees, there are few other signs of life up on the mountain.

Standing by the compost,  the mountain blocked my view of the lake, but I could hear heavy waves landing on the sandy shore. Fortunately the wind came in from the South, towards me, dispersing my scent. I stepped carefully, using the badger path which sloped down towards the lower field, skirting the mountain and a giant pine tree. At this early hour I was hoping to see some more signs of animal life. Passing the pine, I had to wade through a large patch of wet ferns, three feet high. Unfortunately I disturbed a male pheasant which had bedded down there for the night. It flew up, screeching loudly to tell any living being within 500 yards that it had been woken up by an intruder, and ran for the nearest tree cover. It  frightened the wits out of me and my heart took an extra beat or two.

That put an end to my silent mission. Resigned, I continued along the badger path in the direction of the lake. The path skirted a grassy slope dotted with red spots like a bad case of the measles, windfalls from  our only apple tree. Under the nearby oak trees the ground was covered in old acorns, which crackled underfoot as a further alarm signal.

Now I could see  the lake and stopped to watch the steaming mist rising from the surface, melted by the rays of the early morning sun. As the mist gradually dispersed, I could see  the outline of our blue and white rowing boat on the beach, leaning lazily to one side as though trying to find shelter amongst the tall reeds. It was half-full of brownish rainwater, yellow birch seeds floating on the surface like freckles on a summer face. Along the edge of the shore the strong waves had whipped up large blobs of stiff white foam, like shaving cream waiting for the razor.

It had rained during the night, which made it easier to detect traces of visitors on the shore. Bending down to the sand, I was reminded of Robinson Crusoe’s feelings when he found the print of a foot on his beach many years ago. When he knew he was not alone.

”It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition. I listened, I looked around me, but I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one; I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the print of a foot – toes, heel and every part of a foot. How it came thither I knew not, nor could I in the least imagine; but after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be man.…

” In my reflections upon the state of my case since I came on shore on this island, I was comparing the happy posture of my affairs in the first years of my habitation here, with the life of anxiety, fear, and care which I had lived ever since I had seen the print of a foot in the sand.”

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, http://www.gutenberg.org

Our beach also had footprints. The paw marks of the neighbour’s cat were easily identified, a daily visitor who finds the loose sand excellent for burying droppings. It was my job to rake the stuff up and consign it to the nearby bushes.

Despite the early hour, my heart did beat a little faster when I noticed a trail of unfamiliar footprints leading up the beach to a thicket of elms and willows, normally used by shy bathers. The footprints had five clearly defined fingers linked by a web, and claws which left deep marks in the sand. The prints were concentrated to the area below the bushes, and then trailed off into the reeds. Puzzling, until I noticed a couple of fresh branches lying in the water near the shore. Of course it was a beaver, cutting down fresh branches for breakfast, leaving  characteristic tooth marks on the stumps.

Over the years I have found many traces of visitors and more permanent residents. In summer a flock of pigeons has come regularly every year to briefly sip water from the shore, hardly leaving any impressions in the sand. The heron  who nests in the reeds on the other side of the lake, is much heavier and not in such a hurry. It leaves very distinct triangular footprints, striding around in the shallows on stilt-like legs, looking for frogs and tiddlers.

More dramatic events have taken place on the beach, leaving behind other  traces. Early one morning I came upon the neighbour’s cat sitting by the shore, crunching on a two foot long slowworm (a snake-like lizard). The cat scarpered, leaving me to bury the poor headless victim. A slowworm family has lived for many years under a mound of boulders, left over from a pier demolished by winter ice crawling up the shore. The snake lookalikes curl up asleep on the rocks in the sunshine, or can be seen swimming along the shore. Once or twice I have spotted a shallow trail in the sand where they have slithered across the beach, from the water to the safety of the rocks.

My second burial was a deer, or the remains of a deer. First I noticed that tufts of pale brown fur were spread around the site, presumably from when the deer tried to escape. The animal was picked clean, carcass left on a slight rise overlooking the beach, probably where the meal took place. Under some bushes nearby I found the stomach and intestines, still intact. It was a professional job, probably a lynx judging by the marks on the deer’s throat. Neighbours later confirmed that a  lynx had been sighted in the area.

Last summer I was down by the shore with the dog, a boxer, who rushes around nose-down, following the myriad of scents left by animals.  I noticed a strange pile of white stuff at the water’s edge. Closer inspection showed that a large number of white feathers had been washed up onto the shore, as though from an exploding feather pillow. Nearby under some bushes there was a large pile too, presumably where a goshawk had plucked its prey. There was nothing else, no carcass or other remains. From the amount of feathers I guessed it was a mallard – one of many on the lake. The dog was agitated, running to and fro, nose down  in the tall grass. A few minutes later he disappeared into some bushes, tail wagging like a metronome.  When I tried to pull him back, he growled. Afraid he had scented a snake or badger, I dragged him out and found he had the remains of a well plucked and stripped male mallard between his teeth. He gave it up, but not without a struggle. I fetched my spade and buried the bird discretely, to stop the dog digging it up again.

Climbing up the slope to the cottage, I noticed a disturbing number of new oak trees sprouting up everywhere. The less wooded parts of the site have become infested with oak plants, perchance due to warmer summers and climate change. I blame our resident squirrel, who violently defends his territory against intruders and spreads acorns around to ensure a sustainable supply of food for future squirrel generations.

On my way back to the car, I realised that that we are just temporary visitors, intruders in the lives of the animals who really inhabit our summer place. An occasional disturbance in their lives, with my only function being to clear up their droppings and bury their dead. Now, mission abandoned, I was longing for some hot tea and a Friday afternoon in the company of Robinson Crusoe.

 

 

 

Exit Pursued by a Dog*

The underground train ferrying people from the soulless suburbs to the magnet of the city shuddered to a halt, brakes squealing as if in protest. It was one of the noisy old trains which ran in the middle of the day, for less important passengers. The doors opened slowly with a dull thud and hiss of compressed air, hardly loud enough to rouse the half-dozen passengers from their slumbers.

Then the carriage was invaded by a load of five-year olds with loud neon-yellow vests and even louder voices, like miniature road workers. They were shepherded on board by three tired-looking teachers, decked out in similar yellow vests. Half-heartedly they tried to keep the children seated, while attempting to count their flock, afraid they might have lost some on the way. The standard precaution, name and telephone number of their pre-school stencilled on the back of their vests, was no guarantee. This group apparently belonged to “Raspberry Hills Pre-school”.

A few passengers groaned at the rude awakening, as the kids behaved like five-year olds on an outing are wont to do. The noise level escalated as they started pushing and shoving to sit next to friends, or at a far distance from the bullies. Boys and girls did not share seats. The boys were more physical, and louder, switching places, fighting, jumping on seats and treating the carriage as a parkour obstacle course. A few blows were exchanged but without bloodshed. The girls were quieter, sitting close together, whispering secrets or comparing hairstyles. They kept a close watch on any boys who came too close, ready to defend themselves.

Two stations on, the class was herded off the train by one of the teachers, snapping at their heels like a sheepdog, while the other two battled to get them in line on the platform for the recount. A deep sigh like whales communicating under water could be heard from the remaining passengers. Two women hurried on board after waiting impatiently for the herd to disembark. There were now only five passengers in the middle section of the carriage, which felt strangely empty and quiet after all the commotion.

Leaning against the wall next to the exit was an oldish man with bushy grey eyebrows and ruddy complexion, dressed like a model for an outdoor-style store: heavy forest-green jacket with large pockets, checked cap, cavalry twill trousers, checked shirt and heavy duty brogues.

An ancient brown and white hunting dog lay spilled out at his feet. The children  had pestered the man, wanting to know the dog’s name and if they could pet the dog. At first he tried to respond patiently: “his name is Blackie and no, he doesn’t like being petted”. They persisted so finally he told Blackie to growl. The dog was not in the mood, but did so reluctantly when the man poked him in the ribs with his left shoe. A bad move, as this just encouraged the kids to demand more growling.

Settling down again, the dog  looked up at the man, eyes wide open, begging for consolation. The dog knew what the bulge in the man’s pocket meant – it could smell the musty pieces of dried chicken wings. Man and dog then  followed a well-oiled ritual, like a jerky clockwork toy: dog looks at man, man dips hand in pocket, dog sits up, man holds piece of chicken, dog opens mouth, man drops chicken, dog catches chicken and flops down on floor to chew his reward.

The two latest arrivals, both women, sat on the seat to the right of the man, with their backs to him.  A shortish, plump, middle-aged woman sat next to the window. She sported ginger hair still curled from a visit to the hairdresser probably not more than a month ago, white trainers, black trousers and a  zipped-up maroon autumn jacket. A large carrier bag from one of the cheaper food stores rested in her lap. When she had made herself comfortable, she pulled out a large ice cream which she proceeded to slowly devour. Occasionally she glanced out of the window, but most of the time just looked straight in front of her. She was not the kind of person you would notice or remember.

The younger girl who got on at the same station sat down hurriedly next to the ice-cream woman, preferring to sit next to a woman rather than an unknown man or boy. Strikingly tall she wore a black burka, long black gloves and flat-heeled black shoes. The worn hem of pale blue jeans showed beneath her flowing robe. A small, black satchel-type bag hung across her shoulder and she also carried a large brown tote bag. She pulled out a black tablet notebook, which she immediately hunched over. She was probably on her way to school.

A non-descript man in his late twenties sat on the seat to the left of the two women, huddled against the glass window, uncombed longish brown hair and overdue for his weekly shave. He wore grey sweatpants and a grubby, formerly white sweatshirt. A worn bag lay collapsed at his feet, obviously empty.

The fifth passenger was a clean-cut youth, all of twenty, dark hair shaved back and sides, standing taller on top. He wore a popular national football jersey, tight black jeans and yellowish boots with thick soles. Facing all the other passengers, his dark brown eyes flicked nervously from one to another, often resting longer on the young girl with the tablet. She didn’t appear to notice, head down, absorbed in her studies.

