Regretting the Hunger Gauge Idea

The other day, I was walking home from work for lunch. I do that. It sounds decadent but it’s a bit of a rush-job really. Twenty minutes to get there, twenty minutes lunch, with a good book, and twenty minutes back. It’s nice though. I know I’m lucky to be able to do it…

…which will probably become the theme of this post. So, watch out… just… watch out.

So, there I am, walking home up the main street and there’s this guy lying on the street up ahead. Right in the middle of a busy lunchtime town centre street. And he’s got a sleeping bag which is covering his legs and he’s got a bulging rucksack tucked in behind him and his legs are stretched out so far onto the pavement that people are getting in each other’s way trying to get around him and not having to resort to stepping over him. And he’s got a handwritten sign on his sleeping-bag-covered knees. It’s a very carefully written sign, blue biro on brown cardboard box-flap. It’s saying:

“Please help me. I am very hungry.”

And, within the dusty confines of my own head, I get a bit annoyed.

I mean, look at this guy. Looking moderately well-to-do. Taking up half the street with his begging-ensemble. He’s obviously a member of one of those rolling groups who get ferried from town to town, landed in the town centre, and there get left to beg for what they can before being bussed back home again. He is playing us all, with his rucksack, and his beard, and his sad face.

But it’s the sign. It’s that sign that’s the worst of it.

You’re really very hungry, are you? It’s there, writ large in blue Bic on your cardboard flap. Very hungry, you say. But what happens when some kindly passer-by gives you money, as many already undoubtedly have, and you nip into the adjoining shop and score yourself a nice sandwich and maybe a latte? What happens to your sign then? Answer: Nothing. You come back and ease into your sleeping bag and hold up the very same sign that says you’re very hungry even though you’ve just had the full feed. Because that’s the con, isn’t it? That’s the game. You don’t have a series of alternative signs in your rucksack, do you? ‘I was hungry but I’m not anymore.’ That one isn’t in your repertoire, is it? No, it bloody isn’t.

Ideally, you would have some LED sign, which could be revised in accordance with how much food you had eaten. “I am moderately hungry, as I’ve just had a big bap,” it might say. Or “I am fully satiated now, food wise, you don’t have to worry. Shall I pull my legs in a bit?” Perhaps there could even be a gauge on the sign, an easy-to-read graphic indicating, on a scale of 1 to 10, how very hungry you currently are.”

I strode on, eager to get to my tea and my book. But, as I got near the town green, my pace slowed, my mind turned on itself.

Who in the hell did I think I was? Who in the hell was I becoming?

How many slips, how many trips would it take for me to be the person lying on the side of the road, begging for alms? Three? Two? One, even? How self-satisfied and insular am I, that I can mentally berate the person whose feet are marginally in my way or whose sign might not accurately reflect the state of his hunger-level? Make no mistake, Bucko, that could be you. That may well be you, someday. And not in some outlandish ‘Trading Places’ fairy tale scenario either. That could be you within a year if everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

And so what if that guy is part of some larger ‘bussed in’ money begging project. Is that what he envisaged for himself when he was a kid? Is this where his mother hoped he might end up?

I see it all over the place. People so wrapped up in themselves that they care nothing for the other person in front of them. Not only the ‘not caring’ but, more than that, the active resentment of the person who has slipped further down the ladder than the rung on which they currently sit. I’ve seen that all over, but I hadn’t seen it so much in myself, until now. And mark me, I didn’t like seeing it in myself. Not one little bit.

I don’t have to give the guy money. If I think he’s being exploited by some organised immoral system, I don’t have to support it. I don’t have to be that naïve. But, by golly, I surely do have to recognise that the man on the deck with the sign and the sleeping bag is 100% as valuable a human as I am.

And I have to remember to treat him accordingly.

The Year When Easter Falls on a Sunday

This year is one of those extraordinary years when Easter falls on a Sunday. For that reason, I thought I would-

Wait.

Stop.

What am I thinking? Easter always falls on a Sunday.

Well. There goes this week’s blog post…

*                                *                               *                            *

I’m kidding of course. Just pulling your leg gently this Easter morn. Except in a tiny way, I’m not. In thinking about what I might write for this week’s post, it momentarily occurred to me how Easter would be on a Sunday this year and that I should somehow reflect that. It was the splitest of split seconds but it’s still indictive of something, I reckon.

It kind of confirms that Easter has largely been lost to me, as a certain type of thing.

I’ve written about it before in these pages. How Easter was a big deal when I was small. And I don’t just mean chocolate eggs and treats, although that was definitely a thing. I mean the religious stuff, last supper, scourging, denial, crucifixion, large stones, resurrection, all that gear. As an altar boy and as a child in a good Christian family, all the rites were observed and attended. The weekend played out almost as if the iconic events of the season were playing out in real time. They occurred in a “It’s nearly midnight, Jesus will be waking up soon,” kind of a way.

These days, because I’m not into that anymore, and also, I guess because the kids are grown up and gone, Easter is a sort of a ‘Spring Long Weekend’ of forest walks and clocks-going-forward and mint sauce. But something lingers from the early years. Some feeling for the places of the world out there, where all the rites are still being enacted just as they always were.

Here in my home, I tend towards the more solemn music on the radio. I veer onto the old biblical epics on afternoon telly, where the Roman soldiers all had American accents and where John the Baptist was clearly Robert Ryan in a stick-on beard.

