Calm in the chaos

According to the scientists, chaos is a thing of mathematical purity, a creature of shape and form. But some shapes and forms defy consistency and pattern: defiance is a pattern maybe. Some shapes and forms are too complicated to recognise and prefer to roam in dense dark clouds across one’s perception. Daily life can feel like one solid grey blob but there is a consistency and a sense of control to be had, a pattern of sorts. For me it is caring for the horses and the chickens and being at my desk every morning by nine. It is eating and sleeping at roughly the same times and exercising according to the schedule.

And yet still the sense that there is no consistent shape or form pervades everything to the point of malign pollution. Every week is different, every month has some disruption, every year is a new tangle of events. Nothing is predictable and we become passive passengers despite the power of control freakery. There is really no control because everything is subjective, dependent on externalities. Maybe we need the sense of chaos to force a weird discipline, to avoid making it worse. A consistency in the inconsistencies?

The problem with the sense of being ruled by chaos is that as one gets comfy with it. Chaos gets familiar so it’s not so chaotic as it once was and it’s tempting to keep adding to it. Chaos is like a drug and it tempts you ever deeper into reaches where there is no light, no discreet sounds, no shapes, only an intense sense of formlessness. You listen in idle moments to some distant low level but indistinct noise. You know it’s just the overwhelming sense of being out of control, but you have the sense that something like warm wet concrete is slopping over everything. You know you have to move but it’s just so much effort and it’s quite cosy to give in to it all. But you know that it’s just a matter of time before the concrete sets and you’re stuck with no escape. Bound forever in sinister chaos maelstrom you face the horror. The chaos has frozen and binds you to a future where nothing can ever be resolved.

Resolution is how we progress through the days, one to the next. Feeding the cat, lounging in the bath, folding clean laundry, eating pizza, are all resolutions of a kind. But becoming a victim of your own life is part of the intoxication, the temptation ever for more, ever to keep saying yes, yes I can do this, yes I can fix this, yes I will save you. Yes. You just keep pushing harder and this is why people develop high blood pressure and peptic ulcers. This is why people drive into brick walls and holes in the road. Too many thoughts rushing about and fighting for supremacy. You can solve it with drugs and booze and being antisocial. Or you can do it by unwinding the chaos of work, family, children, pets, home, socialising, exercise, shopping, eating, sleeping and the rest, one step at a time. Resolution solves the blood pressure thing, and maybe the ulcers. It also untangles the chaos and washes away the concrete before it sets.

We thrive on change and yet we fear it. We want a full life and yet we yearn for quiet spaces, so much that finding them adds to the pressure and sense of chaos. Travelling is its own chaos but is there anything more restful than being on a long haul flight where someone else is responsible for every aspect of what you are doing for those precious hours of voided existence?

So when someone asks you how things are going, don’t tell them that you’re thriving on the mess, that the puzzling together of daily tasks and the sheer thrill of existence, keep you awake at night. For in those witching hours you make plans for what happens next in your life. For adrenaline junkies there is always another opportunity for a thrill and for chaos obsessives there is always another opportunity to twist the chaos into a new and even more exciting shape. Keep track of the details in the darkness when you can’t sleep. Hold on to the tail of the burning beast that is your wild life and don’t stop twisting it. Twist it into the form you want however intensely you try to pretend that you want a quiet life. Maybe you do want a life of predictability and one where at the end of the day you sigh and doze off watching whatever pap the television is serving. Be passive and drift away or grab at whatever you encounter that is unknown and unfamilliar and hold it fast. It might prickle a bit, but at least you’ll know you’re still alive.

PS This is what the WordPress AI evaluation says of this piece. The italics are why AI still has a long way to go:

The content captures the sense of chaos and its impact on daily life effectively. The descriptions are vivid and create a strong image of the overwhelming nature of chaos. However, the main ideas could be more organized and connected to each other. Consider restructuring the content to create a clearer progression of thoughts and ideas. Additionally, some sentences could be refined to improve clarity and flow. Finally, consider providing examples or anecdotes to support the points being made. 

The Sheep & the Grey Horse: It was a wedding – part 1 of 2

Together and after much protracted and digressive discussion, Hotpot and the Grey Horse eventually worked out what magic had happened and not happened on the day of the wedding. They knew that the day had begun in darkness, even though it was July. They remembered that from carbon skies a slate grey rain was falling as the dawn struggled to break. They remembered her frantic talking, talking, talking all the way out of the house and along the track to the feed store. “I’m late already. I’m already late. I don’t believe this. What happened to early? It’s already after six and I’m already late. Where’s the sun? Why’s it still so dark? Oh, shit look at the sky, look at the bloody sky. And it’s really raining. It’s raining on our wedding day.” The Grey Horse, standing leaning over the post and rail fence had heard bits of her little rant, but hadn’t followed much of it. Swivelling his ears, he had eventually turned to look over his shoulder to see Hotpot standing at the top of the field. He sighed and gave a slight whinny of impatience. 

The Grey Horse remembered that by the time the breakfasting was over, the day was no lighter and the rain was pounding heavy and persistent. He learnt that in the dressing room she had banished the girls to their own room in the hope of finding a little calm. The wedding dress had lain langourous and seductive across a chair, beckoning, daring her to put it on. The maid of honour was off elsewhere getting herself ready so she stayed alone and quiet asking the dress if it really was time to dance. The red and purple silks in folds around the skirt. The boned and scoop necked bodice, wine red and glowing in the strange dark light of a stormy midsummer’s morning. The beading, something blue and brightly shining on the off the shoulder shoulders of this amazing hand made dress, made to her and her daughter’s design. Putting on the dress was almost scary, the fear that it might not fit since yesterday, or that it might tear or suddenly develop wrinkles and stains. 

She had had no idea this day would arrive so fast, so suddenly. In haste it must be done, for fear that it might somehow be undone, so into the dress she wriggled, pulling it soft over shoulders and hips, twisting and turning as the luscious silks slid perfectly into place. Her maid of honour appeared and helped lace the ribbon ties at the back, a hint of tears in her eyes. “Where are your shoes?” “Are the girls ready?” “Is it time?”. The maid of honour hurried off to find the girls and suddenly she was in a dreadful hurry, wanting to be out in the rain in her wonderful dress and wanting to be with him. She completely forgot all the stuff about grooms not seeing brides until the last moment and scurried off down to the waiting cars, as he came up the stairs to gather the stragglers. He stopped midstride half way up the stairs and caught his breath soft in a whispered wow. And then “Wow” full voiced and he folded her against his wedding suited chest and held her very tight. “You are beautiful” and she almost crying said back “you are too”, freed herself in a rush and scampered out to the car. Across the drive Hotpot and the Grey Horse were watching a line of beribboned cars form along their fence. 

