Bloody Cartoons

In 1981, when it was time to go back to college for the second year, I once again had nowhere to live. Maggie, my lovely landlady of that first year, had died over the Summer and her house now stood empty and awaiting probate. I went back to the B&B I had briefly stayed in at the start of my first year and scoured the evening paper every day for a lead on a room… any room, really.

In the spirit of ‘Any old port in a storm’, I ended up in one of those old Georgian houses on Lower Sherrard Street. They are prettier now than they were then. It was a rather peculiar set-up. The run-down house was populated entirely with men who worked the building sites of Dublin as labourers. There might have been 12 or 15 of them at any time and the turnover of people was often fast. Every Monday to Thursday, two ladies came into the basement kitchen and prepared an evening dinner for the residents. The weekends were a free-for-all, taken up primarily with drinking and sleeping.

At just turned eighteen, I was far-and-away the youngest resident of the Lower Sherrard Street establishment, and, in retrospect, I really shouldn’t have been there at all. I was a skinny little dude in among all these giant bull-workers of men. Still, I had my little room at the very top of the house which had a bed and… well… it had a bed. So what if I had to pass through another man’s bedroom to get to mine and so what if that man was a huge Viking red moustached guy who never got out of his bed because he didn’t have the money to pay his rent and who feared, if they caught him with his feet on the floor, he would get chucked out.

So what? I had a place to stay, a roof over my head. That was something.

In the weekday evenings, when drinking was never done, the men would mostly gather in the basement room and watch the little telly here. Nobody really spoke to me much at first. One evening I tried to break the ice with Frank, who was a cool-looking Northern Irish man who looked like a rough cross between George Peppard and Lee Van Cleef. Frank was evidently struggling with the crossword in the paper, and this was the first tiny sign of something I might be able to help with. I was sitting on a chair beside him when he groaned for the fourteenth time and scribbled a word out.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, smiling all the time.

He looked at me.

“There’s no problem,” he said as he turned away and went back to his puzzle.

They were fine men, just tough and circumspect in their relationships. The vast majority were from Northern Ireland, and they retained the natural caution that growing up there in the sixties and seventies would unavoidably instil.

There was no magic bullet. Over time, as I stayed and settled in, I became a trusted (if odd) member of the cohort. I did my own thing and minded my own business, and the men came to accept me, probably for holding my own with them. I was so different to everyone else there. I was the only one under twenty, the only student, almost the only Southern Irish person. I was naïve and possibly a bit timid, but I was funny too and, after I learned how far I could go with a joke or a quip, I think I gained a little respect for that.

People just get to know people too, don’t they? One Friday evening, in the quiet time before the pubs let out, I was watching the film of ‘Woodstock’ on the telly. I got a bit lost in an extended song by someone or other, eyes closed, going with the flow of it. When it ended, I opened my eyes and Crossword Puzzle Frank was grinning over at me.

“You were really enjoying that,” he said, with some hint of amazement in his voice.

“I was, yeah,” I replied, and, in these tiny ways, friendships can be started.

I generally went home for the weekends because the level of debauchery and drunkenness in the basement room often reached epic levels then. In weekends where I had to stay because I had work to do, I would camp out in my top room, sitting on the edge my bed with my drawing board and tee square balanced on my knees and a gang pack of fig rolls by my side. I would go to a movie on Saturday night and have a McDonalds but, otherwise, the fig rolls were my primary fare until Monday evening’s dinner.

Weeknights, there were often epic games of 25 around the basement table and I became quite good at it. Mostly because you didn’t want to play the wrong trump at the wrong time to this crowd.

But mostly it was the telly.

One evening, a sizable bunch of us were watching ‘Death Wish’ on the telly when, suddenly, the basement window exploded inward in a shocking hail of shattered glass. I sat in my chair and looked around.

“What the hell was that?” I asked the room.

But the room was empty, apart from two guys behind the couch. Everybody else had vacated the space with blinding speed. The Northern Ireland reflexes were much more finely tuned than my own.

The ‘explosion’ had been caused by a drunk passer-by on the street finishing his bottle of beer and discarding the empty through our basement window. His failings were eloquently pointed out to him by some of my housemates. The less said on that, the better, I think.

There was one other resident of the house who was not a building construction labourer. A sullen middle-aged man, he wore a dark grey suit at all times and came and went from his dinner without much to say. He never had anything to say to me.

Until, one day, he did.

It was late on a quite a Monday in the basement TV room. There was only a handful of us in the room and I was the only one bothered with the telly. I was watching ‘Film ’81’ with Barry Norman and Barry was busy reviewing the latest Disney animation ‘The Fox and the Hound’.

This man came into the room and stood there.

“Is anybody watching this?” he asked, pointing towards the television with his chin.

Nobody spoke, until I did. I had been there a little while at this point and felt I was a member of the household.

“I’m kind of watching it,” I said.

He glared at me, seethed a while, then erupted.

“Fuckin’ cartoons. Fuckin’ cartoons. I don’t work all day to come in here and have to watch children’s fuckin’ cartoons on a Monday night.”

“It’s Film ’81, this bit will be over in a minute.”

“Fucking cartoons_”

I figured it was time to go to bed. Sometimes the temperature rose in the TV room, and it was best to get out of it. I got up and left the room.

But the guy came after me. He caught up with me on the stairs. He spun me around and grabbed me by where my lapels would have been if my jumper had lapels.