It’s not a wish to go back to the old ways. It’s not a probing of the space where the children used to reside. At least I don’t think it is. It’s just that we can’t really unlearn what we previously learned. We can grow to see what we believe is the truth and the fiction of it all, but the muscle-memory continues to tug at whatever passes for our souls these days.

Easter falls on a Sunday this year. Go figure. Let’s mark it as best we can. A walk by the lake, a hint of lamb from the grill, a small dark chocolate M&S egg.

We haven’t lost anything.

It just feels that way sometimes.

Happy Easter!

Young Moggies

At some point this week, the song YMCA came on the radio, and I started having a little low-key debate with myself about whether the song’s original intent had been to simply extol the virtues of the titular subject or whether there had been a more playful, frivolous, and perhaps borderline ‘naughty’ intent.

What can I tell you? It was a slow day.

Anyway, my mind got to running through the lyrics of the song, in search of clues or evidence which pointed in either direction.

You can get yourself clean.

You can have a good meal.

You can do whatever you feel…

I must have been looking out into the front hall while I was running the lines in my head. The cat was out there, in her furry basket, performing one of her focused paw-on-face ablutions. At her side was her food and water. The door was open slightly in case she fancied a venture-out.

That’s when it struck me. We are the YMCA for the cat. She can come in whenever she wants, she can get herself clean, have a good meal and, generally, do whatever she feels.

Folks, we have become the Young Moggy’s Charitable Association. For one cat, at least.

Which is fine.

I mean… no cat does it all by herself…

 

(For Puddy, who became our friend three years ago this week)

Diaspora

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day.

The parade in my town starts in just over an hour.

We never go any more.

We only ever really went on account of the boys. When they were very little, they liked the tractors and were scared of the clowns, in equal measure. Then, when they got a bit older, they were required to march with their schoolmates and toot out 'The Minstrel Boy' on their tin whistles. A task they never really enjoyed.

Sometimes, things happen very quickly. In a flash, everything can change and it’s suddenly a whole new world. But, more often than not, things happen slowly and subtly. So much so that they sometimes seem to have already happened for quite some time before you fully realise that they’ve happened at all.

Our boys don’t live at home anymore. They aren’t here. We don’t have to argue gently about the pros and cons of parading in the warm drizzle. We don’t have to struggle to find some tufts of shamrock for the lapels. We don’t have to try to throw some form of logic onto what is, let’s face it, a generally shapeless day. It’s just us two here now and we can do whatever the hell we want.

Today, our eldest son will meet some of his friends and plan next week’s excursion to London and next month’s excursion to Japan. He will enjoy a day off from his responsible government job.

Today, our younger son will join his two bands on stage at the Windmill in Brixton. He will enjoy a day off from his work in the very heart of the West End and he will doubtless play his heart out, as he usually does.

No parades required.

How did it happen? When was the moment when they no longer lived here anymore? Of course, there wasn’t one. It was a gentle fade from one thing to another. First university, then fewer and fewer runs home, new jobs, new places. Gentle but firm, that’s how it all plays out.

And it’s wonderful, of course. They are their own men now. If Patricia and I were to be hit by a bus later today they would be sad, of course, but they would be okay. No longer helpless mites but, instead, grown men who find their way in the world. It’s great and Patricia and I, avoiding all the buses that we can, are having a lovely time in our own time and space again.

But the bedrooms down at the beginning of the hall are pretty quiet now. Nobody will need a lift home at some silly hour of the morning. There are brief moments of dizzy disbelief, that the pair of lads who were so well guarded and so well-tended within these walls are now out in the world and reliant effortlessly on only themselves.

It’s all good.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day.

The parade in my town starts in just over an hour.

Maybe we’ll just go down and have a little look.

 

A Small Word of Gratitude for the Sick People


(PIcture by Tambako)

One of the good things about fifteen years of dabbling on the edges of Social Media is that I have got to know some people who are really unwell. And, although I know it sounds a little bit strange, I am very grateful for that.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to name any names here. Let’s just proceed on the assumption that there are at least two people I know around the Social Media circuit. I’ve never met them; I’ve never spoken to them. But, for fifteen years or so, I have seen what they’ve posted or blogged or tweeted or whatever. And, like it or not, some tiny measure of real-life leaks into each and every thing we say on here. Thus, a person becomes rounded and real and ‘known’ as far as the limits of the medium allows.

The two people. What can I say? When I first saw them, say, fifteen years ago, they were younger, and the world seemed to be at their feet. There was nothing they could not go on to do, no mountain they could not climb. And then they got sick. Not together, not at the same time. As far as I know, they don’t even know that the other exists. They just got really, really, sick. Slowly, mysteriously, their worlds closed in on them and their options and their possible game plays became fewer and fewer.

And I just want to thank them.

Genuinely. I hope I don’t say it wrong.

There are a number of reasons to offer a little gratitude. If I’m not very careful, they may start to sound cliched and twee. We tend to go on about how brave sick people are and how much fight they have. That’s true and true, of course, but it’s not quite the thing. For me, it’s not how strong they are – they aren’t always strong, how could they be? It’s that… and I’m going to use a religious image but I’m looking to bring any religion along with it. They bear the cross that has been given them. They carry it as best they can. Will I do it with as much grace when it comes my time to do it? I don’t know. I can only hope so. My sick friends have shown me how it can be done and for that, I am grateful.

