19th Wedding Anniversary

This is how it started. On that day nineteen years ago I jumped out of bed 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.

And I’m taking too long doing this, why are all the feed bins empty now, why didn’t I think of this yesterday when they were already nearly empty. And why is it raining so very hard?”

Scuttling along in too-big clogs, falling off their wooden edges unbalanced on the uneven ground and carrying the manger I kept up a persistent muttery mumble, trying to calm matters down and to ignore the rain: “It’s fine, it’s not that late, I can still get showered and have my hair in curlers in plenty of time for my hair to dry by eleven” and scurrying up to the gate she hooked the manger onto it, and gave the Grey Horse a sudden and unexpected pat. Much alarm and headshaking, and a suspicion that she really was quite as mad as he had always believed, the Grey Horse stood back from his breakfast. I sighed, “oh don’t be so silly” before reaching out once again but this time much more slowly, to gently pat the Grey Horse his good morning. Kissing his chaff dusted nose I said: “enjoy your breakfast”.

Back indoors the peace and calm one might expect so early on a Saturday morning was completely absent. Instead there were a dozen or so Swedish relations, long lost friends and teenagers, munching their various ways noisily through a host of breakfast stuff: teas, juices, coffee and the rest. The scene of formless mess only added to the surreal and thunderstruck sense of the day. I couldn’t imagine how the day had suddenly turned into chaos so very soon. Tea at least was already made, so grabbing a mug I hurried upstairs to the shower, barely noticed.

At least the shower was hot. The battle for the hairdryer was about to commence between Hannah and Matilda, both of whom had already showered while I was getting drenched in the rain. When I got out of the shower, only mildly less hysterical, the plan had been to put my hair in curlers and to set the hairdryer on them. I had had in mind a cascade of blondish reddish curls. “We’re nearly finishing Mummy. We won’t be long. Your hair dries quicker than ours”. Gorgeous girls 13 and 14 years old, bubbling over with youth, beauty and innocence still, and in a moment so precious still ours, still our lovely little girls.

So OK. OK. I gave give up on the idea of leisurely drying and cascading glory and concentrated on the dressing bit of the morning. Suddenly everything, even the simplest part of getting ready seemed too complicated to manage. No room. No space, just a blind, fearful panic, wondering where Paul was and whether it was all as mad for him, tangled up with the business of breakfast and all those visiting Swedes. Unlikely somehow and I imagined him serene and slightly excited on the outside, cool, calm and in control and probably quite oblivious to the raging skies beyond the kitchen windows.

Outside the weather was worsening with each passing moment. Lights on indoors in July in the morning? Whatever was happening. The thunder rolled, the girls kept squeaking and fidgeting and I sat down in the corner still in my dressing gown and wondered what to do next. Fortunately someone else was there to egg me gently on to the day’s next steps. I was not alone and true to the traditions of brides and maids of honour, Joanne serene, calm and moving slowly into the room gave me a sudden and loving hug. “It’s the day! Today’s the day. Are you alright? Have you had anything to eat? There’s still toast and tea. Paul’s taking care of the rabble downstairs. All you’ve got to do is have your tea and relax and get dressed. Isn’t it fantastic!” I held her hand tightly and said in  a tiny voice: “Why’s it raining? What’s with the thunder? What’s happening?” And Joanne laughing “all of nature’s getting up and getting ready, so come on, what are you doing?” And with a brusque and bossy “Get your mother another cup of tea and a biscuit”, Joanne pushed the morning machine into gear, sat me down and started getting to work on my hair.

It’s been 19 years and they’re all hovering around my head still. The joys, the less-than joys, the amazing experience of seeing our children grow into such wonderful people. Thank you to everyone who made that day so memorable and thank you to Paul, Hannah, Morgan and Matilda for giving me such a fabulous, joyful and loving family.



She watched him silent as sipped his coffee, wondering how it started. With a pulse growing louder? With an idea of passion suddenly occurring in his head or heart? Not in his heart. The heart was surely irrelevant for this. Was it an idea of something lost or yearned for? A recurring image or focus of desire? And as she watched she saw him shift in his chair and thought of a steady heartbeat rising; she thought of more, much more.

She could picture him alone somewhere away from this busy café with its noise and coffee stink. He was somewhere else reading on a sofa, or waking up in his bed, lying on a beach all alone perhaps. Tall and lean against a faded towel hearing percussive waves, feeling the sun’s heat fade as the beach emptied of people and the sand began to chill.

As the waiter moved to take away the empties, she stared up and away at a different face, murmuring thank you. This face was also handsome in a harried, distracted sort of a way. Urgent, disinterested. She pictured a different mouth widening, a different head thrown back, a different sculpted throat stretched and exposed. She felt herself blushing and pretended to fiddle with her purse. Two images now and she thought she might want to see more in the private picture in her head, to know more. She saw the waiter move towards him as he rose from his seat to pay his bill.

From across the room she watched as he tapped his card. He didn’t notice the waiter and he didn’t notice that she was there. And then the waiter was moving fast and on to the next thing. In slow motion she was getting up to leave and neither man had seen that she was there, had seen her blush or the pictures in her head.

Later lying in her immaculate room on crisp clean sheets she had put on the bed that morning, she lay very still. Soft and cool perfection. Eyes closed she pictured the scene again, elaborating the image, drawing herself slow and deliberately onwards. The story that had begun in the café, the man sipping his coffee, the casual waiter, together they were moving her on deeper into an intense and unknown territory that was her own. Her eyes soon began to widen then close and open again gazing wild, open mouthed and breathing hard, then calming. The cracked and pockmarked ceiling the only witness to her trespass.