Several times the nervous youth made as if to get to his feet and approach the girl. At last he made up his mind, moving quickly to sit on the seat opposite her. Nobody reacted, or at least showed any reaction, least of all the girl. Puzzled, the boy leaned forward towards her, staring aggresively. She ignored him. Apparently provoked by her way of dressing, the youth started waving and commenting on her long robe. She looked up, appearing startled. Unaccustomed to being addressed by strange men, she responded with a neutral, blank stare. He persisted. She folded up her tablet and looked around, in a silent appeal for support – which was not forthcoming. The pensioner dug into his pocket for more chicken, the woman by the window was finishing off her ice cream, the sleepy man didn’t stir. Realising she was on her own, the girl prepared to beat a retreat as the next station approached. Collecting her bags, she made her escape hurriedly through the nearest exit. The youth gave up and made his getaway through the forward door of the carriage.

Peace was restored and the three remaining passengers carried on as though nothing had happened. Turning her head, the woman by the window noticed the tablet notepad lying on the seat beside her, obviously left behind by the girl. The woman turned back to the window, considering whether to turn the tablet in at the left luggage office. She didn’t touch it.

The train pulled in to the next station, a busy junction with quite a crowd waiting on the platform. Picking up his bag from the floor, the sleepy unshaven man made a show of scratching his head and rubbinghis eyes. The doors flew open and in one unexpectedly quick movement he bent down, scooped up the tablet and ran out of the door, pushing through the crowd and off along the platform. Nobody reacted.

Later that day the following newsflash appeared:

“Earlier today a person was seriously injured in an incident near a busy city underground station, in what appeared to be some kind of explosion. Pending enquiries no further details can be given, according to a police spokesperson.”

A few days after this incident, four people sat round a table in an anonymous industrial building to the south of the city. A brown and white dog lay asleep under the table. “That went rather well, I thought”, said a tall young woman. They all agreed and then made their exits, followed by the dog.

*”Exit, pursued by a bear.” W Shakespeare in “A Winter’s Tale”.

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.

 

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.

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!

Counting Sheep

Walking along a deserted beach, sun still below the horizon, the clucking waves rinsed the coarse, wet sand from Jack’s feet. He was enjoying the solitude, listening to the whine of the wind through the palm trees.  It felt like a good life, but something was wrong. He woke with a start and opened one eye. Dog was standing at the foot of the bed, rough tongue licking the smooth soles of Jack’s feet. He pulled his legs in under the cover and wiped his feet on the sheet. Dog moved closer and whined again, head cocked to one side, looking at Jack with his big brown eyes.

“You want to go out?” asked Jack with a groan. At the word “out” dog started wagging his tail, gave a quick bark and then ran for the stairs. Jack knew Dog would now be sitting by the front door, waiting. There was no escape.  Jack reached for his working clothes, parked on a chair by the window, and glanced between the curtains. It was still dark but the moon was up. He leaned over and kissed the bare shoulder of the woman lying in his bed. She groaned with an unfamiliar voice and rolled over. He never did catch her name.

The regular thudding of a tail against the wooden floorboards in the hall told him that Dog was getting impatient. Jack padded quickly down the stairs and climbed into his leather working boots, shrugged on a warm jacket and grabbed a short leather leash, expecting a quick walk in the dark and then back to a warm bed.

Dog was sitting with his nose up against the front door, eager to get out. Jack opened the door and reached for the long rope hanging on a hook nearby.  Dog bolted through the door, almost pulling Jack over. The sudden jerk woke him up and Jack had a gut feeling that it could be a long night.

The tall birches and pines which sheltered Jack’s cottage were outlined by sharp black contours from the new moon. The night sky was like a dark blue blanket, sprinkled with star dust. Jack liked to stand and watch the night sky, but Dog had other interests. He was a tracker, born to sniff, switching from one side of the narrow path to the other, hoovering up the scents of the night. Nose down, pulling hard, heading for his favourite spot. Jack followed. The path skirted a stand of old oaks with gnarled trunks, surrounded by a carpet of dried acorns which crunched underfoot. A good sign, thought Jack, no wild boars around. Here Dog chose to lift his leg for a long, overdue pee. Jack joined him.

The night was still, clear, just a dusting of frost on the tips of the grass. Why not make for the fields, thought Jack, who realised he was in no great hurry to get back to his bed mate. Hopefully she would be gone before they got back. He liked eating breakfast alone, alone that is except for Dog.

The dirt path snaked downwards, leaving behind the oaks and a few scrubby pines on the ridge. Dog flexed his shoulder and haunch muscles, pulling hard on the leash, knowing where they were headed. Jack jerked to slow him down, not wanting to shout and disturb the silence of the night. The temperature felt a few degrees colder when they arrived at the edge of low-lying fields. Here it was always cold and misty, a legacy from the time when this had been an inlet of the Baltic Sea, later a wide lake, now fertile land used for growing Lucerne to make winter silage for the cattle which roamed here. The second harvest was already knee-high, like a dense green carpet,  purple flowers rimmed with silver frost which glistened in the yellow moonlight.

Jack switched from the leash to a long rope, allowing Dog to run loose. Instead Dog froze and growled, trying  to catch a scent. But it was only the mist swirling across the open fields, flying around like ghostly figures . Jack hissed. Dog remained tense and wary but did as he was told. “Off you go now”, said Jack reassuringly, and Dog shot away, nose down, zig-zagging across the field, following the scent left behind by the deer. Jack followed, stumbling through the wet Lucerne which clung to his boots like seaweed.

Dog was happy, running free, stopping every so often to roll over on his back, legs pumping up and down, ending with a quick shake before running off again. So was Jack, happy, if you had asked him. They were moving south, following the banks of the narrow stream which wandered lazily across the fields, water muddy after heavy rain.  It was quiet, only sound coming from the metal links on Dog’s harness. Jack relaxed, feeling free himself, enjoying the night sky. A sudden low growl interrupted his thoughts. Maybe a deer or something out there, down by the stream where the mist was solid as a whitewashed wall. Jack called Dog in and they both crouched down, listening intensely. Jack strangled the sign of another low growl by quickly taking a firm grip on Dog’s neck, burrowing his cold hands into the thick warm fur. Dog was now panting rapidly with excitement.

Through the mist they could hear some sheep bleating, distressed. Jack knew that neighbours Frank and Della had lost some of their sheep recently, including a breeding ram. He stroked Dog slowly to calm him down, switched to a tight short leash and then they  made their way slowly in the direction of the sheep enclosure. Dog seemed to understand that he was to keep quiet and stay close, but the hairs on his neck were on end, and his tail stood right up.  Dog’s instinct was to chase anything that moved. Jack worked hard to keep him under control.

The enclosure lay on the far side of the stream, below a wooded hill. Jack and Dog crossed over by a narrow wooden footbridge and soon came to the fence. Following the fence they reached the wide gates. They were wide open. The bleating got louder as the sheep heard them coming. Through the mist Jack could see dark shapes milling around. Dog growled again, which didn’t help. Jack silenced him with a sharp tug on the leash.

The sheep had scattered over the fields along the southern bank of the stream. Jack realised he had no chance of rounding them up alone. Dog was not a sheepdog, and anyway he was too worked up to be useful. Better go and knock up Frank, thought Jack. Frank and Della lived almost a kilometre away, house and barn tucked away on higher ground over the hill. Jack and Dog made their way up there, trying not to scare any more sheep on the way. In the distance Jack heard the muffled sound of a truck, maybe a pickup, and stopped to listen. Dog didn’t react, he wasn’t interested in that kind of sound. Through the mist Jack glimpsed a single tail-light, the other one was missing.

Dog pulled hard as they approached the darkened house. He could smell Frank’s two border collies. They were sheepdogs and lived in the barn, not in the house. They must have sensed Dog too, Jack thought, but he didn’t hear a single woof. Dog wanted to play when he met other dogs, but these two always ignored him. Sheepdogs don’t play.

Jack knocked on the door, calling out “Frank! It’s me, Jack. Sheep got out.” He saw an upstairs light come on and then heard the scraping of a window catch. Della appeared at the window: “Oh it’s you Jack. Bit early. What’s up?”

“Where’s Frank, Della? Sheep all over, down by the stream.”

“He’s …… gone, .. ..he’s not here. Wait a bit, I’ll be down.”

A  minute or two later she came striding out of the front door, in working gear, cheeks a little flushed and dark hair collected roughly under a cap.

“Oh I see, you and Dog out walking at this time o’ night!! Couldn’t sleep?” she asked, too cheerful at this hour for Jack’s liking.

Dog wagged his tail energetically on hearing Della’s voice, and jumped up to lick her face. She pushed him down, he had to make do with her hands.

“Something like that. Good night for a long walk, beautiful sky.”

“Lucky for us.”

“Yepp, heard ‘em from way over the fields.”

“Let’s get to it then, I’ll fetch the dogs” said Della in her business-like voice. She marched off towards the barn, letting out a sharp low whistle and the two sheepdogs came running. Dog jumped about, excited, but the sheepdogs remained quite aloof, as usual, waiting for instructions.

“Did you see anyone out there Jack?” Della asked, as they hurried down to the fields.

“No, but did hear a truck, pickup on the old dirt road. Missing a tail light too.”

“You know we’ve lost some animals these last few weeks.”

“I heard” said Jack, pulling hard to stop Dog running after the sheepdogs.

“Heel!” she ordered, keeping them close.

The mist was still lying thick over the fields when they reached the enclosure. “Not easy to find white sheep in this stuff”, laughed Della in her deep voice. Jack didn’t respond, busy wondering where Frank had got to. Jack knew him well, had worked for him, but didn’t really know Della.  She obviously felt uneasy too as they stood there together by the gate. Jack bent down to calm Dog and finally broke the silence:

“How do you want to run this, Della?” He liked using her name.

“Collect them in smaller groups then drive them here. You man the gates. Let them through one at a time, and don’t forget to count them! Have to check if we have lost any more.”

