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.”

The End of Happiness

 A couple on the train:

“What do you make of him there”, she whispered, nodding slightly.

“Who?”

“Shh!”, she hissed. “Him in the green jacket, standing there reading. Don’t stare.”

He glanced up quickly and saw a grey-bearded, bald man with round glasses standing by the door reading, one hand in the pocket of his green jacket.

“What about him?”

“See what he’s reading – The End of Happiness. Bit depressing.”

“D’ you think he’s unhappy then?”

“How should I know. Most old people look unhappy.”

“Think so?”

“At work it’s always the older one’s complaining.”

She moved closer, leaning into his body. “You’re not like that though, well most of the time.”

“Wait till I get to his age”, he said pulling a face, “when I’m sixty four!”

“But I’ll still love you. And make you happy.”

“But The End of Happiness. Wonder what it’s about?”

“Probably the usual, woman ran off and left him broke and lonely.”

“Cynical, that’s what you are” she said, punching him lightly in the midriff. “I think she left because there was no happiness left in their lives.”

“You mean they used it all up until there was none left?”

“No, not really, but why carry on when it’s over?”

“Look, look”, he whispered, “he’s smiling to himself. Maybe he is glad it ended”.

“What, happiness?”

“No, their life together, remember you said his woman had run off. Maybe to someone else who still had some happiness left over.”

“Would you run off if you weren’t happy with me anymore?”

“Of course”, she said.

He pretended to be offended by her teasing.

“You know, I’ve seen him before, always standing and reading. Never sits down.”

“So what, maybe he likes standing. Growing good, my gran always said.”

“C’mon, we can stand too. I want to get closer.”

“You mad? What’s this all about? Fancy him do you?”

“Nooo! But there’s something about him.”

“Calm down, he’s getting off. Sometimes I just don’t get you.”

 

A man in a green jacket:

 It had been a distinctly unpleasant journey. I felt their eyes on me as soon as they sat down, burning through my book like sun rays through a magnifying glass. Or rather her eyes; bold and staring, as though trying to reach into my soul. I read the same line over and over, thoughts wandering. Sensing her staring at me, I suddenly looked up. She turned away quickly, moving closer to the man, guilty mouth gaping. Whispering furtively but getting little response. My eyes lingered on the couple for a moment or two, then returned to the familiar lines in the book. The train screeched to a halt and, turning away, I felt the muscles in my face relax. I could finally escape.

 

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.

 

 

“Strangers in the House”

Between nine and eleven o’clock the local gym is a peaceful, almost meditative place, a retreat from the real world. The early birds have rushed off to work in their shirts and ties, after a short, sharp session. The lunch spinners have not arrived yet, still staring at their computer screens. A few seniors, mostly male, are scattered around the place, gently pulling levers and lifting modest weights. Mostly they rest against the brutal-looking machines, or chat softly with other morning regulars. The piped music is slow and low. Day after day they are there. Robot-like pale bodies programmed to unpack their bag, open a locker, change clothes, follow exercise routine, undress, shower, get dressed again, pack bag, close the locker and leave. Most days nothing notable happens to disturb this idyll.

One day a stranger appeared. A rather portly man in stocking feet, grey woollen trousers and a glaring emerald-green hoodie came striding along the narrow corridor between the rows of black and red machines. In one hand a clipboard, in the other a large cellphone with white plugs, round his neck a stop-watch dangling on a black ribbon. He made a beeline for a comfortable seat on one of the machines and flopped down, crossing his legs with difficulty and staring intensely at the phone.

A gradual slowing down of the seniors and their machines could be discerned, as focus turned from training programmes and repetitions to the newcomer.

Warm muscles started to stiffen up when it became clear that the intruder was not alone. First one, then another youth self-consciously followed, dragging their feet and looking around suspiciously. Mid-teens, one slim and sulky, the other seriously overweight. Hardly dressed for training, more like “come-as-you-are”. They dumped jackets and bags in a corner and nonchalantly kicked off their shoes. Gradually they made their way around the gym in slow motion, unwittingly imitating the seniors. Eyes downcast, avoiding contact, they tried a few machines, preferring those out of sight of their leader. He didn’t acknowledge their arrival, engrossed as he was in an animated and loud conversation in a foreign tongue to a person apparently far away.

Two late-comers shuffled along, clones of their comrades in appearance and behaviour. Once installed, they made half-hearted attempts at understanding how the machines worked. Occasionally they lifted a weight or two, between intense staring at the screens of their outsize phones.

