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Sunday 28 September 2014

The Oughties. Worth a damn? 10

Medication and Mobiles
Short story. 1815 words
His face was a damn blur; any minute now he’d cut himself, sure as eggs. Nor would specs help, the hot sink would steam them blind. The kitchen sink these days.

Damn razor was as blunt as a book-end but that was his fault, he hung on to disposables too long. A false economy one carer had told him. That had angered him and he’d sat down to do the arithmetic that would prove the young man wrong. But the urge had left him when he couldn’t find the receipt from the supermarket.

The blade bumped round the gaunt contours of his cheeks, scratching at the bristle.  Did bristles get stiffer? Seemed like it. The sound was harsher. Ten years ago it would have…

Bugger it! There it was! A deep one too, with blood oozing quickly into the foam.  Chemists used to sell a styptic pencil but it never worked. The only sure thing was a scrap of wet toilet paper but that meant going round into the lav.

Even so he’d have to wait. Yesterday he’d ironed his shirt and it hung from the picture rail. Putting it on he’d bloody it, sure as eggs. And blood was hard to get off. Ethel must have told him a hundred times: use cold water. But he’d never listened. Never had to. Better to wait until the gash scabbed over. Sitting by the window in his dressing gown.

Outside, people stopped at the traffic light then streamed into the supermarket. All of them from council houses half a mile round the back, thank God. Some of them fat, rolling from hip to hip, looking for a trolley to lean on. Pathetic.  He’d never put on an ounce. One of the fatties, pushing past for cheap potatoes, had called him a scarecrow. Bit of a compliment when you thought about it.

But it wasn’t the fatties he was watching, it was the younger lot, the teenagers. It was coolish but they wore next to nothing, even the girls. Mainly tee-shirts, often with messages. Why? Surely not advertising. Once he’d tried to read a shirt – a vest really - but gave up hurriedly because the lad had scowled. As to reading a girl’s shirt… well, there were breasts.

Older folk, like those living here in The Court, wore lots of clothes. To keep warm, of course, but also out of pride. Proper clothes showed you were still up to it, prepared to keep yourself trim. Being old wasn’t wearing rags. He himself took things a stage further, not just a shirt but a tie. You didn’t see many ties these days. Only managers at the supermarket, the tie knotted loosely as if the chap couldn’t wait to get it off.

He touched his new wound but the finger still came away pink. Perhaps he dozed a little. In any case the carer knocked on the door early. Thank God it was Sunil and not one of the women. With him still in his dressing gown. He explained about the cut and about waiting but Sunil wanted to talk about the pills.

That made him cranky."After breakfast, you said. After food. I haven’t had time. Waiting for the blood to scab over. Then I’ll need to get dressed.”

Caught out by his own advice Sunil looked round the cramped living room for something to care about. All was frustratingly neat.

“The pills, Mr Allchester, they’re important. For a better quality of life.”

Talk like that depressed Allchester. At his age “life” tended to arrive with an unseen, unspoken companion who set him thinking. “Unhealthy thoughts” Ethel had called them in her attempts to gee him up. The expectation being that he’d go first and she’d be there to keep him cheerful or whatever you did for those who were busy croaking. Neither of them knowing then how quickly pancreatic cancer worked. As it did with her.

“I know all about the pills,” he said testily.

“Ah, but do you?  Your doctor may soon be adding another drug to your prescription? Nothing other than the humble aspirin.”

“Aspirin,” said Allchester, astonished. “But that’s just for toothache.”

“Not only that, Mr A. One a day can reduce cardio-vascular disease, even cut cancer risks.”

He wasn’t re-assured. Drugs were expensive, he was told that repeatedly, whereas aspirin cost pennies. This couldn’t be good news. He tried to ask a question but Sunil was opening the sideboard drawer to take out boxes and spread them on the tiny table where Allchester had his meals.

“Just a little reminder, Mr Allchester. You need to know why you’re taking these drugs. Thinking positively helps them help you.”