“Sounds like a long night” said Jack, pretending to yawn.

“D’you think? Don’t you go falling asleep” laughed Della again and melted into the mist, sheepdogs close behind.

“Here Dog, can’t have you chasing the sheep. No such fun” said Jack as he tied Dog’s leash firmly to a birch tree at a safe distance from the gate. “Stay” said Jack. Dog looked badly done to, but resigned and lay down to rest.

The Gates

Jack studied the gates closely, trying to work out how he could let the sheep pass into the enclosure and count them at the same time. He unfastened the chain which held the gates together and opened them inwards. The only way of doing it was to keep the left-hand gate closed and open the right one, making a small gap for the sheep to squeeze through, one at a time. Easy!

Jack could hear Della’s voice from the fields, giving orders to the sheepdogs. He was impressed by how confident she was at handling them. Before he had only seen Frank running sheep. After about ten minutes he heard the first group of sheep coming towards him,  quickly, driven by the dogs. He thought it sounded as though there could be about twenty of them. Dog heard them too. He was jumping, straining on the leash and barking as the sheep got closer. “Quiet”, shouted Jack, but it didn’t carry above the din. Dog was all worked up.

Della shouted too: “Ready now Jack, get counting!” The sheep were eager to get into the enclosure, where they felt safe. Suddenly they were up against the gates, pressing forward like a football crowd. Jack put all his weight behind the gates to stop them breaking through. They were bleating loudly, agitated, dogs driving behind and gates stuck together. “Let them in Jack, or we’ll lose them again!” shouted Della, coming out of the mist. Jack opened the right-hand gate to make a narrow gap for them to squeeze through, one by one. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as they made for the opening. “Easy, easy goes” shouted Jack but the sheep didn’t bother. He opened the gate just enough to be able to  grab  them by the neck and pull them inside. Bracing all his weight against the gates he almost forgot to count them. It came to seventeen in all, before he could lean against the gates for a rest, gloves greasy from the wet sheep. Della came up to check how Jack was doing. “How many?” “Seventeen” said Jack, breathing heavily, “That all?” “Should be ‘bout another hundred. Can you cope?” “Never learned to count that far!” “Time you did then,” said Della cheerfully, running off to round up the next bunch.

It took nearly two hours before all the sheep were safely inside the enclosure. “How many Jack” asked Della, as they leaned together against the gates again, exhausted. “Hundred and fifteen.“ “Two missing then”, said Della, hair now hanging loose and cheeks rosy from driving the sheep. “Nothing we can do about them now. Let’s go home.” By home she meant her place.

They walked back over the hill on tired legs, quiet, all except Dog. He tried to get the sheepdogs interested in playing, but had no luck. Aloof, they just ignored him, eager to get back to sleep in their barn.

“Thanks Jack” said Della as they neared the house. “Glad to help out”, said Jack, looking straight at Della, “you’re good at running the dogs.” She smiled briefly, pleased with herself. “Want to come in, join me for breakfast? Tastes better with company.”  He hesitated, still uncertain with Frank not at home. She opened the door and Dog rushed in, Della close behind “Come on in Jack, it’s warmer inside.” He smiled to himself and closed the door firmly behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Words Spoken

A man climbed slowly up to the top of the hill, leather walking boots slipping on heavy dew which coated the long grass. The legs of his worn jeans were damp. It was early, chilly. A thick sweater filled out his green jacket. At the top of the rise he stopped to get his breath, lifting the peak of his dark cap to wipe the sweat from his brow.

He looked down on a narrow valley which had been turned into a gently rolling golf course. It was knee deep in a blanket of early-morning mist. About to descend to the springy green turf, he stopped and listened to the distant clamour of crows and magpies, upset by something. Squinting, he pulled his cap down and scanned the horizon to locate the noisy creatures. There they were, occupying a small stand of old rowan trees on the opposite side of the valley. He could see nothing unusual, but was curious to find out the cause of the commotion.

Going down the hill, he almost lost his balance. Choosing a diagonal pathway which was longer but safer, it took him almost twenty minutes to reach the base of the hill. Immediately he felt the chill of the mist as it crept up his legs. On the flat turf, he lengthened his stride and made for the rowan trees with their noisy tenants, about three hundred yards away. Half-way there, a slight breeze across the flat land suddenly turned the bank of mist into a heaving grey sea. He stopped as the waves engulfed him. Fifty yards to his left he glimpsed a dark shape through a gap in the mist, like a badly focused snapshot.  The gap closed again as the breeze abated and the waves subsided.

Slowly, almost gingerly, he approached the spot where he thought it might be – whatever it was. He hoped it was just a pile of rubbish, or a sack of old leaves. He noticed that the magpies had fallen silent as he got closer. Did they know something he didn’t, but was about to find out?

Suddenly his right boot struck something solid, startling him. He instinctively bent down to investigate, hand shaking as it disappeared in the layer of mist. Waving his cap he tried to disperse the mist, and saw that he had kicked a wooden marker peg. His heartbeat slowed down with relief.

Gradually the mist thinned enough to reveal suds of greyish-white fur spread out in a circle near the marker, like clouds in a summer sky. Heartbeat accelerating again he took a couple of strides beyond the marker and bent down over a figure stretched out on the ground. It was a big, fine hare lying on its side, neck twisted as though broken, eyes staring up at the sky. Two bloody craters gaped wide where the hare had been ripped open, at the side of the hare’s chest and on one muscular rear haunch. The hawk was gone, the hare abandoned, leftovers for the scavenging magpies and crows.

Kneeling down on the wet turf, he felt a great sadness in his soul. He leant forward and stroked the fine grey fur. The hare was still a little warm, not yet wet from the dew. It had not been lying there very long. Lifting his hand he accidentally brushed against the hare’s belly and a thin line of blood trickled down his hand onto the grass. The body smelt of fresh blood, death was so close. The hairs on his neck quivered, standing on end. He had rudely interrupted someone’s breakfast, a Goshawk who had retired to wipe blood stains from curved beak and pointed talons.

Taking a step backwards he directed his camera at the scene and the victim, like a police photographer. Feeling quite sick after his intrusion into the animal world, he made to leave. The magpies and crows were getting impatient and nature must take it’s course.

The sun was beginning to warm, quickly dispersing the remaining mist. About twenty yards away he turned back for one last view of the hare, a silent sign of respect. Standing there, he felt he was not alone. Turning around he saw a movement by the wall of trees which marked the boundary of the golf course. A young, dark-haired woman wrapped up in a quilted jacket and with green rubber boots, was sitting on a fold-up beach chair. She was making notes in a pad on her knee. Taking a thermos flask from her rucksack, she poured some steaming liquid into the lid, and carried on with her notes. She made no sign that she had seen the man. No acknowledgments were made, no words spoken. The man resumed his walk, looking forward to his morning coffee.

Author’s Note: When the events which inspired this story occurred, I wrongly assumed that the perpetrator of the deed was a fox. Simply because I had recently seen a fox on the golf course. Reading Helen Macdonald’s book “H Is for Hawk”, it now dawned on me that it was the work of a Goshawk.

For those of faint heart, or stomach, I have not included the man’s photographs from the scene. If you wish, you may choose to view them here: Golf Course Victim

 

 

 

Cutting Grass

Our summer cottage overlooks an acre of meadowland which slopes down to the shore of a small lake in a series of natural terraces, a legacy from the ice age. The meadow is like a valley protected on both sides by tall, old trees: pines, firs, silver birches and oaks. By the lake  a 25-foot high outcrop of granite, worn smooth by the ice and now covered in moss, provides a natural boundary.

In summer an almost impenetrable jungle of grasses, ferns, wild flowers, bushes heavy with roses and currants and small saplings blankets the meadow. A few narrow paths which follow the contours of the terrain make it easier to move around in this undergrowth. They were originally made by the local badgers on their nocturnal excursions. We follow them too.

The Meadow
The Meadow

 

Rain and sunshine before midsummer lead to an explosion of green vegetation, and the meadowland becomes dense and entangled. The dog, a large boxer, disappears into the grass to find a good place for a snooze. The kids play “spot the dog”. Evenings are devoted to tic-picking, which he doesn’t like. Soon it will be time to harvest the currant bushes, red, white and black, if we can find them before the blackbirds do.

The grass needs cutting. For the past 60 years or so this has been done using a scythe. Before that the local farmer’s horses and cows did the job. I inherited the scythe from my father-in-law, 25 years ago. It hangs on a rusty nail in the shed, as though waiting to be used in a horror movie. There was no way back, I had to learn how to use it.

Scythe, whetstone and water
Scythe, whetstone and water

 

Mary had often seen her father in action, so she demonstrated how to swing the scythe. Over the years I have gradually got the hang of it, and in particular avoided any major injuries.

First I had to learn how to sharpen the blade using a whetstone. The picture that came to mind was of the butcher using a steel to sharpen his knives. Sharpening a scythe blade is different, stone on steel. The whetstone is a block of stone with fine and rougher grades, and has to be wetted for a good sharp edge. The action is different too – the butcher strokes his knife along the steel, the whetstone is stroked along the scythe blade. Both alternate between the two sides of the blade. To sharpen the blade, I stand with the scythe handle nestling in my armpit, arm extended along the dull side of the blade and other hand sliding the whetstone along the edge in steady strokes. I don’t use gloves but so far I have not cut myself.

It is easier to cut grass while still wet with morning dew or when the evening mist rolls in from the lake. We still use the same scythe, but switched to a heavier, shorter blade about ten years ago. Cutting grass with a scythe is quiet; only a slicing sound as the blade cuts through the stems of the grasses and like a scalpel separates the grass from its roots. It is heavy work swinging the scythe from side to side, rhythmically exposing the contours of the land one step at a time.  We usually let the grass lie for a few days, to release next year’s seeds and make it easy to rake up the grass. Over the years I have cut down a currant bush or two by mistake, but the dog still has a tail.