Brenda is not a vengeful woman. Nor is Audrey particularly, but Fiona has other ideas. “How many years have you been married to this tosser?” She spat, chopping an onion into miniscule pieces. Under the force of her blade they shot far into distant corners. Brenda looked at Fiona and wide eyed she mumbled “twenty years I think”. “And how long has he been knocking you about like this? You have to do something. We have to do something.” Tears. “Always. I’m not crying. It’s the onions,” Brenda said. “And there was always a reason. It was my fault. It got worse after the accident. He was … he …” Brenda hesitated. “It made him angry, that I could see him … er… um … that he was slouching on the job, as it were. Not that we’d been that way for years. He’d always taken care of it himself, and now he couldn’t. And I knew, I could see. That’s when I started sleeping in the other room. To get away from him. So that he could try on his own. See if it got better. Safer.” Brenda paused, hiding in her mug of tea as she pretended to sip and mumbled. “And anyway it was never so much as to break a bone or knock me out”. Brenda glanced a shy smile in Audrey’s direction.

Fiona heard all this in horror, knife suspended above the mascerated onions. The oil was burning in the pan, and as she scraped the bits into the oil they jumped and spat, and Audrey followed their irretrievable trajectories. “Fiona, it’s none of our business. It’s past and Brenda wants to put it behind her, don’t you Brenda?” she said. Brenda was hearing her own words echoing. They belonged to another world, a prison she was escaping. But she said feebly, “I don’t know. I just don’t know. It isn’t but things are different now. It’s too late for getting my own back. What’s the point?” “Well” Fiona said tossing mushrooms into the pan, setting too with her knife on some fresh rosemary, minced in moments and soon simmering with the mushrooms and a splash of manky pinot grigio. “Well what?” said Brenda watching the steam rise to fill the space with amazing aromas. Steam was tickling at the skylights. Exasperated, Fiona said,“What are you going to do? How are we going to get this arsehole?”

Brenda had never really thought of punishment per se. She hadn’t really thought of calling him an arsehole either. She’d never had an agenda. Maybe that was the problem from the start, she was just supine. Supine but a little sly because Brenda had been content to clean the toilet with his toothbrush and face flannel. She routinely squashed dead flies and laxative pills into his gravy. She’d quite enjoyed rubbing white pepper into his pants and wiping cut fresh chillis into the armpits of his teeshirts and socks. And urine in the steam iron when he wanted his sheets pressed, that was good. Even putting a dead battery in the remote had been a pleasure, although she knew she’d cop it.

Brenda hadn’t really thought beyond those small pleasures, but she was beginning to realise they were pretty unimaginative, at least from Fiona’s perspective. Fiona’s idea of vengeance was mammoth by comparison. Brenda didn’t know about what happened in Furnace Creek, or that whatever happened to Luke might just be a dress rehearsal. “We need a plan.” Fiona declared. “I’m coming with you when you go back. We can’t let him get off that easily”. Abandoning thoughts of how Mrs Snipcock would retrieve all those onion bits Audrey finally engaged. “What would punishing Luke gain? Fiona, this is really none of your business and besides, he’s been found out. He’s going to lose everything, and Brenda is divorcing him.” This last was news to Brenda, but thinking about it, it did seem like a good idea. “Isn’t that enough?” Audrey finished. Brenda stared at Audrey and then at the floor, picking at her nails suppressing the shock. Waiting.

Fiona stirred her pasta sauce thoughtfully, dropping in grated parmesan bit by bit and watching the sauce slowly thicken. “No. There should be more. He should know what it feels like to be in so much pain.” Brenda smiled and on solid ground could say with confidence, “Fiona, pain only matters to you and me, it doesn’t matter at all to a man like Luke, quite the opposite. It appeals to his sense of macho, especially with the slouching on the job problem.” Fiona gave her sauce a spiteful poke: “ok, ok but wouldn’t it be lovely to see the man really need a wheelchair?”


Goosegrey memories

Under goosegrey LA skies again. June gloom they call it and when I lived here it was mostly a Santa Barbara thing. But now the gloom has dribbled its way south and it is colder here than it is at home. Change. Change in the climate, change in the shape of my memories, change in the weather on the west coast. Change in my memories most likely a biggish factor. Memories and imagination are wonderful cohorts. They both have a devious streak, but they are not the same.

Imagination is an endlessly fertile world of colours, make believe and what ifs. Memory should be more like a repository of what happened when and where and with whom. Memory may be monochrome, but the how of it plays into the picture too, and that is where imagination weasles its way in to create false realities that exist only in your head and in no one else’s.

Memory is why I am here. Talking about the past, talking about what brought us to the here and now, different narratives compared and contrasted. Narratives that gain their own independent voices as we talk and talk under the sad old skies. These are the skies that shadowed Hollywood’s golden age, and the orange groves felled to concrete and big movie company lots. Pondering Marilyn and the tragedies of lost icons, lost friends, pondering all the people briefly met, the wrap parties, the launches, wannabees that turned into stars. And the bands, the music. Whisky A Go Go, Madame Wong’s, McCabe’s. All those places and the sounds echoing across the 405 all the way to PCH and driving home to Malibu half cut, smug that this is LA all straight lines and no corners. Would never have risked it in London where the difference between red and green tended to be academic, but you paid attention all the same.

The hot summer air when the Santa Ana winds are blowing. The chill and damp of the coast at night and the sounds of the highway. And of the sea, always there, always moving on and shaping more memories, memories of strangers, memories of shining people and of the dross that is most of us. Memories that are the font of imagination, whether they are yours or mine or those of writers long since gone whose voices we can yet hear. This is why the work matters so much more than the authors. The work speaks to us and only us. It speaks to the embers of memory and imagination and those embers spark in endless, infinite flames. A refuge, where memory and imagination lead us to places of magic and marvel. These goosegrey skies still shine on the magic and the marvel of long told stories and on the stories we’ve yet to tell.