There had been some unspoken understanding that neither bride nor groom should drive on their wedding day. Their chauffeurs were close friends who ambled up to the house calm and relaxed. They also had no car having totalled their’s earlier in the week. They took their places in the four wheel drive watching as the thunder rolled and their passengers clambered in, trying and failing to sidestep puddles and avoid the streaking rain.

Behind the Discovery came a rental car and an aging Morris Minor called Lucy. Various relatives and the three teenaged offspring were squeezed into the cars and as another clap of thunder walloped the skies, the little convoy set off down the drive heading for the Hastings registry office some fortyfive minutes away. And they were already late, despite the calculation of five minutes per person to load a car. Passing at reasonable speed along the A21 yet more lightning scoured across the darkness. Except this was not real lightning but rather the flash of a speed camera, three times in quick succession as each car sped past. She put her head in her hands, calculating what the fine would be and if all those many points would mean losing her license. It had been quicker at the airport to do the rental car paperwork in her name, rather than wait for dithering Swedes to discuss the details. In her mind it had all been pretty irrelevant, but now it was annoyingly very relevant indeed.

At the registry office the lady was kind, patient and did her job with a bemused smile, as she took in the gathering in their outlandish outfits. The groom looked the part in a soft cream linen/silk blend with a tie and pocket handkerchielf that looked like it was made from the same wine coloured silk as his wife’s dress. She was resplendent in red and purple silks that had the merest whiff of a cowboy brothel about them. The youth in a suit that probably fit fine when they bought it, spent the whole ceremony staring out of the window at the grey shaded sky. His sisters were fireworks in their youth and beauty, long gilded green and blue dresses, smiling and giggling behind their hands. As she made the final declaration another bolt electrified the sky and the room lit up, and the groom kissed his bride. This too the registrar could see was electric.

And then the return home: The groom wants to stop at an ATM to get more cash for the catering team and for fuel for the Discovery because he forgot about it yesterday. The chauffeurs bizarrely choose to drive to Battle instead of stopping in Hastings for the cash. They and so the entire party park at the wrong end of the high street for the bank and take forever to slot in enough change to park three vehicles. Mincing down said high street in their collective finery the maid of honour and the teenagers sense the wafting aroma of fish and chips and declare they are hungry. Pitstop for chips and battered sausages and eventually the bank and eventually back to the cars and eventually back to the A21. The clock ticketty tick ticks ever faster.

And then on the way home to where leftover curry and naps all around await, the drivers stop at the pub for drinks. “It’s your wedding day.” Disgruntled Swedish relatives have a sense of humour failure and order coffee. Should’ve had the chips. By the time the three cars get home and unload their passengers it’s too late for a leisurely lunch. Cold curry and floppy poppadoms and sogging nan bread has to do. No time. No time. Cars need loading with extra decorations and supplemental food. Convoy in place, not. Eleven individuals in all their finery waiting on the driveway and getting wet again.

Best man admits he cannot find the key to the little Morris. Having been tersely advised that he can start the car with a paper clip he admits that he cannot find the entire ignition mechanism because it came out with the key when he tried to just take the key. Somewhat limply he says that the paper clip idea is not going to work. He is unaware that the comment is redundant. Ok we all say, it will be fine to pile into two cars. Except that the bride’s not ready and the party, taking place by the side of a lake some three miles away, is due to start in fifteen minutes. Not a one of the wedding party there to welcome the caterers, the early arrivals or even the ontime ones if things keeping moving so slowly. 

Off, at speed, goes the loaded Discovery, cramped faces peering from steamy windows, additional foodstuffs carefully balanced on knees, groom gripping the steering wheel with ferocious intent. The bride and the Swedish brother-in-law set off some minutes later in the rental car in a state of relative calm. And then halfway down the drive, they become aware of an odd noise. “What’s that noise?” says the bride. “It’s nothing,” says the brother-in-law.” “It sounds like a flat tyre” says the bride. “No it can’t be” says the brother in law. “Please can we stop and check?” says the bride. Annoyed sigh and deliberately not stopping until a few more flaps of the tyre have slapped loud as they smack the tarmac. Out she leaps in her Jimmy Choo shoes and her swathes of silk. Flat tyre confirmed and it’s raining again and the clock is still ticking. “It’s ok,” he says, “I can fix it.” But no, he cannot fix this and calling to him that she’ll meet him there she turns and runs up the drive and onto the lane, leaping over puddles, her gorgeous dress gathered up in a tight bundle and her white stockings turning dove grey around the toes. The four inch heels kept the rest of her feet out of the wet as she sprints along the lane, half a mile or so in the hope that she might catch their calm and jolly friends before they left for the party. With every stride she is reminded that this lane goes steadily uphill.

Panting a little and starting to sweat just a little she stands outside their gate to catch her breath. Pushing open the gate she forgets that it’s got an elegant arch over it, an elegant arch festooned with ivy. Festoooned with wet ivy. The light rain was a mere breath of damp compared to the volume of wet that fell down onto the not-a-cascade of golden red hair, the blue beading and the lovely red silk. New reds, new damp reds. But no wrinkles.

And their calm and jolly friends, they were still there, mercifully delayed because of a wardrobe reset. But following her explanation, they had an explanation of their own: the rental replacement car that replaced their written off car had been freakishly also totalled in exactly the same place. They had no car. They were going to the party in the farm truck. Perfect. Except that the farm truck only has a driver’s seat and the passenger has to sit on a pile of sacks. And the passenger’s passenger has to sit on the passenger’s lap. “We’re very late now,” he said. “We’ll go across country. It will be quicker.” And so they set off across a liquid landscape following the rising gold of a clearing sky. But the gods, old and new, were not yet done with this very special wedding day, not by a long shot.

… to be continued.