Swinging a scythe is a sweaty business but physically satisfying, and I tell myself it is good exercise. Often I am too enthusiastic at the beginning of the cutting season, and get a stiff, sore back which turns into a chronic condition as the summer proceeds and more grass is liberated from its roots.

In August I have a regular date with my chiropractor. He tugs and presses my body, twists and manipulates until I feel like a loose rag doll. After a particularly long and painful session he smiled ironically and pronounced:

“It’s about time you hang that scythe up for good!”

“No way, what will happen to the meadow then” I replied, despairingly.

“Get a machine, a trimmer. I have one. Perfect. Got it second-hand and share with a neighbour”.

“But we’ve never used a machine on the meadow before.”

“Mark my words. Next year I might not be able to get your old bones back into working order.”

To cut the story short, I ordered a machine for cutting grass. A month later a large, heavy box arrived. It could easily have doubled as a budget coffin.

 

The Box
The Box

The machine came in several parts which had to be assembled. Also included was a 30-page manual (four languages), safety instructions, grass cutter, trimmer head, tool kit, harness, various nuts and bolts. That was not all; the machine demands a special petrol/oil fuel, not included, a funnel, ear mufflers, face shield, heavy boots and thick gloves. I skipped the special grass cutting safety trousers.

Machine and Accessories
Machine and Accessories

 

A couple of days later I had assembled the machine and studied the manual carefully. At least half of the instructions were about safety. Sadly I couldn’t figure out how to start the machine. A safety precaution perhaps? I phoned Customer Service and explained my dilemma. The service technician agreed that the manual was rather unclear, but blamed a poor translation. I didn’t think it advisable to ask what it said in the original language. He said it was one of the easiest models to start on the market and explained the procedure slowly and with a loud, patient voice. Obviously he had been trained to communicate with regular folks.

“If you still feel uncertain, there are excellent instruction films on YouTube” he said, with a rather cheerful voice, and hung up.

I took his advice and searched YouTube using the model number of the machine. Rather unexpectedly the films which came up were all in Russian. OK, I don’t have anything about Russians, so I clicked on the first film. It was quite entertaining as far as instructional films go: two portly Russian men in shiny shorts and old gym shoes were happily prancing around an overgrown orchard like horses in a circus ring, waving their motorised grass cutters with such abandon that I expected a harvest of toes to crown their performance. They swung their machines about in a very carefree fashion, clearly not having read the extensive safety instructions. Not the reading kind, I guess.

Suddenly one of the machines shut down, rudely interrupting their pas-de-deux. The owner’s attempts to restart the machine were worthy of a performance by Coco the clown, ending with him abandoning his machine in the tall grass and stomping off for good.

As an instructional film it had some shortcomings. I suspect it was a “how-not-to-do-it” film. The user manual seemingly had the same origin, a Russian orchard.

D-day arrived. Kitted out in sturdy boots, thick gloves, jeans, harness, ear mufflers and face shield I filled the petrol tank with the correct oil/petrol mixture, carefully wiping off excess petrol, and then moved at least 20 feet away from the “filling area”, as prescribed. First I pumped the transparent fuel pump a few times until I could see the fuel bubbles, pulled up the choke and, with my hands in the right position, pulled the starting handle several times in quick succession until the engine coughed and almost started. Down with the choke, and the engine died again. Two quick pulls on the starting handle and the engine roared into life. “Eureka”, I shouted, almost falling over in shock. It worked. I lifted up the machine and hooked it onto the harness, albeit after some fumbling with my thick gloves.

Assuming the correct stance, I grasped the controls, pressed in the dead-man’s grip and then squeezed the gas pedal. It burst into action, the grass-cutting head spinning at an alarming rate as I looked round for some grass to cut. According to reliable sources, the engine was loud. Some pheasants flew squawking over the fence into the neighbour, the dog ran into the cottage and hid under the bed, while Mary took a long walk. I could hardly hear anything, thanks to my mufflers.

 

Man At Work
Man At Work

 

After half an hour or so I cut the gas and released the dead-man’s grip before pressing the “STOP” button. The engine slowed down with a grateful whine, but the blade carried on spinning for a minute or two, slower and slower.  Relieved I unhooked the machine and removed mufflers, harness and the rest. The machine left me with fingers still shaking and ears wet with sweat.

My first grass-cutting session over, I surveyed the results. Grass, ferns and flowers plus a couple of unknown bushes lay in one great tangle of vegetation. All in all a good job. But it doesn’t end there. The manual concludes with a twenty one item maintenance schedule for daily, weekly or monthly maintenance. With the scythe I simply wipe off the blade with an old rag and hang it up on its nail in the shed. At the end of the cutting season I wipe it over with oil to protect it from rust over the winter.

Cutting grass with a machine is faster than with a scythe – but, sadly, noisy and lonely. With the machine, I must focus on one thing – the machine, and not injuring anyone. It is definitely too fast and violent to avoid chopping up the wild red strawberries hiding in the grass. I miss the silence of the scythe, I miss the birdsong and the sound of the slow waves as they reach the shore. Working with the scythe I can meditate, contemplate, allow my thoughts to wander, and I get to eat more strawberries. Is the new machine a sign of progress? My answer is no – and the dog agrees.

 

 

 

The Dump

 Three ancient horseshoes with nails, two peeling window frames complete with glass, a heavy roll of chicken wire, a tired plastic bucket full of broken green glass, two tins of dried up paint, a roll of brittle black roofing felt, two pairs of skis and ski sticks anno 1950 with leather bindings,  a broken wooden armchair, two uncomfortably heavy beach chairs with lime green canvas seats, two  very rusty hand saws and pair of secateurs, an assorted pile of wood from wall fittings and dismembered wardrobes, two cupboard doors, a glass paraffin lamp with dodgy conversion for electricity, bulb included, a four feet long aluminium tube, function and origin unknown, a metal cage for poaching crayfish, probably illegal, one broken landing net for fish, camouflage net smelling strongly of rubber,  army tank size, some odd glass bottles and jars plus a few rusty tins used to store cement and plaster and a wooden window-shelf painted a sickly-green shade.

This is more or less the stuff I loaded into the back of my truck early one Thursday morning.  I felt the weak sun on my back as I opened the gates, hoping it would gradually dissolve the thin clouds which had protected us like a shroud from the night frost. The engine grumbled at the early start and heavy load. I drove slowly along the bumpy dirt road, shivering as I waited for the heater to loosen up my stiff fingers.

I had been putting off the visit to our local dump for years. It is one of those things blokes are supposed to enjoy, and now I had used up all my excuses. To get me in the right mood I played John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” on repeat for the half-hour drive.

The entrance to the dump was by an unmarked dirt track known only to locals. The track slowly snaked upwards until you got to a clearing in the woods, overlooking a deep old stone quarry. We used to drive up there with pickups full of rubbish and a six-pack to enjoy the scenery and see who was best at throwing stuff out over the edge. You backed-up as close as you dared and flung all your unwanted stuff over the edge. A dull thud as it hit the bottom was the only satisfaction needed. It was a relaxing, laid-back way of starting the weekend.

At night it was pitch black up there, frequented mainly by guys who wanted a quiet place to enjoy a beer and grilled steaks, the surrounding woods dampening the sound from their music systems. Setting fire to a stolen car and rolling it over the edge didn’t take place often, but attracted quite a crowd. Regular guys saw this as a trifle juvenile. Occasionally lovers also drove up there at night to be alone.

On the road approaching the entrance I noticed a slow sign. What now? At the turnoff I was confronted by tall metal-barred gates, and an official sign which said “Recycling Depot”. The dirt road leading up to the gate now had a hard top. Was this the old dump? And how do you get into the place? Not wanting to appear out –of –touch, I drove confidently up to the entrance like a regular visitor and waited for the gates to open. They didn’t. I waited some more. John Lennon was still howling, but even he couldn’t drown the persistent honking of the rusty red pickup which was almost climbing up my rear bumper. An old guy in heavy boots, worn jeans and greasy leather jacket knocked on my window, which I hesitantly lowered a few inches. “Forgotten your card have ya’?” he snarled. Sorry”, I said meekly, pretending to get what he meant. “You get a move on then when them gates opens, or yer’ll be in trouble.” He waved his hand in front of a box by the gates and strode back to his pickup. I got moving and drove through the gates but he revved up and overtook just inside the gates. I followed him along the road between high stands of trees, feeling the sweat trickling down my spine. Clearly this was a big mistake.

After a hundred yards or so the woods gave way to a flat ocean of concrete and tarmac. Our hill was no more. It was like a big road junction hidden in the woods, with confusing road signs and barriers with red and yellow stripes. To be on the safe side I tailed the rusty pickup, passing a depot for refuse collection trucks and mountains of green refuse bins before approaching a barrier which said “Private households”.

Now I was really lost about how to proceed. I drifted to the side and parked, to try and figure out things. I choked John Lennon so I could concentrate. The old dump was simple – just heave everything over the side into the quarry and that’s it. No big deal. Here I could see a long concrete loading bay with large skips arranged along each side, like a beetle with its legs sticking out at sixty-degrees. The top of the skips was level with the loading bay. Each one had a green wooden sign above, swinging in the morning breeze: Wood, Painted Wood, Plastic, Metal, Textiles, Electronics, Garden Waste, Paper, Cartons, Insulation, Chemicals, Tyres, Glass, Road Fill.

This was going to be one seriously challenging morning exercise. The loading bay was jam-packed with pickups, trucks, vans, cars and trailers, drivers scurrying back and forth carrying stuff and throwing it into the different skips, seemingly without hesitation. Their private collection of rubbish dumped, they navigated through the jam and turned back for the gate.

OK, now I get it. The never-ending stream of cars and vans into the bay showed no generosity to newcomers. At the risk of making myself very unpopular for a second time already that day, I speeded up and ran parallel to the queue, trying to force someone to give way and let me in. Challenging thick-necked men with shaven heads and shades in shiny new pickups was not a good idea.  I finally swerved in front of a brown saloon, deliberately choosing one with an oldie behind the wheel.