The Bees in the Chimney

It began with a curious low level hum, like distant aircraft. It soon grew into a riot of sonic chaos. Bees were everywhere, flying randomly above the garden, uncertain of where they should be going, lost amongst the branches of trees and in the long silky grass. She watches them noting the irony of all this unhinged bewilderment. Another slow tear. Newly home from the wake in the pub and trying to rest. And hearing this buzz floating over the echo of her daughter’s sobstrewn words honouring her father, thanking her mother, waving goodbye as she drove away back to her own world, her own normal. Later, on a wet pillow her mother’s hearing unfamiliar notes to some distant song and sees small bee shadows moving across the walls.

Lying there in the dusty light Penny was numb, exhausted from the last few weeks of disease and death. She was caught in a tight mangle of sorrow and loss, of admin and organisation’s dictats. Penny sniffed and watched the bees, confused and lost and bouncing crazily in the warm spring air. She got up to go downstairs and put the kettle on. Passing a mirror she saw her ravaged face and stringy old neck with the gold necklace he had given her laying still and calm against the black of her dress. Hearing the humming start to subside a little she smiled and looked out at the hovering ladies also dressed in black and gold. It occurred to Penny that she should have been anxious about so many swirling bees. But there was too little left inside to muster fear of these fellow travellers.

The noise was shifting a semitone or so and looking out of the window Penny could see that the density of bees flying about seemed to be lessening. Warm spring sunshine dappled through the surrounding trees and the air felt thick and heavy with bees and with the quick falling pressure heralding an impending storm. They seemed benign these bees, more muddled than dangerous. She went outside to sit where she and Roger used to sit and plan what they’d do with the garden, what sort of dog they’d get. And then how long the disease would give them, how long before it would kill him. And then what songs to sing at the service and where to have the wake. Shifting in her chair and dabbing at yet more tears, Penny could see that the bees appeared to be developing some sense of direction. No longer were their flight patterns random and untidy. They looked like they had somewhere to go. She sipped her tea and watched shrill blackbirds dashing home to their loved ones and wiped away another slow tear, chilling her cheek and marking a fresh stanza of sorrow.

Penny sipped her tea as she wandered to the end of the lawn, wondering where the bees were headed and how they knew where to go. It was getting chilly so she slung out her dregs and stood pondering how to start the process of whatever should happen next. Brushing teeth and an early night; emptying out the final drawers and cupboards; or deciding where Roger’s ashes should go? Perhaps they should just go here, somewhere in the garden. Or be tossed into the small stream in the woods where they had planned to walk the dog, the dog that was now a fiction. Was that too anonymous, too perfunctory? And the tears caress her sad chilled face to dry and fade with the light. The buzzing had stopped and there were no bees here at the end of the garden, turning back she wondered once again about the where and how. Gazing at the house, Penny saw at last the where. High on her roof she could see a dark clump and bees moving slowly down into the chimney.

The next morning Penny awoke early to their sound and the sight of bees bouncing past her bedroom window, dainty and elegant, floating on the wisps of morning light. Like her they were wearing the same clothes as yesterday, gold and black. But unlike Penny they were not tearstained and dishevelled, with the dregs of a bottle of red wine slowly evaporating on the bedside table. She sat up straighter and reached for her ’phone and opened the browser.

She was surprised the beekeeper was up so early and that he took her call, instead of letting it go straight to voicemail. “You’re sure you have seen the cluster” Mr Westerham was saying. “Yes. They’re in the chimney and I’m pretty sure they’re planning to stay. There are more going in than coming out.” The conversation was surreal not least because it was so very early in the morning and because Penny had nothing she had to do today. It was a welcome contrast to all the other conversations she had been having for so many weeks. This person knew nothing about Penny, Roger, nothing at all about their lives and Roger’s illness and ending. The conversation about bees was the start of a fresh reality, instead of the grinding endlessness of an excess of it. The conversation about bees was twisting her mind into an unfamiliar shape, away from sadness and loss towards the mysterious ways of honeybees.

At the other end of the telephone Max Westerham noted the woman’s tone, its matter of factness and its calm. More often people ringing him to come and deal with a swarm were worked up and did their best to hide it. He’d never met Penny Graham but Max was sure he would like her. Something in that low steady voice, the near nonchalance as she described the scene for him. As she explained about the unwanted bees setting up home in her chimney, he did not know that most of her tone was shaped by events of the previous few weeks and days. It conveyed not so much calm as exhaustion. And she’d shown some presence of mind, lighting a fire. He liked that too. “It might work” he said as he considered the likelihood of the bees swarming once again to a less hostile space. Possible? Probable? Precedented? That was always Max’s determinant for any decision. “Are you still there?” Penny said.

Momentarily confused Penny twisted a strand of honeysuckle stem, a straggler pulled from the vase on her kitchen table. She was still twisting it later as she watched him shading his eyes, watching the bees milling about at the top of the chimney. In silence they stood each waiting for the bees to take their next collective step, he intent on guaging what the bees intended, she in fascination, warm in the newness.

Since Roger’s illness and rapid decline, Penny had not engaged with anyone who was not in some way related to disease, hospice and death. Even her neighbours could talk of nothing but the measuring of Roger’s progress towards his final breath. Would it come in hours, days, weeks, surely not months they know. And roundeyed, softly sympathetic smiles and downward glances would mark the end of this day’s enquiries. Awkward and embarrassed they all turn away from the garden fence. Penny would pace her way across the grass. With measured leaden steps she walked back to Roger, bundled up in his chair, eyes shut, drooling slightly, waiting. And she waited with him.