A prison visit

The women were gathered around the steps in the creeping cold of a November Saturday, waiting for a heavy black door to open. The shadowed air was damp and clinging. False lashes were wilting, tight blonde pony tails were limp. A handful of long black spirals, laquered and permed had lost their spring. Only the botoxed lips and the fingernail claws were holding up. Some of the women were holding small children, some had slightly less small children in pushchairs. Some women were pregnant, a desolate cast to their faces. Jolly grandmas with lots of missing teeth were making jokes and smoking. Grim faced male friends and brothers kept their faces tight and unnavigable. They waited at the foot of the stone steps, slightly apart from the women and fidgetting from foot to foot.

In front of them all the high flintstone walls of the prison tipped forwards against the sky, looming and threatening to fall and engulf them at any moment. Somewhere inside their men were waiting, some keen and impatient, anxious to discuss what would change when they got out. Some were bored and unrepentant, disinterested. Some were annoyed that visiting hours, the visiting 90 minutes, coincided with the footie on the telly.

Behind the thick locked door the black and white uniforms, faces carved, colourless and set were waiting. And the keys on long chains, the security cameras, the registration forms, the sniffer dogs, weapons and id scanners. The curious atmosphere of routine boredom and habitual watchfulness. And time, flaccid and loose, moves patiently along the confining walls and corridors, leans lazy against hidden ceilings, hides in corners and under the furniture. It distorts the days and nights to create a new continuum.

The loneliness of the women, their patience and confusion, their anger and fear keeps company with time’s distortion. Inside in the waiting rooms, it is too warm, too close. The hovering testosterone of angry young men blisters the air and pock marks our sights and conversations. The slow tango that happens most Saturdays is not a scene we want to see, to share. It’s not a scene we can truly share with the regular visitors, or with their children. But we try to do it anyway.

We all go through the complicated security, sadly simple for the women who do it every week. We all put our stuff in lockers and throw tissues and chewing gum in the bin as instructed, because they are not allowed. We all go through the scanners and let the sniffer dogs do their thing. We all listen to the stern warden who tells us that smuggling drugs into the prison will get us a long prison term. Her voice is strict but also bored and as she calls the names of the women who can go through to the next stage, she jokes about not needing to repeat her other reminders. They try to laugh politely except the granny who guffaws and declares,  “alright darlin’ we got it first time around”. Except that the man they are visiting, did not get it the first time around and now here they all were coming to see him again as he waits out his fourth term in prison. Petty thefts and drugs and some violence. He didn’t get it in goes one to four, so five when it comes may be his chance to make a change. All a mistake, granny says.

A little boy of four or five smiles through all this and plays on the floor with the toy farm and its plastic animals. He asks his patient mother endless questions and she answers soft and indulgent, makes him sit beside her and holds his hand tight. He asks me where I live and I tell him and I ask him where he lives. He asks his mum and she tells him and he tells me with a proud smile, rolling the name of his town around his mouth for the first time and then again as he laughs through the word. He repeats it and repeats it and I laugh and his mum tries to laugh too. Tries hard to crack her golden face and stop the welling eyes from overflowing. She reaches for her little boy and folds him tight against her shoulder and he laughs and laughs as her tickling fingers caress him. He has no idea that he’s all there is to keep her from screaming her fear, her loneliness and her shattered belief that it wasn’t meant to be like this. And it wasn’t. It never is.

Tokyo turmoil

There is no sense of turmoil in Tokyo. I just like the alliteration. From our hotel room window we see the Tokyo Tower, its lattice painted in bright stripes of red and white against a glowing night sky. Our bathroom has a toilet with a prewarmed, cushioned seat. Like most of the toilets we sat on in restaurant and office facilities, it has an intimate washing system with clear pictograms for ease of use. Some of these toilets even have an option to play music, intended to cover up embarrassing noises. I never tried the music thing because that in itself is an embarrassing noise.

It’s part of the clean clean clean and safety ethics Japan is so well known for. Safety at all costs except for the mad cyclists heading towards you on the pavements, no matter how narrow. They blatantly disregard the cycle lanes and no one seems to mind, except the untrained tourists leaping out of the way. The cyclists barely even slow down and it’s as if they’re in another world. This is understandable as in the bits of Tokyo we visited there is a lovely sense of calm, which gives the impression that Tokyo is quiet. And compared to other cities, it is. That the people are so kind and polite and considerate only adds to this sense of an unspoken gentleness in the place. Even the light in late summer is gentle and caressing.

We visited an enormouse equestrian park called Baji Koen and  located to the west side of Shibuya, a major commercial and financial centre in Tokyo. Baji Koen was originally built in 1940 and lately upgraded for the 2020 Olympics. The facilities were then repurposed and refurbished as a smaller stadium and park. The park has graceful and immaculate lawns where toddlers can totter with no risk of landing in a muddy puddle or of finding something disgusting they might insist on eating. The grass is close cut and perfect for little boys practising their rugby tackles. Girls can swan about in complicated clothes without fear of tripping over. There is also a vast arena for showjumping and dressage and a racetrack, where we watched the ancient art of Yabusame – archery on horseback. No one fell off and of the four contenders the girl was much better at it than the men, one of whom almost did fall off several times and didn’t shoot a single arrow. Yabusame was originally a martial art, but it morphed over the centuries into something spiritual and then something competitive. Riders and horses seemed to be having a great time doing it. Equine visitors can avail themselves of extensive luxury accommodation at Baji Koen and there is probably a hotel somewhere nearby for the humans. It’s all very lovely.

That’s hardly surprising because Tokyo and probably Japan too offers incidental beauty everywhere you look. From the people and their carefully curated clothes, to the parks and green spaces, signage and the food, the focus is as much on the quality of appearance as on the quality of the thing itself. Grubby, rough and untidy doesn’t rear its head. Even a serving of truck stop soba noodles, made of buckwheat and served cold, has the food set bang smack in the middle of their bamboo tray thing. The accompaniments of dashi (broth) and chopped spring onions are carefully placed for optimal symmetry.

The many bizarre and challenging foodstuffs were for a vegetarian more intriguing entertainment than options for nourishment. That is, apart from the weird and unfamiliar vegetables that the Tokyo people didn’t seem to count as vegetarian possibilities. A main dish that does not exclude meat or fish, means there is no vegetarian food available. Except that potatoes with cheese, truffle fries, and rice and salad, noodles, beans and tofu are just fine, especially when you add fried tempe and some of the weird vegetables as a side.