But it’s not just that. It’s complicated and it’s hard to set down without sounding like a condescending fool.

My sick friends still find times of joy and creativity in the world. Despite everything. I see it on their social media which, thankfully, they maintain as best they can. They find joy in family and in pets and in partners and in momentary respite. They also find it in more practical things like care, analgesia, and information. That last one is a big one, as far as I can see. Information about what they must go through. What can be done, what cannot be done… what on earth is it? I am grateful to my sick online friends for showing me that there can always be the possibility of a moment of comfort and joy, even when things are pretty lousy.

They have shown me at least some of the technicalities of being ill. That it isn’t really about lying in a quilted room with a flannel on your head and a worried physician at your pulse. That it is swelling and nausea and intolerable itch and moments of utter hopelessness and fear for continence and loss of privacy, license, and independence. That sickness is a messy, messy business on every practical level.

It would be remiss to not remember here my friend Simon Ricketts, who also shared the very best and the very hardest of his life, in sickness and in health, with us. I will never forget Simon and all he showed us. 

Of course, I haven’t needed to resort to the internet to know all this. Like most of us, we have lost precious family to long term illness. We have lived it first-hand. But, like it or not, there is a curious intimacy to the sharing of a life online. Things get opened up that might not be opened up in real life. It creates understanding and it increases empathy, I think. So, again, for this, I am grateful.

And lastly, for now at least, the thing that is hardest to say without sounding self-satisfied and callous. I walk into town, and I take a conscious deep breath of cold air into my lungs, and I know I can go anywhere I want and do anything I want, and I don’t need anyone’s goddamn help to do it. I am completely and utterly blessed. And I want to thank you for making me realise that. I don’t remember it often enough. I plough through my blessed life, burdened by worry and uncertainty. I tie myself up in knots. But, sometimes, I think of my online friends and of all the effortless things I still have that they do not. And, hopefully, to honour them just a little bit. I appreciate it in a big fat tangible way, if only for a little time.

I sometimes think there should be a mandatory two-week holiday for everybody every few years. For the first week we would all be confined to a hard, too-tight bed, and pumped full of drugs and left a little too long before we get what we need. And in the second week, we would be allowed back to our regular lives, to appreciate just how good we have it.

I also wish that we could evolve as a species in a way that would somehow allow us to share each other’s pain a little more equitably. Imagine if a partner could say, “I’ll carry the pain for you today. Take a day off.” How good that would be for the sick person but how good it would be for the carer too? To help carry the burden. To share it out.

But they are just a pipe dreams. Sickness will come to most of us, in time. But to some, it has already come, terribly early and terrible hard. To you, I offer this strange but heartfelt gratitude today.

Thank you.

Short Fiction - Post It

A little short fiction for you today. It's been a while. 

Day 1,826

As soon as I wake up, I can tell that the mist has cleared. Alone in my bed, in the gloom behind my curtains, I can immediately sense the quality of my unaccustomed focus. My vision is clear, my hearing acutely tuned to the solitary blackbird outside. I stare at the ceiling and wonder. This kind of thing never happens of its own accord anymore. Something must be driving my new-found clarity.

But what?

It comes to me. Easter Thursday. Money Day.

The laptop on the kitchen table is always on. That makes it sluggish and inefficient but who am I to judge? Even in its unfit state, it will still bring up my bank account in a matter of minutes. As the hard disk chunders I run a simple sum in my head. One thousand, that was a given, and then another three hundred for the mishaps of the past calendar year. Not much, but not bad for a ten-year-retired guy whose pension had not done anything close to what it had said it would do.

The bank screen coalesces in front of me. There is no new payment. That is annoying, for sure, but it is slightly worrying too. Stationery Joe is like clockwork. He never misses Money Day, and he never works the payment out wrong.

The post box outside my front door is empty. It is quite normal that there was no post. But there is always something, isn’t there? Almost always. Today there is nothing at all and that too is annoying but slightly worrying.

I check around inside my head. The mist remains very thin on the ground. Clarity is good. But how long has it been since this was the case? How many days has it been since I clearly acknowledged what was, or was not, inside my letterbox? Had it been a day, a month, a week for Christ’s sake?

It is time for me to go and find out.

Day 1

Stationery Joe was standing motionless out on the street side of my hedge. I could see him there as I clipped away on the garden side. He was in profile and his big roman nose made him look like De Gaulle in crosshairs, like in the film. I clipped a little more and hoped he would just walk on.

“Morning.”

I stopped clipping. Stationery Joe might have been my next-door neighbour but that had never made him my friend. When we had living wives, we were always standoffish with each other at best. An occasional nod if there was no other way around it. We were never fully at war but there had certainly been disagreements. The overhanging tree, the scattered bin. Now it was just him and me, me and him. I had gone to his wife’s funeral the week before, as he had come to mine some years ago. We had both stood at our respective gravesides and we had both turned up afterward to eat each other’s hotel soup. Then we went home to our respective houses and said no more about it.

“Morning,” he said again. “Can I come around?”

He walked around the hedge and onto my property. He stood there on my grass in his purple cardigan. He looked old. I guessed I looked the same.

“I’ll cut to it,” he said, “I want you to do something for me.”

I had come this far without saying a word and didn’t see any need to change the arrangement now.

“Can I get some kind of a response? Just so I know that you’re in there.”

“I’m in here.”

“I have a mortal fear,” he said, and then he said nothing else.