I found a gap next to the skip for “Unpainted Wood”. Not that I had any unpainted wood, but it seemed a safe bet to avoid annoying people. I looked around discretely to check out the right procedure. Folks really were in a hurry, rushing back and forth between the skips with piles of stuff. They just threw the rubbish into a skip and rushed back to their truck for more, seemingly knowing what they were doing. Another thing, they had their stuff ready in piles. I had loaded everything into the back of my truck, first come. It took me a whole hour to empty – I probably visited each skip a couple of times.

Weren’t they a little curious about the stuff in the skips? Might be something useful, but I didn’t see anyone climbing down in a skip raid so it was apparently not the done thing.

There was some good stuff dumped there, but there was official-looking shed which also had a wooden sign: “Office”, but it seemed closed. For one short moment I thought I could get away with it, the kid’s bike in the skip for metal waste. It was just the right size for Noah, purple and silver. Come on, it’s all about recycling isn’t it! Maybe I could ask – or maybe that’s not such a good idea.

The last stuff in the truck was a giant army camouflage net made out of rope and pieces of green and brown rubber, large enough to hide a Centurian tank. Don’t ask!

The net was enormous, cumbersome. I gathered it up in a large ball and held it clasped in front of me with both arms like hugging a giant. Which skip should I choose? It was difficult to see where I was going and the office was about 50 yards away. Suddenly someone shouted “Wait, stop!!” with a deep roar. What was up? I peered over the top of the net and saw a man running towards me, waving his arms and shouting.

He was big, head shaven and sporting a long tangled reddish-brown beard. I thought at once of an egg with hairy legs.  He was wearing a tight white t-shirt with SHOOT TO KILL in large letters above a large elk. It was stretched over his oversized pot-belly, which wobbled like a giant jelly as he ran towards me. With his neon-yellow working trousers and big boots I guessed that he was the supervisor, coming to tell me that I had put stuff in the wrong skip. But no, he just grabbed the net and held it tightly in his arms, taking a step backwards, all in one movement.  A wides smile split his face like a jagged crack in a hard-boiled egg. OK, no problem, I thought, but before I could say “you’re welcome” he was striding towards the white van parked next to the office. He bundled the net inside and quickly shut the sliding doors. I must have looked surprised, until he explained: “I’m a hunter, camouflage is gold to us. Cheers!”.

On the drive home John Lennon sang “Imagine” to calm my nerves. Mary was waiting with fresh coffee. “You’ve been a long time”, she said. “Come and look”, I said, opening the back door of the truck. Inside the purple and silver metal shone brightly in the noonday sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dendrocopos Major*

It hopped up from the ditch by the roadside like a miniature kangaroo and landed three feet in front of the car. “No-o-o” I shouted, even though there was no one there to hear. The young woodpecker froze, giving me time to register its bright red cap, white belly and variegated black and white wings. Then it was gone, under the car. Glancing instinctively at the rear view mirror I saw no sign of a squashed woodpecker on the asphalt. A sense of relief flooded through my veins – the bird had made it.

As I turned onto the dirt road, I could still see the bird in front of me. Woodpeckers have a very characteristic way of hopping up tree trunks, using their powerful claws situated near the bottom of their torso. This makes it easier to keep their balance while hacking away high up in the trees. On the ground they stand upright and hop along in a rather laboured, almost comical way – for a bird.

I backed the car into the gravel driveway and closed the gates behind, giving no more thought to the woodpecker.

The next day, as I opened the gate after my morning walk, my stomach lurched when I saw  what had happened:

IMG_0217 NEW

The woodpecker was there, speckled wings spread wide and red-capped head drooping, sucked into the car’s air intake. It had been there since yesterday. I just stopped in my tracks, not believing what had happened.  What if I had stopped right away and checked the car? Could I have saved it?  What now?

At least I could take a photograph of the poor bird so went to fetch my camera. Crouching down in the gravel, I thought I caught a little glimmer of life still in its eyes. But the broken neck revealed this as wishful thinking. I put on my gloves and held the opening of a white plastic bag over the woodpecker’s head, grasped round its neck and pulled gently. I expected it to be jammed hard in the air intake but the body slid out easily. The wings folded back automatically as the car released its grip on the bird. I noticed a red patch low down on its white belly. It was the same shade of bright red as the bird’s cap, not brown like dried blood. Lying there in the bag it looked peaceful, eyes tight shut. A not very dignified ending for a beautiful young woodpecker.

I slowly tied up the bag and fetched my spade to dig a hole down by the lake, where the woodpeckers hunt for grubs in the dead branches of the gnarled old oak trees.

* The great-spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos Major) is the most common and widespread of the British woodpeckers. The woodpecker is 23–26 centimetres (9.1–10.2 in) long, with a 38–44 centimetres (15–17 in) wingspan. It has black and white plumage, a prominent oval-shaped white patch on each wing and a red patch under the tail. Males also have a red patch on the rear of the head. Juveniles can be identified by their red crown.

 

 

 

How Old Are You Granddad?

Waiting at the bus stop my six year old grandson was talking about his favourite sports, just as he would with another six year old. We were on our way to Thursday’s football practice – his.

“What’s your favourite sport granddad?”

“Do you mean to watch or to play?” I asked.

“Both I suppose. My favourite to play is indoor hockey, and to watch either swimming or football. What are yours?”

“To play its rugby, then I like watching basketball” I said.

“Rugby?”

“You play with a ball that looks like an egg” I said, drawing a rugby ball in the air.

“Is that like American football?”

“More or less, almost the same” I said, nodding and raising my eyebrows like Groucho Marx to show I was impressed.

We were early, so we practised some passing and dribbling to warm up. After almost half an hour in the afternoon sun I was sweating profusely. His cheeks were blossoming, but otherwise he seemed unaffected. After collecting one of my badly skewed passes, he stood there holding the ball and looked straight into my eyes in that innocent way of his, head on one side and squinting against the sun.

“How old are you granddad?” he asked, right out of the blue.

“Seventy”, I said.

He didn’t say anything, just nodded slowly, tucked the ball under his arm and backed off so that we could carry on with our passing game.

His simple question opened up a generation gap between us, a gap that had not been there before. Later I wondered what had prompted his question. And what he thought of my answer. Most likely he was looking for an explanation for my poor performance – “Granddad is really hopeless at passing a football. OK – that’s because he is old and tired, but he’ll do if there’s no one else around.”

A more (for me) flattering explanation could be that he was impressed by my fitness, enthusiasm and prowess with a football and thought perhaps I was younger than I looked with my balding head and white hair. Or maybe he thought, “you’re not that old, only seventy, now it’s your turn to fetch the ball”.

A week or so later we were sitting in the park eating ice cream. He was at home with a heavy cough, I was keeping him company. I asked why he wanted to know how old I was. With a wide smile he confirmed my worst fears – I was past it as a football player.

At football practice I joined the “soccer mums” sitting by the side of the pitch, ostensibly watching their sons going through their training programme.  In fact they were involved in an intense, heated discussion about new city rules for placement of six year olds in schools the coming autumn. After almost half an hour of listening to their views I felt exhausted. But not our soccer mums. They then turned enthusiastically to the merits of living in the asphalt city with small children contra the option of buying a house in the leafy suburbs.

I tried to interest them in the football training which was taking place under their very noses, but to no avail. Their thoughts were elsewhere: what to put on the table for dinner, how to get sitters or grandparents to look after the kids at the weekend, conflicts at work, and the rest.

Another age gap opened up, like cracks in a road after an earthquake.

After training my grandson and I took a short cut through the nearby park to reach our bus stop, passing a large old apple tree in full bloom.

“What kind of tree is that” I asked grandson, trying to arouse some interest in nature.

“No idea” he said, disinterested.

“It’s an apple tree.” I knew this was his favourite fruit.

“How do you know that?”

“I saw some people picking apples from it last autumn.” I said.

“Can you still remember things from last year?”

“Of course, I walk past here quite often.”

He looked confused, probably thought it was another peculiarity about 70 year olds.

On the bus home, instead of chatting with me, he preferred to sit with a couple of his teammates, waving and pulling faces at the driver of the bus behind us in the traffic jam. She responded by waving her wipers and flashing her headlights. My role was reduced to bag man and general dogsbody.

Back home, grandma and little sister, three years old, were sitting on the settee looking at old family photos, waiting for the potatoes to boil. “Who’s that?” asked grandma, showing her a picture of two girls standing next to a large brown pony in the stables. They were about twelve and eight years old. Little sister looked puzzled, and so did big brother when grandma showed him the photo.

“This is your Mummy and her sister, your Aunt, when they were little girls”, explained grandma.  “No way” said the six year old, while the three year old preferred children’s TV. Grandma tried to arouse interest in more photos of their Mummy as a young girl, but to no avail. The idea that their Mummy had a life before she was their mother was completely alien to them. The kids seemed disturbed by the idea that their Mummy had once been young like themselves. I tried again: “Where do you think those girls went to, where are they now?” No response. Grandma and I gave up and set about fixing their dinner, while they sat mesmerised by the TV-screen

Interest in family history and delving into the lives of previous generations is something that comes late in life, often when people have more life behind them than in front of them. “Oh, I should have asked Aunt Mary or Grandma Perkins about this when they were still alive!” is a common reaction after hitting a stone wall in their genealogical endeavours. Another common sign of interest in the past are the rows of biographies and historical novels which dominate the bookcases – if not the reading – of older people.

Are they trying to cling to the past, a past which has long since disappeared into the mists of time? And where does the past go to? Who stores the events of yesterday and yesteryear? Or does the past just disappear into a black hole, sucked from our memories as we desperately try to cling on to what we have lived through? Why do old people try to remember the past, with failing memory, while young people’s hippocampus is set by default to “full steam ahead”? Is it simply that for old people with little future, the past is more interesting and there is more of it, while for younger people it is the opposite?