This swarmcatcher man spoke only of the bees and of their plans, so although he too was waiting he appeared not to be. Penny twisted some more of her twig enjoying the novelty of standing there with someone who didn’t know about the illness, the death and the terrible journey she and Roger had shared to reach an end. The beekeeper was smiling up into the light as the morning sun danced shadows on the wispy smoke rising from the chimney. “Do you think you could bank up that fire a little more?” As he looked down at Penny she was aware that this man was far taller than she had for some reason expected. His head silouetted against the light meant that all Penny could see of his face was a white bright smile. “Oh yes of course. I get it. More smoke less reason to stay?” she said. “Quite” he replied his eyes returning to the chimney. As she moved away she was aware of a sense of confusion and relieved that that was the end of the conversation.

Beside the fireplace there was still a lot of wood stacked and ready for the winter fires. It had been there for several months because Roger had been too frail to enjoy the secret places lost in the slow burning embers and the smoke made him cough. Two tankloads of oil had kept Roger warm throughout the winter so the logs remained, dusty and cobwebby, also waiting for their end. Now Penny loaded up the fire with logs and dried tinder to make as much smoke as she could, glancing out of the window from time to time to see what the beekeeper was doing. Between glances he disappeared. Penny stuck to her task. She moved mechanically, focused and precise, habitual after so many slow weeks of routine dedication and patience. For a moment she stayed still, staring at the blazing colours deep in the fire. No blacks or golds, discrete and individual but a full spectrum of shades dancing momentarily and fading into another new colour. Bright and alive and ever changing.

“Are you there?” she heard a tentative voice venturing to interrupt her reverie. Jumping up she tripped on a stray log and found herself on her knees at his feet as he entered the extremely warm and smokey room. Looking up Penny saw that he held a large box which he struggled to support with one hand and a knee, as he reached down to help her up. This gymnastic effort she noted, as she kicked away the stray log. Breathless in the smoke, flushed and sweaty Penny helped him regain his balance. “They’re clustering I think so we’ll need a ladder and a large sheet if you’ve got one spare”. Bemused Penny disappeared to find a sheet while he went back outside with his box, having explained neither what it was or why he was bringing it into the house.

Their balance he appreciated. The ease and elegant outstretch of hands. It didn’t take much he mused but this was an unexpected thought coming into his mind; he was so very accustomed to women, to seduction. But this wasn’t the same. This woman who says she lives alone now, brought something freighted and unsayable to her tone when he’d asked. “We’ve … I’ve only been here a few months. Everything changes so fast, unexpectedly”. He had thought she was talking about the bees. She returned. “Here’s a king sized fitted sheet. Will that do? It’s got elasticated corners. What do you plan to do with it?” “We’ll use it to catch the bees,” he answered “We? We, did you say?”

Back outside it was clear that the smoke was working. Gradually the bees were accumulating in a new clump on the fence, protecting their queen and awaiting instructions from scout bees, already out searching for new premises. Penny had made some tea and they sat in her two garden chairs in the centre of the lawn and in the middle of the bee mayhem swirling above their heads. She took Roger’s chair and watched as Mr Westerham fiddled with the angle of the back of hers, his cup of tea placed carefully on the box at his side.

“What happens next?” “We wait until the swarm has settled into a clump and then we go in.” Penny took a sip of tea and squirmed a little in Roger’s chair. “And what does that involve?” Penny was watching as Max Westerham stood up and shook out her king sized sheet. “We gather the cluster in this box, using the sheet to catch any stray bees, especially the queen. Then we tip all the bees into the hive. We hope and pray that the queen is in the clump and that she stays in the hive. And then we wait until dusk by when all of the bees should have gone into the hive. I can wait with you or I can come back later. Or we just leave them to it.” “Mr Westerham I hope you don’t mind, but I would be happier if you stayed to keep an eye on them please, just in case something goes wrong.” He smiled over at her, eyes steady, and she looked away towards the growing clump of bees to hide the tear that came unbidden. It was the way he’d adjusted the seat back, or that he could reach for his own cup of tea. Peculiar details. And the conversation so unexpected, curiously novel.

His little lecture had begun: “You see the process is very logical and predictable to some extent. For whatever reason the bees decide to swarm. They send out scouts to find a new home for their queen and the bees that will go with her. In this case it was your chimney, and now that you’ve driven them out, they need to find somewhere else. In between them gathering for the journey and the scouts coming back with news, we must get them into the new hive. The queen will be at the heart of the cluster safe, warm and protected. The scent of her will encourage the others to come home. Then we wait for all the bees that might be out scouting or foraging to return and we can close the hive. This box is a nuc hive with frames ready for them. Then we relocate the bees to somewhere more suitable and hope that she’ll start to lay and that the colony will thrive.” He spoke with surprising ease and authority, with no gaps for interruptions or comments. Penny stared and listened, enthralled at the sound of this rich voice and its subject matter.

“How do you know so much about bees?” There followed another sonorous little speech in which he explained that it began as a hobby when he started the process of retiring from the bench. “KC, you see. I’m retired. Still a bit of a workaholic, but mostly with the bees. I’ve got just the four hives. No wife. No children. Read a lot, walk a lot and I still take on the occasional brief”. He turned, beaming, watching for a familiar reaction. It’s a terrible habit he pondered. He noted the tired face and emptied eyes, and felt ashamed. Penny saw the broad smile, heard the voice, then turned towards the bees and made a decision. “If this works, could you leave the hive with me?”

