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A vole lot of trouble going on …

Just coming into half term so things are hectic here. Let’s see how much of tomorrow’s blog post I can write in 40 minutes. And the clock starts … NOW.

Well, it’s been an interesting one this week, I’ve released a book – you might have noticed that in last week’s post – I also received the third book in the K’Barthan series on audio. But first, I feel I should share the story of The Vole. Clears throat. Um … yeh.

A while back, last November in fact, our cat appeared to happen on a family of voles. To my horror he got four. They are feisty little creatures so they puff themselves up and bark at him. In three cases this didn’t work and, worse, it just alerted me to their plight and I still couldn’t get to them in time. In the case of the fourth, it did work. But I still couldn’t get there in time to liberate the vole, or get bucket down on it to trap it and take it outside before it belted under the fridge and stayed there.

Frank the vole

Ground zero: the failed bucket capture and flight to under the fridge, was 13th November, we took everything out of the room and found nothing. Yet, if I went in there in a quiet moment, stood still and listened, I could hear the sound of rustling and our small vole-shaped friend munching on things. I even managed to take this rather cute picture of it sitting under our fridge. We moved the fridge out after that, and I never found the vole but I did clean the floor and hoover up all the crumbs under there … I probably, unwittingly, did for our little friend doing that but … back to the story.

Our cat sleeps in the utility room, so we took him out, and all the furniture – except the fridge – and I set a humane trap. The vole was too fat for the trap, so I ordered a rat trap and guiltily put the cat back in his bedroom. With the vole. Since it seemed to be doing just fine nipping out during the day to eat his food and drink his water while he was elsewhere. Yes, I tried to feed it separately, but it appeared to be supremely uninterested in the more rodent appropriate fare I had purchased specifically for this purpose and pushed under the fridge, or at least it was, while there were the odd lost or discarded kibbles of Royal Canin Obesity Control in the offing, anyway.

A few days later, when the rat trap arrived. I set it with a dab of peanut butter. Nothing doing there either.

Hmm …

Over the weeks, the room began to smell a little bit. Was it dead? We didn’t know. We searched extensively but found no body.

The smell seemed, to me, to be more like the smell of our rabbit’s hutch when it needed cleaning out when I was a kid. The smell of vole excreta. Lovely. The McOthers posited a theory that it had died and was decomposing but I thought no.

Growing up in the school where my father was a housemaster, vermin was a fact of life. At one point, our bathroom began to smell as if something had died. Something quite big. The lavatory was in a separate room, so it wasn’t that. All was not well. One of the more stalwart members of the works department came to sniff the smell and pass his verdict. All the workers there knew the smell of a rat that had died under the floorboards when they caught a whiff of it. He did have a hopeful look, taking off the panelling along the side of the bath and having a thorough root around with a torch but he found nothing and short of taking all the floorboards up, at which point we were just as likely to find it was in the boxing round the pipes, the insides of the wall or some such, and which would involve removing the bath, anyway, my parents felt it was probably best to leave it. We’d grit our teeth and ride out the stench.

‘I’m terribly sorry,’ the chap told us, ‘it’ll stop smelling in three weeks at the outside.’

So we waited. Sure enough, the smell became pretty pungent and when I say pungent, I mean it was so strong it had almost evolved into a life form, with a personality of its own. Even so, within a month … gone. And I did learn a valuable lesson from this, ergo, what a rodent smells like decomposing. And it’s amazing how many of the rather nastier things of that nature learned during my childhood have come in handy later on in life.

And the thing was, a rodent decomposing did NOT smell like our utility room. I told the McOthers as much. Since I was the only one of us who had actually lived with the smell of putrifying rodents, and let’s face it, not many of us have, they bowed to my judgement.

So it was, that we looked out for the vole, hoping to find it and free it. The smell didn’t really get any worse and come January it was still ponging away. Not like the rat under the bath, so we assumed that it was, indeed, alive and well and it’s ‘cage’ was in need of a clean out. I continued my efforts to catch it, because I didn’t really want a vole living in our utility room, however cute it was.

Spool forward to Monday just gone. It had been consistently fine in the morning and throwing it down with rain in the afternoon for some days so I decided to get the washing on first thing so I could get it out for a quick blow before the rain came. Yeh. When I say first thing, I mean a time that, for me, was close to the middle of the fucking night. Seven something. Well before eight o’clock anyway.

The washing finished as I was on the phone to my Mum. I had the headset on so I could wander round chatting to her as I did other stuff. So I went to empty the washing machine, opened the door and … what was that thing? Eugh, what had McMini put in the pocket of his PE kit? I reached out and picked it up, it was like a bag full of liquid, at which point I realised it had arms and legs and with a small squeak, which was quite restrained of me in the circumstances I thought, I dropped it.

Splat! it went as it landed on the rubber door seal.

Yeh, I nearly hurled like this guy…

‘Aaaaargh (sorry Mum)!’  I said.

‘What’s up?’ she asked me.

I told her about the vole as I compulsively washed my hands again and again.

‘I’ve just found it,’ I explained. ‘Poor little bugger! I killed it!’ I moaned sadly.

Except, when I examined it further, I began to wonder if it had already been dead. Maybe the cat had found the body and been playing with it. Yes cats are gross and ours is grosser than most.

‘Well, you’ll soon know,’ said Mum.

‘How?’

‘If it was dead then, when you put it outside in the bin, the smell will go with it won’t it?’ she said. Ever practical.

At this point I finished the call with Mum, donned gloves, put the corpse in the dustbin, took the washing out of the machine and put the machine on a service wash at 75 degrees centigrade to sterilise it. It took an hour and a half.

Needless to say, the washing was all the stuff that couldn’t be washed over 40 degrees. Never mind, I had some of those eco balls and they claim to sterilise the washing at 40 so I’d stick those in, with about five soap pods, set it on a programme that would have it washing for a really long time and hope for the best. Two hours later it was done. I put it out for twenty minutes and then it started to rain. I suppose that was par for the course.

As I write now, the smell has gone.

‘It is winter,’ McOther told me kindly, ‘it probably decomposed very slowly.’

Anyway, after that bloody disgusting start to the week the only way was up really!

And it was.

Book three of the audio landed. Wahooo! I braced myself for another battle with my own personal artistic bell-endery. What’s up Mary? Well … I’ve this horrible suspicion that my material is not up to Gareth’s talent and I feel like a creative charlatan! Mwhahahaahrgh! (Drama queen? Creative hissy? Moi? Never.) I think part of it was simply that I’ve not done a creative collaboration with anyone else for absolutely ages, and certainly not at a professional level. And I probably don’t see myself as being at a professional level with this writing gig. After all, average earnings of £35 a month is definitely shite on anyone’s scale of achievement.

Conversely, while he plays down the amount of acting he does for a living, and makes jokes about living in his brother’s attic, Gareth has been pretty busy with actual proper work over the months we’ve been doing the audio stuff. Or to put it another way, despite the fact he is clearly a lunatic of similar ilk to myself, he is an actual, pukka professional. And his art thing is his career. He doesn’t appear to be a part time anything else to make ends meet. And my books … do. Not. Sell. Or at least, not widely, and only, pretty much, at gunpoint. So there’s … an achievement gap there. On top of which, I have a great deal of respect (possibly even mild awe) for anyone with the tenacity, strength of character and sheer, dogged bloody-mindedness required to get anywhere, in a profession which makes the average author’s 2% chance of getting a trad deal look like a walk in the park. Yep. Gareth is hard core.