Everything we came across in Tokyo was all about the details: warm damp towels before and after meals, special holders for spent teabags, complex soap and lotion options. And the diverse cooking methods matched to the huge range of foods, including an incredible diversity of dried foods. From the details included in a humble pot noodle to small packages of unfamiliar pickles, the array of foods and their nuances is astonishing. The dried additions for miso soup and potted noodles tell only a tiny bit of the tale. Used to tasteless Ramen packet noodles the enormity of noodle options was almost overwhelming. A single pot can contain everything required to make a divine noodly dinner. There are dried herbs and spices, dried meat or fish of various species and things to me unrecognisable. But they’re probably identifiable to the noodle connoiseur from the picture on the package. Either way there is no lack of choice, whatever your fancy.

The focus on helpful details and convenience spread to the clarity and sense of onstreet parking. There is not a lot. Mostly it’s not allowed except for temporary purpose like getting people into the car. Instead there are lots of small (think four cars) offstreet paid parking lots. That the streets are so clear of parked cars, at least in the districts we saw, is a major reason why Tokyo feels so unstressy. You don’t see congestion on the streets, although you do on the many motorways that traverse Tokyo. But people do not walk there. Despite being one of the most crowded and densely populated cities on the planet Tokyo is a walking city, with busyness confined to the highways and the extremely efficient train systems. 

The districts we were in, Minato and Shibuya in the main, were trashless with no overflowing bins or rubbish in the gutters. There were indeed hardly any bins at all except for recycling purposes. The Tokyo people just don’t drop litter, they take it home instead. It’s part of a sense that people take responsibility for their actions, for how they interact with one another and for how they share their space. There is a softness and assurance without arrogance or complacence. The softness sort of hums in the background, like the birdsong you hear in the most unexpected of places.

The Sheep and the Grey Horse part 8 ­– When Naresh and Neena came for tea (2/2)

The scene is still roughly the same, but it’s slightly more complicated. Some of the players are in the kitchen, while others are still down near the field. With all the commotion, the sheep and the Grey Horse are befuddled and feeling slightly tired. There are still many moving parts, but our focus must shift. We still have the sheep and the Grey Horse; the marooned car is still marooned and so is the Caterpillar tractor; the important visitors are also marooned, stuck on a busy road hoping to reach their lunch date and that the posh rented BMW recovers from its flat tyre. We also have a recovery vehicle and an additional tractor in the picture. Their drivers are wishing they’d stayed in bed this morning, with cups of tea and a cat purring on their laps. Watching the scene and the fascinating snake flying through the air had proved alarming for the sheep and the Grey Horse, but there was to be no respite to the day’s dramas. A loud rumbling and a shaking of the ground was making their hooves tremble and the rumbling was getting closer and the trembling more violent. The Grey Horse’s head was shaking convulsively and the farmer’s wife and child plus the brother-in-law and his wife were still standing in shock waiting for the farmer to come back. The people in the kitchen watched a huge blue beast of a tractor, its roof barely making it under the overhanging trees, as it headed down to the field. No one could resist following it. She had called the AA in readiness for the call from Naresh and Neena. The AA had said that the rented BMW would have special run-flat tyres, and advised that they drive to meet the AA man at their destination, preferably in time for lunch. This they had reluctantly agreed to do, so they were now wending a slow and cautious way towards said lunch. The big blue tractor was of a seriously modern variety, laden with features, levers, lights and switches, air conditioning and a heated seat. Driving it effectively would be tricksy so how would this beast be persuaded to drag not one, but two heavy vehicles stuck in the mud? The farmer and the man were in conversation with the brother-in-law who was standing patting the Grey Horse and trying to explain that it had been twenty years since, as a farmer himself, he had driven a tractor. Technology changes he kept saying. It’s the same basic thing the farmer and the handsome man were saying back. The sheep was on the wrong side of the Grey Horse and alarmed at the patting and at a conversation he could not really follow. He leaned into the Grey Horse for comfort and the Grey Horse leaned into the brother-in-law for more pats. The Grey Horse was starting to calm down to the point where the whole chaotic morning now early afternoon, was becoming quite pleasant. It might have been the gentle absent minded patting that was so soothing. But the Grey Horse could feel some growing tension in the pats and an increasing strain in the brother-in-law’s voice. And just as the Grey Horse’s head started nodding up and down again, the hand was gone and the brother-in-law and the man were deep in a new conversation beside the giant tractor. Now the brother-in-law is clambering up the little ladder into the cockpit of the beast. The farmer is back up on his Cat linked once more with a new cable to the car, where the man is also back in place. Wisely the man had reversed the car a little, so that the bumper was out from beneath its grassy enhancement, the new cable fully horizontal and properly taut. The beast of a tractor is revving up and being reversed into the field, very, very slowly and the brother-in-law’s mouth is pursed up tight and he is peering over his glasses at the many dials and lights in front of him. His hands clutch the steering wheel with grim determination and he glances constantly from side to side to where the wing mirrors have been carefully adjusted using fortuitously discovered electronic controls. It might have been more luck that located the more serious controls, especially the creep gear: max power and min speed. He manages to get the tractor in position and jumps down to check the cable connections. He waves away the audience and scares the sheep and the Grey Horse into a corner of the yard. Back in his cockpit the brother-in-law goes through a final few revvings and reversings. He puts the monster into its creeper gear, trusting that the engine, the transmission system, the drive train, the torque and his driving would be up to dragging this massive load. The thumping tuba roar of hundreds of horse powers was deafening. The continued and complex tangles of smoke and noise were starting to develop their own personalities, bellowing across the greying skies in noisy danger-laden arguments. As the cables tightened the people and the beasts drew back even further into themselves as wide-eyed they watched and waited, numb beneath the roar. The huge black and chevroned rear tractor wheels slowly turned, their gleaming black picking up dirt as they gripped tight into the shallow mud at the edge of the field. The cables twisted and glinted in the sallow sunlight and imperceptibly first the Cat and then the car were moving. The brother-in-law crept up the tractor’s power and in a moment of terrible energy which all saw and he felt, the front wheels rose and bounced up and down as the huge weight of the load and the clinging earth fought against the tractor’s immense and resolute strength. Agonies of moments ticktocked in the grubby air as the brother-in-law pushed harder and harder for the revs, a stink of diesel fumes clouding around his windows obscuring his rear view. The blue beast moved forwards in microns and then millimetres and then, like ice slowly creeping across a deep pond, it started to reach inexorably forwards. And down deep in the field many wheels were rolling at random as the vast power of the tractor hauled its load through the embracing mud. Already wide and deep trenches grew wider and deeper until gradually the towed vehicles started very slowly to rise up and out of their cosy ditches. As the tractor crept forward the two vehicles followed, skewing sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right wrenching at the earth. And breathless the watching people saw that this awesome power chain was working. Now under control, all of the tractor wheels remained on the ground and the cables stayed straight, strung out, taut and gleaming. The sheep and the Grey Horse were losing interest and waiting for it all to be over. But as the tractor hauled forwards the brother-in-law found his way blocked by a very smart and shining BMW. It was creeping down the drive towards him, with a recovery vehicle close on its elegant and immaculate beemer heels.  Reverse was not much of a challenge for the recovery truck guy, but for the driver of the BMW it was extremely confusing to have to steer and go backwards at the same time. He appeared not to understand that going backwards in the same direction as going forwards requires no steering. It took some few minutes for the steerings to the left and to the right to eventually cancel each other out, so that the BMW could go forwards again to get out of the way of the oncoming tractor and the Cat. Their way cleared, the tractor continued straight ahead and the Cat with the farmer, his wife and their child on board, soon followed. Eventually the car was also finally on the driveway and ready to drive to the station. In place of the distant memory that was the original objective, was a sense of time restarting, of a surreal reality distortion coming to a close. The handsome man stood still beside the uncabled car watching the tractor and the uncabled Cat go back to the farm. He was aquiver with an adrenaline hangover and feeling the effects of excessively low blood sugar levels. Along with the remainder of the party he walked slowly up the drive in time to see the tractor and the Cat pass in quick succession through a long muddy puddle causing an explosion of dirty water to cascade over the slick BMW. It was now only slick beneath a veneer of brown filth. Its occupants peered through grimed windows at their assailants, confused and afraid to leave the car lest some other onslaught of muck assault them. Shadows of the horror closing behind all parties and with waving and smiling now the order of the day, everyone shifted gear into a fresher and lighter zone. They went from mechanics and mud dramas into hosting mode. Due to relief at the successful conclusion of the chaos, that mode was rather more than slightly hysterical. In the yard the sheep was explaining to the Grey Horse in nervous tones that now was naptime. In the kitchen welcoming noises of hospitality and relief washed over the people. And the magnificent lunch, having survived the general lack of attention, was laid out steaming and enticing on the table. The driver of the recovery vehicle had changed the BMW’s tyre. With the loan of a pressure guage, which he had forgotten he might need, he was getting ready to declare the BMW fit for purpose. The guests were seated and toasting one another in robust terms. Tucking into the veg lasagne, the garlic bread, the salad and the wines, the business visitors were smiling broadly. Everyone complemented the food and beamed at one another. The BMW visitors overlooked their hosts’grubby clothes, mud streaked faces and general disarray. But unspoken was a mutual understanding that there would be no hanging on for afternoon tea.