“Fuckin' Car-Toons.”

He had quite a bit of age, height, and weight on me. I couldn’t do much more than let him run down his rant and hope it didn’t get too bad. Eventually he stopped and stormed back towards the TV room, most likely to change the channel.

Word got about the house that I had been accosted. When the ladies who made the dinners let me know that the guy had been warned about his behaviour, I didn’t have much faith in that. But when Frank asked me my opinion on five-down and quietly told me that the guy would not trouble me anymore, I figured I was okay… and I was. The guy moved out shortly afterward and I, for one, was not all that sorry to see him go.

Frank was philosophical about the little interaction.

“Men in his line of work sometimes get like that at his age. You have to watch out for them.”

It turned out that he was a schoolteacher.

This second-year accommodation of mine was no place for a young student. I should have started looking for a different place at first opportunity, but I stayed all year. Then, for third year, I went back again.

It wasn’t ideal, far from it.

But I learned some stuff there that has served me well over the years, I think.

Michael and Me by Eddie Armstrong

My eldest brother, Michael, sadly passed away this week.

I was honoured to give a eulogy for him at his funeral mass. 

But I thought my elder brother, Eddie, grasped hold of an elusive thing in his own eulogy at our final (for now) farewell. 

I asked him if I could record it here and he kindly agreed.

K















    Michael (obscured) with Eddie (centre) on Lough Gill with Dad, in his Boat


Michael and Me

This short story, which I call ‘Michael and Me’, is me explaining to you what I mean when I say to Michael, ‘I’ll see you on White Shore’. If I fall apart in the telling, bear with me and we’ll make it through it together.

The last verse of the poem by Máirtín Ó Direáin ‘An tEarrach Thiar’ /’The Western Spring’:


Toll-bhuillí fanna

Ag maidí rámha

Currach lán éisc

Ag teacht chun cladaigh

Ar ór-mhuir mhall

I ndeireadh lae;

San Earrach thiar.


Gentle lapping of oars

As a currach full of fish

Comes towards the shore

On a calm golden sea

At eventide

In the Western Spring.


Michael and me spent many of our years fishing. On the river, in short trousers, we’d be up at ‘the Slip’, that was where the boats went into the river, up opposite the Jail road. Fishing for eels, we’d dig up the worms and put them in a jam jar full of clay, but Michael wouldn’t put the worms on the hook, that was my job.

On Lough Gill. We’d be up early in the morning getting ready to ‘head up the lake’, Mam would be making the sandwiches while we’d be grabbing the breakfast and ‘getting the boats ready.

“I’ll bring up the oars and the engine while you bail out the boat”.

‘Up’ was up to the ‘Steps’ - the gaps in the wall where the boats sat in the river.

As the years went on, we got our own boats and engines, Michael had a white 8 HP Honda 4-stroke engine that didn’t burn oil, unlike my 1½ HP 2-stroke Seagull that did. I loved the smell it left in its wake, Michael was already more environmentally conscious, even way back when I didn’t know what that meant.

‘Where’ll I meet ye for tea?’ was a common conversation.

‘I’ll see ya on White Shore,’ was all that was needed. White Shore is at the top of the lake, a long way up. That was enough.

We’d head when we were ready, up the river, through the Narrows and out onto the lake. I might head up the back of Beezie’s island, around by Goat island into Benowna bay, then cut across the Sandy ridge at Church island, out past the Cormorant rocks and up Corwillick. Michael might head up the Shellhouse, hit out to Perr Rock from the Castle Point and up through the Rookeries.

If I was in first, I’d be gathering the sticks. He’d come in and start lighting the fire. Smokey tea from the black kettle, boiled on the fire, and Mam’s sandwiches. Hanging out with your big brother, doing what we loved. That was the life.

When we’d be pushing out the boats after the tea, we’d part with, ‘I’ll see you when we get down’. ‘Down’ was back home off the lake.

Back at the steps in the evening it’d be, ‘I’ll bring down the engines and oars while you tie up the boats.’

                        *                       *                       *                       *

A friend – someone who may or may not be there when you don’t need them but is always there when you do. That was Michael and me.

I have two oak trees in my back garden that commemorate Mam and Dad’s passing. Mam’s one is over 15ft tall and Dad’s is about 10ft. Michael grew them from acorns.

I have a chestnut tree in my front garden. The conversation went, ‘Ah sure take it, or it’ll die. It’s a native species, not like those two red oaks you have at your gates’. He could talk ya into anything. So there’s a chestnut tree in my front garden. It’s been struggling since it went in but I suspect it’ll thrive from now on. Now, suddenly, it’s my commemoration for him.

                        *                       *                       *                       *

Michael and me loved our music, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were high on the list. We loved fantasy and science fiction, the Lord of the Rings was high on that list. Ken and me picked three songs, one from Cohen, one from Dylan and one from the Lord of the Rings.

Cohen’s ‘Alexandra Leaving’ depicts the Lord of Love hoisting his friend up on his shoulders, to carry her home. I liken his depiction to what’s happening here today:


Michael hoisted on his shoulders

They slip between the sentries of the heart


Michael and me did the ‘Plans of the House’ for Carrie and me. Who else? We knew what we wanted, he helped us build our dream home and helped make our dreams come true.