Except that, as I listened to book three, I got completely lost in it, and this time I was surprised by the quality of the writing, to the point where it felt as if someone else had written it (this is the QA test, if I read it and think ‘fuck! Did I actually write this stuff, no way can I have written this can I?’ I know it’s OK). Which was a massive relief. Even if it meant I had to go back and start proofing that section again. Yes. At long fucking last, it felt as if there was a bit of talent in the offing my end of this project. And behold, those pesky feelings of imposterdom vanished! Thank bastard heavens for that!

So, hopefully that’s the third-of-the-way-wobble done with then and I’m through to the yes-those-doubts-probably-were-bollocks stage. Fingers crossed.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed a lot about this is that it’s always interesting learning about something, and it’s been quite a steep curve. But it’s even more intriguing watching someone else learning their bit of the whole thing with you. Each book Gareth’s sent me is a little more relaxed, yet, a little sharper and better than the last. It’s as if he’s just got through his one-third-in creative hissy and all – yeh well, maybe he has, trust me, we creative nutters all have them, although if he had one, I think it was on book one. Now that we’ve reached book three, I can occasionally hear the smile in his voice when he’s reading a bit he finds funny, even if he’s doing it straight, which is encouraging, because it makes the whole reading more intimate and friendly, which I’d guess any listening punters who buy it are going to like, a lot, even if they don’t know why. Proofing this one has been fun for me; relaxing and enjoyable, rather than the crisis of confidence melt down provoked by book two!

Take a chill pill MTM, this is not exactly news

But I suppose what I’m really saying, same as, or at least similarly, to last week, sorry to be boring, is that doing any creative stuff will always involve serious self doubt. But there’s this weird dichotomy between having serious doubts about something you’ve produced, yet still knowing that it’s up to your quality standards, that it’s good enough, and that you were right to put it out into the ether. And having doubts about something because it actually, genuinely is crap. And learning that difference is part of doing any kind of art stuff. It’s also part of the reason why you have to try and finish your shit, even when you are dying inside over how shite you think it might be … because it probably isn’t.

It may be that I’m not explaining this very well but I wanted to try because I reckon anyone who creates anything goes through a similar kind of head-fuckery. The more creative people I meet, the more certain I am of this. And I thought that if I talked about mine, it might make any others experiencing it as they read this feel better, or at least that they’re not alone … or … I dunno … something. I’ve made a tit of myself so you don’t have to, kind of thing. It’s just hard to put it into words in an intelligible manner and very hard to put it into words without sounding like a monumentally pretentious prick. But I hope it helps anyway! Because nearly all creative people are this nuts and even if you’re not creative, yourself, you should know this if you live with one! Mwahahahrgh.

As I write, Gareth is ploughing his way through book four, hoping to finish the first draft by Monday. It’s absolutely massive, but bless him, he’s going to give it his best shot. Go Gareth. Obviously, I hope he does, because it sounds as if he’s really into it now, and there’s definitely an extra energy to the recording of book three so I’m like … c’mon finish it while you’re in The Zone. Also I’m agog to hear the last book and then listen to all four, to see how the whole thing sounds as a … well … you know … work. But, at the same time the poor man does actually have a life, not to mention the fact that, as I keep saying … quality can’t be rushed!

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Quality can’t be rushed …

This week my son invented something called the White Wee Crew. Mwahahahrgh!

NO! You filthy ones at the back. This is about drinking vast quantities of water!

Yep. If you drink enough you end up doing what he used to call a ‘silver wee’ or one that the normals would call ‘clear’. He then changed it to the White Wee Club but has decided that the White Wee Crew is better. He’s read somewhere that being hydrated keeps your brain switched on. I believe that is A THING. So, he’s been proudly coming home and telling me he’s still a member of the White Wee Crew. I love the way his entire view of life is so completely non standard. And aimed to amuse; himself and others, but he seems unfazed if it’s just himself.

Weird square eye thing … eeeek!

Scary!

One of the delights about having a kid is what a complete giggle we have. Normally we’re talking bottom gags here but sometimes other stuff. The comedy of tiny noises, odd squeaks, floorboards that can be reliably walked on to sound like a fart, well yes, more bottom gags there, I suppose. But if anything makes a strange or surreal noise, no matter how quiet or insignificant, I’ll hear it and one look at McMini and I know he will have heard and think it’s funny too. From a squeaky hinge to McCat going mad for cheese. Any sound is fair game. McOther is able to be equally arcane but seems to derive more enjoyment out of watching us do it than indulging in arcanity (is that even a word) arcaneness, himself. Then there was the night at McOther’s parents house where McMini and I spent about half an hour in their en-suite positioning ourselves so we could take a selfie with the reflections from the bright strip light surrounding the mirror reflected in our eyes. We thought we looked like robots, or perhaps, I thought, that thing that happens to your eyes in Dune when you ride the worms. He hasn’t seen or read Dune yet and my memory is very sketchy but I tried to explain.

It does look weird. CF photos.

McMini is naturally funny, one of those people who is going to be funny whatever he tries to do  so has decided to ham it up. I’ve always felt that the trick was to make it look deliberate but I suspect I ham it up, myself. He’s definitely a chip off the old block. Or perhaps he’s just watched my coping mechanism and decided it’ll do for now. The other evening having implored him, with increasing desperation, to remove his socks I finally succeeded.

‘If you throw those at me, I warn you, I’ll get really cross,’ I told him, anticipating his thoughts, mainly because it was exactly what my brother or I’d have done at his age.

Needless to say, the little so and so threw them at my face. So having told him I’d go into orbit, I did. Except that I was doing it because I needed him to Learn A Lesson rather than because I was actually that cross – although it is completely fucking vile and I wish he wouldn’t do it. McMini looked momentarily crushed and protested at my turning into Ogre Mummy without due warning. I told him he’d jolly well had due warning and that he should have taken heed. But then he picked up on the faux nature of my rage and smiled. I desperately tried to maintain a Stern Exterior but failed and found myself laughing.

It took me straight back to being a kid and doing the exact same thing to diffuse my father’s rage. There were incidences, when he’d gone beyond a certain point, when you didn’t do this, but it did work most of the time. If he can see what we’re up to my Dad must be laughing his head off. I hear him in so many of the things I say to McMini. It’s not that I mean to copy his parenting style, although I reckon he was a pretty good Dad so I probably wouldn’t go far wrong if I did. It’s just because I’m like him. And as I tell McMini, of an evening, with increasing frustration, ‘Will you go to BED!’ As he cavorts about the place like a lunatic clown and I desperately try not to laugh so he stops and does as I ask, I hear my father saying the exact same thing to my brother and I, all those years ago. And I can’t help but smile.

Though I have always thought of myself as a bit of a Daddy’s girl, I’ve always felt that I was very much more like Mum, I have Dad’s soft heart, I think, but I am definitely able to override it more easily than him, or at least I was. One of the things about his illness and death is that, coming out the other side of them, I no longer can.

Then again, as far as taking after one or another parent goes, I guess the point is moot. They were both as maverick and non-standard as each other. My father revelled in the eccentric and in pricking the bubble of the pompous, but it was my mother who dragged me into a cupboard to hide from the over-chatty house matron, who popped in as we were about to go out. Yeh … there probably isn’t much in it, between the two of them.

Trying to parent my wayward, but good natured son, I guess I’m beginning to understand what my poor parents, especially, were up against. What makes me laugh is that there is so much of my father in McMini, too, that it’s hilarious. He has a great deal of McOther in him too, jeez you don’t discipline McMini, you open negotiations. It’s really terrible, but I would bet his father was exactly the same. He always drives a hard bargain, too. It’s interesting, he’s kind of cheeky but at the same time, he’s treating me as his equal, which is really rather lovely.