The Sheep and the Grey Horse part 7 ­– When Naresh and Neena came for tea

Here’s the scene: a boggy field in late winter, saturated and dense. Here are the many moving parts: the sheep and the Grey Horse; a marooned car; a marooned Caterpillar tractor; important visitors; a teenage daughter coming back from her Dad’s by train; a lunch for eight; and a posh rented BMW with a flat tyre. Soon the two business colleagues it contained, were wishing they were back in Delhi where everything in their world works perfectly.

It was a Sunday. The handsome man was here again and the combination meant that breakfast would probably be late, except that no, it wasn’t. But it was all very hurried and the mucking out was done at speed. Hotpot and the Grey Horse listened with some slight worry hovering about their ears to a soft muttering, as she filled the haynets and checked the water. He would be expecting a decent breakfast and there was the lunch prep to finish. Vegetarian lasagne (mostly done), garlic bread (done), salad (not done). Chocolate mousse, cheeses all ready for the table, which was yet to be set for eight. Eight!

In the paddock the mud lay soft and suspect. By mutual unspoken agreement the sheep and the Grey Horse knew that they would be staying out of the field that day. The hard standing of the yard was an altogether more reliable surface. Besides, the lazy drizzle oozing from the sky was seeping slowly into the bog, so that it was only getting deeper. This was not a day for rolling.

A little bit later and with some surprise they saw the handsome man get into the car parked a couple of metres into the field. She’d left it there facing forward and ready to go to the station. Hotpot explained to the Grey Horse that it was probably because she had to fetch the girl to bring her home for lunch. Yet there was the man, starting the car and reversing it further into the field. Hotpot couldn’t work this one out at all, so he turned his back on the man and the car and started instead to pull on the hay. He kept a watchful eye on the Grey Horse who was dozing and twitching his head from time to time.

When next they looked, in response to some heavy revving noises and billowing clouds of diesel fumes, the car was somehow at the bottom of the field and up to its axels in mud. The man was struggling up the hill through the bog and towards the yard. The sheep positioned himself between the man and the Grey Horse. His sheepy brain wondered momentarily why the man had put the car so far down into the field and had spun its wheels so very deeply. The sheep suspected a devilish plot and stamped his foot, levelling his hard boney face at the man, ready to ram. Just in case.