Max sat very still for a moment and then slowly zipped up his beesuit and adjusted his headgear. “Perhaps. Let’s see how it goes.” Then quite suddenly he was on his feet, shaking out the sheet and looking up at the sky. “I think we’re ready. No need for the ladder”. Penny tried to smile as she replied “I’m really not sure about this being a two man job.” But Max was already moving towards the fence where the bees were spread in an untidy sprawl. Watching this man, moving with such confidence, such self-assurance, so fit and strong, Penny could also see Roger’s short frame and loving smile, turning back to laugh. The two images were superimposed and uncertain, quivering in the late afternoon light. Her tears made diamond sparkles across a pair of curiously interwoven scenes and she stayed still. Max was watching the bees. “As you like.” And he strode bold and purposeful across the untidy grass and captured the swarm.

Within moments the sheetful of bees was being shaken down into the nuc hive. “Well, that was pretty undramatic” Penny said as she approached the beekeeper and his hive. “Now we just wait for all the bees to find their way home.” “I had no idea it would be so simple” Penny said before adding “I generally have a glass of something about this time. Would you care to join me?” Max looked over his shoulder at his crumpled companion still in her black and gold outfit and briefly wondered why she was so formally dressed. But only briefly. “A glass of something about this time would be most welcome. Thank you.” Then he added, “We can drink to fellow travellers.”


Last weekend began with sandwiches in the waiting room of the National Express bus station at Gatwick South terminal. We were supposed to have had the picnic on the bus on our way up to London. But sandwiches always call so loudly when they are packed away with a beer or two, we couldn’t resist. Then of course after some hours trundling along in the snazzy double decker bus, by the time we got to town we were both famished. One went off to check into the hotel and the other got ready for the meeting, tummy rumbling. Then in the meeting another sandwich moment. A waft of cheese and cucumber on multigrain bread floating across the room prompting untold yearning for at least a bite.

But bite was there none so the only choice was to be patient and rumbly until the meeting was over and we were in position on the terrace. Bundled up in blankets, I could finally order my own food from the National Liberal Club’s wonderful new kitchens. Another sandwich, this time a falafel and spinach burger with chips on the side. It was a joy and rapidly scoffed down. It was so obviously yummy that one of our party couldn’t resist ordering a burger of his own, this time of the carnivore class. Finally full and rumble-free I was able to relax, snuggle down in the blankets, slurp the red wine and take pleasure in what was turning out to be a lovely evening. Plenty of wine, good company and conversation.

It wasn’t long before the conversations were following a bit of a theme, namely how long the second burger was taking to arrive. And then the asides turned into queries with the wait staff, handsome young men with gorgeous smiles and deferential apologies. But no burgers. Queries were repeated inside where we retreated as it was getting too cold to sit on the terrace. Poor burger man had had no food, but he was slowly recovering from the chill and being very brave as plateful after plateful of other peoples’ dinners passed us by. The barstaff gave him a free glass of red. We asked again before concluding that the burger order had been lost in some sort of NLC kitchen black hole and was unlikely ever to appear. Burger man bore all this with good cheer, but a slightly pallid look started to come on. Blood sugars were falling and the charms of a decent red fading fast. The sandwichless situation was becoming critical. And then a burger hoed into view, steaming, tantalising, nestling beside a reassuringly large heap of chips. Burger man salivating, burger man bright eyed and expectant, only for all the excitement to collapse as the waiter passed us by and beetled off to some other far less desperate diner.

Pointing out the worrying condition of burger man to the uber waitstaffer, brought forth a promise that if said sandwich ever did arrive, there would be no charge. And by the way here is a bottle of red wine on us. Good cheer all round and a slight improvement in burger man’s condition. There was nothing for it but to wait and trust the increasingly tense assurances that the burger’s arrival was imminent. After a fully two hour delay the beef burger, shy and embarrassed on the plate, hiding in its bun and with a tub of chips alongside to keep it company, fulfilled the promise. We cheered. We took pictures. We drank the bottle of red and cheered again. It was a marvellous evening.

The next day was a sandwich free zone, but there was another food drama. Having shelled out substantial readies for a posh lunch, we had high hopes for our planned excursion to the East India Club. With an aromatic lamb curry the carnivores were all set, but the vegetarians were in for a truly dire culinary experience. Dire is perhaps a bit mean but I cannot think of a better description of a faux Thai curry made up mostly of peas in a runny gravy with no flavour. Yes there were lots of peas swimming about, but peas are peas and they are far from worthy contenders when it comes to posh lunches. The poppadoms were generously large and explosive, literally shattering in the hand. (Terrible mess on floor hastily kicked under buffet table, hoping no one noticed but of course they did.) After a quick march in four inch heels across town we made it to Victoria Coach station to catch the bus home with minutes to spare. A minute’s as good as an hour, I’ve always found. No one checked tickets amidst the trainstrike mayhem and eventually we made it back to Gatwick, the car, home and the horses who whinnied at us to hurry along and bring them their belated suppers.

And the day after that we were at a Christening followed by the classic English brown spread consisting of little brown sausages, little brown sandwich triangles, little brown muffins, brown fritters and white cake. The cake added fetching contrast to the buffet which was altogether delicious. We took home the leftover sandwiches and it took us until Tuesday to finish them. Last Friday to Tuesday began and ended with sandwiches, with a puddle of peas in the middle. It’s been exhausting.

The Granny Hack

We’re both so old now, my friend and I. Wizened, enfeebled muscles, dodgy knees and hips, unreliable ears, eyes. And we forget so much, mostly that we’re old. We wear old frayed clothes, filthy with ancient mudstains and dog drool. Our boots are scuffed and cracked and our gloves have holes in them. Our high viz is so faded and stained that it’s probably not very high viz anymore. But our helmets are pristine. That’s not just because you should replace your hat if it gets cracked, but because we are conscious of the need for dependable protection. After all these years, we should take care of our heads outside and in. That’s what the horses are about.