He’s also a kind little lad. The other day I took him metal detecting. McOther was away on business and there was a dig and I really wanted to go. I was aware he might not want to come so we agreed he could bring along his lap top and sit in the car playing games if he wanted to. We had a great morning out. He enjoyed it and he found some things. Worked out the exact spot and got them out. At the end, he told me that he’d had a lovely day and that even if we’d remembered the lap top, he didn’t think he’d have used it. He told me it was all the better because he’d been dreading it.

‘Oh dear, not totally dreading it were you?’ I asked.

‘Yes Mum, completely, but I couldn’t not come. I knew you hadn’t been for ages and you so wanted to go. I couldn’t stand in your way. How mean would that be?’

I thought that was pretty impressive for an eleven year old. So much like his father, and also so much like his grandfather.

Another area I feel a lot of the Dad influence is in cheesy stuff. Dad derived a great deal of hilarity from bad poetry, especially hymns. There were times in church when I could just lean forward and look along the row at Dad with a bit of a twinkle and he’d turn to me with a pained expression and we’d start giggling. We both tended to be a bit vague and sing the wrong verses in the wrong order, if they have them lined up so you go across you can guarantee we’d end up reading down, and vice versa. But McMini gets my hilarity at some of the terribly bad, sentimental Victorian poetry you find in hymns as well. He doesn’t come to church so often now, I don’t want to force it because he has a faith and nothing is more likely to switch that off than forcing him. And the church I go to is pretty good at picking the fabulous poetry rather than the crap stuff, anyway, but McMini, he does, sort of, get it; good and bad. I have come to poetry rather late in life, partly from school, but also, greatly, from my Dad pointing out the rousing stuff, in hymns and … well … anywhere. And then from noticing it in hymns, myself.

McMini can act, too. Really act, unlike my brother and I who are merely funny – not the same thing at all. He doesn’t, of course, he regards learning lines and attending rehearsals is far too much like hard work. Then again, as far as I can gather, so did Dad. Indeed, the old man’s louche approach to knowing lines or giving cues was legendary. Apparently you would often cover the plot points you were meant to in a scene with Dad but not necessarily in the order in which they were written or the time allocated. Sometimes he’d guess. If you were lucky, you might get enough indication, from the general gist of what he’d said, which line you were supposed to deliver in reply. There was also a lovely story a friend told about how he and Dad on stage. They were both very short sighted, but each was trying to help the other across the stage without falling off the edge, into the orchestra pit. The whole exercise was fraught with difficulty and an extra frisson of danger, because neither of them was very sure where it was.

Strangely, later in life, when Dad had Alzheimer’s, he could recite vast tracts of Shakespeare, apparently word perfectly. I’m thinking that he was probably in plays at school as a kid.

If McMini wanted to act in things, I suspect he’d be extremely good … if he could be arsed. Yes, he is so like his parents, but I see so much of my father in him, too. Dad may have died, but whether or not you believe in life after death, he lives on in us. Mwahahahaargh!

Talking about fine acting skills, the audio project is trundling along. Gareth is still coughing a bit and suffering a sore throat but he seems to be happily getting stuck into the second book. He has been surprised to discover the books are much longer than he thought, ‘another learning moment’ as he put it wryly. It sounds as if he’s been thinking, ‘bloody hell! What the fuck is going on! I should have finished this by now!’ Except I think Gareth is a bit less foul mouthed than me so he probably thought it more politely … possibly. I’ll have to get his address and send him some signed books. I suspect we may not get the whole thing done before he’s off on tour but I’m OK with that if he is. After all, quality can’t be rushed.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested, Nothing to See Here is available for preorder. If you want to know more, click here, or click on the picture.

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And now … this!

It’s a bit of an amazing thing that having spent the last four years or so writing posts on my blog that were, basically, excuses not to write, I’m now having to write posts apologising for not talking about the stuff I normally talk about because I’ve too much writing news to impart. Yeh, here I go again, because this week this happened.

Unlucky Dip Audio Book

Yes people, that is an audiobook cover and Unlucky Dip is now live and available for pre order on Kobo. Swoon!

It’s ready to publish on Findaway Voices too but I haven’t dared press the button yet, just in case. Naturally ACX, an Amazon company, is a whole different kettle of fish.

Gareth and I are both on a bit of a learning curve with this audio gig so when I uploaded the book to Findaway Voices, first, I discovered that there was a problem. An error message popped up informing me that the file was qqwe[ru09025jbm’ ytopqq09t574qyhgwa – or at least whatever it was it said, it made as much sense to me as that does. So I carefully cut and pasted it and sent it to Gareth, who knew exactly what it meant and fixed it.

Kobo, well, clearly everything went without a hitch there because we’d fixed the qqwe[ru09025jbm’ ytopqq09t574qyhgwa problem we discovered at Findaway. So with a little trepidation, I decided I’d submit to ACX which is an Amazon company. I’d forgotten why I deal with Amazon as little as possible. This reminded me. I uploaded all the files and when I tried to click the submit button which is labelled funkily, ‘I’m done’ I discovered it was greyed out and when I hovered over it this illuminating message popped up.

‘cannot submit production because there are issues with the uploaded audio.’

Marvellous.

I had a look at the submission guidelines to see if it was anything I’d done. It might be that the name is different. On all outlets the book is called Unlucky Dip but Amazon may want the series title given. This is where the problem will arise, because, if it does, it will not be looking for K’Barthan Series, instead it’ll be looking for K’Barthan Trilogy, because Amazon refuses to change the series name – unlike like every single other site on earth. Thanks for the blistering two star review that invoked, too, Amazon.

I tried to find help but ACX help was about as useful as a chocolate tea pot, thousands and thousands of help pages that tell you nothing and basically tell it to check it your fucking self! Mwahahahrgh! I clicked on their help pages and then on contact to ask their help desk. The link took me to Audible. I tried to contact the Audible help desk and explain. Chat didn’t work just tried to load again and again and asked for my log in details occasionally. Email did nothing either so I clicked on the button that would get them to phone me. A very kind fellow gave me the email address to write to but warned me that ACX help is only open from 12.00 to 9.00pm on Monday through to Thursday. It was Friday.

I emailed them, anyway, and got the standard canned Amazon response that they didn’t like my mail forwarding. So I emailed them again from the ‘right’ address. They replied. Had I published to ACX from Findaway? No. I replied but I had published to Apple, or at least I was going to but I hadn’t actually clicked publish on Findaway yet, in case something went wrong with ACX. Prescient of me eh? That’s as far as we got before 8.00pm.

Despite being officially closed, or maybe that’s the phone line, ACX support have emailed me today as well. Go them. I notice their version of the qqwe[ru09025jbm’ ytopqq09t574qyhgwa problem that we had at Findaway is slightly different. Possibly. So I’ve passed that on to Gareth, who must be doing his nut with all this. Especially as it’s the same as Findaway on the ACX guidelines you download. It’s only different on the help pages you see when you are trying to work out what to do if you have some unspecified error and the boilerplate bit of the support email that says, have you checked this? It’s like querying publishers or agents, they all want the same thing only each one is just that tiny, tiny bit different, and mistakes bar entry!

The little bit I’ve learned about Audiobook publishing so far

What I know about audio could be written on the back of a teaspoon. All I knew was that I wanted to go wide because I want to get my books into libraries if I can, hoping to start that process soon so I’ll let you know how I get on. Here’s what I’ve gathered so far.

You’ll need an ISBN and that means you have to add the record to Nielsen book data here in the UK. I found I needed to do the long form so that I can stipulate that the book is in audio format. (I was only allowed to choose an ebook imprint or a paper imprint so I have emailed them about that but in the meantime, I’ve logged the isbn as an ebook and then chose audio format later on in the form.) Yeh. I know. Counter intuitive or what? Or maybe it’s just me being really dim.