I waited. Nothing.

“We all have those,” I said.

“I have a mortal fear that I will die inside my house, and nobody will find me until it’s too late.”

“You’ll be dead. How will it be too late?”

“My fear is that I won’t be found before corruption has taken me.”

This was one of the reasons he annoyed me so deeply. I mean, who says things like, “until corruption has taken me”?

“I won’t look in on you, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “I’m not taking on any new commitments.”

“I don’t want that,” he said, almost scoffing, “Fuckin’ last thing I’d want.”

“What do you want then? This hedge won’t clip itself.”

It was the kind of a conversation that had to have a little speech somewhere in it. Stationery Joe delivered it then, on my grass, the dew moistening his shoes.

“After I closed the shop, I brought a lot of office stuff home with me. I have thousands of those yellow sticky note things in a box.”

“Post-its.”

“I know what they’re called.”

“Good for you."

“What I want to do is to post one of those yellow sticky things into your post box there every morning. Early, before you even get up.”

“And?”

“And, if there’s ever a day I don’t post one, you come and knock on my door and if I don’t come out, you call the police.”

“That’s it?”

“Will you do it?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I have enough on my plate.”

“You have nothing on your plate, and you know it.”

“Why should I do it? One good reason.”

“Today is Holy Thursday.”

“And?”

“If you do this, next Holy Thursday, I will lodge one thousand euro in your bank account, you can send me the number.”

“It’s not much.”

“It’s literally money for nothing and it will let me sleep at night.”

“And you’ll leave me alone and not be coming round standing in my hedge.”

“I’ll leave you alone.”

Day 2

Not much in the post. A new offer for high-speed broadband. A bill from the Gas Company. A futile chase for a TV license.

And one yellow post it sticky note. I roll it up and put it in the bin.

Day 686

It took him all of five minutes to open the door, but I knew he wasn’t dead as soon as I had rung the bell. I could hear him inside, shuffling and coughing. I could see his silhouette inching up the hall. He fumbled with the latch and finally hauled it open.

“You’re not dead then.”

“Sorry, I couldn’t get round with the thing. I have a really- “

“I’m not doing this anymore. I‘m out.”

“I miss one day…”

“I can’t be your nanny.”

“One hundred euro.”

“What?”

“For every one day I miss, I’ll add one hundred euro to the pot.”

I thought about it.

“All right then,” I said, “but don’t miss too many.”

“I won’t.”

Day 1,826

The police officer is young. There’s an older one too but he’s standing back, letting the young one control the scene. It’s cold at Stationery Joe’s front door, it catches the wind. He put the door on the wrong wall. I could have told him that when he was building but we were never on those kinds of terms.

The kid policeman has his phone out and he’s taking notes with it. Hardly Morse.

“So, you haven’t seen Mr.… Joe in several days?”

“I haven’t seen him in months, but I knew he was all right until…”

“Until?”

“A little while ago. I’m not sure exactly. I’ve been unwell.”

The kid detective turns to the older guy.

“Do we get a warrant?”

“Just open it up.”

I thought they’d have some kind of master key, some lock-picking tools. Not the case. The younger guy stands back and plants his boot hard, as high on the door jamb as he can go. One shot, the door flies open, the lock housing all splintered to hell.

Nobody runs out to see what all the commotion is. Nobody crawls.

The older guard nods to the open door.

“Go on in,” he says to his young partner, “See what’s what. We’ll wait out here.”

It is a blooding. All three of us can tell. The young guard looks hesitant.

“Should I-?”

“Just go in. It’ll be fine.”

He goes in. Suddenly brave and unflinching. An act. He comes out again, forty seconds later, expectedly pale.

“He’s in his bed.”

“And?”

“He’s dead.”

“Are you sure?” The senior guy says. “did you check a pulse?”

The younger guy almost laughs. “He’s dead all right.”

“Make the call so.”

The young guard eases past me. It’s not my business but I can’t help but ask.

“In there?”

“Yes?”

“Does he seem… peaceful?”

The young guy stares at me.

“I wouldn’t like to say,” he says, then he adds, “Funny thing.”

“What?”

“Blank post it notes.”

“What about them?”

“He has four of them, stuck to his face.”

Finding Some Home Truths in Superpower Wishes

On Friday evening, my elder son John was coming home for the weekend, so I drove to the train station at around nine pm in order to be ready to meet the 9.20 train. I like being a little early. I can stroll up and down the empty platform a couple of times and be in place when the train arrives. John always sends a text from Manulla Junction, which is the next stop up the track, so I know when he’s five minutes out. Manulla Junction may be the only train station in the world that you cannot depart from on foot. You have to get a train out. But that’s just a by-the-by.

When I know the train is due, I leave the platform and go out to wait in the car park area outside the station entrance. A lot of people get off the train and I like to try to stay out of the way. But I don’t like to spend too much time waiting in the car park because it tends to give me a problem. And that, friends, is mostly what today’s post is about.

Lots of cars come to collect their people from the train and there are lots of car parking spaces for them. But lots of people don’t want to use the car parking spaces provided. They want to be as close to the entrance as they can be. They want a minimum stay and a quick exit as soon as the arriving loved one is safely installed in the passenger seat. They want to have it easy, and they don’t give much a shit about what they do in order to have it that way.

You know where I’m going with this. You know me well enough by now, coming and going from here, reading this stuff. You know what comes next.