The seniors were not too happy about the intrusion, muttering and exchanging disapproving looks as they resumed their training schedules. Order was restored, at least temporarily, until the green-hooded man got up from his machine, announced by a loud clang as the counterweights fell back into place. Greying eyebrows were raised and heads turned as the portly man marched off to find his reluctant charges, stop-watch swinging and clipboard held high. He started to chant instructions and encouragement to the drowsy youths in a bored voice. The only concrete result was the growing irritation of the seniors, defensive of their grandfathers’ rights.

Giving up, the leader retreated with his pupils to a small room fitted out with blue exercise mattresses, designated for stretching rituals. A bad move! The lads collapsed onto the nearest mattress like exhausted dogs, more from lack of sleep than exertion. They lay there groaning, clutching phones like cuddly toys. Stop-watch at the ready, the hooded man ordered the youths to perform a series of sit-ups, one after the other. Enthusiasm for the competition against his clock was definitely low; it was more fun bouncing giant beach balls around the room. Undermined by their lethargy and the increasing hostility of the seniors waiting for their stretching sessions, the leader made a hasty retreat. Gradually the youths summoned up enough energy to grab their stuff and slouch off after him, like sleepwalkers, keeping a safe distance.

The seniors seemed relieved, nodding approvingly, as they recaptured their territory and could return to their daily exercise regime.

“Strangers in the House” is the traditional cry when intruders are found in the British Houses of Parliament.

Everything has a Cost

Opening the virgin pages of a new book is a special feeling, like an explorer stepping onto a foreign shore for the first time. But the characteristic new-book smell escapes as you open the covers and turn over the first pages; a mixture of size, printer’s ink and freshly dried glue.

I prefer to read library books with their worn covers and dog-eared pages, after being handled many times over. American photographer Edward Weston described a photograph as a message you send into the future. It is the same with used books, which often contain messages for future readers, “reading lines”.

Reading lines in old books are reminiscent of the sacred “dreamlines” or “songlines”* of aboriginees. Their sacred creation myths tell of the legendary beings who wandered over the Australian continent, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – plants, trees, rocks, waterholes, bushes, animals – and so singing the world into existence. Songlines form a labyrinth of invisible pathways, knowledge handed down by their ancestors, to help the aboriginees find their way across the outback.

Reading lines are the signs and pathways left behind in books by previous readers. They will guide you through the book, if you know how to follow the lines and decipher the messages left by earlier generations. Some signs also give clues about their reading habits. Cocoa stains and biscuit crumbs, often Digestive, point to the surreptitious bedtime reader who is not too fussy with borrowed books – or sleeping on gritty sheets. For some, the lingering fragrance of tobacco may enhance the experience of reading a novel about post-war life. For others it may be a total turn off; so much so that they close the book for good and possibly miss out on a good read.

Other readers leave more visible and deliberate traces on their journey through the book, signs which can be followed in much the same way as the aboriginees’ songlines. In well-read library books, notes, comments, scribbles, brackets, underlinings and exclamations often accompany you on your journey between the covers, your guide.

Recently I had the company of a wealth of reading lines left by an anonymous annotater throughout Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair”. She, I am sure it was a woman, had used a mixture of marginal comments, underlining, brackets, exclamations and other scribbles in bold black, as she followed the fates of Maurice, Sarah and Henry in Greene’s book about relationsships in post-war London.

A key message is the passage – and her comment – found at the bottom of page 47:

“Just as I went home that first evening with no exhilaration but only a sense of sadness and resignation, so again and again I returned home on other days with the certainty that I was only one of many men – the favourite lover for the moment. This woman, whom I loved so obsessively that if I woke in the night I immediately found the thought of her in my brain and abandoned sleep, seemed to give up all her time to me. And yet I could feel no trust: in the act of love I could be arrogant, but alone I had only to look in the mirror to see doubt, in the shape of a lined face and a lame leg – why me?”

This is Maurice, doubting Sarah’s love for him despite her contriving a couple of pages further on to make noisy love to him on the living-room floor, while her husband Henry is upstairs in bed with a cold, a lunch tray and a hot water-bottle for company. She spontaneously declares her love for Maurice on page 50: ”I’ve never loved anybody or anything as I do you”. Despite this, Maurice still doubts in her love for him. This is one of Greene’s central themes in the book.

By adding the comment: “how I felt with Stefan” our anonymous annotator draws a parallel to her own feelings – and her relationship with Stefan, doubting his undivided love for her. But who has added this comment, who is she? And who is Stefan?