And now she’s there too with her hand over her mouth in horror or humour and starting to wonder if this man of hers was quite the full ticket after all. “Why,” she was saying “what possible reason could you have for driving the car down there?” And he answered, well babbled, something about being sure to be able to leave the field to go to the station. “I thought you might need a run up and then when I got stuck here I thought it would be less muddy down there.” There was a note of feeble embarrassment in his tone and an expression of blank disbelief on her face. “Less muddy down there? Down there closer to the river than up here at the top of the hill?” And with her expression set in a mask of faux patience,  she set off down the hill to try to get the car out. Turning the steering wheel full lock left and right, reversing, four wheel drive on, four wheel drive off, differential lock on and off. None of it made a speck of difference, except in the copious quantifies of warm mud being sprayed across the field and in the width of the ruts, now more like trenches. “We need a tractor, and I need to get on with lunch. And we need to get to the station soon.” Huffing off, he hurried in her wake trying to keep up with the conversation already happening on her ’phone

It was quick enough to concoct a plan: the farmer would come with the Cat to tow out the car. She’d ring a brace of the lunch guests to ask them to collect the daughter from the station when they were on their way. The important lunch guests travelling from Delhi via London where they were staying with relatives who would also be coming for lunch(!), were due in about an hour. The cooking was incomplete and then Mother arrived with a face on because she’d got the time wrong and was an hour early. She sulked her way through a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits rolling her eyes at the tale, listening with renewed conviction that her daughter was useless in every respect. She had no faith in either of her older daughters, no empathy, sympathy or care and was smug in her conviction that the cooking would be rubbish and the disorganisation and chaos would lead to disaster. She was looking forward to telling her much loved and mostly absent third and youngest daughter that the first two were total jokes who had no idea about anything.

But when the Cat arrived with the farmer, his wife and their small child it was too tempting to stay indoors critiquing the table settings and sneaking a peak at the dessert ready and waiting in the fridge. By the time she had walked down to the paddock, the sheep and the Grey Horse were on full alert staring at the farmer, the Cat and the man. The farmer and the man had hooked a thick heavy duty cable to the car and were ready to start dragging it out of the swamp. Mother, now looking forward to the spectacle, joined the small audience ready and waiting to watch the show. The man got back into the car and the farmer was in position, his engines loud and bellowing, diesel smoke rising. Slowly the Cat started to move forward squirling slightly as it did so. The car also moved slightly sideways, ploughing into the mud as it started to shift.

She was in the yard calming the Grey Horse, who was shaking his head as his anxiety rose. All this noise, all these people. The rest, the Mother, the farmer’s wife and the farmer’s four year old son were standing in the field staring in fascination and ready to cheer when the car lurched free. No one doubted that this would happen. And as they watched in eager anticipation, two lunch guests and the daughter arrived from the station and ready for food. Her sister and brother-in-law had no idea why they had been required to get the girl from the station, only that “it would be a big help”. The daughter was annoyed at being collected late and annoyed at being hungry and with not much sign of lunch in sight. But the unfolding scene intrigued her. She stood with her mother and aunty and uncle as the Cat’s engine rose in volume and pitch.

As the Cat moved forward taking up the slack, the cable stretched taut under its slick of wet and drew a mostly silver line across the dirtied field. The engine’s smokey voice was rising louder and higher against the still grey light and the diesel fumes puffed black monsters that stretched upwards with the sound. But the car moved only slightly, as stuck in its furrow it shoved hard against a wedge of thick grassy mud. A ripple of field neatly draped over the the car’s front bumper, looked like a curved and grassy sofa.

As the two men stared, baffled and confused, a pistol sharp crack shot through the revs and the smoke. Its echo moving at speed up and into the woods beyond. As the cable snapped, the freed line waved and sung, hurling a whipcrack path through the grubby air. The silver grace of the once tensed line was a whistling series of curves gleaming with menace. They danced across the grey light with vicious intent. The trajectory was lost momentarily in the smoke layers and the line hung weak and lazy before falling at speed to make a final slice and land some few inches from the little boy. He was standing patiently holding his mother’s hand and felt the hint of razor sharp filaments reach to kiss his cheek.

For an awe filled moment, no one moved and then hands went to mouths as they as one stepped back in horror. The farmer’s wife took up her unharmed child and hurried back towards the yard. The mother followed and all stood gathered in a wild and disbelieving chatter. The two men in their vehicles stared in disbelief at the broken cable, unaware of the mortal danger the farmer’s little boy had been in.

As one, they looked up at the retreating audience and in a moment the farmer was driving the Cat as if to make for the gate to fetch another cable. Except that he wasn’t. Like the Discovery, the Cat was digging its way deeper and deeper into the mire. Like the Discovery, the Cat was soon stuck and immobile. The farmer clambered down and muttering to himself, stomped up to his wife. “I’ll get the tractor.” As he left, his wife said to no one in particular “But who’s going to drive the tractor if they’re driving the Cat and the car?”

Back to the kitchen some of the party trooped. The daughter was after a little early lunch and with her mother got the veg lasagne into the oven. And then the phone rang. Handing her daughter another hastily toasted cheese and onion sandwich, she hung up and said: “That was Naresh. He wanted to know if we could help him fix the flat tyre on his rental car. He’s not sure where he is, but wants us to know that they will be late. He’s going to ring again to find out what we can do to help them.” Mother and daughter stared blankfaced across the kitchen, trying and failing to parse this information into something that fit with the unresolved disaster still occuring in the bottom paddock.

Watching the scene the Grey Horse had been standing very still, apart from the occasional shake of his head. He had come to terms with the noise and the people and was trying to hear the conversation between the man and the farmer’s wife. The brother-in-law and the sister were listening in disbelief and wondering how long it would be before lunch was ready. And then here comes more noise and commotion tearing at the day’s grey pallor and interrupting naptime. 

…to be continued.

Procrastination or worse

It’s Thursday morning again but there’s still no blog for the website. Oh no! Staring at pirouetting leaves and the battered fade of autum roses isn’t helping. Through the rain jewelled windows the chickens are visibly despondent. Bedraggled, they are scratching at the mud unsatisfied that it just slides aside to leave momentary striations and their feet wet and dirty. Those with feathered ankles and toes are especially displeased. The worms are hiding from the intense wet dumping onto the ground so they are too deep for the chickens to reach. But they scratch at the ooze nonethless. A pair of magpies hovers on the fence, waiting for a hen to lay or for little Lavender to relinquish her post so that they can get to the feed hopper. Lavender is very fierce and the opportunistic magpies are lazy chancers who dare not take a risk. And overhead a sulphorous sky shifts under autumn winds that are too warm. Sitting silent and empty, trawling a reluctant imagination.