People park in the disabled spaces.

There are a number of disabled spaces right in front of the station entrance. I should use a better name for them. Universally accessible spaces. I’m just guilty of trying to get my point across in the simplest words possible. They’re not necessarily the best words to use. Sorry about that.

Lots of people park up nice. Of course they do. Lots of people are nice. But a startling number of people don’t. They back up and reverse into an accessible space and they leave their motor running because, in their heads, that makes it a little more okay. I’m pretty sure that I can see inside their heads. It’s not rocket science. I can hear their justification. “I’m only staying for a minute.” “I’m not even leaving the car.” “If a disabled person comes along, I will move straight away.” “It’s only until the train comes.”

Yeah, Nimrod, the spaces are only really any use when the train comes. Disabled people don’t want to come to the station in the middle of the day to admire the automatic ticket machine and drink a flask of milky coffee they prepared earlier. They want to have their space when the train is coming or going, just like you do. Except they need the space, and you bloody don’t.

On Friday evening, I got the Manulla Junction text and moved reluctantly to the front entrance. Miraculously there was a vacant accessible space right there in front of me. Not for long though. A low, black, heavily customised car pulled up and reversed in. The young adult who was driving it left the motor running and the oversized exhaust growled and leaked corrosive gas out onto where I was standing. Shit music blared from the open window.

I felt angry.

I did the thing I sometimes do when things frustrate me, particularly car-related things. I wished for a super-power.

Previously, and you may recall this, I wished for the power to stop time.

There’s a blog post back there somewhere about that. This time around, though, the superpower I wished for was invisibility. Not the David McCallum kind. He had to whip off all of his clothes and a rubber mask to get invisible. Far too much trouble. No, I wished for a Ben Murphy ‘Gemini Man’ type of invisibility. All old Pete had to do was push a button on his watch and, bam, he was gone. That’s what I needed. Push button invisibility. Then the medium sized crowbar I just happened to bring along to the station would inherit my invisibility attributes and it would vanish too. I would start at the rear taillight of the black car, right above the toxic exhaust. Invisible as all-hell, I would draw back and smash the taillight with my invisible crowbar.

In my little fantasy, the weedy driver would jump out of his car, not easily on account of its lowness to the ground. He would shout ‘What the Fuck, man?’ in an American movie voice at which point I would invisibly smash his other taillight. ‘Jesus!’ the weedy guy would scream, and I would have some invisible superhero quip prepared to intone in his ear. “Okay, so you’re not disabled but at least now your car is.” Not Shakespeare or anything, granted, but bear in mind that this was an impromptu fantasy, and you can only work with what you’ve got at the time.

It all begs a question or two.

Why do I get so angry at the people in the accessible spaces? And, let me be clear on this, it isn’t just young Turks in customised rides who fill up these spaces. There are mothers and housewives and grandads and young ladies. You name them, they’ll take the space. And it makes me angry because it’s just another symptom of how selfish and unsympathetic the people of the world generally are. And maybe it’s just me but it seems to be getting worse and worse. People increasingly care only for themselves. They are wrapped up in themselves such that they don’t even see the terrible things that they do to others on a day-to-day basis.

And that, folks, was to be this week’s blog post.

Except, as I’ve been writing it, I’ve dug a little deeper in my head and two separate thoughts arose and I think it's worth setting them down too, before I finally stop.

The first is this: I’m bemoaning the selfish state of the people of the world yet my ideal scenario, in that moment, was the smashing up of that person’s lovingly restored car. It becomes clear to me that I am not up on some mountain of excellence. I’m in no place to preach. All I dream of doing is exerting my own will on the situation, regardless of any hurt I may cause as a result. I am part of the problem, just like you are, and it’s best that I remember that.

And secondly, and this may have occurred to you too because it’s a little bit obvious: why do I need invisibility?

This person is parked in a disabled space. Why can’t I just go up to his window and ask whether he would mind moving out of the space and leaving it for someone who might actually need it? I don’t need invisibility to do any of that.

I just need to be a bit brave. Yes, I may get shouted at. I may even get a slap but that’s what it takes, isn’t it? To be a bit brave.

This is a problem of mine and it’s probably good that I acknowledge it wherever I can. I dislike conflict and will move several mountains to avoid it whenever I can. Maybe that’s all very well and maybe it’s not but one thing is for sure: it leaves me sitting firmly on the fence a lot of the time. If not in my head, then certainly in my actions. Moments when I really need to stand up and say, “Wait. This is wrong,“ rarely, if ever, happen. I tend to hide and wish for invisibility because maybe from there I could be more of a force for good in the world.

I need to do better with all of this. I need to act as if I am invisible when actually I’m not.

Even if I have to suffer some consequences as a result.

The Sallynoggin Centra

 

The Sallynoggin Centra

(After Pádraig Belton)

One early Easter morning

I could not find a sweet

But the Bangladeshi owner

Of the Sallynoggin Centra

Made my life complete.

 

Late one Friday evening,

No teabags could I find

But the Bangladeshi owner

Of the Sallynoggin Centra

Made my world aligned.

 

If you’re ever feeling hungry

If you’re ever feeling blue

Just take yourself round

To Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown

And make your dreams come true.

 

If your provisions are quite slender

If your cupboard’s feeling slight

The Bangladeshi owner

Of the Sallynoggin Centra

Will make everything all right.