Several clues to her identity can be found by studying the many reading lines scattered throughout the book. Her comments are brief, apparently spontaneous, to the point and written with miniscule but bold hand. Her handwriting imitates printing, letters not joined up but rounded in the prescribed school style of the last ten or twenty years. The writer is young – under thirty, probably early twenties.

For the next 150 pages I did not feel alone as I followed the complicated relation between Sarah and Maurice, and indeed also with her husband Henry. Following the reading lines left by the annotator convinced me that my companion was using the book as therapy to understand her own feelings for her lover Stefan – and in particular his lack of feelings for her. At times the parallel story took over. My reading focused more and more on those parts of Greene’s story which she marked with thick brackets. These passages were not about Maurice and Sarah, rather events and feelings she recognised from her relationship with Stefan. As she made her way through the book, she marked more and more dismal passages. From periods of calm, to tenderness, to hate and jealousy, and finally death.

“Hatred is very like physical love; it has its crises and then its periods of calm.”

“After possession comes the tenderness of responsibility when one forgets one is only a lover, responsible for nothing.”

She highlighted several other passages where Maurice discusses hatred and jealousy. She hated two-timing Stefan and was at the same time jealous of his other “lovers of the moment”.

“If I hate her so much as I sometimes do, how can I love her? Can one really hate and love? Or is it only myself that I really hate?

“the nightmare’s nearly over”

“She had been as dead then as she was dead now. As long as one suffers one lives.”

The book has a tragic ending, a real end to the affair. Both stories were quite depressing. I am convinced our annotator lost Stefan, just as Maurice and Henry lost Sarah. Her final message in the margin was: “Everything has a cost.”

* Read more in “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin

Dinnertime

The narrow brook slowly meanders and wanders, emptying smallish lakes way upstream and draining broad, low-lying fields on its way to the sea. For most of its length it is enclosed by steep banks which the streaming water has gradually sculpted over the centuries. In some places the brook is wider, and the water seems completely still. Sometimes it overflows the low banks, turning nearby pathways and fields into small ponds.

The course of the brook is marked by a thick line of bushes which stretch their thirsty roots down through the rich soil to reach the water. These thickets provide shade and food for flocks of small birds, but also conceal a well-camouflaged, high fence. A wide footbridge, situated where the brook is broader and slow-moving, attracts a large flock of mallards. Little children and pensioners lean over the side of the bridge, bags of old bread at the ready. Themallards seek refuge under the bridge when the hawks circle above, biding their time to launch an aerial attack. This autumn the abundant rain has made life difficult for the mallards; the brook has swelled so much that the brook reaches up to the floor of the bridge, blocking off their escape route.

A loud squawking and flapping of wings broke the silence of the autumn twilight, as a mallard desperately tried to lift from the still water. The heavy bird came crashing through the bushes, flying low into the sunset, trying to gain height. A drone-like hawk struck from above, homing in on its target. A dull thud could be heard as the hawk sank its hooked beak and talons into the neck of the heavy mallard, slicing through its feathers. Linked together they sailed through the air for another twenty yards, hawk hunched like a jockey on the back of the mallard. They hit the ground together with a loud bang; two final choking squawks and then, silence. The hawk wasted no time plucking the feathers off its victim, still warm, just right for dinner.

Train Connection

The fat bulldog showed little interest in following its owner onto the underground train. “All aboard. Mind the doors” commanded the loudspeaker, but the dog still didn’t budge. The owner half dragged and half lifted the heavy beast into the train just before the doors slammed shut. Breathing heavily from the effort, the dog  flopped down on the floor, legs splayed like a cartoon dog dropped from on high. His owner leaned nonchalantly against the carriage wall, pulling out his phone.

Two stops later the owner made for the door, dog slowly waddling after, leaving behind an atmosphere of lethargy in the carriage. Passengers on their way home from work seemed to share the feelings of the bulldog.