We amble along on the Granny hack and we talk entirely about horses. We talk about how well the horses we are riding are going. We talk about their movements and gait, about their states of mind, about their anxieties and tempers. If they feel the ground a little, we have extended discourses on summers long gone and try to avoid stoney paths. We talk of how in 1976 horseracing in England was cancelled because the racecourses were too hard for horses to gallop safely on. We talk about the horses we have ridden as children, teenagers, bold young professionals, wives, mothers, and now grandmothers. We recollect long gone narrow escapes involving bulls, bad weather and how fast the light fades when you’re still far from home. We talk about prizes, past glories, loss. After more than twenty years of riding out together on average twice a week, we never run out of things to say. Surely by now we must have told all the tales, shared all the fears and memories. Surely by now we must have covered most of each others lives, all those small details somehow wedged in, nearly lost in horse and family conversations. Two women constantly chatting for all those hours over twenty plus years must surely have run out of things to say. But no, there is always more.

We talk entirely about horses and only sometimes in the spaces in between are there shared intimacies, sorrows, hopes and all that other stuff that women are supposed to talk about. We are agreed that we do not like to talk about the things women are supposed to talk about. It’s part of a matrix of unwritten and unspoken rules. We do not talk about our sex lives or what our men are like in bed. We do not talk about anything that is none of anyone else’s business.

Perhaps this is why the Granny hacks are so important. The Granny hacks are a shared space of like-minded, unconventional women, still young girls in their heads and for their horses. And despite our silly name for them, the Granny hacks are not so Granny-ish. Yes we creak along at first but once warmed up, our knees functioning, we are almost as bold as we once were. Almost. At least we talk about what things once were like. We remember. We face the traffic, we go fast (sometimes), we risk actions that might lead to bucking and similar misdemeanours (sometimes), we follow unfamiliar paths (sometimes). But mostly we talk. And mostly we talk entirely about horses. In this shared space, the horses and the hacking out put all the other spaces into a gentler and kinder perspective. It is a precious thing, the Granny hack. 

Something more than blue

There is a man who lived near us, out in the wilds of Cumbria. Our flat over the bookshop has huge windows looking out across hillsides peppered with ragged sheep. The skies are mostly low but when they are not, a soar of blue leaps across the landscape shining brilliant, endless. All around the immense greens clamour loud under the silence of huge skies. Jessica was the first to see him, and then we both saw him many times. She saw on the hillside, random flashes of a wrong, misplaced colour, the muddied artificial blue of a jacketed figure, prone and usually at dusk. She saw it that first time, looking out through the window as she washed up, peering squint eyed through greying light. “Look, isn’t that Ken? It looks like his coat. No one has a coat that awful shade of blue.” I looked to confirm, “Yes. Certainly looks like him. Must be pissed again.” And we turned away to get on with our evening. Not long after, Ken’s slight form was on the ground vomitting and freezing. But we didn’t see that part. By the time we went to bed we hadn’t thought about it anymore. In the morning the weekday routine kicked in and we had no cause to look out of the window at the hillside lost under a blanket of heavy rain.

He used to live above the pub in the next village, with his mum and dad, then with just his dad whose mourning was endless. Ken didn’t care. The mourning got on Ken’s nerves, like the nagging to go to work, get a job, blah blah. Whatever job Ken took, they eventually fired him. Plasterer. Postman. Cellarman. Son. All gone. He took to roaming the local villages, waiting for his dole money, drinking it down, almost in one.

Sometimes people would express concern about poor Ken, traipsing along the lanes and falling down into ditches. They’d say stuff to his dad, ask what Ken was doing roaming about at all hours. Frightening the sheep, shouting at children, collapsing dead drunk. The children would stare wide-eyed at the prone figure, spittle dripping off the edge of the curb. His fingernails were black and ragged, and there were often strange wounds in livid blue and red on the ashen face. His dad would reply that it was nothing to do with him. He had a place to stay, a bed. What more did they want?

Ken came home from time to time, to sleep, to wash a little. To eat whatever was going in the fridge. His dad wasn’t much on cooking since his wife had died. But he worked as a gardener so he had plenty of potatoes and carrots and beetroot stored over winter. He’d get a bit of mince from the butcher to make mince and mash, with baked beans on the side. Ken’s dad said not much and spent his evenings playing snooker in the pub and pretending his wife was reading and waiting for him to come back home to bed. He was an old man now and his son a creature he blanked, had always blanked for his stupidity, for some past and long forgotten sin. Poor Ken was not like his two sisters, who were smart and ambitious. Poor Ken did not have their brains. As all three of them shifted into middle age, it was clear that Ken’s close set blue eyes and thin little lips would never address anything more than the pint in front of him and the unfairness of it all. He took solace in spreading spiteful rumours about his many enemies. His dad. The young man in the post-office who did not want to meet up for a drink. The unruly kids who laughed at him. Their parents. He told grand tales about a girlfriend he had in the south. About a hotel they owned together in Sevenoaks, and about their two houses in Hastings rented out to celebrities.

When they are indoors together Ken and his dad sit in adjacent armchairs staring at the television. But Ken is mostly watching his dad and his dad is studiously ignoring him and his asinine observations about the game or the news. Ken coughs from time to time and shifts in his seat to remind his dad that he is there. But for his Dad he is not. After a while in his spite he takes to hiding his dad’s cue chalk and moving his dead mother’s things. For his dad, it’s as if she is still there.