Dylan describes Michael and me eloquently:


I could make you happy, make your dreams come true

Nothing that I wouldn't do

Go to the ends of the Earth for you

To make you feel my love


The last song ‘Into the West’, from the closing scene of the Lord of the Rings, covers the last thing I’ll say today for Michael and me. Annie Lennox will do it justice, I’ll leave you with a few of the more poignant lines:


Lay down

Your sweet and weary head

night is falling

You have come to journey's end

Sleep now

And dream of the ones who came before

They are calling

From across the distant shore

 

A pale moon rises

The ships have come to carry you home

 

Don't say

We have come now to the end

White shores are calling

You and I will meet again

 

Rewilding, My Ass

The back garden is a bit of a mess. Again. Overgrown, weed ridden. That rusty, creeper-submitting trampoline in the corner that nobody’s been on in a decade. You get the picture.

It’s lovely.

I’m rewilding, you see. Rewilding, as you all know, is the return of a habitat to a natural state for purposes of conservation and environmental improvement. So that’s what’s happening down my back garden, missus. The bees and the little bugs and the hedgehogs and the… the… worms, and such are all being given a natural, un-tampered-with place in which to placidly co-exist…

Yeah, right.

You’re fooling nobody, Armstrong. Nobody.

That garden has always been a bit of a mess. Not so much because you’re a lazy bastard but because you’re not all that committed to order and beauty in your environs. Certainly not committed enough to put the hard hours into it.

At this moment, Midsummer, the place is a riot of brambles and tall weeds in full bloom. Winter almost comes as a relief sometimes, when the growing finally stops and falls back for a while.

My neighbour only makes matters worse. He’s one of those tidy buggers. A beautiful garden with everything in its place. He’s the best neighbour in the world, just too darned organised. He’s making me look bad.

“He’s retired”, I say to myself, “he has time of all this raking and bagging and clipping and such.” But there I go again, only fooling myself. If I were retired, I don’t think I’d be mulching with the same gusto that he is. In fact, I don’t think I’d be mulching at all.

So the garden brings bees and birds aplenty. It also brings a regular visit from that other tiny burrowing creature, Guilt. I find it hard to enjoy my garden without feeling guilty about it. It is a symbol of my general uselessness. I mean, look at me. I’m sitting here typing this crap when I could be out there dead-heading something or even just cleaning out the garage for Chrissakes.

And things mount up. That universal tendency toward Atrophy is evident everywhere around my homestead. Every day that nothing is done leaves more to do. I become morbidly fascinated by abandoned buildings and ruins. The process of how all neglected things follow only one course and all end up in the same condition. Fucked.

Of course, I have a list of things to do. It dances around in my head, in a long T-Shirt, to some half-forgotten punk beat. It sticks its tongue out at me and tips me a middle finger. I try to ignore it and do the dishes instead. I can manage that much.

As I look out at my garden now. The house sparrows are down at the water bowl - drinking then flying up to sit on the back fence and wipe their beaks, first one side then the other, on the edge of the wood. Sometimes a large bird or a wayfaring cat may startle them but they never go far away. They like my back garden, you see. They like the meadow qualities it increasingly demonstrates. They are happy out there.

And here’s the thing.

So am I.

I really like it. I really, really like it.

I don’t crave any pin-perfect, hyper-organised yard. I admire my neighbour’s endless handiwork but I don’t envy it. I like things rough, I guess. I’m that rough kind of a man. I’ll go out in a minute and top up the water in the bowls and put out some seed. I’ll enjoy the comings-and-goings of the day via occasional peeks through my kitchen window (which needs a wash, tick) and it will bring me much pleasure.

I like the Wilding. Even if it’s not the real reason that my back garden is in shit. The gentle sounds of the creatures who live there. Wilding suits me just fine.

I just wish I could stop feeling so darned guilty about it all.

It’s spoiling my buzz.

The Fear of Becoming Cute

This week, I thought I was being haunted. The feeling only lasted for a little while and it wasn’t correct so don’t start writing in. I’m okay. For now.

It all started in the kitchen. I was alone and it was night and it was dead quiet. Suddenly, there was a ghostly sighing in my ear. Every time I moved, someone or something could be heard to sigh deeply. The sigh was mournful and lost, as if all hope had been abandoned. It was all a bit strange.

I started to move around more deliberately to see if I could learn more about the strange ethereal sigh. Every time I took a step, I got sighed-at. No, wait, every time my right foot took a step…

(Sigh)

It turned out that it was my shoe. The soles have some kind of air cushioned component and one of them had apparently sprung a leak. When I lifted my foot and then pressed it down onto the tiled floor, the air in the sole came out with a gasping sigh.

Time to get a new pair, you might well say. But no, not yet. I only ever own one pair of shoes and I wear them until they die. The definition of death, in this case, is when the water starts coming in. That hasn’t happened yet. Air out? Yes. Water in? No. On we trot.

My main reason for telling you this little story is that it’s cute. And I’m a bit worried that I’m well on my way to being cute. In this instance ‘cute’ is not any form of self-praise. Quite the opposite. More than anything else, it’s an age-thing. We get older, we get irrelevant, easily defined, readily categorized… we get seen as cute.

Atisidasophobia - a fear of Cuteness. I think that's what I have. Scott Walker singing Jacques Brel wanted it; to be 'cute-cute... in a stupid-ass way'. Not me, though, not me.