Sounded nonsense but he’d no time to dispute it. Already he’d forgotten that Atenolol worked with Coracten to lower his blood pressure. Also it was Naproxen, not Simvastin,  that controlled pain in his arthritic fingers. Sunil twitted him mildly for these errors but Allchester took it badly, reckoning he was being treated like an infant. Long after Sunil had left he sat on in the living room, still in his dressing grown, working out why he resented those boxes.

It was the mystique he didn’t like. Manufactured names which were not only ugly but sneered at him. Set him at a low level, typed him as old and falling to pieces, emphasised his dependency. The boxes, or rather the drugs inside, were in effect comments on the life he had led, implying – condescendingly – they would keep propping him up. For his own good.

Allchester thought briefly about old age, then thrust the whole idea away. Youth was in the past but not the innocent stupidity of youth. He felt a sudden desire to behave stupidly, to give the finger to condescension and things that were good for him. He would stop taking the pills. All of them. It would be risky but it would be an act of independence and it seemed to work. Tying his shoe laces was less of a toil.

He  decided on a walk. Put on his most expensive tie, bought years ago at Liberty in London,because he knew it would make Ethel gasp publicly, but approve secretly. He didn’t walk far, only to the children’s playground. It had been a late discovery, watching children at play, and it was not an indulgence he needed to be fearful about. His age and obvious decreptitude stripped him of being thought a lurking menace. Occasionally mothers with push chairs smiled as they passed by.

The children ran randomly between the swings and the climbing frames, their short legs imparting a jerky side-to-side motion. He prayed to a secular deity that they would not, in later years, become fat, condemned to a way of walking that was inescapable. Prayed quite hard.

The shrill cries of the children should theoretically have irritated him since his deaf ears were sensitive to sharp noises. But he pretended to enjoy the shrieks. For the moment he was part of the playground; an unthinking world for them, a stupid world for him. No pills. The act of an idiot but a decisive act. Exhilarating too, helped by a watery sun. He drifted away, dozing but conscious of the noise and the movement around him.

As he came to he noticed a boy sitting at the other end of his bench. Older than the children playing nearby and wearing one of those articulate tee-shirts. The boy’s face was resentful and he stared beyond the playground to an open area where youths of his own age were kicking a football.

“You look glum,” said Allchester, surprised by his own audacity.

“They won’t let me play.”

“Why’s that?”

The boy shrugged. “They all have Iphones.”

Allchester took the thick Saturday edition of The Guardian – it was all he could afford. It had told him over and over what an Iphone was. He said, “But you have a mobile phone too.”

The boy relaxed his fingers and stared intensely at the silvery device in his palm, as if it were a wart he’d temporarily forgotten. When he stared at Allchester, his face contorted with hatred. Now he got up, trying, but failing, to walk away nonchalantly.

Disturbed by the lad’s expression, conscious too that the pale sun had clouded over, Allchester walked slowly back to The Court. Later, switching on the electric kettle for a cup of Nescafé, he noticed a twinge in his right index finger but thought nothing about it.

The policewoman wore one of those facetious uniform hats, like a bowler with an excessively curly brim – as if her job were to tell jokes. Allchester ushered her in and offered her Nescafé. On the brink of saying no she changed her mind and the two of them sat down, unnervingly close, at the table. She was quite pretty in a heavyish way, but her face was grubby. The bowler remained on her head.

“A minor traffic accident,” she said. “A few bumps and grazes, the driver was travelling very slowly. But the lad was with other boys and it could be one of them pushed him. Normally we wouldn’t investigate horseplay but in this neighbourhood…”

“We’re a bit middle-class,” said Allchester, smiling.

“Exactly.” The PCW smiled back. “Seems you’re a bit of a fixture at the playground. That’s to say – they like you there. No hanky-panky.”

It would be very reserved hanky-panky, thought Allchester.

“Two of the mothers saw the lad talk to you. I wondered if you’d anything to add.”

He told her that the lad had been excluded from the kick-about. But admitted he, Allchester, was mystified about the Iphone.