There is no light. No thought, just impressions and distant ideas that won’t come into focus. What about a review of Andrey Kurkov’s Jimi Hendrix Live in Kiev? Fine except that the book patiently sits unread and full of promise upstairs somewhere. Its probably lost in a screedump of books, but no one knows for sure. Jimi Hendrix Live in Kiev’s supposed to be good. All the dutiful reviews from people who want to please the author say so. They all name check the magical realism, the vodka, the affection for Lviv and its history. And reference to Mr Kurkov’s dark humour is of course mandatory. All well and good, so set to and read the book. But there is a problem.

Getting around to reading Jimi Hendrix Live in Kiev might take a little while because Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees was unexpectedly dull. Not agonisingly so, but still this is not something to be said out loud. Great long stretches of not much happening. Great long paragraphs to get lost instead in wondering what the point was. It the sort of read where the mind wanders off elsewhere and yet pages later the general gist was still there. The bits about life in the grey zone were somehow incomplete. The bits about bees and their behaviours made a much less powerful a contribution to the story than they might have done. Undeveloped social metaphors lost in a wash of sometime very lovely prose and clever wit. Getting around to reading Jimi Hendrix Live in Kiev will happen, but not yet.

Procrastinating still. Or worse, more boredom setting in. Boredom might be nature’s aid for passage through the winter months and their darkness and shadows. The sense of loss and hopelessness might back off, if boredom’s in the ascendent. Maybe. Boredom’s not worse. But in truth it’s neither procrastination or boredom that sees this week’s blog so laggardly. This week has slid away like the chickens footprints in the slurry. Time’s lines have disappeared without trace, a reminder that time is the most slippery and most precious of foes.

Asbestos electric

Dirty weeds dusted grey and hot yellow sunshine yielding the stench of a semi-stagnant river. We were very small and very wild my sister and I. She was much younger than me but I was not protective of her. And actually she wasn’t so wild. She cried a lot and whined that she was too cold/hot/hungry/thirsty, agitated always about anything, something. Mummy’s girl. Sometimes she didn’t come with us. She stayed indoors sucking her thumb and twirling her hair content to be cute and smiley with the grownups instead. She was only four or five and so very sweet when she wasn’t agitating. And she was really too small to enjoy the herd of grubby boys and girls who all ran too fast, shouted too loud, roaming loose in the broken teeth of derelict buildings. Too small to enjoy anarchic wasteland of destroyed buildings, our maybe deadly playground.

Prefabs they were. Put up after the war to house those who had survived the Blitz and the after-blitzes that kept on coming until they didn’t come any more. Prefabs made of steel frames with asbestos panels. They were grey with green paint on the steel and on the inside skirting boards. Green steel kitchens with fold up tables and a door to the outside. Steel sinks and indoor toilets. Mansized bathtubs and hot running water. When it was cold they stank of kerosene from the little blue flamed heaters sitting in the middle of the room. When it was hot everyone stayed outside in the sun, on the steps, in tattered stripey deckchairs.

The skies that last summer were always blue, brittle, hard and endless. Timeless. Just now. And the winters then were always snowy and cold and full of promise: Christmas and birthdays all happening in the chill and quiet of white days and black nights that went on so very long and the excitement of what was yet to come. But that was then.

It was the early sixties, and they were tearing down the prefabs and we used to roam amongst the ruins inhaling asbestos laden dust and dirt, and we squabbled amongst ourselves arguing over who saw the treasures first, who first could claim the shattered window diamonds that made your fingers bleed, the left over pots holey and rusting and who would dare to wade in the river, sink into the mud, get bitten by mosquitoes thick in their venom and greed. We were six or eight children displaced and abandoned by our mothers and their determination to frame their own independent lives, wanting to learn to drive, to travel, to be single again. We were left with a couple of sisters who had no interest in framing different lives. They stayed at home looking after children, keeping the housekeeping money out of the hands of men who liked to hit and drink and drink and hit and whose pained stories we never heard. The two sisters cooked us corned beef hash that was mostly mash striped with pink strands of what the tin said was corned beef. It dissolved into nothing and might have been nutritious. Sometimes it was sausages and mash. One sausage, blackened and split and fat. Always mash or boiled. Mince with carrots and my sister picked them out and gave them to me. I gave her my sausage in small secret chunks or she stole them. Puddings were something that might have been blancmange or Angel Delight. Well named and you can still buy it so it’s stood the test of times and tastes for decades.

In some trashed prefabs we found electricity cables rearing up snakelike and forked of tongue. We would dare each other to touch the soft black rubber, warm to the touch. No not there. Touch the tongue. I did once and thrown back onto a pile of damp and dusty bits of building almost started to cry, but I could see them all laughing so I laughed too. Only my sister was crying, but she was always crying so it didn’t count. When we told them about the sparky snake the sisters shouted at us not to play on the building ruins and to go and wash our hands for dinner. Dinner. Not lunch. Dinner.

They dolloped out the steaming food as we sat silent at the table, water in beakers, plates cold and waiting and we were all to keep quiet as we ate, or there would be a wooden spoon to the back of the head. Persistent talking would mean removal from the table and a slipper, hard and sharp and it made you cry so that was why we never spoke, just ate our way through the mushy food from one side of the plate to the other and it was always mushy and dingy looking. No colour on the plate. Veg that was boiled to nothing and lifeless meats or fish fingers, in muted shades of grey. And there was always water drfting about the plate, glistened and globuled with fat and everyone mashed the mush into the watery gravy to soak up every drop and to leave the plate clean. My sister would eat my meat for me, taking stealthy forkfuls when all eyes were down and concentrating on the mashing. I ate her vegetables, stole them in the same way. It was a pact.

Much later in a strange country where no one spoke English and where we were alone, we carried on sharing our food like this. And although we both cried everynight in slow lost sniffles, we never talked about the prefabs or the deceiving blue of that last summer. We still haven’t done. It’s a pact.

Death and deliverance

He sat in the foremost pew and pondered that with this funeral, he and his sister were now technically orphans. He was in his forties so could he really use that word to describe himself or his sister? She is a few years younger, so maybe for her it would work. Random. The vicar, swaying slightly in his pulpit, had a serene expression on his soft rabbity face. His voice was animated and sincere, confidential. Did his nose appear to twitch? He was recalling happy times with Keith’s father, jogging, golfing, sailing and “just being two blokes together”. The words hung on the air waiting for the slightly baffled congregation to collect them. It’s a funeral right?