Kobo allows you to upload finished books, direct, but you may have to contact their support and ask them to add the audiobooks tab to your dashboard. I did and they added it swiftly without fuss. Kobo will pay you a 35% royalty for audio books under a certain price and a 45% royalty above it. They distribute to Walmart, Indigo in Canada and something called BOL in the Netherlands.

Findaway pay from 30-50% depending on the model you are using and distribute to over 40 outlets and libraries, including Apple, Audible and Amazon.

ACX accept publications from wide authors, with ready made books, and will pay 25% royalties. They publish to ‘a minimum of’ Audible, Amazon and Apple.

My cunning plan …

Publish to Kobo direct for 40% royalties. Go to ACX for Audible, Amazon and Apple for 25% royalties. Go through Findaway Voices for 40-45% of everything else, including Apple, again, but also libraries.

Knowing that ACX is run by Amazon, I decided that I would only claim the short story on ACX to start with and would see how it went before I committed to using them for everything. If ACX transpires to be as batshit crazy as Amazon, the reduced demands on my time and sanity, from not going direct, may be worth more than the reduced royalty rate in the long run.

  1. ACX does not allow you to opt out of Apple at the ACX end, more on that later.
  2. As I understand it, if you go to ACX through an aggregator you will not be eligible for their bonus system – so if you get someone go sign up to audible to buy your book, you won’t receive a ‘bounty’ unless you’re direct. Likewise, I think it precludes you from tokens to give away free books. This is why a lot of people go to both.
  3. The authors who I ‘spoke’ to have mixed results with the bounty system, some have done really well, some haven’t had a blip.
  4. At the moment, you can publish to Apple through Findaway and ACX at the same time, then you contact Findaway and they will contact Apple who will prioritise your Findaway, higher-royalty-paying listing. However, the support email I received said,‘Findaway distributes to Audible and Amazon through ACX, so if you already distributed you book with them you cannot submit the book through ACX yourself.Duplicate products are prohibited as per our legal contracts and agreements.’Which looks a bit worrying, although it doesn’t mention Apple specifically. I’ll have to double check the contract. I have demurred from pressing the go button at Findaway, anyway so I can deselect Apple if I have to.

So there we are … baby steps but yeh, audio is going to be a thing …

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Shenannagins …

OK, so, I’m not even going to talk about the election result. The choice was a bumbling, everything-that-is-awful-about-posh, bloaty-faced, straw-haired sack of farts, or a man with a rather dodgy looking past who was slightly preferable but wants to do my brother and thousands like him out of a job. What do you want, Mary? Root canal without an anaesthetic or a ghost chilli enema. Choose. I chose, because women died to give me that right. The side I like least won but that’s not saying much. I consoled myself with some guerilla marketing, stealthily inserting cards about my free reader magnet into all the Terry Pratchett books in Waterstone’s. More on those stories, next time … now, it’s back to the matter in hand.

A mish mash of other stuff this week, then. Along with some of the most obscure comedy references available. I thank you. Today, as usual, I am writing to you from the past (Thursday). Well … apart from that first bit but let’s keep this as simple as we can shall we? It was McMini’s last day of term so I forewent parents’ swim, came straight back home after drop off and went into town to vote and do some Christmas shopping. After an hour and a half, I’d been moderately successful, and I couldn’t remember anything else I needed until I arrived home. Once here, realised that I’d forgotten to get the propelling pencil McMini wanted, although I can get that tomorrow.

While I was trailing round Waitrose, I had a quick chat to a friend, and found a small cured meats platter reduced from just shy of £7 to £2 and a rather garlicky curried bean salad which was also reduced. Smugly congratulating myself for sorting myself with a very pleasant lunch, I went home, where I immediately realised I had failed to get the one thing we really needed: milk.

The hat …

Never mind. I’d go up later I thought. And of course immediately I had that thought it began to rain and continued to piss down until the moment I had to leave to collect McMini from school.

Meanwhile, McOther is off on some work thing until late tonight in Oxford so collecting McMini involved going to the final school event of the term, McMini’s carol service. Alone.

The carol service takes place in the cathedral, which is a few hundred yards down the road from our house so I decided to walk. Seeing as it was still pissing with rain, and I had therefore failed to get the milk, I thought I’d take advantage of the time I had to walk into town to leave fifteen minutes early, swing by M&S on the way and pick up a plastic two pint bottle.

The communication from the school warned us that she service would start at two o’clock prompt and that there was stuff on in the cathedral so would parents not take their seats until after one fifteen. Shit were people sitting there for forty minutes? Fuck a duck! How full was it going to be? OK so I’d aim to get there by quarter to, that way I could stand at the back and sing really loudly without disturbing anyone. If I was really lucky, I’d be so far from other people that I’d be able to do the descents without anyone noticing.

There was a queue in M&S and so I strolled in at five to two. The cathedral was packed and, somewhat blinded by the miasma of pathetic rain all over my glasses I set off where I was ushed, if that’s a word, down the aisle.

Half way down, I was shown into a seat next to a pleasant couple who were on the aisle. It being rather bad form to take the outside and obscure their view, I squeezed past them and sat third person in. Shortly afterwards, a family arrived from the other side and took the remaining seats wedging me firmly in place. We were definitely packed in and when Once in Royal started up and we all stood, I turned sideways, which did make things easier. The people round me were pleasant enough but rather serious and staring straight ahead, clearly worried that I might engage them in conversation.

Waynetta Slob … and Wayne.

Then again, that was probably understandable, as they probably thought I was a weirdo. I was wearing a stripy knitted hat, so McMini would see me easily, a manky waterproof coat (think Ted’s out of Ralph and Ted in the Fast Show) a pair of wedgewood blue moleskin trousers that, in the wrong light, can be mistaken for the same kind of velour jogging pants favoured by Waynetta Slob and I was carrying a pint of milk. This, is probably not how the average Christian expects their fellows to turn up at church (well unless it’s mine and the person is doing coffee). I did demur from smiling at them and saying, ‘milky milky’ but I wonder if that might have broken the ice. Possibly, but I suspect it would merely have made people nervous, as a comedy reference goes, it’s too old and too obscure and would merely become the embodiment of the original parody.

The cathedral, itself, looked stunning and as a building expanded by the same firm of architects who designed the one where we had Dad’s memorial, there was a pleasant feeling of familiarity about it. The picture doesn’t really do it justice but they asked us not to take photos (after I’d taken that one) so I had to pixelate the teacher and crop off the parents in front of me.

Now, normally, when I go to carol services, I’m there with someone I know. So we are able to giggle when I sing the wrong verses to the carols incredibly loudly, or when I try to whisper the responses and end up barking, ‘AMEN!’ At the top of my voice when everyone else is saying, ‘and also with you’ because my voice has done something funny etc. The details of these things always amuse me and I come from a family of people who fuck it up in similar style. As a result, my memories of Christmas services, as a child, are of giggling at stuff ups, or because my brother was singing the carols falsetto, or I was singing them in a really high squeaky voice, an octave above everyone, that I can no longer do. Or Dad was complaining about how ‘fucking high’ the carols were this year (yes, there was plenty of effing, even pre Alzheimer’s) as his voice cracked, yet again, while, with a facial expression like someone sucking a lemon, he attempted the high bits in Hark the Herald.

There was also a propensity to do a kind of irreverent running commentary, among ourselves. In short, in my family, there was, still is, normally a lot of giggling. And if it isn’t family, I’m normally with other parents I know, so there is also giggling.