I start to see the tendency in my own sons. Now grown, highly educated, young and smart. I like to hold my own, I like to keep up. Generally, I think I do. But I see it in their eyes, that same look I used to give my old man when I thought he wasn’t looking. “You’re so off-the-mark, Dude. So quirky-comical. So damn cute.”

You need look no further than the Friends Reunion show. Matt LeBlanc is, what? Damn it he’s only 53. Yet, here in Ireland, he was instantly (and, in fairness, quite amusingly) cast as the benevolent throwback uncle with his familiar string of platitudes and minor prejudices. Matt (or Joey, take your pick), that one-time poster boy for male sexuality, for the sake of putting on a few years and a bit of timber, has all-of-a-sudden become cute.

As I said, it’s an aging thing. There will come, to all of us, some moment when our transition to old is complete. We will no longer be the complex, angry, funny, loving, hating people we always were. We will have become one thing and one thing only; we will have grown old. Sorry, two things, we will be cute too. Those things that make us angry, amused and all the rest will be lessened and diluted by the inevitability of our age. We will tumble into irrelevance and take on the mantle of the decrepit, shambling onward in our infirmity and in our interminable cuteness.

Nah-hah. Not me sunshine.

Whenever I hear the poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, I can’t help think that it’s more about aging than about death. Although the words do kind-of say otherwise. I see it it is an exhortation to not fall into the trap of embracing the ‘old’ and ‘cute’ tags that society has waiting for us. Rage, rage against the fuckers, I say. Be yourself, forever.

One of the biggest culprits in being branded ‘cute’ is all that allegedly empowering stuff we see on our tellys, mostly in adverts. Old people living their best lives. They are a big part of the problem, those buffered-up husks with their firmly fixed dentures and their leak-proof knickers. They are just reaffirming this global view that old people are predominately cute. (I’m 57, by the way).

There’s a big problem, too, with not being cute. There seems to be only one viable alternative to the cute option and that it the curmudgeonly one. The Victor Meldrew type who will never, and can never, be cute. I don’t want to be that either but, by golly, I’ll take it over cute.

I just want to continue to be me. I want you to continue to see me as me and not some archetypal geriatric. (Again, in case you missed it, I am 57). I’ll play my part. I’ll continue to be me for as long as humanly possible. I promise. So, just play your part. My shoes may fart at me and I may refuse to change them but I am not cute. I’m Ken. And I’m going to keep battling to be just that.

And when I end up in a care home, as I well might, I’ll be telling them that I don’t want to hear bloody Al Bowlly or Vera Lynn echoing through the hallways. Let’s have some Lou Reed, a bit of Tom Waits. Something good. 

And when the grandchildren come to visit and they say, “Mum, they’re playing The Sex Pistols, isn’t that so Cute?” and I tell them to feck off?

Well I guess, at that point, I’ll have lost the battle.

Jab and a Haircut – Two Bits

'Somebody' is now first-vaccinated, and 'somebody' has also been to the barbers. 

What a difference a week makes.

I feel a little bit like Basil Fawlty when he had a rare win off that horse. For once in my life, I’m ahead of where I thought I’d be. I know it won’t last long but, just for now, I’m one-up in the game and loving it. I want to snatch my feeling away from anyone who tries to grab it. 

“No,” I say, as I clutch it protectively to my heart, “This is mine.”

I never imagined that I’d be this far on by now. Perhaps it’s because I often think that I am younger than I actually am. I had it firmly in my head that the vaccine programme wouldn’t get to folk like me until sometime in late June or early July. Ireland, being a small country, has not been as quick to get loads of vaccines as our neighbours and friends have. So, I was pleased to see the process gain some momentum and was happy to wait my turn. Then, suddenly, two weeks ago, it was my turn to register and three days later I had my date.

Bit One - Jab

“Name?” The man in the high vis had a clipboard and was not afraid to use it. I told him my name.

He checked his sheet for a long time.

“You’re the last today,” he said. I was ten minutes early.

“Really?” I replied, deciding not to engage with him as to why it took him so bloody long to find me on his sheet if I was the only one left. I tipped him a wave, drove in, and parked up.

They were busy digging up the football pitch outside the hotel. I think they were making a car park out of it. It’s probably a useful metaphor for something-or-other but at the time I couldn’t be arsed to pursue it. Leave that one to Joni. I was here for one thing and one thing only.

Just because I was the last, I wasn’t alone. There was a queue in front of me to register and another queue beyond that. There were people behind me too, volunteers and car parking people who were getting their own jab. After the queue, which was speedy, I had to sit for a while in a little cubicle with two nice vaccinator women. They explained that, because it was near the end of the day, they were preparing the vials slower so that none would go to waste. That was fine with me. I was also formally asked if I was happy to be given the vaccine and they smiled when I said, without guile, that I was absolutely delighted. West of Ireland people tend to take their jabs and go home, I reckon. They don’t always express high emotion about it.

I’m left-handed so I got it in the right. I’ve always tried to give blood, when I’m allowed to, so I’m okay with needles, I think. I haven’t had too many, compared to other people I know and love. I touch wood after typing that, though I’m not in any way superstitious. Hang on while I… wave at that magpie… there!

The fifteen-minute sit-and-wait after the vaccine turned into a game of musical chairs because the rapidly emptying area was having its seating rearranged. I turned my chair one way to mimic what the staff were doing with all the other chairs and then I turned it back again when they changed their minds. It helped to pass the time.