And then Ken leaves more and more and stays less and less. When he is at large in the village he launches angry tirades at the neighbours about where they’ve placed their bins and parked their cars. He does his best to have a go at the customers in the pub. But the landlady is quick with her hands and cuffs him about his small grey haired head when she catches sight of his skinny form approaching people. Those out walking see Ken in the woods. Appearing suddenly ahead of them on the path they see the bright blue jacket veer off and disappear when he sees them coming. Horse riders and cyclists tell similar stories about his uncanny arrivings and departings. Ken’s always where you least expect him. The flash of blue against the fading summer greens and the browns of autum. And the blue’s getting grubbier and less blue. Sometimes he’s spotted in Ambleside and even Kendall, miles from home, dead drunk, asleep on a bench or verge, even in the rain. His dad never bothers nor his sisters. They figure it’s up him how he lives his life. It’s up to other people if they want to pick him up from the side of the road to bring his freezing drunken body home. It’s up the them if they want to bother with a sick-soaked blue coat and discarded shoes.

And then from our flat window we saw again the blue against the green. Jessica said: “There’s Ken again. It’s bitter out.” We saw ragged crows arcing across the chilled sky, and we saw the cold stillness wrapping itself tighter and tighter around Ken’s lifeless form.

“Only the shallow know themselves.” —from Oscar Wilde’s “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” (1882) 

You don’t know me.

You don’t see me.

You can’t find me.

You don’t know me.

And of this I am certain.

Being old is useful in these days of death and desperation. Death because of Covid and Brexit, stealing lives and lifestyles. Desperation because everyone is so obsessed with being noticed, with being included, recognised, acknowledged. It’s a curious thing this obsession. For those of us who’ve been around awhile, it looks like disease.

The online echo chamber amplifies and distorts, and social media platforms put you, and only you, you, you, you at the heart of every message. Seeing it is mostly boring, if compelling. Being seen is wonderful for those frantic to shine in gleaming limelight and get lost in virtual applause, acclaim. Except that the social media platforms must put all of us at the centre of attention regardless of our mediocrity, so we are none of us individuals just data sets. Yet if the platforms don’t prioritise everyone on some individualised basis, advertisers won’t be happy.

In this saturated and anonymous environment a defined identity is necessary to concepts of self, no matter how arbitrary and divisive. Individual identities must be categorised, celebrated and yelled about, to confirm that we know who we are, that we are entitled to recognition, that we exist at all. Without the platforms and classified identities, we are apparently nobodies. But coming to terms with one’s own ordinariness is part of growing up. Maybe you cannot see that until you’ve finished doing it and only then can recognise the curious paradox that we are all ordinary, and yet extraordinary too. The social media collective thrives on this paradox. Advertisers want maximum engagement and frequency in order to sell more stuff. Definitions and categories provide the platforms with data to help them do that. And we all participate.

But identity is a fragile thing, a thing in constant flux. It is not caged. Identity is vulnerable and frail and it should not be trivialised. Nor should those craving acknowledgement and recognition use identity to bully others into sharing their point of view. Identifying a target to blame for inequalities and unfairness, does not justify attack. Responsibility for being nasty about perceived slights does not go away just because you find someone to blame. The whingers share far more than being victims of generic, universal unfairness. They truly suffer cruelly. White male supremacy, imperialism, sexism, racism, accentism (it’s all the latest rage), genderism (coming to a paranoia near you soon), heightism, fatism, abilityism or some other -ism is the root of their undoing. How about I-don’t-care-ism?

We cannot thrive in a world where a group’s collective identity is considered to matter far more than anyone else’s. Such vanity combined with victimhood stifles interaction and debate. It’s toxic and poisons all chance of dialogue, discussion or inclusion. It excludes those beyond the group, those who challenge the party line, or who step unthinking onto tender toes. Blocking the transmissions we all send out and receive, leaves only static monotony on a single unrelenting channel.

Identity and knowing who and what you are is not about priviledge or advantage. Knowing who and what you are isn’t even a fact for hordes of people. Identity is often a latecomer to the character party. We could call it a very twenty-first century problem, this idea that we all have to be secure in our own identities and that everyone else has to recognise and celebrate those identities. Let’s instead strive for a little more humility, a little more kindness and greater breadth in our world views. Let’s have a little more appreciation of where and how the lines are drawn, so that they mark a point of connection and not of divergence. 

You don’t know me.

You don’t see me.

You can’t find me.

You don’t know me.

And of this I am certain.



A Dangerous Moment for Antoine

Antoine clicked on his bulging in-box and let out a heavy sigh. There they were, another horde of emails he would have to answer. It was exhausting being a technical manager and his job was beginning to get to him. It just took up so much of his day. Once he had tippy-toed his way around the puddles and pavement cracks from his building to the tram stop, the ride into the office took him fully half an hour. And then once at his place of work he had to take the lift to the twentyfirst floor. The dizzying ascent made him quite weak, even when he indulged in the distraction of staring at other peoples’ shoes. All told his journey to work was about forty minutes, and then at five o’clock on the dot, he had to do it all again in reverse. In reverse! And in between 09:30 and five he had to be there at his desk answering idiots and fools, explaining the obvious. It was endless and his lunchbreak was a joke. Sitting in his favourite café he barely had enough time to recover from the quease-inducing lift ride from his office floor to the pavement, before he had to repeat it to get back to his desk in time. The tedium of it was all becoming just too much. His nerves were shot and his carefully manicured fingernails at risk of splitting. It was so much easier during Covid when he could stay in bed with Charmaine to do his work. But now very often it was hard not to weep. He needed more coffee to even think about tackling the emails.

Antoine was conveniently placed near the office coffee station. His coffee breaks were not so much breaks as a caffeine continuum. In readiness for the next shot he organised the inbox messages into alphabetical order. Then he noted how many there were yet to answer in neat Roman numerals on his notepad. Antoine then rose carefully turning his head from side to side to note who was appreciating the view, and took several mincing steps towards his salvation. He moved with slow deliberation, gently pulling his trousers up and his sweater down.