 

Ken Armstrong (Easter 2023)

Toothpaste Miracle



I ran out of toothpaste about two weeks ago.

The first tube ran out, squeezed all to hell and clearly empty. Then I found a second tube, almost used up. So I squeezed that one too until it was empty. Then I had two empty tubes. I went to the supermarket to buy stuff and bought everything I needed. Except one thing. I forgot the toothpaste. So, there I was, in baaad need of a tooth brush but with no toothpaste. 

What to do?

I ran out of toothpaste about two weeks ago.

Except I didn’t.

Here’s what happened.

I squeezed the first empty tube a little harder. I gave it a little more commitment. And some toothpaste came out. I brushed my teeth. The next day I did the same and the next day too. When the first tube was clearly extinguished, I moved over to the other empty tube and squeezed that with commitment too. Some toothpaste came out. I carried on.

In the time this has been happening, I have been to the shop again and I have bought a spanking new tube of toothpaste. It’s sitting there, startlingly replete, on the glass bathroom shelf. I’ll get to it, I’m sure.

When the second tube of empty toothpaste was clearly dead, I revisited the first tube, just out of curiosity. I took the end of the tube and folded it over, then folded it again and again until the tube was folded almost right up to the spout. There was toothpaste there. Quite a lot of toothpaste, in fact. After a few days, there wasn’t any more, so I moved back to the other tube and did the same. Lots of toothpaste for Ken. An embarrassment of toothpaste.

That’s where I am now, still using the second empty tube. Maybe I’ll go back to the other empty tube after I feel this one is finally played-out. Maybe I’ll brush my teeth with the contents of these two tubes for the rest of my life.

It’s all up in the air.

And, yes, it’s a silly little story. It’s quite true but silly, nonetheless. But, even worse, I can see a life lesson buried deep in the toothpaste droplets I harvest every day. You don’t want to hear it, but you’re going to anyway. If you stick around, that is.

I turned Sixty last year. With that event came a subtle feeling, hardly identifiable but there, nonetheless. A feeling that, in terms of new writing, the tank was now largely empty. I was fine but creativity and originality were gone. I might rework some of the stuff I’d done before, reshape it. I can still be a sort of a writer in that way. But the tank itself was running on empty and no more new miles would be driven.

For better or worse, the toothpaste is telling me something different.

“Writing,” the tubes of toothpaste are saying, “is a bit like a tube of toothpaste.” You may think you’re empty and used-up and ready for whichever recycling bin is appropriate. But that’s simply not true. There is good stuff still in there. Lots of it. Top quality gear.

But there’s the rub, as Hamlet used to say. This good stuff, this writing toothpaste, it won’t come out all by itself. It won’t dribble out onto the page just as a result of being stared at or worried over.

Nope.

You have to squeeze.

You have to fold the end over again and again and again and keep the faith that there’s some good stuff in there still. Because there is. You’ve got to squeeze it out. Which is nothing new. You’ve always had to squeeze it out. It never-ever came out all by itself.

It’s just that, from now on, you're going to have to squeeze a little harder.

 

The Litter Eases In


One morning last week, I was walking to work early. I glanced at a house as I was passing, and I saw something that made me smile broadly. It almost made me laugh out loud, there on the empty, frosty street.

“I must write a little post about that,” I said and then promptly forgot about it.

Until I was walking home from work on Friday evening, and I caught up to Patricia at the pedestrian lights, also making her way home from work. As we walked up the street together, Patricia suddenly laughed out loud. We were passing the same house that I had passed the week before. She had glanced into the same window that I had glanced into, and she had expressed her delight.

What could be inside of a living room window to bring such shared delight? Nothing earth-shattering. Nothing of any great import, in the overall scheme of things.

Just a cat.

A few years ago, a young family up the end of our street kept some cats around and didn’t worry too much about things like mating and kittens. Although I’m not sure, I would guess that a fair quantity of litters emerged and that those kittens were distributed throughout the area via good will and word of mouth. The family have moved on now and somebody else is in the house but the physical reminders of their stay are still an everyday part of life in our neighbourhood. I guess some of those kittens didn’t get successfully distributed to accepting and enthusiastic homes. I guess they simply stayed around the street, picking up their scraps of kindnesses wherever they could and sheltering in whatever coal bunker has its door left ajar on any given night.

The cats are distinctive, primarily white but with black smudges in various configurations around their bodies. I think this colouring is sometimes known as ‘Two Tone.’ There are theories about how the black pigment forms in the womb over time and the earlier born litters will be whiter and the later born will have more black on them. The colour spreads from the spine which is why most two-tone cat’s bellies are white. I don’t think this 'cooking in the womb' thing is entirely correct. I think it’s more a ‘Genetic Soup’ thing going on but it’s still a nice thought – that the kittens are cooking up their colourings while gestating gently in their Mum’s belly.

Of the litters that emerged from the end of the street (I can’t prove any of this, of course) there now remains four fully grown cats who inhabit our neighbourhood. I would say they are each now about four or five years old and they may have all come from the same litter or they may not. Regardless, they are all variations on the aforementioned black and white Two-Tone model.