 

 

Eating Disorder

The early morning sun pierced the mist like beams from searchlights sweeping the sky to catch enemy planes. Their first victim was a large shadowy bird of prey, wheeling and hovering over the lush green fields. Hungry goshawk looking for breakfast. A sudden swoop, a flurry of brown wings, dull choking  and then, silence. Nearby a flock of deer busily grazing hardly batted an eyelash at the everyday slaughter. Was it a pheasant or a hare? Who cares?

In one synchronised movement, the deer suddenly lift up their heads from the long grass and turn towards the goshawk, already ripping at its prey with razor beak. They were disturbed by the loud clamour of a flock of crows, diving like a swarm of attack planes  to chase the goshawk away. The crows won, and started to fight over the bloody spoils. From a distance it looked like a young hare. The deer lost interest and returned to their grass. The goshawk left the scene for the protection of the woods without further ado, resigned to another lost breakfast like a football player shown a red card.

A deep guttural  cry, repeated, warned the crows and their lesser relatives, a family of magpies, who had also been attracted by the chance of a free breakfast. An old black raven circled over the noisy crows like a heavy bomb plane, carefully choosing its target, then landed in their midst. The outsize creature took command of the carcass lying there, strutting around and bobbing its head. Eating order was restored.

The disgruntled crows reluctantly retreated, some with bloodied beaks. They sat nearby on some old fence poles crowing and squawking, waiting their turn while bewailing their relegation in the pecking order.

The magpies retired to a safe distance from the crows, chattering incessantly to protest their position at the bottom of the food chain.

The deer gradually moved away from the fowl commotion to find  more peaceful breakfast surroundings.

The goshawk was already hunting a new prey, now that the crows were occupied.

 

 

Chewing the Cud

A heavy morning shower has rinsed the dust from the grass and leaves. The air is full of the smells of spring, the rotten earthy smell of last year’s decomposing vegetation and the perfumes released by the new generation of flowers and leaves.

Suddenly a new odour dulls my senses – are there some cows nearby? Further up the hill I meet a herd of Highland Cattle and Herefords lying in the lush green grass, silently chewing their cud, winter diet of sour silage already forgotten. All are facing in the same direction, as though toward Mecca. But they only see a grey motorway bridge, nearing completion. Giant earth-moving machines are putting the final pimping touches to the brutal concrete landscape. Perchance the cows are following the progress made since last autumn.

The silent whisking of tails and monotonous chewing appear lethargic compared with the drone-like swooping of the black swallows overhead, their target the flies which are the camp-followers of the herd.

Highland Cattle Chewing the Cud
Highland Cattle Chewing the Cud

 

Wailing police sirens disturb the peace, revealing that all is not calm in the nearby suburb after five nights of rioting. The usual stuff – setting fire to cars, smashing windows. The usual culprits – disaffected youths and harassed drug merchants.

Today the suburb has been invaded by a herd of media hacks, sent on their annual visit to a problem area. Like the cows, all face in the same direction and chew the common cud. The actions of the street-wise hooligans attract most media space. Moderate activists call for understanding and an end to structural segregation and discrimination. Give us jobs, more education, stop police brutality, we want a public enquiry, an apology by the police, or else… Their demands are presented against a backdrop of a masked hooligan, Molotov cocktail already alight. The tired politicians trot out their patent solutions from afar, safe in their electronic havens, while the hacks speed off to catch the six o’clock deadlines.

 

Old Blue

Margaret and I have a small summer cottage, on the shore of a small lake. It was built in the early 1950’s. This, more or less, is what happened out there one summer.

The casual visitor would probably not notice the trapdoor set into the kitchen floor of our summer house. It measures only three feet by two and a half but takes up a third of the floor. It is cunningly painted the same brownish-yellow colour as the rest of the floor. A revealing gap in this camouflage is the flat shiny handle set into the surface of the trapdoor. Twice a year it is necessary to lift the trapdoor, a task which I approach with an increasing sense of unease as the day approaches. My trepidation is greater in the spring than in the autumn.

I have to kneel to lift the trapdoor, which is heavy despite its size, and the metal handle cuts into my hand. A cold draught with the familiar odour of mouldy root cellar issues from the dark opening. I secure the trapdoor to a hook on the wall, using a thin metal chain. Now there is no turning back, I must descend into the darkness.

THE DARK HOLE
THE DARK HOLE

A faint ray of light from the kitchen window falls on the top rung of a short, steep wooden ladder, resting against the side of the cellar wall. I sit on the edge of the hole, legs dangling to reach the invisible rungs. Gradually I shift my weight onto the ladder, the upper half of my body still above the kitchen floor. I take a deep breath and slowly descend until my foot suddenly hits the floor with a dull splash. I crouch down to enter the hole and then make my way into the cellar, under the kitchen floorboards.

It is dark, only a weak trickle of light enters through a square ventilation hole high up in the cellar wall. It is covered in rusty wire netting, supposedly to keep the snakes and rats out. As I gradually get accustomed to the dark, I try to locate the light switch. It is in the darkest corner, hanging from a hook in the cellar roof like a sleeping bat. It sways slowly in the draught from the ventilation hole as I grope for the rubber-coated lamp. My knee connects with something wet, cold and hard. Instinctively I stand up and my head hits the wooden roof, just four feet above the floor. Finally I manage to grasp the swaying lamp and press the switch. A pale green light slowly fills the cellar, revealing an octopus-like collection of pipes, valves, pressure tank, electric motor, pressure gauge, pump casing and filter. This monster almost fills the cellar, which is about five square feet. The flickering light creates a pattern of red, black, blue and brass reflections against the white-painted brick walls. Coils of black cable lie on a grey two-foot high shelf, like thin snakes that have made this their winter home. This is our water pump.

Located deep in the bowels of the cottage, the pump provides us with water from a well drilled 300 feet down into granite rock bed. The water is plentiful and cold, sometimes with a distinct flavour of minerals and rust. We are dependent on the pump for survival, well aware that it has reached the venerable age of thirty-seven years old. It demands tender loving care, hence my regular descent into our black hole of Calcutta.

As spring days get longer and the danger of frost recedes, the dreaded question is inevitably raised by Margaret: “Isn’t it time to switch the water on soon?” Meaning, time for me to lift the trapdoor and descend into the black hole to get the darn pump started. Easier said than done. To get it running, the pump, “Ol’ Blue”, demands an extremely high level of multitasking in a very confined space, with a risk of me either drowning or being electrocuted. After twenty years of bi-annual decent into the cellar, I still fear the worst. Most years something does go wrong, but in the end I usually master Old Blue, and am still alive to tell the tale.

OLD BLUE
OLD BLUE

Instructions for starting the pump run to four pages, but I’ll keep it simple. The system comprises an electric motor, a pump and a pressure tank with a myriad of connecting pipes, valves and a pressure gauge. Before frost strikes in the autumn the pump system has to be emptied of water and filled with air. In the spring the pipes have to be reconnected, taps, outlets and valves closed and water-filled plastic container at the ready. Margaret’s task here is simple but vital. She activates the pump with a switch high up on the kitchen wall, which I cannot reach as I am hunched over the octopus in the black hole. Immediately, the electric motor whirrs into action, usually giving me a fright. The pump starts pumping air, which is potentially dangerous. So I have to swiftly fill it with water from the plastic container to prime the pump, while at the same time checking the pressure gauge to see how quickly the pressure is building up.

Simultaneously I gradually open two different valves, three feet apart. On these occasions I regret only having two arms. The water surges up and down in the pump, I close off the priming valve, slowly open the other two valves and with luck water flows into the pressure tank. When the tank is full, the motor and pump suddenly switch off and silence reigns, only broken by the thudding of my heart. My hands are shaking – I have survived again and we have water.

Of course things do not always go according to plan. One spring the pump unexpectedly started pumping air down into the 300 foot deep borehole, instead of pumping water up. The pump was working backwards. During the winter our fuse box and electricity meter had been replaced, and by mistake the technicians had reversed the phases of the electricity supply for the pump. They fixed the problem after a week or so.

The pump system has a built-in safety valve, which is activated if the pressure builds up without the valves being opened quickly enough. One very cold spring morning I was too slow opening the valves to the water container , so the safety valve kicked in. I got drenched to the skin, my rubber boots filled with water and I screamed “Switch off the pump” to avoid being electrocuted. Fortunately Margaret was still in position next to the pump switch and did just that. I survived. On another occasion the plastic priming container exploded. Again I was too slow regulating the flow of water from the pump, which involves gradually opening three different valves while simultaneously pouring water into the pump.

THE VALVES
THE VALVES AND PRESSURE GAUGE

After thirty-seven years the pump is getting worn and tired. One summer our lives were dominated by problems with the pump, and visits by the pump technicians. The technician, Mike, paid four or five visits to the black hole over a period of a month or two. Mike is a rather taciturn man in overalls, getting on for fifty and with thick, longish, greying hair. He was not very tall but quite well-fed, with a weather-beaten face and marked eyebrows. He brought his female partner Joan along with him. At first we thought she was his assistant, but it transpired that she just came along for the ride. Joan was well-padded like Mike, with short, blonded hair and very talkative. Over the course of the summer we became well-acquainted with her life story, and her relation with Mike.

Their first visit was on a Friday afternoon. Problem was that the pump started as soon as the tap was opened: something was wrong with the pressure tank or the switches which start the pump. The pressure tank is a blue egg-shaped and pressurized metal container, with a rubber balloon-like membrane which holds the water. There is compressed air between the outer metal shell and the membrane.

“Too little air, could be leaking somewhere but I can’t see anything” said Mike after his first descent into the cellar. “I’ll just fill it up. You should do this once a year. Use a tyre gauge to check the pressure.”

Mike went to his truck to fetch an aged compressor with about thirty feet of ancient rubber tubing.

Joan: “Are you still dragging that old compressor around with you Mike?”

As we learned over the summer Joan excelled in running comments on Mike’s work and competence, but he seemed immune to her taunts.