But when you are on your own you can’t giggle. Especially if you have a) turned up with a bottle of milk, b) eaten an injudiciously garlicky lunch which you are now sharing, through the medium of your incredibly scary breath as you do the singing and c) have already drawn a great deal of attention to yourself with your incredibly loud singing voice and the fact you are dressed like a rubby. On the up side, as a friend later remarked, at least it was only milk I turned up with and not a can of Stella.

Mwahahahahrgh! It’s never too early for a fusilier!

Of course, the absence of other like-minded nutters, or at least, in the event of my failing to out any that were near me, the commentary went on inside my head only.

There was a couple in front of me, sharing their service sheet in a very sit com style and a little old dear with them who I had down as grandma. Grandma (for want of a better name) suddenly upped sticks and with a nod, a smile and a wave at them disappeared off down the aisle to the back.

My brother’s suit! Nearly as loud as my voice, but not quite. 🤣

A few minutes later, after looking nervously round, the lady also disappeared up the aisle. She was gone for the whole of Oh Little Town of Bethlehem and then reappeared in the last verse but still sans old dear.  Had she gone to the Cathedral Centre lavatories to enquire after the old dear’s health? Was there a family crisis being played out here? I’ll never know, even though, as a professional nosey bastard (I’m an author after all) I’d like to.

There I was jammed in next to all these very nice but incredibly serious people. Their horror was almost palpable as I yelled my way through what felt like a million carols at the kind of volume that comes close to competing with a set of bagpipes. Maybe that’s why the old dear left. But the alternative is not to sing, which I will not countenance at a carol service, or to sing a bit less loudly, which is still deafening, but risks being really rather out of tune with it.

At the end of the service, the headmaster read the last lesson. They’d gone for a different response to the usual and he reverted to the traditional one. Except instead of giving the feed line he gave the response. Everyone tried to say something but nobody knew what to do so we all just went kind of, ‘mana-manah.’ And quick as a flash, a little voice in my head went, ‘do dooo do do do!’ And I started thinking about the Muppets song.

It wasn’t funny exactly, but it was accumulative funny, the sort of thing which would get a laugh if you added it to other stuff in a comedy. And if you have the kind of mind that’s already seeing a rich comedy of the absurd in yourself and everything around you, and has been attempting to do a Terry Wogan at seventies Eurovision-style voice over throughout the service. Or if you’re from the kind of family who’d start giggling. It’s really hard not to nudge the people either side of you and laugh. I resisted the temptation to nudge, but a small chuckle escaped.

Nobody else made a sound. Oops

Then Hark the Herald began.

Fuckity fucking fuck! (Sorry.) But seriously, Dad wasn’t wrong, I swear it goes up a key every year. For me things get a bit dicey over top f, I can do top g but only on days when I can’t get down to bottom g. Otherwise I have to do the special high note gurn. It’s a facial contortion that throws Dad’s sucking a lemon high-note reaching expression into the shade. And you just can’t go about doing that kind of thing in decent lighting, in front of people you don’t know. Most cathedrals are chuffing dark so hardly anyone can see. Not this one. Today was low voiced Mary, I’d managed to produce a crystal clear, non crackly Little Town of Bethlehem. I knew that fucking high note was going to be a bit of a stretch. And we were definitely up there.

So there I was wearing my manky old waterproof coat and my ridiculous pussy hat, screeching the carols like some peri-menopausal banshee. With a bottle of milk. And garlic breath. Trying not to show any outward signs of amusement or … well … any outward signs. While in my head I could hear my father guffawing his head off and saying something like, ‘Well Mary, you really have excelled yourself this year.’

 

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A snapshot of blue …

It isn’t always like this, but I’m feeling a bit blue today. Then again, it’s probably only to be expected because I have, as we might euphemistically say, the painters in. But I’m going to take a few moments out to bang on about grief again because I suspect the way I’m feeling is pretty universal, so it might help someone to read it and see they aren’t alone.

As a human, I’ve always approached my life, and my future, with an attitude of mild interest, a kind of, ‘I wonder how this is going to turn out.’ That doesn’t mean I don’t try and mould my destiny at all, but I am aware how many other riders there are affecting the outcome of anything I plan. I hope my actions make a difference. Fervently. But I also think I’d be a fool to think I can realign the stars and guarantee anything about my destiny through my own efforts … well … you know … beyond how I react to what happens.

So my dad died. It happens to lots of people. And I’m OK with that and, more to the point, he was. It was his time, he led a full and wonderful life, he was loved … it was, dare I say it, beautiful.

The thing I am having trouble with is what happened first.

Losing someone to Alzheimer’s is really hard. There’s a strange mixture of emotion at the end where you’re glad their suffering is over but really want them back. There’s always hope, until they draw their last breath, that a miracle will happen and they’ll come back to you, that the gradual extinguishing of the light can somehow be reversed, the damage undone, your loved one returned. That you’ll find them again.

It can’t, although you might find enough of them. Dad definitely came back to us a bit at the end, I am in no doubt whatsoever about that.

They say that you don’t get over some things but that you do get used to living with them. That makes perfect sense to me. I try to give myself gaps to grieve, and in between, I tell myself it’s hormones, and yes, I am looking forward to reaching the stage when I no longer have a cycle, when Psycho Week, Misery Week (which is probably where I am now) Extra Special IBS Week and of course, not forgetting Brain Fog and Constipation Week all come to an end and every week becomes Mary Week. I do have a Mary Week once in every five and it is literally like being someone else, someone I really like.

Anyway, I try to convince myself that I’m busy or tired or hormonal but the truth of it is, I’m just sad. And I guess I’m learning that I have the strength to carry that sadness, which is nice, but at the same time, unfortunately, I’m not quite as strong as I hoped I was. Which is a bit of a shitter.

One of the things you can notice about people, if you look hard enough, is that those who are suffering or damaged are marked. They have an intensity, a brittleness about the edges, a burning brightness to their eyes that acts like a huge neon beacon over their heads saying, ‘Damaged Goods.’

Sometimes, I have to tell people that my dad died recently. It’s cringingly embarrassing because usually it’s part of an explanation as to why I’ve forgotten to pay a bill that arrived around that time, or pay in a cheque etc. I find it difficult to keep my voice flat. The emotion always creeps in and evinces an outpouring of kindness from strangers that is only reserved for folks they are very, very sorry for. Which is lovely but quite mortifying. I also find it really, and I mean really hard, to keep it together in the face of sympathy. No matter how hard I try to be dispassionate, they hear the emotion. I am always hugely grateful for their concern. But at the same time, it’s also difficult and embarrassing because there’s only a finite amount of time about which I can talk about it before I cry. I wouldn’t want people to stop showing sympathy though, or stop being kind. Because for all the awkwardness I feel, it’s also a wonderful and uplifting thing.

There’s very little time for sadness in modern life and even less in mine. Mum has dementia, someone has to run her financial affairs, pay the care team, make sure she’s OK. In some respects my weekly visits are a lifeline for both of us. It is wonderful to be able to talk to her about Dad. We discuss how we feel, how there was nowhere else for him to go, how illogical our sadness is when it was such a good death and when it was clearly a death he embraced. I think it helps both of us. Mum is definitely better than she was but she’s had a bit of a blip recently, which, I suppose, is  another reason why I feel the responsibility a bit more keenly than I usually do, and feel sadder.

Typically, now he’s gone, it seems that my life is full of events and problems that I would have discussed with Dad. Things he would have been able to advise me about so I could have made sense of it all and it would have been OK. Interpersonal stuff. It’s a loss I would have felt badly any time in the last one and a half, possibly two, years but it seems a great deal worse now. I think it would be melodramatic and downright wrong to say I’m sinking but it’s definitely a struggle. And I’m so raw. Oh blimey I’m ridiculously raw and so easily hurt about other things. Everything makes me cry, I reckon if I was walking round with a thistle stuck up my arse I’d cry less.