Nobody reacted to the woman who moved swiftly down the aisle of the carriage, seemingly in a hurry to get off before the doors closed. She wore a black hijab, floor-length wide grey skirt and a long dark purple tunic. She was not strikingly pretty but quite attractive, in her late 30’s or early 40’s. Almost at the exit, she turned and banged her fist down on the shoulder of a man sitting next to the window, with his back to her. He jumped up, startled. The closest passengers looked up from their smart phones at this disturbance. The man was African, tall and slim, in his mid-20’s, wearing a blue quilted winter jacket and smart jeans. He instinctively turned towards his assailant, holding out his hand to keep his balance. The woman quickly pushed a screwed up paper into his hand, turned and almost running disappeared into the rush-hour crowd on the platform. Nothing was said. The man remained standing, as in a state of shock, and slowly opened his hand. He held it out at arm’s length for all to see. In his palm lay a few screwed-up banknotes. Incredulous, he stared at the crumpled notes for what seemed an eternity. Then he deliberately turned his hand upside down so that the notes sailed down onto the carriage floor. As if to say, this has nothing to do with me. He sat down again. A sympathetic smile from the young woman opposite made him feel a little more at ease. Together they peered down at the notes lying on the dusty floor. After exchanging an embarrassed glance, he decided the best thing was to pick up the notes and stuff them into his jacket pocket.

This is a true story. The woman was taking a big risk. If the doors had closed before she had time to escape from the train, or if the man had chased and caught up with her on the platform, what would have happened? A real life “Sliding Doors”.

Guttural

The deep, slowing throb of a Harley Davidson* attracted my attention, as the biker slipped it into neutral. It was a late-summer afternoon on a busy city street. The queue waiting for the green relaxed. They were in no special hurry.

The biker hunched low in the saddle, brown pointed thin-soled leather shoes resting confidently on the asphalt. Grey nylon socks and brown-patterned suit brought to mind a pen pusher, not a cruiser. He was too skinny to fill out the khaki wind-jammer. It demanded a more muscular frame.

A greying pony tail hung down below his cream-coloured helmet, which was worn, but still feigned to provide some protection. Gold-rimmed glasses and mottled grey moustache with yellowish-brown stains completed the picture.

A rattling, guttural sound broke the silence, growing louder and more persistent. The biker was clearing his lungs from the effects of the cigar which was perched nonchalantly between the fingers of his left hand.

The lights switched to green but the Harley didn’t move, just turning over. The biker slowly flicked the ash off his cigar, stuck it firmly in the corner of his mouth and then deliberately slid in the clutch. The machine responded with its own guttural sound and slowly they cruised down the middle of the street, leaving behind two thin trails of blue smoke.

* Harley Davidson: The most effective way to turn gasoline into noise without producing any horsepower, according to the Urban Dictionary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

WHAM!

The silence of the sleeping houses was broken by a dull sound, muffled by the piles of snow which still covered the ground. The snow had a greyish hue in the weak rays of the winter sun.

They had come a few days ago, appearing suddenly from nowhere. About ten of them, a family group; small ones, medium sized, adults and a vicious-looking extra large one with only half a tail. What attracted them was the brown patch of nuts and seeds on the snow below the hawthorn tree, spilled by the greedy birds. ­­

As newcomers they were on their guard. At the first sound of the door lock being turned they split in all directions, as though a grenade had landed in their midst. Some disappeared under the fence into the next-door neighbours. I rang on their doorbell but only the dog was awake. A few minutes later the door was opened by the woman, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “Oh yes, we’ve seen them too. Aren’t they horrible!“ she exclaimed drowsily. Her husband coming along behind almost fell out of the door trying to control the snarling terrier in his arms. “You know”, he added, “these dogs can kill three hundred in an hour if they get up the scent!” Yeah right, I thought, having often seen them dragging the lethargic animal up into the woods to do its business.

After a couple of days we adapted our lives to the intruders, making extra noise opening the door and not leaving any doors open as we fetched the newspapers from the mailbox. We almost missed them when they weren’t around. From reports received we understood they visited other nearby gardens.

The general concensus was that we should get rid of them. So I planned the deed, waiting for the right moment. It came early on Saturday morning. A lone medium-sized animal was preoccupied with digging through the snow to find some breakfast. I slowly slid back the door lock and slipped silently outside. Grasping the blue snow shovel with both hands I lifted it high above my head, held my breath and “WHAM!” There it lay on the crust of the snow, flattened and presumed dead. But wait, its tail was still quivering. Maybe I had just stunned it. Instinctively I raised the shovel once more, “WHAM”, and then again for good measure, “WHAM”. The snow gradually turned dark red around the edges of the flattened corpse. I knew the job was done and left it there to stiffen in the freezing air.

Blue Shovel
The Blue Snow Shovel

Replacing the shovel in the corner behind the door, I returned triumphantly to my breakfast and newspaper. “All in a day’s work for a man”, I told myself.