And then I was part-one vaccinated. I felt a little high. I felt other things too, harder to describe. I felt sort of socially responsible if that makes sense. I felt less eased that I was now less likely to get the virus but much, much happier that I was doing my bit to help wipe out the darned thing. I felt like a brick in a big house that was trying hard to stay structurally strong and stable so that whole structure didn’t topple over.

I also felt prepared to feel a bit sick. I bought some Panadol and put them on the kitchen table where I could dive for them quickly. I didn’t get sick though, not even a sore arm. What I did get was grumpy. I was an exceptionally grumpy fecker for a few days. I actually think I still am. In the chipper last night, a woman was standing at the counter and waiting for her order that patently wasn’t ready yet. She was blocking my socially distant access to my own dinner. I shot her such a poisoned look that she fell back two full paces and apologised profusely. It seems I wasn’t just made grumpy by the vaccine; I was gifted temporary grumpy superpowers.

Better watch out, people.

Bit Two - Haircut

The next day was haircut day. I was a teenager in the decade when it was understood to be a kindness to the hairdresser to permit him to wash your hair. The narrative seemed to be that it provided a clean and pliable geography upon which the hair person could do their work. A part of me thinks it was a marketing ploy. Whatever it was, it’s a habit I’ve continued, waving the shampoo forward whenever I arrive. Even though a part of me thinks it’s a bit demeaning to all concerned.

Not in Covid Times though. Hairdressing needs to be a sparse and uncomplicated thing, in my view at least. So, I rolled up on Tuesday with a five-month head of hair that had been grossly over-washed. It was feather light, wispy, and buzzing with static electricity from the bottle of conditioner I had stolen from my wife.

Kieran the barber seemed relieved when I confirmed that I wanted ‘the usual’. I think people are coming back after months of follicle growth with notions of a new image and a photo of Jim Morrison in their back pocket. Not me. I just wanted a ‘Maxine Nightingale’; to get right back to where we started from.

If receiving the vaccine was transformative, getting the haircut was ten times more so. I left something quite murky and ill-fitting on the tiled barbershop floor, along with all that surprisingly grey hair. I caught sight of myself in a shop window as I walked back to work and, yes, I looked like a prat just like I always do. But it was a well-groomed prat. I could show a good face to world again and try to get on with things, carefully but well.

Reading back on this, I bet your own impressions of these things won't be vastly different from my own. There’s not much here that you won’t have lived yourself and felt yourself. But this is my diary, of sorts, and as your man Hamlet said, “Meet it is I set it down.”

Someday, in years to come, somebody might read over all these million words of mine and say, “Yeah, so bloody what?”

And that kind of makes it all worthwhile.

Grumpy, see?


Tattery Jack Welsh

I am become Tattery Jack Welch.

It’s an expression that my Mum used to use as she was trying to comb our hair back when we were kids. “Here he is, Tattery Jack Welch”. Sometimes, Tattery Jack would even progress from being a person to being a noun. “Your hair is all Tattery Jack Welch.”

Just in case a little clarification is needed: in Sligo, ‘Tatters’ had the peculiar usage of referring to tangles in hair. Those stick-together bits that had to be vigorously (and painfully) combed out. My sisters suffered a lot more than I did with this small affliction but I had my moments too. 

Who was he, this Jack Welch of yore, whose hair was such a darned mess? I sometimes wonder if he was a direct relative of mine. We did have some ‘Welch’s back there somewhere. More often, though, I think not. I think he was just another one of Mum’s generic name evocations that seemed to come out of nowhere but the dim past. “Here we are,” she used to say, “all together like Brown’s Cows.” Who Brown was, and why his cows formed such an iconic cohort, remains a pleasant mystery to me.

Looking it up on the Internet (it’s good, have you heard of it?) I find a traditional jig, from around the start of the last century, called Tatter Jack Welch and perhaps that, right there, is the genesis of Mum’s expression. Assuming that the tune name derives from the Irish language, then T’athair Jack Welsh translates as Father Jack Welsh (or Walsh), a priest obviously. But who was he and, more importantly, did he have tangled hair? Answers on a postcard.

Anyhow, regardless of who he was, that’s me now: Tattery Jack Welch reborn. With my good friends in Staunton’s Barbers reopening very soon, and my appointment booked, my hair is now as long as it ever has been or, most likely, ever will be. And, yes, I have tatters. I generally get them out by running my hand through my hair and tugging on them until my fingers break through but, for every one tatter I get, two more seem to appear. Shampoo, and a touch of whatever conditioner Trish leaves lying around, does the trick but it’s a temporary fix. I don’t wash my hair every day (who do you think I am, Farrah Fawcett Majors?) and so the tatters conspire and come back in force.

This ‘running fingers through hair to remove tatters’ lark means that I’ve come to look a bit like Beethoven (the composer, not the dog). Wild sticky-up hair shoots off in all directions. Sometimes I see other fellas going by and I say to myself, “The state of yer man, with that mad head of hair on him.” Then I remember I’m just the same myself, mad head on me.

I probably should have just got a set of clippers, months ago, and had a go at it myself but it’s a combination of two things; 1) I’m not brave enough and 2) I kind of like seeing how mad my hair will go. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t mind losing it and getting back to my normal ‘trim every 5 weeks routine’. But you know… look at me. I’m a wild fecker, a beast of a man, feral, untamed, unbending, feared and respected wherever he goes.