Politics hasn’t helped. It’s like the loss of Dad’s goodness and humanity, the compassion and empathy in him has taken it out of the entire fucking world. This week Britain has stepped up it’s efforts to make a monumental tit of itself on the international stage. The jury who found Boris Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament illegal have been warned to wear stab vests for fear of nutters who are also pro Brexit.

And the two sides bang on at one another, the left getting all drama llama about Jo Cox so they can tell the right that they are heartless twats who don’t give a shit in a way that makes the whole thing reek of faux. The right are totally unmoved, of course, since the majority of them are heartless twats who don’t give a shit and I really don’t understand why the left felt that point had to be made, since we are all already aware.

In the middle of all this, I’m still waiting to hear someone mention the good of the people. Not ‘the will of the people,’ as decided by a ridiculous sham of a vote to decide which side’s lies were less plausible (but sadly, a vote, nonetheless) not who should be in power, not how much better we would be if x or y was in power. Likewise, I don’t want to hear politicians spouting off in the media for the benefit of sending a message to other politicians via the press, rather than because they have anything meaningful to say to us.

Wouldn’t it be great to see someone in Parliament who genuinely seems to be there to try and make life better for the British people rather than to feather their own nest? Someone who isn’t a plutocrat foisting left wing sentiments they can afford to hold onto people who can’t, or conversely, someone who isn’t a hedge fund manager, wholeheartedly buying into the vileness of the party opposing them; a party which continues to demonise the vulnerable, the disabled, the chronically sick as scroungers and weaklings, quietly passing laws to punish people for their disabilities, or chronic illness, or having dementia like my parents, as if these people are to blame for their own suffering. A party pedalling the view that anyone who is vulnerable is weak and that those who are sick somehow deserve to suffer and are not worthy of our compassion. A party that puts the view that, contrary to the tenets of the Welfare State, those less fortunate, or who have fallen on hard times are somehow stealing for us when they are given help. A party which is punishing the elderly for having savings and being careful, stamping on the fingers of everyone working or lower middle class who has dared to put a foot on the ladder. A party which is quietly dismantling the welfare state and the NHS while everyone is too distracted to notice by the circus of shite that is Brexit and all that goes therewith.

We need normal people in politics. Now. Because at the moment, for the most part, it’s just a bunch of rich, entitled pricks doing what they like. On all sides. Their wages alone put them into the top 6%, the expenses some of them charge probably put them into Fortune 500*. Only 8% of Labour MPs are working class. We need a proper mix and we need to hold them accountable, the trouble is, voting doesn’t seem to work so I really don’t know how we do that.

* That was a joke even if it does ring true.

All I know is that watching the different parties competing to out do each other over the lowest depths to which they can sink I feel like something inside me is dying. It’s like grief has taken my reality filter out and I can see every crack and fissure and smell the foetid pus below.

But then something will happen that snaps me back.

For example, today I had to explain to the lady in the building society that I’d failed in some duty of admin because the summons arrived while my dad was sick and dying, or possibly while I was on holiday just before, or maybe in the six weeks previously while I was sick as a dog with a massive temperature and road testing different varieties of antibiotics to get rid of a persistent chest infection. The minute I fess up to her, I know she’s seen the rawness. My orange neon ‘damaged goods’ sign is flashing. She nips out back and comes back with a leaflet.

What to do in a bereavement, it’s called.

‘There are numbers in the back,’ she says. ‘And your doctor can help you too.’

My doctor? Shit.

Is it that bad?

Is it that obvious?

Am I more damaged than I think?

OK so watching my father go mad was pretty horrible, but I genuinely believed that once it was over I’d bounce back. It’s happening but it’s not a bounce and I’m aware enough now that in many ways I will never be the same. I thought it would be a lot faster than this and I thought I would get over it all. I’m not and it’s going to be slow. I guess the hard thing is having to keep going, having to carry on paying the carers and doing the pathetic amount I do to keep things running – the care and gardening team do literally ALL of it but I still find my few duties tough. I probably need to look what happened to Dad squarely in the eye but if I do that right now I’m undone and I can’t be undone, because … Mum.

Or maybe I’m just humiliated that another person has seen the extent of the damage, noticed my brittle cheerfulness and angular edges. I am worried and grateful in equal measure. As I try not to well up at her compassion and kindness I remember what Dad always said,

‘And this too shall pass.’

Maybe that’s the thing that’s so hard. Grief is amorphous. It oozes about inside you like a liquid and leeches out where and when you least expect. There’s no stopping it and no answer. You just have to ride the storm and wait until you are used to it, or it goes. It’s not as if I’m the first person who’s lost a parent, or the last … It’s just … hard.

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
Today the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

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This week, I am mostly, cheating!

Greetings, late as ever. I appreciate that this is a late post. I knew things were going to get a bit hectic and sure enough they have. I had to set up McMini’s computer for school and it took approximately one thousand years. OK not quite one thousand but it felt like that, especially when I had bloody microsoft asking me to sign in and then saying ‘oops there seems to be a problem.’

After searching for what felt like fucking aeons, I realised that the problem was simply that McMini is under age and therefore I had to sign in as me to move windows from some crappy version, where you can’t download anything off the Microsoft app store, to normal windows that everyone else uses. As a result I have nothing to witty to blog this week and had to resort to Things I Have In Reserve, in this case, my Dad’s Eulogy.

It might seem like a strange thing to share, but it was written for laughs and it even got some! Next week, I have some absolutely chuffing amazing news for you! In the meantime … enjoy …

________________________________

Dad post retirement but pre dementia.

The difficulty talking about Dad is that I have so much material, so it’s tricky to know where to begin and when to stop. The fact his nick name, at the school, was ‘Johnny the Legend’ probably says it all.

I’ve made some notes.

Obviously, as his daughter, I’m biased and see him as a shining example of what it means to be human, and a Christian, and to do Christianity and humaning really well. There are certain words that crop up again and again in the letters and cards we received; Gentleman, kind, warm, radiant, humour/joie de vivre, fun, funny, witty, generous, non-judgemental, wise, humanity and a word he used about others but which also very much applied to Dad, himself, effervescent! Dad lived his whole life with an aura of intelligent enquiry and seemed, to me, to have a genuine interest in everything and everyone around him. He also had a sense of fun and mischief but coupled with a sense of social justice and a kindly disposition which meant the mischief was never cruel. He was genial and good humoured and would often tell stories against himself if he believed his antics were funny enough. Probably one of the most indicative things about Dad, and Mum, is the friends they made and the people they have around them. They seem to be pied pipers of lovely people.

Dad delighted in sharing the Latin and Greek roots of words, especially if they were slightly dodgy or a little bit lavatorial. I can still decline the latin verb from which we get the word, ‘constipation’. Despite being a committed Christian, Dad would sometimes take me aside after church and we would both giggle as he pointed out the double entendres which Victorian poets, in a more innocent age, had unwittingly put into that Sunday’s hymns. ‘Oh Lamb of God, I come,’ was a particular favourite, and the fact it was written by an ancestor on my Mum’s side just made it even funnier.

He loved to prick the bubble of the self-important and was proud of any signs of rebellion in my brother and I. He once hauled a colleague to the window of the master’s common room and, glowing with proprietorial, that’s-my-boy pride pointed out a scene in the quad below, where a member of staff who ran like the original Minister for Silly Walks was sprinting across the grass followed by my brother doing a near perfect impression of the man’s ridiculous run a few yards behind. Another time, I remember Dad carrying a copy of the unofficial school newspaper round one speech day and, when he met the right parent or colleague, he would whip it out of his inside jacket pocket, like some war time black-marketeer selling stockings, to show them a slightly scurrilous cartoon I’d drawn of the Bursar.