Back at his desk, Antoine steeled himself and avoided looking at the little clock on the computer screen. Instead he gave himself a shake, brushed an imaginary stray hair from his brow and reminded himself that he is a professional. Narrow shoulders squared he adjusted his mouse and keyboard into positions of perfect alignment. He forced his work into sharp focus, at the very forefront of his mind.

Momentarily distracted by nothing in particular, Antoine pursed his generous lips and sipped his slowly chilling coffee. Staring at the list of emails and the number of unopened ones, Antoine compared what was left with his list of descending Roman numerals. He was working hard and pondering whether it might be wise to go for a short walk around the office, much as his colleagues were doing. Short perambulations are a good way to clear the mind and avoid excess work stress, he considered. And he could see what other people were doing, overhear conversations that are none of his business, Zoom bomb and so on. It would take care of those few untidy minutes before the big hand stretched up to reach the very top of the clock and Antoine could fully enjoy the moment. Or should he simply stay put, finish his coffee and open the next message in the list.

Leaning forwards to avoid the noise of laughter coming from the vicinity of the coffee machine he noted that this message was from yesterday evening. It had arrived after Antoine had left for the day, at a time when his work day was done. He felt the familiar and well-honed annoyance at these people. Why can’t they just respect professional working hours and send their emails in a timely manner? Don’t they have homes and loved ones to go to. Don’t they have lives? He wasn’t entirely comfortable with this cliché but he understood that people liked to say it, so he said it too. But Antoine had no loved ones, not after that incident in the early 2000s. Ever since he had lived alone with a series of cats. The latest is Charmaine, a long haired and profoundly overweight Persian too lazy to do much more than purr and drape herself on Antoine’s lap. Besides Charmaine, Antoine did have the gym and his very many friends on social media, most of whom he knew rather too much about. He was close to people from all over the world, people who loved his precise and slightly opaque witticisms. People who recognised Antoine’s greatness, enthused endlessly and sincerely about his posts, and even told him they loved him from time to time. At least that’s what their emojis said, possibly.

Antoine sniffed, slightly irritated that his reply to this message could not be within his target response time parameters. It wasn’t his fault of course, because the email had been sent out of hours. Technically the mail was sent when it was possibly still a working day in Portugal, but that wasn’t the point. In Geneva the day was over when that message arrived, and the sender should have thought about that. It really was too poor. All this agonising over time and responses was exhausting and his cold coffee now finished, Antoine’s attention was turning to lunch.

But he’s a professional so he knuckles down and stares at the computer screen some more. His hand hovered over the mouse and as his delicate fingers clicked on send, a dreadful bang and the hiss and clang of an awful explosion enveloped him. Sudden, vicious, terrifying, an assault reverberating in his dainty ears, throwing muscles into spasm and his body into inadvertent convulsions and unfamiliar shapes. Within nanoseconds Antoine was crouched quivering in horror under his desk, seeing the castors on his swivel chair spinning in an entirely unexpected orbit.

This is what it sounds like. This is it, his terrified brain screams. This is the end of my life, I can see flashing images, I can see darkness, I can see strange and unidentifiable colours cascading before my eyes in endless strobing arrays. Shaking, Antoine crumpled and shaking has tears streaming from his tightly shut eyes, strands of snot trailing his face. One fist is clenched and rammed between his perfect teeth and the other hand holds it in place.

A few moments passed before Antoine became aware of a curious and unexpected silence rising around him. Shouldn’t there be noise he wondered, slightly loosening his vicelike hold on his fist and removing it from his drooling mouth. Shouldn’t there be alarms and screaming and sirens he wondered. Am I deaf? Am I dead? Where am 

I? Was this what happened when you die? Does it all just seem to continue, except that you’re dead? And then with relief he noted a tingling sensation as the blood returned to his hand. And then he could hear murmuring voices and screams, and they were not screams of terror, but of laughter. How could that be? If he had not survived, was he in some sort of office hell? Was hell a place where the carpets and the furniture were the same, but there was no coffee or views of the river and where people mocked you?

 “Antoine, are you alright” he heard a familiar voice, and cautiously opening his squeezed tight eyes he saw before him a shiney black shoe and an elegantly bent knee. And Antoine’s response breathless and high pitched, “Davide, is that you? Where am I?”. Davide reached under the desk and linked a sympathetic hand around his co-worker’s rigid upper arm. “It’s OK, you’re fine, let’s get you out of there.” As he stood up, unsteady and awkward, Antoine saw that on his desk was still a neat array of pens, notepad, dirty coffee cup. His keyboard and mouse, and his favourite flowery mousepad were still in perfect alignment. How can this be? As he turned away from his desk, Davide helping him to his seat, he saw that he and Davide were not alone. There were several of his colleagues, all peering at him with expressions of amusement, disbelief and inquisitive fascination.

“Davide, what happened?” Antoine said his voice broken with relief at still being alive. “Where did that awful bomb come from? Who is hurt? How many are dead?” Davide replied that there was no bomb and that no on was hurt or dead. “Are you OK now? Can we get you anything?” “A coffee would be nice, if you don’t mind” Antoine sniffed pathetically. Davide smiled an indulgent smile. “Sorry Antoine, it was the coffee machine that blew up. There is no coffee until it gets fixed.” Antoine felt the blush rising hot and sudden from his neck to his hairline. Wiping his wet face with a proffered tissue, he turned his back on the audience. Antoine ignored their sniggers and shifted in his chair to face his screen, where he saw that there were eleven new emails to answer. He sniffed a resentful sniff into his soggy tissue, before sighing and slowly reaching for his mouse.

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