The PCW laughed. “You’ve got to keep up-to-date, Mr Allchester. The lad’s one down in the world. His mobile’s just a mobile. For letting his parents know where he is. The kids with Iphones hardly ever use their phones to talk. They Google, they watch the naughty bits on Facebook, text like mad. But phone home? Where’s the fun in that? It’s a techno-snob thing if you like.”

“I didn’t realise eight-year-olds were snobs.”

“Ooooh, none worse.” The PCW drank the rest of her Nescafé. “I must be off. Just a minute, silly me. I never did any identification. The lad’s Jamie Ockton.”

“I never knew his name. But I can describe him. Jeans, a black tee-shirt with white lettering. I wasn’t close enough to… “

“Oh, it’s about soccer. By that French clever-arse, Camus.” She pronounced it Kay-muss. “More middle-class nonsense.”

“Even the kids are middle-class,” said Allchester, wonderingly.

“That’s why you’re seeing me,” she said. “Don’t want complaints from the Volvo brigade. Thanks for the bit about them shoo-ing young Jamie away. It might help. Good night Mr Allchester.

As he washed up the mugs he realised the pain in his index finger had got a lot worse. Which set him thinking about Simvastin. No, damnit, Naproxen.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

On furlough from oblivion

Beyond VR's head the bright numerals say 6:21. Four minutes from do-nothing to do-something; the time of day when I am supposedly at my brightest.

A timid transfer from horizontal (back, shoulders, bum) to vertical (left hip issuing osteo-arthritic signals). The carpet is rough to the soles of my feet as I unhook my fleece dressing gown (US: robe) from the en-suite door. Quietly in the dark, since VR is, or was, asleep.

In the dark study I flick switches marked Canada, USA, France and other distant exotic places. Outside, dawn is perhaps a quarter-of-an-hour  old. In a month's time I'll be doing all this in the pre-dawn blackness.

Downstairs, an old man's right hand gripping the bannister, straight to the old man's comfort room - the downstairs loo. Carefully targeting.

And now an additional task: drawing the heavy French window curtains at the rear of the house, then reeling up the seven blinds and letting street light into the lounge.

Trickier stuff in the dark kitchen. I scissor open a foil sachet and use the moist fragment of fabric to wipe my eyelids free from blepharitic crud. Bathe my eyes. An old man's emergence.

Upstairs the monitor glows with promise. Study door closed I am able to switch on the desk light. The cursor flutters over LiveMail.

Hello! Does anyone remember me?

Blest Redeemer (revised), 141,758 words

The Catford flat lasted much longer than Judith expected. During her six-year stay she changed her job twice, welcomed and dispatched half a dozen women who helped her pay the rent, planned and supervised the loss of her virginity and ceased to be a teenager without necessarily becoming an adult.

Monday 22 September 2014

Serving the Queen 1

Bradford Mechanics Instititute. Coir matting in the room corner is suspiciously dark. Others standing there, filling a sample glass, must have been over-generous. I strive for control.

RAF Cardington, processing camp. I receive shirts, underpants, KFS and other oddments but no uniform. At 6 ft 1½ in. I am too tall and must wait for my tailor-made working blues and best blues. I have a mug but the tea is intolerable. I must learn to drink it.

RAF Hednesford, basic training ("square bashing") – see pic. Communal life, 24 to a billet, doesn't suit me and I am detested by my peers. I apply to be an officer in order to have a room of my own but lack leadership qualities. We march on a parade ground with alarming contours, caused by coal-mine subsidence.

RAF Hednesford. Preparing for an inspection I use my bare hand to clean beyond a lavatory U-bend; my effort goes unexamined. In a lecture by the padre, through which many sleep from exhaustion, we are told why Bertrand Russell the philosopher is at fault. I want to argue but I too am exhausted.

RAF Hednesford. Foolishly I argue with a screaming drill corporal and am condemned to clean rancid fat from cooking trays. Thereafter I shovel coal. Coal dust adheres to my fatty overalls and I become a Great Depression caricature.

RAF Hednesford. Irritated by my mouth organ playing six of my peers hold me down while a seventh abstracts the instrument. The abstractor, a puny fellow, comes from Lancashire and I feel no pain as he kicks my shins during the subsequent scuffle. Thrilled by my audacity I overwhelm him and he is forced to return my Hohner.