Life with Dad was never dull. He was always cheerful and sociable. He enjoyed entertaining friends and relations during the holidays and would wear his bedroom slippers ‘to make it more relaxing’ often prank phone calls would be made to other, absent, members of staff, or those who’d moved on to better things at other schools. Sometimes he would invite people round and forget so Mum would be surprised and delighted to see them arrive but have to pretend that she knew they were coming. She, and we, usually pulled this off, except for the time my uncle and aunt turned up and found the four of us sitting down to a grilled trout each.

Dad was, as he would have put it, ‘a good trencherman’. On holiday France Dad demonstrated that, were he ever to go on Mastermind, his special subject would be not classics but instead, Guide Michelin, Normandy edition. As we drove through some village he’d suddenly stop the car and announce that it was lunch time because the auberge had a red underlining. No-one I’ve ever met before or since could sniff out a good restaurant as surely as Dad.

He also enjoyed wine, although, in that respect he was quite a long suffering father, luckily he had a very forgiving nature. I remember I inadvertently drank one of his best bottles while he was away on holiday. ‘What? You drank my Gevrey?’ he cried, his expression a mix of horror and disbelief at my iniquity in drinking his wine and pride that I’d made such a quality choice. Luckily pride won out although I did replace the bottle as soon as I could. I also remember spilling mayonnaise all over him at a restaurant in Durham when we were having a meal to celebrate Giles’ graduation. There was complete silence and, again, Dad’s face was a mixture – of anger and humour, this time. For a few seconds we watched the two emotions battle for control. God bless Lil, who guffawed before she could stop herself, Dad’s habitual good humour reasserted itself immediately and all was well.

I’ve already alluded to Dad’s selective memory. Any timely attendance at social events was due to Mum’s insistence that he put them on the kitchen calendar … also, most friends were wise enough to ensure she knew about them. The odd one or two slipped through the net though. I remember in my last year at school, Dad had just left the house and was commuting in daily from home. One evening, I found him, Mum and two friends wandering disconsolately through the cloisters in their dinner suits having arrived at the common room guest night a week early. This was a particularly spectacular achievement since Dad was chairman of the common room at the time and, therefore, the person responsible for organising it.

A familiar refrain in our house when I was growing up was the phrase, ‘have you seen my biro?’ Dad had two Papermate biros: there was a red one, which with Dad’s characteristic fuzzy logic, contained black ink, and a turquoise one which contained red ink. The hunt was on for one or other of them (and his keys) most of the time. Finally, he lost the red one, apparently forever, so I bought him a new one for his birthday, a top of the range black and gold Papermate. Yes, from now on the ‘black’ biro was going to BE black. I was incredibly proud when he hung onto it for years, although it turned out it was several biros. He couldn’t bear to upset me by admitting he’d lost my gift, so he kept buying replacements. It was only after he tried to buy replacement number five and he discovered Papermate had discontinued that model that he was forced to come clean. It was typical of Dad’s kindness. He was a soft old thing. He used to hug the cat goodbye before work in the mornings. She always smelled of aftershave at the start of the day.

For all Dad’s legendary forgetfulness, though, the headmaster’s secretary once told Mum that he was the one housemaster she could always rely on for an instant answer to any question asked about any of his charges. There was no filing system, no having to look things up. He always remembered the things that mattered.

One more instance of fuzzy logic. One summer night we left our pet rabbit in his outside run which had shade but very little shelter. Mum was the first to realise when she was awoken by a rumble of thunder.

‘Darling! There’s a storm coming and the rabbit’s still out!’ she cried and Dad went out to rescue him.

Mum heard the door go just as it began to chuck it down with rain. She ran to the window to see Dad rush into the orchard, completely starkers, barring a pair of wellies, grab the rabbit and take him, through the pouring rain to his more permanent home in the garage.

‘I didn’t want to get my pyjamas wet,’ he explained when Mum asked what on earth he was doing.

Dad was a committed Christian with a deep and enduring faith. Interestingly, his efforts to be Christ-like in every aspect of his behaviour could make him come up as a bit of a maverick – which suggests he may have been doing it properly.

Dad had a very firm idea of right and wrong and, as it was governed by his faith, it didn’t necessarily involve proceeding as convention, or the rules, dictated. Luckily most of the people he encountered appreciated this, even if his tendency to take the same approach at work, coupled with a propensity to forget housemaster’s meetings frustrated some of his bosses. Neither tendency let up after he retired.

One evening he and Mum got talking to a homeless man in the churchyard and brought him home to spend the night. Mum, rang me and explained that if I hadn’t heard from them by half nine the following morning I must call the police as they would probably have been murdered. She put the phone down with the parting shot, ‘Don’t tell your brother darling, he’ll go into orbit.’ Mum and Dad were a team and as you can tell from this story, it was definitely a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other.

One of Dad’s maxims was,

‘Never let anyone see you’re shocked by anything, most of the time, it’s what they want.’

Dad was pretty good at not being shocked especially by some of my more punk friends not to mention us, his own kids. I remember his reaction after I attended my first party. Unfortunately I mistook the fruit punch for a non alcoholic beverage. By the time I realised my mistake I’d downed gallons of the stuff and I was terribly ill. The next day, I felt truly awful and spent the time very quietly in my bedroom. When supper time arrived, I came downstairs and Dad said,

‘I thought we could have a treat tonight, I’ve made some wine cup.’

I have no idea how he did it but Dad had managed to replicate the exact same punch that I’d drunk to such horrific excess the night before. I sunk two glasses with a heaving stomach and a thin pretence of enjoyment. It was a much more salutary lesson than any lecture on the evils of drink. Fizzy logic, perhaps, in that case, but no less effective.

Dad was also great at understanding the way other people thought. A naughty friend of mine told how, when about to be cautioned by the police for some argy-bargy at the Goldstone, Dad stopped him just before he went in and said,

‘Now listen, Duncan, there’s one thing you have to remember and it’s very important.’

‘Yes Mr Bell?’

‘Yes, whatever you do, DON’T laugh! It’s yes sir, no sir, thank you sir and out again. No backchat, and NO arguing the toss. Right?’

My friend confessed that, the moment he was confronted with the police officer cautioning him, he was indeed, seized with an urge to guffaw or make sarcastic comment, but he managed to contain himself because of what Dad had said.

Dad wasn’t afraid to be human if, by venting occasionally over something small, he could be better at something bigger and more important. I remember him mowing the orchard at home. The lowest branches of the trees were all about four feet off the ground. As Dad mowed he was watching the grass in front of him so he bashed his head on pretty much every single tree. Each bump was greeted with an ever lengthier flow of invective, mostly comprising the word, ‘bugger!’ It lead to a new family measurement scale of vexation, ‘how manyb’uggers was that, Dad?’ we’d ask after a particularly vexatious escapade doing something or other.

Dad told me that he’d wanted to be a teacher for as long as he could remember. To be honest, if you grew up around him while he was going about his job it was fairly obvious. He was extremely dedicated, but even when he had retired, even when he had Alzheimer’s, children still flocked to him to chat.

His pet advice on housemastering was, ‘It’s not about catching the boys it’s about knowing when NOT to catch them.’ I only found that out recently, which is probably why it was many years before I realised that, when he came home to regale us with something funny he’d caught the boys doing, they didn’t actually KNOW. The famous Johnny Bell warning cough made sure of this, unless they were seriously up to no good, in which case Dad would omit the cough and attempt to catch them. He allowed some slack but had a zero tolerance policy for bullying. I remember him agonising when he had to send boys to the headmaster for drinking, smoking, going awol or the like, but if they’d been bullying people he never had a qualm about having them expelled, which was entirely in keeping with his sense of right and wrong and social justice.