The first is white with a fair measure of nicely placed black patches, including one over one eye. She is called Puddy and, inasmuch as she is anyone’s, she is now our cat. I have written about her fairly extensively in these pages over the past few years. If you put ‘Cat’ in the search box on this page, you’ll find lots of stuff. She sleeps in our hall most nights, in her cosy basket, where she has food, water and litter tray to hand… sorry, paw. She stays over less in the Summer nights. There are adventures to be had then and she will always be, in her heart, an outdoor cat. In the evenings, she will often sits in an armchair and watch telly with us. She seemed to quite enjoy the recent machinations of The Traitors.

I call the second cat Wiggy because he has a prominent black patch smack-bam on the top of his head, which makes him look like a Marx Brothers character. But Wiggy is no joke. He is a rough tough Alpha Male tomcat, lean and mean and eternally scowling and slinking around. I’ve written a little about him too. Put his name in the search box and he’ll come up.

The third cat is called Snowy, but only by me. Entirely white, a ghost-cat, rarely seen. She inhabits the street one up from ours and is clearly a sibling of some sort. When glimpsed, she seems healthy and lithe, doing okay.

Then there is the fourth cat. No name. Mostly white but with a little black around the head area. Anecdotally more affectionate than the others, who are a bit wild and stand-offish (though Patricia gets to stroke Puddy every day – I never have and I know I never will). He lives up around a house we used to live in before we got this one. Prowling the streets, carving out a survival strategy in the great suburban outdoors.

This last of the four cats is the reason why I smiled and why Patricia laughed as we passed a house down the road – the house that we used to live in before we got this one.

When we looked in, we saw this fourth cat. He was cosied-up in a deep cushioned basket, three feet from a warm stove. He was looking out at us and clearly contemplating his next snooze.

It was funny, sweet, and cheering because it clearly indicated one thing. The litter, fated to live on the streets, were easing their way in, as cats always seem to do. One into our house, now treasured and enjoyed there and now, some years later, another sibling doing the exact same thing to our neighbours as Puddy did to us. Smuggling his way into their hearts.

First the window cill, then a box outside, then a nice shelter in the shed, then the front hall, then the back hall and then, finally, the basket by the fire with water and vittles to hand.

We smiled because our neighbours are now being played just as we were played. They are becoming parents to the stray cat. Their fate is sealed now, I reckon. The cat is in.

But the smiles are not a facetious, wait-and-see-what trouble-you’ll-have-from-now-on kind of a smile. Not at all. The reasons for the smiles are twofold, I think. Firstly, they say to our neighbours that this is a positive thing for them, that they will have some fun with it.

And secondly, our smiles are saying, well done, mostly white cat.

You made it.

Daylight Assault

I had a number of long drives last week. Friday’s one seemed particularly treacherous. There was ice and snow and very low temperatures, but it wasn’t any of these things that brought the main hazard. They were bad but not too bad. The roads were gritted and, so long as you were happy to roll along without pushing things too hard, you were generally going to get there all right.

No, the ice and snow were fine.

It was the glorious sunshine that was the killer.

On an early-morning drive, as with every other place in the world, the sun comes up in the east and sails across the sky until it goes down again somewhere over in the west. The extremity of these two points is considerably reduced in the depth of winter but one thing remains pretty constant: the sun will come from the south at noon. So, if you’re driving south in a fairly straight line, you can try to take some comfort that the sun won’t shine straight in on you until close to midday. And it will be pretty high in the sky by then.

And, of course, you would be completely false in this comfort-taking.

Because no road runs straight from north to south. Roads bend and curve. They veer to the east and they veer to the west on their relentless journey south. And when they veer west, the sun is on your left and everything is cool. But when the road veers east, then the road can align with the early morning sun, sometimes briefly, sometimes for an extended run. And that’s when things can get a little messy. That’s when shit can happen.

Several factors were at work on Friday’s early morning drive south. There was ice and snow still around and, as I said, they weren’t so bad on their own. But they were bright and reflective, as was the shiny blacktop of the two-lane motorway. The sky was a cloudless and translucent blue. The roads were gritted and the cars and trucks on the road were throwing mud and tiny debris onto the windscreen of their comrade vehicles. Finally, and perhaps crucially, the temperature outside was three below and, unless you were driving some fancy-ass Mercedes, that meant your windscreen washers were probably frozen.

So, picture it, you’re driving along, south, south, south, and your windscreen is smeared and grotty, so you try the washers again but they’re still frozen. You can see the tiny ice sculpture on the spout on the bonnet. It’s fine, though. You can see your way ahead, well enough and, now and again, a tiny smattering of moisture lands from somewhere and gives you just enough to squeak the wipers across and clear a little of the smear away.

All is okay.

But then, slowly, the two lanes ease to the left in a gentle curve and slowly, inexorably, the road turns towards the sun.

The sun is low in the sky, having just recently risen and it is exaggeratedly intense in the winter air. The road aligns with the sun, and, in that moment, the windscreen of the car becomes an opaque wall of brightness. Nothing can be seen.

The action is clear. Hazards on, fog lights on, slow to a crawl as quickly as humanly possible and pray to something that the car behind doesn’t simply careen into your rear. Now you can just make out the car in front and you keep a distance that will allow you to stop if he or she crashes into the car in front.

Up ahead, out of the glare, two cars are stopped on the hard shoulder. Damaged and spun 180 degrees and facing back home rather wistfully. People are out of their cars, looking okay. Cars crawl by in the outside lane, glad it’s not them.

The road turns, turns until it is southward again, the sun once more relegated to the left side window, where it cannot do any harm. But soon, the road will turn again, as all roads do. The sun will come back around. The deadly game will be played again.