An hour or so later I knew it was time to get rid of the stiff. So with plastic bag and gloves at the ready, I returned to the scene. But what now! Somebody has stolen my corpse! The only evidence was a pale pink stain on the shrinking snow.

The next day a neighbouring cat-owner proudly described how his cat had come home with one of the intruders dangling from its jaws. “Strange though”, he said, “it was all flattened. I don’t want to know how the cat managed that.” The cat was rewarded with some fresh herring for its bravery.

An Unlikely Couple

Heavy rain last night, and now the muddy cocoa-coloured water almost overflowed the banks of the narrow brook as it snaked its way to the sea. Yellow water lilies leaned over in the strong current. The hot rays of the sun melted the morning mist.

Two figures walking close together appeared round a bend in the pathway which followed the meanderings of the brook. Two women. One appeared very frail as she shuffled along in her bright orange wellies, trying to avoid the puddles in her path.  Her matching orange raincoat was slightly too large, hanging down way below the knees of her white trousers. She was pale, striking white hair in an almost fashionable page cut, thin and not very tall, probably over eighty. Her thin arm, submerged in the oversized raincoat, was hooked over the arm of the other woman. She was younger and much taller, the older woman not quite reaching up to her armpit. The younger woman had a soft olive face, surrounded by a colourful tight shawl which concealed her hair, long flowing blouse and skirt, heavily patterned in dark green and brown, on her feet a pair of intense white sneakers. They walked slowly, the older woman leaning on her companion’s arm for support, both silent and looking dead ahead.

I stepped aside to let them pass on the narrow pathway. The only sound came from the water on its way to the sea. As the couple passed by, I was sure I could hear their thoughts.

The older woman thought; this is my first outing for ages. There’s so much to see and hear and smell, I just can’t take it all in. Wonder what she thinks about this? What was her name again? Must be boring to be sent out to walk me, like taking the dog out for a walk. She should be having fun with others her own age instead of this. We just have nothing to talk about. I’m so curious about where she comes from. But you can’t ask, can you! Might think I’m nosy. All these puddles – good job I got my wellies on. Poor girl in those thin shoes. She’ll catch her death of cold. Perhaps they don’t use wellies where she comes from.

The younger woman thought; here we are again, now it’s Gertie’s turn for a trip around the park. If only she would talk it’d feel less like taking the dog out for a walk. I’m sure she has a lot of stories to tell. Wonder where she grew up and what it was like when she was young? But you can’t ask, can you? Might think I’m nosy. Ahh! my bad luck. Right in a puddle with my sneaker. Went straight through – wish I had wellies like her.

Turning I saw that they took a firmer grip on each other and continued on their slow, silent walk along the brook.

Commuter Games

She sat on a corner seat at the end of the carriage and opened her fur-lined coat wide, oblivious to the other commuters. Sitting in her cosy corner nest she smiled to herself, ruminating on past memories or pleasures to come. The train rattled on, exchanging passengers at each station.

Suddenly her warm dark voice slices through the carriage; “John!” and then again “John!”, much too sensual for a regular morning commuter greeting. A man in his late 40’s is walking slowly along the aisle towards her, head held high with a scarf chokingly tight around his neck, giving him an aloof expression. As he approaches the woman he pretends to suddenly notice her and exclaims “Hello, fancy meeting you here”. He reaches out to shake her hand, as distant acquaintances do. “Yes, what a surprise” she replies, grabs his arm and pulls him into her corner nest. She links arms and snuggles up to him, face bubbling over with joy. His token resistance is noted by the other commuters, peeping from behind newspapers or glancing up from smart phones. She pulls him closer, like a spider hauling in its prey. Their conversation is muted, whispered almost. New passengers glance furtively at the couple before turning away, looking troubled or perhaps envious.

The train jerks to a halt, ready to offload another batch of commuters. The man disentangles his arm and plants a loud wet kiss on her mouth, jumps up and clears the doors just before they slam. He strides off along the platform without a backward glance, leaving behind only the hissing sound as the doors lock into place. Smiling, she raises her hand to wave but then hesitates, letting it fall back heavily into her lap. The woman snuggles down again into her coat, hugging herself tightly as if he was still there. The other passengers relax, their daily commuter routine back to normal as the train disappears into the dark tunnel.

The man slowly climbs the stairs from the cave-like station, breathing laboured and perspiring slightly as he reaches the open air of the park. He is in a hurry, wiping his mouth carefully with the back of his left hand, lips pale and tense, eyes too clouded to notice the yellows and reds of the trees.