One of the greatest gifts Dad taught me was that, if you want to be happy in life, it’s essential to be able to laugh at yourself. He had a way of being self depreciating and using humour to keep things light without losing the message. His humour also helped him keep things in proportion, in a way that not everyone can. Perhaps that accounted for some of his courage when facing the grimness of Alzheimer’s. Wherever he is now there will be light and laughter.

In the classroom, too, Dad liked to allow space among the learning to enjoy a bit of levity. His pupils soon realised that you could have a far more interesting Greek lesson if you got Dad onto some off the wall topic after about five minutes. He got decent enough results, so it seems to have worked. Even after he’d retired, Dad’s one-to-one students knew to ask about his most recent holiday if they wanted a break. At school, the lateral and inventive nature of Dad’s red herrings was so famed that they were featured in an article in the school magazine, which amused Dad greatly. I have a photocopy of that article which I’ve included, below.

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It’s cake, Jim, but not as we know it…

It’s been an eventful week. In a move of incredible efficiency, the entire family my side managed to meet at my mum’s and clear out the junk in her barn and garage. There was a lot of junk. Imagine a room that’s hot and stuffy and packed to the gunwales with crap. Imagine four beds that have been left, untouched, for some years. Now imagine this in a building infested with mice, squirrels and other sundry vermin.

Nearly empty ready for sweeping.

The cobwebs alone were epic, like something out of a film. You know, one of those films where you’d go,

‘Those cobwebs are a bit unrealistic, cobwebs never look like that in real life.’

Newsflash: they do.

The beds had been nibbled, pieces of newspaper had been dragged into them, the floor was about two inches thick with the desiccated carapace of wood lice that spiders had eaten. Everything had those little dots on which are, I’m afraid, spider poo – I discussed this on another post somewhere didn’t I, the one about the toboggan. Everything else was covered in mouse droppings. The squirrels had left hazelnuts all over the shop and their … er hem … motions … had left a kind of stodgy stinky pile in the middle of the floor.

And this is the crap that came out.

McOther found a dead mouse and the skeleton of a squirrel. There were also two lots of cat poo which must have been from my parents’ old cat, Abbie, who died in the mid 1990s. They were rock hard, anyway. The beds and mattresses were unbelievably vile. The stuff of nightmares.

After a day of sweeping, scrubbing and heavy lifting we ended up with a massive pile of rubbish and a clear top barn.

We bought hazmat suits but ended up not wearing them. It was too hot. Although I did use a smog mask for sweeping out and wore gloves at all times, three pairs of surgical gloves at once in fact. The dust while sweeping was horrible and I mentioned the cobwebs didn’t I? Shudders.

After a very busy day, we all went home and the lovely chap from the local skip company turned up with a van to take it all away the next morning. Turns out there are two loads so he took the first one and is coming back for the remains of it on Tuesday. We put the few items being kept back in the barn. Highlights included:

Two old bed pans, a baby weighing scale from about 1910, some early 20th century skis, an ice pick that looked about contemporary with Scot’s trip to the Antarctic and an ancient crane, probably from about the same era as the baby weighing scale. When we arrived home they’d shut our street to do resurfacing work. The only way to get to our drive was by going the wrong way down two one way streets. That was interesting.

On Thursday, after we’d arrived home, McMini took delivery of a gun that fires small gel balls, like those things flowers sometimes come in. They arrive tiny and you put them in water and watch them grow. McMini assures me they disappear eventually but for the time being they’re all over the garden. After waiting several hours for the first packet of balls to hydrate I was liberally strafed as I went about my business. Meanwhile, I browsed the net and picked up some more stuff for McOther’s birthday, things he doesn’t realise he’ll be receiving.

Needless to say, I got far too engrossed in this and while scoring a whole bunch of things I think he’ll like I completely forgot about some other stuff like time and McMini’s Boys’ Brigade band practise. I realised twenty minutes before, when it was far too late to give him food. I managed to make a hasty chicken roll and gave him a bowl of olives but we were late. So much for being smug about McOther’s birthday gifts.

McMini dropped off, I came home and discovered my ancient Wilkinson’s ‘greenhouse’ listing at a worrying angle. Further investigation showed it was in trouble and probably about to collapse. While I wondered which of the tomato plants to take out first the ‘shelf’ gave up the ghost, dumping four of them all onto the ground below.

To be honest, I was worried it might not make it through this growing season. It’s little more than a metal frame with a plastic cover over it so the fact it’s lasted five years, at least, is a minor miracle. I got the tomatoes out but then had to go back and collect McMini and leave them to their fate. Needless to say, it took a whole day to sort them out. On the upside, two of the four plants came out reasonably OK, if battered. The others are bollocksed but who knows, they might perk up. Luckily, McOther was cooking that night and McMini did get to eat, he just had to eat with us rather than beforehand.

As you can imagine, rebuilding the ‘greenhouse’ so it wouldn’t fall down again took a sod of along time. Throughout the process I was strafed liberally, a second time, with the rest of the gel balls. McMini had hydrated all of them in a container that was only designed for half, luckily I happened on them as the balls began to expand their way out of the top and moved the frogspawn-like mess to a kilner jar.

Greenhouse fixed and tiny bouncy gel balls cleared up, it was time to dump the car off for … yikes … electrical repairs and then I left McMini at home and legged it up the hill to buy the ingredients for McOther’s birthday cake.

When I arrived home the presents McOther requested had arrived and I had to take an hour out to sit and feel smug about my incredible efficiency. OK so the others won’t arrive until Tuesday but you can’t win ’em all and he doesn’t know he’s getting those.

After a brief discussion with McOther this morning, he chose to have an orange and poppy seed cake. I decided I’d make muffins and then ice them with orange butter icing.

Why do I do these idiotic things? I’m a complete fucking bampot, that’s why.

It was a hot day and I learned a very Important Thing.

It was this.

Butter icing melts at a certain temperature.

Sadly, I don’t know exactly which temperature it is, only that the air temperature in my kitchen was a tiny bit higher this afternoon. So the beautiful piped rosettes on the cakes began to melt, a factor which was probably exacerbated by my own impatience as the cakes were tepid rather than cold when I began. Note to self, put bastard cakes in fridge or let them cool long enough.

It’s cake, Jim, but not as we know it!

Naturally, I chronically underestimated the amount of icing required and as I only had one orange, there wasn’t enough orange juice left to make the second batch of icing orange-flavoured either so I had to use a lemon. I hurriedly reclaimed the squeezed orange rinds from the pot I’d stuffed them into, ready for the compost, and removed the last scrapings of zest – don’t do disgusting things like this at home kids. Two cakes later and I had to make a bastard third batch, not a nod to orange, that one, lemon only.

Cakes done, I realised the Happy Birthday candle I was going to use was broken but I did, at least, manage to glue it back together by melting the wax a little bit over the stove and then holding the two ends together until they stuck. Finally, I stuck it into the tray of cakes, covered the revolting mess with sprinkles and put the tray in the fridge.

Fingers and toes crossed.

Now I’m taking a couple of minutes to read, sitting in the evening sun, while nature pelts me with flying ants. That’s probably what I get for being egocentric enough to be sat here reading my own books. But there’s method in my madness. In order to get the continuity right in my upcoming series I have to re-read the old one so here I am.

Never mind, onwards and upwards, I’m going on my first dig of the autumn tomorrow. Here’s hoping I find something interesting.

How’s your week been? A little more restful than mine I hope.

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