Friday 19 September 2014

Tears dried. Ache remains

So Scotland won’t be “foreign”. How is it possible to be both glad and depressed?

Let’s take “foreign”. The cliché is to look outwards, the honest gaze is inwards. I am a United Kingdom citizen but during the Scottish referendum I, and 50m others, were more precisely English.

How foreign is England? Foreign means strange and unfamiliar, “foreign to” more ominously means “not belonging to or characteristic of”. Only a short step from that to “Please leave by the quickest route”.

England has been disliked for a very long time. Deservedly. Check out India, Kenya and especially the Republic Of Ireland (ie, that larger bit to the south). Even tiny bits of Pennsylvania! Consider too how Australians are delighted to thrash England at sport. Visceral joy.

The Scots have good reasons to dislike England: the battle of Culloden, the Highland Clearances, and (Thank you, Mrs Thatcher.) the Poll Tax. However, the referendum wasn’t based on dislike, Scots are too sensible. In any case, many English also believe Scotland deserves to be a free-standing nation – if that isn’t too patronising.

Had the vote gone the other way, would Scotland have become “foreign”. Given those extra meanings I hope not. Politically separate, yes. Quite, quite, identifiable, yes. Worthy of admiring scrutiny, yes. I’d have wished them luck on their perilous voyage.

Yes, I admitted previously, I’d have voted against independence. Perhaps for purely selfish reasons, as well some iffy economic arguments. But secretly… ah.

One reason I’m not a patriot is because the term is horribly debased. Also, there are aspects of England, apparently immutable, that I detest. I share those detestations with a good many Scots. Hence my relief, tempered with tearful sympathy. No doubt seen as hypocrisy – but then we’re world-masters at that.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Time to shed a wee tear?

Today (18/9/14) Scots may vote for independence, making Great Britain less great, and wrecking the U in the UK. The pro arguments are understandable, justifiable given England's historical hatefulness, occasionally tedious (especially in re. currency), and the polls say neck and neck.

I'm no patriot. My Country Right Or Wrong is a buffoon’s credo (How about  Faute de mieux  - for want of something better?) But I don't want to lose the Scots. As you would expect, my reasons are trivial.

I envy their ACCENTS except Deep Glaswegian which is impenetrable and employs a unique vocabulary. The others - especially Edinburgh and the Western Isles - are profoundly seductive.

I envy their ARTICULACY The BBC's coverage involves many vox pop interviews. The sentences parse, the reasons are well marshalled, the tone is temperate. Damnit, they sound well-educated, their opinions bubble with gaiety.

I envy their GEOGRAPHY. From a good map examine that raggedy west coast, imagine the brown contours. There's beauty there.

Luckily I have no vote because it would be no. Thus siding with our dreadful prime minister. His origins lie in public relations. He too wants the Scots to stay (losing them he'll be blamed); his voice cracked, tears incipiated on one occasion. But a lifetime devoted to insincerity only evoked Mathilda - who told such dreadful lies.

For once it isn’t anonymously chosen. Burns, who else?

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Note: Bear the gree: be successful

Monday 15 September 2014

Grimmer fairy tale

To avoid offending the sensitivities of Tone Deaf readers the male buttocks is rendered geometrically (a hemisphere, two cones) - left: rear elevation; right: side elevation. G represents "the groove."

Examine the structure of a male buttocks. In simple geometry it consists of a hemisphere (vertically divided) from which protrude two cones - thighs - tapering downwards. The point at which the hemisphere joins the cones is sufficiently defined to create a groove.

The official caner at my school knew that groove. Practice taught him to ensure that each cane stroke entered the groove, exactly overlaying the previous stroke. Ensuring cumulative pain.

Breaking off, US commenters to Tone Deaf talk of being "paddled" at school. Had they been caned by my tormenter I suspect they would have chosen a different word to describe the sensation. Paddled sounds too gentle.