None of these things did Keith do with his father. And Keith was pretty sure that Lucy hadn’t done any of them either. The thought that the vicar had shared secret moments with their dad, along with the vicar’s tender tone was niggling. In his sister Keith could feel a tension, growing as the voice drifted on. Lucy shifted in her seat. She was sweating slightly, sighing and picking at her nails. The vicar’s tone verged on the sort of jocularity one would expect for a wedding speech. Now she was rolling her eyes.

Not that the loss was so dreadful for either of them. Their dad had been a very private man, a distant man and they rarely saw him. In his midsixties he’d not been so very old, just old enough to die. What was so bothersome was the knowledge that neither of them knew much about him or his life and now it’s done, over. No more chances. Too late. And then there was the shock, the unexpected visit from the police to tell him his father had suffocated and was dead. They described where he’d been found, who he had been with and how he had died. Details were being catalogued. After they’d gone Keith pictured the scene with his dad and the companion. He concluded they must have been following an old path, but not expecting the final fatal twist.

In had happened the top room of a large house in Hackney on a sunny Thursday afternoon. Keith pictured birds, heard their chirping outside and the rumble of the number 30 trundling towards Islington. He pictured spilt champagne and half eaten kebabs and the thrill jumping from excitement to horror in an ill-judged moment. What would the friend have done, laughed perhaps at the joke, wept as with shakey fingers he called the ambulance? According the police the friend hadn’t dare touch a thing as he waited, not even the congealing mess. It might have looked like Keith’s dad had hanged himself. Except that he didn’t. Keith saw slow falling tears and in his head listened to a replay of the detailed explanation of how the ropes and pulleys were positioned. He heard the friend describe how he’d been standing close to the bed ready for the finish, but not for the end. More tears.

And now Keith’s dad’s friend was in the back row sniffing into a paisley handkerchief. Surreal. Keith muttered the word and Lucy shifted her damp bulk a little further away, closer to the man sitting on her other side. He had tried unsuccessfully to take her hand, to proffer tissues, to whisper soft comforts. He was very new.

Standing in the queue to accept the mourners’ gentle kindnesses, Keith and his sister stood very still. Lucy simmered in ancient darkness and scowled at her boyfriend. A gentle and kind man, recently widowed, he was beginning to think that Lucy may not be for him, although the brother seemed nice enough. It was Keith delivering the required sad smiles and murmurs of appreciation. One by one the people shook their hands, offered the occasional hug and turned away.

Walking to the car with the nice boyfriend a respectful few metres behind, Keith listened and Lucy railed. First it was the nerve of their dad’s friend to show up, then it was the vicar’s jolly sermon and Keith’s “completely inappropriate” additions to the agreed playlist. And she was not coming to the wake. She was no longer meeting him at the solicitors and she would be on a business trip when the house clearing was due to start. They had agreed to do all these things together, in a spirit of sibling unity, of their new life as orphans, of sharing.

But no. There could be no new life until the old one was buried along with their father. Keith was learning, at volume, about a new set of ancient wrongs, wrongs that went back so very far and that Keith had no reference for. All those terrible slights that he had never heard of surprised Keith. Slowly he came to understand that buried there somewhere in the depths of her anger was more than this new list and the old familiar one. He started to understand that he was hearing a different sorrow, something beyond anger and its rot was slowly seeping up, unblocked. Lucy was unaware.

In every life there are sorrows for what might have been, for the choices someone else makes, for the legacy of uncontrolled decisions. This is the sorrow of lost chances, missed moments that never arose, of twists and turns in a life that shapes it into something unanticipated. So it is with us all Keith, saw as he looked over his shoulder at Lucy’s new boyfriend. He was on his phone and Keith hoped that here was one of thhose moments of alternatives, that it would lead the nice man away from Keith’s tortured sister. Lucy was still on the attack unaware tears were falling  “And this stuff with dad. You knew, you must’ve known.” He didn’t and said so, lettin gthe sound and anger wash over him. He pictured it breaking on a distant shore, on the rocks of discarded temper tantrums and forgotten resentments. The echoes of so many hateful conversations riddled with jealousy and bitterness followed and Keith began to understand. With their father’s death, perhaps this was also and end for her. “Are you listening to me or is this you being sad? He was my dad too you know. And whoever that bloke in Hackney is, he owes me as well as you.” Lucy dabbed at her wet cheeks and glanced back to see her boyfriend raise a hand and point to the car. “We’re going now.” She was calm and let Keith take her hand and stare into her face. “Go. It’s fine. Ring me when you’re ready. Take your time with this.” And he knew that whatever is was with Lucy, it was over.

Hydra stark

Bats, cats and kittens and smoke in lines of sullen purple. They cross the sun setting sky. It’s getting darker now and the bounce of the waves and the noise of the wind are slowly quietening. The bats keep the mosquitos at bay and the cats hang around, less afraid and keener to settle. The kittens sing their mewling harmonies, the Fledermouse choir in full squeal and squeak. And Fledermouse’s little body is catching up with his enormous ears, and they appear diminished. Together, bats, cats and kittens and we watch the carbon creased sea at dusk and see it soft and buttery at dawn. In between, it’s fine crosshatching shifts and twists the stream and stirs the shadowed blues, indigos and blacks. Turquoised and bleached white under a sea taxi’s urgent churn.

The last two days have been days of low cloud and mist, the torpid air sliding steaming hot beneath it. It’s a concoction of rain, for rain. Rain on the water, water in the air. The sky lies heavy, overcast, lethargic and lazy. Damp and soft the air resting on indolent bodies draped on the rocks by an idling sea. We step carefully along the rocks, some nimble, some slow, careful and cautious not to fall. Even someone Paul said is agile as a bank safe makes it to the water. Big splash. We swim crazy far or float toes up or stare down into the deep, snorkelled and goggled to watch the many fish.

Above water the wind is shouty and jazzed, keen. On the shore we see the waves shatter and fray and we hear the sea’s many voices, cacaphonous as they slap at the rocks in some secret dance or unrecognised ritual. Wave shaped whispers or sudden splashy shouts on a rising wind. No sign yet of the goose feathers floating on rising crests. But they are coming soon as the air begins to chill and the winds grow resolute. The summer is drawing to its close and the sea’s changing shapes tells us this. It is time to go.