Bollocks, obviously.

I’m a middle-aged dude with a sore hand, an out-of-control head of hair, and a beard that needs considerably more attention than it’s currently getting. I look like a semi-respectable hobo and people sometimes cross the road to avoid me.

Sore hand? Oh yeah, I have this tendonitis thing going on where my thumb is constantly locking up. I think it’s to do with the funny way I grip a computer mouse. I also think the constant niggle of it is making me focus too much on myself and things I would normally ignore, like my stupid hair. I’m working on the thumb thing and it’s not too bad. But it is a reminder of how miserable it can be, to be in a little bit of pain a little bit of the time and a taste of how truly awful it must be, to be in a lot of pain a lot of the time. So, respect to those who must endure that. All the respect.

In the meantime, roll on Tuesday week, when I can get these Tattery Jack Welch’s all shorn off.

Everything will be completely back to normal after that.

Right?

Moral of the Story

For a change, let’s start with the moral of the story. Flip it all over, turn it all around. Why not? I think the moral of this story is that sometimes it’s a good thing to do something you don’t want to do.

Once upon a time, I did something I didn’t want to do, and it worked out okay. Strike that, it worked out great.

The year was 1986 and I didn’t want to go. No way, nuh huh, ‘didn’t fancy it, ‘wasn’t doing it, leave me alone.

It was Saturday and I had my weekend all planned out. I had been living in London for two years by then and I was well into my life there. Work hard all week, take it easier on the weekends whenever possible. I was never what you would call a ‘Party Animal’. (Somebody called me that at a party once and I threw them down the stairs, but that’s a tale for another day.) I liked a visit to the movies, maybe a bite to eat out somewhere. A pub visit, okay. Just, please, no parties.

There was a party that evening. Everybody was meeting in a pub down Borough High Street. ‘The George’, you might even know it. After that, there was going to be a party in a nurse’s flat right beside Guy’s Hospital.

I just wasn’t into it. I had plans; you see. I had got a free ticket from ‘Time Out’ for a free preview screening of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ in Leicester Square at 10.00am on Sunday morning. That was the plan. A quiet night in, on Saturday, then up early for a nice traffic-free drive into central London. Park down at Carlton House Terrace (there always seemed to be a parking space for me down there) then a leisurely stroll over to Leicester Square for the movie. A nice morning, requiring a fairly nice early night.

So, no party for me, no way. 'Not a party animal anyway, me.

Except…

I had the car, and I didn’t really drink. There were people in my household who really wanted to go to this party. And the going wasn’t even the problem. The ‘getting home’, however, therein lay the rub. So, I was cajoled and pleaded-with, begged, bribed, and bastardised (maybe not that last one).

“Okay, Okay. I’ll go.”

I reluctantly revised my plan. I could go, suffer the party until around two, round up the tipsy lads and hit back across the city to Ealing. A couple of hours sleep, and I could still make the free movie in town.

Plan.

The George was packed. There was no comfort for me in it. I don’t like being in crowds like that. I don’t function too well. It was your typical ‘crowded room’. And, across that crowded room… there was a girl. She looked really cool. Who was she?

I don’t think we ever got talking in the pub. It was too crowded. But I was suddenly more motivated to go to the party afterward. I have a memory of walking through Guy’s A&E with a plastic bag full of cans which belonged to someone I’d never met. It was a long time ago; I don’t really know.

We got talking at the party, this girl and me. I gave her a lift home. I had a casette of 'One Trick Pony' by Paul Simon on the car stereo, and she knew all the words. The lads were in the back. She was staying in Hounslow, so I dropped her home. She was new in London and I asked if I could show her around a little some evening. She said, “How could I refuse such a kind offer?”

Thirty-five years later and she’s over there in the kitchen now, reading the Saturday paper which is spread out on the table. I’ll have to get off this computer soon as she wants to do some work on her essay. I never did get to that free preview screening of Little Shop of Horrors. Never mind, I saw it when it finally came out. She’s lovely.

I'd better wrap this up.

Perhaps that 'moral of the story' I gave you at the start wasn’t really the right one. Sometimes you have to follow the story all the way through to the end know what the real moral is. Maybe it isn’t as simple as just sometimes doing something you don’t want to do, although that still applies. I think, in this case, the moral of the story might be that we should never lose sight of the miracles that stay in our lives. The amazing things that are right there in front of us, all of the time. The things we are singularly gifted with and, without which, we would be simply adrift. I think that’s the real moral of this story.

It’s essay time, apparently.

I've got to go.

The Cat - Act III

I should have known there would have to be an Act III to the story of me and the cat. The first two acts had taken their form so neatly, it now seems only natural that there would be more to tell. And there is.

Act I was played out last spring, during the first lockdown. Basking in strange, glorious weather, I trimmed aimlessly at the rampant shrubbery in my back garden and greeted the stray cats who ambled through with gentle ribbing in a foreign language. You can read about that here.

Things turned sour in Act II, with a new breed of wild cat being belligerent and shirty to me in my garden and piddling in my car when I inadvertently left the door open overnight. That post is here if you fancy it. I was surprised how some readers found Act II to be quite sad. My cat nirvana was over, hostilities were declared. It seemed as if something good had passed.

Stick around. Act III is on the way… and it’s a bit of a doozy.