A stop in the hard shoulder. A hack at the spouts of the windscreen washers to knock the icebergs off. A shine of the windscreen with a cloth. And a bottle of costly mineral water dispensed into the washer tank under the hood, the warmth of which finally gets the mechanism working again. An expensive solution, perhaps, but better than a whiplash and a car turned prematurely for home. Or worse… so much worse.

A moral for this story? Your guess is as good as mine. Beware the sun, perhaps. Don’t drive any faster than you can see.

Perhaps the best thing is to borrow one from good old ‘Hill Street Blues.’

“Let’s be careful out there.”

And leave it at that.

Viewing Intentions that Never Really Come to Pass

It’s a bit of a shame to start the year with a filler post like this one will probably be, but here we are. Events conspire, a lovely family evening out last night, a computer that, this morning, hums, stalls, and refuses to co-operate, a house full of Christmas decorations that really have to come down. The result is a level of apathy that leads the lazier part of my mind to say, ‘Leave it for today, Ken. Just stick up an old post and it’ll be easer next week.’ But that won’t do. It’s the start of a new year in everything, including blog posts, and either I’m going to do it or I’m not and starting the year without saying anything at all is sending a negative message to the brain.

And we can’t have that, can we? Down with negative messages to the brain.

So, here I am, among the lingering detritus of Christmas past, tapping into a patently un-co-operative laptop. Not in the hope that I will produce anything worthwhile but rather in the hope that I will produce anything at all and, as a result of that, next week may be better.

Trolling my mind to see that I might fill the next ten paragraphs with, I think of the double edition of the Radio Times. This hallowed document, so anticipated and so carefully consulted over the season, currently lies at the top of the green recycling bin out at the front of the house. An item that was a revered portent of the holiday to come is now only so much pulp. This reminds me of a post I wrote sometime around the middle of last year about sun loungers by holiday pools. How valued they are at 10.00 am compared with how unheeded and unwanted they are by four-thirty. Things can lose their value and potency really quickly sometimes.

But that’s not the point, if there is indeed to be a point. We did that one last year and, doubtless, we will do it again in some other form before December comes around again.

No, the point is about all the things that I intend to do over the ten-day Christmas break and how very few of them I find I have actually done when I look back on a lethargic Sunday morning like this. This could be explored in any aspect of the Christmas season, long walks, deep thought, cheese-eating or, indeed, writing. But the neatest area for examination is, as usual, telly-watching.

This, I tell myself, will be the time when I will catch up on all the films I missed over the past year. I arm myself with some temporary subscriptions to streaming services and consider all the delights that will be enjoyed.

Excellent.

Except, deep in my heart, I always know in advance this will not be the way it all turns out. The guys, home for the holidays, and generally in the room with us, are not really into serious movie-watching. One or two is fine, but that’s pretty much the limit. And I’ve done this enough times now, to know how it will pan out. And that is how it did turn out. Despite my own personalised intentions, the season has come and gone without very many new movies having been caught up on. Instead, telly-watching has been a ‘common-denominator’ affair comprising mainly of quiz shows and Taskmaster episodes saved up from the last series. Jools’ Hootenanny takes up New Year’s Eve very nicely and the other evenings are mixtures of Gogglebox episodes summarising the year, University Challenge Christmas Specials, Only Connect, and Morecambe and Wise repeats.

There are two things to say about this.

The first is, I love it. It’s the perfect way for us to do some Christmas viewing. Who wants to be embedded in the middle of some dull movie anyway? The quizzes interact with us as we try to keep up with the quizzers and sometimes succeed. All in all, my lack of new movies is the best unfulfilled promise in the whole world and roll on next year when, circumstances permitting, we may all have the pleasure of doing it again.

The second thing – less important – is how I deal with the time when I am left alone with the telly and how I use this time. This generally occurs early to mid-morning, as I’m a fairly early riser where others are not. Here is the moment when I can catch up on some French movie delight. I’ve got the time, I’ve got the technology, let’s go! Except… nah!

What actually happens is that I flick around and land on whatever ancient movie the terrestrial channels happen to showing at that moment. I dip into things I have seen hundreds of times before. This year, for instance, one nine am rendezvous had me deep into The Towering Inferno, reflecting how Steve McQueen had gotten the meatier role. He was constantly leaping from one horrible scenario to the next. In one notable moment, he held onto a brave firefighter by his fingertips while a helicopter lowered the detached scenic lift they were on, slowly to the ground. After they were down, McQueen pumped the guy’s hand twice, like he had won the office raffle, then hopped straight  into a waiting red estate car and off to the next disaster. Incidentally, When that helicopter dropped him on the roof of that lift, how did it get close enough to the building to get him on there without the rotor blades shattering on the walls? Also, it was cruel in the extreme that poor con-man Fred Astaire magically found true love, moments before the lady who was the object of his affections fell solidly to her doom.

My Fair Lady (aged poorly), The Poseidon Adventure (belligerent), Willy Wonka (great first 30 mins), Fiddler on the Roof (downer), Bridge on the River Kwai (wide widescreen), An Affair to Remember (ends abruptly). These are the type of films, or part of films that make up my Christmas viewing. The promised new releases will be seen in small doses through the coming year. Twelve months behind everyone else but who cares?

The upshot of it all is this. The things I do when I inevitably fail to do the things I thought I’d do at Christmas. Well… they are the very best things of all.