Unruffled, he connected the compressor to an outlet in the kitchen and disappeared down the hole into the cellar. The compressor coughed into action like an old steam engine and Mike topped up the air in the system.

“That’ll do it. Make sure you test it every year. Nothing wrong with that. Rubber’s as good as new even after thirty-seven years” said Mike. “Wasn’t it leaking then?” asked Margaret. “Oh no, these old tanks are very reliable” was Mike’s parting message.

Their visit lasted about twenty minutes. During this short time Joan told us about her recent shoulder operation and rehabilitation process, described the place where she grew up, her dogs and how many brothers and sisters she had. Joan also told us that they were just off to do a bit of pike fishing for the weekend. She waved and shouted “Have a nice weekend” as they quickly drove off down the dirt road in a cloud of dust. Within an hour the pump was overworking again, as though Mike and Joan had never been near it.

On Monday Margaret called Mike the pump man again. “Sounds like you need a new pressure tank!” was his definite opinion. “You know, they don’t come in that size any more. I’ve never seen a small one like that before. Of course we have bigger ones – and they’re not very expensive. I’ll come over and fix it on Thursday. No problem.”

Come Thursday a cloud of dust heralds the arrival of our favourite pump technician Mike, with his travelling partner Joan. Mike carries his toolbox while Joan tags along behind, clutching a large cardboard box. Mike looks rather guilty and offers to skip the travel charge as compensation.

“This will sort out your problem – a brand new pressure tank.” said Mike

“Do you really know how to install all this stuff Mike?” asks Joan as she drops the carton on top of the steps up to the cottage, and starts dragging out an assortment of tubes and gaskets and other metal objects.

“Don´t worry. I can do this in my sleep”, says Mike nonchalantly

“You´re not too awake then” said Joan.

Mike ignored her and descended once again into the damp hole. After a minute or so he climbed out again, switched off the pump and announced: “You know, that old one really is past it. This will do the trick” he said as he lifted a shining white tank out of the carton and disappeared into the cellar again. Occasionally he shouted instructions to Joan, mainly parts he needed her to fetch. This usually took some time as she was busy relating her life story to us. “What do you need now, Mike?” To us: ”I don’t know how he would do this job without me.”

On this visit she told us her childhood memories and mentioned family acquaintances living nearby. We also found out that she does not like Indian food as this gives her indigestion. She gave us a detailed account of the problems with their draughty home in a cottage on a large estate and their longing for central heating, spiced with local history and complaints about the heavy work load at the pump company. She also commented on Mike’s ability as a pump technician, and then made a tour of our property.

“All done down here” was heard eventually from down below in the cellar. Mike appeared, looking pleased with himself – if a little wet. “This old blue one is definitely past it”, he proclaimed, holding it aloft for the rust-coloured water to dribble onto the kitchen floor. “Never thought you would fix it”, exclaimed Joan, almost serious. Mike just shook his head. “Don’t suppose you want to keep this as a souvenir?”, he said as he lifted the old pressure tank onto the back of his truck.

 

NEW PRESSURE TANK
NEW PRESSURE TANK INSTALLED

“By the way, your pump is leaking. Probably the gasket around the axle between the motor and the pump. There are no spare parts left for these old pumps any more, you know. Lundbergs who made them went bankrupt a few years ago.” Margaret: “Can we still use the pump even if it leaks?” Mike “No problem, just gets wet in the cellar. There is a drain isn’t there?” Margaret: “Can you do anything about it?” Mike: “I’ll check and call you next week. But I’m not too optimistic.” And off they went, leaving us confused and frustrated.

“You’d better check out the cellar right away,” said Margaret, even before the dust cloud from Mike’s truck dispersed. I pulled on my rubber boots and climbed down the ladder into the dark, not knowing what to expect. I switched on the lamp and saw first the new white pressure tank resting on the brick shelf, looking like a giant ants’ egg. Three inches of water covered the concrete floor. Mike was right, there is a drainage hole in the far corner of the cellar, behind the pump head. Sadly there was no visible movement of water towards the drain, probably because the floor sloped in the wrong direction. “Maybe the drainpipe is blocked up”, said Margaret, helpfully.

After rummaging around in the garden shed for a while I found a suitable implement – a two foot long iron bar. Kneeling in the cold water I pushed the iron bar into the drainpipe. It went in about one and a half feet and then hit a rock. As the water slowly seeped down from my jeans into my rubber boots, I contemplated two possible scenarios; the water gradually filling the cellar and shorting the motor, or digging up the drainpipe under the house foundations.

“Can you see where it’s leaking?” asked Margaret cheerfully. “No, but open the taps and we’ll see”, I replied without thinking. She opened the taps full blast and as the motor started to spin and the pump engaged, a fine stream of water sprayed over the whole cellar, me included. “I can see the leak, switch if off NOW”, I shouted. Mike was right, the pump was leaking by the gasket which seals the motor axle. The pump showered the cellar with a fine spray of water every time the motor started.

Monday morning, Margaret phoned Mike’s boss Joe and explained the situation. Joe: “I understand, but the problem is a replacement. Those gaskets are worth their weight in gold. No one has them anymore. We’ll have a hunt around and get back to you”. Joe agreed he would put it in for us – if we could find one.

After three days on the phone Margaret found a pump outfit who said they might have a gasket that fitted Ol’ Blue. It was a round trip of ninety miles. The workshop the yard was full of old pumps waiting to be mended or reconditioned. We felt straight away that this must be the right place. Our old pump would feel right at home here too.

Two customers standing in line at the counter were holding rusty old metal objects which probably made all the difference between water or no water for the summer. Behind the counter we had a good view of the workshop, where two elderly men with longish grey hair went about their work. They were in no hurry, sitting silently at a workbench or moving ancient pumps around on a truck. It had the atmosphere of a silent slow-motion film.

Finally it was our turn. Margaret, the only woman in this man’s world, gave all the details to the pump man. She could answer all his questions. He tried not to show that he was impressed. A replacement gasket ,which was not original but “close enough to stop the pump leaking”, was eventually dug out of the storeroom, a bargain at 1500 kronor.

Joe agreed he would come and install the gasket himself after the weekend. At last we felt that the end was in sight. Come Monday, who should turn up but our old friends Mike and Joan. No sign of Joe. They must have noticed the disappointment on our faces. Joan explained:” Joe only sent Mike because he is small enough to get down into the cellar hole. Joe is too big.” She didn’t seem very impressed with either of them. “Last week Mike and Joe went fishing in their rowing boat. I just couldn’t believe it. They both stood on the same side and almost tipped over! I had to shout to Joe to move over, or else they would have been in the drink” said Joan, with ill-concealed contempt.

“Well well, where did you find this?” asked Mike as he studied the new gasket, trying not to be impressed by Margaret’s contacts and initiative.

“He hasn’t done one of these before you know”, said Joan behind Mike’s back as he descended once more into the cellar. In his hand the tiny box containing the precious gasket.

This time Joan left Mike to get on with the job, preferring to gossip about his collection of old American cars and the exorbitant rent they paid for the barn where he stores them, their cruising memories and his inability to say no to people who needed help with cars and machines, in particular their landlord. After about half an hour a triumphant shout is heard from the depths of the cellar. “I’ve done it!” Margaret was not convinced, so told Mike sternly to stay down in the hole while she opened the taps. Mike didn’t argue. Margaret turned the taps on full blast. After a minute or so the motor started and the pump rattled into action, filling the pressure tank. Mike emerged from the cellar, broad smile on his face and thumbs up. No leaks and floor almost dry. His ordeal was over. Joan joined in the general celebration. They both looked very relieved.

Mike asked almost apologetically where Margaret had found the replacement gasket. “Do you think you could write it down”, he asked humbly. “You can take the box”, she said, and handed it over. He looked like a little boy getting a birthday present.

Paperwork done, bills paid – almost enough to pay for a new one – the pump works without leaking. The cellar has dried out. Sadly it does sound like a steam boat in the cellar, but we have had enough of Mike and Joan for one summer. Soon it will be time for me to revisit the black hole to switch off the pump for the winter, and forget about it until next spring.

At least this is what we thought, but the story doesn’t end there. After a couple of days the whole kitchen started shaking when the pump jumped into action. Jumped is the right word. A brief inspection down the hole revealed that the whole pump vibrated and shook when the motor switched on. The four bolts which held the base of the pump steady on the concrete floor were loose, and one almost rusted through. Margaret and I looked at each other and sighed – another call to Mike the pump man. We put it off for a day or two, but the vibrations just got worse. On the phone he was rather apologetic: “It might have happened when I changed the gasket on the pump axel. You know I had to dismantle the motor to get at the axel.” He agreed to come the next Thursday at 10.30.

We drove down to the cottage the evening before to be in time for our visitors. Just as well. At 9.30 there was a loud knocking at the door and there they were, Mike and Joan, smiling like old friends. Mike apologized for coming early but said he had lost our ‘phone number. Joan just smiled pleasantly, leaning on the doorpost. He was obviously in a hurry. Quick as a flash he climbed down into the cellar and, after listening briefly to the vibrations, he diagnosed the problem: “Pump head and motor are loose. Could have happened when I was here last time. Not to worry, it’s easy to fix. Just need to pick up a few things at the workshop. Bye for now!” And off they went. Joan didn’t have time to say a word, so they really were in a hurry. We just looked at each other, speechless, before returning to our breakfast.

An hour or so later they were back. “This will do the trick”, said Mike as he proudly held up a thick piece of corrugated rubber matting – not entirely new. He disappeared down into the hole again like a scared rabbit, leaving us with Joan’s charming company. A detailed report on her new trial position and the effect on her injured shoulders passed the time while Mike toiled away. The dull thud of metal against metal, loud sighs and the occasional swearword came from the cellar hole. “Done it!” came the shout from the kitchen, where Mike stood on the cellar ladder wiping the sweat from his brow, proudly holding aloft the rusty bolts which he had replaced. Mike had jammed the rubber mat between the concrete floor and the pump to absorb the vibrations. “You can fix this again yourselves”, said Mike, hauling up a handful of bolts of various dimensions from his pocket, “you can have all of these”. It felt as though he was handing over a bag of treasure.