Where to begin?

The cat from Act II, the one who pissed in my car, had taken to going into my shed and hanging out there. I’d tried to secure it but there’s a flat roof next-door, up against it and an adjoining gap at the eaves so in it would come. The shed is more of a garage really, sturdy, and well-built, but I’ve filled it up with boxes and stuff from the house until it’s become just a shed.

The cat liked it in there. I would often open the side door to get some fuel for the fire and be greeted with a hostile meow from the gloom. I would shout at the cat and the cat would bugger off out through the eaves gap and that would be it, until the next time. It was encouragement to put the job on the list; hire a skip, clean out the shed, repair the eaves, stop all this nonsense. Being on the list means nothing, nothing at all.

I should say, for those of you coming straight in here at Act III, the cat is a feral one who lives around my area. Nothing to do with me, really. We keep our distance. We glare at each other. There is no love lost there.

Easter Saturday afternoon. I decide to get the peat briquettes for the stove in a little early. I go to the shed/garage and open the side door and there is the cat, perched like Lady Muck in a cardboard box on top of a mountain of other cardboard boxes. We eye each other up, the cat and me, as we often do, but he hasn't the usual poise to leave when I start shouting.

I start shouting.

“Go on, piss off you.” I suggest in my best loud voice. This is normally enough to get the cat, who is white with a black patch over one eye, on the move. Not today though. The cat holds firm and eyes me coolly.

“Hey, bugger on out of it, go on!” I clap my hands. The cat reluctantly moves. It climbs the boxes and springs up to the eaves and sits there, eyeballing me. A mewling noise emits. I haven’t heard the cat make this noise before. Is it sick? Is it injured?

You’ll probably have guessed this next bit. The new mewling is not coming from the cat in the eaves, it is coming from within the box. The box that is precariously perched on top of a mountain of cardboard garbage. A box that the bottom is rapidly falling out of.

“Oh no,” I say to myself, much softer, “oh, no.”

I fought my way to the box, the cat watching me all the time. There were two newborn kittens inside and the bottom of the box was indeed torn open. There could be more, fallen through.

The garage doors at the front of the shed don’t usually get opened. The bins sit in front of them, and the side door is adequate for access. I couldn’t help thinking of the cat when I throw them both open, and the sunlight streamed in to the normally dark and gloomy space. The cat might have thought it was in ‘Inception’ or something. “Bloody hell,” it might have thought, “what’s all this now? I give birth and now the whole house is coming apart.” She continued to watch me from the eaves as I battled my way through the boxes, extracted the box with the two kittens and went searching to see if there was any more. There was indeed one more, who had slipped through the bottom. There wasn’t a fourth. I made sure.

So, I guess the cat, who had been a ‘He’ until now, was actually a ‘She’. I figured that out myself.

It’s a different matter, having a feral cat who breezes through your garden and glares at you and pisses in your car, to having a new Mum with three tiny kittens, black withered umbilici still attached, all in need of a little help. It changes the narrative in a single moment.

I summoned Patricia from the house, and we found a better box and a small quilt that one of the boys used to use, and a hot water bottle and some newspapers for a little extra insulation, and I set it up in a tidy, defensible, corner of the garage, near the side door. I put the kittens in there, as warm, and snug as we could manage, and I closed the garage doors and the side door, and I left them alone. There was only one person who could take care of these wild little things and she was up in the eaves, doubtless completely distressed. She had to be given room to come back down. So, I left them to it.

Checking in a while later, I was greeted upon opening the door by a hostile hiss. The cat was ensconced in the box with her kittens under her. She looked okay. I drove to the supermarket and bought some of the best cat food I could find.

I didn’t know how this story would end but I knew how it needed to go from here.

Fast forward ten days. Over a week ago.

The cat gets fed twice a day. She seems to prefer the more expensive ‘Felix’ cat food. Her box remains comfy. Whenever I see her out, I check the kittens and tidy things up. They don’t seem to need the hot water bottle any more. Mum is plenty warm. Every time I open the shed door, the cat hisses at me with unbridled hostility. “Don’t you come near me, you bastard.” But I think she knows by now that I’m not here to do her much harm. As soon as I close the door she nips out and eats her dinner. Then she works hard to bury the dish, which isn’t easy on a concrete floor. She manages to cover it with bits of card and stuff. I’ve started to remove it as soon as she’s finished. I think some of the other wild cats who roam our gardens must come to visit her lair, perhaps attracted by the smell of the food. They are a belligerent bunch and I think she might have to defend her patch and her kittens from them. So, I take the food dish out and wash it until the next time. I do my bit. The kittens are well, getting bigger and stronger, obviously being well looked after by their Mum.

The plan, such as it is, is to leave the cat in-situ with the kittens until they are weaned, then try to enlist the North West SPCA in homing them, getting Mum neutered, and letting her return to her feral back garden life. She is too wild to be tamed now. I have called the NWSPCA, but they think like I do. For now, the best place for them is in the shed, getting looked after by us.

You might think this Act is over now, but it isn’t. Not by a long chalk.

Last week. I go to give the cat its morning ‘Felix’ before I go to work. The cat isn’t there.

No sweat. It goes off for a few minutes now and then, probably to do its round of friendly houses to see what treats might be on offer. I take the food away again. No good leaving it for the marauding moggies. Trish works from home on certain days, so she tries again later with the food.