I have in mind a short story where a fearful child kneels in the prescribed fashion to best present his "groove". After two cane strokes the lad bursts into tears through apprehension and pain. He is, by the standards of the time, a weed, a non-achiever, "not a man". But he isn't lacking in imagination. Punishment is an abstract noun but what is happening is far from abstract. Authority, another abstraction, is punishing him but again he sees it more simply: an adult is hurting a child.

At home he takes the family shot-gun and blows his father's head off. Returning the gun he reflects on another abstract noun: justice. His father is (or was) an adult and in his young world adults wield authority. When authority hurts a child the outcome is clearly unjust. Justice is also a balance and the shotgun has achieved balance.

The court concludes the child lacks a grip on reality and places him in an institution. Where he reflects on another abstraction: irony.

Not for Christmas.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Block over what I stumble

 POLITENESS I'm really bad at this.

Early on VR said, "When people say 'How are you?' don't tell them." Return the question in a meaningless exchange. Why not just clear our throats?

Told someone's mother-in-law's sister has died the answer should be: "Oh dear." emphasising and lengthening the second word. Would this response differ if informed King Canute had died?

"Put yourself in the position of the person telling you," I was instructed. My mind didn't seem agile enough. Was the teller really undermined by tragedy? I would ponder. And the moment would be lost.

The hackneyed language of politeness worried me. Hello./Hello. It's a fine day./It is indeed. Being polite meant never surprising anyone.

Foolishly I decided only to say interesting things:

"Hello RR."
"I've got double cataract."
"Oh my God."
"But they're not ripe yet."

People crossed the road a hundred yards away.

Pulchritude was difficult. Introduced to a stunner over drinks (this happened less with time) I would gulp wine then say "Do you go for Ozu?" The clever ones, imagining I'd uttered a haiku - perhaps half a haiku - responded with an impromptu one of their own. I would ask for my coat. 

I’m not sure there’s a cure.

Smoothness isn’t the only criterion:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
“This night! What sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

Reasons why: You’re tempted to arrange words more logically in lines 3 and 4. But jaggedness creates separate mini-messages, opening up dramatic pauses. Heart almost rates its own exclamation mark. Does fell have that meaning? Who cares? It’s full of menace.


Wednesday 10 September 2014

Here's a rarity! An apology

I'm revising my third novel, Blest Redeemer, not a task I've looked forward to. It was hard to write and hard for Joe to advise on. I’d put Blest to one side; the MS was huge (450 printed pages) and, I suspected, junk. I'm the wrong age to be writing junk even if recognising junk is a valuable experience.

An ambitious sub-theme, never mastered, was cut and that seemed to help. This bit seemed encouraging:

Adopting a cloche, an urchin or a bob would have been an admission of defeat. She was – always had been - a woman with long hair. Hair defined her and she was satisfied with that definition. She consulted an elderly stylist who was said to distrust scissors. Redeployment was the answer. “Bring it together, gather it up from the nape of your neck, coil it on your head and create a chignon. No one will say you have short hair.”

I plunged on, often on auto-pilot, blogging, emails, commenting sloppily (ie, writing too much). Breaking off to attend to VR's laptop. Careless about techie stuff too. It seems Blogger allows you - at a single keystroke - to  create a post consisting of precisely nothing. This I did but without realising. Three faithfuls in effect chided me (very mildly).

Angry at being such an asshole I inserted a line in the empty post - the first thing that came into my head - and returned to Blest.

In the circumstances the line I inserted not only meant nothing, it was open to grievous misinterpretation. I pondered deleting the post but that meant killing the comments - which I have to say I deserved.

Best to apologise. I AM ABJECTLY SORRY! Back to the Blest comfort blanket.

Monday 8 September 2014

Sunday 7 September 2014

Wit, persuasion, beauty, sex

I spent five hours yesterday utterly harassed, upgrading VR's laptop from Windows 8 to 8.1. The process is automatic but as time ticked by the more I agonised, fearing it would all go wrong (automatically!) and I'd have to start again.

After that, I needed a very special diversion to bring me back to normal. An entertainment with wit, persuasion, beauty and sex. What other than my third favourite Shakespeare play?