RUSTY BOLT
ONE OF THE FOUR RUSTY BOLTS

With great relief on both sides we waved goodbye, watching their truck disappearing down the dirt road. The rest of the day we sat listening to the pump; it was very quiet. Fixed just in time to close down the system for the winter!

 

The pump don’t work ‘cos the vandals stole the handle. B Dylan

 

Not Dark Yet

The door closed with a dull thud, muffled by the thick blanket of snow which had appeared overnight. A single set of large footprints violated the virgin snow on the footpath. Ahead of me I saw the culprit; a portly lady in tight yellow overall and large black boots trudging slowly up the slope, dragging a new snow shovel. Catching up, I read “BEAB” written in black across her shoulders. I didn’t stop, just hurried past her to catch my train.

It was early morning, the day after Boxing Day, quiet, few people around. On the platform they huddled in small groups to keep warm. The train was late, but still welcome. I screwed in my phones and wound up the volume. Deborah Coleman pumped out “Confused” to drown the rattle of the old carriages.

The city streets were icy. I was in a hurry to get to the hospital in time for my early appointment. “Mustn’t be late, mustn’t be late” echoed inside my head. It was my first visit and I took the wrong entrance, had to retrace my steps. Standing in the reception queue I noticed a discreet little sign: “Patients to X-ray Department proceed directly to waiting room B”. Room B? A trail of arrows guided me along anonymous corridors and through identical doors until I eventually found room B, deep in the bowels of the building.

A thin, nervous man with ruddy face and short crewcut was the only occupant. He noisily shuffled through a thick bunch of papers, as though trying to memorize their contents. The only other sound came from the clock on the wall. An outsize pair of black earphones lay on the low table in front of him. Suddenly a large metal door set into the wall was flung open and a top-heavy young woman in blue smock and white trousers called out “McNab!” The man jumped up from his chair, dropping his sheaf of papers in the process. He gathered them up desperately, like children on a treasure hunt, grabbed his coat and earphones and followed the nurse into the treatment room. Through the open door I could see a narrow bed protected by a sheet of paper. A large beige-coloured metal box hung from the ceiling, directly over the bed. Then the door slammed shut on my inquisitiveness.

I was thinking about a double espresso at the coffee bar across the road on my way home, when a bright “Good morning John, this way” brought me back to the present. The nurse directed me along the corridor with a friendly smile. Chanting instructions she ushered me into a room behind the standard metal door. It happened so quickly I hardly had time to look around: “coat on the chair, don’t need to take anything else off, glasses on the shelf, lie down here on your back, head on the headrest.”

To win time I complied in slow motion, taking in everything in the room. The centrepiece was a narrow bench covered with a sheet from a roll of thick off-white paper. At the far end of the bench there was a flesh-coloured canopy marking the entrance to a dark tunnel-like blackness. I hesitated, but the nurse took command: “Lie down here with your head on the headrest.” I did as I was told. “Now don’t move, I’m just adjusting your pillow. Keep absolutely still.” I blinked “OK”, and automatically felt my muscles tense and breathing become shallower. “It will go in twice” was her parting message before I heard the heavy door close with a metallic clang.

It was peculiarly quiet as I lay there with my head under the canopy, eyes wide open. I stared at the broad, shiny, black screen which ran all the way round the inside of the canopy. A pulsating green light, like a narrow laser, targeted my forehead. The surging sound of a machine starting up got louder and louder. The compact blackness of the screen was interrupted by thin silver lines like the sky at night, illuminated by shooting stars. The pitch of the accelerator increased and the shooting stars moved too fast to see. Eyelids stuck wide-open, chest hardly rising, my lungs went into standby, I felt the bench jerk and gradually feed me head-first into the dark tunnel. A heavy weight was pressing down on my chest, holding me down, like an elephant sitting there. I couldn’t move, panicked, fighting to get out but my arms were locked. Tried kicking out with my legs, but they wouldn’t budge. The walls me on all sides were dark blood-red, throbbing in tune with the machine. Everything went black.

Somebody was shaking my arm. “It’s all over now. Fell asleep in there did you?” It was the nurse helping me onto my feet. My head was spinning. The only thought in my head was; I must get out of here. Eventually the trusted green arrows guided me through a long corridor, down unfamiliar stairs, past many anonymous doors before allowing me to escape into the fresh air. It was not the same building.

I staggered into the nearby park, found a bench and sat down, ignoring the snow. Deep breaths and arms wrapped around me to stop the shivering. Below there was a skating rink, ice glistening in the early morning sunshine. A man dressed all in black was showing off his prowess on hockey blades. Faster and faster he went in wider and wider circles around a little boy who stood there, unmoving, in the centre of the rink. It was hypnotic. Suddenly the man broke his circle and drove right at the boy, before braking in front of him in a shower of ice. The boy flinched.

It was time to leave. I made my way slowly through the park, towards the station. On the train home Bob Dylan sang: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

Sunny Days at the Accident Hospital

”They had to take him down to the accident hospital” was a phrase often overheard when the ladies of the village stood in twos and threes, discussing the latest misadventure to have befallen one of the neighbours. They loved to wrap their tongues around the word “ACCIDENT”, repeated often and with a feigned look of concern. For a young boy with waggling ears this was exciting, combined with a fear of the unknown. Something serious had happened, an accident, and off to the hospital with them. To ask what had happened invited the usual put-down for nosy kids; “curiosity killed the cat”, meaning “it’s none of your own business”. So I knew it was no use asking. I didn’t ask about the cat either.

One gloomy afternoon in November, with a curt “No school this afternoon”, Mum took a tight grip on my arm and marched me to the bus stop outside the greengrocers. I was about seven or eight years old. The old red double-decker ground to a halt in a cloud of black smoke, diesel engine grumbling. “Can we sit upstairs?” “No, in with you now”. It was dark on the lower deck, with it’s low ceiling, but I got to sit by the window.

“Any more fares please” sang the conductor as he tapped on his ticket machine. “Transporter Bridge” said Mum. “Oh, across the river then?” “No, Accident Hospital”. “My my, been in the wars has he, had a little accident? Or is he your little accident! Ha Ha”. Mum gave him the evil eye, together with her pennies for the fare. He punched the fare on the machine and quickly turned the handle. The printed ticket emerged like a long rolled-up white tongue.

I tried not to think of the word “accident” but saw nothing, said nothing, heard nothing until “All change”. The bus shuddered to a halt and Mum pushed me in front of her along the gangway, and then off the high step onto the pavement. The broad black expanse of the River Mersey stretched out before us, slowly winding its way to Liverpool and into the Irish Sea. The grey sky was so low that the towers holding up the bridge across the river disappeared into the dark clouds.

“Where are we going Mum?”

“To get you some sunshine!”

I was confused.  Sunshine?

“Come along now, we haven’t got all day.”

She took a firm grip on my wrist and hurried towards a large brick building overlooking the river. I tried to keep up and look at the building at the same time, but only managed to stumble.

“Pick your feet up now!”

The building was made of smooth red brick and roof tiles, high narrow windows and dark brown varnished double doors with worn brass handles. Over the door the large letters confirmed my worst fears: Widnes Accident Hospital. Shivers spread down my back.

There was no turning back as Mum put her weight behind the brass door handle and pushed me inside, the heavy door slamming behind us. It was cool and empty inside, with a sharp smell of cleaning fluid. The same stuff was used in our school. Footsteps echoed along the corridors and muted voices could be heard behind more dark brown doors. Mum  felt at home, after working as a nurse during the war. She purposefully chose one of the doors and in we went, to be confronted by a large woman in a white uniform and funny hat standing behind a wooden counter. “In there and get ready”, she said pointing to another door. Ready for what, I thought, looking round for an escape route. Mum was having none of it. She  shepherded me firmly through the next door. Now I would never find my way out again .

This door led us into a square, pale green, room with upright chairs arranged along the walls. Most were occupied by mothers, helping their children to get undressed. They were about my age, both boys and girls, standing in their underpants, naked bodies strikingly pale, with thin arms and legs. Many staring eyes followed us as we entered the room, the only sound being that of the door closing. Occasionally I heard a whispered “Schh” or “It’s not dangerous”. Mum found us an empty chair, sat down and started to help me off with my clothes. It was cold and I started to shiver again.

“Come along now boys and girls!” Everybody jumped, eyes widening. “Now now, we don’t have all day!” The mothers shooed their offspring in the direction of the nurse with the booming voice. Mum said “Off you go now, I´ll be waiting for you here.” The long line of pale bodies slowly followed the nurse, like an albino snake.

We were taken into a large room with dark blinds covering the high windows, like in the blackout. Two rows of oblong golden metal cages filled the room, fitted with shiny green mattresses. A giant square lamp dangled from the roof of each cage. Two nurses helped us into the cages and then, putting on green glass goggles, we were told to lie face down and keep still. “No talking, don’t move until we say so and keep your goggles on all the time!” The nurses went out, the ceiling lights were switched off and we lay there in the dark. I felt a thumping sound in my chest. Suddenly the room was flooded with strong light from the lamps hanging in the cages. The light reflected the yellow metal of the cages, like sunshine. After a few minutes the air was filled with a sharp smell, which made me feel sick.

Soon I could hear the other children getting restless as they squirmed about on their sticky mattresses. Gradually I heard whispers  from the braver ones. This stopped at once when the door suddenly opened and we were ordered to turn over. As I rolled over I tried to peep out of the corner of my eye to see who was in the nearest cages. On one side there was a girl about my age; I had never seen a girl undressed before. She had black hair and a freckled nose. She didn’t go to my school.

Then it was suddenly all over. The lamps were extinguished, goggles handed over and children returned unharmed to their mothers. The formerly silent room was now full of excited chatter as we got dressed, pretending not to look around. We had survived and I ran quickly for the bus home, looking forward to next week’s sunshine.