But the cat has not returned. The kittens are fine.

Lunchtime.

The cat has not returned. The kittens are fine. I put a hot water bottle in with them. I look around the neighbourhood for some sign of the cat but there is none. She has vanished.

Teatime.

The cat has not returned. The kittens are okay. But it’s been a while now. It’s been ten hours, perhaps more. Perhaps the cat has been hit by a car? Perhaps it been locked up in somebody’s shed?

I call up the North West SPCA, who are just lovely. The kittens must come into the house. The Toms who breeze through the shed in search of food may harm the kittens now that Mum is gone. Besides, it’s coming to night and getting colder. We must get some kitten food and some bottles, and we have to start hand feeding them. Somebody will come to help later. The Vet’s shop has a huge tin of kitten food and all the kit. It’s fairly expensive gear. I read the tiny print, boil kettles, measure powder out. Memories of late nights twenty-plus years before.

Trish and me, we start to bottle feed the kittens. We haven’t much of a clue what we’re doing, and the kittens are loud and feisty little beggars. Not much is going in. I get an eye dropper and squeeze some milk into each of their mouths. They make faces but some milk goes down. I didn’t read this eye dropper thing anywhere so it’s probably a terrible idea so don’t do it. Ever. Okay?

Trish gets the hang of it a bit. The kittens get some milk. It’s getting on eight o’clock. I check the shed. There is no cat there. No cat at all.

We can do a night or two of this, three hourly feeds, but we can’t keep the kittens going for the remaining four weeks it might need to get them weaned. We need some help.

And we get it.

Triona arrives in her car from the North West SPCA. Her hands and arms are torn from the feral cat that she has in a cage in her boot (no, it’s not ours). She comes in to see the kittens. I expected her to be cool and detached and businesslike. Not the case. She melts at the sight of the kittens. “Oh, they’re Gorgeous, they’re the most Gorgeous things.” She helps us with the bottle feeding, showing us a trick or two. It’s going to be a long night, but a foster can be found tomorrow. So, settle in. But wait, a phone call to Triona. Magda can take them, the little mites, she is an experienced fosterer and will feed them without trouble and hand-rear them until they are of age when they will be found homes of their own. She can take them right now.

Triona takes the kittens, along with their box, their quilt, their hot water bottle, their kitten food, and their Finding Nemo soft toy which we were using to replace the bulk of the cat. We wave them off, exhausted but secure in the knowledge that we had done our best.

You think this act is over now, the crisis averted, but it isn’t.

There is one more twist in the tale.

Can you guess what it is?

The kittens are gone to their foster home with Magda. After a while, I go to the shed to tidy up a bit and reflect on what occurred there in that tatty box in the corner. I open the door in the deepening gloom.

“Hisssss.”

The cat is back. Right there, sitting in her box looking at me, her expression perhaps saying, “Okay, Nimrod, what have you done this time?”

The kittens can’t be returned and locked back in with Mum, she is wild and may reject them now that they have been bottle fed and much handled. Plus, the roaming toms are a hazard. They are better now in their foster home. They will have a life.

But it’s so very sad. The cat is in her box. I gave her some food and she eats it and looks at me. Come on, where are they?

There is one more shot. The plan was always to trap the Mum and have her neutered so that this whole scene isn’t replayed in a few months’ time. Triona comes back the next day with a cat trap. We place it close to the box, where the food normally sits, and we wait.

Teatime. No cat in the cage.

Evening. No cat in the cage.

Late night. No cat in the cage.

I get up the next morning and go in the shed. The cat is in the cage, sitting there placidly. No hiss. I cover her with sheet to keep her calm.

I bring her to Magda’s house in my car. Magda has a big soppy foster dog called Khaleesi who is smitten with the kittens. She licks them and nuzzles them and keeps watch over them. The cat is carried into the spare room where Magda looks after her fostered animals. She will leave the cat covered for a while and take things easy. She will see what happens.

The next day, I get a video on my phone. The cat is lying on her side in her basket. The three kittens are feeding from her, nestled up. They are back together again… and safe.

Yesterday, a week on, I went to visit them at their foster home. All four look sleek and healthy and very well indeed. Magda spoils them rotten though the Mum is still hissy and growly and hostile and, well, wild.

And that is it. Act III of me and the cat. When the three kittens are weaned, they will be found good homes. The cat will be neutered and returned to her domain, roaming freely though our back gardens, picking up her kindnesses wherever she can get them. We will try to trap as many of her fellow feral cats as we can and have them neutered too. She will never live in a house because she is a fully grown wild thing but, whereas before I would have had as little as possible to do with her, I won’t be able to help but keep an eye out for her from now on. Leave her a daily Felix treat. Help her out if she ever needs it. A nice lady turned up at my door yesterday asking after her wild cat pal who she feeds every day. I was pleased to be able to reassure her that everything was all right.

Stray cats don’t have names. There is nobody to put one on them. But I think, when she comes back to our gardens, I might call this one Magda, after her foster-saviour. We will doubtless glare at each other from afar, Magda and me, but maybe we’ll know each other a little better too.

Maybe we’ll have done each other a bit of good.

 

 

 

The North West SPCA is an entirely voluntary and non-profit organization and I have now seen, first hand, the wonderful things they do and the wonderful way they go about their work. You can follow the great work they do via their Facebook Page and maybe give them a little donation there too, if you can spare it.