In As You Like It Orlando and Rosalind love each other. Both go separately to the forest where Rosalind dresses as a young man. Orlando attaches doggerel professions of love to the trees. They meet. Rosalind compels Orlando to pretend that he/she is not a man but Rosalind and to address him/her as such. Orlando, so much in love, does that.

It sounds artificial but it becomes real. It sounds as if there will be homosexual byplay but not so. Magically the couple’s developing love transcends man vs. man as Orlando imagines the young fellow before him to be Rosalind, and Rosalind is bathed in delight by his ability to do so.

Tears streamed from behind the glasses I am now required to wear.

Magically, too, Rosalind was played by Helen Mirren thirty years ago and she contrived to be man and woman simultaneously. Thank you Microsoft for preparing the ground.

PS: Dinner was based on a £10 free-range chicken marked down to a fiver. Plus a bottle of rioja with a strangely uninformative label - often the sign of a great vineyard anonymously offering stuff they believe to be just below the highest standard. Chicken and wine terrific. Just occasionally I am transported.

Friday 5 September 2014

There's lint in your belly button

It was Joe, typically unselfish, who urged me to add Writing Novels to my blog profile. How come I never did that before? I thought. It presents me as a smarty-boots (or clever-clogs), sets me apart

And encourages self-hypnosis.

All writing is self-indulgent but novels are pernicious. They go on and on. Because novel-writing is so private the author becomes his own judge and jury, convinced he's doing something significant. Whereas, since few novels are commercially published, the author should accept there'll only be one real reader - that incestuous figure staring madly into the computer screen. Himself.

And it doesn't end there. From the outside there's no more boring figure. A plumber installs a bath (tub - US), a farmer ploughs a field - work that can be measured by anyone. A novel-writer writes a sentence, finds it irritates him, writes a replacement, remains uneasy. A sequence known only to him and, let's face it, hardly worth mentioning.

Why this introspection? Recently I sent one novel off to the publisher and started revising another. I became ecstatic, the later novel was better than I remembered and two problems I'd dreaded were easily fixed. But remember, that's just my deluded opinion.

If this post was triggered by ecstasy, imagine one born out of despair.

PASTA PERCEPTION I knew orecchiette pasta (little ears) and fusilli (twists) but only recently discovered gigli (lilies). Discounting whole-wheat pasta which digests like scrap iron, and the other variety said to involve eggs, I assume the basic material doesn’t vary. That these shapes are merely visual titillation. Yet spaghetti does taste different, perhaps because it’s so thin very little sauce (and no meat) adheres to the strands. Do you have a pasta rationale? Will it withstand intellectual scrutiny?

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Age's spectre - not all that bad

People fall in love: become ecstatic, transformed, generous not mean, more perceptive, etc. You know the drill.

Few look ahead and I sympathise. What could a sarky old bastard like me, married for 54 years, bring to a lover’s elevated state? Nothing at all; in my case even less. I've just despatched my novel in which a male protagonist, inevitably a Brit, cautions the heroine, inevitably a Yank, against "big" words like love. And gives reasons.

At our age (VR is two years younger) we see a relationship that has passed through many stages, some we would hate to repeat. What exists now (and I would never presume on that dangerous four-letter word) is often expressed in unheralded acts.

Last night we had kefta: small meat balls in a chili-based tomato sauce on rice. It’s rare because VR hates making those little balls.

I said:"unheralded". I said: last night we had kefta.

Overturning that literary climacteric, dessert was vanilla ice cream with raisins soaked in dark rum. Intense bitterness uniquely mitigated. VR refuses to give it a name. She's irritating that way.

PROUST PERCEIVED My novel’s at the publisher; I can resume reading the wordy master of the Boulevard Haussmann.

And meanwhile Francoise would be turning on the spit one of those chickens such as she alone knew how to roast, chickens which have wafted far abroad from Combray the sweet savour of her merits, and which, while she was serving them to us at the table, would make the kindness predominate for the moment in my private conception of her character… the aroma… so unctuous and so tender… seeming to me no more than the proper perfume of one of her many virtues